Monday, December 24, 2007

The Twelve Joys of Christmas (Part II)

7. Pinon scent. There is a very special and particular fragrance that fills the air when pinon wood is burning. You can’t call it generic “pine” because it’s very different. Describing an aroma to someone who’s never experienced it is very difficult, but pinon is like a cross between a very light woodsy incense, juniper, and cedar (sort of ). The scent makes me stop and inhale; it carries an almost-spiritual quality to it and just makes me feel good. To me it is one of the scents of “home”.

8. Christmas Eve dinner. From our first Christmas in New Mexico on through our last we would celebrate Christmas Eve by reserving a table at a special restaurant in Old Town Albuquerque where we’d feast of scrumptious foods without giving a single thought to calories, fat grams, or sugar intake. When my sister moved to New Mexico she came to look forward to this meal for more than a month in advance. It was one of the few dinners out all year where we would truly linger, not think about the time or what may need to be done afterwards, and enjoy all the courses regardless of how stuffed we be by the end, because we knew we’d be walking it off as we covered the entire area to admire the luminarias.

9. Skiing with Santa. For many years we spent Christmas alone, just the two of us. Many people thought it “sad” that we’d not be in the middle of a huge family gathering, but it was fine with us as we’d established our traditions and enjoyed not having to rush between families or keep track of who we spent the last holiday with. We didn’t like to travel over the holidays (too hectic, too many cancelled flights, too expensive) and, understandably, most of our family felt the same way. So, one of the fun things we would do frequently was to hit the slopes on Christmas Day. That was, if Sandia Peak was open and had snow. We would pack a picnic lunch, hot chocolate or cider, and don the ski boots. It was a great time to practice and work up to steeper runs because the slopes were uncrowded. Everyone was always in a good mood, and there was invariably one or two guys dressed like Santa swishing down the mountain.

10. The Light Displays. We always enjoyed bundling into the car to admire the lights around town. My mom would pick up my grandparents and we’d drive around their town, gazing upon the beautifully-lit mansions (or what I had always thought of as mansions) on Main Street and then returning to Grams’ for a piece of pie. Bryan and I did the same around Albuquerque, minus the pie. We saw a lot of over-the-top decorations, I can tell you. A lot of fun ones, too.

11. The Prophecies. I like reading the Nativity account every year, but especially like reading the prophets who foretold the events centuries and centuries before they occurred. That always gives me reassurance, a connection with history, an increased feeling of mystery, and reminds me that God does have a Master Plan for the world.

12. Mr. Jingaling. I’ve written before about this icon who brought immeasurable joy to countless children in northern Ohio. To many of us, he was better than Santa Claus. Santa, after all, could be found on nearly every street corner. Mr. Jingaling, on the other hand, was all ours. We looked forward to visiting him and just *knew* that he was glad to see, too. Those were special times to a kid. But I think the adults were as impressed with Mr. Jingaling as the children.

Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a joyful New Year!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Twelve Joys of Christmas (Part I)

I have been tagged for this Christmas-themed meme by the perky Passionate Palate, and I’m so happy to be chosen for this one. Originating from Wanderlust Scarlett, the meme says to share twelve of my favorite Christmas things: memories, traditions, songs, presents or beliefs…whatever it is I love about this season. Rather than following one topic (12 memories, 12 songs), I'm mixing it up. Live dangerously, that's me! I'm also making this a two-part post to make the joy last a little long. Here we go!

1. Luminarias. A unique New Mexico tradition, I so miss the sight of these simple, glowing beacons of peacefulness. They’re called farolitos in the northern part of the state, but the concept is the same: a candle in a paper sack with sand in the bottom. They are lit only on Christmas Eve, said to light the way for the Christ child to enter the world. Luminarias line the streets, are jumbled on the lawns, perch on the flat, adobe roofs and peek out of trees all over the state.

2. The Food. It’s always “all about the food” with me. Back in New Mexico we enjoyed posole with red chile and tamales (smothered in green chile sauce) along with bizcochitos, an anise-flavored cookie dusted with cinnamon sugar. Oh, my mouth is watering at the thought. My childhood Christmases consisted of a huge array of cookies, most prepared by my grandmother the consummate baker, but also a few churned out of our own kitchen. Treats like thumbprint cookies, bourbon balls, buckeyes, and even occasionally-if my mom had the stamina for the mess-cut out cookies. I didn’t fully appreciate the taste of date squares back then, but love them now. In my own kitchen I have kept some of these sweets in my traditional line-up, but also included baklava,which I learned to make from a Greek friend and which became rather famous around Albuquerque.

