We took a walk one day on an island in our landlocked region

How did we do this? Easy—there’s a big lake nearby, Lago Trasimeno. Brits sometimes call it Lake Thrasymene or some such, but they shouldn’t. It’s the biggest lake on the Italian peninsula proper, and if you’re a history buff, it’s where Hannibal’s great army fought the Romans. These days it’s somewhat less heroic, and probably more enjoyable. Lots of northern Europeople seem to like it; camping lots are filled with Dutch and German-plated cars. And Jeremy Irons and singer (sorta) Ed Sheeran have homes on or near the lake.

I was getting a little antsy after being in our mountaintop aerie a few days, except to descend to the plains to buy food and wine. We’re trying to continue social distancing as much as we can, avoiding large crowds and big cities. That leaves checking out or revisiting our favorite natural spots on weekdays, and the lake is one of those spots. Sure, there are lake towns that resemble beach resorts. But you can hop on a ferry and visit two of the three islands, Isola Polvese and Isola Maggiore, and hardly see anyone. (You guessed it: There is an Isola Minore.)

For this little trip, we chose Isola Polvese. For one thing, we’ve been there less often. And two, the walk around the perimeter of the island is relatively flat and the weather’s been either steamy like a New York August, or blazingly hot and pitilessly sunny. We looked at the forecast and chose steamy but slightly less hot, and it worked out.

The only problem, if you want to call it that, was the trip there. We wanted to make a mid-morning ferry without getting out too early, so we had to take the fast route, which involves our local highway (fast) and the Perugia ring road (hilly and traffic-clogged). Still, it was nice to be out. I’d dialed the ferry dock area into our navigation system, which was a mistake. I know my way around pretty much, but the nav is good for traffic and construction delays. It wasn’t that morning and seemed to like a ridiculously circuitous route that we ignored while The Voice practically shouted “fate un’inversione a U! (make a U-turn!).

Isola Polvese is uninhabited but has an elegant hotel and what looks to be a nice restaurant. It’s also home to a nature preserve, some ruins, including the shell of a castle fort, and most importantly, an environmental study center. The center gives guided tours on weekends, but we just wanted to have a different—and level—place to walk and picnic. For our elegant picnic, we toted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and water. I can just hear the cries of people saying that’s not Italian! What can I tell you? Lunch was easy to carry—and the jelly was Italian elderberry preserves.

While the bar we stopped in before taking the ferry was observing distancing rules, the ferry completely ignored them. We found ourselves on a boat packed with Slovakian teenage campers. Funny thing is, they were incredibly polite and quiet. As we found our seats, a few boys said “buongiorno,” and they mostly looked around and stared at their phones, as did their companions. Italian kids would’ve been much more boisterous and in constant motion.

The Spartan Woman and I sporting the latest in monocolor mask fashion.

It took 10 minutes to reach Polvese. I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscaping is. As you circumnavigate the island, you pass cypresses, fields, fairly dense woods, marsh areas, and a long alley that alternates cypresses and oleander bushes. Unfortunately for oleander almost everywhere around here, a late April frost almost killed them off. Most of us saved them by ruthlessly cutting down almost to the ground, and then the roots took over for new growth.

If you go, check the ferry schedule and the environmental center’s website, if you’re interested in taking a tour.

As for the other visitable island, we’ll probably head there in a few weeks. If we do, I’ll write about it then.

Slovakian campers waiting to dock.
Sometimes Italy can’t help looking like Italy.
A lake, a boat, fishermen, serenity
Even uninhabited islands need to have a crenelated fortress.
I was having a little too much fun with the saturation and vibrance sliders.

[Updated to fix a factual error. Thanks, reader Vian. ]

How do you live like that?

We’re hiding out in the dark. It’s a bright sunny hot day out there. Beautiful, in fact. But you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen.

We get asked a lot by our American friends about, for example, the lack of air conditioning in our mountain retreat here. We love to say that we don’t need it about 99 percent of the time. Yeah, even when the Mediterranean sun is beating pitilessly down on us mortals, when you need sunglasses just to step outside, etc etc. What do we do? We conform to the local custom and hide out. In fact, I just had a wonderful short nap, after which I stared at the one open shutter looking at how the breeze swayed the tree branch. Hey, after years of working in busy newsrooms and tending to computer systems, this is not a bad thing.

It’s bright and hot out there, so I write in the dark.

In fact, our friends from across the pond are often amazed at this and the dozens of other small differences between the continents. In the old days those differences might have meant a lower standard of living for Europeans, but these days it’s often the U.S. that feels behind the times.

For us, it’s all about adaptation. We’re lucky in a couple of ways. First, culturally: I grew up in a Sicilian household that just happened to be in New York City. So the language wasn’t hard to pick up; when i was 5 years old my nonno (grandfather) from Palermo lived with us. He and I took walks almost every afternoon. He didn’t speak English and I don’t remember speaking Italian. But we had pretty involved conversations, so maybe I did, or at least understood enough of what he was saying. My first experience here in Italy wasn’t as a tourist; we stayed with family for half the summer. Likewise, The Spartan Woman lived in Perugia while attending the university there.

Nonno and me, a few years ago

As for climate, so far we’ve been blessed with only slightly strange weather and nothing like the craziness up in Germany. It’s been hot for the most part, but not too—around 30-31 degrees C, or 86-88 Fahrenheit. We get breezes up here since we’re at the crest of a hill. And our house, like every house around here, is made of stone, thick, meter/yard thick stone, which does a good job of keeping things cool during the summer. All we have to do is close the shutters along the sun’s path, which is why we sit in the dark at lunchtime.

