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December 11, 2010

Christmas and the Soggy Merchants of Venice

Christmas and the Soggy Merchants of Venice

By Brunonia Barry

Acqua alta Venezia

I spent the last several weeks in Italy on book tour for The Map of True Places. Don’t worry, I’m not writing about my book tour, I understand that the subject isn’t all that interesting except to us writers who admittedly don’t get out much. I’m telling you the backstory just so you won’t think I bailed on Thanksgiving on purpose. I wanted to explain that I had a legitimate reason to be away on this mega family holiday.

First of all, as you are probably aware, they do not celebrate Thanksgiving in Italy. Once I got over my twinges of homesickness, I have to admit to being just a little bit thrilled. Beyond the connection of family, Thanksgiving has never been my favorite holiday. The reason is simple: I’m allergic to turkey, celery, and potatoes. While other people take their tryptophan-induced naps after dinner, remarking on how sleepy and satisfied they feel, I generally just itch and scratch. I did, that is, back in the days when I actually ate Thanksgiving dinner. For the last several years, most of what I do is watch other people eat. When it is my turn to list what I’m thankful for, one of the things I always say is: “I’m thankful I didn't eat the turkey dinner.” It’s embarrassing when I’m a guest at someone else’s table, and it makes me resentful when I have to cook the turkey myself.

So I was not all that unhappy this year to be in Rome with my husband on Thanksgiving Day eating tagliolini with white truffles and artichokes instead of turkey. In fact, we ate the same menu or a close variation of it for the full two weeks we were there. With bread. And wine. And dolce, something I never dare at home. Yikes! My real Thanksgiving gratitude came the day I returned, stepped on the scale and found that I had actually lost two pounds. Impossible you say? That’s what I said too, until I decided to simply accept this gift. A Thanksgiving blessing? A Festivus miracle? You decide. Meanwhile, I’m busy scouring Boston’s North End for the best mozzarella imported from Campania and the kind of baby artichokes that are so tender you can eat the stems. I figure I’ll keep it up. If my diet plan works long term, I plan to get out of fiction all together and write a bestselling diet book.

While Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Italy, Christmas is. You can’t be less than a kilometer away from the Vatican and surrounded by Renaissance art without being aware that Christmas is on the way, but the buildup to the big day is very different in Rome. The day after Thanksgiving, I noticed that there were only a few decorations in store windows, and there were very few people shopping. In short, there was no Black Friday. There were no rushing crowds, no reminders that all the good stuff might be taken, and that you’d damned well better get your ass out there at three AM (did they really do that this year?) if you want to get little Sally the only she really wants. There was no such frenzy in Rome. People were going about their daily business, having lunch, looking stylish. As I watched, I became more and more agitated. Not celebrating Black Friday was decidedly un-American, which was the point. But I couldn’t help but wonder, without the Christmas buying frenzy, how can Italy have a viable economy? I was genuinely worried about these lovely people.

As the days went on, I worried more and more.  The lack of Christmas decorations made me very nervous. We were touring Italy for two whole weeks, and, with the exception of an animatronic (and very American) Santa Claus that sang Santa Claus is Coming to Town, and drew a crowd of children in the town square of Matera, I didn’t see much in the way of festive décor anywhere until the final weekend back in Rome. Even then, there were just a few tasteful garlands, or a dusting of snow in store windows sporting shiny metallic down jackets (all the rage this year). There was a modernist holiday sculpture in one of the squares. It was stylish, it was tasteful, but it wasn’t Christmas.   

How do these people exist? What drives their economy? Can the merchants make a living if everyone isn’t out buying? It struck me most in Venice where they were experiencing acqua alta, the highest tide of the year, in fact. The tide was so high and the streets so flooded that we couldn’t leave our hotel room until 11AM, not unless we had packed hip boots. The hotel sat directly on the Grand Canal, and, in the morning, the water came up the stairs and through the front door. When we finally hit the local stores, I asked a shopkeeper how this would affect her Christmas sales, and she just looked at me strangely. Did she open the store before 11 AM? Yes, she said, she opened at 10. What do people do if they want to shop, I asked, looking at the series of three-foot high walkway/tables strung together down the center of the alleyway? In order to get to her door, they would have to step down into the water and wade. There was a two-foot high barrier at the front doorway that served to keep the water out. “They climb over,” she said, unconcerned. She came in early herself, she said. “to run the pumps.” My husband and I spent very little time shopping, and a great deal of our day enjoying long lunches and afternoon tea.

