That didn’t take long. Well, maybe it did feel like forever when I was quarantined but it’s over and I’m free. My friends around here didn’t waste any time, taking pity on a man alone on a mountaintop.
But the first thing I needed to do was shop. I’d run out of fresh food, but by not being a pig and eating through the pasta, canned tuna and tetra-packed beans, I emerged in pretty good shape. So, gathering some garbage (we don’t have pickup here; you have to take trash to locked bins down the road) I headed toward one of the local supermarkets.
I was curious to see what, if anything, was different, and the answer is, not much. People here wear masks out a lot and you’re not allowed indoors unless you’re wearing a mask. But even hidden behing paper and cloth, Umbrians are the same people I knew back in that former life called “last year.” It felt great to be walking up and down the aisle, not feeling as though I were violating some law, as I did the day I landed and foraged for lockdown food.
Like I said, my friends didn’t waste any time. Debora and Angela were first, inviting me to a “cena-barbecue con distanziamento sociale” (a socially distancing dinner-barbecue). They set up a table outside their spectacular new house and invited neigbhors over, too. They live in a hamlet above the center of Valfabbrica called Poggio S. Dionisio, and somehow the name fits. The women exude a sense of carefree fun when they’re entertaining. And I don’t know if it was the influence of his homemade wine, but sometime later this month I’ll be harvesting grapes from neighbor Franco’s vineyard.
Then the guy who picked me up at Fiumicino (Rome’s main airport), Angelo, asked me if I’d like to see some Pintoricchios. The town of Spello, a small jump from Assisi, was opening its churches at night for guided looks at a couple of spectacular frescoes. I knew of the frescoes and saw one of them a few years back, but, savage that I am, I’d just look at the colors and the backgrounds. I also found it amusing to see Italy behind what was supposed to be a biblical scene set in the Middle East. Dinner came first, the Osteria del Cambio in Palazzo, a homey place where, for €25 ($28) for two, you have have a pasta, main course with salad, wine and coffee. Our pasta course alone (tagliatelle with black summer truffles) would set you back in New York more than what we paid for the whole meal.
It’s curious to see, or rather hear and feel the difference in people here since the virus struck with catastrophic results back in the spring. People here usually complain about everything. And Italians in general aren’t particularly nationalistic. There’s none of the flag-waving here that you see in the U.S. But people seem proud of what they accomplished together. It’s been a morale boost for people who’ve been traumatized by COVID-19 and have lived through decades of a weak economy. Despite a recent spike due in large part to returning vacationers, Italy in general, and Umbria in particular, have beaten back the virus so that we can cautiously and taking precautions, live fairly normal lives.
Finally, to round out the weekend, I took a ride with Letizia and Rudd to the Valnerina, south of here and east of Spoleto. Letizia wanted to try a little restaurant called Il Sovrano in a hamlet called Sant’Anatolia di Narco. The meal was a relaxing finale to a busy weekend. The place specializes in the local pecorino cheese, and, of course since it’s truffle territory, black truffles. The food was good, the setting on a bluff overlooking the valley, idyllic. It was the perfect way to end my liberation weekend.
My car mocks me. It sits there right outside the front door, all bright red and curvy. It says, seductively, “Let’s go! Where can we explore today, Anthony?” and the best I can manage to do is pass the car and circle the closed pool for exercise. It’s sorta like being a prison inmate during exercise hour, but more scenic.
One day more of quarantine, admittedly a self-inflicted one. I get more antsy yet more lazy by the day. I started out with ambitious goals: to post to this blog every other day while writing a soon to be filmed novel, and to record all the instruments to songs that a band I was in played back when.
So far, I have an outline, and I dragged out the MIDI controller that will allow me to mimic guitars, basses, drums, keyboards and other assorted instruments on my Mac. I find myself strumming chords and saying, hmmm, how would that sound on a concert grand? A glockenspiel?
I also thought I might have fun cooking for myself. I love to cook. I will think of ridiculously labor-intensive ways to prepare relatively simple dishes. (Yes, you absolutely must fry each vegetable separately when you make caponata, or else it’s just a bunch of veggies thrown together. And don’t you dare just put that fresh shrimp in the pasta sauce without pushing it on the grill first.) But cooking for yourself is nowhere near as satisfying as being around your favorite people and enjoying it together.
So let me just say that decent store-bought pesto is a good thing. And so are these frozen seafood preparations that you can get in Italian supermarkets. And tetra-pack beans are so much better than canned ones….
