Και κάτι ακόμα…

 

I thought that maybe my last post would be the final one about summer festivals, but I was wrong—hence the headline, which is Greek for “And another thing…” Between that and the video above, you’ve probably figured out that Greece somehow was involved.

Greeks were involved, anyway. I call Kat The Spartan Woman because her mother’s family comes from a part of the Greek city Sparta called Magoula. And the Greek Orthodox Church on Staten Island has an annual festival in September over a couple of weekends. They do a great job, converting the parking lot into a passable imitation of a Greek village square during a festival. It’s an all hands on deck affair, with church members running a huge kitchen that supplies all the favorites like moussaka, gyros, spanakopita and the like. There’s Greek wine and Fix beer on sale, and the dessert area even makes freddos and frappés, different versions of iced coffee that, when we’ve gone to Greece, have become addictions. When they’re good, they’re amazing.

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Grilling here is a manly art.

We started going to the festival with my in-laws years ago. The Spartan Woman’s mother Eleni wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but the church is more than a place of worship; it’s also a cultural center. She rightly thought that her daughters and granddaughters shouldn’t forget their Greek side, so every September, we all went to the festival together. It became sort of a Greek recharging station for Eleni and The Spartan Woman, and our kids now think something’s missing if we skip a year.

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How do you translate “sagra, Staten Island stylee” into Greek?

Luckily, we got back from the land of the sagra to Shaolin (Staten Island, in Wu-Tang Clan-speak) just in time for the last weekend of the festival. Our kids probably think we’re less-bad parents now. TSW and I made sure we’d be awake enough after a grueling flight back on Iberia, forced to lie flat in a business class cubicle, being plied with all sorts of liquids and forced to eat smoked salmon with a warm potato salad and caviar. Oh, the torture. We took an afternoon nap, knowing that without it, even the Zorba theme played by an electric bouzouki band wouldn’t keep us up. Where’s my freddo?

Even with our souls lagging somewhere over the Atlantic, we had a good time. It was great to reconnect with the charming young women we somehow managed to raise in our chaotic, improvisatory way. And a boyfriend was introduced to the Hellenic side of our family traditions and, I think, he might have another vein of music to sample for his stuff.

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Loukoumades: Yo, you got a problem with fried dough?

Truffles, onions and frogs, oh my!

 

 

One of the pleasures of an Italian summer is the town sagra. It almost always involves food, and centers on one ingredient. Think Gilroy (California) Garlic Festival with some Italian verve thrown in. The sagra serves a few purposes. It’s fun; the towns get to show off; and they raise money for public projects—not to mention for the the next year’s sagra.

We set a personal record this summer: three. Well, four, if you include our town’s Palio, during which the small medieval core was turned into a decently sized outdoor restaurant. The first one was in Ripa, a walled circular town with a big outdoor space outside the walls. The main ingredient: black truffles. Then we went to a neighboring town, Pianello, home to the parents and business of our friend Angela. Pianello did mushrooms.

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Soon, stringozzi (thick, long Umbrian pasta) with black truffles

I’ll admit I cheated in the headline. We went to the frog one in Capanne last year. My bad. That’s the frog one, and we didn’t eat the frog. Instead, we feasted on the other big attraction, umbricelli with a spicy tomato sauce. Umbricelli are these thick, round, chewy handmade noodles of wheat and water—no eggs.

The big daddy, though, had to be the Cannara onion festival this past weekend. These things can get pretty crowded, but this one turns that up to 12. Cars streamed in from all directions and, we were told, from outside Umbria, too. We had a VIP pass that got us a great parking space. And yeah, I’m being vague about that spot on purpose.

The star ingredients may all differ, but there’s one thing in common. They are really well-run. I laugh when people call Italy chaotic or, at best, disorganized. These critics obviously haven’t been to a sagra. Or any big food event here in the Bel Paese. It’s all a question of priorities, you see. You want people to stand obediently in line for mediocre coffee? Then don’t leave home and go to Starbucks. You want the trains to be on time to the second? Go to Switzerland. And stereotypes sometimes are just wrong, as anyone who’s been through the madness of Frankfurt’s airport can testify.

