Thanksgiving in Italy: 2018 Installment

Since we moved to Italy, we have not observed Thanksgiving in the traditional manner, even though in Florence opportunities abound for large dinner with American expats.

Pros: Italian food, great wine. Cons: don’t know many people, our kids will whine that it is boring.

So that generous two-day holiday, the American Thanksgiving Work Relief Program? (See recent cultural rant here.) Since we moved to Italy in 2016, we have taken the Thursday of the weekend, the high holy day of Thanksgiving itself, as a vacation for us. The kids are in school of course (grazie, Italia). 

In 2016, our first year, Jason and I drove to Artimino for a fancy quiet lunch in due. It was a beautiful sunny morning. The vineyards were ruddy and glowing on the hills. Purple and dove grey clouds scattered low in the sky like the background of a Renaissance portrait. We were two of a handful of people eating lunch that day in the modest ristorante that Jason had found for us. The wine was good and we bought a few bottles of it. We drove home in quiet solitude, grateful for the tranquility. We agreed we would do it again the following year.

In 2017, we switched it up and headed to the hot water heaven of Asmana, north of town in that well-known spa area of Calenzano/Campo Bisenzio. My inner Finn demanded a hot sauna, hot water, and steam. Asmana offers all of this. They have a good onsite restaurant on site with a brief, well-curated wine list. We soaked away our cares in the saltwater hot tub in the sunny, brisk outdoors and ate a fancy quiet lunch in due and wearing bathrobes, drinking wine as we chatted among the two-tops full of squeaky clean couples.

The theme emerges. A fancy quiet lunch. Just the two of us while the children are in school. With a car here, we have freedom to daytrip.

A few weeks ago Jason suggested that we combine work and pleasure for this year’s Thanksgiving foray. He had to pay a visit to an estate outside of Florence, in Montespertoli, to scout specifics for a Gonzaga law seminar.

The Castello di Sonnino is a winery that also produces olive oil, honey, and any number of additional Tuscan staples. With a small enoteca also onsite it was an ideal candidate for our small trip out of town. I read up about them on their website before we set out and filled Jason in on the basic facts of the noble family, headed by Barone Sonnino De Renzis.

Belltower with Etruscan base on estate.

Again the weather cooperated, against all November odds. We dropped off the kids at school on a glorious sun-filled morning and headed out of town. The drive afforded further Renaissance views of rolling hills carpeted in neatly tended olive groves and vineyards cultivated for millennia. Putting the car in second to climb the hill to Montespertoli, we made a sharp left into the estate, parking with a few other cars in a small lot bordered by tall, thin cypress trees. It was not at all clear which door was the entrance, as a low building sported a long row of doors.

We walked past all the doors and finally picked the door on the far left. We rang the bell. After a few moments it opened, and out peeped the friendly face of none other than the baron himself. I knew this from my online research.

“Buongiorno,” he said smoothly, a natural Italian bass. His white hair was neatly cut, and a well-trimmed white beard framed a handsome face. Clad in a winter suit of tweed, he had the build of a hunter: fit, and neither portly nor thin. He was collected and graceful. We were at his manor, after all, and were welcome.

“Buongiorno,” Jason replied. “We’re here for …” he unfolded his small note. “Jessica.”
“Certo,” the baron said. “Come in, come in.” He extended his arm into the foyer with an outstretched hand. “Jessica!” he turned around to call.
We waited in a foyer tiled with terra cotta, lined with archival photos of the property, an ancient gnarl of olive branch mounted to the wall.

An attractive Englishwoman with short blonde hair quickly appeared and ushered us into a conference room with a long table and many light-blue wooden chairs. She returned back with espresso for me in a tiny white cup and saucer. “This will be so easy,” she said. “We can just stay in English. But let’s not talk too much about business before Caterina arrives.” It was not clear to me who Caterina was.

Jason at the window, surveying the property.

We chatted about London and Florence, her work with Gucci in London, how she came to be in Montespertoli doing this kind of work with the estate. Her teenage children, and how different life was in this small Tuscan hilltown compared to Stansted. The window at the end of the vaulted room faced east, and bright sunlight poured in and flooded the room. I excused myself to the bagno and puzzled for some time over the taps/pedals system to turn on the water, then admired a collection of country hand towels on an old wooden rack.

A few minutes after I returned to the conference table, the door opened and in swept an older woman with her red hair in a thick double ponytail. She wore a quilted jacket and boots. Her face was scrubbed clean, and was open and still beautiful even lined, in the way that older Italian women so often are. Is she a gardener? I wondered. A groundskeeper? She had obviously just come in from working outdoors. She took the seat to my left and greeted us.

“Ah, Caterina!” said Jessica.
“Did you talk too much business yet?”
“No, no. Just small talk and coffee.”
Caterina looked at Jason. “You’ve already met my husband.”
Her husband? I thought. Whom did we meet? Did we meet a husband? Then I realized quickly and with an embarrassment that I am sure flushed my cheeks. Oh, she is the baronessa.

