Italy: Family, Food, Festivity – Part I

We’ve been home from Italy a few weeks now, getting used to a different grind.

But first, a few reflections of our semester abroad. Assumptions I had before leaving: we’d eat well and we’d see amazing sights. That’s Italy, right? We’d been before—but never quite like this: living in a villa with 33 students, a 4-month-old in tow, the backdrop a cold and wet Tuscan spring.

 

Whether we were hopping a ferry to Capri or simply taking the tram into Florence, each day was “un avventura,” an adventure. Every time we buckled Ariel in her car seat she grew wide-eyed and kicked her feet. She was at ease on the move, even lulled to sleep by the bumpy cobblestones.

The directors, students, and Italian staff at the villa became Ariel’s clan. She thrived on the attention, squealing at the friendly faces she saw each day.

Despite sub-par weather on many of our outdoor excursions, we enjoyed dozens of incredible sites. One of the highlights was our afternoon visit to Pompeii—amid a 90% chance of afternoon showers, the clouds parted just as we finished lunch and purchased two large umbrellas.

I did not realize Pompeii was so huge.

Visiting the city, decimated when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and preserved for centuries under lava and ash, was on my bucket list and technically still is since I want to go back. Plus, although excavations began in 1748, much of the city is still unexcavated. A new discovery was made just days ago.

Just when I thought I’d reached the best day of the trip, the next morning we headed for Capri. An old gentleman with muscular hands said, “C’e’ un po’ di mare oggi” (there’s a little sea today) as he gave a gentle swishing motion with his hand. The expression, I soon learned, was an understatement. But after a little sea-sickness I was fine as we took a cab to Anacapri, the highest part of the island, and worked our way down.

We seemed to have the island to ourselves, as only one more ferry ran that day due to the wind. We visited the villa of San Michele, built on the ruins of one of the villas of the Roman Emperor Tiberius, who left Rome in 26 AD and never returned.

I ate possibly the best seafood I’ve ever had, walked on wooden slats over a church’s hand-painted ceramic tile floor, and bought a pair of handmade sandals by a cobbler in business for over 50 years. Our spirits were light under a brilliant blue sky as a cool, crisp wind ushered us from one beautiful scene to the next.

Next day we were up with the sun to travel to Paestum to see some of the most well-preserved Greek temples in the world (Greece included). They are some of the only temples which visitors are allowed to walk into. The archaeological museum on the grounds was full of pottery, carvings, and artifacts found at the site and was one of my favorites from the trip.

 

We stopped by a buffalo mozzarella farm on the way to our beach-side hotel. We settled in and watched the sun set, then sleepily made it through a delicious dinner (the hotel owner served us broccoli greens and zucchini from his personal garden). Ariel was not thrilled by her little wooden crib, which did not allow her to fully stretch her arms out. After much fuss, we finally got some sleep before our early alarms woke us to pack for the journey home. A couple miles from our hotel we stopped to visit a WWII-era German machine gun post built to ward off American soldiers in Operation Avalanche. We then headed to Naples to the archaeological museum, where Ariel saw her first mummy and a collection of Egyptian statues of women breastfeeding.

We ate a sack lunch waiting for our train, then sped home at 298 km/hr, reaching the villa in time for dinner.

March was a whirlwind. We were either on the go or very, very sick. We missed the trip to Sicily due to all three of us recovering from chest colds, it lingering the worst with Chuck. One of us was always waking up the rest with a coughing fit. I hadn’t slept so little since Ariel was first born, going over two weeks without more than two hours of sleep at a shot.

We had the best caregivers, though—the directors and staff bought or made us food, picked up our prescriptions, and a doctor famous for her work in hematology even made house calls to check on us. April 1st, Easter, marked a shift in the weather, and consequently our health.

Ariel with chocolate Easter egg

Advertisements

Latte e L’arte: Breastfeeding Abroad

View of the Duomo from Palazzo Vecchio

Days before our trip to Italy, a woman in South Dakota was kicked out of a Chick-fil-a for breastfeeding. She knew a state law protected her, and said as much, but it didn’t stop the manager from asking her to leave.

