Monday, January 09, 2006

Rule 14

(Note chains)

Bring your own tree

I am sorry to report that the Florentines do not understand the true meaning of Christmas. This being the most Christian country in the known world outside of Crawford, Texas, you would think that the celebration surrounding the birth of Christ himself would evoke the proper Christmas Spirit. Nope, they simply do not understand that to have Christmas means to have your house, garage, and lawn ornaments drenched in zillions of twinkling little lights.

On the other hand there is one hallowed aspect of this sacred time that they do properly recognize: the ceremonious emptying of the wallet. The days leading up to the 25th found the streets of Florence awash with happy holiday shoppers gleefully continuing the great Christmas tradition of maxing the credit card. ‘Tis also the season to reflect and evaluate your relationship to your fellow man, particularly your fellow family members. Is your sister worth an Italian hand-tooled yak skin purse or should you just send her a candy bar this year? According to the signs in the shop windows there were sales galore. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that the word “sale” has a different meaning when used by the Florentine shopkeeper. When he posts a sign in his shoe store window that says, “SALE!” it means, surprise, that he has shoes for sale inside.

We went to midnight Mass on Christmas Eve at our local church. They went crazy building churches back in the 1400’s and there are old cavernous churches sprinkled all about Florence. Going to Mass at one of these is a bit like going to church at the bottom of the Grand Canyon except the frescoes are much nicer.

The church-going population in Italy has been steadily declining in recent years (like, since 1725). Blame it on the low population growth, the shredding of moral fabric, or the bossa nova, these are lean years if you are in the soul-saving business. This being Christmas Eve, however every seat in the house was full. Still, that meant that there was plenty of room for us and about 50 other people who came late to stand in the rear and still plenty more room if we had wanted to bring along our pet aircraft carrier.

I’ll admit to being disappointed that they did not crank the organ up, but I guess with a diminished regular congregation they cannot maintain it. Instead the music was provided by a guy with a guitar joined by a small choir of angelic voices and, I believe, a set of bongos. Because of the cavernous acoustics of the church it was next to impossible to hear what was being said even with amplification, not that I would have understood it anyway since it was mostly in Latin and not even Pig Latin, angit day! However, any one of the dozens of little old ladies in the congregation who know the words by heart could have stepped up to the pulpit and taken over in a pinch should the priest have decided he had more interesting places to go like, say, the back of the church and hang out with our fascinating crowd.

Our group of Giovanni-Come-Latelys included a guy with a greasy ponytail and sunglasses (remember, this was MIDNIGHT mass) who did not even feign interest in the proceedings and kept going in and out of the church fiddling with a cellphone and a pack of Marlboros. There was the passionate couple who found the only vacant seat right in the Confessional thus taking care of both the sinning and the repentance in one-stop. There was the lady next to me who may be a Saint by now for working the miracle of simultaneously tapping her toe and snapping her gum whenever the music started while applying yet more mascara.

It was a quiet, subdued walk home. Without the glittering lights it hardly felt like Christmas at all. Usually we come out of Christmas Eve service back home singing those great carols (“Blue Christmas”, “Jingle-Bell Rock”), but we did not recognize any of the tunes sung by the little choir and guitar except one of the songs that sounded to me like, “Puff, the Magic Savior”.

New Year’s Eve is a different story. Many celebrants simply couldn’t contain themselves and the sound of firecrackers began early...three days earlier around two in the morning, as I recall. The assault grew steadily until by midnight of the 31st the whole town shook and the sky was lit with bright colors. It made me really feel good to be alive and not living in downtown Baghdad where this is a daily and far more deadly occurrence. This is not to say that downtown Florence is not without it’s dangers on New Year’s Eve.

We were about to walk home from a party across town but our friend, Camilla, insisted on driving us home. “It’s dangerous out there,” she explained. We laughed and told her that we were not afraid of teenagers with fireworks. “No,” she continued, “It’s REALLY dangerous”. She explained that it is a quaint tradition in Florence to throw things out the window on New Year’s Eve. In a symbolic purging of the old year you are supposed to throw out old objects that you do not need any more. Dawn of January 1st finds the streets of Florence littered with old socks, underwear, and tennis shoes, as well as tables, chairs, and ex-wives. We were told that appliances were a favorite projectile and gladly accepted the ride home.

1. Spread goodwill.
2. Floss daily.
3. Fewer carbohydrates.
4. Learn “Puff the Magic Savior” on the ukulele.


liza anderson said...

Salve, Paul!

I recently came across your name in the NY Times Book Review and googled you to see if you are the same Paul Karasik I was classmates with at Leland Jr. High. I then found your blog and thoroughly enjoyed it!

I don't know if you will remember me. My most distinct memory of you is of one evening at Laura Bluestein's where we three had a long conversation about something or other terribly profound, or so it seemed at the time. If you saw me on the street today you would not recognize me. Apart from the 49 years worth of wrinkles I've acquired, I no longer wear the huge purple floppy felt hat with the neon pink peace sign that along with my long blond hair obscured my eyes heavily lined with black Maybeline eyeliner. My family returned to Boston when I was in 11th grade and I've never been to any school reunions. The only Chevy Chasers I'm still in touch with are Kerry Flint and Joel Blum.

