Lyon: Treasuring the City

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It feels good to be back.  My week before departure was stressful (to say the least).  With each mile that I traveled, I could feel all that stress and care fall away…like a heavy overcoat that I no longer needed.  Sometimes when a situation is tense, I feel myself in, what I call, “lock-n-load mode” where I can be almost obsessive about the conflict or situation.  It is not healthy for sure.  When it comes to fight-or-flight responses, I tend toward the fight.

 

So imagine how delightful it felt to breeze through the Charles de Gaulle airport, find my train without event, and settle down with a pain au chocolat, a coffee, and my favorite French magazine for the two hour journey to Lyon.  Trains comfort me with the steady sway and white noise.  I read.  I lightly slept. I felt my shoulders relax.

 

Lyon has not been a disappointment.  It may now rank with my top cities in Europe.  I lived here decades ago when it was a bit shabby and worn.  The economic boom of the late 90s is evident everywhere with tidy streets, renovated buildings, vibrant pedestrian areas, and glorious well-groomed parks like the Parc de la Tête d’Or.  It is the largest municipal park in France and a glorious space of tranquility.  It is easily accessible from anywhere in the city by bikeways and a tram.  And the city itself is easily navigable.  Intersected by two rivers, it is connected through a series of pedestrian bridges and riverbank bike/walkways.   While there are trams, buses, and a metro to move you quickly, it is the readily available bike kiosks that makes the commute across town a joy.

 

The glorious spring weather no doubt colors my impressions.  But Lyon feels like a city of optimism in a pessimistic time.  And optimism is just what I needed…

In Praise of the Uncomfortable

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Old Shoes, Vincent Van Gogh

“The Old Fools” by Philip Larkin

What do they think has happened, the old fools
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin continuous dreaming
Watching the light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange;
Why aren’t they screaming?

 

I wonder sometimes, as I age, if I shouldn’t be screaming.  Should I smash it all apart when it starts feeling a little too comfortable?  When it starts feeling all too familiar?  Is it the regular change and the edge of comfort that keeps us flexible and nimble in mind?

 

One of the things that I dislike about aging is how comfortable life begins to feel.  After years of building a career, you reach a plateau and it feels comfortable.  Years of accumulating stuff turn into a moment when your house or kitchen or library feels “right” or “settled” or complete.  You fall into patterns in your marriage or, in my case, in your single-dom and it is comfortable if not entirely satisfying.

 

And this place of comfort, for me, begins to feel too constraining and I start looking around for something new, something challenging.  Give me change before I start feeling “crippled and tight.”  It is as if I need a new pair of shoes even if they appear to not quite fit right, even if the old ones were worn and comfortable.

 

Change is like buying new shoes.  With new shoes you may hesitate…not sure if you should keep trying to break them in or simply go back to the old, comfortable ones.   Going back to the old, comfortable ones is tempting—things that are familiar are enticing, easy.  Slip right back into them.  But you also know that you bought those new shoes for a reason.  Maybe the old ones can’t hold up forever?  Maybe they have gotten worn to the point of not feeling entirely satisfying?  Maybe you were seduced by the new?  Whatever the reason for the new shoes, they force you to rethink something as familiar and banal as your own feet.

 

The great thing about mid-life is you also have enough experience to know that all old shoes were once new shoes.  Those new shoes had to be broken in, too, until they became your favorites.  You might have moved into that comfort zone quickly; you might have had a much longer adjustment time.  Sometimes it is hard to remember since the discomfort of the present blurs that which is distant now.  And, of course, there are occasionally shoes that never quite become old companions, never quite feel right.  How to know if the new shoes on your feet will become comfortable?  How long do you want to keep trying?

 

And staying flexible and nimble and engaged in this life means we continue to try—new things, new friendships, new ideas, and even new shoes—even if it means letting go of what is comfortable. Keeping all of this in mind as I head off to France this week.

Taking Back this “One Wild and Precious Life”

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I think that I have had a touch of the mid-winter blues.  A friend challenged me on my decidedly un-social behavior of late.  Curling up in your pajamas from time to time is one thing, but it hardly seems a way to go through life.  Or, at least, this is not the way that I want to go through my life.  I don’t want to answer poet Mary Oliver’s query–“Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”—with “I want to put on my pajamas and read.”  Wild and precious life, indeed.

