Italianese

When we’re in Italy (which we aren’t right now), what do you think we miss most about living in the United States? (Hint: It has nothing to do with language, shopping, movies, or our city.)

It’s the food, but not hamburgers or anything else typically American. We miss the easy access to Asian food. Gotta say first that Italy in general and Umbria in particular is getting better. Sushi (spelled “susci”) is a thing, from just-okay sushi in the nearby IperCoop (hyper Coop in English) supermarket, to really good, inventive sushi at Perugia’s Crudo (in the photo below). And it’s not only Japanese food. At the end of our inner city street, there’s a Taiwanese takeout, a Chinese noodle shop and another Chinese place whose focus I’m not quite sure about.

An expensive lunch for two on the Corso Vannucci

So we aren’t totally deprived. As far as I can tell, though, we don’t have much in the way of Thai food.

In any event, when we come back to New York, we eat less Italian-type food and more Asian, either out or at home. It’s gotten cold pretty quickly this November—the weather here seems to have gone from a prolonged, extended summer into a cold, grey and brown pre-winter. Luckily, the Spartan Women has become pretty adept at making Japanese-type big soups. With our current we-must-reduce regimen, she’s the main cook in the house (she doesn’t quite trust me to wield an easy hand with the olive oil, and my preference for a big spaghettata for lunch is something to be avoided for at least a few months.) So I’ve been treated to big miso ramen-type soups. I never know quite what I’ll find, whether it’s buckwheat noodles, a soft-poached egg, tofu in various forms, bok choy, etc.

Like this:

I do go out, too. Lately, I’ve managed to avoid most business meetings and lunches and instead meet up with friends or one of our kids. Daughter No. 2 works where the eastern reaches of Soho start to blend with the northern border of Chinatown and Asian stuff in general. “We have to go to Cocoran,” she told me when I mentioned that I needed to escape the house one day to avoid terminal cabin fever. She was right. It’s a smallish place, painted black inside, and quite eccentric. In a good way. Most of the seats are at the counter or at long, high communal tables, and the menu promises health and satisfaction. It delivers. (Beware, though, the menu also admonishes that it’s cash only and there’s no takeout and no doggie bags.)

This Japanese soup fanatic could not resist the spicy vegan soup, while the more spice-shy Liv opted for the unspicy vegan version.

I know this sounds strange, but sometimes when we get back to New York after a long day of flying across the ocean, the first thing we do is call the local Chinese takeout joint. When I was a kid, we’d only go out to Chinese restaurants. My father said it only made sense to go to a place that served food you couldn’t really cook at home, but I thought it was mainly because they were cheaper than most of the other restaurants in town.

Whatever. Following in dad’s footsteps, I opted for Chinese food for my birthday a few weeks ago. We have this family tradition–the birthday boy (me) or girl (The Spartan Woman, two kids) gets to pick a restaurant to celebrate. The birthday boy/girls usually pick an expensive place. But eh, I’ve had enough. Plus, I’d become really curious about this huge Chinese place on the Sunset Park/Bay Ridge border that I’d driven past a few times, East Harbor Seafood Palace. It looked good nosing around on the usual sites, so one blustery Saturday morning (I broke another rule, that the meal should be dinner), we convened the fam, including the boyfriends. And boy was it fun. 

We managed to beat the crowd, luckily. Within a half hour after we got there, people were lining up outside. The cart ladies are a riot there, pretty aggressive in a self-aware, humorous way. “You want this! You want this!” We did. The food was definitely a couple of levels above the usual dim sum dumpling experience, and service, even to us non-Asians, was friendly and efficient. You should go.

Anyone feel like pizza? We do all go back to where we’re from, right? I actually didn’t like pizza much until I was well into adulthood. But now….Amid the Asian food, we had a home pizzathon. The Spartan Women, a pretty good bread baker, invited the family and again, it was good times. One with onion, zucchine, or if you prefer, zucchini, an orthodox Margherita, and an unorthodox purple potato and truffle one. Talk about a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Nord of the Border

Three weeks back in the U.S. and we already wanted to escape. The political circus here was too much, but by living in Italy part-time, we were missing some of our favorite places in North America. One of them is Montréal, a straight drive up I-87 from New York. One of our kids lived there for a while, going to university, and we missed the French-accented vibe, the combination of North American laid-back attitude coupled with Latin hedonism.

