Jul 10

We live here?!

Today we moved most of our stuff to our new apartment. It took three trips with the car which is both a bit puzzling and a bit troubling. We’ve not even been here 5 months and already we have three car loads of belongings to move from one place to another? And a car to move those loads with?! We’re becoming entrenched. This would bother me more except that every morning I wake up and look out the window at the looming peaks around us, every time I go in a shop and spend much longer than I had planned because the shop keeper wants to have a chat and every time I have a glass of wine before dinner, sitting in the street listening to, and struggling (less every day) to speak, Italian I feel a little more a part of this place. Can entrenched be used in a positive way?

Since arriving, we have invested in a small library of guidebooks (a contribution to the car loads) and over the course of quite a few hikes and days climbing using said guidebooks I have decided that I need to change my beliefs and become hindu. There is just no way that we’ll ever have time to get through everything that we want to do before we leave this earth, com’on reincarnation! But maybe that’s part of the beauty of it as well. At the risk of sounding trite: there is no destination, only a journey. Just a never ending stream of climbs, hikes, bike rides, days of skiing and, of course, aperitivo’s.

Here are a few photos of the latest day out in the mountains. For those geography nerds our there (and Ray), we started down near Lago di Como from a tiny village called San Bartolomeo and hiked up to Sasso Canale then over to the Bivaco di Manco and then over another ridge to Alpe Campo and finally found our way back to the valley floor by way of Val Bodengo. Roughly 8 hours in total.







Jun 10

Out of my comfort zone

We have spent quite a bit of the past few months out of our comfort zones. I suppose it’s good for people for a while. You tend to learn a lot, when you need to swim to prevent drowning. That might sound a little drastic, but the past few weeks for me have provided quite a few occasions that warrant such drama.

To begin with I was called to do my first ever formal interview in the Italian language, just across the border in Switzerland. Interviews in general tend to be nail-biting experiences, now imagine it all in another language that you are just getting to grips with. I spent the days before it busily translating my CV and any vocab that might be relevant. Not a pretty sight.

I initially thought that even if they liked me I couldn’t get the job because I don’t have my qualifications recognized in Switzerland yet (the same process which has, so far, taken over 9 months in Italy, but that’s a different kettle of fish…). To cut a long story short they gave me the job anyway, with approval from the powers-that-be to start work while the recognition process goes on quietly in the background. Sweet 🙂 The job is only part-part-time to start with (which suits me fine for now), but the pros of being in Switzerland include better pay and generally less chaos.

I looked into the process for recognition of my qualifications in Switzerland. I need a language diploma in Italian. Hmmm. I clearly do not have this. So I signed up for the only exam available this side of September, which happens to be less than 2 weeks away. Apparently you need 400 hrs of preparation before this exam. How many hours are in 2 weeks?? Needless to say, the timing is not optimal, and I won’t be ready, much like my first driving test, which I failed by the way. So I am trying, and failing, to remember all I learnt on the meditation course. If I pass I pass, if I fail… there’s always september.

A language test is official something which CANNOT be crammed for. Not that cramming has ever been really my style. But the option would be nice in this case…

In the midst of all of this we have;

Organized residency here (I AM NOW OFFICIAL LIVING IN ITALY!- jeff is not sadly…I hope he joins me soon…)

Found an apartment to move into in a few weeks time

Organized some loved-ones in the States to pack our stuff into the shipping container which will make it’s way to us over the next few weeks. (Thanks guys!)

I celebrated my first birthday in Chiavenna, shared with new friends. A pleasure.

Jeff has worked like a dog for more hours each day than is healthy

And I started my first job working through Italian. It is really very, very scary. I am hoping that in a few weeks time, after the exam and a bit of settling in time in the job, I will start to feel more human.

And less like a frightened hamster.

May 10

There’s No Place Like Home

The other day Jeff and I were checking out the new Comhaltas online archive of Irish music. A wonderful collection of traditional Irish music (good work Darragh Curran!).

I was confused when I found myself feeling sad listening to it. Not homesick, but a different strange kind of nostalgia. As if it were someone I’m supposed to know well, but have difficulty relating to. A lost opportunity of a good friend.

With an Irish father and an Italian/English mother , growing up in the suburbs of Dublin, I was never immersed in the traditional Irish culture of GAA, Irish music and folklore, although I’m sure my father tried. We were never a family of céilís, Sundays spent watching hurling, or evenings spent singing old Irish songs in the local pub over a pint of Guinness. With the majority of Summer vacations spent visiting my mother’s family in England and Italy, with roadtrips across mainland Europe, I suppose from a very young age we were being exposed to different cultures. At a time when traveling wasn’t as cheap, easy or as widespread as it is now in Ireland, we were given a special opportunity to see a bit of the world outside of the small island of Eire. And our home in the suburbs of Dublin wasn’t exactly the epicenter of traditional Irish culture.

