Firenze: Fringe Opera / L’opera vanguardista

The stables were freezing, the violinist said.
There was no way they would be able to play for an hour and a half, straight through without intermission. Their hands were cold, and even more importantly, their period string instruments were strung with gut to do justice to the Baroque music.
The steel or nylon wires, she said, would not have been impacted at all by the temperature, but the gut strings would have to be re-tuned every twenty minutes or so.
How this was going to be possible, it simply was not clear.
Plus, how were they expected to wear concert attire? I listened carefully and nodded. I am not string musician, but her concerns made sense to me. I too am always freddina – freezing. That condition, thankfully, is coming to a conclusion soon here in Florence.

The quartet was lodged downstairs in the palazzo, in the basso mezzanino, which I had never seen before, but looks every inch a set for a period film by Merchant and Ivory. Two bedrooms look out from large windows onto the capacious and blooming garden behind the palazzo, with rows of small frescoed barrel vaults for ceilings. The furniture is nineteenth century, with tiny desks and chairs and metal beds. They were there for the week for rehearsals for a festival production of Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice,” to be performed in the stables of the Palazzo Corsini by a young cast, with a forward-thinking director and producer.

I am friends with the producer, Sophie; she was also singing Euridice. She works with the choir at St. James, and as is often my way, I had fallen into conversations with her about ground logistics and creative solutions, given their performance dates in different cities and needs. That is how the quartet came to stay for a week at the palazzo we call home.

We had tickets to attend the performance on Thursday, and were going with Claudio and Francesca, who are our landlords, neighbors, and friends. I was glad they were accompanying us because I had no idea where the Palazzo Corsini was, and plus, Claudio had offered to drive us all. Francesca knows the Corsini family, and asked me what the address was for the performance.

“It’s in the Palazzo Corsini!” I said brightly.
“Yes, I know, dear,” she replied patiently. “What number? I don’t even know how many numbers that palazzo has, between their doors and the gardens.”
I looked up the palazzo on my phone, but the street it gave wasn’t even right.
Francesca went back upstairs to get the poster the quartet had dropped off for her before they left.
“I know where it is,” she said, “it’s the scuderie (stables) address.”
We headed downstairs to the piazza where Claudio was waiting for us with the car.

Driving from one location in centro ZTL (zona traffico limitata) to another is a bit like space travel – you must go out to a ring road to come back in, so a trip that would take me 10-15 minutes on a bike will easily take 30-45 in a car. Plus some swearing and dry gargling.

Claudio, however, as an unflappable Italian gentleman, gamely remained calm throughout the navigation, his beret jauntily perched atop his head as he manned the wheel of the tiny town car, telling Jason with a laugh on Liberta, “I am never quite sure which was to go here,” and, later, backing the car out of a wrong turn he’d taken at the snake of an intersection currently strangling the main train station. I was plenty impressed with his aplomb.

We parked in a space that looked to me like it might have just barely fit a crate of clementines, and walked around to the palazzo. In front of the Hotel Medici, Francesca lamented the large paved apron in front of the hotel, saying, “There used to be the most beautiful fruit trees here.” As far as I can tell, about 35 years ago someone who hated mature, urban fruit trees, such as used to crowd around many properties in Florence, began to rip them all out, and did not stop until they were almost all gone.

We arrived at the Corsini stables and walked in, through a huge door, then past car after vintage car that seemed ready for a period drama like “Downton Abbey.” I am no car buff by any stretch, but these old Fiats and Aston Martins were gleaming. Claudio and Francesca had been to exhibits in the scuderie before, and were pleased to return. We checked in at will-call and wedged our way into the small crowd that was waiting to enter. It was a festive group, but I couldn’t move. The venue was intimate indeed. Francesca immediately began to spy a few of her friends, and slipped through the packed people to exchange buona seras. Jason and I stood around and watched a cluster of girls on an ancient settee devour a giant bowl of popcorn.

Soon a petite older woman with a booming voice came through.
“Georgiana!” Francesca brightened. “It’s Signora Corsini. Let me introduce you to her.”
Signora Corsini was all business, and leaned in to hear my name, and Jason’s, while Francesca generously introduced as their friends and affiliates of Gonzaga, as opposed to the rambunctious tenant family in their grand palazzo on the opposite side of town.
Signora Corsini asked me if I had had any refreshment yet.
I said no, I couldn’t get to it, gesturing to the packed bunch of people.
She looked shocked. “Of course you can arrive at the refreshment! You must! Allow me.”
She parted the crowd with a deep, “Permesso! Permesso, signori!”
At a back table I had been unable to see stood two huge urns, one of mulled wine, the other of a concoction I understood to be a combination of beef broth (?), Red Bull (??), and, possibly, vodka (!?!). I do not know which observation alarmed me more: the possibility of such a drink, or the sad state of my Italian comprehension.
Unable to clarify the contents of this second urn in the roaring, tiny space, I said, “I would like the Gluhwein.”
Eh?
“Err, the vin brulee.”
Eh?
Il vino,” I said, pointing.
Signora Corsini dispensed a small cup of the steaming wine and handed it to me. “E lui?”
Jason politely declined.

The doors to the stable swung wide, and Georgiana invited “people of a certain age” to come first. Francesca looked at me and shrugged. “Of course, we’re just going in.” I followed her lead and we quickly found chairs. Jason had a standing post in the horse stall behind us, and neighed good humoredly. I saw a number of people I knew from St. James on this, the last night of the production, concluding their Italian tour. I noted a small group of women who seemed like they knew the place, and who all looked like each other, and assumed they must be the Corsini sisters. The daughter of one of them, aged about ten, had an enormous bowl of popcorn, and was sitting on the floor eating it with such gusto that bits and pieces were flying onto the rugs covering the stones, and dropping all over her sweater, adding a touch of farcical Wes Anderson to the whole scene.

Povere Euridice. Will she come back to life?
Spoiler alert: in the Baroque version, YES.

There were maybe a hundred people total in the audience, tops. The orchestra was at the far end of the stable, under a handsome ston
e statue of San Eligio, patron saint of horses and their caretakers, and under that, a smaller statue of the Virgin. The sound in the space was optimal, for the stables were a bit like a stone chapel, and filled with the music as the orchestra began to play. The Corsini were a historically well-placed family indeed as I counted sixteen stalls in our space, all bordered by stone columns. It looked like a horse chapel.

Orfeo baragining successfully with Amor to restore to life his beloved Euridice

The quartet did have to pause periodically to re-tune their strings of gut, I noticed, but they did it so quickly as to be almost unnoticeable, and in any case the handsome cast was a transparent distraction. Gluck, as a Baroque composer, had the resource of castrati countertenors at hand, but in this opera, Orfeo was sung by a beautiful, tall woman, whose face was scrubbed clean, her hair wound back in a tight braid. It took me a while to figure out she was Orfeo. I mistakenly thought at first she was the shadow Euridice – perhaps a dream Euridice – in any case, I worked it out, and the singing was beautiful, as the chorus and soloists were inches from us at full volume. 

The costumes were amusingly tongue-in-cheek – Amor was an Elvis impersonator, Orfeo an RAF pilot, Euridice’s skirt and bodice looked like they came from last year’s Feria Sevillana, castanet-ready. Moving forward, I would love all live entertainment to be that close to me; it is so much more striking than watching an opera on stage form a box, and everything looking like an animated postage stamp.

Euridice and Orfeo are reunited!

The young girl continued to eat the popcorn with her mother and aunties. I tried to avoid direct eye contact with the singers so as not to fluster them. Since this production was an adaptation, and not the entire work, it was about an hour and a half in length, but none the less for it. (Good news for Jason in the horse stall.)

Oats and opera, anyone?

The finale finished to much shouting of brava, bravo, bravi. The conductor thanked everyone for coming, and outlined the next festival productions scheduled in the gardens of the Corsini for late August and early September.
“Che meraviglia!” a Corsini sister breathed from a stall across the aisle. 
We finally squeezed out of the stables back into the entry corridor where all the vintage cars silently gleamed. In the warm evening, Francesca outlined for me the many talents and accomplishments of Georgiana, clearly a woman of much fuoco e spirito.

Driving home, Jason and Claudio debated the Gluck revision of the Orfeo and Euridice myth, agreeing at the end that Gluck was under pressure from his patrons in the royal court to make an ending more piacevole (pleasing), since the original plot is a tragedy, as Euridice perishes and Orfeo descends into an eternal grief. We also covered the casting, and the history of castrati, agreeing that the opera would have become vanguard indeed had it been edited to star Orfea and Euridice.

I can’t wait to see their late summer productions of Tchaikovsky, Shakespeare, and Mozart. Perhaps I too might be able to dine in the Corsini gardens with other guests …

Italy: Weights and Measures / Pesi e Misure

How much of one thing equals another thing?

This has to be one of the most overarching cultural questions. When we look at or hold something, a thing, a substance, we ask, how much of this thing is equal to this other thing?

This varies widely from culture to culture, and yet it is transparent to the cultural participants. Of course this much of this one thing is equal to this other thing! Only when we shift positions do our perspectives change.

Our apartment, as I have mentioned, is freddino. It is chilly. Our palazzo is beautiful, and central, and its relative advantages far outweigh its climate control. We are very happy here.

But it is so cold. The cold affects me especially in the morning, when I wake up and stumble into the kitchen (still wearing the scarf, sweatshirt, socks, woolen booties I slept in) to turn on the heat, turn on the electric heater, fill the kettle and light the gas hob for tea, check the situation for Jason’s coffee.

