Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

The superwide angle lens in the shot makes this room look bigger than it is. Behind the room is a postage stamp yard and the houses on the next block. The view is, in a word, boring.

No wonder Americans like(d) to work so many hours outside the home.

I’m whining because, if you’ve followed me on the social interwebs, you’ll know that I left the green hills of Umbria for the tough streets of New York City. Only we’re talking about Staten Island and….[yawn] I’m sorry, I dozed off. There are lots of nice parks around here, and I’m told that pleasant interesting people walk their dogs in the morning in those parks.

But I wouldn’t know because I’m in jail, a prisoner of Andy Cuomo and his warden, The Spartan Woman. Okay, it’s quarantine and the adult part of my brain understands That This Is Necessary and it’s all about Protecting My Loved Ones and Neighbors. But the lizard part of my brain screams get me out! Now! Except it’s dreary and gray out there. I’m pretty much confined to this room during the day and have to wear a mask when I venture out, mainly to grab my guitar or ask for a snack or some coffee. (The good side is that I’m barred from doing anything in the kitchen. After nearly two months of fending for myself for nearly every meal, this isn’t the worst thing to happen.)

Got drugs?

Eh, we didn’t think this was going to get bad again, did we? Not just my current incarceration, but the whole thing, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases, the renewed clampdown, The Donald denial of reality…. Wait, that last bit was completely predictable. As I prepared to leave, the Italian government had instituted new measures, like mandatory outdoor mask wearing and earlier restaurant and bar closures. And there’s an ongoing discussion about the need for another lockdown. Already, Lombardia, with Milan at its core, is under a nighttime curfew. Contrary, or maybe in addition, to the common perception of Milan as this serious hard-working Eurocity, it’s also party central, with great nightlife, bars, ethnic restaurants and places to just hang out outdoors with friends.

To get back to New York, I got a ride from the great Angelo, who along with his little pup, are great company for a road trip. Rome’s airport, Fiumicino, was a ghost town, as you can see in the photo below. I took a room in Hello Sky Air Rooms Rome, a hipster airport hotel because I had a morning flight and I hate leaving the house before dawn. It makes a depressing trip even worse.

Eerily quiet for a Tuesday early evening
Last dinner. Sigh.

My room was a cool monk’s cell. The nice guy behind the check-in desk’s plexiglass barrier showed me the limited restaurant menu and suggested ordering room service: “There is no penalty for having dinner delivered to your room.” I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening except that channel surfing was fun because the chain promoted a Monocle magazine sort of multiculturalism that was completely reflected in the choice of TV channels. TV Algérique, anyone?

The rest of the trip was pretty much a mirror image of my way to Italy. Alitalia did not cancel the flight; it’s actually been one of the more reliable airlines during the pandemic. I had to be more American this time and show the blue passport so that the nice Customs and Border Patrol people would let me into the country. I scored a bulkhead seat, read a novel, ate crappy sealed-in-plastic food, drank San Benedetto naturale water (the only on board beverage choice) and slept some. Arriving at JFK, I practically flew through passport control—props to the polite and even friendly people!—and when I exited the customs area the New York State folks grabbed me and made me fill out a form promising to do this quarantine thing.

Which brings us to today. I write. I go down the YouTube rabbit hole. I started watching Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are on HBO Max, which is nicely atmospheric. I’m not sure yet where it’s going, but Guadagnino (he’s from Palermo, like my family) definitely knows how to capture a place and time. The contrast between the little America vibe of the base and kids’ interactions with local Italian kids is pretty interesting. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with it.

I’ve also become a fan of cheesy Mexican crime/comedy shows on Netflix. The best so far has been Casa de las Flores, or House of Flowers, about a wealthy Mexico City family that owns a flower shop. And the family is falling apart in interesting ways. Big repressed sister is a riot; she speaks in a slow Spanish enunciating every syllable. It’s really odd, but I read that it’s how certain matrons of that wild city speak. Another good one is The Club, about a few rich Mexico City kids combine phone apps and MDMA sales, get rich, and run into turf wars with the established drug cartels. Watch it for the architecture; upper class houses in the city are fascinating to look at.

But for now, I have this. The Warden’s brought me a snack. Hey, maybe prison won’t be so bad.

And let’s give a listen to this post’s theme song:

Here we go again

Call me superstitious. I was getting nervous seeing all the press coverage of how Italy overcame the Covid-19 virus. Here’s one example: In Italy, doctors beat back the coronavirus and are now preparing for a second wave. As of yesterday, October 13, this country had more than 7300 new cases, a number not seen since the height of the first wave. World press, you jinxed us.

Until last week, I was pretty happy leading a semi-normal life. Sure, I had to wear a mask in public places indoors, or in public squares after 18:00, or 6 pm. But that was more a precaution than a necessity. The evening mask order is an effort to keep the country’s very sociable kids from hanging out and getting one another sick.

Now it’s a necessity, if we want to beat the thing back. Yeah, I know it pales in comparison to some other countries. The United States, for one, which saw 54,000 new cases yesterday, or, for a better comparison, France, with more than 14,000 new cases. Still, 7300 ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

Remember to keep your distance—this is in a little bar-cafe.