There are two basic models for these: the checkoff form and the restaurant model. With the checkoff one, you find a table, and jot down its number. Get a couple of friends to save the seats. Argue about who’s getting what. Send a couple of people to stand in line, submit the order, and pay. Then go back to the table and wait.

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The waiting is the hardest part.

Cannara did the restaurant model. We had to wait behind a little barrier, for something like 45 minutes. We passed the time teasing each other and drinking an illicit (non festival) beer. Our party was called, and we felt like celebrities as we were escorted to our half of a picnic table. A festival dude took our order and with astonishing speed, the town’s kids brought our dishes out, in the proper Italian meal order: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci.

This scenario was played out throughout the town. Like I said, this is the mother of all sagras, and they had four or five big restaurants spread throughout the town. One of them featured a menu by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.

I’m not gonna play restaurant critic. Did that for 10 years and it was enough. But oh boy those gnocchetti with an onion-cheese cream sauce. And the schiacciata with onions. The onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) weren’t bad, either. I somehow ended up with a free half-bottle of wine, too, courtesy of the guy who took our order. All he asked for was for us to give the kid-runner a decent tip.

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Gnocchetti (small gnocchi) from heaven

A Romanian, an Italian, and an American walk into a bar…

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Between these three guys you can count maybe six passports.

I’ve been bad about blogging lately, but I have a good excuse. We’ve had a parade of houseguests. They’re weren’t high maintenance or anything like that; in fact it was a lot of fun to hang out with them. Because of that, I took a break from writing.

First off (the American) was Doug. He’s a comrade from way back. In another life, he was the art director of a weekly publication we both worked at. (It’s now owned by a company that must not be named, so you’ll have to figure it out.) Doug exercised almost dictatorial powers over story length and the appearance of the text. We editors tried to cheat by putting in squeeze commands in the ancient Atex system that we used (cw-x, where x MUST NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE BE >3). Eagle eye Doug, of course, noticed if we went over 3.

Despite being bossed around by that then- long-haired art director, of all people, I managed to become friends with Doug. We soon became part of a group of people who had what became legendary lunches on Friday at Florent, a pioneering restaurant in New York’s meatpacking district. A bunch of us from those days are still friends—newsroom friends have been through something akin to bootcamp and group therapy and stay friends. And Doug’s been jonesing to come visit us up here on the hill. So he came to visit, and spent a lot of time hiking the hills, helping out with dinner, and sighing a lot because it can get ridiculously scenic ’round these parts.

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Doug, Kristina, and Martina puzzle out what to have for dinner.

I’m not sure the next pair qualify as guests—well, one did, a friend of the other sort-of guest, who was none other than Martina Maria Scozzare Paonita, daughter no. 1. Martina came for poolside therapy, good food and wine, and to hang around the parental units, who’ve been bad mommy and daddy and left their children for a few months. Martina’s an official Eye-talian, thus satisfying the middle criterion in the headline. We all went off one night to the taverna in town, part of a week-long celebration of itself that our comune holds as summer ends. For the uninitiated, a taverna in this context is usually an outdoor, town-hosted restaurant. You get an order form, find a table, fill out the form and take it to the cashiers. You pay, and sometime later, runners bring your order. In Valfabbrica, where we live, the runners are kids dressed in medieval garb, to go with the general theme of the week.

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This year’s poster for Valfabbrica’s Palio celebration. Literally, “all the medieval that you have inside,” but I prefer to translate it as “get your inner medieval on.”

Romanians? Well, we had a few. And once again, like the women of July who came to stay, there’s a dog connection: Matei. Matei may not realize it, but he’s slowly making his way around the globe: from Bucharest to New York to Milwaukee, where he currently lives with the great Shana and the too-adorable Natalie. (The last one is only 2 years old, and I’d post a picture but I don’t post pix of other people’s kids without permission.) What’s next? Seattle? Vancouver? Sydney? Mumbai?

