Act like you fit in

On my friend Mick’s first day of kindergarten, his father gave him some good advice: “Act like you fit in.” I guess even back then, his dad knew that Mick was an artist and a gentle sweet soul who’d have a rough time navigating a sometimes hostile world. Funny how his advice seems really valid now to us. I’m looking at boxes and stacks of books and a guitar case, thinking about how we’re finally close to reversing the moves made by my father and my mother’s parents decades ago to the United States.

The Spartan Woman and I were driving around the other day doing some errands, and we talking about people we know who’ve become expatriates in Italy. And in a way we felt a little, I don’t know, pleased with ourselves that we were raised in New York in immigrant families and communities. “If I had to pin down my nationality,” said TSW, “I’d say New Yorker.”

But that’s almost too easy. After being in Italy almost six months, and after two years of pandemic-driven isolation, we’re realizing that our New York doesn’t exist any more, except in pockets where recent immigrants live and work. Still, whether New York has morphed into something different, we’re still a different breed from Those People Out There and we’re proud of it. Growing up in New York makes you—us—citizens of the world. And that has prepared us for our little adventure in reverse immigration.

Here’s how. I’ve told you about Holly Street before, where I grew up. The street was populated by a mix of recent European immigrants (Italian, German, Irish, Scottish) and old-time Staten Islanders. The Spartan Woman has an immigrant past, too—all four grandparents were born elsewhere, her paternal grandparents from in and around Palermo, Sicily, and her maternal grandparents from Sparta in Greece. Combine that with the local dialect, where Yiddish syntax influences how we speak English, and you get a native New Yorker of a certain age. Our certain age.

And while the immigrants’ native lands change, it’s heartening to know that our kids had similar experiences. Their friends from childhood into adulthood either came from or are the first generation of people who came from Argentina, Slovakia, Chile, and the Caribbean. Oh, Italy too—it’s Italy’s lasting shame that each generation seemed to send some of their best people away.

I could bore you with an autobiography here—my high school, Brooklyn Tech (left), for example, was a hotbed of recent immigrant kids from around the world. But it’s enough to say that growing up around here meant we literally had the world at our feet. (Please let me be snarky here—these trustafarians that we saw colonizing Brooklyn pre-pandemic. Can they please go home now? Gentrification is bad enough, but do they have to turn this city into the suburbs they crawled out of?) I knew Polish, Dominican, Greek, Russian, Chinese, and Jamaican kids, among others.

But I won’t. Back to fitting in and if we do or not. When I think of a permanent or long-term move to Italy, I’m grateful for the good training I had for the jump across the pond. One side of my family was made up of recent immigrants who hadn’t yet been assimilated into America. And TSW grew up hearing Greek and eating the Greek-inflected food her mom cooked. We both were used to a tight family structure and traditions that carried over.

The result? We’ve had it easier than the classic expat with no Italian background or citizenship. But even for us, it’s not always smooth sailing to become integrated into a country where you didn’t grow up though. I may be fluent in the language and get most of the social norms, but I didn’t go to Italian schools. I didn’t serve in the Italian military, for which there was a draft when I was of draftable age. So I’m missing the backstory, as journalists like to put it. (The guy on the right—my dad—had the opposite experience. He went to Italian schools and served in the army, and moved to the U.S.)

Whatever. We made our choice, now we have to live with—through?—it. I don’t know if I’m trying to convince myself or not, but being here temporarily in my native city feels strange these days, as though those five months here and there made me miss some development and it’s impossible to catch up. I can’t wrap my head around $30 cocktails, bad espresso in expensive restaurants, and the crazy drivers in unstable trucks.

Plus, the pleasures of living in Italy are undeniable, especially if you’re semi-retired and don’t have to deal with actually going to a workplace. Cheap, delicious food, the aperitivo hour (happy hour on steroids), easy access to kilometers of breathtaking hiking trails, good friends. Okay the bureaucracy sucks, but tell me where it doesn’t.

Cheap drinks may not be enough to convince someone to move to Italy. But they make dealing with the bureaucracy less painful.

I just wish I could take with me my fast Internet connection, Flushing’s Asian food courts, and my daughter’s dachshund, which we raised from puppyhood while Liv was in school. Hope she’s not reading this in case I plan a dognapping…

Our pre-Thanksgiving country life in the big, big city

I could whine, but I won’t. I was driving to a Trader Joe’s one recent morning. It’s on the other side of Staten Island—just another boring day in New York’s outer boroughs, right? As I approached a traffic light, the light turned yellow, then red. A law abiding guy, I came to a stop. But in my rear view mirror, I saw that a Honda Accord was tailgating. Thankfully, the driver didn’t smash into my car, but he or she plainly objected to my stopping, so the car whipped around my car and charged through the light. Luckily, no one was coming through the intersection.

But I avoid most of that by not going out much, or at least not to that side of the island much. Instead, we’ve stuck to our neighborhood. Unlike whole swathes of this island and New York City in general, it’s just beautiful. We’re surrounded by parks and woods and, a little further away, the harbor and a historic fort. So we can take walks that resemble those sun-dappled pharmaceutical commercials.

Today we went for a hike. Being a little lazy and wanting to maximize the pup’s off leash (shhh!) time, we drove to Allison Pond down the hill. There’s a pond, no surprise. But behind it are acres of woods. The pond was named after the daughter of George A. Outerbridge, an engineer who owned the property and designed the Outerbridge Crossing that connects Staten Island with Perth Amboy, New Jersey. One of the many Staten Island oddities is the bridge’s name. Looking at a map you might think that the bridge is so named because it’s out there, near the southern tip of Staten Island and, really, New York State. But no. It was named after its designer, Outerbridge, and instead of calling it the Outerbridge Bridge they had to use the word “Crossing,” a word that about 10-15 years ago came into vogue in the names of shopping malls.

