Another life, another planet

When I “lost my job” a few years ago, one of my deputies very kindly packed everything up in my cubicle and shipped it to me using the company’s cash. It was a terrific gesture, and to make it complete, he handed in his resignation the following day. Good work, JW. (He now covers the White House of Mad King Donald every now and then for a large media company, which shows that being good pays off sometimes.)

I took a look at the boxes back then, put the lids back on and promptly forgot about them. Back then, I was too busy wandering the city, riding the new Second Avenue subway, and meeting friends in bars (remember?) to deal with the detritus of too many years.

But now we’re in purge mode, with an eye to escaping KD’s failed state eventually. And The Spartan Woman found the boxes and suggested very nicely that I scan what I need onto a backup disk and discard the hard copy. She also found a trove of family photos from when our kids were little. We switched to digital cameras early on; I’d been given one in the late 1990s. It was a terrible, low-resolution thing, but it got me used to the idea of saving pixels, not paper. So I thought that spending some hours with the scanner and the laptop was a splendid idea, because doing so keeps me in my back of the house refuge, which is equipped with decent speakers and is out of the hearing range of HGTV/MSNBC/Guy’s Grocery Games.

Reading the magazines was a forced trip down memory lane, to use a cliché. I was an editor, so I don’t have tons of article clips, although when I did act like one of the peeps to report and write, I think I acquitted myself pretty well. What I do have in abundance are editor’s notes. I was the editor in chief of a scrappy little magazine (and later, website) for lawyers who worked in companies, nonprofits, etc. Basically it was a business magazine in which we inserted lawyers to make it relevant to the audience. It worked occasionally.

While scanning, I realized that I said the same thing multiple ways, and smirked at the different ways I snuck noncorporate messages and anecdotes into a business magazine. After a couple of years, I became bored of the sacred Editorial Calendar, with the same features turning up the same months year after year, so I made the editor’s note about me, me, me. I’d write about a personal experience and somehow make it relevant to the articles in the magazine. I’d also make fun of business jargon, slipping it into asides to see if our copy editor would notice. (She did, and was in on the joke,)

We—okay, The Spartan Woman—has also unearthed a trove of photos. I knew they were in the basement somewhere. But from 2001 or 2002, with some earlier scanned stuff, our family photos were mostly digital. There’s a whole analogue couple of decades that I’d been missing. So finally I got to remember how our kids looked when they were little. We have a lot of them—TSW’s dad was a photographer and he’d toss me a few rolls of film every now and then and the mailers to have them processed. So taking photos of dinner parties, kids just being kids, etc., vacations are there. Now I’m wondering whether to scan them, like I scanned my father-in-law’s photo scrap book and a bunch of pictures from TSW’s childhood.

This all has just a little to do with the usual subject of the blog, which is about showing what real life in Umbria is like, and our experience straddling that green Italian region and life on the periphery of New York City. I’ll get back to that soon. But we’ve been trapped in NYC by the Covid-19 pandemic and frustrated in our attempts to leave. Still, I guess that getting ready for a big change inevitably brings up memories. Gotta say, as I looked at what we did at that little magazine, I respected the craft and passion we brought to subjects that feel irrelevant to me now. And those kids were super cute, no? (They still are.)

A Seinfeld kind of life

First off, thanks everyone for getting in touch. I’m okay, even if I was in the COVID-19 infested Italy only three weeks ago as I write this. And I was even in the terrific city of Milan while in Italy, visiting colleagues and getting a dose of big-city life. It seems so long ago now. Because of my possible exposure to the virus, I’ve stayed home for the most part this month, doing so before it became the thing to do. Even when I was in Umbria I stayed home a lot because 1-it was winter and didn’t exactly encourage wandering and 2-it’s just a nice place to hang out in.

Number 2 is what I’ve been thinking about a lot. The European Union has closed its borders to non-EU citizens, and the U.S. State Department put out a notice discouraging Americans from going abroad. But hey, I’m an EU citizen, too, and a big part of me would rather be there than in New York. Nicer weather, for one thing.

But I’m not. And instead of views out to Monte Subasio, I’ve been looking at way too much TV. One of the things I’ve caught, besides the perpetual “reno” of HGTV, are reruns of Seinfeld. Remember that? The joke was that nothing ever really happened. They just talked and obsessed about themselves. People popped into Jerry’s apartment, they said funny things, and occasionally they went to the diner to say funny things. It’s just like us under this kind of house arrest. Only we don’t say much that’s funny and the local diner only does delivery now.

