It was Sunday afternoon into evening. I had some stuff to do in the city, including laundry, so I loaded the clothes in the car and off I went, beseeching my late father-in-law, the patron saint of parking, for a spot up the street. Joey came through, So I loaded the machine (it’s a combo washer-dryer, felicitously called a “lavasciuga” in Italian–say “la-va-SHOO-gah) and then decided to take a walk,
I was really hoping to do something bad, like have a drink or a hot chocolate, which here is more like downing a warm slightly more liquid dark chocolate mousse. But I didn’t, and maybe because I was distracted. The sky seemed a little more dramatic than usual. I snapped a shot to catch that, and went on my way.
I did the obligatory back and forth—su e giù in Italian—on the Corso Vannucci, watching some Carnival silliness. When I reached the end of the Corso, things were looking fine, as you can see below.
Soon it was time to walk back, maybe see some friends in the ‘hood. Now the sky went from interesting to wow, it that for real? I never saw the buildings turn quite that color, either. Usually they get golden, then sorta brown, then black.
And then, it was breathtaking—another favorite Italian word of mine: mozzafiato,
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. I looked around and people were stopping everywhere to take pictures, selfies, or just look around. It was one of those collective moments of appreciating beauty, on a late Sunday afternoon as a warm winter draws to the end.
P.S. I checked out Facebook when I got home, and it seems like everyone I know who’s on it posted a shot or talked about the sunset.
These weeks here are definitely turning out to be less than solitary. Yesterday my new friend Angelo and I went to Norcia, which was hard hit by a fierce earthquake more than three years ago. Angelo’s a driver; he’s got a Mercedes van and he takes groups around Italy and into Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. He lives in a church building in the next town over with his constant companion, a sweet little dog name Titi.
After days of blazing sunshine, yesterday showed Umbria’s moody, foggy winter side. We climbed into the van, with the dog happily riding between us and headed south. Perugia’s commercial suburbs gave way to mountains. Somewhere near Spoleto you go left and into a 4 km (roughly 2.5 miles) tunnel. When you emerge, you’re in the Valnerina district.
It wasn’t an idle trip. Angelo knew some people who helped build the first new structure in Norcia since the earthquake—a lab and public rooms for Norcia’s kids. The building’s nice enough. What was remarkable about it was how it came together—a unique collaboration between Benedictine monks, Harvard Medical School psychiatrists, and the National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF). The Harvard guys are Richard Mollica, Director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma and Eugene Augusterfer, of Harvard’s Global Mental Health Center, and they specialize in helping traumatized people deal with the aftermath.,
After the quake, the foundation sent the Harvard-NIAF team to the area. But how would they connect with the traumatized locals? They found a connection in Padre Basil, a Benedictine originally from Arizona, who moved to Umbria and immersed himself fully the community. The three men met and the Americans got to know the Norcia community. It’s a proud little city with a long gastronomic heritage. Its pork products are famous throughout Italy, so much so that a slang term for a pork butcher from these parts is “norcino.”
Eventually, the Harvard people, Padre Basil and NIAF decided to build the center, with the foundation kicking in $450,000 from its earthquake relief fund. The town’s high school was damaged by the quake and the kids attend classes in borrowed spaces. They needed labs for their science classes, a space for gatherings, and spaces for counseling. That’s where the Italian Trauma Center came in and helped coordinate the efforts to build it.
The three men share a few characteristics: They’re lively, extremely friendly and just ooze kindness and concern. Those traits were on full display as people gathered for the ribbon cutting. Officials, local cops, disaster recovery people, and the curious milled around beforehand. The project’s architect, Mario Solinas from Perugia smiled wanly as he looked around and told me, “Can you imagine? This is the first new building in Norcia since the earthquake and it took private funds and initiative to build it.” Others nodded and compared the slack recent government efforts to the aftermaths of previous tremors.
The pre-inaugural gathering soon got a big energy injection as high school kids trooped up the road, their boisterous voices carrying far as they enjoyed a morning off from classes. Soon we were all rounded up as the school principal, the architect, local officials, and the Harvard and Trauma Center teams gathered to cut the ribbon.
