Saturday, 27 December 2008

The Bell Curve

For this au pair, the Christmas season has brought with it a new set of unexpected difficulties. It all started a week ago when 7 year old Marta, for the first time, threw a fit when I attempted to help her dress herself. To be fair to her, perhaps I was feeling a little impatient at the time as she was already late for school and would not relent in her daily routine of whistling whilst holding her unused toothbrush in one hand and twirling around her knickers in the other. However, this seemed to be to be the turning point in Marta's overall behaviour, not only with me but with her parents as well.

Every day which we spend together is now plagued by temper tantrums, crying fits, and misunderstandings on Marta's side, and unbearable frustration on mine. Half of these incidents I put down our increasing ability to understand each other's languages. Yes, I know, its strange -- you would think that the more English she understands, the more we should be able to communicate. However, I have realized that mutual understanding does not necessarily develop in an uphill fashion. Rather, it is more comparable to an upside-down bell curve. This is because, at the beginning, both parties make a conscious effort to understand and accommodate to the wishes of the other, just as strangers tend to be very polite on the first meeting. This stage, though, is followed by a time when both understand about 50% of what the other is saying. As a result, while there is much comprehension between the two parties, they is also a wide berth for misunderstandings as well. This, unfortunately, is the stage at which Marta and I find ourselves and it is putting a certain degree of strain on our relationship. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Marta's grimaces in my direction and her tendency to cry or yell hurtful expression my way whenever I say something even slightly displeasing to her are weighing heavy on my soul.

This behaviour has also been extended to her parents. I am hearing fewer and fewer pleases and thank yous, and whenever they try to have a deep conversation with her, they receive empty responses. I only hope that this new behaviour is not the result of bad influences from school. As we all know, you can understand a person fairly well simply by observing the people they spend time with.

I only hope that her behaviour improves after the stress of the holiday season is over. It would be a shame to spend the rest of the year with a girl who cannot stand my presence.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

This Exciting Life of Mine

This Thursday marks the end of a string of late nights and social gatherings. I have gained the new nickname "mondana" (social butterfly) for the extraordinary number of times I find myself returning home when the only sign of movement on the streets is that of the odd "ubriaco" and the only prominent lights in view are the Christmas illuminations that remain lit throughout the night. I am not used to being a mondana -- a girl whose original idea of a curfew when she first arrived was 1:00 a.m., but it is when the Torinese are at their most alert. So, when in Rome (or in Torino), one must follow suit.

On Sunday, I experienced my first live football game. It took place on a rainy and cold day between two Italian teams, Juventus and Milan, and my companions for the evening were RaeAnne, Sarah (from England) and her school chum Simon who just so happens to be a dead ringer of Jeremy Northam, my favourite actor. (Swoons!) RaeAnne and I were incredibly fortunate as the father of the family for which Sarah works is friends with the manager of the Juventus team. As such, the tickets were free and in a fairly descent position. As I am not a football fan in general, I will not attempt to comment on the game itself, but I will comment on the fans. From what I noticed, Italian fans really don't seem to give two hoots whether their team makes a mistake or not. A player could kick the soccer ball and completely overshoot the net and the crowd would still break into a supportive cheer. This attitude seems to lie in contrast to that in other countries like Canada where players are more often booed than not if they foul up on the field. In the end, the team which Torino supports, Juventus, won by two points, a result pointedly emphasized at the finish by the team when they ran from goalpost to goalpost and threw themselves sliding into the mud. It took us almost an hour subsequently to get home since it was pouring with freezing cold rain, and there wasn't a taxi or bus in sight for over 20 minutes, but we still maintain that we do not have any regrets, despite the fact that our heads hit the pillow at 2:00 am.

