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.

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.