Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Buon Natale!

We've packed up the presents, bagged a few bottles of bubbly, and stuffed a small suitcase. We're just about ready to hit the via Salaria, one of the famed, ancient roads that lead to Rome, where we'll light up the New Mexican luminarias and spend a couple days feasting with friends.

But I couldn't leave without wishing you a Merry Christmas! I hope you have a very happy one.

Tante belle cose, my friends.

photo by Bryan Schneider. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Random Christmas Thoughts

Over the past year I 've seen a meme going around titled Seven Random Thoughts. I have lots of those...random, seemingly senseless thoughts that pop into my head. But then I had an actual idea (!) - which probably has already been done, but what the heck. Since it is Christmas time, I am listing Seven Random Christmas Thoughts. Feel free to play along!

1. We are going to festoon our friends' house in Rome with luminarias, the traditional New Mexican Christmas Eve splash and wonder. But we'll call them by the Northern New Mexico name of farolitos, since "luminarie" in Italian is used to signify twinkle lights.

2. I miss decorating a Christmas tree. I have a huge collection of ornaments, no two alike and each one special in its own way. I left them in Ohio, where maybe my sister is using them to adorn her tree.

3. When I was a kid, we always went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. I liked the candlelight and the smell of incense, but could never stay awake through the whole thing.

4. My brother, sister and I would wake up at the first crack of daylight and troll downstairs to scope out the gifts. We were allowed to open our stockings, but nothing else, and woe unto the one who woke up Mom before 7:30 a.m., especially if coffee had not yet been brewed for her.

5. Bryan made breakfast of Eggs Benedict every Christmas morning, until we moved to Italy. No Candadian bacon, no English muffins.

6. The Christmas fiera here is one full day of unbridled consumerism filling half the centro storico and the main piazzas with booths where vendors sell crafts, kitch, and some pretty cool stuff that they demonstrate right out there with mobile kitchens and microphones strapped onto their heads.

7. I hate the song Silent Night. Hate it! Maybe because we had to sing it repeatedly during my Catholic school years, but I think it's insipid. Besides, Bethlehem was packed to the gills with no room at the inn. No stinkin' way it was a silent or calm night around there!

What about you? Had any random thoughts lately?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Gift of Friends

So do you have your shopping done? Getting the gifts wrapped and the cookies baked? I've not even started baking yet. That's because I have been a little tied up, in a good way. I had an early Christmas gift that came in the form of a visit from friends.

Maria and Bob are passionate about Italy, so when they said they wanted to come and see Le Marche we were thrilled. Such good friends who love eating, exploring, wine-tasting, and gazing upon gorgeous scenery are a treasure, and we enjoyed toting them around to some of our favorite spots. We spent time cooking and talking together in their vacation villa. We caught up on the news from New Mexico. We laughed a lot and ate a lot and just had a wonderful time together.

But I'll let Maria describe their visit. She put it eloquently in an email to her friends back home:

From our perch in the country there is a visual feast: a perfect patchwork quilt of rolling farmland, all in fall colors - a square of soft gold, a triangle of dusty orange, big patches of earthy corderoy that are tilled fields awaiting the next plantings of greens and grains, staples of the local diet. Small towns and villages drip off the hillsides. Their names roll off our tongues - Ripatransone, Offida, Aquaviva Picena. We've ventured up into the narrow stone streets to get a closer look. We watched an old lace-maker woman blissfully at work in the old tradition which will likely end when she does. I promise you we've left no food uneaten, no coffee unsipped, no wine untasted. Today I will complete a 40 year circle. I will reconnect with my cousin Elia (Elijah) after 40 years of not having seen or spoken with him.

Maria's father came from nearby Abruzzo and she spent many summers there as a child. She chummed around with her cousin, Elia, during some of those teenager times, then lost contact with him for many, many years. We witnessed Maria and Elia's family reunion, which had me choking back tears. Forty years later, to see them talking like no time had passed. What an experience. What a gift...for them, and for us. It was beautiful to behold.

As for us, we last saw Maria and Bob two Christmases ago in Assisi. Don't you just love the friendships that don't allow time and distance to interfere? Where you can go a few years without seeing them but then pick right back up as if you'd just seen them last week?