But as the doctor in that NBC article said, Italy speaks with one voice, rather than the patchwork of health systems of the United States. So, just as I plan to return to the anarchic U.S., the government here—the national government—has imposed new rules and recommendations. First of all, masks are obligatory. That’s it. You go out? Wear a mask. In a car with people you don’t live with? Wear a mask. Going to the supermarket? You’ve been wearing a mask. Not wearing one? You can be liable for a fine of up to €1000 ($1170). I forgot once in the supermarket and you should see the looks I got. I went to the little protection table in front and immediately bought a package lest I be shamed any further.

In case you don’t read Italian….

There’s more: Bars and restaurants must close by midnight, which puts the kibosh on young late night revelers. You can have a wedding reception, but the limit’s come down to 30 from 200. The government strongly recommends against having friends over for dinner. And if you do insist, it says keep that dinner party to six people at most.

I’ve said before that I hate comparisons in the way people act in different countries. Local culture is just that, and while we could learn, it’s not helpful to say German do X when Americans couldn’t do that if they tried, because they have a different mindset. I was trained to be this way as a kid, because my family existed in two countries, and if you don’t want to lose your mind you just accept each culture’s way of doing things as the way they behave. Cultural bilingualism, I guess.

Having said that, as far as I can tell, adherence to the health rules transcends political leanings. I know conservatives here who keep strict social distance and see it as common sense. No one, they think, is out to mess with their freedom. It probably has to do with the highly developed Italian survival instinct. Plus, at this point a certain amount of social cohesion comes just naturally; when it comes to public health and survival, politics don’t come into it. There was an anti-mask rally in Rome last weekend and turnout was pathetic.

Mask wearers on Perugia’s main drag

All of this is in addition to what I’ve gotten used to just getting around. I’ve gotten used to having my temperature scanned before entering a store. The notoriously anarchic Italians have gotten used to separate, one-way entrances and exits to shopping centers and big box stores. Plexiglass dividers are everywhere, and we pay with our phones or contactless credit cards. Cash was king, now it’s only for Luddites and tax evaders.

All of this means that I’ve spent a lot of time either alone or alone with a friend or loved one in a window on my computer or iPad. Speaking of devices (how’s that for a lousy transition?) if you caught Apple’s annual iPhone extravaganza, you could easily have thought that the company was introducing a new line of cameras. Not that I mind; the first iPhone now seems like a joyless, businesslike thing compared to today’s models. Most people back in 2007 were obsessed with how they would type emails on the glass screen and joked about it not being much of a phone.

So I’ll come clean: Every photo on this blog was taken on my trusty iPhone 7. It’s not as fancy as the later models, not having a superwide lens, or night or portrait mode. But it acquits itself pretty well, and I haven’t taken a separate camera with me on trips in years.

What does this have to do with Covid-19, social distancing, masks and Italy? Simple. Being alone for me means either sitting here in my office writing (and wasting time by going down the YouTube rabbit hole), or taking a walk. It’s stupidly scenic here; taking a walk is often an occasion. So here are some pictures from those walks. To avoid injury while walking alone, I try to avoid steep rocky trails. But that’s easy. I can walk up and down this road, or, as I did the other day, I parked the car down the hill and walked along a river path. That path had a few surprises; for being in a valley it sure did have a lot of curves and slopes. The other was toward the end of the path, where I met a guy who grows his family’s vegetables. We talked for 20 minutes about where we’re from (me: NYC him: Napoli) and why we like it here. I was hoping he’d offer me the fine head of lettuce he was carrying…

Ruins like this are scattered around the countryside.

A little further along, I saw a little ancient church and a small settlement called Barcaccia. While looking around, a big group of weekend bicyclists came zipping by, everyone saying hi and cheering as they passed by. Some things never change.

The vanguard. Soon afterward at least a dozen serious riders flew by. I was too immersed in the moment to record it.

You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows

Call me a montanaro. You can translate it as a highlander or mountain dweller. That’s what my Perugian brother Federico called me last night. Our house perches atop a ridge that overlooks the valley of the river Chiascio, and across the valley we see the various hills leading toward the big daddy of the area, Monte Subasio. Because the house is built on a hill, it’s almost as though we have two ground floors: There’s an upper level, which is where we live, and a lower one, with its own entrances and even its own driveway.

This upper level has a driveway, too, and a front door. But it’s almost as though that side doesn’t exist, because your attention is drawn to the other side right away, with big windows and terrace doors that overlook the yard and the valley. We have a few linden trees lined up i the yard, so being here is like living in a treehouse. Right now I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the top of one of the lindens, and the mountains beyond.

Move along; nothing to see here

One of the dining room windows looks east toward the mountain chain that forms the spine of Italy, the Apennines. They’re pretty high and in the colder months, they’re snow capped. We learned this up close once when sometime in March last year, we drove up one peak, Monte Cucco, and encountered snow and ice that scared the daylight out of us. The
Apennines are fairly recent, as geological features go, and can be dangerously seismic.