Thinking about this stuff makes me remember last summer, during the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic. TSW and I (and our trusty dachshund Lola) basically stayed indoors most of the time, except for dog walks. We stayed in the shade too, but that’s because our Staten Island home is on a lushly tree-lined street. It being New York, though, it was humid as well as hot. So we kept the air conditioners running almost all the time, and the television was usually tuned to MSNBC or, for relief, HGTV. We sent out for food and wine, and I took naps out of sheer boredom. Our electric bills were through the roof; luckily we didn’t have huge gasoline bills because 1-we didn’t go anywhere, and if we did 2–we’re bad Americans and have a small European hatchback instead of a monster SUV or pickup like lots of our neighbors.

In fact, I gassed up last week here as we set out for a town in the mountains, Casteluccio di Norcia, and the vast glacial plain around it. One of my cousins from Sicily is driving around Italy on her wedding trip and she and her husband stopped by for a few days. So we were four adults in our Renault Clio, what the industry calls a B-segment hatchback (in U.S. terms, think Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit). Part of the way involved highway driving, but most of the route consisted of one lane in each direction, steep uphills and switchbacks, and lots of gear changing (as well as passing slow trucks, which means revving the small engine to the max). It’s a diesel, the kind of car that will be extinct in Europe in a decade along with all internal combustion engines. We filled up yesterday and for 338 kilometers, we bought about 15 liters, or nearly four gallons of fuel. It works out to about 52 miles per gallon—and that’s pretty normal here. Yet the four of us fit into the car fine and, yes, the a/c was on. I hate wind noise, especially when driving on a highway.

Meet Clio, who doesn’t drink very much.

Perversely, Covid-19 has brought some changes that have updated the way people here live. Cash was king not so long ago, and it wasn’t unusual to see someone pay for a load of groceries with a wad of cash. But now, most stores not only accept contactless debit or credit cards, but the same machines mean you can use Apple or Google pay on your phone. I’d guess that it’s more common here than in New York, where local merchants are still amazed when I pull my iPhone out of my pocket to pay.

We shared “the best beer in the world” at Umami Beer.

Speaking of Covid-19, WTF? We look at the vaccination maps back in the U.S. with a mixture of wonder and horror. Sure, there are some antivax crazies here, but it’s not a big thing. If there’s any criticism of the vaccination program it’s that it took awhile to gather steam. But now Italians are among the best-vaccinated people in Europe, and probably the world. After a slow start it seems like everyone we know has gotten both jabs, and the tend to be Pfizer. So we were less nervous when we got together with a few local friends here for, um, for burgers and beer. There’s a laid-back place near Assisi called Umami Beer, and it’s one of the favorite places for our friend Letizia Mattiacci, who runs the cooking school La Madonna del Piatto. I don’t feel sheepish at all plugging her and her classes; she’s warm, fluent in English, and her cooking pays homage to Umbria while having a fresher, more veg-friendly take on familiar foods. (By the way, she and her Dutch husband Ruurd also have a B&B there and can put you up between classes.) Umami’s no simple burger joint; owner Roberto sources high-quality ingredients and tracks down great beers from around the globe.

The Delta Covid-19 variant is beginning to be felt here, too, and it’s put a little damper on things. We don’t go out as much, and we’re still supposed to wear masks in indoor public spaces. The government says that it may tighten some rules in a few regions. But following public health rules here seems less fraught and less of a statement. Everyone does it and there’s no stigma or weirdness. If it’s one thing Italians are really good at, it’s self-preservation.

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

If you wander around food-related sites on the interwebs, you might notice a strange little trend: Italian cooks reacting to the horrors visited on Italian dishes by non-Italian cooks. Some of those non-Italians might even be pretty famous, like the British restaurateur and TV personality Gordon Ramsay. You’ll see the Italians wincing as Ramsay and others put cream in spaghetti carbonara, or cook pasta in jarred tomato sauce. One of my favorites is the couple Harper and Eva (he’s American, she’s Calabrese) who good naturedly explore Whole Foods and Domino’s Pizza. Eva’s reactions alone are worth the time suck.

Eva does not like Ramsay’s “carbonara.” Not at all.

Here on our mountaintop getaway, we manage to visit other horrors on the food of this region. You see, there really is no such thing as “Italian food” because the cooking in Italy is so regional. No, hyper-regional, because dishes can change even from town to town. Get a local nonna (grandma) to show you how to cook a local dish and she’ll give explicit directions and mention what is absolutely forbidden: no onion and garlic together in X, put celery in Y and you’ve dishonored all your ancestors, etc.

We’re in Umbria, a small, mostly rural, landlocked region tucked between Lazio (Rome’s region) and Tuscany in Central Italy. For a region with a population just shy of 900,000, it’s sure got a distinctive cuisine. it’s a land of black truffles, legumes, mushrooms, pork products, and grains. Try to picture all that and you realize that mostly of this food is brown or black. A typical snack is chicken or goose liver paté on toast—I was served that along with a drink the other day.

If you’ve grown up with that, it’s fine. Our Perugian “mother,” Giovanna, shunned most vegetables and compensated by having huge bowls of fruit on hand for dessert. (Her idea of health food was to bake eggplant slices with lots of crumbled sausage on top.) But The Spartan Woman and I have Sicilian (100 percent for me; 50 percent for her) and Greek ancestry. Both Sicilian and Greek cuisines are colorful, vegetable-friendly, bright flavored and citrusy, while Umbrian food tends to be heavier, more comfort-food like. Add to the mix the fact that we’re native New Yorkers, and therefore entitled to eat any kind of food we like that exists on the planet, and you’ve got the makings of either interesting contrasts or a disaster. Having relatively good taste, we’ve managed to avoid most disasters.

