You’ve just been erased

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

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

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

Not my old newsroom, but you get the idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Giovedì sull’isola con Marco, e questa volta sono intervistato

[English version below, after this post]

Vi presento Marco. È uno studente d’arte da Treviso e sta facendo un semestre a New York al Pratt Institute. L’altro giorno ha preso il traghetto per intervistarmi sulle esperienze degli italiani a New York; farà parte di un documentario a cui sta lavorando. Marco aveva pubblicato una chiamata per interviste su una pagina Facebook chiamata New York Italians; è un luogo in cui i recenti arrivi dall’Italia si scambiano consigli su posti di lavoro, appartamenti e dove uscire.

Ho risposto quand’ero in Italia e, come al solito, me ne sono completamente dimenticato. Così sono rimasto sorpreso quando è apparso un messaggio sul mio iPhone. Un po’ avanti e indietro e abbiamo avuto un appuntamento, se non un posto. All’inizio Marco pensava che avremmo potuto fare un’intervista in videoconferenza, ma sapendo che ero a New York, ha spinto per farlo di persona. Sono piuttosto pigro e diffidente in questi giorni per andare in giro, quindi ho chiesto se sarebbe venuto a Staten Island. Era d’accordo, con mia grande sorpresa. Di solito un invito a venire sull’isola viene accolto con il tipo di reazione che i giovani ragazzi avevano quando hanno ricevuto un invito da “Uncle Sam” per la leva.

L’isola è stata una buona scelta. Quasi il 40 per cento della popolazione di circa mezzo milione è di origine italiana, e ristoranti, panetterie e negozi italiani fiancheggiano le strade di Staten Island. Molti ristoranti, purtroppo, sono naufraghi. Sembra che una cucina centrale da qualche parte produca le stesse voci di menu: “zuppa di clams (vongole)”, bastoncini di mozzarella, penne alla vodka, pollo o vitello con una “francaise” errata. (Riconosco pienamente di essere uno snob gastronomico italiano in questo momento, ma ho 10 anni di esperienza nella critica della ristorazione per sostenere il mio…um, schizzino?)

Per Marco, poi, ho scelto un relativamente nuovo arrivato alla scena per pranzo, Vinum, a poche fermate di treno dal traghetto. È autenticamente italiano, non proprio italo-americano, e di solito abbastanza tranquillo all’ora di pranzo. Vale la pena visitarlo se hai voglia di prendere il traghetto e, insieme all’Enoteca Maria più vicina al traghetto e allo splendido ristorante dello Sri Lanka Lakruwana, forma un triumvirato di ristoranti che possono resistere ai quartieri più illustri.

Se vai a Lakruwana e possiamo ancora mangiare al chiuso, sarai trattato con questo arredamento. Oh, e ottimo cibo dello Sri Lanka.

Marco ci ha usato l’ora di pranzo per conoscerci e sviluppare i temi dell’ intervista. Parlando in una miscela di italiano e inglese, ci siamo raccontati storie su di noi stessi. Essendo un bravo intervistatore, ha ottenuto di più da me che viceversa. Non mi dispiaceva, mi ha aiutato a plasmare qualcosa di cui voglio scrivere nel prossimo futuro. E dopo decenni di interpretazione del suo ruolo e del tentativo di convincere la gente a raccontarmi storie, in realtà è stato divertente stare dall’altra parte. (Foodies, ecco cosa abbiamo avuto: un antipasto condiviso di gamberi e fagioli all’uccelletto, tagliatelle al ragù per lui, gnocchi tricolori per me, Rosso di Montefalco per accompagnarlo.)

Mi sono trovato in un ruolo familiare: la guida turistica. Quando le persone ci visitano in Umbria, di solito diamo loro un orientamento di base. Ne ho fatto una versione statunitense con Marco. Ho guidato lungo Bay Street, che segue la riva orientale di Staten Island, dal traghetto, attraverso alcune città antiche, a Fort Wadsworth sotto il Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

Spia una città in particolare, Rosebank. Era pesantemente italo-americano fino a un recente afflusso di gentrificatori, e poteva persino vantare che Giuseppe Garibaldi vivesse lì. Garibaldi era fuggito dal precedente tentativo fallito nel 1848 di unificare la penisola e si rifugiò nella casa dell’inventore italiano Antonio Meucci. Quella casa è ora il Museo Garibaldi-Meucci.