When I return from our school drop-off, things have cooled down again in the kitchen. This is where I always make my same mistake: I think I will just straighten things up a little bit. Just a bit. But my hands are freezing, my fingers barely work, the hot water takes an age to reach the tap from the boiler. It feels like the winter of 1890 up here. Just a small plate, I think to myself, I can scrub this, I can quickly wipe off this other thing. But with my cold hands, in the cold kitchen, the fingers, they do not have a solid grasp, the water is cold, where is the hot water, why is the hot water not running yet …

The plate slips. The ceramic breaks. Every time. Dozens of times.

Mundane plates don’t bother me to break  – a plain white plate, a plain saucer. They can be easily replaced at the sample ceramics vendor at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio, who sells only white ceramics, some embossed, modern and vintage-seeming, but all plain white. It reminds me of arty friends who brought out purposely mismatched and monogrammed hotel silver to entertain at home. Such elegant friends.

Last week, though, I dropped and broke our spoon rest, which came with the apartment in the giant china hutch (madia) of assembled essentials. The spoon rest gets a lot of use, and this spoon rest always tickles my fancy, because it is in the shape of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, which makes me think of, in this order, my mom, Mexico, and Brazil. Mom drove a powder-blue Bug for years in the Midwest, usually stuffed with three small children, a mutt, groceries, and a sheet cake. No air conditioning, vinyl seats, Oklahoma City in sweltering summers. Beetlebugs are all over Mexico and Brazil, destinations I have spent happy travelling time in, so any invocation of simple transportation with three gears, any ocean coast, and windows rolled down is welcome.

But this small Beetlebug was now in two pieces at the bottom of the marble sink.

I heaved a sigh as I picked them up. I dried them off, and verified that they still fit together, more or less. I added them to the small white sugar bowl, whose tiny knob atop the lid had cleaved in half under identical circumstances, and been carefully stored in the bowl until such time as I determined how best to repair it. I am a fixer. I do not like to throw things away, especially if they are sentimental, or I like them particularly. I know it is not always ideal to have a glued seam showing, but I am careful, and dexterous, and can fix things. It’s a personal challenge. I can work with imperfection. I struggle with total loss.

When this happened in the US, I had a very handy glue pen for terra cotta that worked wonders. That glue was awesome. I could fix almost anything with it. A bright bowl from Caltagirone. An ironic ceramic bowl used for cat food. The decapitated head of a concrete Saint Francis after a scuffle with a toddler Victor, reaffixed, that lasted through many cold seasons reglued. But I did not have this glue in Italy.

I knew just where I could find some, though: the mesticheria (home goods shop) on Pietrapiena, just around the corner from our palazzo: Casalinghi Mazzanti. Every quartiere (neighborhood) has one, but I like to think that ours on Sant’Ambrogio is special.

This mesticheria is seriously old school. The sales assistants are all men of a certain age in blue jumpsuits, with thinning and graying hair. They take their responsibilities very seriously. One might browse among the aisles of the shop, but in general it is not done; take a number, and wait for one of the jumpsuits to help you. You must have a number to be in the store, pretty much, if you plan on looking for anything or purchasing anything. The counter was amicably mobbed by day laborers and contractors, who handed over their number to say they are looking for denatured alcohol, a special kind of screw, rope of a certain weight, a new lock. A red-haired widow needed a water bottle. A woman in a luxe fur coat needed a specific can of paint. The store is packed to the rafters – my father would love it. Along with all the practical contractor inventory, they also sell Le Creuset ironware, bathroom accessories, gleaming copper pots and pans of every size and shape. Anything you might need for your home, from screws to a lightbulb to a specific kitchen tool, Mazzanti carries it.

I broke the rules a bit, and began browsing for glue to fix my spoon rest and sugar bowl. The narrow aisles were a challenge to navigate, especially at this busy hour right before lunch, when all the contractors had advanced as far as they could in their morning work without that tube of silicon or box of screws. I quickly found an entire section of glue, and silicon. It became immediately clear why I might need to first take a number to ask a jumpsuit which glue to buy. I had no idea. The selection was overwhelming, and a workout for both my Italian and whatever I remembered of semiotics from grad school. A vast array of sealants and glues were neatly hung on about eight feet of aisle shelving at all levels, and I started to look for the closest approximation to my terra cotta glue-all that I knew so well in the US.

After a few minutes I gave up, and went to look at the activity in front of the counter again. At least ten people were waiting. I noted the location of the number dispenser. I went back to the glue aisle and, finally, found a tube of what I needed where I had not seen it before. The yellow tube was indicated for marble, glass, and any item where visible dried glue is undesirable. At five euros, and with helpful pictures on the front of it of a broken Ming vase, a muffler, a wooden stair, and a dining room table, it was exactly what was needed.

I pulled a number out of the red dispenser. 53. I settled in calmly to wait my turn and to watch the organized mayhem. The jumpsuits were very efficient, and dealt kindly with both contractors’ demands and the hot water bottle needs of chilly widows. An American woman dressed in GMU-logo pushed up to the counter with two glass cruets. She spoke no Italian.

“Number please,” the jumpsuit said in Italian.
“I want to buy these,” she said, in English. Pushing the cruets forward on the counter. She smiled at him. I groaned inwardly.
The jumpsuit gave her a look and disappeared from behind the counter. Her cruets had no price tags. I wondered what the word was for cruet in Italian. I felt sympathetic for a moment as I inwardly agreed that there was no way I would ever wal
k into an Italian shop like this and start talking to a jumpsuit about my need for a glass cruet with a cork.
Everyone behind GMU began to grumble. She had jumped at least ten numbers in the line. Everyone else was holding their number and looking at it.
She turned around and saw the scene. She looked sideways at me.
“Am I doing this wrong?” she asked me.
“They’re traditional here. Gotta take a number to pay,” I said, relieved I was far from the most clueless person in the shop.
The unsinkable Molly Brown seemed to have assumed that other customers were simply too undetermined to pay, or perhaps fraught by indecision.
The jumpsuit finally came back and told her the price for the two cruets. She paid, and hastily made her way from the store.

By this time I was an expert in number-taking. One of the contractors, with plaster dust still in his dark gelled hair, asked me where I got my number from.
“Di la,” I said, pointing.
Finally, 53! I hopped up to the front, gave the jumpsuit my number, and paid with an acceptably small banknote. He smiled at me and shooed me out of the store, already thinking ahead to 54.

Realizing the master class I had just received in language and culture thanks to the long wait and general powers of observation, I resolved to contrive a reason to come more frequently to Casalinghi Mazzanti.

Saturday morning I got out my broken porcelain pieces and the glue package. I set the pieces of the sugar bowl and the spoon rest on the marble counter.

I read the instructions on the back over and over to make sure I knew what I was doing. Clean and dry surface. Do not get in eyes. Use within two to three minutes, hold pieces to be glued together for forty seconds. Forty minutes to cure. One phrase made me laugh. You may tint the glue with pigment as you wish, obviously before adding the hardener, which was in a smaller tube next to the big tube.

Yeah, obviously. Maybe the contractors knew that. Certainly the jumpsuits knew that. Well, it wasn’t a conversation I was going to have, with any Italian, in any case.

But one detail remained opaque to me. I had puzzled over it many times, and finally called over our house expert in Italian and Florentine culture, language, and measurements, Dr. Jason Houston.

“Read this,” I said. “The sentence about the chicco di caffe and the noce.” It was a description of proper proportions for glueing success.
He held the package close. “Yep,” he said. “It is referencing a coffee bean and a nut.”
The package outlined the proportions for mixing the glue (coffee bean-sized amount) with the hardener (walnut-sized amount), from each tube, to successfully employ the product. The text said that the hardener should be about 2% of the total mix, which I should then mix velocemente. The recommended percentage preceded the coffee bean and nut reference, which were meant to clarify the proportions in an easily understood metaphor. Except it was not easy to understand.
“Is a noce like a walnut?” I asked Jason. “Or a pecan?”
“Pretty much,” he nodded in assent.
“Okay,” I said. “And a chicco di caffe is a coffee bean?”
“Yes,” he agreed.
“Okay,” I said. “Do fifty coffee beans equal a walnut? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Or is there another Italian nut they are referencing that is huge?”
He looked at me like I had begun drinking before noon.
“Seriously,” I pressed. “Fifty coffee beans do not fit into a walnut. Think about it.”
“Maybe they mean a grain of coffee. Perhaps it is referencing coffee that is ground.”
“No, it specifically says chicco here.” This is a catch-all Italian word for a grain of something – a coffee bean, or a grain of wheat. Certainly fifty grains of wheat would fit into a walnut. But the package specifically referenced a coffee bean. “Fifty grains of coffee might equal one coffee bean, and a coffee bean does not equal a walnut.”

How much of one thing equals another thing?

I decided to go with a dab of hardener into my unpigmented glue. The mixture reeked. I mixed it in the plastic lid from a can of Pringles and a used drinking straw. Opening a window to let the smell out, and set about holding together my broken pottery pieces. The glue seemed to work just fine, notwithstanding my confusion over the recommended agricultural proportions.

The sugar bowl and the spoon rest are now convincingly restored to their original states. I think the jumpsuits would agree that I did a fine job.

