What I Learned Living in Italy without Internet

lake como italy 1From May till September of this year, my small family lived on Lake Como in Northern Italy, where my husband worked at a water-sports center for the summer season.

The tiny apartment we were blessed to call home for those few months was charming in an old-fashioned way. It was a bright yellow centuries-old flat, on the corner of a narrow cobblestone street, so close to my neighbor’s window that not only could they see our underwear hanging out to dry; we could also hear their every whisper, laugh and (all too often) shouting marital disputes at 3am.

living in italy houseWe, like any normal people, wanted to buy a super-fast wifi connection for our temporary home. But in order to do that, we would have to sign a whole year’s lease. Knowing we weren’t going to stay in the country that long, we opted to not have it. (When we finally purchased a plug-in Internet device, it was so slow that it was worse than having none.)

This made for daily trips to the wifi-friendly Bar Pace café across the street, where we sipped creamy cappuccino, ate fresh, fluffy croissants, and checked our emails for half an hour.

Weekends on the lake got a little more active, with parachuters dropping down from the Alpine slopes, kitesurfers plowing through the rippled waters, sailboats in regattas, and dozens of sunbathers enjoying summer.

living in italy juneBut most of the time, life in Como was mostly uneventful; night-life was non-existent.

And after those slow-paced months, the realization hit me:

I didn’t miss not having Internet.

I didn’t miss not being “socially” connected.

I didn’t even miss texting!

I had a Twitter account, and a Facebook Page, and even a LinkedIn, yet never felt the urge to check my friends’ updates—never knew what was going on in half a thousand other people’s lives.

Here’s what I did do: life in italy beach

Ate chocolate gelato every day

Swam every day with my son

Read more books

Saw more sunsets

Did a lot of people-watching

Did a lot of listening

Went running every morning

Used my telephone only to book occasional dinners at restaurants, doctor appointments, and reach my husbandGera Lario painted by Nyx Martinez

Painted more 

Drank lots of prosecco and vino rosso with girlfriends, without distractions

Read more stories to my son

Fed swans and ducks every day

Watched Futurama episodes as a family on our laptop, every night

Learned a little Italian (“Bambini! Attentione! Macchina!”)

Got off my butt to exercise and lost 16 lbs

 

For those few months, I also did more dishes, laundry and house chores than I’ve ever done in my short history of being married and being a mom. It was exhausting, since I also spent every moment with my son. life in italy gravedonna

I spent every moment with my son.

And my husband, when he came home from work, did, too.

Today, I’m reminding myself of what life was like without an Internet connection there in Italy, because in a day or so, my world will change.

I’m buying a Smartphone.

Because of new changes, lifestyle moves, new work, travel and just plain Real Life, I’m getting back to being universally connected. I don’t want to be unrealistic about new business start-ups, career and family, and it’s essential that I strive for a balance (Main point: STRIVE.).

Yes, I’ll suddenly be ever-present in the online world, able to see all my updates and send out messages on the fly.

But I don’t ever want to forget the sweet life, the real Dolce Vita.

And that was, dear readers, being ever-present for my son, for my husband, and for myself—without distractions of modern living.

It was being able to hear myself think.

It was being able to hear both of my boys laugh, play, and even snore.

It was being able to silently pray, without static.

I’m making this note today so that maybe, even when Amazon delivers my brand new gadget, I can still find a balance-point–somewhere in-between real life, and the sweet life.

Maybe I can keep in mind what really matters.

life in italy lake comoIf you have helpful tips on parenting while still being realistic about other obligations, work, etc, I’d love to hear from you 🙂

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Olympic Gold For Uganda!

Global triumph. National Pride. Euphoria.

Uganda has so much to celebrate—finally!

My son Karsten has been engrossed in every Olympic game, calling out the name of each sport as he watches it on television, cheering for the names he knew (like a German runner also named Karsten) and applauding those who took home medals.

During the men’s marathon final, we watched together as Ugandan athlete Stephen Kiprotich ran all the way to the finish line, never quitting or tiring all. Sweet victory!

I remembered how, when I lived in Kampala nine years ago, we would sometimes make relief trips to remote mountain regions in the North border. Those were some of the best, most memorable journeys ever—but definitely not the most comfortable! We’d usually be roughing it with no running water or toilets, and travelling for a week meant bringing that much in food and drink rations.