Siamo sceso dall’auto a Fort Wadsworth. Per anni è stata una base militare. Ora parte del Gateway National Park, ha una splendida vista sul porto e sul ponte incombente, e ha un sacco di rovine affascinanti, oltre a un campeggio e una spiaggia. Marco ha scattato alcuni video e foto e poi abbiamo dovuto trovare un posto dove fare l’intervista. Il tempo era burrascoso e un controllo del suono ha rivelato che il vento sarebbe stato più forte di qualsiasi gemma che dovessi dire.

Porto di New York, visto da Fort Wadsworth, incluso lo skyline mutante di Manhattan. Non mi piacciono quei grattacieli residenziali sottili e ridicoli.

Ma dove? Mi sono chiesto e dopo un po’ ho deciso di andare al mio birrificio locale preferito, Flagship. Ha una grande stanza, una buona birra e tavoli da picnic ben distanziati. Il barista Mike, incuriosito da quello che stavamo facendo, ha illuminato i punti vicino a noi e ci ha dato birra in casa. Divertentemente, una dei loro prodotti è un Pilsener all’italiana chiamato Birra Locale, destinato a imitare birre italiane come Peroni e Moretti. Lo fa? Marco dice che è più amaro di quelli; gli italiani si stanno solo abituando alle birre luppolate come gli IPA.

Marco si prepara.

Abbiamo parlato per un po’ delle mie famiglie da entrambe le parti e delle diverse sfaccettature della vita negli Stati Uniti. Molti italiani non conoscono i diversi ceppi della diaspora italiana. E in molti modi riecheggiano le divisioni nel paese d’origine, anche se in molti casi più di 100 anni le separano.

Sono ansioso di vedere cosa fa Marco con l’intervista e gli altri con cui ha parlato. È stato all’enclave italiana Arthur Avenue del Bronx e altri, quindi spero che abbia entrambi un quadro completo e un punto di vista. Nel frattempo, ci prepareremo per le vacanze qui, incrociamo le dita che la nuova variante di Omicron Covid-19 non rovina tutte le nostre celebrazioni quest’anno.

Thursday on the island with Marco, and this time l get to be the interviewee

[Versione italiana clicca qui]

Meet Marco. He’s an art student from Treviso, Italy, and he’s doing a semester here at Pratt. He took the ferry the other day to interview me about the experiences of Italians in New York; it will be part of a documentary he’s working on. Marco had put out a call for interviews on a Facebook page called New York Italians; it’s a place where recent arrivals from Italy, mainly the youth, exchange tips on jobs, apartments, and where to hang out.

Marco waits for lunch at Vinum.

I responded when I was in Italy and, as usual, totally forgot about it. So I was surprised when a text popped up on my phone. A little back and forth and we had a date and time, if not a place. At first Marco thought we might do a video conference interview, but knowing that I was in New York, he pushed for doing it in person. I’m pretty lazy and wary these days about getting around, so I asked if he’d come to Staten Island. He agreed, to my surprise. Usually an invitation to come to the island is met with the kind of reaction young guys had when they received an invitation from Uncle Sam during the Vietnam War.

The island was a good choice, though given the subect matter. Almost 40 percent of the population of around half a million is of Italian descent, and Italian restaurants, bakeries, and shops line Staten Island’s streets. A lot of the restaurants, sad to say, are dreck. It seems like a central kitchen somewhere produces the same menu items: “zuppa di clams,” mozzarella sticks, penne alla vodka, chicken or veal with a misspelled “francaise.” (I fully recognize that I am being an Italian food snob right now, but I have 10 years of restaurant critic experience to back up my….um, pickiness?)

