Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Year in Italy

We've now marked an entire calendar year spent in Italy. While I always feel like there is more and more travel to be done, I realize now that we didn't do such a shabby job. Beyond our travel within Italy, we marked six  countries off our list, with visits to France, Greece, Ireland, Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria. With another full year to go, I'm excited to see where the year will take us. Istanbul is tops on my list, although Nathan has no interest in the city, so that may be a solo trip. Skiing in Austria, a weekend trip to Barcelona, a long weekend in Sardinia, a cruise through the Nordic countries, driving through Croatia - all of these are on our list. Who knows what we'll actually fit into the schedule though. We're resting up after our marathon fall and early winter travels so that we can hit 2012 with renewed vigor.

As far as our actual life here, we've made friends, created a support network, found a home church, secured options for Crazy Dog care, and made friends with our landlords. We've learned that all the bad things people told us about Naples were, in fact, true...but that those things don't define Naples. We've learned to embrace the driving. I wonder how I will adapt to driving in the U.S., a place hampered with stifling rules such as stoplights, stop signs, yield lanes, lane change rules, left turn rules, and so forth. While with most aspects of society, a complete lack of rules can descend into chaos and anarchy, I find that in Naples driving, chaos and anarchy are more compatible with safety on the road. An odd dichotomy. We've learned about living in a house in a country that is falling down around itself. No matter how nice the house, mold will grow. We must turn our caldaia (water heater) off and then back on at least once per day to ensure continued hot water. Our terraces, if left unswept for more than two days, will become a carpet of leaves. Plaster will continue to fall off the walls in our house. At least one thing in our house or on our vehicles will break each and every week. Scully has learned to be an Italian dog, which mainly consists of hanging over our front railing and barking madly at any and all persons who dare to do such activities as walk down a public street. We've learned to appreciate a coffee culture in which the proper coffee, from time of entry to exit of the bar, should take no more than two minutes...but that doesn't mean we don't miss sitting in comfy chairs in an American coffee house, enjoying reading or talking with friends over an hour long coffee session! We've learned the Metro system, our favorite pizzeria, and how to drive the Amalfi Coast without being terrified. We've learned how to get by and even have a somewhat decent conversation in Italian. Our brains are full and tired, but we have another year to absorb and learn and see and do.

And so, we will end 2011 with a bang. With lots of bangs. I don't know if there's a better place on the planet to experience a New Year's Eve. We'll head to a high point by our house tonight to have a 360 degree view of fireworks displays - fireworks will be shot off of balconies, out of personal yards, by town councils in their piazzas, and out on the islands, of which we hope to be able to see all three from our vantage point. We'll look at the fireworks while standing on the edge of a caldera formed hundreds of years ago in a volcanic eruption, and we'll give thanks for 2011 while looking forward to 2012 with optimism. Happy New Year.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Presepe Come to Life

My fascination with the presepi continues. I've made no secret of how much I love these little dioramas of life. They appeal to the miniature lover in me. I like to stand in front of one and take in all the tiny details that are so lovingly crafted and placed. When I heard about a Live Presepe taking place in the the medieval village of Vaccheria, the event went to the top of my "must see" list for local, Christmas activities. Open only a few days during the Christmas season, the town creates a historic presepe over a mile long walk, which is filled with wood huts and people doing their chores like making shoes, cooking polenta over the fire, weaving cloth, baking bread, and so on. Since it is a presepe, there is a nativity scene as well, complete with the shepherd and sheep next door and pipers playing some tunes once a crowd has gathered. I could not believe just how much detail went into the production, and I gained a new appreciation for just how realistic the "normal" presepi are. I thought it would be fun to show you a little photo comparison:
Live Presepe

