A few days before Christmas I was sitting in a funky hair salon I fancy on the Via dei Coronari in Rome. The air was filled with American recordings of Christmas music. I am always struck how restaurants and shops in France and Italy as well as other outside-America places play American pop and jazz music in the background. Not cutting-edge sounds but familiar ones to the point of almost being nostalgic—certainly welcome and what might be considered classics by great American artists. I said as much to the young shop owner doing wonders with my hair, and she said, “Christmas songs sound so much better in English. In Italian they are kind of stuffy; in English they are rather festive and lively.” Perhaps, though I also thought her take was a bit bizarre. To me, end-of-year festivities in Rome are so warm, traditional, colorful and compelling. It doesn’t get better than that, I reminded myself each day we were in Rome. Meanwhile, the second cutter in the salon—a boyish razor-thin chap with a two-tone punk cut of his own design—is singing along in English. Neither hair stylist speaks English, but they can interject interesting phrases.
One of the songs was the old holiday classic that has become one of our theme songs this time of year: “When I am worried and I can’t sleep / I count my blessing instead of sheep,” a tune Irving Berlin wrote for the 1954 movie “White Christmas.” Its message is perennial. Edward, tesoro mio dottore professore and resident music historian, shared there was an equally apt and even older song for these times and themes from the Great American Songbook. It was written in 1944 when everyone was tired of the war, its disruption of lives and dreams and longing for its end. Here I cannot help flashing back to the image of President Macron in a televised address on March 16, 2020, at 8 p.m. The “Marseillaise” boomed from our TV, an image of the French flag fluttered and a glimpse of the Elysée Palace was shown, then the somber face of the Président de la République appeared. He was seated at a desk in a large opulent room with gold paint in abundance. “Mes chers compatriotes,” he began. We are at war, blah, blah, and tomorrow we are going to lock down the country. The restaurants, movie theaters, live-performance theaters, museums, all will be closed indefinitely. Stay inside as much as possible, keep a social distance…. Yes, we’re fatigued by this war. Now the Omicron fifth wave is all we hear about, and the constant reportage can keep you awake at night. The 1944 song is by Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer and its verse goes: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive / Eliminate the negative / Latch on to the affirmative / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between.” Alas, easier said than done.
Nevertheless, it is exactly aligned with the Living-in-the-Moment message we have been sharing during the pandemic, including in our annual digital and “upbeat” holiday card we created this year. If Rome and a pandemic and aging and contradictions of all kinds has reminded me of anything, it is that life and moments signal the present. And living in the moment, in the present to the fullest, is a call to “seize the day” for who knows what the future will bring. Plus, it feels good. Amen, haha.
There’s much to give thanks for, starting with good health over the past year. I can also point to my seize-the-moment-of-December, which started in New York, moved to Paris, and rested for two weeks in Rome before returning to Paris for an empty (“cancelled”) Champs-Elysées on New Year’s Eve. I land again in New York at a point in January. It was the best of times amid some of the worst of times. I did get to take a double-vaccinated six-year-old to the Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet before departing, as well as to see the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center before someone burned it down. What a world. But New York did not have its usual December joie de vivre, it seemed to me. Even the shop window decorations were tame. Paris, which is normally grey this time of year with almost daily showers, just did not have the Christmas spirit. People looked and behaved worn-out and were going through the motions and rituals robotically (again, it seemed to me…or was it me?). Where were the fanciful lights and decorations and windows and laughter and glow? They were in Rome. The Romans (Italians?) truly embrace the year-end season, and it was almost possible to forget the latest pandemic doom reports (the Italians were well behaved and practiced good protection, though the lines for Covid testing at pharmacies were an unwelcome reality check).
As is their tradition, the Italians were big into holidays with much focus on food—seasonal specialties, plans for family meals, company lunches, and more talk, talk, talk about food. I must confess I found for the first time ever that during this year’s tour of some of the fine dining restaurants in Rome that they were better than the seeming equivalents in Paris or New York. What flavors and imaginative preparations and Italian design.
One of the major differences between Rome and Paris/New York and many other big cities is that it is not a big-store, department-store culture. It is a city of small shop after small shops, often lining narrow cobblestone streets bare of tall buildings save for the towering church domes and bell towers. (After all, the many streets and alleys, palaces and small buildings, of the vast center of Rome date back many hundreds and some a few thousands of years.) Everywhere are graying artisans repairing chairs or locks or antiques next to storefront restaurants, pastry and sandwich bars, hairdressers, hairdressers, hairdressers, shoe stores, pharmacies, frame shops, artsy furnishing stores, tiny groceries, wine shops, and such. All these storefronts embraced the traditions of the period with their decorations and enthusiasm. It is contagious. And the weather is cooperative. Greenery abounds. Rome is ten degrees warmer than New York or Paris this time of year. The sky is blue, the sun shines and the luminosity is unique to this great city. It makes for lovely long walks without thoughts of being cold or bundled in heavy outerwear. Sidewalk dining is a treat not a health precaution.
Hearing from so many friends from so many places this time of year was and is a reward of the season, and in this digitally connected world, a warm feeling. Be well and let us ac-cent-tchu-ate some positives. Don’t you think?