Short, cool summer (so far)

This year is not like last year. It’s been kind of nice, cool and breezy with bright sun and some rain, like the other day. That lasted all day and refreshed the greens that surround us up here on the hilltop. It’s definitely different from last summer, which basically was an outdoor oven. The all-summer European heatwave even had a nickname: Lucifer.

We’ve been lucky, although I’m jonesing to go swimming. The relative chill most mornings means it’s time to walk. This zone is full of places to do that, from steep gravel and dirt paths in the woods, to level riverside walks (the Chiascio, which winds past the town) to, even, our road. The road connects the hamlets of Coccorano and Monteverde (“green mountain”), which we call home.

We wake up decently early most days. It’s good enough for us to have some coffee, zone out skimming the headlines and our Facebook feeds, and then head out. We usually just head up the road. It’s hilly, to be sure, but the relatively easy footing is good for someone like me, who’s basically a klutz hampered by a torn meniscus that I can ignore most of the time. Besides, when we walk up the road and back, we get to talk to neighbors (they’re 1 km. away, but a mother and daughter pair usually sets out the same time we do), and we often get a canine escort. There’s a little terrier that likes to keep us company. I’m sure the biscuits that The Spartan Woman packs for him have nothing to do with it.

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Our little bodyguard

So we walk. Today, we covered 5 km (a shade over 3 miles) and my watch tells me an elevation difference of 119 m (250 feet, give or take). I’ll share.

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We see vistas like this every time there’s an open area.

When we first started doing this, I was struck by the big panoramas. To this New York City boy, though, most of the plants were, you know, plants. That’s nice. But I didn’t really notice their diversity and how they unfolded as June progressed. The other thing that takes awhile, and still surprises me, are the houses and outbuildings. It takes awhile to scope them out, because the gorgeous views are so distracting. Like this house, perched high on a ridge. They must have an amazing view.

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At some point, we came across signs telling us that the road traveled over a city—okay, town—aqueduct. Is it accidental that there’s a mini-oasis here? Does the aqueduct leak, or is this from the other day’s rain?

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Finally, on a clear day, you can see Perugia, some 25 km away.

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Milano Milano

That’s not a typo in the headline. It’s a song title, from the (now split up) Italian rap duo Article 31. The song always pops into my head whenever I’m walking around that city I first heard the song while on a reporting trip back in, maybe, 2002? It kind of goes with the street rhythm, which is sort of like New York with a Latin beat.

I went up to Milan to be part of a week of events for lawyers organized by my friends at Legalcommunity. Despite the English name, the place is staffed mostly by Italians, and they put together a bunch of news websites, and not only for lawyers. They’ve expanded to the finance and food industries. (I put together the U,S. version of a site for company lawyers.) My colleagues there are young and enthusiastic and they do an amazing job, considering how few of them there are.

The week was rather more fun than anything that workaholic Americans might put together. Sure, there were substantive panel discussions, and I moderated a couple of them. But besides the Serious Legal Stuff, the  LC staff took people to a concert at La Scala, organized a run, brought bands from law firms together for a battle of the bands and held a gala awards dinner. At the battle of the bands, at this venue called Fabrique, my colleagues all wore black t-shirts saying “Rock the Law.” I want one. Ok, Aldo?

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MC Nicola doing his bit

As for the city itself, I like spending a few days there when I can. It’s not a touristy city, and its inhabitants work and play hard. I have a good crew of friends and colleagues to visit when I’m there. I had a little time to sneak out and visit places I like, or I’m told I would like. One of them is the Fondazione Prada, far from the posh city center. The site incorporates some old light-industry buildings with some new structures by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The melding of old and new structures just made me smile. One of the buildings is encased in this metallic swirly stuff, and one has huge mirrors as siding. An old building, that served as a “haunted house” exhibit with works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, was painted glossy gold, light at the top, darker at ground level.

