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…

It’s something we think about all the time here

Let’s talk about food, shall we? And where you consumed said food? (Sorry if the headline led you to think I was going to write about that other obsession.) I’m thinking about food in Italy these days, since I’m here. It really is an obsession, and not just with “sovrappeso” [overweight] me. I’ve overheard chic saleswomen talk about what they were going to have for lunch in tones that were, well, erotic. And if you happen to be in Italy and happen to get onto YouTube, your feed will soon be blitzed with food videos. I don’t think it’s just mine.

First off, most Americans without the good luck (or misfortune. It depends.) of having relatives living in Italy don’t get the full-on experience. They–you?–have to go to restaurants. And that’s a shame, especially if you’re in the big tourist cities. Why? Because restaurant food may be ok, but eating in an urban restaurant in Italy doesn’t come close to the real deal, and in big cities and touristy locations, many restaurants serve a kind of national “Italian” food that doesn’t reflect what people really eat in this intensely regional country. Plus they miss the vibe, where people loosen up and sit with friends, family, lovers, kids, dogs, whatever, just enjoying the moment. Or a town festival. Or, in the case of our town, any excuse to get together. Any.

First, friends and/or family. One of my most memorable “meals” here, if you can call it that, happened before we had a place of our own. My magazine astoundingly let me come to Italy on a reporting trip. My assignment was to make the rounds of lawyers and business analysts and give American lawyers an idea of what to expect if their companies or clients tried to buy an Italian company. I cannily scheduled interviews for the latter part of the week in Milan, and the early part of the week in Rome. Oh, dear, what to do in between? Live in a lonely hotel room? Eat meals by myself?

Nope.

I visited friends who happened to live in Perugia, about two-thirds of the way south to Rome. After a couple of train rides, my Italian papà Franco picked me up at the station. “We have to hurry,” he said. “Giovanna’s in the middle of a surprise for you.” Franco, never a quiet pensive kinda guy, gunned it, shouting at anyone who dared to drive any slower. “Figlio di puttana! Bastardo!” he shouted. After holding on for dear life—Perugia doesn’t know from straightaways—we got to their house. “Hurry! Just leave your bag. You can keep you jacket on. We have to do this NOW!” Franco told me.

What was the fuss all about? Artichokes. Glorious crunchy salty hot just from the fryer pieces of artichoke. “I’m squeezing lemon on these, ok?” said Giovanna in Italian (these two didn’t speak English; this is all translated), more as a statement of purpose than a question. “Eat with your fingers.” She had put the freshly fried artichokes in a paper lined basket and shoved it at me. “Eat with your fingers.” The three of us didn’t even sit; we just stood there eating, blowing on our fingers between bites.” When we weren’t wolfing down the artichokes, we were drinking and smiling at each other. It was one of the best food events I’ve ever been at. I know we sat down to a regular lunch after that, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it. Can you blame me?

If you don’t have an Italian friend or relative, the next best thing is probably eating at an agriturismo, or at least a country restaurant. If it’s the right season, eat outside. Yeah, there’s an Under the Tuscan Sun thing going at these places. But you’ll see what makes it all worth it. Some years before that reporting trip, we’d gone to an agriturismo high above Lago Trasimeno, the big almost ocean-like lake around here. I can still taste the pasta course, with an eggplant purée (no tomatoes) and bits of sausage. But what I really remember was the vibe. There we were, our family, plus our Perugian surrogate parents and their dog, just relaxing around a table with a view of the lake below for the whole afternoon. And it cost maybe a half of what a city restaurant would’ve charged. Maybe less.

ANOTHER WAY TO ENJOY NON-RESTAURANT food is at a sagra or a festival. They’re held all over Italy, and here in Umbria there seems to be one every day or so somewhere. They serve as fundraisers for the town’s pro-loco associations, which support soccer teams, after school activities for working parents, and the like. But they’re also a way to get the whole town involved in something—and, for people to connect with their history. Local volunteer cooks take care of the food, sometimes, but only sometime, under the guidance of professional chefs. Of course, doing so often involves getting done up in medieval drag, which seems to happen for any excuse, but I digress.

After the Covid shutdown, the region came alive this year. We’ve been to a few. The first was for the food, in Ripa, two towns down the main road here. The town itself is a tiny hamlet, with a circular historic center, and various memorials to Gino Bartoli. He was a heroic figure, a Tour de France bicyclist who smuggled citizenship documents for Jews during World War II by stuffing them in his bike’s tubes and delivering them. Ripa holds a truffle sagra, and the food’s pretty good if you’re a fan of the underground fungus. (We are; Ripa sagra shown below.)