I did have one surge of energy a few days ago, when I emulated The Spartan Woman and baked some bread. It wasn’t my first—that was a semi-successful attempt at no-knead bread in a Dutch oven. But TSW can practically do it in her sleep, and I was out of bread and I had nothing better to do, so…. Of course, she coached me. It’s great how we can chat across continents for just the monthly Internet fee, isn’t it? I’m kind of proud of the result:
Happily, friends here are planning activities for when I bust out, or more accurately, descend from the mountaintop, in second gear, hugging the right side of our narrow road.
Songs pop into my head at random intervals—even as I’m about to wake up in the morning—but the Macarena? Strange. At the time, I was doing a mild workout (more about that later) when that songpopped into my head (note to self: next time bring earbuds). On second thought, it’s not so weird. Macarena rhymes with what I’m under now: quarantena, Italian for quarantine.
Call me a glutton for punishment. After nearly six months of basically confining myself at home on Staten Island, I came here to green, tranquil Umbria to be confined to quarters for a couple of weeks. Back Stateside, I was turning into a shut-in with the A/C cranked up. Oh wait, everyone in New York was doing that. But I was worried about leaving this house empty too long. Would the hot water heater self-destruct? Would we get strange animal squatters?
No and, kinda. My Italian is pretty good, but I learned a new word this time around, ragnatela. It means cobweb, and I’m spending a good chunk of my time going around the house with a Swiffer clearing them out. But that presents me with a dilemma. Spiders are a good repellant toward other insects, like mosquitoes and the nasty little biting flies we get here. So do I go after them? No, not intentionally.
I know this is boring minutiae. Welcome to my world. I know, Italy holds a special place in people’s imaginations. You know, golden sunsets, great food and art, fashion and style. And that’s all there, somewhere, I guess. But when you come here in the middle of this damn pandemic, instead of Aperol spritzes and Piero della Francesca, you get to stay home for a couple of weeks and contemplate spider webs and the decaying food that you left in the fridge six months ago. (On the plus side, it’s ridiculously scenic up here.)
Anyway, to back up, here’s what solo quarantining in the Umbrian hills is like. I somehow procured enough food to see me through, so I’ve been cooking for myself. I’m fully embracing the Italian (or Japanese) aesthetic of limiting dishes to an ingredient or two. Gotta make it last, so, no, I won’t add that red pepper to the salad. It and its companions can become a good pasta sauce, or a peperonata, thin sliced peppers to pile on bread (which I’m going to have to bake myself) or put into a frittata. I use the olive oil sparingly. Part of it is to limit my fat intake, but the other consideration is to make it last.
Speaking of quarantine itself, here’s how that works. I wrote a few days ago about the journey here, which basically entailed sanitary and isolation measures and filling out the same information about my whereabouts on multiple forms. I was told to register with the local health authorities, which I did on Sunday. I guess I could have waited until Monday, but I was curious about whether someone would answer that day because Sunday is still kind of sacred in this country. A woman did answer, and we had a nice little conversation. She gave me an email address to send my basic info to, which I did.
The next morning, I got a call. When did you arrive? Do you have any symptoms? What are your living arrangements? The guy seemed happy that I’m living alone, and told me someone would come by to administer a Covid-19 test. No one’s come by yet.
[And now, a side discussion. Languages can be fun, especially when you’ve got what linguists call false friends. They are words in other languages that resemble a word in your mother tongue, but which can have entirely different meanings. In this case, for a Covid-19 test in Italian you use the word for “swab,” which turns out to be, and I kid you not, tampone. So yeah, one of these days someone’s coming by to give me a tampone, not a feminine hygiene product. Another favorite false friend is preservativo. To us English speakers, it sounds like chemicals put in food to make it last longer. No, no, no. The word for those chemicals is conservante. Preservativo means something quite different: condom.]
</side discussion> Other than waiting for the tampone tech, I try to amuse myself. Luckily, we have just enough land to be able to take a walk without violating the quarantine rules. The pool is closed, but it’s still useful. Instead of swimming laps, like I usually do, I walk around it for exercise. It’s the only place with a sizeable regular pavement, so a klutz like me won’t break an ankle the second I stop looking down. I did 50 times around yesterday, which shows up amusingly on my watch and phone’s exercise app. I listen for the neighbors’ sheep. The bells and their sounds are pretty hypnotic. If none of that works, there’s enough alcohol left by last year’s summer guests to stock a bar,
Still to do: Bake that bread. Dust off the guitar chops and record that album, Prince-style. And write a novel, which, let me tell ya is hard to do when the view out the window looks like this.