 

So yesterday I brushed myself off and dropped my errands long enough to meet two friends at a local wine shop for a tasting.  I love wine.  I love the wine shop.  I love my friends.  It seemed like an easy enough way to honor that “wild and precious life.”

 

As we chatted and sipped a lovely array of French wines, I caught sight, out of the corner of my eye, of a dark rumpled head attached to a crumpled, faded zip-up sweat shirt getting closer to mine.  As I turned, I was greeted with a smile and a hearty hello from a red, bloated face that I barely recognized.  Who was this man? It took me a few seconds before it hit me that this was a guy whose behavior had earned him permanent status as “spam” or “blocked” in all of my electronic media.  This was not someone who was going to take any time in my one “wild and precious life.”

 

I had met this man about six months after my divorce.  We happened to be sitting at adjacent bar stools—me consoling a broken-hearted friend and him getting what appeared to be a lap dance from a much younger waitress.  It turned out that he was an adjunct at a local university.  We were colleagues in the academy, of sorts.  So when he contacted me to assist with a fundraiser for a local organization I was ready to lend a hand professionally.

 

What I didn’t realize is that he considered these meetings for the fundraiser as “dates.”   I should have known that something was up the time we met and his ex-wife “just happened” to show up to meet me.  The dynamic was so weird that I recall literally sprinting to my car.  I figured that I would get through the fundraiser and cut him off.

 

And this is what I did.  I offered a gentle thanks-it-was-nice-working-with-you-but-I-am-very-busy escape hatch.  What I received in return was a string of abuse on phone messages, via e-mail, on social media.  He told me, literally, that I might have “become someone” had I chose to date him.  Silly me.  Just think of all that I must have missed by building walls of safety between us?   And, seeing him waving to me like an old friend at the wine tasting so many years later, made me realize that my instincts were spot on with this guy.  He was and remains a clueless asshole.

 

But I realized that, in many ways, this encounter so many years ago made me extremely cautious in my social life. I realized that I did, in fact, want to go out for those oysters and champagne on Friday night…but in the back of my mind there was this abusive man making me cautious.  It has clearly cast a shadow since I am always game for going alone to movies and concerts and events.  I never hesitate…except that a bar or restaurant at happy hour might mean another creepy guy like this one…and I just didn’t want to deal with it.

 

Except that I did deal with it…and him…and my instincts were good.  So it made no sense to limit myself. I was giving that one encounter too much power over my life, my “one wild and precious life.”

A French Year: Resolution Update

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A month ago, I posted about my New Year’s Resolution to re-connect with France and all things French.  My France was not a particularly mythic one where women never get fat and accordion players play a jaunty tune as I leisurely sip a coffee at the corner café.  Mine was more nuanced and complex.  French historians, such as myself, can’t look at, say, the Eiffel Tower without remembering that it was a temporary structure that was only saved from being dismantled by its usefulness as a weather station.  Romance meets a more complex reality.

 

Yet, connecting with French culture—through novels, music, film, art–and my own sense of being rooted in France has long been a touchstone in my adult life.   France wasn’t a place where I went as much as a place that I lived (even if only in my mind).  As I look back, it all seemed effortless since the connection was real and continuous.  I lived in France each summer…spoke French weekly if not daily…and carried over that sense of connection in my world of south Texas.

 

My epiphany on New Year’s Eve, dear readers will recall, was that the connection was no longer easy or effortless.  France had changed (as the empty streets of Nice that night reminded me) and so had I.  And I missed it—both the real connection with France and the connection of myself that drew inspiration from its culture.  Thus was born my Resolution to Reconnect.

 

Reconnections are always a bit tentative.  What I needed were goals that could be placed on a list and measured for success.  As I noted in that first post, re-connecting with my “Frenchness” is, frankly, a wee bit abstract and even felt a bit silly at times.   I decided to start with things that I remembered from my years of living there.  These were simple things that brought me joy.  So I started with flowers.  Flowers in my bedroom each morning is what I remember.  Even when I was scraping every centime to get by in Paris, I could always find an inexpensive bouquet for my bedside table.  It was a simple gesture, but it was a start.

