Sunday, December 27, 2009

My Tuscan Christmas

Last year I spent my first Italian Christmas close to my ancestral roots in the south where I felt most Naples at the home of Giancarlo and with Maria's family who lives in Ischia. It was there in Lacco Ameno, Ischia, only months before, where I miraculously discovered the home and birthplace of my immigrating great grandparents, and the 150 year-old birth documents that enabled me to become a dual American/Italian citizen a few months later.
The Christmas culture of the south is unique and completely different than anywhere else in in Italy and it was specifically these southern traditions that were handed down through the generations to my family. It is a dramatic, vivid, elaborate tradition of physical, ornamental and spiritual expression, brought to emotionally elevated levels. The overall cultural differences between Northern and Southern Italy can be clearly discerned just through an observation of how Christmas is celebrated. As my family dispersed out of NYC over the last several years, these traditions were lost. I had craved the feeling of celebrating Christmas again the way I knew it. Last year going to Ischia and Naples I found it once again. It was a trip back into the Christmas's of my past and it evoked a million different nostalgias and memories of the traditions that were familiar to me as a child.
This year I wanted to experience Christmas here in Florence, because this is where I have chosen to live my life in Italy. It started with the Vigilia on Christmas Eve, which I attended at the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori . For 2 hours before midnight, the congregation stood silent in the enormous cathedral observing the solemn Gregorian Chanting of the bishop and his priests, as we all awaited the birth at Christ at Midnight. When midnight struck, the priests delivered a statue of the Christ child and stood it up in the front of the church, rather than laying Him down in his crib, which was curious. The church bells resounded and lasted for minutes.
As compared to the Vigilia in the south, it was more abstract and solemn. There was no presepie or ornamentation. It was emotionally subdued. Most everyone wore brown or black. The dampness of the basilica left me with a bone-piercing chill and the magnitude of its size made me feel like an observer rather than a participant. Rather than rubbing shoulders with the person crammed next to me in a wooden pew, we were separated by aluminum folding chairs which made me feel a little distant from the congregation.
Midnight mass was solemn, recited in Latin and the Bishop's sermon was hard to understand because his voice echoed multiple times off the infinite walls, serving to muffle his original words. It was exhilirating and exhalting to experience Midnight Mass at the Duomo.
It was raining as I left the Basilica at 1.30AM. I wrapped a plastic bag around my saddle and rode back to my apartment in the quiet stillness of Christmas morning. There was not a soul on the streets.

Christmas Day On Christmas morning I awoke to the sound of bells chiming from every church in Florence. I looked out the window to see that all the snow had melted and it was a cloudy day in Florence. I packed up all the gifts and the Scudieri panettone that I had bought for Nicola's family, got on my bike and headed for the train station, where I boarded a train to Siena. The landscape looked different today, a little more surreal, wrapped in a cloudy mist that I could observe from the windows of the train as it transversed the Tuscan countryside.
Awaiting me at the train station was Nicola, Cosimo and Costanza. We drove through the backroads of Siena until we came to an ancient isolated country villa which dated back to the 15th century. There we spent a typical Tuscan Christmas day, mostly in the kitchen, feasting on Nicoletta's lasagne, cinghiale and an abbondanza of vegetables and deserts to keep me warm for days to come. The children loved the gifts I brought and opened them with sparkling eyes. After dinner we took a long walk through the countryside until it got dark. We returned to the villa for Nicola's tiramisu and then I took the train back to Florence.
It was a great Christmas.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Baccalà...A Christmas Treat

My grandmother used to buy it in stiff, salted sheets in the summer and she stored it in large baskets in the basement where it would await the holidays. It was the cheapest fish you could buy, but today it has become a refined delicacy. What a tradition! On December 22nd, grandma would start soaking the baccalà so that it would be ready to cook on Christmas Eve. She preparted the fish in a great big pot with a soupy sauce consisting of tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, black olives, parsely and peperoncino. This we would eat on Christmas Eve along with an abbondanza of at least 10 other varieties of fish including shrimp, frutti di mare, crabs, clams, mussels, scungelli and stuffed calamari. This tradition is still the way Christmas Eve is celebrated in many parts of Italy, but especially in the south.

