Someone to watch over me

When I started this blog, the idea was to chronicle our life in Italy, talk about its food, people, politics, traffic jams, whatever. But Covid-19 had its way with me and everyone else, so forgive me if I get a little too deep into our peculiar, mostly homebound in New York City, existence.

And so…..

I wanted a new toy for my birthday a few years back. Specifically, I wanted an Apple Watch. Why? I can’t say, other than I wanted a new toy. Plus I like to know how to use stuff people buy—computers, stoves, cars, stereos, soldering irons… My gadget lust wasn’t unusual, but I hadn’t worn a watch in years, especially since I used mobile phones that I actually liked. What would I do with a watch, albeit a smart watch?

As I found out, Apple Watch is a watch like an iPhone (or any smart phone) is a phone. Our words for them are way too limited.

Pre-Covid-19, I swam laps at the local Y in New York and our pool on the mountaintop. I love to swim, but laps can get boring if you’re not in the right mood. Sure, you get off on a few good flip turns, or when you perfect your freestyle strokes. Plus, absent minded as I am, I kept losing count of my laps. Okay, you say, fine, just time it. That would’ve worked at the Y, maybe. I’m really nearsighted and can barely make out the clockface at the end of the pool. And forget about it on the mountain.

Closed. Sigh.

I devised a few ways to be reasonably accurate. Instead of counting the total, I broke my counting down to units of 5. Because of the pool’s weird length—60 feet—you end up doing an odd number of laps for standard English distances: 1/2 mile=22 laps, 1 mile (uffda!)=44. I didn’t like the 5+5+6+6 counting I needed to for about a half mile, but it was OK. I told myself that if I lost count, I had to repeat the set. I repeated lots of sets.

But the watch—it was the answer to my counting prayers. It’s waterproof! It counts laps! The watch uses my iPhone as its mother, so I switched my measurements to metric and all of a sudden I basked in the knowledge that I could swim 1008 meters in 30 minutes without breaking too much of a sweat.

My family looked on bemused as I tracked my active calories, heartbeat and breast strokes per 10 laps. But I knew that I was getting a good idea of how I performed every day. Plus, I wanted to do a little better each week. My watch wanted me to do better, too. “Anthony, you’re usually further ahead at this time with exercise,” it would admonish me. “You’ve met all 3 goals!” it would cheer, and I almost felt that the watch and I should pop a Champagne cork. I didn’t always cooperate, especially when I read messages like this at 11:30 pm: “You can still do it, Anthony! A brisk 18-minute walk should help you meet your exercise goal.” Um, no.

The Spartan Woman indulges my relationship with gadgets. I take care of her stuff, and she’s generally satisfied with what she’s got, and doesn’t fall for unnecessary updates (so she thinks) than I do. But we reached a tipping point during The Great Confinement when she saw the latest Apple Watch, complete, this time, with a blood oxygen sensor. We actually talked about her getting one for a bit, but then she forgot about it. I didn’t and stealthily bought one to give her for Christmas. Sidenote: JHC! Must we be together every single minute of every single day? Can’t I get delivery of a surprise without the all-seeing, all-knowing TSW checking out every object that comes into the house? I lucked out only because she was washing pots, facing away from the path to my office. Just for fun, though, I left the box on an open shelf.

So after the holidays, we act like everyone else and resolve to be better, less self-indulgent prisoners of Netflix. We’d diet! We’ll lose the Covid 20. Or is it 25 or 30? Why doesn’t my favorite T-shirt fit? We had an exercise bike sitting idle most of the time. I encouraged TSW to try it out, and I mentioned that its exercise app will track her time, pulse, etc., keep a record of it, like, forever. One thing I forgot to mention about TSW is her extreme competitiveness. She may look kind of sweet and friendly, but under the best friend surface lies a cutthroat beast. If you bring less than your best game to the game, she will leave you a collapsed, crying destroyed, humiliated, heap. But she’s really a nice person. Seriously.

You can guess what happened. The exercise bike makes lap swimming feel like an exhilarating hike in the mountains. Friends, it is boring. I have to watch videos on my phone, or play music real loud on my headphones and read to get through a session. This was no problem for TSW, who is pedaling ever-longer distances—she stretched to a solid hour in just a few sessions. She’d tell me how many active calories she burned, while riding and during her hyperactive day. She was making me look bad. Me, who used to run miles a day until I hurt my ankle and spent a month using crutches and a cane to get around. She barely broke a sweat on the bike, and managed to nudge her pulse rate in the high two figures.

Of course, the bike isn’t enough. Now that the days are getting longer and spring is just a couple of weeks away, we’ve started to take long walks through the parks in our neighborhood. We’re lucky to live in a part of Staten Island that was built as a planned community, in an age when the middle classes were thought to be deserving of such amenities as parks and tennis courts and a bit of nature to disrupt the urban fabric. And supposedly, the city was going to build a subway line through it, so it could be sort of a lower density Forest Hills. The subway never came, but Olmstead and other park designers did.

