They survived the earthquakes, and it was great to get back in touch

I was going to write this post a few days ago. But then I thought that following the U.S. supreme court’s terrible decisions regarding abortion/privacy rights and gun control laws, it just seemed superficial. On the other hand, this post isn’t just about tourism, it’s about the friendships we make along the way, even if they’re fleeting and our time together lasts for just a couple of hours once a year.

The scene is the Piano Grande di Castelluccio. It’s a glacial plain up in the Apennines, the mountain chain that forms the spine of the Italian boot. The Piano is an amazing place, a huge basin, the kind of geological feature that you don’t often see in Italy—especially if your vision of the country is quaint villages, big cities with museums, and picturesque coasts. It’s a wild place, where sheep graze and where you can ride a horse Western-style and pretend you’re in the Wild West. Lots of European vacationers with campers congregate there, forming their own kind of little village as they set up camp and watch daytrippers like The Spartan Woman and me wandering around.

We’ve been going up there for years; it’s about a two-hour drive from our mountaintop. Timing can be crucial for one event, the annual outburst of wildflowers and some blue cultivated lentil blossoms. This fioritura brings a big splash of color to an already stunning tableau. It takes place around the end of June and beginning of July and on weekends, the place is insane. The crowds have gotten so bad that you now have to register online for a parking space and a shuttle to take you to the Piano and the nearby village of Castelluccio.

Unfortunately for Castelluccio, it was nearly leveled by two successive earthquakes in the autumn of 2016. And that’s where this story really starts. Before then it was a friends and family ritual to visit the Piano, then head to the Taverna Castelluccio for a decadent lunch. The Taverna was in a building on the edge of town, and if you sat outside, you had a great view of the expansive lentil fields below. (Castelluccio lentils are small, brown, and don’t dissolve into a brown mush.)

My friend Doug and I first went to the Taverna about eight years ago. We were seated next to a woman with a teenage daughter who was apparently teaching the daughter about good food and wine. She talked to the kid about the dishes, they sampled a bunch of them. They tasted some good wine, and at one point we began talking to her. She’s a pretty well known food blogger and TV personality based in Rome and I wish I could remember her name. At one point, she ordered an incredible dessert wine, and she insisted that we have a taste.

Last year in Norcia

That visit was the first of a few annual visits, with both daughters and one year, with our daughters’ friends. We loved the location, and the food was traditional with a twist, with pasta like homemade spaghetti alla chitarra with the local lentils and fresh ricotta. And since we were near Norcia, the culinary capital of truffle-dense Umbria, a lot of dishes came with the prized black funghi. More than the food and wine list, though, were the owners. The wife in the mom and pop pair would take a seat at the table and chat for awhile. Hearing our accent, she was curious about where we’re from. Not a whole lot of Americans know about the Piano Grande and its delights. We always came away from lunch sated and happy that we made a human connection with the proprietors.

Disaster struck in 2016, with two successive earthquakes. The first was on August 24, and that caused some damage to Norcia and its surroundings, including the hamlet of Castelluccio. I texted the restaurant and asked if they were okay. They said yes and that the restaurant was intact, save for a couple of cracks. They were just waiting for the authorities’ okay to go back. But the second, on October 30, was devastating. Norcia’s cathedral was almost leveled, with only the façade remaining intact. Castelluccio was another story; the town was destroyed and was declared a no-entry red zone. The Taverna and all the other businesses were history.

Or so we thought. I’d seen that it had set up a temporary tent, but for one reason or another we never went. But this year, a friend posted to Facebook that she had eaten there at the more permanent setup outside the wrecked town, and that it was terrific. She urged people to go. So we went—after a few days at home I was eager for another road trip, even if it was to a place I’d been quite a few times, and that’s a couple of hours away, taking us on winding roads through mountain passes in the area called the Valnerina.

Sheep crossing!

Being pensionati, we were lucky to be able to go on a weekday; even on a Thursday the Piano hosted lots of people there for the fioratura. The flowers weren’t in full bloom yet, but we saw enough colors and textures to keep us happy. That, and a run by a couple hundred sheep kept things lively. But lunch was the day’s main attraction for us. The Taverna is in one of two containers outside the hamlet that host a bunch of restaurants and shops. We found the Taverna and we shown to an outside table, as requested.

It’s weird to say that the new site has a better view and is nicer than the “real” restaurant. At least objectively. Subjectively…. here in Italy, nothing is better than saying that something is originale (I think you can figure that out). Unlike the neighboring French, who tend to plaster over cracks and holes in stucco, for example, Italians will leave the signs of aging and use, either to show authenticity, or just because they think it looks better.

If the container was new, the filling was as it always was. The Taverna still trades in slightly creative, upscale versions of local dishes with “km 0” (farm-to-table) ingredients, and we were happy to indulge in a plate of local pecorino cheeses, including one that resembled Brie. The Spartan Woman went real roots and had lentil soup, while I happily indulged in the local pasta, stringozzi, showered with tons of local truffles. She had the truffles atop her trout, while I went off our usual meat-free diet because I had this weird craving for Umbrian sausages. We had some sauteed wild greens, almost like spinach to go with it, and a small pitcher of local wine.

But more than the decent food and the beautiful view were the Taverna’s people. Our young waiter heard our accent and asked where we’re from. When we told him New York he smiled and said the Italian equivalent of “wow.” He kept watch over us the whole time, apologizing for a lag between courses because a large party had the kitchen in caos. The owner came by to chat, and we told him that it was good to be back. “We’ve been here since 2019,” he said. We replied that with Covid, etc., it was impossible to come. No, we said, we were patrons of the original Taverna, and he shot us a big smile.

Before I went up to the counter to pay the bill, I rifled through my phone’s photos to find some of the old place. I showed it to the owner when I paid, and he got teary eyed. “Look, look at the pictures,” he said to his employees, and passed around my phone so they could see what it was like. Still, a little weepy, he gave me a little hug and patted me on the back. “Thanks for looking out for us, and coming back. Please come back soon.”

We will, promise.

To go where no Rick Steves or Stanley Tucci has gone before

Like I said here, we did an Ikea run a couple of weeks ago for some odds and ends. This being Italy, Land of Perpetual Roadworks, we hit a couple of detours going and coming. For some reason on the way back, our iPhone’s navigator took us off the highway and routed us through a town in the mountains, in the Le Marche region, just over the border from our Umbria. We couldn’t figure out why exactly we were on a main street in the small city of Fabriano; we didn’t see any obvious road closures.

A road runs through it

But we were intrigued by what we saw. Fabriano looked prosperous; there was a mixture of architectural styles, from baroque and older to some strikingly modern blue glass-sided structures. At one point, the road went through a park. Being conditioned by living in and around Perugia, we scouted for parking spaces, saw some, but didn’t stop. Not with a bunch of Ikea booty in the hatch, anyway. But when we got home, we looked the place up and decided to pay it a visit, especially when we realized the city is only 40 minutes from home.

Okay, so now I’ve put my flame shields up and I’ll explain the headline. Making fun of people who do the Rome-Florence-Venice axis is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s way too easy. But I’ll say this. If you limit a trip to Italy to those places, you’ll “see” a lot, but you won’t really get what this country is about. Stanley Tucci and Rick Steves tried to remedy that in their TV series. But rather than getting people to explore places on their own, Steves, especially, unwittingly created a sort of cult that follows his guidebooks and shows religiously, following his itineraries as though they’ll fall off the planet if they wander off elsewhere. A lot of people here blame him for singlehandedly ruining the Cinque Terre.