I entered Terminal 1 at JFK airport and there was no one there, in early afternoon. I exaggerate, but only a little. I find the Alitalia check in desks, but before I give them my suitcase, I’m stopped by a nice guy standing at a table. “You have to fill out this form and we need two copies.” I’d already filled in the form online when I checked in. “This is revised. You need the revision.”
Not wanting to be held up, I complied. “Can I take your termperature?” Sure—97.9 F. I filled out the forms; one was for the gate; “the other one is for Rome.”
Security takes two minutes. Maybe less. I actually chat with the guy who lets you into that area. “Yeah, this is the liveliest it’s been in months,” he tells me. There was one person ahead of me. I get through—they don’t even bother with the belt routine, and are fine with bottles of sanitizer,
The woman ahead of me, with a massive mask, keeps asking the guard the same question. I don’t even remember what it was; something about cell phones. Ma’m, I’m being as clear as I can be, as she rolls her eyes. We obviously had a newbie with us; what was she doing traveling now?
I get through and…well, nothing. It’s straight out of the horror film, The Langoliers, where a planeload of people get stuck in the recent past and have to outrun the creatures that eat up the past. Or something like that, I’ll have to look it up. But it’s like what I do remember, basically an empty terminal with a couple of food shops open and that’s it. No bars, no sit down restaurants, no one pushing a massage session or overseas phone SIMs. The few people working alternate between extreme chattiness or looking very put upon. Hey, pal, I’m not thrilled with being there either.
I get to my gate. There is one other person waiting. Soon maybe another ten show up. Everyone is speaking Italian because US citizens, the new pariahs of the world, are banned from the European Union, unless they have permanent residency there and can prove it. I look across the space and see that Lufthansa Flight 401 is about to leave. Grr—that airline had canceled that flight for months, and because of that, I’m traveling alone to make sure our house is still standing.
The weirdness continues with the flight. The Airbus 330 is maybe one-quarter full. We’re spaced far apart. I opted for a window seat, a rare treat for me. I knew this time that no one would sit next to me, so I had both seats for myself. It’s nice to have an auxiliary seat in coach;; the other seat was for charging my phone, and I stashed my knapsack under the seat in front of my nonexistent neighbor.
I’d looked at previous days of this flight and it usually took off early. Not us. Some unexplained “technical problem.” But after an hour, we were taking off, the empty dark plane feeling light and wieldy.
Service was minimal, apparently designed to minimize contact, No drinks service, which on European airlines is usually pretty elaborate. Flight attendants hurriedly dispensed minimal meals: limp ravioli, a piece of cheddar, a small bag of tarallucci, a cup of “tiramisu,” which was like pudding. And two bottles of San Benedetto water.
I used the water to wash down my flight sleep regime and soon nodded off. I got up once from my nap to get more water. Anticipating this the crew set bottles out on a shelf in the service cabin.
After a luxurious breakfast consisting of a package of marble poundcake and, yes, more water, we landed at Rome’s Fiumicino airport. Again, an eery emptiness, punctuated by last year’s cheery what-to-do-in-the-Eternal-City posters. No separate EU/non-EU citizen passport lines. Before showing the passport, though, we got our temperatures taken again, this time passing a uniformed guard wearing a weird helmet. And yes, a form. “I filled this out in New York.” “That’s for you. We need this. Italiano o inglese? Italiano, please.
I was filling it out, and the airport cop went around to everyone to make sure we were filling it out correctly. Then finally, the passport routine. Usually, when you present an Italian passport in Italy, the guard looks at it for maybe half a second and then waves you on. This time, the guy typed stuff in, looked at me, looked at my passport. In Italian, he warned me to adhere to the quarantine. I told him I’m hanging out for two weeks on a mountaintop, watching sheep and clouds go by. “That sounds nice,” he said dreamily. “I could use a peaceful week or two.” He actually smiled. This does not happen that often.
My new friend Angelo was waiting to drive me to Umbria, about 2-2.5 hours. Instead of taking my small Renault, he was driving his big Mercedes van. Please, this time sit in the back, he asked, gesturing toward the third row. This was not exactly conducive to talking, but then again, neither was my Xanax hangover.
We stop for coffee at the huge Autogrill that spans the autostrada. It’s almost empty, and the shop is closed. But there’s coffee! And all of a sudden, ordering coffee at an Italian bar has gotten complicated. I asked for caffè macchiatos for Angelo and me; here, a macchiato is a shot of espresso with a little steamed milk floating on top. “Is Lavazza ok?” asked the barista. I must’ve looked puzzled because she started to offer me a couple of single-origin coffee beans. I was fine with regular Lavazza.