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Then there’s the bar. In Italy, a bar is an all-purpose cafe, the kind of place where you stop in on your way to work to have a coffee and a cornetto (the Italian equivalent of a croissant), later for a snack or another espresso, a pick me up later in the day, and so on. The Fondazione’s version is called Bar Luce (light), and it was designed by none other than the film director Wes Anderson. He took Milan’s Viennese kaffeehaus vibe and ran with it. Think of it as the bar equivalent of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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Wes Anderson’s idea of a Milanese bar

The other place I went off to was just a few blocks from my hotel, the redevelopment of the area around Porta Nuova. I’m of two minds about these projects. Porta Nuova is a rupture of the city fabric. Milan has this kind of Austrian vibe in places. No surprise there; it was part of Austria until Italian unification in the mid-19th century.  At the same time, it’s fun to look at and walk through. The Porta Nuova complex is over a rail yard, and it’s an architectural and environmental showcase. The centerpiece is the Torre Unicredit, a skyscraper designed for the bank by César Pelli. On one side, there’s a green area that a couple of years featured a wheat field. I’m not sure what happened with that, but now it’s a tree refuge; they’ve planted a bunch of varieties.

Keeping with the green theme are two apartment buildings called the Bosco Verticale, or vertical forest. The sides of the buildings have trees and other vegetation growing out of them. I saw them right after their construction and the greenery was definitely in the sapling stage. They look a lot more grown in now.

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The Bosco Verticale

Speaking of green, I’m back home in Umbria. It’s so green this year, it’s almost psychedelic. The sheep next door came to visit, and at one point, they just decided to chill right below our lawn (the property is terraced). Hey, if they eat the grass, terrific. Maybe we’ll get some great pecorino one of these days.,

Good eats, beauty, and heartache

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. In fact, we got here two weeks ago to the day. We’ve had to do stuff to open the house, lay in groceries, buy a weed whacker (the grounds looked like a jungle and the electric mower just wasn’t going to cut it, literally). And as if all that weren’t enough, there was work and we bought a used car, because rental rates in the summer are ruinous.

But last week Liv and her guy were around. Being young and not yet ready for country life, they stayed in the big city (Perugia; population 170,000) and got to know the restaurants, bars and museums. Plus, where to go for aperitivi, or Italian happy hour. The better places have a buffet; if you’re in Perugia, head to Umbro near Sant’ Ercolano right away.

It was fun playing tour guide. It was Al’s first time in Europe. We got him used to being called Alberto, and he got to see a side of Italy that most first-time tourists never see. As part of his education, we headed to the hills. Actually, the mountains. You go south toward Spoleto and turn left and up, up, up. Our first stop: Norcia. It’s a little walled town high up in the approach to the Apennines, and is known for its gastronomy.  It’s the land of skilled pork butchers, cheesemakers, and black truffle hunters.

We stopped first at an agriturismo outside the town. I’d heard that the earthquake of 2016 inflicted a fair amount of damage on the town, and a lot of places were closed. So we drove up into the hills above to the felicitously named Il Casale degli Amici (The House of Friends). We first timers certainly felt the warmth of instant friendship. It’s a seriously nice place, and the staff couldn’t be friendlier. And, as you say in Italian, si mangia bene—you eat well. We took full advantage of Norcina cooking, and had truffles, great cheeses, and even some salumi. I don’t usually eat meat, but this place led me into temptation.

Then we climbed—we took the tortuously curving road up to Piano Grande di Castelluccio. It’s stupendous, a giant glacial plain high up in the mountains. It could be New Zealand, or the American West. Well, except for the wrinkles of Italian life on the road. Motorcycle gangs road up and down the road, but these weren’t exactly Hell’s Angels. Just normal people going for a Sunday ride. Can’t forget the porchetta truck or the stand selling local beans and other foods.

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The road was harder to navigate than usual. The earthquake made it impassible for awhile, and we could see where chunks of it just fell down into the valley. At numerous points, you had to stop at a light to let the other direction proceed, because only one lane had been reconstructed so far.

The heartbreak came after we spent some time traipsing around the mountain paths and the plain. We went up to the hamlet of Castelluccio, which up until almost two years ago was a perfect little isolated jewel of a place. The earthquake leveled much of the town. The locals set up business as best they could, but destruction and fencing is everywhere, and soldiers guarded the entrances to the zona rosa, the parts off-limits.

