Sometimes, when I tell people we live in Italy, I can see what they're thinking. The beautiful people, the beautiful food, the beautiful landscape, the beautiful art, the beautiful weather, the beauty. And there is a lot of that. In fact, plenty.
And then there are the things that would be banal and not even worth mentioning if we weren't living in a country that's new to us. But we are, and they become adventures containing moments of both unexpected pleasure and almost quietly humiliating discomfort.
For example, the other day I took the kids for the first swimming lesson at the local pool. Before I went, I braced myself. I've taken the kids to lots of swimming lessons in Finland and Australia, and visited the local pools with them here, but I knew that this would be different in ways that I couldn't predict.
And so it was.
Turns out that there is a rule to take off your shoes before you enter the changing rooms. I was wearing tights and boots. I looked around and saw that most people had brought pairs of flip flops. I hadn't. I saw a few wearing plastic shoe covers, but couldn't see where to get them from. Oh well, I thought grimly, there's nothing for it. I'm going to have to walk around in my socks on the wet changing room floor. I could just imagine what the other mothers would think (and knew that there would be plenty of looking and thinking about the strange foreigner), but there was nothing for it, so off came the boots, and in we went. Warm wet socks? Nice.
The next surprise was once my daughter had changed, we walked out of the changing room towards the pool. I expected to walk her to the poolside, but instead saw that I had to leave her with one of the teachers, who would take all the kids to the pool together.
OK. That's fine. Different, but fine.
Then the parents retreated upstairs to the viewing area. There is a big pool in front, where the older kids swim, and a smaller one to the side for the little kids, half hidden around the corner. The viewing area is quite high, like a stadium. I could see one of my kids, far in the distance. I waved, and after a while she could pick out my face from the crowd and waved back. A little dot in the distance, in red togs and a blue cap. I couldn't spot my other child, as he was in the part of the pool around the corner.
I said to the other parents: but I can't see them in that pool. Is there a way to see them?
Oh no, they said, it's hidden on purpose. It's for reasons of discipline. It's because the kids will cry if the parents are close. And the parents will interfere too much in the lesson.
After a while, once I had fully absorbed this, I described how in Australia, you can sit right by the edge of the pool and watch.
"Aa, bello," they said.