Last Christmas, which was our first in Italy, we never did find a tree. So this year, I wanted more than ever to unwrap all our ornaments while listening to Handel’s Messiah. I had collected a lot of ornaments during our 14 years in New York: a little cookie dough cab and penguin from Grand Central; old-fashioned glass birds from the Museum of Natural History, a Santa ball from a friend long since moved back to Australia; a 1-train ball from the New York Historical Society: and a variety of glittering shoes from the Metropolitan Museum. And from further back: a silver bell from each year since 1997, gifts to Sarie from her grandmother; red tin silhouettes of a boy and girl from Bob’s and my first married Christmas; one guitar ornament from my childhood tree. I wanted badly to bring a little bit of our Christmas history forward to Italy.
So I put out an APB for a tree, but something was wrong with all the solutions: IKEA–too far away without a car. Nurseries–too expensive. Fake trees, which are more popular in Italy–beside the point. US-style Christmas tree stands–non-existent.
Then last Friday I got a call from a friend. “I was just walking out of a Pam store near our apartment and I saw three Christmas trees!” she said. The store was two tram rides away, but I jumped at the chance. I put on my coat and scarf and was out the door with two tram tickets, in evening rush hour traffic.
I got rather turned around on some back streets and never found the second tram, but eventually I found the grocery store. The trees were reasonably priced, if scraggly. And they had the root ball attached. I picked one up. Heavy! But I was determined to have a tree. I paid and left the store lugging my prize.
Not surprisingly, people stared. Christmas trees, I think I’ve mentioned, aren’t that common in Italy. Middle-aged women carrying 40-pound live trees that are as tall as they are, even less so. And I was in an unfamiliar neighborhood, so I had to ask where the tram stop was. Finally I found it and gratefully set the tree down on a planter to wait for the ride home.
The tram that arrived was an orange 13, an old type of car with round wooden seats and high steps at the entrance. When it came, I was able to get the tree up the steps, under the door (just barely) and plop it down just behind the driver, shedding a few needles. But as I tried to straighten up again, I realized I couldn’t. My coat button was hung in the netting. As I worked it free, I realized that there was simply no way I was going to be able to walk the distance between the stops for my transfer, which was to another line with old orange cars. So as I watched our progress out the front window in the dark, counting stops, I fished my phone out of my purse with one hand and called Sarie.
Finally she answered. “Please meet me at the Porta Susa tram stop with the red cart in fifteen minutes.”
“Where at Porta Susa?!”
“The only south-bound tram stop there is!”
Here I was, a woman on crowded tram with live tree, button stuck in the netting, shouting into a phone, in English. At that moment, I heard gypsy music on a violin, inside the tram. I started to shake with silent laughter. This was like something that would happen in New York.
One stop before Porta Susa, the tram engine sputtered and turned off. “This tram is going out of service. Everybody off the tram!” Down the steps I plunked with my tree.
By now I was tired. This time I really struggled to get the button untangled. And the next tram was coming. Just in time I got myself free and unbuttoned the coat altogether, but I couldn’t get the tree back up the steps quickly enough. A young woman kindly pulled up the other side from inside the train. “This thing is heavy!” she exclaimed appreciatively.
One stop later, I went down the steps again, into a huge crowd. I pulled the tree a little ways out of the crowd, where three men were smoking and shouting in Arabic. A woman ran across the street in front of the tram yelling “Aspetti!,” and trying to make eye contact with the driver so he’d wait, but he apparently he thought she just meant, “Don’t run over me,” and didn’t. Trams came and went. My hands were cold, but I knew that holding the tree with gloves on would make them permanently sappy, so I left them in my purse.
Sarie called again. “Where are you?” I described the location. Eventually I saw her, pushing our huge old red New York folding cart, the kind with wheels that won’t turn unless you throw your whole body into it. But I was very thankful to see it. She helped me lift the tree into the cart and we started for home.
As we continued south down the porticoed avenue that runs perpendicular to our street, an old man stared wildly as we walked by. “You better water that tree,” he warned in a shaky voice, “or you’re going to kill it!” Did I mention that Italians are skeptical of live trees in houses?
It took another series of maneuvers to get the cart onto the tiny elevator and through the front door, but soon we stood in the foyer, shaking and happy–with a live tree.
Two nights later we were decorating our tree, which had been planted in our old tomato pot. We were listening to a new Baroque version of Handel’s Messiah. The shoes and bells were too heavy to put on, and the velvet balls wouldn’t fit. But we had plenty of “Oh, the bear ornament!” and “We need more red balls over here,” moments, and Bob remarked, “For the first time since we’ve moved here, it feels like we’re home.”