2013 was a year of many firsts for me. I had my first “real world” job working at a language academy in South Beach, Miami. I made my first of possibly many big moves to a new country. For the first time, I celebrated Thanksgiving without my family. I took my first trip to Italy, and in that beautiful country I spent my first Christmas with an Italian family and had my first Roman New Year’s Eve.
2013 was a year filled with many new experiences, but the time I spent with a good friend and her family celebrating Christmas and New Years will always stick out as one of the best memories of this year.
Walking into her home on Christmas Eve in the small town of Gioia del Colle in southern Italy, I had very little idea of what to expect. Excluding this Italian friend who I actually met in Spain, most of my encounters with Italians were with the Americanized ones I met while living in New York. Although my friend has relatives from Naples, where the mafia is still alive and well, she assured me that her family had no ties and my experience would be nothing like the movies I had seen.
That night I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse, but it was an offer I had no qualms about accepting: food, wine and sweet liquor. The supply of food seemed never-ending. Every time my face showed any fear of whether or not my stomach could handle more, I was met with the smiling faces of my friend’s parents and other relatives assuring me that I should, without any shadow of doubt, shovel more food onto my plate and down the hatchet. While I was busy serving myself more fresh seafood salad and the most heavenly mozzarella to ever grace the face of this planet, my glass of wine somehow magically refilled itself every time.
Just when I started to catch my breath, the clock struck midnight and an array of desserts was paraded out from the kitchen and onto the dinner table, and they didn’t come alone. Along with the desserts came homemade limoncello, a lemony liqueur, Lucano, an almost liquorish tasting liqueur and as if that were not enough a rich, thick chocolate liqueur was also added to the bunch.
We ate. We drank. We played card games and Tombola, the Italian version of BINGO and my personal favorite. I learned that nearly all Italian games are played with money on the line, and I lost five euros in the process. My biggest victory of the night was learning how to say the numbers one through 90 in Italian thanks to Tombola.
At the end of the night, it was a miracle that I could walk and did not need to be airlifted out of that home. I started to breathe a deep sigh of relief when my friend broke the news to me: Italians celebrate Christmas on the 24th, 25th AND 26th.
The following two days were somewhat of a blur of more food, alcohol, games and singing in Italian. Despite the language barrier impeding some of our communication, I am happy to say that my friend’s family welcomed me in as one of their own with arms wide open. I even facilitated a video chat meeting between my blood-related family and my new Italian family. It was a special treat to watch these two worlds collide in such a warm and loving way once again in spite of the differences in language and culture. It was a moment perfectly in tune with the spirit of the holidays.
After surviving the Italian Christmas experience, New Year’s Eve in Rome was a breeze. My friend and I headed to Circo Massimo, the site of an ancient chariot racing stadium and entertainment venue, for a free concert and the midnight countdown. Walking to the Roman ruins, people openly drinking on the streets surrounded us. It was a very different scene from the strict no public drinking laws I’m accustomed to. At midnight my friend and I participated in the Spanish tradition of eating 12 grapes to bring us good luck and health in each month of 2014. Unbeknownst to everyone around us we were also fulfilling the Spanish and Italian tradition of wearing red underwear to ensure that we would have prosperity and good luck all year.
Taking part in these traditions made me feel like I was a part of a new culture, but what truly brought me to a new world was watching the fireworks being lit all around me illuminate the impressive Roman ruins that towered above the crowd. It was a surreal moment, and an overwhelming sense of pure happiness to be there in that time and place swept over me.
When the concert ended we walked around the city and soaked in the festive atmosphere of all the other people celebrating in the streets. We stopped by some of Rome’s most famous sites including the Coliseum and the Trevi Fountain. During the day it is almost impossible to wade through the masses and get a good picture next to that fountain. At 3 a.m. on New Year’s Day, it was much easier.
Not only did I get my picture next to this gorgeous landmark, but I also got to take my chances with the legend of the Trevi Fountain. Legend has it that if you turn your back towards the fountain and use your right hand to throw a coin in over your left shoulder, you will return to Rome. Throw two coins in and you will return to Rome and find love. Throw in three coins and the stakes get higher: you will return to Rome, fall in love and get married.
Guess I will be back in Rome someday. The rest, however, I will simply leave up to time and fate to decide.