Sunday, January 25, 2009

Not guilty...finally!

Since my husband and I are both teachers and have the summers off, we'll be going back to Italy for most of July and August. And thanks to Barack Obama, I can finally return to Italy guilt-free.

I've traveled to many places--over a dozen countries on 5 continents--and everywhere I go, I'm asked about American politics. Italy is no different. Italians love to ask: What do you think of Bush? What about the war in Iraq? Did Iraq really have weapons of mass destruction?

My answers are always the same:
1. Not much.
2. It's awful.
3. Um, I have no idea.

Everyone always begins my interrogation with a smile. After all, here's their chance to talk to a real live American! And ask anything they want to! Hey, Mario, get a load of this--she's American!

Granted, I'm only one person. But this fact seems to get lost somewhere along the way, and by the end of these questioning firing squads, I somehow feel like everything America has ever done wrong is indirectly my fault. Or the collective fault of every American on the planet. Even when I explain that I've never voted for anyone named Bush, people still shake their heads and challenge me with something like: "Why was he re-elected then?"

Answer: Because the U.S. government lets other people vote, not just Natalie. I know, it's shocking, really, that I don't have more power.

But Italians seemed to have gone ga-ga over Obama, so when I return to Italy this summer, I'll do so without any of the Bush-is-our-president guilt. Unless Obama somehow messes up...(for you Americans, I'm knocking on wood, and for you Italians, I'm touching my nose. All of which is not easy while typing this post).

As the Italians say: Speriamo bene--let's hope for the best.

I already am.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

This is our first holiday season back in the States since 2003. After 5 consecutive Italian Christmases, I thought I'd list the top 5 five ways that an Italian Natale differs from an American Christmas:

1. Gift Wrap
In Italy, you can have gifts wrapped for free right at the cash register. Here in the U.S., I had to buy the paper, bows and tags, which I then stored in my basement until Christmas Eve, when the wrapping marathon began. I also had to come up with cunning hiding places for the gifts this year, since one peek into a shopping bag would have given everything away.

2. Speaking of wrapping paper...
I don't know what your family's opening-of-the-gifts routine is, but our Italian and U.S routines are polar opposites. In Italy, Babbo Natale (a.k.a. my father-in-law) visited the house laden with gifts for one and all. As soon as he left, the unwrapping frenzy would commence--paper flying, ooh's and ahh's, people asking to pass the scissors to cut those ribbons that had been expertly tied by shopkeepers. I kid you not, the entire process was over in five minutes. No one paid any attention to who was opening which gift, and it often took a good 15 minutes post-frenzy to figure out who had given which gifts to whom. In contrast, my family in the U.S. always takes turns, one at a time. Even the kids. Everyone ohh's and ahh's, asks for the scissors to be passed (albeit less frequently, since most of us just use quick-and-easy self-adhesive bows). The gift-giver is properly thanked, then we move on to the next gift-opener. Once in awhile, the wrapping paper and the extra-fruffy bows are even saved for another occasion.

3. Christmas Eve
In Italy, most people go to midnight mass, and the gifts are opened afterwards. Having small children, we always went to an earlier mass. It wasn't until we went to the Christmas Eve service this year that I remembered how kid-friendly churches in the U.S. are. The whole service was centered around kids who sang and acted out the story of Christmas Eve. Reading the program for the evening, there were notices about Sunday school and other kids' events. In Italy, they have catechism classes and First Communion prep classes , but not during the mass. Mass is usually very solemn, and there is no Sunday School with its Bible stories and crafts made of felt and Popsicle sticks. If parents want to actually listen to the mass in peace, there is only one solution: grandparents. My father-in-law was always outside the church playing with my kids more than he was inside. (Although I think he actually preferred it that way...)

4. The Nativity Scene
Il presepio is huge in Italy, and all churches and most homes have elaborate Nativity scenes--we're talking fountains with real water, lights, camels on tread mills, the whole works. Most families add one new thing to the scene each year; they start with the basics--the holy family, wise men, all the principal players. Then each year they'll add a man with a cart, a woman and her spinning wheel, a few extra donkeys...the cast is limitless.

We had a modest one in our home in Italy, and had it displayed where the kids couldn't reach it. This year, however, we had nowhere to put it, really, except within reach of the kids. So Mary and Joseph ended up chatting with Spiderman, and they all put on a Cheetah Girls performance, led by my daughters. My 3-year-old son wanted to put the Baby Jesus down for a nap, and he (Baby Jesus) hasn't been seen since. My mother-in-law would be appalled.

5. Christmas Cards
Italians don't send Christmas cards, although I always used to send them. Up until last year, that is. I just ran out of time, and felt surprisingly not guilty about the whole thing. This year I haven't sent any, either, but am reminded everywhere I go that Christmas cards are part of our culture. So for those of you out there who used to get Christmas cards from me, there's still hope...for a January card. Or one in February. Or, you know...sometime after that.

In the matter how you celebrated, I hope your holidays were happy!