500 hours of solitude (give or take): People everywhere! Some with masks!

Did anyone notice that I’d changed what’s in parenthesis in the headline? I didn’t, only realizing the change when I scrolled through the blog. Both phrases say the same thing—give or take, versus, more or less—but the change was completely accidental. Hey, where’s my copyeditor?

Anyhow, so much for solitude. After a drive to another town, then Angelo driving me to Perugia, then a bus trip to Rome’s airport, then a 10 hour flight and 40 minutes to our house and a few hours’ sleep, I’m sitting across the table from The Spartan Woman with cappuccinos and her homemade bean-oatmeal muffins. [Update: I’m finishing this up a couple of days later, jet lag having temporarily eaten my brain,]

I didn’t see any signs of coronavirus worries until I hit Rome’s airport, where every now and then you’d see someone with a mask. When I got in line to check into my flight, an airline rep came up to me to ask me if I’d recently been to China; presumably if I’d said yes I would’ve been tested. I was preoccupied anyway, my periodic allergic cough having returned at a most inconvenient time. Luckily a visit to a pharmacist took care of that; he gave me this great cough suppressant in lozenge form, so I wasn’t hacking all the way to JFK.

The ride home, stage 2: the Perugia-Rome airport Sulga bus

The scare is already seriously changing how we live. American Airlines has cancelled flights to Milan, while Perugia’s terrific Journalism Festival has been cancelled. Also cancelled is Geneva’s auto show, one of Europe’s big industry get-togethers. In AA’s case, a flight from New York to Milan never took off because the flight crew refused to board the aircraft.

Back in Italy, at least for me, the last couple of days were such a whirlwind that it didn’t occur to me that I was alone most of the time. I realized at some point that our home insurance had expired, so a few WhatsApp exchanges led to my attacking the bancomat (ATM) in town and running off to our agent to pay in cash. Okay, so, cash, old-fashioned, right? Then the policy is called “Generali Sei a Casa Digital” (Generali–the company–you’re at home, digital). I had to sign a half dozen times on an iPad. Go figure.

Then I rushed home to change and take the organic Prosecco from the fridge to go over the hill to our friends Letizia and Ruurd for dinner. Letizia runs a cooking school, her specialty being updated Umbrian classics made with the best ingredients. The couple also run a bed and breakfast, the classes and inn both bearing the name Alla Madonna del Piatto. Both trained entomologists and former academics, they tossed it aside for life in the hills outside Assisi. In one way, it wasn’t a big stretch; Letizia grew up in nearby Perugia. Ruurd’s from the Netherlands and is a multi-talented guy; among other things, he took all the photos in Letizia’s cookbook Kitchen With a View. You should buy it.

We finally called it a night with Ruurd and Letizia

It was an adventure getting to their place at night. Being a city boy, it’s taken me awhile to get used to driving around the Umbrian hills, especially when it’s dark. We native New Yorkers orient ourselves by buildings and by knowing where our islands end and the water begins. You can’t really get lost, plus, you know, streetlights. Letizia’s place is way up a winding road, and it took awhile to figure out how to get there with the car’s navigation. Now I can do it easily in the daytime. But at night, without those cues, not to mention streetlights, I had to keep checking my onboard map, which has been known to lead me through fields.

It was a terrific night, with a couple they know, Augustino and Rossella, who live not too far away in the countryside outside Foligno. We talked about food, families, where we live, ingredients, how to make polenta properly (there are actually pots with motors that stir the stuff for you), beer and the incredible dessert wine we were Letizia’s biscotti into—Passito di Sagrantino.

All good things end, and I woke up the next day at 8:30, late for me, with a whole bunch of things to do. Closing the house is more involved, plus I had to pick up a couple of things at the supermarket for friends. And, er, I wanted a bottle of that Sagrantino dessert wine. That night I had my final solitary bachelor’s dinner—farro spaghetti with fennel, spring onions, chili-spiked anchovies, and bread crumbs. Basically, it’s what was left in the fridge.

I scrounged in the fridge to put this together. In a New York restaurant, you might get charged $30 for it.

So…yes, I survived 23 days mostly alone. I spent far less time by myself than I thought I would. Living in Italy means that you have a lot of interactions with people—neighbors, shopkeepers, friends, barristas, etc. I’d get into conversations just walking up the road to get some exercise. We have neighbors up and down the road, and if they’re driving, they’ll usually stop to say hi. Then there’s that inter webs thing. I used FaceTime a lot, probably bothering The Spartan Woman, and we’d just go about our business chatting over an open connection. “Phone calls,” if you can call them that, are free with an Internet connection now.

We’ll be here for awhile. I just hope we can get there from here later this year…

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