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! 

If you Instagram, follow me at @occhiatafiorentina, where I am a frequent poster and microblogger of images taken with my phone, both around town and on travels. 

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?)


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.

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.)