So, like millions around the world, on s’amuse, as Judy might say. We had a cocktail hour the other night. A virtual one, with my ferry posse. Back when I was a respectable citizen with a day job, I rode the Staten Island Ferry to work every day, usually taking either the 8:30 or 8:45 boat from St. George. A bunch of us met in roughly the same place nearly every day, breaking the peace of the unsuccessful silent zone. Our ringleader was John Ficarra, former editor of Mad magazine. Besides him, we had a recording engineer at an advertising shop (The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” is one of the songs he engineered), a lawyer, one of John’s editors, a video advertising guy, a couple of social workers, and an HR woman at a publishing company. That was the core, anyway—others dropped in and out as our work schedules changed.

Anyway, we’ve had a text chain going for awhile. Sometimes it’s a can-you-top-this of witticisms, but it’s a good way to stay in touch. Peter found out that you can take an Apple Messages multi-person text thread and convert it temporarily to a FaceTime video session. Since we all have iPhones—no Android bottom-dwellers among us—we could have a virtual cocktail hour, almost, but not quite as good as the in person one we have every few months.

Here’s the evidence. Props to Lenny for the most glam drink, a blood orange martini. Do this: squeeze a bunch of blood oranges. Combine the juice with vodka and a dash of limoncello. I want one now.

Today is particularly grim, being the first day of a stricter lockdown in New York, and a nasty day outside, rainy and cold, so no solitary outside exercise walk.

Italian doctors predict that people under lockdown will, at the end of it (should that ever happen), gain between 4 and. 8 kilos, or about 9 to 18 pounds. Lord knows we’re just as guilty as any. But first let me show you what we’re missing by being here. This is a photo of our Umbrian friend Angela, who’s just picked a huge bunch of wild asparagus in the hills outside her parents’ home:

We’ve been indulging in less wholesome food experiences. One type, and I know this will bother a couple of our friends, is to experiment with fake meat. We haven’t been eating meat for about 10 years now (though I confess that I stray when I’ve had a few glasses of wine or I’m at a friend’s house). It feels a little odd, to take some ingredients and torture them into something they’re not. The Spartan Woman has become pretty good at taking gluten, nutritious yeast, and jackfruit and turning them into a fair approximation of boneless pork ribs. Basically, she’s making seitan, whose use, according to Wikipedia, has been documented to the sixth century. Here’s the result:

Meanwhile, we’ve been looking at what modern technology has been up to. We’ve had Beyond Meat hamburgers, which are scarily like real hamburgers. You can also get “sausages” and the hamburger “meat” in bulk. Have nothing better to do for Sunday dinner, I decided to attempt what we call Giovanna’s roulé, an Umbrian meatloaf our dear departed Perugian mama used to cook for us when she was with us and we were staying with her. She’s take ground beef and sausage meat and make a dense round loaf, and braise it with onions, wine, and broth. I used the Beyond products, and came up with this:

It was good, but I’m wondering: Are these gateway drugs back to being carnivores?

[Image at the top: The Spartan Woman’s bread, baked just because she could]

…so they just picked up where they left off

Years and years (and years) ago, a few people who worked at a weekly newspaper would duck out on Friday after the pages shipped to the printer. They were looking for a place to be, where at least some people knew their name. They tried out a little French luncheonette called Chez Brigitte, which was pretty good, but it didn’t offer alcohol, which after a long week wordsmithing (ok, nagging people to get their stories in and then trying to put them in English) was a prerequisite. After a few weeks, though, they found their spot: Restaurant Florent.

They–yes, we–didn’t set out deliberately to find French food. We were looking more for a hangout, and Flo provided one. We became regulars, and we had our own table–Table 8 in the corner. We had a regular server, someone we called Nurse Jamie, because she took care of our every need, both potable and spiritual. I could go on–these lunches became legendary, and we became the kind of lunchroom clique that we only dreamed about as high schoolers. But suffice it to say that our Friday lunches created a bond. It’s the kind of bond that comes from working hard on deadline, having a tolerant editor in chief, and being together before journalism in New York, and working at the paper of which we’re alums became as dull as working in an insurance company. (You’ll have to trust me on this; I’m bound by a certain agreement not to speak ill of the dull.)

The shrine and Table 8
The last lunch at Flo’s, with Rose. By this point we’d graduated to Roy Lichtenstein’s table in the back.
Tom and Karen too!