On one unforgettable occasion, our truck ran out of gas. With no phone signal in the bush, there was no way of calling for help. Some of the locals were riding with us, and one of them volunteered to RUN all the way back to the nearest gas station (we hadn’t seen anything resembling a town or city for hours).

And, run he did!

While the rest of the team waited under the shade of an acacia tree, that Ugandan ran for hours, and a long time later, he was back—with another truck delivering the diesel.

So, while I was ecstatic for Uganda’s Olympic win, I wasn’t completely surprised. They are an amazing people, who have endured untold hardships. In the face of adversity, poverty and war, many keep going. They may struggle, but their spirits survive.

The whole nation is now experiencing a historic moment of sweet victory, which they truly deserve. A race well run!

(Uganda was my home for 3 and a half years, and I really did leave my heart there. Here’s pictures of the dusty road trails, the tribes, and a Rotary meeting where I was guest speaker.)

Tears on the Lake

A few weeks ago, this paradise we call our home for now, turned into the picture of horror. Two rescue helicopters, several ambulances and many rescue workers scurried around the harbor, while we could only guess what had happened.

The news spread quickly: a young boy had disappeared.

The search operation continued until early morning, and resumed the next day. I didn’t realize it had gone on so late, till Karsten and I took a walk to the far side of beach where we love to go, where a little waterfall runs down into a river, and swans bathe below. It usually looks this serene, and I shot this photograph just the day before:

They hadn’t given up their search, and a little crowd of onlookers had gathered at the now cordoned-off bank. The silence was foreboding. It seemed like no one breathed, as men worked silently from a boat, still scanning the shore. I led Karsten away just as the worst sound ever—the mother’s final cry—pierced the silent, eerie air. And I knew then that the search was over.

I’ll never forget that sound…a parent’s grief; desperation; hope lost.

How do you live after sudden tragedy? How do you go on without your greatest love? It’s hard to imagine how people cope after disasters, tragedies, or immense loss.

The next week, a sense of sadness hung in the air, but my spirits were lifted a little when I continued to meet the people who had come to the lake to celebrate life—to continue journeying on.

I met a Dutch mother whose first child, a sweet blonde boy, had Down’s Syndrome. She had two more kids afterwards, and, “would love a fourth!” she exclaimed. As she tended to her little ones, with the strength that only a mother knows, she bore a certain aura of happiness, one that I am sure comes from living with that much love.

I met a pregnant woman, about to give birth for the third time. She and her other two children, had travelled from China, where they lived, to visit her parents here. She told me about growing up on Lake Como; about life as it once was; about good memories.

I met—and continue to meet—fascinating people in this place. They come and go, spending their holidays on the lake and never wanting to leave. But when they do, it reminds me too, that all good things must come to an end.

We are also nearing the end of our time here—one more month, and then it may be on to a new place, somewhere else to call home. Summer took forever to come, and now it is sailing by fast.

I haven’t blogged in quite a few weeks, because of some personal changes that come with many emotions, thoughts that are sometimes better left un-penned. But I will write this:

Where there is life, there is always hope. After the tears come to wash our spirits and soothe our hearts, the road may be bittersweet, but it’s always worth the journey.

Smile, though your heart is aching

Smile, even though it’s breaking

When there are clouds

In the sky

You’ll get by

If you smile

Through your pain and sorrow

Smile

And maybe, tomorrow

You’ll see the sun come shining through

For you.

–Charlie Chaplain

Happiness and the Dalai Lama

Whenever I picture the Dalai Lama, I think of him smiling. Perhaps because, in most of his published photographs, he usually is.

His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, or the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet, visited Milan last week (a two-hour drive from where we live), and was shown around the cathedral.

Having grown up in Buddhist Bangkok, I learned that their teachings focus on acceptance and tolerance, peace and the finding of contentment in one’s soul through a gentle way of life and a balanced mind.

But I would like to know what words were exchanged between the Catholic priests and the Dalai Lama, who learned more from who, where they found common ground in their religions or spiritual teachings. Wouldn’t it be interesting to have a one-on-one conversation with the effortlessly-cheerful teacher?