All of this is a long way (a too long way? Sorry.) of saying that we see weather systems. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last week and a half or so. This early autumn has not been the golden sunlight Italy of people’s fantasies. It’s been the omigod it’s dark in here look at the curtain of rain approaching and shit the lights just went out again Italy. Most casual visitors to the Bel Paese don’t get to encounter this version of the country. Thankfully, we have decent windows, working furnaces and a fireplace that supplements the heating system and actually does a better job of heating the house once you get a good one going. (Note to self: Order more wood. On a sunny day,)

Subasio, meet storm

I wouldn’t normally write about the weather. But it’s curtailed some activities and meant that when the sun comes out, I drop everything I have to do and run outside to take in some sun.

Curtailed activities? Last Saturday I was supposed to help Franco, the neighbor of some friends of ours, pick his grapes. Franco (right, with cap) is 80 and has more energy than I do, but he does have a lot of vines. So we were going into his field. He makes a pretty decent white wine from those grapes—if you ever visit you will taste the wine and there are no excuses. And I thought here’s a chance to connect with some imaginary past, although my ancestors came from Sicily and fled their backbreaking farmwork. Unfortunately, last Saturday, while sunny, came after a couple of days of when will this stop thunderstorms, and if we had tried to do some picking, we would’ve been knee-deep in mud. And this Saturday looks no better.

So, dropping everything. A few days I took walks up the road and back. I’d wanted to go “trekking” or hiking in the woods to try out my spiffy light walking sticks, but it’s been too muddy. I’ve seen other hikers emerge from the woods with tons of dried mud on their boots, So I took to the road, which has some stunning views, some neighborhood dogs who follow me—actually, they’re following the doggie biscuits I carry for them—and Bernardo, his girlfriend whose name I forgot, and his pup Chai. If I pass as Bernardo and crew have risen and look out from their house, I get invited in for coffee.

I’ve also been prowling around some tombs of the Etruscan variety. I’ve been fascinated by this pre-Roman civilization for awhile, and decided to incorporate them into some work I’ve been doing. They’re fascinating; they didn’t leave tons of words, but they did leave a lot of funerary work, which shows how they lived. They amazed contemporary Romans and Greeks, too, who wrote about their sexual laxity, sybaritic ways, and lavish banquets. The visitors were amazed and a little scandalized by the fact that women participated in the banquets, not as servers/cooks and prostitutes, but as intellectuals who had a lot to contribute to the discussions. I like to think that a lot of that spirit lives on here today.

There are a host of tombs where Perugia meets Ponte S. Giovanni, one of its bigger suburbs, and the location is kind of strange. It’s right under a huge highway viaduct and next to the main rail line into the city. There’s a parking lot up the hill from the entrance. I couldn’t find said entrance when I left the lot so I called. The woman who answered said wait a second I’ll go outside. Just look to your left and meet me. Nice.

The tombs are set into a hill, and they vary from Greek style (single entrance) to full-on Etruscan, with multiple entrances and even timbered ceilings and other features meant to duplicate the deceased’s world in the afterlife. A separate building houses statues and other artifacts, and it’s easy to see how the Etruscans led a sensual life. Unfortunately, the big tomb was closed. The docent said that it was too enclosed a space for a safe visit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

My other sunny day gotta get out trip was to the domineering Subasio (there’s even a local radio station named after it, Radio Subasio. It’s got an iPhone app that works pretty well and when we’re in New York, we plug our phones into the car stereo and pretend we’re here). I’ve been a little obsessed about going to its summit for awhile, since I look at it every day. So yesterday I jumped in the car and went. I usually look at maps before I go, but this time I remembered that there’s a park up there and that the summit is past the Carcere di San Francesco, a place the saint would go to chill. I followed the road to the Carcere and saw signs for the park. A few, no, at least a dozen hairpin curves later, I was there, along with a few Dutch and German tourists in small Euro RVs and a smattering of young Italian hikers.

I see you: Upper left, our house; marker at the bottom, Subasio

Like every mountaintop, the view is breathtaking (the Italian equivalent is one of my favorite words: mozzafiato) and the air is cool and fresh. I looked at the map on my phone and found our house, and pointed the camera that way. Just ‘cos I could.

Somewhere out there is home.

Freedom’s just another word for havin’ lots to do

That didn’t take long. Well, maybe it did feel like forever when I was quarantined but it’s over and I’m free. My friends around here didn’t waste any time, taking pity on a man alone on a mountaintop.

But the first thing I needed to do was shop. I’d run out of fresh food, but by not being a pig and eating through the pasta, canned tuna and tetra-packed beans, I emerged in pretty good shape. So, gathering some garbage (we don’t have pickup here; you have to take trash to locked bins down the road) I headed toward one of the local supermarkets.

I was curious to see what, if anything, was different, and the answer is, not much. People here wear masks out a lot and you’re not allowed indoors unless you’re wearing a mask. But even hidden behing paper and cloth, Umbrians are the same people I knew back in that former life called “last year.” It felt great to be walking up and down the aisle, not feeling as though I were violating some law, as I did the day I landed and foraged for lockdown food.

Masks only please. And in a country with real grownups, this is not a problem.

