How do you live like that?

We’re hiding out in the dark. It’s a bright sunny hot day out there. Beautiful, in fact. But you know what they say about mad dogs and Englishmen.

We get asked a lot by our American friends about, for example, the lack of air conditioning in our mountain retreat here. We love to say that we don’t need it about 99 percent of the time. Yeah, even when the Mediterranean sun is beating pitilessly down on us mortals, when you need sunglasses just to step outside, etc etc. What do we do? We conform to the local custom and hide out. In fact, I just had a wonderful short nap, after which I stared at the one open shutter looking at how the breeze swayed the tree branch. Hey, after years of working in busy newsrooms and tending to computer systems, this is not a bad thing.

It’s bright and hot out there, so I write in the dark.

In fact, our friends from across the pond are often amazed at this and the dozens of other small differences between the continents. In the old days those differences might have meant a lower standard of living for Europeans, but these days it’s often the U.S. that feels behind the times.

For us, it’s all about adaptation. We’re lucky in a couple of ways. First, culturally: I grew up in a Sicilian household that just happened to be in New York City. So the language wasn’t hard to pick up; when i was 5 years old my nonno (grandfather) from Palermo lived with us. He and I took walks almost every afternoon. He didn’t speak English and I don’t remember speaking Italian. But we had pretty involved conversations, so maybe I did, or at least understood enough of what he was saying. My first experience here in Italy wasn’t as a tourist; we stayed with family for half the summer. Likewise, The Spartan Woman lived in Perugia while attending the university there.

Nonno and me, a few years ago

As for climate, so far we’ve been blessed with only slightly strange weather and nothing like the craziness up in Germany. It’s been hot for the most part, but not too—around 30-31 degrees C, or 86-88 Fahrenheit. We get breezes up here since we’re at the crest of a hill. And our house, like every house around here, is made of stone, thick, meter/yard thick stone, which does a good job of keeping things cool during the summer. All we have to do is close the shutters along the sun’s path, which is why we sit in the dark at lunchtime.

Thinking about this stuff makes me remember last summer, during the darkest days of the Covid-19 pandemic. TSW and I (and our trusty dachshund Lola) basically stayed indoors most of the time, except for dog walks. We stayed in the shade too, but that’s because our Staten Island home is on a lushly tree-lined street. It being New York, though, it was humid as well as hot. So we kept the air conditioners running almost all the time, and the television was usually tuned to MSNBC or, for relief, HGTV. We sent out for food and wine, and I took naps out of sheer boredom. Our electric bills were through the roof; luckily we didn’t have huge gasoline bills because 1-we didn’t go anywhere, and if we did 2–we’re bad Americans and have a small European hatchback instead of a monster SUV or pickup like lots of our neighbors.

In fact, I gassed up last week here as we set out for a town in the mountains, Casteluccio di Norcia, and the vast glacial plain around it. One of my cousins from Sicily is driving around Italy on her wedding trip and she and her husband stopped by for a few days. So we were four adults in our Renault Clio, what the industry calls a B-segment hatchback (in U.S. terms, think Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit). Part of the way involved highway driving, but most of the route consisted of one lane in each direction, steep uphills and switchbacks, and lots of gear changing (as well as passing slow trucks, which means revving the small engine to the max). It’s a diesel, the kind of car that will be extinct in Europe in a decade along with all internal combustion engines. We filled up yesterday and for 338 kilometers, we bought about 15 liters, or nearly four gallons of fuel. It works out to about 52 miles per gallon—and that’s pretty normal here. Yet the four of us fit into the car fine and, yes, the a/c was on. I hate wind noise, especially when driving on a highway.

Meet Clio, who doesn’t drink very much.

Perversely, Covid-19 has brought some changes that have updated the way people here live. Cash was king not so long ago, and it wasn’t unusual to see someone pay for a load of groceries with a wad of cash. But now, most stores not only accept contactless debit or credit cards, but the same machines mean you can use Apple or Google pay on your phone. I’d guess that it’s more common here than in New York, where local merchants are still amazed when I pull my iPhone out of my pocket to pay.

We shared “the best beer in the world” at Umami Beer.

