In the summer of 2008 we lived in the Oltrarno, the “other side of the Arno” in Florence, Italy. It was a radical lifestyle change that required us to shuffle up 92 steps to our flat, hang our laundry from window frames to dry, prepare dinner on two burners and live without the internet except for the 3 hours the bar downstairs opened. We collectively got by with limited Spanish-speaking skills and, even more, limited Italian we had, with few English-speaking companions to help translate.
With two middle schoolers and two multi-tasking parents, it was a welcome change of pace, where we vacillated between tourist and locals. We learned never to touch the produce in the market without wearing gloves and how to order Gelato and say thank you. We saw ruins and art and museums and the wider variety of human beings than we saw at home. We learned to relax, reconnect and to be less concerned with feeling safe while being more adventurous. We also learned to love Fiats so much so that years later, I continued my Italian romance with my own tiny little car.
We often had to be creative in our entertainment when we were not soaking up the local culture. Legoes, card games or a nightly stroll were our stand-by. Watching the Tour de France, infomercials or American Idol in Italian provided some language practice and a lot of laughter. In this pre-smart phone and Kindle days, we did have a few TV shows and audiobooks we’d listen to at bedtime, all crammed into our double bed, craning our heads to soak up what was playing on my husband’s laptop. We squirmed at Bear Grylls’ bug-eating, ice-picking, cave-digging adventures. We giggled what felt like an overly idealized graduation speech in Maria Shriver’s audio book “Just Who Will You Be.” But as it turns out, both of these narratives helped shape our lives as we began to rebuild our family, post-deployment and post-house fire.
What we learned from Bear Grylls is simple. Be prepared for life’s adventures and challenges. Be open to trying new stuff, even when it’s out of your comfort zone. Each of these forays out of your comfort zone has something to teach you about yourself, the world and what you might like to do (or NOT do) with yourself. Weeks later, my hub felt the need to rival Bear by actually consuming an unusual bug we found on Tuscan hike. In our debrief, we decided that generally speaking, eating what one cannot identify outdoors is not advisable. I learned I like being able to send my kids out for groceries as I start to prepare dinner in my little cucina, because that little cucina made dinner prep a multi-hour event and this was their contribution to the daily work. My kids learned to be comfortable navigating a few blocks of our urban life on their own and that the purveyor at il mercato would, indeed, sell ten-year-olds bread and wine (reason #134 to love Italy). My husband learned that the flexibility of running his own gig suits him. We all learned that Italian puppies are ridiculously cute and compelling enough that we would need one once we returned home.
As for Maria Shriver, my snarky tweens found her voice and message cause for laughter. They had yet to appreciate the raw honesty in her words and the perspective her rich and varied life brought to this very simple message. As we listened to the book night after night, week after week, the joking turned to imitating her cadence and tone of voice. Like the Paddington books on tape, my children listen to for years at bedtime, we could all repeat Maria’s sentences before she could. Eventually, this led to discussions about the real messages, like “who we want to be is important at every stage of our lives, not just when we’re starting out in the world. That’s because, in a way, we’re starting out fresh in the world every single day.” Whether or not we realized it, our summer in Florence allowed us the time to sort out just who we’d be as a family as individuals these days and in the days ahead.
As Shriver says, some days which you think you are “goes up in smoke,” ours did quite literally. When families go through significant changes (like becoming the First Lady) or trauma, the dynamics values, and priorities shift, subtly and overtly. Something as predictable as maturing into adolescence or young adulthood changes the family ecosystem. Moves, job changes, deployment, and loss have more transparent and immediate impacts on the family. Ours went through all of these, and a house fire, in the course of 18 months.
A year or so after things settled down, the summer in Florence gave us a bit of a respite to reconnect and redefine just who we would be with our new normal life. Part of what emerged from Grylls’ and Shriver’s lessons, was our commitment to family and determining who’d we be. It also led me to reflections on children, teaching, learning, and life – hence the birth to this blog.
So maybe you’ll eat bugs, maybe you’ll take some time to ponder just who you will be or maybe you’ll take some time to reflect on the parenting and teaching you do. Whatever you do, I hope you’ll subscribe to Wonder of Children.