Italia: Our Italian Vacuum Cleaner / Il nostro aspirapolvere italiano

You know, it’s the little things. They stick. And because they are so small, and inconsequential, until they are not, they are a rich mine for reflection.

I have written here on mundane cross-cultural topics – scarves, laundry. A dentist visit. Things that locals wouldn’t think twice about, because these things are transparent to them in an of course way.

I read Beppe Severgnini’s Ciao, America! circa 2001, in Seattle. A passage in his memoir covered curtains in America, amusing and insightful for its philosophical bent. The symbolic value of curtains in America. How I laughed when I read it: the familiar through the eyes of an outsider, the mundane made new. I’d experienced with blackout shutters in Spain as a student many years prior, those magnificent, interior eclipse-inducing persianas that could make 4 pm in June seem like midnight in January, affording a long lie-in from a previous night out, or a gentle landing into a new time zone. The name itself of these external shutters, so well-known in the Mediterranean basin, invokes Persia/Iran, purdah, Pakistan, sunbaked bricks, protection from an unrelenting sun. I appreciated Beppe’s treatise on the symbolic value of curtains in America: ineffective, thin, light permitting, offering no privacy, seem like decoration only, and what this indicated to him about our culture.

On a related symbolic note, I give you: our Italian vacuum cleaner.

We live in a generously-sized apartment whose every floor surface is terracotta tile that has benefited from decades of waxing. The tiles gleam like no flowerpot I’ve ever seen. They are glorious in the high heat of a Florentine summer: a natural wine cellar feel permeates the space, even on our fourth floor. But tiles are chilly in winter. Perhaps better suited to protecting fine vintages, or curing terrine in small pots sealed with pork fat.

To address this issue, we purchased a few large area rugs shortly after arriving, both to insulate our living spaces and to provide a softer, warmer surface for our kids to play on, their endless hours of haggling and tussling and watching YouTube videos. And eating. Don’t tell the Italians, but we struggle to get our kids to eat at a table at home. They are usually eating on the faux oriental rug in our dining room, generously spreading crumbs and spilling all drinks. Magnetic play sand gathers in pink blobs, marring the pattern. Play-dough (TM) dries on the fringe. Bits of toys and dried pasta abound.

In an ideal world, we would live in the country and take the rugs out to be beaten once a week, and aired in the fresh sunshine on a dry, breezy day. I am pretty sure this is what happens in the Italian countryside. I like to think this is what happens.

In our old life in America, I would have run our industrial strength vacuum over the surface once or twice a week to achieve a calming sense of cleanliness and order. I credit my deeply Finno-Anglo-Teutonic heritage for this. Plus, perhaps, a bit of the cell memory of my Finnish forebears, who must have observed the basic rule of thumb: have little, scrub much.

In our world, however, we initially tried to sweep the rugs with a broom, then with the smaller hand broom that I know from days keeping a hard floor clean in France, the nimble balayette.

The balayette always reminds me of a certain English Jane,
who swept while smoking, a ciggie hanging out of the corner of her mouth.

We then attempted to use an old vacuum from in the cantina (storage) in the basement of the palazzo. But it had all the power of a DirtDevil from 1983. None, no power at all. It charged and had a cord-free feature, which was fine, but it was no fun to hear its wheezing whine and see that nothing was picked up from the rug with its feeble suction. Our rugs got dirtier and dirtier. It was a losing battle.

Jason researched and located a new vacuum on Amazon Italy. The most powerful one we could find, we believed. We have Amazon Prime here, which we hardly ever use, so the new vacuum was delivered in a blink. He brought it home and we assembled it. This was when Victor was heavy in his Lego phase, so he helped us put it together. This new vacuum cleaner resembles Noo Noo from Teletubbies more than it does any useful rug sweeper. It has a potbelly, an accordion hose, and an aluminium arm attached to a rotating mouth lined with bristles.

Noo Noo

We plugged in the vacuum and turned it on. The aluminium arm barely clears my knees. You all know I am a tad over five feet tall. I had to awkwardly hunch over to push it across the rug. The bristly mouth seemed to pick up a lot of loose hair, which we shed freely on the rugs, but did little to gobble up all the particles from food and play that had gathered in the tuft. The rotating feature of the bristle mouth ensured that it kept flipping over and up, and I struggled to keep the sucking intake facing downward on the rug. After about twenty seconds of this, my lower back began to ache like I had been pulling weeds all morning.

This is the best vacuum we could find?

Our babysitters used the vacuum and came back with glowing reviews, which I received with suspicion. Were we using, in fact, the same vacuum cleaner?

I told Jason I did not think the new vacuum was a huge improvement over the emphysemic DirtDevil from the cantina. He shrugged; he accepts variant Italian outcomes with an admirable aplomb.
“Their rugs here are delicate,” he posited. “They cannot be ruined with overabundant suction.”
I looked at him. I thought of my lower back pain.
“The rugs are old?” he continued, fishing. “They cannot be replaced. They must vacuum them very gently, very carefully; the fibers are delicate.”

I read the reviews on Amazon.it and saw that the Italians thought that this was, in fact, a pretty superlative vacuum.
I was nonpl
ussed.
I put the new vacuum back in our closet and left it there.

I had to hand it to him: of course I understood that wall-to-wall synthetic carpeting, such as we both grew up with in our split-level ranch homes in the US of the seventies and eighties… well, that’s just silly. A truly American goal, to carpet and upholster and heat and insulate your home to the point that you could walk around in your underwear in the winter, and feel like you were in Cabo. Americans want to edit their external environment for comfort. Italians edit their attire.

Our babysitter did use the vacuum on a fairly regular basis, and seemed to obtain better results than I did. However, its bagless design remained a seeming mystery to her. One day she mentioned that the vacuum no longer seemed to be working. After she left, I took it out of the closet, and eyeballed the clear plastic dirt receptacle, and saw that it was jam-packed with grey dirt, dust, and hair. I pried it apart and emptied it into the kitchen trash, creating a huge cloud of floating dust in the process.

A different friend used the vacuum once in our house and made an amusing onomatopoeic imitation of what it sounded like when dried bits rattled up the tube and into the vacuum’s potbelly.

I thought of the horsepower of our old vacuum cleaner in the US, its motorized wheels propelling it across our rugs. Our house in the US was all wood and tile floor, with a few large area rugs, strategically placed. I knew that vacuum sucked up everything. It practically tore the yarn from the mesh. I bought a rug from Overstock.com when we first moved in that seemed to contain the better part of a sand dune from the Katpana desert, and its dirt receptacle filled with the sand that resembled extra-fine granulated sugar, shaken from a sack into a vacuum.

Now, that was a vacuum you could rely on. Even if it were to destroy the tapestries of the Medici.

Veneto: Natale in Italia, Terza Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 3

The kids and I woke up at the very civil hour of 8:30 on Wednesday morning, but Jason had already had his coffee and left. I assumed he had gone to the gommista for new snow tires, as he had been talking about it the past few days, while keeping a nervous eye on the weather.

A flurry of texts from him after we were up and about confirmed as much, indicating that his situation had become ever more compromised as he stood in line with about twenty Italians at one of the only open gommista in town. Everyone was worried about the weather. Everyone wanted new snow tires. There was no room to haggle, much less converse. Signore Gommista was smiling as he made a fine profit that day, the best day to sell snow tires: December 27 as half the city emptied out to head north to enjoy snow concurrent with a winter storm warning.

I tried to mitigate total apartment destruction and pack for me and the kids until Jason returned home, annoyed but reassured.
“You don’t even want to know how much I spent,” he muttered.
“I actually do,” I said. Not out of any penny pinch but more morbid curiosity.
“He said he could not sell me chains for the tires because the chains would not fit in the wheelcase.”
“Oh?”
“But the fee also includes off-season tire storage.”
“Oh.”
We were still trying to pack and organize as the kids zoomed around in high spirits.
“I’ll tell you later,” he said, “how much.”

We herded the team down to the car, along with a collection of suitcases, toy bags, snack bags, diaper bags … we are very much in the Napoleonic army mode of travel. Staging everything in the foyer until Jason could bring the car around from the other side of the piazza, we watched the rain fall on the wet flagstones in front of the palazzo. We quickly shoveled all small people, bags, and accoutrements into our wagon, and got on the road under grey clouds. Eleanor fell asleep quickly, before the A1 autostrada split into ‘panoramica’ and ‘direttissima.’ This drive is always a challenge for me, because the route between Firenze and Bologna is twisting and steep, tunneling through the Apennines. I typically am a shade of green, well before Bologna. But the grey skies and ruta diretissima worked in my favor, and when we emerged before Bologna I was feeling fine. The flat plain of Emilia Romagna rolled out before us, under more clouds and rain. In fact, the rain never stopped.

As we crossed over into the Veneto, the rain picked up. Victor and Eleanor chattered in the back seat. We turned north to climb into the Dolomites, and saw the waterfalls coming off the mountains were forming large icicles and walls of ice. “Oooh, pretty,” we cooed. Infrequent vertical ice gave way to freezing rain, then heavy snowflakes. We were nowhere near our final destination, and it was getting dark fast. Snow started sticking to the ground, first as a low cover, then in larger mounds. The climb was no joke, either. Every few kilometers felt like we gained another one to two hundred meters. This was like driving the highway in Colorado, where you turn south from I-70 because someone in the car thought it would be fun to drive to Leadville. The road was blasted out of solid rock.