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Danger! Do not enter!

We must reduce

If you have a native-born American, English-as-a-mother-tongue father, you have my sympathy. It’s so boring. Having an Italian-born dad has its advantages. An outsider’s perspective on a bewildering country? Check. Interesting friends and relatives? Check. A place to stay in other countries? Ditto. Better food? Yup. Mangled but humorous colloquialisms in English? You got it.

This last couple of bits gave me the idea for this post. Nuccio, my dad, sometimes gets English expressions just a little wrong. “You must cry the consequences,” he once told me. I honestly don’t remember why he said that, but boy would it make a great country or Elvis Costello song title. And, “you must reduce.” He meant diet. And he’s right.

I never realized how active an office job could be. Or, at least, one based in Manhattan. And how not going to the office can affect your wellbeing. I walked a lot when I had a day job. To get there, I took a ferry, most often with friends, after which I took a .6 mile, or the more sexy 1 kilometer walk to the newsroom. The building was huge and occupied an entire city block. You had to walk a block to get to the bathrooms. When I got bored or sleepy in bad weather, I’d just take a walk around the block indoors. At lunchtime I did eat most often at my desk, but that was to save time for a brisk walk around lower Manhattan. And my web editor and I often took a mid-afternoon coffee break that involved a few blocks’ walk.

Now, not so much. I work out of my home office. My commute to my home office involves taking a few steps from the espresso machine and fridge in the kitchen. Slowly but surely, even when I managed to get out for exercise, I was packing on the pounds. It was like the proverbial frog in a pot of water. I didn’t notice I was cooked until it was too late. Almost.

Enter The Spartan Woman. She’d seen a similar gain, partly from stress, partly from an ear infection that kept her from her aquacise class. So she looked around, found the Weight Watchers app on her iPhone, updated it, and we were off. Only we’re talking about The Spartan Woman. She is decidedly not into plain steamed broccoli and tofu. We’re talking about someone who all her life has tried to game the system. (Don’t play cards with her if you aren’t a card shark. You will lose. Trust me.) Rather than limiting our diet, the regime brought forth an explosion of creativity. We usually split cooking duties, but for this, I was all too happy to just watch (and eat). She probably didn’t trust me anyway to use a light hand with the olive oil…

Can I share some of what she’s come up with? All of this is legit according to WW, and low in points. (I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about.) And it’s working pretty well. (Downsides? I miss having wine with dinner every night, or having to earn it. But if it’s made the local liquor store sad, it’s had a good effect on our checking account balance, and I manage to be more alert most of the time. I’m not sure yet whether that’s a good thing.)

Here’s a lighter version of the Turkish classic imam bayildi. It’s slow cooked eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions and mint. The classic is cooked in lots of olive oil. This one isn’t, but manages to be pretty sensual.

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Next up is a riff on ramen. This version has tofu, lots of vegetables and a soft-boiled egg.

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Here we’ve gone for something a bit Brit (and something I put together): cold spring pea and leek soup with lemon and a dollop of (light) sour cream:

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Next up, baked cod with sort of an Italian version of succotash—fava beans, corn, peppers, and I forgot what else. But it looks good, and it tasted good, too.

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Gotta have dessert. Phyllo cups filled with chocolate flavored ricotta and chocolate chips.

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Not bad, huh? I’ll keep this going. It’ll be a challenge over the summer to do it in Umbria, where temptations are everywhere. Gelato, anyone? And then there’s the aperitivo hour….

Machine Learning

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Nope, not gonna do it. No, no no. Please, just a “like”?

I took a few days off posting, commenting, and reacting on Facebook. It was interesting, like having an itch that I couldn’t scratch. I did go onto the site on my MacBook, I’ll confess. I felt like a lurker, an interloper, a kid looking at a candy or toy store window.

I felt left out. (Sorry Mark, but olives do not count as a vegetable for dinner.)

This little exercise got me thinking about technology and its effect on our lives. And I think that despite the Facebook craving, it’s been pretty positive. I’ll admit, though, that I’ve built a mental wall around that elephant in the corner, the privacy thing. I’ll get to that later.