In Tuscany, baccalà has become more popular over the years, but it wasn't always that way. Here in Tuscany, fish is comparatively unpopular, due to our inland geography. But the one fish that has stood the test of time is baccalà. In the old days, the only way to transport fish to Tuscany without spoiling it, was to salt it. That's why baccalà is just about the only fish that has taken on a tradition here in Tuscany. On Fridays, baccalà is eaten in Tuscany with beans or potatoes.

But all over Italy, baccalà is asscociated with Christmas Eve. As a kid, I did not care for baccalà because it had a tough texture and even after soaking it for days, it was still quite salty and dried out. Today while I was in the Sant'Ambrogio market, I wandered through the bancarelle (merchant stalls) to see what looked different and fresh. I started talking with one of the merchants, Umberto, who sells great salami, fresh eggs and crispy bread. He was the only merchant who was selling baccalà and he had enough to feed all of Florence. I remember as a kid there was only one kind of baccalà. But now there are four. Dried with the spine, dried without the spine, already soaked with the spine and already soaked without the spine. I couldn't understand why the baccala with the spine cost more than without the spine. Umberto explained that it's the same concept as Bistecca's better with the bone, and therefore it costs more! Theoretically it's a sharp pricing philosophy, but I won't pay more to find bones in my fish! So, I bought some bright white already soaked baccalà without the bone. I took it home and bought some parsely and made the best baccala that I ever had. I am surprised that this fish is not more popular. Here's what it looked like when it was ready to eat! Some crispy Tuscan bread, a little Christmas music, and I was in heaven.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas Concert at Basilica di San Marco

The feeling of Christmas is straordiaria in Florence. The snow has added a glorious, heavenly feel to this magnificent city. Lights and snow everywhere, the echo of Christmas hymns emanating from every church that I pass, church bells ringing constantly, chestnuts roasting on street corners, music playing everywhere, a brisk cold snap in the air. The bars are filled with people keeping warm with caffè and cappuncino. Baccala, panetone, struffoli for sale everywhere. The streets packed with a feeling of joy and anticipation and sensation the likes of which I haven't felt since pre-2001 New York. And even better.

This morning I went to the piazza to see how my bike was surving the weather. It was covered with snow and a sheet of ice covered my saddle. I cracked off the ice, dusted off the snow, and all bundled up, I enjoyed the cold ride to the market, where I bought artichokes, clementines, and broccoli rape.

This evening I rode to Piazza San Marco where I attended a spectacular Christmas Concert at the Basilica, which was packed. Good thing I got there early. The church was quite cold, but thanks to several heat lamps that were added, it gradually warmed up. The program included a rich variety of Christmas music sung by the church's choir, a solo soprano and tenor, and included classic Latin hymns, a selection of Neopolitan Christmas Carols which were hot, Florentine pop Carols, and Italian Gospel Music....what a unique blend of vivacious energy! The night was topped off by a playful group of little girls who sang and danced and lifted everyone's spirits even higher.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More Snow and a Wedding

