Kings Day, La Befana, Epiphany, the last day of Christmas. Right now I am looking out at the snow sifting down steadily from the white blankness of the sky that brooks no horizon. Mountains, tree tops, and atmosphere all are one. In Italian I might say ‘sfondo sfondata’…a background with the bottom broken out. This is the whitest Christmas I have ever known. It has been a beautiful season for us, the first one we have spent at home, as a family.
My first Christmas in Italy I was a little more than 4 months pregnant with little Robin. Matthew and I were living in a small apartment under a converted mill where our friends Sandro and Adele live in the hills outside of Pontassieve just south-east of Florence. It was our first Christmas together and for me one of only a handful that I had not spent at the home of my maternal grandparents. Matthew suggested that we spend the holiday in Florence at a bed and breakfast called Il Giglio Bianco (the white lilly). It was owned some friends of his and was officially closed so we were the only guests and had our run of the well equipped kitchen and the occasional company of one of the owners, Eduardo.
I will not speak for Matthew other than to say that I think we were both feeling lost. Having walked away from the traditions we had known with our former spouses we were reaching for a sense of how to form a mutual tradition, something new and whole that we could offer our daughter when she was born. Tradition is, of course, a function of time so we talked about what little Robin’s coming Christmases might be like. the things that when she was our age she would remember; “at Christmas we always…”. I think that it was this idea of how to create a family together that helped us through what was, despite being together and in one of the most beautiful cities I know, a lonely and wistful Christmas.
On Christmas eve we went to midnight mass. We’d chosen the church at random, one on a side street and not too long of a walk. Santa Trinita is relatively small and unfamous if such a thing is possible in a city like Florence, we did not know who had painted the paintings but we liked them. I remember being tired, the weight of my belly, the umbral darkness of the church and the snatches of the liturgy in Italian that I was able to understand. I also remember the sharing of the peace, strangers turning to shake my hand or kiss me on both cheeks and I, returning the gesture and echoing their words: “pace, pace, pace”.
When we got back to Il Giglio Bianco and were getting in Bed I felt Robin rolling and kicking and called Matthew and he felt her moving for the first time. I still remember the look on his face though for the life of me I am without words to describe it to you, perhaps it is sufficient to say that it was a moment of grace.
The next morning (late) we began cooking: roasted goose with chestnut stuffing, giblet gravy, apple pie. We served ourselves in the empty but still cozy dining room with a view over the top of a wall into a garden. Later we walked to the centre of the ponte Santa Trinita and looked down at the Arno and then crossed over into the old city centre. We walked through the streets lined with luxury shop windows and strung with white lights, full of people but not Disneyland packed like it is in the spring and summer. The piazza del Duomo was her own beautiful self, the facade of the cathedral always gives me the impression of whiteness when I see it despite the multi-colored stone decorations and iconic black stripes.
The following day on the advice of Eduardo, we went to see an exhibition at the Palazzo Medici Riccardi of a first century Roman Bronze that had been discovered off the coast of Croatia and sent to Florence for restoration. I remember that it was the end of the day and the museum was only open for one more hour. The blindingly white room where the statue was exhibited was empty except for the two of us and an occasional other visitor who passed through. Matthew and I spent 45 minutes just looking, something that now seems like an incredible luxury for the parents of a 21 month old girl who gets faster on her feet every day.
My first Christmas in Italy had it’s whitness, even without snow. The ‘White Lilly’ the clean sheets on the bed, the lights hanging over the streets, the white stripes on the Duomo and the labratory white of the exhibition space. It is this white background this sfondo bianco, that I thought of this morning looking out at the snow. An horizionless space out of time where an infinitely old and etrnally young athlete is still scraping the oil and sweat from his bronze forearm, where the only point of refrence is what is present to the eyes and what is present internally. The white of snow would come the next Christmas, Robin’s first in the outside world…