Live Presepe

Live Presepe

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

An Italian Christmas Dinner

I hope you all had a lovely Christmas. Our plans changed a bit suddenly when the hostess of our scheduled, Christmas Eve dinner came down with a flu bug. Earlier in the day, our landlady stopped by with our Christmas gifts - homemade wine, homemade limoncello, a huge bag of clementines from her own tree, and a nativity scene made by her granddaughter. As we sat and chatted, she asked after our dinner plans for the evening. When we explained that our dinner plans had been cancelled, she asked us to eat with her family. This sparked off a 20 minute attempted explanation on directions to her house that included me finally calling an Italian speaking friend for translation help. As it happened, he was walking by our house at that moment and was able to speak to our landlady in person. Our instructions were to arrive at 7:30 for dinner at 8pm, so after our own, Christmas Eve church service, we got on the road to Mama Anna's at 7:15. And drove around in circles for the next HOUR! We tried calling and didn't get an answer. We found a house we thought might be correct, they opened their gates for us, we parked our car in their yard...and it was the wrong house. We were not having any Christmas peace in our car. After finally getting ahold of our landlord (Mama Anna's son), we arranged for him to come get us, whereupon we found that we were only a 100 yards from their house. So close, yet so far. The actual way to get to the house did not resemble in the slightest the directions we'd gotten from our landlady.

We chatted with our landlord's teenage daughters for a bit before dinner, then sat down to enjoy the traditional, Christmas Eve dinner of all fish. To start, we had spaghetti vongole (with clams) - delicious! Next was a baked fish, also delicious, accompanied by broccoli and another salad that is very traditional at Christmas here, a mix of vegetables like cauliflower and carrots and olives that are pickled. Then a white fish fried into a huge ball and the capitone (eel). Yep, eel. The only thing I declined. Nathan gave it a try, but did not like it. The eel is alive until one is ready to cook it, and a friend told me that both her landlords and her Italian language instructor told her stories of the eel escaping as they were attempting to kill it over the cooking pot. Just the thought of an eel slithering around my house gives me the heebie jeebies. Dessert consisted of some various pastries, fruit, and strufoli, a dish of little dough balls that are fried and covered in honey and cookie decorations (like those little silver balls).

The entire family was so great at keeping us included in the conversation, and we were able to hold our own for the three hours we were there. We loved the chance to see a typical, family dinner. We ate in what I think is called the Rustico, the family kitchen and living space which is separate from the "real" kitchen and living rooms. The Rustico was on the bottom level and had a kitchen, living room, dining table, and fireplace. Dinner was a normal event, no fancy china or silver or expensive crystal - just a family enjoying spending time together, eating, sitting by the fireplace (and smoking - the entire family from the teenage daughters to the two grandmothers), dancing to videos on the television, and chatting. At one point, our landlord disappeared upstairs and moments later, the most beautiful piano music spilled out. He is phenomenally talented (to my completely ignorant ears) and entertained us with Christmas music for about half an hour. With our Christmas Day evening spent with friends enjoying dessert, apple cider, and hot buttered rum, our Christmas was a special time, and I hope you all had similar, joyous events.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Merry Christmas from Lucrino

We returned home from Germany to find this pretty tree planted in our local piazza. Given the usual, seeming lack of concern for community beautification, my heart lifted at this tree, and I take great joy in it's presence.

Friday, December 23, 2011


The day we flew home from Germany, we arrived on our street to find the top of it crowded with policemen, an ambulance, two moving trucks, and an excavator sitting in the yard of a house up there. After getting our stuff unloaded, we hung about our front terrace watching all sorts of activity. As the afternoon progressed, I observed men removing things like walls and doors and placing them in the trucks. Police were everywhere. A friend reported seeing a paddy wagon up there as well. Combined with the excavator, our first thought had to be: Camorra! A mob boss found living underground on our street. After all, the same thing happened only a week prior. I called my neighbors who have their finger on the pulse of our hamlet's goings on, and her husband found out the answer for us. The house was abusivo - built without permits. Now the house has been there for a decade (or so the story goes), and it was gorgeous. Large, beautiful roof terrace at street level looked out over the sea, while the house built into the hillside had an incredible, tiled, fully complete outdoor kitchen. This house was not some shack thrown up, but more of a seaside villa. Apparently, the police are cracking down on the "abusivos," and have taken the route of tearing them down. I kept asking, throughout the week as I watched the men turn that house into a big pile of rubble, why didn't the government seize the house, bring it to code, and auction it off? Wouldn't that have actually made the government money rather than cost it money? But, abusivo is abusivo, and the answer is to tear them down, thus creating a gaping, dirty hole in a fairly pretty, upscale neighborhood, thereby lowering property values and creating an area that I am quite sure will soon become an unofficial trash dump. In talking with my friend and neighbor, I kept trying to apply reason to the tear down - maybe bringing the house to code would be too difficult, or maybe... - she finally shrugged and said, "This is Italy. It doesn't have to make sense." True that.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Presepe Palooza