I like what I’ve seen of Tucci’s series. (CNN, for some reason, blocks me from seeing it here.) He goes into the social and political aspects of the culture and food here. They’re often inseparable, like why bread can be so bland here in Umbria (the Pope’s salt tax back when is cited as the main reason). But like Steves, his restaurant choices on the show may throw a lot of business to the places, but they have the effect of spoiling them for the regulars. It’s almost a joke, and my favorite YouTube cooking couple, Harper and Eva as Pasta Grammar, make a point of hiding the name of a restaurant they like so that Tucci can’t ruin it.

You should subscribe. They’re great to watch, great as a time-waster too.

Back to Fabriano. We’re usually in a hurry going through airports and we’re terrible at window shopping. But you may have noticed shops in Italy that feature paper from Fabriano. We didn’t know it until recently, but artisans in Fabriano over 500 years ago figured out how to produce paper on a large enough scale to make it a regular medium for writing and printing. I won’t go so far as to call it industrial—the process was fairly laborious—but Fabriano paper was once a really big thing and was shipped throughout Europe. The city’s close connections to shipping ports like Ancona made distribution throughout Europe easy and cheap. In fact even now, a lot of the Euro currency notes in daily use throughout Europe are produced in Fabriano, and the city lies on the rail trunk line between Ancona and Orte/Rome.

And so we took off to see what Fabriano is like. Unlike a lot of precious towns and cities in Umbria and Toscana, Fabriano makes it easy; there’s a big free parking lot adjacent to the park I mentioned above. It’s a short walk through shop-lined streets to the main piazza, a large area that features a fountain that was influenced by our fountain in Perugia, in the Piazza IV Novembre. Like any Italian city, the piazza has a vibrant cafe life. We took a break after our arduous (not!) 40-minute drive to sit with the Fabriani and have that second shot of coffee.

Coffee break!

The Spartan Woman and I have a non-routine routine when we visit a new city. We ignore the guides for awhile and just walk around. We look at the shops downtown—Fabriano has lots of pretty high end clothing shops. And we look at how people are dressed and the kinds of cars they drive. In Fabriano’s case, there were lots of women in long, flowing, almost diaphanous multicolored dresses. And there was a high percentage of Audis on the streets; Audis being the brand for the upwardly mobile Italian these days.

After all this socio-economic analysis, we had to eat lunch. TSW found a restaurant online on a central square, Nonna Rina, that looked good. I found its Facebook page and texted for a reservation on its day off; the owners responded almost immediately. It apparently featured a fish menu—we’re mainly vegetarians but eat fish and seafood when we want to splurge or feel decadent. But when we arrived we saw that the fish menu was only for weekends. To compensate, the regular menu has lots of creative, and we found out delicious, vegetarian dishes.

Food porn alert: We had a shared appetizer of a fritto misto, crisp fried vegetables, fried mozzarella balls, and the local delicacy, olive all’Ascolana. These last had a little chopmeat in them; I made the sacrifice and scarfed them up. TSW followed with orecchiette with pesto; I had the local specialty called pincinelle, simply dressed with olive oil, garlic, chilis, and bread crumbs. The pincinelle resemble the Tuscan pici, or Umbrian umbricelle, in being thick homemade long pasta with a chewy texture. But these are made of stoneground whole wheat and, unusual for pasta, yeast. Historically, pincinelle were made from some set-aside bread dough.

The secondi followed, and we began to think we over-ordered. In fact, when TSW asked about side dishes, our cheerful and friendly server told us that the quantities were quite enough and that we didn’t have to order any side dishes, which is common elsewhere in Italy. The Marchigiani, in fact, pride themselves on the generosity of their hospitality, and that pride was in full evidence. We had a little local sparkling white wine, a bottle of fizzy water, and coffees. The price? A princely €55.

At that point, we would have gladly stumbled to our car and driven home. But I’d reserved a spot on a tour of Fabriano’s Museo della Carta e della Filligrana (Paper and Watermark Museum). I love little museums with a peculiar specialty, and this sweet place fits the bill. It’s definitely worth a visit. We paid our lunch bill and walked over to the museum, waiting for it to open after its lunch break. After entering and waiting in the courtyard of the former convent that houses the museum, we were gathered by our guide, who showed us all the steps to medieval papermaking. She was terrific; they don’t appear to do tours in English, but the demonstrations were quite visual. You can just look around without a tour anyway. Our guide must have been a teacher because she’d ask the few kids questions and at times handle the paper. We were treated to a demonstration of some real papermaking, and then satisfied, left to find our car and drive back home through the mountains.

Master paper maker at work

Some thoughts: Fabriano sees few tourists. It’s a real, working small city with a fair amount of industry, including nearby home appliance factories. That said, there’s a pretty large historic center, which is a mix of medieval, baroque, and modern buildings. Its inhabitants seem justifiably proud of their city, and it’s got a hip vibe to it. In fact, that vibe is common in a lot of Italy today—Fabriano, like Perugia and Ravenna and other small cities, feature sushi/poke bars, independent bookstores, wine bars and restaurant workers who know their menus and the history behind them. A lot of restaurants riff on traditional ingredients, and it’s great to see that the country is not becoming one big museum for tourists. Maybe we’ll set cities like Florence and Venice aside for that, while we go on living our everyday lives.

I’m too lazy to think, so here are a bunch of pictures of everyday life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences in everyday living and those Big Philosophical Differences between my two countries. And I start writing about them and then I stop somewhere in the middle. I either get bored, or it seems too obvious, or I’m reacting to a terrible event, like the killing of children in an American school and I get depressed. So I’m going to punt. I said to myself that once I was mostly done with meetings and other people’s deadlines, that I would keep to one of my own, to keep that journalism thing going. And I let it slip. So here goes, one of many posts that step in for something that might have been meatier—but also may have been me whining about something.

That said, living in a place is different from being on vacation—even here in Central Italy. We don’t sit around in scenic cafes sipping Chianti all day, though I guess if I really put my mind to it, I could. But there are dishwashers to be unloaded and loaded, floors that need sweeping, and bills to pay. Especially that last bit. One of the joys of Italian life is that a lot of stuff comes up piecemeal: the real estate tax, the garbage tax, the various insurance policies, you get the idea. Thankfully, you can take care of most of that online.

So we’ve been getting the place into shape. We pretty much skipped over 2020, though I came here to turn lights on and clear cobwebs. Last year we were just happy to be here, so we didn’t really take care of stuff beyond what was necessary. This summer looks like it’s going to be a hot summer, and we’re not flush with Lotto winnings, but we have (courtesy of our prior thrift) a nice pool. I called the people who built it and who do the heavy lifting in opening and closing it, and soon two ragazzi (guys) show up and did their thing. We’re hoping that this year’s weather will cooperate. Last year an incessant wind blew sand into the pool every day from the Sahara, and the water kept evaporating because of that wind. We kept topping it up and the water never really warmed up.

A good place to escape the world. The highest mountain is Subasio, home to St. Francis and his Assisi.

One big part of our day as pensionati (retired people) is our morning walk. We try to get in at least 4.5-5 km every morning. That’s 2.75 to 3.2 miles. It doesn’t sound like much, but the terrain here makes it a little challenging, because we’re up in the mountains. The only flat walk is down by the river, and that doesn’t go very far. The upside is that our walks are ridiculously scenic. The Spartan Woman makes sure we do this at least five times a week; more typically it’s six days in a row until I rebel. She would’ve made a good drill sergeant. The gallery below shows how taking a walk around the block has a whole new meaning here; we were on the Sentiero Francescano della Pace (St. Frankie Peace Trail) and it’s hard to see here, but some of the climbs are near vertical. We have trekking poles.