For Marco, then, I picked a relative newcomer to the scene for lunch, Vinum, a few train stops from the ferry. It’s authentically Italian, not really Italian-American, and usually pretty quiet at lunchtime. It’s worth a visit if you feel like taking the ferry, and, along with Enoteca Maria closer to the ferry and the splendid Sri Lankan eatery Lakruwana, forms a triumvirate of restaurants that can hold their own against the more illustrious boroughs.

If you go to Lakruwana and we can still eat indoors, you’ll be treated to this decor. Oh, and great Sri Lankan food.

Marco used lunchtime for us to get to know each other and to develop interview themes. Speaking in a mixture of Italian and English, we told each other stories about ourselves. Being a good interviewer, he got more out of me than vice-versa. I didn’t mind, it helped me shape something I want to write about in the near future. And after decades of playing his role and trying to get people to tell me stories, it actually was fun to be on the other side. (Foodies, here’s what we had: a shared starter of shrimps and beans all’uccelletto, tagliatelle al ragù for him, tricolor gnocchi for me, Rosso di Montefalco to go with it.)

I did fall into one familiar role: tour guide. When people visit us in Umbria, we usually give them a basic orientation. I did a version of that with Marco. With him riding shotgun, I drove down Bay Street, which follows the eastern shore of Staten Island, from the ferry, through a few old towns, to Fort Wadsworth under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

One town in particular stands out, Rosebank. It was heavily Italian-American until a recent influx of gentrifiers, and could even boast that Giuseppe Garibaldi, the military firebrand who was instrumental in unifying Italy, lived there. Garibaldi, whose name appears on streets and piazzas in every Italian town, had fled an earlier unsuccessful attempt in 1848 to unify the peninsula and took refuge in the home of Italian inventor Antonio Meucci. That house is now the Garibaldi-Meucci Museum.

We got out of the car in Fort Wadsworth. For years it was a military base. Now part of Gateway National Park, it’s got a great view of the harbor and the looming bridge, and has a bunch of fascinating ruins, as well as a campground and a beach. Marco took a few videos and photos and then we had to find a place to do the interview. The weather was blustery and a sound check revealed that the wind would’ve been louder than any gems that I had to say.

New York Harbor, as seen from Fort Wadsworth, including the mutant Manhattan skyline. I don’t like those pencil-thin, ridiculous residential skyscrapers.

But where? I wracked my brain and came up with my favorite local brewery, Flagship. It’s got a big room, good beer, and well-spaced picnic tables. Bartender Mike, intrigued by what we were doing, lit up the spots near us and gave us beer on the house. Amusingly, one of their beers is an Italian-style Pilsener called Birra Locale, meant to mimic Italian brews like Peroni and Moretti. Does it? Marco says it’s more bitter than those; Italians are just getting used to hoppy beers like IPAs.

Marco sets up.

We talked for awhile about my families on both sides and the different facets of life in the U.S. A lot of Italians don’t know about the different strains of the Italian diaspora. And in a lot of ways they echo the divisions in the home country, even if in many cases more than 100 years separate them.

I’m anxious to see what Marco does with the interview, and the others he’s spoken to. He’s been to the Bronx’s Arthur Avenue Italian enclave and others, so I hope he’s both got a complete picture and a point of view. In the meantime, we’ll get ready for the holidays here, fingers crossed that the new Omicron Covid-19 variant doesn’t spoil all of our celebrations this year.

Positively negative: The sequel

What a difference a few months make. You may remember this post and this one. If you don’t and haven’t clicked on the links, I’ll give you the quick version: Flying internationally then was fraught with bureaucracy. Lots of papers to fill out, lots of document checks and Covid testing and an added soupçon of fear and weirdness.

This time, a transatlantic flight was almost normal. But first, a little more backstory. We had return to New York trips booked on Alitalia, airline of the pope, Italian jet set types, and ladies from Bensonhurst. But as of October 14, Alitalia’s out of business, supplanted in Italy by something called ITA Airways, which apparently is supposed to exorcise the bad old ghosts of Alitalia and lead us Italians into a glorious, leanly staffed but full-service, digital (whatever that means) aviation future.