One of my goals this year was to spend some time in Centro (downtown) visiting the churches, most of whom haul out huge, beautiful presepi this time of year. I realized that I have mentioned presepi in this blog and posted a few photos, but I've never dedicated an entire post to them. And they are well worth the effort. The Italian, and specifically the Neapolitan, presepe is much like what we would call a creche. However, they go far beyond a simple nativity scene and rather, add to the traditional to depict daily life. Presepi are as varied as their artists. Some are traditional, centered around nativity scenes. Some tuck the nativity into a little "grotto" in the back and put the focus on other figures. And some I saw this year focused on daily life and didn't show the nativity at all. Some have water features, some have flickering "fire," some have electricity. In general, the presepi are displayed only during the Christmas season. However, there are a few places, mostly museums, here in Naples with year round exhibits. Caserta Royal Palace and Museo San Martino come to mind, and I've heard of a display in the Palazzo Real, a place I've yet to visit.

The nativity was actually "invented" in Italy in the time of St. Francis of Assisi in the 1200s. He'd commissioned an artist to make a nativity scene, and they took on a life on their own, sometimes literally. The tradition began in Italy, and in Naples, the artists hit, and kept, their stride in the 1600s. One of THE places to see in downtown Naples is Via San Gregorio Armeno (known as Christmas Alley to the Americans), an itty-bitty, two block alley that's home to a couple of dozen workshops cranking out the pastori, the figures for a presepe. The figures are made of either terra cotta (cheaper) or wood (vastly more expensive), are hand painted, and the larger ones then have glass eyes inserted. Small figures are completely painted, while large ones are clothed in sumptious finery, silks and velvets and embroidery. Scenes are equally varied, from women hanging washing to cooking to families eating around tables and much, much more.

Ironically, while presepi are probably the single most unique art identifiable to Naples proper, they are the one thing we're not allowed to bring back to the United States. Why? Because the structures are always decorated from bark and moss, prohibited by the USDA. I have heard, though, that there is a way to have a presepe certifiably fumigated, and if I win the drawing I entered for one that is larger than my current bathroom (slight exaggeration, but not by much), I will look into that. Otherwise, I may end up the proud owner of a presepe worth thousands and thousands of euros and no way to take it home. Yep, thousands. They are not cheap. To outfit a fairly small creche with just the basic pastori for a normal nativity would run several hundred euros.

On my trip into downtown Naples this year, I lucked into a large exhibit showcasing the work of several artists. Unfortunately, I did not have our good camera, and the pictures taken with my phone are not the greatest. Still, I hope you can get a sense of the uniqueness of the Neapolitan presepe, taking a traditional nativity scene and making it into a diorama of life, showcasing daily living that any one of us could step into and participate rather than just observing from the outside in.
I loved this one, but the details are hard to make out at this size. There is a traditional, tile dome coming off the side of the building, there is a bottle tree holding a bunch of miniature bottles, the man on the upper balcony is standing in front of a decorated bedroom, and what you can't make out no matter how big the photo is a tiny waterfall in the back. Just lovely.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What is Different?

My sister asked me about the differences I've noticed for Christmas in Italy versus Christmas at "home." I thought I'd share a little of my answer here.'s a difficult answer due to the fact that I really don't feel like I've yet to experience "Christmas in Italy." Last year, I was in the U.S. until December 19 and when I arrived home to the house I'd lived in for approximately 12 days, I jumped right into playing tour guide to our family who visited last year. This meant trips to major tourist sites rather than specific, Christmas activities. And since we were still fairly new to Italy, I was excited to see those tourist sites then, too. Now the long time readers may recall that Nathan's aunt and uncle scored tickets to the Midnight [10:00pm] Mass at the Vatican. I'm not sure it's possible to get more experiential than that. still felt touristy. I'm not sure that standing in the cold for hours then trying to beat out aggressive nuns for a seat to watch a mass filled with flash bulbs going off filled that need for a time of reverence. This year, we headed to Germany, where we partook of great amounts of Christmas Festivus, and while I deliberately scheduled our trip to give us two weeks back in Naples, I neglected to factor in trip recovery time.  My week has been filled with home repairs, grocery shopping, online shopping for Christmas, gift wrapping, cleaning, and standing on our terrace watching lots of activity going on up the street (more on that later!). So we got Christmas in Germany, but still no Christmas in Italy.