Oh, and we don’t eat meat, which keeps a big part of the food here off-limits to us. We do eat fish when we feel decadent or lazy Plus us native New Yorkers (sorry copyeds, but I’m using NYC dialect here) grew up eating seafood. A couple of decades ago this would have probably cramped our style big-time, because Umbrians didn’t eat much fish and you could hardly find any in the markets. Lately, though, they’ve embraced seafood and supermarkets have huge fish departments.

Two years ago, pre-Covid, our town of Valfabbrica got together for a multicourse seafood dinner.
An Asian market in Perugia

In good weeks, we’ll get gifts from our neighbors and friends. When Angelo picked us up at Rome’s airport, he gave us a care package, the fixings for a Sicilian blood orange salad, complete with olive oil that his friend produced. And our neighbors at the agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto occasionally show up at the door with freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta.

So what do we cook? Let’s call it Umbria-Sicilian-New York fusion. We pay homage to Umbrian food—I haven’t met a truffle I didn’t like—while at the same time keeping it light and bright with lots of different colored vegetables and spicier/brighter flavors. Luckily, the olive oil here is incredible, green and a little spicy, and enobles simple dishes like borlotti beans stewed with garlic and tomatoes. The markets carry tons of fruits and vegatables, and Italians have embraced healthier food between, you know, a morning Nutella-filled cornetto and an afternoon gelato.At the same time, being Americans generally and New Yorkers in particular, we occasionally crave Asian food. Our area is pretty well served by sushi restaurants and Chinese markets, so it’s not that hard.

But here are some examples of how we feed ourselves and others.

Farro tagliatelle with zucchine, shrimp and tomatoes with Greek egg and lemon sauce
Whole wheat rigatoni with a mushroom ragù
Salad with farro
A Sicilian classic: fried eggplant to put atop spaghetti
Sheet-pan roasted vegetables and feta, a variation of a NY Times recipe

Il Sorpasso (The Overtaking)

I took the car in for servicing the other day. It’s starting to get hot, and the air-conditioning wasn’t pumping out cold air. The Renault needed an oil change, and as the mechanic looked it over, he told me that I should pop for new front brake pads, too. None of this is very exciting, I’ll admit, nor is it a particularly Italian experience.

But the service center is part of a dealership that sells not only new Volkswagens and Nissan, but trades in some exotic and a lot of expensive vehicles like Range Rovers and Maseratis. And the service center itself is really something. There’s a showroom in front that features some of the more exotic vehicles they’ve got. It seems like they stick to a theme when they can, and today’s four cars in the room were all Alfa Romeos of various vintages, including a gorgeous 2600 GT from the 1960s, a more modern Brera and a 75 Turbo from the ’80s, which I think was fairly successful in rallyes.

Made in Italy. But for how long?

All of this made me think about my relationship to cars and driving, and to Italian and American car culture. I grew up in an outer borough of New York City, where public transportation frankly sucked (and still does). Drivers’ ed and getting a car were rites of passage that were huge in Staten Island, just like in suburbs and rural places everywhere.

My first looked like this.

My first car was something I bought with my parent’s help (cue cliché) was a Fiat 128, bright red, stick shift, tiny but rev-happy engine. It hardly had any power, especially by today’s standards, but it was a blast to drive. They say that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast one slow, and I believe it. Staten Island has lots of curvy hill roads and traffic wasn’t much back then, so when I needed to blow off steam I’d charge around the hillsides, revving the 1100 cc engine to an inch of its life. (I went too far once gunning it onto a highway, breaking the timing belt, which sent a couple of valves into and fusing with pistons. Oh, and it warped the cylinder head. Oops.)

The Spartan Woman had a Fiat, too. In fact, I was really interested in a girl who knew how to drive a stick shift, had a car with a twin-cam engine, and who knew how to change her own oil.

All of this sounds like fun, but even as I thundered around banked curves, I felt guilty. The left side of my brain, te more rational, politically aware one, knew I was polluting the planet. I hated what cars did to cities and the ‘burbs. I knew that Robert Moses, who got chauffeured around in a huge Packard, loved cars and back then, and the relatively affluent people who drove them. And he hated subways and the peons who rode buses and trains. The car can directly be blamed for those wide boulevards of nowhere, with the same chain stores, gas stations, and restaurants, not to mention the emptying out of cities around the U.S. I went to Cleveland a few years ago and I was shocked to see so many big parking lots right downtown.

Besides, driving in and around New York had become a drag. We always like small, zippy cars with manual transmissions, going from the Fiats to a pair of Mitsubishis, to Honda Civics. When we got had two kids and a Labrador retriever, we bought a Volkswagen Passat wagon and traveled around the Northeast and the province of Québec, Lab in back and a Thule box on top. At the same time, Americans were going for ugly, boxy, huge SUVs and pickups. C’mon people, do you need to drive to the mall in a Ford F150? Gimme a break.

By then I was renting cars on our Italian vacations. What fun. No, really. Once out of the cities, it’s a breeze, especially in a responsive European car, rowing the gears, downshifting around turns. (One daughter, however, was not thrilled. Prone to carsickness, we’d have to stop by the side of the road while she, um, righted herself.)

Here’s the thing, though. At first rentals were Italian cars: Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo. These marques were under the rule of Fiat and the Agnelli family. The company was a source of pride to Italians—and also a target for left wing critics. It is not by accident that this country has some of the best highways in the world, but also for years did not invest enough in modern public transportation. Still, these companies made sports cars, tiny city cars, family haulers, elegant luxury models—the whole gamut. But if you look now, Fiat’s reduced to a few small to slightly larger cars and crossovers. Alfa is two models, a beautiful sedan and an SUV. Poor Lancia, star of the movie Il Sorpasso, is now one weird little model based on the tiny 500.