So, my Christmas gift came early. Friendships. We are so grateful for each and every one of them in our lives. We need no other presents...we have the presence of friends. And that is one of life's most precious gifts, don't you think?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Gifts That Really Give, Part III

I'm wrapping up my gift-giving series (pun intended) with a listing of charitable gifts. For those impossible-to-buy-for folks or just for your own sense of Christmas spirit, you may want to consider giving charitable gifts - they really do keep on giving. While they're less traditional, they're no less tangible. They will make a difference in the lives of others, and will make you feel good in the process.

Smile Train
This Christmas make someone smile...for a lifetime. Smile Train provides free cleft surgery for children worldwide to give them confidence, health, and a smile that will last forever. A simple surgery and $250 can change a child's life.

Shopping List for the World
Alternative brings together several worthy organizations, and provides you with a shopping list to let you choose where your donation goes. Want to provide water wells in Sudan? How about helping recently freed slaves? Or neonatal training in Romania? A gift card will be sent to your friend detailing the gift and the program.

Give a Goat
Or seeds, or emergency aid...and more. World is committed to meeting all the most basic human needs of the most impoverished and war-torn locations of the world. One goat ($75) will provide a family with milk, cheese, and yogurt (as well as baby goats and organic fertilizer!) Clean water and sanitation, medical supplies, and soccer balls (because kids still need to have a little fun) are all in their gift catalog.

Changing The Present
You can make a difference now...and in the future. Changing the Present is another gift site that brings together worthy causes with a user-friendly giving site where you choose your cause and how it is used. From blankets for children to demining fields and micro-loans, there are lots of great opportunities to make a difference. They also offer a gift registry and host a Hall of Shame of the stupidest gifts out there. Boggles the mind, some of those dumb trinkets.

Support the Bell Ringers
The Salvation Army is an evangelical organization that provides emergency relief world-wide. They are famous for their red kettles and bells during the Christmas season, but unfortunately many stores have banned the bell ringers. Bah humbug, because they've been around for more than 100 years and are working in 117 countries. If you'd like to support disaster relief, war-torn family tracing, or other social services, donations can be made online.

Before you give, check out your charities. Charity Navigator evaluates charities based on criteria such as efficiency and administrative expenses. You can see how well, or how poorly, the organizations function, allowing you to make better choices about where you donate.

Now start crossing things off your shopping list!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Gifts That Really Give, Part II

Last time I told you about a few unsual gift sites where I am sure you found some really cool stuff. This time I'm focusing on sites where a portion or all of the proceeds from your purchases go to charitable organizations. You get nice gifts, along with the added gift of giving to others while you're at it!

I like their style. Breezy, fun site with quality, eco-friendly cosmetic products. Soaps, scents and lotions that are 100% natural, never tested on animals, minimal packaging, and fresh-made by hand. Cool, huh? Plus, if you buy the Charity Pot Body Lotion, 100% of the proceeds go to charity (and they list the charities they give to on the site).

What's Your Bag?
At whatsurbag they sell flashy, flexible, fun shopping bags so you can avoid the old "paper or plastic" dilemma. They come in a candy-store array of colors and patterns. They are not just fashionable; they're made by Hurricane Katrina survivors in a rebuilt factory in New Orleans and 5% of the profits go to a New Orleans charity.

Museum Shop
The Greater Good Network operates a host of "click to give" sites, where your clicks are funded by sponsors who donate to the organizations, such as The Rainforest Site, The Literacy Site, and The Animal Rescue Site. Now they also opeate Museum Shop, a neat outlet for great goods. You get a nice selection of pretty gifts, and each order feeds a family of four and also garners a donated book to the literacy campaign. Plus, shipping is only 1 penny.

The Smithsonian Store
I love the Smithsonian. It's one of our true treasure troves, the ultimate repository of art, artifacts, history and culture, and the largest museum in the world. The 19 museums and National Zoo that comprise the Institution were established for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge".

The gifts in the store reflect the vast variety of the collections in the museums...rare finds, unique and inspired gifts. And 100% of the profits go right back to the Smithsonian, making it a wonderful spot to shop.

Global Exchange Store
A Fair Trade online outlet where you can purchase coffees, teas, chocolates, jewelry, and more...and where the artisans who make them get a fair and decent profit from their labors while engaging in environmentally sustainable practices. You get nice things, while knowing you're not exploiting sweat-shop laborers in a far-away land to get them. Original Good is a similar store with cute housewares.

Shopping on sites like these help put the "merry" in Merry Christmas, and just let you feel good about your purchases.