Despite another controversy over a magazine cover of a woman breastfeeding, one can only hope that was an isolated event. But truth be told, my breastfeeding has been an adjustment for friends and family. Everyone has been super supportive, but some can’t help but feel awkward or shy or embarrassed (or something). I get it. I haven’t seen anyone breastfeed since I was little—and it was my mother. Before I started breastfeeding even I wasn’t sure about the appropriate way to act—do you look or not look? Engage or give privacy? Does the response depend on the situation?

Until leaving for Italy, I had mainly breastfed in the comfort of my home (usually my bedroom). I had my special stack of pillows. I didn’t have to think about the logistics of Ariel’s position, the right clothes to wear, time limits, or being discreet.

The biggest anxiety I had about traveling and teaching abroad was breastfeeding. What if we were at a museum and Ariel wanted to nurse? Or at a restaurant? Touring a church? Standing in line outside in the cold?

We’ve been living in a Tuscan villa with 33 students for just over a month. Most days we go into Florence or are traveling. I could write a Dr. Seuss book called Oh, the Places I’ve Breastfed!

The day after arriving, the program director took our group on a walking tour of Scandicci. The day before had been a crisp, sunny 50 degrees and skies an optimistic blue. This day was a soggy 45. Ariel was closed up in the stroller bouncing along contentedly until, naturally, she became hungry. In the café where we sought refuge, not only did people not mind my breastfeeding, but I was praised for it! Strangers struck a balance between encouragement and privacy, and the owners themselves were sure to make me feel welcome.

Since that auspicious start, Ariel has nursed on a bench in front of the Duomo, at restaurants, cafés, the tram to Florence, the train to Rome, in a bookstore, at a pizzeria, and in front of one of my favorite paintings—Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes.

While at the Carlo Bilotti museum to see the exhibition of the sculptor Jago (called “The Modern Michelangelo”), I sat in a room full of de Chiricos nursing Ariel. My former professor and longtime friend accompanied me into the room and encouraged me to take in “l’arte” while I gave Ariel her “latte.”

It struck me in that moment how much a nursing mother needs nourishment, whatever form that may take—encouragement, understanding, inspiration, mobility . . .

Taking care of a baby is not just physically challenging; it is psychologically demanding as well. I love nursing Ariel in the privacy of my bedroom, but I also need to be able to move freely in public spaces without fear of admonishment or giving offense. But this isn’t just about me–it’s about giving my baby what she needs when she needs it, wherever that may be.

Trimming the Tree. . . and Our Book Collection

Last year, after a rodent family bunked up inside the Christmas tree storage bin, our tree rained turds when I opened up the branches. The artificial tree, at nearly 25 years old, had lived a good life, even though the stand had been broken for years and we had to stabilize the tree using a trash can full of rocks.

We had thought we’d be living in the cabin this Christmas, so we didn’t worry about catching any post-Christmas sales on trees. A strand of solar powered lights sounded like a fun and surprisingly affordable way to “spruce” up a thorny Bradford pear in the absence of a good old fir tree.

But as we are still in our old, drafty, much-loved house, and since we needed to purge some books, we decided on a book tree. I didn’t construct it alone–a good friend with experience and a knack for balancing books is why it’s still standing on our unlevel floor.
It was harder but more fun than anticipated, and other than the nice leather-bound books and the Jane Austen tree topper, it’s made up of books we are getting rid of. Some of the books are duplicates, some we had read but did not intend to again, and others are only a library or a click away should we regret our parting. It’s only about 300 or so of the roughly 1800, but it was a serious start.
Last year I culled our Christmas decor, and this year less is more. We kicked off our holiday movie list with Charlie Brown, a reminder that it’s not outward appearances or commercialism that make meaning. We felt it was a fitting first movie for our little Ariel.

Tiny Baby, Tiny Cabin?

Ariel Dianna joined the Bane clan on September 24th. She was healthy and bright-eyed.