Like I said, my friends didn’t waste any time. Debora and Angela were first, inviting me to a “cena-barbecue con distanziamento sociale” (a socially distancing dinner-barbecue). They set up a table outside their spectacular new house and invited neigbhors over, too. They live in a hamlet above the center of Valfabbrica called Poggio S. Dionisio, and somehow the name fits. The women exude a sense of carefree fun when they’re entertaining. And I don’t know if it was the influence of his homemade wine, but sometime later this month I’ll be harvesting grapes from neighbor Franco’s vineyard.

Angela keeps the home fires burning.

Then the guy who picked me up at Fiumicino (Rome’s main airport), Angelo, asked me if I’d like to see some Pintoricchios. The town of Spello, a small jump from Assisi, was opening its churches at night for guided looks at a couple of spectacular frescoes. I knew of the frescoes and saw one of them a few years back, but, savage that I am, I’d just look at the colors and the backgrounds. I also found it amusing to see Italy behind what was supposed to be a biblical scene set in the Middle East. Dinner came first, the Osteria del Cambio in Palazzo, a homey place where, for €25 ($28) for two, you have have a pasta, main course with salad, wine and coffee. Our pasta course alone (tagliatelle with black summer truffles) would set you back in New York more than what we paid for the whole meal.

My bad. A sign said photos were strictly forbidden. Oops.

It’s curious to see, or rather hear and feel the difference in people here since the virus struck with catastrophic results back in the spring. People here usually complain about everything. And Italians in general aren’t particularly nationalistic. There’s none of the flag-waving here that you see in the U.S. But people seem proud of what they accomplished together. It’s been a morale boost for people who’ve been traumatized by COVID-19 and have lived through decades of a weak economy. Despite a recent spike due in large part to returning vacationers, Italy in general, and Umbria in particular, have beaten back the virus so that we can cautiously and taking precautions, live fairly normal lives.

Finally, to round out the weekend, I took a ride with Letizia and Rudd to the Valnerina, south of here and east of Spoleto. Letizia wanted to try a little restaurant called Il Sovrano in a hamlet called Sant’Anatolia di Narco. The meal was a relaxing finale to a busy weekend. The place specializes in the local pecorino cheese, and, of course since it’s truffle territory, black truffles. The food was good, the setting on a bluff overlooking the valley, idyllic. It was the perfect way to end my liberation weekend.

Letizia chose well.

The end is near

My car mocks me. It sits there right outside the front door, all bright red and curvy. It says, seductively, “Let’s go! Where can we explore today, Anthony?” and the best I can manage to do is pass the car and circle the closed pool for exercise. It’s sorta like being a prison inmate during exercise hour, but more scenic.

One day more of quarantine, admittedly a self-inflicted one. I get more antsy yet more lazy by the day. I started out with ambitious goals: to post to this blog every other day while writing a soon to be filmed novel, and to record all the instruments to songs that a band I was in played back when.

So far, I have an outline, and I dragged out the MIDI controller that will allow me to mimic guitars, basses, drums, keyboards and other assorted instruments on my Mac. I find myself strumming chords and saying, hmmm, how would that sound on a concert grand? A glockenspiel?

I also thought I might have fun cooking for myself. I love to cook. I will think of ridiculously labor-intensive ways to prepare relatively simple dishes. (Yes, you absolutely must fry each vegetable separately when you make caponata, or else it’s just a bunch of veggies thrown together. And don’t you dare just put that fresh shrimp in the pasta sauce without pushing it on the grill first.) But cooking for yourself is nowhere near as satisfying as being around your favorite people and enjoying it together.

So let me just say that decent store-bought pesto is a good thing. And so are these frozen seafood preparations that you can get in Italian supermarkets. And tetra-pack beans are so much better than canned ones….

Quick bachelor lunch, beans, tuna, rucola (ok, arugula), with pane carasau

I did have one surge of energy a few days ago, when I emulated The Spartan Woman and baked some bread. It wasn’t my first—that was a semi-successful attempt at no-knead bread in a Dutch oven. But TSW can practically do it in her sleep, and I was out of bread and I had nothing better to do, so…. Of course, she coached me. It’s great how we can chat across continents for just the monthly Internet fee, isn’t it? I’m kind of proud of the result:

Happily, friends here are planning activities for when I bust out, or more accurately, descend from the mountaintop, in second gear, hugging the right side of our narrow road.

¡Hey, Quarantena!

Songs pop into my head at random intervals—even as I’m about to wake up in the morning—but the Macarena? Strange. At the time, I was doing a mild workout (more about that later) when that song popped into my head (note to self: next time bring earbuds). On second thought, it’s not so weird. Macarena rhymes with what I’m under now: quarantena, Italian for quarantine.

Call me a glutton for punishment. After nearly six months of basically confining myself at home on Staten Island, I came here to green, tranquil Umbria to be confined to quarters for a couple of weeks. Back Stateside, I was turning into a shut-in with the A/C cranked up. Oh wait, everyone in New York was doing that. But I was worried about leaving this house empty too long. Would the hot water heater self-destruct? Would we get strange animal squatters?