Fortunately, we were driving north, so we had the inside lane that was not covered in ice leading to a 600-meter spill and a quick death. Jason kept the car in second and took the turns slowly as my palms began to sweat. I started to feel like one of those Reader’s Digest “Drama in Real Life” stories that I used to read at my grandma’s house as a kid, where the mom capriciously tosses a box of Nilla Wafers into the trunk just before they set out on a roadtrip that will evolve into a struggle for life. I mentally catalogued the contents of our snack bag.

Victor and Eleanor began to bicker. I asked them to hush, but Jason set his jaw and said it was better, that he preferred background noise when driving like this. It felt like a bit of divine retribution, or at least a Campbellian test, for a person who had been celebrating the successful passage of his written Italian driver’s test just a week before. “Maybe we should go back to Belluno and stay there, instead,” he said under his breath.

We rolled into Forno a Zoldo, a small town with a uniformed Protezione Civile officer at the one intersection, holding a lollipop. She was watching out for all the drivers on this dark, snowy night out on the SP 251.

We waited in line with a few other stopped cars as she lollipopped through drivers with chains on their tires. Jason rolled down the window and she stuck her head in.

“You got chains?”
“No,” Jason replied.
“Is this car 4×4?”
“No.”
She shrugged. “Then you can’t pass.”
“We have a reservation in Santa Fosca.”
She shrugged again.
“I just bought these new snow tires today.”
She rolled her eyes. “Look, if you want to try it, and I do NOT recommend it, but leaving town here is a steep hill with a sharp curve. If you slide, turn around and come straight back; you won’t ever make it to Santa Fosca. But if you can make it up that hill, continue, and with care.”

We thanked her and drove away from the intersection, up the hill, up up up, and around the steep curve, still in second. We did not slip.

So we continued. It got darker, and the snow was blowing hard. The road was not good. This was a major winter storm even for the locals. The twisting mountain road was hard to discern in the headlights and the driving snow. We climbed, and climbed, hairpin after hairpin, and the weather got worse, and worse.

“How far back is Forno?” I asked.
“It’s been about four miles,” Jason replied. It felt like at least ten miles to me.
I could not believe we were doing this.
Jason continued to round the hairpins in second at increasing elevations.
Victor and Eleanor had stopped talking.
“Daddy, how much further is it?” Victor finally said in a small voice.
“A ways, guys. A ways.”
I intermittently monitored the max defrost button, which raised the temperature in the car to something like 100F. The ice accumulated quickly.

Finally, we reached the Passo di Staulanza, just after a town amusingly named Dont. It was a dismal scene. Snow was blowing sideways in sheets across the road. The signage indicated that six steep turns lay ahead before we arrived in our valley. The first turn was easy enough, but we fishtailed on the second one. I was trying hard to remain calm without much success. We made it safely down the next four turns, in first and second gear, without slippage. Finally we saw the lights of Pescul, and, just beyond it, our destination: Santa Fosca.

The roads were a mess. The snow had been falling so fast that no plow could keep up with it. We saw our first turnoff, and immediately got stuck, so backed out.

We continued forward. I started to whimper, “please let’s just call the hotel and explain to them what is happening.” But Jason was resolute. Our turnoff appeared again under the same name on a subsequent right, which we were able to access, although the ascent was steep and the road a lumpy, snowy mess.

We finally pulled into our hotel. It was still snowing hard.
“I wish we had taken this holiday in Sicily,” I grumbled. Jason laughed.

He got out of the car. The kids were still wearing their Florentine clothes.
“Where’s the big bag of their winterwear?” he asked me from the back.
“Their what?” I said.
“A huge bag of their winterwear.”
“It’s all in the suitcase,” I said.
“No, there is a huge bag … oh my god did we leave it at home.”

Apparently, we had. We carried the kids in their city clothes down into the hotel. Jason immediately made a trip out to buy them boots and gloves. I declined his offer to purchase boots for me, saying that mine were super and I loved them. Some of the wint
erwear was, in fact, in their suitcase; just not all of it. The critical pieces remained in our foyer in Florence in a huge recyclable shopping bag.

The kids now fully bundled, we trudged back down the snowy hill to a gastronomia for dinner. I slipped on the packed snow and bent my right wrist back and hard, cursing my boots for their lack of tread, making mental note to buy myself a new pair promptly the next morning.

Kids trotting off to the gastronomia in the storm.

Eleanor, initially irate at the snowpants situation, realized on the walk down the hill how incredible snow is. She’d never seen it before. Victor, ever the big brother, commented, “I’ve seen snow, but it didn’t look like this.” You got that right, kid.

Mom and dad had an adult beverage each while the kids devoured pizza and French fries. The gastronomia staff were sympathetic and doting, speaking in an accent and dialect that I could only guess.

We headed back into our snug, warm hotel room and quickly fell asleep after a trip from Firenze that had turned out to be much more than we’d bargained for.

In the end, we both agreed that the 700 euros for the ultra high performance snow tires had been well worth it.

We watched the storm continue from our balcony after we checked in.
The total snowfall was well over a foot.

There are more relaxing aspects of our days in Santa Fosca that I will record next for my reading public. Tomorrow we head to Austria, for more snow and sledding. Hopefully the drive will be a fraction as harrowing.

Firenze: Natale in Italia, Seconda Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 2

Thursday morning: “My entire face hurts,” I groaned after I woke up. I then began to whimper.
“I do not know how I am going to make it through this weekend and the holidays, plus our trip.”
My sinuses were killing me. Italy and my sinuses are in a long-term quarrel. I never had these problems before I had kids, or before we lived in Italy.
Now, I am in a low-grade sinus threat zone almost very day, and the slightest cold transmitted from school via our small children will trigger the congestion, odd squeaking, headache, and the worst, aching cheeks. Nothing induces incoherence like a sinus infection. I barely make sense. I have been in an out of this condition since the second week of November. My immune system and I are exhausted.

Nebulizing, painkiller, decongestant, Zithromax, saline, steamy showers – it is the Maginot Line of health, a daily struggle to maintain the razor-thin advantage. The low valley of Arno River, how it grows and keeps layers of fog and damp, nothing ever dries out, and the cold, when it is damp, seems to puddle in the dark narrow streets that pick their way through tightly packed stone buildings. At night, I try to stay warm by wearing socks and slippers to bed, and a knee-length wool cardigan, and a scarf, while lying atop a faux sheepskin.

“Do we have any more of that Sudafed?” I asked Jason.
“What?” he said.
I sighed, and tried to not cry.
“I found, like, a big white pellet yesterday and took it, and it really worked. But I cannot find any more of it.”
Jason disappeared into the back of the apartment. I could hear him ruffling through the shelves of over the counter medicine from the US.

He reemerged with the empty Sudafed box and some blister packs.
“Take this,” he said. They were the little red pills he has been known to eat like cat food, as a man permanently and mildly congested. “Take it with an acetominophen, it is the same thing as the so-called ‘bug white pellet.'” He shook his head in sympathy. Fortunately this month I had just brought back a huge bottle of acetominophen from the US.

A few hours later I was feeling much more myself. I did some Christmas shopping on my lunch break. Florence has been flooded with sunshine, and it was a pleasure to be outside, among the smaller holiday crowds of tourists, the large Christmas trees on every public square, local shops open and bustling.

Friday we had a much-postponed lunch date with Maria, who teaches at Gonzaga in Florence, and whose parents own the building where we rent our spacious apartment. I am always grateful for her company; she is an international Florentine par excellence, having lived in the Los Angeles, Ankara, Nairobi, and Muscat, now back in Florence with her husband and two small children to complete the extended family puzzle, much to her parents’ delight. I appreciate her cross-cultural agility; she is a trusted local (deeply local) of whom I might ask any complicated or perplexing cultural question.

Maria’s brother owns a b&b here, and so is up on the nice new places to eat. We headed to Trattoria Tiberio on Via delle Ruote, arriving just before the lunch rush, and feasted on a generous pranzo. I had a plate of rigatoni alla baccala mantecata (cod in cream sauce – a Venetian speciality) that may have changed my life. I always try to order items off a menu that I know I cannot make at home. This was precisely the kind of dish that makes me thankful, though, for a glass of red wine with lunch. I’m relieved to be well off the Dr. Pepper planet that is the American Midwest.

I recounted my health struggle to Maria, who empathized, as a mother of kids the same ages as ours. “You should take this vitamin I am taking!” she exclaimed. “It makes me feel like Asterix! Giulio and the kids were sick, and I did not even get sick!” She took a picture and sent it to me. I got the effervescent vitamins at my favorite farmacia on Via della Condotta and immediately started on them.

Asterix the Gaul, vanquishing germs!

Christmas eve day dawned on Sunday and the children bubbled with excitement: “Babbo ‘Tale, Babbo ‘Tale!” chanted Eleanor. I had committed to serving at mass at St. James and so was out the door on my bike by 10:30. I had expected few people, but there was instead a decent crowd. As I was the lone acolyte, I got firsthand experience carrying the enormous wood-and-metal crucifer up the aisle and manipulating various large things at the altar throughout the liturgy (crucifer, huge wooden Gospel cover, the main chalice..) After counting the collection plate and passing it along to the sacristan, I was flying back home in the freezing air on my bike.

Emily, one of our favorite locals, came at two so that Jason and I could go to his office and wrap the gifts in peace. I’ll let you guess who wrapped. No complaints – it is one of life’s great pleasures for me. In the nineties, when I worked at the now-defunct Borders, I was the dedicated gift wrapper, and I loved it. I can crease a corner with the best of them, eyeball sizes, use tape sparingly, tie ribbon expertly.