So we pointed the VW north. With Liv and Al, plus Lola the dachshund in tow, we joined Martina and her boyfriend Dan for a family long weekend.

I’d forgotten how different the city is from New York—it’s like, in a different country. Beyond the obvious—the street signs in French, the metric measurements—it feels a lot like Europe these days, and less like the U.S. For one thing, at least in Montréal, the cars on the streets are smaller. You don’t see many hulking pickups, or huge monster SUVs (Escalades, the big BMWs and Mercedes, etc.) VW Golfs and Mazda3s are more typical. And there are bikes everywhere—New Yorkers like their two-wheeled transport, but the Montréalers have them beat. There are clusters of bikes everywhere, in front of every dwelling, scattered around in front yards. A lot of streets have dedicated lanes, and Montréalers ride in the worst weather, too.

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Montréal wasn’t immune to political tumult. Earlier this month, the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Québec’s Future) won a majority in provincial elections. Variously described as center-right, populist, or anti-immigrant, Montréalers gathered while we were there to protect what they see as the CAQ’s racist stance.

But we were there to escape, and we did for a bit. For one thing, we got to know Child No. 1’s boyfriend better over a couple of dinners, and that was good. Dan, you passed. Speaking of dinners, we first gathered at Restaurant Alep, a cool and elegant Syrian restaurant near the sprawling Marché Jean-Talon. Amazing, refined takes on the usual dips along with some really interesting dishes. With so much to choose from, we put ourselves in the hands of our server. She just brought food out that she thought we’d like. And she was right.

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We came, we ate, we demolished

The next day, after the obligatory cappuccino and croissant—okay, a pain au chocolat—we walked around the old port doing some shopping and then it was time for culture. Having an architect in the family meant that we had to visit the CCA—a museum and foundation whose acronym works in both French (Centre Canadien de l’Architecture) and English (Canadian Centre of Architecture).

There’s always something interesting going on there, and so it was that day. Unfortunately for you guys, it was the last day of an exhibit on revolutionary Italian architects of the 1960s and ’70s. A couple of them eventually became famous, like Ettore Sotsass, a leader of the whimsical “Memphis” movement. You can see his influence in a lot of the furniture sold today, even in places like Ikea.

Naturally, a lot of it was unintentionally hilarious. There was one grainy video manifesto, full of Big Statements about contextual dichotomies and stereotomic liminal tectonics, in Italian no less. That took the voiceover to another level. There were dinner tables set with plates representing different constituencies and capitalist considerations, and models of cars going through apartment buildings. Anyone wanna deconstruct that?

This needs no deconstruction. It was, for whatever reason, a comment on modern Italian TV culture:

The trip was way too short, and made me just want to go back up and spend a few more days. I’d love to stay at Hotel10 again—for some reason, we reserved a normal room and ended up in a palatial suite, with a huge living room, a couple of bathrooms equipped with every toiletry you’d ever need, plus comfy bathrobes, all of it in a cool industrial style package, complete with polished concrete ceilings. (Yes, we noticed the ceilings.) It was the kind of place you’d imagine a band hanging out in, calling out for bottle service and some, um, company.

IMG_5366We ended our stay with a visit to Habitat 67.  The apartment complex was conceived as architect Moshe Safdie’s thesis project at McGill, and was built for Expo 67. We’d never been, and the place is pretty amazing, if isolated from the urban fabric. There’s always a surprise in Montréal, though, and this was pretty cool. Despite all the “propriété privée” signs, a friendly groundskeeper pointed us to a trail behind the complex, on a slight bluff above the St. Lawrence. It’s a hot surf spot, and despite the drizzly, chilly day, intrepid Montréaler surfer dudes and dudettes were taking to the rapids. Très cool—literally.

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Boy trouble (time out from the travelogues)

I have no idea why I’m writing this, or whether it’ll be any good. I guess I just have an urge to write and to react to what we found when we got back to New York.