But I digress. Take a look at the gallery below. This is November, and the light on sunny days is beautiful and golden. It’s such a contrast to what I usually think of November, gross windy rainy days and the only outdoor colors seem to be black, brown, and gray.

Here and below, click on photos to enlarge.

YESTERDAY’S AFTERNOON WALK WAS slightly more urban. We took Lola to her usual morning place, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. I’ve probably posted dozens of photos of the place to Instagram/Facebook and bored everyone I know. But the place is really special. And it’s where our neighborhood here began. Trader Robert Randall traded what became the area around Washington Square for acres of land on Staten Island’s north shore. He established a home for retired seamen on the land fronting the Kill Van Kull, the strait that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey. He built a beautiful campus full of Greek Revival buildings, and the establishment was self-sufficient, with its own farm, livestock, chapel and cathedral, dormitories, and sadly, a cemetery. The land uphill of the home became Randall Manor in the 1920s—where we live in New York.

The old guys were shipped to South Carolina some decades ago, and hungry developers wanted the land for condos and the usual horrors visited on this island. But Jackie Kennedy Onassis, among others, campaigned to save the historic buildings and beautiful grounds.

Today, it’s a art center that boasts studios for artists, museum spaces, and a gorgeous botanical garden that includes one of the few Chinese scholar’s gardens in North America.The administration does what it can with a severely limited budget. A few years ago a visiting cousin from Switzerland was shocked at what she saw as neglect of a beautiful place. It’s better now, if not up to Swiss standards, and Greg, the botanical garden’s chief, does an incredible job of rotating plants through the year.

So most mornings we walk Lola through the grounds. We have dog friends, and so does Lola. The Harbor in general has a low-key hippie vibe that fits in perfectly with that part of the island, which boasts a historic district and scores of gracious 18th and 19th century homes. It’s been cold the past few mornings, so we’ve waited until the sun warms things up a bit. The reward has been this golden light that makes me look like a better photographer than I am.

Bean there, done that

My mother was endlessly inventive in the kitchen. Married to a guy from Palermo, Sicily, she had to come up with a “primo” for dinner most nights. We didn’t have the traditional meat and two sides on one plate. My dad insisted on our following the typical Italian meal progression: a “primo,” either pasta asciutta (with sauce), soup, or rarely, rice. The meat or fish or frittata (omelette, Italian-style) followed. At the end of dinner, my father peeled and cut up pieces of fruit, which he doled out to us on the tip of his paring knife.

Those primi stick in my mind the most. I always preferred pasta to the second course. Twice a week we had spaghetti or some other pasta with tomato sauce—what most people back then thought was the only way to eat “macaroni.” But in between were pastas with broccoli or cauliflower, either in dry form or as a soup, escarole soup, spaghetti with clams…the list goes on. Having this first course made us less ravenous when the secondo came around, and I’m sure that it helped stretch the food budget, too. And at least once every couple of weeks, pasta e fagioli, which on the U.S. is often rendered in some obsolete dialect as “pasta fazool.”

Pasta e fagioli is the star of this post. It’s cheap, nutritious and can be fun to cook, and is delicious too. The variations can make your head explode. I’m going to tell you how to make my favorite version, which is an adaptation of what I first had one long afternoon, way too long ago.

Some culinary history: Mom usually used kidney beans, specifically canned kidney beans, for pasta e fagioli, because back in the dark ages of American grocery stores, kidney beans were everywhere, mostly to the exclusion of every other bean. Sure there might be navy beans, which are almost tasteless and resemble the canellini bean’s little brother. And you could buy lentils and split peas. But back then, there wasn’t much choice. Angie/Mom made it palatable by injecting a fair amount of garlic and some tomato broth to the mix. If she had some lying around, she’d chop parsley.

You can all them cranberry beans or borlotti. Either way they’re creamy and sfiziosi.

Years later, Perugian friends took us to an agriturismo (working farm with restaurant and/or rooms) over the border in foreign Toscana—Tuscany in English. The folks at the Castello di Sorci supplied a multicourse meal with two primi, one of which was an amazing puréed bean soup with homemade tagliolini, or thin homemade egg noodles. This was new to me; I’d never thought to purée the beans for the soup. Back home in New York, I made my own versions, one of which stuck. I love fennel and will sneak it in wherever I can. I did it with the bean soup and found that the addition of the fennel mellowed the soup out. At the same time, you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look for it—just like chefs now use anchovies to increase the umami in a dish.

The supporting star

We’re starting to make soups like this as the weather turns cooler. So far this November it hasn’t cooled that much, but with the long nights this soup feels right somehow. You can put it together in 40 minutes or so using canned beans, or plan ahead, soak some good beans overnight and cook them before making soup out of them.

HERE’S THE NON-RECIPE RECIPE. I don’t measure anything, and this soup has endless variations in quantity and what you put into it. The orthodox version is pretty straightforward, though I have no idea whether anyone in Umbria ever purees fennel along with the beans.

You’ll need a package of canellini or borlotti beans. If you can’t find them, navy or kidney beans of whatever color will work. If you’re using dry beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and cook them ahead of time. Otherwise, a couple of cans of white or borlotti (cranberry) beans will work.