I first became aware of this “difference” between me and so many of my peers when I started my training in the School of Physiotherapy in UCD. I was one of only a few Dubliners in the class. And probably the least “Irish” of them all. We had party nights where everyone showed up in their home teams’ colours (GAA). I felt like a foreigner. Irish traditional music, although beautiful, doesn’t hit those emotional cords within me that other music does. It’s not “mine”. In a way it’s from a different Ireland, one I don’t know very well. I remember at times in University, with my class mates from all over Ireland, wishing that I too had this connection with the old traditions of my country. The feeling that it was “in my bones”. But it wasn’t there.

As we listened to some of the music on the Comhaltas website, Jeff and I chatted about it. It seems a sad thing not to fully understand or relate to your own country’s traditional culture. For a moment I allowed myself to dwell in that ugly sentiment of self-pity. And yet I feel Irish in my own way, maybe because of the family and friends that will always bring me home there.

But yes, a part of me sometimes wonders where I belong. If not wholly “Irish”, am I Italian?

Assolutamente No.

Is this what happens to everyone born of an immigrant parent (or two). (Sorry Mum that word sounds crude, but now I’m an immigrant too…) A part of them remains confused as to where they belong? My siblings may well disagree completely with me of course. But perhaps that explains why we have now scattered in the wind?A taste for travel. Spread from Thailand/India, Italy/America, England, to Ireland and at times Russia?? And yet I feel like we are still a very close family despite the physical distance between us.

Maybe what I mean is I don’t feel wholly Irish, or Italian, but I do feel like a Smyth.

Can a large family become a nation of its own?

Apr 10

La prima pasqua a Chiavenna

Apr 10

Italian Bureaucracy: The biggest “casino*” I’ve encountered to date…

*Italian lesson 1:
casino [ka ‘sino]
SM 1. mess, racket…
• Cos’è questo casino? what’s this bloody racket/mess?

The funny thing is that everyone laughs about this “casino” as if it’s a funny joke someone made at some stage in the past and forgot to fix. An april fool’s gag that has lasted decades past the deadline. I think the key for us was to expect the worst, which we did, and so far at least, we’ve been able to laugh a little at the silliness of it all with the locals. Without falling on our knees and breaking down in tears. No…it’s not all that bad really.

So here we are in a limbo of sorts. Everything is floating somewhere above us, just out of reach. At least for a couple of months we have an address again. However there’s still that dreaded question that crops up:

“Country of Residency?”
“Eh… (technically nowhere right now, considering my green card for the states ran out in February and I haven’t lived in Ireland for over 3 years)…eh.. Ireland?”

Hopefully if we can manage to sort out doing A before B at the same time as doing B before A we can organize residency here in the near future. And then we’ll be allowed to buy a car  🙂 and be officially accurate when we say we live in Italy. Which of course is the only reason we’ve made this whole crazy move, because it just sounds dead cool…

“Eh yeah, we live in Italy now… don’t you know my grandparents were Italian?”

All jokes aside, we are both so glad we went traveling before beginning this adventure in Italy. It has given us enough perspective, and time out of the wonderful Blacksburg bubble, to be able to cope a little better when thrown into orbit. We are also falling deeply in love with Chiavenna, our new home town, and the beautiful mountains that surround it. Our cutsy modern apartment in a gorgeous 500 year old building with a view over the higgledy-piggledy tiled-rooves of old Chiavenna. The fact that there is a panificio (bread shop) 10 metres from our building. And bars with l’aperitivo (a drink and some tasty snacks) every evening before dinner, where the locals gather. And pizzerias like you only find in Italy. The pleasure of buying parmesan cheese by the kilo. Being able to walk 5 minutes from our apartment and find ourselves at the base of a trail that shoots up into the mountains for a vertical km (literally). The wonderful delight in looking up from the main street and seeing snowy mountains surrounding us.

And then there’s the people. The ladies in the Post office who have spent hours with us (and I mean literally hours), trying to help us sort out our lives here. The sweet girl at the tourist office who always has a smile for us. The women at the Comune (townhall) who handed me the name and date of birth of another Irish girl who lives 5 mins walk away, even though I’m sure that’s confidential information. Our landlord who is allowing us stay 2 or 3 months in his rental apartment instead of the 2 weeks we booked, with a slight increase in price from €350 for 2 weeks to €400/month, all inclusive.

But reading about it just doesn’t do it justice…

La nostra casa. We’re open for visitors.

Mar 10

A few photos

Just a few photos of where we’ve been for the last few weeks…

Il Duomo


The Car

Bean on Board

Our lovely host Vanessa made this sign for us! The name is spreading… oh dear.


3rd anniversary dinner in “our” little apartment (B & B apartment)

Mar 10

This is your brain on…italian?!

To say that the last few weeks have flown by would be an exaggeration and an understatement at the same time. An exaggeration because at times I have been so tired that time seemed to creep by, dragging along just to mock my exhaustion. An understatement because here I am, writing this from the kitchen table in our temporary apartment here in Chiavenna, our new home.

