Christmas in a foreign clime

Sometimes my all-too-literal mind has a hard time understanding homesickness.  How can a place exert such a force on one’s mindset and emotions?  If you are well-fed, clothed, clean, and surrounded by people, how can you long to be somewhere else where you will be just as warm, well-fed, and clean, just because it’s where you came from?  If we were just rational beings then homesickness wouldn’t exist, I think.  In the last month I’ve been struggling to be more rational, for in fact I’ve been lucky enough to have adventures in Nice, Rome, Grenoble, (and lots of places in between).  And yet, I often find myself yearning to sit around the fire with my family in South Egremont.  I think winter, especially, induces homesickness.  To me, winter is not the time to go adventuring, but the time to stay at home, sing, cook, and read, only going out to ski.

When I asked a friend (who is also an English assistant) for advice on avoiding boredom and homesickness he gave me the following wise words:

“get off your computer. read a book. every morning, just read. at night, go exercise. no excuses, just problem-solve.”

Then, while unwrapping an Italian chocolate after dinner this evening, I found a smiley face making the ‘A-Okay’ sign with his fingers, telling me “Persevera e presta attenzione.”  In other words, “Persevere and pay attention.”  With smiley faces and old friends giving me such good advice, and with the ski trails awaiting, I think I’ll be fine.

Happily, I’ve actually been singing, cooking, reading, and skiing–European fashion–quite a lot this past month.

It all started on a snowy Friday in December.  The day after I wrote my “Sanksgiving”post, in fact.  Now this was a day to stay home.  But we couldn’t!  We had to get to Nice so that we could fly to Rome on Saturday!  So Michela and I put our trust in the SCAL bus drivers and boarded the bus in a flurry of fluffy new snow and by the light of the early morning street lights.  We made it to Digne, but when the driver stepped into the bus that was meant to take us to Nice he made the baffling announcement that we might only be able to go as far as the next town.  Lacking any alternative, we crossed our fingers and Michela remembered that it was Friday the 17th, a bad luck day in Italy.

a living, breathing ghost town!

our train des "pignes" (pine cones) had only one car.

Though we did get past the first town, the Gendarmes flagged us down in the next town, St. André les Alpes, and the bus driver informed us we would have to wait three hours for the “train des pignes” to carry us onward to Nice.  Though we spent most of the time sitting in the cold train station I did explore enough to make one discovery–a deer head in a dumpster!  I had an overwhelming fear of getting a whiff, otherwise I would have taken a picture for the blog.  Sorry, folks.

When we finally got to Nice we had to adjust our outlook on life.  Here, the light was not muted by snowflakes into grays and whites, but refracted into blues and oranges and reds by brightly lit Christmas trees and palm trees.  And what is best, we had hosts!  Michèle recovered our weary souls at the train des pignes station and drove us up and up to Villefranche, where John had prepared a sumptuous leg-of-lamb dinner for us!  I think that was my first leg of lamb, believe it or not.

When we woke up in the morning we were sitting pretty on the Corne D’Or, and we had all of Nice laid out below us.  Michèle took us down into the city to see the famous flower market (you know, the one featured in To Catch a Thief) and walk around the old part of the city.  We tasted Socca, a chickpea pancake that’s cooked in huge round pans at the markets (and which I recently learned is one of Mark Bittman’s favorite foods), and tourte aux blettes, the Niçoise specialty that can be savory or sweet and is made with a local kind of swiss chard.

After our luncheon, after chocolates, and after limoncello made from John and Michèle’s own lemons, we had to go back into travel mode, and wait around for our EasyJet to arrive from snow-bound Amsterdam so that we could continue on to Rome.

In Rome, we didn’t always have the sparkling weather we had in Nice, but when it was sunny it sure was spectacular!

Why do lampposts always make me think of Jacques Tati, even when next to Roman ruins?

On these fair-weather days, I spent a lot of time strolling around with only a vague sense of purpose, enjoying the contrast of the buildings and columns against the sky.

The Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo, the Fontana di Trevi, I got to see all of them at different times of day and night, on sunny days and cloudy days, and in the case of the Vatican, at sunrise!  I spent whole afternoons wandering from one bookstore to another, “window licking,” as the French would say–looking at beautiful leather bags, stationery, and antiques shops–and reading graffiti.