But we are in Italy, after all, and there’s food at the end of the trail. Lots of good stuff, everywhere. The small local supermarket in town would be a dee-luxe food shoppe back in the U.S. Lots of good local cheeses, most of them pecorino (sheep’s milk) variants, along with some foreign cheeses; Italians like Emmentaler, or Swiss. Salumi, meats from neighboring Tuscany if you’re into that kind of thing, black truffles, terrific bubbly like Franciacorta (Prosecco’s posh rival, more like decent Champagne)…you get the idea. We do spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing meals. One of the advances of the past couple of decades is that inland Umbria has suddenly become a seafood lover’s paradise; we can get tiny clams called lupini, slighty bigger clams called vongole veraci, oysters, spiny lobster, mussels, branzino (sea bass) all about half the price it would be in New York.

The place also inspires the mad baker in The Spartan Woman. We got her a stand mixer to serve as the Italian cousin to her beloved Kitchen Aid, and she’ll prepare great focaccia or bread with very little prompting. Usually all it takes it running out of bread in the house and our reluctance to leave our mountaintop.

We do errands too. We’ve been in the house, off and on (and mainly off during Covid) for five years now. We needed a few pieces of furniture for storage or just to finish rooms off. But we didn’t want to break the banca. So we went off to Ikea, about 80 minutes away near the Adriatic port of Ancona. Forget any notions of romantic seacoast lunches; we ate at the cafeteria. Of course, Ikea adapted to the area; when you check out at the restaurant, the cashier asks if you want a post-prandial coffee. I did, and when I was done with my gravlax and veggie balls, I went up to the bar and had a good espresso made from organic coffee beans. What’s funny, though, is that in addition to the identical wares with funny Swedish names, were our fellow customers. For the most part they looked identical to the clientele in the Elizabeth, New Jersey Ikea, adjusting of course for the New York area’s racial and ethnic diversity.

It’s not all errands and drudgery. The other day we drove to the town of Gualdo Tadino up against the Apennines because of a planned power interruption. We walked around, looking at the often whimsical architecture of the place, stopped at a bar for coffee, window shopped—and then lunch. There’s a terrific restaurant outside—La Terrazza di San Guido—above the town, set in a pine forest, with a deck that has a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings. The food is really good, quite traditional but carefully prepared with good ingredients. We spent the princely sum of €49 We reckon the pasta alone would cost somewhere around that in New York. Talk about turning lemons into limoncello.

Food can get weird when it crosses the ocean

I’m talking, of course, about the food here in Italy. Note that I didn’t say “Italian food.” There’s no such thing. This country has existed as a political entity only about 160 years and food here is intensely regional. Hell, until the postwar-WWII era, people from different parts of the country barely understood one another due to the prevalence of regional dialects and languages, let alone had national dishes.

But I digress. Yes, the food. Yesterday’s lunch was a Sicilian peasant thing, short whole wheat pasta with local chicory greens, diced potatoes, and grape tomatoes, all sautéed together with a decent amount of olive oil. You can see it here. It definitely wasn’t fancy stuff, but The Spartan Woman is a terrific instinctual cook and we actually sighed as we ate.

Cheap and delicious, at home

There was no “sauce” per se. The bottled sauce industry in the U.S. would have you believe that Italians eat pastas topped with tons of red stuff or “Alfredo,” whoever that is. (I kid. The original dish, as though you could pin it down, is “pasta in bianco,” pasta with tons of good butter and parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a dish fed to kids, the elderly, and people with stomach aches.) Instead we, like a lot of people here, paired the pasta with seasonal vegetables, and used some of the pasta cooking liquid to keep it moist.

But I’m not going to go into the Italian vs. Italian American rabbit hole. I’m going to try to demystify what eating here is like, and highlight the differences in food culture between my two nationalities.

To simplify things greatly, Italians eat locally-plus. There’s a strong base of local tradition, upon which they add what’s trendy right now. This applies both to eating at home and at family gatherings, and eating out. Unless people are going out to an ethnic restaurant on purpose—here in Umbria there are Chinese, Japanese, and Indian places, among others—they kind of expect what’s familiar in a restaurant. It’s because people go out for different reasons than Americans do. Or at least the Americans where I come from, New York City. In my 10 years as a part-time restaurant critic there, I remember going through Paris bistro, Belgian, French country, Tuscan, Southern Indian, Catalan, and new American phases. It’s all about a celebrity chef or the latest find, and is rarely rooted in any kind of culinary tradition.

I’ll concede that a lot of that trend-seeking is peculiar to New York. But where the city goes, the culture tends to follow. Italians, however, especially those who live outside of the big cities, eat out to be with friends in a large group, or to celebrate a big occasion. Often, their home kitchens are small and they simple don’t have the room to have 10 people at a table, so they see the osteria in the country as a home surrogate.

I’ll compare apples to apples, or pizza to pizza. Earlier this spring I went to a newish pizza place on Staten Island. Yeah, Staten Island; its North Shore has suddenly become a hipster kind of place, with really good and inventive restaurants popping up in spite of the Covid pandemic. The pizza restaurant, Seppe’s PizzaBar, has an industrial look—it doesn’t do that Olde Worlde schtick that used to be common in NY Italian restaurants. It featured beer from local microbreweries and organic/biodynamic wines. The pizzas had slow-rising, chewy crusts and inventive toppings.

Pizza in hipster Staten Island

But here’s the thing: The tab. I’ll break it down. Two people. so two pizzas, $20 and $21. Two beers at $7 apiece. Espresso at $3 each. It ended costing the two of us about $50 each for an okay, not transcendent meal, after tax and tip. And I think we got away cheap. In Perugia, our closest big city (population about 165,000), a similar outing would’ve run us about €28, or $30 total. For one thing, you don’t tip in Italy; waiters and cooks make decent salaries and tipping is not part of the culture. Sure, in touristy places in Rome, the staff have gotten used to foreigners leaving some cash on the table, but here, the credit card receipt doesn’t even have a line for a tip.

Perugia’s finest, only €7

There are lots of reasons for the price disparity. New Yorkers are paying for the restaurants’ rent, plus all the other overhead, like chefs’ salaries, the computer system, the expensive stoves and cookware, etc. And you can’t forget the ingredients; stuff like mozzarella and parmigiano cheese. All of that is just regular food in Italy; you can get fresh mozzarella for a couple of euros, and even exotic like fresh black summer truffles are €15 for the equivalent of a couple of ounces.

This brings up something I’ve been thinking about for some years, ever since I wrote about food and restaurants mid-career. Maybe it’s obvious, but stuff that’s just normal in other countries becomes almost a fetishistic object in the U.S., especially if it’s Western European and has become a part of the culture at large. Decent Italian restaurants in big East Coast cities charge $25-30 for very ordinary pasta, for example. Steak frites have become a luxury item, and a drink that might cost a few euros in Barcelona or Milan becomes a $20 “curated” cocktail.

I think it’s more than just economics at play here, and it’s almost as though a good reason for being a world capital like New York manifests itself in bad ways. There’s a disconnect between the food producer and the consumer, and that leads to what I’d call a cult of connoisseurship. The thing—whether it’s burrata cheese, or an espresso, or even Nutella—may be just something you find in a supermarket here, but in the U.S. is foreign, therefore it’s exotic and a luxury. I once bought coffee from an online source based in (where else?) Seattle. I keep getting sales emails for $2,000+ espresso machines. Trust me, you can make a decent cup of espresso with a machine that costs a tenth of that. I wonder sometimes if those super expensive machines are like Viking stoves and the like, there to impress guests more than be useful kitchen tools.