A bulb of fennel—if you can’t find or don’t like fennel, you can use celery

One onion

2-4 cloves of garlic

One carrot

Tomato paste or a couple of peeled canned whole tomatoes (mainly for color adjustment; otherwise the soup can be way too beige)

Wine to deglaze. Or white vermouth.

Short soup pasta, or broken up spaghetti, or sheets of egg pasta cut into strips or irregular shapes. Quantity is up to you. About a cup works but it really depends on how soupy or solid you want the final version to be.

How to start:

Dice a small head of fennel, saute in good olive oil. Add a diced onion (red, yellow, or white, it doesn’t really matter). Dice a carrot. All of this doesn’t have to be perfect; you’re going to purée this toward the end. Add 2-4 smashed garlic cloves, and, optional, a pinch of hot pepper flakes or a little hot pepper—what we call “peperoncino” in Italian. Get the vegetables past soft and translucent; you’ll want a bit of golden color because it will taste better.

Add a splash of white wine or dry vermouth and get all the toasty bits off the pot. Add a squeeze of tomato paste or a peeled tomato or two. Add two liters/quarts of low salt vegetable stock or water. Add the cooked/canned beans. Bring to a boil and then let it settle into a simmer. At this point you’ll want the flavors to come together, so let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

Take the soup off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée until smooth. You can keep some beans out and leave them whole if you want. It’s your soup. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a normal standalone blender or even a food processor will work.

Turn the heat back on. Add pasta. There are two schools of thought here. I’ll usually cook the pasta in the soup, but a lot of people will cook it separately and then bring the pasta and soup together just before serving. Cook the pasta until just before being al dente–it will continue cooking as you serve it.

The finished product

Serve the soup in bowls, drizzle good olive oil on top.

Variations

Possible additions: Greens. You can even just tear some rucola (arugula) up and it will wilt in the bowl and give the soup a peppery note. Finely chopped Tuscan (black) kale, escarole, or chicory are good additions.A pinch of red pepper flakes or chili oil will satisfy those who like things spicy.

You can also choose not to purée the soup. In that case, make sure you dice the supporting cast of vegetables finely and uniformly; it’s all got to fit on a spoon. Or you can ease up on the water or broth and make the dish semi-solid.

Photo at top of page: Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom

No, Big Tech isn’t going to save the world. But it’s made our little world a little easier

If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know that I have distinct geek tendencies. Back in the late 1990s I took a break from being a full-time editor to play with machines. The project involved bringing a few newsrooms up to modern standards. One newsroom went from an archaic and incredibly strange Windows PC and Mac setup with no way to track files, to what was then the standard for publishing, the Quark Publishing system. But it was pretty no-frills at the time, with the first project not having direct Internet access until a year or two after the system was in use.

I think about technology a lot, although at this point I don’t earn a living by sharing those thoughts. But with our weird one foot in each place life, I have to say that tech has smoothed the way, making it easier to stay in touch with family and friends, and—sometimes I’m not completely convinced this is a good thing—it’s made it easier to live similar lives on both sides of the pond when it comes to music and video. I guess that I’m writing this because I get tired of the constant drone of negativism about where we are in 2022 when it comes to humans and machines. Yeah social media can be a menace. But the emphasis is on “can.” It doesn’t have to be and the fact that it’s easy to misuse makes it more important for us to be vigilant.

I’ll come clean right away: We’re in the Apple ecosystem; we trade a little more expense for fewer complications. The Spartan Woman started it years ago when she brought a Mac home from school one summer. Her school’s principal figured that the computers would be safer living with teachers than stored in the school over the long holiday. Back then I was taken immediately by how easy the Mac made it to do stuff like move files around, rename them, duplicate them, etc. I was a convert, and the following year, we bought our first Mac. I actually used it to gather wire copy and send it into the publishing system at work.

SO WHERE DOES TODAY, AND THIS BLOG come in? Well, when you think about it, we’ve got the digital equivalent of an RV—we carry our media home around, as long as we’ve got an internet connection. Only it weighs a little less and uses a lot less energy.

Our approach: We only buy laptops as computers, and we have iPhones; they like to work with each other. iPads are optional. We have little HomePod mini speakers, so we can have our music in both places without carrying around CDs (remember them?). All of our devices work with both U.S. and European voltages. I bought some Apple plugs that fit right into the AC adapters, so there’s no bulky and problematic adapters. We’ve laid in a supply of European rechargers, too, so that we don’t have to cart everything around. The only time things get complicated is when we aren’t going from one home to another directly. In that case, we need a couple of rechargers with Euro or American plugs to work in hotels and rented apartments.

Casa, dolce casa, discreetly high tech

In Italy, we don’t watch broadcast TV; we have a smart TV with an Apple TV. I know that’s redundant, but the Apple TV interface is much easier to use, and it gives us access to more services. The setup gives us Italian public TV stations via the app RAI Play, plus all the streaming services that we use, like Netflix and Mhz Choice. By the way, the latter is terrific, featuring European programming with subtitles, just in case you’re challenged by, say, Icelandic.

I guess that I wouldn’t be writing this post if we just vacationed for a week or two. Back then, we somehow managed to live without our music collection for a couple of weeks. But we’re older and spend a lot of time at home, especially in the winter, when Umbria is usually dark, cold, and wet. And thinking back further, The Spartan Woman and I wrote each other nearly every day that we were apart. Yeah, it was sweet.

Now, though, I can do remote work when it happens. Our hilltop Italian ‘net connection isn’t the fastest, but it gets the job done. And when it wigs out, we use our phones as hot spots. So what if a video chat is grainy or freezes every so often? It’s better than paying through the nose for a 3-minute phone call, like in the old days.

