24. Tot Ziens Amsterdam!

And just like that, the first chapter of life in Amsterdam has come to an end. We’re back to being a family that lives together in the same house, but I’ll admit that there is a bittersweetness to our regression to normal. Being together is decidedly better than not being together, but he experience of living between two countries was pretty cool. Now it’s time to let go of that cool for a bit. Our son Sean is going to go back to being bilingual rather than trilingual. No more tracking the snow conditions in the Alps as they grow and recede from the little, oval window of a plane. No more bikes. We’re just an Italian-American family in Siena for now and I guess that we can’t really complain about that at all.

Our exit from Amsterdam was less than graceful. Leading up to our departure Marianna was able to sell off a good amount of stuff. Things like the bed frame, microwave, and plates all found new homes. We were like squatters in our own apartment living without many items considered “necessary ” by most civilised cultures.

I got sick on our second-to-last day. Full-on nausea and vomiting. The plan was to use that day to pack things up, and take care of Sean after daycare so that Marianna could tie up loose ends at her office and attend a final dinner with her colleagues. What actually happened was that I spent most of the day in the fetal position.  It took all that I had in me to ride the tram and pick up Sean from daycare without throwing up on anyone.

Many details of our final day are already a bit fuzzy.  We managed to fit everything that we had left into 5 suitcases and a few backpacks. The day started early, at 6:00 am. This time it was Sean’s turn for fever and vomit. That would have only been a minor issue were it not for the fact that we had to leave our apartment at 10:00 am and our flight wasn’t until 9:00 pm. We had already begged Sean’s daycare to let us leave our luggage in a corner, near the entrance for the day.  The idea was that we’d leave the luggage and Sean at daycare and enjoy a final lunch and stroll through the city.  Nope. We rolled our mobile disaster via taxi to daycare for a pre-established party for Sean with all the kids, and then just sat with him on the couch in semi-quarantine for the rest of the day. Did we get all of the other kids sick by showing up to the party? Probably. My belated apologies to all.

On our way to the airport, Sean threw up in our friend’s new car. Heroically, Marianna caught most of it in a bag. Finally, we got on a plane and took a sigh of relief that was two years in the making.

How can I sum up these amazing two years? I don’t think that can in a concise, readable manner. I did my best in writing about our experiences in this blog. I think that I’m safe in saying that we all fell in love, each in our own way, with Amsterdam. It’s not perfect, and I know that. Our rosy view of the city may well have been influenced by the knowledge that our time there would be limited and therefore we didn’t pay much mind to the negative aspects.

I have almost exclusively positive memories of Amsterdam. If I were to limit myself to one word to describe Amsterdam (which is kind of a silly thing to do) I would choose progressive. People in Amsterdam always seem ready for new experiences and unafraid to experiment.  Forward is the direction, no matter how weird it looks.   Amsterdam’s culture has ancient roots but those roots are constantly adapting to innovation and progress. This is in stark contrast to what I’ve become accustomed to in Italy.   Italians bask in the beauty of what their ancestors created and there isn’t much interest in trying to out-do those who came before. Of course, outdoing the Ancient Romans or the Renaissance masters is a rather daunting task. I don’t mean to say that Amsterdam has abandoned it’s past. Not at all. Amsterdammers understand how to use what is old to make new experiences. It’s no surprise that Europe’s largest flea market is in Amsterdam. Everywhere you look, things are old but somehow they feel modern and new.

We already miss a lot of things that just two years ago we didn’t know existed. Thank you to everyone in Amsterdam and Italy who made our experience possible and enjoyable.  Will there be more chapters for us in Amsterdam? Probably. What’s unclear is how long they will be.

P.S. – I’m going to continue writing this blog, but it’s obviously going to change in nature.  The focus will pivot to my point of view as an American, living in Italy.

P.P.S. Here are some pictures that tell parts of our story in Amsterdam.

23. Someone, Somewhere In Denver

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Sean was not nearly as excited as I was to sled in the freezing cold (-17 C for the Italians who think that it’s cold right now…)

December 2016 and January 2017 have truly been all over the place. We completed The Italy-Netherlands-Colorado triangle forwards and backwards once again. It is admittedly exhausting, yet rewarding enough to make me want more. I love to see friends and family and how they (we) have all grown. It’s always great to breathe the air that opens doors to memories.

I’ve been back in Siena for a few weeks now. While I was home there were two things that would not leave the back of my mind. Two things made this trip home particularly unique.

Unique thing number one about this trip to Denver is that my Dad retired on Dec. 30th. If you’ve ever met my Dad, he probably did not introduce himself as a pediatrician, specialized in genetics. He more likely talked about being a cowboy, rodeos, or baseball, if not all three. I think that modesty certainly plays a part in not flaunting an award-winning career, but I know due a privileged vantage point as his son, that he has always been true to who he is.  He is a cowboy. A cowboy that understands science really, really well.

I asked him about what he thought of his career now that he could look at it in its entirety. He told me as we drove through familiar streets in Denver that he’s particularly happy that he got to do most of the things that he wanted to do. Not bad. Among the things that he wanted to do were a few that one would expect from a 44 year career in science. Things like making contributions to research as well as clinical work with children and their families were among accomplishments. The thing though that he was most proud of was that he was able to do his work with people who don’t live in big cities, but who lived out in the American West in places like Alamosa, Colorado and Lander, Wyoming. His heart has always been at home in small towns, out in what many would consider the middle of nowhere.   He sees these places as the middle of it all. He also said that his decision to pass up an opportunity to continue research that he started with the National Institute of Health in Washington D.C. was the best decision. It allowed him to stay in Denver, close to the places that he loved. Consequently, I got to stay in Denver and formed a fully developed love for the city and for the adjacent wilderness.

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Page one and two of the invitation to my Dad’s retirement party. The hospital told him that he could do whatever he wanted… I guess they knew what was coming.

Packing up his office afforded a look into one of the more eclectic offices that the Children’s Hospital of Denver will probably ever see. The latest articles on genetic mutations lay next to Native American art and pictures of horses. Piles of Science magazines went into boxes with books about roping.

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Packing up.

Looking from my perspective back at my Dad’s career, I can see so many parallels between how he did his work and about the lessons that he taught me. He stayed true to himself. He didn’t have to be only one thing. He’s always been everything that he is and willing to share it all.

Thing number two that had set up camp in a corner of my mind while I was home took the form of the smiling face of a friend of mine. He was on my mind and he’s been on a lot of people’s minds because he left us just a few days after thanksgiving. His name was Tel.tel

In high school I was part of a brotherhood that was initially born out of a bond forged in ineptitude towards the female gender but that grew into a rare love. I have remarkable friends. Tel may have been the most remarkable person I’ve known, which sounds cliché’ to say of the person that has passed away. In this case it’s probably, and sadly, true.

When I learned that he’d passed away, I was in Siena. I don’t remember very many moments when living far away from home has felt so awful and alone.  I remember thinking that I just wanted to be with the people that shared a bond with Tel as I did and that I was way too far away. Of course, that feeling slowly rescinded and finally I was able to spend some time talking to friends, in person, about our friend.