Jason made an emergency trip home on bike to pick up another bag of small gifts we had forgotten. We were done in a little over an hour. I curled up on the small sofa in Jason’s office as the Christmas jazz played, drew both our coats over me, hid my face behind a pashmina, and slid off for an hour of warmth into the sweetest, most delicious nap I can remember for years.

Back to St. James for 6 pm Christmas eve mass with the kids. We took over a back pew with all our outerwear and toys. This was good for play purposes, but less than ideal for attention holding. The Sunday school provided a pageant, the choir sang, we muddled through it somehow. I made multiple pacifying trips to the undercroft with Eleanor, who gave excessive attention to the two rescue Yorkies in the kitchen keeping company with the wife of the priest, who was preparing the generous spread for dozens. And generous it was: prosecco and antipasti, nero d’avola and primi and secondi and contorni, sweets and coffee and more prosecco (if you are ever in town when St. James is celebrating something, first, you will know it because of me, but secondly, go – do not decline the opportunity to toast special occasions with Episcopalians in Tuscany, a divine pairing!) We said our goodbyes and bundled the kids into the car to head home.

Back at home, Victor begged to go to bed.
“Can I go to bed now? Can I go to bed now?” he asked at the preposterous hour of nine, hoping to hasten the arrival of Babo ‘Tale.
Jason shooed him off to his bunnk where he quickly fell asleep; Eleanor talked and tossed with me until almost 11.

Amazingly, they slept in until after eight. I remember Christmas mornings rising at 5 or 5:30 to hawk on gifts until my parents woke up and got into the living room. Babbo ‘Tale was very generous to us this year and we took our time in turns opening the gifts.

Excitement overtakes our Christmas elves.

Victor was thrilled with his Pokemon take. Eleanor received awesome Frozen and Rapunzel and baby dolls, as well as a small piano and mic for her singalongs.

Good luck getting in on this action.

Our Christmas day appointment was special indeed: we were to go to Flavia’s house in Arezzo to eat with her extended family, and would round out a group of 25 for the meal. When we arrived they all crowded at the door to greet us. Jason had not yet met the Gramacioni (I knew them all), and we were soon warmly enclosed in their family fold, a fire blazing in the heart behind the table. Flavia’s father knows his way around a kitchen, to put it mildly. Their warm home in Arezzo is truly our home away from home when we are in Italy.

A phenomenal meal was rolled out before us: crostini al fegato, tortellini al brodo, bollito (boiled meat) with all the sauces, lentils with sausage, a contorno of crudites (carrots, seared artichokes, radishes) and a braised sort of Tuscan coq au vin that also involved pomegranate seeds and juniper. Wine both Spanish and Italian flowed freely from the kitchen. When a course particularly pleased the table, spontaneous applause erupted; diners jovially shouted compliments from the far end of the table. Flavia’s ninety-year-old grandma praised me effusively for my handsome husband, beautiful children, and youthful mien; I love it when the nonne clasp your hands when they talk. Both her grandparents were especially appreciative of our kids’ Italian and excellent table manners and social grace.

“This broth can speak!” Flavia exclaimed to my left, as Massimo on my right shared his broth secrets with Jason.

Eleanor received special recognition for sitting in her chair and eating two adult-sized portions of the meat tortellini with fresh cheese on top. Victor and Eleanor were the only children present, but they were roundly doted on by every adult in the house.

After we ate with leisure our four or five plates of dinner, the liquors and sweets rolled out, pannettone and ricarelli and a panna cotta alla frutta di bosco, panforte and more, and all manner of grappa and mirto to wash it all down. The meal, though long, flew by among the hospitable company, as we chatted with Paola and Massimo, and Flavia’s Zia Laura and Zia Grazia, who exclaimed, “Monica, where do you and Jason put all that food, you have eaten everything, and you are both so slender!” I laughed and tried to explain what my typical Monday through Friday schedule is like – molto fretta, sempre in ritardo – always rushing, always late, I said.

But the party was far from over. The fire was refuelled. We repaired to the living room for a gift exchange. We had brought just a few treats for Flavia’s parents. The gift exchange was by preassigned pairs, and packages and gift bags flew across the center of the circle for at least an hour. Victor and Eleanor received another generous slew of gifts. As their energy started to flag, we slowly began to say our Arrivederci. Eleanor didn’t last ten minutes in the car, in spite of an initial bitter dispute over who got to hold Victor’s new Nintendo 2Ds in the backseat. We arrived home in the dark, full, warm, and content.

I miss seeing our family in the US, but am comforted by the fact that we have such good friends and community here to welcome us as a family into their homes and traditions.

Tomorrow, we are driving far north, until the pink sawteeth of the Dolomites become the horizon, and then our narrow foreground, meeting up there with the Zambon family. We will then continue on to Austria for capodanno – New Year.

Firenze: Natale in Italia, Prima Parte / Christmas in Italy, Part 1

Christmas in Italy feels much more low-key. Or maybe we are more relaxed?

The run-up to the crown jewel of calendar holidays here is, dare I say, enjoyable. But the one thing I really miss is mass Christmas baking (you can take the family out of Finland) and inviting friends over for a spread of homemade sweets, prosecco, and coffee. Oh for my cookie list.

The relative benefits of Italian holidays – or I should say, a Florentine natale in centro – are something to be considered: no big box stores. No driving. Relaxed gift shopping locally at Dreoni, Pusateri, a leather shop of Via dei Ricasoli whose name I still do not know, even as I have given them considerable custom in the past year. The majority of presents for kids were purchased on Amazon. Just a couple of crazy store visits.

Jason’s colleagues and business partners roll out with Christmas gifts like you would not believe, mostly luxury comestibles and libations, and high-end personal care products, and very often small wrapped toys for the kids. That’s a cultural perk of his position, and I am not complaining – it makes a festive spirit spring happily upon us with seemingly no notice.

Victor and Eleanor each had a Christmas program and party in the past week. They’re out of school from now until January 8, in observance of all twelve days of Christmas, culminating in the Befana (Epiphany) holiday on January 6 (the twelfth day of Christmas), when Santa’s slightly alarming, definitely demented, and very aged sister (or aunt? maybe his bis zia, great-aunt?) comes to the house a broom in the night to drop off chocolate and small gifts.

Eleanor’s Christmas program this year was divided up by class – there are four sections in her preschool, all named for characters from Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. Her section, called Mr. Passepartout (the same as Victor’s last year), has about 18 kids in it. The section is taught exclusively in Italian. Ironically, it is the most international section, with many bilingual children who speak English or French or Dutch or German at home, so it far outpaces the other three sections (one taught in English, and two taught in a mix of English and Italian) populated largely by Italian children who do not speak English at home, and whose parents hope to give them a leg up on the language game by enrolling them in a preschool with English-speaking teachers. Her program was last Tuesday and lasted about fifteen minutes, followed by a party of an hour with an Italian spread.

Eleanor’s Christmas party +1

Victor’s Christmas program was presented by the entire primary school (grades 1-5) the following evening, on Wednesday night. It began the school chapel by a legit liturgy. celebrated by an Italian priest straight out of central casting give to a standing-room only crowd of 100 small children and their parents and extended families. Victor killed it on the front row singing some Lennon Christmas.

Victor, fifth from left in front, front and center like his mama.
Note he is wearing a very old, white-ish t-shirt with an image on front.
This is as close as we can get to “nice white shirt” with him.

Eleanor fussed, channeled all our frustration as she complained about the length, played on the stairs outside the chapel, then settled into the pew and then the kneeler with her doll. The little girl next to us fell asleep calmly amidst the chaos in the arms of her nonna. This program was no joke and last 30, 60, 70, 75 minutes (counting as a parent with one eye constantly on the toddler meltdown clock.) Whew and we’re done!

Here is what is incredible: after this lengthy Christmas program, everyone repaired to the mensa for what had to be the most insane Christmas party I have ever seen. It was like American school carnival with games for prizes, plus an Italian buffet of dinner and sweets, and a mercantino (tiny for-sale table of art and decorations). The most incredible component, however, was an Italian mom stationed at the deejay table, with a playlist, and some serious subwoofers.

The music was superb. The kids were all dancing. And the tiniest dancer, Eleanor, was dancing with everyone in a mad whirl, big boys and big girls, adults. She was on fire. She did not want to leave. Everyone seemed to know this wee dancing lass. I will confess I teared up to see her unselfconscious confidence in such a huge social situation that was clearly trying the thresholds of many of the children as well their parents. Yet here was mini Miss Cross-Cultural, just doing her thing. It was a sight to behold.

Another mom and I got our groove on at the edge of the dance floor, laughing as we mocked ourselves for being unable to resist even the most pop-up of discoteche. Jason and I finally lured Eleanor off the dance floor with a promise of a mercatino purchase, and left the building with an ostentatious tree ornament and a small Christmas tree made out of paper cone wrapped with about a skein of pink yarn decorated accordingly.

Inexplicably, we received red foam clown noses on our way out. The kids immediately put them on and wore them home.

Cross-eyed from looking

Up next, parts two (Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), and three (what we have planned for our holiday! Hint: ski school.)

Rappresentando il Mondo Perfetto / Representing the Perfect World

Who among us does not yearn for a more perfect world? Who does not harbor idealizations of how the world might be, while longing to create that world externally?

