Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ciao, Baby

What's next for In Search of Gelato? I've thought about keeping In Search of Gelato going, just changing the focus. In the end, I decided to keep In Search of Gelato as a blog of our time in Italy. The first word Nora learned to say was Ciao, fitting for our Italian bimba, although it came out as "Wow," and she quit saying it before we ever realized what she was actually saying. I'd planned to start up a new blog, titled "Ciao, Baby." Of course, that name is taken. After playing around with other names and ideas, I have decided that we will continue with a blog. However, I'm going to have our own website rather than a blogspot address. I will put up a notice here once that is set up and running. I suppose anything I do will be more of the Mommy blog genre, since my time now is spent taking care of Nora  the Toddler rather than planning jaunts around Europe. But I wouldn't have it any other way. Thank you so much for traveling along with us, through Italy and beyond!
In our garden, with our landlord, Ciro.


Monday, December 30, 2013

Coming to America

Found some of those Ravello-to-Amalfi Hike photos

Now that we've had a few months of American living, I feel like I have a little more perspective on our time in Italy. And some recovery from the move process! I find often that my memories are filled with our time Italy. As I sit in our living room, playing with a toddler, a moment will flash across my brain, a memory of sitting on our roof terrace watching the setting sun setting fire to the windows of villas far off on Capri. Or as I cook dinner, a memory of sitting in a pub in Ireland will come to the forefront. The memories are so vast and vivid and exciting. No matter that we were excited to move "home," that we felt our time in Naples had come to an end, I would not trade our time there for anything in the world. Many times I was frustrated or depleted, but many more times, I was in awe at the life we lived. When I dress Nora, I remember shopping at my favorite, weekly market in Posillipo, and my favorite two booths for children's clothing. When we walk into our town here, I have flashbacks to pushing her stroller along the lanes of Capri. (I find that I think of Capri most often of all.). When I go to our local coffee shop here, the daily life reality is an overlay of my memory of spending time in my Lucrino coffee shop with friends. Most of my memories are bittersweet. Happiness to be here, where we are now, but also missing our Italian life. When I drink orange juice, I remember the fresh squeezed orange juice available in every, Italian coffee bar. Here, we bought salami and cheese for a relaxing, post Christmas dinner, and reminisced walking down to Gennaro in our Lucrino salumeria for the most delicious of cheeses and salamis. I am Facebook friends with the woman now living in the villa that was once our home, and when she posts her pictures and her own blog posts, I feel like I'm living a double life - one back in Italy ongoing in my head, and my real life here in America. I think just for a moment, maybe I'll run up to the roof terrace today and take a look at the castle, before remembering that such a roof terrace is no longer part of my life. I love now being in a place where I can communicate freely and where I know the expected modes of behavior. I love our town and being able to walk around easily with Nora.  I love being to drive around easily! And I love the sheer volume of possibilities I have to fill my days spent with a toddler. But yes, I do miss Italy. Very much.
Traffic outside our Lucrino coffee car

Beach near Amalfi

Capri Views

Walking in Capri

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Administration of Leaving

I started this blog in our time leading up to departure for Naples, with lots and lots of posts on the logistics and administration involved in the move. It was our hardest move ever. Until it came time to leave Italy. Leaving was exhausting and demoralizing. I've blocked out much of it, but I remember arriving in the PNW and telling Nathan that I was never moving again. I usually take our moves in stride, so this was a pretty drastic statement. I'm actually still recovering from the move. Below is as much as I can remember about the business of leaving Italy. Most of my readers will want to entirely skip this post. It is not interesting and really long. I know this. But I'm putting it up for all the families who still have to leave, recognizing that this was just our experience. I really can't say whether it is as hard for other families. Most probably my new mom stresses and lack of sleep greatly affected my ability to think clearly. For sure there was admin stuff in which we elected to take the absolute easiest, and usually quite costly, route, just to do whatever we could to reduce stress. And it's safe to assume that I have forgotten at least five more major issues that had to be handled. This post might also be for all those civilians out there who think military moves must be so easy because "the military does it all for you." I put that in quotes because I cannot even count the numbers of times I've heard that phrase in the last 17 years. Sure, easy. If that's what you think, read on.

