White Christmas: Part Two

The Garden of the White Prince
The Garden of the White Prince

This is the garden of the ‘White Prince’, the name given by Matthew’s younger brother Frank to our friend Philippe Bredael perhaps because he likes everything around him to be as beautiful and harmonious as his garden. Full of palm trees and sunset light it’s hard to believe that I took this photo in late December.  Philippe is the second person that Matthew met in Italy when he was on his vagabond’s tour of Europe in 1990 and one of the reasons that that tour stopped here; their friendship spans 19 years. It was in the palace of the White Prince that little Robin spent her first Christmas and slept through her first new year’s.

In December of 2007 we had been living in Torano for seven months (for more about Torano/Carrara see my post: Carrara: adventures in quarryland) and in this short time had made only a few friends. I never imagined how difficult holidays would be with no social structure to hold us up, no friends or family to visit, no one to attend a Christmas Eve dinner or a New Year’s Eve party if we planned them. Here we were face to face with a clean slate on which to write out our new family traditions, a nine month old baby and a toaster oven that was not big enough to roast a goose…it was time to ask for help.

Manger scene semi-submerged in Lago Maggiore
Manger scene semi-submerged in Lago Maggiore

Philippe and his large oven came to our rescue and so we decided to spend the week of Christmas and New Years a little closer to the North Pole. Many of Matthew’s ‘amici del cuore’ live near Lago Maggiore, he calls them ‘La Tribu’, The Tribe. Matthew has a slew of wonderful stories about Philippe and The Tribe, carnivals spent in Venice as wandering face painters, fantastic parties, summer afternoons by the lake diving from Sasso Galletto. These adventure stories are best heard straight from the horse’s mouth in our kitchen with a good glass of Refosco in hand. I mention them briefly in this context to try and sketch with a few light strokes the backdrop of Robin’s first Christmas.

With our friend Chemda and I illegally riding in the cargo compartment of Matthew’s van and the baby on the passenger side nested safely and legally in her car seat, we embarked from the relative warmth of the Tuscan seaside towards the cold grey north…Lombardy. I have to say that I felt a bit as if I were in the middle of a movie about an immigrant circus family on holiday. After a few hours on the road we arrived in Milan and stopped to visit with our friend Michelangelo and his friend Barbara. They gave Robin her first Christmas present, a ‘Piglet’ from Winnie-the-Pooh that burst into song when his tummy was squeezed. Robin’s fourth word after “Mama”, “Papa” and “Banana” was “Pag-lat”. I’m not much for electronic toys but I am deeply grateful to this magic singing Piglet and to Chemda’s mothering experience for getting Robin through the last hour in the van from Milan to Varese.

Bundled Bobbie Kay arrives at Zio Pippo's house
Bundled Bobbie Kay arrives at Zio Pippo's house

There was supper on the table, there were people smiling and happy to see us. Philippe is a consummate host and I immediately felt a sense of ‘home’ despite the fact that he was the only person at the table that I knew. We ate well, we slept well, we woke up and began the first of  a series of dilatory days involving eating, visiting, and sightseeing. The landscape was stunning, the white snow capped Alps in the distance, the placid surface of the lake, a profusion of evergreen palm, pine, laurel and magnolia trees interlaced with the black and white bareness of elm and beech. During the day the sun shone with a force equal to the cold, as it went down the air bit.

sun through the trees campo di fiore
sun through the trees in campo di fiore
Robin on Christmas Morning
Robin on Christmas Morning

On the 24th we went to get a fresh goose for Christmas day dinner from a local farm. On Christmas morning while Robin opened her second package (with a lot of help from Mama) and enjoyed looking at her new book about farm animals, the grown up’s started discussions about cooking.

Le chef
Le chef

Matthew went down to the van where we’d left our lovely goose overnight to discover that she was now frozen…we let her warm up on the kitchen counter while working on dressing and pie. Little Robin pulled herself up for the first time on the ladder back chairs in Uncle Pippo’s kitchen. Matthew had given me a copy of The Gnostic Gospels and I read the first story which was The Pearl, a sweet coincidence since he often calls me ‘Pearl’. Matthew cooked. The goose was perfect, even vegetarians were tempted to taste a bit of the stuffing. The house was full of people (with the exception of ourselves) who had been to India so exotic travel stories were exchanged as plates and glasses were refilled.

The Monastary of Santa Caterina
The Monastery of Santa Caterina

Between Christmas and New Year’s eve we went to visit the Monastery of Santa Caterina and a Buddhist meditation center across the lake above a town called Bee. We took walks in the national forest at Campo dei Fiore, went ice skating at a tiny rink in the Lakeside town of Laveno, and had dinner at the homes of some of Matthew’s other friends. There was an exhibition at a local museum with work by some artists Matthew knew from Milan. After seeing the show we went for drinks at a little bar in Caldana where some people were vigorously playing oom-pa-pa music on accordion, trumpet and tuba to the vast delight of our daughter who squealed and clapped when she wasn’t cheerfully jamming potato chips into her mouth. Despite the social whirlwind, or perhaps because of it, I often felt terribly lonely and exhausted. I was surrounded by people who all had an shared history with one another, a involved story that was communicated in a language that I was just beginning to speak among men and women who were not yet my friends.

Matthew, Robin, and Philippe by the Lake

My sombre mood probably had as much to do with homesickness as to my eternally cold feet and the lack of sleep. Little Robin was on the third week of her first cold and so she (and I and Matthew) woke up often durring the night. Durring the day she was her normal easygoing self, happy to see new people or to fall asleep in the car seat. Everyone was completely in love with her…it’s hard not to be. New Year’s eve was great fun, Matthew and I dressed up, he in his best suit and a red tie, I in a strappy red dress and heels (red is the New Years colour in Italy). We danced, we snacked, we drank good wine and bad. Robin fell asleep early and we tucked her safely into her travel bed moved to the relative quiet of Philippe’s bedroom and then obsessivly checked every 10 min. to make sure she was alright…the new parents’ waltz.

At midnight we kissed, first each other and then, in a secular version of  exchanging the peace, everyone else…hugs, kisses on both cheeks, the tapping of glasses filled with prosecco; “Buon Anno, Aguri, Aguroni, Buona 2008”. Finally everyone settled into the ancient ritual of eating lentils for good luck and the contemporary ritual of frantically transmitting one’s best wishes for the new year via text message to jammed satellites that would then deliver them at inopportune early hours to groggy friends not present. Guests began to shift towards home; we moved Robin’s little bed back into the room where we were sleeping and where a fire remained burning in the fireplace. She woke up and watched the fire, still sleepy and hypnotized by the warmth and movement.

The next day there was snow…a walk was proposed by the guests who had remained for the night but for once I said no. I loaned my hiking boots to a photographer who’d arrived for the weekend from Milan in suede flats and started the hot water running in the bath tub. The bundled crowd went out to walk in the falling flakes and I wrapped my little girl inside my coat and carried her out on the balcony to see the white filtering through the palm trees.

White Christmas: Part One

Snowfall from my window, Epiphany, 2009
Snowfall from my window, Epiphany, 2009

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.

Florence from piazza belvedere
Florence from piazza belvedere

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.

Apoxyòmenos, the Croatian AthleteThe 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.

Apoxyòmenos, the Bronze Statue from Lussino, Florence
Apoxyòmenos, the Bronze Statue from Lussino, Florence

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…