We’ve only ever spent one New Years in Italy. Our house was fairly new and we wanted to experience winter in Penna San Giovanni and spend at least part of the holidays there. So following a grand Christmas Eve party with our New York friends, we boarded a plane for Rome on Christmas Day. We had trepidations about the weather– the road leading to our house was still iffy. We’d relied on gravel and prayers when visiting in the spring and summer, and had a worrisome premonition that if the weather was snowy or wet, we’d be in trouble. We were right about that and wound up having to call on the town’s diggerman to tow our car up the hill, needing friends to haul our Ikea purchases down to the house, and ultimately leaving the car at another neighbor’s house and walking the half mile down to our house– easy enough, except with luggage.
We experienced the phenomenon of micro-climates– different weather and amounts/types of precipitation between our house midway down the valley, to the top of the road, to the top of the town, and back down again toward the main road leading to the coast and Ancona. We made lots of fires, built a snowman and improvised a recipe for brownies that failed spectacularly –without brown sugar, difficult to find in Italy– they were tasty but hard as rocks. The house was cozy, the snow was beautiful, and wintry walks uphill into town to pick up groceries were fun and invigorating.
An International Party
We felt lucky to be invited to our British friends Corinna and James’ annual New Years Eve party –a festive international gathering with a variety of expats and Italians, representing at least four nations. Corinna and James are fervent environmentalists and animal rights activists. Always conscious of energy consumption, they somehow managed to cook dinner for 18 using a two-burner camp stove and an ancient wood-burning stufa that is the center of their kitchen and must be at least 50+ years old. Their pots and pans appear to be antique holdovers from another century. Corinna is bouncing about in a long, full skirt and Puma’s, her delicate English countryside beauty and flawless skin radiant in the firelight. She smiles mischievously as she introduces each of her guests to one another, declaiming each to be “really important.”
Corinna and James are also both artists, and their home is the perfect combination of shabby chic, (embodied in the chartreuse silk divan and matching chairs, artfully threadbare or clawed to pieces by their three cats), and exquisite home furnishings cum sculpture made by James. Above the long, narrow dining table he built, he’s fashioned a steel chandelier– all lacey arches with real candles, which, while it must weigh hundreds of pounds, still looks airy and ethereal. His mirrors line the walls. They are geometric and look like jewels, with angular M.C. Escher illusions in their frames. The architectural kitchen cabinets are a practical variety of storage spaces, some open to display the artistic shapes of quotidian objects, some with sliding doors, some with hooks, some drawers, while maintaining a balance of planes, verticals and negative space that’s pleasing.
The hungry guests feast on grilled sausage, potatoes, salad, poached pears in wine. At midnight there is a bonfire outside in the yard, with a view of the fireworks in town. Corinna dishes out a giant vat of lentils, traditional good luck dish for New Years– the lentils represent tiny coins. It is a magical night of warmth and friendship, bringing together foreigners and natives, most of whom know only a few of the other guests, everyone united in the warmth of the holiday and the hospitality of our hosts.
Diversity is Richness
Remembering that evening is poignant as we enter 2017 in a troubled world that seems poised to give in to fear and mistrust of people who may not precisely resemble our own reflections. As a second generation American, I am close enough to the possibilities America afforded my grandparents to still value the concept of America as a land of opportunity, where anyone with honesty and a strong work ethic can succeed and flourish. The fear of immigrants is baffling to me. The U.S. is a gigantic country with enormous resources, built by immigrants. More people means we’ll use those resources more effectively and to greater benefit. Its diversity is what I love most about my country. And what makes me most proud to be an American when I am abroad– representing a country whose strength derives from the mixed heritage of each of its citizens.
In my adopted country of Italy, I am a foreigner, an immigrant with a return ticket. And though I arrive with existing health insurance and earn my salary here in the U.S., I hope that I am welcomed, not just because I am not a burden on an overtaxed system, but because we’ve given new life to an old ruin of a historic house that without us would be crumbling and vine-ridden. Is that valued, is that really accepted by our fellow Pennese? We’re not sure, and on some level, we don’t care. We’re nice to people, we work hard caring for our house and garden, we buy local, we love our town and value its traditions.
If our new American president really carries through on his threat to bar Muslims from the U.S. for fear of terrorism, should Italy exclude us because we might be the kind of Americans that insist on our right to own assault weapons? In other words, there are bad seeds in every group. Excluding the group won’t correct the bad individual. You’ll just miss out on a whole lot of interesting experiences and conversations, and life will lose its texture, its luster. The point is, you have to dig deeper and correct the causes that lead some people to become bad seeds.
Do Some Good
So, my resolutions for 2017 are about trying to do some small amount of good in this world. Here in the States, as soon as the New York City Department of Education completes my background check, I plan to volunteer at a public school with a large percentage of homeless children, to help them in literacy and keeping up with their classroom work. It’s a population seriously challenged, their parents struggling, their lives chaotic and itinerant. It’s tough for the students to succeed when their school attendance is, of necessity, erratic. I hope that I can provide some measure of care and assistance to support these young minds.
New Yorkers are mobilizing to keep the pressure on Washington to uphold the values we cherish– embracing diversity, equal rights and opportunity for all, protecting the environment, affordable healthcare, excellence in education, investment in infrastructure, world peace. I thought I’d given up on social activism in the mid-1970’s, but we no longer have that luxury. We can’t leave it to others, we must all be more engaged participants in government.
As a guest in Italy, my goals are to learn the language better! This must happen this year! I want to know more of my Pennese neighbors, so I’ll find some language courses this year, hopefully with a native speaker. I want to use my museum experience to help my friend Pasquale interpret an eco-site in his corner of Penna where for centuries, salt was produced in a salinated inland stream, for much of that time supplying the pope in Rome with seasoning for the papal palette. The site is close to a building currently sheltering refugees. I worry about them and wonder if through this project, or in some other way, I can assist my fellow stranieri in reaching the next phase in their lives, or assimilating into the life of our town.
Gardening between Two Worlds
And for fun, we need to check out the gym in Piane di Montegiorgio. It’s one of the Qbo chain and it’s got a hair salon, a spa, a bar, a pool, a salt cave (!), flashy lights and maybe even yoga classes. And I’ve got to keep working on my garden, continuing the ongoing quest to find plants that like where we live and are hardy enough to withstand limited attention from their occasional gardeners. Another good metaphor for a new year– cultivating one’s garden. How privileged I feel to be able to do that on two continents. Happy New Year to all.