Here’s a shot of an extraordinary couple doing a normal thing. It’s the summer of 1996, and I’m with them having lunch in a little restaurant in the town of Norcia in Umbria. It takes about two hours to get there from Perugia, down a highway then up through the mountains on switchbacks and hairpin curves. Franco drove, I rode shotgun, while Giovanna sat across the back seat of her husband’s Mini, chain smoking most of the way.
I’d come calling on these two, my surrogate Umbrian parents, after spending an intense week with my real family, the extended Paonita clan, in Palermo. After a week with my parents, uncles, cousins, and grandmother, I needed a refuge, and these sweet people always provided one, whenever I was in Italy, whether alone or with my wife and kids.
I wouldn’t have known them except for Kathy’s yearlong stay in Perugia attending vet school. And without them, and their family, Kathy probably would have just returned to the States and we would’ve done touristy things, or stayed with my people in Sicily on our Italian vacations.
But Kathy, and then I, were sort of adopted by them. It’s a long story, but friends of Kathy jogged past their house on a hot day. Their daughter saw the two guys looking like death warmed over (they live on a hill. Wait, everyone lives on a hill in Perugia…) and gave them water. One thing led to another and soon Kathy was a regular at their dinner table and a regular passenger with Franco as he wandered the countryside reading electric meters and shopping for food in obscure shops that only insiders like himself knew.
They came to the U.S. and we showed them around New York, we’d drop in on them over the years. We got to know their big family, with brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. Italians like to visit each other during the aperitivo hours, between 6 and 8 pm, and Giovanna’s kitchen and garden were where they met most of the time. They’d play cards, have a coffee or beer, gossip, tell jokes. Neighbors dropped in.
Left, the guys pose on a chilly day in August 1983: me, Federico, Antonio (aka Toto), and Franco.
We’re not especially Catholic despite our upbringing, but we cemented the relationship when we baptized our younger daughter in their neighborhood church, the Tempietto di Sant’Angelo, an amazing Romanesque temple built in the fifth century on the site of a Roman structure, using the original columns.
After all these years, we feel, I don’t know, privileged to have been part of their lives. Perugians are friendly, but they’re also guarded, and it can take awhile to be part of their lives. Franco, Giovanna, and whole crew have opened their arms and their homes to us, and we now have a circle of friends that kept, and keep us coming back.
Time doesn’t stand still, so the cliché goes. Franco and Giovanna are gone now, taken away too soon. But Giovanna was part of a big family, the Santucci clan, and down through the years we’ve grown close to her baby brother Antonio and his family. Antonio is my big Perugian brother. He inspected our place and told me to buy it. He doggedly chased down the evil gas company to get us a connection. He looks in on the place, tells me what to do when domestic disaster happens (a busted drain, electrical weirdness). And when I’m there by myself, his sweet wife Rita feeds me and once, when I was sick with the flu, checked in on me to make sure I was still alive.
There’s a newer generation, and they’ve become our pals. Rita and Antonio’s son Federico comes to New York every couple of years to run the marathon, and last year was no exception. He and their friends did an AirBnB in Brooklyn, but we got together one night for a raucous dinner at Ribalta, one of my favorite authentic pizzerias in New York. (Go there; it’s right near the Strand bookstore, which is an added bonus.) And Franco and Giovanna’s daughters are around our age; we’re growing old together. Simona lives nearby, and Franca is in Malaga, which means we have a winter escape.
Here, Toto inspects what eventually became our apartment in Perugia, with its own, real, actual gas main connection.