In with the old, in with the new

I’ve been lazy. Uninspired? Bored? Had writer’s block? Nah. It’s just that living in an outer borough of New York and not going out much can be, well, not the stuff I want to write about. So I didn’t. I was struggling to do something profound, either about differences between Europeople and Americans. Or maybe about technology, or taking a quick road trip. I could show you the unfinished drafts in my queue. But that way you’d see my tortured thought process.

At one point, I even got a bot—the now famous ChatGPT—to write about driving from New York to the Boston suburbs. Then I thought maybe I’d critique what the bot did. Okay, I’ll give you a peek:

On a chilly weekend, we took a 400 km ride to the Boston suburbs in our Volkswagen Golf. Four of us traveled comfortably in the spacious car, but we had to make a couple of stops along the way for our pregnant daughter, who is in her last trimester. Despite the stops, the ride was generally smooth and we were able to make good time. One thing that struck us on the American highways was the lack of lane discipline. People would frequently pass us on the right and zig zag dangerously through traffic.

Kind of workmanlike, no? I gave the bot no instructions as to style or my attitude. I wonder how it decided that the car is spacious—in Europe it’s a midsize thing, in the U.S., the land of SUVs, like a matchbox. I’ve read worse copy in my way too long editing career, but at this point I’m not exactly scared that it’s going to take my place.

The Matalas coven takes over the living room.

Anyhow, then Christmas came, and three days later, we transferred to our Umbrian hill, so, yes! I have something to write about. First of all, the holiday. We’re not really subscribers to religion, but we’re culturally a tiny bit Catholic, and for years we’ve had The Spartan Woman’s Jewish cousins over for the day, as well as her parents and sister, etc. This year’s get-together was bittersweet for a couple of reasons. It was the first one post-Covid onset. And it could be the last one we do, because we may not be living in the U.S. this time next year.

All the same, it was terrific to see our kids and their second cousins hanging out together. We jokingly call them the coven; for years, hardly anyone in TSW’s extended family gave birth to males. I’m not the only one calling them a bunch of witches, they themselves encourage it and, well, it’s just funny. But in the next couple of months, that should end. Our number 1 kid, who got married this past March, is expected to actually bring a male infant into this world. “I don’t know what to do with a little boy,” TSW said at one point. I think she’ll manage somehow, she seems to have no trouble with grownup boys.

AFTER THE HOLIDAY, we had to scurry and clean up and get ready to spend a few weeks in Italy. Obviously, this isn’t our first time around the block for this. Still, we have to make sure stuff is taken care of there and that we remember to take what we need in terms of tech stuff and meds, weird food substances we use in the U.S. but impossible to find in Italy. [Tip: Cheddar cheese powder is really, really good on popcorn.]

The trip over was something else. Not that we were delayed or anything, like thousands of holiday travelers in the U.S. But for the first time since early 2020 airports and flights were jammed. I never saw so many people crowding JFK Airport’s bars/restaurants/shops. It was hard to find a place to sit at the gate. When I went to the least-crowded bar to get my by-now traditional preflight Martini, the bartender apologized for having to use a plastic glass because all the Martini glasses were being used.

The flights, first to Munich, then to Rome, were similarly jammed. Lufthansa kept texting us begging us to check our carryon bags (for free even!). We had huge bags anyway, and only knapsacks as carryons. Lufthansa in general is one of my favorite airlines. Its staff treat people like humans, the food and entertainment are halfway decent, as are drinks, and the Airbuses are pretty comfortable, at least in premium economy (and upward, though I can’t shell out for that).

I’d nervously been looking at flight stats; we had 1.5 hours between flights and with the chaos in the United States, our first flight was late on the days leading up to our departure. That had me looking at how often Lufthansa and affiliates flew between Munich and Rome. Happily, it didn’t come to pass. We left on time and arrived early. Since we’re EU citizens, we breezed through passport control. And somehow we landed at a different terminal, the same one as our second flight, so we even had time for a cappuccino and snack.

I’ve crossed the Atlantic countless times and I usually sleep through most flights. But I was so happy to be traveling that I pretended to be a tourist from my window seat. Long Island looked colorful and even a little glamorous as night had fallen. Germany looked tiny and modern, at least from the buildings I could see. And the Alps? Mozzafiati! (Breathtaking in Italian)

I never get tired of flying over the Alps.

