25 December 2007

Buon Natale

That old Christmas spirit was late coming to me this year – odd, because I had so looked forward to my first Natale in Venice. But it’s what we don’t see coming that adds dimension to our lives. I tell you tonight that December brought many new and delightful Venetian experiences, but it also brought loss, betrayal, disappointment, and some nights when it would have been very comforting to step out in my own sparkling New York ‘hood with my girls (and my boys!). It has been a time of extroversion and introspection, of asking my closest loved ones for their wisdom, their guidance, their patience. May I say here that they came through for me with flying colors. In truth, I’m not fully out of the woods yet. But I will be. Soon. Meanwhile, here’s the holiday report…

First I must say how very much I missed hearing Christmas music this year. I see how spoiled I have been in New York, with holiday tunes filling the air and nearly every church offering free programs of ecclesiastical music daily throughout the season. I assumed that Venice, a city whose very voice is music, would have been just the place for such entertainment. But now I recall that caroling is primarily English and, to some degree, German in origin, and most of the music I love at this time of year comes from those traditions. Had I just remembered to load up my iPod’s “Joyful Noise” playlist before I came, I would have had enough fa-la-la-la-la to get me through the season. Most especially I wished for madrigals, Vince Guaraldi’s famous soundtrack, Leroy Anderson’s Jingle Bells/O Come All Ye Faithful medley, and lovely Nancy LaMott singing David Zippel’s touching holiday lyrics.

I was also surprised to realize how much I count on seeing It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (the Alistair Sim one and the Patrick Stewart one, but the latter primarily for the best Mr. & Mrs. Bob Cratchit ever), and A Charlie Brown Christmas again every year.

There was no shortage of holiday lights (including a long string of icicle-style ones zig-zagging right outside my own windows) and dressed store windows to inspire me. But I won't say I didn’t miss the Fifth Avenue star, the Metropolitan’s Neapolitan angel tree, the skaters at Wollman Rink, and the unveiling of Bergdorf’s fabulous tableaux. (Did anyone remember to photograph them for me? There’s still time!)

During Advent I attended a very sweet, playful service for children and their parents at Basilica San Marco. It cost me a small fib to get in, Heaven forgive me! – to get past the door, I had to pose as the tardy zia (“auntie”) of a non-existent child who was dentro gia (“already inside”). Was that very bad?

Santa Claus, known here as Babbo Natale and sometimes dressed in blue (!), arrived in a gondola one day, by vaporetto another, and on foot, accompanied by a crew of jolly vegetable vendors on yet another. He was greeted in each case exactly the same way as he is in the U.S. – with cheers from adults, and with wonder and a hint of fear in the eyes of all the bambini present.

Venice’s pre-holiday, get-ready festivities included a nice little specialty foods market in Campo Santo Stefano, another visit from my favorite mercatino in Campo San Maurizio (where I eased my heart with a stunning pair of vintage crystal earrings and the good company of my friend Erica, who came all the way from Switzerland to Christmas shop), and a rather annoying street mercato of discounted goods sprawling over many shopping districts.

Purchasing my Christmas tidbits was nothing short of a thrill. I got dozens of fragrant, seedless clementines, skewers of caramei (glassy, toffee-glazed dried fruits and nuts, traditional in Cadore), both deer and boar salamini, Sardinian honeys, some specially aged and tended pecorini and caprini (sheep’s milk and goat’s milk cheeses), and a hefty portion of porchetta, Italy’s famous seasoned roast pork (which in itself is a good enough reason to move here). And I ate enough chocolate-covered glaceed clementines to hold me ‘til the next Christmas crop comes in. (Well, perhaps I’ll have one more before the New Year… )

Another kind of Christmas shopping involved the little seasonal shops devoted to the presepio – the Christmas crèche. Here one can buy all the bits and pieces to create a custom nativity scene, as well as the necessary figurines, teeny birds and animals, and other props. I myself purchased a small flock of painted plastic sheep from the 1-Euro store and suspended them from my live Christmas tree, along with decorations I had made myself – gilded walnuts, peach crepe paper roses, cutout paper angels, and the like – and natural leaves and twigs I filched from Il Giardini and other parks.

Amid all this, and far too quickly, the holiday arrived.

Last night I had my Christmas Eve supper with the fellows at Enoteca San Marco, my favorite restaurant in Venice. I enjoyed a salad of smoked goose, pears, celery, and walnuts, and then radicchio ravioli with a sauce of melted morlacca cheese. I received an armful of roses from the partners at the restaurant. After midnight, I drank bubbly franciacorta with one of them as the church bells all over the city rang in Christmas Day.

Snug in my bed, I thought of every single person I love back in the U.S. And then I thought of those I love here in Venice and around the globe – not so many as in my own country, but just as dear. I drifted to sleep with these “sugarplums” dancing in my head.

Today I visited the Basilica for Christmas services. I had never been there at that particular morning hour. I did not know how the pale-honey sunlight pours through the lagoon side's enormous rose window and down onto the shoulders of those celebrating mass. Every single golden mosaic tile seemed to glow in the light. This along with the misty pungency from the censers, the swelling music, and the ruby-red glimmer of the enormous candle lanterns in the shadowy apses created a heady atmosphere indeed. I tried to count how many hundreds of Christmases had passed through that glorious, gilded cavern.

I had planned to visit the beach today too, but it was entirely too cold and damp. So I settled for a late afternoon gratitude trip to San Giorgio Maggiore. By the light of my little candle in the great gloom, it came to me that the winter solstice had slipped by me unnoticed (although I do have a great, big bunch of pagan mistletoe over my door) and the days have already begun to grow longer. The timeless cycle continues.

Tonight as I write this, I dine on a double portion of linguine with clams. (Calvin Trillin would approve!) Later I will slip between the sheets with a small glass of Vin Santo and a plate of tiny, white chocolate-glazed star cookies from Marchini.

So Christmas has come again, as it always does, in spite of our earthbound foolishness. Life in Venice is good. Hope the same is true where you are. Buona Festa to all and to all a Buona Notte!