You’ve just been erased

“That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion”

I had a pretty glam life in the Before Times. Working in publishing, even for trade journals, was pretty posh as far as jobs go. I was an editor for a weekly legal affairs newspaper—this is before the interwebs—and then I toiled, variously, as an in-house tech consultant, a magazine editor and writer, and a part-time restaurant critic. At the first gig, we had legendary Friday post-publication lunches at the dear departed Restaurant Florent, Champagne and bagel breakfasts, and wine-drenched expense account lunches with writers as we tried to tease the best stories out of them.

At the magazines, I became more visible. I donned a tux and gave awards to lawyers before audiences of 500 or so, was quoted in news releases and articles, and interviewed on video at conferences. I moderated panels of lawyers and executives and had lunch at places like The Four Seasons, once with a guy who’s now the president of Microsoft. I interviewed Richard Gere and Patti Smith at a Buddhist benefit, and hung out with Patti Labelle all day in her kitchen. If you googled my name back then, my editor’s notes and articles shot to the top. In short, in my little corner of the media, I had a public life.

Not my old newsroom, but you get the idea.

A bunch of non-New Yorkers who seemed to love every overhyped consultant they met ended all that. And Covid-19 dealt the coup de grâce. Now old enough to be on Medicare in the U.S., I’m fading away, at least as far as public life goes. I keep thinking of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Erased.”

Why? It’s called “retirement.” And they don’t send you off with a lunch and golden watch any more.

It’s an interesting, if not altogether pleasing process. I didn’t really notice it while we were in Italy, because I was too busy either enjoying living there or dealing with new ways to do everyday stuff like getting an oil change or a haircut, and paying taxes. Back in my familiar New York City home, it’s easy to see what’s missing—dealing with the outside world, basically. One thing that struck me immediately is how isolating American life can be anyway. Here we’ve got neighbors mere feet (or meters!) away, yet we rarely interact with them. But in Umbria, on our hilltop, we regularly engage with neighbors and even passersby as we hike up our road or climb mountain trails. Even a trip to the drugstore can be a social event, because Italians are compulsively chatty.

The Omicron Covid surge ain’t helping. In just a couple of weeks, our neighborhood has become weirdly silent, a combination of it being January, the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and fear of contagion.

Writing this blog helps me ward off what I fear the most, turning into a mindless blob watching endless episodes of home improvement shows on cable. At least I’m keeping up my writing chops, and I’m slowly building an audience. I decided that when I write, I have to be in my home office sitting at the desk, even though I used a laptop and could be, well, in an easy chair, looking up every now and then at a home improvement show or, worse, cable news. And my good friend and former colleague Sue urged me to have a routine. For that, I have The Spartan Woman’s diet and exercise boot camp.

I’ve had different retirement models to follow. My father-in-law pretty much tuned out and watched crappy westerns all day. But my father, similarly cashiered after years of loyal service to his company, moved to the country and became an even more compulsive gardener than he was while I was growing up, his patch of land’s yield rivaling a small farm’s. At the end of a visit to my parents, he’d send us home with bags full of produce. I may not be the gardener my dad was (he’s been laid low by lung disease), but I sure know which path I want to take—albeit in a way that doesn’t involve too much dirt under my fingernails. (The Spartan Woman is our gardener.)

They say you gotta have friends when you don’t have work, and luckily I have lots. A bunch are, due to Covid and distance, virtual. Hello, Facebook, even though I hate you I cain’t quit you. Others live here in New York but still have to put in their time staring at their computers and getting paid for it. During the interregnum between Covid waves, I actually managed to hang out with some in the same meatspace.

Otherwise, I’ve renewed some old friendships. The unfortunate death of one of my best friends (we were besties in high school) led me to renew a friendship with another high school pal, someone who stayed in close touch with the guy we lost. It’s nice to catch up with him—we call each other on FaceTime and walk around our houses and yards. He’s even tapped me to offer some editing suggestions for an article he wrote for his practice, a task that, after years of fixing other people’s writing, is as natural to me as breathing.

It’s nice to be in the city of my birth for awhile. But I have to confess that I’m itching to return to the mountaintop. For one thing, there’s less traffic and a trip to the supermarket is less stressful. But more than that, TSW and I have more of a social life between Italian friends, a couple of Euro and Canadian expats, and the dogs down the road. They say that one of the best ways to delay becoming senile is to keep the mind busy, and I think living in a different country, albeit one that claims me as a citizen, could be how I do it.

