Jan 2009

Bonfire and Other Lessons


What better way. I always say, to start a new year than to burn an old woman in effigy at the top of a towering

I learned a new word this Christmas:
falò. It means bonfire and I tossed it about generously as we mingled in the crowd that had gathered in front of the church in Soffratta. They had just torched the 30 foot high pile of boards, old chairs, branches, and pretty much anything combustible, the hot mulled wine was being poured and one cousin after another greeted us with kisses and laughter.

Panevin is one of my favorite celebrations and as we watched the straw witch burn at the very top of the pyre, a real Befana showed up with a donkey and cart filled with treats for the children. Well, it was actually a guy in a dress with very few teeth who seems to be fully booked with this act every year. His sidekick occasionally passes out something that looks like snuff, but might have some hallucinogenic properties. I then got caught in the crush of children, some petrified with terror, waiting to be handed a stocking filled with candies.


“Do you do this in America?” Vanessa asked me, again. She asks me every year.

“No, no.” I laughed. Build and ignite a thirty foot bonfire, pass out free hot wine, a dubious, black, powdered substance and fruitcake to a crowd of adults and children mingling in a public street? I tried to imagine that happening in downtown Oakland.

No, no.

We watched for a bit, I sipped the hot wine that always puts me to sleep and then we quietly walked back through the crunchy snow to the car, the Christmas season now over.

It is indeed a marathon of holidays. First we celebrate December 8th, The Conception, followed by Christmas Day. December 26th is San Stefano, then New Year’s Day and finally, the Epiphany on January 6th. For each holiday every shop is closed and a large meal is consumed, usually at lunch and usually involving some part of a pig.
Auguri are exchanged and we drink a toast to the season.

It snowed on Christmas Day, soft and light, a little underfoot even, as if we expected it and wondered why it took so long to get here. On New Year’s Eve we went next door as usual to celebrate with Giancarlo and Anna Maria. After
panettone and cards, Luciano stepped outside to open the prosecco…to find it was snowing again. This snow was unannounced, heavy and brash, like a party crasher who ends up a nice addition to the festivities. I had gone to the celebration in slippers, so Luciano carried his shoeless wife home through the snowstorm. In the early morning of the New Year we went for a silent run to celebrate. And while I did not see it, it was reported to me that it snowed on the night of the Befana, thus poetically closing the season. Now, with the ground thoroughly mushy with dirty snow, we can all go back to work.

run in the snow

My first Christmas here in Italy everything was thrilling, new and quaint…so typical, so Italian. Now it is comfortable, warm and filled with tiny magical moments, as is every Christmas everywhere. But I can’t help relish the odd, delightful bits that still make it, well, so Italian. This year in particular, I was struck by all the things I learned.

Giancarlo taught me that everyone has a place on the hand in which to hold that snuff. More prominent in men, it is that hollow in your wrist at the base of your thumb. Check it out, it is true.

I learned, sadly, that Angelo Guzzi did not go to Greece after all and in fact drowned in the Piave. His body was finally discovered downstream as the waters receded. His name was not really Angelo, but I wanted, along with my fairytale, for it to be true.

I taught Luciano a new word: askew. While visiting a museum in Treviso, one of the paintings was out of kilter and it was all I could do to not straighten it. I looked around for a guard, but finding none had to hurry out of the room, unable to even look at any of the art on the wall. I have no idea when I became so visually regimented; it certainly does not apply to my dresser drawers. Nevertheless, Luciano now tosses the word about, trying out the sound: that pillow is askew, the apple is askew, or don’t you think my hair is a little askew?

“It is raining quite vigorously,” I observed yesterday. He liked that word too and the rest of the day everything was done quite vigorously. Not always a good thing, but ok once in a while.

Me on the other hand, have learned more down-to-earth words,
falò being one. Having a persistent cough, again, I was captivated by a television commercial demonstrating a product that could melt the catarro in your lungs. There was even a wonderful graphic of the vanishing catarro, depicted in yellow. I need me some of that, I thought and went upstairs to practice the word on Luciano.

“Look, I need this product to get rid of the
cartara in my lungs.”

“The what?”


“Try again.”


catarro. Ok, let’s get some.”

The next day at lunch Luciano said, “Serena has learned a new word. Listen.”

Catarro!” I announced and knew that I had nailed it because Giancarlo winced. Typical. Luciano has learned such literary words as askew and quite vigorously. I, on the other hand, in addition to the skill of holding tobacco on my wrist, learned how to say bonfire and phlegm.

And the
falò that I had seen rising in the field across the street? It vanished overnight. There is not even a burn mark in the field signaling that it had ever existed. Had I imagined it? Perhaps. But now I must move on to other Italian mysteries like why it takes four years (if you are lucky, Luciano adds) to get a tax refund or why so many Italian women have high powered jobs, yet cleavage figures largely on primetime television.

So much still to learn…