Though inconvenient for me, Ariel entered this world with one arm fist-pumping à la Breakfast Club. Or Superman. I hope it’s a sign she’s tough, or at least resilient. “Ariel” means “lioness of God,” and Dianna was the Greek goddess of the hunt. We purposely chose powerful names. The first part of my name, “Paul,” means “small,” and “ette” is a diminutive form also meaning “little.” Effectively, my name means “teeny weeny” or “itsy bitsy.” Granted, my original surname was “Guerin,” or “warrior,” so I was fine being little if it meant I was a fighter. “Bane” means “poison.”

“Dianna” was also my mother-in-law’s name, and when we saw Ariel for the first time we knew it fit.

For the past eight weeks life has been wonderfully upside-down. My sleeplessness during pregnancy almost prepared me for what was to come.

What I did not expect was how hard breastfeeding was going to be. It was a test of my strength and tolerance to pain. What was worse, Ariel wasn’t gaining weight and was probably burning more calories trying to eat than she was taking in. The pediatrician’s nurse suggested I cut her off after twenty minutes of feeding so that she wouldn’t use me as a pacifier. I immediately hired a lactation specialist from Arkansas Family Doulas. She was at my door the next morning.

I relay this story in case it might help someone else out there. The lactation specialist gave me a lot of good advice, and she also discovered Ariel’s tongue tie. The piece of skin under Ariel’s tongue grew too far toward the tip—it limited her movement, which made sucking difficult if not impossible. While tongue ties are more common than you might think—somewhere around 10% of babies have them—they often go undiagnosed. The hospital lactation specialist couldn’t legally tell me since the hospital does not allow her to make a diagnosis. My pediatrician’s office did not check, though they were sure to tell me how to prevent Ariel from developing a flat head from being laid on one side too often.

Options for fixing the tongue tie: scissors or use a heat laser. Both are painful. The lactation specialist got me an appointment with Dr. Alex Hamilton, a dentist out of Bryant, Arkansas who uses a water laser. My OB was incredulous of a laser not heat-based. So maybe it’s technically not a laser. In any case, the beam displaces the water molecules in the skin to sever the connection. No blood. No pain. The tissue evaporates. If this tool were made on a large scale, you’d effectively have a human vaporizer as seen in science fiction.

Ariel - tongue tie procedure

We did stretches and massages with Ariel for three weeks to ensure that the skin did not reattach. She also had to relearn to eat. As Dr. Hamilton put it, imagine that your arm is folded and tied for a month. Once it’s loose it’ll take some time for control of movement to return.

Not only was I pain free, but Ariel began gaining weight soon after the procedure and is now over 11 pounds. I am so thankful to have had the resources as well as support from family and friends to make breastfeeding possible. I have talked to women of all ages who have shared similar experiences—one of their children inexplicably struggled to nurse or caused pain/damage. Many of the women never knew the cause and now wonder if a tongue or lip tie was the culprit. (For many people, the skin will eventually stretch once talking begins, so it can be hard to tell whether there was a problem in infancy.)

On the whole things are going well. Ariel generates more laundry than the entire household combined. We’d be swimming in clothes in the tiny cabin. Nevertheless, finishing the cabin and living there is still “the plan” (though I hear the echo of Robert Burns’ “best laid plans of mice and men”).

In January we leave for Italy, where we’ll be thrust into a minimalist lifestyle—living out of suitcases in a hotel-sized room in a 16th century villa just outside of Florence. We’ll be there twelve weeks, during which time the weather will change and Ariel will grow. Packing will be a challenge. We’ll have to purchase some things when we arrive as well as leave other things behind. Right now we have lots of hand-me-down gadgets and seats; there we’ll learn to improvise.

At the same time, the villa provides our meals and does our laundry, so certain aspects of daily life will be easier. And fingers crossed that we have Ariel trained to sleep through the night at that point. Right now each night is a toss up.

We’ll be back in April—just in time for nice cabin-finishing weather. Eventually we’ll want to add on—or possibly have a slightly larger cabin built with the current one as a guest cabin.

Who knows? I’m tired of predicting the future, as nothing has gone as expected so far!

End of Summer

While we didn’t get much done on the tiny cabin, we managed to do a lot around our other home—stuff we’ve been putting off for years. The improvements have been largely cosmetic (painting), though we managed a few practical ones as well (replacing broken ceiling fans and old light switches/outlets). We’ve also cleaned out closets and cabinets and–gasp–even our bookshelves (though not nearly enough).

