You know how things have been a little bit droopy drawers, like costs, fights, and "when will I be able to afford a home?" feelings going around. Well, I do believe I've felt a shift in the winds these last few days. Here are my examples.
That Hoverboard Feeling - I went for a walk with my cousin Conner. He has a lovely, big, friendly, almost-never-barks dog named Stanley. Children are drawn to Stanley. It's his cuddly, non-threatening vibe. Welp, one kid managed to make his way to Stanley for a pet after shouting at Conner, "Can I pet your dog?" Conner paused, we walked over to the kid, and, while hovering on his hoverboard, the little guy petted Stanley. I said, "Wow, you can do your hoverboard AND pet a dog. That's impressive." The kid was kinda lost in a petting-the-dog zone of quiet contemplation. Conner wrapped things up and we started to walk away. Suddenly, I hear a shout from the little hover-naut and I look back. With both arms swung wide hope, chest out to the world, he screamed, "I can do anything on my hoverboard!!!!"
I have not seen this level of bold optimism, self-love, and pure joy in a while. Folks gotta have it! Of course it came from a kid. Children are our teachers; I fully believe that. This kid taught me about exuberant joy in that moment. I felt it. I loved it. I also loved his hair sticking out of his helmet at every angle, including across his face, as he made his power-stance proclamation. I loved this kid. Keep it up, bro. Shine on!
Doughnuts Not Distance - Another friend, who shall go unnamed, went into a "I need space this weekend" zone with me instead of the "let's go to the corn maze" zone, which I thought we would be going into. I felt sad and bummed and annoyed about it until Sunday morning. This person had had a medical procedure on Thursday that required full anesthesia and was maybe wigged-out, overtired, or hungry for some reason, I figured. I still don't know. But, on Sunday morning, I woke up with an idea.
I like to go for bike rides. This person's house is one I'd biked to many times. This person is also someone I know loves a morning pastry from Grand Central Bakery. Who doesn't? So, my big fun idea was to not break through the request for space too much by texting, calling, or knocking on his door. Instead, I would just go to Grand Central, get some yummy-yummy pastries, and leave them on his door step.
I dropped them off at 9 am then waited all day Sunday with no acknowledgement. Then, at 10:58 pm I got this text, basically: "Six pastries outside my door in three boxes inside a big bag. If this was you, thank you." I wrote back, basically: "Sorry to invade your space but I wanted to have fun and leaving you pastries was fun." The reply?
In five minutes"
So, it worked out. The fun was happening and back on board. How does this relate to my theory of recent joy blooming? Well, I was so sad we didn't corn maze it and that he wouldn't play with me. But, I took the risk of have fun anyways and breaking the request for space, slightly, and it was received with kindness. All is well, now, and I feel happier.
I still don't know why the "I need space" thing happened. May find out later. Don't need to and am fine either way.
Fall Leaves - Electrical fall leaves are busting it out all over Seattle. They're just so neon and bright and aliiiiiiive. That's enough to remind us to enjoy our lives, to love nature and its cycles, and be glad the earth has so many cool moves with which to surprise and delight us. Go neon orange tree! I see you. Shine on!
I gotta give shout outs to the kids at the University of Southern California. I'm staying with friends at a house near campus and decided to sign up for the $40 fitness membership for the week. It's not only an amazing deal, it puts me in the middle of a world of 20-somethingness that is so edifying, inspiring, and very funny. Here are some thoughts about the experience.
Olympic Pool #3 - Turns out, USC hosted the swimming competitions at the 1984 LA Olympic Games. Their facilities are gorgeous, sparkling blue beneath the SoCal sunshine. I got to watch diving practice! It's all been very much updated since the 80s and they make it available to the public. Plus, your lifeguards are hard-working college kids and there's something inspiring and good about that. College is so much work but they have jobs in addition to school. Way to go, lifeguards!
My Heavens! - I'm just gonna say it. The first time I approached the pool building I couldn't find my way in because you don't enter by the pool, you enter by way of the gym near the pool. Noted! But, because of that, I ended up asking the first kid nearby to help me. He was cruising on his cruiser bike and, I now realize, was some sort of varsity athlete. He looked like a child of Zeus - golden brown, tall, fit, and weirdly kind. In a hurry, he just kept pointing me in the right direction, let me in a special entrance for athletes, and got me to the women's locker room door. This descendent of the Gods did not give up on his task of helping the lost lady. Go Trojans! I felt very backstage and cool and, also, humbly grateful.
