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.

Italian-Induced Neuroplasticity

Italian research has shown that mental acuity in increasing years is best preserved and improved by struggling, experiencing moderate amounts of stress, grappling with the emotions that come with a healthy social network, and learning new skills from the ground up. Do you like to paint? Try writing. Cooking? Head to the garden. And on. Don’t stay to your well-trod path. Find a new one, or be grateful if life leads to one.

The study found that a simply pursuit of Sudoko or crosswords is insufficient as they fail to fully stimulate the “giro cingolato” or the “corteccia insulare.” The emotional aspect Italian researchers emphasize that getting out regularly for consistent exercise is still a critical part of the equation. It is best if this exercise might be combined with the aspects listed above. Perhaps the best prescription is a daily passegiatta, where you might get in your 10,000 steps while struggling to maintain a budget as you pass shops, or finding a shoe bargain, or bumping into some Salvatore or Federica with whom you have a well-managed but infrequently strained friendship.

At this rate I am going to live to be 100. Especially with a long-term Italian soggiorno, as we hope this will be. I am reminded of our friend Alice, who often invoked the importance of neuroplasticity, and I am happy that we have this situation where my neuroplasticity is growing on a daily basis. Language, culture, city, cuisine, career, working remotely, growing a personal network, feeling at home while encountering new situations and people daily. Or answering the door buzzer as I did just now. I am pretty sure she is from an agency of some sort … condominiums.

Today marks the recommencement of our regular schedule: Kids in school at i Scolopi by 9:30 am, Jason to work, me to home to work before getting lunch and heading into town on my bici to put in my east coast afternoon from Firenze. The holidays in Italy are so. Long. Advent to Natale to the holiday week to capodanno to Befana. Yeah, like a month and a half later I am ready for some normal time in the familial liturgical calendar. Victor was aggrieved that we did not get to take the 19 even though we got out to the busstop in time – Jason and I surmised that it came early. However, we were able to compensate for this tragedy by ensuring that we caught the C1 from San Marco, which always makes everyone very happy.

Eleanor accompanied me to St. James Episcopal yesterday for mass. I could not be more pleased with my tiny, savvy, open traveler who loves to sing. Much like her mama, she becomes quickly cranky when cooped up. A janut into town of about 3 hours for a noble purpose is balm to the soul for both of us.

 D bus.
 St. James sanctuary
  Transferring from the 6B to the D, hopping into S.M.N. to see what was happening, and to confirm that there, even on a Sunday, there are “so much people.”

Florence: The St. James Choir

A couple of weeks ago I posted about music – specifically, singing and choir.

I did attend a dinner for newcomers (along with some old Florence hands) that Friday at the rectory of of St. James Episcopal, which was a hilarious and delightful experience in itself, after a Katherine Mansfield fashion. All I could think of was the material that I could mine from the dinner, after the fashion of In a German Pension, one of my favorite short story collections of all time.

At the end of the dinner the priest’s wife (Episcopalians, remember) Dottie walked me out to my bike. On the way out, I said, I would really like to sing in a choir. She immediately brightened and promised to put me in touch with Liz the choirmistress. I asked if I would have to audition? Because I was a bit rusty. Oh, no, she assured me. It is a ministry – we turn no one away. Liz will work with you. She promised to forward my email address to Liz, and I rode home in the dark Florence evening with a literal song in my heart.

Of course the next day I felt impatient about my choir prospects and so I found the choirmistress’s contact information on the website, and emailed her (copying Dottie of course – never one to miff the priest’s wife.) Liz quickly wrote me back to explain basic information, and shared a folder with me full of sheet music for the following Sunday.

Well, this was exciting. I promptly reviewed the music and, with my friend YouTube, practiced last week. Some Saint Saens (“Oratorio”), and two standbys, “A Prayer of St. Richard of Chichester” and “Dona Nobis Pacem.” Rehearsal at 9:45, mass at 11.

Jason was in Poland for four days with 80 Gonzaga students, and I had cleverly arranged for a former student of ours and overall lovely person to stay with us for part of the time he was away. On Sunday morning, I attired myself in the most respectable cold-weather Episcopal outfit I could muster (black tights, black boots, denim mini, black sweater, peacoat) and pedaled my way to St. James, which is on the other side of the main train station, Santa Maria Novella. Every time I ride that way I wind up in the tangled roundabouts surrounding the station with city buses and coaches circling with me, which is a bit terrifying.

Church was quiet. I couldn’t figure out how to get in with my bike (many iron gates), but then saw that one gate had been propped open with a rock, and slipped in. I chained my red Bianchi to the wall next to the rectory, where it had been for dinner the week before. An earlier mass had begun at 9 that I did not wish to interrupt, so I walked around and admired the property. It was a gorgeous, clear morning, with a Rafaellian blue sky rolled out above.

 Rectory. Can you spot my red bike?

I eventually found a side door that said “push – church office” and followed the instructions, feeling a bit like Alice in Episcopaland. On the stairwell I encountered an older woman, and asked her where choir practice was. “Upstairs of course!” she answered brightly. “It’s my first time,” I said. She showed me the way.

The 9 am mass had apparently emptied out fast; the sanctuary was deserted. I stood around feeling awkward as the priest chatted with a parishioner. A quiet Japanese woman came after me. I sat in the pew for awhile. I got up and walked around and took note of the many plaques set into the walls and floors – a number of US Consuls, assorted long-term expats, J. Pierpont Morgan.

Eventually the other choristers trickled in. It was a small group, very international, of varying ages. The choirmistress Liz was all high-end business and very chic. Her husband anchored the bass section. The Japanese woman held forth for the sopranos, along with Liz and an American named Joan, who was very Yonkers. An American with a gorgeous tenor. A younger Italian, slightly jumpy but very musical. An Englishwoman named Claire (of course) kept to my side and filled me in when Liz was unable to. It was all very organized and professional; I was quickly handed a binder, and a hymnal. I’m sure I’ll know more later, but was told that some – many – of the choir members are professional musicians. I believe it. I think all the anglophone women had Italian husbands (not that I was keeping track but it was either evident or stated.)

“Where’s Timothy?” Liz asked.
“He can’t make it today – he’ll come for mass but can’t rehearse.”
There was some eye-rolling and grumbling. Claire pursed her lips and said she would fill me in later – “but it’s quite a story.”

Our accompanist played a Steinway grand whose notes filled the sanctuary. (The Steinway said “Steinweg” on it, which made me wonder if the brand name is localized for the US?) When he struck the first key I felt chills – and happy. I tried to acquit my vocal duties admirably. It did feel every bit a 26 year interval since I last sang in a choir, in 1989. Claire kept up an amusing patter in quiet tones at my side. Joan shared facts about grocery shopping on Sunday, and Fiesole. Liz seemed to stay close to me as we went through each piece for the first time, perhaps trying to gauge my ability to find a note or keep pitch or carry a tune. Fair enough – there was no audition, but it had to sound good. I sang in the alto section for the Saint Saens, and was assigned to the melody for the other two.

We filed up into the choir stall to further practice and make sure everyone knew where to be. The Willis organ made the Steinway grand seem, in comparison, like the small plastic Winnie-the-Pooh piano that Victor played with when he was one.

Rehearsal concluded (after we practiced everything, sectioned and resectioned – Liz was efficient and knew exactly what needed to happen). I was swept back to the vestry for a choir robe and, following a brief physical scrutiny by Liz, was handed a hanger labeled “Christina” with two robes. I put on the long-sleeved red robe with the mandarin collar and buttoned up, feeling like a cardinal imposter, perhaps Black Joan herself just prior to the vote. On went the voluminous white robe. I was glad for the extra layers in the November chill of the stone church.

Claire explained a bit more about the mass and what would happen. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m Episcopalian. I know the songbook, and the liturgy.” She smiled at me.

Timothy jogged in wearing a track suit. A small murmur and grumble went up, but everyone was glad to see him. He looked a bit to me like he’d just come out of a time machine that originated in 1994. “He’s British Italian. Such an interesting story on that one,
” Claire stage whispered to me again. I watched a Timothy quickly donned his robes, over his bright blue tracksuit and trainers. He sported a rather britpop haircut, like a lost Gallagher brother. I made a mental note to diplomatically extract the interesting story.

Mass clicked along rather quickly. The choir remained in the stall for the entirety, except after Communion when we sang from the pews with the Steinway. The music was, indeed, beautiful.

After, we put our robes on the hangers and placed them in the wardrobe, and everyone quickly dispersed to their Sunday. Liz seemed like I would be welcome to come back again as she explained what was happening with the choir on December 4 and December 18. Hand bells are involved, which is amusing. We’ll also be leading lessons and carols, which is a favorite tradition of mine.

No one in that choir seemed new to Florence – well, especially not the Italians. But the Americans were all a bit older than I and all seemed to have moved here in the mid-70s, and the same for the Brits.

When I got home, the kids were happily playing with Shelby, and Eleanor told me she wanted to go to church with me next time.

I really enjoyed my choir Sunday. Best part: you get to sing EVEN MORE with EVEN MORE special music. Also, really nice people.

More to come.

Straight up art, literature, and music, everyone. Facebook fast is in full effect.