This place feels crazy. I honestly can’t remember when the U.S. felt weirder to me. I’d been away a few months, and I guess that time alone had something to do with it. But really, Watergate, Reagan’s election, the Bush I and II years all seem relatively normal.  You can feel it on the street. People just drive weird, and my friends here are all justifiably upset and unnerved. It’s a strange feeling.

I don’t think I can say anything profound about the Brett Kavanaugh torture. I vacillate between detached disgust and complete obsession. I hate the nastiness, the incredible contempt for civility shown by the old men on the Senate judiciary committee.

I can only write about my own experience, and how common this casual abuse of women was—and is. And seeing what I saw, I completely believe Christine Blasey Ford. As a teenager, I was peripherally involved in an attempted assault of a female friend of mine, and I witnessed disgusting behavior by a friend’s father at her 16th birthday party.

I’ll start with the first. I was at a party in a big Victorian house in an outer borough. The parents were either out or on vacation, and it was a typical 1970s party, with lots of alcohol, weed and god knows what else being consumed. I wandered outside for fresh air, and it was dark. I heard a friend of mine, let’s call her Beth, saying no and I think she was saying “stop.” I looked around and there was a space under the front porch and Beth and this kid my age were sitting under there. There may have been others. I looked in and saw the neighbor of the host, a boy about my age, maybe 16-17, pawing at my friend, who was definitely out of it, much more than I was. He was making kissing sounds and saying “c’mon” over and over again.

I don’t think I’m the bravest guy in the world, and the neighbor was an athlete. I wasn’t. Whether it was the vodka I was drinking or weed that made me act, but I dove in and shoved the guy off Beth. I remember him saying to me, “hey man, what the fuck?” and I thought he was going to punch me out. But I grabbed Beth and pulled her aside, out of his reach. He ran off back to his house cursing. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, and I don’t think of myself as one now. I was just reacting to seeing a friend hurt, and thinking back to that now, I can almost—almost—feel what Blasey felt that night.

Also in high school. One of my classmates was a girl from a wealthy family. They had the whole deal, a huge house in a posh neighborhood, servants. Her parents were both college professors, who earned a decent living. What made them wealthy, though were the people next door, my friend’s maternal grandparents. My friend, just about to turn 16, knew she had a trust fund. She would talk every so often about what she’d do “when I get my money.”

For her 16th birthday, her parents threw a big house party. It was a catered thing, and we had to dress up: girls in gowns, guys in jacket and tie. Mom and pop would’ve gotten arrested now for the party beverage, Moët Champagne. It was my first taste of the real thing, and we were chugging it down like it was soda.

Her dad wasn’t chugging, or sipping. He decided it would be fun to walk around and pour Champagne down the front of the girls’ dresses. He was in great spirits and he succeeded a couple of times. My friend got wind of it and told her dad to stop. He whined like a little boy: “Aw —–, you always spoil my fun.”

I later learned that my mother-in-law worked for him for awhile, but requested a transfer. Why? He’d chase her around the office trying to grope her. “You’re so zaftig,” he’d tell her.

I’m relating this, I guess, as a way of saying that without even looking for it, I saw two egregious instances of sexual harassment and attempted abuse in the space of a couple of months. I don’t doubt Blasey’s account, nor do I doubt those of the others who have come forth. And I don’t doubt that this casual abuse happens every day. We haven’t evolved, and that’s a profoundly depressing thought. And here’s the thing: The Republicans are defending this guy as though the fate of Western civilization is at stake. It’s just mind-blowing.

I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t now. And seeing Brett Kavanaugh’s sneering self-defense just let loose emotions and memories I’d almost forgotten. I wasn’t the victim in both cases way back then, but I was horrified at how guys could so casually mistreat women. In the first party, it was a situation that was probably similar to the “skis” party that Kavanaugh’s calendar alluded to. And I remember throwing that kid off my friend pretty vividly. You don’t forget stuff like that.

When I started editing for a magazine, my boss would bounce articles back to me, saying they basically were fine, except for one thing: the ending. I’m pretty good at starting something, but I have trouble ending it. I guess that for a post like this, there’s no real conclusion. Should I apologize on behalf of my gender and profess to be better? Maybe, but it’s kind of a wimpy windup.