 

All combined, this has been a lot of work. But each job actually just needed a little close attention. Sometimes I think my life can be summed up by a Gary Snyder haiku:

After weeks of watching the roof leak
I fixed it tonight
by moving a single board

I’m persnickety about many things, but other things I overlook—even if the roof leak is hitting me in the face as I try to sleep. But a life event, I’ve learned, can shake up my complacency—in this case, for the better.

My office, which has been in a perpetual state of disorder since I left for graduate school five years ago, is showing signs of organization, or at least less clutter. When my husband and I changed jobs and moved, paperwork, power cords, and junk went into boxes. I’m cleaning out tubs with bills from 2012 in them and file folders from before we married in 2005.

 

You may be wondering: this from people who want to live in a tiny house?

Let me just say that the junk is a big part of the reason I want to live in a tiny house. When I was a senior in high school, our house caught fire. Only the kitchen was destroyed, but I’ve often wondered what a relief it would have been had we lost everything. The temptation to start with a clean slate, to have a “do-over,” is strong. When I went to graduate school, I took only what I could fit in my car and lived in a 400 square ft. studio apartment. Other than loud neighbors on all sides and a bus stop outside my window where drunk college students lined up 3-4 nights a week, the place was great. Later I rented a single bedroom, windows facing a shady Florida backyard, cardboard boxes part of my décor and furniture. These were happy times—despite being in school, I seemed to have, well, time. Time to read, to walk, to clean. My daily “to do” list did not involve going through the past fifteen years of accumulated stuff. I left it all behind, and I would have been content never to see it again, to light it on fire and watch the ashes fly.

But whether it’s actual possessions or emotional baggage, I had to confront it sooner or later. And knowing that a baby will be here in roughly six weeks has brought a no-nonsense attitude toward the stuff. I feel like I’m having an “everything must go” sale except I’m just walking it out to the trash bin.

The past is useful only insofar as it doesn’t weigh me down. As Springsteen said in “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” “we’ll take what we can carry / and leave the rest.”

And right now, the only thing I want to carry is our new bundle of joy!

Some pictures from the family baby shower. My mother, craft woman extraordinaire, made the decorations.

Tiny Cabin…for Three?

Baby ultrasound picture

That’s right. Life is full of wonderful surprises. I’m nearly six months pregnant.

Although we’d talked about having children of our own off and on over the twelve years of our marriage, we haven’t always been on the same page. Nevertheless, when I became pregnant last July, we were overjoyed. All of the concerns we had felt insignificant compared to the new life we had made together.

Eight weeks later, I had a miscarriage. It happened just before Chuck’s bicep tendon surgery and in the midst of bad news regarding his mother’s cancer. That time is a blur for me, except for the gestures of love and support from close family and friends who helped us through.

After all that we knew we wanted a baby. We also knew we hadn’t figured out the details yet. And what about the tiny cabin?

For awhile I was still going to the land, insect repellent ready, but sheer determination only goes so far with a little one kicking inside. I listened to my body, which meant a good bit of my time was spent sitting in the shade and reminding Chuck to hydrate. We made progress surely but slowly. At first, I thought of the baby as adding pressure to the mix of all that we need to get done. Recently, however, I realized that was the wrong way to think about the new and exciting changes.

I’m due at the end of September, and there is still much to be done on the cabin which will require minor and major purchases—including an A/C system. Although our original move-in date was August 2017, I have decided that a hot cabin away from my doctor and family while I’m eight months pregnant may not be what’s best for me. And after the baby is born, I’ll want to be in my well-established nest near my mother, who has vowed to help me in the difficult first few weeks.

And if things weren’t adventurous enough, we will be teaching in Italy in Spring 2018 (baby in tow). That also takes the pressure off of finishing the cabin by the time school starts.

So we’ve taken a deep breath. We’ve set new goals.

