A Florentine Birthday

I'm 41 today.

This probably shocks only myself and my parents who now have to deal with the undeniable fact that they have been parents for 41 years, which means they are… well, older than 41. But let's get back to me. After all, it's my birthday. I'm the birthday girl. Or rather, the birthday old lady. The birthday biddy. The birthday loon.

Forty-one seems to be a bigger pill to swallow than 40. Maybe because last year Keith threw me a fondue party for my birthday, and I was so high on cheese and and friends and chocolate and beef in aioli and okay, some wine, that I didn't pay attention. Now I have oodles of time to pay attention. Or maybe because 41 seems like I'm now on the other side of the line. On the inexorable march towards decrepitude, which frankly, I find scarier than death. I said it once, and I'll say it again. I am the birthday loon.

Big thoughts. I am sure it would behoove me to sit with them, process them, incorporate them into my narrative, to find peace and acceptance. If I were a better person, with less of a need to seek out stimulation, I would totally do that. But I'm me, and it's my birthday, and I wanted to go to Florence. So I did that instead of soul-searching. I'm not sorry. After all, soul searching can happen anytime. How many times can I go to Florence on my 41st birthday? Unless I decide that every year I'll claim as my 41st birthday, thus discovering the long-sought method of time-stoppage. Otherwise known as, "lying about one's age." And that's not really my style.

Today was rainy in central Italy. Almost all of Italy, actually. Undaunted, we packed up new coats, umbrellas, and drove the two hours to Florence. To our surprise, we discovered that we almost prefer Florence on a rainy December day. Granted, it was warm, and being at a comfortable temperature probably added to our sense of delight, but also it was just beautiful, and relatively quiet. We had lunch at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolo on the "other" side of the Arno. Our appetizer of salami and burrata cheese was sublime, as was Keith's meal of grilled meats. I had the soup tasting, which was one of each of their three soups, perfect for me, as soup is one of my favorite food groups. The best, hands down, was the chickpea soup with farro and mushrooms. Better, to my surprise, than the ribollita.

After lunch, we went to the Galileo Museum. We enjoyed our visit, particularly as it got us out of a downpour, but I don't think I'd describe it as the unparalleled museum of awesomeness, which is how I've seen it described. Well, not literally, but people rave about this museum. My feeling is that if you are interested in science, it's a great destination. With the caveat that there is very little about biological sciences, it's mostly astronomy and physics. Not really my cup of tea, but I was interested in how, in the days before plastic, the tools for performing and demonstrating science were beautifully wrought works of art. The wood on the mechanism for showing the arc of a parabola was burled and gorgeous. The glass vials were delicate and ethereal. The pocket sundials had lovely marble etchings. Mostly, though, we were fascinated by Galileo's finger, which is on display.

I was glad we accidentally found the "hands-on" room, the children enjoyed adjusting a parabola to destroy a castle wall. Siena got an introduction to conic sections. Nicolas studiously avoided looking at the cone of liquid, he apparently has bad memories involving learning about conic sections. I just wish there had been more interactive displays. I thought there were, perhaps I am confusing it with the DaVinci museum, which I also want to visit.

Collecting our slightly sodden jackets, we ventured out into the Florentine streets, which were growing dark. And totally magical. Because all the streets were strung with lights, but each street was different. It felt like we were in some sort of whimsical wonderland, with stars, pendants, and twinkles of lights. Nicolas warned me not to cry when we saw the enormous Christmas tree in the Piazza dell Duomo, all strung with lights and hung with festive red fleur de lis. We broke up our enchanted wandering with a side trip into a bakery, where I had a pastry that was like a pocket of pie crust filled with Christmas. It was actually ricotta with orange and clove. And something I couldn't place. It was divine. Just divine.