With Matei came other Romanians, his cousin Irina and her husband Stefan and kid Noa. Irina and co. live in Milano, but came to Italy from Montréal and originally hail from Romania and Israel. All of this means that at the dinner table, we had plenty of languages to choose from, which can be fun or nerve-wracking, depending on your disposition. It usually worked out like this: English as the main language, with breakout groups in Italian and Romanian, and the occasional French phrase.

They’re all gone now, and it seems really quiet and lonely. Everyone’s back to their routine, and we’re already thinking of next summer.

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Decisions, decisions, at Da Sauro on Isola Maggiore

 

So I was talking to my barber the other day…

We’ve become terribly lazy and when it’s hot, we don’t get out. Better to ride out the heat up here on the hill. But the other day we had errands to do, people to see. And one of them was my barber, Franco. So we headed into the big city around here, Perugia, population about 170,000. It’s the provincial and regional capital, and despite its small size, it boasts a couple of universities, some world-class festivals (Umbria Jazz, Eurochocolate, and the Journalism Festival), and even a short metro line.

Franco’s shop is down the street from our little place in Perugia’s university quarter, and his clientele is a mix of students, old guys in the ‘hood, and city officials. He’s an artist, too and carves elaborate canes and displays them in front of the shop. The shop is festooned with photos of Perugia’s historic center, and it seems as though he’s the unofficial mayor of the quartiere.

This time, as he sheared my hair off (“I’ll give you a summer cut”), we talked about the city. Everyone likes to say that it’s not the same any more, that the city you knew is gone. In a real sense, Perugia really isn’t what it was. Oh, it looks the same—the Fontana Maggiore looks majestic and spiffy, especially since they cleaned the façades surrounding it of years of car and bus grime. The main drag, the Corso Vannucci, is still the center of downtown, and people walk up and down, shop, and stop at the many bars and restaurants that put their tables out in warmer weather.

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Graduation day, Piazza IV Novembre, Perugia

But if you look closely, you’ll see that very few of the storefronts contain shops that people use every day. There’s a Footlocker, a pretty big Benneton, a large bookstore, and lots of boutiques. Off on one alley is a cannabis shop—weak weed is legal here, and I’m told that you can barely catch a buzz from it—and there are some bakeries and a couple of small food shops. Up on the “acropolis,” though—it’s the highest part of the city— there are no barbers, dry cleaners, hardware stores, etc. It’s better than the mass tourism crap that afflicts Florence, but you can see that the center of Perugia is becoming a combination shopping mall/bar district.

The numbers bear that out. The historic center’s population is around 10,000, a shade over 6 percent of the overall total. More telling, though, is that over half of those are single-person families, mostly students and the elderly.

There are a bunch of reasons for this. Chalk it up to the usual trends of modern Western capitalism. Downtown apartments tend to be smaller and have fewer conveniences, so a lot of people have moved out toward the edge of the city, into modern apartments and house. Students can afford the rents downtown for the smaller places, and they don’t all need cars to get around—the historic center is mostly a pedestrian zone, which works really well for a college kid wandering from class to home to bar and bar and bar and …. They’ve built large shopping centers and movie multiplexes on the outskirts, and the old covered market, once a thriving place full of farmers, butchers and fishermen, was closed for renovation a few years ago. After years of polemics, a compromise was reached, with half the market going to local “normal” growers, and the other half reserved for the luxurious food experiences beloved by tourists and the city elite. (It’s still under construction and doesn’t look like it will open any time soon.)

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The Corso on a spring evening

 

But some of the blame for the center’s mutation has to be laid on decisions made by the city government. In trying to rid the center of the traffic that once clogged the narrow lanes, the city made most of the downtown a ZTL: zona di traffico limitato, or limited traffic zone. That made getting in and out of the city for the center’s residents hard. They either have to get permits, or park in the parking lots down the hill and struggle up escalators (yes, escalators) with their packages. If you need something delivered, the store needs to get a special permit.

One decision was just boneheaded. Seeing the situation above, the government invested about €100 million in the Minimetrò, a short metro line that works like an airport people mover. It’s run by cable and as such can negotiate the steep hills up and into the center. In fact, when it reaches downtown, it goes into a tunnel and to exit, you either take a nifty incline elevator or three, count ’em three, escalators. They work most of the time. The stations and the line in general were designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel. It’s pretty cool, except for one thing. One big thing: It stops running at 9:20. At 21:20. Yeah, just after 9 in the evening.

