No, Big Tech isn’t going to save the world. But it’s made our little world a little easier

If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know that I have distinct geek tendencies. Back in the late 1990s I took a break from being a full-time editor to play with machines. The project involved bringing a few newsrooms up to modern standards. One newsroom went from an archaic and incredibly strange Windows PC and Mac setup with no way to track files, to what was then the standard for publishing, the Quark Publishing system. But it was pretty no-frills at the time, with the first project not having direct Internet access until a year or two after the system was in use.

I think about technology a lot, although at this point I don’t earn a living by sharing those thoughts. But with our weird one foot in each place life, I have to say that tech has smoothed the way, making it easier to stay in touch with family and friends, and—sometimes I’m not completely convinced this is a good thing—it’s made it easier to live similar lives on both sides of the pond when it comes to music and video. I guess that I’m writing this because I get tired of the constant drone of negativism about where we are in 2022 when it comes to humans and machines. Yeah social media can be a menace. But the emphasis is on “can.” It doesn’t have to be and the fact that it’s easy to misuse makes it more important for us to be vigilant.

I’ll come clean right away: We’re in the Apple ecosystem; we trade a little more expense for fewer complications. The Spartan Woman started it years ago when she brought a Mac home from school one summer. Her school’s principal figured that the computers would be safer living with teachers than stored in the school over the long holiday. Back then I was taken immediately by how easy the Mac made it to do stuff like move files around, rename them, duplicate them, etc. I was a convert, and the following year, we bought our first Mac. I actually used it to gather wire copy and send it into the publishing system at work.

SO WHERE DOES TODAY, AND THIS BLOG come in? Well, when you think about it, we’ve got the digital equivalent of an RV—we carry our media home around, as long as we’ve got an internet connection. Only it weighs a little less and uses a lot less energy.

Our approach: We only buy laptops as computers, and we have iPhones; they like to work with each other. iPads are optional. We have little HomePod mini speakers, so we can have our music in both places without carrying around CDs (remember them?). All of our devices work with both U.S. and European voltages. I bought some Apple plugs that fit right into the AC adapters, so there’s no bulky and problematic adapters. We’ve laid in a supply of European rechargers, too, so that we don’t have to cart everything around. The only time things get complicated is when we aren’t going from one home to another directly. In that case, we need a couple of rechargers with Euro or American plugs to work in hotels and rented apartments.

Casa, dolce casa, discreetly high tech

In Italy, we don’t watch broadcast TV; we have a smart TV with an Apple TV. I know that’s redundant, but the Apple TV interface is much easier to use, and it gives us access to more services. The setup gives us Italian public TV stations via the app RAI Play, plus all the streaming services that we use, like Netflix and Mhz Choice. By the way, the latter is terrific, featuring European programming with subtitles, just in case you’re challenged by, say, Icelandic.

I guess that I wouldn’t be writing this post if we just vacationed for a week or two. Back then, we somehow managed to live without our music collection for a couple of weeks. But we’re older and spend a lot of time at home, especially in the winter, when Umbria is usually dark, cold, and wet. And thinking back further, The Spartan Woman and I wrote each other nearly every day that we were apart. Yeah, it was sweet.

Now, though, I can do remote work when it happens. Our hilltop Italian ‘net connection isn’t the fastest, but it gets the job done. And when it wigs out, we use our phones as hot spots. So what if a video chat is grainy or freezes every so often? It’s better than paying through the nose for a 3-minute phone call, like in the old days.

Some practical tips:

• You’ll need a lot of rechargers, recharging cables, adapters, dongles, etc. Put them all in a big Ziploc bag and carry that bag in hand luggage. Make sure your devices are fully charged; USB ports on planes aren’t the most powerful. Buy a portable battery pack or two just in case. (My bag of tricks on the right.)

• Put your laptop in a padded case. Because of airport security, make sure it isn’t a pain to haul it out and open the case. The faster you can get stuff in and out, the faster you’ll get through security. European airports seem to have more sophisticated scanners and the more polite security folks don’t make you take everything out of a knapsack or computer bag.

