It took a visit to Naples to discover that I didn’t know the Mandarin word for penis. When I lived in China, I used “ji-ji” which is what the nanny said with Eddie and George when she changed their diapers.  This is a playful adaptation of the formal anatomic description.

While walking through the ruins of Pompeii,  I fell in step with a Mandarin-speaking tour group and listened to their guide for a few minutes.   My ears settled comfortably on the language and it was nice to relax into the lecture and to understand most of what I was hearing.  (In contrast to my exhausting struggles with Italian…)

The group stopped outside of a building that had once been a brothel.  The Italian guide spoke excellent Mandarin and she described the small rooms and the stone beds inside and she joked about how uncomfortable they must have been.  She talked about erotic frescoes that decorated the walls and described them as a menu of services. Then she pointed to a wooden stick that protruded from the top of the front door.  It was a symbol to mark the building as a brothel but I couldn’t understand the word she used to describe this symbol.  As I was repeating the word aloud to decipher the context, a Chinese woman next to me leaned over and said “penis.”


Naples gets a bad rap from travellers unaccustomed to urban grit but it’s a lovely city-on-a-sea and it buzzes with purpose from the docks of its vast port to the hills of Vesuvius.  Mom and I went for a quick visit, mainly to see Pompeii and the Museo Archeologico which houses the famous Farnese collection from Rome as well as relics from Pompeii. There’s so much more to see in this ancient Greek colonial city and it deserves another visit.  Naples also sits at the gateway to the Amalfi Coast.  Think picturesque vertical villages like Positano, plunging from a hillside into the Mediterranean Sea…


I attended Catholic school for seven years.  The nuns had a certain practical nature, a sensibility and strength that helped them run the school without many hiccups.  They weren’t mothering but they weren’t mean.  We were an obedient and orderly family of students and sisters.  Father Cyprian, the headmaster, inflicted the only drama when he used a chair leg to spank naughty boys.

Last week I met Sister Virginia, a catholic nun who has spent much of her career working in Ethiopia and Eritrea.  She reminded me of the nuns at my school.  She walked a fast clip and climbed stairs with an ease that defied her 70+ years.  Her movement was intent, purpose-driven and orderly.  I could tell that Sister Virginia got things done.

Sister Virginia knows my friend Sanny, who was just here visiting from Ankara, Turkey. Sanny lived in Eritrea at one point in her diplomatic adventures and this where she met Sister Virginia, who ran schools and outreach projects in Asmara.  They became friends, like many people who meet Sanny and are drawn into her energy.

Eritrea, a former Italian colony, is run by a repressive government and is largely cut-off from the world.  Sister Virginia was thrown out of the country after many years working there and she returned to the order of Lucia Filippini in Rome.  I joined Sanny for her reunion with Sister Virginia, who lives just around the corner from my apartment.


We live near John Cabot University which is a small, American college in Rome.  Every day we walk by the main entrance where pools of students hang out on the street and in a corner cafe by our apartment.  The neighborhood streets are narrow and it’s easy to overhear snippets of conversation as you walk.  I tune-out the chatter but the kids don’t and they have become rather good mimics of American college student dialect. George loves to make fun of the drawn-out valley girl/boy emphasis that turns one syllable words into two (“way-ay” or “Fruh-uhm”).  Eddie asked me what “shit-faced” means.  As in:

“Maaan, we got shit-faced last night.”

“Really?  No way-ay.”

But my favorite line so far is one that Olivia brought home:

“Whaddya mean she’s got a boyfriend?  We kissed after the party.”







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