Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Domestic chaos

The current chaos of my domestic environment can not be exaggerated. The project to sister-in-law proof my house is well under way. That's a good thing, right? Yes, except I ordered a new bed for myself and Jon, with the plan to give my old bed to my daughters, and in anticipation of that, and since they were painting their bedroom anyway, I took down their horrible old bunk bed, which is now stacked in the grass on the side of the house until such time as I schedule a large trash pick-up, which ordinarily I would do immediately, only the mattress situation is complicated and I want to wait until I know for sure how many mattresses, if any, we will be throwing away and in order to know that I need my new bed, for which I've been waiting for over two weeks, and also possibly to drive to Ikea and buy a new bunk bed for the boys.

So the girls are sleeping on two twin futon mattresses that are on the floor of their room, which isn't all that chaotic except that our house has become overrun with fleas and the exterminator is coming tomorrow which means we have to take everything up off all the floors of the entire house. Not only that, I've been painting the living room, because of the sister-in-law visit, so a lot of stuff that ordinarily wouldn't be on the floor is on the floor, such as all the books from the bookcase. When you consider that I have pretty much devoted my life to having a minimum of possessions, there is a lot of stuff on our floors. I tend to shove things in the tiny space between furniture and walls and I'm finding all sorts of things--bits of woodwork trim, a flag pole, an exercise mat, roles of wrapping paper, a sawzall, and many other things that need to be stacked somewhere off the floor, not to mention the smaller pieces of furniture like chairs and the printer stand.

Then there's the whole issue of what to do during the de-fleaing, because we, and our pets, have to be out of the house for three hours. And the new bed, which I was assured would come either today or tomorrow, will most certainly come tomorrow, since it's already 3:10pm and I haven't seen it, and you have to admit that a major furniture delivery in the middle of a flea bombing is not the best timing.

Possibly most problematic of all is what to do with the bunny while we are out of the house. The dogs, at least can stay in the yard, although they will certainly bark at the mailman and attack the exterminator's truck, and possibly frighten the bed delivery people. But wherever we go, we have to take the bunny with us, although we do not have a suitable carrier. I imagine spending the three hours posing the bunny in improbable spots, like propped up at a laptop in a coffee shop, but Jon will probably want to do something boring like shop for mattresses. And anyway, George would probably not be welcome in coffee shops, due to the fact that he isn't exactly house trained. He does use a litter box, but you can't walk into a coffee shop, or any public place, with a bunny in one arm and his litter box in the other. My brother suggested we set up a pat the bunny stand in the park, but I don't think George would like that very much.

For those of you who are not my friends on facebook (and if not, why not?) I can announce that I passed the NCLEX exam and am now a registered nurse in the state of Virginia. My nursing license arrived in the mail yesterday, although I found out I passed a few days earlier, online. Now I have to find a job, although I seem to be suffering from inertia as far as job-hunting goes. I don't think I can handle a round of interviews and rejections in an ever widening circle of rural hospitals--at least that is how I picture the job hunt going.

Monday, July 20, 2009

How to strip paint: a primer for the responsible homeowner

Stripping paint is one of those experiences, like childbirth, that is so traumatic that once it's over, you develop amnesia. For that reason and my perpetual desire to be of assistance to my fellow humans, I am recording a step-by-step manual so that no one need ever begin this procedure unprepared.

1. Receive call from your sister-in-law--the one who has never been to your house, but whose only comment, when she saw a picture of it was, "So that's your house, huh," in the same tone that might be used to discuss a clogged toilet or a dead animal in the road. She is coming for a weekend visit six weeks hence.

2. Realize that of all your house's imperfections, the most glaring might be the half-stripped living room windows, a project you began and then abandoned a full year ago.

3. Because you are that paragon of American good citizenship and rectitude, the responsible homeowner, you protect the floor with canvas drop cloth and wonder why it is you used newspapers last year.

4. Apply stripper to window woodwork with a brush. Be prepared for large gobs of it to be flung about the room, entirely missing your carefully placed drop cloth.

5. Carefully cut pieces of specially patented stripper paper to cover your handiwork. You will need to be creative because the Peel-away people never send enough paper to last with an entire bucket of stripper, so you have to order more, but then you will have extra paper and will have to order more stripper, and never, never do you end up covering your last drop of stripper with your last bit of paper.

6. Go about your usual business for twenty-four hours.

7. Examine your woodwork and discover that the paint is now agreeably ruffled--not unlike those ruffled diaper covers that parents like to put on their female babies. You can't wait to start peeling.