3. Eggs Benedict. Every Christmas morning I would awake to the smell of freshly-brewed coffee and hollandaise sauce as Bryan prepared his annual morning feast of Eggs Benedict. He’d even collect the ingredients himself, and it was a pretty big deal for Bryan to fight the mob at the grocery store, I can tell you. That is, every year of our 21 years of marriage until we moved to Italy. No Canadian bacon, no English muffins. Oh well. We spent last Christmas with friends Giorgio and Francesca and will do likewise this year, so he wouldn’t have been able to take over Chef Giorgio’s kitchen even if he could find the ingredients.

4. Ornaments on the tree. My family collects Christmas ornaments. Not just “the family” singular, but everyone in the family, and we all exchange them with everyone else. My grandmother started this tradition, giving her kids a new ornament every year. My mom carried the tradition down, allowing us to choose for ourselves one bright and shiny new bauble every year. We’d go to one of the nurseries that sold trees and had a big Christmas shop. My sister and I would lament and decide, taking copious amounts of time to decide which one was just perfect that year. And then, clutching our new finds, would take them home and hang them in the very smack-dab front of the tree where we could admire them proudly. On Christmas morn we’d receive new ornaments from our uncles, aunts and grandparents. That adds up, so when Bryan and I got married, I had enough beauties to fill our first tree. The tradition lives on; each year is a trip down memory lane as we hang them and remember who gave them, where we’d found and purchased the special ones together. Alas, they are safely tucked away in storage.

5. Sappy movies. I love, love, love TV Christmas movies, and the sappier the better. The tear-jerkers, the predictable, and the old classics. Sigh. They just make you feel good inside. And let’s not forget the animated ones of my youth: Charlie Brown Christmas, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (was anyone else scared by the Abominable Snowman?), and Frosty the Snowman. Of course, I’m still very partial to A Christmas Story, and adore The Bishop’s Wife.

6. THE Christmas video. No, I’m not repeating myself from number 5. I’m referring to a home movie that was made during The Big Family Christmas of ’93. My family traveled to Albuquerque to spend the holidays with us New Mexico-style for the first time and my step-dad caught all the fun on tape. From the opening scene of Bryan cutting down the tree in the Santa Fe National Forest, to the entire family decorating it and sipping cider, right on through the silliness of calling in songs to a local oldies-rock radio station and dancing in the living room. We all got a little loopy despite not having much to drink, and even my 80-something Grams whooped it up and danced the Wooly Bully. With a shower cap on her head! You had to be there, but trust me, it was a sight to behold. The video comes out for a viewing each and every year. And it still makes me laugh out loud. Every year.

Monday, December 17, 2007

And it just kept falling

The snow continued all night Saturday and almost all day Sunday, and while it put quite a damper on the monthly antique market and Christmas arts and crafts fair, it sure did make a pretty sight.

We were invited to the hamlet of Vena Piccola, population 6, to have pranzo alla brace (cooked over the fire) with our friends. The drive up the hillside was slow going over the snow-covered roads, and we had to dodge a downed tree at one point. But once we were above Ascoli Piceno we entered a true winter wonderland. Feast your eyes. Bellissima, no?

In case you can't see clearly, those are olive trees and grapevines that are lurking under all that snow!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Now It Feels Like Christmas!

Finally! The snow has come! We'd hoped to see some of the white stuff last year, but nada. Today started with light flurries that quickly became a real and actual snowfall that has not let up. Big, fluffy flakes have been cascading down all day and it's a beautiful sight. Time to break out the Christmas CDs and sip hot cocoa.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Bloggers Around Italy, Unite! *CONTEST!*

I’m a great procrastinator, especially when it comes to techy-related things. I have been putting off blog maintenance for far too long. Take the links list. Pitifully short, isn’t it? I’ve been meaning to pump it up. Really. I’ve scribbled notes and bookmarked other Italy blogs I’ve clicked into and enjoyed, but have never made the time to input them. Lazy, I guess.

But that’s going to change. I’m going to create a blog roll to encompass the length and breadth of the Bel Paese and I need your help! (I figure if I’m going to do it, I may as well do it up right!) If you are an expat blogger in Italy, send me your link. It’s that simple. I hope to discover new bloggers who are writing about their unique corner of the peninsula (Anyone blogging in Molise? How about San Marino? Dare I hope, Basilicata?) Old friends aren’t excluded, though. Send in your link, too, even if I currently have it listed. You will be entered for a chance to win a prize! Who doesn’t like an easy contest?

Up for Grabs:

A brand-spanking new English translation of the quintessential Italian cookbook, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi. Who can resist Artusi’s dry wit, words of wisdom, and classic recipes? The English translation makes it a little easier on us foreigners, giving both grams and ounces (or pounds) measurements, in case anyone else still struggle with those conversions. (Or is that just me?) Artusi’s book has been continually in print since 1891 and, like a little black dress, never goes out of style.

