This ad has been in all the subway stations in Torino for the past month. The pig is now eyeing our credit cards very suspiciously.
Christmas season has officially begun in Italy! Yes, it’s even earlier than in the US, but that’s because the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (on December 8th) is a big holiday here.
Since we never found a live Christmas tree last year, we ended up adding to our nativity scene instead. In Italy, presepi are very popular and most people have one instead of a tree. We even found a store that had a wonderful assortment of moving figures working at all sorts of trades. The store carried the type of figurines we collect, so last year we bought a Roman soldier (welcome to Italy!), a bridge (for the pig, in honor of the one at the Metropolitan Museum), and a little fireplace with a flickering light, for the shepherds. Thus we are starting to build a little Bethlehem–albeit a very Italian one.
A week ago we went by the same store on the way home from Sarie’s school (it’s close by) and bought this year’s additions: a girl with a basket, two small geese, a ball of cheese and a prosciutto. Never mind that prosciutto isn’t even kosher; Sarie was just fascinated with the fact that it and the cheese (scamorza, perhaps?) looked very realistic. But when we got home, she couldn’t find a graceful way to incorporate them into the scene. (No, not even on the camels!) Typing this, I looked up see where she finally ended up placing them, and finally spotted them in a tiny attic loft in the barn, behind the angel. Looks like the young shepherd has found them too!
And the wise men, I’ve just realized, are traveling through the land of National Geographic.
During Advent, we always play Handel’s Messiah, though Sarie has thankfully decided to forgo the concert in France. So here’s a bit of one of my favorite parts:
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,
get thee up into the high mountain.
O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem,
lift up thy voice with strength;
lift it up, be not afraid;
say unto the cities of Judah, behold your god!
Arise, shine, for thy light is come,
and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.
And I’ve just realized that the reason these photos are all so dark is because it has been raining for two days and it is dark!
We got a late start on Christmas this year. And Italians get an early one. While we were still getting our kitchen into working order, they were apparently out buying trees and preparing for The Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a major Italian holiday which falls on December 8th. By the time we figured out the logistics of tree-buying in Italy, there weren’t a lot of trees left or much time to enjoy one, so we decided to do something different this year. We focused on our nativity scene.
The presepe, or nativity scene, is more the focus of Christmas in Italy than a tree anyway. We saw this dramatically illustrated one day when we were following a lead on buying a live tree. When we arrived at the given address, we found instead a shop window that was alive with dozens of not-all-exactly-Biblical, but very charming moving figures. There were shepherds and fishermen, of course, but also weavers, shopkeepers, cooks, and some wonderful anachronisms, like a group of old men whose robes folded gracefully as they laid down playing cards. When I suggested that this year we might consider adding to our nativity scene instead of buying a tree, Sarie eagerly went along with the idea.
Our nativity scene is really Sarie’s. My mom started buying Fontanini figures as Christmas presents for her early on, so by now we have long had figures most of the main people who make up the Christmas story. And we also have a few figures who seemed like odds and ends at the time we received them–one camel without any pack or bridle, a pregnant woman, and a man inexplicably carving a relief bust of a centurion. We decided that the man and woman should be a couple, and we’ve stood them next to each other in our scene for several years now, the young woman no doubt asking her husband when he’s going to be finished with the portrait so they can get paid. Having been a portrait artist once myself, it seemed a likely enough scenario.
But as we stood in the Christmas shop last week surveying the Fontanini selection, whom should we see but a centurion! We saw a couple of them, in fact. We knew we wanted to get one in order to make sense of our scene, so we ended up choosing the one who was holding a scroll as though proclaiming the tax by Caesar Augustus. We decided that an Italian figure with a bureaucratic document was an appropriate “Welcome to Italy” commemoration. So now he’s standing for his portrait in our scene.
But Sarie was most fascinated with the scenes that moved, blinked, and poured water. Unfortunately, most of them were well over our budget. But we finally located a modest brick structure with some shrubbery and a little flickering light bulb fire that we decided could be the start of a second focal point in our nativity scene.
And then, just as we were about to leave, we spotted a little wooden bridge. To know what the bridge means to us, you’d have to know about our thirteen-year history of visiting the Angel Tree and Neapolitan Creche at the Metropolitan Museum. Every year, when Sarie was small, we’d circle the tree for at least half an hour trying to figure out whether the curators moved the figures around or not. One of our favorite checkpoints was a little bridge behind the tree. It was easier to get close to the back of the tree than the front, and eventually we noticed that the bridge usually had a pig somewhere in its vicinity. Was the pig on the bridge last year, or under it? we’d ask each other. This was how we finally figured out that the curators did indeed change the scene a little every year.
So we had to have the bridge. It wasn’t that much. And the first thing we did when we got home, of course, was to put the Pink Pig right in the middle of it for Bob to discover in the evening. The pig didn’t stay there after the first night, as she looked a little silly and changed the focus of the nativity scene, but she still plays a minor role in the scene. (I know she’s a bit out of character for 1st century Judea, but so is the printing press!)
So this year we are treeless, but we now have an interesting new dynamic going in our nativity scene. Whereas once the wise men stayed properly away from the stable (facing a plausible delay due to a stubborn camel), now we have shifted the time frame a bit so that they are approaching the baby Jesus, and the shepherds are back in Bethlehem, telling the townspeople about what they saw. Nativity scenes are always a bit compressed in time, and this Christ Child has never quite looked like a newborn anyway, so it makes a certain amount of sense.
I like the practice that some people have of not putting their Christ Child into the nativity scene until the 25th, but we haven’t ever spent a Christmas Day at home, so our advent time line is usually a bit compressed too. Bob has now left for the U.S., and we will follow soon. But meanwhile, we are enjoying our advent, and I hope to get in at least one more Christmas post before we leave.
