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.

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.

Somehow I forgot to write a single word

Okay, I lied. I’ve just been too busy to write here. Besides, life wasn’t all that interesting. Wake up. Walk the dog. Have breakfast. Work. Watch MSNBC because The Spartan Woman is an addict (I’m trying to cure her of this habit, or at least limit it to an hour a day, since they just keep repeating the same thing all day, just with different people).

Walking the dog ain’t bad—the Snug Harbor women and their dogs (all female, too).

We’re up on the mountaintop in Umbria for awhile now, and we had to open the house and get things going again in general. Plus, cobwebs. So I’m going to just update with some random stuff.

First, the Empire Outlets on Staten Island. You may remember my rant about the Wheel of Misfortune, er, The New York Wheel. Well, what a surprise, the Wheel is dead, its part gone to auction, a detritus of lawsuits in its wake, and the Empire Outlets. The thinking was that tourists would finally have a reason to get off the Staten Island Ferry, head for a $30 ride on the wheel, and then go shopping. European tourists, in particular, see clothing and tech stores here as an insane bargain, since the Euro is trading at about $1.12 and Euro sales tax can be 20 percent or more.

If you build it, will they come?

Italians, in particular, go nuts for stores like Abercrombie and Old Navy, hence, the outlet mall. Of course, being on Staten Island, you gotta wonder, since the mall lost its main draw, the Wheel. We’ve watched the construction of the mall with a combination of amusement and horror. The part that faces the street looks like some weird robotic contraption, while the public spaces—outdoor—aren’t too bad. There’s a big underground parking lot for Staten Islanders to drive in and, this is important, NOT HAVE TO STEP FOOT ONTO THE STREETS OF THE DREADED NORTH SHORE. That’s where diversity lives, not to mention that’s where the Wu Tang Clan burst out of Shaolin (aka Staten Island).

Not quite ready for prime time.

Next up: Memorial Day. We spent it with the kids and our friend Marsha. And we grilled Beyond Meat burgers, which are scarily like chop meat. Not having eaten much meat for most of a decade, it definitely felt a little strange. Not that it stopped us.

So real. Surreal.

Then off to Umbria. We shop around for airfares, not having any particular loyalty to one airline. The Spartan Woman is long limbed and so insists on flying premium economy, and we’ve had decent experiences. The roster so far: Alitalia, Norwegian, Iberia, and Lufthansa. Do not take Norwegian. Premium on the 787 “Dreamliner” is fine, if you manage to fly on one. But Norwegian’s flights are invariably late and they love to cancel flights. Plus, the engines on those planes had problems, so they’ve pulled some out of service and have used chartered, old, disgusting, do not do this, aircraft. The other three are fine. Alitalia’s Premium is pretty cosseting, Iberia cheerful and fun, Lufthansa kind and generous when it comes to drinks and food.

The friendly skies of Lufthansa

So here we are. The two of us speak a weird mix of Italian and English to each other, and have done fun stuff like taking the car for an oil change and getting the brush cleared. We take walks, watch Turkish shows on Netflix, and take walks. Did I mention that we take walks? I work, too, in a cool office with a view of the mountains. Non c’è male…(not too shabby)

The road taken

A few days ago, we were doing our usual morning walk up the road when we bumped into a neighbor, who introduced himself as Claudio. He was out for a walk, too, telling us that he just retired. He told us about his walk, which involves walking down the road and making a turn into a “strada sterrata,” which is an unpaved road. He said that he makes a loop and comes around after being on the Sentiero Francescano. This trail is a series of trails that trace the steps of St. Francis of Assisi when he left his family home and riches, and walked to Gubbio through the woods. A mystical, rebirth ritual walk, in other words.

Curious, we wanted to see if we could replicate Claudio’s walk. (Francesco’s walk is well-marked and in warmer weather, sees waves of pilgrims.) A few days ago, we walked on some of the Franciscan path, and I was looking at the map on my iPhone. I saw as we were walking back down the hill another road that, if you looked uphill, veered left. Hmm, we didn’t remember that. But as we descended, we saw an opening and yes, a path that was carved into the side of the hill. That’s one of winter’s advantages; without the overgrowth and weeds, it’s easier to make out the paths that wind all around here. We took it and saw that it followed a higher trajectory than the Sentiero and then sort of curved around the hill. That must be Claudio’s route, we figured, and made plans to come back the next day.