1.  First is the figuring out when to ship your personal property. It takes 60-90 days for it to arrive in the U.S., which results in lots of calculations and guesses to make as to when you'll need your stuff. On the Italy end, the Navy will provide loaner furniture - bed, dresser, sofa (or in our case, four chairs), the basics. On the USA end, you are out of luck. An air mattress and crates you find in the back of a liquor store are about all you get. Possibly for months on end.  Thus, we elected to send our personal property pretty early, back in mid-April, in hopes that it would be in the U.S. and ready for delivery the day after we touched down in the final week of June (it wasn't; whole other drama). And just a note, the loaner furniture is serviceable. It is not attractive or comfortable. While we did indeed get to stay in our home the last three months, for which I am beyond grateful (!!!!!!!!!), do not mistake loaner furniture and bare bones housewares, clothing, and toiletries for luxury, Italian living.

2. Then the Express Shipment. This is the shipment of things you kept out until the last minute. This is a tricky one because it takes about 30 days to get to the U.S. If your Express is full of things you kept out until the last minute, that indicates it is important stuff. But then if you are heading straight to your final destination, now you have 30-45 days without that important stuff. Tricky. Especially when there are children involved as there is the extra layer of figuring out when to ship the crib, high chair, and baby accessories that make Mama's life easy, like a swing or exersaucer. Do you want it on the departure end or the arrival. How will you contain children on moving days when moving to a place where you have no friends, no babysitter, no help? What items are so vital that you might even have to buy duplicates so they are available on both ends?

3. Next up is the wine shipment, if you choose to send wine home. That cannot be moved in the summer as the heat will ruin all your nectar. You can (a) send your wine early, or (b) find someone in Italy willing to store your wine until the fall, then have it shipped. With the wine shipment you must provide a detailed inventory, including name of wine, where it was purchased, price, and volume. And a Power of Attorney for both the shipper and your friend who may be storing your wine. This one is the easiest of the bunch because it is purely optional, and thus, I think some of the stress is relieved. Doing a wine shipment was our choice and if we wanted to reduce stress, then we could choose not to send any home.

4. Three shipments down, but now there is your car. The military will ship one vehicle. Do you want to ship a 2nd on your own dime? Or sell one? Or sell both? And when to sell your car since you need at least one up until the last day (public transportation in Naples is crowded, inconvenient, incredibly time consuming (if you doubt that, read my early posts from our arrival in Naples), and not a true, viable option for Nathan to get to/from work in the last days). Cars take 45-60 days, so what is your plan once you arrive in the U.S. We found that here in the PNW, a car rental was $350/week. So for us, we landed, rented our insanely expensive car, arrived at our hotel at 1am, slept a few hours before waking up and meeting our property manager for the rental house, got keys, and spent the next three days car shopping, despite being unable to form coherent sentences. This car was our one and only car for almost two months, until the car shipped from Italy arrived. For us, our housing situation with a rental located in walking distance to basic services (like groceries) made this fairly easy. For many families in America, one car creates a massive hardship to be able to handle work hours, kids' school/activities, and basic needs for living. Back to selling your car in Italy - are you going to sell a car? When do you put it on the market? How many other cars are on the "lemon lot" (means something different on the American base) and how are they priced? Will you get what you hoped for your car? If your car does not sell in time, you must find a really awesome friend to take power of attorney and handle all the business of selling a car in a foreign country. The military does have a DMV type office on base, and that office is awesome...but that does not negate the fact that selling a car in Italy is bureaucratically annoying. Selling our car there took approximately 3-4 hours of paperwork and meetings and phone calls and the like. Buying our used car here took roughly 20 minutes - 10 to meet up with the seller and pick up the car and signed over title, another 10 to go to the small town DMV and register the signed over title. Done.