And (but wait, there’s more!) – hand-crafted chocolates from the best-darn cioccolateria in Le Marche.

How to Enter:

Send me an email by December 30, and include:
Your Name (as well as your blog moniker if you use one)
Your Blog’s Name and URL address
A one-line description of your blog’s focus
Your Location (city and region)
Send the email to:

italybloggers AT hotmail DOT com

That’s it! Of course, you may also want to alert fellow bloggy buddies about their chance to grab a quick link and (maybe) a prize. We want the party to spread across the whole country!

A few things to note:
*This time around I’m compiling only those blogs that are written by expats living in Italy. At a later, undetermined time (remember, I’m a procrastinator) I’ll run another contest to list those bloggers who write about Italy but are living elsewhere.
*If your blog is completely commercial-focused, I reserve the right to exclude it from the contest. Sorry, but I don’t want those blogs that are only blatant sales pitches without giving out information or providing readers with a view of their town, lives, or Italy in general.
*Blogs that are business-related are acceptable, though…even encouraged! As long as the focus is on providing well-written and informative content, or a glimpse of life in a particular place, send the link!
*The prize will be determined by a drawing (real high-tech: put the names in a hat; Bryan will draw the winner). One prize will be awarded. Drawing will be held on January 1.
*Entries must be received by December 30.

Now send in those entries! Let's cover Italy with our blogs!

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Tourists and Trinkets

My brother, Chris, and my niece, Nicole, crossed the pond for a whirlwind one-week tour of Italy. Well, Central Italy anyway. It was their first trip outside of America and it was a lot of fun to show them our city, immerse them into the Italian way of life, introduce them to authentic Italian cuisine, and catch up. They spent three nights in Ascoli and it didn’t take long for them to see why we love it here. Then came the inevitable question. It’s a common refrain among visitors. “Where can we find souvenirs?” The short answer is, you can’t. Ascoli Piceno is (thankfully) not a “tourist town” and as such, we mercifully lack those shop-loads of trinkets that you find in every other town of this size. You know the kind I’m talking about; they all carry the same junk, it’s just got a different city’s name inscribed upon it. None of it is made in Italy, much less locally, and little of it bears any real connection to the place. You find the exact same items in shops in Siena, Rome, Florence, and St. Louis. The appeal, I guess, is that it is seen as “something to remember it by”. Knick-knacks, coffee mugs, and plastic baubles, you won’t find them here. You also can’t find a tee shirt, snow globes, or miniature architectural renderings in resin. About the only thing that tourists can buy are post cards, guidebooks rendered into questionable English, and, at one particular tabaccheria, gaudy key chains saying “Ascoli Piceno” along the top, accomapnied by a variety of first names beneath (all Italian names, by the way). I actually think the lack of such tourist trash is something to boast about, and if shops ever start carrying this crap, I will be sorely disappointed. I’ll also hunt you down if I find out that you are one of those tourists demanding such god-awful trinkets.

There are t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing the emblem and script of the Ascoli calcio team (soccer) but that can be a tricky purchase. If you take it back to the US it is one thing, I guess; no one there is the wiser. But to sport such a shirt here is to make a strong statement. If I were more in tune with calcio (which I’m not) or if I agreed with the politics of the team (which I don’t) then I might root for them or give little moral thought about making such a purchase. However. It came as quite a surprise to learn that many of the soccer teams here have political underpinnings, and that the fans of any given team are generally passionately allied with a particular party’s philosophy. Ascoli’s team, it turns out, is Fascist. I, like many others, thought Fascism in Italy was a thing of the past, buried along with Mussolini. There is, however, a modern version alive and well, though why anyone subscribes to it is beyond my comprehension. Our current mayor, we are told, is Fascist. There are also ominous groups who hold anti-everything stances (anti-immigration, anti-South, anti-government, anti-semitic) such as Forza Nuova, whose members very much resemble the photos I have seen of neo-Nazis.

Buying the team gear, therefore, just doesn't seem right, though it leaves precious little in the way of traditional souvenirs if you don’t happen to have need of a tacky key chain. But then, we always think the best mementos are those produced locally – a piece of hand-painted ceramics, local wine or biscotti, and carefully hand-made chocolates. Visiting the artisans, interacting with them and supporting their crafts create better memories than plunking down a few euros for a mass-produced tee shirt or made-in-China trinket, even if it does happen to have the town’s name emblazoned on it. Such personal memories are better than souvenirs, anyway.