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Locked down but not out in Italy

Singing from the balconies! One nice thing about this crisis ... solidarity! “Guess you’re not living like a tourist anymore,” was the funny, truthful and somewhat gut-wrenching message of a friend the day the lockdown in Italy began. Today is day 6. My beloved Italia has been hit hard with the COVID19 epidemic. With the second largest elderly population in the world, the epidemic has meant a disproportionate amount of deaths in the country. So though I haven’t been worried about contracting it myself, this isn’t about me or someone like me who, if contracted it would probably have a sucky couple of weeks and then recover. It is about if someone like me contracted it and then spread it to a person with a complicated health history or an elderly person with a weakened immune system. Eerily orderly: Lines for the grocery store, each person one meter apart In a country with no concept (and no physical room really) for personal space, and in a city with reproachable hygie

My Christmas Story

My Grandpa's house
Christmas is a really important rime of the year for me. It was always my favorite holiday, ever since I was young. I am sure when I was young, getting piles of presents had something, if not everything, to do with it. However, there was always some part of it, a part which has increased in importance over the years, that had to do with reuniting with family.

My parents, my sister and I lived in the U.S. Everyone else, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins all lived in Montreal. My mom is one of six; my dad is one of three. So the critical mass of my family lives in Canada.  Every year we would make the 10 hour trek north, in whatever four wheel drive vehicle we owned that year.

Children don’t like long car rides; my sister and I were no exception especially when our parents took control of the radio and decided it was time to play opera, which we would tune out by turning on our respective Walkmans. Over the years we found a little more area of compromise with music: some Christmas CDs like Home Alone, some 80s singers like Air Supply, and even after a long while, some opera.

The restlessness and discomfort of the drive quickly melted away though when my grandfather or great aunt opened the door to their connecting apartments. They would usher us in out of the ritually brutal cold, walking us almost directly over to a table of bugles filled with yellow cheese, dates filled with icing, Swedish raspberries and other treats that they learned we loved. Classic grand-parenting.

For many years while most of the 13 grandchildren were under, let’s say the age of 14, my grandfather and then my uncle dressed up like Santa Claus to hand out gifts. With 13 kids, it always felt like forever before he got to ours.

Me age 3 or so: Can I open mine yet?
My great aunt would make sure, at some point during our stay, to show us the nativity scene or to give us our own cut-out cardboard one and to remind us of the story of Christmas. This, and a short but freezing walk to midnight mass (that at some point stopped being at midnight), was her tradition with us.

On Christmas Day, we all waited for the Chinese food to arrive, our Christmas feast. Saying this now, I can almost hear the gasps of horror from traditionalists who can’t imagine having take-out for Christmas. But for me, and all of us, it was just as much of a tradition as anything else. My great aunt couldn’t cook for all of us after a certain point and it was just a logistical decision. My sister and I never ever ate take-out food during the rest of the year, so for Christmas it was indeed something special. This was followed by little pastries such as tarte aux fraises and other sugar bombs and what my great aunt called white fruitcake, a raw doughy version of traditional fruitcake. I loved it.

We would play our standard Christmas games, carefully organized by my great aunt and progressively by my other aunts. Paquet was always a favorite: three gifts in the middle of the table and you call out a card. The person with the card steals a paquet/package until all cards are gone and all presents have changed hands a million times. The last three cards are the ones that end up with gifts, usually three different people. Sometimes all three gifts go to one person though, and in my family this person was almost always my youngest cousin whose luck in these things is still renowned.

My other grandpa and sister
These traditions have had over 33 years to develop and change hands, but many of them still remain and it is one of the greatest blessings in my life. It didn’t matter what would happen that year in terms of other life events: ostracizing at school, failures at work, even the loss of people who would have been there that Christmas. Despite all of these, our family has hung on, together, adding new people with marriages and births, with friends who became like family, with new boy and girlfriends who may or may not be there for future Christmases. Our traditions and reunions remain. So Christmas for me is a time when everything feels happy and miraculous for awhile. Life is full of the love it should normally be filled with and nothing else matters. That in it of itself is a bit of a miracle.

I know many people may not have that experience of Christmas, or may have no experience of Christmas, but I sincerely hope that all of you have those miraculous moments.

I don’t think I will post much else before the holidays, but to end on a less serious note, I will post pictures of my latest trip to Copenhagen. Maybe with the story above though, it will be clearer why I was obsessed with the idea of celebrating Christmas by going to the Christmas markets. (...I also really like gluhwein.) Stay tuned.