8. Pull back the patented Peel-away paper. In theory, the paint will adhere to it and all the paint will come off in one easy-to-dispose-of strip. In reality, some of the paint will adhere to the paper, but much of it--now converted to oily, slippery, yet sticky bits--will fall to the floor. Aren't you glad you laid down a drop cloth?

9. Look down and observe that your dog has decided that now would be a good time to lie at your feet and take a nap and that you have decorated her fur with a fiesta of sticky-yet-oily paint bits. While you area gazing at her with mild dismay and wondering what to do, she will get up and wander away, giving herself an extravagant shake as she does so, and all the sticky, oily paint bits go SPROING! and fling themselves to the far corners of the living room.

10. Continue to scrape at the paint and realize that the reason your window trim looks distorted is not because of multiple layers of paint but because some previous owner broke the trim at the corner and stuck it back together with wood putty. Your house has had 187 previous owners and each of them left his mark somewhere.

11. Realize that the reason you used newspaper to protect the floor last year rather than a canvas drop cloth is that you can roll up the newspaper and throw it away whereas you will now have to clean all the paint bits off your drop cloth.

12. Attempt to shake the oily, sticky paint bits into the garbage can. Pretend you don't see a good portion of them dropping into the no-mans land between your driveway and your neighbor's property.

Other than a fire, I can think of nothing that causes more localized destruction than a do-it-yourself paint stripping job.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Rome X: The journey home

Why does travel always make me feel so dirty? Is it the public restrooms? The carefully selected "traveling outfit" that gets impossibly rumpled five minutes after I leave the house? All I know is, we hadn't even taken off from Fiumicino in Rome and I already felt like I hadn't showered in two days. Oh, but maybe that's because I hadn't showered in two days. And had thrown my toothbrush in the trash, since I suspected our plumber of unwittingly spraying it with toilet water.

The good news is that Mad Scientist stopped puking long before it was time to go and none of the other kids took up the practice. We sat, with our bags packed, awaiting our cab. The landlady stopped by to embrace us all. "Prossimo anno," (next year) our new Italian acquaintances in the neighborhood said to us. Mr. McP ran down to our favorite bar to say arrividerci to my hottie cafe man, who gave him a bottle of juice and a pastry. I took a last walk around the Piazza di Santa Maria.

The taxi actually arrived early and delivered us at the airport in plenty of time. Once we got through the bag drop and security--which was chaotic, why oh why can't there be a system, or at least some understanding, for large families at airport security?--it was time to find some breakfast. Fiumicino has numerous shops where one can buy quality handbags, paper products and other duty-free items. There is, however, just one cafe. There was no one shopping for Gucci bags at 9:00am, but there were about 5,000 people in the cafe, all clamoring for coffee in ten different languages. This being Italy, there was no orderly queue, just people milling about, waving Euros. With the help of Mr. McP and Mad Scientist, I eventually succeeded in obtaining three cappuccinos and six chocolate pastries to go. We hadn't even boarded the plane and I felt like we'd been traveling for days.

The flights were uneventful, and I'll just take a moment to say that British Airways is an excellent airline. My flight requirements are basic: I want to arrive without dying or disfiguring burns, and don't want to be treated like a beast by the crew. British Airways succeeds admirably on both counts and is, I believe, one of the last airlines to offer free alcoholic beverages to coach passengers. They make a decent cup of tea, too.

We had a layover at Heathrow, which is clean, quiet, and oddly empty of people. Every few minutes, a recorded announcement reminded us that "unattended baggage will be removed and destroyed." We bought some snacks at Boots and were childishly amused at the pounds and pence we got as change for our Euros. Jon talked me into going with him to the bar, and I wondered wildly if unattended children would be removed and destroyed. They weren't.

Soon after we took off from London, our individual TV screens lit up with a "Welcome to America" film. It was so delightfully cheesy, so American. First came a quick montage of the glories of the United States: Mount Rushmore, professional football, amber waves of grain, accompanied by the sort of sanitized-all-instrumental-lite-pop music you hear in locally-produced TV commercials that air during the 11:00 PM news. Then we were all introduced to the Byzantine world of US customs and immigration. "If you have a VISA or a green card, please fill in the white, W289 form. If you don't have a VISA or a green card, please fill in the green W128 form. If you have something else altogether, fill in the blue W78 form. If you are a US or Canadian citizen, please disregard all instructions. Failure to fill out these forms correctly will lead delays at your destination and to the possible sale of your first born child into slavery." God Bless America!