I’m thinking about the first couple of months this year in Italy. Centuries ago, when The Spartan Woman was going to university in Perugia, and I wasn’t, staying in touch wasn’t easy. You could say it was romantic—we wrote each other zillions of aerogrammes, which were thin sheets of paper that you folded into an envelope. It was more expensive than a postcard, but cheaper than a letter. Even so, it was a major expense for a college kid. It was kind of adorable, though—hey Kat, do we still have them? Every so often, we’d call each other. Oooh, long long distance, such an extravagance.

Things were a bit different in January. We drove sleepily to the house, dragged our bags into the house, opened our laptops, and….arg, nothing. Our satellite Internet connection (all of 30 mps) wasn’t working. Having to buy some food, we went to the hypermarket, where I bought a SIM card from Vodaphone with 30 gb of data. I swapped iPhone SIMs, told The Spartan Woman the password, and life returned to normal, with texting, emails, Facebook, the whole works. I think we managed to feed ourselves, too.

An email and call to the provider, though, and it all worked. They just had to remotely prod our satellite dish and routers into doing their job. And for the next couple of months, while we hung around with our friends and houseguests, we stayed in touch. My dad is 87 and no slouch when it comes to a digital life. I was able to do FaceTime with him and my sister. I took my pals Dimitra and Ray on a virtual tour of the house. I even wrote an article for a travel site, and dealt with the gentle edits (thanks, Eliza!). Skype kept my phone calls to the U.S. reasonable, and I managed to interview people for a secret project—sorry, no names.

All in all, then, having this made being thousands of miles away not quite so distant. What made it easier was our walled garden. I know, I know, Apple keeps you trapped in its ecosystem (I’m writing on a new MacBook Pro, with an iPhone at my side and an Apple Watch on my wrist), but it’s an ecosystem that works most of the time. I’ll trade a bit of autonomy for a lot of convenience.

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Old MacBook Air, meet the new Pro (right).

Our devices—the complete rundown is two MacBooks, two iPads, two iPhones and a watch—just remember all the logins, from the New York house to those in Italy. When my trusty but overworked MacBook Air exhibited some keyboard weirdness that would’ve led to a $500 repair bill, I swapped it for this machine. I opened the lid, the new one started and asked me to log into my Apple account. A couple of hours later, all my stuff was exactly where it was on my old machine, all done automatically in the background. I’ve heard horror stories from the other side, and I’m just happy to be able to avoid them.

The one non-Apple device that made life more interesting was an Internet TV that we picked up, an LG. We knew that it was a so-called smart TV. What we didn’t know was that it would offer to get into our wi fi network and that once it did, with a few easy logins we were catching up on the Netflix Danish crime dramas we were addicted to. (Winter nights on the mountain are long and cold…)

Now, the privacy thing. Yeah, it’s bad. And it’s been bad. They slice and dice our data, and try to manipulate what we think. But I hope that no one who reads this is naive enough not to know that our habits have been tracked ever since companies and governments realized that our browsing habits are of interest. Yes, it’s pervasive and sinister. I’m still working this one out, though. I’ve been reading the Interwebs for pros and cons of, for example, shutting down your Facebook account. I think my going almost cold turkey earlier this week is typical. We’ve gotten used to a certain way of communicating with one another, and when that’s taken away, it leaves a gap.

So I’ll leave you with this. Try to imagine life in your great-grandparents’ time. If your family was typical, they lived in closer quarters. Maybe a crowded urban neighborhood. There were lots of means of social control—neighbors, the extended family. The church (or whatever religious institution held sway). Tabloids screamed with inflammatory headlines, just like Fox and MSNBC do today. I’d say that the combination of religious and sexual repression, as well as generally more authoritarian  institutions like schools and the military, kept people pretty much in line and afraid of going off the reservation.

Is that qualitatively any different? I have no answer right now. Maybe we should talk about it. Not here—how about in a bar, in the meatspace?

Landing, Culture Shock, Dueling Populisms, and Puppies

First of all, we’re back in the U.S. of A. So buy me lunch, those of you with the few remaining expense accounts. My calendar is pretty open right now.