We would like to make headway on the bathroom by the end of summer. Having a bathroom (and hopefully shower) will make working and staying at the cabin more convenient for obvious reasons while we continue finishing the kitchen, the living room shelves, the floor, and the loft. And, possibly—eventually—a baby room off the back. We’ll see.

Tiny Cabin: Ceiling

A month ago we picked Saturday, May 20th for Chuck’s cousin Scott to come down from Northern Arkansas and help us insulate and finish the tiny cabin ceiling.
In spite of a 100% chance of rain and two snakes (in passionate embrace or bloody murder) inside the cabin earlier in the week, we were not canceling.
One road into Higginson was flooded; the other was puddled but passable. Some roofs were still covered in tarps from the tornado that blew through a couple months ago. (Sometimes I wonder what plague-ridden place we’ve chosen for a simpler life.)
Scott, who roofed the cabin for us last June, has the muscle memory to do in one hour what would take us all day. He put the insulation on his back, and as he went up the ladder, slid the insulation in place until his head was supporting the last segment.

 

While the insulation is squeezed between the studs, gravity is still at work. Chuck, on a smaller ladder, stapled the bottom half of the insulation while Scott stapled the top half. My father-in-law (Charles Bane, Sr.) sliced the insulation to fit–each piece was about 9″ too long. I mainly swatted mosquitoes–“big enough to pick up a child,” as Scott said–and watched.
By early afternoon the ceiling was complete–mission accomplished!
We’ll still need to run a strip of wood up the middle to hide the seam between the two sides of the ceiling. The wood’s light color makes the cabin feel spacious and airy. As much of a pain as the steep roof has been, it’s the reason the tiny cabin doesn’t make me feel claustrophobic.
This week Chuck finished the shed and we started moving things out of the cabin. We still have cleanup and organizing to do, but we’re over a hump. With the shed in place, we can set up the compost bin for the toilet. We still need to dig a trench, run the pipes, and install the toilet–our next big hurdle.

Tiny Cabin: Summer Vacation

Between frequent rain and the busy end of the semester, we basically managed to maintain the property and insulate the walls of the tiny cabin.
We’ve ordered parts for the bathroom, including a mop sink for a shower. We couldn’t find a shower basin smaller than 32″ x 32″, and we needed something along the lines of 27″ x 27″. After a couple YouTube DIY videos, Chuck was ready to pour the concrete himself and tile it. I love his determined spirit–it is what has taken us this far–but we are ready to streamline our process. So when I ran across the mop sink for $125 and free shipping, we jumped at the chance.
The components for the bathroom are ready–they just need to be assembled. The first and greatest task is the composting toilet. The compost bin must be away from the house and sheltered from the elements, and we need to dig a trench for the piping system. I can’t remember what we were expecting when we bought the toilet two years ago, but it seems more involved now than when we purchased it.
Once assembled, we’ll need a solar panel to make the pump work. But one thing we won’t have to worry about is water–it takes only 1/4 a cup to flush.
So, last week Chuck worked first on clearing the land and then on assembling the shed which will house the compost bin. The shed will also give us a place to store other items taking up precious space in the cabin.

On different days he had help from his dad, me, and his son Geoffrey. The summer heat hasn’t arrived yet, but we did hit 86 degrees–a drastic change from the 50s and 60s of the week before.

This weekend Chuck’s cousin Scott–who roofed the cabin for us–is coming to help finish the ceiling insulation and panels. After Chuck’s fall last year, there are certain jobs on which I insist having professional help.

Tiny Cabin Exterior May 2017

We’re still dodging rain (and, now, mosquitoes), but we should have a few weeks of somewhat pleasant weather. And unlike last year at this time, the tiny cabin has a roof, so even on rainy days we can do things inside.

Tiny Cabin and Spring Break

Spring break at Harding comes early in March, so we were hoping for good weather. Some years we’ve had snow.

This year we were lucky. Not only was the weather clear, it was also unseasonably warm. On Saturday we had a team of five: Chuck, me, Geoffrey (my stepson), Angel (his girlfriend), and my brother Gabriel, who drove down from Jonesboro for his first peek at the cabin in person.

Our main objectives:

  • Hang the back door so that the seams all fit tightly.
  • Install the large glass window (a task for the whole group).