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Nice metro station. Just don’t try using it after dinner.

 

This is beyond dumb. Apparently some families who live along the line objected to the hum that the Minimetrò makes. Trust me, it’s less annoying than a passing bus or a bunch of Vespas. Okay, during festival time it runs later, so people can get to their cars down in the big free parking lot. But this is a fact: Italians don’t go out for dinner until past 8 pm (or 20:00 euro time). And they’re usually not done until, well, way past 9:20. It’s absurd, and cripples what should have been a crowning achievement. When the cooler weather comes, Perugia’s main drag is often deserted, the once-vibrant center a ghost town.

Perugia isn’t the only city so afflicted. A lot of historic European towns have had trouble finding that balance between making things safe for pedestrians and historic structures, while keeping the centers viable. I hope Perugia finds a way to do it; I’d hate for it to become just another charming place to have a drink on a summer evening.

Tree huggers

In an earlier post, I wrote that I had some doubts about this country thing. I loved living in New York, and even as a kid, I caught a buzz whenever I was in Manhattan. As a teenager, I went to Brooklyn Tech and, er, I enjoyed the odd extracurricular run to the big city across the Brooklyn Bridge. Somehow, the truant officers never caught on (sorry, ma!).

I have to say, though, that there is something to living among the trees and hills.

When we first started traveling around here, we did what self-styled travelers (as opposed to tourists) always did. We rented a car, drove around visiting hill towns, and ate in restaurants. We looked for that obscure Piero della Francesca painting, and did some shopping, taking stuff back to remind us of being here.

Stupid us. We did kind of notice that the landscape itself, connecting those towns, was pretty damn scenic. Just like the backgrounds in those della Francesca paintings, in fact. Finally, we spent a couple of times with friends in the countryside, and we were hooked. On one Ferragosto (the August 15 holiday here) we went to the house of friends in Migliano, about a half hour out of Perugia. A long meal, a walk up the road to the fortress, then a descent into the edge of a green forest seemed like the perfect way to spend a day.

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Our first taste of country life, Umbrian-style, August 2009

Now I spend almost every day surrounded by the greenery of Umbria and with incredible views. I work most mornings, but we first head out for a walk right after we wake up and I make a couple of coffee shots. We were thrilled that young guest, our friends’ daughter Allison, came along on one of our early morning walks.

We like to share, too. Luckily, we’ve had guests who, like us, get up at ungodly hours to march around the hills like we do.  It helps that there’s a network of hiking trails within walking distance and the views (and the uphill climbs) are pretty incredible. We took our first crop of guests, the aforementioned Allison and her parents, Ilene and Alan, for hikes on the Isola Maggiore and to the stupendous Piano Grande, up past Norcia. (We did not, however, force them to wake up at the crack of dawn.)

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Allison in a field of wildflowers, Piano Grande di Castelluccio [photo courtesy of the Rabinowitz/Schlissel collection]

We had a full house. My cousin Assunta and her husband Armando stopped by on the their way from the Veneto to their home in Sicily. I hadn’t seen them in maybe nine years, though we follow one another on Facebook. It was great to see them, and to introduce them to The Spartan Woman, whom I’ve always talked about but is someone who’s never made it to Palermo. We talked, we ate (we put on the Umbrian dog and drenched the local pasta, strangozzi, in a black truffle sauce. And of course we took them on  walks and hiked the Sentiero Francescano della Pace. Good times. (And thanks, Armando, for teaching us how to play bocce, which I did with my dad and uncle as a kid, and then forgot.)

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The Spartan Woman and Assunta take to the Sentiero Francesco one fine morning.