This song always goes through my head as we approach JFK or Newark:

I’ve never been more mindful than now of the gap between Cool America (rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, rap, Kerouac, Georgia O’Keefe, Brooklyn, Yo La Tengo, etc.), and weird uncool America (a certain combover artist with a fake tan, Branson, Missouri, the NRA, Paul Ryan, The WSJ editorial board, Fox News,). It’s always been this way, but folks, we’ve reached the point where we’re living in different universes.

Our departure from the mostly cool country of the Repubblica Italiana was sad and a little painful., Okay, quite painful, literally. I succumbed to the flu, despite having gotten the vaccine a few months ago. I guess it didn’t cover the Italian variety. I spent days on a recliner—the bed was too horizontal and I felt as though I were drowning—and prone to freezing and then being overheated within a 15-minute timespan. We delayed our departure, only to worry about a strike the day we left in honor of International Women’s Day. Luckily, the strikers provided for a few hours for safe passage and we took off more or less on time.

But then…after a terrific flight on Norwegian—good prices, good premium economy cabins, decent food and drink and legroom—we landed in Newark. In one way, it trumped JFK; no one was shouting at us as we went through passport control. On the other hand, no one guided us, either, and the time savings allegedly granted by using the app Mobile Passport proved illusory, except at the end when our keepers decided to let users through, like they should’ve at the start. Note to self: Sign up for Global Entry.

We left an Italy with a caretaker government following indecisive elections that split the vote basically 3 ways, between the “populist” Movimento 5 Stelle, the center-right (including the inflammatory Lega) and what’s left of the Left. None of those by themselves got enough votes to form a government and nearly two weeks later, the jockeying and negotiations drag on.

The results are being compared to the fuck-you Trump vote in the U.S. And yeah, a lot of people who voted for M5S and the Lega were motivated by the same reasons otherwise nice Americans voted for the odious Trump. The establishment parties haven’t exactly done right by the peeps and haven’t really offered a compelling vision of life with them other than to say, hey we’re not crazy.

But there’s a big gap between the continents. In the U.S., with the Republicans controlling the legislature, executive, and probably the courts, there’s been a rollback of everything that makes a country civilized. These Ayn Rand acolytes have tried to kill the Affordable Care Act, enacted the most regressive tax regime in decades, and have killed off scores of environmental rules. They aren’t even trying to give lofty reasons for their actions. It’s just Obama did this, so we’re undoing it.

Looking at the victorious parties in the Italian elections shows a different story. None of them talked about reverting to a free-for-all health care market. In fact, they criticized some of the erosion demanded by the European Union budget masters. And both the Lega and M5S plan to implement a minimum income for citizens; they differ in the amount (either around €800 or €1000 monthly). Where they do resemble the Trumpistas is in their contempt for immigration. But there, they’ve got some facts on their side. Italy has taken up a disproportionate burden of rescuing thousands of refugees at sea. And like Greece, it’s taken a budgetary and a social toll on the country as Italy’s Euro partners look the other way. It’s a bit different from the non story that is the U.S. being overrun by Mexicans, when in fact since the Great Recession, traffic has gone the other way.

It’s a sign of how far to the right political discourse has gotten in the U.S. And also a sign that to some extent, Europe right now is still more open, more tolerant and more equitable than its old partner across the Atlantic.

There’s one unambiguous, wonderful thing about being back. We’re back with our kids. And knowing that the InterWeb loves the doggies, this little creature is back cuddling, begging for food, and stomping around Snug Harbor Cultural Center like she owns it.

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Italia in Tilt

Nope nope nope. Not gonna write ’bout no Italian elections, although they’re a dark spectre haunting Europe here on Sunday. Here’s something more important: snow. Cold snow. Freezing rain. Slush. And no water at home.

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Perugia in disaster mode, believe it or not.

I’ll back up. We came here in January with the thought of escaping the New York winter. You may recall that it didn’t start out too well, with days of freezing cold weather, a couple of snowstorms, the usual misery.