It’s our nature to want to exert control over external circumstances, in order to align them with the inner vision we have. A quick mental tour through history, states, governments, and religions reveals again and again the result of this outsized longing. Do they succeed, our worldly manifestations of these inner ideals and longings? In part, yes. They do last for a bit. But also, no. The other side of humanity takes over as systems break down, people dissolve into argument, quarrel, and disperse.

This longing also knows a smaller expression, addressing not worlds or communities, but our own lives. We long to create externally what we envision internally. The less we can control, the more creatively we seek a channel of control to maintain psychological equilibrium. And, at times, this can go far, toward obsessions and compulsions.

Those most prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior are children and adolescents, who possess very little agency over their external life. School, rules, bedtime, the onward march of order form a sort of tyranny, against which they rebel by controlling their microcosms at close reach. As a very hands-on mother of a six-year-old and three-year-old, I observe this daily at a very close remove.

I was just such an obsessive-compulsive child. The frequent moves of my early years demanded that I form my personality to be nimble and ready to adapt to the new house, classroom, school, town of the year. I started at my fourth new school the fall I entered the sixth grade, when I was ten. I had become skilled at meeting people quickly, staking out my social territory, determining who was a safe new friend, and who was crazy and best left to their own devices on the playground. It was a matter of survival, and I wanted to thrive.

My obsessive-compulsive behavior of childhood expressed itself in pathetic rituals, such as using my hair bush to perfectly groom the fringe of the circular yellow rug on my bedroom floor, or knowing at any moment the value of all the loose change in the house, down to the penny.

However, I also had an aesthetic streak, and found my ultimate refuge of safety and order in my wooden dollhouse. My father made it for me from a kit, one early Christmas; my interior-design minded mother glued wrapping paper that featured a huge magenta and orange floral pattern as wallpaper on the small walls of its four rooms. At least one of the rooms had wall-to-wall, orange, fake fur carpet. There was tiny furniture. A few dolls, but the small human figurines were of little consequence to me. I wanted to imagine myself in this house. I did not need the dolls.

My dollhouse moved with us. Each time we moved, as well as during periods of relative stability, I could be found in my makeshift workshop, renovating and redecorating the dollhouse. I made furniture out of balsa wood, using an X-acto knife, staining and sanding the pieces to get them just right. I rolled out new rug from fake fur, and painted the walls, and re-wallpapered the rooms with new wrapping paper as I felt like it. I made tiny art and hung it on the walls of the downstairs living room. I sewed tiny hand towels and frayed the fabric to imitate the fringe of our real towels. I purchased tiny dishes with my allowance, or received such notions for Christmas. And the little dollhouse received a holiday treatment for Christmas and Easter. This went on for years. It was far and away my favorite toy.

Our last move of my childhood in 1984, combined with a growing awareness, relegated the little wooden dollhouse to a corner, where it later became a memory. I can close my eyes and remember the joy I felt at being absorbed on my own in a creative task that had no end, just a general goal to preserve in myself, for a bit, this suspended feeling of safety, and the pleasure of having my own small world to manipulate at will into a locus amoenus.

It gives me considerable joy today to see my daughter, now 3, play with her small Peppa Pig plastic starter dollhouse, placing the stairs and the furniture, putting Mamma Pig in the bath, George and his dinosaur on the top bunk bed, Daddy Pig on the couch. An American in Italy, straddled between cultures at home and at school, I intuit both her feelings and her response to process through play, as I did.

I didn’t see my dollhouse for years. It probably was stored somewhere. Long after, in my twenties, I read about the nomadic Tuareg tribe of Africa. A people without a state, they carry with them small silver miniatures of their domestic items, to keep present at all times the totemic comfort of a home that does not change, but remains ever-present and welcoming. I felt a chill of recognition as I read – that was me, that is why I was doing that with my dollhouse all those years. The subconscious wisdom of the seven-year-old reaches beyond Campbellian understanding into the collective Oversoul of survival. My coping strategy was in fact a cultural value for an entire people on a different continent!

This ability to carry a feeling of being at home with me, no matter where I am, has served me well, through five countries, fourteen cities, seventeen languages; some by choice, some out of necessity. Fortunately, I have grown beyond the OCD of my childhood, and look with empathy on that little girl of my past, who so struggled to make sense of the constant changes. My home is in my heart, and with my family, and with a few small totems that are easily packed and transported. It was such a relief to jettison in Oklahoma in 2016 all the material items that held no totemic value for me. Our house was literally perched above a basement that filled with things, given to us by others on their way out. To purge that minor landfill and make room for expansive feelings of security and my small treasures was a highlight of that year. Rather than being controlled by my belongings, I was controlling them.

Italians get out their seasonal version of the dollhouse each year around Christmas. They take it very seriously. What we call a creche in the US (merci, France), they call a presepe. The presepi are everywhere, bearing witness to the idealized world we all carry within us. They are in store windows, restaurants, school, and of course, churches.

Presepe, Piazza del Duomo, ristorante

We make a point to visit places with presipi of note, because they are lovely, and also, they give a major bang for the buck when you have kids in tow. Of course, for me personally, they speak to my historic dollhouse fetish and metaphor.

Monasteries and places of pilgrimage, such as the Santuario di San Michele Arcangelo in Gargano, Puglia, or the Abbazia di Monte Oliveta Maggiore in Siena, put out truly breathtaking presepi, complete with elements of running water and sunny skies that fade continuously into a star-studded ceiling and back, animated figurines busy at their agricultural tasks.

On Sunday, Eleanor and I were admiring the presepe in Dreoni on Via Cavour, where a diminutive shepherd’s arm endless ran along the back of a
tiny sheep with a gleaming pair of miniature metal shears.
“Che cosa fa lui, Eleanor, alla peccora,” I asked her, pointing to the small shepherd. (What is he doing?)
“Tagliare i capelli,” she answered right away. (Cutting the hair.)

The children attend a semi-private Catholic school, and presepi are everywhere, on every floor and in every classroom, the largest one in the foyer. The foyer presepe is huge and has running water.

Presepe, nell’androne di I Scolopi

The one on Victor’s floor is considerably more rustic, and amusing.

Each presepe represents a way we wish the world might be, could be – a place of rest, and hope, where what we need may not be easily found at first, but embraces us when we find it.

I hope all of you find your totemic place, not just at the holidays with various representations of holy people, saints, and animals, but throughout the year as we bob through our months, seemingly unmoored. Create the image and set your mind to it. Do not rely on external circumstances for daily reassurance – if it comes that way, fine. But the days that it doesn’t, a tiny dollhouse or a presepe might be just the thing.

San Giacomo per tutte parte / St. James everywhere

Saint James and I have been friends for years.

Meet my personal patron saint.

Almost 25 years, to be precise.

I first met him at nineteen, when, as an unchurched Protestant Midwesterner, I found myself in the the middle of Santiago de Compostela in January 1993, the clouds socking in the city so that none of the surrounding hills were visible, rain pouring down in buckets by the hour, rendering umbrellas useless and jeans that stayed wet for days.

I was on a study abroad program, in the spring semester of my sophomore year in college, and I had arrived alone. I was rocking that pilgrim gene hard. I am pretty sure I walked down to the church in my first day or two on scene, to feel the worn marble at the foot of the tree of Jesse, to eyeball the enormous bota fumeiro used to stream incense high above the pews at high mass and on feast days, to meander among all the chapels, and to duck into the crypt of the saint.

Santiago means “Saint James” in Spanish, and it is in the crypt of the cathedral that his relics are buried. Martyred in 44 CE, his followers were forbidden to bury him. Nine centuries later, it is said that his remains were found. In various fantastic stories, he is pulled on a ghost ship made of stone from the Holy Land, and a white steed leaps form the foam to pull him to land in Galicia. The name Compostela itself alludes to the star in the countryside which some shepherds followed until they arrived at the granite barge (sound familiar…) His remains received a proper burial almost a millenium after his martyrdom, and Santiago de Compostela was branded thenceforth as Saint James of the Starry Countryside.

A bit of sloppy internet research just revealed that the town may have been called Compostelum in the Roman era, referring to the camp of stars – the orienteering by astronomy that led pre-Christian pilgrims to its rainy northwestern corner.

In any case, Santiago was the third top medieval pilgrimage destination, after Jerusalem and Rome, and while Jerusalem is a tourist destination as well as a pilgrimage destination, and Rome the same, they are large cities, giants on the historical landscape. Santiago, in turn, is a small town of under 100,000 tucked into the Spanish countryside, yet it has bloomed in popular imagination as a destination for those undertaking some sort of personal visionquest, grappling with midlife, or any number of reasonable justifications. I think the hot thing now is to fly to Peru and trip on ayahuasca, but the Camino provides a more natural, even blistering, mortification of the flesh that also leads to insight, transcendence, and epiphany.

Note that, in the medieval era, a pilgrimage to Santiago could be meted out in court as penalty for some severe crime, since the highway robbers along the route were so fierce that hardly anyone would be surprised if the convict was thrown off a stone bridge to his death well before he saw the cathedral sires from the peak of Monte de Gozo, outside the city limits. Pilgrims who did return home often took a name to denote their survival, much in the way that Muslims today append Hajj or Hajji after their name to convey their successful hajj to Mecca. Pilgrim groups to Compostela elected a leader from among the group, whom they called King, and today many people, especially Catholics, who are named Rey or Del Rey or King or Le Roy or Leroy carry the traces of this family history.