Move along, nothing to see here.

The problem for us was that ITA wouldn’t honor our tickets; under the deal with the European Commission that created the new entity, ITA was explicitly barred from doing so. In a mad scramble online, we bought new tickets, round trip from Rome, on the German airline Lufthansa. We’d flown Lufthansa before and liked its in-flight service—because of flight attendants’ propensity to pour a lot of wine I think of the carrier as the Riesling Express–and thought that it would be interesting to see if and how Covid-19 concerns changed that service.

In a few words, this time around it was pretty much the same,

Once we booked a return date and as that date approached, we had to do the usual stuff to gradually close the house: using up perishable foods, and not buying much either. We decided not to go out to eat that often, either, to reduce our chance of contracting Covid, even as a so-called breakthrough case. We saw that we needed a negative Covid test, 48 hours if it was a rapid preflight test, 72 hours for a PCR test—this is the phrase I loathe, “the new normal.” Our neighborhood pharmacy, Pagliacci in our town, could do the test and give us a two-day “green pass.”

We were poked up the nose here.

About that green pass—for Italian residents, it’s a digital QR code that’s stored in a smartphone app. But for us nonresidents, a paper document worked, although I could have downloaded a digital version from Italy’s health ministry. One of these days I’ll write about Italy’s newfound digitalization. Later.

We made an appointment to get the “tampone”—the Covid test and literally, a swab, and when Monday afternoon rolled around, we went down the hill to the pharmacy. Unlike testing in NY, tests in Italy aren’t free; we had to pay €22 apiece, with €44 coming to abouit $51. A short wait and we got our passes. We were negative. The odds favored this; the entire region of Umbria has about twice the population of Staten Island (which is about 500,000), but it has about half the number of new daily Covid cases.

Then we headed into the trip vortex. The next day we went through our closing down the house checklist. Gas off, furnace off, security system engaged, etc. At least we had something pleasant after that. When we dropped our car off at our neighbors’ place, they invited us in for some bruschetta so we could taste the new olive oil. It’s always a pleasure–their two friendly Maremmano sheep dogs greeted us near the door and then we sat around talking, eating the delicious oil on the bread, and talking some more. Finally, we had to leave; our friend and man with a van Angelo would soon be arriving to drive us to the airport, where we planned to stay overnight for an early morning flight to Munich, and then change for one bound for JFK.

The next 18 hours or so are a blur. Angelo arrived, we loaded our bags, bade a sad ciao! to the house and hills. We stayed in a funky boutique airport hotel called Hello Sky–it had a great, very blue, very very blue bathroom. We’d planned to go into the town of Fiumicino for a seafood dinner, but we were exhausted and ate some paninos in our room. Sad!

Up early the next day, we hustled our bags and sorry bodies across the skybridge to Fiumicino’s Terminal 3, found the Lufthansa area and expected to be grilled and checked and documented. But, pleasant surprise number 1, nope. No line. The Lufthansa woman smiled (!), scanned our passports (American ones–EU people weren’t allowed into the U.S. just yet), and looked at our green passes. Security was just as quick.

If you haven’t been through Rome’s main airport lately, you’re in for a surprise. It’s actually pleasant. No, really. There are cool bars everywhere, the food is good, as we were able to enjoy a last bar-made cappuccino and cornetto. Sure, there’s the usual GucciPucciFerragamoArmani silliness, but there are also nice long soft bench-couch places on which to relax, subtle lighting and, I am not kidding, a sushi bar. But it was too early for sushi.

