Enough seriousness. Here’s our friend Enrico pointing out the fruit trees alongside our house in Valfabbrica earlier this month. I wrote enough English subtitles to give you the gist of what’s going on, but I didn’t translate everything.
Look at this photo. What do you see? Yeah, it’s a trick question.
The answer, it seems, depends on who’s being asked. But first, a little context. The Spartan Woman and I were walking down Perugia’s Corso Vannucci one fine evening, doing the passeggiata thing that’s a big deal there. The Corso is the main drag downtown, a fairly wide (for a medieval city) pedestrian street dotted with cafés, restaurants, and swank shops. It’s where the city gathers on nice nights. You walk su e giù, up and down, looking at the shop windows, gossiping, people watching. It’s one of the sweet pleasures of life in a small Italian city.
We passed Sandri, the oldest bar-café on the Corso. It’s a Vienna-style place, with frescoes on the ceiling and an Olde Europe feel to it. Waiters and baristas wear smart red vests, white shirts, and bowties. It’s got tables out on the street, where people stop all day for a coffee, a drink, and a bite.
Sandri always has an amazing window display, and it’s usually keyed to the season, or what’s going on in the city. I took this shot on March 31, a day before April 1. In Anglo-Saxon countries, it’s April Fool’s Day. Fun tricks abound—I remember one year, a computer-savvy composing room guy (that’s you, Tom B) installed an extension on the art department Macs that caused them to either shut down automatically once they’d finished their startup sequence, or the cursor got an, um, erection and had a sound effect to match.
There’s an Italian equivalent: the “pesce d’aprile.” It just means April Fool’s joke. Sandri made these pastries, or chocolates, especially for the occasion. They’re brown because Perugia as a city is renowned for its chocolates, especially the Baci made by the hometown company Perugina (now owned by Nestlé, but still based in San Sisto, a Perugia suburb). The red lips are a bit over the top, but you get the idea, a pastry shop doing an April Fool’s tribute.
That’s not how some of my friends saw it, though. I posted an uncropped version of that photo on Facebook, and it sparked a dozen comments. Why? Some people saw it as racially offensive, as blackface, or minstrel imagery. To be honest, that didn’t even occur to me when I saw the fish in the shop window, and I had no intention of approving a racist pastry or image. And I don’t think that was the intention of Sandri’s pastry chefs, either. But to be fair, I’ll post some of the comparison photos my friends posted.
One friend wrote: “I’m gonna go with “racist”. /runs out of the room” Another: “I’m going with racist too. Blackface caricatures were/are always accompanied with red lips that are exaggerated in both color and size. This caricature lives on in the Netherlands with Black Pete, so I’d say it’s extremely unlikely that you’d see a non-racial use of the exact same features in another European country that’s not that far away.”
I guess I’m kind of innocent, or that being culturally bilingual, I just saw the fish, and my post, as something sort of weird looking, but typical of the artistry of Sandri’s chefs and their sometimes off sense of design and humor.
But the whole affair just tells you how racially charged the U.S. has become, especially after the spate of police killing of unarmed African-Americans, and the despicable campaign that El Cheeto Loco ran last year, and the racism that runs through whole swathes of American society. And it shows how cultural context colors what we see and how we act.
I needed a reality check, so I asked around. My Italian friends said variants of this: They’re April Fool’s fish, and Perugia makes chocolate, so… In fact, some were offended that their city’s premier café would be seen as racist. I posted a comment to explain their view, but few responded. By then, the photo was probably forgotten, being buried way down in people’s Facebook news feeds.
One of my Italian friends really took offense and wanted an apology from you guys in the U.S. She wrote: “A 1,000 thanks Anthony for having explained to your American friends that there was nothing racist in the photo you posted. Simply put, pasticceria Sandri, as you well know, is the oldest in Perugia, and it makes pastries that track events and puts them in its front window. In fact yesterday was 1 April, the day we celebrate jokes we call ‘April fish.’ Don’t forget that chocolate is dark.”
What does all this mean? I’m still not sure, except that when I see something odd in another country, I’ll think hard about its implications before I post of photo of it.
So the other night we celebrated kid number 2’s birthday. We did it like we always do: We go out to eat, and usually it’s at the kind of place that’s more of an occasion than the place up the street. After 10 years of writing restaurant reviews in a prior life, I keep up with what’s happening, more or less. The only thing is that someone isn’t paying the tab any more, so it’s more less than more.