There’s a biggie around here, too. The small town of Cannara, near Assisi, is known for its onions. They’re sold in all the grocery stores and to be honest, we’re spoiled. I won’t say you haven’t lived until you’ve had a really fresh onion—but like a lot of produce, being grown locally makes a real difference. Cannara puts on a pretty big show, with various “stands” (yes, in English), really kitchens/outdoor restaurants, with each producing dishes that feature, yes, onions. Cipollamisu, anyone? It was a lot better than you’d think, with the typical tiramisu ingredients topped with a compote of sweet onions.,

Valfabbrica, where we live, goes all out. It’s bigger than Ripa, as far as towns and hamlets go around here, but smaller (population around 3,400) than the surrounding towns. There’s a week-plus celebration of being a valfabbricheso, with pageants, jousting tournaments, and, of course, food. The town’s historic center turns into a restaurant, and the town has a communal kitchen that churns out tons of dishes based on local produce and history. Gotta say, it was pretty good.

But the most charming event involving food was last weekend. Our town likes its parties, and the old medieval tower was restored recently. Most places would have the mayor cut the ribbon and leave it at that. Valfabbrica? Uh-uh. It got Italy’s only all-female jazz marching band to escort the mayor to the tower, playing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night. The women walked up the tower with Enrico (we’re all on a first-name basis here)

We don’t have dull ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Valfabbrica.

I know, this is supposed to be about food. Sure enough, after the music and the ribbon-cutting and the speeches about the historic importance of the tower, there was a free aperitivo* in the piazza. Older guys sat behind tables with loaded with decent boxed local red wine and porchetta panini* and doled it all out. I haven’t eaten much meat in a decade, but one of the guys shoved a panino at me after I poured myself a healthy glass. It seemed churlish to say no—and it was great to be hanging out in the main piazza on a beautiful late summer night with our fellow townspeople.

Vino and a panino, anyone?

*”Aperitivo” refers not only to a pre-dinner drink, but food to go with it. Places like Milan and even good bars elsewhere elevate it to the point where it can substitute for dinner. At that point you can all the meal an apericena—aperitivo and cena, which is what the nighttime meal is called.

* The word is “panino” for a single sandwich. “Panini” is plural. More than 1 sandwich. Ok? I get a little nuts when I hear “I’ll have a panini .” It’s like nails on a blackboard.

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.

Addio, Alitalia. It’s been sometimes good to know you. Still, we hate to see you go (because you owe us).

I flew for the first time on July 4, 1971, when I was 14 years old. My family took an Alitalia flight from New York City to Rome, and I was on vacation with my parents and my younger sister and brother. The trip was a big deal for us; it was my father’s first time back to his native Italy in 16 years, and it was our first trip abroad. I remember a lot of the details. The plane was a new Boeing 747, and even in economy class they gave us slippers to wear. The dinner’s centerpiece was a filet mignon in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Excited to be on a real vacation, my 11-year-old sister and I explored the plane. “Maria, come here!” I called to her as I peered beyond the curtain toward the first-class cabin and its spiral staircase. “No, go there,” the mustachioed flight attendant told me, pointing us back toward steerage.

Ever since that first flight, I’ve taken Alitalia a couple of dozen times. The Italian flag carrier was historically generous with its mileage loyalty programs, and its direct flights to either Rome or Milan were a godsend to people who dislike changing flights and going through security more than once. It served as the unofficial carrier of the postwar Italian diaspora, and was the pope’s official airline. 

But Alitalia is about to taxi back to the big hangar in the sky, joining other defunct airlines like Sabena, TWA and Pan Am. Years of bad management, wildcat strikes, patronage staffing levels, and indifferent service took their toll. Alitalia has been in receivership since 2017, and the Italian government of Mario Draghi and the European Union finally pulled the plug. Sure, successive Italian governments tried to keep Alitalia aloft, but after billions in bailouts and repeated, unsuccessful efforts to find it a suitor, everyone called it quits. 

Sorry, your flight’s been canceled and there isn’t much that you can do.

There’s a psychological element to the carrier’s end. Although a lot of Italians had become tired of its hijinks, Alitalia remained one of the last cornerstones of Italy’s postwar boom, which saw the mostly rural, war-torn country become a modern economic and social power. Indeed, Alitalia’s fate echoes the fate of other big Italian companies, like the auto giant Fiat, which once stood for that postwar economic miracle and is now just a part of a French-led conglomerate, Stellantis. This hollowing out of Italy’s big companies has taken a big toll on Italian pride, no matter how many soccer championships the national team wins. This psychological toll is one of the reasons for the ascendancy of populists like the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, and the right wing party Brothers of Italy. The latter is led by the photogenic Giorgia Meloni, who can be thought of as the Italian equivalent of the French politician Marie Le Pen.