The second wave consisted of two dog-walking friends from Staten Island, Amy and Joanne (they are Bailey’s moms) and their friends Carol and Renée. They brought us pesto, a couple of cool plates from Liguria, where they’d been, and a huge reservoir of energy and good cheer. We sat around the pool, The Spartan Woman played badminton with, I think, Renée, we swam, we drank epic amounts of good wine and we woke up early to take hikes. For the second time in a week, we tackled the Sentiero—from the trailhead near us (it uses our road for part of the way), there’s a long, steep uphill climb followed by short uphill climbs. The views make it totally worth it.

Below, Carol races around the pool so she can appear twice in a panorama.

 

 

A pax on all your houses

Pax: noun, Ecclesiastical. kiss of peace. [from dictionary.com]

This is the second Fourth of July in a row that I’ve been out of the U.S. I have to admit that I miss it. In our neighborhood on Staten Island, it begins with a good-natured race between the two parks in the area, with us cheering the runners on. Then there’s the usual barbecue.

The part I always liked the most, though, is the fireworks. I like gathering with zillions of New Yorkers on a hot summer night, everyone trying to get a good look at the big show on the East River. There’s nothing like the mix of people in my native city, their good humor, their wisecracks, and how all of a sudden people who’ve been trained all their lives to be hard and cynical look like kids on Christmas morning.

So The Spartan Woman and I were up on the mountaintop in Umbria this Fourth. We had to celebrate somehow, but to our friends here, it’s just another workday. I’ve been wanting to go to a place I think is incredibly beautiful, and it’s full of meaning, too. It’s especially true in this turbulent year, as “leaders” around the world foment discord, hatred, fear, and bigotry.

The place is the Eremo delle Carcere. “Eremo” means “hermitage,” and “carcere” can mean “jail” or “cell.” In this case, it refers to a monk’s cell, and also in this case, the monk is St. Francis of Assisi, known around here as San Francesco. It is on the mountain called Subasio, which rises behind Assisi. We can see Subasio across the valley from our house.

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Francesco used to go up to the Eremo to pray and to meditate. The site is just beautiful, seemingly carved into a wooded mountainside, with a commanding view of the Tiber Valley. I can’t fully convey the feeling of peace and tranquillity that surrounds it. The surrounding woods themselves act as a sort of cathedral space, with their tall trees, some of them with roots that cling to stone walls. The tourists and pilgrims visiting the site don’t diminish the serenity. (And typical of such sites in Italy, there are discreet signs everywhere urging silence. )IMG_4373.jpg

Why the Eremo, why Francesco? The dude was a rich spoiled kid who gave it all away to lead a life of poverty and to preach peace and love, both of his God, but also of our fellow souls and nature. His values and wishes seemed like a good antidote to the bellicosity we see, hear, and read coming from a certain failed Queens casino owner. (Okay, I can take the peace and love thing only so far.)

I’ll admit, it’s easy to be cynical about the Francesco schtick. Assisi, a beautiful little city near Perugia, has its share of what we like to call Catholic supermarkets, tacky souvenir shops peddling statuettes of fat happy Franciscan monks. And the region we call home for part of the year, Umbria, has seized upon Francesco as a marketing tool. Officials here took the airport from one saint (Sant’Egidio) and renamed it Aeroporto San Francesco. The Sentiero Francescano della Pace passes near our house, and there’s a little tourism industry built around people who want to trace the saint’s steps as he walked from his native Assisi to Gubbio, some 50 kilometers away. It’s as though they’ve had to come up with something to position the region and to distinguish it from (cue Umbrian eye roll here) the flashy neighbor Toscana.

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But as far as marketing tools go, it’s pretty benign. And it fits—this region does have a gentle, mystical feel to it, especially if you walk through the woods and peer over hills to see the mists and fogs of the cooler months of the year.

So as my friends in the United States celebrate the country’s birth, I’m wishing I could be there at least for the fireworks and some beer. But I’m not there, and the distance has been good, for a few reasons. The stress induced by the constant ranting and braying by some of our fellow United Statesers (in Italian, you can say “statunitense” instead of “American”) has just fallen away. At least until I go web surfing. So let’s just take a deep breath, feel the love of our friends and family, and try not to be obsessed with the dark forces running around. Francesco would want it that way.