Some practical tips:

• You’ll need a lot of rechargers, recharging cables, adapters, dongles, etc. Put them all in a big Ziploc bag and carry that bag in hand luggage. Make sure your devices are fully charged; USB ports on planes aren’t the most powerful. Buy a portable battery pack or two just in case. (My bag of tricks on the right.)

• Put your laptop in a padded case. Because of airport security, make sure it isn’t a pain to haul it out and open the case. The faster you can get stuff in and out, the faster you’ll get through security. European airports seem to have more sophisticated scanners and the more polite security folks don’t make you take everything out of a knapsack or computer bag.

• If you have a choice, buy what you can in the U.S. Italian value-added tax (sales tax in Amurrican) is 22 percent, versus 8.something in New York. The weakening Euro means higher prices in Europe in general. There are negligible differences between U.S. and Euro models, but you might be disoriented by the laptop keyboards on European models. They typically have a bigger “return” key, and have keys for letters with accents, such as è and á.

• Don’t expect to find wifi everywhere. In fact, if you’re a frequent traveler, you might notice fewer hotspots than before. Why? European mobile plans cost a lot less than plans in the U.S., and typically have tons of high-speed data included. So Europeans these days have less of a need to hook up to a wifi network when what the speeds they get on cellular networks is perfectly adequate.

What’s that about how you can’t go home again?

I’m sitting in the kitchen of our house in New York. It’s been awhile since I posted from here, say, six months or so. We got here a week ago and I guess I could’ve posted some fluffy thing about our smooth voyage back to the land of the compulsory national anthem.

But then it happened.

We innocently took ourselves up the street to our friendly locally owned pharmacy for the latest Covid omnicron bi-whatever booster shot. We’d faithfully gotten every vaccine, every booster. In Italy, we stayed away from crowds. We wore masks when we weren’t obligated to. We got here via one long van ride piloted by our friend Angelo, one night in a beachside hotel, an early morning cab ride and two Lufthansa flights, the first from Rome to Munich, then Munich to JFK. The flights were jam-packed, so much so that we got alerts on our phones to check hand baggage if possible to leave enough space in the overheads.

So we masked on board, except for meals. Sorry kiddos, but these old peeps gotta eat and drink. Then, remasked, The Spartan Woman settled in for some movies, while I, the dissolute blogger, took advantage of some pharmaceuticals and the delicious bubbly Henkell Trocken supplied by Lufthansa to get some needed sleep. As far as I’m concerned, the best flight is the flight that I barely remember.

Immigration in NY was swift, lubricated by a nice conversation with an elderly lawyer and his charming wife while on line for Mr. Passport Man. “How long was your stay?” asked the passport guy. “Six months, more or less.” Welcome home. An Uber later and a frenzied Lola the Bassotto (dachshund in Italian) was doing circles and screaming at the top of her lungs when we saw her. It was nice to be back.

So fast forward…it’s Saturday. We take the pooch out for a walk and head for the Greenmarket. We’re always thinking of Sunday pranzo (midday meal, spiritually more than just lunch), so we buy mussels, some beautiful tuna and swordfish, chard, and apples. Corn, too. In other words, we’re back to our New Yawk life.

Snug Harbor: Where art and botany live together in perfect harmony

Or so we thought.

It started late Saturday. You know that intuition that something isn’t quite right? I felt hot. I felt cold. I felt hot and cold at the same time, I couldn’t tell the difference. Pressure built up in my head. I looked over to TSW. She seemed to be a bit ragged too. It got worse. We tested. Negative. Phew. It’s just a reaction to the booster.

It wasn’t. A day (or was it two? It’s all a blur) later, TSW tests positive. I took a few home rapid tests, still negative. Still, as of Monday morning I would’ve been happy to have been knocked unconscious. I put my hoodie on and wrapped myself up in a fleece blanket. Then took it all off and hung out in my T-shirt. Rinse. Repeat. Or something like that. In the back of my fevered brain (yes, I had a fever of 102 by this point) I knew I was on deadline for an actual, someone’s paying me article. In a mighty show of pitiful mind over matter, I sat up and banged out a draft. Then I collapsed in an easy chair. I don’t remember much else except that an hour before filing the piece the next day I decided that I wrote it backwards, and rearranged paragraphs. Good thing I had 30 years of editing experience, so doing that didn’t take much brainpower or patching around the moved pieces.

She had to rest after all the excitement of seeing us.

More tests for me. Same result. TSW and Dr. Joe said get thee to a PCR test. Did that. Still negative, while TSW, daughter no. 2 and BF of daughter no. 2 all positive This does not make sense. Nope. None.

So that’s where we are. We get a little better every day. The other three at least have a name for how rotten they feel. Trust me, I’m not having sympathy pains, though by now I’m a day or so ahead and can approximate a human being.

We never did have that nice seafood dinner.

Enough of that old stuff. Let’s see some modern architecture

People come here to see old stuff. There’s Assisi, with the hundreds of years old basilica, with Giotto’s frescoes. Perugia has a still intact Etruscan gate and mysterious Etruscan tombs on its outskirts. Spoleto has a Roman amphitheater. For those of you who missed Ancient European History 101, the Etruscans predated those newcomers, the Romans. You can see more modern construction from, say, the 1500s. And apartment buildings that are 100 years old or more are considered to be kind of new.

Along comes Kid no.2 and her partner in art and life. We haven’t seen them in months. And the atrociously hot, then tropically rainy summer kept us from going out much. (So did our continued Covid vigilance) So when those two arrived, it gave us a chance to get out of the house, off the mountain, and play sightseeing guides for a week.

