Alexa’s Study Abroad Journal: A Long Overdue Post Regarding Christmas

(All photos by Alexa)

December 19, 2014

I can’t stop thinking about the sentence: “You forget what people out of the country of cancer do.” Elizabeth Seydel Morgan wrote it. It’s the first line of her poem “Ten Days in France in April” but I think it could be a feeling about anywhere. As long as it’s not home.

I met Alessandro through the track and field team at Sciences Po, first semester. When he invited me to spend Christmas with his family, I’m sure he didn’t expect me to say yes. But, here I am: in the city of Fagnano Olona, in the province of Varese, in the region of Lombardy, in the country of Italy. It’s six days to Christmas.

His family is the second one to welcome me — stranger, girl, American — so graciously and completely (the first being my host family in Paris). In fact, I think his parents stationed me in their very own bedroom. Mrs. Tronconi is a killer cook and an esthetician, working from a private salon in the attached basement of the house, where local clients come to chat and have coffee. Mr. Tronconi delivers English phrases in a cheery tone and has an affinity for completing odd jobs around the house. Davide, Ale’s brother, enjoys vacuuming the cat’s tail, cycling, and science.


December 20, 2014

At the summit, there’s a small mountain town populated by sunset-tinged buildings and their elusive inhabitants, known only from laundry, which dries on lines stretching from one window to its opposite.


We entered the church and mass began. To watch the room transform from dim and silent to heavy and bright at the organ’s cue was nothing short of, for lack of creative phrasing, a religious experience. Ale dipped into the holy water. I stood up straighter. The priest swung an enormous ball of incense over the altar as the parish erupted into song. I’m not religious, but I liked this.


December 21, 2014

Sleep still crusted over my eyes, a pair of legs ambling down the transformed landscape of my own house, a fire in the fireplace, sugar in the air, a sense of being weightless, or my weight transferred into something bigger, much more beautiful, and family working like gears. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.


Ale, Davide, and I stood on a balcony while the sky lit itself on fire. The lake-water was so still, and the deepest blue. I could see a shallow spot where the sun concentrated lightly. If it hadn’t been winter, we would have been swimming. I was content to dangle my feet and head over the gate, which dug into my torso and made my stomach turn. Happily digesting the world. We must have stood there for an hour. I thought of nothing. I had a mind that was clearly erasing its contents and making room for more. I thought of clouds playing tetris, air like rocks that crack, knuckles and knees, the first frost of the season. I felt things I thought I’d moved past. I had butterflies. I wonder if there’s a better way to say all of this in Italian?


December 22, 2014

There is a train that weaves in and out of the mountains, and it rolls so slowly that you feel more like fog, passing through tunnels of The Five Lands. When we stepped outside and I breathed Mediterranean winter air, warm and soft, I began the first phrase of my broken-record chant: “Wow.” (followed by any combination of “This is unreal” and “Oh my god” and “Paradiso!”). Houses look as if they’ve been built straight into mountain rock, as if pressed there and left to sink in. Locals cultivate the land in accordance with the light of day. Resilient lemons and oranges are tough enough to grow, even at the end of December. We romped around in someone’s private vineyard for an hour.

Cinque Terre.

When we descended onto the rocky beach at Monterosso, I slid my hands into the surf and lapped up the salted sea, scrunching up my nose, laughing. A fish smell filled my pores. Ale and I proceeded to sprawl out on some giant salmon-tinted boulders overlooking the watery wilderness. Happy is an understatement.

December 23, 2014

I had wine and spaghetti for breakfast.


December 24, 2014

Entering a new country is as easy as waving to a guardsman at a small roadside checkpoint that resembles a toll booth.


We ate fresh fontina-prosciutto sandwiches and homemade sugar-frosted biscuits, listening to a man raking leaves, sitting on the top of a Swiss mountain overlooking a lake overlooking more mountains. It was extremely quiet up there. Back on the ground, the city center was slightly more lively. A Christmas market, an ice rink, and low music. Italian, English, French, and German.

December 25, 2014

We sat down in the yellow house and started to eat. The meal began with a toast, champagne and white wine, followed by appetizers. There was feta, vegetable, and ham salad, served cold. There was cheese and prosciutto. There was a pistachio-glazed pastry. There were miniature pizzas of all types. Of course, there was bread. The main course was normal lasagna and salmon lasagna, swordfish, and Brazilian chicken. For dessert, there was pannatone and mandarin oranges. There was chocolate and coffee. There were pictures and red wine. There were gifts and letters. We simply had to dance.

And dance we did. I’m still not sure who was controlling the music. American, English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and, of course, Italian blasted on and on. Ale’s aunt led us through a traditional dance which partnered up all participants and, at one point, I learned how to tango. I spun in circles, jumped around, and closed my eyes to everyone’s laughter, including my own. It was ridiculous, all three hours of it.

Then, it was time to play cards. Mercante in fiera. I was too tired to count coins in a foreign language, so I pretended to be on Ale’s team. We won second, and then first place. Eventually, someone switched off the red and green party laser and we headed back to the red house for the night, our bodies worn but full.


December 26, 2014

Inside the grey Duomo, kaleidoscopic colors bounced off of the walls. I was glad for the day, cleared of clouds. We explored the covered passage across the street, complete with a glass ceiling that reminded me of Alice In Wonderland dimensions. A diamond-laden tree dazzled. On the floor beneath it, a small mosaic attracted a substantial crowd. People queued to individually spin around on the bull’s balls, for good luck.


We exited and ate leftovers in cold shade, near an old theater. I felt the bump on my forehead where I fell the night before, about to lean on the shower wall in the bathroom. There was no wall.

The ride to the airport was the end of the world.

December 27, 2014

“The laughter of friends on the path ahead / or heard from another room / so normal and present, so light and healthy, / so oblivious to anyone’s ending.”



Alexa Wybraniec

Alexa studies journalism, media and French at Rutgers University. She is abroad at Sciences Po for her third year of college. Check back every other Monday for a new post and connect on Twitter.

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