And it worked, at least for awhile. January into February felt like early spring. Our friends who stayed with us pulled a couple of garden chairs outside and took in the view and sun. We walked around with light jackets and sweaters. Flowers bloomed.

Then last weekend…It was really cold, down in the 20s Fahrenheit, and further, like -14 C (you do the math). We thought we were pretty swift; we have a fireplace that doubles as a furnace. It circulates hot water throughout the heating system, reducing the need to keep using expensive and probably Russian gas.

Back when we got here, we were talking to our architect about various things. One of the items was an enclosure over the water valve. See, there’s this valve and exposing pipe that sends water to our cistern and house. He said it might freeze in cold weather and said we should enclose it. We added it to our to-do list.

We should’ve hopped to it instead.

The other day, the connection froze. We’re lucky; we have a place in the city to stay. So the cold-induced cabin fever is so over. But walking up and down Perugian streets is dicey, except for all the 20-something college kids who won’t be deterred from their cafe and pub hopping. We did get around, and even saw a movie (The Phantom Thread. Ask me later what I thought about it).

We aren’t alone, though that doesn’t make me feel much better All of northern Italy is frozen, literally. Trains either didn’t run or had hours-long delays. (The train company’s boss keeps apologizing in the press.) Heavy trucks were banned from the roads. The local hospital has treated hundred of fall-related injuries. I scanned the website of a local paper and saw a photo of a highway accident and it featured a wrecked police car in the middle of it.

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Only the brave or the very bored dare climb this hill.

Now here’s the kicker. We aren’t talking about a blizzard. It’s maybe an inch or two, or 4-6 cm. if you’re metrically inclined. That’s all. But streets are still a mess, and when they’re nearly vertical, getting around isn’t easy.

I’m beginning to think we bring bad weather with us. We’re due to fly back to New York soon,

You’ve been warned,

Sex Change Operations, Zucchine/i, and Lasagne. Or Lasagna?

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A friend of mine moved to Spain some years ago. She and I used to speak Italian to each other every so often, but once she was getting ready to head over, she forbade any Italian. “Please,” she said, “learning Spanish is confusing enough. I can’t have the two languages blending together in my head.”

So let’s talk about Englitalian. Or Italish? The mashups occurred to me as we got Sunday dinner together today. First, let me describe the day. It’s gross. We thought we’d escaped the New York winter, and we did for the most part. But today into Tuesday, we’re facing il gran gelo (deep freeze to Anglos). It’s been snowing in a half-ass way, not really piling up but with the wind blowing, it stings your face and makes for general misery. Looking out my studio window, I can barely see beyond the fruit trees outside the house.

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It’s starting to stick and look like an outtake from an early R.E.M. album cover photo.

That means we’re housebound, at least today. And dinner—we do the Italian or French thing on Sundays and the midday meal is the star. I thought I’d try to replicate the flavors of a pizza that the terrific pizzeria Ribalta in Manhattan puts together. It’s got the usual mozzarella, but they add what I’d call zucchini cream, and grilled zucchini. It’s sweet and nutty and creamy at the same time. Only this time I thought it would make a terrific lasagne. Or lasagna, if you prefer, but Italian Italian style, with thin layers and béchamel on top with some crispy bits.

Lasagne. Lasagna. Zucchine. Zucchini. That’s where my linguistic confusion comes in. There are a lot of words, mostly food related, that differ in the Italian spoken in Italy, and the supposedly Italian words, or names of dishes, in the U.S. “Lasagna” is one of them. In the Italian-American (and, I guess, the Olive Garden) canon, it’s a layered pasta dish with tons of ricotta, mozzarella, meat sauce. In Italian, “lasagna” means one single, solitary noodle. Hence “lasagne,” or the plural. The feminine plural, to be precise.

“Zucchini” is another odd duck. When this green summer squash crosses the ocean, it gets treated to a sex-change operation from the original plural feminine “zucchine.” To say “squash” in Italian, it’s “zucca”—feminine singular. The -ina or -ina suffix means a little one.

Don’t get me started on the poor panino, masculine singular. One sandwich, and it doesn’t have to have melted cheese and squished in a sandwich press. “Panino” means a little bread, or a roll. In the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, you hear people saying “I’ll have a prosciutto and mozzarell’ panini” and I cringe.

