20 December 2005

What the Magi Brought Me in Italy: Reflections from a Pastorella

I have been wanting to add to the blog recently, if only to take the focus away from all that blood on the grass, reality of farm life, and whatnot. My apologies to all you beloved, weak-stomached friends.

Today, being my last full day in Italy, this week being the last of few in this year of exploration, and this time of year being a reflective, overindulgent one, it seems appropriate to write today and share some highlights. For the sake of time - yours and mine (the computer room is NOT warm) - we will sample three uniquely Italian things: gelato, driving, and traditions. Note that all three are indulgent, reflective activities in themselves.

Indulge me.

* All gelato is not equal. There is gelato and there is good gelato.

First place tie for best gelato: rich gelato made with the local sweet wine in Vernazzo (see earlier post about recharging qualities of good gelato while hiking the Cinque Terre), and also the simple pleasures of a rather plain ("plain"..I should bite my frozen tongue!) cream gelato, from a rather plain little coffee/pastries/gelato bar in a village smaller than Staunton, VA. This particular cone, paired with Nutella gelato, was consumed in the company of all the other interns, crowded around a small, umbrellaed table, following a long morning at an interactive museum dedicated to the history of Tuscan sharecropping traditions. It was a rather quiet table, save for the licking and the sighs. Always interesting to witness the flow of sugar into previously weary bodies.

Second place gelato goes to the orange-chocolate and pepper-chocolate cone had at Vestri chocolate shop in Florence; you were worth the search, baby, and if it had been summer rather than the middle of December, perhaps you could have taken first. I guess this is a contest of gelato EXPERIENCES. Yum!

* Driving in Italy: When Does Experience Make You a Master?

My desires to be a car test driver, schussing along the windy back roads of some foreign country, have been amply fed here where everyone seems to be competing for Formula One status or practicing for that moment when the rushed delivery of some new baby is thrust upon them. I am left thinking that Italian driving falls well within the list of Things I Cannot Understand How Italians Grow Accustomed To Doing (Another item? Intake of Coffee/Caffeine. Do they have an extra stomach lining, or what?).

I drove Big Blue, the intern van, with relative ease on these Tuscan roads (thanks again to Dad for driver's training in large work vehicles), with eight heads bobbing in my sightline, at full tilt of conversation or sleep (theirs, not mine). My favorite BB experience was getting the van unstuck from a tight spot I had put her in at the hot springs. It was midnight, we were damp and beginning to chill. Prone to wheel-spinning, BB made good on lifting out over a dip, and I actually received applause from my carpool. Pressure from the uniformed authorities who wanted all the vehicles out of their current spots (blocking nothing), and the fact that first gear and reverse are in the SAME SPOT (apply a slightly different pressure, feign finesse) were not at all helpful. Herky jerky, I rocked the van right out of that spot. I am still grateful for not having to resort to pushing through the construction fence 2cm in front of me, or nicking the roller skate to my right. BB heaved and sighed, but she got us out of there. Least favorite BB exerience: pushing her out of a slight hill of mud while trying to find our way to another farm on a Field Trip Day. It wasn't raining, there were 9 of us for the task, but still. The wheelbarrows here at the farm have better tires than BB.

...and by roller skate I mean tiny little Euro car, such as the kind I rented when my Mom and Sherry were visiting. Go Twingo! We love you! You took us everywhere, sans complaint, and made good on your offer to keep fuel costs down. We wish you could improve your ability to de-fog the main windshield so we wouldn't have had to keep using the same gross tissue to streak the moisture from one side to the other every day, but at least you kept most of the car's moisture where it should be: in the sopping carpet under our feet. Here's to you teal green Roller Skate!

PS - Road signs in Italy only make sense on the second Tuesday of every other month, under an ascending moon, between 9 and 10:37 in the morning. Good Luck.

* In five years, when I look back on these four months in Italy, I will probably value one singular event over the others: the evening that Mom, Sherry, and I became participants in Siena's most revered historic tradition. No, there was no mid-winter Palio, no galloping horses around Il Campo. But there were twinkly lights over the medieval streets, and drummers and flag-bearers in Renaissance costume. We happened to be in quite the right place at the right time to witness, and then join in, the annual year-end closure of the Palio year and recognition of the seventeen contrade (neighborhoods).

The sight of a lone drummer with two flag bearers, all from Nicchio (The Shell), marching through their contrada to the Campo was a delight in itself. Catching the men at practice, rehearsing an age-old routine with pride, is a lucky sight to see, indeed. Deja vu 10 minutes later, with a different contrada, in a different part of town, let us know that this was no practice. We parked ourselves at the Campo. Every few minutes a new drumming echoed through the stone streets, and a different contrada would enter the Campo in bright color, waving flags. Each filed into the Palazzo Pubblico, and the sense of anticipation grew - as did the crowd in the piazza.

A few minutes later, horns sounded. Our eyes roved to find them. Color flickered at the door of the PP, and a complete procession of the representatives - drummer and two flag-bearers - from each contrada poured from the door. Another group of men in full Renaissance dress brought up the rear, beating drums and blowing horns. The street throbbed with sound and flashing color. People moved in for a closer view. The twinkly Christmas lights shone overhead. At last, banners bearing official crests signified the end of the procession, including the striking Senese provincial crest: a simple half-black, half-white shield. It looked down on us from a long, tasseled pole.

Looking over at my Mom and Sherry, surely I saw my own face reflected in theirs: flushed cheeks, wide eyes, smiles, amazement, surprise. My Mom moved us into the procession, remarking that there was no way she was NOT going to join in the parade. It's going somewhere, she said, and we are going with it.

It wasn't long before we realized we were headed to the Duomo. I thought back to the previous day, when we had visited the near-empty church, seen it dressed in its holiday best, hung with each contrada flag down the length of the nave, such as I hadn't seen it when I visited in an earlier month. Obviously, today was a special day in Siena. We marched on with the parade, through the streets of Siena, and then, with a moment of question as to whether we would actually be able to do so, we marched right on through the open doors of the Duomo, behind all the wonderful men in tights. The place was aglow with lights and color and security guards.

We moved through the nave towards the altar, part of the throng. It was fascinating to see the church populated with people, alive with use. And then, mass began. The second procession of the night came when various church leaders filed from the adjacent sacristy, and then incense filled the air, a young man dressed in black called from the pulpit. Everyone was on their feet. And then most began to sing, the service was fully underway. A singular experience.

We didn't stay for the length of the service (and I saw that not everyone did, nor arrived on time). Catholic traditions, contrada traditions, and unfamiliar Italian words were lost on me. Moving back to the huge central doors of the Duomo, I observed the Senese - families, couples, singles, toddling children. Removing mittens, adjusting their swaddles of winter clothing, each took their turn dipping fingers into the spacious bins of holy water, and crossing themselves, as so many had done for so many hundreds of years before them. It is no wonder churches such as this are so very large: you need such an appropriate space in which to feel so wholly small.


Can't feel my right hand! Need to go build a fire!

Buone Feste, Boun Anno Nuovo, and see you soon,



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