Firenze: Tempo Normale / Normal Time

[PSA: Tante grazie to everyone who reads me here. My creative faculties have been on fire since we moved to Italy! 

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I picked up a modest sidebar in October writing creative Italian lifestyle content in English, culturally accessible to an American audience; the firm is based in Verona, Santamargherita. You can find my pieces by clicking on the Blog link and searching for my byline. 

I am off Facebook these days as it tends to mute my muse – and she does not appreciate that!] 

Il giorno di Santa Lucia (December 13) and the winter solstice (December 21) have passed, Natale has come and gone. The twelve days of Christmas are still assiduously observed in Italy with time off and a general slowing of activity and some serious dining scenes, cruising gently into Epifania and la Befana on day twelve (January 6).

Jason and I got engaged on Epiphany in 2005, on a chilly sunset shore in Charleston – Folly Beach. We went to a Spanish tapas bar to celebrate over tempranillo and membrillo while I sat with perfect posture as the long roadtrip we were on had thrown out my back. Epiphany has always been one of my favorite feast days, and it’s a personal anniversary too.

So the arrival to mid-January in Italy is a shifting of gears, up for work, down for rest. Florentine skies skew grey, and we’ve had days on end of clouds, rain, and cold. Cruelly, the bright skies tend to also be extremely crisp, giving you a double-punch to the gut of both piercing blue sky and paralyzing Arctic air.

The kids went back to school last week, on January 8, with some grumbling after enjoying the generous Italian holiday. Victor asked me, when is the next vacation? 

I studied our 2018 calendar, hung on a nail on the outside of our laundry room door. No ink on a date outside of a weekend in January after Befana.

Febbraio, niente. (Seriously, Martedì Grasso on February 13 is not a holiday in Italy? This is shocking to me. It is the beginning of la Quaresma, or the forty days of Lent.)

Marzo, neanche niente! Nothing either!

Aprile! Madonna! ma tu scherz’! (You’ve got to be joking!)
No days off until April 2, the day after Easter this year, called Pasquetta (Little Easter) in Italy.

I think I was swearing under my breath to myself as I realized this breathtaking drought of time off, combined with the sludgy winter weather, and – thanks for this, Italy – Lent – it’s just like they want to load up on the grind until the weather turns and spring rolls out the green carpet.

Speaking of normal time, and the passage of time, and the calendar, an amusing note here. Raise your hand if you ever think, in practical terms, of the Gregorian versus the Julian calendar. Hands up. 

Okay, put your hand down if you’re Orthodox Christian. 
(Interesting in any case how the gap between the Julian and Gregorian calendars represents the length of the 12 days of Christmas exactly, and Orthodox Christmas falls on Catholic Epiphany.)

I was vaguely aware of the Julian calendar, which began its initial phaseout in 1582, with Italy, France, Spain, Portugal, and Poland giving up ten days. There were mathematical reasons for the switch, like sloppy leap year calculations featuring double leap years, February 30, and further calendrical nonsense.

Time has a different rhythm in Italy. Memories are longer – far, far longer – than those we refer to as the descendants of immigrants to the Americas. 1582? Practically yesterday. We see this in the persistence and prevalence of aphorisms in Italian such as,

«Santa Lucia è il giorno più corto che ci sia»
The feast day of Saint Lucia is the shortest day of the year.

Certainly prior to 1582, the feast day of Saint Lucia was the shortest day of the year in Italy, what John Donne was describing from his dark English table as the midnight of the year.

A Canadian friend in town told me, with some consternation but also a sideways smile, that her son learned this saying in class here in Firenze, with no further historical background, just some cursory contextual mumblings from the maestra.

December 13 is not the winter solstice; solstice is December 21, or thereabouts. But in Italy, sayings outlive political policies that were set in place almost half a millenium ago. The folk wisdom lives on in peoples’ minds, and La Stampa prints current articles to explain to their readership why, in fact, December 13 is not the winter solstice. (But that couplet, that couplet is so nice, who could ever want to stop saying it?)

Image: NJ.com

I’ll take it a step further here, on both cultural and personal levels, and pose to you the question, what neural pathway has become so well trod in your culture or in your mind that you continue to refer to it and say it, internally or aloud? Vaguely aware that it is no longer true, but the words you’ve built around it tend to play in your mind. «Santa Lucia è il giorno più corto che ci sia» is a tidy rhyme and catchy, but no longer describes reality, although it once did.

I might actually prefer Mayan solstice rituals, after all that administrative confusion here in Europe emanating from the Vatican. Kukulkán still slithers up and down the pyramids on time at Chichén Itzá and elsewhere, and that calendar didn’t need an edit and reboot.

Mayan math ftw.

La Befana

“Befana” sounds like a very small child trying to pronounce the word Epiphany in Italian, and indeed the holiday, commemorating the 12th day of Christmas, is celebrated throughout the Mediterranean. 

Apparently, this old crone has broken shoes and brings the children toys on January 6th. She might be an estranged sister of Babbo Natale. At any rate, she is very old, very crazy looking, a little unpredictable, and requires cookies and milk that are very soft.

The last time we were in Europe for Epiphany we spent it in Seville, and watched the three wise men in somewhat alarming blackface make-up walk through town, giving small bags of chocolates to children including Victor.

This year with Jason in Rome with a gigantic group of newly-arrived university students, I was on my own. Fortunately, we had a stash of Christmas gifts that did not make it to Slovenia for Christmas Day. Those were quickly assigned to the final gift giving holiday of the holiday season in Italy.

I also stopped at a fancy chocolate shop last night after work in the center of town to pick up stockings for the kids, filled with chocolate. Jason had purchased small bags of fake candy coal for the kids earlier this week. Victor and I had many discussions about why does everybody get a little bit of coal? The answer? Because everybody is a little bit bad sometimes, and the coal reminds us of that. Nobody is perfect. I think this is a good message.

At Venchi I purchased the children stockings and gluttonously perused the adult boxes myself, pictured below. It is common to light candles to help the befana see which house is she should stop at, and I took a picture of some candles on the sidewalk last night.

We set out milk and cookies for our befana, and let two candles and put them on the landing by our front door. Victor was very nervous and went to sleep at 9:30 to hasten her arrival. Eleanor had had her second nap for the day and so did not give it up until 2 hours later. 

The children slept fitfully until light, and then ran out to see the presents that the befana left. Shouts of joy arose as they saw the huge haul. But joy turned to some disappointment for Victor as he realized that the gifts that were provided to him by certain agents of the befana were for a child far younger than he. This was further compounded by the fact that we seemed unable to assemble Eleanor’s new tricycle, and although Victor’s large toy was for a much younger child, it was in fact very hard to put together because it lacked an instruction booklet as we have learned to expect from our many Lego projects. 

Victor retired to the living room to cry under a chair, while Eleanor absentmindedly ate all of her candy coal. However, when I asked Victor if he would prefer that I call the befana and tell her to please not come next year because her gifts were not good, he vehementlyshook his head no.

Buona Befana!