Later we warmed our perfectly warm hands on roasted chestnuts. Out of nowhere, Gabe told me that he didn't want to grow up because he never wanted to leave me. We all huddled close and Siena also said she didn't want Buppy (their name for Nicolas) to go away to college. And it struck me, we have a tad over 3 years left with all of us living in one house. Then Nicolas flies the coop. Which will be exciting, and I want that for him, but it made me realize afresh how important this time is, and how much I want to savor it. And how glad I am that we have this year to really be together. The recent tragic events (more than tragic, tragedy has lost meaning here) in Connecticut bring home how precious these gifts of innocent children are. And how fiercely we need to feel and protect young spirits, tremulous with beauty and radiating hope and trust. Like people around the world today, I'm holding my children tighter, and praying for the families that are shaken to their core. And trying to put love and goodness into a world that seems bleaker somehow.

The emotions of the moment momentarily shoved my looming headache away. But for much of the day, unfortunately, it was a presence. It didn't get truly bad until we were driving home, but it did nudge what would've been constant euphoria at a perfectly wondrous experience down to mostly happy, with spikes of euphoria, and hits of pain tinged with disappointment that I didn't feel totally myself. But given how bad my headaches can be, I'll take it.

And then. A gift. We walked towards Santa Croce, and realized there was a festive market, with red and white striped tents. In utter disbelief, we realized it was a German Christmas market. Here's why this is unbelievable. I have been trying to figure out how to get to Germany around Christmas just to go to a Christmas market. One, because they sound fun, and two, because I have these special ornaments from when I was a child living in Belgium that were made in Germany. I've always wanted to add to that collection, but how else than going to Germany for Christmas? So to discover this Christmas market, here, in Florence, on my birthday, felt like an unasked-for miracle.

A miracle that soon felt miraculous to my children when they realized that the German Christmas market not only sold lovely German-made Christmas ornaments and pretzels and jars of jam and wooden decorations. It also sold Haribo. Self-serve Haribo, in large tubs under festive pine garlands. Sheer heaven. Keith noticed that the statue of Dante at the corner of Santa Croce seemed to be glaring directly at the Haribo stand, as if to bemoan the fact that he was so close, yet couldn't partake of this gummy candy. What's the use of being the father of the Italian language when you can't enjoy a sour coke bottle?

Siena—who seems to be experiencing some sort of leap of abstract thought—queried, when looking at the façade of Santa Croce, why there were the symbols for alpha and omega on either side of the cross. She deliberated, and then speculated if it was because alpha was the beginning of the greek alphabet and omega was the end. Keith chimed in that it represents the concept that God was the beginning and the end, confirming her suspicion, and making her glow. This, on the heels of her wondering earlier when we were talking about Brunelleschi and then Galileo, why great thinkers always seemed to be rebellious in some way. That brain of hers is certainly stretching. It must be nice to be 10.

Dinner at the La Pentola dell'Oro, a restaurant known for reformulating medieval Florentine recipes. We read some reviews where diners reported that it was their best meal in Italy. I don't know about that, but it was delicious. Keith got something off the medieval menu (my head was definitely weary by this point, so my ability to reason and discriminate had plummeted, I couldn't make sense of that menu, so ordered off the regular menu), a beef stew that was packed with more flavor than I'd ever known stew to have. Pears, peppercorns, juniper berries, wine. That's all I could discern, but there was much more. It was intense, deliciously so.

I had papparedelle with an Etruscan long-cooked duck sauce, which was fabulous. Savory, with a subtle sweetness. Siena had gnocchi in a gorgonzola and truffle sauce which was creamy and succulent. Gabe had homemade pici noodles (like thick spaghetti, think udon noodles and you will be close) with sausage and mushrooms. Nicolas's meal wasn't what we were hoping. He ordered what sounded like ravioli with rabbit and sage, abut it ended up looking like two little canoes of pasta resting on mashed potato, filled with rabbit and something like carrot. Keith loved it, and Nicolas wound up eating Gabe's pici since Gabe was not too hungry after his Haribo antipasti.

Back through the Christmas market, over the Ponte Vecchio—the shops closed for the night, but hung with more Christmas lights, lovely reflected in the Arno. Winsome and festive.

Just like me. Forty-one years young today. And 41 years wiser. And still definitely a loon.