5. Holy smokes, I can't even think anymore right now, months later. I'm exhausted just writing all of this, much less remembering the actual process of going through it. But it's not over. In Italy, if you live out in town, you now have to get out of your house. When? And how much is it going to cost you? That is key. Most families I know had somewhere between $2000-$3500 due in various bills. For us, we found that our gas bill we'd paid every two months had been an estimate for our entire, three year stay. And a bad estimate at that. We owed 1700euros (approx $2300). We'd set up our electric bill through the base, which just meant that an office there acted as a mediator between us and the electric company. The electric company also did exact reads at somewhat random times, or never. I think we might have had one actual read per year. Maybe. We were required to leave something like 500-1000euros as a "deposit," against any remaining monies due. Two weeks ago, we got back about $500. Two weeks ago, as in December. We left Italy in June.

6.  And when you do move out of your house, where are you going to go? How will you get to/from work? And how will you get to the airport? Many families stay on our Support Site base, which makes all the admin appointments to get out of Italy easy. And there is a bus that goes to the base where most service members work. Except that hotel was booked. No room at the Inn. The base where most people work is located right next to the airport and has an Inn (which we opted for), but most families have quite a bit of luggage. Can you walk the mile from the base hotel to the airport front door with your luggage? Our flight departed at 6am, so we needed to be at the airport about 4:30am. Many families find friends to take them to the airport, but we were unwilling to ask someone to get up at 4am in order to get to pick us up. A wonderful co-worker of Nathan's arranged a taxi for us - we got a taxi to take us one mile. Best 15euros we spent trying to get out of Italy. Yep, a taxi at 4am to go five blocks cost us 15euro (about $20), and we considered it a bargain. My plan from our very first week in Italy, where I hated so much our living situation, was to stay in a hotel catering to moving Americans. This particular hotel is located right near our (former) house, so the area was familiar, has a beautiful pool area and supposedly, a great dinner. Sadly, they do not offer a shuttle to and from the base. This meant Nathan would have to take the car, leaving me and Nora at the hotel all day. Since we were looking at five full days, we opted for the base, where I had easy access to the bus that went into Centro Napoli (and to the ferries, since I held out hope for fitting in one last Capri visit...did not happen), however, our room had a great view of Mt. Vesuvius and was a tiny little suite, so Nora's crib could be in the living room, and we had a small kitchen to do coffee, basic lunches, and the like. I ended up loving it! No great pool, but are you getting yet how very tired we were from the admin of leaving the country!

7.  How on earth could I forget Crazy Dog. Do you have a pet? If so, how are you moving your pet(s) back, assuming they are too large to travel in a cabin bag with you. Your options are to fly on the military flight out of Naples to the East Coast of the U.S. (all the pet spots on that flight were booked, so this was not an option for us), or fly out of Rome with your dog and just pray that all goes well (after you've figured out how to get yourself and your children and your luggage and your dog and your dog's carrier to Rome in a country where most cars are the size of a living room chair). If flying on the military flight, just the paperwork needed for your pet is enough to send a gal over the edge. If flying out of Rome, the paperwork becomes significantly easier. And if using a cargo shipper, you are paying so flipping much money that they handle the paperwork. Add on top of this that our flight was going all the way to the West Coast, so we were looking at upwards of 24 hours in flight that Scully would be in his crate. Guess which pet moving option we picked! We had a cargo shipper who specializes in pet moving to handle Scully's flight because he'd be flying in summertime. We were very worried that choosing the Rome route on our flight day, the heat would be so bad that the airline would not allow Scully to fly. And since the military won't rebook commercial flights due to pet problems, we went the expensive, but less worrisome, route. Scully cost us $2500 to fly him home. We know some families who left around the same time, flying commercial out of Rome with their dog and a $400 payment or so, and everything went very well. We know of other families who had masses of problems, airport delays that went on for days, being stranded in Rome with their pets, and so on. Luck of the draw. There are no good options on moving your pet back to the U.S. if you are going all the way to the West coast.

8.  How are you getting your own selves back to the U.S.? The best option is the military flight. It's comfortable, has a layover halfway through (where travelers with pets can visit/walk their animals), and lands in Norfolk sometime from early to very late every other Friday evening. For us, we were going on to Seattle. Now you taxpayers will surely be thankful to know that when our travel arrangements are made by the government travel office, the cheapest option is the one used, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. We were assigned to the military flight with a next day follow on to Seattle that included TWO layovers. A 40+ hour trip we'd be making with a nine month old. The fury that filled me was so great that I still cannot even express it. Seventeen years of being a Navy wife, and I have ALWAYS taken these types of frustrations as minor enough to not get worked over. This is just the life. But this time, I just felt beaten down, and that quickly turned to fury, mainly because I'd found very cheap, commercial flights that would get us to Seattle in 17 hours. Versus over 40 hours. Yet we were not allowed to use these. Nathan finally managed to get the travel office to approve a commercial flight on "approved" airlines for which we paid an extra $500 out of pocket. This trip from start to hotel arrival in WA was 30 hours.