I'm Old-er! - You wanna feel your 40s? Hang out near 20s. They're so lithe and healthy and they don't really care. I'm weirdly fit for my age, in ways, but I remember now my twenties. You glow. You have youth! And, it's good for the world. I also remind myself regularly that my 84-year-old self will long to be my 40-something self and that life is grand for so many reasons.
Tough Neighborhood - I'm living in a neighborhood with couches deposited on sidewalks and broken-down, unkempt areas a'plenty. It's also a place where new money flows abundantly to stunning older homes, repainted and well-landscaped. It's a neighborhood in transition and it's going in one direction: fancy. For now, it's very mixed.
LA - LA, I really love it. So many creative people doing interesting work. They're hustling and I'm accustomed to the quick decision on whether or not I can help their hustle. In almost every conversation in LA you're being evaluated for ways you can or cannot help the person you just met. They need a photographer or they are a photographer and you might help them because of that. It's constant. I've learned to let it happen.
Gym Nerves - I've been a gym attendee since my early twenties. I picked up weight lifting as a way to prevent injuries. Now I use it to keep my body healthy, in general. At USC, there is a strong "check out my body and this lycra situation I've created" energy. People look absolutely fantastic at the gym. Bless them! I'm excited if I match. That said, I get sort of exhausted by all the mirror checks and attempts to be hot. It's like, "Just be your selfie!" everyone! Then again, it's that striving, 20-something vibe that is awesome. They're hungry to do great things, including have cool sneaks and be shredded and swoll.
Well, the sun continues to shine. I've now helped to make, and also consume so much, tiramisu. Incredible! I'm available to come make you a tiramisu whenever you like. It means, "Pick me up" as a nod to the espresso inside. Yum!
I'm leaving soon and very much feel I will miss my friends here and want them to know they are lifelong for me. I'll never be able to match them in the U.S. because they're just too darn calm, unhurried, appreciative, and fun. Sorry, Americans. We have stuff to learn.
Movie Pause - YOU WILL NOT BELIEVE THIS! I still cannot believe it. I'm literally rolling it around in my brain and it has nowhere to go. You know how you wait through a whole movie to go to the bathroom or get popcorn, if you're so into the movie? Even Forrest Gump? Well, welcome to Italy where you shall suffer no more! They have a 10-minute break that occurs about at the middle of the film and allows you to get food, pee, chat with your friend or whatever sounds nice. I'm thinking jumping jacks next time or a few laps around the theater. I understand they'll sell more food but it also seems so decent and honoring of the physical needs of movie watchers. Everyone just chills a bit while everyone else gets comfy and then we keep the party rolling. I like it.
My favorite moment was when my Italian friend said that, "Of course, 10 minutes isn't enough if it is a longer film." She wants more "pausa." How decent. How Italian!
Exclamations! - Mama Mia! We all love to say it. We all think it's fun. Because, it is! Throw in a hand gesture and you're able to move a lot of emotion. You can say it when you're reeeeeally happy. Or, you can cast your head down and shake it slowly with great disappointment and say, "Maaama Miiiia." It's all wonderful, and there's more where that came from.
Dai - "Come on!" You pronounce it like "dye." You can shout it loudly at your soccer team playing on television when you need them to play a LOT better. You can say it nicely at the end of a phone call as you head towards adios, or ciao, in this case. It reminds me a bit of "Dime" (dee-may) in Spanish where, during a conversation, you encourage and tease your friend a bit as they talk. "Oh, come on. No kidding." Or, "Come on, dish."
Pieta Eterna - This one cracks me UP. It's so Catholic, so Italian, and so dramatic. It's means eternal suffering. And, you want to know where I first heard it? At the card table with the ladies. We're playing burraco, of course, and this one team could really use a break on a card pick and instead they get no break and my friend Nuncia comes up with her slowly whispered, "Pieta eterna." I love it!
Madonna - Pop star? Yes. Name of the holiest of mothers of the Catholic church? Also yes. And, you gotta say it right. The emphasis is heavy on the "Ma." You can almost do a brief pause after "Ma" so it's a bit of "Ma-donna." l love it. Again, so Catholic and dramatic. I also hear this one mostly while playing cards and something terrible or wonderful has happened.
How to Say "Hi" - There are rules a-plenty in Italy on how to eat, when to eat, what to drink with what you eat, and, it turns out, how to politely greet others.