More Snow......Last night it snowed so heavily that my cycling team had to cancel our annual Christmas Dinner, which was supposed to take place in the hills north of Florence. While it was a disappointment, it gave me the chance to meet up with my friend Roberto for dinner right here in my neighborhood on the spur of the moment. We walked to the piazza as the snow fell onto the cobblestones, lighting up everyone's spirits and making Florence sparkle like I have never seen it before.
I was lucky to experience the rare opportunity of witnessing snow falling on Florence....especially during the height of the Christmas season. It was spectacular to watch the flakes falling at night, beneath the millions of tiny Christmas lights that are sprinkled high over the streets.
The instant that I opened my eyes this morning I darted out of bed to open my window to see the snow that had fallen last night. Awaiting me was a magical winter wonderland in Florence that I never thought I would see. I dressed up quickly and spent the day walking for miles and miles, observing every possible inch of Florence under the snow. I am glad that I did, because knowing how rare it is to snow in Florence, it could melt just as fast, and I did not want to miss it, as it could be all gone tomorrow.
The Little Old Man in the Market .....The market was vibrant today, being the last Saturday market before Christmas! There were merchants who came from as far as Naples and Sicily, selling their specialty foods. I spent alot of time talking with the Napoletans, and bought some frisselle, mozzarella di buffala, salcissa and Auricchio provolone, and got some great recipes from them. While talking to one of the ortolane (vegetable merchants), a short old Florentine man noticed my English accent and he started asking me questions about America and President Obama. He was very energetic and talkative and he was easily over 80 years old. He was carrying an old leather attache case that seemed to be full. He asked me if I had a minute, and opened up his attache case to show me the long letter that he had proudly written to Obama regarding his Nobel Peace Award. He told me that he has spent the last few weeks writing the letter, but that now he needs to have the letter translated into English. He was so cute!! He wanted to know if I would be interested in helping him to translate the letter. I told him that I would be glad to try! I gave him my phone number and I hope that he doesn't lose it, because I am really curious to see what he wrote! His little old wife and daughter were so happy that he finally found someone to help him with the translation. I sure hope to hear from him.

A Surprise Wedding! Then, after going to a spin class (of which I was the only participant) on Borgo Pinti, I passed a hidden 13th century convent and church, the Convento Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi that is set behind a wall which makes it very unnoticable. You could pass it and not even realize it is there....Like so many other amazing finds in Florence! I've never had a chance to go in, and decided that this would be the perfect time. I was taken by surprise as I opened up the gigantic 13th century door, to see that the church was being prepared for an imminent wedding. The organ was playing and a tenor and baritone were practising the Ave Maria. I was struck by the beauty of this church, which was very different than most of the other churches I've seen in Florence, more ornate and not as grey and cold.The overall style is Florentine baroque, which is much more colorful and ornate, but more uniquely, included a mixture of styles representative of the 13th, 14th 15th and 16th centuries..Several altars were designed by Botticelli, Perugino, Ghirlandaio, Lorenzo di Credi e Raffaellino del Garbo. After admiring the art, the church started filling up with wedding guests, who all wore the same or mink coats, black dresses, black stockings and black boots. As I observed, I got more excited to see the bride, so I waited and eventually stayed for the whole Mass. It was a beautiful and very uplifting celebration. I can't believe what an emotional whimp I am.....I cried even though the bride is a complete stranger. I think my tears fell partly because I'm just so happy to be in Florence, being blessed by so many spontaneous and unexpected joys that I seem to find everywhere.

Back to the Library..... After the Mass I headed for the library where I exchanged some films and then went to its caffeteria which has a knock-out view of the Duomo, where I sipped a cup of ciocolatta calda con panna. I am not really a hot-chocolate lover, but Italian hot chocolate is to die for.....pure melted chocolate topped with a deep layer of the lightest whipped cream I've ever had. It was cold outside....only 21 degrees. I gazed out of the window with the Duomo directly in front of me, feeling the winter spirit in a way that I haven't felt in years.Walking home with the streets all lit up for Christmas, feeling the energy of the holidays in the air, was a great feeling of joy. For dinner I made artichokes and bruschetta, while watching a very funny Christmas film that takes place in Napoli on Christmas Eve.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

First Snow in Florence

Florence has been waiting for this for years. It doesn't happen often. This evening I witnessed my first snowfall in Florence. After an evening cooking with Roberto, we opened the living room window to look at the Duomo, and it was snowing!

Silent, in the night it started to fall, transforming everything. Florence stopped and became still, quiet, peaceful. It was as if time had stopped. Everything slowed down. The snow continued to fall. As I was went to bed it was still snowing and as I closed my eyes, I felt the same way that a child feels when waiting for Santa Claus. The anticipation, the dreams of waking up to a winter wonderland the next day.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Lucia Ducci... Political Scientist, Teacher, Author

Lucia Ducci is one of the first people who touched my life when I first came to Florence as a student in September 2008. Besides being my language tutor, she has been a great coach and supporter.

