A Seinfeld kind of life

First off, thanks everyone for getting in touch. I’m okay, even if I was in the COVID-19 infested Italy only three weeks ago as I write this. And I was even in the terrific city of Milan while in Italy, visiting colleagues and getting a dose of big-city life. It seems so long ago now. Because of my possible exposure to the virus, I’ve stayed home for the most part this month, doing so before it became the thing to do. Even when I was in Umbria I stayed home a lot because 1-it was winter and didn’t exactly encourage wandering and 2-it’s just a nice place to hang out in.

Number 2 is what I’ve been thinking about a lot. The European Union has closed its borders to non-EU citizens, and the U.S. State Department put out a notice discouraging Americans from going abroad. But hey, I’m an EU citizen, too, and a big part of me would rather be there than in New York. Nicer weather, for one thing.

But I’m not. And instead of views out to Monte Subasio, I’ve been looking at way too much TV. One of the things I’ve caught, besides the perpetual “reno” of HGTV, are reruns of Seinfeld. Remember that? The joke was that nothing ever really happened. They just talked and obsessed about themselves. People popped into Jerry’s apartment, they said funny things, and occasionally they went to the diner to say funny things. It’s just like us under this kind of house arrest. Only we don’t say much that’s funny and the local diner only does delivery now.

So, like millions around the world, on s’amuse, as Judy might say. We had a cocktail hour the other night. A virtual one, with my ferry posse. Back when I was a respectable citizen with a day job, I rode the Staten Island Ferry to work every day, usually taking either the 8:30 or 8:45 boat from St. George. A bunch of us met in roughly the same place nearly every day, breaking the peace of the unsuccessful silent zone. Our ringleader was John Ficarra, former editor of Mad magazine. Besides him, we had a recording engineer at an advertising shop (The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” is one of the songs he engineered), a lawyer, one of John’s editors, a video advertising guy, a couple of social workers, and an HR woman at a publishing company. That was the core, anyway—others dropped in and out as our work schedules changed.

Anyway, we’ve had a text chain going for awhile. Sometimes it’s a can-you-top-this of witticisms, but it’s a good way to stay in touch. Peter found out that you can take an Apple Messages multi-person text thread and convert it temporarily to a FaceTime video session. Since we all have iPhones—no Android bottom-dwellers among us—we could have a virtual cocktail hour, almost, but not quite as good as the in person one we have every few months.

Here’s the evidence. Props to Lenny for the most glam drink, a blood orange martini. Do this: squeeze a bunch of blood oranges. Combine the juice with vodka and a dash of limoncello. I want one now.

Today is particularly grim, being the first day of a stricter lockdown in New York, and a nasty day outside, rainy and cold, so no solitary outside exercise walk.

Italian doctors predict that people under lockdown will, at the end of it (should that ever happen), gain between 4 and. 8 kilos, or about 9 to 18 pounds. Lord knows we’re just as guilty as any. But first let me show you what we’re missing by being here. This is a photo of our Umbrian friend Angela, who’s just picked a huge bunch of wild asparagus in the hills outside her parents’ home:

We’ve been indulging in less wholesome food experiences. One type, and I know this will bother a couple of our friends, is to experiment with fake meat. We haven’t been eating meat for about 10 years now (though I confess that I stray when I’ve had a few glasses of wine or I’m at a friend’s house). It feels a little odd, to take some ingredients and torture them into something they’re not. The Spartan Woman has become pretty good at taking gluten, nutritious yeast, and jackfruit and turning them into a fair approximation of boneless pork ribs. Basically, she’s making seitan, whose use, according to Wikipedia, has been documented to the sixth century. Here’s the result:

Meanwhile, we’ve been looking at what modern technology has been up to. We’ve had Beyond Meat hamburgers, which are scarily like real hamburgers. You can also get “sausages” and the hamburger “meat” in bulk. Have nothing better to do for Sunday dinner, I decided to attempt what we call Giovanna’s roulé, an Umbrian meatloaf our dear departed Perugian mama used to cook for us when she was with us and we were staying with her. She’s take ground beef and sausage meat and make a dense round loaf, and braise it with onions, wine, and broth. I used the Beyond products, and came up with this:

It was good, but I’m wondering: Are these gateway drugs back to being carnivores?