Ciao - We Americans all love "Ciao." We wanna drive a top-down Fiat, fresh off some espresso, pasta in our belly, sunflowers glowing in our eyes, and shout "Ciao!" to the world. Alas, it falls into the category of casual. You must not throw it at someone you don't know, or particularly someone who is older than you or deserves respect.
Salve - (sal-vay) This greeting is the safest. You can't go wrong. It might seem overly formal but it allows the other person to respond back either with salve or something more casual like bongiorno or ciao. It's like wearing a tie but then taking it off once you realize it's not necessary, or nylons for the femininas out there. I got a "salve" this morning from a man I've seen sitting with his dog on this bench on my way home. I've never passed him before on my bike, officially, so what does he say? "Salve." It can kinda be an old person's word but, according to my hostess, it's a great choice. I've noticed she'll say it when entering a store where she has a question and needs someone's expertise or help. It's respectful.
Bongiorno - Here's another safe option. It's literally "Good day." It feels formal to me, as an American, but it isn't. Good day, good afternoon, good evening, and good night are all separate phrases that must be saved for their proper time of day. When I'm out on a bike ride or walk in the countryside and near some modern, fit, lycra-wearing Italians, I will often just get "Giorno." It's casz ("casual" truncated). It makes me feel accepted and cool for a nanosecond.
Am I Cool? Nope - I'm not cool. Truly, you wouldn't be able to imagine how behind in fashion and size-of-clothing choice I am. I gotta drop down some sizes and tighten up my gear. I'm also short on perfume and make up. It's really a lot to feel awkward about. I'm also way too friendly. I smile at people I don't know and try to say a greeting and I get stared at with no smile in return, often. I would say this happens about 90% of the time. I have foreigner vibe and they don't dig it...right away.
Tall - Oh my Lord, I am tall. I'm so tall. It's ridiculous by Italian standards how tall I am. I am taller than most men. I'm also strong-looking. It's so awkward and confusing for Italians. I have literally learned how to say, "I have German blood." ("Ho la sangue de Germania.") It feels hilarious to me when I say it and yet, at times, it really relaxes the people I tell. It's like they're uncomfortable with my size. I imagine it IS uncomfortable for them. I had one of my rare but distinctive moments when I scared the bah-jeezus out of a woman in the women's restroom. As I walked in she pointed at the sign for women on the door and tried to instruct me of my error. When I smiled and just kept walking she let it go. She was under 5-feet tall. That's usually the crowd that I scare the most. Sorry!
Ending a Phone Call - I've noticed that people ready to get off the phone here start with "dai" then move to "va benne" (all good) then to "ciao." It's kinda goes like this, "dai...dai, si, si, va benne, alloora, okay, ciao...ciao, ciao." They might throw in an "arrivaderci" but usually not. If you'll see them soon or tomorrow you might hear, "Ci vediamo" or "A domani." It's basically a salad of salutations that initiate a process of eventually saying "ciao" a bizillion times until someone finally hangs up.
Vespa scooters. Flowing scarves. Men wearing scarves. Men wearing capris. Gorgeous tans. Shouting. Hand gestures. Pasta! This is Italy. It IS cool. The people here say and do cool things. You are correct to feel this way. Here are some of the cool things I've seen.
What a Shot! - You'll hear Italians at a bar order "un cafe." They will not receive a 12-ounce cup of coffee. The barista will hand them an itty-bitty cup with an espresso shot that doesn't even reach the top of the itty-bitty cup. Americans would be outraged! "Where's my freegin' coffee?" But, whoa! Have one of these first thing in the morning and you'll see why they're such the national habit. My whole brain exploded open with happy feelings and positive thoughts about myself and the world. I felt like an emotional superhero. Anything was possible! No wonder they don't dilute these small, magical shots with water or milk, usually. It's like drinking a bullet. Whoosh!
Jewelry for the Youth - Teenage Italian boys and their jewelry - it's a love affair. Big diamond studs in both ears, gold hoop earrings, large gold chain necklaces, gold chain bracelets, rings; you name it, they're wearing it. I don't see it quite as much with older men here. They seem to grow out of the phase and whittle down to a favorite saint medallion on a chain. But, bejeweled is a very pronounced style for guys aged 15 - 24 or so. I dig it. It looks so...Italian.