When I was home, I caught myself wandering places that reminded me of the times that we’d spent together.   I took a moment to drive down the street where his house was. So many times I’d sat in my car after honking the horn, waiting for him to run down his steps and get in the car. Rarely did we ever have a plan. But it didn’t matter. As a group we couldn’t get enough of each other. Our young personalities melded with each other. We formed each other. Each of our own individual personalities and backgrounds came into this Voltron-like being that has stayed with me in my heart (Voltron for those who didn’t get the reference).

Tel was an extremely talented individual but to say that I looked up to him isn’t quite true. I never wanted to be like Tel. Probably because I knew that there was absolutely no way that I could ever be like him. Rather than trying to emulate him, I can look back at our time together and clearly see that I wanted to keep him close because he made me a better version of me. I was proud that he was friends with me. I still am.

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Total nonsense.

Most of my fondest memories aren’t of extremely profound situations, yet those do exist. They are just of us being ourselves. Goofy kids learning about ourselves and finding our place in the world, while not caring what the world thought of us. Goofiness and nonsense has always been a hallmark of who I am. I love to laugh. Tel was a goofball too, but a goofball that took himself extremely seriously. I can see Tel, sitting in the stands at a football game, his back turned to the action on the field as he yelled at his (our) friend Peter about how he was a complete idiot for failing to fully understand the principles of genetics and how it related to skin pigmentation and ultimately, racism. Not the typical football game discourse, but Tel was way too fired up to care. He was wearing my snow hat despite it being a sunny day.  Reasons for that are lost in time. The whole situation was ridiculous and the entire section that we were sitting in was mildly disturbed and on the verge of frightened. For me it was normal. It was hilarious. It’s one of many ways that I’ll remember Tel.

Yeah, home was a little heavy this time and not because of the political reasons that face the US (although that’s heavy too, no matter how you look at it…). I think that it’s probably healthy to think about who we are. It’s probably even healthier to acknowledge that we are who we are because of the people who made us who we are.

 

P.S. Here are a few more pics from home if you’re interested.

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22. More Holidays!

I am asked a lot of questions and my job requires me to respond to those questions.  I am supposedly knowledgeable about Italy and theoretically I have a pretty good idea on what it’s like to be an American in Italy. Students might give me and some of my colleagues a little too much credit. To them, we seem like all-knowing intercultural, Italy-gurus. Rare is the student who understands that their experience follows almost exactly the same arch as all of the other 700 students that came before them, all of whom we closely followed through the process from beginning to end. While there is always something new, for the most part, we get asked the same questions over and over again and, since we have been blessed with the capacity for long and short term memory, we’ve become pretty good at answering them.

There are questions that leave us perplexed. Maybe one day I’ll write a book with just a list of questions that people asked us. I’m confident that most people would find it mildly entertaining. Here’s one that always stuck with me. Note that this question was not asked in any professional setting. It came during light conversation at a dinner with students.

Student: Ok, so if you could have any state in the United States, which one would it be and what would you do with it?

Me in my mind: What the……?

Me verbally: Well, I’ll stick with Colorado, because it’s got a lot of good things and I would give it back to the Native Americans and let them govern us to change things up a bit.  See how it would work.

I was not prepared for the look of horror on this poor student’s face. I thought that mine was a pretty good answer given the premise of the question and that it’s 100% impossible for anyone to be “given a state”. The student’s life prior to that moment had not prepared her for the implications of a Native American takeover of one of those square states in the middle of the country and the thought of the unknown proved too much. She was a little freaked out and the conversation awkwardly turned to the next contestant on “Get A State, and Do Stuff With It’. By the way, freaking young people out in a safe environment is actually part of the goal at our study abroad program.  We’d argue that being a bit freaked out is what learning feels like.

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You have to make pumpkin pie out of pumpkins in Italy.

Lots of questions and exchanges with students have stuck with me, and really this one would have probably been archived under “stuff I don’t really need” if it weren’t for that it always comes to mind around Thanksgiving time. That question, my answer, and the student’s reaction seem relevant to the holiday and some moral questions that it presents.

Thanksgiving was a few weeks ago and now it’s almost time for Christmas. It seems only natural to talk about all of the holiday diversity between my own American culture and the two places that we’re living in right now. If you’re wondering ‘do they celebrate Thanksgiving in Italy or The Netherlands?’, repeat that question slowly in your mind and then see if you can’t figure it out on your own. If you still find yourself wondering, then you need a quick refresher on some world history. (Please tell me you were able to figure that one out…)

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Students and Italian guests at our annual Thanksgiving dinner.

I haven’t celebrated thanksgiving in the US for a long time now, although every year I am with Americans for the occasion. Once I spent the holiday in Switzerland with cousins who were living near the city of Lugano. I’ve spent the rest in Italy, with the students of the program for which I work (Siena Italian Studies). I have to say that it has increasingly become a surreal experience for me.

No matter how much we make efforts to make thanksgiving as real as possible, for me there’s always a hint of fabrication. Maybe that’s because the thing that’s really missing is family. Let’s face it, family is what makes the occasion so important for so many of us. Also, the “real” story of Thanksgiving is either partially or wholly fabricated depending on which opinions you choose to believe. We always have made it a po

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Our newest staff member, Jakob cutting the turkey.

int to invite local Italians to our Thanksgiving dinners, and they’re always eager to learn about the tradition. Telling the story of the pilgrims and the natives is always a bit awkward because it’s not entirely true and it’s pretty easy for a non-American to see the propaganda-esque nature of the story. Indeed, Italians are often quick to point out that the early, white Americans exterminated many natives. To counter their high-browed moral stance, I point out that Columbus was, himself Italian and he was certainly no saint. Also, I note that many of those settling “Americans” were indeed Italians. After light discussion like that, we eat turkey, drink wine, and have a good time. If anything, I’ve learned how to talk about one of history’s worst intercultural exchanges during, well, another type of intercultural exchange without seriously offending anyone. Another perk is that I also learned how to cook a real thanksgiving dinner for up to 80 people.

Moving on in the multi-cultural holiday season, the marketers of the world today have realized that Black Friday is a phenomenon worth latching on to if you want to sell things. Ironically, a continent that doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving does partake in the next-most-American thing. Believe it or not, despite not knowing what it is or why it is, stores all over Europe have Black Friday sales. The enthusiasm is moderate when compared to the revellers at many US Walmart locations.

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Sean, wearing his “piet” hat that he made at daycare.

Next up spanning a few weeks between November and December for our family were St. Nicolas celebrations in the Netherlands. In Amsterdam, they’re still celebrating St. Nicolas in the most racist way possible. See last year’s post for details. The Dutch are making slow but admirable progress towards a more sensitive tradition, and as I’ve mentioned, Amsterdam’s diversity is exceptional. In their defense, they are at least capable of carrying out an open discussion about a centuries-old tradition without killing each other. History shows that this is not an easy thing to do. Our wonderful daycare center in Amsterdam celebrated with traditional presents on Dec. 6 and Sean now fully understands that presents are awesome.

