David and I associate Christmas with summer. There is nothing quite like standing in front of the oven basting a turkey on a 35C degree day (high 90s F). Don't be fooled by all the media-hype about Australians celebrating Christmas with beer and prawns at the beach - there are plenty of old fashioned traditionalists out here doing it the hard way.
After a lifetime of sweltering, a cold climate Christmas Day was going to be a challenge - not one we were particularly enthusiastic about. But we had to be in Europe and there was nothing that could be done about it so we found the warmest capital we could and bunkered down for a week of cold Christmas cheer. It didn't occur to us to try a white Christmas further north - that would have been too much of a jolt.
Our cold climate Christmas didn't begin well. We missed our flight from Cairo and arrived in Rome stressed, exhausted, strung out and twenty-four hours late. We got ripped off by the taxi driver leaving the airport. He charged us more than twice the standard tariff and failed to tell us he didn't know the location of the street our holiday flat was in until we were hurtling down the expressway. Once we arrived in the general area of our destination he wanted to dump us and run. It was well after 10 pm; dark, cold, unfamiliar and our Italian consisted of a few weeks lessons I had taken at evening college months beforehand. As usual we had the added burden of far too much luggage. Only our point blank refusal to get out of the cab stopped him from abandoning us. Despite my increasingly hysterical pleas to do so he would not ask directions from any of the passers-by. We cruised around while he alternated between looking for our street and trying to convince us to take our chances on foot. We were tired and stressed and the driver was angry but at least the flat fare taxi ripe-off fee was starting to look good. A small mercy that the meter wasn't running. Finally he found the street, a cute little cobblestone lane, which we must have passed a dozen times in the preceding half hour.
The cold hit hard as soon as we got out of the cab. Our plan was to meet the owner of the apartment on arrival but, no doubt because we were a day late, she was nowhere to be found. We stood on the street shivering, turning blue and wondering where the nearest hotel was. Just as we entered the first stages of hypothermia a couple of fellow Australians, staying in the flat upstairs, arrived home, took pity on us and let us through the security entrance into the foyer. It wasn't exactly warm but it was a lot better than standing outside on the footpath. Not long after that, David's frantic phone calls to our host paid off and she arrived with the keys.
Day 2 didn't start much better than day 1. The automatic teller machines seemed to be in league with the Roman taxi drivers. The first three or four rejected our card. We had no other way of getting cash and no choice but to keep trying. Just as our stress levels began to hit new highs the next cash machine we tried capitulated and our war with the machine world ended as abruptly as it had begun.
Accommodated, cashed-up and bundled into our warmest Sydney overcoats we headed out on foot to discover Rome. Our bad taxi experience made walking a very palatable option. The temperature stayed cold, but the sun came out and the sky was that beautiful crisp blue you can only really appreciate in winter. We walked for miles. By day we hunted down and ticked off the guide-book sights, by night we wandered the street markets and huddled around open fires in the myriad of little restaurants and cafes in our neighbourhood.
By Christmas morning we had seen most of the major sights. It was eerily quiet and almost the entire population seemed to be missing. In this most Catholic of cities they were, we supposed, in church - either that or sleeping off the effects of Christmas Eve celebrations the night before. Andrew, fourteen, wanted to see the Pope. David and I resisted. We knew Christmas was a big deal for the Catholic world, but not being Catholic ourselves, we weren't sure of the details. We had the idea that having stayed up late the night before doing the midnight mass thing the Pope might want a bit of a sleep in on Christmas morning. Or perhaps he was busy handing out indulgences to the poor. Either way we thought it unlikely he would make time for a family of lapsed Anglicans from Down Under.
Without any real suggestions of our own we succumbed to Andrew's pleading and wandered in the general direction of the Vatican City where a small crowd had begun to gather in St Peter's Square. Someone said the Pope would appear. We had nothing better to do, so we waited. As we waited the crowd grew until the square was so full of people they spilled out across the border into Italy. Clearly something was happening. The wait was a lot of fun. Everyone was in a festive mood - happy and friendly. We chatted, laughed and joked with those around us. Someone appeared briefly, placed a chair on a balcony a few storeys above us and unfurled a very regal looking banner. Speculation at the purpose of the chair kept the crowd amused for a while. I decided that Catholics are natural comedians.
Just as the chair and banner began to lose their novelty; flags flew, trumpets blared, drums rolled, the Swiss Guard marched and the Pope appeared. This was the German Pope: a great linguist. He spoke in Italian, or Latin, or German or something - it certainly wasn't English - but it didn't matter. We had no trouble understanding his message. After a while he switched languages. A cheer went up from a corner of the crowd. Then another language and another cheer. Then another and another. I think he wished us a Merry Christmas in almost every language on the planet. The major language groups got a little speech as well. The more obscure the dialect the briefer the message. We raised our voices and cheered with the best of them when English got its turn. Lapsed Anglicans or not we felt the spirit of Christmas that afternoon in a way we had never felt it before.
|St Peter's Square - taken from the Cupola of the Basilica|
|The crowd behind us in St Peter's Square|
|We knew something was happening when the Swiss Guard appeared.|
|The Pope standing in front of the chair which ironically he never sat on.|
|Inside the Colosseum|
|Part of the Roman Forum I think - there are just so many magnificent buildings in Rome it's hard to remember which are which.|
|The Trevi Fountain - thanks to a reader for identifying this.|
|I have no idea what this is but there were so many magnificent structures like this one.|
|Roman churches are beautiful inside and out.|
|No prizes for guessing what this is.|
|The little street our holiday apartment was in.|