The turnoff, not that you’d know it. Apple Maps showed it; Google didn’t. But for some other stuff, Google shows details Apple doesn’t. Guess you need both.

So we did. And O.M.G. We’re suckers for a good view and on this path, they just kept coming. Unlike on the Sentiero, you don’t really plunge into deep woods. The path—it must have been a road of some kind at some point—just hugs the hill, carved into it as it follows the basic path of the Sentiero, but about a tree higher. So we got to look into the ruin that we’ve passed many times (we hear that it’s for sale, if anyone out there is interested). As the path curves to the left and westward, the views are pretty stupendous.

Looking into the ruins of a farmhouse. An old timer neighbor told us that the family that lived there farmed the area until the 1960s. Their olive trees are nearby, still producing fruit.
On top of the world! Those are the snow-capped Apennines in the distance.

And then, we thought we hit a road block. Or, at least, a gate shutting us off from the rest of it. Luckily, though, as we got closer, we saw that the path veered left then curved around a large house with a pool and gardens that we soon realized was the Agriturismo Val di Marco. An agriturismo is supposed to be a working farm that welcomes guests, but this one does not look remotely farm-like. It’s just a big comfortable house in the Umbrian tradition that happens to be in the country.

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

Enough fun, though. What went down had to go back up. Our road, which we knew was south, or to the left, follows a high ridge. And the path did indeed go up. And up. And up. We were panting, okay, I was panting as we neared the top.

There was a payoff, though. We were met at the crest by our usual canine welcoming and escort service. But we disappointed them–The Spartan Woman had forgotten to pack the doggie biscuits. I guess they forgave us, though, and followed us most of the way home.

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)



Short, cool summer (so far)

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

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

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

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Our little bodyguard

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

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

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

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

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

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Gone to the Dog

IMG_3260.jpgI signed up on Quora.com awhile ago. I was intrigued by the mixture of questions, from genuinely wanting to know something, to clueless, to trolling. So I thought hmm, maybe I’ll use that format here. In the absence of real questions (feel free to ask me some via email), I’ll make up some of my own.

What the hell do you do up in the country?

I had no idea watching the color of the hills change by the hour, sometimes by the minute, could take up so much of my time. And in an unaltered state of consciousness, no less.

Seriously, what do you do?

We serve Retu. It is our job to feed him, praise him, get him to sit, teach him other languages, and did I mention feed him?

Whose dog is he?

IMG_3187Retu belongs to Ca’ Mazzetto, our neighboring agriturismo. Supposedly. But I’m getting the feeling that the dogs along our road don’t belong to anyone. Or, they belong to everyone. I’m trying to figure that one out.

What is an agriturismo?

Are you trying to confuse me by changing the subject? Well, ok. An agriturismo is a working farm that takes in paying guests. Ca’ Mazzetto has a few apartments, a pool, about 125 sheep and a bunch of olive trees. They produce cheese, fabrics (wool, of course) and olive oil. I may be missing something, and, hey, Joonas, did I? (Joonas is the son of the proprietor and sits on our town council, too.)

What kind of dog is Retu?

He’s a relatively rare breed that is native to these parts, called a Maremmano. According to Wikipedia, the Maremmano is “a breed of livestock guardian dog indigenous to central Italy, particularly to Abruzzo and the Maremma region of Tuscany and Lazio.” The breed is known to be intelligent, loyal, protective, and friendly. He definitely was smart enough to find a sucker in The Spartan Woman, who actually buys dog food for him and, this evening, fed him tagliatelle with truffles.

How is that breed used?

Again, from Wikipedia: “Maremma used as livestock guardian dogs are introduced to sheep flocks as puppies so they bond to the sheep. Some ranchers place Maremma puppies as young as 3–4 weeks old with young lambs, but beginning this bonding process at 7–8 weeks is more typical.[19] Although it is easiest to bond Maremma to sheep and goats, cattle ranchers have found that the dogs bond with cows and Maremma are increasingly used to protect range cattle.”

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Does Retu live up to his breed’s reputation?

He’s a splendid young dog. But if he has bonded to the 125 sheep that live next door, it remains to be seen. One of his owners said that Retu has decided to take early retirement. Whatever sheep guardian attributes he may lack, Retu is definitely good at bonding with humans and bending them to his will.