Eminem - Okay, okay, so I've never heard so much Eminen in my life as I have in Italy. To be fair, I'm hearing this music a lot at the weight room. (La palestra! I love it.) But there is something about the angsty, driving, pissed-off energy of Eminem that suits young muscle builders of all nations. I noticed this pattern also in Bulgaria. Many people just LOVE Eminem. Right next to him on the most-heard list would be Bulldog, but he's a known master of "International Love." I think we love and mock Eminem in the U.S. Here, it's just love. Oh, and Macklemore came through the gym speakers, which made me burst with Seattle pride.
America Rocks! - I was humbled to the point of tears (maybe some travel exhaustion, and heat-and-foreign-language exhaustion mixed in) at an event in Milan that was sort of an American music singalong and dance night. For more than three hours, about two hundred and fifty Italians sang every dang word to countless American pop songs. Holy moly! If you are making music in the U.S. and it's on the radio, you are filling the world, not just the U.S., with your music. Honestly, it made it feel like a true responsibility. You can impact millions. Why not write something inspiring?
In the end, though, it's all about music that makes people want to move, release energy, yell, and be happy. We make a lot of that music. "Tonight's Gonna Be a Good Night" is a major winner, too. Ask the four hundred, mostly-white Brits I saw moshing and screaming at a festival recently about spending most their lives "living in a Gangsta Paradise." American music is everywhere and a lot of people love it and have it memorized.
Different Tan - How do I explain the gorgeousness of the tans some Italians cook themselves into? It's an area of devotion. The tan is begun with great care at the beginning of the season. One does not want to burn. But, once it's begun, it is darkened with a passion and focus one can only admire. And, wow, the warm, brown, golden tones, nearing very deep brown, that some Italians create is utterly beautiful. I know there are mix of genetics going on and not everyone is the same so I'm thinking there is a magical quality in the sunlight. I, too, am more wonderfully tan than normal. Whatever it is, it's sexy and beautiful.
Minimal Working Out - Americans seem obsessed with working out compared to people in other parts of the world. I've noticed this in pretty much every country I've visited. We go to the gym or run or do Zumba or yoga or HIIT workouts a lot more than other nations. We KNOW about this stuff. My Italian friend hadn't even heard of the Keto diet and I wasn't surprised. No pasta? Basta! While being lean and buff makes sense to Italians, especially young guys, it's more cool to hang out in the piazza and be chill and kind.
I've been wanting to write about my incredible hostess, Tiziana. She lived in Australia from age 6 to age 24, but other than that, this woman is all Italy. Even her time in Australia was as an Italian immigrant, hanging out mostly with other immigrants, Italian or otherwise. She speaks Australian-accented English very well, but her heart is in Italy.
And, she seems to have a zillion ways that Italy can help me be a better person.
The Bikini - First on the list, of course, is the bikini. But, here's the deal. We didn't go to zillion shops at a zillion malls and exhaust ourselves. We went to the main mall in her town, to the one swimsuit shop, tried on the few options in my size with colors and styles I liked, and picked one. She emphasizes simplicity and easy flow.
Cooking - I've now received lessons on how to cook risotto, pasta (so many varieties), tiramisu, lasagna, and a frittata. Tiziana's ability to combine the food, pick fresh ingredients, and time the addition of salt or herbs really teaches me so much. Just today, during the frittata lesson, she said to let the zuchinni cook out its own juices then add the salt when it's about half cooked. She put freegin' nutmeg...in a frittata. Just a bit and it tasted so wonderful. She also said that mint is a nice option but she didn't have fresh mint so she didn't add it...to a frittata. Am I right? It's gotta be fresh, healthy, and honored - all the food.
Tiny Cars - I'm just gonna say, Italians are great drivers. Are Americans? Certainly, at times. And, we're dealing with different challenges like huge freeways, hundreds of cars around us, and large, complicated interchanges. In Italy, what's so darn impressive is people's agility and ability to park and drive in extra small spaces. They just figure it out. There's no freeway built for F150s. And, beyond that, ancient cities barely fit cars at times. So, Tiziana can park on a dime, and share a narrow "shouldn't this be a one-way?" road. It's impressive.
Non! - Certain things are just a no. Having cream in a pasta sauce? Non! Grating cheese onto a pasta dish that has fish in it? Non! Drinking a cappuccino with dinner? Non! (So American!) Having milk in your coffee, other than a macchiato (marked) or a cappuccino after 1 pm? Non! We have no's as well in the States, but there is something about the adamancy and the chin-dropped head shake that communicates utter certainty that no further discussion shall be tolerated. Non!