So. I think we’re talking about a lack of respect and empathy. Of humanity. Kavanaugh and the good old boys on the Senate committee are all of a piece. They disrespect women, and they disrespect the people they’re supposed to represent. No, more. They hate them; they objectify women and they sneer and dehumanize at people who aren’t part of their tribe.

Men have to do something. Men of conscience, those who’ve evolved past these Neanderthals (apologies to our ancestors). They say we get the government that we deserve, but nobody deserves this bunch of creeps. Women are leading the way here. But it’s also up to men to man up and join them in calling this shit out.

Και κάτι ακόμα…

 

I thought that maybe my last post would be the final one about summer festivals, but I was wrong—hence the headline, which is Greek for “And another thing…” Between that and the video above, you’ve probably figured out that Greece somehow was involved.

Greeks were involved, anyway. I call Kat The Spartan Woman because her mother’s family comes from a part of the Greek city Sparta called Magoula. And the Greek Orthodox Church on Staten Island has an annual festival in September over a couple of weekends. They do a great job, converting the parking lot into a passable imitation of a Greek village square during a festival. It’s an all hands on deck affair, with church members running a huge kitchen that supplies all the favorites like moussaka, gyros, spanakopita and the like. There’s Greek wine and Fix beer on sale, and the dessert area even makes freddos and frappés, different versions of iced coffee that, when we’ve gone to Greece, have become addictions. When they’re good, they’re amazing.

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Grilling here is a manly art.

We started going to the festival with my in-laws years ago. The Spartan Woman’s mother Eleni wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but the church is more than a place of worship; it’s also a cultural center. She rightly thought that her daughters and granddaughters shouldn’t forget their Greek side, so every September, we all went to the festival together. It became sort of a Greek recharging station for Eleni and The Spartan Woman, and our kids now think something’s missing if we skip a year.

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How do you translate “sagra, Staten Island stylee” into Greek?

Luckily, we got back from the land of the sagra to Shaolin (Staten Island, in Wu-Tang Clan-speak) just in time for the last weekend of the festival. Our kids probably think we’re less-bad parents now. TSW and I made sure we’d be awake enough after a grueling flight back on Iberia, forced to lie flat in a business class cubicle, being plied with all sorts of liquids and forced to eat smoked salmon with a warm potato salad and caviar. Oh, the torture. We took an afternoon nap, knowing that without it, even the Zorba theme played by an electric bouzouki band wouldn’t keep us up. Where’s my freddo?

Even with our souls lagging somewhere over the Atlantic, we had a good time. It was great to reconnect with the charming young women we somehow managed to raise in our chaotic, improvisatory way. And a boyfriend was introduced to the Hellenic side of our family traditions and, I think, he might have another vein of music to sample for his stuff.

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Loukoumades: Yo, you got a problem with fried dough?

Truffles, onions and frogs, oh my!

 

 

One of the pleasures of an Italian summer is the town sagra. It almost always involves food, and centers on one ingredient. Think Gilroy (California) Garlic Festival with some Italian verve thrown in. The sagra serves a few purposes. It’s fun; the towns get to show off; and they raise money for public projects—not to mention for the the next year’s sagra.

We set a personal record this summer: three. Well, four, if you include our town’s Palio, during which the small medieval core was turned into a decently sized outdoor restaurant. The first one was in Ripa, a walled circular town with a big outdoor space outside the walls. The main ingredient: black truffles. Then we went to a neighboring town, Pianello, home to the parents and business of our friend Angela. Pianello did mushrooms.

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Soon, stringozzi (thick, long Umbrian pasta) with black truffles

I’ll admit I cheated in the headline. We went to the frog one in Capanne last year. My bad. That’s the frog one, and we didn’t eat the frog. Instead, we feasted on the other big attraction, umbricelli with a spicy tomato sauce. Umbricelli are these thick, round, chewy handmade noodles of wheat and water—no eggs.

The big daddy, though, had to be the Cannara onion festival this past weekend. These things can get pretty crowded, but this one turns that up to 12. Cars streamed in from all directions and, we were told, from outside Umbria, too. We had a VIP pass that got us a great parking space. And yeah, I’m being vague about that spot on purpose.