So, after gathering my car, I’m up on the mountain again. We never got to open the pool; instead we spent the summer shut in with the a/c going full blast. I’d forgotten what New York summers were like. I saw the sheep this evening, grazing like mammalian locusts. We had monumental thunderstorms, which came as a relief, friends tell me, after an oven-like summer.
I did my duty, registering with the health service for quarantine. I’m told to expect a call and maybe a visit. People may think Italians are chaotic and anarchic, but when it comes to public health, they rival their neighbors to the north. More as it happens, then.
Over the course of this damn pandemic, we’ve developed connections for various foods and liquids. Honestly, it sometimes felt as though we were trying out drug connections as we figured out who shipped coffee our espresso machine likes, who’s got good fruit, where we could get paper towels and dishwashing detergent.
And so, seafood. We used to get a lot of it from LaBella Marketplace, all the way on the southern tip of Staten Island. But we avoided supermarkets and that was really out of the way, too. We then found Pierless, a wholesaler who, with his usual restaurant clients shuttered, turned his operation into an online with delivery retail service. We liked this, because he didn’t deliver to our island, but did in Brooklyn. We’d go in on an order with Daughter No. 1, which had the benefit of driving over the bridge to see her. Our visits were short and masked, but it was great to see the kid, even if it was for 15 minutes. .
We could fall back on a favorite, the Saturday Greenmarket in St. George. The seafood guy there is expensive and has only local stuff, so forget shrimp and salmon, but his wares are extremely fresh and always highest quality.
So it was this past Saturday. We try to plan ahead for meals, because we’re still careful about how and where we buy stuff. I was thinking spaghetti with mussels and beans. It’s a good combo, garlicky and delicious and takes hardly any time if you’ve got canned or cooked beans on hand. Unfortunately, the Greenmarket guy had run out of mussels, even at only 9 a.m. So I asked for a couple of dozen littleneck clams. I figured I’d come up with something different from the usual spaghetti with clams, which I love, but have already done too many times the past couple of months.
We had some zucchine, or if you must, zucchini on hand (see my post about gender-morphing pasta and vegetables). Zucchini goes really well with seafood, its sweetness a good foil to the salinity of the clams in this case. Problem was, I didn’t want to just have some diced squash with the clams in their shells. The clams were too big, so I’d have a texture problem with the dish.
I wrestled with this big problem for the better part of a half hour. Ok, five minutes, and I came up with my usual crutch: zucchini cream! Unless you really push zucchini, with a lot of olive oil and salt, it can be boring and even a little slimey. But sauté it gently with a clove or two of garlic, salt, pepper, white wine and, if you’re feeling decadent, a little saffron. Then toss that into the blender with a few basil leaves and you have a nice pasta sauce.
I steamed the clams in a little wine in a pot I’d later use to boil the pasta, taking care to pull out clams that opened, so that they wouldn’t overcook. Once I pulled them all out, I strained the briny juices and put that into the zucchini purée. Once the clams cooled down I diced them and they went into the sauce, too. I added a little white vermouth to the pot to brighten it. Plus booze always makes sauces better. I could have added a knob of butter, but I’m Trying To Be Good.
I cooked some spaghetti, and once it was a minute or two short of being done, I tossed that into the pot along with a small ladleful of the pasta cooking water, turned up the heat until it was all of a piece. The pasta course was done.
I live a few houses down from our neighborhood’s main drag, Forest Avenue. And ever since the city has allowed restaurants to open outdoors, we’ve been clucking about their permissiveness. We’ve seen unmasked patrons hugging, drinking heavily and hanging out at close quarters, and we’re worried that it’s not going to end well.
We’ve been in New York all summer, not on our Umbrian mountaintop (damn you, novel coronavirus!). And for the most part, we’ve continued our distancing. We don’t go out much, except for walking with the pup, and visiting the weekly greenmarket and a local fruit and vegetable stand. We haven’t hung out with our kids, and we’ve turned down social distant dinner invitations from close friends. I’m not liking it, but as our fake suntanner in chief says, it is what it is.
It’s definitely not like the old days. In a past lifetime, the one that ended 3 years, 7 months, and 13 days ago, I used to ride the ferry into work with a jolly bunch of people. We called–still call, actually–ourselves The Ferry Posse. We usually sat in one spot and violated the quiet zone with our jokes and giggling. We were serious, too, as we all got older, our kids grew, our jobs changed or inevitably got more annoying. We tried doing the virtual bit early in the lockdown and it was fun, as far as that goes. And there’s a looonnnngggg Apple Messages text thread that serves as a sort of posse glue.