The first weeks of December in Siena, Italy are full of festivities as well. On December 1st the Sienese celebrate Saint Ansano, who around 300 A.D. apparently brought Christianity to the folks in the Siena region. Of course, as with most saints, the ruling Romans dealt with him in a very Roman way by burning him and then cutting off his head and rolling it down a hill (or so the story goes…). Today, it’s not much more than a day off from school and in perfect Italian fashion, one week later there’s another day off from school.   This time it’s for the mother of all mothers, The Virgin Mary. Here’s what wikipedia tells us about December 8th:

The Immaculate Conception, according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, was the conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the womb of her mother, Saint Anne, free from original sin by virtue of the foreseen merits of her son Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was conceived by normal biological means, but God acted upon her soul (keeping her “immaculate”) at the time of her conception.

Ok, sure… Again, this holiday is a day off from work for most people. And the combination of the two holidays, one week apart often spark a downward spiral where nothing gets accomplished at all in Siena in December. Or, to look at it another way, people spend more time with their families, eating wonderful food. You can’t really argue that the Italians are doing things wrong with regards to holidays.

Finally, we’re at Christmas. In the Netherlands, St. Nick came and went by the time we recognize the Roman holiday for the winter solstice that conveniently coincides with the birth of Jesus. So who brings the presents? Nobody! Well, traditionally speaking, gift giving is not really part of the Dutch tradition for Christmas although it has become common to exchange gifts among family. Marketing strikes again!

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Sean was way more into the marshmellows at a Christmas market in Amsterdam.

In Italy there are rivaling imaginary gift-givers. The more religious families get a visit from baby Jesus himself who gives gifts for everyone. He’s tricky, often knocking on the door, leaving gifts, and then escaping before anyone catches him. Apparently he doesn’t need reindeer. Most Italians know Babbo Natale, a translation of Santa Claus, or better Father Christmas. However, Santa is only a recent addition (30 years or so) to the Christmas scene in Italy. He’s the same guy as the American Santa, reindeer and all except he has a fleet of normal flying reindeer. None of them are endowed with a luminous nose.

I tend to see trivial elements in of all of these holidays but I don’t think that triviality or truth really matters. These, and many others that I didn’t mention, are still important and I respect them nonetheless. The reason that I respect holidays is because they tend to make us think of our families and about those whom we care about. So, I’d like to add another answer to our student’s question (while not rescinding my original wish for the State of Colorado). I’m not going to ‘get’ a state. I’m just going to say MORE HOLIDAYS FOR EVERYONE!

To everyone, whether they read this or not. Happy Holidays.

21. I Have to Say

This is a deviation from the theme, yet obviously relevant.  Future posts will go back to the suggested theme.

I often find myself, at times reluctantly, in the surreal position of unofficial American ambassador. My job requires me to construct metaphorical bridges between cultures everyday. I’m also just naturally interested in this kind of thing, so I guess that it’s logical that people recognize my willingness to be open about my opinions and culture and they feel comfortable asking me about anything and everything American. I do my best to sound intelligent while expressing that my experiences and my opinions do not necessarily reflect all of the various opinions of 300 million Americans. To provide some context to this here is an email that I sent to all of my friends and relatives after Obama’s first victory in 2008. I tried to express my own feelings as they melded with my experience of the situation living abroad.

Friends, (sorry for the mass email, but I felt it necessary)

I just wanted to put in my two cents regarding Barack Obama’s victory as seen through some eyes outside of America.  I’ve lived in Italy for nearly 7 years.  I work for a study-abroad program for American students.  A question that I’m often asked by students at the start of each semester is “What do Italians think of Americans?”  My response is usually something similar to:

Italians usually like to talk to individual Americans, they like our music and a lot of things about us.  They do not like American policy and they do not like George W. Bush.

I have lived outside of the U.S for almost the entire span of Bush Jr’s presidency.  I have had to defend my position as a proud American to friends, colleagues, shopkeepers, and everyone I meet from all facets of society.  Frankly it has been very difficult to be proud of my country as I watched the European media tell their story.  I have watched a war rage on and am constantly asked ‘why is the US in Iraq?’, ‘What does that have to do with 9/11’, and ‘Why do they want to invade Iran?’  There ARE answers to these questions, but NONE of them make me proud to be from Denver, Colorado.  I watched as the local news sent images of the city of New Orleans as it drowned, unnoticed by its government.  To the questions ‘Why didn’t they try to rescue anyone?’ and ‘Why did they just let people die in a country as rich as America?’ I had the answers, but found them hard to say out loud.  The current economic crisis that is the fruit of greed and ignorance is not only embarassing but it affects everyone in the world.  People ask me constantly about our healthcare system and how it works.  My answer is “If you have money, you get care.  You might get the best care in the world, but not without money.”  They are shocked, but it breaks down to that.

Through all of this I still ultimately defend my home.  I know that there are millions of wonderful things about it, and I’ve always tried to explain those things as best as I could to people.  This summer two friends of mine came to Denver and were surprised that it wasn’t as they thought it would be.  There are great things.  Lots of things to be proud of.  There are wonderful people, republicans and democrats, in America.  We have to remember though, that not everyone has a chance to come to our homes and that lots of people only see what we do through the eyes of their media (for better or for worse).  Others see us as we invade their countries, use their resources, and promote greed.  We have to remember that we are not number 1 in the world, because there is no number 1 in the world.  Who can really say that one person is a better person than another?  If I wanted to get into this argument here in Europe, any european from ANY EU COUNTRY could easily demonstrate that their educational and healthcare systems are far superior to those in the US.  Does than mean I am worse than them?  No.

During the last few months people have asked me constantly what would happen and who I was going to vote for.  I told them that I supported Obama, and that I had no idea what would happen.  Nearly everyone in Italy had high hopes for Barack.  A friend of mine who plays basketball with me said last night at practice that he felt that if Obama lost that the whole world lost.

This morning I woke up to the news that Obama won.  Not only did he win, he incited 130 million Americans to vote and voice their opinions for and against him, a number unprecedented. I’m not even going to mention other unprecedented things about his candidacy and victory.  This morning, the entire continent of Europe watched the democracy scream its lungs out for change.  Barack Obama is still a politician and he probably won’t do everything that he claims he can do.  Superman does not exist.  However, his victory represents America’s vitality in the eyes of, at least Italy, if not all of Europe, if not the world.

For the first time EVER since I’ve lived here I was able to talk about America and be 100% proud.  I know that this euphoric moment won’t last, but in my lifetime this is the second of two moments regarding my country that will remain with me forever.  The first is 9/11.  I’m happy that this time it’s something that I can be proud of.

I hope I haven’t offended anyone.  This is simply how I see things from the other side.

Mike

Back to 2016.  Yesterday was the final night of these long and drawn out, at times disgusting, elections in the US. Instead of staying up all night, stressing out when CNN told me to stress out, I went and played basketball with friends, and then I went to bed knowing that the next day there would inevitably be a slough of friends acquaintances who would look to me for answers (as if I ever had any….).