What do you want to see? we asked. “Al (the BF) wants to see some modern architecture. Well…. But it does exist. Umbrians don’t sit on their ancient marble doorstops. And to be honest, looking for modern works was a nice break from Olde Europe,

Friends told us about Il Carapace, a winery like no other. The name means shell—most commonly a turtle shell, but animals like shrimp and lobsters have them too, The producers of prestigious wines like Ferrari bubbly, Lunelli, decided that they wanted a statement canteen.in their Umbrian winery, Castelbuono. So they commissioned sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro to build it.He’d done work for them before, but I have to say, this building came almost as a shock as we drove through sunflower fields and old-style vineyards. The Carapace rises out of the landscape like some alien space ship, a little menacing and a little humorous at the same time.

He asked for modern. He got it.

The surprises don’t end when you enter the belly of what could pass as a Klingon ship. The theme is copper, which clads the exterior, and whose paint adorns the inside. You feel like you’re in the belly of the beast, and a 360-degree view lets you meditate on the ancient vines. Castelbuono produces Sagrantino—Umbria’s most prestigious wine—and Rosso di Montefalco, a less intense, more easily quaffed red wine. If you need a Tuscan comparison, think Brunello to Rosso di Montalcino. The aging barrels sit in a huge underground space.

We had to eat, espcially after sampling three wines with a little nosh, so we left the Carapace to get lunch in nearby Bevagna. We were back in old Umbria, which has its abundant charms, not the least of which was a salad of raw ovoli mushrooms, which in their way looked as alien as the Carapace.

The mushrooms from another planet

A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER, we went to Foligno. We’d never been, except to the train station, which is a major transfer point for trains from the main Rome-Ancona line and the pokey local “regionale” to Perugia. The object? The modern art museum, the Centro Italiano Arte Contemporanea.

Foligno is unexpectedly interesting. On the outer rings of the small city, there are lots of Stile Liberty, or Art Moderne villas. There’s a long wide pedestrian street filled with porticos with bars and restaurants, and tons of shops and terrific window shopping. Who knew?

The modern art museum has one thing in common with the interior of the Carapace: a copper color. It basically looks like a copper box in the middle of a older neighborhood, and is instantly recognizable because of that. The permanent collection is pretty small and unfortunately they were between exhibits. But there’s more….

A 10-minute walk brought us to a deconsecreated church, the Chiesa della SS. Trinità in Annunziata. where, in the middle is a giant skeleton replica, by the secretive and subversive artist Gino de Dominicis. Its official name, “Calamita Cosmica,” or cosmic calamity. It’s pretty amazing, the kind of thing that held our attention as we walke around it. It’s not just the thing itself; it’s the context. De Domicis is described in the work’s website as “a controversial figure in modern postwar Italian art, with an eccentric personality, himself an endless work of art, original and full of secrets.” All I know is we just stared in wonder as we walked about the beast and tried to take photos that did it justice.

Well, why not?

Of course, we worked up a powerful hunger after that expedition. Happily, Foligno was there for us, with a festival of first courses. In the progression of an Italian meal, the “primo,” or first course, is actually the second. It’s composed of pasta, soup, or rice. Note that it is not what Americans call a main course; to an Italian, a huge plate of overcooked spaghetti serving as the main meal is a travesty. The festival was terrific, even if it was a rainy day and we had to traipse all over the center of town. Big signs and a handout map guided us to various restaurants around town that served regional primi; it was fun to pick and choose, for a really good price of €5 (5 bucks) a plate, with cheap good wine to go with it.

A “tris” of primi

We’ll be going back to Foligno as soon as we can. The festival got us acquainted with what seemed to be dozens of cool bars, restaurants and shops. Can’t wait.

Don’t worry, it’s still safe to visit us

When I was 18 I was shipped off to my grandmother and aunt in Sicily. I didn’t have a summer job, it was in the middle of a bad recession, and my parents didn’t want me hanging around. It was terrific; my Italian cousin and I spent a good part of that summer hitchhiking around Palermo, going to the beach, getting a good buzz on in the local bars, and going to parties. Even as a 17-year-old, he was an excellent tour guide, and I got to know my father’s city.

Why am I telling you this? Back in 1975, Italy’s communist party typically got about a third of the vote in national elections, and the American press was sounding the alarm that the country “would go communist.” As I got ready to leave for Italy, people kept asking me if it was safe to go to a place that was really about to turn, you know, communist. I was a smarmy college kid then and dismissed all the talk. And when I got to Italy, I saw that things hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d been there, except that the developers’ rape of Palermo continued apace. And that was definitely not a commie plot.

In other words, after this last election, which will bring the right to power, don’t sweat it too much. I am not dismissing its importance, however. I am not a fan of Giorgia Meloni and her fascist-descended Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party. The tone of Italy will change. But life will go on, as it did a couple of years ago when the Matteo Salvini’s Lega right wing party dominated the news with its hostility toward refugees sailing across from Libya. The tone of the country will change in ways that matter most to foreigners in government and media, and locals who pay attention to government machinations. But you’ll be able to visit the Vatican, have an Aperol spritz at aperitivo time, and do the things that most people do when they visit Italy.

I’m not trying to trivialize things. But at my age, I’m trying to be less hysterical about everything, and definitely less hysterical than Americans tend to be. And I’ll try to explain why 40 percent of Italian voters (about a third didn’t bother to vote) chose the right wing coalition.