9. Think I'm done? Nope. Most families moving to Naples put some of their personal property in long term storage. We had about 3000lbs in storage. It took us a month of requesting our property to even get an answer that the military office we had to use had received our request. This shipment of goods came almost 90 days after request and arrived in two different shipments delivered weeks apart.

10. Still not finished. You are moving to a new location from overseas. Have you been there before? If so, you have a huge leg up. If not, what is the plan when you arrive? We have 10 days allowed in a hotel before we are then on our own dime. If you are moving to a new location, then I sure hope you can find housing and move into it (on your air mattress and crates) in 10 days. Or that the rest of your Italy exit didn't so deplete your liquid funds that you now cannot afford a hotel for awhile.

Now I do want to be clear that we experienced so many blessings on our exit. We spent some quality time with friends. I got in a few, final day trips to my favorite places. Our car sold exactly when we needed for the price we needed. We got an appointment to ship our car home the day before our departure, and on arrival in the PNW, we found the exact car we were hoping to find for exactly what we hoped to spend in under three days. For our housing here, a friend contacted us to offer us his rental house, and it is everything we were hoping for in the town where we wanted to live, in the location within the town where we wanted to live.

But to be completely honest, getting out of Italy was mentally, physically, emotionally, and financially devastating for me.  There, I said it. I broke the Military Spouse Code. I admit that it totally blew, and I hated every single second. I grew to detest our evenings in the final months because rather than being able to really enjoy our final experiences, instead, we were endlessly discussing the morass of logistics that were so interwoven with one another that we felt like we were untangling a Constrictor knot. Every time I turned around, there was a new logistical problem. When I'd quiz other families who were leaving around the same time, they'd just say, "It sure is hard." I hope for their sakes that my experience was an anomaly, and those families experienced some minor, easily dealt with annoyances. Because otherwise, they were just putting on a brave, military spouse face and pretending things were fine when in reality, they too wanted to scream or cry or both. Or wished they'd sent their wine shipment later so that a few (dozens) more bottles could be added.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Naples in the News

How can you not love a place like this! My sister took this panoramic photo from the top of Castel Sant'Elmo. 
Naples has been taking a lot of heat lately. Have you heard? The rest of the world finally paid attention to the toxic waste dumping that has been going on for decades in Campania. If you haven't heard about it, I've put links below to several articles written in the last couple of of months. I say that the rest of the world finally paid attention because I believe that this was one of the worst kept secrets I've ever come across. Case in point:

(1) One local asked me why the American base is located where it is since there is so much toxic waste nearby. [As a note, the military commissions water testing yearly, or more often, all over Campania and make those results available to families; any community found to have severely toxic water results in families being moved out, as happened a few years ago in one of the towns that has very recently been confirmed by a Camorra informant as one of the places for huge amounts of illegal toxic dumping].
(2) A local friend (different from #1) warned me to never eat produce or canned goods produced in Afragola because it was poisonous. (Afragola is a farming community located fairly close to Naples, and it too is now known to have experienced an enormous amount of illegally dumped toxic waste.).
(3) Yet another local warned us not to eat the mozzarella di bufala from a certain town because the buffalo there were grazing on toxic land.
(4) One month before we moved to Italy, the lake right by our house, Lago d'Averno was seized by the Italian government from a Camorra boss's front man. I remember discussing with Nathan then that I could only imagine the Camorra boss wanted the lake so he had his own, dump spot. Unfortunately, it's ringed by vineyards, citrus orchards, and small farms, and it's located only about 300 yards from the Pozzuoli Bay. A few months after we moved in, the lake turned this really bizarre, neon green color. Yet another time, I was walking around the lake (it really is an amazing, idyllic spot, complete with Roman ruins, a Sybil's cave, and the terminus of a huge tunnel to move soldiers and horses between Cuma and the lake, which was then open to the sea), and the lake edges were completely filled with dead fish. Lago d'Averno has now been put on the list as one of the sites of illegal dumping.