Caterina immediately took charge of the conversation which meandered over an hour and a half, covering Italy, Italian politics, education, the history of higher education, liberal arts, and study abroad. The family are developing a study abroad center on their estate with the support of HECUA, making admirable progress.

Caterina made eye contact with me often as she made one point or another in the bright room, firmly clasping my hand or squeezing my forearm. It all began to feel very much like my beloved Russian classics, on the estate in
the parlor of the baronessa on a sunny morning in November after the harvest. I closed my eyes and began to take notes for this piece. When I opened them, I noticed Caterina’s two enormous rings, one on each ring finger: a lion with a mane of jade, and a large aquamarine cabochon set in gold. She also wore diamond hoops. Of course she was the baronessa. She was country nobility.

After we finished up our business, Caterina went to attend to her affairs and Jessica brought us upstairs to the magazzino to admire racks and racks of vin santo grapes fresh off the vine, aging in the old way in preparation for vin santo, that Tuscan delicacy that tastes like the aperitivo of angels (in fact it is a digestivo made to be consumed after a meal.)

“Monica, watch out!” Jason gasped as I backed up for a shot, running into some dowels lined up on a rack behind me. “You almost ruined a fortune in vin santo.”

Do NOT ruin these. The baronessa will never invite you back.

We hopped over to the enoteca to make a reservation for a light lunch, and met Christian, a lovely young Italian-Canadian from Vancouver in the process of completing a slow food internship on the estate. He joined our anglophone trio, bringing a huge set of keys.

A small fortune in Chianti, with no ventilation.

From there we went up a low hill to the cantina, in use since the early 1500s as a cistern for the town above, then as a cellar for dozens small French barrels of reserve Chianti. Patches of black mold lined the stone walls. Christian hurriedly explained that the mold did not affect the wine. The estate produces about 200,000 bottles a year of various Chianti blends, the small barrels being the most desirable. Larger vats held younger wine that was fermenting and would soon be bottled as vino di tavola.

Caterina rejoined us, as Christian returned to the ristorante to start his lunch service. She took us up to their home in the castello, with its Etruscan-base belltower and adjacent chapel. The barone’s great-grandfather was Sidney Sonnino, an Italian statesman and prime minister of Italy during World War I. His historical archive remains in the castello along with a warren of libraries and a priceless book collection. Jason almost fainted as the baronessa began unlocking cabinets and bringing out priceless annotated copies of Dante’s Divina Commedia. They quickly bonded further over his knowledge of Dante and the history of his masterpiece. She was especially impressed when Jason flipped the aged pages to a canto where he pointed out the book had been printed in Venice, beyond the reach of the pope, evident by the heretical verses remaining intact and uncensored in the copy she had brought out. “The doge of Venice,” he said. “The pope was no match for the doge in this century; they each kept to their own grounds.” At this point the baronessa seemed to have offered Jason an indeterminate job of uncertain compensation a few times already. I giggled in the shadows, well-accustomed to this particular plot that I have seen played out so often in Italy: Jason and older noblewomen of significant education.

One of at least five rooms of library we toured.

The huge rooms were freezing. Caterina cursed gently as she closed a number of open casement windows. She opened the shutters in one of the parlors to reveal a fantastic full-room mural painted before 1600 of all the marvels reported from the New World – morning glories, mimosas, flora and fauna in abundance that seemed to leap out from the wall. The baronessa’s daughter works for Gucci, and none other than Lallo himself (the head designer for Gucci) commandeered the castello for a two-week photo shoot with beautiful thin maidens and their goateed swains. Indeed the entire castello was a capsule of Italian history from 1300 to the present, plaster walls cracked from the bombing suffered as a result of its situation on the Gothic Line in World War II.

I still cannot get over this room.

We finished our tour of the castello in the kitchen. When Caterina opened the door, again it felt like a movie set. Two professional cooks were serious and at work, one stirring an enormous steaming pot, the other seeing to dishes in a marble sink much like our own in Florence. the woman flashed me a genuine smile when we said “buongiorno.” The ancient hearth was at least ten or fifteen feet long, garlanded across the mantel with dried oak boughs. A few tables of butcher block held platters of pasta, vegetables, small cutting boards of herbs, ready to be assembled into a Thanksgiving dinner for the American students on the estate. I wanted to remain as it smelled fantastic and was by far the warmest room in the castello. It also looked like a Renaissance still life mise en scene.

We returned to the enoteca for our lunch. A table of students were on our left, and a small group of Americans on private tour from Florence were on our right. The heavily botoxed wife announced that “tomatoes were discovered in the Yew Nah Ted States” in a loud voice that made me cringe.

Enoteca, open to the public.
If you’re in the area stop by!

But a glass of wine later and working our way through traditional Tuscan courses of crostini, fettunta, then a board of cuts of salami and prosciutto, then fusilli all’amatriciana, which Jason knew was good when I said it did not even taste like iron nails. (This is always my strange complaint about fusilli. Does anyone else think those corkscrews taste like nails? How can pasta have such a different taste based on shape alone? This is a persistent Italian mystery.) I faintly heard the husband relating all the branches of the US military in which his children served. I no longer cared. The vin santo was brought out with almond cantucci. It was the perfect Thanksgiving meal. We bought a half case of Chianti on our way out into the sunshine and wound our way back down and through the hills, home into Florence.