First of all, you can argue that the outgoing government headed by “SuperMario” Mario Draghi (left) was illegitimate—it’s a fact that he wasn’t elected. The outgoing parliament, elected in 2018, had two leading parties, the 5 Stelle (5 Star) rebel party and the right wing Lega. The first government (in parliamentary systems, the term “government” means administration featuring one or more parties) was a coalition between those uneasy partners. 5 Star is a weird, populist group composed of disaffected people, techies, environmentalists and libertarians that tries to evade the usual left-right definition. (When it comes down to it, it’s a volatile sort of left-ish party that doesn’t know how to effectively govern.) The Lega’s Salvini, who was interior minister in that administration, decided that he’d rather be prime minister and spent the summer playing DJ and flirting with the ladies on the beach. Campaigning, in other words.

Salvini brought down that coalition of convenience, but got fucked: The Democratic Party (PD) and 5 Stelle got together and did an end run around him. He and his party were cast out of government, while the previous losers (the PD) became part of a governing coalition. (When I say cast out of government, I mean the ruling coalition. They stay on as members of parliament.) After a PD-5 Stelle coalition fell, Italy’s president during the Covid pandemia got most major parties to play nice and unite under Draghi; Meloni kept her party out of it.

SO, WAS “DEMOCRACY” SERVED by this? The end run pissed a lot of people off—a lot of conservatives, but also people who thought that the will of the people, as expressed in the election, had been subverted. And it wasn’t the first time; back about 10 years ago during the Euro crisis, investor speculation led to the fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s regime and the installation of a technocratic administration. And the dissatisfaction wasn’t just among people on the right. A lot of people who might have voted for the center-left felt that the PD left them out in the cold, that, basically, the PD and its allies were basically supporting governments that were more anxious to satisfy institutional investors rather than people. (This all begs a bigger question: What does the left stand for anyway? That’s another blog post. Or ten,)

So where are we now? First of all there’s none of the weird histrionics that characterized American transitions of late. The winning coalition partners are jockeying for position. Meloni and her male partners are negotiating and probably arguing over cabinet posts. Given the bad showing of Salivini’s Lega, you can probably bet that he isn’t going to call the shots in her government.

What won’t and will change? Unfortunately, they’ll be restrictions on immigration and probably more rhetoric directed at preserving the traditional family. A lot of the latter will fall on deaf ears. Lots of Italian couples don’t bother to get married, even after they’ve had kids. Unlike what happens in the U.S., I don’t think the incoming government will dismantle Italy’s terrific public healthcare system and other features of this fairly modern welfare state. We’ll still have fast trains, a decent amount of public transit and most of what makes Italy’s quality of life so good. We’ll also probably see more demonstrations as unpopular programs are introduced. Meloni now owns whatever happens and won’t be able to stand in opposition.

A word about the democratic process. Much of the press coverage of the election asked, through an American filter, whether Meloni and her crew are “a danger to democracy.” It’s really too early to tell but I have a couple of thoughts on that score: First of all, Hitler was elected. Both George W Bush, first term, and Trump were “elected” despite having lost the popular vote. And both U.S. presidents ruled as though they’d been given a mandate. I think we as Americans confuse procedure with substance. There’s more to governments and nations than whether people voted or not—there’s substantive issues, and whether governments are responsive to what their citizens need.

The U.S., even before this recent crisis of democracy, has pretty much screwed its populace for the past 40 years. Workers lost most protections, healthcare still remains a pay as you play game, as does most of politics. Millions of jobs were shipped overseas, and Americans aren’t guaranteed paid time off, as are Italians and citizens of the European Union. So ask yourself whether Americans can really say that before the advent of a wannabe strongman like Trump, that their democracy was really working anyway.

Image credit for chart at the top: CC-by-SA 4.0 (Wikicommons)

Meloni photo: Vox España, CCO, via Wikimedia Commons

The others by author

It’s something we think about all the time here

Let’s talk about food, shall we? And where you consumed said food? (Sorry if the headline led you to think I was going to write about that other obsession.) I’m thinking about food in Italy these days, since I’m here. It really is an obsession, and not just with “sovrappeso” [overweight] me. I’ve overheard chic saleswomen talk about what they were going to have for lunch in tones that were, well, erotic. And if you happen to be in Italy and happen to get onto YouTube, your feed will soon be blitzed with food videos. I don’t think it’s just mine.

First off, most Americans without the good luck (or misfortune. It depends.) of having relatives living in Italy don’t get the full-on experience. They–you?–have to go to restaurants. And that’s a shame, especially if you’re in the big tourist cities. Why? Because restaurant food may be ok, but eating in an urban restaurant in Italy doesn’t come close to the real deal, and in big cities and touristy locations, many restaurants serve a kind of national “Italian” food that doesn’t reflect what people really eat in this intensely regional country. Plus they miss the vibe, where people loosen up and sit with friends, family, lovers, kids, dogs, whatever, just enjoying the moment. Or a town festival. Or, in the case of our town, any excuse to get together. Any.

First, friends and/or family. One of my most memorable “meals” here, if you can call it that, happened before we had a place of our own. My magazine astoundingly let me come to Italy on a reporting trip. My assignment was to make the rounds of lawyers and business analysts and give American lawyers an idea of what to expect if their companies or clients tried to buy an Italian company. I cannily scheduled interviews for the latter part of the week in Milan, and the early part of the week in Rome. Oh, dear, what to do in between? Live in a lonely hotel room? Eat meals by myself?

Nope.