1993 was an Año Jubilar Jacobeo, meaning the city was streaming with pilgrims who had made the journey, or part of the journey, on foot to receive a Compostela – an indulgence for the forgiveness of sins. They often looked like they had paid handsomely for those sins on the trail, as they limped in with staffs topped by scallops, their ginger hobble betraying blisters upon blisters, shin splints, and general wear and tear. They walked in groups or in lines down the Rua do Franco, named for the medieval tax, or frank, that pilgrims paid to enter the city. (Not Francisco Franco, as a teenaged me naively assumed for months after I arrived.) “Franco” derives from the same Latin word that gives us English “franking,” which today, as far as I know, is only used to in congressional contexts, such as when US senators and representatives sign or rubber stamp an envelope with their signature in lieu of a stamp. In the last 25 years, the Camino de Santiago in in its many routes has been increasingly popular, the subject of a film by Emilio Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, numerous books, and general wide entry onto bucket lists, regardless of religious affiliation.

I have never officially “done” the Camino – in today’s understanding, this means the Camino Frances, although there are many others. In 2005 on my own (Jason was working in Italy – we were engaged then), I did realize huge parts of it on the narrow-gauge FEVE train system of northern Spain, as I worked my way from Bilbao, backtracking to San Sebastian, then across the northern coast through Lekeitio, Castro Urdiales, Cudilleiro, Santander, Viveiro, Padron, Oviedo, and back into Santiago. I met many pilgrims on the train who were taking a day break from walking or biking on the FEVE routes that wound through the forests of oak and birch that cover that part of Spain. It is still on my bucket list, but now even college groups of students complete the Camino in whole or in part in groups with faculty leaders.

In 1993, I was intrigued by the idea of travelling with the Compostela passbook, getting my various stamps at the pilgrim refuges along the past, eating simple meals in refectories with strangers. Then, as one completes the Camino and arrives at the Porta da Gloria, the completed passbook is presented, all sins are absolved, and there is also a cute gift shop where one can buy bookmarks or paperweights to commemorate one’s newly immaculate soul.

In any event, my introduction to St. James and the pilgrim culture took hold all those years ago, and has stayed with me to this day. I identify strongly with the pilgrim archetype, a traveler with a purpose, even if a distant one, and one so far-flung from home that trips are measured in years, or even decades. Even now, every time I see a scallop, or a cross of Santiago, it is like seeing an old friend, feeling his welcome handclasp.

In Florence especially, just before the Ponte Santa Trinita, at Chiesa Santa Trinita, there is a statue of San Giacomo in an alcove, hat jauntily propped, scallop on his shoulder, staff topped with a gourd for water, missing a hand. I smile involuntarily every time I pass by there, whispering a warm, “Hi, James.”

Basilica Santa Trinita
Credit: Archdiocese of Florence
Note St. James in alcove on far left

And, even more coincidentally, he is the namesake of the American Episcopal church in Florence, where I have been singing in the choir for over a year now. St. James Episcopal has welcomed us a family in a way that particular to Florence, indicative of the many aspects of expat support in the city.

St. James Episcopal Church – portico

Yes, St. James has come full circle for me, as the friendly saint of my first year in Europe has reappeared again as the welcoming patron saint of travelers and pilgrims (and Spain) here in our new life. My pilgrim gifts (and welts) are welcome in St. James, which was founded in the nineteenth century by a rather Gilded Age cohort, led by none other than JP Morgan himself. The foundations he endowed for St. James thrive today, and provide a solid ground for the many programs of outreach that we do. St. James welcomed me by allowing me to warble on in their choir alongside professionals from the Opera di Firenze and the Opera di Livorno, as well as freelancers with incredible gifts of voice and music, and Riccardo, our Buddhist organist and pianist who can sit down to play any piece with a natural ease and fluency that takes my breath away. In March, I came onto the vestry – their governing body for the parish – and soon agreed to secretarial responsibilities for the group. In May, I trained to serve as an LEM (lay eucharistic minister), and have served the wine from the chalice at a half-dozen masses or so since then. I love that the leadership within our church weights in favor of women, and woke men. I cannot count the many opportunities St. James has given me to more fully become a contributing member of the community. As we are here for the long haul, that is a high priority for me.

In the vestry, fresh off mass this morning.

It’s a truly diverse congregation, comprised of all walks of life, class, origin, nationality. It gives me the deeply transnational American experience that I so craved in Arezzo five years ago, and in Oklahoma in general. (Funny side note – in Arezzo I used to lurk at the southeast asian market just to buy curry ramen or seafood udon and or masala in small tin cans, to be among a mix of people, so homogeneous did Arezzo feel with its scores of well-heeled, well-bundled bourgeois Italians trotting up and down the Corso d’Italia in their new shoes every evening at the passeggiata.)

St. James, I am glad we met when I was so young, and am more grateful still for our evolving friendship, and the many ways you continue to surface in my life, reaffirming my recurrent themes and challenges.

Inverno e i russi / Winter and Russians

The cold months around Christmas have always signaled that the time has come again to read Russian classics.

The crisp air, the holidays, warm rooms and chilly paths, short days and long moonlit nights, all seem congruous with my days. Social intrigue, confessions, married couples, shining eyes, nannies and gaggles of noble children. Huge farms and serfs and trains and snowstorms, the train to St. Petersburg.

I am not sure when this habit of mine began, possibly in the late nineties in Seattle with Turgenev, or even earlier, in Strasbourg in 1996, as I plowed through the brick that is The Brothers Karamazov first in French (got about halfway through), then in English. It persisted, and from then on cold weather meant that I should take in hand a volume of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, or Turgenev, or Lermontov or Akhmatova when the mood called for poetry. Anna Karenina, The Idiot, The Torrents of Spring, “Family Happiness,” “Master and Man,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” more.

Something about the way Russian literature flies a straight path through a narrative, clean prose and insight on board, poetry and poignance when called for, but never overdone, resonates with me more deeply with every passing year The truth that runs through all relationships, between all people, at every age and level, the sensitivity with which inner struggles are described and resolved – or not. The frank portrayal of the spectrum of human passions.

I remember thinking as an adolescent that certain types of fiction were beyond me, and best kept aside for a later date – Hemingway and Fitzgerald seen in middle school but saved for high school, Proust on the radar in college but saved for graduate school, the Russians beckoning toward me through the fog of my mid-twenties but reading like a life manual by my mid-thirties (to a certain extent.) Especially as the occasional squalor of the day-to-day grind, working and dealing with an unwieldy public, my bureaucratic career barely papering over the churning sea of my many hopes, desires, and internal conflicts.

Last year I read more Tolstoy, novellas and short stories, and my holidays were improved considerably by literary insight, as I was at the time in my initial six months of cultural adjustment in Italy. It helped that we drove to the cold mountains of Slovenia for Christmas, the slavic air further contributing to my feeling of being transported and immersed into the whirl of another’s well-painted problems.

Russian perspective is a valuable acquired skill especially in Florence, where the sublime exists in daily company with squalor. Of course, we have the Palazzo Vecchio with its ridged tower and colorful crests, the Loggia dei Lanzi filled with sculpture for public perusal. The duomo, hulking over its piazza and the Piazza di San Giovanni, its tricolor marble trumpeting centuries of economic growth and dominance. Block after block of luxury high-end retail, five star hotels, vaunted restaurants.

Feast your purse on such luxury goods.

And yet poverty, in the form of desperate African immigrants selling tissues and their counterparts from North Africa holding down the market on selfie sticks and knockoff fine art prints, Roma bickering in the street and shouting into cell phones. The crowds that gather for the thrist shop and food pantry at St. James. The easy access to a variety of panaceas to numb the mind and get through the night. The transnational crowd of wealthy tourists, economic climbers from China. Even the occasional Italian parent slapping and spanking their young child mid-meltdown on Piazza della Repubblica makes me wince.

As a friend used to say, life’s rich pageant, hmm?

Two items recently have struck me as stepped from a Russian novel: the aging Italian junkie I see every day, and the English cemetery.

He is about fifty, with a white ponytail. He is slight, and short. He looks like a kind man, if he know what day it was. He wears a blue piumino, jeans, and tennis shoes without fail. I pass him on my bike each evening as he drifts around the intersecting of Via degli Alfani and Via della Pergola, in the middle of some very student blocks. He is there, rain or shine. His eyes are blue, but they do not see; he usually looks strung out in a gaunt, haunted way. He never asks me for money, probably because I am moving too fast on my bike, but his pathos is shared with every pedestrian he sees. I think he must have been a handsome and creative man once, twenty-five years ago. The Florentine intersections are often named on each angle – I like to think this is foresight to assist Florentines from every century to successfully complete their daily rendezvous. The corners are poetically named: Canto dei Candeli, Canto dei Diavoli, and so on. The corner where this hungry ghost rattles his maudlin chains? Canto alla Catena.

The Cimitero Inglese is just a few blocks from our palazzo, on Piazzale Donatello, which is today a huge traffic circle. I know it well by sight, but had never been inside its iron gates; two weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to tag along with a cultural side trip from another language school, and showed up on a very windy, cold day. As the group assembled we introduced ourselves to one another, chatting amiably until the caretaker came to the gate to let us in.