See what I mean...toxic waste dumping was certainly not a secret among the Neapolitans. But perhaps the extent of the dumping is indeed a revelation. And maybe the attention of the world gives Neapolitans the freedom to protest, when before, protesting could have resulted in some unappealing backlash. Rising up against the Camorra is not necessarily the safest path. I am glad to see the international community paying attention to the problem, but why did Campania have to first have a cancer rate increase of over 40%! For women, 47%! Take just a moment and think about those statistics. They are truly horrific. In some communities, estimates are that the land will be poisoned for the next 50 years. Groundwater is poisoned, wells are poisoned, the soil itself is poisoned...and yet, another article I found highlights the fact that in all likelihood, the Camorra will be able to muscle in on the cleanup contracts as well, making the cleanup as profitable as the initial dumping for which they were responsible.

I hope that with all the negative attention, there will at least be a few positive stories coming out of both the situation and the appeal of Naples. I wrote often in the last few years on how much Naples has to offer, yet it takes some digging. Some fearlessness, some willingness to buck what the fear mongers say and open your heart to both the people and the place. And take another look at the photo by my sister. Naples is full of breathtaking beauty.

Mafia Toxic Waste Dumping Poisons Naples Farms

Toxic Nuclear Waste Dumped Illegally by Mafia Blamed for Surge in Cancers in Southern Italy

Toxic: Napoli, A documentary film

Triangle of Death, on Wikipedia

Mafia's Dumping of Toxic Waste Blamed for High Cancer Rates in Italy

Friday, December 27, 2013

Final Trips

After returning from Greece, we had about three weeks to do all the "last" things. I'd already done my final, overnight trip to Capri, the island that still fills my dreams and memories. And before our personal property pack out back in April (and before Greece), I was determined to boost my meager stock of demijohns, the glass jugs used to hold wine. The best way to get a demijohn is to find it free in a field or at a glass recycling point. I somehow convinced Nathan to spend a Saturday morning driving me throughout the Campania countryside in search of demijohns. Campania proved to us once again that she is a region full of mystery and surprise. We rounded a curve, drove out of the tree cover, and found ourselves overlooking a village we'd never seen before, complete with a castle. Oh, Campania, you vex me so.

Just before Greece, my friend and traveling companion of the last few years did a final, Amalfi Coast drive as well. We both loved Positano, and we each wanted to pick up a ceramic piece from Sosa, a store selling all white, pierced ceramics. The day threatened a storm, but the rain held off for our walk through town, lunch at the Art Cafe (my favorite - a small cafe on the edge of the seafront boardwalk that sells light fare - this is not the place to get a heaping plate of seafood pasta!), and a walk around the corner to a quiet, tucked away cove.

At this point, I'm not even sure how many photos of
this same Positano view I've posted; but it's so classic!

Vieste's gorgeous beach
With this same friend and her husband, who would be leaving Italy within days of our departure as well, we did one final, overnight trip. A return to Vieste, a seaside town on the Adriatic that we'd visited the previous summer. We'd loved it! I posted one photo of Vieste in my post about how much I loved the cleaner beaches located outside of Naples. Since we and our friends would be moving to the Pacific Northwest, we all wanted to maximize our sun and beach time. We'd all loved the Vieste beach, ambience, and our hotel, thus we decided on a revisit. This trip, we made a little time to walk around the Old Town, happening upon some sort of processional and celebration. These sorts of things are fairly common in Italy, so we enjoyed watching for a few moments, realizing our time for happening upon parades was at end, then continued on our way. The beach was a bit cold, and we had one day of rain, but we still enjoyed a nice, final getaway with our friends.
Vieste's Old Town