Both national anthems were played, the Italians telling one another, “it’s the American one. No, we don’t have to know the words.” When the Italian anthem, officially called “Il Canto degli Italiani” came on, the kids and their teachers sang along boisterously, cheering one another on and challenging themselves on sheer volume.
Finally, the speeches, which were mercifully short, and short of boasts. If anything, the theme was community, cooperation, and survival. Fun fact: After disappearing for years, the local river reappeared after the quake. The speakers took it as a sign of rebirth.
They aren’t out of the woods yet. Behind the center is a still-incomplete new school. The kids may be able to use it next academic year. Or not. Here’s hoping. I have a feeling Padre Basil won’t ease up on his efforts to get it finished.
I overestimated. Those 500 hours I thought I’d spend alone seem rather less, and that’s probably a good thing. While I’m talking to myself a fair amount, it’s not any more than usual. And I keep bumping into people I know, or they or I make appointments to meet. I forgot that I have more of a social life here than in New York,
Part of the difference is location. Our house in New York is in an outer borough-—the outermost borough, in fact: Staten Island. It’s a pain to meet people for lunch when they’re in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I either have to drive over a bridge or take a ferry and probably the subway. Up here on the mountaintop, we’re only a few kilometers from the town and an easy 20-minute drive to the nearest city. Plus Italians are more spontaneous. Chances are if you say let’s have lunch or a drink, they’ll say yes. New Yorkers, and Americans in general, have to check their calendars first. It’s the cult of busy-ness. If you ain’t busy, you’re a loser.
Anyway, I was reminded of Staten Island’s outer outer borough status by a friendly gentleman who sells ceramics. He’s Ubaldo Grazia, and his family’s company has been selling this beautiful stuff for, like, forever. I met him because a friend of mine visits him every year. She comes to Perugia most winters for a few months and take a language course, but this year her visit was a short one because she and her husband just moved into a house they built. But Grace, a semi-retired lawyer from Pennsylvania, wanted to get some kitchen accent tiles, and since she and I planned to get together, she asked if I could drive her to see Ubaldo. He likes to know his visitors and asked me where I was from, in English. “New York” “But where?” “New York City.” “But where in New York City?” “Staten Island.” “You’re not from New York,”
Yeah, right. Just listen to my accent. I think the way I write has a New York City kid accent too. But anyway I promised in the first of these posts that if I didn’t have a lot to say I’d just post pictures. So here they are. They look great on my Mac laptop, I hope the colors pop on whatever you’re using, These are all Grazia ceramics, from the capital of ceramics around here, Deruta,
That was hard work, looking at all that eye candy. So we went off to Torgiano, mostly famous these days for the Lungarotti winery/Relais & Chateau hotel. But the Lungarotti family isn’t the only game in town. Our friend Letizia, of the cooking school and bed & breakfast La Madonna del Piatto said we should try out Siro for its rootsy Umbrian food. I’m glad we did.
It still may be winter, but artichoke season is upon us here, a few weeks early. So how could we not indulge? First, some fried small ones:
And my lunch companions had this pasta, olive leaf-shaped packets of artichoke cream.
There are a bunch of things you don’t realize at first when you starting living for months or weeks at a time in another country. The big one is healthcare—what happens if you get sick? Then there are little ones, can I take my suit to a nearby dry cleaner? And where do I get a haircut? There’s one thing in Italy you don’t have to worry about: Where do you buy food? It’s everywhere.
I didn’t care about the haircut thing until a few years ago when I had so much to do before leaving New York that getting a haircut beforehand didn’t even enter my mind. When I got here, it was so hot that the mane I was sporting was just too much. I scoped out the neighborhood and settled on a taciturn guy on the next hill, across t he street from the bar where English-speaking foreign students drank too much and passed out on the mostly-pedestrian street. He was good, but every time I went he insisted that I part my hair on the other side and when he did, I felt as though the world had flipped over. You don’t realize how much stuff like that can change how you move through the world,
Then I noticed Franco. His little shop was down the street from where we were living. He had a bunch of wooden walking sticks that he’d carved in the window and the shop was decorated with photos of old Perugia. Why didn’t I go to him first? I forget. Anyway, I started going to him, and other than his propensity to take a lot off the top, I got decent haircuts.