Your blog has given me quite a few laughs. I've spent a little time in Italy and was in Vicenza for Xmas '04. I have been in your neighborhood and envy your living there an entire year and having your dog with you too! While I adore Italians and nearly all things Italian it was there on Monte Oliveto that I witnessed for the first time the peculiar Italian custom for transporting dogs. In the Piazza di Bellosquardo I watched as a man in hunting tweeds ordered his English setter to hop into the trunk of his Lamborghini, lay his rifle on the backseat and drive off. I do hope your own pooch is still being allowed to ride American style!

I look forward to future installments of Rules to Vivere By and wish you tante belle cose, Paul.

Liza Anderson

Paul Karasik said...

Yup, Liza, you got me.

I am afraid that my memory is about as good as my Italian and I only have a distant dim memory of you. Laura was a close friend for a few key years and although I do recall being in Laura's living room, it is not the profound discussions I remember so much as the rolling around on the floor in hysterics. I laughed a lot in that house.

I remember Kerry fondly as she was also an old, old pal from days prior to Leland. And Joel Blum I will never, ever forget as I was a witness to him putting a slice of chocolate cream pie in the lunch lady's face.

We do not have a car in Italy, but our dog is small enough to sit on our lap when we take the bus. The local gelato guy spoon feeds her gelato which she daintily and gladly accepts then gives us the hairy eyeball and asks why WE never offer her any.

Glad you like the blog!

liza anderson said...

Who could ever forget the infamous Pie Incident!!! A defining moment in Leland history. I didn't see the actual smooshing of the pie into the head lunch lady's snauze, but I did witness Joel being strongarmed up to the vice principal's office by 2 of her beefy assistants and then listened with my ear to the door in case they were going to assassinate him. I've emailed the link to your blog to both Kerry and Joel. Maybe you'll hear from them as well. Ciao!

Smartypants said...

Yes, your memory does fail you, Paul; it was a pumpkin pie.

We're all losing it, though. Why, only last week I looked down to find that I had been wandering around all day wearing one dress shoe and one gym shoe. I was mortified until a friend consoled me by telling how she was constantly putting her cigarette lighter in her mouth and trying to light it with her cigarette. Another less-compassionate friend, who hearing of this insisted we were both "damned morons," had to apologize the very next day after she arrived at the airport for a business trip and realized she had booked her flight not from San Francisco to Salt Lake and back, but from Salt Lake to San Francisco, and had to pay $650 to correct the error.

But I can tell from your blog, which I too enjoy immensely, that you still have some pretty-high-functioning grey matter, a quality I well remember about you from way back in our junior high school days when I had more brain cells and a good pie-pitching arm.

I look forward to reading more of your Rules, too.


P.S. Hmm. now that I think about it, perhaps it was a sweet potato pie.

liza anderson said...

My vague memory, Joel, is that it was a slice of egg custard pie which tasted and smelled like it had been made with rotten eggs. Which was the reason why you wanted a full refund for it. But my memory is hazy too and fortunately for us we've all three survived Leland cuisine and moved on to Florentine pastry which, as you so well describe it, Paul, must indeed include heroin as a secret extra ingredient. Oh, what I wouldn't give right right now for a bombolino!!

liza anderson said...

My vague memory, Joel, is that it was a slice of egg custard pie which tasted and smelled like it had been made with rotten eggs. Which was the reason why you wanted a full refund for it. But my memory is hazy too and fortunately for us we've all three survived Leland cuisine and moved on to Florentine pastry which, as you so well describe it, Paul, must indeed include heroin as a secret extra ingredient. Oh, what I wouldn't give right right now for a bombolino!!

liza anderson said...

My middle-aged memory has just been corrected by my Italo-American boyfriend. It is actually a bombolone alla crema that I would be willing to die for. And I would like to point out that it was a computer glitch that caused my last comment to post twice and NOT short term memory loss....or Italian pastry withdrawal.

Paul Karasik said...

Hi Joel,

I stand corrected on the pie detail but am glad to hear that I didn't just make the whole thing up. As I recall there was some discussion around my house regarding the pie incident with my parents swapping their usual stances.

My father thought it was funny and when he thought something was funny that usually overrode his party line stance about what ungrateful brats teenagers are. He also thought that the lunch lady lacked reason and without reason, my father, the lawyer, saw the world as a bleak place growing bleaker. My dear mother, on the other hand, friend of the proletariat stood up for the lunchlady. We all applauded your chutzpah.

Some of our dull-witted peers (and more than a few dull witted adults) seemed to think that you bore an unfortunate likeness to a certain personality of the time with meager but not altogether unpleasant talent. Still got all that hair? I don't.

Smartypants said...