We did take the kids out of school on Friday for a chill day at home, but I think we will keep our Thanksgiving day to ourselves as a tradition as long as we are not living in the U.S. It is really the one day a year in Italy we have for this kind of time, and I am thankful. May the deranged pilgrims forgive us for our baronial Thanksgiving in due with fine wine. I am sure it was not what they had in mind when they presided over the apocryphal holiday, but it is an outgrowth of the evolution of our gratitude. For this life in Italy, for each other, for our thriving and happy children, for opening a new adventure as a family. For health and dreams. The practice takes a bit of a different shape in Italy. We are thankful.

Thanksgiving in Practice

American culture is stingy with holidays and time off. The rest of the globe – meaning especially people who do not know any Americans or who have never lived in America – may assume that Americans enjoy a reasonable and manageable work culture. That Americans have holidays and time off. That Americans have a time when they can stop thinking about work, and can be relaxed and with their families.

An image from a different time.

(I am not even going to go into American policies on sick leave for oneself or family members here.)

Well, that does not really happen. We all get our leave calendars at work and accept them as though they are somehow reasonable – seven holidays a year plus two weeks of paid leave (for anyone who does not work for a bank or on Wall Street), compared to Italy’s fourteen days a year (plus various ponti, or bridge days, taken off in the middle to make a longer holiday) plus four to six weeks of paid leave, or Japan’s 21 holidays a year plus six weeks of paid leave (two weeks at a time, three times a year!). I learned all this in a language class last year at the Sprachcaffe with classmates from various countries. It was a day I took my espresso corretto in the break time that morning with a solid plug of strong anise sambuca just to absorb the reality of what had come to seem normal to me as a worker in America.

On the campus where I worked before moving to Italy, we received 19 hours a month “to use as we wished.” That mean to use for sick days and for time off. If you got sick, then you had no vacation. And if you have kids? Fugeddaboutit. Babies and little kids are always sick. Being a working parent means you get no paid leave nor do you get sick leave for yourself. Every time I try to explain this to Italians they look like they’ve seen a ghost. “But that is inhumane!” they protest on our behalf. Yes, it is – and the culture pressures workers to be thankful that they have a job at all. I don’t miss it.

Actually in the sixties American workers probably got decent time off.
Problem was, most people couldn’t get a job.

Deranged as hell.

It is very depressing to list American holidays side by side with the holidays of all other developed economies in the world. We have one day off a year for one religious holiday: Christmas. All other holidays are secular: New Year’s Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day. And then comes the crown jewel of our holiday calendar: Thanksgiving. The apex of American time off, in which all Americans receive two days off in a row. Two! Of course its origins are spurious and apocryphal (one English friend in casual conversation has recently referred to “deranged Pilgrims”).

A time to give thanks, to travel to someone else’s house for a long meal or to host at yours, and the relaxed chatter that is normal in most cultures. So rare has this time become in the US that we consecrate one meal a year to it, and then, as only Americans can, we really overdo it. We eat a lot. We prepare an elaborate menu that is through the roof. We invite people over. We often go round the table to say what we’re thankful for in a routine that is itself the source of much dread and comedy. We all eat; like a wedding or a parade, it goes by so quickly. Then we all pass out thanks to tryptophan, whose name we all now know from that “Seinfeld” episode. I am pretty sure “Friends” covered it too. American menfolk eventually rouse themselves and crawl to the nearest sofa to watch some American football.

I get asked a lot of questions in Italy like, “Cosa e Thanksgiving attualmente?” I say we spend time with our families and eat, and often get a funny look in return as though to say, “You have a holiday for that? We call that dinner.” Then I mention the football and get a bit of a nod; its Italian equivalent, calcio, has been known to put quite a few menfolk at games and on sofas to watch really fit players chase a little ball around a faux battlefield while would-be soldiers scream.

Italy has also, and unfortunately, adopted the Black Friday trope of enticing discounts designed to encourage unbridled consumerism. Without the Friday off as in America, and no relaxing day off on the day before, it seems to fall flat. It is mostly put forth by international brands like Amazon and Aveda, and the advertising for it is everywhere.

Me, after Black Friday, ca. 1988.

The vulgarity of such grabbing and escalating violence around buying crap made in China has always affronted me. I have never “done” Black Friday, although I know people who participate annually in the US. (I may get on a soapbox about that practice at a different time, how Black Friday seduces the working poor much like the promise of a lottery, the idea of some ship finally coming in, somewhere.) My mom and I once went to Balliet’s in Oklahoma Cit
y for Black Friday. I returned home with a kelly green mock turtleneck, which needed constant small repairs with a needle and thread until I finally got rid of it, and a pleated white skirt of unflattering length but  I wore anyway for awhile until I tired of looking like a Civil War era doll.

I meant to write a post about what Jason and I did on Thanksgiving Day 2018, but it turned into this piece, a necessary prelude to our adventures yesterday in the Tuscan countryside. That post coming soon.