I think I'd agree, Romans are mods, not rockers

The view from under the Christmas tree in Via del Corso

i suppli = rice croquettes

I only ate in one restaurant during my trip, because the rhythm of our days and eating habits made restaurants superfluous.  During a jaunt in the center of the city you need only look to street food to sustain yourself.  Quality and variety are highly satisfactory.  Panini, suppli, roasted chestnuts, gelato, coffee, even freshly picked clementines, all took their turns in tiding me over until I got to Michela’s (or her aunt’s) house for a late Roman dinner.

Fried cod filets that I didn't get to try.

One afternoon, at Michela’s urging, I bought a veritable Porchetta di Ariccia sandwich at the Christmas market at Piazza Navona, and delighed in the salty, herb-infused pork as we walked onward to a gelato at Giolitti.  On another day, when I was on my own, I finally tried roasted chestnuts and decided they are the perfect street food: warm, hearty and satisfying, and no mess!  Suppli, the rice balls that I’ve always loved at Esposito’s in Brooklyn, on the other hand are warm, extremely filling, greasy, and messy with breadcrumbs–buy them only when you are very hungry!

Saint Peter's at dawn

I believe that gelato at Giolitti (which involved three flavors plus whipped cream) was one of only two gelati on this trip to Rome.  There were so many other sweets raining down on me that poor gelato got neglected.  We had pandoro and panettone practically every day.  I think I prefer the delicate vanilla-scented pandoro, with its powdered sugar dusting, to the panettone, which is dotted with raisins.

In the week before Christmas, our daily pandoro was like a warm up exercise.  I had to be conditioned, my palate prepared, for the wonders that awaited me during the three (yes, three) days of Christmas festivities at Michela’s grandmother’s house.  Of the three days (the 24th, 25th, and 26th), Christmas Eve was the most impressive because everything was new to me.  It was the first time I met Michela’s nonna, aunts and uncles, cousins, the first time we set the table, had our first course, second course, third course, and desserts.  After that first experience, and for next week, when we ate often at Nonna Paula’s house, I fell into the routine with everyone else.

Christmas Eve’s dinner adhered to Roman Catholic tradition.  One is not supposed to eat meat on the “vigil” before Christmas, so we had the above pictured spaghetti, which had a tuna and tomato sauce, then we had the “fried” course: battered and fried artichokes, broccoli, mushrooms, and best of all, ricotta.  We then moved onto an enormous and delicious smoked salmon, served (dare I say, drizzled,) with olive oil and lemon, and tuna with roasted artichokes (which came in olive oil).  As you might imagine, my tongue felt silken after this dinner.

il panforte artigianale di siena...

But Italian dinners have an inherent logic, and to cut through the oil slick before the real desserts we attacked a basket of oranges, clementines, walnuts, acorns, and almonds.  I was excited to crack my first acorn, thinking back to My Side of the Mountain, when the runaway boy makes pancakes with acorn flour.  Then it was “Andiamo con i dolci!” at the behest of Michela’s uncle Daniele, whose opera-singer’s voice left no buts about it.

On Christmas day we got to hear that voice sing opera!  Carla, Michela’s aunt, started it off, while still wearing her dishwashing gloves.  Then Daniele took over, and then we were treated to a duet!

Later, we sang “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock,” “Happy Xmas, War Is Over,” and I taught the cousins the round “I’ve been waiting all the day long to see the stars in your eyes…”  Much of the next week I spent with Michela’s family, eating, playing cards, singing, and finally, wandering through the incredibly crowded Piazza Navona on the Sunday before we left, eating pizza and gelato.

The Christmas market at Piazza Navona, with My Pretty Pony, Spongebob, and Bernini in attendence.

One of my favorite days in Rome was spent on the Palatine Hill.


About adventuresofaleece

Senior Project Manager at The Working World, a non-profit CDFI with an investment fund that focuses on loans and equity investments for worker-owned cooperative businesses. Recently graduated with an MA in Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning from Tufts University. Formerly Executive Director of the BerkShares local currency program in Western Massachusetts and Director of Programs at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. Former line cook and prep cook at Txikito Cocina Vasca. Writer, teacher, and traveler.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Christmas in a foreign clime

