Day 10 – My Loneliest Christmas in Milan


[Note from Tilly: Finding myself pregnant at Christmas for the third time, I’ve committed to do a short advent devotional each weekday of December . They will all be labeled by date and can be found together under the “Advent” subject category.]

2018 Advent Series – Day 10

The loneliest Christmas I ever spent was exactly ten years ago.

I was in Italy that year. I’d taken a job as an au pair keeping a British couple’s two boys. They lived in a teetering house perched on the side of a mountain in a village called Force, and although they kept a chaotic household, they were kind to me. They took me out for my December birthday that year, I remember. It was my 21st birthday, in a place where the drinking age is 18. This was anticlimactic, especially since I didn’t like wine and had refused all the inexpensive Italian libation that was offered to me  (can’t help but look back on this with some regret now).

The night of my birthday, a week before Christmas, my host family took it upon themselves to load us all into the car and descend the mountain into the small city nearby. We ate a nice dinner of quatro stagioni pizza (“four seasons” pizza; it’s divided into four quarters with a different topping on each).

We then walked out into the cobble stoned main piazza of Ascoli Piceno. An outdoor skating rink had been set up there, and we skated, surrounded by strung lights. Recorded Italian voices crooned over speakers, Christmas classics in a mixture of Italian and poor English.

My host mother arranged this evening as an act of goodwill, a peace offering to let me know I’d been forgiven for a disagreement we’d had over the handling of the children. This had happened a few weeks before, and at the time, she told me to pack my things and leave. In a panic, I’d contacted family and friends back home, and had been connected with an Italian family in Milan whose daughter was an exchange student with family friends. They were to rescue me for Christmas.

Then, back in Force, the air had cleared between my boss and myself. Still, we were all relieved that my train tickets were purchased and plans laid for three weeks of travel to Milan, Paris, Venice, and Rome. When I got on a train the day after the birthday on the ice rink, we parted on good terms.

Chiara Cozzi picked me up at the train station and led me through the labyrinth of the Milanese subway system to the line that would take us out to her neighborhood. I clutched my luggage in one hand, and in the other, a panettone. I’ve seen them sometimes here in America, but in Italy, they were sold in every grocery store and shop that month. The cake, filled with dried fruit and packed in a cardboard box, had cost a precious percentage of the few euros I had left, but I desperately needed to have something to present to Mrs. Cozzi. To this day, I don’t know if that was a classy Italian gift to have brought, or one that made her smile and wink to her husband as she carried it back into the kitchen. I may never know.

Anyway, neither Mr. nor Mrs. Cozzi spoke any English, but Chiara translated very well and we had a pleasant 48 hours together. They took me to Christmas Eve mass and cooked one of my first home cooked Italian meals. Chiara took me window shopping in the high fashion district of Milan, which, as it turned out, was so high fashion that none of the mannequins had heads on, or they had heads that had been replaced by inanimate objects like metal starbursts or paper moons.

On Christmas evening–my last night–we sat around the supper table and spoke broken sentences to each other. Across the living room, my favorite movie was playing: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. It was dubbed over in Italian. Adam was singing “Bless your beautiful hide!” except it was another man’s voice, and he was singing, “Benedica la tua bella pelle!”

I was homesick in a way I’d never been homesick.

The most vivid memory I have of that Christmas is of sitting in a bedroom later that night feeling a physical ache all over my body because I wanted to be home so much. I had ached to get to Italy, schemed and pushed and scrimped to get there, worked very hard as an au pair in order to travel on the weekends, and written reports home that were cheerful and descriptive. But now it was Christmas, and I simply didn’t want to be there anymore. I felt the strongest nostalgia, the strongest desire for another place I’d ever had.

It would be years later that C.S. Lewis’s words would attach themselves to that memory of longing and give me a theological reason to cherish the memory. That memory of ravenous homesickness became an emblem for me, an apologetic. Because I’d wanted to get to Italy for a lifetime, but what I didn’t know until I got there was that it’s possible to long for a place and get to that place, and still find that your eyes are searching the horizon for another place (home or elsewhere). The longing would outlast every experience. That’s what Italy taught me. And Lewis taught me to see this as evidence that my home was yet waiting for me.

As Christmas rolls around each year, my meditations on the incarnation enrich the connection between home, nostalgia, and Christianity. Christ the man continues to add layer upon layer to this framework: Imagine being home, truly, and then imagine being in such a place, and leaving it! Is it possible that the one who has been in this place, this heaven, promised to save us a spot? Is it possible that he knew stronger nostalgia than any human who has ever lived, because he had actually been there, where we only have imprinted desire left on our hearts by absence?


 

Jesus,

you left home to fetch us and bring us home. It’s as if you were the older brother to the prodigal, except that you did exactly the opposite of what he did. So very far from begrudging us our place, you gave your own life to win us our place. How can we thank you for it? How can we worship you for it, oh Prince of Peace? We know not how except on bended knee!

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