But more important, he was fun to talk to. We’d chat about everything: our families, Perugia, New York, restaurants, Barak Obama (he’s a fan), Agent Orange (not really), urban planning and transport, being our age—only a few months separate us. The added bonus was that it was all in Italian, which was great because The Spartan Woman and I speak English to each other, except for certain words and phrases that only make sense in Italian. (Antipatico is one word. It’s the opposite of simpatico, but how to say it in English? )
What also made it fun was his clientele and his role on the block. His customers ranged from college students to the local politicians, lawyers and architects. The mailman or woman always stopped in for a chat, and if we passed by and he had no one in the chair at the moment, he’d come out to talk. Sometimes, I’d end up spending a lot more time than I’d planned just because of the stream of visitors and other customers.
So last week, just as I dragged my bag into the house after arriving from NYC, my iPhone rings. I don’t notice the number, but answer anyway. “Ciao Antonio,” I hear. “T’invito alla mia festa di pensione questo sabato. Puoi venire?” (Ciao A. I’m inviting you to my retirement party Saturday. Are you coming?) Between fatigue and jet lag, at first I didn’t realize who was speaking. But he knew my name, so I played along for a bit. Finally it hit me.
A couple of days later, I had to go into town. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Franco’s shop was closed, but there was a retirement certificate of sorts in the window: “Diploma of Deserved Retirement. Given with full rights to Franco P, who will continue to do nothing…but from today he’ll be doing it at home.” A notice below, which was posted for a stretch on the street as well, invited the neighborhood to his party at the local social center, conveniently located across the street from our place. Well, convenient except when ’70s music fans have an end of term party and blast Led Zeppelin at 2 in the morning, but it’s all part of the experience.
Of course I had to go. I didn’t know most of the people there, but that was ok, There were big cartons of wine, and a butcher was in attendance. All Umbrian parties worth anything have porchetta and the region’s dryer, chewier prosciutto. The butcher was slicing the ham surgically then offering people slices from the tip of his knife. As the party began to ebb, a small army made panini of porchetta and piled them high on the table for people to take home for dinner.
Best of all (at least for me)? Franco promised that he’d do house calls.
After a couple of days getting over jet lag, dealing with cobwebs, and laying in supplies, it was time to come down from the mountaintop. I got an invitation on Facebook from my Franco-Italian friend Gilles to attend a talk in the French consolate in Perugia on the roots of anti-European populism. Policy geek that I am (it comes and goes), I hit the “attending” button and got an e-ticket to the event. Yes, a ticket—I was thinking, was this really that popular a thing?
It was. Perugia is a big college town, after all.
But I’ll back up a little. We bought a little apartment in Perugia’s historic center some years ago. We spent a lot of summer vacations based there. I say “based there” because we’d move in, have meals and sleep there, but every chance we got we’d go out, either to the next hill to hang out at a café, or we’d hop in the rental car to go exploring.
So off I went, down the winding road, onto another winding road that eventually took me to my secret parking spot. I purposely avoided the highway that would’ve taken me faster into Perugia. It was nice to be driving a stick shift car again; in fact it was the car that got smashed up last summer, now looking good as new. I had fun downshifting through a few hairpin turns, and less fun being tailgated by sociopaths. I was driving fast enough.
In about 20 minutes, I was back in the old ‘hood, which happens to be the university student quarter of the city. Yeah, you can go back home again. I walked down our street and checked the apartment. All was ok, except for the recalcitrant heater. I’ll have to take some time later to sort it out. I headed out again, aiming for Perugia’s main drag, looking for our bank’s bancomat (ATM to English speakers) and my favorite place to get an espresso standing up at the bar. It was all very very quiet—I realized that I headed out just before the afternoon break was over.
Soon I was joined by people walking around talking, enjoying the springlike weather. It was around 15 degrees C, or 60 degrees in Amurrican, and I window shopped, looked for any changes, because it had been four months. It all looked pretty much the same. I had some time to kill, so I found a park bench and took in some sun, while eavesdropping on the conversation going on at the next bench. The three, including a woman of a certain age wearing a hat that looked like peacock feathers, were psychoanalyzing a common acquaintance. Soon, Ms. Feathers got out her phone, called said acquaintance, and started shouting into it. Mostly she was saying, in Italian, “can you hear me?” (mi senti?). If he couldn’t, everyone within 10 meters could.