• If you have a choice, buy what you can in the U.S. Italian value-added tax (sales tax in Amurrican) is 22 percent, versus 8.something in New York. The weakening Euro means higher prices in Europe in general. There are negligible differences between U.S. and Euro models, but you might be disoriented by the laptop keyboards on European models. They typically have a bigger “return” key, and have keys for letters with accents, such as è and á.

• Don’t expect to find wifi everywhere. In fact, if you’re a frequent traveler, you might notice fewer hotspots than before. Why? European mobile plans cost a lot less than plans in the U.S., and typically have tons of high-speed data included. So Europeans these days have less of a need to hook up to a wifi network when what the speeds they get on cellular networks is perfectly adequate.

Come together?

So, it’s 2022 and Covid’s behind us and everything is just like the old days. Except that Italy reports more than 100,000 new cases on an average day. The United States records around 130,000 new infections daily. But hey, it’s just a bad cold, right? Let’s fly maskless, let’s go out to eat indoors, forget all those nasty restrictions.

At least that’s what it’s feeling like around here. Italians, who braved lockdowns and some of the most restrictive rules regarding vaccinations and gathering in public spaces, are partying like it’s 2019. It’s weirdly disconcerting, because while mass masking is clearly out, you still see bottles of sanitizer and plexiglass barriers everywhere. And don’t try getting on public transport without a mask. The local mall, er, centro commerciale is another thing…

We’ve been living with this strange situation the past couple of months. So basically we keep to ourselves and vaccinated/tested negative friends for the most part. But even given how fascinating we are to ourselves, sometimes you gotta get off the mountain, you know? And our region tempts us every day with festivals, places to hike (and people to do it with) and, bigly, as what’s-his-name once said, sagras.

What? You don’t know what a sagra is? Think of it as a big church supper, but without the church. (I’ve written about them before, but without Covid looming over them.) Substitute a town sponsor instead and add a single ingredient or dish as the star attraction. Add some cheesy merchandising, a band playing covers of everything from the Eagles (ugh) to Dua Lipa (!), not to mention gentle line-dancing for the elders. Enlist a platoon of locals to run the thing—the kids busing and waiting tables are especially adorable. And place said event (which usually lasts a few days to a week) in the local soccer pitch and you’ve got a sagra. The closest U.S. event I’ve been to is Staten Island’s Greek Festival, hosted by St. Nicholas orthodox church there.

Add fine china, a white tablecloth and a New York address and this would cost $40.

There’s one nearby that we can’t resist. It’s in Ripa, a hamlet two towns away from us. And it features truffles. Not the chocolate kind your mom got for Valentine’s Day, but the black, luscious, pungent, mysterious fungus that grows near oak trees. And the black tuber is on everything from toasts to pasta. It’s good, decadent fun on a budget. Similar food at a New York Temple of Gastronomy ™ would cost ya plenty, but a few dishes, a bottle of decent local wine and fizzy water set three of us back a whole €56, or $57.

Brits, especially, like to rank on Italians for being chaotic. (They should talk.) Go to a sagra, and you’ll see that the stereotype is just wrong. It’s all a matter of priorities. So while Roman traffic may be a free for all, food preparation and service at these sagre (*plural of sagra) is efficient and friendly. You wait in line while dispatching a friend or relative to find a table. That person texts the person on line which table number. Line person gives the order to the person in the booth and pays for it, and finds the table. Then table finder/sitter ventures out for drinks. You start on the wine and water and soon enough, an adorable 10-year-old kid delivers the food.

It’s more than the food. The people watching (and listening) can’t be beat. It’s great to see groups of family and friends out on a sultry night simply enjoying themselves and their place in the world. I like to see how the tribe organizes itself, and which combination of people are hanging out. Basically, the groups come in four models: the mixed generation family, usually three generations; the friends with or without kids and dogs; the elderly couples, either alone or in pairs. And us, a couple and an old friend who’s just moved here and we were showing him one of the glories of rural Umbria in the summer.