It’s great though. This exercise thing has given our monotonous days here shape and purpose, even if it’s to please Tim Cook and his infernal watch. I have to admit that after four years, I’m still in thrall to its charms. My favorite thing is to take a walk, varying the speed and route, and then when I’m done, I can see the route we took on my phone. The route’s color-coded, so I can see where we sashayed (yellow), paused (red), and trucked along (green). Plus, it gives me a running average time/kilometer. Since the weather’s gotten a bit better, we’ve gone from a disastrous 23.5 minutes/km (watch the ice!) to a halfway respectable 18 minutes. I can’t wait to try the trails on the other side of the pond.

Next up: Exercise without diet, we’re told by the latest research, doesn’t work if you’re looking to lose weight. I’ll tell you what TSW has done to make dieting seem almost decadent. Banana panna cotta, anyone?

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.

Half of this month just slid right by (and I probably buried the lede)

I had a blog post all ready to go, except for photos, the night before the election. And then the election and its very, very weird aftermath took over my brain, your brain, and everyone else’s. That post just looked silly and outdated, and the Covid-19 pandemic just got worse with no end—or national government action—in sight.

Staten Island’s quarantine zone in the 19th century [photo courtesy NYPL Digital Collection]

This happens a fair amount. I’ve got seven aborted drafts in the can, and I’ve deleted a few drafts completely from my WordPress library, too. Sometimes events overtake the abandoned posts. Or I was in a bad mood when I wrote them. Or I’ll reread the thing and think that no one could possibly find that solipsistic piece of crap interesting, so into the vault it goes.

The latest aborted draft seems so innocent and unknowing. It began like this:

I got my last call from the New York Health Department a couple of hours ago. “Your quarantine ends tomorrow,” Yvonne told me. “You can resume your regular activities, wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course,” she added. Of course.

Problem is, what are my normal activities? Or anyone’s? Tomorrow is Election Day, but I did my bit early via absentee ballot. I’ve read all sorts of ominous stories saying that the present occupier, oops, occupant of the White House will declare victory tomorrow night, even if all the absentee and mail ballots aren’t yet counted.

Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s like we’re the villain in a Road Runner cartoon. We’ve gone over the cliff but we’re still running, unaware that there’s no ground under us.

Hey, maybe I wasn’t so innocent and unknowing after all. It still kind of feels like that doesn’t it? Orange Man did declare victory. And we’re still in this weird limbo, avoiding unnecessary outings and maintaining social distancing.

So I’ll just write about what I’ve been up to, or not been up to. I haven’t been working, not for lack of trying. But I’ve been trying to straighten out stuff. My desk has actual surface area, and we’ve got new phones to replace an obsolete one whose battery percentage plunged precipitously if I so much as looked at the screen. The Spartan Woman continues to be an alchemist in the kitchen; I’m amazed at what she does with bread flour. She’s been channeling Montréal’s Fairmount Bagels to make these beauties:

I’m also trying to wean myself from the semi-evil Facebook. I told my iPhone to limit my exposure to 15 minutes a day, enough time to scan my feed to see if anything important happened to a friend, but not long enough to do much about it except call or text the friend via non-Facebook means. My tech setup surprised me by applying that limit across all my Apple devices (see below), so I get shut down even on this MacBook, unless I tell it to override the limits. I set a rule for myself: I can only override the limit if I’m in the middle of writing a personal text to someone.

Result? So far, it’s working. I haven’t spent hours reading memes and clicking on shared articles about the surreal situation we’re in. I can find those articles pretty well by myself. And I haven’t been angry at the extended family members who post opposing and often, racist or just plain mean or stupid remarks about the current and soon-to-be occupants of the White House. So all in all, I think this little experiment is doing what I hoped it would do, to lower my emotional temperature regarding events over which I don’t have much control.

At the same time…well, I feel a little erased. Being mostly homebound and not having a regular gig means that my social life is sporadic and virtual. I’ll concede that I was spending too much time on Facebook. But that was partly by necessity; for some friends and relatives, that’s the only way they’d stay in touch. I definitely feel like less of a participant in the world, whether it’s virtual or real. (And maybe what’s “real” isn’t. In my wandering I’ve learned that philosophers and metaphysicists are arguing whether we’re just bots in a machine.)

I haven’t yet exchanged that time for more useful action in the real world, because I’m obsessed with the news and the crazy refusal of the Republican Party to let go of the wannabe dictator squatting in the White House. Let’s not forget, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by some 3 million votes, a margin doubled this month.

Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

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

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

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

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

Got drugs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here we go again

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

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

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

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

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

In case you don’t read Italian….

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

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

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

Mask wearers on Perugia’s main drag

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

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

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

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

Ruins like this are scattered around the countryside.

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

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

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

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

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

Move along; nothing to see here

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

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

Subasio, meet storm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Somewhere out there is home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Angela keeps the home fires burning.

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

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

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

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

Letizia chose well.

The end is near

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Hey, Quarantena!

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

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

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

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

Even bad weather looks good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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