She was straight out of the thirteen century, and spoke fluent Italian with a British accent. A white kerchief was carefully knotted around her head, the front fold pulled down over her brow to make a sort of brim. She was cheerful, and of an age that cared not a whit about her matching white whiskers. She wore a sort of monastic habit, and sandals with socks. She ushered us into her library to tell the story of the cemetery, and the many famous people who came to rest there, especially the headliner – Elizabeth Barrett Browning, long-suffering of tuberculosis, who died of a gradual laudanum overdose administered by her husband Robert. The caretaker declaimed a few Browning poems, first in Italian, then in a beautiful Oxfordian English.

She said it was not just one cemetery, but three, and I am guessing the next two layers down are either medieval and Roman or Roman and Etruscan. The cemetery is a noticeable hill, which must be at least 40 or 50 feet high, and I am sure it is all bones upon layered bones. It became the English cemetery in the nineteenth century, when it was illegal for non-Catholics to be buried within the city wall, and the Piazzale Donatello was just outside that city limit, at the top of Borgo Pinti.

The caretaker also does a lot of work with the Rom in Florence, having invited them to the cemetery to help clean and restore the cemetery. From 1950 to the early 2000s it had fallen into disrepair, and had become an eyesore, a place where drugs were bought, sold, and taken, dirty needles discarded, women’s bodies bought and sold, a suicide attempt. When the cleanup began, though, the scholarly grandmother said, the iniquity seemed to disperse, and the property became a less desperate place.

Following her lecture, we went outside
to look at the graves and stones. The sky had become darker and grayer, threatening a stinging rain. I went off on my own to read inscriptions. I found the Browning headstone ahead of the group so I could take a picture. Many leaders of the Swiss Reformed Church are buried there, along with many artists, statesmen, the last living descendants of William Shakespeare, and more. The memorials themselves are very Victorian, many weeping angels with their hands on their foreheads, and rugged crosses hewn from marble.

The final resting place of EBB, as she’s known here.

I’ve always felt an affinity for stones and bones. It is the history student in me, the intuitive feeler who can close her eyes and inhale and feel the lives lived centuries before. Tuberculosis, smallpox, fever, childbirth. Perhaps heartbreak. Rarely old age. Where did they live, what did they dream? Whom did they love, what did they yearn for? It is another way to read a book, to know history. We all come to rest, sooner or later. I don’t know if I’d want to be squeezed in on that bone-filled traffic island.

Angel for eternity

I thanked the scholarly grandmother for her time and informative lecture. She was keen to talk more to me as she and Jason are social contacts, given their shared research. I told her that I would return with Jason, and some books for her library. I donated to the box that was set out by Rom volunteers to support their continued work as they right the broken and crooked tombstones, and repair the now-flourishing gardens – in the spring the cemetery erupts in a profusion of thousands of purple irises, the gigli that are the symbol of the Florentine commune.

I’ve got a fresh copy of Gogol’s Dead Souls that I will be inhaling as soon as our holidays begin, fortified by fresh images of low and high culture, living the human experience in Florence as close to the bone as life will allow, in parallel with art and history.

And, fortunately, with antibiotics, proper medical care, and immunizations.

La mia voce / My voice

A storm blew through last night and early this morning, pulling cold air behind it, stripping the trees of their fall color, now plastered in a solid sheet over stones and pavement. The Firenze marathon ran today, in the worst of it. I shuddered to consider the cervicale they were all actively acquiring while running in the cold, heavy rain.

Gloomy staircase in our palazzo this afternoon
gave no hint of the blue sky outside.

Jason took a phone call regarding a student whose medical crisis was first said to be “an organ infection,” then clarified as varicella – chickenpox, for which Italy does not vaccinate as in the U.S. Fortunately almost all Gonzaga’s 175 students are on an extended Euro trip thanks to the Thanksgiving weekend, thereby limiting exposure in their close quarters on Via Giorgio La Pira.

I’ve been on hiatus to battle and recuperate from what was anecdotally diagnosed by Gonzaga’s private doctor (after hearing details from Jason as to the symptoms) that Eleanor and I suffered as “un virus parafluenzale.” I normally require a solid writing download of 1200 words every three days or so to stay sane; in the fevered dreams, body ache, and recurrent nosebleeds (!) of this particular virus parafluenzale, as well as vomiting children and a husband teetering on the brink himself, I was barely tracking days, much less creative output.

The inward turning afforded by the European autumn always puts me back in the mind of autumns before, when I was younger, and much given to solitary, broody journaling while living abroad or traveling through parts less familiar. I think of all the journals I filled with my traveling and expat thoughts at 19, 21, 22 – I still have them all, but not here. They are in storage in Spokane – and how internal that voice was. It was also the early and mid-nineties. People were just starting to freak out about ‘zines. The internet was unknown. Jason and I often muse on how we, as GenXers of a certain age, were the last to study and travel abroad with the complete air gap afforded by snail mail and prohibitively expensive phone calls. How we read paper books and wrote paper letters and rationed our words in phone calls as we watched the clock tick minutes by.

Spain? I may as well have gone to Mars that year. My journal reflected that, as though it were a ship’s log (“Spain: 1993”). I remember I did photocopy a slew of paper letters I had sent back to the US from Santiago, as they filled in the gaps in my experiential narrative, and I had friends willing to lend them back to me for the purpose.

France? I was slightly more connected, two years later; that was the first year I had an email account, but I was required to reserve ahead my time in their computer lab in the basement of l’USHS in Strasbourg, with its huge, Legoesque monitors, where I would compose and hit send on emails that were easily thousands of words in length. I had saved all those emails on 3.5″ floppy disks for years, but only recently jettisoned them, before we moved back to Italy last year. I figured there was no way to get the data off of them. Probably a mistake. Fortunately, my written record is rich in detail, and barely misses a day or a phase.

Part of the reason I wrote so much then was that I was often lonely and unaccompanied, simultaneously isolated if gently socialized, and I found comfort in the pen and the page. I was also addressing and processing all that I encountered, building my database of continental understanding that continues to serve me well to this day.

It is true that Europe no longer feels foreign to me. The last year that was the case was probably 1996. For all the years after, from 2001 on, each trip accrued a greater familiarity and understanding with Italian culture and sensibility in particular. We said it felt like our backyard, that Europe was no longer strange to us: the outlets and plugs, the funny bathrooms and bidets, the long door handles. The cigarettes and train schedules, the air kissing and meals, hanging laundry to dry, paying first for your espresso and showing your scontrino to the barista before they serve you, unless you were in your regular bar. The expressionless bus drivers, the toddlers dressed in tufted down in cold months. The grocery stores with their plastic gloves and weigh stations that looked like giant calculators. The patient process of making friends, of credentialing our cultural calling cards.

The downside of having written so much in the nineties as a young person living in Europe is just that – it’s all handwritten, in journals locked away in storage. I read one of them not long ago, a journal for Strasbourg’s wet, dark spring, and a chronicle in particular of a lunch at the restau-U close to Gallia that described the effect on my appetite of being confronted by reconstituted carrot balls floating in cream sauce. Who was that person? I’d be her friend now, if I came across her.

On the upside, I have it somewhere.

On another upside (how many sides to this coin are there?), that I have the written record at all is a boon. Both its representation, my refashioning of it, the formative chapters and those memories that continue to this day as reference points for me, by turns reassuring and startling.

I don’t journal by hand much anymore. If I do, it is one of my rare long flights on my own without kids. I take a lot of notes, on things I see and hear, and topics to treat here, in the blog. I have at least 25 in a list right now. I actually prefer the idea of an audience that receives my writing, rather than locking it away in a journal for myself to further spiral into lonely moping, then borne aloft by amused cultural observations.

I might have posted publicly twenty years ago. In any case, then as now, even when I am not writing, I am writing in my mind; I see, and hear, and remember. It’s just a matter of staking out the time to write it, to tune into that channel and listen for an hour or so. I’m less self-conscious now than I was then – the sharing triggers far less angst than it did. That’s either normal, or I’m lucky. I vote the latter, because everyone likes to be lucky.

I often review my list of writing topics, and prep myself by mulling over topic A, only to switch horses capriciously to topic B once I get my sixty minutes alone for the discrete analog upload.

I had a lot I was going to write about here today regarding Thanksgiving, and being far from the U.S., and our alternative Thanksgiving activities. We took the train to Turin with Flavia and spent two days there, fanning my creative flames again. A minor and short change of scenery is always welcome in this world, especially when the hotel room is huge, nice, and comped (thank you Jason), babysitter is on scene (grazie Flavia), and local guide is knowledgeable and affable (grazie Federico).

I’ve found my voice in the last eighteen months. The writing is on fire like never before. I simply need to sit down and it’s off to the races, never wondering about path or word choice or narrative line. I’m an intuitive writer, and when unblocked – which has been a continuous state for me since May 2016 – it flows, and flows. To tell a story or paint a scene is like walking a path, or mowing a lawn. There is no hem or haw – just f
orward, and onward, driven to the end, reveling in illustration.

I can cover Turin soon, in another 1200 words or so. Or another of my two dozen topics in mental draft should I hop horses again midstream. For the moment, thanks to everyone who is reading, and for joining me for an hour of Sunday Afternoon in Europe: Meditations.

And thank you Eleanor for falling asleep in the granny cart on the way home from Carrefour so that I could, incredibly for a Sunday, sneak in this makeup writing session. She’s still in the cart, top flap open, horizontal on the bed, and snoring softly.

Minutes before she fell asleep getting rolled around town in this thing.