 We’re back in the States now, with a mere fifteen shopping days left until the big day. So far, I haven’t needed to wear hip boots, to wade through high water, or to climb over a two-foot tall bundling board wedged into a doorway to go shopping. But I haven’t had much down time, either. I’m intensely aware of the clock ticking, of special sales expiring. I find myself desiring retail peace, the good will of being satisfied without spending. I know it’s possible to have it here in America, but it’s not as easy as I hoped it would be. I feel a patriotic responsibility to shop. The American economy needs my business. But I still hold out hope for something in between what I saw in Italy, and what I see at home. And so, as glad as I am to be back stateside in this happy season, I wanted to send you all a wish for a bit of the Christmas peace I found for a few short weeks. Buon Natale everyone! Happy Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Festivus, whatever it is that you celebrate. Peace to you and yours.



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Brunonia, years ago I took myself to Rome when I found myself with some sudden days off from the soap I was acting in, and lots of extra money. It was Thanksgiving and I had a similar -- "wow! Here it's just another day" reaction. Ah, la dolce vita.

I have done zero shopping. I'm in complete denial. Please tell me you're kidding about those 15 shopping days.

Brunonia, your trip sounds wonderful. I love to read about cultural differences and the beauty of other places. I haven't made it to Italy, myself, yet. That will be a challenge. We almost made it there when our son, P-Wog, drove an ambulance between Naples and Rome for two years. For a kid who calls himself a non-believer, he spent an awful lot of time in cathedrals and churches and only one football match, so I know it must have been impressive. My woderful cousin Allen went to Rome as well, joined a monastery, then returned home to be an interior decorator for Neiman Marcus.

I think if book-tour blogs were like yours today, readers would probably find them very interesting. You don't really talk about the usual book-signing stuff) (that I actually enjoy, and the story is completely fun. I am certain that all areas have things that could be very interesting seen from the viewpoint of an author on tour.

sorry bout the typos - on chopsticks again

That diet sounds like a Festivus miracle indeed. I've done all my Christmas shopping online this year to stay out of the Christmas crush. This has cut down significantly on my list of grievances to air. :)

The disadvantage of Chanukah being the first week of December, Gift shopping was done by Thanksgiving. Well, mostly. The advantage, shopping is done. I don't need to go to the mall except to deliver pizzas. Then parking is a breeze. Look for my car and its bright pizza sign in the no parking zone or wide sidewalk. I have the security guards lunch with me, he doesn't care where I park.

All the best wishes however you celebrate and all the best for the new year.

I am blessed with a sensible family that doesn't require that we obtain a second mortgage, spend weeks in the kitchen, or turn the house into a winter wonderland in order to celebrate the season. Don't get me wrong - when circumstances permit, I love a nice Christmas tree, a special batch or two of cookies, and the ability to spoil my nearest and dearest with unexpected gifts. Normally, though, the fun lies in finding a way to make budget giving fun and funny; in eating a decadent Christmas breakfast; and in napping through the endless replays of A Christmas Story.

One thing I really do love, though, is to get all my shopping done online so I can take a morning to window shop at the mall. I get to enjoy the decorations, music, kids, etc. without having to actually accomplish anything. For the most part, people are friendly and cheerful, and I enjoy myself immensely!

Happy holidays to all!

Brunonia, you brought back good memories. We lived in Naples when we were first married and yes, the days leading up to Christmas were much less frenzied. The shepherds came down from the hills and would "carol" during the day with their pipes to earn a few extra lira. And those intricately detailed, hand-carved creches in every church were amazing.

What a lovely way to pass the time before Christmas. Thanks for telling us a little about your signing trip (Can I confess that I like to hear about other areas, whether it's Italy or Indiana?)
My Christmas shopping is done, except for one stop at a small store. I did the rest online. God bless the internet.

Brunonia, I'm afraid that the economy that most benefits from the Christmas frenzy is NOT that of the United States, but that of China. Look around: every single freakin' thing available in the stores comes from there, which is the one and only reason you can get it all so cheaply.

Italians, those lovely people, buy local. They make their own fabrics, their own pottery, their own furniture, and they mostly grow their own incredibly delicious food. Their economy may have issues, but then tourism is a big part of it, as well. We Americans, who are suspicious of everything non-American, are the ones you should be worried about, I'm afraid.

Gosh, I've never heard of anyone allergic to celery and turkey. That must be awful. Couldn't you have have chicken, instead, and just leave the celery out of the meal?

I've also lost weight every time I've been to Europe, Australia, or South America. I suspect it's because they don't put high-fructose corn syrup into every. single. thing.

Oh, Venice! Brunonia, my husband and I spent an equally delightful Thanksgiving there 2 years ago and shared a pizza by the Grand Canal. We missed the aqua alta by a day, and I was a little sorry not to have experienced it.--Although "the boards" where still set up in San Marco's square. Your photo is a wake-up call. I guess we were better off without all the water!