That changed when last week, one of the posse members suggested that we meet at Snug Harbor’s community supported agriculture’s Wednesday distribution. If you follow my moves on social media, you’ll know that I post tons of photos from the Harbor, mainly of the decorative garden. The complex also hosts a working organic vegetable farm, which in normal times supplies restaurants and also has a CSA. (We used to belong to local CSAs but stopped when we ended up spending summers abroad. And we had no idea earlier this year that we’d basically be on lockdown for a few years. At least it feels like that.)
I know what you’re thinking of the CSA distribution: earnest vegetarians getting together for some yoga before walking off with their organic parsnips. But no. This, folks, is hipster north shore Staten Island, where people try to sneak a bit of fun into everything.
The fun in this instance is the occupation of the old fruit stand by the Burrito Bar, a local Tex-Mex restaurant with a psychedelic hippie vibe. Its popupP stand sells potent magaritas by the 16 ounce cupful or by the bottle, with some guacamole and chips on the side. So while I did overhear a granola type say to another, “Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddha,” I heard more from the excellent speakers blasting everything from King Sunny Adé to Toots and the Maytals and Daft Punk, courtesy of makerparkradio.nyc. (Maker park is a collective space near the old docks where artists and craftspeople can create whatever it is they do, and these folks supply the soundtrack. They have seriously good taste and they stream their programming.)
So, okay, pre-pandemic, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But it was great to see a few friends IN THE SAME MEATSPACE on a warm summer night. The lighting, even with the clouds, was excellent. It reminded me of the ironic twist facing The Spartan Woman and me: Just as we start thinking about living elsewhere, this part of Staten Island is becoming a really interesting place to live.
I’ll be less censorious of the people up the street, I promise. But Peter, Lenny, Kathy and I did keep our distance from once another. I remember one fist bump, which the Italian government during the worst of that country’s pandemic said was acceptable.
And I’ll be there next Wednesday.
PS: We did get some of the great stuff that the farm produces. It had a huge surplus of zucchine flowers, which Kathy-not-my-wife bought and gave out to, I think, eight of us.
[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.”
When I “lost my job” a few years ago, one of my deputies very kindly packed everything up in my cubicle and shipped it to me using the company’s cash. It was a terrific gesture, and to make it complete, he handed in his resignation the following day. Good work, JW. (He now covers the White House of Mad King Donald every now and then for a large media company, which shows that being good pays off sometimes.)
I took a look at the boxes back then, put the lids back on and promptly forgot about them. Back then, I was too busy wandering the city, riding the new Second Avenue subway, and meeting friends in bars (remember?) to deal with the detritus of too many years.
But now we’re in purge mode, with an eye to escaping KD’s failed state eventually. And The Spartan Woman found the boxes and suggested very nicely that I scan what I need onto a backup disk and discard the hard copy. She also found a trove of family photos from when our kids were little. We switched to digital cameras early on; I’d been given one in the late 1990s. It was a terrible, low-resolution thing, but it got me used to the idea of saving pixels, not paper. So I thought that spending some hours with the scanner and the laptop was a splendid idea, because doing so keeps me in my back of the house refuge, which is equipped with decent speakers and is out of the hearing range of HGTV/MSNBC/Guy’s Grocery Games.
Reading the magazines was a forced trip down memory lane, to use a cliché. I was an editor, so I don’t have tons of article clips, although when I did act like one of the peeps to report and write, I think I acquitted myself pretty well. What I do have in abundance are editor’s notes. I was the editor in chief of a scrappy little magazine (and later, website) for lawyers who worked in companies, nonprofits, etc. Basically it was a business magazine in which we inserted lawyers to make it relevant to the audience. It worked occasionally.
While scanning, I realized that I said the same thing multiple ways, and smirked at the different ways I snuck noncorporate messages and anecdotes into a business magazine. After a couple of years, I became bored of the sacred Editorial Calendar, with the same features turning up the same months year after year, so I made the editor’s note about me, me, me. I’d write about a personal experience and somehow make it relevant to the articles in the magazine. I’d also make fun of business jargon, slipping it into asides to see if our copy editor would notice. (She did, and was in on the joke,)
We—okay, The Spartan Woman—has also unearthed a trove of photos. I knew they were in the basement somewhere. But from 2001 or 2002, with some earlier scanned stuff, our family photos were mostly digital. There’s a whole analogue couple of decades that I’d been missing. So finally I got to remember how our kids looked when they were little. We have a lot of them—TSW’s dad was a photographer and he’d toss me a few rolls of film every now and then and the mailers to have them processed. So taking photos of dinner parties, kids just being kids, etc., vacations are there. Now I’m wondering whether to scan them, like I scanned my father-in-law’s photo scrap book and a bunch of pictures from TSW’s childhood.