I visited friends who happened to live in Perugia, about two-thirds of the way south to Rome. After a couple of train rides, my Italian papà Franco picked me up at the station. “We have to hurry,” he said. “Giovanna’s in the middle of a surprise for you.” Franco, never a quiet pensive kinda guy, gunned it, shouting at anyone who dared to drive any slower. “Figlio di puttana! Bastardo!” he shouted. After holding on for dear life—Perugia doesn’t know from straightaways—we got to their house. “Hurry! Just leave your bag. You can keep you jacket on. We have to do this NOW!” Franco told me.

What was the fuss all about? Artichokes. Glorious crunchy salty hot just from the fryer pieces of artichoke. “I’m squeezing lemon on these, ok?” said Giovanna in Italian (these two didn’t speak English; this is all translated), more as a statement of purpose than a question. “Eat with your fingers.” She had put the freshly fried artichokes in a paper lined basket and shoved it at me. “Eat with your fingers.” The three of us didn’t even sit; we just stood there eating, blowing on our fingers between bites.” When we weren’t wolfing down the artichokes, we were drinking and smiling at each other. It was one of the best food events I’ve ever been at. I know we sat down to a regular lunch after that, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it. Can you blame me?

If you don’t have an Italian friend or relative, the next best thing is probably eating at an agriturismo, or at least a country restaurant. If it’s the right season, eat outside. Yeah, there’s an Under the Tuscan Sun thing going at these places. But you’ll see what makes it all worth it. Some years before that reporting trip, we’d gone to an agriturismo high above Lago Trasimeno, the big almost ocean-like lake around here. I can still taste the pasta course, with an eggplant purée (no tomatoes) and bits of sausage. But what I really remember was the vibe. There we were, our family, plus our Perugian surrogate parents and their dog, just relaxing around a table with a view of the lake below for the whole afternoon. And it cost maybe a half of what a city restaurant would’ve charged. Maybe less.

ANOTHER WAY TO ENJOY NON-RESTAURANT food is at a sagra or a festival. They’re held all over Italy, and here in Umbria there seems to be one every day or so somewhere. They serve as fundraisers for the town’s pro-loco associations, which support soccer teams, after school activities for working parents, and the like. But they’re also a way to get the whole town involved in something—and, for people to connect with their history. Local volunteer cooks take care of the food, sometimes, but only sometime, under the guidance of professional chefs. Of course, doing so often involves getting done up in medieval drag, which seems to happen for any excuse, but I digress.

After the Covid shutdown, the region came alive this year. We’ve been to a few. The first was for the food, in Ripa, two towns down the main road here. The town itself is a tiny hamlet, with a circular historic center, and various memorials to Gino Bartoli. He was a heroic figure, a Tour de France bicyclist who smuggled citizenship documents for Jews during World War II by stuffing them in his bike’s tubes and delivering them. Ripa holds a truffle sagra, and the food’s pretty good if you’re a fan of the underground fungus. (We are; Ripa sagra shown below.)

There’s a biggie around here, too. The small town of Cannara, near Assisi, is known for its onions. They’re sold in all the grocery stores and to be honest, we’re spoiled. I won’t say you haven’t lived until you’ve had a really fresh onion—but like a lot of produce, being grown locally makes a real difference. Cannara puts on a pretty big show, with various “stands” (yes, in English), really kitchens/outdoor restaurants, with each producing dishes that feature, yes, onions. Cipollamisu, anyone? It was a lot better than you’d think, with the typical tiramisu ingredients topped with a compote of sweet onions.,

Valfabbrica, where we live, goes all out. It’s bigger than Ripa, as far as towns and hamlets go around here, but smaller (population around 3,400) than the surrounding towns. There’s a week-plus celebration of being a valfabbricheso, with pageants, jousting tournaments, and, of course, food. The town’s historic center turns into a restaurant, and the town has a communal kitchen that churns out tons of dishes based on local produce and history. Gotta say, it was pretty good.

But the most charming event involving food was last weekend. Our town likes its parties, and the old medieval tower was restored recently. Most places would have the mayor cut the ribbon and leave it at that. Valfabbrica? Uh-uh. It got Italy’s only all-female jazz marching band to escort the mayor to the tower, playing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night. The women walked up the tower with Enrico (we’re all on a first-name basis here)

We don’t have dull ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Valfabbrica.

I know, this is supposed to be about food. Sure enough, after the music and the ribbon-cutting and the speeches about the historic importance of the tower, there was a free aperitivo* in the piazza. Older guys sat behind tables with loaded with decent boxed local red wine and porchetta panini* and doled it all out. I haven’t eaten much meat in a decade, but one of the guys shoved a panino at me after I poured myself a healthy glass. It seemed churlish to say no—and it was great to be hanging out in the main piazza on a beautiful late summer night with our fellow townspeople.

Vino and a panino, anyone?

*”Aperitivo” refers not only to a pre-dinner drink, but food to go with it. Places like Milan and even good bars elsewhere elevate it to the point where it can substitute for dinner. At that point you can all the meal an apericena—aperitivo and cena, which is what the nighttime meal is called.

* The word is “panino” for a single sandwich. “Panini” is plural. More than 1 sandwich. Ok? I get a little nuts when I hear “I’ll have a panini .” It’s like nails on a blackboard.

I hear voices

I came back the other day from the pharmacy in town with a new haul of inhalers and antibiotics. And there was another little box in my medicinal cocktail: a cough serum in droplet form called Levotuss. Sure, I was able to decode what the name means—get rid of the cough, basically. But that wasn’t my immediate reaction. Instead, I heard my father’s voice saying something that sounds like “leva mind.” It’s how he used to say “never mind.”