After we'd moved out of our house and into the hotel for our last few days, we decided on one last hike on the Amalfi Coast with a friend, walking from the mountain town of Ravello down to Amalfi (the town). I remember taking a lot of great pictures, but now, I can only find one. And it was taken from our bus ride back up the mountain. I'm going to blame it on the heat. My rough estimate is that it was 147 degrees that day. I remember lots of stopping towards the end and dreams of water. We did relax with a nice lunch in Amalfi town, then the guys went into Amalfi's absolutely fantastic Duomo (really, the Crypt is the main appeal) while I sat on the covered loggia outside the church to nurse Nora. I quickly realized that I must look like a beggar woman after our hot, sweaty hike, and with my nursing baby. I looked around in my bag for a cup to set out, just in case, but alas, came up empty. Instead, I just pulled out my Kindle to read while nursing and enjoyed sitting down. We then meandered down to the bus stop and found that we'd have about an hour's wait, so I spent my hour napping on the beach. That was a pretty good end to our last, Amalfi Coast visit...but then we got on our bus, and it was open-top. Riding an open-top bus along the coastline and up into the mountains made it even better. Although I suggested that perhaps we could have just ridden the bus round trip and skipped the quivering muscles and sweating. Something to remember if we ever get back there and think it's a good idea to hike the Amalfi coast in June.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sparkling Finish to Greece

One of my favorite Nathan & Nora photos; and yes, she is wearing
socks on the beach. There was quite a breeze this day.
We spent our last couple of days on Paros doing absolutely nothing. We had yet to spend any time at all on the beach just outside our hotel's front door. Clearly a horrible situation that had to be remedied. After having visited almost every beach on the island in our circuit exploration, we were happy to find our very own beach to be our favorite. The hotel directly across from the beach had set up lounge chairs with tables and thatch umbrellas, and we set up camp on one set. In Europe, renting a chair and umbrella for the day is very common. Back in Italy, 10-20 euro for the day is the going rate. Imagine our surprise when, after about three hours of beach time, a man from the hotel showed up and somewhat apologetically informed us that we needed to pay for our use. Three euro per chair. I cannot even get a Coca-Cola for three euro, so I call a chair and umbrella on a beautiful, Greek island for three euro a win.
Clear, gorgeous water
You may remember the photo from our beach lounging, one of the very view I blogged while in Greece:  Don't Make Me Leave
We spent the beach time alternating Nora care so that the other person could take a nap and/or read, fully relaxed. Because I had grown used to a daily walk through the village (in addition to our nightly walk), I took a couple of hours each day to wander around at lunchtime, stopping for gyros and dessert to take back to the beach. I don't know why, but I could (and did) walk down the same lanes, through the same shops, along the same port, every single day (twice a day), yet it always seemed new. Possibly because the pace was so unhurried. People were friendly and often wanted to stop and chat. Having the baby was a big draw and opened so many doors for conversation.

We celebrated our 17th wedding anniversary on our final night, picking a garden restaurant we'd passed a few times but not yet visited. Upon finding out we were there for our anniversary, the owner brought us glasses of champagne. And as day turned to night under bougainvillea vines and table top candles were lit, the lights went out in the restaurant. Utter silence reigned for just a moment, then out came the owner with a dessert topped with sparklers, lighting up the darkness in celebration. In my wildest of dreams I could not have imagined a more perfect ending to an ending - our last big vacation before returning to America.
Anniversary Night - 17 Years!

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas Eve!

I hope you are all enjoying a wonderful, peaceful Christmas season. I'm pausing today from blogging on the Greece trip. We have enjoyed once again experiencing an American Christmas, with so many houses putting up outdoor lights, Christmas trees shining in windows, carols on the radio and over store intercoms, lots of Santas around for photo opportunities (that went well for us, not at all), the Salvation Army bell ringers, Angel Trees, lighted boat parades. The list goes on.