Indeed, I woke up and read the news about the guy that we elected. Not surprisingly, I was flooded with insight and questions from local friends. Honestly I can’t even respond to half of everything that’s said or asked. I’m American, but I’m not a political scientist and I can’t predict the future. I have two thoughts at the moment, and as always, these are just the opinions of a dude from Denver who lives in Italy and goes to Amsterdam a lot.

First, I do not think that despair is the right reaction in this situation (or really ever). In a healthy democracy, the pendulum of power HAS to swing from one pole to the next, passing through the middle as it swings. Republicans deserve a voice, Democrats deserve a voice, and so does everyone else who no longer finds them self represented by either of those groups. Including everyone in a democracy means including everyone and if you think that it’s an easy thing to do, then I’d say that your understanding of human nature needs an overhaul.

My second feeling is the one that’s really hard for me to accept and what I’m going to say may piss people off. It’s evident that there is a massive population in our country that accepts, even if passively, racism, sexism and bigotry. Many of us probably thought that by having a black president we had overcome some of our deepest, darkest issues. It is now evident that the majority of the US is, to varying degrees, racist, sexist and bigoted. Many people didn’t like Hilary Clinton. It’s understandable, especially for those who are traditionally republican. However those who voted for Trump accepted a discourse of racism, sexism, and bigotry and they own that now. I, and the rest of America, now own that as well. I would be kidding myself if I did not accept that as much as it makes me want to vomit.

If I were to answer the question what now?, I guess that I would say that we probably need to face up to reality, in all of its ugliness, and if we want to make any changes, we’re going to have to talk to each other. A lot. Not on facebook, but in person. Personally, I’ll try my very best to stick to a simple mantra that I’ve unofficially adopted over time and that is to try hard to not be an asshole to anyone. It’s not easy especially in the face of ignorance, but I believe that it’s crucial.

20. The Best Medicine

We all get sick. It comes with the contract for being a human on the planet earth. It would seem that illness would be a constant that doesn’t vary from one culture to another. To some extent, that is indeed the case as viruses and bacteria don’t really care what we think. However, from one culture to another the definition of an illness and the cause of that illness is far from universal truth.  My parents both work in medicine and I remember my Dad telling me, as if he was letting me in on a forbidden secret, that for as much as we know, there’s also quite a lot that we just don’t know about our bodies, medicine, and the world in general.   Not knowing all the answers is can be disconcerting, especially for Americans.

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How do we put on the essential spiderman suit with all of these wires attached?

My last trips to Amsterdam have been a bit stressful because we ended up in the hospital twice with little Sean who has been having some respiratory problems. He may have asthma, or maybe not. For right now his body reacts to regular viruses (like ones that kids get from exchanging snot and eating already-chewed play-dough that they find on the floor) by tensing his airways to his lungs. Now we have medicine, and we’ll hopefully be able to prevent future trips to the hospital.

Aside from the negative aspects of being in the hospital with our two-year-old son, the OLVG hospital in Amsterdam was an interesting cultural experience. Despite having lived in Italy for a while, I still react to illness as an American. My wife reacts as an Italian, which is very different. We both had some interesting observations in Amsterdam.

First though, what is the difference between an American point of view and an Italian one when it comes to getting sick and hospitals? I’d say that one American characteristic is how we react to getting sick. We immediately seek to define the illness and subsequently administer the correct medicine/s.   Italians rest more and tend and eat light foods. Another is that we often don’t even define a regular cold as “being sick”. Stuffy nose? Cough? Sore throat? Just take some medicine and get back to work. I differ from most of my colleagues and Italian friends in this sense but upon some reflection it’s interesting to think about something like Nyquil, a drug that can help you essentially ignore being sick, is illegal in Italy.

I’m not going to delve too far into hospitals in the US or the American healthcare system. I’ll just say that having now thoroughly experienced two European systems, we’re not doing it right. Our doctors are great in the US, there’s absolutely no doubt about that, but what we pay to insurance companies and then still pay out-of-pocket is insane. Paying for healthcare in Europe means a healthy cut from taxes, but having a baby or taking an ambulance never put anyone in debt in Europe. Guess how much the patient gets billed for an Ambulance ride in Italy. Nothing.   I’ll leave it at that.

Despite my reverence for the Italian ideal to provide healthcare for everyone no matter what, I do differ with most Italians on what I define as sickness and also on the causes of sickness. Most Italians believe that colds, fevers, and many other ailments are a direct result of skin being in contact with “cold” air. Being from Colorado, I have very different definition of “cold”. Here are few common reactions, even from doctors, upon hearing that someone has come down with a cold or a viral infection:

– “Ah, yeah, it was pretty windy yesterday, so it makes sense that you’re sick today.”

– “Well, you didn’t blowdry your hair before leaving your house.”

– “You weren’t wearing a scarf, and your exposed neck is the reason that you have a fever now.”

– “Walking around barefoot = a shortcut to pneumonia.”

I remember that at first it was hard for me to take Italians seriously, and thinking that maybe they were joking. This reaction is common among our students too, yet there might be a bit of wisdom to their ways. I have to admit that at times I find myself thinking like them yet I never blowdry my hair and I am generally barefoot whenever at home. Interestingly, I have no explanation for why I can walk around in the rain in Denver or Portland and be fine, yet in Siena the same scenario ends in a week-long cold.

When Italians get sick, they are a bit more respectful of the time it takes to get better. Americans just take medicine and get on with life. Italians tend to let the illness run its course and there is a much larger emphasis on the importance of rest and diet. This is probably a healthier approach.

There is one Italian belief that I can’t get used to. It’s called la congestione. The vast majority of Italians, many of them very intelligent people, believe that if one eats food at the beach and then goes for a swim without waiting for a full 3 hours, that person might die. Yes, death. If this were proven somehow to be true, it would mean that I have haplessly flirted mortal doom thousands of times.

The Dutch aren’t very concerned with wind or rain probably because at least one of those two things, if not both, is always happening. They face getting sick with a staunch aversion to medicine. It’s as if submitting to medicine is somehow a failure. Of course, more serious illnesses require medicine but the common ailments just get tea, rest, and maybe an extra sweater. Earlier this year Marianna had an ear infection. Her doctor waited about a month to finally prescribe antibiotics (by which time the right side of Marianna’s head had become swollen).   Maybe she’s stronger now?20161011_110838

Another Dutch practice that surprised me is childbirth at home. Not that pregnancy is an illness, but I think that Marianna (IT) and I (USA) would both agree that the hospital seems the logical place to deliver babies. Not in The Netherlands! They still prefer to do things at home, arguing that it’s more comfortable for the whole family. That seems all well and good until there are complications and you have to be dangerously rushed to the hospital.

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In case you haven’t guessed by now, Spiderman is a crucial figure for Sean’s treatment.