So here we are. And yeah, it’s a nice place. But it’s more than liking the place and having nice scenery and food. Our friend Angelo picked us up at the airport and knowing that we didn’t have much fresh food at the house, gave us a big bag of fantastic oranges (there is nothing like Italian citrus). This morning, I walked next door to our neighbors Marjatta and Pasquale at the agriturismo Ca’ Mazzetto to pick up our car; they’d been car-sitting while we were away. They used it every now and then and returned it with a full tank and cleaned inside and our. Later, Pasquale dropped by to say hi and give us a tin of their fantastic organic olive oil. It’s great to be home.

We’re getting ready for a quiet and decadent New Year’s Eve dinner here with our old friend Doug and his trusty sidekick Georgia the dog. Shopping for it was like being at JFK, way too crowded but instead of making me crabby, the IperCoop near Perugia had a party vibe, with sales of good Champagne and Franciacorta (Prosecco’s upscale cousin, fermented in the bottle like Champagne). Since this is Italy, we’ll take Franciacorta—to go with some scallops in the shell from France.

Thanks for reading this year, and happy New Year! See you here after the holidays.

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…

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

A tale of two siblings

I’VE BEEN WATCHING A social science experiment unfold over the past few decades. Yeah, I’m old. But the subjects of this experiment were older and have recently passed away. I’m writing about my father, Nuccio (formal name Antonino) and his slightly older brother Ignazio. It’s heartbreaking that we lost these two wonderful souls in the space of just a couple of months, but it’s given me a chance to don my political scientist hat and reflect on the lives they led. [Post continues below the photo.]

Versione italiana, clicca qui.

Two bros, on the street where they grew up, Corso Calatafimi Palermo, 2003

FIRST, THE CVs. Ignazio, born October 1928 in Palermo, Sicily, and a resident until his recent death. He was a widower, married to a great woman named Elena Beghin, who came from Treviso in the Veneto, within bike riding distance of Venice. The other was my father, Nuccio, born March 1930, also in Palermo. He emigrated to the United States in 1955 and was also widowed, married to my mom, Angelina Ancona, born on the Lower East Side of New York City. Nuccio lived in Brooklyn, then Staten Island, and finally moved to Eastern Pennsylvania when he retired. Ignazio lived in the same neighborhood all his life, bar a stint in the Italian army.

The two brothers might as well have been twins. Looking at photos of them from the mid-’50s, Elena told me she couldn’t tell them apart. (I can; Ignazio had angled eyebrows while Nuccio were rounded.) Ignazio was studious and high-strung. Nuccio was a party animal, not so studious. As a boy, he was tasked with guiding his brother back to bed when he sleep-walied around their apartment . As a result, my father was always a light sleeper. Their voices were almost identical—Ignazio, who was an army radio operator, spoke passable English, making the voice resemblance even stronger.

The two brothers each had three children. You can almost say that we kids came in pairs. So, my cousin Giorgio and I are only a little more than a year apart. My sister and Giorgio’s sister Assunta were born the same year, as were my brother Chuck and our cousin Loredana. Both brothers worked in electronic factories, too, serving in various foreman/supervisory capacities. They made enough to support their families, and weren’t rich but never were hungry. Both families lived a middle-class existence.

I’ve established that these dudes were remarkably alike. So how were they different? Simple: Ignazio stayed in Italy, and Nuccio left. And it’s fascinating to see how that affected just about everything in their lives. I’ve been tracking these two over the decades, as first unconsciously, but in the past couple of decades I thought more methodically of their parallel lives as a sort of horse race. Who led a more comfortable, spiritually richer life? Was there a winner? Can you even call the race?

I’ll get to the verdict straight away. Ignazio started out in a more precarious place materially, but all things equal, he ended up ahead. And it’s entirely due to how the United States and Europe treated their populations over the year. In fact, I’ll go further and say that Nuccio was far ahead early on, but the lack of worker protections and a comprehensive healthcare scheme in the U.S. eroded his lead decades ago.

LET’S START AT THE BEGINNING of the race. Both brothers served in the Italian army in the 1950s, but my father was discharged in 1955. That will serve as our opening shot.