It turned out that the customs people at the Philadelphia airport were really nice, which was a surprise, because my main experience with US Customs is at the US/Canadian border in Buffalo, where the US customs officers are THE biggest assholes in the known universe.

By the time we'd collected our bags, cleared customs, caught a shuttle to the distant "economy" parking lot, and found the car, it was well after 9:00pm. We were exhausted, but our dog-and-bunny sitter would be leaving this evening so we had to get home. Philly to Charlottesville isn't all that far, really. Except when you've been awake for God-knows how long, and it's dark, and you miss an exit in Washington DC (the SAME exit 495/I66) we missed on the way to Philadelphia) and then the engine light comes on in your car, oddly, in the very same spot where your car had been acting strangely on the outward journey, and also at the spot where you miss your exit and are temporarily lost in suburban Washington at midnight. I think I will draw the big, black curtain of forgetfulness over that drive, although I won't soon forget the guy who hit on me in the gas station outside Washington at 1:00am. Suffice it to say, we got home and collapsed into our beds and didn't stir until the middle of the next day.

I am grateful for the safe return home, and all our possessions made it intact, except, mysteriously, my contact lenses--last seen in security at Heathrow. I picture them, sitting innocently in a bomb-proof box and then incinerated into nothingness. It's just as well, I have no idea what microscopic horror the plumbers sprayed on the case while we were out and I was probably going to throw them out anyway.

Oh, and a few days later, when I took my car to the shop to find out why the engine light came on, the reason turned out to be that the catalytic converter is "funtioning at less than optimal efficiency." Not broken, you understand, just FUNCTIONING at less than optimal efficiency.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Rome IX: Bernini and plumbers

Our last real day in Rome. It really sucks that it was marred with plumbing problems, but that’s the way it was, and we dealt with it. I discovered that my favorite bar—Italians eat breakfast in bars; you order a coffee and a pastry and eat it standing up, or if you’re feeling extravagant, you sit at a table, but pay a bit more—had free wireless. The guy who works at this café is really, really nice, and, I must admit, something of a hottie. He would sometimes give me free drinks and between his limited English and my terrible Italian, we could chat. He told me that Michael Jackson died, which was the first news I’d had out of the States. He assumed I was from Los Angeles, and had never heard of Virginia. I told him we lived near Washington, DC, which I guess is true from a global perspective. I noticed his tee-shirt had “Lynchburg” printed across the front, but my Italian was not equal to pointing out that he was wearing the name of a city in my state, which he’d never heard of. I stayed at the café for ages, drinking two cappuccinos, and then the café guy made me a special farewell drink, a chocolate iced coffee, served in a martini glass.

The day before, I had noticed a barber shop near our Laundromat and got the idea of taking Seamus for a haircut, an idea he enthusiastically approved of. I memorized the Italian for “A haircut please” and off we went. The barber considered Seamus's hair carefully, running his hand through it and watching how it lay and where the cowlicks were. I have always taken Seamus to the Belmont Barber Shop and asked for a “regular” haircut, which is a wham-bam, thank you ma’am affair with rapid and liberal use of electric clippers. Seamus has been loudly and insistently displeased with these haircuts, ever since he has been old enough to care about his looks. In Rome, he looked like he had a haystack on his head, but by the time the Roman barber had finished with him, he looked like he was being sent off to Eton and not Walker Upper Elementary.

Seamus, post-haircut

We spent much of the rest of the day in restaurants—because restaurants have toilets. Our plumbing problems were manifestly not fixed.

We had an Italian phrase book with us that boasts that it covers “every travel related situation.” Indeed, it is quite adequate if you wish to say, “I am studying the Slavic languages,” or “Would you please put the film in the camera for me?” or “I’d like to send an urgent telegram. How much do ten words cost?” If, while in Italy, you need to have a boil lanced, this book will help you. It provides the vocabulary necessary for hooking up with someone special you might meet: “Make love” and dealing with the consequences: “Vaginal discharge.” Regrettably, there was nothing to help us say, “Every time we flush the toilet, water backs up into the kitchen sink.” Which is odd, because I thought Americans were famous for having issues with European toileting facilities. (The book also wouldn't go amiss to include, in its next edition, the Italian for, “My son locked himself in your bathroom.”)
Since the language barrier was a real problem in dealing with the plumbers, Jon drew a clever picture diagnosing what he thought was the problem—a clog in the main drain leading out of the house. I’m sure Jon’s diagnosis is correct, but the plumbers thought otherwise and spent hours pouring chemicals down the drains and at one point extracted something that looked like a grey wig.