Now Fiat, like the Chrysler it took over a decade ago, is part of this oddly named multinational called Stellantis. Basically, Peugeot, the historic French carmaker, fused with Fiat-Chrysler to become this hydra-headed tri-national, based in Paris, Torino, and Detroit. And instead of Alfas or Lancias closing in on me in the left lane, I see Audis. Black Audis, mainly, which seem to have become the favored car of Italian asshole drivers.

They don’t make cars, they make “mobility solutions,” whatever those are.

This reduced Italian-ness, for want of a better term, seems to be a symbol of Italian life today, from the postwar miracle to the Italian-speaking province of Eurolandia. I like living in Eurolandia—it’s superficially more prosperous, modern, global, etc. But at the same time you can’t help feeling that something’s been lost. And that sense of loss is what fuels populist movements and political parties. People like to feel that they’re part of something. Being a consumer of the world’s goods doesn’t cut it for a lot of people—and the left, both the angry old commies and the new hipsters, haven’t yet offered enough of an alternative to those disoriented and saddened by this homogenization.

Google Maps doesn’t know where we live

We exist. I swear. But couriers from, so far, Amazon and our insurance company, don’t seem to know that. Take a look at this map satellite view. This is a screenshot of Google Maps, which I suspect is the problem. You can see our house, the shed and the pool. You can see the coordinates elsewhere on the map. But Google doesn’t see our address. By the way, Apple Maps has no problem whatsoever. If I call up the weather on my iPhone, our address appears at the bottom of the app’s window.)

I’ll admit, addresses in the country here are problematic. The same street could be called a couple of things But, and this is a big but, the couriers don’t even bother to follow explicit instructions. Or, even, to call for directions.

It all started with a simple order. We use the same account for Amazon Italia as we do in New York. We don’t try to replicate our life in the U.S. except for a couple of things. We like popcorn, and over the past few months when we were basically confined to the house, we used an exercise bike. So, stupid us, we ordered a popcorn maker and a bike from Amazon, thinking they’ll come within a couple of days and that’ll be it.

Ha.

The first adventure was with the small package, the popcorn machine. Tracking said that a courier service allied to the post office here was the designated courier. Within a couple of days, after the shipping alert came, I saw that a courier tried to deliver the thing but couldn’t find us. Hmmm. I looked through my amazon.it account info. There was my name, my credit card, my address, my….oops, wrong—old—phone number. So I went through the steps and gave Amazon directions and my phone number just in case.

You’d think that would be it. You would be wrong. The courier kept courier-ing, we kept waiting. Nothing. Worried about the bigger shipment, the bike, I got on amazon.it’s chat function. We had a nice exchange in Italian—I am so happy I worked for an Italian company for a couple of years and learned to type as fast in Italian as I do in English. Mahmoud assured me that the vendor and courier for the bike would get the directions and my phone number. And he reimbursed us for the popcorn machine.

A couple of days later, a bedraggled delivery guy showed up with, yes, the popcorn machine. He and the box looked a little worse for wear and tear. “I tried calling you [on the old, wrong number] but finally I went to the post office and asked them. They told me where you are. It’s so easy to get here, I don’t know what the problem is,” he said. “Do you use Google Maps?” “Yeah.”

Bingo.

This is getting tired, I thought. But like someone who thinks that if you keep at it, you’ll get your just reward, I kept contacting the bike’s third-party vendor and leaving messages for the DHL courier service. I’d get responses asking me to be patient. The vendor mysteriously signed its messages with the admontion, in Italian, “have a nice life.”

The bike never came. I gave up this morning and asked for a refund. My request was not polite. Italian business correspondence is usually fogged with lots of polite stuff and a little sarcasm. I didn’t bother. I called DHL a bunch of imbeciles and strongly suggested that amazon.it find other partners, both as sellers and delivery services. At least I’ll get my money back.

Oh, and I went onto Google Maps, went to the “hamburger” menu and added the address to our location pin. With any luck, Sergey and company will add it to everyone’s Google Map, and deliveries by drivers with Android phones may start up again.

This is not the first time Google’s vaunted service has failed us here. Well, not really us but houseguests who I guess put their faith in the data-mining company. They set out for dinner. Us lazybones weren’t in the mood or were too sunburned and Prosecco-ed to want to go out. They went up the road, where Google said a local restaurant was open. We told our friends that we had our doubts, but Google insisted.

It was closed. So was another allegedly open eatery.

So, my friends, as you can see, life here in the Umbrian hills isn’t all Aperol spritz sunsets. (Hmm, I haven’t had one yet and it’s almost three weeks. Must work on that.) Our global life means that our quotidian frustrations have a way of following us around. And just maybe The Great Google has a bit of that man behind the curtain thing going on.

But then we take a walk in the these hills and see this:

And then our neighbor Luciano shows up with this, freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta:

Cremoso!

And maybe the universe knows that we’re missing our joint custody pup, Lola. We get almost nightly visits from Lapo, the wonder dog. And during our morning walks up the road and back, we’re escorted by these little fellows, Bandito and Rocky (say the latter with an Italian accent; if you say it in English he doesn’t respond.)