No and, kinda. My Italian is pretty good, but I learned a new word this time around, ragnatela. It means cobweb, and I’m spending a good chunk of my time going around the house with a Swiffer clearing them out. But that presents me with a dilemma. Spiders are a good repellant toward other insects, like mosquitoes and the nasty little biting flies we get here. So do I go after them? No, not intentionally.

I know this is boring minutiae. Welcome to my world. I know, Italy holds a special place in people’s imaginations. You know, golden sunsets, great food and art, fashion and style. And that’s all there, somewhere, I guess. But when you come here in the middle of this damn pandemic, instead of Aperol spritzes and Piero della Francesca, you get to stay home for a couple of weeks and contemplate spider webs and the decaying food that you left in the fridge six months ago. (On the plus side, it’s ridiculously scenic up here.)

Even bad weather looks good.

Anyway, to back up, here’s what solo quarantining in the Umbrian hills is like. I somehow procured enough food to see me through, so I’ve been cooking for myself. I’m fully embracing the Italian (or Japanese) aesthetic of limiting dishes to an ingredient or two. Gotta make it last, so, no, I won’t add that red pepper to the salad. It and its companions can become a good pasta sauce, or a peperonata, thin sliced peppers to pile on bread (which I’m going to have to bake myself) or put into a frittata. I use the olive oil sparingly. Part of it is to limit my fat intake, but the other consideration is to make it last.

Who knew that there are distinct tomatoes designed for stuffing with rice?

Speaking of quarantine itself, here’s how that works. I wrote a few days ago about the journey here, which basically entailed sanitary and isolation measures and filling out the same information about my whereabouts on multiple forms. I was told to register with the local health authorities, which I did on Sunday. I guess I could have waited until Monday, but I was curious about whether someone would answer that day because Sunday is still kind of sacred in this country. A woman did answer, and we had a nice little conversation. She gave me an email address to send my basic info to, which I did.

The next morning, I got a call. When did you arrive? Do you have any symptoms? What are your living arrangements? The guy seemed happy that I’m living alone, and told me someone would come by to administer a Covid-19 test. No one’s come by yet.

————————————-

The local health service sent instructions.They exaggerate; no one has called one or twice a day until the last day, as it says in the first line.

—————————

[And now, a side discussion. Languages can be fun, especially when you’ve got what linguists call false friends. They are words in other languages that resemble a word in your mother tongue, but which can have entirely different meanings. In this case, for a Covid-19 test in Italian you use the word for “swab,” which turns out to be, and I kid you not, tampone. So yeah, one of these days someone’s coming by to give me a tampone, not a feminine hygiene product. Another favorite false friend is preservativo. To us English speakers, it sounds like chemicals put in food to make it last longer. No, no, no. The word for those chemicals is conservante. Preservativo means something quite different: condom.]

</side discussion> Other than waiting for the tampone tech, I try to amuse myself. Luckily, we have just enough land to be able to take a walk without violating the quarantine rules. The pool is closed, but it’s still useful. Instead of swimming laps, like I usually do, I walk around it for exercise. It’s the only place with a sizeable regular pavement, so a klutz like me won’t break an ankle the second I stop looking down. I did 50 times around yesterday, which shows up amusingly on my watch and phone’s exercise app. I listen for the neighbors’ sheep. The bells and their sounds are pretty hypnotic. If none of that works, there’s enough alcohol left by last year’s summer guests to stock a bar,

I was around the green marker when THAT song popped into my head,

Still to do: Bake that bread. Dust off the guitar chops and record that album, Prince-style. And write a novel, which, let me tell ya is hard to do when the view out the window looks like this.

Easy flying for all the wrong reasons

Well, this was different.

I entered Terminal 1 at JFK airport and there was no one there, in early afternoon. I exaggerate, but only a little. I find the Alitalia check in desks, but before I give them my suitcase, I’m stopped by a nice guy standing at a table. “You have to fill out this form and we need two copies.” I’d already filled in the form online when I checked in. “This is revised. You need the revision.”

Not wanting to be held up, I complied. “Can I take your termperature?” Sure—97.9 F. I filled out the forms; one was for the gate; “the other one is for Rome.”

Waiting for the crowds

Security takes two minutes. Maybe less. I actually chat with the guy who lets you into that area. “Yeah, this is the liveliest it’s been in months,” he tells me. There was one person ahead of me. I get through—they don’t even bother with the belt routine, and are fine with bottles of sanitizer,

The woman ahead of me, with a massive mask, keeps asking the guard the same question. I don’t even remember what it was; something about cell phones. Ma’m, I’m being as clear as I can be, as she rolls her eyes. We obviously had a newbie with us; what was she doing traveling now?

I get through and…well, nothing. It’s straight out of the horror film, The Langoliers, where a planeload of people get stuck in the recent past and have to outrun the creatures that eat up the past. Or something like that, I’ll have to look it up. But it’s like what I do remember, basically an empty terminal with a couple of food shops open and that’s it. No bars, no sit down restaurants, no one pushing a massage session or overseas phone SIMs. The few people working alternate between extreme chattiness or looking very put upon. Hey, pal, I’m not thrilled with being there either.