On compassion in life, and our basic need to love and be loved, the Dalai Lama has this to say:

“I believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I don’t know whether the universe, with its countless galaxies, stars and planets, has a deeper meaning or not, but at the very least, it is clear that we humans who live on this earth face the task of making a happy life for ourselves. 

From my own limited experience I have found that the greatest degree of inner tranquility comes from the development of love and compassion. The more we care for the happiness of others, the greater our own sense of well-being becomes.

The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another.

No matter how new the face or how different the dress and behavior, there is no significant division between us and other people. It is foolish to dwell on external differences, because our basic natures are the same.

I believe that at every level of society – familial, tribal, national and international – the key to a happier and more successful world is the growth of compassion. We do not need to become religious, nor do we need to believe in an ideology. All that is necessary is for each of us to develop our good human qualities.”

(Excerpts from “Compassion and the Individual”, courtesy of www.dalailama.com)

Here is a picture of my son, happy with a new-found friend at the airport, sharing a listen on her Ipod. Kids always have a way of making us smile as they make new friends, maybe because they aren’t judgmental, and it’s this kind of childish happiness we could all use a little more of.

Life on Lake Como

It’s been just about two weeks now that we have settled in our new home. And I have loved every minute of it. We live in the northern tip of Como, in a small town. It’s tiny, but full of life—especially in the Summer, when everyone flocks to the lakefront for watersports.

In the mornings, I jog by the edge of the lake, taking in the quietness, and being awed by the surrounding beauty. Dimensions of deep blue paint surreal mountain peaks in the background, then hues of a violet sky dips back into rippled water.

There are no grocery stores in our town, but every day we buy fresh bread from the bakery, and since we live a couple steps away from the center piazza, we don’t have far to walk. Just across our street are the lake bars, restaurants, pizzerias, and cafes. Cappuccino for mom in the afternoons; gelato for the boy, every day.

During the week that we changed locations, I became quite sick with a few infections, the worst one being in my eyes. I have had to take out my contact lenses for now, a bit blind as I go about my days. But somehow, falling back on this one sense—sight—makes me appreciate everything else even more.

I’ve also spent the last couple of weeks disconnected from my usual world of Internet, social networks and status updates. I have been engaged more in taking long walks, playing with my son in the large playgrounds, and having long, real conversations with new friends over Italian wine.

And I have been finding that it’s great to disconnect—and truly connect with what is at your fingertips—the people who cross your path every day, learning of life that goes around you. As I type this, the church bells toll, kids play in the arched alleyways of our neighborhood.

I can hear life thriving around me. There is the endless chirp of birds, and ducks in the harbor, the wind blowing kites and windsurfers across the lake…the swans with their babies sailing gracefully across the flat waters, enjoying the afternoon sun.

It’s also an amazing place to raise a child. While most of my conversation with the locals consists of a lot of sign language, in Italy, children melt hearts and open doors everywhere.

I find myself enjoying the sweet little pleasures of simple life on the lake, being continually aware that destiny is taking me to amazing places, and all I can do is close my eyes, and be grateful.

What Ignites Your Creativity?

Is it pain? Anger? Love? Fear?

So many emotions can be channeled into works of art, if we CHOOSE to create with our passions–even if those emotions are sad, or painful.

Next time your spirit is down, pick up a pencil and write away. Dip a paintbrush into any color–without thinking, without planning, without “trying” to create. See what happens…

And here’s a fun tip: if you have some wine nearby and are comforting yourself with a drink or two, try instead to create with it!

Wine, unlike normal paint, darkens as it dries, so the effect is always a surprise! I love the end result–here is one of my latest:

“Last Rose” Wine Painting

If you liked this painting, you can own my art as originals or prints by sending me an email or leave a note below. Here’s the link to my Red Bubble Store.

Have a creative Sunday!

Great-Grandfather’s Goldmine

“April 14, 1945. Three times during the war, I was wounded. This one right here, in my arm!” My son’s German Great-Grandfather raised his sleeve to reveal a strong upper-arm, and pointed to where a bullet had pierced through, leaving a deep scar. “Just a few centimeters to the left and it would have pierced my heart.”

“He remembers every date,” my husband whispered, “Incredible.”

