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

There are a bunch of things you don’t realize at first when you starting living for months or weeks at a time in another country. The big one is healthcare—what happens if you get sick? Then there are little ones, can I take my suit to a nearby dry cleaner? And where do I get a haircut? There’s one thing in Italy you don’t have to worry about: Where do you buy food? It’s everywhere.

I didn’t care about the haircut thing until a few years ago when I had so much to do before leaving New York that getting a haircut beforehand didn’t even enter my mind. When I got here, it was so hot that the mane I was sporting was just too much. I scoped out the neighborhood and settled on a taciturn guy on the next hill, across t he street from the bar where English-speaking foreign students drank too much and passed out on the mostly-pedestrian street. He was good, but every time I went he insisted that I part my hair on the other side and when he did, I felt as though the world had flipped over. You don’t realize how much stuff like that can change how you move through the world,

Then I noticed Franco. His little shop was down the street from where we were living. He had a bunch of wooden walking sticks that he’d carved in the window and the shop was decorated with photos of old Perugia. Why didn’t I go to him first? I forget. Anyway, I started going to him, and other than his propensity to take a lot off the top, I got decent haircuts.

Franco’s domain

But more important, he was fun to talk to. We’d chat about everything: our families, Perugia, New York, restaurants, Barak Obama (he’s a fan), Agent Orange (not really), urban planning and transport, being our age—only a few months separate us. The added bonus was that it was all in Italian, which was great because The Spartan Woman and I speak English to each other, except for certain words and phrases that only make sense in Italian. (Antipatico is one word. It’s the opposite of simpatico, but how to say it in English? )

What also made it fun was his clientele and his role on the block. His customers ranged from college students to the local politicians, lawyers and architects. The mailman or woman always stopped in for a chat, and if we passed by and he had no one in the chair at the moment, he’d come out to talk. Sometimes, I’d end up spending a lot more time than I’d planned just because of the stream of visitors and other customers.

So last week, just as I dragged my bag into the house after arriving from NYC, my iPhone rings. I don’t notice the number, but answer anyway. “Ciao Antonio,” I hear. “T’invito alla mia festa di pensione questo sabato. Puoi venire?” (Ciao A. I’m inviting you to my retirement party Saturday. Are you coming?) Between fatigue and jet lag, at first I didn’t realize who was speaking. But he knew my name, so I played along for a bit. Finally it hit me.

It’s official, kinda

A couple of days later, I had to go into town. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Franco’s shop was closed, but there was a retirement certificate of sorts in the window: “Diploma of Deserved Retirement. Given with full rights to Franco P, who will continue to do nothing…but from today he’ll be doing it at home.” A notice below, which was posted for a stretch on the street as well, invited the neighborhood to his party at the local social center, conveniently located across the street from our place. Well, convenient except when ’70s music fans have an end of term party and blast Led Zeppelin at 2 in the morning, but it’s all part of the experience.

Of course I had to go. I didn’t know most of the people there, but that was ok, There were big cartons of wine, and a butcher was in attendance. All Umbrian parties worth anything have porchetta and the region’s dryer, chewier prosciutto. The butcher was slicing the ham surgically then offering people slices from the tip of his knife. As the party began to ebb, a small army made panini of porchetta and piled them high on the table for people to take home for dinner.

Porchetta, anyone?

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

Truffles, onions and frogs, oh my!

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The waiting is the hardest part.

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

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

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

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Gnocchetti (small gnocchi) from heaven

Big City Boy in a Small Town

I have to say that I had my doubts about this whole thing. Buying and maintaining a house in the country is a big deal. I’m not exactly handy—let’s just say that on Staten Island, when it came down to either buying a lawnmower or hiring a lawn service, I outsourced my homeowner duty.

Plus, again, true confessions here, I had my doubts about a small town. Sure, we’re high above the comune (municipality) of Valfabbrica, but eventually you have to go into town to buy groceries, pay taxes, get a coffee at the bar, get cash from the ATM and, invariably, you run into your fellow townspeople. What would they be like? I remember when I was a kid riding through small Sicilian towns, with the old ladies in black crocheting, backs to the road, while their menfolk eyed us suspiciously. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s an impression that’s stuck with me ever since.

We’ve had sensei here, though. Our real estate agent and her pal have helped us navigate some, and they’ve introduced us to a cast of characters. We’ve also had another guide, and his name is Joonas. He’s the son of one of the brothers we bought the house from, and he also happens to be on the town council. Fun fact: He’s about three weeks older than our younger kid, which means he’s all of 25 years old,

Joonas hangs out with us every now and then. He probably thinks New Yorkers are exotic. In any event, it’s mutual: He’s half Italian and half Finnish, which explains his first name. Last summer, we tried out a new place in town, a bright and clean snack kind of place that features local cheeses and salumi, artisan beers, and you can go there with empty bottles and fill ’em up with local bulk wines. What’s not to like?

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Joonas indulges a couple of old people with a selfie.

The day after that, we joined a few hundred other Valfabbricanesi to watch a pageant that turned the main drag in town into a medieval fantasy. It features readings, chanting, singing, mysterious looking hooded people, a very ribald song, and vigorous drumming by the town’s young guys. I’ve put a sample below. It was pretty sophisticated, and at times reminding me a lot of Montréal’s Cirque du Soleil. That’s probably not so strange, since both come from the same Commedia dell’Arte tradition.

 

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By Johann Jaritz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45485693

 

Again, this weekend, we participated in a town event. Joonas had seen from a Facebook post that we’d arrived and PMed a circular about the patron saint festivities over the weekend. The saint, by the way, is Sebastiano, probably best know for inspiring hundreds of homoerotic images of the martyr being shot through with arrows.

 

One of the events was a pranzo sociale, or social lunch, at a local restaurant. We figured it would be a good way to check out the neighbors and participate in the weekend events. It was. We found the place, and the owner immediately recognized us as the people who reserved places via the restaurant’s Facebook page. (I’m also about 99 percent sure that we were the only people he’d never seen before.) The local priest soon zoomed in on us and introduced himself. Poor guy—he’s not going to see us at his establishment…

Then, the usual Italian dinner bash ritual. People standing around, lots of talking, friends seeing each other, smokers ducking out. I could’t figure out immediately how I’d pay, but then saw a couple of people at the bar. I went over, asked the owner, who told me, get this, €20 a head. It was a long, terrific lunch of antipasti, two pastas, a main course and dessert, wine, etc., all included. We figured it would be about $75 in New York.

But the best part was being around the neighbors. As chance would have it, one of our table mates is a local teacher. (I’m convinced that teachers have this built-in tracking device for their own. Yes, The Spartan Woman is a retired teacher. But they never really stop being teachers.) They knew the family we bought the house from, told us that Joonas got the most votes in the city government vote (that boy will go far) and told us about others in town. I may have been a little apprehensive at first, but the warm welcome and easygoing nature of the lunch went a long way to make us feel at home.

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Pranzo at VillaVerde, Valfabbrica

That night, we stood on our balcony with our houseguests watching fireworks in the town below. It was a beautiful ending to a sweet day.