Let's... - Italians include each other in activities more often. There is less individual or alone time. Maybe it's just me, since I love-ah alone-ah time-ah. But, do I? I've been more social and go-along-to-get-along and it's nice. Tiziana, her son, her daughter, her sister, it's no big deal for them to include me in their lives. And, it's no big deal for the people in their lives to include me in their lives. It's a more-the-merrier culture, certainly compared to my Seattle circle, where people search their schedules and sigh as they can't seem to fit in another thing. Tiziana includes me in lots of stuff and I appreciate it.
Go Slow - I can really use support here. I often say that I was "raised in a hurry." I am used to hurrying. We Americans, in general, rush really well. We multi-task. We jam in the activities and exhaust ourselves. Italians? Non! There is an uncool vibe with hurrying. What's pleasant and respectful is to enjoy the moment, go slowly, allow others to take there time, and be calm, as needed. It does wonders for the nervous system. I can't count the number of times Tiziana said to me, "Don't worry. No rush." Thanks, Tiziana!
I've just returned from the gym. I put a sign up there asking if anyone would like English conversation practice in exchange for speaking to me in Italian. We'll see how it goes!
Some recent highlights include:
The Blessing - Wow, Italians know how to put on a healing! August 15 is a major holiday in Italy. It's the feast of the Assumption of Mary. People take the day off, eat a meal with their family, and attend mass. We went to a very special mass in a very beautiful church called Santuario Madonna delle Bozzola. More on the church next.
After mass, there was a special blessing for the sick. It took about one and half hours. In the moment where the priest was walking around passing on the blessing, after a lot of prayer and preparation, I could feel the energy of the crowd. Some people were moving family members closer to the priest. They were stepping out of the way to make sure their love ones healed. It was extremely moving and made me think about how so many cultures have practices of blessing and healing. Italy's was golden, filled with music, and incredibly well-organized.
Immense Faith - About 500 years ago a young girl had a miracle apparition of Mary at the church we attended. So, they have an altar behind the main altar where people can pray for special miracles. And, they do! And, it works! Hanging down the very long walls next to the altar are silver hearts, set in blue or red circles. Each silver heart represents an answered prayer, a great thing that occurred for someone. It's absolutely stunning; an ornate, inspiring wall of faith. Again, I was very moved by what I saw, which is to say that I cried.
Il Lago di Como - Welp, I'm in love. We got out of the car in Como, a city on the southernmost shore of Lake Como, and I immediately thought, "I like it here." More green than where I am, with tall hillsides dropping to a greenish, gorgeous lake. I felt a bit of Seattle and, yet, saw enough villas to ensure me I was still in Italy. There is not a view or a glance that isn't romantic and idyllic.
Ricotta in the Crust - Yes, we have stuffed-crust pizza in the U.S. But, the Napolese way of stuffing a crust tastes and chews so differently. First, the crust is perfectly chewy. It takes a little bit to get it down and the flavor and, again, chewiness feel divine. So delicious! Meanwhile, they put ricotta in the crust and it, too, is divine adding up to a pizza of such great divinity that I had to close my eyes while I ate it. Mama mia! Thank you, Napoli! By the way, our waiter let us know that no substitutions can be made to the pizzas on the menu so that the balance of flavors is not disturbed. I'm in! They're getting it right. I concede to their wisdom and greatness.
One Hour of Italian - My extremely patient hostess offered that I could speak Italian as much as I wanted to on the drive to Como. (I must sigh and take a deep breath just thinking about it. I had to steel myself for the experience.) I managed just over an hour. After six days here, that feels like a miracle. We actually had fun and I understood a joke or two. Grazie, Tiziana!
Now, we're going to hang out with our new farmer friend Massimo, then Tiziana's family comes to dinner tonight. I'll be humbled by the fast-moving Italian and I better have my notebook ready. It's where I write words I'm learning and there are plenty in there already. Hugs and love from near Milano!
rI'm interested in how people live their day-to-day life. I've traveled enough to know that it's different everywhere and not to be freaked out by what other people consider fun or weird. Just nod and enjoy the experience of their world.
Here are some of the latest Italian knowings I've noticed.