Taking Alitalia’s place will be ITA, or at least a company called ITA at this moment, which may or may not use the Alitalia brand and aircraft livery when it takes to the skies this month. A public sale of the old company’s assets will be held soon. Think of the change as something akin to the bailout of General Motors back in 2009, when the U.S. government severed the automaker’s assets from its debts and let the “new,” debt-free GM continue to operate. Only this time, the EU specified that there’s to be less continuity between the old and new companies. Ticketholders for flight’s after Alitalia’s October 14 demise have been told, basically, tough luck, file for a refund. 

Despite all the bad times, some of us will be sad to see Alitalia land for good. Sure, thousands of people complained about bad service. Booking agents could be impolite or even hostile; delays were, for a time, legend. But the airline served as a cultural bridge and a symbol of the stylish, dolce vita Italy. When you boarded an Alitalia flight at JFK—an often-chaotic ritual, to be sure—you felt as though you were already in Italy, for better or worse, between the Italian announcements and the proper, rather snobbish attitude of the designer-attired cabin crew.

You could feel almost human in premium economy.

For one thing, Italy’s humanity in all its glory seemed to be embodied by the flight attendants. I once watched a female attendant watch with concern as a very young couple tried to soothe their screaming infant. “Give to me,” she told them in accented English. Putting a napkin on her shoulder, she walked up and down the aisle with the infant, rocking it softly and cooing to it. The baby fell asleep within minutes and she gave it back to the parents. “See?” she asked them. “It’s not so hard. Be calm.” 

Alitalia’s premium economy service was a terrific medium between the lay-flat luxury of “Magnifica” class and the awful, cramped economy cabin. Flight attendants brought us glasses of prosecco and swag bags by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel. The cabin was intimate, with only 17 seats. For a small premium, budget-minded travelers could feel cosseted and a little special. 

Often, though, those good moments were punctuated by less-happy times. The cabin crew wasn’t always interested in keeping flyers happy, retreating to the back of the plane and telling people they could serve themselves from the cart if they were thirsty mid-flight. The meals declined in quality—a recent Covid-19 compliant meal consisted of a few overcooked, stuck-together ravioli and two bottles of mineral water. Italian speakers often got much better treatment than non-Italians. Forget about it if a celebrity boarded and headed to first class; most of the crew would migrate to the front, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves.

The final indignity, at least for my wife and me, came recently with an email canceling our flight back to New York. We’ve been here in Umbria a few months now, and have to get back to New York for the holidays. And I’ve filed for a refund from the €100 million the government has set aside for people like us,  and rebooked on another airline. It seems that under the agreement with the European Union creating ITA, the new entity doesn’t have to honor our tickets nor does Alitalia have to find us flights on other carriers—which is the usual procedure here in Eurolandia  

So farewell, Alitalia, it’s been a tempestuous affair between you and me. But I’ll still miss you. Now where’s my refund?

Photo up top: Andrea Tavoni, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other photos are by author.

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.)

This winter I went swimming

(with apologies to Loudon Wainwright III)

This winter I went swimming 
This winter I wouldn’t have drowned 
I held my breath and I kicked my feet 
And I moved my arms around
I moved my arms around

We’ve been back in New York for a few months, which has been bad for the waistline. And so it was time to get back into some kind of shape. The holiday season was blissfully over. No more béchamel, truffles, cocktails, cookies, pies, wine, more cocktails, more wine. No more avoiding the pool because, you know, I had things to do—like visiting a friend on the Upper West Side for cocktails and seeing friends who were holed up in a Times Square hotel for, you guessed it, cocktails.

I’ve had a YMCA membership before Kid no. 1 was born, some 35 years ago. I used to hit the pool at 9:30 pm every weeknight. I was in my twenties and super fast. The pool, in fact, was filled with people who were super duper extra fast, all young like me. We’d goad each other to go faster. I learned how to do flip turns. “You should make it snap more,” one of my partners counseled. I did. I kept it up for years, which was relatively easy to do when you’re young and didn’t have to get to the office until 10 or so. And as the kids grew up, I started going less and less, in spurts more than a steady routine.

I love the water. Unlike the experience of some friends of mine, for whom swimming was a structured, oppressive series of lessons in an indoor pool, swimming for me always meant freedom and escape. I learned to swim at the beach. My father was a really strong swimmer, and when I was only four or five, he’d sit me on the beach and tell me not to move. Then he’d swim way out, waving to me and calling me. Then it was my turn. I learned by riding the waves, and soon being buoyant was as natural as breathing.