  1. Janice Storti says:

    Having been to both Nice and Rome, and having visited many of the places you photographed, I was taken on a nostalgic early morning vicarious trip backward. While homesickness is a mystery, it feels very, very real, especially around the holidays. I absolutely love your food commentaries and your descriptions of places you visit. The opera was absolutely beautiful! And the picture of the Spanish steps, which I sat on many times during my visit, made me realize how small and yet how huge the world can be. I imagine that your are back in a routine now. I am still teaching at Mount Everett, and I will be teaching an AP English course there next year. I wonder if you saw Julius Ceasar’s “grave.” Of course, he wasn’t killed there, but the spot is dedicated to him. And the Colliseum, which I understand now has tours of the underneath areas where the gladiators were kept. I need to thank you many times for including me in this post. I cannot express sincerely enough how much I enjoy them. Be well. If you have an email address, I would love to have it.
    J. Storti

  2. coconuttie says:

    Hey Alice! Loved this post =D and omg.. i sure miss giolitti. I went there twice when in Rome! I love how they put the cream on top! This sure looks like a fun and delicious trip. Miss you too and hope you enjoy the rest of your time on the Old Continent!

  3. steve ide says:

    So good to get this post Alice. We hadn’t gotten one in a while. It’s beautifully done, as always. I hope your homesickness has lessened a bit. We all miss you here, but know you’ll be back before too long. I’m sure you know that this Winter has been pretty nuts here in The Berks. I’m sure the skiing has been amazing. I’ve only been shoveling…
    Be well…

  4. beth greeley says:

    Beautiful pix and prose, as always, Al. It was great to share some of your Christmas-time events. I’m especially jealous that you were “on the set” of TCAT — one of my favorite movies.

  5. John McManus says:

    Sounds and looks wonderful Al!!

  6. harrison says:

    D’ya think Auntie Carla would fancy an overweight, balding, hairy American whose the lead singer of the Tone Deafs?

  7. Amy Rudnick says:

    As always, a very delicious post. And I love the Audrey Hepburn/Gregory Peck moment at the end!

  8. ellen says:

    If the drizzle fits….
    Love you, love the blog 🙂

  9. Milne says:

    Alice- Your descriptions make me cherish what I walk by everyday here in Aix-en-Provence in winter, some of which is also in Rome. Thank you for giving us a seat at the table of your hosts in Rome. Lively and warm. Do they have the practice that some in Provence have for 25 December of a light meal of garlic soup? It’s partly because they are already so full from Christmas eve, and, also, it is said to be good against the effect of fats. It might, also, be good for the colds that threaten to spread through families gathered together for the holidays. You’ve also explained something that became a part of my family Christmas Eve meal, which I adopted from a friend’s Italian-American mom. My friend, Virginia, once told me that they always had lasagna for Christmas Eve dinner. Your blog entry tells me probably why. Christmas Eve was always too, too busy, so years ago I started serving lasagne. I could make it ahead. But I added paper-thin layers of parma ham to my spinach lasagna. Even though it nearly melts away in the cooking, it is not Christmas Eve-meatless! Come to Provence in the Spring if you want. Bring your Mom. You know your way around the market and my copies of both films you mention in your blog are in the huge armoire in the salon.

    • Hi Milne! Did you read my mind about the lasagna?! I didn’t mention it in my blog, but we had lasagna on Christmas Day, (so it was OK that it was loaded with meat). It’s funny, the lasagna is the food I heard most about from Michela before Christmas, but it turned out to be one of the meals that I barely remembered, since it came when I was still dazed from the Big Night which came before. I even forgot to put the photo of Daniele serving his homemade legendary lasagna in my post until now. He brought the lasagne, along with molti dolci, from Terni, in Umbria.

  10. Julie says:

    Well Alice,
    Of course I sympathize with the homesickness…but then Nice, a lot of good food, Rome….No more sympathy! I especially loved the picture of you looking “bacana” (cool) at The Spanish Steps. And the rubber-gloved opera with the hair-do pianist – absolutely charming. I bet you are dying to invite everybody back to your exquisite corner of western MA!
    It’s been in the 100s here. 106.4 to be exact. I never knew I could sweat in such quantities!

  11. LastFae says:

    I see you don’t monetize your blog, don’t waste your
    traffic, you can earn additional bucks every month because you’ve got hi quality content.
    If you want to know how to make extra money, search for: Mertiso’s tips best adsense

  12. DaltonChief says:

    I have checked your blog and i have found some duplicate content,
    that’s why you don’t rank high in google, but there is a tool that can help you to create
    100% unique content, search for: boorfe’s tips unlimited content

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s