While we were in Garfagnana this summer, we found a commemorative jar of Nutella, the Italian chocolate hazelnut spread. It was designed like the old American jelly glasses of the 1960s, so that it could be used as a glass when the spread was gone. But its perky Esperienza Italia 150 design was much more attractive than the average American jelly jar. In commemoration of Italy’s 150 anniversary of unification this year, it had a little narrative about Italy’s design icons–the Vespa, the Moka pot, etc.–with graphics substituted for some of the words. And most charmingly, it included a picture of Torino, the home of Nutella and now our home, on the front.
Sarie and her two friends who were staying with us jealously rationed out the contents of that small Nutella jar. After it was empty (probably a day later), we washed it out and took it back to New York with us. It’s on a boat at port in Genova as I write.
A couple of days ago, I was in a supermarket and saw different Nutella jar from the series, so I bought it. This one featured Venice, and was labelled “Il paesaggi,” or “The Countryside.” It featured the freccia rossa (the fast train Bob takes to Milan), the leaning tower of Pisa, and the beautiful blue of the sea.
Need I say that that jar is already almost half empty? And this time there’s only one person eating it.
After finding this second jar, I got curious about how many designs there were in the series and looked them up on the internet. Turns out there are four of them, and they are about to be replaced by Smurf jars. (Not nearly as cute in my opinion.) And design junkies love the Esperienza Italia series. So yesterday when I was out shopping and saw a third design, with Florence on the front, I snapped it up, too. It’s my personal favorite because it’s about art and literature. Though I’m very fond of the original design one, too.
As I was about to go to the counter (or pivot, really, as the store was very small) with my find, I noticed, behind the other Nutella jars, the fourth and final jar in the series. I greedily swiped it up and started to plop it on the counter. But then I thought about Sarie eating half a jar of Nutella in twenty-four hours, and about my own American acquisitiveness. It sort of took the fun out of the search. So I put it back.
But somewhere in our future, I hope, is that last jar of commemorative Nutella, the one with Naples on it.
We have finally arrived in Torino. We’re set up in a single attic room in a Torino residence until we can find an apartment. A residence is a particularly European institution, I think. It’s not quite a hotel, but it’s more like a hotel than it is like a true apartment. Ours has a double bed, a sofa-bed, a Pullman kitchen, a walk-in closet, and a large bathroom. Stylistically speaking, it’s a typical Italian combination of old (exposed rough-hewn beams, slanting ceiling, and plaster walls) and new (modern furniture, tiny iridescent tiles in the kitchen, stainless stair railings, and a skylight in the bathroom).
But what we are enjoying surprisingly much is that it’s an attic room. Last night we opened the two large side-sash dormer windows (almost no windows in Italy have screens) and watched the sun set while we ate dinner. From a certain angle, we could see the Alps. And down below all we could hear were the clinking of dishes and the occasional low horn of a train pulling into Porta Nuova station. Those are both comforting sounds, and to people used to the lullaby of Broadway, the minimum needed to feel like we’re in civilization.
Another thing we have discovered from our attic room is chimney pots.The ones across from us are all of all types, but the ones I like most are the rusty metal ones with decorative spires. They remind of the pottery dishes I used to get jungle curry in at the Thai restaurant across Broadway on 108th St. Or perhaps they remind me of fanciful bird houses. On these tile roofs, they’re mixed with small satellite dishes, antennas, skylights, and other types of chimneys.
And if you look down below, you can see the ubiquitous lines of laundry drying, with shuttered windows and narrow balconies. Nearly every building I’ve been inside in Torino has a courtyard almost identical to this, painted the same shade of yellow. In most oil paint selections it’s called Naples Yellow. It’s Italian yellow, anyway.
I’m adjusting to a lot of things, the main one of which, of course, is a new language. I find that I can understand the gist of what people are saying, but surprisingly often, there are important distinctions in the details. And I have the hardest time replying with the right verb forms! Sarie, at least, is going to a language school to study intensively for her conservatory language test.
So far, everyone has been very kind. And though I’m aware that I don’t look typically Italian, I’m flattered that old ladies come up and speak conspiratorially to me on the bus or tram. That makes me feel like I’m in New York. And as in New York, I’ve noticed that men don’t often get up for old ladies! A woman was complaining to me about this just this morning, but then I noticed she didn’t take a middle seat when it became free.
The other thing to get used to is unexpected closings. I know that many stores close for a while after lunch, on Saturday afternoons, on Sundays, and still on Monday mornings. But there are also those spontaneous non-advertised closings, with signs on the shops that say, “Torno subito.” (“Gone out. Back soon.”) The orari estivi (summer hours) and the numerous holidays.
A primary concern at the moment is how to make sure we have something in our room to eat. Pullman kitchen cooking is tricky enough (no oven, so I make toast on the electric burners), but when I went to the supermarket yesterday after siesta, I discovered that the store was only open in the morning on Wednesdays. Finally I found another a few blocks away, and several other stores that were certainly worth the exploration. And someone told me about a market that’s open most mornings, if only I can get there. I’m sure we’ll want to eat a greater variety of foods by October, when we hope to move into our as-yet-unfound apartment. But for now, we’re happy enough with pasta. The sheer variety of it (the average grocery store devotes an entire aisle to pasta) should keep us busy for the next couple of weeks.
The faucet (above) looks remarkably like a swan, don’t you think? And the teapot, below, resembles a UFO, especially when it starts rocking crazily on the burner as though it’s about to take off!