This all has just a little to do with the usual subject of the blog, which is about showing what real life in Umbria is like, and our experience straddling that green Italian region and life on the periphery of New York City. I’ll get back to that soon. But we’ve been trapped in NYC by the Covid-19 pandemic and frustrated in our attempts to leave. Still, I guess that getting ready for a big change inevitably brings up memories. Gotta say, as I looked at what we did at that little magazine, I respected the craft and passion we brought to subjects that feel irrelevant to me now. And those kids were super cute, no? (They still are.)
Let me explain: I just spent $104.57 on vegetables. Wait, we also bought a half-gallon of milk and some already grated pecorino cheese (sorry, Letizia). Going to Gerardi’s, a farm stand and garden center about 1.5 miles from our Staten Island home, was the day’s big adventure. And really, more than a hundred bucks on vegetables and fruit? And not a lot either; in Italy, the total would have been €45, or about $50.
It’s so boring here right now. Stripped of restaurants, culture, and even demonstrations (things are quieter since the curfew ended) it’s just mind- numbing tedium here. It looks like a few neighbors have fled to shores and mountains. It’s not as though we hang out much with them, but when they go, the street starts to feel abandoned and lonely.
Should we join them?
Last year at this time, in the Before Times, we’d already been on our Umbrian mountaintop a few weeks. The pool was open, I’d been to Milan and back on business, and we’d already seen friends and gone to see friends running a triathlon on Lago Trasimeno. We’ve had stuff to do here, which is one of the reasons we’re still in New York. We’re trying to whittle down our belongings, in case we flee for good anytime soon.
The other reason is, of course, the coronavirus. We’ve been under lockdown here, and as of today (late June), we’re still avoiding most contact with the outside world. And Italy’s been, well, you know. (With a few exceptions, though, it’s stopped the virus’ spread.)
But our region—Umbria—has been relatively unscathed by Covid-19. I left just as things were getting serious in Italy, but Umbria, a region of about 900,000 people, has seen 1438 cases, with 78 deaths so far. By contrast, we live on Staten Island, population approaching 500,000, with 13,783 cases and 1,031 deaths from the virus.
I was amused when our friends said “thank God you’re back.” Sorry folks, but supposedly crazy Italy has a superior healthcare system. It’s commonly rated one of the top in the world, despite inadequate and unequal funding and Umbria’s is among the better regional systems. I know, this doesn’t jibe with the stereotype of impetuous, disorganized Italians not getting their act together, but in healthcare and other areas, the image doesn’t coincide with reality.
Umbria’s relative success is down to some specific factors, like lower density, no really big cities. But early on, as soon as the first cases were reported up north, Umbria’s doctors and immunologists got together with the University of Perugia and came up with a comprehensive testing and tracing regime. And the small number of cases meant that the hospitals weren’t overwhelmed. Compare that with what’s happening here, not so much in New York, but in the U.S. generally. So I think our odds of getting the virus and getting good treatment are better over there.
Now, it’s mainly down to logistics. Both the U.S. and the European Union have closed their borders between them. And it looks as though the EU will continue to bar Americans when it lifts more restrictions July 1. But we’re lucky, having both blue (US) and maroon (EU) passports. We can go back to Italy as citizens. The problem, however, lies in finding flights and the flying itself. The US is fine with our leaving, but Italy has specific requirements even for returning Italians. Because of the abysmal US record people coming from the US are subject to a 14-day quarantine. That’s even for returning Italian citizens. The Italian consulate in New York even put up a helpful FAQ on its site to tell us what to do.
I look for flights, just to see what’s out there. Alitalia’s flying from JFK to Rome, but its fares are crazy for premium economy. Don’t judge; we need the legroom, extra baggage allowance, and being treated semi-humanely. Iberia, which we’ve taken and enjoyed (especially when they upgraded us to business class unexpectedly and for free) only has codeshares with British Air—they’re chronically late and like to lose luggage—and American (yuck). Und so it looks like it could be Lufthansa, which is less cosseting in the airport (no priority checkin) but wonderful aloft.
UPDATE: We booked with Lufthansa, which then in an incredibly stupid move, cancelled our flight over to Europe, while rescheduling the flight to New York, and asking if that was okay. Um, no, idioten, why would I keep a returning flight when I can’t get there in the first place. Idiotic doesn’t begin to descibe it. Thank you Trumpistas and your lax Covid-19 policies, you’ve made the U.S. a pariah nation,
So here we are. We’ll probably go back, even if it means two weeks of quarantine. Hey, we’re used to it. While stuck at home there, we’ll have more land to wander around on, maybe we can get the pool opened and, it’s a change of scenery. Actually, better scenery. I’d come back to get this house organized and to see friends and family; Covid-19 and an addiction to MSNBC’s endless coverage meant we accomplished neither goal.