American media plays this great dishes of the world stuff up. Food mags tend to be upscale creations, big city restaurant critics pride themselves on knowing what a proper cacio e pepe is like—and so up goes the price, apart from the economic factors that boost the prices and preciousness of imported goods. I’m grateful that someone like Guy Fieri is looking out for the quirky, downscale, noncorporate eateries that still manage to survive.

The good reason? Americans, at least not the fearful types, are adventurous, at least when it comes to trying new cuisines and foodstuffs. But because of the incredible centralization of food production—remember, there are only a handful of U.S.-based meat producers and distributors, to give one example—people are alienated from their own food, the kind of food that used to be grown or pulled out of the ocean just a few miles away. I’m reminded of the difference when I drive around our area in rural Central Italy; we’re surrounded by farms and vineyards that produce the food that we see in the markets and on restaurant tables. It wasn’t that different decades ago in the U.S. Growing up in my New York neighborhood, the guy three houses up the street was a big fisherman and he gave mackeral and bluefish to the neighbors. Truck farms only a few miles away grew produce, which was sold in local markets.

When I was reviewing French/Belgian/Sicilian/Catalan/Burmese restaurants back in the 1990s, I was always asking myself if there indeed was a local cuisine. New England and the South have held onto their traditions. I did a little research and yeah there was at one point. Fish lovers went crazy every spring when the shad swam down the Hudson, and local oystermen on Staten Island supplied the taverns and high-end restaurants alike. Some New Yorkers are rediscovering local produce at greenmarkets. Maybe high energy prices and a breakdown of the global supply chain will bring the mid-Atlantic back to its roots.

In the meantime, let them eat overpriced cacio e pepe.

[Edited/updated to fix typos and clarify some points.]

Let’s just call it normalish

We were so innocent and full of hope last year around this time. We’d been vaccinated against Covid-19. An apparently sane group of people replaced the wannabe dictatorship in the White House. And it seemed that maybe, just maybe, life was going back to normal.

Fools.

We made our customary trip across the Atlantic, though, and at least the trip felt more normal this year. We booked on Lufthansa, and flight service was fine. Drinks, regular food, some wine, a nap, masked when we weren’t drinking or eating. No one checked our vaccination cards, or even seemed to care. But when some fellow passengers didn’t put their masks back on after the meal, they were admonished by the flight attendants. You do not want to piss off Lufthansa’s people, who are normally and pretty sweet and attentive.

Not wanting to drive the winding roads of Umbria while jet-lagged, we instead booked a room at the Hotel Tiber, in the somewhat gritty town of Fiumicino, a few stones’ throws from Rome’s airport, and a few steps from the sea. It felt like a mini-vacation without having to go into an empty house and turn all the stuff on while gazing at six months’ worth of cobwebs.

We ate out a couple of times, and while we’ve given up meat, we still love fish and seafood. And Fiumicino, on the coast, did not disappoint. From spaghetti con vongole verace e lupini (the local smal and smaller but intense clams), the seafood joints did not disappoint. And now, friends, I am going to bust one of the biggest stereotypes about “Italian” (there really is no such thing; it’s all regional but I’m not gonna go there right now) food: the absolute no-no about mixing seafood and cheese. It seems like every restaurant menu in town featured spaghetti con cozze e pecorino—spaghetti with mussels and pecorino cheese. The Spartan Woman tried it first and said it was good; I followed the next day. And I concur. So throw out the rulebook, if you’ve got one.

The next day, our friend with a van, Angelo, picked us up and took us home. Well, after lunch anyway. First he was going to come later in the day, but changed his schedule. I have more than a slight suspicion that he wanted to have a nice seaside lunch, too. And who can argue with that? It was terrific getting reacquainted, and since we only speak Italian with him, it was also good to get the mouth working the right way. American English is a lazy mouth affair, with vowels that sound alike or slide around as dipthongs. Italian is crisper, sharper, and more musical, and after six months of speaking English most of the time, it was good to be immersed again in my other language.

It wasn’t an altogether peaceful ride—a friend of ours, who was going to be our houseguest, was stranded on the autostrada. But Angelo came to the rescue, finding a tire place and getting our friend’s car sorted.

And then….Ommm. We got back to our treehouse. At least that’s what our main floor feels like, because the house is on a slope, so from this desk I’m looking at tree tops. This area in general is incredibly green and lush in the spring. We’ve never gotten here this early in the season, so who knew that we have wisteria and lilac trees blooming all over the place? Wild orchids, too? All this greenery has a couple of good effects: 1-I can feel my blood pressure easing, and 2-Somehow, it makes it easier to ignore stuff like the madman Putin a little easier. Not completely—hey, we got broadband here—but without the drumbeat of MSNBC et al, it’s isn’t dominating my thoughts quite as much.

But coming back to Umbria reminds us that, unlike the weird rush to act as though the pandemic never happened in the U.S., Covid never went away. More people wear masks here, especially indoors. Stores and public spaces still have social distancing reminders everywhere, and the stats aren’t that great.

Still….we walked over to our neighbors next door to say hi and collect our car. We’d parked it there before we left, and it was a terrific excuse to see them after being away for nearly six months. Another day, we walked to the center of our hamlet, where we saw an acquaintance pruning his olive trees. He invited us into his courtyard for coffee, and we sat around updating one other. His neighbor saw us, a courtly older man who tracks our comings and goings and is probably the epitome of the kind, gentle soul that’s common in this region. It’s the place that gave birth to St. Francis of Assisi, after all (and we’re reminded of it regularly around here).

We’re laying low for the time being. New Covid cases are common, with the daily totals sticking stubbornly in the tens of thousands in Italy. We’ll venture out to eat when it’s consistently warmer. In May, the weather can go from your fantasy of Sunny Italy to Wuthering Heights in minutes.

Okay, so we make an exception for gelato. Sue me.

It’s great to be back. More later.

Due fratelli

HO CONTROLLATO una prova scientifica senza saperlo. I soggetti di questa prova erano sono recentemente morti, mio padre, Nuccio (nome formale Antonino) e di suo fratello leggermente maggiore Ignazio. È straziante che abbiamo perso queste due anime meravigliose nello spazio di un paio di mesi, ma mi ha dato la possibilità di riflettere sulle vite che hanno condotto. [Il post continua sotto la foto; versione inglese qui]

Due fratelli, per strada dove sono cresciuti, Corso Calatafimi Palermo, 2003

PRIMO, I CV. Ignazio, nato ottobre 1928 a Palermo, e residente fino alla sua recente morte. Era vedovo, sposato con una grande donna di nome Elena Beghin, da Treviso in Veneto. L’altro era mio padre, Nuccio, nato marzo 1930, anche lui a Palermo. Emigrò negli Stati Uniti nel 1955 ed era anche vedovo, sposato con mia madre, Angelina Ancona, nata nel Lower East Side di New York City. Nuccio visse a Brooklyn, poi Staten Island, e alla fine si trasferì nella Pennsylvania orientale quando è andato in pensione. Ignazio ha vissuto nello stesso quartiere per tutta la vita, tranne un periodo nell’esercito italiano.

I due fratelli avrebbero potuto anche essere gemelli. Guardando le loro foto della metà degli anni ’50, Elena mi ha detto che non poteva distinguerle. (Posso; Ignazio aveva le sopracciglia inclinate mentre Nuccio era arrotondato.) Ignazio era studioso e infilato. Nuccio non così studioso. Da ragazzo, è stato incaricato di guidare suo fratello a letto quando dormiva intorno al loro appartamento. Di conseguenza, mio padre era sempre un dormiente leggero. Le loro voci erano quasi identiche: Ignazio, che era un operatore radiofonico dell’esercito, parlava inglese passabile, rendendo la somiglianza vocale ancora più forte.