Fast forward (sorry, ex-boss AP, I know you hate this phrase) 20-something years, and we’re in our yard outside the kitchen door here above Valfabbrica, Italy. Ex-art director Doug and his dog come by. We sit around, drink wine with him, play with the dog. Joni’s on her way, Joan of the Texan accent and, back in the day, Lucy Ricardo-like antic personality. (Rose, you know what you must do—next year in Umbria?) We wait; J and husband DQ were coming from Parma, and it would take a few hours. We wait some more, she’s not answering texts. Where is she?

Finally, a rented Audi shows up. DQ is driving, and J is…where? We look, and there she is in the back seat. Apparently DQ says she likes to sit back there and read; she says DQ banishes her because she’s a nervous passenger.

I know. This is all dull detail. But that’s the point. After a few hugs and a look around our place, we settle into a familiar routine. We eat, we drink wine, we talk. No matter that the three of us (plus two extremely patient spouses) haven’t been in the same place at the same time in years.

Jesus, we’re so old. But it doesn’t matter. We may be more settled, somewhat calmer, but we reverted to our roles. Joan is a barely suppressed stick of dynamite and a great raconteur; Doug is our spiritual leader and romantic-in-chief. I don’t know what mine is; maybe facilitator? For whatever reason, being a natural yenta, and not wanting to let go of good friendships, I try to keep in touch with most of the old crew. And when I can, get us together.

Change of venue. Rose. Note to self: Must summon the rest of the crew next year.

Anyway, it was great to see Joan and Dennis for even just a couple of days. They brought vodka and prosciutto from the mother star of Italian cooking, Parma, as well as good vibes and stories. We tried not to be too enthusiastic as we showed them around our nearby big town, Perugia, and we introduced them to the rustic yet camp charms of Anna’s Piatto d’Oro in a tiny hamlet about 20 minutes from here. If you come by, we’ll take you there; Anna knows that it’s my job to pimp the place for her and bring as many American friends around to overeat–it is not a place for delicate appetites.

Doug’s hanging around this summer, living just a few towns away from here. The poor guy, I think he’s become an incurable italophile. I hope the bureaucracy here doesn’t change that.

And Dennis, unlike his misadventure in our apartment when the kids were small, managed not to get locked in the bathroom.

Και κάτι ακόμα…

 

I thought that maybe my last post would be the final one about summer festivals, but I was wrong—hence the headline, which is Greek for “And another thing…” Between that and the video above, you’ve probably figured out that Greece somehow was involved.

Greeks were involved, anyway. I call Kat The Spartan Woman because her mother’s family comes from a part of the Greek city Sparta called Magoula. And the Greek Orthodox Church on Staten Island has an annual festival in September over a couple of weekends. They do a great job, converting the parking lot into a passable imitation of a Greek village square during a festival. It’s an all hands on deck affair, with church members running a huge kitchen that supplies all the favorites like moussaka, gyros, spanakopita and the like. There’s Greek wine and Fix beer on sale, and the dessert area even makes freddos and frappés, different versions of iced coffee that, when we’ve gone to Greece, have become addictions. When they’re good, they’re amazing.

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Grilling here is a manly art.

We started going to the festival with my in-laws years ago. The Spartan Woman’s mother Eleni wasn’t a regular churchgoer, but the church is more than a place of worship; it’s also a cultural center. She rightly thought that her daughters and granddaughters shouldn’t forget their Greek side, so every September, we all went to the festival together. It became sort of a Greek recharging station for Eleni and The Spartan Woman, and our kids now think something’s missing if we skip a year.

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How do you translate “sagra, Staten Island stylee” into Greek?

Luckily, we got back from the land of the sagra to Shaolin (Staten Island, in Wu-Tang Clan-speak) just in time for the last weekend of the festival. Our kids probably think we’re less-bad parents now. TSW and I made sure we’d be awake enough after a grueling flight back on Iberia, forced to lie flat in a business class cubicle, being plied with all sorts of liquids and forced to eat smoked salmon with a warm potato salad and caviar. Oh, the torture. We took an afternoon nap, knowing that without it, even the Zorba theme played by an electric bouzouki band wouldn’t keep us up. Where’s my freddo?

Even with our souls lagging somewhere over the Atlantic, we had a good time. It was great to reconnect with the charming young women we somehow managed to raise in our chaotic, improvisatory way. And a boyfriend was introduced to the Hellenic side of our family traditions and, I think, he might have another vein of music to sample for his stuff.