ANOTHER SUMMER HIGHLIGHT AROUND HERE is the Umbria Jazz festival. Only Covid stopped and then sharply curtailed it the past couple of years. But this year, for better or worse, the festival was back in its full glory, with free concerts in the streets and parks, an outdoor restaurant, paid big concerts in a soccer stadium—and lots of crowds jamming the small historic center of Perugia. The video below shows what the good old days (2017 here) were like.

We were leery and determined to stay up on the mountain and avoid the crowd. But I’d casually mentioned to a friend that The Spartan Woman would like to see the Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall. I’d completely forgotten that I mentioned it until I got a text from my friend, saying “here’s a little gift.” Enclosed with the text were two free tickets, given to friends and family of the festival organizers.

Krall fits the “jazz” billing of the festival. But let’s say that the festival transcends labels. In the past we’ve seen artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, REM on its last tour, Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars. We saw that we had reserved seats, so, unlike at the REM show it would be unlikely that a standing crowd would be jammed in right by the stage. We were right—our fellow concertgoers were a decorous bunch and we were able to socially distance from most of them.

All in all, it was a terrific way to spend a balmy summer evening. To avoid the typical Perugian parking, we drove to the end of the city’s MiniMetrò line, where there’s a huge and free parking lot. The metro itself normally shuts down at a ridiculous 21:30 every night, but they extended it to 1:45 for the festival. We zipped in and out, masked as required. You could say that the line is gently used most of the time, but it was crammed; lots of people had the same idea.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed and stay masked in public places. It was great to get out and pretend life was back to normal for a couple of hours. But for the time being, it’ll always be a little fraught to do that, so we’ll be choosy about where to go and how to do it.

Just another Spoleto Sunday

We have certain rituals—Sunday afternoon dinners, fires in the country on winter nights, morning walks with the dog on Staten Island. Here in Umbria, we’ve got certain towns that we just like to check out every so often. One of them is Spoleto, home to the classical music event Festival dei 2Mondi, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago, and a strategic city-state hundreds of years ago.

We just like the place. It’s different enough from Perugia to be interesting. It’s kind of aristocratic, and it’s got a great archeological museum, which, I must confess, The Spartan Woman likes to visit more than I do. (Once is usually enough for me, though I’ll concede that the Roman amphitheater is molto cool.)

So we pointed the red Clio south, with Radio Subasio putting out tunes. One wrong turn looking for the Spoletosfera parking garage, but we got back on track. Note: If you’re coming from the north on SS3, go through the tunnel first, then hang a right.

Like all of the bigger Umbrian towns, Spoleto makes visitors park on the outskirts. And then they have various ways of getting you up (it’s invariably up) into town. In Spoleto’s case, it’s a multilevel parking garage followed by what feels like a metro or subway, except there are no trains. Instead, there are long moving sidewalks, like you find in airports. The town tries to entertain you along the way with big portraits of musical and cinema stars who’ve been at the Spoleto Festival.

I am a train, I am a train.

Before you know it, you’re in the center of the old town, Piazza della Libertà. There’s a long shopping and cafe street leading away from it, with decent window shopping. (And I didn’t get to buy that cashmere sweater I’ve been coveting yet again. Foiled by Sunday….)

We have our Spoleto spots. We walk to the Duomo. It’s more an aesthetic thing, not a religious pilgrimage. There are some excellent frescoes from the 15th century by Filippo Lippi. I confess that I’m easily seduced by nice colors, and these frescoes do the job admirably. I’m a fan of the pinks, blues, teals, and the background scenes that look like what we see when we walk down our road.

Eye candy

When our older kid was a baby, she had an uncontrollable nosebleed outside the cathedral, for some reason. I’ll never forget the people who rushed up and tried to help. When we last went to Spoleto with her, she marked her return triumphantly.

Watch out, Spoleto, Martina’s back!