Of course, there are our true masters to reckon with: two charming young women, our daughters. We haven’t seen them hardly at all since March, except for hasty drop offs of food and laundry and FaceTime sessions. They think we should be sealed hermetically until someone comes up with an effective vaccine. They’re probably right, at least on some level. They have Italian passports,too, so if they want to visit us while we’re socially distancing somewhere else…
I wrote this awhile ago, before the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which are infinitely more important than my musings. But I wanted to get the post off my plate.
You’re a New York City boy/You’ll never have a bored day—Pet Shop Boys
Just like you, I’m bored. Nothing much is happening today. I woke up, made coffee for The Spartan Woman and me. We sat at the kitchen table with our laptops eating breakfast and occasionally commenting on what we read. Every now and then we share a video. Okay, I share a video, much to TSW’s annoyance if she’s in the middle of a good crossword puzzle. Eventually, I got on the exercise cycle for about 40 minutes of hard pedaling.
Every now and then I bother someone via text or FaceTime. I do miss a good newsroom, with its cast of characters, so I need to get out there virtually. I was chatting with one friend, and she said I should write about growing up, especially since nothing really is happening while we’re in our state of forced hibernation. Specifically, she thought my high school days were interesting enough to write about.
This is the second post that I’ve started at someone’s prompting. But I’ve been thinking about this one for awhile, and it’s not just Dimitra saying I should do this. It’s also Netflix’s fault/credit. Have you noticed how many of its series take place in high school? “Sex Education” is a hilarious twist on the usual high school standard stuff, with the groups of jocks and freaks. The fascination is international: Check out series in these languages—Danish (“Rita”), Spanish (“Elite”) and Italian (“Baby”). I’m sure there are more.
So of course, given my solipsism, plus the fact that there’s nothing much going on right now [um, wrong!], these shows make me think of my high school days. They weren’t like the TV shows, or, I think, the experiences of normal people. I had the pleasure (I really mean that) of going to a New York City special high school. Not only that, I was there during the early 1970s, a time that now seems both relatively trouble free and dangerously gritty. The schools are Brooklyn Tech, LaGuardia art school, Bronx Science, Hunter, and Stuyvesant. They have entrance tests, which have become a flash point in New York’s ongoing ethnic and racial battles, and they produce graduates who share certain traits. You could probably boil these traits down to a certain kind of smart-alecky attitude, a combination of street smarts and verbal aggression, and a warped sense of humor. These kids aren’t the privileged types of private school. They’re more interesting. Yeah, I’m prejudiced.
I went to Brooklyn Technical High School. The school is in Fort Greene, and Fort Greene in the 1970s was not Spike Lee’s’ joint, or today’s gentrified place of stately brownstone and cool but expensive restaurants (remember “restaurants”?). Some of the neighborhood brownstones back then were nothing more than facades held up by scaffolding, with the rest of the building burned to the ground. There were lots of those. Tech’s building itself (up at the top, and an artist’s image from my yearbook here) is huge, a city block or nearly so and sits a few blocks east of the Dekalb Avenue subway station. The four blocks from the station to the school could occasionally be dangerous, but weren’t too bad. We were strongly discouraged from venturing east of the school.
My entering class was the first to include girls. This was a big deal. A lot of the crusty old teachers were not having it, and Tech brass had to adapt stuff like locker rooms and gyms. EDIT: On the other hand, if you scan the yearbook photos, you’ll notice that there were a lot of black and Hispanic kids. New York City back in then was a more progressive city in a lot of ways, and the special high schools compensated for neighborhoods and ethnic mix, instead of a supposedly impartial entrance test, which, as we know, favors kids from wealthier zones and whose parents can pay for pre-test coaching.
The school’s mission was to train engineers in practical areas. One shop class took place in a big sand pit. The kids in one program worked on prototype planes and rockets. Others designed appliances and cars. The school really failed in training me to do anything useful but how to think; I followed the amorphous “college preparatory” track. I wasn’t really interested in the tech bit; if pushed I probably would’ve followed the industrial design track because I like to draw and design objects and maps. (I also had 3 rigorous years of French, which came real handy during trips to Montréal and Paris; I decoded signs for my father as he drove through Québec on a summer vacation. Being Tech, we were given a French kids’ science textbook, which taught me, among other things, the parts of a car and basic animal anatomy.)