Waiting for the Gurgle - La Santa Caffettiera. Italian's favorite way to make coffee comes with extremely fervent instructions. I've been through the lesson twice. One extra-expressive, gay landlord I had in Bologna held it above his head with both hands and spit out a series of statements like, "E santissima! E sagrada! E la piu buona del mondo." Now that I'm actually using the sacred coffee maker in the morning, I've learned that you must wait for the gurgle sound when the water's boiled through the grounds. There's no stepping away and burning your coffee. So, I stay and wait for the gurgle.
I Have a Bikini - The other fervent message (there are so many in Italy) that I must get a bikini resulted in a tour through about seven of them yesterday until we landed on a turquoise number with little fabric flowers on the hip. It's both sporty and sweet, and it's a major upgrade in my Italiana-ness. Hooray! We go to the coast on Friday for the weekend. Sto pronta! (I'm ready!)
Burraco, Anche Santissima - Another sacred item, the card game Burraco. I cannot believe it but I got to sit with three 60+ Italian women, and my friend Tiziana, and play a game much like gin rummy. I witnessed intermittent arguing about Diana and Charles and if she was unwittingly trapped or made her own bad choice. I learned the suits: quadri (diamonds), fiori (clubs), picche (spades), and cuori (hearts). We play again tomorrow afternoon (domani pomerrigio) and I'm feeling so excited and social.
Parties at Castles - We have Hearst Castle in California, and maybe a few others sprinkled throughout the States. Italy has 45,000+ castles, towers, and villas. And, they use them to have fun. We went to an outdoor Ennio Morricone tribute concert at the castle in Milan, then went to an outdoor movie in Vigevano's castle (Visconti-Sforza Castle) by the famous director Gabriele Salvatore. "Il Ritorno di Cassanova" (I understood about 10 - 15% of the dialogue - pretty good!) Hanging out in a castle feels rich and exciting, in a historic sense. Good work, Italians! Open hearts with lots of arts.
Now I'm taking my cramping calf (hot night last night) to the gym for a workout. "Piano, piano" means little by little or slowly. I'll give my calf the piano, piano treatment today. Much love to all of you!
I'm not "Eat, Pray, Love" or "Under the Tuscan Sun." I'm more "sweat all day and night and eat salty foods so I don't get a calf cramp." And, it's pretty fun!
I met a friend in July who lives in Vigevano, Italy. She's kind, generous, and has two empty bedrooms where her kids used to stay. Now, I'm occupying the daughter's room for a few weeks until I either stay on in Europe or head back to the US for a while.
What's fun about Italy? Here goes.
Lots of Salty Food - I can't emphasize enough how much sweating is happening. This heat doesn't end and the hostess-with-the-mostess is Italian and doesn't like A/C. I respect and admire the choice. I'm just...hot...most of the time.
Massimo - I met the most wonderfully Italian man who is an egg and chrysanthemum farmer. The flowers are for the Day of the Dead celebrations at the end of October. He grows them in a large greenhouse with help from his dad and son. The eggs he produces year round. It's really a beautiful life. And, he thinks my Italian is bravissima. That's kind.
My Italian - Welp, I'm getting a lot of English in return for my efforts at speaking Italian which tells you that my Italian needs strengthening; accent, vocabulary, and pronunciation. I have Harry Potter books to read, which helps because I know, I mean, I adore the stories. I also will have a bike to ride soon so I can find unassuming elderly Italian people who are seated somewhere and encourage a slow-paced conversation with lots of correcting. That is my dream.
Tan - I may never have been this tan in my whole life. And, my hostess is offended that I don't where a bikini at the beach. At 46, I figured my bikini days were done but here every woman (most every) wears a bikini, into their golden years. We'll get me one this week so I don't continue to embarrass myself at the water.
Ideas Welcome - I've never been quite so nomadic. I left my condo behind, rented out, and am free to wander. I may end up in California for a while. That would be nice. If you have any ideas on where I can go to see wonderful things, please chime in.
Much love to everyone who is cozy in their beds on the West Coast of the States. I have a big part of my heart with all of you as I know you're my people and I love you so much.
I had a totally incredible experience. In a land where people rarely smile as they pass you on the street - it's more of an extended stare of disdain and distrust - there were moments of laughter, hilarity, new friendship, happiness, giggles, and play. I loved my time in Bulgaria and am considering a return this fall for another tour.
For now, I'd like to capture my observations of the country. These are not hard facts but just the "welp, that's different" moments I noticed.