Nuccio e Ignazio ebbero ciascuno tre figli. Si può quasi dire che noi bambini siamo venuti in coppia. Quindi, io e mio cugino Giorgio siamo a poco più di un anno di distanza. Mia sorella e la sorella di Giorgio Assunta sono nate lo stesso anno, così come mio fratello Chuck e nostra cugina Loredana. Entrambi i fratelli lavoravano anche nelle fabbriche elettroniche, servendo in varie funzioni di caposquadra. Hanno fatto abbastanza per sostenere le loro famiglie, e non erano ricchi ma non avevano mai fame. Entrambe le famiglie hanno vissuto un’esistenza abbastanza comoda.

Ho stabilito che questi ragazzi erano notevolmente simili. Quindi, in che modo erano diversi? Semplice: Ignazio rimase in Italia e Nuccio se ne andò. Ed è affascinante vedere come questo abbia influenzato quasi tutto nella loro vita. Ho seguito questi due nel corso dei decenni, prima inconsciamente, ma negli ultimi due decenni ho pensato più metodicamente alle loro vite parallele come a una sorta di corsa di cavalli. Chi ha condotto una vita più confortevole e spiritualmente più ricca? C’era un vincitore? Puoi anche chiamare le loro vite una gara?

Arriverò subito al verdetto. Ignazio è partito in un posto più precario materialmente, ma è finito avanti. Ed è interamente dovuto a come gli Stati Uniti e l’Europa hanno trattato le loro popolazioni nel corso degli anni. In effetti, andrò oltre e dirò che Nuccio era molto avanti all’inizio, ma la mancanza di protezioni per i lavoratori e un programma sanitario completo negli Stati Uniti ha eroso il suo vantaggio decenni fa.

LA GARA INIZIA. Entrambi i fratelli hanno prestato servizio nell’esercito italiano negli anni ’50, ma mio padre è stato congedato nel 1955. Questo servirà come nostro colpo di apertura.

Nuccio ha sposato mia madre americana e si è trasferito a New York. Sono nato poco dopo e all’inizio abbiamo vissuto nello stesso quartiere che mia madre chiamava casa, la East New York di Brooklyn. Mio padre ha lavorato prima in una fabbrica di scarpe e poi, felicemente per me, ha trovato un lavoro in un piccolo produttore di giocattoli a gestione familiare. Dopo aver ottenuto la cittadinanza statunitense nel 1960, ci siamo trasferiti in una piccola casa stilo “Cape Cod” a Staten Island. Mia sorella era arrivata da allora. La casa era quella che veniva chiamata una casa di partenza, con un seminterrato e una soffitta incompiuti. I miei genitori erano costanti miglioratori domestici. La soffitta è diventata due fantastiche camere da letto per me e mia sorella. I patii sono stati costruiti e ampliati. Un enorme giardino ha fornito molte delle nostre verdure.

Nuccio in occhiali da sole, con i suoi cognati e mio nonno materno a destra, negli anni ’50

Materialmente, non siamo stati privati di nulla. Mia madre era davvero brava a controllare il budget e mio padre ha ottenuto un lavoro migliore dopo l’azienda di giocattoli. (Ero orgoglioso di lui, ma allo stesso tempo odiavo il fatto che non sarei stato un soggetto di prova per i nuovi prodotti del produttore di giocattoli.) Le auto usate alla fine hanno lasciato il posto a nuovi modelli più grandi. E la nostra piscina per bambini nel cortile si è trasformata in una più grande in cui potevamo effettivamente nuotare, quindi le nostre estati infantili sono state fondamentalmente trascorse in acqua e all’aperto in generale. È stata una bella vita e mio padre, mentre lavorava sodo, stava vivendo una versione del sogno americano per tutti gli anni ’60, fino ai primi anni ’70.

Nel frattempo in Italia, Ignazio era ancora nell’esercito e lui ed Elena erano una coppia, avevano un figlio ma lo tenevano un segreto perchè senza lavoro voleva rimanere nell’esercito; Palermo a quel tempo era difficile trovare un buon lavoro, infatti, i primi anni ’60, una volta appesi all’uniforme, erano un momento di scrivere lettere ai datori di lavoro e agli amici di amici che potevano aiutarlo a trovare un posto. La giovane famiglia viveva con i miei nonni, il che non era una situazione facile per mia zia, abituata alle libertà personali di cui godevano le giovani donne del nord. Infine, ad un certo punto Ignazio ottenne un lavoro in una fabbrica gestita dal monopolio telefonico di stato italiano, e la famiglia si trasferì in appartamenti propri, non lontano da dove sono cresciuti i due fratelli.

I due fratelli durante l’ultima volta che si sono visti di persona, novembre

Quindi a questo punto, i fratelli sono equamente abbinati. Ma finiva presto. Anche la moglie di Ignazio ha lavorato per alcuni anni quando i bambini sono cresciuti. Avevano una famiglia che viveva vicino che poteva tenerli d’occhio. Hanno comprato il loro appartamento quando è andato in vendita; hanno accumulato un gruzzolo. Aumenti regolari e un nuovo sistema sanitario nazionale hanno consolidato questi guadagni. Uno dei figli di Ignazio andò all’università locale, che era libera di frequentare, ad eccezione delle tasse e delle spese di soggiorno. Ha ottenuto una laurea. In Italia, i proprietari di case non pagano le tasse immobiliari sulla loro abitazione principale. In generale, Ignazio e la sua famiglia facevano parte dell’aumento generale del tenore di vita per la maggior parte degli europei. Si è ritirato con la maggior parte del suo reddito pre-pensionamento ed è stato in grado di aiutare i suoi figli.

Nel frattempo, Nuccio ha visto i suoi salari ristagnare, come hanno fatto molti lavoratori americani. Le nuove auto sono diventate quasi inaccessibili. Io e mia sorella siamo andati all’università, ma siamo andati all’università della città perché i nostri genitori non potevano permettersi di mandarci via Nuccio in realtà è stato sottoposto a un taglio salariale mentre l’azienda a gestione familiare per cui lavorava ha venduto la sua sede di Soho per milioni; alla fine è stato costretto a uscire e ritirato sulla previdenza sociale con un piccolo gruzzolo. È stata una fine umiliante di una vita di lavoro. I miei genitori hanno venduto la loro casa a Staten Island e si sono trasferiti in una molto più economica nei Poconos. Tuttavia, hanno dovuto pagare pesanti tasse immobiliari, in gran parte a causa del modo decentralizzato in cui le scuole sono finanziate negli Stati Uniti. La vita per i miei genitori è stata molto più una lotta che per suo fratello, in generale.

Io e mio padre durante una sessione FaceTime l’anno scorso

Ignazio faceva parte del servizio sanitario italiano. Nuccio e sua moglie si sono iscritti nel sistema Medicare per gli anziani, ma dovevano pagare un supplemento perche Medicare paga solo 80 percento. Mio padre, doveroso come sempre, è stato lasciato a pagare un’enorme bolletta ospedaliera per la degenza terminale di mia madre,

Di tanto in tanto mio padre esprimeva rammarico per aver lasciato la sua patria. Il suo inglese non è mai stato fantastico e penso che, insieme a una paura generale di nuovi ambienti, lo abbia trattenuto. Una volta mi ha detto: “Forse avrei vissuto meglio laggiù. Ma ho fatto la mia scelta con te e tua madre, e ho fatto del mio meglio per assicurarmi che avessimo una buona vita”.