I've had a cold, and my shopping nut neighbor friend actually did some of my shopping yesterday! I am *very* thankful for her.

Allergic to celery! I mean, not that I actually like it very much, but oh gee, Brunonia.

I'm just amazed by the flooding in Venice (where I've never been), and how accustomed they seem to be to it. Can't get out of your room until 11! Have to step over water barriers to shop! Unbelievable. Did you read Marilynne Robinson's novel, HOUSEKEEPING? It has one of the most unforgettable chapters I've ever read, about the aunt and the girls living in a flooded home. Now, after reading your account, I can grasp a little better how the fictional family handled it, too.

I love your diet!

Thanks for the memories of Italy.

My Italian diet seems to be working, because I've lost another pound. This may be due to jet lag and the fact that I fall asleep every night at 7, forgoing dinner in favor of a yogurt in the middle of the night when I wake up starving.

I'm taking advice and shopping online. There's still time!

We were having a similar discussion over on HMOH, the TLC-begat healthy life support group. I just wrote this to them:
I used to obsess about Christmas presents/cards. The result was that I would make a really elaborate and beautifully wrapped present for one, maybe two, people and everyone else would get bupkis. Cards would go out every five years or so, because I couldn't allow myself to buy stuff -- they had to be hand made. Oi.
Now that we don't have a lot of spare money, I retired from the whole kit and kaboodle. I enjoy what ever part of holiday festivities come my way and let all the rest go -- parties, gifts, baking, cards, trees, decorating. I really do love the holidays, but I don't enjoy the stress on me or my pocketbook. All of this started with a book: Unplug the Christmas Machine, I just went a lot further in the unplugging. But then, I don't have family, and Steve's family uses Thanksgiving as their get together.
Brunonia, as a gluten-intolerant person, I can relate to the Thanksgiving dinner woes. Gluten-free bread makes horrible stuffing. It's just easier to avoid doing it altogether -- hmmm, I'm sensing a theme in my life.

Brunonia, this is such a lovley post. I love seeing and hearing about exotic places such as Italy,
I also love the message of love and peace that you are wishing us today.
I share the same thoughts with you and hope that the Holiday season is everything that you wish it to be.

I put on my Knott's Berry Peanuts character sweater today embracing my elderwood.
I will be a grandma again in June and I finally gave myself permission to embrace all things grandmotherly even blatantly loud sweaters.
I told my kids that I am finally old enough to be a grandma and they just snickered.

I love how you write. (makes me long for your next book) You just bring Venice to life. My shopping is all done on the Internet except for books from my local favorite, and since I give a lot of books, I enjoy the Christmas music piped in, and the spirit of my -um, bartenders. Congratulations on your weight loss. Were you able to do a lot of walking?

Off topic--I would just like to say thank you (NOT) to all you guys who mentioned Bubble Buster games on Sally Goldenbaum's "Guilty Secrets" post the other day. Dammit, you made me go back and play it, after I thought I had killed my crack dealer dead, and now I'm addicted again. Never let it be said this blog is not influential!

Oops, I should be embracing my elderhood not my elderwood..

Poor Venice. But, happy Brunonia and husband: that's good!!
I'm going to a holiday party in Venice, California, tonight, where I believe there will be no flooding, if the welcome sun outside is any indication.
I'm having all kinds of holiday shopping impulses, which settle down quickly when I realize that indulging them means taking money from hard-won emergency savings . . . I may just have to get creative this year.
But, that doesn't at all quell the impulse to wish all of you the peace of winter and joy in reviewing the year just past and the love of those close to you.

Brunonia, I can't get the scene you describe of flooded Venice out of my mind-- actually dreamed of it.

Alan, I hope you had a wonderful Chanukah - sorry I missed wishing you a good holiday. One of our daughters was in the hospital, and all else was forgotten (she's doing okay, now).

Kerry, I love your approach to Christmas - I'm working in that direction. :)

Okay for years, my boys didn't know people baked around Christmas....I didn't do it. Boy am I glad I never started that tradition; my boys don't expect it before Christmas Eve, when we bake a few cookies for Santa. I obviously don't go to cookie exchanges. Just couldn't bring myself to add to the stress.

This year, my husband was unemployed, so I went out shopping Black Friday for 3 hours, ordered gift cards on-line, and keep deleting all the "Buy this now" emails that come in my inbox. Since I am working, I can't go to the mall, and it is AMAZING how NOT stressed out I am. Planning on decorating next weekend, even though the neighbors have had theirs up for WEEKS! Trying to remember the reason for the season and not the commercial one.

Go, Lora!

My book club read _Skipping Christmas_ and someone mentioned the movie _Christmas with the Kranks_. I really think scaling back leaves more room to enjoy family and friends -- and smaller feasts means less to work off in January. ;-)

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