Very Pretty - This country has tall, snow capped mountains and miles and miles of farmers' fields and green valleys. It's not a wreck of strip-malls and big box stores, at least, not yet. So, the eye gets a lot of rest and enjoyment when driving through beautiful Bulgaria.
The Stare - I understand that I come from a culture of smiling (less so since the advent of smartphone addiction), friendly efforts to connect, and optimism. So, I can say without judgment, Bulgaria does not offer these social graces. Instead, as I stood in the priority line for my Ryanair flight from London to Sofia, the word that emanated off my fellow passengers was "gruff." This was my subjective read, not the truth. It was just so hard to induce any smiling or chatting at all.
Tiny Windows - There are vestiges of times gone by when people would open a small, sliding window, serve their customers things like baked goods or postage stamps, then shut the tiny window again until the next client came along. It felt at times like a humorous remake of a scene from a movie about Eastern Bloc countries but it was absolutely real. I'm used to store clerks feeling obligated to chat with me and make me feel welcome into the store where they're standing. Again, there is no judgment. I simply encountered minimal efforts at what we call customer service in the U.S. I don't believe it matters widely, yet, in Bulgaria.
Family Matters - I was in Bulgaria for one religious holiday and one Sunday. I saw lots of parents and kids spending time together on these days. I loved seeing how much family matters to the people of Bulgaria. Children were dressed up and holding their parents' hands as they walked through the town square to play at the many children's play areas available. Other adults could sit on a bench and relax and keep a community eye on the kids. Sometimes, in the U.S., I feel like children are meant to disappear or stay separate from everyday adult life. In Bulgaria, as I often felt in other countries I've visited like Peru and Mexico, everyone appreciates and loves children and their existence in wider society. They're adapted to and included without shame or extra efforts to control or distract them. They're kids. They live. And, they're gonna want to play and spend time with their parents.
Muscle-Bound Men - In terms of what is considered good-looking in any culture, there are wide variations. I think of the extra-skinny punks in London and the extra-curvy women of Latin America. All honored. All beautiful. Just not the same everywhere you go. In Bulgaria, the men love to bulk up and look extremely strong. So many were fit and muscular. I saw almost no young men who weren't at least lean. A lot of the young guys shave their heads, which I would consider a very masculine look. And, my favorite, was the shaved head with the long, bushy, squared-off beard. You'll find Bulgarian heroes on their currency and in statues with that look. Buzzed on top and then the most hairy, rad, massive beard on their chin. The owner of the gym I worked out at had this look and he looked fantastic. Just saying...
Coffee - Lavazza vending machines keep this country moving. For about 30 cents USD you can get a delicious, dark espresso shot in a paper cup any hour of the day outside multiple buildings in most towns. Bulgarians may not have a Starbucks on every corner, but they're serving themselves plenty of delicious coffee all day long. I got into the groove. I never managed to use a vending machine but I had a lot of espresso at small shops and gas stations on our long drives around the country. I love a country that loves espresso because it's so delicious and strong and yummy.
Mix of Flash and Rural - Bulgaria is a country with a mix of very modern shops, like a Land Rover dealership along a major road in Sofia, and then mostly small stores that carry local products and seeds for growing tomatoes. The country still has plenty of farming going on in the house-by-house sense. Sofia, the capital, is the only major city I saw. In it, I didn't see many gardens because people live mostly in apartments. But, the moment you get out of Sofia, you see that most people live in single-family homes with gardens and chickens. There is subsistence farming going on everywhere you turn. I awoke to the sound of a cock crowing dozens of times at our neighbor's place, every morning starting around 5 am. Plus, our neighbors had beautiful rows of veggies starting to pop up for springtime. There are plenty of fruit trees throughout the countryside - looked to include apple, plum, pear, and fig. The "food not lawns" movement is alive and well in Bulgaria. They just never had the lawns. I saw almost no lawn mowers. Instead, I saw tractors and shovels.
Under Construction - This country has so many improvements going on. Roads being resurfaced, new bridges half-completed, dirt piled up to make way for new highways, and taller buildings coming up in the capital. You can get a delicious chicken-and-mash dinner at a high-end restaurant for about seven dollars. So, this country and its GDP are not at the same level of wealth as many of its Western European neighbors. But, it seems strongly oriented toward growth and leveling up the quality of life of its inhabitants.