Meet Row-key and Bandito

The boxes we live in

It was lovely, darlings, just wonderful. Our jet aircraft deposited us at Rome’s charming airport, where our driver Sergio was waiting. He deposited our luggage in the boot, and we were off to our enchanted mountaintop. Francesca, our longtime family retainer, was waiting for us with ice cold Grechetto white wine from our neighbor, The Count’s, vineyards. The servants took care of our wardrobes while Katherine and i sat under the pergola, observing our little paradise, sipping our wine and nibbling on Francesca’s scrumptious tidbits. The salumi! The cheeses! I was utterly intoxicated. The scents of wisteria and jasmine perfumed the ……

————————-SCRATCH THAT

Sorry. I was indulging in an Under the Tuscan Sun kind of reverie. I see lots of that in real estate ads here that cater to foreigners, especiallly impressionable British and American people looking for that perfect villa getaway. Hey, it’s a nice fantasy.

Probably because we were forced to stay at home for more than a year because of the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about shelter. Perversely, while I’m a homebody—too lazy to rouse myself to go out much—I was fairly indifferent to the particulars of that home. It just has to be in a decent neighborhood and give me enough space and comfort for when I got home from the newsroom that was my daytime hangout.

But a kitchen renovation some years ago, some homebuying and hours of HGTV during lockdown got me thinking a lot about what The Spartan Woman and I like and have done. And I realize that a lot of what we go for has a lot to do with the culture we were brought up in and, for better or worse, that indulgent children of the ’70s thing that’s shaped a lot of our moves, from career to food to dwellings.

I’ll admit that I’m a fan of House Hunters International. I like to see what housing looks like for normal, non N.Y. Times real estate section buyers. And yeah, it’s always funny when the couple frowns at stuff like small refrigerators or washing machines in the kitchen, both common features in European homes.

It seems that the biggest conflict among couples is whether a property is full of old country charm or modern design and conveniences. I come down on the modern side, and I’ll tell you why. For me, the charm thing is overrated, and all too often old houses and apartments can just be dark and depressing. And when I say modern, I don’t mean corporate modern. There are lots of ways a space can be comfortable, individual, funky even, yet up to date. Look at the boutique hotels in Barcelona and Brooklyn.

When we went house hunting a few years ago, we unwittingly did our own version of House Hunters. We saw three very distinct properties. One was a gracious country home that had seen better days. And the listing deceptively left out an attached small home, complete with chicken coop and chickens. (“You don’t have to worry about them; the owner comes by to feed them every day,” said one of the owners to us in Italian.)

Another was an odd, smallish house on a plateau above a town. To get there from the nearest city, you have to drive through Italy’s equivalent of Anyroad USA, with car dealerships, gardening centers and supermarkets. Oh, and a huge prison and a long rutted dirt road. The last was a house perched on a hill in a green rural place, with a stupendous view across a valley and to the mountains—and, crucially, space for the pool that we’d long dreamed about having. It had two connected apartments, the upstairs one like a modern city dwelling and downstairs a slightly more rustic look.

We opted for number 3 (above, the day we first saw it).

The old world charm.

Part of the reason was that we already had a tiny place with Olde World Charme. Years ago, when it was obvious that we were putting too much of a strain on the sweet friends who put us up in Perugia, we bought our training wheels, a small apartment in their neighborhood. It was a new space in a very old building, the earliest parts that date to the 12th century according to our building neighbor-historian. The builders kept as much of the old detail that they could, including timbered ceilings and brick arches. The big kitchen ceiling timber is so old that it broke a couple of drill bits when we installed track lighting.

Another is the house on Staten Island that we’ve lived in since the mid-’90s. It’s over 90 years old and it has lots of period detailing and period plaster and lath walls. The Italian house’s clean straight walls and ceilings appealed to us, as did the big windows, which give us a lot of light and great views of the surrounding landscape. We did some updating to the systems, but by and large when we’re here we’re in a fairly sparse, spacious modern space. It contrasts nicely with the rustic outdoors, the fruit trees and mountains views, not to mention the flock of sheep that roam these hills.

So if you want to visit us and indulge that Italian country fantasy, we’ll put you up in the ground level apartment, which has more of a rustic air. There’s a big, bright kitchen with more traditional look. (Upstairs we opted for that modern Euro laboratory kitchen style.) We’ll spend a lot of time outside anyway; we’ve got a nice garden table and comfy chairs.

We’re not alone. Local friends of ours built a home for themselves a couple of years ago, and it’s a modern off the grid paradise. Solar panels heat the house and supply electricity, while a cistern gathers rainwater for their olive trees. They took what could have been a loggia and turned it into a thoroughly modern glassed-in kitchen with tremendous views of the valley and hills on the other side. We can practically wave to each other across the valley. (A high-powered telescope would help…) They cook on an induction range, and sleek built-ins hold their media devices.

I guess while visitors get charm we locals go for the new stuff. It makes sense—if you’re on vacation, you choose something different from your everyday environment. But living somewhere everyday, light, space and convenience trump romantic notions of a place.

Positively negative

This pandemic thing sure put a damper on our plans last year. But at least we’ve made it through so far. We couldn’t spend the warmer months on our mountaintop. The pool for which we raided our savings stayed covered and unused. And we basically hid out all summer in our New York living room, air conditioning on full blast, binge watching Mexican Netflix shows. (Watch “The Club” and “House of Flowers.” You won’t be sorry.)

A big part of our life last year

The Spartan Woman made it extraclaro that she wasn’t going anywhere without a vaccine. And Dr. Fauci told us not to travel. But I did, just to inhabit the house in Umbria a bit and clear out the inevitable cobwebs, run the appliances, and drive the car. Truth is, we really didn’t know when we’d get back here, and the previous U.S. government didn’t seem inclined to make a horrible pandemic any better.