 

Simple turned out to be a great idea since there were small gestures that were easily achievable.  Here is my run down of simple things I added to my daily routine this past month:

  • Opening my French cookbooks and adding a few French classics to our weekly meals. (One of our favorites can be found here.)
  • Watching the news (in French) on France 24 as well as tuning into France Inter instead of my endless stream of that American staple of NPR.
  • Re-discovering old favorites from the past. My son who, as fate would have it, is studying in Lyon this semester sent me a care package with some of my favorite French products.  This included things that smelled good (like my favorite brand of deodorant) and tasted divine (an artisan chocolate bar).  He even included packets of Hollywood Chewing Gum, which somehow always cracked me up.
  • For added support, I read blogs by others looking for that connection to France. These are sometimes based more on stereotypes and clichés about France, but I appreciated the heartfelt desire to connect with their version of Frenchness.  Even a little more clichéd were the YouTube videos.  I am reminded, however, that even cliché’s have a hint of truth.  My favorite videos ended up being the ones created by the French Lingerie Council.
  • And, perhaps easiest of all, I made a list of French films that I have been meaning to see like this one. One a weekend with a little champagne seems a great way to re-connect to pleasure if nothing else.

 

As you can see, these were simple changes that cost little or nothing.  Yet, after a month, I can’t say I have felt that effortless that I once knew.

 

Too early, however, to give up.  I am dedicating myself to another month of simple changes that will climax (mid-March) with a trip to France. Any simple changes that you might suggest are welcome.   If nothing else at this point,  I can report that I am sticking with my resolutions.

Married or Not?

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Seventeenth century Flemish School, of Ambrosius Francken Workshop I (1544-1618)

How can you forget to tell someone that you are married?  I suppose that the short answer is that you don’t. You omit that fact.  And even if the marriage is complicated and uncertain, even if there are implied or tacit understandings…you are legally bound to another…and any new partner is coming in as a third party.  This seems to be pretty essential information that is best shared with any third party.

 

I suppose the hook is that full disclosure might mean that the potential lover could walk away.  When I am the potential lover that is what I prefer.  No clichés about the sanctity of marriage are forthcoming.  I have seen enough messed up marriages to understand that they can be far from the virtuous, blessed goodness implied in the term “sanctity.”  Yet, a relationship between two people is complicated enough without bringing in a third person.  No judgement.  It just isn’t my thing.

 

So I suppose that is why this information was omitted from our conversation about taking a trip together.  He knows me well enough to understand that I would most likely say no to the shared vacation.  Apparently, I did not know him well enough to be included in the circle of intimates that knew of his marriage.  We have no doubt found a poster boy for the word “cad.”

 

Rather than make me angry, however, it has all made me very sad.  Sad that he felt that he needed to deceive to get what he wants.  Sad that I chose to trust someone (again) who has, if I am willing to admit it, lied to me on other occasions in far less dramatic ways.   We have this in common–willfully ignoring facts.

 

But I don’t have to go on ignoring what is so stark in front of me.  Sometimes things that are seen can’t go back to being unseen.  He was free to ask; I am free to decide. So, I have decided…to take that trip we had planned together…by myself.  After all, I always find myself delightful company…and I have no doubts about my marital status.

 

 

Life Goes On

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T think like so many people in the U.S., U.K., France, Romania…well, in range of democracies across the globe…I have been a bit obsessed with the news.  Challenges to democratic institutions, scandals that reveal a political class out-of-touch with the realities of those that elect them, scapegoating of individuals and groups…there appears to be a malaise in some of the world’s most stable democracies.  With so much to be concerned with it has felt a bit frivolous to blog about my usual concerns.  And, yet, I also did not want to use my blog to amplify the already deafening stream of fact and opinion and anger and despair.

It struck me this morning, as I checked for the latest news updates, that even in challenging times we need places where life feels like it is going on, where we might even be a little self-indulgent.  Indulging in escapism can also be a form of self-care (as long as it does not deteriorate into a head-in-the-sand willful ignorance).  Trust me, I was well-aware of the daily news stream even as I used my social media feed to post pictures of cute baby animals.