This last week, we drove to visit him in a small village an hour away, in a house that is about 100 years old. Generations of families have lived there and raised their children in that home, including the great-grandfather’s wife, Erika.

“I was 25 when we married, and she was pregnant. Is such a thing so bad?” He shook his head sadly, remembering the love of his life, who had stayed by his side all those years, and who had finally passed away the year after our son Karsten was born. Our Grandfather now refused to leave the old house, although he lived alone, and it was harder to tend to the garden than in years past.

Looking around, one could see why his heart was buried here, and wanted to remain. The old house held so many memories, and happy events that told of a time that was. My husband took me around the garden to show me where things once stood, where happy people had picnicked, and played, and lived a simple life to the full. There were the bars of a playground swing that was built for him 30 years ago, and an old shed where the family would have grilled barbecues, when the great-grandmother would cook—and she could always cook up a storm.

“There are two things you learn to do in this house,” my husband had told me during my first visit here in 2009, “Eat. And drink.”

And so it was.

Mornings, noons, and nights, the family gathered around the old dining table, and a feast was spread. I remember how Oma (Grandmother) would set the table and cutlery, and special ceramics, and watch me with eager eyes to make sure that I ate well. “Pass her more butter!” she would say, and I always felt a little guilty for trying to watch my pre-wedding weight.

And Opa (Grandfather) would make sure that I drank. Upon refilling my own wine glass, he would scold my husband. “Be a good gentleman and water your wife!” I always laughed at this, because in German, eingiesen is a way of saying to “fill one’s glass up”. But one can also say, “die Blumen giesen”, when gardening (“water the flowers”).

Those who had known, and lived through hard times, now appreciated the peace. They ate and drank with such relish. They stored the photographs we had mailed them on a special shelf just for memories like these; they knew the value of time, the significance of a life.

Come evenings, the whisky bottle would already be half emptied, and it was during such an night last week, that Opa told us of all his memories. He described them as if they had happened yesterday, his great hands—burly workerman’s hands—showing how it was done.

He had served in the war as a young man, and then became a developer of large-scale coal mining during the Industrial Revolution. He brought us down to the cellar, where all his precious memorabilia and medals were kept.

“Nikki,” he sighed. “One needs a whole day or a few days to tell all of the stories from here, and to explain everything. It’s like a little museum.”

In this little museum hung a few framed pictures of his past—he had been awarded so many times, with such high honors and recognition. There were also displayed miners’ tools—the old–school kind— plus antique lamps, rare precious stones and minerals from Freiburg on display in a little glass case. He sat on the long bench and explained everything in great detail to us.

“Let’s stay just one more day,” we decided, reluctant to leave Opa, who so enjoyed these rare times with his great-grandchild, who could now converse with him.

Every day, he visited the village cemetery nearby, laid new flowers for his wife, raked the path and tended her grave. His name was already embossed on the tombstone, just under hers. Even death would not part this pair of lovers.

That afternoon, I walked to the cornerstone to buy a new bouquet for our visit to the Friedhof (cemetery), and returned with a bundle of deep red roses. As one must always be cautious of with another culture, I wasn’t sure if that particular flower was traditional or offensive. I asked my husband if it was okay, and he in turn asked his grandfather.

“Of course, of course!” Opa smiled, before revealing: “It will be our Golden Anniversary on Saturday.”

I crawled into bed late that night, to join my sleeping son, and my husband stayed an hour longer to listen to Opa’s stories.

“I bet he’s got ten more years of life in him,” he said, when he finally returned to bed, and I was nearly asleep. “I’ve never heard all those stories before. He always said he would save it for another time.”

If Opa does complete another decade, then nearly a century will have passed before his eyes. He would have seen things we can’t even imagine, would have lived a long, and full, and love-filled life. And even if he doesn’t get that many more years, his gold mine of a life would have already been complete. Through two world wars, through love and loss, through health and sickness, through pain and joy, he had made his mark. He had kept his memories.

It’s Saturday today, and I try to picture myself growing old in that way: still strong, quick in mind, determined to work well.

But I can’t.

Life isn’t something you can fast forward and predict how it’s going to be. Life is simply lived minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day—the best we can.

And if the years permit to roll on and bring us volumes of history to share with our next generations, and the generations afterwards, I only hope that those stories will always be worth telling.