Cracked and Peeling - Again, I mention this as an observation and not a judgment. This country is dotted with buildings - homes and apartment buildings especially - with cracked and peeling paint. The homes are stucco on the outside and big, by any country's standards, but they are often in need of painting. Many of the apartment buildings have an almost multi-colored coat vibe. I take this as a pragmatic focus on putting money where it matters. Food, kids, and based on my observations, cigarettes. I get it. It just differs from so many communities in the U.S. We would mark many of these structures as urban blight but in Bulgaria they're active, typical, and full of people.
I never figured I would go to Bulgaria. I should think of other countries on the "never figured" list, like Malaysia or Greenland. Maybe I need to keep a more open mind or assume the least likely thing will happen.
For now, I know why I'm headed east and I'm very nervous-cited (nervous and excited!) about it. I'll be joining a group from The Flying Seagull Project as a verified Seagull (I'm trained!) to play with kids in refugee camps. I know, how amazing and unexpected to think there is an entire organization of humans dedicated purely to bringing fun to kids in tough situations? We don't bring snacks or wise words, we bring hula hoops, juggling balls, obstacle courses, magic shows, games of tag and duck-duck-goose and whatever else we can think of that's fun.
Why did no one think of this before? Well, I'm sure some folks did and it's pretty incredibly needed and appropriate if you think about children. They need to be wild, be free, and express their wackiest energy in, ideally, a safe space that allows for that. And, if they've suffered great losses or are in a highly unstable phase of their life, they might need a little extra encouragement to be silly by some well-trained adult weirdos, I mean, professional clowns.
In my case, I'll be very junior on the team and learning. I went to training in London in February to meet the great leader of all this silliness, Ash Perrin, and take in his multi-decade wisdom and knowledge. Things that are fascinating (to me) about what I learned are the following:
1. You gotta ignore the language barrier. These kids will be from, well, everywhere. I'm not sure where from, exactly. But, we can assume a mix of languages and, quite possibly, no or minimal English. So, how do you teach kids duck-duck-goose and lead them through it without being able to say, "Alright, let's start in a circle and you are going to tap people on the head and say..."? Good question! I began to learn to manage this task at training. You use big gestures, sounds, and minimal, repetitive, "sounds like what it is" words to teach. Ash shouts the Greek word for circle and draws a big circle with his hand, using his pointer finger to encourage the kids to circle up. It works!
2. Use call and response. We've all seen military people line up, march around, and get into formation while singing or calling back and forth with their commander. This is kinda what we clowns get the kids used to. Ash works it so well! He circles them up then quickly moves them through a silly, easy, repetitive, loud series of shouts and movements that get them synced up. It's like their learning a dance routine for a flash mob.
3. Go slow and repeat, as often as possible. With the kids in these camps and refugee settings, there will be some neurodivergence, various levels of hearing and sight, developmental differences, and just plain agitation and anxiety. The inclusive energy must be on high. Everything's working. Everyone is included. Everyone matters. You can watch if you want but please stay nearby and engaged. All of those messages must be repeated through our tone and eye contact and motions to keep the group together and involved however possible.
4. Be fun. "Energy! Energy! Energy!" Ash used to shout that at us during training until we were all shouting it, too, and clapping, and dancing around the room. The Flying Seagulls rarely walk into a room. They run. They trip and fall and get up to a round of giggles, and then take a bow. They ride in on Penny Farthing High-Wheeled Victorian bicycles or play the violin, guitar, and tambourine. If a situation is low-energy or tense, the Seagulls masterfully break up that vibe and elevate it as best they can. The kids respond to the energy by finding their own and giving it back. "It's time to play!" the Seagulls say, with everything they do. And, kids need that moment like a camel needs water in the desert. It may have been a while and it sure feels good.
5. Appreciate the kids. "Oh, that's good." "Well done!" "Did you just learn that?" "Bravo!" Think of any way to say good job and douse these kids with appreciation and you're getting the idea. Here they stand, all full of energy, creativity, natural skills and abilities coursing through them and we give them a chance to try something new. Tell them how well they're doing it, say the Seagulls. Be amazed! Help them see how they can do this and so much more. Help them feeeeel that by acknowledging and appreciating their great work.
I leave soon for my journey. I've packed almost completely. I imagine I will like my co-workers very much and that I'll want to adopt a good portion of the children that I meet. I don't expect to see life on earth in the same way by the time I return. I'll feel impassioned in ways I do not currently know and when I learn those ways, I will tell you - right here on this blog.