As another mother said, “Shouldn’t we be worrying about our children and our families rather than THIS?”  My answer is yes, of course, we should be focused on our own lives and THIS (insert your political concerns here).  Life in a democracy calls for both.  Perhaps we have been a bit too complacent in believing that it would all chug along with only our minimal input in the civic realm.  Now, we are asking questions that we probably should have been asking all along.  And this is good.

So I am giving myself permission to return to this blog as a space for self-indulgence…even as I keep an eye on my news feed.

 

 

On Betrayal

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I wasn’t expecting a betrayal.  I trusted someone…opened my home…supported him… and I was betrayed.  There were (what I can now see as) lies…things were missing or unaccounted for…explanations didn’t quite add up…and, then, a deadly silence when I began asking questions.  It took me a bit of time before I could put it all together…such was my shock.

Like so many betrayals, I blamed myself.  What was I thinking?  Why was I so trusting?  Why didn’t I see it sooner?  But I have to remind myself that betrayal can happen to anyone .  Even Jesus Christ was betrayed, right?  Perhaps betrayal is just part of human nature.

I think what confused me the most is that, despite the other party not living up to our very clear agreement, I kept trying to be compassionate and understanding.  Give him a bit more time to make good on our agreement…try to find alternative ways that we might salvage things…  I wasn’t expecting to be betrayed by someone who I felt should be showing gratitude.

What a foolish assumption on my part.  I was reminded by an Italian friend that the Romans recognized that some people can betray precisely because of that burden of gratitude.  As Tacitus noted, “gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.”    In my case, the burden was certainly dumped and an injury, in the form of a theft, was added.  The pleasure certainly was not mine.

So I have been trying to learn my lesson and move on this week.  I take some comfort in believing that the person who betrayed me did not do it intentionally or out of malice.  I expect it was complicated…perhaps a situation that snowballed…and the final betrayal came out of fear.

In the end, the shame of betrayal will not be mine to carry.

 

 

 

A “French” New Year’s Resolution

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Provence in Winter (photo by the author)

Happy New Year (a wee bit late)!  I have grown to love the celebrations that ring in the New Year.  Perhaps I am just a sucker for rituals.  But I do think there is something positive in the sense of new beginnings that a new year can bring.  We need markers in life.  The transition from one year to the next is, in my mind, an excellent moment to celebrate and reflect, to honor what has been and what we can imagine.   And in that ritual of celebration we can connect to a larger community of people.

 

The particular community that I am thinking of is that mass of people making resolutions.  These are my people.  In the United States, at least, almost half of the adult population make resolutions at the beginning of a new year.   I am one of them.  Every year for as long as I can remember, I have set goals and resolutions at the beginning of the year.  Usually, I am one of those folks who can stay with them.  I periodically check in with myself and diligently journal about my progress.

 

In the two most recent years, I dedicated myself to maximizing what I already possessed.  This meant appreciating and maximizing what I already had in my life.  What it led to was a purging my house of unnecessary clutter, streamlining my wardrobe, focusing on a more minimalist and frugal lifestyle, and nurturing my existing relationships.  The payoff was big: a closer relationship with my children, enough savings to take us to Italy for a semester with a few side trips to England and the south of France, and a sense of being more in control of my finances and home life.  I was very pleased with how small changes accumulated to mean a major (and permanent) shift in my life.

 

So with that kind of success, you would think that I would have my 2017 resolutions in place.  As luck would have it, I rang in the 2017 New Year sitting on a beach in the south of France with an amazing bottle of champagne watching fireworks.  Seriously? How inspirational is that?  And, yet, my resolutions simply didn’t come to me.  Even my children, who are a bit skeptical of my yearly ritual, were wondering if I was feeling well.  My resolutions are usually pursued like a research project with preparatory readings and study.  This year I drew a blank.

 

That is…until I started to head home.  The day before we were to depart from France I found myself anxious to buy little banal things that are easy to find in France but expensive or hard to find in the U.S.—varying types of finishing salt for the table, a face mask that I love, those lovely hand-made soaps that are so easy to find in Provence.  My son is living in France so there was no reason to frantically search for these items.  Yet, I felt that sense of urgency.  That is when it hit me…my impulse buying and desire for banal items was an attempt to hang on to and extend my experience.  I was trying to take France with me, to extend the pleasure of being in this place where I feel most at ease and return with this sense of well-being.