[Image at the top: The Spartan Woman’s bread, baked just because she could]

I come from the future

[I wrote this a couple of days ago and it already seems dated. I thought I’d post it anyway to show how quickly events have overtaken us.]

I got home a couple of weeks ago, ending the popular series “500 hours of solitude (give or take).” My blogpost output in New York falls drastically, not because it’s a less interesting place, but because, I will admit, I lead a boring life here. Call it the uneventful life of the New York native who didn’t move to the city to live out some fantasy of a glamorous life.

So, first off, I’ll come out and say it. I’m a klutz. Call me butterfingers. Remember when people said that? I was reading something on my dear sweet iPad Air 2, a model that first saw the light of day in 2014, when I dropped it onto a hard tile floor. It wasn’t the first time that I’d dropped either a phone or iPad, but this time it was serious. At first things seemed to be ok, but then the screen turned into a series of gray stripes. Once the icons flashed and I thought, great, it’ll self-heal. But the was only a momentary letup in its slide to oblivion.

I’m also a geek, and when I’m here, I tend to obsess over stuff like computers, iPhones, TV streaming services and the like. I suppose it’s just another way to fill these boring days. Sure, I’ve had work to do, but I am a master of procrastination.

Okay, you say, why not go out and do something? Good question. Since I did return from the walled country of Italy, I’ve been trying to do the right thing and self-isolate as much as I can. Screening while traveling back was nonexistent other than being asked if I’d been to China. But I was in Milan for a couple of days, traveling back and forth from Perugia on crowded trains. So I figured I’d do the right thing and lay low. Plus, jet lag hit me hard and I’ve been semi-narcoleptic, waking up at 4 a.m. and needing a nap by lunchtime.

The Italy I left was about a month ahead of the U.S. in terms of Covid-19 craziness. Whole areas of the north were under lockdown and it was only days before all of the north, then all of the country was ordered to stay home just a few days after I got back to New York. It was all people talked about, and I was unnerved by how unaware people in New York seemed to be about what was going to unfold.

I almost wish I hadn’t left. As a journalist, you want to be where the action is, and a whole country of 60 million people basically staying home is definitely the kind of phenomenon you want to witness. Thanks to social media and everyone having a smartphone, though, it’s been easy to see what’s going on there. Italians have adapted with some sadness and, as you might expect, with a fair amount of style and humor.

Some of our friends are lucky enough to live in the country. Angela and Debora, for example, live across the Chiascio valley from us, in a hamlet of Valfabbrica called Poggio S. Dionisio. Their incredible off-the-grid new house abuts some woods, and Angela, who grew up surrounded by forest, is an expert forager. The first days of staying home found her wandering around to pick wild asparagus, which, after a warm winter, is now in season. Here’s one day’s harvest:

Others have taken refuge in books, cooking, drinking. They’re allowed to take walks, but have to maintain a 1 meter/1 yard distance from others. At first restaurants and bars (more like all-purpose cafés in the American context) were at first allowed to be open from 6 am to 6 pm, but they’re all shut down now. Italians can buy food and medicine, but there are rules. Angela tells me that at the local supermarket, only 1 person per family is allowed in, and there’s a limit of 25 people in the store at any one time. The writer Beppe Severgnini has a piece in The New York Times that describes things pretty well.

Our friend Federico works in an appliance/computer shop. Computer stuff has been deemed essential, so he continues to go to work.

More, later….

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…

500 hours of solitude (more or less): I have often walked down these streets before…

…but they never quite looked like this.

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.

500 hours of solitude (more or less): Hands across the ocean

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.

Angelo and his sidekick

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.”

Padre Basil, Richard Mollica and Eugene Augusterfer (in the blue jacket)

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.

Architect Mario Solinas (left) in front of his work

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.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): All the pretty colors

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,”

Ubaldo at the doorway of his workshop

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.

It was all washed down with a bottle of my latest favorite white wine, Trebbiano Spoletino. In particular, Adarmando from the producer Tabarrini from Montefalco. If you can find it, grab it.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): The mayor hangs up his shears

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.

Franco’s domain

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.

It’s official, kinda

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.

Porchetta, anyone?

Best of all (at least for me)? Franco promised that he’d do house calls.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): Let’s talk about global elites, baby

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.

Looking better than on a certain July afternoon

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?

500 hours of solitude (give or take): Day 1, alone with the neighbor’s sheep

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.