Tonight I was proud to attend the presentation of Lucia's recently published book, L'Unita Debole which was given at Palazzo Strozzi by the "Gabinetto Scientifico Letterario". Lucia's book represents the results of her 3 year research study that examines the political and social condition of Italy, and it's relationsip with the U.S. shortly after the Risorgimento, as seen through the eyes of George Perkins Marsh, the American Ambassador to Italy during Florence's brief reign as capital of Italy. Through her discovery and interpretation of private letters and documents, Lucia filled in a piece of missing history through the authorship of her book. It was an enlightening experience for me to learn how book presentations are given in Italy and to learn about the difficulties that Italy faced in the years following its unification in 1864.

The presentation took place in a mangificent hisortically singificant library and was presented by an elite panel of political scientists, historians and professors who eloquently and fervently discussed various significant aspects and perspectives of Lucia's book. I was very proud to be at this presentation because it helped me to understand Lucia more profoundly, and I think our language lessons and friendship will be all that more better because I admire Lucia even more now than I did before.

Visiting the Medico Sportivo

Today I went to Soffiano, a suburb of Florence, to the Medico Sportivo, where I took the annual physical exam that is required to renew my racing license for the 2010 cycling season. The test includes a physical exam, a drug test and a stress test. I was glad to get this over with. It seemed like just yesterday that I first joined my race team and had my first exam. That was a whole year ago. Hard to believe.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Christmas Concert with an American Friend

This was a fun evening getting into the Christmas spirit with Roberto, who is also a private student and common admirer of Lucia, my language tutor, who introduced us at an event that she organzied for her students last week. Roberto, who lives in Massachusetts, works in Florence several months a year. After meeting for an aperitivo at Natalino, we strolled across the Arno to Piazza Poggi and climbed the winding road up to Pizzale Michelangelo and Chiesa di San Salvatore del Monte where we saw a Christmas concert sung by a female choir. A cool mist covered the city and the feeling of Christmas is starting to fill the air. We walked to Ristorante La Giostra, a cozy, candle-lit restaurant in my neighborhood which I have admired from the outside. The conversation and food was excellent. The waiter decanted our bottle of Barolo with a unique, rapid, swirling technique that I had never seen before. It was refreshing to connect with a fellow American and to share our perspectives on living in Italy.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Treasures in My Backyard

What a brisk, sunny, buzzingly beautiful day. The streets were alive with conversation, local couples stolling slowly, merchants looking happy...there was a big smile in the air. My neighborhood feels more intimate than usual. One of the things that I enjoy about Florence is how its personality constantly changes with the seasons. Right now it feels cozy and happy and very non-touristy. I like it this way. Locals are out Christmas shopping, arm-in-arm, gazing in boutique windows, taking a caffè and just enjoying the Christmas ambience that is all around the city today. We're all wearing scarves, hats and boots, but the cold doesn't seem so cold when the sun is shining and the smell of roasted chestnuts fills the fresh air!

While absorbing this energizing spirit in the air, I was on my way to exchange some films at the library, when it occured to me that right now would be the perfect time to visit the museum "Firenze com'Era" which I've been wanting to see. I pass by it all the time, but never went in. I am waiting for just the right time to finally absorb each museum here in Florence, but have been wanting to do it spontaneously. The museum was open and empty, so I had the museum curators all to myself, and after answering some of my questions, they ended up taking me on a private tour.

This museum is particularly interesting to me because it demonstrates what Florence looked like as it evolved from Roman times, through Medieval times, to the Renaissance, to the present. It houses a striking collection of city maps, paintings, photographs and a model of what the city looked like in Roman times. I was particularly struck at the old 1472 painting of Florence which shows the infrastructure of the city as it existed 600 years ago. It's amazing to be able to see all of the main piazzas and monuments as they existed then, and to even be able to see my street and building and what it looked like back then, when the city walls and towers still existed. The city, before motorized traffic was much cleaner then, the Arno looked more blue, and the homes more quaint. The rest of the museum shows roadmaps and city plans developed by Giovanni Poggi after the Risorgimento. I feel richer and more attatched to my city after having observed a bit more of its history and how the infrastructure evolved over the centuries. I feel more like it really is mine.
Then I went to the library to exchange some books and films. This library is open until midnight. The terrace on the top floor has a stunning view of the duomo and has a caffeteria/bar where you can sip a hot chocolate or have an aperitivo in the evening while listening to a jazz trio. As I was browsing through some films, a presentation was just begining in the adjacent room which I stayed to watch. Then I borrowed some Italian films and books, and went out on the terrace where I did some reading with the very inspirational panorama of the Duomo in the background.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Getting My Library Card