The birthday girl (my wife, kids) or boy (me) gets to choose. Every now and then, Ms. Birthday can’t make up her mind, so The Spartan Woman or I make it up for her. Liv couldn’t decide or think, or probably was too busy to find a Brooklyn hot spot this time. So I saw that Eataly’s Flatiron rooftop restaurant/bar, Birreria, had a cool seasonal popup called Baita, an Italian Alpine-themed eatery. Supposedly. By mid-spring, polenta had vanished and the food seemed fairly New York dee-luxe Italian, with the exception of Alpine cheeses and wines from northern regions.
So, fine. It was all delicious, well-prepared. We had a great time. The boyfriend and kid number 1 came, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. But really: a cheese plate with three bites for $15? A seafood fritto misto in a dainty little bowl? Some reasonably priced wine, but you can get two or three Aperol Spritzes for the price of one at Birreria.
Coming from Perugia, it all seemed faintly ridiculous. I know, I get it. This is New York, and it’s an expensive city. We aren’t just paying for the food and drinks, we’re paying for the privilege of being part of a scene in The Greatest Fucking City on Earth. Rent.
Or is it? I’m a native, but the city seems distinctly Disneyland-New York-themed to me these days. It’s as though the city, especially Manhattan and the more precious Brooklyn precincts, is like a movie set for those not privileged to be native New Yorkers to live out their fantasies. I realize that New York has always been a place to retool oneself and be cooler than…well, out there somewhere. But sheesh, there have always been real people living in Manhattan and Williamsburg. Until, it seems, now.
This Disneyland for the 1 percent quality isn’t accidental. Check out this interview in Gothamist with Kim Phillips-Fein about how this unreal movie set of a city isn’t accidental, but a result of deliberate policies set in motion back during New York’s 1970s financial crisis.
In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of a dinner we had with our pal Fabio Bertoni a couple of weeks ago in Perugia, at l’Officina, probably the city’s biggest scene of a restaurant. It doesn’t lack for creativity; in fact, the food was fancier than what we had at Baita/Birreria. These shots are from the vegetarian tasting menu; a few courses with generous pours of wine throughout cost €25 a head. You read that right.
Look what they’ve done to the Brufani, the poshest hotel in Perugia! Wires all over the place. People with badges on lanyards, saying things like “Press,” “Volunteer,” and “Speaker.” The bar overrun by MacBook Air-wielding journalists, er, enemies of the people. Italian journalists run after the occasional celebrity wielding cameras and microphones, while the public rooms keep everyone buzzing on a happy sugar high with bowls of free, and apparently fresh from the factory Perugina Baci chocolates.
It’s the last day of the International Journalism Festival here, and, as usual, it’s the usual mixture of politics (El Cheeto Loco figured prominently in discussions, but so did Facebook, Google, Amazon and the rest). Journalist, college students, the curious, all racing from session to session, or, as the weather got better, from bar to cafe to restaurant, with a stop every now and then to a session to justify the company expense account or next year’s tax deduction.
As for this enemy of the people, I bounced between doing house stuff, hanging out with the neighbor, and showing my friend and panel discussion partner Fabio Bertoni around town. He was here for an all-too-brief 2 1/2 days, but I think he managed to get in enough to whet his appetite for another go at it next year. Here’s Fabio at an outdoor cafe, where we tried to map out how we’d do our talk. Fabio probably has the best legal job in New York City—he’s the general counsel of The New Yorker, which means that, in addition to the usual lawyerly stuff like guarding the publication’s intellectual property and the like, he gets to read everything. It’s a dream job for someone who has a law degree and a masters from Columbia J-School.
Next up, Richard Sambrook. Richard’s great—a BBC reporter for 30 years, he now teaches and does research on how to move this hallowed profession into the future. We talked about trends in the business, and how media companies in many cases have absolutely no clue what to do, except for the brave exceptions like the Washington Post, which has the benefit of a benefactor’s money (take a bow, Jeff Bezos). Maybe the old family press magnates had it right—not being beholden to shareholders (I’d be a happy man if I never heard the phrase “create shareholder value” again). Companies are on a hiring frenzy, he says, not of journalists (except for the Post) but of consultants, who may talk a good talk, but then implement newsroom changes that simply turn heart-and-soul reporters into interchangeable widgets. Then, when the companies’ private equity owners or public shareholders demand bigger margins, it’s easier to cut staff. And the unvirtuous cycle of layoffs and retrenchment becomes self-perpetuating.