Then it was time to head to the French consulate. The building, off of Piazza Morlacchi, looks disconsolate, down on its luck, and the stairway up a flight didn’t change that impression. But when I got in the room, O…M….G. The room was already half full, and we had to sign in. The crowd was a mixture of students, professorial types, and the Italian equivalent of people who might go to a lecture at the 92nd Street Y.
The talk itself featured Corriere della Sera editor Federico Fubini and Bocconi University Prof. Gianmarco Ottaviano, and was entitled “Unione Europa, Perché Odiarla? Alle Radici del Sovranismo Antieuropeista.” That translates as “European Union, Why the Hate? Seeking the roots of anti-european nationalism.” That last word is problematic to me—”sovranismo” is more than just nationalism, and the speakers made a distinction. It refers specifically to the actions of governments like that of Trump and Johnson in the UK, or to what Salvini in Italy preaches. It’s more than an appeal to God, Tradition, and Country in the old days; it’s coupled with anti-immigrant actions like imposing punitive tariffs and withdrawing from international treaties. Anyone out there have anything to add?
In any event, the roots have been out there for us all to see. The EU, they said, is a perfect vehicle for the world that existed in the 1990s, the somewhat fuzzy promises of globalization, a mobile, educated populace, speaking English and tech-talk, seamlessly moving around doing important Internet stuff. Problem is, the world the Eurocrats set up led to wide dislocations as people from Southern Europe moved north for jobs. At the same time, stupid decisions like the US invading Iraq led to the refugee crisis, with thousands braving the sea to reach European shores. Italy in general feels hollowed out, its once huge auto industry, for example, rushing into a marriage with the French Peugeot. And that’s just one big example.
So yeah, there’s a reason for people who aren’t English speaking tech savvy consumers of iPhones and Camembert to feel left out of it. The speakers were charming, yet a lot of what they were saying seemed obvious, at least to me. What we need, if we want to avoid the ranting, racist appeals of Trump and Johnson, are policies that make angry people feel like they’ve been invited to the party. And mealy-mouthed, fiscally prudent centrist policies ain’t gonna do it. Seems to me that we’re at one of those historic junctures that demand structural change, much like FDR did to save US capitalism back in the 1930s. And it doesn’t look like the current crew is going to do it. Are there any grownups out there?
This was the deal: The house in Umbria was unoccupied for a few months, and this is not a good idea. It’s one thing to leave an apartment—you just close up, turn the gas off, make sure the espresso machine’s emptied of water, lock the door, and you’re good to go. It’s rather different with a country house, especially one that’s pretty visible. Our red car wasn’t in front, and a close viewer would notice the lack of activity.
Only both of us couldn’t get here this winter. The Spartan Woman has a bunch of things to do, and she’s more successful at doing them if I’m not around. And it doesn’t matter where I am to do my work. So here I am, up on the mountain with the sheep. Someone had to do it.
I’ve never been alone up here for more than a few hours. So this is an experiment. Can I live here and do what I need to do without turning into a crazy man talking to myself? Oh, wait, I do that anyway. Can I do it without turning into a sloth in sweats, a hermit with the sheep and if I’m lucky, the neighbor’s sheepdog as company?
We’ll see. So far, things are fine. I got here yesterday via a smooth and nearly frill-free but comfy Alitalia flight (premium economy is almost civilized.) The airline’s perpetually bankrupt, but it keeps up a good face and premium economy comes with a better, more spacious seat and priority check-in and boarding. Then a friend of a friend picked me up at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. That saved me from either a combination of trains and then begging for a ride, or a slow bus and begging for that ride from Perugia. Plus, the guy was great to talk to—total Italian immersion—and his sweet little dog fell asleep on my lap.
When I got here, the poor house felt neglected, with cobwebs in the corners, a fridge with some scary items in it, and the wind howling from the north. Luckily, though, the Internet connection still worked and a friend turned the heat on before I got here. It’s still chilly but not frigid in here.
I’ve had back again stuff to do–get in some groceries, fill up the car, and some work. And being alone means I get control of the TV remote and, as usual the few times I did, I got lost down the YouTube rabbit hole.
I’m going to try to blog more often as a way of chronicling my adventures. Or document my going insane. If I can’t think of anything halfway interesting to write, I’ll post photos.