A Christmas With Cousins in Italy: A Family Adventure

I'm one of those people who always had be to home for the holidays and if I couldn't be there, then I always found a way to be with family. In 1995, being with family meant enjoying Christmas with cousins in Milan, Italy; cousins that I was meeting for the first time. It was family. It was Italy. It was an adventure.

I was living in Bologna and looking forward to enjoying the holiday Italian style. I had called our cousin Elena, in Milan, to propose a visit. And my brother Frank was planning on coming over from New York. It was thanks to him that I was in contact with the Angilellas in Milan in the first place. Seven years earlier, after he finished a study abroad program with Syracuse University, he arrived in Milan a day before his flight back to NYC. He picked up the Milan white pages and started calling the Angilellas in the book. On the last number he tried, Elena picked up the phone.

"I introduced myself and we talked briefly and she said to come over and eat lunch," my brother recalled. "That's how we met. They got a call from me completely out of the blue and they told me to come over for lunch." It was a visit that connected all of us. So there I was, in 1995, calling to introduce myself. We were immediately invited to spend Christmas with them.

"For us it was wonderful to discover more cousins that we love and we remember fondly the Christmas we spent together," Elena wrote me recently. "We were so happy to have the two of you with us."

Looking back now, maybe it sounds like a crazy idea, spending a big holiday with cousins you don't really know. But at the time it was a natural thing to do. That first time, upon arrival at Elena and her husband Umberto's home, she greeted us with a big "Ciaooooo," kisses on cheeks and a pre-dinner aperitivo.

I brought a kilogram of tortellini from Bologna. When living in Bologna, one learns of the majesty that is tortellini. And Parmigiano Reggiano. And prosciutto. But I digress. "You brought enough for 10 people for seven days," she says. After a delicious dinner, which included the tortellini, they took us on a walk around Milan.

We went to the city center and saw the Duomo but then we took a turn down Via Monte Napoleone, the swankiest street in Milan, snapping photos of the famous designer stores, all decorated for Christmas. My brother remembered that all those stores -- Prada, Versace, Valentino, Armani -- used only white lights for their decorations, and they made such an impression because that's how Mom used to decorate. Very simple, elegant. It was beautiful.
The next day my brother and I were tourists. We saw the Sforza Castle, hopped on and off the tram to see churches and then met Umberto at the La Brera art museum. We walked around the Brera neighborhood, reminiscent of Soho in New York and talked about our family tree. Our great grandfather, Frank, born in the 1879, and Umberto's grandfather, Gaetano, born in 1862, were brothers from a small town in Sicily. Umberto's father, also named Gaetano, was an architect who helped restore buildings in Milan after World War II.

On Christmas Eve, Frank and I walked around the city again and then walked in on a mass at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, a 4th century church with a piazza in front lined with Roman columns. A woman on her way out wished us peace and a happy holiday. We then stopped in a local grocer to get housewarming gifts for the evening.

Umberto's brother Carlo and his son picked us up at the hotel. It was the first time all of us were meeting each other. And yet, there were no odd moments. We had plenty to talk about and got along as if we'd been getting together for several years. The hotel proprietor opened a liqueur and we toasted to our Christmas visit in Milan.

Christmas Eve was spent at cousin Giuseppe's house. It was me, Frank and about 15 cousins. Carlo and I talked about family and wine. So he promised to open an '87 Barolo for me for Christmas. Dinner was course after course of small plates and then dessert of fruit, chocolates, champagne. For me, one of the best parts of the evening was my ability to seamlessly speak in Italian and English. Luckily some of our cousins also spoke English. It was a wonderful Christmas Eve.

In Italy, Christmas Eve is regarded as the big day to celebrate. We were out until after midnight and didn't get moving on Christmas Day until 1 p.m. We saw other parts of Milan that day, including the exquisite neighborhood around Porta Venezia.

Then it was time for dinner which started with bowls of the tortellini in broth. Then the courses came. Carlo's wife Mara made a pate' that was out of this world and there were cheeses and bread and then her specialty, a plate of "bollito misto," a sampling of different kinds of meat, veal, hen and sausages. And a fruit chutney. And then dessert and nuts and chocolates and fruit. Oh, and the Barolo. Divine.

The evening took a rather comical turn when I was trying to take a group photo by using the timer on the camera. I'm sure we posed over and over and I'm sure I never got the shot. Then we began a language lesson and for some reason, everyone wanted to know the definition of a flapjack.

Elena wrote me recently that they will be doing it all again this year. I will be thinking of them on Christmas and remembering those exceptional four days in 1995 when distant cousins welcomed us with generosity and warmth, making us feel quite at home. I wish everyone the same this Christmas and please... learn how to use the camera timer.