[Hey, Tea, here are some of my memories of Umbria.]
It was April 2002 and I was on a reporting trip in Italy. The trip mainly involved interviewing lawyers about the Italian economy and dealmaking possibilities for U.S. multinationals (I’ll write about that someday when I’ve had too much grappa to drink). I conveniently scheduled my trip to straddle a weekend: a few days in Milano, a weekend to chill, and a few days in Rome.
The weekend started on Friday afternoon. I took the train to Perugia and my “dad” there, Franco Castellani, picked me up at the station. He said we had to hurry because he and his wife Giovanna Santucci had a surprise. Franco drove faster up Perugia’s winding streets than usual, cursing about half the other drivers for having the nerve to share the road with him.
Finally arriving at their home near the top of a hill, we rushed inside. “Just put your bag down, we timed this exactly right.” I went into the kitchen to greet Giovanna, who just then pulled some baby artichokes out of the frying pan and put them in a paper towel lined basket. A quick spritz of lemon, a sprinkling of salt and she shoved them toward me. I should tell you that at this point, no one had sat down. “Use your fingers! They’re perfect right now!” Franco said. The three of us stood around fishing the precious nuggets out of the basket, blowing on our fingers because the suckers were hot, And crispy. And lemony. And soft inside. And yes, perfect. We just smiled at each other.
By that April, we had been chosen family for years. The Spartan Woman met up with them back in the 1970s when she had done a year of veterinary school in Perugia. It’s a long story, and the short version is that this couple had adopted us as their American kids. They got to know The Spartan Woman’s parents, we got to know their daughters and extended family, and we’ve been together ever since. We’re Catholics so lapsed that we should be excommunicated, but Franco and Giovanna stood as godparents to our younger daughter back in 1992. All of us have stayed in each others’ houses, we’ve seen elders pass, babies born, and one of their nephews has run a few New York Marathons. You get the idea.
For The Spartan Woman, her studies in Perugia were punctuated by Franco sounding his horn outside her apartment. “Gimmo!” he’d say, the Perugian dialect word for “let’s go,” dragging her out for a ride in the country. He read electric meters at the region’s businesses, and so knew every inch of his beloved Umbria. Franco knew where to get the best prosciutto, the best cheeses, where a special bread could be found. He loved to cook, which invariably meant a huge cleanup for his wife, because he was the kind of cook who would leave flour clinging to the high ceiling of his kitchen, He was almost a parody of the postwar Italian male, with tons of hair product, a walk that frequently involved dangling a cigarette from his lips and spinning his car keys.
Despite his outward bravado, Franco (left, photobombed with the power salute by grandson Francesco in the 1990s) was a sweet man, generous of spirit and time. (But not of gasoline; he’d coast downhill, and whenever I rented a car, he was very happy to ride shotgun while I drove everywhere.) I still hear his voice when I drive around Perugia. “Metti la freccia!” (use your turn signals); sempre diritto! (go straight, always here), vai, vai! (go, go as I gunned it to get onto a highway).
If Franco was the brash, extroverted side of the marriage, Giovanna was the quiet and deep counterpart. She was a career woman, working for the local fashion house Luisa Spagnoli. She took care of things, raised her daughters, and kept the household humming. She was my language tutor; my Italian wasn’t bad 30, 40 years ago, but she helped by giving me The Look when I said something wrong. She kept the spare bedroom ready for us; I used any excuse on a few solo trips to drop by and stay a few days.
See this picture? That was taken on one of the funniest days I’d ever spent with those two. “We’re going to Norcia today, ” announced Giovanna (shown enjoying a postprandial cigarette). I’d been in Perugia for a week, after a week spent with relatives in Sicily. I love both Palermo, where my father’s from, and Perugia. The latter on this trip was a quiet balm to the livelier, bigger Palermo and my family, who are masters in the peculiar Italian art of multiple simultaneous conversations.
So we got into Franco’s Mini, I riding shotgun, Giovanna stretched out in the backseat chainsmoking. The ride seemed back then like forever, but I’ve gotten used to it now; in fact, I visited Norcia in February to see the opening of an important schoolkids’ social center. For the uninitiated, Norcia is a town up in the Appenines famous for its salumi, or charcuterie, its cheeses and truffles. It’s a great place to eat, in other words.
That morning, Franco parked the car, and the three of us walked around from shop to shop, buying dried sausages with names like coglioni di mulo (mule’s balls), reflecting its large round shape. Franco had parked near a bakery he knew, which still used an ancient wood-fired oven, and bought a huge country-style bread. Shopping done, we stopped for the pleasant lunch that’s shown in the photo.
“Porca miseria!” Franco shouted when we got back to the car. “Figlio di puttana!” (son of a bitch). We were parked okay, but for one thing: Franco had forgotten to put his disco orario, or time metering disk, in the windshield, and he was fined the equivalent of $50 for the lapse. There are meters everywhere these days, and you put the receipt in the window. In 1996, not so much.
Franco was good at dishing, not so good at taking it. That night, as we sat down for a light supper, he sliced the bread. Taking the slices, Giovanna and I rolled our eyes and generally acted like we’d gone to a mock heaven. “Giovanna,” I asked her in Italian, “is this not the best bread you’ve ever eaten?” “Si, Antonio, I bet such perfection must have cost a pretty penny.”
Franco just growled.