We weren’t through playing tourist. Suckers for a great view, we took advantage again of the city’s system of passages and elevators and went up to the Rocca Albornoziana (fort), which presides over the city. You can easily imagine how people repelled invaders. For one thing, on one side of the fort you can see up the valley forever. If an army was stupid enough to take that route, you can bet that the Spoletani were prepared.

Culture to the left, food to the right

After all this traipsing around, we were hungry. Luckily, we reserved a table at Apollinare. After a decade of restaurant reviews, we’re pretty jaded and don’t go out to fancy places much. But Apollinare is worth it, and is a steal by New York standards. Like L’Officina, which I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, Apollinare takes some liberties with traditional Umbrian food. Unlike L’Officina, Apollinare has an old-school vibe in its decor and service, the latter being scrupulously correct and discrete, while being friendly.

Everything is how it should be.

You can order a la carte, but Apollinare has theme menus, too. We opted for the vegetarian one. It’s always interesting to see what a top restaurant does given a no-meat challenge, and the place was up to it. I wonder if a carnivore would even notice, given the creative and delicious food presented to us. Here are some shots.

Fava bean crème brulée
Lasagna of a sort
Eggplant parm, not the kind that NYC Italian delis sell

Last year around this time, we came to Spoleto with our friends Wendy and Vicky. After a great meal at Apollinare, we stumbled up the street and onto Spoleto’s Carnevale parade. It was great fun seeing all the floats, and dancers, and we had confetti and silly string in our hair and clothes for hours afterward. We didn’t get to see it this year, but here’a sample of last year’s fun.

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?

Milano Milano

That’s not a typo in the headline. It’s a song title, from the (now split up) Italian rap duo Article 31. The song always pops into my head whenever I’m walking around that city I first heard the song while on a reporting trip back in, maybe, 2002? It kind of goes with the street rhythm, which is sort of like New York with a Latin beat.

I went up to Milan to be part of a week of events for lawyers organized by my friends at Legalcommunity. Despite the English name, the place is staffed mostly by Italians, and they put together a bunch of news websites, and not only for lawyers. They’ve expanded to the finance and food industries. (I put together the U,S. version of a site for company lawyers.) My colleagues there are young and enthusiastic and they do an amazing job, considering how few of them there are.

The week was rather more fun than anything that workaholic Americans might put together. Sure, there were substantive panel discussions, and I moderated a couple of them. But besides the Serious Legal Stuff, the  LC staff took people to a concert at La Scala, organized a run, brought bands from law firms together for a battle of the bands and held a gala awards dinner. At the battle of the bands, at this venue called Fabrique, my colleagues all wore black t-shirts saying “Rock the Law.” I want one. Ok, Aldo?

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MC Nicola doing his bit

As for the city itself, I like spending a few days there when I can. It’s not a touristy city, and its inhabitants work and play hard. I have a good crew of friends and colleagues to visit when I’m there. I had a little time to sneak out and visit places I like, or I’m told I would like. One of them is the Fondazione Prada, far from the posh city center. The site incorporates some old light-industry buildings with some new structures by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The melding of old and new structures just made me smile. One of the buildings is encased in this metallic swirly stuff, and one has huge mirrors as siding. An old building, that served as a “haunted house” exhibit with works by the likes of Louise Bourgeois, was painted glossy gold, light at the top, darker at ground level.

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Then there’s the bar. In Italy, a bar is an all-purpose cafe, the kind of place where you stop in on your way to work to have a coffee and a cornetto (the Italian equivalent of a croissant), later for a snack or another espresso, a pick me up later in the day, and so on. The Fondazione’s version is called Bar Luce (light), and it was designed by none other than the film director Wes Anderson. He took Milan’s Viennese kaffeehaus vibe and ran with it. Think of it as the bar equivalent of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

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Wes Anderson’s idea of a Milanese bar

The other place I went off to was just a few blocks from my hotel, the redevelopment of the area around Porta Nuova. I’m of two minds about these projects. Porta Nuova is a rupture of the city fabric. Milan has this kind of Austrian vibe in places. No surprise there; it was part of Austria until Italian unification in the mid-19th century.  At the same time, it’s fun to look at and walk through. The Porta Nuova complex is over a rail yard, and it’s an architectural and environmental showcase. The centerpiece is the Torre Unicredit, a skyscraper designed for the bank by César Pelli. On one side, there’s a green area that a couple of years featured a wheat field. I’m not sure what happened with that, but now it’s a tree refuge; they’ve planted a bunch of varieties.