The star ingredients may all differ, but there’s one thing in common. They are really well-run. I laugh when people call Italy chaotic or, at best, disorganized. These critics obviously haven’t been to a sagra. Or any big food event here in the Bel Paese. It’s all a question of priorities, you see. You want people to stand obediently in line for mediocre coffee? Then don’t leave home and go to Starbucks. You want the trains to be on time to the second? Go to Switzerland. And stereotypes sometimes are just wrong, as anyone who’s been through the madness of Frankfurt’s airport can testify.

There are two basic models for these: the checkoff form and the restaurant model. With the checkoff one, you find a table, and jot down its number. Get a couple of friends to save the seats. Argue about who’s getting what. Send a couple of people to stand in line, submit the order, and pay. Then go back to the table and wait.

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The waiting is the hardest part.

Cannara did the restaurant model. We had to wait behind a little barrier, for something like 45 minutes. We passed the time teasing each other and drinking an illicit (non festival) beer. Our party was called, and we felt like celebrities as we were escorted to our half of a picnic table. A festival dude took our order and with astonishing speed, the town’s kids brought our dishes out, in the proper Italian meal order: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci.

This scenario was played out throughout the town. Like I said, this is the mother of all sagras, and they had four or five big restaurants spread throughout the town. One of them featured a menu by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.

I’m not gonna play restaurant critic. Did that for 10 years and it was enough. But oh boy those gnocchetti with an onion-cheese cream sauce. And the schiacciata with onions. The onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) weren’t bad, either. I somehow ended up with a free half-bottle of wine, too, courtesy of the guy who took our order. All he asked for was for us to give the kid-runner a decent tip.

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Gnocchetti (small gnocchi) from heaven

A Romanian, an Italian, and an American walk into a bar…

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Between these three guys you can count maybe six passports.

I’ve been bad about blogging lately, but I have a good excuse. We’ve had a parade of houseguests. They’re weren’t high maintenance or anything like that; in fact it was a lot of fun to hang out with them. Because of that, I took a break from writing.

First off (the American) was Doug. He’s a comrade from way back. In another life, he was the art director of a weekly publication we both worked at. (It’s now owned by a company that must not be named, so you’ll have to figure it out.) Doug exercised almost dictatorial powers over story length and the appearance of the text. We editors tried to cheat by putting in squeeze commands in the ancient Atex system that we used (cw-x, where x MUST NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE BE >3). Eagle eye Doug, of course, noticed if we went over 3.

Despite being bossed around by that then- long-haired art director, of all people, I managed to become friends with Doug. We soon became part of a group of people who had what became legendary lunches on Friday at Florent, a pioneering restaurant in New York’s meatpacking district. A bunch of us from those days are still friends—newsroom friends have been through something akin to bootcamp and group therapy and stay friends. And Doug’s been jonesing to come visit us up here on the hill. So he came to visit, and spent a lot of time hiking the hills, helping out with dinner, and sighing a lot because it can get ridiculously scenic ’round these parts.

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Doug, Kristina, and Martina puzzle out what to have for dinner.

I’m not sure the next pair qualify as guests—well, one did, a friend of the other sort-of guest, who was none other than Martina Maria Scozzare Paonita, daughter no. 1. Martina came for poolside therapy, good food and wine, and to hang around the parental units, who’ve been bad mommy and daddy and left their children for a few months. Martina’s an official Eye-talian, thus satisfying the middle criterion in the headline. We all went off one night to the taverna in town, part of a week-long celebration of itself that our comune holds as summer ends. For the uninitiated, a taverna in this context is usually an outdoor, town-hosted restaurant. You get an order form, find a table, fill out the form and take it to the cashiers. You pay, and sometime later, runners bring your order. In Valfabbrica, where we live, the runners are kids dressed in medieval garb, to go with the general theme of the week.

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This year’s poster for Valfabbrica’s Palio celebration. Literally, “all the medieval that you have inside,” but I prefer to translate it as “get your inner medieval on.”

