December 15, 2004 Buon natale, buone feste, auguri! I returned to my home in Sarnano after three+ weeks in the states expecting to find a winter wonderland but instead I barely needed a jacket. There was much less snow in the nearby Sibillini Mountains than when I left in November. The situation changed this morning as there was a nice dusting of snow in the mountains overnight. I can imagine that the operators of the ski resort that is visible from my apartment window are breathing a little easier now since the short ski season begins in one week.
I have read in the papers about the Brits flying over to NYC to snap up luxury goods with their strong pounds versus our quasi Banana Republic devalued dollars (down more than 50% since February 2002). I too did some shopping while in the states, but my shopping list was far more prosaic. I lugged home, among other things, peanut butter, microwave popcorn, oatmeal, raisins, and zip-lock bags. When I rented a car in October, I was able to find peanut butter and microwave popcorn in an ipermercato (think Costco) near Perugia. True, the small jar (350 grams) of peanut butter cost more than the five pound tub of Adam’s 100% Natural Peanut Butter that I stuffed into my luggage, and the microwave popcorn cost a dollar for each packet, but at least I was able to find these decidedly American products in Italy. When I took the labels into my local frutta e verdura and asked if they could get these items for me, they said that I had to go to an ipermercato for them. I explained that I didn’t have a car, showed them the distributors’ web sites, and said that I would buy them if they would stock them. They replied in essence that they had never carried these things before and weren’t about to start now. End of discussion, even though I am a regular customer and am greeted warmly in spite of my slaughtering their language.
As for the other items on my shopping list, oatmeal was hit and miss even in relatively cosmopolitan Verona. It is unheard of in Sarnano as hot cereal is not a breakfast item for most Italians. Raisins are also in short supply as Italians look at dried grapes as a bottle of wine that got away. What I really don’t understand is the lack of zip-lock bags. They are not even available in the ipermercati. One can only find flimsy bags with twist ties.
But I am happy to be away from America and the annual December war between the so-called secularists and the born agains, made even more vitriolic this year because of the results of the recent election. One would hope that the “Keep Christ in Christmas” crowd could develop a little historical perspective and realize that every northern pre-Christian culture had a major festival around the time of the winter solstice and that the early church only began celebrating the birth of Christ on December 25 in an effort to offset the very popular Roman seven-day Saturnalia festival that began on December 17. (Vestiges of this drunken orgy still exist today with NYE celebrations.) Likewise, it would be nice if the ACLU types would choose their battles a little more carefully. Acting to have Alabama Judge Roy Moore’s 3-ton Ten Commandments behemoth removed from the courthouse is one thing. Coming unglued any time a manger scene is temporarily placed where it can be seen by the public is quite another. (Manger scenes (presepi) abound in Italy as any of you who have traveled with me in December-January can attest. In one comical instance somebody slipped a pair of gloves onto the Joseph mannequin during a particularly frigid time in Rome.)
Italians for the most part consider themselves to be Catholic, but range in practice from baptized, married, buried types to those who attend services on a daily basis. With the recent influx of Islamic immigrants, there is now some discussion about taking the crucifixes out of school classrooms, but they have been there so long nobody really notices them anyway. Since Italy is culturally Catholic, it is spared the relentless Protestant marketing of salvation. You do not see bumper stickers proclaiming the superiority of one flavor of Christianity over another, no gimmicky “SonrisE Fellowship,” and God does not speak from billboards. (For those of you living outside of the San Antonio area, one rich believer paid for a series of sometimes clever ads. One billboard, for example, proclaimed: Dammit is not my last name. –God.)
Our great nation began with the principle of separation of church and state. The founding fathers only had to look at recent (17th century) European history to see the wisdom of such a plan. I am very concerned that the Republican Party has invited a group into their tent who would like very much to set this principle aside. Since the 17th century, the Europeans have learned their lessons and they strive mightily towards secular governance. Why are we being moved in the opposite direction? What is the attraction of a return to the Middle Ages?
But enough dark thoughts. On the 21st, we in the northern hemisphere will all experience the longest night of the year. Light a candle, throw another log on the fire. And on the 24th or 25th, some of you will be privileged to witness the wide-eyed innocence of a child experiencing the magic of Christmas, a child too young to utter those soon to be familiar words, “but is that all?” Personally, I will be in London waiting for the arrival of the group on the 26th. I will do my best to get to Westminster Abbey for services. It has been rumored that they have a pretty good choir.
Again, Buon natale, buone feste, auguri! (In essence, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, Happy New Year!) May travel be in your plans for 2005. (back)