No bars, no aromatherapy, no people

I get to my gate. There is one other person waiting. Soon maybe another ten show up. Everyone is speaking Italian because US citizens, the new pariahs of the world, are banned from the European Union, unless they have permanent residency there and can prove it. I look across the space and see that Lufthansa Flight 401 is about to leave. Grr—that airline had canceled that flight for months, and because of that, I’m traveling alone to make sure our house is still standing.

The weirdness continues with the flight. The Airbus 330 is maybe one-quarter full. We’re spaced far apart. I opted for a window seat, a rare treat for me. I knew this time that no one would sit next to me, so I had both seats for myself. It’s nice to have an auxiliary seat in coach;; the other seat was for charging my phone, and I stashed my knapsack under the seat in front of my nonexistent neighbor.

Almost there

I’d looked at previous days of this flight and it usually took off early. Not us. Some unexplained “technical problem.” But after an hour, we were taking off, the empty dark plane feeling light and wieldy.

Service was minimal, apparently designed to minimize contact, No drinks service, which on European airlines is usually pretty elaborate. Flight attendants hurriedly dispensed minimal meals: limp ravioli, a piece of cheddar, a small bag of tarallucci, a cup of “tiramisu,” which was like pudding. And two bottles of San Benedetto water.

I used the water to wash down my flight sleep regime and soon nodded off. I got up once from my nap to get more water. Anticipating this the crew set bottles out on a shelf in the service cabin.

After a luxurious breakfast consisting of a package of marble poundcake and, yes, more water, we landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Again, an eery emptiness, punctuated by last year’s cheery what-to-do-in-the-Eternal-City posters. No separate EU/non-EU citizen passport lines. Before showing the passport, though, we got our temperatures taken again, this time passing a uniformed guard wearing a weird helmet. And yes, a form. “I filled this out in New York.” “That’s for you. We need this. Italiano o inglese? Italiano, please.

I was filling it out, and the airport cop went around to everyone to make sure we were filling it out correctly. Then finally, the passport routine. Usually, when you present an Italian passport in Italy, the guard looks at it for maybe half a second and then waves you on. This time, the guy typed stuff in, looked at me, looked at my passport. In Italian, he warned me to adhere to the quarantine. I told him I’m hanging out for two weeks on a mountaintop, watching sheep and clouds go by. “That sounds nice,” he said dreamily. “I could use a peaceful week or two.” He actually smiled. This does not happen that often.

My new friend Angelo was waiting to drive me to Umbria, about 2-2.5 hours. Instead of taking my small Renault, he was driving his big Mercedes van. Please, this time sit in the back, he asked, gesturing toward the third row. This was not exactly conducive to talking, but then again, neither was my Xanax hangover.

Angelo way, way in front

We stop for coffee at the huge Autogrill that spans the autostrada. It’s almost empty, and the shop is closed. But there’s coffee! And all of a sudden, ordering coffee at an Italian bar has gotten complicated. I asked for caffè macchiatos for Angelo and me; here, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with a little steamed milk floating on top. “Is Lavazza ok?” asked the barista. I must’ve looked puzzled because she started to offer me a couple of single-origin coffee beans. I was fine with regular Lavazza.

So, after gathering my car, I’m up on the mountain again. We never got to open the pool; instead we spent the summer shut in with the a/c going full blast. I’d forgotten what New York summers were like. I saw the sheep this evening, grazing like mammalian locusts. We had monumental thunderstorms, which came as a relief, friends tell me, after an oven-like summer.

I did my duty, registering with the health service for quarantine. I’m told to expect a call and maybe a visit. People may think Italians are chaotic and anarchic, but when it comes to public health, they rival their neighbors to the north. More as it happens, then.

He ran out of mussels. But we managed

Over the course of this damn pandemic, we’ve developed connections for various foods and liquids. Honestly, it sometimes felt as though we were trying out drug connections as we figured out who shipped coffee our espresso machine likes, who’s got good fruit, where we could get paper towels and dishwashing detergent.

And so, seafood. We used to get a lot of it from LaBella Marketplace, all the way on the southern tip of Staten Island. But we avoided supermarkets and that was really out of the way, too. We then found Pierless, a wholesaler who, with his usual restaurant clients shuttered, turned his operation into an online with delivery retail service. We liked this, because he didn’t deliver to our island, but did in Brooklyn. We’d go in on an order with Daughter No. 1, which had the benefit of driving over the bridge to see her. Our visits were short and masked, but it was great to see the kid, even if it was for 15 minutes. .

We could fall back on a favorite, the Saturday Greenmarket in St. George. The seafood guy there is expensive and has only local stuff, so forget shrimp and salmon, but his wares are extremely fresh and always highest quality.

So it was this past Saturday. We try to plan ahead for meals, because we’re still careful about how and where we buy stuff. I was thinking spaghetti with mussels and beans. It’s a good combo, garlicky and delicious and takes hardly any time if you’ve got canned or cooked beans on hand. Unfortunately, the Greenmarket guy had run out of mussels, even at only 9 a.m. So I asked for a couple of dozen littleneck clams. I figured I’d come up with something different from the usual spaghetti with clams, which I love, but have already done too many times the past couple of months.