Romanians? Well, we had a few. And once again, like the women of July who came to stay, there’s a dog connection: Matei. Matei may not realize it, but he’s slowly making his way around the globe: from Bucharest to New York to Milwaukee, where he currently lives with the great Shana and the too-adorable Natalie. (The last one is only 2 years old, and I’d post a picture but I don’t post pix of other people’s kids without permission.) What’s next? Seattle? Vancouver? Sydney? Mumbai?

With Matei came other Romanians, his cousin Irina and her husband Stefan and kid Noa. Irina and co. live in Milano, but came to Italy from Montréal and originally hail from Romania and Israel. All of this means that at the dinner table, we had plenty of languages to choose from, which can be fun or nerve-wracking, depending on your disposition. It usually worked out like this: English as the main language, with breakout groups in Italian and Romanian, and the occasional French phrase.

They’re all gone now, and it seems really quiet and lonely. Everyone’s back to their routine, and we’re already thinking of next summer.

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Decisions, decisions, at Da Sauro on Isola Maggiore

 

So I was talking to my barber the other day…

We’ve become terribly lazy and when it’s hot, we don’t get out. Better to ride out the heat up here on the hill. But the other day we had errands to do, people to see. And one of them was my barber, Franco. So we headed into the big city around here, Perugia, population about 170,000. It’s the provincial and regional capital, and despite its small size, it boasts a couple of universities, some world-class festivals (Umbria Jazz, Eurochocolate, and the Journalism Festival), and even a short metro line.

Franco’s shop is down the street from our little place in Perugia’s university quarter, and his clientele is a mix of students, old guys in the ‘hood, and city officials. He’s an artist, too and carves elaborate canes and displays them in front of the shop. The shop is festooned with photos of Perugia’s historic center, and it seems as though he’s the unofficial mayor of the quartiere.

This time, as he sheared my hair off (“I’ll give you a summer cut”), we talked about the city. Everyone likes to say that it’s not the same any more, that the city you knew is gone. In a real sense, Perugia really isn’t what it was. Oh, it looks the same—the Fontana Maggiore looks majestic and spiffy, especially since they cleaned the façades surrounding it of years of car and bus grime. The main drag, the Corso Vannucci, is still the center of downtown, and people walk up and down, shop, and stop at the many bars and restaurants that put their tables out in warmer weather.

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Graduation day, Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia

But if you look closely, you’ll see that very few of the storefronts contain shops that people use every day. There’s a Footlocker, a pretty big Benneton, a large bookstore, and lots of boutiques. Off on one alley is a cannabis shop—weak weed is legal here, and I’m told that you can barely catch a buzz from it—and there are some bakeries and a couple of small food shops. Up on the “acropolis,” though—it’s the highest part of the city— there are no barbers, dry cleaners, hardware stores, etc. It’s better than the mass tourism crap that afflicts Florence, but you can see that the center of Perugia is becoming a combination shopping mall/bar district.

The numbers bear that out. The historic center’s population is around 10,000, a shade over 6 percent of the overall total. More telling, though, is that over half of those are single-person families, mostly students and the elderly.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. Chalk it up to the usual trends of modern Western capitalism. Downtown apartments tend to be smaller and have fewer conveniences, so a lot of people have moved out toward the edge of the city, into modern apartments and house. Students can afford the rents downtown for the smaller places, and they don’t all need cars to get around—the historic center is mostly a pedestrian zone, which works really well for a college kid wandering from class to home to bar and bar and bar and …. They’ve built large shopping centers and movie multiplexes on the outskirts, and the old covered market, once a thriving place full of farmers, butchers and fishermen, was closed for renovation a few years ago. After years of polemics, a compromise was reached, with half the market going to local “normal” growers, and the other half reserved for the luxurious food experiences beloved by tourists and the city elite. (It’s still under construction and doesn’t look like it will open any time soon.)

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The Corso on a spring evening

 

But some of the blame for the center’s mutation has to be laid on decisions made by the city government. In trying to rid the center of the traffic that once clogged the narrow lanes, the city made most of the downtown a ZTL: zona di traffico limitato, or limited traffic zone. That made getting in and out of the city for the center’s residents hard. They either have to get permits, or park in the parking lots down the hill and struggle up escalators (yes, escalators) with their packages. If you need something delivered, the store needs to get a special permit.