We left the house key with Rosella and went out. Why should we spend the last day of our vacation sitting around with plumbers? Jon went to the Scholar’s Lounge, an Irish-owned pub, and I took the kids on a guided walk described in one of my guidebooks. It was a tour of Bernini’s Rome, and we took the metro to the furthest spot on the route and walked our way toward home.

As is often the case with the Roman metro and bus stops, we were let off at a busy traffic circle, with about ten streets leading from it, and no way to tell which street was the one we wanted. In Rome, the names of streets are carved into marble tablets and placed on the walls of buildings at the corners, and it is impossible to read them unless you are standing right underneath. We made a few false starts down wrong streets, but finally got on our way. The first stop was Santa Maria della Vittoria which contains Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of St. Theresa (1646). Then we walked to the Piazza Barberini and looked at Triton’s fountain, and then up a hill to an intersection with a fountain at each corner. We popped into a tiny church, San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane (St. Carlo of the four fountains) which is exquisite because of its tininess and oval dome. It was built by Bernini’s rival, Borromini.

Bernini's Ecstasy of St. Theresa

San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane

Inside San Carlo
Oval dome of San Carlo's
Oval dome of San Carlo
The next stop was one of Bernini’s best churches, Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, but alas, alas, we could not get in because our shoulders were uncovered. Of course we know that you are supposed to have your knees and shoulders covered when in a church, but this rule is constantly disregarded. We saw tank tops and shorts in churches everywhere, except St. Peter’s, where they are strict. But on this day, we’d forgotten our sweaters, which did not raise any eyebrows in the first two churches we saw, but at Sant’ Andrea, a man told us, very nicely, that we could not enter. There was nothing to do but leave and hope that we’ll return to Rome some day and see it then.

We walked past the president of Italy’s house and down into a maze of tiny streets that led to the Trevi fountain, and then on to the Pantheon, with a detour to the Piazza della Minerva so we could see Bernini’s elephant obelisk. Behind the obelisk is a square white building, something like the back end of a bus terminal. Imagine our surprise in discovering it is the only gothic church in Rome. I’ve never seen a building with a greater disparity between the interior and exterior. We also passed Santa Maria in Via, a church I really wanted to see because it has a holy well, where a miracle was said to have happened in the 13th century, but they were in the middle of mass, so we didn’t go inside. I couldn’t even get a decent picture of the outside, due to the clutter of newsstands and gelato carts in front of it.

Palazzo Quirinale--I think the president lives here

Alley near the Trevi Fountain

Santa Maria in Via

Bernini's elephant obelisk with Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in background

Inside Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
Back home, we discovered that the World’s Messiest Plumbers had finished up for the day. There was water everywhere: on the dining room table, the kitchen counter located farthest from the sink, the freaking fireplace mantle for crying out loud. My flight itinerary for the next day was soaked, our flight information an indecipherable blur. A loaf of bread sagged, waterlogged, across the top of the microwave. The rosaries we bought at the Vatican, my Italian language CD, our playing cards, were all soaked. Upstairs, the bathroom floor was decorated with assorted puddles and chunks of plaster. There were muddy footprints everywhere. Realizing that there was probably undetectable residue of God-knows-what on everything in the bathroom, I threw our toothbrushes away.

We decided we deserved a treat, and ate dinner at the fanciest restaurant in the piazza and drank a lot of wine. And helped ourselves to its bathrooms. I dragged Jon to our favorite bar and made him order a beer so that I could use their wifi and check in for our flight and reacquaint myself with our flight information. We tried to get to bed early, but didn’t manage until well after midnight. About 3:00am, I was awakened by the sound of loud vomiting, which at first, I thought was coming from the street because there were still many drunk tourists about. But then I realized the sound was coming from inside the house. It was Mad Scientist, doing his utmost to tax our frail plumbing to the point of total failure. It was just as well. If our last night had been one of perfect bliss, I would have had a hard time leaving. As things were, I felt really, really, ready to be reunited with American plumbing.
Jon, saying goodbye to our landlady, and one of the neighbors

Rosella grabbed Jon's ass as I took this picture. 

Jon with Bruno and Cosimo, our parking lot friends.

