Christmas as an American in Florence, Italy
We meet next to the Carousel — I after walking from my new job on the Arno, Rami from home, passing the Duomo on his way. His stroll towards me is nonchalant — as most Italians walk — with a little less heed but a little more elegance, and I wonder if I have managed to perfect it yet. He kisses me and we saunter arm in arm under the archways to the portable garden that sprouts up there every Thursday morning. Cactuses, palm branches, poinsettias, and tulips some of many types that grace the marble floors and collapsible tables littered with Italian farmers selling their precious gardens.
Last year I had begged Rami for a tree. I missed the smell of the pine. I missed the lights shining in the December evenings. I missed the dull ping of glass ornaments being placed just at the right spot within the branches. So we managed one — complete with potted roots. It proudly stood on our table complete with a star from the Christmas Market and retired to my in-laws porch where it has prospered too much and is now too large to bring indoors again. This year, I huffed a feeble excuse as to why we should just get a fake tree instead. I did not want to deal with it, I had lost my will for Christmas traditions, succumbing to the fact that there would be no pine forest to chop down a tree, no snow falling softly on yards full of Christmas lights, no eggnog, no cheesecake, no family, no 24 hour Christmas music radio stations. But my husband heard none of it, so we decided to get a tree anyway and I begrudgingly obliged.
I pull Rami down to the end of the isle and point to the little tree with a red tag still hanging from the highest branch, a branch that only comes up to my elbow in height. I had seen it earlier on my walk to work, and I knew it was the perfect size for us to get. It is a Charlie Brown tree by definition, but to me it looks as perfect as a six foot Fraiser Fur cut from Turkey Hill Farm in Haverhill.
“E venti, ragazzi,” the woman sings from her table behind us. She is bundled in the sixty-degree temperatures (you dress for the season not the weather in Italy) but her smile is warmer and she jokes with Rami as he hands her a twenty Euro bill. We parade the little tree, potted and all, through two main piazzas towards home — with tourist and Italians alike looking on in amusement.
My heart hurts. Rami tells me he is working Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. New Years Eve and New Years Day. I want to run. I want to scream at something. But not him. He’s only helping us in the grand scheme of things. He says his ciaos and is off to work. I slump on the couch in my pajamas. The Advent Calendar on the wall is almost completely opened and empty of chocolate. I wonder why we even wait for the right day to open each little box. I think of just ripping it from top to bottom right now, shoving the candies in my mouth and willing it to produce enough serotonin to do something decent with my mind.
The tree’s lights dim in our apartment. The star isn’t straight. The ornaments sag. I think of New England as I water our poinsettia. I wish for snow; would bleed for a day of skiing. I fix the star, turn off the lights of the tree. I change my clothes and put my coat on.
Outside my apartment, people stroll in both directions. I step down onto the sidewalk and look toward the Duomo. In the setting sun, the left side glows — the terracotta shingles like embers of a fire lit over five hundred years ago. I walk into town, snaking the side streets to avoid the crowds. Christmas lights have been strung through the entire center making my journey a magical pathway lit from above by blue stars, gold chandeliers, Christmas lanterns, and pearls of blues and gold, each street decorated differently but with the same grandeur. The main Christmas tree sparkles bright in front of the Duomo. The Nativity is a terracotta masterpiece laden with hay, and lights that make the manger look warm — a cozy place for a baby to be laid down.
The stores are decorated with windows full of gifts; bright red and greens grace sweaters and dresses. Bottles of wine stacked in pyramids glimmer under colored lights. Buon Natale is displayed above doorways and shouted merrily through the streets. Groups of passerby stop to say hello to friends. Mannequins pose knee-deep in gold bows in their displays. Glitter shines on the sidewalks in different colors in front of the shop doors — another festive touch to lure customers in. It reminds me of the reindeer food my parents used to help us spread on Christmas Eve. Oats and glitter on our front lawn to show Rudolph where to visit. Here there are no oats. But as the silver dust settles on the tops of my boots, I can’t help but smile at the gleam of it in the shine of Christmas lights.
Children press their faces to the glass of the toy store watching the mechanical plane fly in circles among cotton ball clouds. Couples walk arm and arm on the Ponte Vecchio — a few women pointing at the silver and gold, luminous in the wooden cases along the bridge — hoping for a sparkle on their finger before the New Year rings in. Families churn through the streets but they’re carrying bags upon bags filled with presents; all different sizes and colors — some carry platters of pastries, others with already wrapped boxes. Horses clip-clop down the roads and their silver bells jingle. The sound rings true in my ears and I breathe deep as I walk by the chestnuts burning on the coals — the vendor’s gloves are black from the smoke of the embers.
I find myself humming the lyrics of “Silver Bells”. Friends I know shout their wishes to me as they scurry in the other direction with too many bags to count, but their faces are smiling bright and I respond with the same enthusiasm. I rush into the store and buy a Yankee Candle, place settings for our Christmas lunch, and another gift for Rami. The cashier releases a flood of excited Italian upon seeing my purchases, but I surprise myself by responding just as quickly. She asks if the bag will be too heavy for me. I don’t think it could ever be.
I step back into the moonlit night proudly carrying my treasures. I turn right and take another crowded street and hear music -a group of carolers sings and my heart echoes on the walls and flies up to the with their voices. Crossing in front of the Duomo, the tree shimmers as bright as the stars in the sky of New Hampshire. I walk into Astor and Rami greets me with his perfected BUON GIORNO. As I slide into my normal stool at the bar, he slides me a cup of butter-yellow liquid.
“What is this,” I ask with slight trepidation.
“Eggnog, I just made it,” he says nonchalantly. You can’t find eggnog in Italy. I sip from the cup and the warm scent of nutmeg fills my nose.
“So, is it as good as home,” he asks. It’s better. It’s perfect. It’s everything I needed in one cup and one beautiful face. I can only nod and tell him.
“I am home.”