Munich’s airport: Decent food, easy to get around, straight simple lines

We had to go through Munich, and we had to wear masks for both flights. So, short crowded flight there with minimal service. A couple of hours in Munich’s Bauhaus-y airport, complete with sticker shock (Italian prices spoiled us.) We then, in an orderly way, boarded our Airbus A350 for the ride to New York. We fly premium economy so we can take more bags and stretch out some. (It also means a gentler reentry.) Lufthansa’s inflight service is pretty terrific compared to US based carriers. I’ll just show you the meal, etc., rather than describe them. An early rise and a few glasses of German bubbly meant that I conked out and didn’t get to see the ending of the Elton John biopic Rocketman,

At this point you probably expect me to diss JFK, US immigration and customs. But you would be wrong, A combination of a nearly empty flight, no other flights landing at the same time, and a glitch in the matrix means that we sailed through all of it. We didn’t have to scan our passports, the passport dude was semi-friendly. Our bags came out quickly—hey, with maybe 40-50 people on board, there wasn’t much luggage on that plane—and we were outta there. Neighborhood friend Wendy was there to welcome us and drive us home and…well….the Belt Parkway. But we were too tired to care.

That said, JFK’s Terminal 1 felt awfully shabby. The moving sidewalks didn’t move, there was ratty carpeting everywhere. It doesn’t feel like a gateway to a world capital city, much less a country that holds itself up as the world’s standard bearer. In general, it feels kind of decrepit around here after being away for so long.

I’ll write more later about what it feels like to be back in New York after more than five months of being on an Umbrian hilltop. But sheesh, people, was this country always so strange and stressed? You can feel it on the road and in the supermarket, where the masked and the unmasked eye one another suspiciously. The political strife. Even our nice morning dog group seems to have split up into factions. It’s as though this invisible hand is pushing us across the ocean,.

But our kids are here. And so is the glorious dachshund Lola. Damn,.

To know her is to love her.

Perugia? You know, the place where the chocolates come from.

More than 100 years ago, a woman named Luisa Spagnoli had a chocolate shop in Perugia. Spagnoli was married, had a kid, and was a successful business woman. But she wasn’t exactly faithful and carried on a longtime affair with Giovanni Buitoni of pasta-making fame. She and her paramour would send love notes to each other wrapped around chocolates. These notes, and those chocolates, became the basis for the famous chocolate and hazelnut confections known as Baci, by the company Perugina. That company is now unfortunately part of the sprawling Nestlé conglomerate. (I could go into what a disaster Nestlé has been for local employment…maybe another time. I want to keep this light.)

Perugia, Perugina, Baci, chocolates. The city became intertwined with its most famous product. Whenever people ask where we are in Italy, I’ll tell them Perugia, and if they look puzzled, I usually add “you know, where the chocolates come from” and they sort of get it. This city is also known for hosting festivals seemingly every other day, but I exaggerate, The biggest one is Umbria Jazz in the summer. “Jazz” is applied loosely here; we’ve been to concerts by REM, the P-Funk mob, and Caetano Veloso.There’s a journalism festival around Easter time. And if it’s October, it’s time for Eurochocolate. This city is not about to let a marketing opportunity go untapped.

Except when stuff like Covid-19 pandemics hit. In 2020, they were all canceled, as was the journalism festival this year. But Umbria Jazz and Eurochocolate came back in limited, socially distanced, vaccine-proofed ways. We avoided Umbria Jazz this past summer, but we couldn’t miss the chocolate bash. Instead of holding it in Perugia’s historic center, the organizers moved the show to Umbria Fiere, a convention center in the burbs. Entry was ticket-only, and it seemed that ticket sales were designed to keep crowd sizes down. Or maybe it was just because we decided to go on a Thursday?

If they had intended to hold attendance down to encourage social distancing, it sure didn’t look like it. The parking lot isn’t exactly sprawling, but the lines to get in–or I should say the space for the lines to enter–were long and wound around the building. You can see from the photo below that organizers channeled the different kinds of ticketholders into different lanes. The weird thing was you could count on one hand the number of people in each lane. And all three lanes converged so that one guy could check our “Green Pass“–proof that we’ve been fully vaccinated or had a negative Covid test within the previous 2 days.

Three goes into one at some point.