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Short, cool summer (so far)

This year is not like last year. It’s been kind of nice, cool and breezy with bright sun and some rain, like the other day. That lasted all day and refreshed the greens that surround us up here on the hilltop. It’s definitely different from last summer, which basically was an outdoor oven. The all-summer European heatwave even had a nickname: Lucifer.

We’ve been lucky, although I’m jonesing to go swimming. The relative chill most mornings means it’s time to walk. This zone is full of places to do that, from steep gravel and dirt paths in the woods, to level riverside walks (the Chiascio, which winds past the town) to, even, our road. The road connects the hamlets of Coccorano and Monteverde (“green mountain”), which we call home.

We wake up decently early most days. It’s good enough for us to have some coffee, zone out skimming the headlines and our Facebook feeds, and then head out. We usually just head up the road. It’s hilly, to be sure, but the relatively easy footing is good for someone like me, who’s basically a klutz hampered by a torn meniscus that I can ignore most of the time. Besides, when we walk up the road and back, we get to talk to neighbors (they’re 1 km. away, but a mother and daughter pair usually sets out the same time we do), and we often get a canine escort. There’s a little terrier that likes to keep us company. I’m sure the biscuits that The Spartan Woman packs for him have nothing to do with it.

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Our little bodyguard

So we walk. Today, we covered 5 km (a shade over 3 miles) and my watch tells me an elevation difference of 119 m (250 feet, give or take). I’ll share.

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We see vistas like this every time there’s an open area.

When we first started doing this, I was struck by the big panoramas. To this New York City boy, though, most of the plants were, you know, plants. That’s nice. But I didn’t really notice their diversity and how they unfolded as June progressed. The other thing that takes awhile, and still surprises me, are the houses and outbuildings. It takes awhile to scope them out, because the gorgeous views are so distracting. Like this house, perched high on a ridge. They must have an amazing view.

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At some point, we came across signs telling us that the road traveled over a city—okay, town—aqueduct. Is it accidental that there’s a mini-oasis here? Does the aqueduct leak, or is this from the other day’s rain?

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Finally, on a clear day, you can see Perugia, some 25 km away.

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Milano Milano

That’s not a typo in the headline. It’s a song title, from the (now split up) Italian rap duo Article 31. The song always pops into my head whenever I’m walking around that city I first heard the song while on a reporting trip back in, maybe, 2002? It kind of goes with the street rhythm, which is sort of like New York with a Latin beat.

I went up to Milan to be part of a week of events for lawyers organized by my friends at Legalcommunity. Despite the English name, the place is staffed mostly by Italians, and they put together a bunch of news websites, and not only for lawyers. They’ve expanded to the finance and food industries. (I put together the U,S. version of a site for company lawyers.) My colleagues there are young and enthusiastic and they do an amazing job, considering how few of them there are.

The week was rather more fun than anything that workaholic Americans might put together. Sure, there were substantive panel discussions, and I moderated a couple of them. But besides the Serious Legal Stuff, the  LC staff took people to a concert at La Scala, organized a run, brought bands from law firms together for a battle of the bands and held a gala awards dinner. At the battle of the bands, at this venue called Fabrique, my colleagues all wore black t-shirts saying “Rock the Law.” I want one. Ok, Aldo?

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MC Nicola doing his bit

As for the city itself, I like spending a few days there when I can. It’s not a touristy city, and its inhabitants work and play hard. I have a good crew of friends and colleagues to visit when I’m there. I had a little time to sneak out and visit places I like, or I’m told I would like. One of them is the Fondazione Prada, far from the posh city center. The site incorporates some old light-industry buildings with some new structures by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The melding of old and new structures just made me smile. One of the buildings is encased in this metallic swirly stuff, and one has huge mirrors as siding. An old building, that served as a “haunted house” exhibit with works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, was painted glossy gold, light at the top, darker at ground level.