Later, we had a backyard pool and my siblings and our friends spent most of our summers in it. We played elaborate hide and seek games that involved swimming stealthily underwater to evade who was “it.” In high school, I took swimming instead of gym a couple of times. Mostly it was to avoid the Marine drill-sergeant gym teachers and the stupid militaristic calisthenics. But it soon turned into a soothing respite from Brooklyn Tech classes. Most of the class (gym classes were single-gender) would play pool volleyball unless the swimming coach decided to actually teach a lesson. But I was nearsighted and hated games like that. And I realized that I could just be a loner, and float around the deep end. I’d make sure to get high before class and spend a very pleasant hour mostly underwater pretending to fly.

As a college kid, I’d go upstate with friends to explore swimming holes. We’d jump from cliffs into ice-cold pools of water. One drop was about 35 feet and, well, you can’t slow down once you step off the ledge. Didn’t stop us though. Those beautiful swimming holes—I barely remember where they were—were a great foil to a series of boring summer jobs.

So it was back to the Y pool this month. Only now, not having a regular office job means I can go to the 11 am lap swimming session, where I’m actually one of the younger people in the pool.

I’m sometimes alone in the lane, which is great. But more often than not, I split the lane with Chris, a retired fire captain about my age. Chris is tall and lanky, and he gets to the deep end with what seems like five strokes. He’s just so quick and quiet about it. He told me he was a high school swimmer and has been swimming in the Y pool since he was three years old.

I was inclined to hate Chris. Early on, I heard him talking with someone about how Trump was driving liberals crazy. They were giggling like little boys who snuck a frog into a girl’s lunchbox. I avoided talking to him or even really acknowledging his presence. Eventually, though, we got to talking, starting with the usual “want to split the lane?” question. And I found out that he’s a curious and smart guy and somewhat of an amateur historian. We still avoid politics, and that’s okay. Can you say “cognitive dissonance”?

Going back and forth in an indoor water tank does get tired, but I do things to make it interesting. The Spartan Woman gave me an Apple Watch a couple of years ago and I can wear it in the pool. It’s got a workout tracker for swimming in a pool, so I’m always tracking how much I swim in how many minutes. My baseline distance is 1,000 meters; I figure that that’s pretty good for an old guy. If I can do it in a half hour, so much the better. Besides, with the watch, I don’t have to count laps, which always tripped me up. I always lost count before.

It’s pretty amazing what swimming a few times a week will do. I have muscles again; they seemed to go into hiding once the summer swimming season ended. I’m incredibly relaxed post-swim, especially if I spend some time in the sauna afterward. And it gives me an excuse to get out of this little prison of a home office.

I can’t wait for the summer.

…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.

Polish dulce de leche and a serendipitous wedding

I haven’t written much since we’ve been back in New York—and I haven’t posted what I wrote. Too busy with the usual stuff, work and (ugh) taxes. Truth is, it’s been kind of dull, except for good things like seeing the kids and having the dog around.

But this past week was different. Nope, not talking about the Mueller report. This is about me, remember?

First up: The Spartan Woman had to go to a teacher’s union meeting near Wall Street. She’s retired, but they keep the alums in the fold. I tagged along, having nothing better to do and wanting to get out of the house. I used to work in the neighborhood, so I have my favorite walks. One of them took me to Eataly, where I used to enjoy a mid-afternoon espresso with one of my deputies most days. It may be a semi-pretentious temple of Italian gastronomy, but they actually make good coffee there and it’s not ridiculously priced. Then I walked through the Oculus, which I love in spite of the $4 billion price tag. The passageway under West Street took me nearly out to the river, where I started to head downtown along the Battery Park Promenade. The harbor’s my thing. After living on a mountaintop, the crush of people on the street is a bit much.

One of the few places to get a decent espresso in the city.

So I walk, and I see a tent. There’s a party going on, apparently thrown by the I Love Poland Yacht. People have gathered, but it’s not a huge crowd. “Help yourself to the buffet,” someone told me. I was tempted, but I wasn’t into sausages, sausages and huge balls of stuffed cabbage. But the drinks stand called me. “Some vodka or beer?” Yes, please, the vodka being herb flavored and delicious over ice. A young woman was walking around with a tray, while kids were getting helium-filled balloons. “This is a traditional Polish pastry,” the woman said. “It’s filled with something like dulce de leche.” Thus fortified, I continued my walk and saw views like this:

New Yorkers sometimes forget that they live on a beautiful harbor.