This wasn’t anything new, though. Nuccio/Tony, my dad, has been gone from this plane of existence about eight months. And all these months later, his less than masterful command of the English language still pops up all the time in my head and while talking to The Spartan Woman and my sister. (Behind the two names: My father’s name was Antonino. One diminutive of that is Nuccio. And in the U.S., he anglicized his name to Anthony, and most people called him Tony.) It’s kind of comforting; my mom used to say that you weren’t truly dead until no one remembered you. Well, pop, as far as I can tell, you’re still around.

We used to call his malapropisms “Nuccio-isms.” Sometimes they took the form of weird mistakes in colloquial expressions. My favorite was “you ‘affa to [have to] cry the consequences.” It always made me think that Patsy Cline would’ve had a hit with that title. Other times he’d conflate a brand name with the product—cars were “oldsmobiles” and refrigerators “frigidase” (this is a common mistake in New York City immigrant dialect).

You have to be an Italian speaker, or at least be acquainted with the language, to figure out where other mistakes came from. He could not pronounce the consonant combo “ct” to save his life—the combination isn’t common in Italian, if it exists at all. Hence, “dottor” (doctor) and “fatt” (fact). Other times he left out personal pronouns. So instead of saying “He’s a good guy,” Nuccio would simply say “Ees a good guy.” Why? In Italian, you don’t have to say personal pronouns like “I” and “she” and “we”—they’re understood from the verb conjugation that you use.

The Spartan Woman and I are always uttering these Nuccio-isms, and most of the time it’s with a fond laugh. But it also reminds me of how much I miss him, and how in some ways my siblings and I had a slightly zany and interesting time growing up. My sister and I in particular viewed what we called “normal families”—i.e., with two native born, English as a mother tongue speaking parents—as somewhat dull. My sister called them “Americans” and I went along with that.

On the other hand, Nuccio gave me a leg up when we decided to live here in Italy part-time. For one thing, when I was born he was an Italian citizen, which meant I got an Italian passport and could stay here as long as I want without having to worry about bureaucratic stuff like residence visas. An even better gift, though, was cultural and linguistic. I didn’t learn to speak Italian until I was in college, though I understood it fairly well before then (and didn’t let on). But languages have another dimension, expressions that are almost nonverbal but can say whole sentences. Here’s an example: I thought everyone understood that when someone slightly raises his or her head and say “buh” (pronounced, sort of, like “boo”) it meant “I don’t know.” I did that once in the U.S. and got a really funny look. Here in Italy, everyone knows what it means.

Nonno (grandpa) and me

I WISH THAT MY parents had started early speaking to me in both English and Italian. I think I was at least partly bilingual when I was 5 years old because my Sicilian grandfather lived with us and we took long walks together, talking all the while—and he didn’t speak English. Then again, maybe not. I have some cousins who, like me, grew up in the United States. But both of their parents emigrated from Italy, so Italian was the language spoken at home. Those who kept it up may have better accents than I do, but they got lazy later and didn’t follow up with formal instruction, so their written Italian and comprehension isn’t great.

I may have started later in life, but grew up hearing that other language, so it was relatively easy to pick up, especially after five years of middle and high school French. (Yeah, they’re the same language with different accents. Tell me what’s the difference between J’ai besoin d’un autre divan/Ho bisogno di un altro divano?—okay, I cherrypicked the words for “I need another sofa,” but you get the idea.) It didn’t hurt that I worked for an Italian media outlet for a couple of years and had to write articles in both English and Italian.

As young first-time parents a zillion years ago, we tried getting Kid No. 1 to speak Italian. We bought a BBC language series for kids. It consisted of a bunch of VHS cartoon tapes and was pretty funny, relying on repetition and a good story line. Martina really got into it and the cartoons were on a regular rotation. That summer, we took a three-week trip to Italy, with a slight detour onto France’s Côte d’Azur. We stayed with friends here in Perugia, and one day left our daughter with our friend while we did errands. When we returned, our friend intercepted us and asked us to tiptoe in and watch Martina and our friend through the slight door opening. Our little one was, at least temporarily, fluent, talking to our friend about the Barbie doll clothes they were making. And we were astonished.

It’s much harder later. Linguists say that age 15 might be the cutoff point where you can learn a language and have it sound like your mother tongue. I believe it; I’m watching a brave friend here, who moved to Italy in July from Florida, take lessons and it’s a struggle. (He’s getting better every day, though, and you just have to admire him.) On the other hand, I have a friend who moved to the U.S. from Romania when he was 15. He’s completely fluent in English. Years ago he had a slight intonation of something else, but that’s faded.

People here say that they can tell I grew up elsewhere but my accent doesn’t tell them from where. Each time I’m here, I pick up more vocabulary and more connective tissue: In Italian you use a lot of words like however/therefore/practically. (I think I speak Italian with a slight New York accent, personally.) I don’t need to concentrate on song lyrics or TV news any more, and ignore subtitles in TV shows.

Still, it’s one thing to learn the rules and the grammar and the vocabulary. Ask the American dude in the video below.

It’s Ferragosto (Italy’s big summer holiday) weekend. So we’re taking off for a bit. Here are some photos to tide you over.

OUR TOWN OPENED THE little chapel down the road for the holidays. Here’s a look at what they built some 1200 years ago, as part of a long-gone castle. The chapel is St. Antimo and the locality, Coccorano, part of our comune, Valfabbrica. It was sensitively and beautifully restored under the supervision of our architect and friend Marco Ferramosche. Enjoy.

The exterior. Look closely on the left and you can see the remains of one of the castle walls.
We’ll leave you with this: traffic jam in Valfabbrica. Buon ferragosto!