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Then there’s the bar. In Italy, a bar is an all-purpose cafe, the kind of place where you stop in on your way to work to have a coffee and a cornetto (the Italian equivalent of a croissant), later for a snack or another espresso, a pick me up later in the day, and so on. The Fondazione’s version is called Bar Luce (light), and it was designed by none other than the film director Wes Anderson. He took Milan’s Viennese kaffeehaus vibe and ran with it. Think of it as the bar equivalent of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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Wes Anderson’s idea of a Milanese bar

The other place I went off to was just a few blocks from my hotel, the redevelopment of the area around Porta Nuova. I’m of two minds about these projects. Porta Nuova is a rupture of the city fabric. Milan has this kind of Austrian vibe in places. No surprise there; it was part of Austria until Italian unification in the mid-19th century.  At the same time, it’s fun to look at and walk through. The Porta Nuova complex is over a rail yard, and it’s an architectural and environmental showcase. The centerpiece is the Torre Unicredit, a skyscraper designed for the bank by César Pelli. On one side, there’s a green area that a couple of years featured a wheat field. I’m not sure what happened with that, but now it’s a tree refuge; they’ve planted a bunch of varieties.

Keeping with the green theme are two apartment buildings called the Bosco Verticale, or vertical forest. The sides of the buildings have trees and other vegetation growing out of them. I saw them right after their construction and the greenery was definitely in the sapling stage. They look a lot more grown in now.

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The Bosco Verticale

Speaking of green, I’m back home in Umbria. It’s so green this year, it’s almost psychedelic. The sheep next door came to visit, and at one point, they just decided to chill right below our lawn (the property is terraced). Hey, if they eat the grass, terrific. Maybe we’ll get some great pecorino one of these days.,

Good eats, beauty, and heartache

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. In fact, we got here two weeks ago to the day. We’ve had to do stuff to open the house, lay in groceries, buy a weed whacker (the grounds looked like a jungle and the electric mower just wasn’t going to cut it, literally). And as if all that weren’t enough, there was work and we bought a used car, because rental rates in the summer are ruinous.

But last week Liv and her guy were around. Being young and not yet ready for country life, they stayed in the big city (Perugia; population 170,000) and got to know the restaurants, bars and museums. Plus, where to go for aperitivi, or Italian happy hour. The better places have a buffet; if you’re in Perugia, head to Umbro near Sant’ Ercolano right away.

It was fun playing tour guide. It was Al’s first time in Europe. We got him used to being called Alberto, and he got to see a side of Italy that most first-time tourists never see. As part of his education, we headed to the hills. Actually, the mountains. You go south toward Spoleto and turn left and up, up, up. Our first stop: Norcia. It’s a little walled town high up in the approach to the Apennines, and is known for its gastronomy.  It’s the land of skilled pork butchers, cheesemakers, and black truffle hunters.

We stopped first at an agriturismo outside the town. I’d heard that the earthquake of 2016 inflicted a fair amount of damage on the town, and a lot of places were closed. So we drove up into the hills above to the felicitously named Il Casale degli Amici (The House of Friends). We first timers certainly felt the warmth of instant friendship. It’s a seriously nice place, and the staff couldn’t be friendlier. And, as you say in Italian, si mangia bene—you eat well. We took full advantage of Norcina cooking, and had truffles, great cheeses, and even some salumi. I don’t usually eat meat, but this place led me into temptation.

Then we climbed—we took the tortuously curving road up to Piano Grande di Castelluccio. It’s stupendous, a giant glacial plain high up in the mountains. It could be New Zealand, or the American West. Well, except for the wrinkles of Italian life on the road. Motorcycle gangs road up and down the road, but these weren’t exactly Hell’s Angels. Just normal people going for a Sunday ride. Can’t forget the porchetta truck or the stand selling local beans and other foods.

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The road was harder to navigate than usual. The earthquake made it impassible for awhile, and we could see where chunks of it just fell down into the valley. At numerous points, you had to stop at a light to let the other direction proceed, because only one lane had been reconstructed so far.

The heartbreak came after we spent some time traipsing around the mountain paths and the plain. We went up to the hamlet of Castelluccio, which up until almost two years ago was a perfect little isolated jewel of a place. The earthquake leveled much of the town. The locals set up business as best they could, but destruction and fencing is everywhere, and soldiers guarded the entrances to the zona rosa, the parts off-limits.

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Danger! Do not enter!