But sometime this winter into spring, the situation in the U.S. looked better. The Biden gang made vaccinations a priority, and TSW was an early subject, getting her first shot in January. I followed by about a month, and soon most of our friends and immediate family were vaccinated.

We still didn’t know what we’d do about coming here until a friend texted me. Alitalia was offering a 20 percent discount, he said, making a premium economy seat with its luxurious two-bag allowance and better legroom fairly reasonable. We jumped at it. Right around that time, the Italian airline and its code-share partner Delta started running what they call Covid-tested flights. If you test negative before the flight and upon landing in Rome, you wouldn’t have to submit to a 10 or 14-day quarantine. Our booked flight wasn’t on the list, but it was the right time for us. I quarantined myself last year, so if it came to that, we figured, it wouldn’t be terrible.

As it turns out, Alitalia added our flight to its “Covid-tested” list. It sent us emails telling us about the change, and then had a woman call from Palermo to tell us what we had to do. (I wondered whether I’d be charged for receiving a call from Italy; thankfully it didn’t happen.) We were to get a PCR (molecular; the more accurate method) test no more than 72 hours before the flight. And upon landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we’d be given a rapid test. If the first test was positive, we could reschedule or cancel; once in Italy, a positive result means quarantine.

We were in prep mode to be away mode all of a sudden. That’s become almost routine. And we and our vaccinated friends started carefully to socialize. In the middle of all this we had to get tested. I’d gotten a rapid test back in November after returning from Europe. But with this one, we had to time it right. New York’s test site is pretty helpful, showing locations throughout the city. We had a 72-hour window both for the test and results. I found a drive-in site near our house; the city’s site just gave a street address and didn’t specify the venue.

Turns out, the site was a CVS pharmacy. There was no signage outside showing what to do, but a sign showed where a drive-in pharmacy was located. It looked like an alleyway, but we drove through, wondering if we were in the right place. Turns out we were. The pharmacist, acting as though our scheduled tests were a complete surprise to her, put together our kits, slid them through the drawer and told us what to do. (Basically, stick a swab 1″ or 2.5 cm. through your nostrils and put the swab in a test tube.

We worried about whether we’d get the result back in time–they said 1 to 2 days, which would be cutting it close. And the CVS website cautioned that due to high volume, there could be delays. So we waited to schedule a time to get to the airport, where if we had to, we could be tested. As it turns out, they emailed us the results less than 24 hours after our tests. Negative!

Armed with that, we headed to the airport a couple of days later. If I could give you advice for one of these flights, I’d say bring a pen. And look for QR codes to scan with your phone. The Italian health ministry had us fill out forms giving the reason for entering the country (“to return home”) and we had to promise to quarantine if necessary. A QR code, once scanned, led to a site where you can alert the Fiumicino health people to your imminent arrival.

Otherwise, the JFK experience was slightly less surreal that it was last August. More bars and restaurants were open and there was a slightly bigger crowd in Terminal 1. The main difference was the paperwork–agents at the gate checked ours and it felt like giving your homework to the teacher. A few corrections and we boarded.

The bar was open, and I was able to have my traditional pre-departure Martini.

I’ve written about the flight. Nothing’s changed. Not the reduced drinks and meal service nor the crew’s reluctance to interact much with us. You’d think a flight filled with people who tested negative would be different, but you’d be wrong.

Landing in Rome, however, was a different story. They herded us onto two lines, with people having connecting flights given priority. A jovial gatekeeper kept us entertained. We then went to someone who checked us in and collected a €20 a head fee. Then around the corner to a line to be tested. They had pretty permanent looking booths up, and the testers were doctors as well as nurses. This rapid test was just as invasive as the PCR test we’d gotten in New York. Afterward, we had to sit and wait for our number to called for the results. We were negative again, and so, no quarantine.

The next few hours are a blur. We found our friend who drove us almost to our home. We had to stop first to get our car. And somehow we managed to get everything in. It was nice to drive a car with a stick shift again, and there are no traffic lights on the country roads we take.

Once home we were famished. Luckily, before I left last fall I bought the components or a fast meal: canned tuna, tomatoes. Pasta. It’s traditional for returning Italians to have a “spaghettata”—basically spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chilies. We had no garlic, so TSW put together a quick tuna sauce, while I used the blood oranges, olives and fennel our driver friend gave us for a Sicilian salad. Home at last.

“Anyone can do steamed broccoli”

We were bad. Lots of people were. Still are. This thing that’s kept us home alone also contributed to our gross domestic girth. We’d watch a cooking show or tutorial on YouTube. “I can make pâte à choux,” she’d say, and later we’d have creampuffs. Or Montréal-style bagels. Or a baguette. Or steamed bao.

The Spartan Woman wasn’t the only offender. I began to like how butter added an extra sheen to the tagliatelle with a mushroom ragù. Or risotto. And you need to use a fair amount of olive oil for spaghetti with clams to taste right. Right?

I was getting into ridiculous rationalizations, too. If I was going to be cooped up for months at a time, I sure as hell wasn’t going to drink ordinary wine. Hello, Honor Wines! They delivered in a funky blue vintage truck. I’d call Laurie, and she and I would talk about what I feel like drinking. It was like visiting a shrink, except instead of more self-awareness, I’d know more about rosé wines from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy. Which is not a bad thing, but when you’re habitually drinking 2/3 of a bottle every night, those calories pile on.

I started to avoid wearing jeans. Even my big boy jeans. She wasn’t too happy, either. Our usual exercise outlet, the local YMCA pool, was closed. And it didn’t feel right to take long walks. Besides, winter. Yuck.