Chuck and I got the back door hung fairly quickly. Meanwhile, Geoffrey, Angel, and Gabriel were busy trimming back the ever-insidious Bradford pear trees. We needed to move a small scrap pile to the big scrap pile that we didn’t realize was on the land when we bought it. Our team cut back the Bradford pears to make that possible.

The glass window is actually a ¼” thick glass tabletop we weren’t using. It isn’t tempered, a process that both strengthens the glass and causes it to shatter in smaller, more harmless pieces should the glass break. However, we plan to place a clear or slightly-tinted film on the glass, which will offer extra support and hold the glass in place if the worst happens.

Installing the window meant one person on a ladder holding the glass, another person holding the ladder, someone trimming the window in foam, and another cutting and nailing up trim. It was truly a group effort.

We left just before sundown, everything picked up and clean except the new piles of Bradford pear branches.

Tiny cabin exterior March 2017

On Spring Break, Chuck and I finished the trim on the side of the house. The lines running up and down the siding don’t match perfectly with the puzzle pieces around them, but we were out of both siding and stain. We had had some stain mixed for the final piece of siding, but the color was slightly off. Then the siding got wet and moldy anyway. I decided I’d rather have mis-matched lines than multiple colors, and that was that. We’ll put up some trim to help cover the seams.

Our other accomplishment: start the bathroom. We brought the composting toilet from our storage room at home. The composting bin is bigger than I realized. I had also envisioned it going just outside the house, but the instructions recommend “no more than 70 feet away from the house.” Granted, we have to dig a trench for the piping, so we aren’t planning on putting it too far away. The bin also has to remain sheltered from the elements, so we’re pricing some inexpensive sheds as a quick fix. Sure, we could build one and possibly save $10, but more than that we are ready to have a functioning cabin!!!

Our goal is for the cabin to be livable this August. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, we live an hour away from where my husband teaches, and he has to commute over 100 miles a day during the school year. Our goal is to live in the cabin part time until my stepson graduates high school in 2018, after which we hope to live in the cabin full time during the academic year. So, if the cabin could just be livable by fall, we could continue putting on the final finishing touches the following year. We hope to have a screened-in back porch eventually as well as a side porch for non-mosquito weather.

Now that the weather is mostly nice, there will be more updates soon!

 

Tiny Cabin Update: Exterior

After posting grades, Chuck and I went to see a couple movies and then outlined our cabin goals for the break. We had two nice days before Christmas and two the week after, during which we were able to nearly finish the exterior.

Before:

Though the shingles were nearly done, the final two rows were the hardest because every piece had to be cut to fit. Much of the scoring I did by hand since the tips of the shingles were relatively thin.

Meanwhile, Chuck, his dad, and my stepson Geoffrey worked on framing the transom window and trimming the front door to fit with the weather strip. The transom window might not have taken so long, but the glass was slightly too big. All we can guess is that some settling had occurred since we measured and ordered the glass months ago.

My brother Jared was able to help after Christmas. He’s really great at putting things together, especially when the pieces have to fit a certain way. He is also the only person I’ve ever known to successfully build a house out of cards–and one that supported weight. He was nine.

While Chuck installed the doorknob, Jared and I finished the shingles. Maybe it was the cutting, or maybe it was the wood, but we ended up with a couple dozen splinters each. Those took a bit more engineering to remove than the shingles took to put up.

We then moved to the side of the house. We finished the OSB with the random pieces we had and then put in the loft window. Our next move was to tack up the foam board. I painted the trim, and while it dried we covered the windows with plastic and painted the eaves.

We then nailed up the trim so Jared could begin the puzzle of matching the siding with other pieces.

Chuck and his dad got the back door hung, but we will still need to make some adjustments. The great window was close to being finished, but we had forgotten our plan to use the 1″ trim to frame it. The 1/2″ that they used was not quite wide enough to hold the glass in place.

We were running out of time: as soon as the sun sank behind the treeline, it got cold and increasingly hard to see. We were so close to our goal of finishing the exterior. Still, we were happy with what we had accomplished, especially compared to where we were just one year ago: