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La Vita e` Meravigliosa

Valerie Schneider

I was in a funk. Despite the twinkle lights and colorful displays that had been festooned around town, I was feeling decidedly un-festive. The low, gray clouds and wet, cold weather hadn’t helped matters. There had not yet been a snowfall like last year at this time, and I would have preferred the crisp freshness of new snow to the damp, drab dreariness of the heavily overcast skies and unremitting rain. I am a desert rat who needs sunshine ... and I hadn’t seen a single ray for at least a solid week.

And just when I was feeling as lackluster as the weather, our landlord informed us that he would not be renewing our rental contract when it expires. I became unrepentantly gloomy and took to muttering porca miseria as I shuffled around cleaning the apartment. Because what else was there to do when the rain kept falling? Going outside would mean getting splattered by sadistic drivers who delighted in hitting the puddles that accumulated in the tire-worn grooves on the cobblestone streets. Bastardi, che cavolo!

Christmas music failed to raise my spirits, not even Harry Connick, Jr., whose jazzy crooning always made me feel good. The music being piped into the piazza was mostly bad remakes of English-language carols, with a strangely heavy emphasis on various arrangements of Silent Night, the one carol I despise above all others. Perhaps it is owing to repeatedly singing it over and over again during my Catholic school years, but I really dislike that tune. Besides, Bethlehem was packed to the gills with no room at the inn, remember? No way that it was a silent or calm night around there!

Even the passing of the rain and the lifting of the clouds didn’t help resurrect my spirits. I resorted to some Christmas baking in an attempt to brighten things up and warm the house, but that turned into an exercise in frustration. My baking never turns out too well here, despite more than two years of tweaking and trying. The butter is denser, the flour is finer, and the oven temperature fluctuates like a yo-yo. Despite that, I took another stab at it anyway. I gave extra beater time to the butter; I measured the flour carefully and tossed in a few spoonfuls of farina integrale as a friend counseled. Still, my sugar cookie dough turned sticky and my shortbreads disintegrated when I lifted them off the pan. Shhhhh-ish kabobs. This further muted my mood.

I started to think that maybe I should just drink a warm glass of vin brule`, gorge myself on torrone, and call Christmas off. And, just when I was pondering that plan I got a call from Francesca, my friend in Rome. After a bit of chit-chat, she stuttered, “Ah…uh, Valerie…I wanted to ask what you’re, uh, doing for Christmas?” Her voice sounded a little strange, even a little embarrassed. I stammered, suddenly realizing that we had just assumed that we’d spend Christmas with them, like the previous two years.

Christmas in Rome had become somewhat of a tradition. The past two holidays we had spent three days doing nothing but sit at the table and be fed great quantities of marvelous food by chef Giorgio, in the company of their family and friends who had become our own family and friends. Francesca and Giorgio sometimes smilingly refer to us as their “figli Americani” and their sons frequently say that I’m the sister they never had.

Giorgio always prepared a huge feast for La Vigilia (Christmas Eve), complete with a table laden down with antipasti, followed by the requisite seven plates of seafood. He would then rise at 6:00 a.m. and putter around the taverna sautéing and simmer sauces while humming contentedly to present an enormous Christmas Day dinner. At some point in the day, Bryan and the boys get into cahoots and regale the company with a little improvised musical skit.

Just when we thought we couldn’t possibly eat anything more for at least a week, these two days of unbridled gluttony would be followed by Santo Stefano, when Giorgio would proudly pour the polenta on a huge wooden board in the center of the table, top it with sauce and sausages and a heavy sprinkling of pecorino cheese, and invite everyone to grab a fork and dig right in.

We would leave the periferia for a jaunt into Rome’s centro storico to enjoy the people parade, the lights, the bancarelli and atmosphere of Piazza Navona. Francesca and I strolled with arms linked from stall to stall looking at the goods, commenting on outlandish fashions, and enjoying general merriment. Francesca would then work herself into indignance and give her annual diatribe about the unwarranted warping of La Befana from housewife to witch. “She should not have a pointy hat but a handkerchief on her head. Guarda! Vedi?” she would exclaim fiercely. “She is not a witch! She is a casalinga.”

After meandering the centro, we would enjoy a caffé to defrost ourselves before returning home, one year stopping by a skating rink to watch the kids do laps while orchestral music was being performed nearby.

It had all quickly become tradition for us. At least we thought. Now Francesca was on the phone asking what we’d be doing for Christmas? “Allora…we hadn’t really thought about it,” I sputtered. “We assumed we would be in Roma,” I somewhat sheepishly told her.

Relief flooded her voice. “Ah, benissimo! We hadn’t given it a second thought,” she admitted “until Roberto called to ask if you’d be here. We said ‘of course,’ but then realized we hadn’t even talked to you about it. We just assumed. Adesso e` normale,” she said sweetly. Now it’s just normal that you would be here.

Normale. Yes. It’s amazing how, in just a couple of years something becomes normal, accepted, customary. We realized once again just how blessed we are to have such friends as these.

The fog was dissipating. Then dear friends from New Mexico arrived for a visit and we enjoyed such hearty laughs, such leisurely lunches filled with camaraderie, and such glee as we watched their enthusiasm burst from their faces at the beauties of our region, that my funk was officially fleeing.

After they left, I found myself singing along with Harry and smiling at the bambini as they ran to see Babbo Natale (Santa Claus). I realized that I had gotten too caught up in mourning the year’s losses instead of counting the year’s blessings. Just recognizing that helped. I was feeling better, brighter…downright festive, even, so that by the time I watched my annual viewing of It’s a Wonderful Life, the famous lines about George Bailey being the richest man in town and that no man is a failure who has friends made me shiver and tear up.

I am still mourning the deaths of loved ones. There are pieces of my heart and soul that are vacant because of their absence from my life. But I am also so very grateful for the years they were present and for all the cherished moments we spent together, and it gives me comfort to think that, like George Bailey getting a glimpse of his influence on those in Bedford Falls, my presence also impacted their lives, and their dying moments, as well.

This Christmas will be celebrated like normale, with full-on feasts and lively chatter. But we have already received our gifts: we have loving families; friends back home who stay in touch; Slow Travel pals we met in person this year; and warm Italian amici who open their hearts and homes to us and treat us like famiglia. It really is a pretty wonderful life, don’t you think?

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Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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