Learning a new language is about the hardest work one can do, and it’s a job which does funny things to the mind. They say that when you learn a new language the brain compartmentalizes it so as to maintain two completely different ways of expressing itself verbally. This concept is wonderful on paper, “Oh sweet, I won’t loose english when I learn italian.”; but in reality, the initial stages of learning said new language are so exhausting for my feeble brain that each evening I am rendered completely useless in either language. My brain has just plain given up on doing the switch – usually stuck in the airlock between the two compartments – and I’m left with the ability to remember only a few small details of each days lessons in italian (a depressing realization to have to replay each evening) and none of the things that I wanted to do with my life in english (also a tad depressing).

During the day isn’t much better. Basic information becomes nearly impossible to maintain: Names of new friends, places where we eat, how to get back to Vanessa’s house, where we’re staying, on the bus, the simple schedule of our lives at the moment. All the little things that your brain handles behind the scenes for you on a day to day basis have become bits of paper swirling around in the wind.

But each day becomes a little easier, each conversation goes a little smoother. I may not remember learning about the differences between imperfect and present perfect but I am sure using them both quite a lot more now. At least some of the information pouring forth from the fire-hose must be landing in the small tupperware box in my brain that’s labeled italian. There is hope.

Mar 10

Iniziato di Nuovo

My knee feels like it’s on fire, but I know we’re not supposed to move for at least another 40 minutes. My eyes are closed so I can’t see my watch to check. My back is aching from holding me upright and still for so long. And now I’m so busy panicking about the pain (which incidentally is getting worse…) that I can’t concentrate an ounce of my attention on the meditation technique. Eh, whose idea was this??

Matthew, my big brother. He has done a few of these Vipassana meditation courses over the years and recommended it to us. Fortunately, by the end of the course we were thanking him. Ten days: Rising at 4 am, retiring at 9.30pm, with 10.5 hours of meditation each day, sitting still with eyes closed. No talking or communication of any kind allowed, including eye contact. Men and women are kept totally separate. You are to feel alone with your thoughts and sensations. At one of my weaker moments of meditation I was calculating the percentage of the day spent with eyes closed. The number escapes me now…

The idea of this technique of meditation is to learn to become more aware of the sensations in your body as they occur, moment to moment. With an emphasis on the fact that everything in this world is impermanent, everything will change sooner or later, for better or for worse. With this, one can learn to reduce (or ultimately eliminate) their reaction to their sensations. The belief is that it is our exaggerated reactions to our sensations that cause us sadness or distress not the actual stimulus. A simple example: Someone treats you badly causing a negative sensation in your body. You react with anger or sadness, which multiplies and prolongs the negative sensation inside of you. The person who initially hurt you may have gone but you continue to stew and multiply the negative feelings inside. With this technique you can learn to become aware of these sensations as they arise and how to control your response to them. To observe the sensation objectively without reaction. To understand that like everything in the world this sensation too will change, sooner or later. If you let it.

By our last few days we had both learnt to remain still for at least an hour in meditation. In my experience, pain and discomfort still arose but if I succeeded in merely observing it objectively, like a scientist or researcher of sorts, instead of reacting to it, the pain would run it’s course, fade and often disappear. It was amazing to experience, on a very personal level, the mind:body interaction. Concepts which I have been teaching my patients for the past few years, I was now experiencing in real-time high definition. As the days passed I continued my personal science experiment, each day discovering a little more about the power of the mind.

At times I definitely felt like I was going crazy and it seemed like one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done, but I can already notice the sweet haze of retrospection covering over the darker moments in my mind. Ultimately, it was a very special and unique experience for us. One which we each explored alone, as individuals, in our own personal way. A bizarre way to start our move to a new country but I think a necessary one.

And now here we are in Milano trying to put into practise some of what we learnt while we make our way through language school and living through a foreign language. We have been greeted with open arms and real Italian warmth and generosity by many, but especially by our new friend (and host!) Vanessa, the Pradella family and of course Marina and Gianca our old friends from Blacksburg, who are “neighbours” to us again but now on this side of the ocean.

Grazie 🙂

La vita è bella.

Feb 10

Up and atom

So tomorrow we move to Italy. Hmm. How does that make me feel? Absolutely terrified.

Reality hit about mid last week and all of a sudden I became aware of a strangely familiar uncomfortable feeling growing in my stomach. Like someone you disliked in school and haven’t seen in a long time. I’d actually forgotten what it feels like to be anxious and stressed. Seriously. Our bodies have this amazing ability to forget negative sensations, like pain. You remember the idea of them of course, but I would venture to say that actually feeling the memory of the sensation is impossible. Enough of this. I’ll stop being a chicken. Up and at them.

We have just had one of those wonderful weeks, filled wih family and friends, that makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside. To all of you who have been a part of it, thank you. We have missed you all dearly, and will do again when we find ourselves suddenly gone from here. Each of you are special and precious to us. With all your warm welcomes this week, we have felt like the luckiest people alive.

We will be keeping this blog up and running while we make the move to Italy. It has been a lovely way to keep those that care in the loop, and for us to pause and think about where we are and what we are doing. But a blog is nothing if nobody ever reads it, so thanks to those who have been following along with our journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed the ride so far. 🙂