Puoi esprimere il tuo giudizio su questa storia di due fratelli. Ci sono molte variabili, e la grande è come essere un immigrato negli Stati Uniti modella la vita che conduci. Ma credo anche che si dica molto, e niente di grande, su come un ragazzo che ha lavorato duramente per tutta la vita e ha fatto tutte le cose giuste, si sia trovato in condizioni molto peggiori man mano che invecchiava. Ha dovuto lasciare la casa in cui ha cresciuto la sua famiglia e ha finito per vivere in un ambiente molto più duro solo per sbarcare il lunario.

A tale of two siblings

I’VE BEEN WATCHING A social science experiment unfold over the past few decades. Yeah, I’m old. But the subjects of this experiment were older and have recently passed away. I’m writing about my father, Nuccio (formal name Antonino) and his slightly older brother Ignazio. It’s heartbreaking that we lost these two wonderful souls in the space of just a couple of months, but it’s given me a chance to don my political scientist hat and reflect on the lives they led. [Post continues below the photo.]

Versione italiana, clicca qui.

Two bros, on the street where they grew up, Corso Calatafimi Palermo, 2003

FIRST, THE CVs. Ignazio, born October 1928 in Palermo, Sicily, and a resident until his recent death. He was a widower, married to a great woman named Elena Beghin, who came from Treviso in the Veneto, within bike riding distance of Venice. The other was my father, Nuccio, born March 1930, also in Palermo. He emigrated to the United States in 1955 and was also widowed, married to my mom, Angelina Ancona, born on the Lower East Side of New York City. Nuccio lived in Brooklyn, then Staten Island, and finally moved to Eastern Pennsylvania when he retired. Ignazio lived in the same neighborhood all his life, bar a stint in the Italian army.

The two brothers might as well have been twins. Looking at photos of them from the mid-’50s, Elena told me she couldn’t tell them apart. (I can; Ignazio had angled eyebrows while Nuccio were rounded.) Ignazio was studious and high-strung. Nuccio was a party animal, not so studious. As a boy, he was tasked with guiding his brother back to bed when he sleep-walied around their apartment . As a result, my father was always a light sleeper. Their voices were almost identical—Ignazio, who was an army radio operator, spoke passable English, making the voice resemblance even stronger.

The two brothers each had three children. You can almost say that we kids came in pairs. So, my cousin Giorgio and I are only a little more than a year apart. My sister and Giorgio’s sister Assunta were born the same year, as were my brother Chuck and our cousin Loredana. Both brothers worked in electronic factories, too, serving in various foreman/supervisory capacities. They made enough to support their families, and weren’t rich but never were hungry. Both families lived a middle-class existence.

I’ve established that these dudes were remarkably alike. So how were they different? Simple: Ignazio stayed in Italy, and Nuccio left. And it’s fascinating to see how that affected just about everything in their lives. I’ve been tracking these two over the decades, as first unconsciously, but in the past couple of decades I thought more methodically of their parallel lives as a sort of horse race. Who led a more comfortable, spiritually richer life? Was there a winner? Can you even call the race?

I’ll get to the verdict straight away. Ignazio started out in a more precarious place materially, but all things equal, he ended up ahead. And it’s entirely due to how the United States and Europe treated their populations over the year. In fact, I’ll go further and say that Nuccio was far ahead early on, but the lack of worker protections and a comprehensive healthcare scheme in the U.S. eroded his lead decades ago.

LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING of the race. Both brothers served in the Italian army in the 1950s, but my father was discharged in 1955. That will serve as our opening shot.

Nuccio married my American mother and moved to New York. I was born shortly after, and we lived at first in the same neighborhood my mother called home, Brooklyn’s East New York. My father first worked in a shoe factory, and then, happily for me, found a job at a small, family owned toymaker. After obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1960, we moved to a little Cape Cod house on Staten Island. My sister had come along by then. The house was what was called a starter home, with an unfinished basement and attic. My parents were constant home improvers. The attic became terrific big bedrooms for my sister and me Patios were built and expanded. A huge garden supplied a lot of our vegetables.

Nuccio in sunglasses, with his brothers-in-law and my maternal grandfather on the right, sometime in the 1950s

Materially, we weren’t deprived of anything. My mother was really good at controlling the budget and my father got a better job after the toy company. (I was proud of him, but at the same time hated that I wouldn’t be a test subject for the toymaker’s new products.) The used cars eventually gave way to new, bigger models. And our backyard kiddie pool turned into a bigger one that we could actually swim in, so our childhood summers were basically spent in water and outdoors in general. It was a good life, and my father, while working hard, was living a version of the American Dream throughout the 1960s, into the early and 1970s.

Meanwhile in Italy, Ignazio was still in the army and he and Elena were a number, They had a kid but kept it on the down low because he wanted to stay in the army; Palermo at that time wasn’t a good place for a young guy to find a good job, In fact, the early 1960s, once he hung up the uniform, was a time of writing letters to employers and friends of friends who might help him get a job. The young family lived with my grandparents, which was not an easy situation for my aunt, who was used to the personal freedoms enjoyed by young women up north. Finally, at some point Ignazio got a job at a factory run by the Italian state telephone monopoly, and the family moved to apartments of their own, not far from where the two brothers grew up,

The two brothers during the last time they saw each other in person, November 2003

At this point, for my American friends, I should describe apartment living in Italy, Most Italians don’t live in freestanding houses; they live in apartments in cities and towns. But the dwellings aren’t transient places where young adults live while they save up for a house in the ‘burbs. They tend to be bigger than most New York apartments, which multiple bedrooms, baths, and terraces. A lot of them have doormen and gardens. Italians tend to be more social in their daily lives in general, with outdoor bars and spaces frequented as an integral part of daily life. You can almost say it’s the Italian Dream, except Italians are too realistic to think of everyday life as a dream; they believe that they’re fully entitled to what they have.

So at this point, the brothers are evenly matched. But not for long. Ignazio’s wife worked for some years too as the kids got older. They had family living in the same apartment complex who could keep an eye on them. They bought their apartment when it went up for sale; they accrued a nest egg. Regular raises and a new national healthcare system solidified these gains. One of Ignazio’s kids went to the local university, which was free to attend, except for fees and living expenses. He got a degree. In Italy, homeowners don’t pay real estate taxes on their primary dwelling. In general, Ignazio and his family were part of the general rise in the standard of living for most Europeans. He retired with most of his pre-retirement income, and was able to help his kids out.

My uncle Ignazio and his wife Elena, Palermo, 2003

Meanwhile, Nuccio saw his wages stagnate, like a lot of American workers did. The new cars became nearly unaffordable. My sister and I did go to college, but we went to the city university because our parents couldn’t afford to send us away Nuccio actually was subjected to a salary cut while the family-owned company he worked for sold its Soho headquarters for millions; he was eventually forced out and retired on Social Security with a small nest egg. It was a humiliating end to a lifetime of work. My parents sold their house in Staten Island and moved to a much cheaper one in the Poconos. Still, they had to pay hefty real estate taxes, largely because of the decentralized way schools are funded in the U.S. Life for my parents was much more of a struggle than it was for his brother, in general.