Down the YouTube rabbit hole: Italians eating Domino’s Pizza, fast European trains, and a chatty Roman chef on the roof

We’ve been in New York for a couple of months, and the Omicron Covid-19 variant (plus crappy weather) is keeping us indoors most of the time. So to amuse myself I grab my iPad or the big flatscreen when it’s free and plunge into that upside down world known as YouTube.

Unlike most normal people I know, I don’t have a day job. I’m old, for one thing, and the pandemic killed most of the freelance gigs I had. And I should confess that I didn’t go crazy finding another one because I have lots of personal business to take care of. Today, in fact, is the fifth anniversary of the last day I was gainfully employed. I stayed home that day because of a cold, and my dull, kind of idiotic market-speaking “boss” (sorry, no one’s the boss of me….) called to tell me that my dull, kind of idiotic job had been eliminated, along with those of more than 20 of my colleagues.

So, YouTube. Let me tell you, living in a New York outer borough during an infection spike is pretty dull. This is not the New York of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Sex and the City or any other fantasy you might have about the place. So I bang around looking for fun videos in the absence of real life. One of my favorite genres lately is that of Italians dissing something in the United States. They often go after an easy target: American food, or at least American interpretations of Italian food. Sometimes they offer to show viewers how to do it properly. Often, they don’t and choose mainly to make faces or utter curses that don’t show up in the subtitles.

A terrific example of the former is a married couple that call their channel Pasta Grammar. Harper and Eva have gone from decently shot home videos to more professional stuff (Harper is a videographer, so he knows what he’s doing.) Harper, as you might guess, is an American guy who’s partial to chicken and fitness drinks. Eva (who pronounces her husband’s name as “Are-pair”) is a former Italian language teacher who hails from the southern Italian region of Calabria. Harper’s clean cut; Eva has a mass of black curls and an impish smile.

The two do a good comedy act, taking turns as comic and straight guy. Early videos show Harper pranking poor Eva by getting her to eat a Domino’s pizza, or taste jarred tomato sauces and similar horrors. There is nothing like an Italian person’s look of sheer revulsion at the dog food he or she is being made to taste, and Eva acquits herself nicely. She’s also a good cook, and interspersed with the jokey videos are those showing her cooking delicious stuff.

They’ve gotten family into the act, too. Harper’s dad is Max Alexander and he lives in Rome, where he’s been on the Italian TV series MasterChef Italia. They took Max down to Calabria to cook with a local character, who put an apron on the jacket and tie-wearing Max and showed him how to prepare beans in a fireplace. It doesn’t help that the fish out of water Max barely understood the woman, who speaks in a mixture of Calabrese dialect and Italian.

I like what Eva and Harper do. They’ve managed to parlay their relationship into what looks like a growing business. They do food tours of Calabria and Sicily now, as Covid restrictions eased (last year, anyway, before this damn surge.) And they’ve got actual sponsors for their videos. Go binge watch them; their rapport is fun to see.

Another, more recently married couple occupies some of the same space. Carlo and Sarah are both very videogenic (is that a real word, Judy?), and Sarah’s pranking of Carlo can be pretty funny. He’s got a variety of puzzled faces, and occasionally he gives it back. In one video, he teaches Sarah curses but backpedals the English translations. There’s a bit less of an emphasis on cooking, although Carlo of late has been stepping up to the stove teach Italian dishes like spaghetti carbonara and the like.

Sarah never can resist pranking Carlo, whose reactions are usually funny to watch.

Did I mention a querulous Roman? Meet Max Mariola, chef and culinary consultant. He’s got a thriving YouTube channel, and most of his videos are done on the roof of his building in Rome. His setup is pretty serious and probably rivals the kitchen in your house. Plus, you know, Rome. There’s no pranking here, just good recipes for everything from spaghetti with clams to hummus. He doeos the classics, but even better, he’s inventive, putting dishes together like fettuccine with salmon, avocados, and lime (in 10 minutes, he boasts). Unfortunately, some if not most of his videos are not subtitled in English, and if your Italian is basic or nonexistent you’ll probably have trouble following his rapid-fire Roman-accented banter. Even if you’re fluent you might find it a bit much, but he’s a serious cook and I’m learning a lot by watching him.

I did promise fast European trains in the headline. Italy may be romantically thought of as the country of golden sunsets, Chianti, and fashion. But it’s also a modern country linked by fast trains, with one of the best networks in Europe. YouTubers are fond of both the public Trenitalia Frecciarossa and the private Italo trains, with the former recently having started a Paris-Milan run. Here’s the rundown, below. I can’t wait until I feel comfortable enough to be zipping around on these again. Happy New Year!