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Loukoumades: Yo, you got a problem with fried dough?

Be Our Guest

January into early February was a busy time up here on the mountain above the comune of Valfabbrica. We had three friend-guests. Really good, fun-to-be-with guests. The house encourages this sort of thing. We have plenty of room, with a semi-separate apartment on the ground floor. In the cooler months, The Spartan Woman and I live upstairs—we have our own kitchen, dining and living rooms, my office, and bedrooms. And when it’s cooler, our friends get to have their own place, too. That way, we get together when we want, and don’t get in each other’s way. (When it gets warmer, we move kitchen operations downstairs, because the kitchen there opens into the garden. And it’s easier to get to the center of all the summer action, the pool.)

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Wendy and Tim, usually teetotalers, get acquainted with the Aperol spritz.

Let me introduce Wendy, Vicky, and Tim. Wendy and Tim are neighborhood friends and former comrades in the battle over a special public school a couple of decades ago. Tim’s a lawyer (feel free to send him sympathy cards), and sisters Wendy and Vicky are semi-retired teachers. They’re retired enough so that they can spend a month after the holidays wandering around Italy, while Tim worked out of his laptop when he needed to. And when Tim had to head back to the U.S., Wendy and Vicky hung back.

We’ve known Wendy and Tim a long time, more than 20 years. Vicky, however, was an unknown quantity. We heard from Wendy that she was reluctant to take the trip. Their original intention was to case the joint, to find a country house of their own. Vicky was understandably wary; it’s a big responsibility and damn near impossible if you don’t have a network to depend on.

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Apricot tart, anyone?

Now Wendy and Tim had been here and elsewhere in Italy pretty frequently; Vicky less so. But that reluctant traveler turned out to embrace this area the most. She loved everything she saw. She sat outside on chilly winter days just staring at the view of the valley and town below. She shopped, she fed the neighbors’ working sheepdogs (and by doing so she turned one of them into an indolent nonworking sheepdog). She learned how to bake bread and make a fruit tart.

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Vicky, about to throw some garlic and shrimp into the pot.

We’d heard that Vicky wasn’t into cooking until recently, either. At some point, she realized that restaurant and takeout food wasn’t that healthy, so she became a late-blooming semi-obsessional cook. She wanted to take a class while here—where better to learn the Italian way of feeding oneself than in Italy itself. So we arranged with our friend, cooking teacher and innkeeper Letitia Mattiacci, to hold a class for Wendy, Vicky, and The Spartan Woman. (Letizia’s school is called La Madonna del Piatto, and her classes are terrific—I “audited” their class while drinking some good local wine.) Another woman joined the group, an American lawyer from Pennsylvania no less. (We kept bumping into her in Perugia for the rest of our stay here, but that’s another post.) As you can see above, Vicky got into that cooking thing. She made shrimp scampi (bringing a bit of Italian-American via an Egyptian-American to Umbria). And heaven forbid we get store bought bread. She baked her own rolls and the apricot tart in the picture.

img_2956.jpgWendy had a couple of goals. To drink—she’s basically a teetotaler. To see what it’s like to live in Italy. And to learn to drive a stick shift—she was sick of paying extortionate rental rates here for automatics. Well, two out of three ain’t bad; by staying in the place downstairs and going food shopping, she got a taste of everyday life here, as opposed to being a tourist. We did ply her with alcohol in the form of wine as much as we could. Goal number three, though, didn’t pan out. The only stick shift was in our rental Renault Clio. With only 4800 kilometers on it, we didn’t think that Europcar would have liked it if we unleashed a newbie on the poor Clio.

Next time, Wendy, next time. (And they bought lots of stuff, but not a house.)

What Would Nuccio Think?

Years ago when I was a 14-year-old teenage boy, I learned that my father had another name. In the United States, he’s known as Tony, and all my cousins—I have lots of cousins—call him Uncle Tony. But when we went to Palermo as a family, all my cousins there called him “Zio Nuccio.” (He’s the guy on the right at the top; the other man is his brother Ignazio.)

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Gotta love the feathers: Nuccio in full bersaglieri regalia.