Monday night was planned to see off a girl I only just got to know recently though we've been acquaintances ever since I arrived. Kim, a fellow au pair from Australia, was in my Italian class and also looked after a couple of children who go to the same nursery school as Anna and Pietro, so we had quite a bit in common, but never got around to hanging out outside of these two environments. Since I am always one for throwing random people together, I decided to call up Mathieu and Nicola to join us, and Kim did the same to her friend Loredana, giving us a substantial group of five people who really didn't know each other that well, but were happy to spend time together regardless. The movie we saw was called Slumdog Millionaire, originally filmed in Hindi but translated into Italian, and I recommend it to anyone, even those who cannot stand the proverbial Bollywood dance that is bound to appear at the end of each Indian film. To give a very brief summary, the movie takes you through the life of Jamal, an 18 year old orphan whose troubling life experiences give him the knowledge to win 20 million rupees on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. It has an excellent blend of humour and seriousness, and provides in depth insight into the wealthy and impoverished sides of India. If you're looking for a movie to see, this is the one folks! Afterwards, we went to a local pub for a beer and a chat, and by the time I got home, it was already 2:30.

The next day had long been in the making. I attended my first Zucchero concert at the Torino Olympic Hockey Arena Isozaki, and I was once again accompanied by Mathieu and this time Marco as well, who I hadn't seen in almost a month. Though the whole concert was fabulous, my night was truly made when Zucchero sang both Il Volo and Mente a Rosamarino, my two favourite songs off of the Best Hits album. (And Il Volo has a special significance for me since it was always the one I would sing along to with my family when it came on the French radio station, Cherie FM!) Throughout the show, the three of us were on our feet dancing and singing, taking videos and random photographs, enjoying the human energy that overwhelmed the arena. Another favourite part was when, during the prelude to the encore, everyone in the stadium began stamping their feet loudly to call Zucchero back on stage. The vibration created by our feet shook the entire stadium and sent shivers through my spine. After the concert, we once again headed for the nearest English pub where we met up with Nicola for supper, drinks and an intense lesson in Italian slang and proverbs. This time, my key entered the lock of our front door at 3:00 in the morning, and I could hardly sleep for worrying about whether my alarm would wake me at 7:00 the next morning.

Wednesday was the final event in my string of late evenings out. I had to chuckle a little when I saw Mathieu waiting outside for me in his car as he had done the two nights previous -- though it hadn't been planned intentionally, this was the third night that we were in each other's company and it was becoming rather amusing. From my house, we went to an Argentinian restaurant where a massive group of Mathieu's friends were dining in style. Many of them I had met before - Enrica, Pietro, Marcella, and her boyfriend - and I had a wonderful time trying to hold mediocre conversations in Italian with those who were close to my seat. Since I had eaten already, I went for a small plate of french fries while everyone else splurged on an expensive "menu" - basically a four course meal crowned by a tender, juicy piece of steak. We were joined by Nicola later on who had just come back exhausted from volunteering at an airline conference, and by 12:00, we decided to call it a night. All the way home in Mat's car, the three of us serenaded each other with Zucchero and Coldplay songs from the new album -- a great end to an exciting four days. (Note: The picture above is of Mat's yummy lemon cake...mmm mmm!)

And that brings us to today when Zombie Heather decided that 12 hours of sleep in three days wasn't enough, and took a well needed nap from 9:00 to 11:00 to recharge her batteries. Tomorrow, the excitement starts again as I have salsa lessons booked, and if I am lucky on Saturday or Sunday, I may be able to join my favourite boys for another couple of late night get-togethers depending on when my babysitting duties end here.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Alps and Sauze D'Oulx

This past weekend was my first spent in the Alps of Torino, a jagged line of sharp, snowy tops slicing Italy and France directly down the middle. The place in which we stayed was called Sauze D'Oulx, a mountainous town snuggled in the centre of the Mountain Community Alta Valle Susa. Though the name is obviously French, the town lies on the Italian side of the border -- evidence that the frontier between France and Italy is really less defined than the nationals of each would like to think. It is apparently a destination which every Torinese tends to frequent at some point in their life. Just how every Italian knows someone named "Andrea," it is impossible to live in Italy for more than a month and not find someone who has a cottage in Sauze D'Oulx.