Speaking of Covid-19, WTF? We look at the vaccination maps back in the U.S. with a mixture of wonder and horror. Sure, there are some antivax crazies here, but it’s not a big thing. If there’s any criticism of the vaccination program it’s that it took awhile to gather steam. But now Italians are among the best-vaccinated people in Europe, and probably the world. After a slow start it seems like everyone we know has gotten both jabs, and the tend to be Pfizer. So we were less nervous when we got together with a few local friends here for, um, for burgers and beer. There’s a laid-back place near Assisi called Umami Beer, and it’s one of the favorite places for our friend Letizia Mattiacci, who runs the cooking school La Madonna del Piatto. I don’t feel sheepish at all plugging her and her classes; she’s warm, fluent in English, and her cooking pays homage to Umbria while having a fresher, more veg-friendly take on familiar foods. (By the way, she and her Dutch husband Ruurd also have a B&B there and can put you up between classes.) Umami’s no simple burger joint; owner Roberto sources high-quality ingredients and tracks down great beers from around the globe.

The Delta Covid-19 variant is beginning to be felt here, too, and it’s put a little damper on things. We don’t go out as much, and we’re still supposed to wear masks in indoor public spaces. The government says that it may tighten some rules in a few regions. But following public health rules here seems less fraught and less of a statement. Everyone does it and there’s no stigma or weirdness. If it’s one thing Italians are really good at, it’s self-preservation.

Davy Brooks is wrong just about everything

Some of you may know about my on-again, off-again obsession with New York Times columnist David Brooks. You might even wonder why, other than his sheer laziness and obviousness. I’ll let you in on my eternal shame: I once shared a byline with him, in the now-defunct women’s magazine More. The piece was a feature about “Alpha Women.” Brooks wrote the intro; I did the write-ups of the women themselves. We never spoke to each other.

But I have another reason for the headline. It’s about Brooks’ periodic praise for American innovation, or what he sees as innovation. The narrative goes like this: The United States is a tougher place to live than Europe, where people enjoy things like universal healthcare, long vacations, and a decent safety net. But the United States gives us something that they can’t—the freedom to dream and innovate and be like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. All this cool stuff like iPhones and Amazon’s Echo comes from the U.S., not those sclerotic old soft countries across the pond.

Sigh. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with this way of looking at the world, and The Spartan Woman and I have been batting around ideas. Living in both the dynamic, young inventive USA and tired old Europe, I try to resist the kinds of comparisons a lot of people do. I hear it all the time; Sentences that begin with “We have xxx,” or “Ours are different” or “How come they….” You get the drift. Both regions are what they are.

Then again, let’s talk about innovation. In American terms, it’s almost always a synonym for “technology.” When Brooks and his brethren (they’re almost always guys) gloat about American inventiveness, they invariably bring up the iPhone, or Google, etc., and boast about how they dominate the world. Okay, fine. But are they everything? Is computer-related technology the only way people can innovate, or think of new or more useful ways to live?

I’d say no. Let’s talk about how people move around in their environment. The U.S., for all the buzz about autonomous cars, is way behind the rest of the world. Stubbornly and proudly dumb about it. Highways are jammed, in the older cities, public transport is falling apart; here in New York it’s a battle to keep the subways and trains in any kind of working order. New York is still struggling to start building a new rail tunnel to link it to the rest of the country as the one in use crumbles and soon will be dangerous to use. Smaller cities are car-only, with maybe a rudimentary bus system. (Those cities out west that are building and expanding light rail systems are a noble exception.) In a way, the autonomous car thing is a perfect metaphor for the U.S.—high tech will come to the rescue of a way of life that’s stubbornly holding on and killing the planet.

Way faster than the Acela

In Europe–and even in Italy, which isn’t usually thought of being ahead of anything modern–you can zip around on fast trains. It takes just an hour and a half to go from Florence to Milan; the Rome-Milan trip, which is about 500 km or about 300 miles, takes under 3 hours.

There are lots of other examples where “innovation” doesn’t necessarily mean computers or online anything. As an American, have you remodeled a kitchen recently? How long did it take, and how much did it cost? We put in a kitchen in our Italian mountain house, with sleek white and grey laminate cabinets and the usual appliances. It took a couple of visits to a store, a little plumbing and electrical work, and then the kitchen was done in a day. The innovation came in the form of design; the manufacturer has a bunch of modules, with some custom work. It sends a “geometra,” someone who measures everything, looks at where the outlets and gas lines are, etc. Two guys and a truck later, it was all there. (And it came to about $5,000.)

All in less than a day’s work

And then there’s the espresso machine. At least for me, it’s improved my life more than, say, digital internet (sorry FIOS, you’re not my first love). So, once again, my usual disclaimer: I’m not saying that one place is necessarily better than the other–well, okay, in nonmaterial quality of life, one is better, but you might not agree. It’s just that there are other ways of looking at what’s important, and how life should be lived. We as Americans should look around some more.

And, er, Davy’s wrong.

Photo of the semi-hidden visage of Brooks at the top: By PBS Newshour – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, 0