One decision was just boneheaded. Seeing the situation above, the government invested about €100 million in the Minimetrò, a short metro line that works like an airport people mover. It’s run by cable and as such can negotiate the steep hills up and into the center. In fact, when it reaches downtown, it goes into a tunnel and to exit, you either take a nifty incline elevator or three, count ’em three, escalators. They work most of the time. The stations and the line in general were designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. It’s pretty cool, except for one thing. One big thing: It stops running at 9:20. At 21:20. Yeah, just after 9 in the evening.

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Nice metro station. Just don’t try using it after dinner.

 

This is beyond dumb. Apparently some families who live along the line objected to the hum that the Minimetrò makes. Trust me, it’s less annoying than a passing bus or a bunch of Vespas. Okay, during festival time it runs later, so people can get to their cars down in the big free parking lot. But this is a fact: Italians don’t go out for dinner until past 8 pm (or 20:00 euro time). And they’re usually not done until, well, way past 9:20. It’s absurd, and cripples what should have been a crowning achievement. When the cooler weather comes, Perugia’s main drag is often deserted, the once-vibrant center a ghost town.

Perugia isn’t the only city so afflicted. A lot of historic European towns have had trouble finding that balance between making things safe for pedestrians and historic structures, while keeping the centers viable. I hope Perugia finds a way to do it; I’d hate for it to become just another charming place to have a drink on a summer evening.

Tree huggers

In an earlier post, I wrote that I had some doubts about this country thing. I loved living in New York, and even as a kid, I caught a buzz whenever I was in Manhattan. As a teenager, I went to Brooklyn Tech and, er, I enjoyed the odd extracurricular run to the big city across the Brooklyn Bridge. Somehow, the truant officers never caught on (sorry, ma!).

I have to say, though, that there is something to living among the trees and hills.

When we first started traveling around here, we did what self-styled travelers (as opposed to tourists) always did. We rented a car, drove around visiting hill towns, and ate in restaurants. We looked for that obscure Piero della Francesca painting, and did some shopping, taking stuff back to remind us of being here.

Stupid us. We did kind of notice that the landscape itself, connecting those towns, was pretty damn scenic. Just like the backgrounds in those della Francesca paintings, in fact. Finally, we spent a couple of times with friends in the countryside, and we were hooked. On one Ferragosto (the August 15 holiday here) we went to the house of friends in Migliano, about a half hour out of Perugia. A long meal, a walk up the road to the fortress, then a descent into the edge of a green forest seemed like the perfect way to spend a day.

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Our first taste of country life, Umbrian-style, August 2009

Now I spend almost every day surrounded by the greenery of Umbria and with incredible views. I work most mornings, but we first head out for a walk right after we wake up and I make a couple of coffee shots. We were thrilled that young guest, our friends’ daughter Allison, came along on one of our early morning walks.

We like to share, too. Luckily, we’ve had guests who, like us, get up at ungodly hours to march around the hills like we do.  It helps that there’s a network of hiking trails within walking distance and the views (and the uphill climbs) are pretty incredible. We took our first crop of guests, the aforementioned Allison and her parents, Ilene and Alan, for hikes on the Isola Maggiore and to the stupendous Piano Grande, up past Norcia. (We did not, however, force them to wake up at the crack of dawn.)

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Allison in a field of wildflowers, Piano Grande di Castelluccio [photo courtesy of the Rabinowitz/Schlissel collection]

We had a full house. My cousin Assunta and her husband Armando stopped by on the their way from the Veneto to their home in Sicily. I hadn’t seen them in maybe nine years, though we follow one another on Facebook. It was great to see them, and to introduce them to The Spartan Woman, whom I’ve always talked about but is someone who’s never made it to Palermo. We talked, we ate (we put on the Umbrian dog and drenched the local pasta, strangozzi, in a black truffle sauce. And of course we took them on  walks and hiked the Sentiero Francescano della Pace. Good times. (And thanks, Armando, for teaching us how to play bocce, which I did with my dad and uncle as a kid, and then forgot.)

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The Spartan Woman and Assunta take to the Sentiero Francesco one fine morning.