Brooklyn Tech back then did not have the usual social structures of a typical American high school. Sure, there were jocks, but they weren’t a big deal. Nor were there cheerleaders. Maybe it was a reflection of the times; we didn’t, for example, have any proms. It was too uncool. If you have to break the population into groups, maybe you could say geeks vs socially adept kind of intellectual, with a sprinkling of jocks. And, being the ’70s, there was a strong druggie influence. Often, the druggie types would, as in a Venn diagram, overlap more than a little with the intellectuals.
I took a full year to get used to the place. I traveled between boroughs to get there, which was fine. I was thrilled to be part of New York fucking City. I had a couple of friends from the outset. The father of one of them ran a small ad agency. We played hooky one day and took the subway to Midtown and, much to my surprise, dropped in on his father. Dad was not shocked at all, showed us around the place, letting us talk to the artists, and gave us lunch money. Or maybe he took us out—my memory’s a little fuzzy and I was just so happy that I was going to get away with our little trip.
Gotta say, that day was an eye-opener. And going to Tech got more interesting after that. Suffice it to say that I partook of a lot of what that period in history had to offer to teenagers. One summer, my father got me a summer job in a machine shop, and I spent it talking to socialist old machinists while getting their breakfasts and making parts on a lathe for cameras bound for space missions. The shop was in Soho, and I would gobble down a sandwich and go for a walk, checking out the art galleries that were there before the Eurotrash and boring rich took over the place. I put the proceeds of that summer to a Gretsch electric guitar and Fender amp. I was ready….
…which meant playing in pickup bands at parties. One of them was in a Victorian house at the end of Staten Island, the home of a kid who was an illegitimate son of a South American diplomat. The house had secret passageways leading to various party rooms. You’d have to squeeze past people to go from room to room which led to numerous hilarious, sometimes erotic cannabis-fueled encounters. Since I knew kids from all over the city, I spent a lot of time on the subway on weekend nights, traveling from, say Far Rockaway to Greenpoint for a party and then back home. It really was paradise. Sometimes my best friend at the time and I would just walk around talking making stuff up, like teenage boys do. (It usually goes like this: “Would’t it be cool if….?”) I have a vague memory of our fantasizing that the school was a giant space ship and we somehow controlled what went on, like benevolent rules, a combination of Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, and Captain Kirk.
We Techies had a regular group from the Island, and we had our traditions. In the morning, we met for bagels and tea or coffee at this coffee shop a few blocks from the school that had a mirrored back room. Imagine the possibilities, considering our often-altered states. After school, we often met at another place owned by a guy named Tony Rana. He was a hip guy in, I’d guess, his thirties, who didn’t mind a bunch of obnoxious and usually stoned teenagers hanging around. He was a kind of counselor and facilitator and once hosted our holiday party, even contributing some booze. He’d be arrested for that now. (Years later, he opened a deli in my neighborhood and actually recognized me.)
I was a good student and although I didn’t work very hard, I managed to maintain a 90-91 average and stay on the honor roll. It kept my parents happy and mostly unconcerned about my extracurricular activities. Once, though, I was sloppy and left a couple of half-smoked joints in my shirt pocket. My mother found them. “How does it feel to be a statistic?” she asked me, and grounded me for a week or two. She said that for now, she wouldn’t tell my father. The poor woman apparently didn’t know that my dad was watering the pot plant in my room. (He told me that I wasn’t taking proper care of it, and that he couldn’t stand to see a plant mistreated.)
I did have some good times in class, although I confess I don’t remember much of my time there. One lesson I’ll always remember virtually verbatim was this, in what was supposedly a speech class taught by Robert Schreier, a guy who drove his old Mercedes-Benz convertible across the Brooklyn Bridge from the West Village every schoolday. We spent most of the class times dissecting commercials and decoding press releases and politicians’ statements. I guess you could say it really was a class in semiotics. His rap went something like this:
“You do realize why you go through years of school don’t you? It’s to get you used to being bored and to do things you don’t like doing. You boys, you like to play basketball, don’t you? So, in gym class, do they let you just play? Noooooo. You have to line up. Your ex-Marines gym teacher says ‘today you will learn how to dribble.’ Instead of tossing a bunch of balls out and letting you practice, you’re in this line. One, maybe two of you at the front of the line have to practice in front of everyone else. Those who aren’t good at it will be humiliated, both by the teacher and your classmates. Most of you will be bored, having to stand there watching. If you weren’t into. basketball before, many of you will now surely hate it.”
I took his little sermon to heart and told myself that I would figure out how to live without ever being bored. I kinda figured it out (this lockdown period notwithstanding). I tried my best and thank you, Mr. Schreier.