Whatever. The scene inside was crazy—seemingly every artisanal chocolate maker in Italy was present, as was the German chocolatier Lindt and, of course, Nestlé, er, sorry, Perugina. But the whole thing begged the question, how successful an experience could Eurochocolate be without its usual context. And I’d say, good try, but let’s try again next year for the real thing. It’s no fault of Perugia or Eurochocolate; Covid-19 is the culprit. Still, going out to the convention center and wallowing on chocolate wares wasn’t the worst way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

Part of the charm, if you want to call thousands of people crowding the centro storico (historic center) of Perugia to look at and taste and buy chocolate wares charming, is of the city itself as a backdrop. Baci candies are produced by a company called Perugina, and chocolates are a big part of the fabric of this place, giving it fame that it might not have otherwise. There are quite a few beautiful small cities in Italy, and they’ve gotten good at being known for one thing. Ravenna, up in Romagna, is about the same size as Perugia. And although it’s not a college town like Perugia, it’s got priceless and beautiful mosaics that attract people and keep them coming. (Below, Eurochocolate kept a small presence in Perugia to remind people that it was happening, and to sell some happy stuff.)

Umbria Fiere, the venue for this special edition, is a sprawling convention center near Assisi and only about 25 minutes away from our house. It’s in a town called Bastia Umbra, which is a fairly prosperous satellite town of Perugia’s, at least judging from the shops you see, like the French furniture seller Roche Bobois. There’s a compact center that’s okay, but there’s lots of suburban sprawl of the kind that must make romantic Brit and American Italophiles break out in hives. (I’ll save for later the subject of how the food in strip malls in such nondescript places sometimes beats what you find in more atmospheric spots.)

In any event, I made sure I had enough samples and bought a couple of artisanal chocolate things to keep me happy. The people at the stands and helping out on the floor were cheerful and helpful, and it was nice to see some Sicilian producers. Umbria chocolate makers have a real rival in the producers from my father’s island. And I probably will remember the dark hot chocolate I had at one stand (gallery below, lower left) for the rest of my life.

She makes it look effortless. But we found out how hard it is to put together a good cooking class.

A friend of ours runs a cooking school and bed and breakfast in the hills adjacent to Assisi. The friend, Letizia Mattiacci, has a, warmth and sense of humor that puts everyone immediately at ease. It’s probably why her school, La Madonna del Piatto, is so popular. Letizia herself is often quoted in articles overseas about Umbrian cooking, and she’s put out a couple of lavishly illustrated cookbooks,

She doesn’t do it alone; Letizia’s husband Ruurd de Jong is her roadie, co-manager, photographer and muse. But he was in the hospital and Letizia needed help when a six-member extended family came calling. We’d offered to help, and last week I got a text message summoning us, if we could, to her farmhouse a few hills away. Of course, we replied, and we soon found ourselves driving up the winding road alongside Monte Subasio, the mountain at whose base the city of Assisi lies, and in whose forests the saint took refuge whenever he needed to commune with the divine.

We’re pretty accomplished cooks, and I try to do a good prep if I’m going to do anything halfway complicated. What I didn’t realize was how much hard work and organization goes into even a relatively laid-back, informal cooking class. And while I try to clean up as I mess up, I realized how absolutely crucial constant cleanup is when more than a couple of people are preparing a multicourse meal in a relatively small space.

We soon found out. Our smiling, sociable friend transformed herself into a friendly but firm taskmaster as she ordered us around her kitchen.

“Have you had breakfast?” Letizia asked. After responding “yeah, we had something at home,” she immediately put me and The Spartan Woman to work. First up: Prepare the dining room. Letizia’s classes are typically in the late morning, after which the class gets to eat what its members cooked. On the menu that day was a winter squash soup with spinach and croutons, potato gnocchi with tomato sauce, a chicken dish with balsamic vinegar, and chocolate panna cotta. She was particular when certain cutlery could be put out: first only spoons for the soup course, and then the rest. We neophytes were lucky that the cupboards in the dining room were all well-organized and labeled.

Pronto per pranzo/Ready for lunch

Back into the kitchen—I got to wipe down the cabinets while The Spartan Woman bustled around making sure cooking surfaces were all spotless. Then some prep work. While Letizia had done the bulk of it (she reserves class prep work for the important stuff–anyone can pour milk into a measuring cup), there were some odds and ends. So I peeled garlic and measured out flour and milk for the gnocchi and the panna cotta, TSW did some prep that I forgot. By this time, arrival time was drawing near so who had time to watch what someone else was doing?