So the dilemma: When in Rome, so to speak? It just sounds weird to say “zucchini lasagna.” The poor dish gets one gender wrong, and one quantity wrong, leaving us with a transgendered vegetable accompanying a singular noodle. Or something like that. But if I did go around saying the proper Italian pronunciation to an English speaker it would come across as possibly confusing and definitely pretentious.


The Non-Recipe Recipe

In any event, here’s how to put it together. However you say it, it’s delicious. We managed to transfer the flavors of Ribalta’s pizza to a gooey, decadent, perfect-for-a-snowy day pasta dish. Disclaimer: I am not a professional recipe writer, and this presupposes you have some cooking chops and can figure it out where I’ve messed up.

Preheat oven to 375F/200C. Take 7 or 8 medium zucchine/i. Slice fairly thin lengthwise. Place on oiled baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle liberally with olive oil. Roast for about 40 minutes, until they’ve given up all their liquid and some may be a little browned.

Take 1/3 of the squash (gotcha!) and place in a blender or food process. Zap with about 250 ml or a cup of heavy cream or Italian cooking cream (panna). Add a good handful of grated parmigiano or grana cheese. Do NOT use pecorino; it’s too sharp for this dish.

Have some ricotta and béchamel lying around. If you’re lucky enough to be near an Italian gourmet shop, you can get prepared béchamel. Otherwise, make it yourself.  You’ll also need no-cook lasagna sheets.

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In a baking pan, spread béchamel on the bottom. Add some milk. Layer the first pasta sheets. Spread with ricotta and grated cheese, and a layer of squash.

Layer 2: pasta sheets, your zucchini cream.

Layer 3: Like layer 1.

Layer 4: Pasta sheets, bechamel, grated cheese, and some bread crumbs.

Cover with foil, place in hot oven for 30 minutes. After that, remove the foil and let it brown. Remove from oven, let it rest for 15 minutes. It’ll be easier to cut and portion out., Serve with a green salad.

Gone to the Dog

IMG_3260.jpgI signed up on Quora.com awhile ago. I was intrigued by the mixture of questions, from genuinely wanting to know something, to clueless, to trolling. So I thought hmm, maybe I’ll use that format here. In the absence of real questions (feel free to ask me some via email), I’ll make up some of my own.

What the hell do you do up in the country?

I had no idea watching the color of the hills change by the hour, sometimes by the minute, could take up so much of my time. And in an unaltered state of consciousness, no less.

Seriously, what do you do?

We serve Retu. It is our job to feed him, praise him, get him to sit, teach him other languages, and did I mention feed him?

Whose dog is he?

IMG_3187Retu belongs to Ca’ Mazzetto, our neighboring agriturismo. Supposedly. But I’m getting the feeling that the dogs along our road don’t belong to anyone. Or, they belong to everyone. I’m trying to figure that one out.

What is an agriturismo?

Are you trying to confuse me by changing the subject? Well, ok. An agriturismo is a working farm that takes in paying guests. Ca’ Mazzetto has a few apartments, a pool, about 125 sheep and a bunch of olive trees. They produce cheese, fabrics (wool, of course) and olive oil. I may be missing something, and, hey, Joonas, did I? (Joonas is the son of the proprietor and sits on our town council, too.)

What kind of dog is Retu?

He’s a relatively rare breed that is native to these parts, called a Maremmano. According to Wikipedia, the Maremmano is “a breed of livestock guardian dog indigenous to central Italy, particularly to Abruzzo and the Maremma region of Tuscany and Lazio.” The breed is known to be intelligent, loyal, protective, and friendly. He definitely was smart enough to find a sucker in The Spartan Woman, who actually buys dog food for him and, this evening, fed him tagliatelle with truffles.

How is that breed used?

Again, from Wikipedia: “Maremma used as livestock guardian dogs are introduced to sheep flocks as puppies so they bond to the sheep. Some ranchers place Maremma puppies as young as 3–4 weeks old with young lambs, but beginning this bonding process at 7–8 weeks is more typical.[19] Although it is easiest to bond Maremma to sheep and goats, cattle ranchers have found that the dogs bond with cows and Maremma are increasingly used to protect range cattle.”