Initially, I expected that I would be skiing on the weekend, and I dressed myself accordingly -- long johns, tank top, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, sweatshirt and puffy coat - six layers in total, to be precise. In the end, I didn't ski at all (no great loss), but the six layers were more than appreciated. The snow reached as high as my waste in some parts, the wind when it blew was bitter, and the temperatures were comparable to Toronto in the dead of winter. It was a bit of a shock for someone who, puffed up with Southern Ontarian pride, turned her nose up with a laugh when told it would be freezing.

For me, most of the weekend was spent dancing, drawing and playing "mama and baby wolf" with Anna who, being only three, was unable to start skiing lessons. Pietro and Marta, on the other hand, were bundled up beyond recognition in preparation for ski school - the younger squealing in joy and the elder in misery at the prospect of spending an entire two days in the cold on a snowy mountain top. As it turned out, the school was extortionate, charging 40 euros for one child to ski twice, and so the next day, after cancelling their reservations at the school, the entire family went skiing together while Anna and I spent our first three hours out together alone.

These three hours were probably the most challenging for me so far, for many reasons. First of all, it was the first time I had ever taken a three year old out on the town without another adult around to lend a hand. Secondly, Anna gave definition to "separation anxiety" by wailing on and off for an hour after her parents left to ski. Thirdly, I had been charged with not only getting this sobbing child a specific type of chocolate croissant and a specific store which I had never been to, but also with buying a massive package of paper and a newspaper -- all in very broken Italian! The entire time I was on edge, but I found that as I checked off each "chore" on the list, the easier spending time with Anna became. I attribute this to the fact that I am becoming very familiar with the various ways of distracting Anna's attention from things that instigate her crying spells, like missing her parents. (For instance, whenever I pick her up from school these days, I tell her first of all that her mummy is at home waiting for her, even if she isn't. Then, when we arrive and tears start to well up in Anna's eyes, I tell her that her mummy has gone to buy some milk for her baby bottle. This prospect always seems to delight Anna (perhaps it is the idea that her mum is doing something especially for her?), and she usually quiets down.

As for the scenery, it goes without saying that my mouth was unhinged in astonishment the entire time. Unfortunately, the first day was rather snowy so most of my photos took on a misty blue tint, but the next day was clear enough to take some excellent shots. My favourite moment was sitting at the ski coffee shop after completing a long walk up the highest ski slope in the area, looking out over the town of Sauze D'Oulx -- a mixed bag of little wooden apartments from the 70's, ski stores, Christmas lights, and a cute miniature church plopped appropriately in the middle, centred against a backdrop of almost exaggerated beauty -- peak after peak of harsh rock and snow, remnants of previous landslides, precarious roads winding around each cliff face, and the brilliant sun forcing its reflection onto the blinding whiteness that covered every pike. I was cold, but it was a moment of true happiness.

Our next visit will be in about three weeks time, so I hope that I will be able to tell you more of this beautiful area of Italy soon.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Colours and Language

The human perception of colour seems to be more subject to change than other phenomena observed by the senses. If you ask an American or a Canadian what the colours of the rainbow are, no doubt the Rainbow Song will burst from their lips with the colours . However, if you visit the most Southern Region of Japan, Okinawa, you will find that they divide their colours primarily into only three primary groups - black, white, and red. The various shades in between (what we perceive as individual colours) will fall into one of these categories. One of the most ambiguous colours in existence, perhaps, is green which is often interpreted as a shade of blue. (Take for example, Japan, once again where they consider the grass, vegetables, and the colour for "go" on traffic lights to be "blue.")

Why do I bring this up? It is because, yesterday, I came across such a difference in interpretation in the Italian language as well. The difference exists specifically with regards to the colour of hair. In Italian, there exist the colours blonde, brown and black, but the cut off line between what is actually defined as blonde or brown is different to that in English. Anyone who has seen the colour of my hair will agree that it is a medium to dark shade of brown in English terms. However, when I attempted to explain this to dark haired Marta, I was met with rigid opposition.