However, I think the real reason that I haven't felt like I've experienced a "real" Christmas in Naples yet is because it is so very different. I keep thinking of the trappings I'm used to - lights everywhere, huge trees, quaint festivals, carols filling the air, and a two day decorating spree in our own home. On our street here, one family has put up outdoor lights. And those lights consist of one, six foot strand along their terrace railing. That's it. There is no driving around and admiring house after house of beautiful, lighted displays. And along with that, people here have walls around their homes, so there's very little chance to glimpse a tree through a window. Whereas many Americans position their tree in front of a window, that just doesn't seem to be the case here. Festivals in general are different in Italy, at least in the Campania region. They are a bit...smaller...than I'm used to (apple festival flashback, anyone?). I do have a few festivals/markets I plan to attend this week, so I'll be able to get a better feel for the Christmas festivals. Ditto for the carols filling the air.

And finally, our own home - we left the majority of our Christmas decorations back in the U.S. And honestly, what a relief I felt when I could put up our "tree" (a fake tree in a planter that is meant to go on a fireplace mantle or somewhere like that) and do the rest of our decorating in about four hours. While I love decorating for Christmas, and we both love our Dickens Village houses (that take about a day to set up just on their own), there is a great deal to be said for simplicity. In fact, I have found that the simplicity in our house as well as the simplicity of the greater region allows for a better focus on the spirit of Christmas - both celebrating the birth of Christ as well as a focus on quality spending time with our friends. In order for our Christmas packages back to the U.S. to arrive in time, we have to mail them by the end of November, so we avoid all the last minute scramble. Instead of masses of obligatory shopping, days spent decorating, then removing/storing those same decorations after Christmas, and the pressure of where, how, and who with to spend Christmas, we shop year round and mail early, decorate simply and quickly, and will spend Christmas with our closest friends - our only option [but a great one!]. We will not have family here this year, but we will spend a wonderful, Christmas Eve with friends and with the glories of modern technology, we will have a full view of my sister's entire living room on Christmas morning and get to see our niece of nephews enjoy Santa's offerings, thus still enjoying a child's Christmas. So, yes, Christmas in Italy is a huge difference, but not a bad one. When we return to the U.S. for good, I'll love the big, flashy, American Christmas, but I hope I can take with me some of the simplicity I've learned here.

We returned home from Germany to find this adorable tree planted in the piazza nearest our home. Since community beautification is virtually unknown, I love this exception to the norm. And see what a lovely view is behind the tree. There used to be a house there. There was a house there when we left town. Now that's an interesting story! Later...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

We're Back

This time, we'll be home for awhile. Some day trips, maybe a short weekend away, but we have no long trips in our immediate future. We have been on such a roll since early August that I'm looking forward to having a solid week that does not involve any unpacking, packing, or trip planning. What on earth will I do with my time? [said sarcastically]. Oh how I long for those early days in Italy, where I had time to actually sit in the Glass House with a book and enjoy the warmth and the view!

I have much to catch up on here. I'll head back to Paris with you, and then on to Germany, where we spent eight days exploring the Christmas Markets throughout Bavaria. We ate wonderful food (hearty meat and potato meals), saw pretty things (but I still don't know the name of those wooden, turny things - the ones where you put four candles in the holders and the candle heat creates an updraft that turns some blades, which then rotates some sort of center scene such as a nativity or some deer in the woods or some angels flying around - anyone?), visited a couple of palaces, and capped off our evenings with a nice cup of gluhwein (hot, mulled wine) in the market. We based in Munich and took day trips to Salzburg, Nuremburg, Augsburg, and Oberammergau, and spent half of our week with a German friend whom we met many years ago. We shopped, ate, toured, and barely escaped from the Krampus, but not without some wounds. Don't know what the Krampus is? Neither did we. I suppose I have a busy week of writing ahead of me.

I found it impossible to go to the top of Notre Dame and not take a gargoyle photo.