My father and me during a FaceTime session last year

Ignazio was part of Italy’s highly rated national healthcare system. Nuccio and his wife got Medicare, which they had to supplement with Part B insurance. My father, dutiful as always, was left paying a huge hospital bill for my mother’s terminal stay,

Every now and then my father would express regrets that he left his homeland. His English was never great, and I think that, along with a general fear of new environments, held him back. He did tell me once, “Maybe I would’ve lived better over there. But I made my choice with you and your mother, and I did my best to make sure we had a good life.”

You can make your own judgment about this tale of two siblings. There are lots of variables, and the big one is how being an immigrant in the U.S. shapes the life you lead. But I also believe that it says a lot, and nothing great, about how a guy who worked hard all his life and did all the right things, found himself in much worse shape as he got older. He had to leave the home he raised his family in, and ended up living in a much harsher environment just to make ends meet.

With everything that’s happening in the world, my thoughts are trivial. Still, life goes on—and we even had a reason to celebrate

I HAVEN’T WRITTEN SINCE my father’s death. Actually, I haven’t published—my draft queue for this blog is full of half-finished posts. Some of them are stillborn for a good reason: They weren’t working out, or I didn’t like the tone. And others are just superseded by events. The proverbial gorilla in the room is, of course, Putin’s unconscionable invasion of Ukraine.

I’m not going to write anything about that. It’s what the big news outlets and military experts on Twitter are for. But life goes on here, even as I’m tempting to reach for happy pills after having read the news and sat here in my little office, paralyzed and nervous about what the mad Russian is thinking.

Our big news involves Daughter No. 1, Martina Maria Scozzare Paonita. After joining up with a guy named Daniel Cohen and living together for a couple of years on a tree-lined street in Bay Ridge, the two made it legal, declaring their union before about 100 people in a funky former rope factory in Paterson, New Jersey. Since this is MY blog and is about ME, ME, ME (never mind them…), I can tell you that I was thrilled. I had the feeling that Martina wanted to make their relationship a more formal thing. Still, as a family we’ve avoided big formal parties and I couldn’t help but be a little apprehensive if they chose to do that. The Spartan Woman and I had a kind of hippie wedding way too many years ago that involved a city hall ceremony and a raucous house party at TSW’s parents’ house.

FaceTime session: “We’re engaged!”

I needn’t have worried.

Sure, we were all dressed up, suited, gowned, ties, white shirt for me (the first collared shirt I’d worn in …. a year? Two years?) Okay, there were photographers buzzing around. Dan gave Martina an engagement ring (back in the old days, TSW pointedly told me not to get her a blood diamond, or anything. We wear simple gold wedding bands). There was some serious and delicious catering and great booze.

But #CohPao, as they called themselves, did a fine job of designing a big, loud, fun party that was free of the scripted nonsense that afflicts a lot of wedding celebrations ’round these parts. I think Martina learned her lesson from the former Time-Warner Cable’s public access TV show Joey G, which displayed the kitschiest Staten Island Italo-American weddings, complete with a zillion bridesmaids and grooms, limos, hectoring to get on the dance floor by bandleaders or DJs, and more Brooklyn accents in one hour than you’ve heard in your entire life. Think of those as Jersey Shore Goes to the Altar.

#CohPao deviated from that script from the get-go. They were legally married before a Universal Life minister, who led the ceremony. It was a nonreligious and funny exchange of vows, though Dan did break a glass at the end to seal the deal. (His glass was a light bulb—no one wants to chance not being able to break a thick tumbler.) No one aside from right after the cocktail hour did anyone tell the crowd what to do. There was no pasta—Martina’s enough of an Italian food snob to know that pasta for 100 does not turn out well. And they didn’t do a “bride cuts the cake” thing, with the attendant risk that an inebriated spouse may smash said cake on the other new spouse’s face.

There was, of course, another shadow lurking over the evening—Covid-19 and the possibility of throwing a superspreader event. The pair minimized that possibility as much as they could by specifying a PCR test a couple of days before and their wedding website had a place to upload the results. Everyone had to be fully vaccinated and boosted to attend. And just because, tables were widely spaced.

Alright, enough of that. We had fun. A lot of fun. Great music, great booze, and really good food. Friends, siblings, and cousins we haven’t seen in person in two years. And most importantly, a couple of people who adore one another and invited a bunch of happy, joyous and just plain nice friends to help them celebrate.

Dan came to see us in Italy and built us this beautiful fire pit.

So welcome, Dan, to the tribe. He’s been around a few years (at first, a private M kept his name secret, so we referred to him as “Seamus”). He’s a good guy who—we love this—knows how to do things.

I was thinking way back when, in the pre-Martina days, we took a long time to decide to raise a family. TSW and I had grad school to finish and careers to launch. But after a few years, curiosity about how a kid of ours would look and act got the better of us. We’re unabashedly proud of the result. You did good, kid, and I hope you don’t mind if I kvell a little.

Time out from the usual stuff. Let me tell you about my dad

You might be wondering why I’m posting weather conditions on Facebook these mornings. The comments probably give it away, but I’ll say it clearly now: Our father Antonino a/k/a Tony a/k/a Nuccio (depending on what language you speak) passed away early last week. He used to begin his day with coffee and firing up his iPad to post the weather report on Facebook.

Tony—he anglicized his name like lots of Italian immigrants in the 1950s—was 91, nearly 92 years old and suffering terribly from a bunch of ailments. He may have been approaching 100 but he wasn’t a stranger to technology. He kept in touch with his world via Facebook posts and videochats with family in both the U.S. and Italy. The chats were his lifeline to a world he couldn’t be in any more, and in a way showed us the curious, always learning kind of guy that he was.

I can only write snippets that I hope give an idea of my dad. I loved him, sometimes argued with him, but always felt that I had this gentle spirit watching over me. And it wasn’t just us—my sister and brother , our families, and the seemingly dozens of people he cared about. With such a long life, it would be foolish for me to document everything, but I’ll try to give you a sense of him and how he (along with my mother) affected the lives of so many people.

Dad and me at three, in a photo booth. He kept this in his wallet.

I was his firstborn, so I got his youth and enthusiasm. One of my earliest memories is of the back of his head. We were at some church fair in East New York, Brooklyn, and he was carrying me on his shoulders. It was nighttime and if I close my eyes I can still see the ferris wheel, the colored lights, and maybe (hey, I was maybe two or three years old) an elevated train passing in the distance.

We used to spend a lot of the summer at my maternal grandparents’ bungalow near New Dorp Beach. Another fuzzy memory. We’d go to the beach, just the two of us. He’d sit me down on the sand and tell me, “Don’t move. Watch me.” He’d peel down to his bathing suit and dive into the surf. A strong swimmer, he went out so far that he was only a tiny dot on the horizon. He’d swing his arms to show me he was still there, and then swim back to me, pick me up, and swing me around. He taught me how to swim in those waters by body surfing. Once I learned how to ride the waves, the rest was easy.

He created a perfect backyard for his kids and wife. We had a pool, a picnic table, a barbecue, and a big vegetable garden. He tasked my cousin Dominick and me (maybe I was four?) and my red wagon to go into the woods in back and ferry truckloads of the rich soil there to spread on the garden. As a little kid, I always had a patch in that garden. I grew cucumbers, radishes, and peas. Tony (as most people called him) grew: tomatoes, corn, Sicilian squash (“cucuzza”), lettices, eggplant, swiss chard, and whatever else he might have seen at the garden center.

Dad with his younger two kids Maria and Chuck, in the first of progressively larger backyard pools.

He lived at the hardware store and garden center on weekends. Our little house was a constant DIY project. Most projects went well. Some didn’t. He used a woodburning stove to heat a patio that had turned into a greenhouse. He and my mom did some Saturday morning errands, leaving us sleeping at home. The greenhouse roof caught fire and a neighbor called to tell me. It was the first and only time I pulled the fire alarm up the street.