Eleven o’clock came and it’s time! The class arrived on time—you could tell they weren’t from here, where being “late” by 15 minutes is standard procedure. They spoke English too, something that was a bit rare and weird to us outside our home, where we obviously speak our native tongue to one another. That is, unless an Italian word seems to fit better.

I can’t tell you much of the class, especially the first half, as TSW was the designated class kitchen elf. She facilitated, for want of a better word, helping out with the logistics, cleaning utensils and pots and plates as they used them, pouring wine for the adults (the class included two children). Yes, wine. It may have been late morning, but a little wine goes extremely well with a cooking class in the hills of Umbria. While this was going on, I was sipping some Rosso di Montefalco myself and deleting a zillion emails on my iPad. TSW was really taken with the commercial-grade dishwasher: It requires as astounding 90 seconds—seconds!—to clean and sterilize a full load.

Getting ready to make some gnocchi.

Once done, we escorted the class to the dining room with their soup, some more wine and mineral water while TSW portioned out their gnocchi. It’s always funny to see the differences. I looked at the random pattern of dumplings and remembered which ones I counted and which I hadn’t (accuracy be damned but I knew I was close), while TSW, with her years of teaching and organizing behind her, lined up her gnocchi in tidy straight rows, easy to count, easy to be accurate. No wonder I depend on her to organize my life. (My ex-colleagues can attest to my anarchic pace and organization. My saving grace is that I’m fast Except when I’m not.) Our objective: 30 gnocchi per person,

At this point, I re-engaged as the busboy. You know the drill: A good busperson unobtrusively monitors beverage consumption, offering refills when needed; makes sure diners have the right silverware and that nothing goes seriously awry. This being an informal setting, this busboy also answered the many questions the diners had. Why were we living in Umbria? Where were we from? How is the Covid situation? Is it hard to find a place to live? (Because we like it. New York. Better than the US, almost like Denmark. No.)

Between courses, TSW, Letizia and I hid out in the secret room off the kitchen, eating some of the excess, grabbing a little wine, and catching up on everything since we last saw each other a few weeks before. Soon, the diners were finished and the class was over. “I really like the communal aspect of the class,” said one of the members. “At most of the class I’ve taken, everyone has his or her own stove.” That was a fitting comment to sum up why we’re here—the compulsive social nature of Italian life may not be for everyone, but it suits us fine—and keeps people coming back to Letizia’s.

It helps that La Madonna del Piatto is is in a beautiful setting:

Addio, Alitalia. It’s been sometimes good to know you. Still, we hate to see you go (because you owe us).

I flew for the first time on July 4, 1971, when I was 14 years old. My family took an Alitalia flight from New York City to Rome, and I was on vacation with my parents and my younger sister and brother. The trip was a big deal for us; it was my father’s first time back to his native Italy in 16 years, and it was our first trip abroad. I remember a lot of the details. The plane was a new Boeing 747, and even in economy class they gave us slippers to wear. The dinner’s centerpiece was a filet mignon in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Excited to be on a real vacation, my 11-year-old sister and I explored the plane. “Maria, come here!” I called to her as I peered beyond the curtain toward the first-class cabin and its spiral staircase. “No, go there,” the mustachioed flight attendant told me, pointing us back toward steerage.

Ever since that first flight, I’ve taken Alitalia a couple of dozen times. The Italian flag carrier was historically generous with its mileage loyalty programs, and its direct flights to either Rome or Milan were a godsend to people who dislike changing flights and going through security more than once. It served as the unofficial carrier of the postwar Italian diaspora, and was the pope’s official airline. 