 

As we wound our way back through Italy to take the flight home, it occurred to me that this longing for France told me something very important.  It is a place that I had lived off and on during my 20s for extended periods of time.  Throughout my 30s, I returned each year in May for an extended summer stay.  It has only been in recent years that my annual “French bath,” as my friends always called it, has stopped.  Clearly, I longed for that sense of connectedness to the culture and language and countryside.  Material goods, like soaps, were simply a physical manifestation of this linkage.

 

With this in mind, I decided, a bit belatedly, to dedicate myself to reconnecting to France and my sense of Frenchness in whatever form that takes—reading French novels, updating my repertoire of French movies, periodically picking up my French cook books, and living with the elegance and daily beauty that I associate with my version of France.   I resolved to make 2017 my year of reconnecting with France and my French roots.  It was clearly what I needed…a way of feeling bien dans ma peau.

 

A year dedicated to self-care and my own well-being via France doesn’t exactly break down into a list of achievable goals like, say, lose 5 pounds.  But, luckily, I have blogs and book authors and old gurus, such as Julia Childs, to guide me.  This past week I started with something very small that I remember from my years of living in France.  Having fresh flowers in the house.  A quick trip to Trader Joe’s (since my frugal ways have not diminished) and a couple of DIY Youtube videos on floral arranging…and I have a bedside bouquet that has given me a little daily dose of joy and elegance.  As I know from all my years of resolutions, small changes accumulate…

Arrivederci to Small-Town Italian Life

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Urbino in the fog. Photo: Eric Bishel

 

It sounds so idyllic.  Life in a small, walled city in one of Italy’s least populated regions.  And, in many ways, it is.  Aesthetically, there is no denying that Urbino is endlessly beautiful.  Nature has a way of enveloping this city—in fog, in sunshine, in pink sunsets, in fiery sunrises—transforming the brick buildings and stone streets into art worthy of some of the world’s most gifted painters.  Rarely do I walk to the grocery store or the post office without stopping to admire a vista.  The surrounding mountains make for additional drama.  With the Adriatic a short drive away, the sea imprints itself on the landscape as well.

 

With the sea so close at hand, you have the best of water and land when it comes to food.  Fresh fish is close at hand.  Industrial farming came late to the region (or not at all) so artisanal cheeses and meats are readily available.  This was historically a grain region so wonderful nutty grains, such as farro, are easy to find.  Fresh produce is seasonally available in the markets in abundance.  We are also in a region of mushrooms so truffles are here without the extravagant price tags.  As for wines, while the Marche is not as well-known as its Tuscan neighbor, there is still a wide range of local choices to be discovered.

 

Those choices are readily available within a short walk.  One of the great things about a walled city is that the traffic must be greatly restrained.  Streets are narrow and parking almost non-existent in the city center.  Everyone must walk.  With a walking culture, comes a greater awareness of drivers to the needs of pedestrians.  They actively look for people walking and yield (quite a surprise for someone from Texas who regularly dodges cars even in the quietest neighborhood).  We walk.  Together. Alone. Young and old. Day and night there are people walking.

 

The downside is that we walk in what is, essentially, an island.  These walled-towns are a delight…until you seem to know every street and stairwell and store front.  You can predict when the crazy man with the fuzzy hair is going to show up in front of the bar.  You turn around and around in the same semi-circle of streets and shops, seeing the same people, hearing the same sounds in predictable patterns.  There can be a sense of safety, of course, in that predictably.  Some people could even thrive on it; I am not one of them.  Predictability is coupled with an equal measure of boredom.  And what is pleasant calm and quiet for the old or the very young seems crushingly boring for a teenager.  That boredom is amplified by the clunky, slow bus system that meanders its way to the rail line that can connect you to a world beyond our little walled island.  There is nothing easy about arriving or departing from the “island” that is Urbino.  This makes the sense of isolation that comes with island life palpable.