They tell me he was a bad teenager who skipped class and my grandparents sent him to army school (this is back in Italy) when he was 17. You can still see one of his Sicilian separatist graffiti on the side of an apartment building on Palermo’s Corso Calatafimi. I’ve never seen pictures of him as a child—I’m sure that the disruption of World War II played a role—but there are lots of photos of him in the Italian army and school. Most of the time he looks confident and strong, posing in a typically Italian male way (you know it when you see it). I doubt that he had any idea of what his life was going to be like back then. He regaled us regularly with tales of his adventures, but one story sticks in my mind. He’d get bored of a base, or a city. So instead of trying to get a transfer—I’m not sure that was even possible—he’d write his mother, who had a cousin in the defense department. Nuccio would tell his mother that he found the most wonderful girl and that he was ib love. Transfer orders came quickly.

A lot of what he did and became had to do with his being an immigrant. My father spoke until his last breath with a fairly heavy Italian accent. He wasn’t studious in the conventional sense, but he was always curious and read the paper every day. He had the usual Sicilian speaking English accent. He had trouble with double consonants in words like “doctor.” And Siri did not understand him. But he also had a gift for mangling common expressions. My favorite was “you must cry the consequences.” I always thought that it would be a great title for either a country or Elvis Costello song.

I was never sure, though, if he really understood how the U.S. is governed. He looked at its politics through the eyes of a European, and was always frustrated by what he thought of as sheepish compliance by his fellow citizens. Our dinner table when I was a teenager was often a battlefield with my mother, the good liberal, trying to mediate while her hotheaded son and husband butted heads. I knew, though, that he enoyed arguing with me. We never really got angry with each other. In fact, props to him for what was an incredible tolerance. Unlike a lot of my friends’ parents, he never butted in and tried to control our lives. At the same time, he and our mom always supported the habits of their brood; my father and I spent hours playing with and repairing tape recorders, radios, and stereos.

If Nuccio never quite “got” the U.S., he mastered, again with my mother, the art of hospitality. And he gave us a pretty exotic childhood, with Italians visiting and staying over. We lived on a street full of immigrants, and I got used to hearing different accents, languages, and dialects. Way before Giorgio Armani defined how people should dress, we somehow thought that having a Sicilian father was cool, and that people whose families lived in the U.S. for generations were somehow not as lucky as we were.

In the last couple of decades, my dad wasn’t a part of my daily existence. He moved to Pennsylvania and I’ve lived part of the year in Italy. Still, we kept in touch, especially the last few years, with FaceTime. He’d tease me if I needed a shave or if my plants obviously needed TLC. I’m realizing now how a lot of my life choices, like where I live, and which passport I use the most, was an effort to please him, even if he never told me what to do. Daily caregiving recently fell to my sainted sister; they could bicker like an old couple. But even if I didn’t see him that often, I’ll miss knowing that this sweet, complicated and loving guy was just a click or car ride away. We’ll all miss him terribly.

My parents celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary back in January 2006.

Photo on top: My father Nuccio on the right with his brother and Skype video chat partner Ignazio, in Palermo, November 2003.

You’ve just been erased

“That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion”

I had a pretty glam life in the Before Times. Working in publishing, even for trade journals, was pretty posh as far as jobs go. I was an editor for a weekly legal affairs newspaper—this is before the interwebs—and then I toiled, variously, as an in-house tech consultant, a magazine editor and writer, and a part-time restaurant critic. At the first gig, we had legendary Friday post-publication lunches at the dear departed Restaurant Florent, Champagne and bagel breakfasts, and wine-drenched expense account lunches with writers as we tried to tease the best stories out of them.

At the magazines, I became more visible. I donned a tux and gave awards to lawyers before audiences of 500 or so, was quoted in news releases and articles, and interviewed on video at conferences. I moderated panels of lawyers and executives and had lunch at places like The Four Seasons, once with a guy who’s now the president of Microsoft. I interviewed Richard Gere and Patti Smith at a Buddhist benefit, and hung out with Patti Labelle all day in her kitchen. If you googled my name back then, my editor’s notes and articles shot to the top. In short, in my little corner of the media, I had a public life.

Not my old newsroom, but you get the idea.

A bunch of non-New Yorkers who seemed to love every overhyped consultant they met ended all that. And Covid-19 dealt the coup de grâce. Now old enough to be on Medicare in the U.S., I’m fading away, at least as far as public life goes. I keep thinking of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Erased.”

Why? It’s called “retirement.” And they don’t send you off with a lunch and golden watch any more.

It’s an interesting, if not altogether pleasing process. I didn’t really notice it while we were in Italy, because I was too busy either enjoying living there or dealing with new ways to do everyday stuff like getting an oil change or a haircut, and paying taxes. Back in my familiar New York City home, it’s easy to see what’s missing—dealing with the outside world, basically. One thing that struck me immediately is how isolating American life can be anyway. Here we’ve got neighbors mere feet (or meters!) away, yet we rarely interact with them. But in Umbria, on our hilltop, we regularly engage with neighbors and even passersby as we hike up our road or climb mountain trails. Even a trip to the drugstore can be a social event, because Italians are compulsively chatty.

The Omicron Covid surge ain’t helping. In just a couple of weeks, our neighborhood has become weirdly silent, a combination of it being January, the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and fear of contagion.

Writing this blog helps me ward off what I fear the most, turning into a mindless blob watching endless episodes of home improvement shows on cable. At least I’m keeping up my writing chops, and I’m slowly building an audience. I decided that when I write, I have to be in my home office sitting at the desk, even though I used a laptop and could be, well, in an easy chair, looking up every now and then at a home improvement show or, worse, cable news. And my good friend and former colleague Sue urged me to have a routine. For that, I have The Spartan Woman’s diet and exercise boot camp.

I’ve had different retirement models to follow. My father-in-law pretty much tuned out and watched crappy westerns all day. But my father, similarly cashiered after years of loyal service to his company, moved to the country and became an even more compulsive gardener than he was while I was growing up, his patch of land’s yield rivaling a small farm’s. At the end of a visit to my parents, he’d send us home with bags full of produce. I may not be the gardener my dad was (he’s been laid low by lung disease), but I sure know which path I want to take—albeit in a way that doesn’t involve too much dirt under my fingernails. (The Spartan Woman is our gardener.)

They say you gotta have friends when you don’t have work, and luckily I have lots. A bunch are, due to Covid and distance, virtual. Hello, Facebook, even though I hate you I cain’t quit you. Others live here in New York but still have to put in their time staring at their computers and getting paid for it. During the interregnum between Covid waves, I actually managed to hang out with some in the same meatspace.

Otherwise, I’ve renewed some old friendships. The unfortunate death of one of my best friends (we were besties in high school) led me to renew a friendship with another high school pal, someone who stayed in close touch with the guy we lost. It’s nice to catch up with him—we call each other on FaceTime and walk around our houses and yards. He’s even tapped me to offer some editing suggestions for an article he wrote for his practice, a task that, after years of fixing other people’s writing, is as natural to me as breathing.

It’s nice to be in the city of my birth for awhile. But I have to confess that I’m itching to return to the mountaintop. For one thing, there’s less traffic and a trip to the supermarket is less stressful. But more than that, TSW and I have more of a social life between Italian friends, a couple of Euro and Canadian expats, and the dogs down the road. They say that one of the best ways to delay becoming senile is to keep the mind busy, and I think living in a different country, albeit one that claims me as a citizen, could be how I do it.