The house still stands. The old shed is missing the summer’s pool toys.

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.

The town’s still there.

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.

This winter I went swimming

(with apologies to Loudon Wainwright III)

This winter I went swimming 
This winter I wouldn’t have drowned 
I held my breath and I kicked my feet 
And I moved my arms around
I moved my arms around

We’ve been back in New York for a few months, which has been bad for the waistline. And so it was time to get back into some kind of shape. The holiday season was blissfully over. No more béchamel, truffles, cocktails, cookies, pies, wine, more cocktails, more wine. No more avoiding the pool because, you know, I had things to do—like visiting a friend on the Upper West Side for cocktails and seeing friends who were holed up in a Times Square hotel for, you guessed it, cocktails.

I’ve had a YMCA membership before Kid no. 1 was born, some 35 years ago. I used to hit the pool at 9:30 pm every weeknight. I was in my twenties and super fast. The pool, in fact, was filled with people who were super duper extra fast, all young like me. We’d goad each other to go faster. I learned how to do flip turns. “You should make it snap more,” one of my partners counseled. I did. I kept it up for years, which was relatively easy to do when you’re young and didn’t have to get to the office until 10 or so. And as the kids grew up, I started going less and less, in spurts more than a steady routine.

I love the water. Unlike the experience of some friends of mine, for whom swimming was a structured, oppressive series of lessons in an indoor pool, swimming for me always meant freedom and escape. I learned to swim at the beach. My father was a really strong swimmer, and when I was only four or five, he’d sit me on the beach and tell me not to move. Then he’d swim way out, waving to me and calling me. Then it was my turn. I learned by riding the waves, and soon being buoyant was as natural as breathing.

Later, we had a backyard pool and my siblings and our friends spent most of our summers in it. We played elaborate hide and seek games that involved swimming stealthily underwater to evade who was “it.” In high school, I took swimming instead of gym a couple of times. Mostly it was to avoid the Marine drill-sergeant gym teachers and the stupid militaristic calisthenics. But it soon turned into a soothing respite from Brooklyn Tech classes. Most of the class (gym classes were single-gender) would play pool volleyball unless the swimming coach decided to actually teach a lesson. But I was nearsighted and hated games like that. And I realized that I could just be a loner, and float around the deep end. I’d make sure to get high before class and spend a very pleasant hour mostly underwater pretending to fly.

As a college kid, I’d go upstate with friends to explore swimming holes. We’d jump from cliffs into ice-cold pools of water. One drop was about 35 feet and, well, you can’t slow down once you step off the ledge. Didn’t stop us though. Those beautiful swimming holes—I barely remember where they were—were a great foil to a series of boring summer jobs.

So it was back to the Y pool this month. Only now, not having a regular office job means I can go to the 11 am lap swimming session, where I’m actually one of the younger people in the pool.

I’m sometimes alone in the lane, which is great. But more often than not, I split the lane with Chris, a retired fire captain about my age. Chris is tall and lanky, and he gets to the deep end with what seems like five strokes. He’s just so quick and quiet about it. He told me he was a high school swimmer and has been swimming in the Y pool since he was three years old.

I was inclined to hate Chris. Early on, I heard him talking with someone about how Trump was driving liberals crazy. They were giggling like little boys who snuck a frog into a girl’s lunchbox. I avoided talking to him or even really acknowledging his presence. Eventually, though, we got to talking, starting with the usual “want to split the lane?” question. And I found out that he’s a curious and smart guy and somewhat of an amateur historian. We still avoid politics, and that’s okay. Can you say “cognitive dissonance”?

Going back and forth in an indoor water tank does get tired, but I do things to make it interesting. The Spartan Woman gave me an Apple Watch a couple of years ago and I can wear it in the pool. It’s got a workout tracker for swimming in a pool, so I’m always tracking how much I swim in how many minutes. My baseline distance is 1,000 meters; I figure that that’s pretty good for an old guy. If I can do it in a half hour, so much the better. Besides, with the watch, I don’t have to count laps, which always tripped me up. I always lost count before.

It’s pretty amazing what swimming a few times a week will do. I have muscles again; they seemed to go into hiding once the summer swimming season ended. I’m incredibly relaxed post-swim, especially if I spend some time in the sauna afterward. And it gives me an excuse to get out of this little prison of a home office.

I can’t wait for the summer.