"Absolutely not,” cried Marta, “There’s no way. I have brown hair! Yours is "biondo scuro" (dark blonde)."

"She's right," added Ludovica, "in Italy, anyone with your shade of hair would choose to dye it blonde. It is light enough to be possible. As for us, we have true brown hair."

The bristles went up on the back of my neck. I was prepared for a fight. What right had they to steal my identity as a brown haired individual? Yet I managed to hold back, because I realized that not everyone is metalingusitically aware that even something so simple and seemingly straightfoward as the colours in our world are not interpreted in the same way in every culture. Instead, I attempted to explain to Marta that in English, we use "brown" for many different shades, even for shades such as Pietro's, which is verging on dirty blonde.

Did it work? Not quite. "No! You're dark blonde and that's final," she cried at the end of our discussion, and that put the kibosh on that.

Ah well, she is only seven after all!

Friday, 5 December 2008

The Week of House Boundedness is Over!

The family and I have finally reached the end of a lack luster week during which little Pietro was continuously out of commission. It turned out his cold had developed into an infection in his throat, which later became a form of tonsillitis. Throughout the week, I was his caregiver from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and I have learned many things. Firstly, a sound I will never relish in is the wail of a child as he gulps down a dose of disgusting medicine clumsily hidden by a flavour that could have been 'banana' in another life. Secondly, Sesame Street and Wallace and Gromit are lifesavers when a child will not stop asking you to play "monster." And lastly, there is something special about the bond that develops between a sick child and the person who stays with him. You become like a second mother to him, which is one of the best feelings in the world. While the little monster drives me nuts sometimes, I think a part of me will miss having him around in the afternoon.

Before my week of house boundedness (yes, that IS a word), I made a point to fill my life with activities completely unrelated to childcare. I visited an authentic Italian discoteca with flashing strobe lights that conveniently obscured the dance moves of anyone with two left feet. This was a particularly exciting experience since I had never stayed out until 4:00 a.m. to dance before then, and I found that once I got over the 2:00 a.m. mark, my second wind was able to propel me forward throughout the rest of the night. (Hence I didn't fall asleep until 5:30 despite the fact that I was ready for bed before then!) I met some wonderful friends of RaeAnne, in particular Andrea, who has promised to take us both salsa dancing at a club sometime. Maybe the ballroom dancing I learned two years back will finally come into use!

I also went to see Changeling with Mathieu, and his two best friends Nicola and Marco. I must say that, for all of its gruesome content, it was a fascinating story. It was about a woman whose child is abducted by a serial murderer back in the 1910's, and the Los Angeles Police Force that does everything in its power to cover up the failure of its investigation into the case. Overall, it was acted out very well...that is, by everyone except for Angelina Jolie. (I don't know if my personal bias against her is clouding my judgment, but she didn't come across as very convincing due to her tendency to overact. And yes, I know, if you lose your son, you are bound to be hysterical, but certain tactics have to be applied to genuinely project that hysteria. In Jolie's case, she successfully went through the motions - she cried, screamed, and tore into the flesh of other people intent on bringing her down - but her performance as a whole left me completely cold.) I was interested to learn that the script was based on a true story which was discovered in the archives of the Los Angeles Police Department, just before it was to be sent to the incinerator shaft. I was also interested to learn that cases such as these were rife back during the first part of the 20th century. As for the film itself, Eastwood did an excellent job of capturing the ambiance of the 1910's. It was almost reminiscent of a film noir in the way it was shot. The Italian voice actors, too, were brilliant as usual, and I found that I understood about 20 percent of what was being said this time around. I am sure that <Hai ucciso mio figlio> (Did you kill my son?), which was repeated probably 100 times, is a line I will never forget.

I also finally purchased a new camera - a waterproof Olympus - with which I plan to take many photos of the Alps this coming weekend. It will our first ski trip out of the city, and apparently everyone goes at the same time because of the long weekend. Personally, I think I would rather take two days away from home and have no traffic rather than three days and a traffic jam there and back, but hey...beggars can't be choosers! See you all next week!

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