We had some zucchine, or if you must, zucchini on hand (see my post about gender-morphing pasta and vegetables). Zucchini goes really well with seafood, its sweetness a good foil to the salinity of the clams in this case. Problem was, I didn’t want to just have some diced squash with the clams in their shells. The clams were too big, so I’d have a texture problem with the dish.

I wrestled with this big problem for the better part of a half hour. Ok, five minutes, and I came up with my usual crutch: zucchini cream! Unless you really push zucchini, with a lot of olive oil and salt, it can be boring and even a little slimey. But sauté it gently with a clove or two of garlic, salt, pepper, white wine and, if you’re feeling decadent, a little saffron. Then toss that into the blender with a few basil leaves and you have a nice pasta sauce.

I steamed the clams in a little wine in a pot I’d later use to boil the pasta, taking care to pull out clams that opened, so that they wouldn’t overcook. Once I pulled them all out, I strained the briny juices and put that into the zucchini purée. Once the clams cooled down I diced them and they went into the sauce, too. I added a little white vermouth to the pot to brighten it. Plus booze always makes sauces better. I could have added a knob of butter, but I’m Trying To Be Good.

I cooked some spaghetti, and once it was a minute or two short of being done, I tossed that into the pot along with a small ladleful of the pasta cooking water, turned up the heat until it was all of a piece. The pasta course was done.

Do as I say, don’t do as I do

I live a few houses down from our neighborhood’s main drag, Forest Avenue. And ever since the city has allowed restaurants to open outdoors, we’ve been clucking about their permissiveness. We’ve seen unmasked patrons hugging, drinking heavily and hanging out at close quarters, and we’re worried that it’s not going to end well.

We’ve been in New York all summer, not on our Umbrian mountaintop (damn you, novel coronavirus!). And for the most part, we’ve continued our distancing. We don’t go out much, except for walking with the pup, and visiting the weekly greenmarket and a local fruit and vegetable stand. We haven’t hung out with our kids, and we’ve turned down social distant dinner invitations from close friends. I’m not liking it, but as our fake suntanner in chief says, it is what it is.

It’s definitely not like the old days. In a past lifetime, the one that ended 3 years, 7 months, and 13 days ago, I used to ride the ferry into work with a jolly bunch of people. We called–still call, actually–ourselves The Ferry Posse. We usually sat in one spot and violated the quiet zone with our jokes and giggling. We were serious, too, as we all got older, our kids grew, our jobs changed or inevitably got more annoying. We tried doing the virtual bit early in the lockdown and it was fun, as far as that goes. And there’s a looonnnngggg Apple Messages text thread that serves as a sort of posse glue.

That changed when last week, one of the posse members suggested that we meet at Snug Harbor’s community supported agriculture’s Wednesday distribution. If you follow my moves on social media, you’ll know that I post tons of photos from the Harbor, mainly of the decorative garden. The complex also hosts a working organic vegetable farm, which in normal times supplies restaurants and also has a CSA. (We used to belong to local CSAs but stopped when we ended up spending summers abroad. And we had no idea earlier this year that we’d basically be on lockdown for a few years. At least it feels like that.)

I know what you’re thinking of the CSA distribution: earnest vegetarians getting together for some yoga before walking off with their organic parsnips. But no. This, folks, is hipster north shore Staten Island, where people try to sneak a bit of fun into everything.

The fun in this instance is the occupation of the old fruit stand by the Burrito Bar, a local Tex-Mex restaurant with a psychedelic hippie vibe. Its popupP stand sells potent magaritas by the 16 ounce cupful or by the bottle, with some guacamole and chips on the side. So while I did overhear a granola type say to another, “Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddha,” I heard more from the excellent speakers blasting everything from King Sunny Adé to Toots and the Maytals and Daft Punk, courtesy of makerparkradio.nyc. (Maker park is a collective space near the old docks where artists and craftspeople can create whatever it is they do, and these folks supply the soundtrack. They have seriously good taste and they stream their programming.)

So, okay, pre-pandemic, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But it was great to see a few friends IN THE SAME MEATSPACE on a warm summer night. The lighting, even with the clouds, was excellent. It reminded me of the ironic twist facing The Spartan Woman and me: Just as we start thinking about living elsewhere, this part of Staten Island is becoming a really interesting place to live.

I’ll be less censorious of the people up the street, I promise. But Peter, Lenny, Kathy and I did keep our distance from once another. I remember one fist bump, which the Italian government during the worst of that country’s pandemic said was acceptable.

And I’ll be there next Wednesday.

PS: We did get some of the great stuff that the farm produces. It had a huge surplus of zucchine flowers, which Kathy-not-my-wife bought and gave out to, I think, eight of us.

It’s all their fault

[Hey, Tea, here are some of my memories of Umbria.]

It was April 2002 and I was on a reporting trip in Italy. The trip mainly involved interviewing lawyers about the Italian economy and dealmaking possibilities for U.S. multinationals (I’ll write about that someday when I’ve had too much grappa to drink). I conveniently scheduled my trip to straddle a weekend: a few days in Milano, a weekend to chill, and a few days in Rome.

