One of the local news channels — at least the one we monitor in the office — declared today
“Obama Day.” Much like a weather disaster in the U.S., like “Snowmageddon” or “Arctic Blast,” Sky24 TV covered the President’s visit to Rome all day, step by step, motorcade by motorcade, meeting by meeting. Traffic was so bad there might as well have been a winter storm. Going on foot, as we do, was certainly easier.
It’s hard to imagine this type of coverage in the U.S. A visit by the Queen of England would be a big deal, but it would never get full play-by-play coverage. In the U.S., we reserve that for national disasters. Here, POTUS is a big deal and his entire agenda was seen as newsworthy.
The police presence was impressive. Beginning Wednesday, in preparation for an evening arrival, every Italian law enforcement group was mobilized, surrounding the Embassy as well as the Ambassador’s residence where POTUS would stay. Adding complexity, Secretary of State Kerry also came to town. The Carabinieri, Polizia di Stato, Guardia di Finanza, and the Roma Polizia Municipale were all on duty. There were probably others that went unseen.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Obama, like any visiting dignitary, was running
late by the end of his first appointment, which was with Papa Francesco. It struck me as I watched the extensive Italian coverage of the meeting, that arguably the two most influential men in the world were in that Vatican room together today. Each very popular in the other’s country, by the way. The American approval rating of Papa Francesco is 3-out-of-4, and Italians overall like President Obama very much.
The day progressed with Mr. Obama meeting with President Napolitano, Prime Minister Renzi, and finally a private tour of the Colosseum.
Tonight we were invited to the Ambassador’s residence, Villa Taverna, for a “meet and greet” with the President and “S” as Kerry is called. Security was beyond tight, and we were instructed to arrive by 16:30 for an 18:30 arrival of POTUS. Luckily the rain that threatened and spat throughout the day ceased about 16:00 as the event was outdoors. We were joined by a couple hundred embassy employees and family members, and after enduring a good-natured wait in line to be
frisked screened, we mingled in the fabulous garden of VT to await our Commander-in-Chief. Surprisingly he was only about 15-20 minutes late!
This was the first time Ric and I had the pleasure of being in the same “room” as a president. It was pretty darned exciting. He, Secretary Kerry, and Ambassador Phillips are all pretty good friends. I imagine they retreated to an amicable evening inside Villa Taverna as we headed home and a light mist began to fall.
On Monday I was a little surprised to find it was Christmas week already. We had the usual advance warning of the Thanksgiving celebration, but
that was a false start: the “season” doesn’t kick off in Italy until L’immacolata, December 8, the celebration of the Immaculate Conception. The season does not end at midnight on December 31. Rather, the holiday season lasts until Epiphany, January 6.
In the U.S. we are bombarded with Christmas music beginning at Halloween. Here, the evidence of the coming holiday is a little more subtle. Decorations start going up in early
December, but the majority are not illuminated until the 8th. One barely hears a Christmas Carol outside of a concert or church venue until this very week of Christmas. The music continues to be part of the background until Epiphany. The lack of Christmas music early in the month is almost profound. In fact, less than two weeks ago I was having my nails done and listening to old Beach Boys and other seasonally non-specific American music (very popular here at all times of the year). While shopping at a major department store on the 14th we saw lots of decorations and holiday merchandise, but no seasonal soundtrack. Odd but appealing, this absence of public holiday music made it more fun to listen to our collection of 752 holiday songs on iTunes.
So what did Ric and Laurel do? In the week following L’Immacolata, the Ambassador held a reception for all Embassy employees at his beautiful residence, Villa Taverna, my boss held a party at his apartment, and we went to an Advent concert at La Chiesa dei Portoghesi. This church has a fabulous organ on which an amazingly talented organist played an improvisational concert. We’ve never heard anything like it: non-traditional, more akin to a jazz session.
We were delighted to be invited to the Boncompangi Ludovisi home at Villa Aurora for a party on December 21, where the Prince and Princess (see Evening with an American Princess) entertained the residents of an orphanage they support. Tucked into the evenings here-and-there, we wandered the city viewing the lights, baked Swedish Kringlor (pastries) as gifts for several people, and decorated Casa di Barton.
A lot is crammed into two-and-a-half weeks from l’Immacolata to Christmas, versus the four-or-so weeks we have in the U.S. from Thanksgiving. Last-minute shopping is also a tradition of the season here as in North America. Every day beginning the 18th, the traffic became more and more intense, the horns sounding more frequently and with greater than usual annoyance. But after the usual pre-Christmas recitals, concerts, parties and receptions, almost two weeks of the holiday season remain and we take 4 holidays: Christmas, Santo Stefano (26th), New Year’s Day, and Epiphany (January 6). Gotta love a schedule like that. Clearly there is no separation of Church and State, although Ric says that since the Carabinieri put their nativity scene outside of the station at headquarters in Parioli, that’s sufficient separation.
On Christmas Eve we attended an early (19:00) Mass at Santa Susanna, the seat of the American Catholic Church in Rome. Apparently Papa
Francesco’s policy of inclusion is working because lightening did not strike our Lutheran selves. At the fashionable hour of 21:00, we took ourselves to our favorite trattoria where we have dined the last three Christmas Eves. They serve an all fish dinner, including mussels sautéed in wine (this is the restaurant where I learned to love cozze), shrimp pate, smoked salmon, marinated anchovies (yum!) and insalata al mare. That was just the antipasto course! Seafood risotto and paccheri with shellfish comprised the primi, and our entrée (secondi) was a whole steamed seabass (spigola) served with puntarelle bathed in an anchovy sauce. Two-and-a-half hours later we headed for home. Yes, we have become quite Roman in our dining hours and duration. We also ate all’aperto in that most restaurants have their outdoor tables encased in a plastic tent with heaters making it warm enough to remove your coat and be comfortable unless a high wind is blowing.
The eating must continue, of course, but we chose to forego the family tradition of Swedish plättar (pancakes) and save ourselves for Christmas Lunch, a two-hour affair at a quaint restaurant in the ghetto of Rome. All restaurants and shops are open in this quartiere on Christmas (unless it is Shabbat), making it a convivial destination with some fine options. Many Italians dine out on Christmas Day, we have found, so reservations are essential. There were quite a few people waiting hopefully for a table outside the restaurants lining Via Portico d’Ottavia. We waltzed right in at 14:00 to a fine table in the back by the garden.
We caught up with the Bartons of Omaha Christmas night, and look forward to their invasion visit in August. We also peeked in on Derek via Skype. With a few more Skype sessions planned, by the end of the season we will have seen many friends and family from afar. We will wrap up the season with a day of repose today, Santo Stefano. A wind-and-rain storm last night makes staying inside seem like the best idea. The weekend will have us wandering the streets again (have to work on Friday), but January 1 we’ll take off for Switzerland, a mutual gift to each other: Winter Hiking in the Berner Oberland. I’ll be sure to post news of our trip.
Many thanks for cards, e-cards and various greetings sent our way. However you choose to celebrate, we wish you the very best! Buon Natale, Felice 2014, e tanti tanti auguri!