But I am greatly missing the Neapolitan presepes. I wrote about the presepes two years ago in Presepe Palooza. I love them so much because, as a Christian, I want Christmas to be about celebrating the birth of Christ. The presepes, even the non-nativity ones, are reminders of the creche and that lowly manger, a sky lit up with angels, and a light shining down on the Light. In Italy, a lot of the Christmas decoration focus is on the presepes and nativity scenes. Very few houses are lit up with lights. I don't recall seeing a single Christmas tree. The nearest place for us to find significant Christmas lights and a festival with booths selling gift items was in Salerno, over an hour's drive away. Or we could visit Gloria, a Christmas shop that was so unique in having trees and lights that in December, especially on weekends, the highway exit for Gloria was hours of waiting in a traffic jam. Imagine a city of one million people having only a couple of Christmas attractions! The focus in Naples is on family, not rushing around to buy the perfect gift or attending craft festivals or yet another party [for the record, I love Christmas parties, and we usually throw one ourselves!]. For Neapolitans, Christmas includes a very traditional meal on Christmas Eve. The menu does not vary. Every family in every home will eat the same meal. While Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) is becoming more popular, the Italian tradition is for La Befana (the Witch) to visit on the eve of Epiphany, January 6, to leave gifts for the children (coal for the naughty ones). La Befana was an old woman with a very clean house. When the Magi passed by, telling her of the birth of the Son of God, she did not go visit Him immediately because she was too busy with her housework. When she did go to find the Child, she could not find him, so today, she is still flying around on her broom looking for Him and leaving gifts for children. Some legends say that she had her broom with her because she intended to clean Mary's house for her. Listen, I can get behind a lady who brings her own broom when she comes visiting.

My greatest, Christmas treasure brought home from Italy
When in Italy, we did not bring our masses of Christmas decorations. We had a simple, tabletop tree with our most favorite ornaments. Each year, our landlady brought us a small gift of fruit, homemade limoncello, and some type of nativity - my favorite was a beautiful nativity scene painted by her niece on a piece of wood. It is truly one of my Christmas treasures. Our first Thanksgiving in Italy, we visited Alberobello. While there, we greatly admired a paper mache of the Holy Family displayed in our room. We'd seen others for sale in town, but the one in our trulli house was the most beautiful. Upon checkout, we asked if we could purchase it. The hotel owner agreed, and we are now the proud owners of a Holy Family set produced by one of the most skilled artisans of Puglia in the old craft. He is now deceased, and there were only six remaining Holy Family works of his left for sale in all of Puglia. Our third, Italian treasure is a handmade, hanging angel. On Christmas Alley in Centro Napoli, Christmas Alley so named only by the Americans because it's full of presepe artisans, I once spent an entire morning visiting all the shops making angels. Some are cheap looking. Some are incredibly detailed and cost upwards of 400euros. After much comparison, I found my favorite artisan with affordable angels that have gorgeous faces. Their heads are hand painted terra cotta, eyes of glass, gowns of silk.

Christmas in Italy was low key, with our first Christmas spent hosting family and spending the Christmas Eve in Rome following Midnight (10pm) Mass at the Vatican, our second enjoying the hospitality of our landlords for the traditional, Christmas Eve dinner, and our third in Scotland. Each year, we picked one or two events to attend. We had to have all gifts in the mail by Thanksgiving in order to ensure pre-Christmas delivery, so our shopping was finished very early. In all, I found the lack of pressure to decorate and bake and cook and shop so refreshing that we have done our best to continue with that feeling. We did quite a bit more decorating this year in order to enjoy items we haven't seen in years, but we stopped decorating when we started feeling overwhelmed. The little baking I've done has been fairly simple (and sadly, all three cookie varieties I've made to date have been really disgusting - time to return to the classics and stop experimenting with Pinterest cookie suggestions). We've nixed any plans for a fancy, labor intensive meal and will be preparing crockpot chili for Christmas Eve. We instituted a suggestion for each other (and for Nora's gifts) of following this gift plan: "One thing you Want, One thing you Need, One thing to Wear, One thing to Read." We did stretch it with Nora, though. After all, last year we gave her one gift - a stuffed reindeer head attached to a small blanket that I'd bought on clearance the summer before for $4. True story.

I've tried to take my favorite parts of an American Christmas and an Italian Christmas and meld the two to create what works for our family. Some December days this has worked...and some it has not (especially the day I was supposed to take cookies to my Mom group meeting, still had the bake them, Nora slept late, ate her breakfast at glacier pace, and then took the 45 seconds I had remaining to dress her and get out the door to somehow get poop on my blue jeans - which is to say that my efforts to stay calm at Christmas time are not always successful). I hope this Christmas Eve finds you in a place of peace and joy and calm.