The long hair is long gone, if not the emotional scars inflicted by the dull-witted -- scars which have manifested themselves as a lifelong aversion to ukelele music.

I am sorry that your father is not around for me to thank for his support in my struggle against The Establishment, lo so many years ago. It is a rare man who will set aside his values for the sake of a good laugh.

It is obvious to me that your mother was not aware of all the facts, or she would have understood that Lunch Lady was an unworthy subject of her support. She may have been a lowly working woman, but she wielded the little power she held in a brutal and condescending manner -- behaving in a way that makes me thankful she was a junior-high nutritionist and not a member of the Nixon cabinet.

I just read The Ride Together last night (I was very moved by it), and discovered your own penchant for brushing with authority back then. While I remember your awesome house and being incredibly admiring of your family, that part of your life must have escaped me. (I also just read a very funny essay by Augusten Burroughs, in which he describes being taken at the age of 10 to visit the Breakers mansion in Newport and realizes the truth of his life -- that he had been kidnapped as an infant and is in fact a Vanderbilt -- and he is horribly upset that no one from his real family recognizes him among the tour-goers and rescues him. I recall having a similar experience when I first visited Lenox Street: "Now it all makes sense! This is where I was really supposed to live, the family I was really meant to be raised in!")

Anyway, it's been an interesting couple of days, thnking back over those times, and strange to reflect on what we've inadvertently chosen to remember or forget. Thanks for that. I'll be checking back here often to see how this particular part of the future unfolds.

All my best,


Paul Karasik said...

As I attempted to show in TRT, that part of my life escaped you because I worked harder than anything (maybe ever) to keep it contained. Part of growing up in America, it seems, is to wish (and even believe) that you were brought up by a different family. My cohort in the chapter you mention was another Paul you may recall and I wished fervently for a while that I lived in his house with his older brothers who behaved like normal juvenile delinquents. I am sure that you recall the barely disguised Assistant Principal!

Smartypants said...

For the amount of time I (and my parents) spent in his office, I should remember him completely, but I tend to confuse him with another VP from B-CC who earned my instant disdain by opening and closing the drawer in his desk while explaining to me, "Joel, life is like this drawer; you can only get out of it what you put into it." I told this to Liza yesterday, and she informed me that she received the very same speech from him on multiple occasions. Did you hear that, too? (Or perhaps I should ask, do you know anyone who didn't hear it?)

It was that guy whom I recall my mother ridiculing after some conference regarding one of my many infractions. During their meeting, he told her that the school had recently solved its students' problems with marijuana use. If memory serves, it was just after they'd boarded up the doors and removed the stairs to that side building (Chilton Street?) where everyone gathered to smoke pot, and he was very proud of the solution. My mother was amused because she said the smell of dope smoke wafting into his office during their meeting was a tad distracting.

Smartypants said...

>>My cohort in the chapter you mention was another Paul you may recall and I wished fervently for a while that I lived in his house with his older brothers who behaved like normal juvenile delinquents.<<

Aha. Yes, I believe I know the Paul to whom you refer. When I first read this, I thought you were talking about the kid whose best friend joined the Hari Krishna during high school, but the espresso I just imbibed spurred some synaptic achievement in my brain and I believe that guy's name was Jeff.

Paul, I believe, lived around the corner from the Flints; if it's who I'm thinking of, I recall that he and his sibs were quite wild, but of that intellectual, upperish-middle-class, overachieving, Chevy Chase kind of juvenile delinquency that seemed so attractive and enviable -- and now seems so charmingly innocent.

Do you stay in touch with any of those people?

Paul Karasik said...

Now we are REALLY getting down into it. Yes, Jeff was very good friends with the kid who became a Hare krishna, whose name I also recall but is so distinctive that I choose not to share it in this forum. Jeff was a guy whom I detested. He was a brutish winner at the poker table and a sour loser. He also treated his girlfriend, whom I adored, like shit.

Kerry is a girl and as I recall the Flint family was very wonderful and truly hip. They lived around the corner from the other Paul and maybe three houses away from Matt and his brothers, the true bright bulbs of the entire lot.

Should we try to continue this conversation elswhere? Go to and send me email from there. I think that link still works.

Smartypants said...

Hmm. Your Web site link isn't working for me. Send me an e-mail by clicking on the Smartypants link here (or rather, on the e-mail link in my profile) and we can stop this "Do you remember...?" blather from hijacking your racconti fiorentini.

Meanwhile, when do we hear your Rule 15? I confess to a small addiction. Suprising -- no? --given my aversion to rules!

Paul Karasik said...

Theoritically a new Rule appears each Monday.

I break that rule regularly.

Beatrice said...

Buon Giorno! I am dong some research on a Villa Mercede in Piazza Bellosquardo, Florence, Italy. Are you familiar with it? Another villa close by is called Villa Romanelli. Ages ago (1949) our family rented a portion of the Villa Mercede, and I'm wondering if you could give me any information. Tante Grazie! Beatrice