The next day, we walked the Avenue. We live a few houses up from Forest Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial strip. A few months ago, I walked up and down it with one of the kids, who, looking around, said something like “When did this go all Brooklyn on you?” It’s true–we always had bars, but now we’ve got cafés, cool restaurants, including my favorite local Syrian place, hipster barbers, a bakery that has a gelato stand when it gets warm…you get the idea. We stopped in for breakfast at the On Your Mark Café, a breakfast and lunch place that employs people with special needs. The servers are super-attentive and food’s decent. I’m not a breakfast person but I couldn’t resist the chocolate chip pancakes, made with chocolates the organization makes next door in its chocolatier.

Chocolate, the breakfast of champions

The best adventure, though, was on Friday. I was heading into Manhattan to have lunch with an old friend who was in town the same time I was. We’d been missing each other for the past couple of years when it came to being in New York at the same time. The bus to the ferry was slow and I started to hustle to get the 11:30, just to have a little walking around time in Union Square. But another friend, Joan, intercepted me. “Want to see a wedding on the boat?” she asked. What? Her son was going to tie the knot on the next boat. I guessed that that explained the young woman running around the terminal in a wedding gown. We went over where the other guests were hanging out; I saw another old friend and a former co-worker from 20 years ago.

Making a vow or two.
Meet Gary and Joan, parents of the groom

We boarded, went downstairs and, yeah, this was an official wedding, with a bridal party decked out (and sporting similar retro sneakers). The officiant gave a little speech, saying he didn’t have many profound things to say, but that we were all gathered there because of love. “And that’s a good thing, right?” Right.


The road taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

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

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

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)



Truffles, onions and frogs, oh my!

 

 

One of the pleasures of an Italian summer is the town sagra. It almost always involves food, and centers on one ingredient. Think Gilroy (California) Garlic Festival with some Italian verve thrown in. The sagra serves a few purposes. It’s fun; the towns get to show off; and they raise money for public projects—not to mention for the the next year’s sagra.

We set a personal record this summer: three. Well, four, if you include our town’s Palio, during which the small medieval core was turned into a decently sized outdoor restaurant. The first one was in Ripa, a walled circular town with a big outdoor space outside the walls. The main ingredient: black truffles. Then we went to a neighboring town, Pianello, home to the parents and business of our friend Angela. Pianello did mushrooms.

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Soon, stringozzi (thick, long Umbrian pasta) with black truffles

I’ll admit I cheated in the headline. We went to the frog one in Capanne last year. My bad. That’s the frog one, and we didn’t eat the frog. Instead, we feasted on the other big attraction, umbricelli with a spicy tomato sauce. Umbricelli are these thick, round, chewy handmade noodles of wheat and water—no eggs.

The big daddy, though, had to be the Cannara onion festival this past weekend. These things can get pretty crowded, but this one turns that up to 12. Cars streamed in from all directions and, we were told, from outside Umbria, too. We had a VIP pass that got us a great parking space. And yeah, I’m being vague about that spot on purpose.

The star ingredients may all differ, but there’s one thing in common. They are really well-run. I laugh when people call Italy chaotic or, at best, disorganized. These critics obviously haven’t been to a sagra. Or any big food event here in the Bel Paese. It’s all a question of priorities, you see. You want people to stand obediently in line for mediocre coffee? Then don’t leave home and go to Starbucks. You want the trains to be on time to the second? Go to Switzerland. And stereotypes sometimes are just wrong, as anyone who’s been through the madness of Frankfurt’s airport can testify.

There are two basic models for these: the checkoff form and the restaurant model. With the checkoff one, you find a table, and jot down its number. Get a couple of friends to save the seats. Argue about who’s getting what. Send a couple of people to stand in line, submit the order, and pay. Then go back to the table and wait.

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The waiting is the hardest part.

Cannara did the restaurant model. We had to wait behind a little barrier, for something like 45 minutes. We passed the time teasing each other and drinking an illicit (non festival) beer. Our party was called, and we felt like celebrities as we were escorted to our half of a picnic table. A festival dude took our order and with astonishing speed, the town’s kids brought our dishes out, in the proper Italian meal order: antipasti, primi, secondi, dolci.

This scenario was played out throughout the town. Like I said, this is the mother of all sagras, and they had four or five big restaurants spread throughout the town. One of them featured a menu by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.

I’m not gonna play restaurant critic. Did that for 10 years and it was enough. But oh boy those gnocchetti with an onion-cheese cream sauce. And the schiacciata with onions. The onions in agrodolce (sweet and sour) weren’t bad, either. I somehow ended up with a free half-bottle of wine, too, courtesy of the guy who took our order. All he asked for was for us to give the kid-runner a decent tip.

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Gnocchetti (small gnocchi) from heaven