Thursday, July 02, 2009


The flooding of the day before made it a bit depressing to wake up. We faced the prospect of telling our landlady, who speaks no English, and I was afraid she’d be angry with us. I took a cautious shower, turning the water on only to rinse, and a little water was on the kitchen floor when I was done. It seemed to be oozing under the walls, which was disconcerting. I noticed that whenever I used the kitchen sink, water more water would leak out onto the floor.

In our marriage, there is a tacit division of chores. I am the organizer and planner, but dealing with people is Jon’s department. So I left. I took a bus to the Protestant cemetery, which no one else was interested in seeing. The cemetery is extremely beautiful, and has the added attraction of containing the graves of Keats and Shelley, as well as other worthies with whom I am less familiar. I enjoyed being out by myself, and took my time strolling about and taking pictures.

Protestant cemetary

Shelley's tomb
Shelley's tomb

Keat's grave. The inscription reads: This grave contains all that was mortal of a young English Poet who on his deathbed, in the bitterness of his heart at the malicious power of his enemies desired these words to be engraven on his tomb stone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water Feb 24, 1821.

Keats' grave
One of the saddest graves I've seen, I think.

The cemetery also had a bathroom, and I availed myself of it, since I had a vague notion that if our plumbing were allowed to “rest” all would be well.

As was often my problem in Rome, I couldn’t figure out where the bus stop was that would take me in the opposite direction back home. Unlike other cities, the opposite-going bus stops never seem to be located directly across the street from each other. It seems like often they are on entirely different streets. I was also concerned that my ticket had expired—they are good for 75 minutes once you validate them on the first bus you ride on and I had no idea what time it was. So I went to the nearby Metro station and bought a new ticket from a vending machine, and no doubt looked like an idiot, puzzling over the only-in-Italian instructions and which buttons to press, and having difficulty getting the machine to accept my Euro coin. It kept spitting it back at me out of the slot where it would roll to the floor and I'd have to chase it, while all about me other people bought tickets with no problems. Eventually I got a ticket and took the metro to the Colosseum and from there the 87 bus—my old friend—to Largo Argentina, a spot noted for the most ancient ruins in Rome.

It’s a group of three temples, discovered in the 1920s, one of them dating to the 4th century BC. The columns stick up out of a deep, basement-like excavation, while busy traffic passes in all directions. The kids and I had peered down into the excavation a few days before. It is full of stray cats and positively reeks of cat pee on a hot sunny day. It probably reeks on cold, cloudy days too.

Area Sacra, or, the "Stray Cat Temple"
Anyway, this spot is where you can catch the tram back to Trastevere. At home, I learned that Jon had told Rosella about our plumbing problems, and that a plumber had already come and gone, although Jon felt he had not fixed the problem, since he’d insisted it was just a matter of putting new caulk into the shower. Sure enough, the kitchen sink drain began to boil angrily whenever anyone flushed a toilet or used any great amount of water upstairs. We had to get Rosella back again and the plumber returned, with an apprentice, and they cleared a clog in the drain below the kitchen sink. Rosella indicated to me that we should not put food down the kitchen drain and I meekly apologized, although I know better than to do that, and we had not put any food down the drain. I now had a sneaking suspicion that the real problem was that Italian plumbing could not handle the American custom of using liberal amounts of toilet paper.

Anyway, that’s all gross and unpleasant, and we wasted a lot of time waiting around for plumbers. Weary of Italian food, we decided to eat dinner at a Chinese restaurant near our house. They put us at a round table with a glass lazy susan that was imperfectly centered on its base, and Mad Scientist immediately became obsessed with this minor imperfection. We tried lifting it and recentering it, but a plastic disk kept it firmly held in the wrong place. Soon we were all obsessed with the lazy susan, spinning it and watching it nick our wineglasses as the thick end went past, which is just as well because the service was terrible and we had nothing else to do. It was the worst meal we had in Rome, by a factor of about ten-thousand, and the worst Chinese food I’ve ever tasted, indeed, possibly the worst meal I’ve ever eaten, and that includes the night I made baked squash with tofu sauce. Indeed, Drama Queen’s beef was so terrible and un-beeflike, that I privately wondered if the restaurant’s source for “beef” was the stray cat temple at Largo Argentina, and later Jon voiced the same concern. She took one bite and left the remainder untouched. I tasted it too, and wished I hadn’t. A gross and unpleasant end to a gross and unpleasant day, although we treated ourselves to a new gelato place that had many interesting flavors, and that made things better.