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Does Retu live up to his breed’s reputation?

He’s a splendid young dog. But if he has bonded to the 125 sheep that live next door, it remains to be seen. One of his owners said that Retu has decided to take early retirement. Whatever sheep guardian attributes he may lack, Retu is definitely good at bonding with humans and bending them to his will.

Be Our Guest

January into early February was a busy time up here on the mountain above the comune of Valfabbrica. We had three friend-guests. Really good, fun-to-be-with guests. The house encourages this sort of thing. We have plenty of room, with a semi-separate apartment on the ground floor. In the cooler months, The Spartan Woman and I live upstairs—we have our own kitchen, dining and living rooms, my office, and bedrooms. And when it’s cooler, our friends get to have their own place, too. That way, we get together when we want, and don’t get in each other’s way. (When it gets warmer, we move kitchen operations downstairs, because the kitchen there opens into the garden. And it’s easier to get to the center of all the summer action, the pool.)

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Wendy and Tim, usually teetotalers, get acquainted with the Aperol spritz.

Let me introduce Wendy, Vicky, and Tim. Wendy and Tim are neighborhood friends and former comrades in the battle over a special public school a couple of decades ago. Tim’s a lawyer (feel free to send him sympathy cards), and sisters Wendy and Vicky are semi-retired teachers. They’re retired enough so that they can spend a month after the holidays wandering around Italy, while Tim worked out of his laptop when he needed to. And when Tim had to head back to the U.S., Wendy and Vicky hung back.

We’ve known Wendy and Tim a long time, more than 20 years. Vicky, however, was an unknown quantity. We heard from Wendy that she was reluctant to take the trip. Their original intention was to case the joint, to find a country house of their own. Vicky was understandably wary; it’s a big responsibility and damn near impossible if you don’t have a network to depend on.

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Apricot tart, anyone?

Now Wendy and Tim had been here and elsewhere in Italy pretty frequently; Vicky less so. But that reluctant traveler turned out to embrace this area the most. She loved everything she saw. She sat outside on chilly winter days just staring at the view of the valley and town below. She shopped, she fed the neighbors’ working sheepdogs (and by doing so she turned one of them into an indolent nonworking sheepdog). She learned how to bake bread and make a fruit tart.

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Vicky, about to throw some garlic and shrimp into the pot.

We’d heard that Vicky wasn’t into cooking until recently, either. At some point, she realized that restaurant and takeout food wasn’t that healthy, so she became a late-blooming semi-obsessional cook. She wanted to take a class while here—where better to learn the Italian way of feeding oneself than in Italy itself. So we arranged with our friend, cooking teacher and innkeeper Letitia Mattiacci, to hold a class for Wendy, Vicky, and The Spartan Woman. (Letizia’s school is called La Madonna del Piatto, and her classes are terrific—I “audited” their class while drinking some good local wine.) Another woman joined the group, an American lawyer from Pennsylvania no less. (We kept bumping into her in Perugia for the rest of our stay here, but that’s another post.) As you can see above, Vicky got into that cooking thing. She made shrimp scampi (bringing a bit of Italian-American via an Egyptian-American to Umbria). And heaven forbid we get store bought bread. She baked her own rolls and the apricot tart in the picture.

img_2956.jpgWendy had a couple of goals. To drink—she’s basically a teetotaler. To see what it’s like to live in Italy. And to learn to drive a stick shift—she was sick of paying extortionate rental rates here for automatics. Well, two out of three ain’t bad; by staying in the place downstairs and going food shopping, she got a taste of everyday life here, as opposed to being a tourist. We did ply her with alcohol in the form of wine as much as we could. Goal number three, though, didn’t pan out. The only stick shift was in our rental Renault Clio. With only 4800 kilometers on it, we didn’t think that Europcar would have liked it if we unleashed a newbie on the poor Clio.

Next time, Wendy, next time. (And they bought lots of stuff, but not a house.)