The second wave consisted of two dog-walking friends from Staten Island, Amy and Joanne (they are Bailey’s moms) and their friends Carol and Renée. They brought us pesto, a couple of cool plates from Liguria, where they’d been, and a huge reservoir of energy and good cheer. We sat around the pool, The Spartan Woman played badminton with, I think, Renée, we swam, we drank epic amounts of good wine and we woke up early to take hikes. For the second time in a week, we tackled the Sentiero—from the trailhead near us (it uses our road for part of the way), there’s a long, steep uphill climb followed by short uphill climbs. The views make it totally worth it.

Below, Carol races around the pool so she can appear twice in a panorama.

 

 

A pax on all your houses

Pax: noun, Ecclesiastical. kiss of peace. [from dictionary.com]

This is the second Fourth of July in a row that I’ve been out of the U.S. I have to admit that I miss it. In our neighborhood on Staten Island, it begins with a good-natured race between the two parks in the area, with us cheering the runners on. Then there’s the usual barbecue.

The part I always liked the most, though, is the fireworks. I like gathering with zillions of New Yorkers on a hot summer night, everyone trying to get a good look at the big show on the East River. There’s nothing like the mix of people in my native city, their good humor, their wisecracks, and how all of a sudden people who’ve been trained all their lives to be hard and cynical look like kids on Christmas morning.

So The Spartan Woman and I were up on the mountaintop in Umbria this Fourth. We had to celebrate somehow, but to our friends here, it’s just another workday. I’ve been wanting to go to a place I think is incredibly beautiful, and it’s full of meaning, too. It’s especially true in this turbulent year, as “leaders” around the world foment discord, hatred, fear, and bigotry.

The place is the Eremo delle Carcere. “Eremo” means “hermitage,” and “carcere” can mean “jail” or “cell.” In this case, it refers to a monk’s cell, and also in this case, the monk is St. Francis of Assisi, known around here as San Francesco. It is on the mountain called Subasio, which rises behind Assisi. We can see Subasio across the valley from our house.

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Francesco used to go up to the Eremo to pray and to meditate. The site is just beautiful, seemingly carved into a wooded mountainside, with a commanding view of the Tiber Valley. I can’t fully convey the feeling of peace and tranquillity that surrounds it. The surrounding woods themselves act as a sort of cathedral space, with their tall trees, some of them with roots that cling to stone walls. The tourists and pilgrims visiting the site don’t diminish the serenity. (And typical of such sites in Italy, there are discreet signs everywhere urging silence. )IMG_4373.jpg

Why the Eremo, why Francesco? The dude was a rich spoiled kid who gave it all away to lead a life of poverty and to preach peace and love, both of his God, but also of our fellow souls and nature. His values and wishes seemed like a good antidote to the bellicosity we see, hear, and read coming from a certain failed Queens casino owner. (Okay, I can take the peace and love thing only so far.)

I’ll admit, it’s easy to be cynical about the Francesco schtick. Assisi, a beautiful little city near Perugia, has its share of what we like to call Catholic supermarkets, tacky souvenir shops peddling statuettes of fat happy Franciscan monks. And the region we call home for part of the year, Umbria, has seized upon Francesco as a marketing tool. Officials here took the airport from one saint (Sant’Egidio) and renamed it Aeroporto San Francesco. The Sentiero Francescano della Pace passes near our house, and there’s a little tourism industry built around people who want to trace the saint’s steps as he walked from his native Assisi to Gubbio, some 50 kilometers away. It’s as though they’ve had to come up with something to position the region and to distinguish it from (cue Umbrian eye roll here) the flashy neighbor Toscana.

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But as far as marketing tools go, it’s pretty benign. And it fits—this region does have a gentle, mystical feel to it, especially if you walk through the woods and peer over hills to see the mists and fogs of the cooler months of the year.

So as my friends in the United States celebrate the country’s birth, I’m wishing I could be there at least for the fireworks and some beer. But I’m not there, and the distance has been good, for a few reasons. The stress induced by the constant ranting and braying by some of our fellow United Statesers (in Italian, you can say “statunitense” instead of “American”) has just fallen away. At least until I go web surfing. So let’s just take a deep breath, feel the love of our friends and family, and try not to be obsessed with the dark forces running around. Francesco would want it that way.

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