Keeping with the green theme are two apartment buildings called the Bosco Verticale, or vertical forest. The sides of the buildings have trees and other vegetation growing out of them. I saw them right after their construction and the greenery was definitely in the sapling stage. They look a lot more grown in now.

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The Bosco Verticale

Speaking of green, I’m back home in Umbria. It’s so green this year, it’s almost psychedelic. The sheep next door came to visit, and at one point, they just decided to chill right below our lawn (the property is terraced). Hey, if they eat the grass, terrific. Maybe we’ll get some great pecorino one of these days.,

It’s Not Always About That Guy

A little distance ain’t a bad thing. The man with the nasty combover and the orange skin and I left the U.S. about the same time, and for all of last week, my Facebook feed was full of the creep’s innumerable faux pas and how the United States now stands alone. The news articles were calling the meeting in Hamburg “The G-19” meeting, and for good reason. But I’ve been more than 4,000 miles away seems blissfully removed from my consciousness most of the time. Except for when my friends bring it up and ask, “but how come?”

Good question. What always fascinated me, and a lot of people, is how America is two countries, maybe more. You can divide it in a lot of different ways—politically, geographically, culturally. But really, how does a country that’s produced Patti Smith, Kerouac, Jay-Z, Merryl Streep, Louis Armstrong, Beyonce, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Prince, George Clinton, Dylan, etc., also give rise to the racists that won the last presidential election?

Liberals especially seem to think of last year’s election as an aberration. I’d say it was more an exaggeration. Sorry folks, while the Grateful Dead was playing for their blissed-out fans, and James Brown and Sly Stone were in their prime, Nixon was helping Chilean fascists kill Allende and put in place a repressive regime that tortured and killed thousands of people. And that’s just one example of an infinite number of contradictions between the vibrant culture and governments that haven’t exactly been on the side of angels.

And so, Umbria Jazz here in Perugia this week. It’s all about an American born and bred art form, with some other stuff thrown in. You can pay to see the headlines (this year, Kraftwerk, Wayne Shorter, and Brian Wilson) but there’s tons of free music, and much of it shows the greatness of American music. Blues, gospel, funk, hey even jazz, it’s all there. The festival organizers have a pretty inclusive idea of what constitutes jazz; I’ve seen REM on their last tour, Brazilian megastar Gilberto Gil, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars, as well as Tito Puente doing an Oy Como Va that brought tears to this New York boy.

Let’s forget for a moment about El Cheeto Loco, the man who must not be named. Check out a couple of videos I made. I kept them short because I wanted to feel the music, not just think to myself, wow, this’ll be great on Facebook Live (though I did some of that). Hope you like them. More adventures are upcoming. We go shopping in a couple of days, so that we can sleep in the house we bought last year. But that’s another story or two…

First off, a wild blues duet, from a the Delta Wires Blues Band out of Oakland.

Next up, a sweet Italian group that does a lot of oldies, mainly swing jazz, Sugarpie & the Candymen. They take liberties with modern stuff, turning it into a mix of gypsy and swing styles. The Beatles’ “Come Together” didn’t survive too well, but Blondie’s “Heart of Glass” sounded just fine.

 

And now, for something different. A sexy concert with Gangbé Brass Band, which got the audience dancing and chanting. I love the old guy who was really going at it, and coaxed a bunch of youngsters to join in. It was contagious; soon everyone got into it one way or another.