This morning I met Massimo for a caffè at Così, the buzzingest pasticerria in my neighborhood. The scent of pastries emanating from their ovens attracts passers-by from blocks away. I pass here day in, day out, and find it hard to resist the temptation to grab a quick caffè while on the run.

Massimo is a native Florentine who is seeking to improve his English, and we connected through a language exchange program. We are helping each other with our individual language goals. As we explored topics of common interest, we got talking about local language resources and he asked me if I had been to the Biblioteca delle Oblate, a library right around the corner from me, which I've passed by a million times but never went in.
How do I explain this negligence? Florence has become the backdrop of my life. I have spent this past year of my life establishing the fundamentals of a whole new way of life, adapting to my new culutre. I can only experience the myriad treasures around me a little at a time. In the meantime, to be here, to know it's here, to be inspired by its energy, has been enough to plant me. As I start my second year here, I find myself at a new stage of my developing life in Florence, all ready to examine the contents of this paradise that I have found. ....And here I go.
Massimo led the way to the library, where he took me for a tour of this gem that is hidden among the now-usual palatial facades of the streets that surround me. He then brought me to the desk where I applied for my library card. The library was originally a 13th century convent which was recently restored. Underground are tunnels that lead from the convent to the adjacent Santa Maria Nuova Hospital. In these tunnels, Leonardo da Vinci conducted medical research. The structure is historically rich, yet it houses a contemporary collection.
The three levels include a floor dedicated to multimedia, where one can borrow CD's, movies and DVD's, and use their wireless internet and computers. There, I was particularly pleased to browse through their collection of Italian films which I will certainly be taking advantage of. Fascinated I was, to browse through their assortment of American music CD's. The ground floor houses a history collection dating from the Risorgimento and the top floor is dedicated to a children's collection. It also houses a section dedicated to opera that was also pleasing. Equally rich are its collections of art and literature.
This library was a real find for me. The interior courtyard's peaceful garden is a perfect place to read or study, but the 3rd floor loggia clearly offers the most silent, dramatic vantage point of the Duomo. As you approach the outdoor loggia, you are hit with an unexpected, striking close-up view of the Duomo which dominates the atmosphere, creating a powerful sense of inspiration, rendering this the ultimate spot in Florence to read a book, study, sip a caffè and gaze at the Duomo while listening to it's bells....a constant reminder that I am lucky to call this place my home.
For my first selection, I borrowed a classic Italian neorealistic film "L'Oro di Napoli", a real treasure, and watched it tonight at home, in a corner of my living room, where I can gaze out of the window to look at the Duomo and take in the inspiration that it always gives me.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Singing with Gigi

Last June, when tickets to the Gigi d'Alessio concert went on sale, I was probably the first buyer. I bought the two best seats in the house.

So, I had a whole six months to find a sincere, passionate man who also likes Gigi D'Alessio who would enjoy the concert with me. I figured this would be an ample amount of time.

Little did I know that everyone over 30 years old who lives north of Napoli has an instinctive hatred for Gigi d'Alessio. Why? Is he too romantic? Too melodic? Too dreamy? Too Napoletano?

As the countdown approached, I realized that I would have to invite someone who is neutral on Gigi D'Alessio, let loose at the concert, have fun and enjoy.

Which I did. I invited Leif, my good friend and fellow bike addict. Speaks Italian well, but isn't. I made dinner at my place first and then we rode our bikes to the Nelson Mandella Forum.

Gigi was great. As I sang my heart out, I thanked God for my passion. It's what saves me. Let it never end.