But Alitalia is about to taxi back to the big hangar in the sky, joining other defunct airlines like Sabena, TWA and Pan Am. Years of bad management, wildcat strikes, patronage staffing levels, and indifferent service took their toll. Alitalia has been in receivership since 2017, and the Italian government of Mario Draghi and the European Union finally pulled the plug. Sure, successive Italian governments tried to keep Alitalia aloft, but after billions in bailouts and repeated, unsuccessful efforts to find it a suitor, everyone called it quits. 

Sorry, your flight’s been canceled and there isn’t much that you can do.

There’s a psychological element to the carrier’s end. Although a lot of Italians had become tired of its hijinks, Alitalia remained one of the last cornerstones of Italy’s postwar boom, which saw the mostly rural, war-torn country become a modern economic and social power. Indeed, Alitalia’s fate echoes the fate of other big Italian companies, like the auto giant Fiat, which once stood for that postwar economic miracle and is now just a part of a French-led conglomerate, Stellantis. This hollowing out of Italy’s big companies has taken a big toll on Italian pride, no matter how many soccer championships the national team wins. This psychological toll is one of the reasons for the ascendancy of populists like the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, and the right wing party Brothers of Italy. The latter is led by the photogenic Giorgia Meloni, who can be thought of as the Italian equivalent of the French politician Marie Le Pen.

Taking Alitalia’s place will be ITA, or at least a company called ITA at this moment, which may or may not use the Alitalia brand and aircraft livery when it takes to the skies this month. A public sale of the old company’s assets will be held soon. Think of the change as something akin to the bailout of General Motors back in 2009, when the U.S. government severed the automaker’s assets from its debts and let the “new,” debt-free GM continue to operate. Only this time, the EU specified that there’s to be less continuity between the old and new companies. Ticketholders for flight’s after Alitalia’s October 14 demise have been told, basically, tough luck, file for a refund. 

Despite all the bad times, some of us will be sad to see Alitalia land for good. Sure, thousands of people complained about bad service. Booking agents could be impolite or even hostile; delays were, for a time, legend. But the airline served as a cultural bridge and a symbol of the stylish, dolce vita Italy. When you boarded an Alitalia flight at JFK—an often-chaotic ritual, to be sure—you felt as though you were already in Italy, for better or worse, between the Italian announcements and the proper, rather snobbish attitude of the designer-attired cabin crew.

You could feel almost human in premium economy.

For one thing, Italy’s humanity in all its glory seemed to be embodied by the flight attendants. I once watched a female attendant watch with concern as a very young couple tried to soothe their screaming infant. “Give to me,” she told them in accented English. Putting a napkin on her shoulder, she walked up and down the aisle with the infant, rocking it softly and cooing to it. The baby fell asleep within minutes and she gave it back to the parents. “See?” she asked them. “It’s not so hard. Be calm.” 

Alitalia’s premium economy service was a terrific medium between the lay-flat luxury of “Magnifica” class and the awful, cramped economy cabin. Flight attendants brought us glasses of prosecco and swag bags by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel. The cabin was intimate, with only 17 seats. For a small premium, budget-minded travelers could feel cosseted and a little special. 

Often, though, those good moments were punctuated by less-happy times. The cabin crew wasn’t always interested in keeping flyers happy, retreating to the back of the plane and telling people they could serve themselves from the cart if they were thirsty mid-flight. The meals declined in quality—a recent Covid-19 compliant meal consisted of a few overcooked, stuck-together ravioli and two bottles of mineral water. Italian speakers often got much better treatment than non-Italians. Forget about it if a celebrity boarded and headed to first class; most of the crew would migrate to the front, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves.

The final indignity, at least for my wife and me, came recently with an email canceling our flight back to New York. We’ve been here in Umbria a few months now, and have to get back to New York for the holidays. And I’ve filed for a refund from the €100 million the government has set aside for people like us,  and rebooked on another airline. It seems that under the agreement with the European Union creating ITA, the new entity doesn’t have to honor our tickets nor does Alitalia have to find us flights on other carriers—which is the usual procedure here in Eurolandia  

So farewell, Alitalia, it’s been a tempestuous affair between you and me. But I’ll still miss you. Now where’s my refund?

Photo up top: Andrea Tavoni, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other photos are by author.