Finally, with a last toast and blowout New Year’s Eve dinner for two, we decided to do something about it. I’d dry out in January. Let me tell ya this was not easy, if you can think back to the days when the orange lunatic was braying about a supposedly stolen election and his deplorables attacked the Capitol. I ended up extending the drying out into April, with exceptions for Joe Biden’s inauguration and Easter with one of the kids.

Ciao for now

So, a diet. But not a diet. It was winter, we were depressed, and TSW said she couldn’t live on steamed broccoli and tofu. That’s her usual way of dissing over-virtuous regimens. We’re also almost-vegetarians. We eat fish and seafood as a naughty treat, although I’m beginning not to like the fish part so much. So planning meals posed an extra challenge. But we’ve been down that road before, and we resolved that this would be it.

I’ve mentioned before how TSW likes systems, but also likes to game those systems. She applied that to our food. (Note: I do cook; we usually split the chore. But this time I let her drive, since rightly or wrongly, I’m to blame for our gastronomic excess. Plus, after living alone in Italy last fall, and feeding myself almost every day, I was happy to take a break. Plus, I threw out my back sometime in January…)

With this in mind, I’ll set out how we managed to lose about 20-25 pounds so far and actually enjoy it. This will just be the intro. Like obsessed, annoying Instagramers, we take photos of almost every meal, so I have a lot of material.

First, this is an adoption of the WW points system. TSW chose the version that’s most restrictive in points, because it’s extraordinarily permissive when it comes to stuff we like to eat: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Fats are limited (think a couple of tablespoons of olive oil between us at dinner), as are simple carbohydrates and sugar.

We do adapt what we used to eat to this routine—we’ll sub out white pasta for whole wheat in a dish, for example. But the past few months have unleashed TSW’s creativity and ingenuity. She’ll use silken tofu to make decadent banana-mango puddings, and we’ll reduce broth and wine for sauces instead of relying on the butter/oil crutch.

I guess the best thing at this point is to show you what we eat. And as I write more, I’ll be explicit with recipes and simple cooking tips.

First of all, up top is a tray bake of vegetables and feta cheese. There’s asparagus, grape tomatoes, striped sweet peppers, red onions, cremini (supermarkets insist on calling them baby bellas or some such) mushrooms, shishito peppers, and slices of feta cheese. It’s simple to make, fun to eat. Spray it all with olive oil–do yourself a favor and buy either a good non-aerosol brand or get a spray bottle and fill it with decent oil that you like. Toss with salt and pepper, maybe some chilis if you like. Roast at 375F/180C for 35-40 minutes. Pair it with farro, brown rice, or whole wheat orzo or couscous.

Color-adjusted bean soup

Beans are a vegetarian’s (or a wimpy semi-vegetarian’s) best friend. This soup, Central Italian style, got us through a lot of cold nights. Cook some dry navy, cannelini, or cranberry (borlotti) beans yourself, or for a quick lunch or dinner, use good canned beans. Using a spritz or, if you’re feeling decadent, a tablespoon of oil, saute diced fennel, an onion, and a carrot until they’re translucent. Add the beans and either water or vegetable stock. Let it all come together, about 15 minutes-half an hour. Use a hand immersion blender or pour the solids and some of the liquid into a blender and purée it. Return to the pot and heat, add some small soup pasta. If it looks too gray, add some tomato paste or puree, and season it.

It doesn’t have to be cold out to enjoy this. You can let it cool down a bit, and, if you like, add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Finally, Asian-style food suits this thing pretty well, too, and TSW spent a lot of time working on various ways to put great mock-Chinese meals together. She’s like an alchemist in the kitchen, and over the past few months has figured out how to make seitan, a meat substitute that’s make of wheat gluten and a few other ingredients, depending on how and where you want to use it. In the meal shown below, she paired mock duck with broccoli and other vegetables, and on the right, there’s a silken corn dish over soft tofu. I’ll update this page with a recipe.

You’re a New York City boy/You’ll never have a bored day

—old Pet Shop Boys song, video here

Liars (sorry, Pet Shop Boys). When there’s no New York City in New York City, it might as well be Tysons Corner or suburban Columbus. Peoria, even.

And we’re pathetic. How pathetic? We drove to New Jersey yesterday to pick up groceries. To Wegman’s in Woodbridge, to be exact. You would have had to bribe me in the Time Before to drive to Woodbridge; I always got lost in New Jersey. But sat-nav now makes it easy, even when it insists I’ve arrived and I’m too dense to look to the left for the destination.

Woodbridge NJ, here we come

And getting decent groceries qualify as a Destination.

This is what we do these days—at least on days when we’re not glued to the TV by civil insurrections or new presidents being inaugurated (Hey, Joe!). We order online and either pick the stuff up curbside, like yesterday, or have it delivered. At one point before Christmas, we were getting so many deliveries that we felt like Roald Dahl’s Matilda in the movie of the same name, forced to stay home to sign for deliveries.

Driving through suburban hell sure beats watching the news during Trump’s final weeks. A friend a couple of years ago met up with me at the local Greenmarket one Saturday, after Trump had done something awful. It’s hard to keep track. “It’s like you tell yourself it can’t get any worse,” she said. “Then it does.”

Watch this

Speaking of our former lives, we watched Martin Scorsese’s tribute series to Fran Leibowitz, Pretend It’s a City, over the weekend. Seeing New York, or at least Manhattan, full of busy people walking purposefully seemed like a weirdly modern, digital form of archeology. We were looking at a civilization that doesn’t exist any more, and won’t for awhile. [Critic’s take: I used to think of her as out there, really cutting and ascerbic. She just seems to be the soul of common sense and humanity to me now. Is it me? Or her?]