Nuccio married my American mother and moved to New York. I was born shortly after, and we lived at first in the same neighborhood my mother called home, Brooklyn’s East New York. My father first worked in a shoe factory, and then, happily for me, found a job at a small, family owned toymaker. After obtaining U.S. citizenship in 1960, we moved to a little Cape Cod house on Staten Island. My sister had come along by then. The house was what was called a starter home, with an unfinished basement and attic. My parents were constant home improvers. The attic became terrific big bedrooms for my sister and me Patios were built and expanded. A huge garden supplied a lot of our vegetables.

Nuccio in sunglasses, with his brothers-in-law and my maternal grandfather on the right, sometime in the 1950s

Materially, we weren’t deprived of anything. My mother was really good at controlling the budget and my father got a better job after the toy company. (I was proud of him, but at the same time hated that I wouldn’t be a test subject for the toymaker’s new products.) The used cars eventually gave way to new, bigger models. And our backyard kiddie pool turned into a bigger one that we could actually swim in, so our childhood summers were basically spent in water and outdoors in general. It was a good life, and my father, while working hard, was living a version of the American Dream throughout the 1960s, into the early and 1970s.

Meanwhile in Italy, Ignazio was still in the army and he and Elena were a number, They had a kid but kept it on the down low because he wanted to stay in the army; Palermo at that time wasn’t a good place for a young guy to find a good job, In fact, the early 1960s, once he hung up the uniform, was a time of writing letters to employers and friends of friends who might help him get a job. The young family lived with my grandparents, which was not an easy situation for my aunt, who was used to the personal freedoms enjoyed by young women up north. Finally, at some point Ignazio got a job at a factory run by the Italian state telephone monopoly, and the family moved to apartments of their own, not far from where the two brothers grew up,

The two brothers during the last time they saw each other in person, November 2003

At this point, for my American friends, I should describe apartment living in Italy, Most Italians don’t live in freestanding houses; they live in apartments in cities and towns. But the dwellings aren’t transient places where young adults live while they save up for a house in the ‘burbs. They tend to be bigger than most New York apartments, which multiple bedrooms, baths, and terraces. A lot of them have doormen and gardens. Italians tend to be more social in their daily lives in general, with outdoor bars and spaces frequented as an integral part of daily life. You can almost say it’s the Italian Dream, except Italians are too realistic to think of everyday life as a dream; they believe that they’re fully entitled to what they have.

So at this point, the brothers are evenly matched. But not for long. Ignazio’s wife worked for some years too as the kids got older. They had family living in the same apartment complex who could keep an eye on them. They bought their apartment when it went up for sale; they accrued a nest egg. Regular raises and a new national healthcare system solidified these gains. One of Ignazio’s kids went to the local university, which was free to attend, except for fees and living expenses. He got a degree. In Italy, homeowners don’t pay real estate taxes on their primary dwelling. In general, Ignazio and his family were part of the general rise in the standard of living for most Europeans. He retired with most of his pre-retirement income, and was able to help his kids out.

My uncle Ignazio and his wife Elena, Palermo, 2003

Meanwhile, Nuccio saw his wages stagnate, like a lot of American workers did. The new cars became nearly unaffordable. My sister and I did go to college, but we went to the city university because our parents couldn’t afford to send us away Nuccio actually was subjected to a salary cut while the family-owned company he worked for sold its Soho headquarters for millions; he was eventually forced out and retired on Social Security with a small nest egg. It was a humiliating end to a lifetime of work. My parents sold their house in Staten Island and moved to a much cheaper one in the Poconos. Still, they had to pay hefty real estate taxes, largely because of the decentralized way schools are funded in the U.S. Life for my parents was much more of a struggle than it was for his brother, in general.

My father and me during a FaceTime session last year

Ignazio was part of Italy’s highly rated national healthcare system. Nuccio and his wife got Medicare, which they had to supplement with Part B insurance. My father, dutiful as always, was left paying a huge hospital bill for my mother’s terminal stay,

Every now and then my father would express regrets that he left his homeland. His English was never great, and I think that, along with a general fear of new environments, held him back. He did tell me once, “Maybe I would’ve lived better over there. But I made my choice with you and your mother, and I did my best to make sure we had a good life.”

You can make your own judgment about this tale of two siblings. There are lots of variables, and the big one is how being an immigrant in the U.S. shapes the life you lead. But I also believe that it says a lot, and nothing great, about how a guy who worked hard all his life and did all the right things, found himself in much worse shape as he got older. He had to leave the home he raised his family in, and ended up living in a much harsher environment just to make ends meet.

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.