The weekend started on Friday afternoon. I took the train to Perugia and my “dad” there, Franco Castellani, picked me up at the station. He said we had to hurry because he and his wife Giovanna Santucci had a surprise. Franco drove faster up Perugia’s winding streets than usual, cursing about half the other drivers for having the nerve to share the road with him.

Finally arriving at their home near the top of a hill, we rushed inside. “Just put your bag down, we timed this exactly right.” I went into the kitchen to greet Giovanna, who just then pulled some baby artichokes out of the frying pan and put them in a paper towel lined basket. A quick spritz of lemon, a sprinkling of salt and she shoved them toward me. I should tell you that at this point, no one had sat down. “Use your fingers! They’re perfect right now!” Franco said. The three of us stood around fishing the precious nuggets out of the basket, blowing on our fingers because the suckers were hot, And crispy. And lemony. And soft inside. And yes, perfect. We just smiled at each other.

By that April, we had been chosen family for years. The Spartan Woman met up with them back in the 1970s when she had done a year of veterinary school in Perugia. It’s a long story, and the short version is that this couple had adopted us as their American kids. They got to know The Spartan Woman’s parents, we got to know their daughters and extended family, and we’ve been together ever since. We’re Catholics so lapsed that we should be excommunicated, but Franco and Giovanna stood as godparents to our younger daughter back in 1992. All of us have stayed in each others’ houses, we’ve seen elders pass, babies born, and one of their nephews has run a few New York Marathons. You get the idea.

The clan gets together for a summer dinner at Il Laghetto near Perugia, a couple of years ago.

For The Spartan Woman, her studies in Perugia were punctuated by Franco sounding his horn outside her apartment. “Gimmo!” he’d say, the Perugian dialect word for “let’s go,” dragging her out for a ride in the country. He read electric meters at the region’s businesses, and so knew every inch of his beloved Umbria. Franco knew where to get the best prosciutto, the best cheeses, where a special bread could be found. He loved to cook, which invariably meant a huge cleanup for his wife, because he was the kind of cook who would leave flour clinging to the high ceiling of his kitchen, He was almost a parody of the postwar Italian male, with tons of hair product, a walk that frequently involved dangling a cigarette from his lips and spinning his car keys.

Despite his outward bravado, Franco (left, photobombed with the power salute by grandson Francesco in the 1990s) was a sweet man, generous of spirit and time. (But not of gasoline; he’d coast downhill, and whenever I rented a car, he was very happy to ride shotgun while I drove everywhere.) I still hear his voice when I drive around Perugia. “Metti la freccia!” (use your turn signals); sempre diritto! (go straight, always here), vai, vai! (go, go as I gunned it to get onto a highway).

If Franco was the brash, extroverted side of the marriage, Giovanna was the quiet and deep counterpart. She was a career woman, working for the local fashion house Luisa Spagnoli. She took care of things, raised her daughters, and kept the household humming. She was my language tutor; my Italian wasn’t bad 30, 40 years ago, but she helped by giving me The Look when I said something wrong. She kept the spare bedroom ready for us; I used any excuse on a few solo trips to drop by and stay a few days.

See this picture? That was taken on one of the funniest days I’d ever spent with those two. “We’re going to Norcia today, ” announced Giovanna (shown enjoying a postprandial cigarette). I’d been in Perugia for a week, after a week spent with relatives in Sicily. I love both Palermo, where my father’s from, and Perugia. The latter on this trip was a quiet balm to the livelier, bigger Palermo and my family, who are masters in the peculiar Italian art of multiple simultaneous conversations.

So we got into Franco’s Mini, I riding shotgun, Giovanna stretched out in the backseat chainsmoking. The ride seemed back then like forever, but I’ve gotten used to it now; in fact, I visited Norcia in February to see the opening of an important schoolkids’ social center. For the uninitiated, Norcia is a town up in the Appenines famous for its salumi, or charcuterie, its cheeses and truffles. It’s a great place to eat, in other words.

That morning, Franco parked the car, and the three of us walked around from shop to shop, buying dried sausages with names like coglioni di mulo (mule’s balls), reflecting its large round shape. Franco had parked near a bakery he knew, which still used an ancient wood-fired oven, and bought a huge country-style bread. Shopping done, we stopped for the pleasant lunch that’s shown in the photo.

“Porca miseria!” Franco shouted when we got back to the car. “Figlio di puttana!” (son of a bitch). We were parked okay, but for one thing: Franco had forgotten to put his disco orario, or time metering disk, in the windshield, and he was fined the equivalent of $50 for the lapse. There are meters everywhere these days, and you put the receipt in the window. In 1996, not so much.

Franco was good at dishing, not so good at taking it. That night, as we sat down for a light supper, he sliced the bread. Taking the slices, Giovanna and I rolled our eyes and generally acted like we’d gone to a mock heaven. “Giovanna,” I asked her in Italian, “is this not the best bread you’ve ever eaten?” “Si, Antonio, I bet such perfection must have cost a pretty penny.”

Franco just growled.