I started this blog a few years ago to document our gradual move to the Italian region of Umbria. And it began like that, with posts about hiking, festivals, houseguests, and people we know there. But now it feels as though we’re stalled somewhere over the Atlantic, not quite here but definitely not there, either. Wanna hear something really pathetic? We tell our smart speakers “play Radio Subasio,” with an American accent, and our local Italian radio station starts to play. That way, we get to hear the news, traffic reports, and the weather, while trapped on Staten Island.

Remember last spring? Try. It was sort of like now, only with the stupid hope that by now we might be living a somewhat normal life again. I even managed to live a semi-normal life while taking care of business in Italy in September and October. Back then, the press was congratulating Italy for beating the virus, and while you had to wear a mask in public indoor places like shops and restaurants (except while eating), it seemed like that vibrant social life that marks that country was coming back. Now we’re all in a second or third wave, and the resolve that Italians showed last year is crumbling, like its government, thanks to Italy’s most despised politician, Matteo Renzi. UPDATE: The government hangs on by a thread.

So now we amuse ourselves with groceries and cooking. Only we can’t be so indulgent because the first wave, with the indulgent baking and wine drinking left its mark. But I’m pretty lucky being married to The Spartan Woman; she even makes dieting a challenge to do something fun. She’s always trying to game the system; even a somewhat restrictive food regimen. (I can do it, too, but she’s better at it and has a clearer idea of how to make lean food taste and feel good.) Here are just a few examples.

Moroccan-style vegetables over whole-wheat couscous

Seitan “cutlets,” Italian-style

Hong Kong style tomato soup with whole wheat noodles

Home (alone) for the holidays

Christmas spread, pre-pandemic

IF THIS WERE A normal year, I’d be helping to come up with a menu for Christmas day. I’d be sending out invitations to our annual get-together. And I’d probably be heading into Manhattan a couple of times for drinks/lunch/dinner with friends.

But it’s not a normal year, so instead I’m mostly confined to this house except for a morning walk in Snug Harbor with the dog. We won’t be having anyone over for the holiday. And I’m having trouble remembering which day it is, although today feels very Thursday-ish for some reason. I do try to remember, because I have to remind The Spartan Woman which day it is periodically. (The pup does not care, as long as she gets out to the park, and gets treats.) At least we have garbage collections days to remind us as well.

Henry liked the evil red chair, too. And it did the same thing to him.

I usually get grouchy in late November/early December. I don’t like the plunge into cold weather, and I intensely dislike the early sunset. Plus, holiday prep annoys me, all that forced running around for…what, exactly? This year, probably due to the boredom of being home just about every day, I fight off narcolepsy, or what seems like narcolepsy. Especially if I sit in the evil red chair in the living room. It’s so easy. Just sit and read or watch TV. Pretty soon, gravity seems to get stronger and my bones start to resonate with that invisible force. I can’t get up. Next something—could it be gravity here, too?—grabs my eyelids and pulls them down. Honestly I had nothing to do with taking that nap. Damn that chair!

The not very inspiring view from my office window

I could look out the window, but all I see are other houses. We do hear ambulances all too often, as the novel coronavirus takes over most of the city again. There’s a hospital just a few blocks away, which normally would be reassuring. Not now though, as we cringe when we hear an ambulance heading down the next one-way street toward it.

So, we’re not going to have our annual Christmas Day bash. There’s a history behind it. The Spartan Woman’s Aunt Bessie married a Jewish grad student back after World War II. They had three kids and raised them in the Jewish faith. It became a tradition for them to gather with their gentile relatives for Christmas. We inherited the tradition when we bought this house. We’re an ecumenical bunch—most of us are nonsubscribers or cafeteria practitioners when it comes to religion, but there’s still culture and tradition. If the two holidays coincide, more or less, we’ll light a menorah, and we have a dreidel on our Christmas tree. The Spartan Woman sometimes makes latkes for the crew, too. It’s really one of the best days of the year, even for me, who basically loathes the forced jollity of the holiday season.

This would not be a good idea this year.

I loved it when The Spartan Aunt was still alive and well. She was a worldly, curious woman who, like her husband, was a trained biologist. She wrote the kid’s book, All About Snakes. Bessie was a really good cook, as well as her husband’s frontline and probably best editor. I realized after a year or two of hosting these get-togethers, that I was cooking for her. I wanted to surprise her, or, on a childish level, to get her approval. She always brought bottles of very nice Bordeaux, and her wine fueled great conversations.

Another year, a young cousin of mine was visiting New York over Christmas. She and her boyfriend (and her family) live in rural Sicily, where the family business is a veterinary diagnostic lab. I got in touch with her and asked her if she wanted to come over for the day. I’d met her years before, at my grandmother’s (her great-grandmother’s) 90th birthday party, but didn’t really know her. I arranged to pick her and her boyfriend Francesco up at the ferry terminal and I was almost shocked when she got in the car. I knew she sort of looked like a lot of us Paonita clan members, but what was—is—a testament to genetics is that Annalisa could be my older daughter’s sister. They’d never seen one another but there they were, identical smiles, similar gestures and weirdly similar voices. They’ve been in touch ever since.

Sisters or second cousins?

Sigh. Forget bah humbug. We’re really going to miss these people this time around.

Looking for a gift? How about a terrific cookbook for yourself, straight from the hills of Umbria? Order Festa Italiana and A Kitchen With a View by Letizia Mattiacci, a/k/a La Madonna del Piatto. And watch her YouTube trailer to get into the mood.