Nuccio a/k/a Tony’s real first name is Antonino, and Nuccio is a diminutive. He lived in Italy until he was 25, in the mid-fifties. It was a very different Italy. Think neorealism films. Think in black and white. The postwar economic miracle hadn’t yet taken hold. Nuccio had been in the army, first in school, then as part of the Bersaglieri, an elite brigade. They wore funny hats with big feathers. Dad kept the feathers in this sort of fez-looking container and when I was a little kid, he’d show them to me every now and then.

He returned from the military to a city still suffering from the war. Allied bombers took out a lot of the historic center, and the ruins still stood as constant reminders. (In fact, they stuck around quite a bit longer, and Palermo’s core is still in recovery mode after a mass exodus to the outskirts in the 1960s and ’70s.) If you look at photos of the time, you’ll see the major streets leading out of the core empty and desolate, with a stray dog, maybe a car and a few people walking. It looked forlorn, a far cry from the vibrant and often chaotic Palermo of today, with its luxury shops and metro construction.

I’m writing about this because every time I drive around here in Umbria, I think of my dad. I FaceTimed him last night, and told him we’d done some shopping in Ancona, on the Adriatic coast, about an hour and a half from home. “I was there,” he told me. “For a few weeks. We shot canons into the sea, pretending that we were bombing Yugoslavians who were invading our country.” For him, mainland Italy was an assortment of places he’d gone for training, or drills, or just  to carouse like any young guy.

Nuccio didn’t go back to Italy for 16 years after he’d emigrated. And he returned a few times, the last with me about 14 years ago. It was a changed country, but he, in the embrace of a loving family, didn’t really interact with modern Italy except for the drink or meal outside or an occasional ride somewhere. So these days when I drive around, I wonder what he’d think of this strange life his elder son was living.,

I know that he approves. He gave me his U.S. immigration papers so that I could obtain an Italian passport—I had to show the consulate in New York that I was born before my father became an American citizen. My former colleague Alexander Stille wrote a book about his parents, writing at length about his father, a Russian Jew who ended up in Italy pre-World War II and eventually became the New York correspondent of the Milan-based paper Corriere della Sera. Alex wrote that not having grown up speaking Italian, he learned it and immersed himself in Italian culture as a way of understanding and getting closer to his dad.

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Meet just a tiny part of the Paonita clan circa 1964. I’m the shirtless kid on the left with my nonno Ignazio, with whom I walked almost every day after school. Nuccio is top, center, and my mom is with my glum-looking sister up in front.

I think I had the some of the same motivation, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Being able to speak Italian to my father when I need to make something clear makes communication easier. Plus, it’s fun. I was always jealous of some of my Paonita cousins in New York who grew up bilingual. I’d heard Sicilian dialect and Italian through most of my childhood and understand a fair amount (and pretended not too, the better to eavesdrop), but I hadn’t learned the language formally until I was in college. But once I picked up the language, it was fun to talk to my father in his native tongue, and of course he had to correct me when I slipped up. It was good for both of us.

So now I do my errands, visit friends, and do the occasional interview for an article in Milan or on the phone, and I just wonder what Nuccio would make of it. I’m in a different part of Italy, and a lot of people would joke that Sicily isn’t part of the same country. (That’s for another post, or maybe never,) He’s reluctant to travel; he uses oxygen and worries that his portable machine would quit mid-flight. He’s a nervous traveler anyway; on our last flight together to Rome, I slept while he sat bolt upright and awake, arms folded. So much has changed since he last lived in this country, and, to be honest, a lot has changed in the past decade.

For better or worse, Italy seems to be the Italian-language province of Eurolandia. Multinational store outlets dot the suburbs, even here in Perugia. The same names familiar to most Americans fill the local centro commerciale (a mall, in other words): Zara, Benetton, McDonalds. Our local big supermarket has a big sushi bar right next to the deli counter. In fact, sushi’s a thing here; a new restaurant in central Perugia specializes in sushi and French oysters. It used to be that you went to a trattoria and had a first course of pasta, rice, or soup, then a meat or fish course. If you didn’t, you’d get looks and attitude from the waiter. Now, it’s pretty much do what you want, anddo you need gluten-free pasta? The youth here have their iPhones and use the same apps their counterparts in Billyburg use, and they lo9d1b4530659caed076d3a47367b4f42a--mens-blazers-scarf-menok pretty much the same, too.

The only way to tell Italians and their hipster American friends apart? When it goes below about 20 degrees C, or 68 degrees F, the scarves come out here, while a lot of American guys will go out in the snow wearing flip flops and shorts. Some things will probably never change, and for good reason.