Both of our hospital experiences in Amsterdam were positive. Not only were the doctors and nurses great with children, but they also took a lot of time to make sure that Mom was ok too (Dad… well, Dad counts less in these situations in any culture). The pediatric ward is full of toys and nice rooms that can accommodate parents as well. I think that the greatest testament to the success of the OLVG Amsterdam pediatrics department was that Sean did not cry whenever the doctors visited him. He had blood drawn from his finger twice and the first time he was asleep and woke up startled, the second time, he might as well have been eating ice cream for as happy as he seemed. The most traumatic experience through a total of 6 days in the hospital was when some volunteers dressed as clowns came into our room to spread some “cheer”. Sean was pretty distraught.

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Free coffee and fruit for parents!

I mentioned earlier that my Dad always spoke about how we don’t actually have all of the answers. The Dutch approach to the doctor/patient relationship seemed at times to fully acknowledge humanity’s insecurity. They never fully committed to diagnosing Sean with anything. Maybe pneumonia, but maybe not. Maybe asthma, but it’s hard to tell. His bronchial tubes react by closing, but it’s difficult to say what’s making them do that. Will this medicine work? Maybe. Multiple times when the doctors or nurses came to speak with us about Sean they didn’t offer any information, they just asked us how he was doing. They even asked us if we thought he was better. Maybe it’s just a cultural norm that we don’t recognise yet, but both Marianna and I are used to the doctor telling us if our Son is getting better. This is not to say that they were at all incompetent. They just seemed to embrace the ambiguity of illness.

Personally, I like all of these differences. It’s like having a free, built-in second and third opinion with regards to any illness. At this point though, we’re mostly interested in the opinion that keeps us out of the hospital for a while.  We’ll probably end up with a mix of the best medicine from everywhere.

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One thing I love about Amsterdam is that you can find all kinds of international food ingredients. Not even the hospital could stop us from mexican food!

19. Some For Me and Some For You

Here’s a familiar scene to anyone who has a child (and plenty of others who have ever spent time with a child). We’re at a park. A child, who we’ll call child A, is playing in the vicinity of other children. Among those other children is child B. Child A is a happy little two-year-old and child B is of a similar age. Child A is going about their business, let’s say that business is hole-digging for this example. Mid-hole, child A notices that there’s a magnificent, red bucket near child B. Child A takes the bucket. Those of you familiar with this kind of situation know what comes next. A diplomatic crisis. Child B happens to be the rightful owner of the bucket by inheritance, yet child A grabs the bucket anyway. Sand is thrown, 20160719_165614there’s screaming, tears and if something isn’t done quickly, some hair may get pulled. Now it’s up to the parents to negotiate a treaty to end the crisis and restore peace. The brokerage of peace and restoration of the red bucket to its rightful owner is no easy task and often involves shallow tactics of distraction and even bribery.  Sharing is hard.

As parents in situations like the one described above we are culturally obligated to mediate and we also have to instil an understanding of what sharing means, how it works, and why it is beneficial to all. Sharing doesn’t seem to be an instinctual trait of us humans, yet it’s rather essential to our existence. What’s interesting to me, and also pertinent to this blog, is how the ideas about how and what to share change from one culture to another. Notions about who should share what with the general public are often the focus of political debate (maybe if socialism were just called “sharing” in the US, it wouldn’t be so taboo….). I have the privilege of being able to simultaneously bear witness to three different cultures and to some of these very different ideas about the extent of individual responsibility to share for the common good. Nobody has a perfect system, but I think that we could all use some refreshing of kindergarten rules.

Let’s start with the US. There’s something about sharing with the greater collective that contrasts with our ideas of freedom. Being encouraged, or told to share is viewed as an encroachment on personal freedom. To some extent I can understand this, but I ask then where’s the freedom in needing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to receive a guaranteed quality high school education? Ultimately most Americans are willing to part with tons of money, which is essentially sharing, as long as they can see a direct benefit.

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Denver just put in a new train to the airport. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great thing. I just think that 2016 is a bit late in the game.

Money is probably the most difficult thing for us to give up for the common good. So let’s think about space instead of money. Public transportation is a way to move through space. The majority of US cities are designed to allow for lots of individual space. That means that they are very spread out. In the city where I grew up, public transportation is hands down the worst way to move through space. Individual cars are the number one choice for going around.   Interestingly, Uber is becoming (or at least WAS becoming) a popular alternative to driving one’s own car and one of the terms to describe what Uber does is ridesharing. That’s not really a fancy, modern concept. Riding on a bus, as best as I can tell, is also ridesharing. Of course, public trasportation will never be as convenient as individual cars, but I have experienced well-run systems and something makes me think that many Americans simply don’t want to share space with each other, especially on a bus. There is also distrust for publicly-run things,denver-traffic but if you think about it, a traffic-jam is a publicly run thing.

In Amsterdam, things are quite different. People take sharing to a whole new level.  We know people who actually share their car with their next-door-neighbors.  The whole city relies on on everyone sharing space and resources. Contrary to what certain politicians (who probably don’t know where The Netherlands are…) think, it’s still possible to be individually wealthy in the Netherlands, despite higher taxes than in the US.  Some might be surprised to know that the healthcare system in The Netherlands involves an insurance system that citizens have to pay into if they want to receive care. The difference between their system and the one in the US is that the in The Netherlands the goal is to guarantee care and not to make profit.

People in Europe have historically been living physically closer to one another for thousands of years longer than Americans. Cities are compact for reasons that made sense a long time ago, and now because of their design they have been forced to innovate and accept that cooperation is the best way to get by.

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This is middenweg, a street that we use everyday. Somehow cars, busses, trams, bikes, and pedestrians all share this tight space.

Marianna and I may still be in a honeymoon stage with regards to Amsterdam. To us, the Dutch seem to have figured out a perfect balance between individual comfort and sacrifice for the common good. As an American it’s hard to imagine living comfortably in the tiny little houses in Amsterdam. We’re doing it though and it’s fine. Everyone is doing it and that creates a mentality among citizens of efficiency and respect for shared space and resources. Take a common street in Amsterdam for example. On many two-lane streets there are tracks for the tram that run down the same lanes that cars drive on which are also the same lanes for busses. Flanking these are bike lanes, which are exclusively for bikes and finally on the farthest edges are sidewalks. Everyone is sharing space with everyone else. A system like this can only work if everyone participates and is willing to cooperate. As far as we can tell the Dutch love to cooperate because they cooperate to live.

Then there’s Italy. Italians love to talk about theory and thinking about the best way to do things. When it comes to actually doing things, that’s another story. Italy’s social system is actually more ambitious that the one in The Netherlands… on paper. Laws are written perfectly and cities are planned in painstaking detail but paradoxically, there is no individual participation. There is a word in Italian, furbizia, which means can be best defined as cleverness. It’s more than that though. To be furbo, means to avoid or take advantage of the system for personal benefit. To be furbo is also seen as a positive thing.  It’s easy to understand then that if everyone is figuring out ways to not participate in the system, the system is going to suffer. Italy has a fully socialised healthcare system, but massive amounts of the population don’t pay taxes.  For now, the best solution that politicians have come up with is to raise taxes.  You might be thinking to yourself that this probably won’t work.  You’re right!

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Looking both ways down a street that the city of Siena has designated as the main route between the city and the parking lot for tour busses. Note that the sidewalk does not run the length of the street. Tourists have to walk single-file and share the street with cars, busses and scooters.