Richard, Fabio, and I had a little session on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. We talked about weighty matters like the right to be forgotten digitally in Europe, and a horrific (for editors) Italian court ruling that ordered a small website to pull an article that its subject had issues with. For good measure, a lower level court impounded the editor’s car as part of money damages. We did okay, though we were competing with other sessions and one of those Italian spring days that bring whole populations out into the piazzas and make you feel as though you’ve leapt into an ad for the Italian tourism board.
As so it ends. And I figure that I’ll give in. Our venue was the Palazzo Sorbello, a beautiful mansion just off Perugia’s Piazza Piccinino, which serves as a house museum, to show off what how the Perugian aristocrats once lived. Our room was decorated with somewhat kitschy frescoes, but the terrace view was another thing entirely. Perugia has lots of terrific museums and churches and all the other things tourists seem to like, but the city itself, I think, is the main attraction. Here’s a bit of evidence.
The phrase means “recalculating route.”We keep getting that message on our rental Renault because we like to play with the navigation on it, but when we’re close to home we ignore its commands and take the shortcut we know.
But, as The Spartan Woman mentioned this morning, it’s a metaphor for our lives. Until a few months ago, I had a day job with decent pay, sparse benefits, at a media company that shall not be named. (A few of us are recalcoling our percorsi, but that’s another post, another time, maybe another dimension.)
Now I don’t. I jokingly tell people here in Perugia that rather than being “disoccupato” (umemployed), I’m a “libero professionista” (independent professional).
Gotta say, I don’t miss going to a newsroom every day. For some reason, not being there didn’t feel as big as a shock as I thought it might be. Looking back, I already had a foot out the door. I was working from home more and more, working from abroad more and more, and in general, disengaging myself mentally as well as physically. I was always moving around, though, even if I was at the same company. After a long haul at one publication, I had machine and expensive software lust and turned into an IT dude. (Some of you might remember that and wince; I liked projects, grew to loathe printers and wires.) Then back to editing, but with a big writing component, along with what was for awhile a burgeoning freelance side career.
It’s funny, though. I have a restless spirit, but at the same time I like certain rituals. Or, more to the point, I like creating rituals with friends and family and then keeping to them for awhile. (Since we’re apostate Catholics, we skipped all the religious milestones that are basically excuses for kids’ parties.) So, oyster shucking and cider and/or Prosecco drinking with my kids, Eastertime dinner with Greek friends, exploring Brooklyn or Queens ethnic restaurants with friends or the kids.
We’re easing into new rituals here in Italy, where we’re doing some house stuff, some work and networking. Similar rituals, different percorsi. Dinner with our friends upstairs (good food, and gentle advice, and cute kids), a morning and evening hike. At the same time, being here means that it’s easy to, well, recalculate our path and explore places we haven’t been. We’re starting to do that in Italy, and have taken advantage of some cheap European flights, too. One summer, we went to Barcelona for a few days for just a few hundred euros.
[Beware of dog people.]
And so in New York, too. An old friend and colleague of mine, Sue Reisinger, told me that it was important to have routines, something to anchor myself, to substitute for the day job. Kathy and I already had the morning routine of taking the dogs to the park. Now that walk with Henry and Lola is later and longer. And I go to the pool as much as I can. I swim with the old dudes, breaking into their routine—two of them can’t always just split the lane between them because of me, the interloper.
Here in Italy, the rhythm of everyday life anchors you. Get up fairly early, make coffee, check email. Do errands, stop for a midmorning espresso and maybe a tramezzino or cornetto. Soon, it’s time for pranzo (midday meal, from a sandwich to a multi course thing out in the country). Then the midday pause. Work or nap (I want to do both right now), then it’s aperitivo time with friends, if they’re around. What? It’s dinner time? And so on. Notice that the two meals anchor the day…
The pizza boscaiola at Mediterranea, the best pizzeria in Perugia
[Updated to fix some typos. Everyone needs an editor.]