 

People keep telling me that I will miss this place when I leave.  I suspect that they are correct, sort of.  There are things that I will miss about living in this small city—the ability to walk everywhere, the natural beauty, the food and markets, the kind people that I have met.  This was a great place for my children and me to enjoy our sense of being a small family and for each of us to push the boundaries of what we thought we knew and were capable of achieving.  I am grateful for all of this.  Yet, with the chance to know myself better (and the needs of my family), I also realize that there are many things that I will not miss about small town Italian life—the complacency, the isolation, the nosy neighbors, the repetition, the boredom, the petty squabbles.  I will leave with no great longing to return for more than a quick visit.

With a week left before departure, I know that am ready to say goodbye.

Italian Life with a Crazy Neighbor

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One of the complications that does not come up when you are reading some memoire about finding joy in Italian life is a certifiably crazy neighbor.  Italy, like all places, has its share of paranoids and obsessionals, its share of people who would be best medicated and monitored.  I live next to one.

 

We were assured that our neighbor—whose odd behavior is well known in this small town—would depart within a week of our arrival.  He always departed in early September for his full-time residence in another city.  He had never stayed when new university faculty took over this side of the joint building with shared yard.  We had little interaction with him and his girlfriend (who also is supposedly the woman who raised him) except through an adorable kitten that scampered through the yard and became a shared delight.

 

And, then, a month went by…and another few weeks…and he said that he was departing…and, then, they stayed longer… and the longer he stayed the more curious he seemed to be with our lives.  At first, we thought it a bit odd that he had to obsessively walk past our windows multiple times in an hour.  Then, we noticed that he was taking quick glances in…and, then, more prolonged glances.  We asked him to stop.  But, then, there was the obsessive yard work that meant working behind our house with those regular glances in the window.  We asked him to stop.  Did I also mention how he would need to sweep outside of our front door whenever we had guests visiting?  In short, the man was obsessively monitoring and watching us.

 

Along with his obsession with our lives, he was also paranoid.  His paranoia was focused on our shared gate, which opens to a busy street.  He was afraid of college students and convinced that they would steal from the yard.  Now, I should mention that the fence would hardly be a deterrent to a healthy college student who is also a would-be thief.  It is falling down in a number of places and is slightly less than four-foot tall.   But the lock mattered to him.  Daily.  Hourly.  And what exactly would someone steal?  Given that we have bars on the windows, the only material available is the rusty junk in the yard.  Old rusted chairs and the occasional broken watering can hardly seemed attractive to the errant 20 year old student.  But it mattered to him.  A lot.  Obsessively.  Along with the gate lock, he would add a prison-like chain for added protection.  Every night until we said enough.

 

It is hard to live with crazy.  Daily. Hourly.  It is repetitive.  It is boring. And sometimes it is frightening.  Like the week that I had to leave town for a lecture.  I left my young teenage daughter with an adult guardian in the house.  Within days, my daughter was sending me photos and videos of my crazy neighbor obsessively peering in the windows.  This was no longer the occasional glance.  This was a face pressed against the glass for minutes at a time.  This was a sick, obsessed Peeping Tom.  We had no choice but to notify someone to help us.

The problem with crazy is that intervention by authorities can, in some cases, escalate the situation.  When confronted, our crazy neighbor claimed that he was our friend and had been “helping” us.  He ranted. He raged. He blamed us. This bizarre imagining of a “relationship” made me very uneasy.  Yet, the good news was that he ceased to look in our windows and stopped lurking outside our home.  There was a panic that suggested that he feared a criminal charge.  We felt a bit relieved.

 

Relief when you live with crazy is always short lived.  His paranoia along with his obsession with us transmuted.  Now he lurked around the gate obsessed with “catching us” failing to lock up at night.  Keep in mind that this is a shared gate that we both use during the day and at night.  But for those who are crazy, facts and logic (such as locking the gate himself) mean nothing.  One unlocked gate and he rants and rages and repeats.  He claims that he is getting “testimony” to prove that the gate was unlocked. We are in trouble.  More ranting.  More repeating.  More rage.

 

It is boring.  It is tiresome. It is stressful. Daily. Hourly.  Under the Marche fog is not quite turning out like Under the Tuscan Sun…

 

* Painting: Pietro Rotari, Portrait of a Crazy Man