I’m not an economist though, so I’ll stick with the traffic and space sharing example so that I don’t end up getting too far out of my league. Driving in Italy is a truly every-man for himself experience. Ironically, yet in line with how everything in Italy works, the written test required to get a driver’s license is extremely difficult. It’s all about detailed, theoretical situations. When out on the road though, everyone just does whatever they want. One might expect that this would lead to accidents all over the place. Almost miraculously, that’s not the case. The Italians are actually just sharing the WHOLE road with everyone, all the time. The rules of how it’s shared change according to the moment and that living for the moment can be applied to so many other aspects of Italian society.  Somehow, it actually comes together.

For now, Marianna and I are doing our best to convince Sean that sharing is important mainly to avoid meltdowns and hair-pulling. Sean’s understanding of sharing as a society will most likely be determined by where he grows up which, for now is all over the place.

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One of our favorite parks in Amsterdam. The car and tricycles are for public use. ALL of the kids want the car. It takes high levels of parental diplomacy to convince the children to share the one car. Can you imagine if we held ourselves as adults to that same standard?

 

18. A Tale of Two Worlds: Amsterdam and Sicilia

The American part of me always feels like I’m getting away with something when it’s time for vacation.  I can’t decide whether that’s a healthy feeling or not.  It’s no secret that Europeans allow themselves more vacation than Americans. In Italy especially, vacation time is just as important as any other basic human right. In typical Italian fashion, everyone except those in the tourism industry take vacation during the same period of the year, July and August. One might point out that if everyone takes vacation at the same time that this could create chaos for businesses and the general logistics of the country. If Italy were to respond to such allegations (which it wouldn’t…) it would probably sound something like “Well… yes, but the weather is nice now… and we’ll get back to work in September.”

To be truthful, I did get away with something this summer. I left Siena one week before the program was actually over. Marianna had an important conference in Wales and she couldn’t take Sean with her because Sean is not quite conference-ready yet. So, I went up to Amsterdam. My colleagues in Siena have been wonderful in accommodating for our family’s needs as we’re strewn about Europe. Grazie mille…

So the summer vacation started out with Dad-week in Amsterdam. One might imagine some kind of reckless, male-bonding scenario where father and son wander about without clothing, eating raw meat and doughnuts and never taking showers. If things were up to Sean, the scene may have actually resembled something like that with a bit more of a focus on cars and trucks. In reality, it turns out that there’s a lot to be said for acting civilized and keeping some structure to the day, especially when it comes to spending a week alone with a two-year-old.

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Beleive it or not, this kiddie pool in Oosterpark, Amsterdam is free!

Of course, there were some deviations from the norm. We watched youtube videos about bears and sharks and other dangerous animals that may or may not get the official Mom-seal-of-approval. There was lots of swimming which was a tactical decision as being in water has the magic powers of tiring children out (as well as adults). We had a few picnics, 20160721_171957 again tactical. Running between bites is better than just sitting in a chair. I failed to foresee the running AND chewing issue… Live and learn… We also ate a lot of ice cream, because… it’s ice cream. My own memories of being alone at home with my Dad often involve cooking tacos. Manchester tacos always involve deep-frying corn tortillas before using them for tacos. I remember times when we ate at least ten of those each. I chose not to expose Sean to the powers of boiling oil this time around. For that and many other activities we’ll have to wait until Marianna’s next conferences.

When Marianna came back, we packed our bags and headed to Sicily for two weeks. Marianna’s sister is married to a Sicilian from the southern town of Siracusa and his parents found a group of houses on the beach for IMG-20160725-WA0024all of us. In total, 12 adults and 5 little kids between relatives, sisters, brothers and grandparents descended upon the island.

I write a lot about the differences between Siena and Amsterdam and I’ve said before that the two places couldn’t be more different. Sicily and other parts of southern Italy may just be farther down the line on the difference spectrum than Siena. Or maybe it’s that the differences are… well, different.

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This happened everyday…..

There are the obvious differences that anyone can see. In Sicily, there is a striking absence of clouds (especially I July) compared to The Netherlands. The turquoise Mediterranean sea that gently massages the countless beaches along Sicily’s coasts is other-worldly when compared to the wind-whipped, brown, churning North Sea that threatens to flood The Netherlands. And then there are the things like trash all over the place in Sicily and strange bridges that aren’t connected to any roads and don’t actually appear to cross over anything that needs to be crossed over. In comparison things like that make Amsterdam look like the apex of civilization (which… in some ways, I might argue that it is… that’s for another time though).

Basking in the endless sun, one wonderful meal after another, the idea of potential kept creeping into my mind when comparing the two places. On one hand, you have Sicily (and so many other places in Italy) that have a seemingly enormous amount of natural potential. The weather is great. There is history that you can actually touch that goes back to the Greeks and Romans. Parts of Sicily were fundamental for both the Greeks and then the Romans in the heights of their respective reigns in the Mediterranean. Fruit and vegetables grow all year round. The locals have spent thousands of years perfecting recipes that use the bounty offered on the island. Etna, Sicily’s volcano is actually rather polite as far as volcanoes go, in the sense that it doesn’t spew lava all over people. It does however create an ecosystem around its base that is perfect for all kinds of unique things to grow. Some of Italy’s most important wines come from the volcano-enriched soil. The locals have a reputation for being warm-hearted and gregarious.

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Sure, Amsterdam’s food trucks are pretty and hip, but none of them can hold a candle to the food at “Antonio’s” in Siracusa. He was food truckin’ waaaaay before it was cool.

Then, on the other hand, you look the Natural potential of Amsterdam. It’s a swamp that is below sea level. Summer isn’t actually something that’s guaranteed every year. Food grows best in greenhouses with artificial sunlight. The Dutch are not renowned for their culinary history and some might complain that they are a bit rigid (this is not my experience, but maybe that’s because I’m American and used to following rules, being punctual, and going to bed at a reasonable time).

Surprisingly, somehow it’s Amsterdam, and not Palermo, Catania, or any other city in Sicily that has been able to create one of Europe’s most desirable cities. How is this even possible? Well, it’s a complicated question that I’m probably not even fully qualified to answer so I’ll just lend a personal observation.

Maybe the fact that Amsterdam doesn’t have a whole lot going for it as far as natural potential is the very reason that it is so successful. The people in Amsterdam learned how to create potential. By having to work extra-hard as a community to simply keep the city from drowning, Amsterdammers have been harnessing the powers of collaboration and innovation for so long that that they now innately possess an anything-is-possible attitude, that is hard to find among Sicilians. For decades now the threat of flood is less likely (see previous blog post about this) and the people in Amsterdam have been able to re-focus their efforts and attitude on making a nice city even better.

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Sean enjoying Siracusa. See that cathedral in the background? It used to be a Greek temple and those columns on the bottom are original!

This isn’t to say that Sicilians are not innovative or industrious.   They are and it is a wonderful place that I would recommend visiting at least once in your life. Don’t be scared by Hollywood’s portrayal of the Mafia. While the mafia is a tragic reality, it’s way behind the scenes, and as a tourist, you’re much safer (sadly) in Sicily than you are in any major city in the US.

Contrary to the Dutch in Amsterdam, Sicilians haven’t had to organize and battle common enemies like weather and the sea, rather they have been dealing with human factors like foreign conquerors for hundreds of years and subsequent corruption. It’s not easy for them to unite as a group for a common goal like building dams to stop water. For centuries they’ve had to focus on their own individual place in society and fight to make a safe space for their families. Here are some links for things to watch/read about Sicily if you really want to understand its current situation.

To read:
A very academic point of view
A pretty good blog post
A promotional site
To Watch
Scialla
I Cento Passi

Again, these are just my opinions but I guess that the biggest difference that I see is the difference between innovation for individual purposes and innovation as a community. However, I might be completely blowing the importance

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Who needs a flatscreen TV?

of innovation out of proportion. Maybe innovation is overrated. Maybe the Sicilians are actually the wise ones. Instead of working themselves to the bone to make pretty parks and put on festival after festival, they’re just enjoying what they already have. Either way, we’re pretty lucky to be able to enjoy the best of everywhere.

 

Here’s a video.  It’s mostly kids, because who want to see boring adults?

 

17. How Much Is Actually Yours?

If you haven’t noticed, 2016 is the year of the underdog. Those accustomed to losing are winners this year. In the US, the city of Cleveland won it’s first title (basketball) in almost 50 years. In the Premier League (British Soccer) the team from the less-than-powerful city of Leicester won the championship beating 5000 to 1 odds. In more soccer, Portugal won the European championship for the first time ever. If the Chicago Cubs win the World Series this year, then I think that I may have to re-evaluate my understanding of the higher powers that control the universe.

*On a side note… from my perspective living in another country, calling the American baseball championship series “The World Series” comes off as a bit arrogant.  Shouldn’t you have to compete against other teams in “The World” to call it that?

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1 million people showed up to celebrate Denver’s Super Bowl victory

This year the beloved team from my city also won as underdogs. Historically the Denver Broncos have had more luck on their side than any team in Cleveland, but nonetheless they were not favored to win. When the team from your city wins it’s great fun. You celebrate, throw things, hug people, and walk the earth like you own the place for a few days.

The Jockey in Siena’s Palio is like an athlete that wins a title. They’re happy for all the work that they’ve done to get to the top… but they also know that they’re getting paid.

For me, just for a moment, that feeling of elation made me reflect on what it means when your team wins. It’s a strange thing if you think about it. Fans are a bit of a paradox. The team doesn’t actually need fans to perform. As hard as I hoped for the team from my city, I am actually quite certain that my influence on the outcome of the game was none. Despite what we like to think, even home-field advantage is only a small advantage statistically (some data from one of my favorite podcasts Freakanomics). On the other hand, sports can only exist if there are fans watching, and there is money to be made from them.

What do you get when your team wins? Unless you’re on the team that wins or you work for the organization of the team, you really don’t win anything. You don’t get paid. What you “get” is the temporary acknowledgement that your allegiance is to the organization that is, momentarily, the best in it’s field.   All we have is our allegiance, which is only morally binding and allegiance does not equal ownership.

I don’t want to get too far into the philosophical question of whether it’s actually possible to own things. That’s a question for another blog, one that I don’t think that I’m going to write. I will say that in Siena, people own much more of their passion than the rest of us.

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The days preceding Il Palio

I wrote last year about Il Palio in a post about family (link to the post if you didn’t catch that one). This year the Lupa Contrada, that hasn’t won in 27 years, finally could claim that the jockey that they paid to ride on a horse that they were given (temporarily) rode past the finish line before the other jockeys paid by other Contradas.   The string of 2016 underdogs continues. People went nuts. Weeks later they will still be going nuts. Months later, they will still be celebrating.

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Victory after 27 long years

To an outsider it seems a bit fanatical. The key to understanding the Sienese pathological dedication to their horse race is to understand their alternative concept of ownership when it comes to the Contradas.

There are 17 contradas. They are neighborhood territories that have remained without any changes for hundreds of years. People are baptized at birth into a contrada. Nowadays it’s the parents choice, but when people used to be born at home, your contrada was literally the one where you were born. OK, so they are loyal since birth.  That’s not that unique.  One could say that my parents baptized me into being a Broncos fan the first time that they took me to a game. It’s only a symbolic induction in either case.

The relationship encroaches into unfamiliar territory for most when you look at what being a member of a Contrada means. The members of the contrada are essentially the protectors, purveyors, and promoters of their neighborhood and everything that it stands for and has stood for in the past. They are the owners. Take the city of Cleveland. They were happy to see Lebron James and the rest of the team win. Now imagine that the money paid to Lebron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers was earned solely through the year-long efforts of the citizens of Cleveland through things like fundraiser dinners, bake sales, birthday parties and paying dues to the organization. Imagine, if you can, that the stadium was operated by local volunteers who cleaned the aisles before and after games and that the electricity bills came out of the same funds that pays the players. This is the best way to understand the Sienese and their Contradas. They raise money all year to pay a jockey. They clean and operate their museums. They help out those less fortunate in their neighborhood and they keep their own streets clean.  Their presidents are volunteers, elected by the members.  Each contrada has it’s own constitution and set of rules for how it is to be governed.

In the end, it they have just as much to do with the outcome of the horserace as I do on the outcome of the Super Bowl. But the pride that they get to flaunt upon winning is amplified by how much they put into their passion.

Here’s to the underdogs in 2016! And here’s a video that I made for Sean to get him excited about the Palio and his Contrada.

16. Endings, Then Beginnings Again

No insights on Italy, The Netherlands, or our lives all over the place for this post, though there will be plenty more of those to come. Just a quick thought and a video of Sean’s second year.  I guess it’s all over the place from Sean’s perspective this time

Quick thought:

When you look forward to something excitement builds. Projections on what might be are made, plans are concocted, and the imagination runs wild. Finally, whatever it was that had you so excited is upon you and you’re wrapped up in the moments. Then, everything that you waited for, giddy with expectation, runs its course and it’s over.  There you are, looking for the next thing to look forward to.

This cycle of looking forward to being in Amsterdam or having Marianna and Sean here in Siena has become familiar now, but every ending to each small chapter is still so hard to get used to.  I totally understand Sean’s resistance to bedtime. 4 books are never enough, and neither are 5 or 6. For him, bedtime means closing out the day and is comparable to when I have to force myself back onto a plane after 3 weeks of being with my wife and son. All of us would like to just keep the good times rolling.

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Three Generations

The last three weeks were a wonderful break from separation. We were lucky enough to have my parents visit first in Italy for Sean’s birthday party and then we all went Amsterdam to witness the new extension to our lives.  We even took a side trip to Eindhoven, where a short chapter in my parent’s lives began and ended way before they had a son or a grandson.

Just one month ago there were so many things to look forward to. Sean’s birthday, adventures in Siena, adventures in Amsterdam, and a seemingly infinite three weeks. Inevitably, Sean’s Grandparents had to go back home, and I had to come back to Siena. Everything was wonderful and now my sights are set on the next time we’ll all be back together.

Here’s Sean all over the place in his second year.

15. Europe Is A Beautiful Mess

The world is a complicated place.  Europe is a fine example of how human existence in large groups is anything but simple.  Even quick look at Europe’s history will reveal that collaboration and cooperation haven’t always been at the top of the list of things to do with neighbors for those in power. For most if its history, the name of the game in Europe has been dominate your neighbor and take their stuff (I’m not entirely convinced that we’ve actually moved on…). This led to countless wars, many of which we’re all familiar with. It’s also this very power struggle that led to the preservation of a very rich and profound diversity. Until recently, defending one’s home and ways of life was a matter of life and death.

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A simplified version of European diversity. I guess that the guy on the ladder in the Ukraine is the responsible artist here… (here’s the actual source: http://one-europe.info/united-in-diversity-one-europe-one-culture)

After the last major European disagreement (WWII), some forward-thinking Europeans started tossing around ideas like ‘don’t try to kill everyone’. Their first step towards this lofty goal was to regulate steel throughout all of Europe because that is what armies were built from. The idea being that they could keep an eye on who was building armies and then not give them the materials needed to do so. This was in the 1950’s and since then cooperation grew into what we know now as the European Union.

It seems like a good plan.  Stop killing each other and talk about stuff. If it were only that simple.  First of all, there are many people who are dead-set on hating all things not themselves, and the EU severely restricts their ability to inflict harm on everything different.  Luckily these guys are (for now) in the minority. There are also many that fear collaboration will ultimately destroy the hundreds of rich, local cultures that have evolved for thousands of years according to their own necessities.  Many worry that the EU will pave a road to the assimilation of the diversity into one mono-euro-culture. Europeans don’t want to become Americans (…as an American, I don’t think that they need to worry, but that’s my own humble opinion).

Americans, or at least rational Americans, are always proud of their diversity. This is not the same as than the more European sentiment of being proud to be different.  If America is a melting pot, then Europe is a tapas bar. In America everyone is mixed together into one massive, patriotic soup, while the Europeans are a spread of small, elaborate snacks made with loads of different ingredients and placed side-by-side on the bar, pledging allegiance only to the small plate on which they reside.  The tapas are all looking judgmentally at one-another.  Of course, this is just a metaphor.  America is not perfectly melded and Europeans do share many common traits.

In it’s short history, the USA does have a better record of successfully collaborating with itself.  We’ll see if it lasts for a thousand more years. It’s probably more accurate to compare pre-Columbian North-American political cooperation with the EU than is it to compare it to the contemporary US.  It was only way later that the native Americans didn’t really get a chance to represent themselves and collaborate with the US.

Back to Europe though.  What fascinates me is how extremely different things are from one town to another let alone nation to nation.  I can say that I have a pretty good grasp on Siena and I’m understanding more about Amsterdam at this point. Within the European context it’s hard to imagine two places with less in common than Siena and Amsterdam. Siena clings to its thousand-year-old heritage as if there is no other option. Amsterdam seems to cling only to options and innovation. Their histories are completely different.  Siena was at the height of it’s glory in the 1200’s and Amsterdam was a murky, cold swamp with a few castaways.  Then later in the 1600’s the people in Amsterdam were sailing all over the world, while the Sienese were content with going absolutely no further than their own walls.  While available native produce is not wildly different, people in Siena have profoundly explored their culinary tradition in search of perfection and they still haven’t claimed victory. People in Amsterdam are similar to Americans in that the majority of the population doesn’t know the limits and potential of the local food system and they’ll just eat whatever. Language-wise, Dutch and Italian are just about as similar beer and wine.

What’s even crazier to me is that you could say that Venice, for it’s history, is much more similar to Amsterdam than it is to Siena, and Venice and Siena are in the same country.  The closer you get to the local cultures in European cities the more the profound differences become evident. Each city and town have their own long histories that often contrast with the rest of the nation in which they find themselves. So when you think about trying to get everyone to come to the same table and make decisions, it’s easy to lose hope.

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If you think that 28 recognised languages in the EU is difficult, just look at all of the dialects in Italy (incomprehensible compared to standard Italian)…. then multiply this by the number of EU member states.

There are 28 different languages recognised by the EU, and for many that’s not enough.  If languages are a reflection of one culture’s interpretation of the world, then I think that recognising these differences is the first step towards any collaboration.  Translation becomes fundamental, but ultimately is not perfect. Think that if a Polish member of parliament has really good ideas, but only speaks Polish, that doesn’t mean that his/her ideas are less important.  Even the expression of ideas requires a lot of collaboration.

The European examples of diversity and the efforts made to preserve diversity are rather remarkable if you ask me. So much of what we’re taught about diversity in the US (so, the diversity that I grew up with) has to do with skin color and unfortunately there’s not a whole lot of thought given to what lies beneath the surface. How ridiculous is it that anyone speaking Spanish in the US is assumed to be from Mexico?  The majority of South America speaks Spanish, not to mention the people from… Spain…  It should really come as no surprise to anyone that lumping people together based on skin color or religion is a pretty misrepresentative way of categorisation.  Maybe we’re just too young to fully understand our own cultural diversity.

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Parliament in Brussels. On the lower level is where everyone yells at each other. The booths up-top are for those who translate the yelling.

Last week I took a group of students to visit the E.U. Parliament in Brussels, Belgium. Yes, the same place that’s been all over the news for its role as a target for terrorism and simultaneously home to all of the terrorists. Understandably, many dropped out of the trip as they didn’t feel comfortable in such a situation. It’s impossible to say that anything is 100% safe. If you want to be scared, it’s easy to look at the news and freak out. As real and scary as the terrorist attacks are, it’s important to weigh the negative with the positive and not fall deep into a hole of fear that’s hard to climb out of. Think about it this way: I’m not afraid at all to go home to Denver, Colorado despite the tragically common and senseless attacks on people in public places like hospitals, theaters, and schools. Those aren’t referred to as terrorist attacks and they’re not easy to frame in an “Us vs. Them” scenario. I know that the vast majority of people in Colorado are peaceful people and so I guess that I don’t pay too much mind to the risk. I still love going home.  The same is the case in Europe right now. There are some delusional people out there, but thankfully they are nowhere near the majority.

This was my second trip with students to Brussels with students. I’ve learned a lot about the EU and also that I can do a decent job of making up enough French to pass as someone who’s just really confused.  What was most striking this time was to think about how the very city where all of this cooperation goes down every day, is the same place that has effectively isolated an entire community to the point that they feel that their best option is terrorism.  The media and all of those people who feel the need to hate what’s different blame the terrorism on the outsiders.  The refugees escaping a war.  It’s easy to blame them.  The terrorists grew up in Brussels though, and it’s a lot harder to blame yourself.

 

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In the end, happy to be there.

I won’t lie.  The idea of going to Belgium was a bit scary, but I’m glad I was able to go to Brussels and reflect on this particular moment in history against the backdrop of the EU parliament that represents the answer: cooperation.