Positively negative: The sequel

What a difference a few months make. You may remember this post and this one. If you don’t and haven’t clicked on the links, I’ll give you the quick version: Flying internationally then was fraught with bureaucracy. Lots of papers to fill out, lots of document checks and Covid testing and an added soupçon of fear and weirdness.

This time, a transatlantic flight was almost normal. But first, a little more backstory. We had return to New York trips booked on Alitalia, airline of the pope, Italian jet set types, and ladies from Bensonhurst. But as of October 14, Alitalia’s out of business, supplanted in Italy by something called ITA Airways, which apparently is supposed to exorcise the bad old ghosts of Alitalia and lead us Italians into a glorious, leanly staffed but full-service, digital (whatever that means) aviation future.

Move along, nothing to see here.

The problem for us was that ITA wouldn’t honor our tickets; under the deal with the European Commission that created the new entity, ITA was explicitly barred from doing so. In a mad scramble online, we bought new tickets, round trip from Rome, on the German airline Lufthansa. We’d flown Lufthansa before and liked its in-flight service—because of flight attendants’ propensity to pour a lot of wine I think of the carrier as the Riesling Express–and thought that it would be interesting to see if and how Covid-19 concerns changed that service.

In a few words, this time around it was pretty much the same,

Once we booked a return date and as that date approached, we had to do the usual stuff to gradually close the house: using up perishable foods, and not buying much either. We decided not to go out to eat that often, either, to reduce our chance of contracting Covid, even as a so-called breakthrough case. We saw that we needed a negative Covid test, 48 hours if it was a rapid preflight test, 72 hours for a PCR test—this is the phrase I loathe, “the new normal.” Our neighborhood pharmacy, Pagliacci in our town, could do the test and give us a two-day “green pass.”

We were poked up the nose here.

About that green pass—for Italian residents, it’s a digital QR code that’s stored in a smartphone app. But for us nonresidents, a paper document worked, although I could have downloaded a digital version from Italy’s health ministry. One of these days I’ll write about Italy’s newfound digitalization. Later.

We made an appointment to get the “tampone”—the Covid test and literally, a swab, and when Monday afternoon rolled around, we went down the hill to the pharmacy. Unlike testing in NY, tests in Italy aren’t free; we had to pay €22 apiece, with €44 coming to abouit $51. A short wait and we got our passes. We were negative. The odds favored this; the entire region of Umbria has about twice the population of Staten Island (which is about 500,000), but it has about half the number of new daily Covid cases.

Then we headed into the trip vortex. The next day we went through our closing down the house checklist. Gas off, furnace off, security system engaged, etc. At least we had something pleasant after that. When we dropped our car off at our neighbors’ place, they invited us in for some bruschetta so we could taste the new olive oil. It’s always a pleasure–their two friendly Maremmano sheep dogs greeted us near the door and then we sat around talking, eating the delicious oil on the bread, and talking some more. Finally, we had to leave; our friend and man with a van Angelo would soon be arriving to drive us to the airport, where we planned to stay overnight for an early morning flight to Munich, and then change for one bound for JFK.

The next 18 hours or so are a blur. Angelo arrived, we loaded our bags, bade a sad ciao! to the house and hills. We stayed in a funky boutique airport hotel called Hello Sky–it had a great, very blue, very very blue bathroom. We’d planned to go into the town of Fiumicino for a seafood dinner, but we were exhausted and ate some paninos in our room. Sad!

Up early the next day, we hustled our bags and sorry bodies across the skybridge to Fiumicino’s Terminal 3, found the Lufthansa area and expected to be grilled and checked and documented. But, pleasant surprise number 1, nope. No line. The Lufthansa woman smiled (!), scanned our passports (American ones–EU people weren’t allowed into the U.S. just yet), and looked at our green passes. Security was just as quick.

If you haven’t been through Rome’s main airport lately, you’re in for a surprise. It’s actually pleasant. No, really. There are cool bars everywhere, the food is good, as we were able to enjoy a last bar-made cappuccino and cornetto. Sure, there’s the usual GucciPucciFerragamoArmani silliness, but there are also nice long soft bench-couch places on which to relax, subtle lighting and, I am not kidding, a sushi bar. But it was too early for sushi.

Munich’s airport: Decent food, easy to get around, straight simple lines

We had to go through Munich, and we had to wear masks for both flights. So, short crowded flight there with minimal service. A couple of hours in Munich’s Bauhaus-y airport, complete with sticker shock (Italian prices spoiled us.) We then, in an orderly way, boarded our Airbus A350 for the ride to New York. We fly premium economy so we can take more bags and stretch out some. (It also means a gentler reentry.) Lufthansa’s inflight service is pretty terrific compared to US based carriers. I’ll just show you the meal, etc., rather than describe them. An early rise and a few glasses of German bubbly meant that I conked out and didn’t get to see the ending of the Elton John biopic Rocketman,

At this point you probably expect me to diss JFK, US immigration and customs. But you would be wrong, A combination of a nearly empty flight, no other flights landing at the same time, and a glitch in the matrix means that we sailed through all of it. We didn’t have to scan our passports, the passport dude was semi-friendly. Our bags came out quickly—hey, with maybe 40-50 people on board, there wasn’t much luggage on that plane—and we were outta there. Neighborhood friend Wendy was there to welcome us and drive us home and…well….the Belt Parkway. But we were too tired to care.

That said, JFK’s Terminal 1 felt awfully shabby. The moving sidewalks didn’t move, there was ratty carpeting everywhere. It doesn’t feel like a gateway to a world capital city, much less a country that holds itself up as the world’s standard bearer. In general, it feels kind of decrepit around here after being away for so long.

I’ll write more later about what it feels like to be back in New York after more than five months of being on an Umbrian hilltop. But sheesh, people, was this country always so strange and stressed? You can feel it on the road and in the supermarket, where the masked and the unmasked eye one another suspiciously. The political strife. Even our nice morning dog group seems to have split up into factions. It’s as though this invisible hand is pushing us across the ocean,.

But our kids are here. And so is the glorious dachshund Lola. Damn,.

To know her is to love her.

We had no power, so we went out for coffee. And to look for castles, run an errand, and eat lunch.

It was awfully nice of the power company to warn us of upcoming work and an outage this time. Power outages here in the country are usually of the unplanned kind. The last time it went out, we got back home to a dark house, and a phone call to report the problem let me know that they were working on it and we’d be back online in a few hours. This time, for planned work, the power company posted notices up and down the road and stuffed our mailbox with one.

So we woke up early enough to use the espresso machine and to make sure our devices were charged. We sat around wondering if they really were going to cut the juice at 8:30 because it was a rainy morning. And at 8:32 the music stopped and the wifi cut out. We started to read novels but after awhile thought instead of waiting around, we’d go check out the borgos in the area that we always see from the road and say “we’ll have to check out XX one of these days.” Finally, it was one of those days.

If you’re new to this blog, a brief explanation. This region is called the mystical heart of Italy for a good reason. It’s densely wooded, hilly and mountainous, depending on where you are, and it’s dotted with castles, both adapted for modern use or abandoned, lonely testaments to the days of chivalry and bloody battles between city-states.

But first up was coffee. We had some at home, but we needed booster shots. And we had all the time in the world. We have a bunch to choose from and this morning we went to the next town, which has a sweet bar with lots of outdoor seating—perfect for a pandemic. Unlike bars (cafes in the U.S.) in touristy areas, in these local spots you don’t pay extra to hang around. Sure, you can grab a quick one standing at the bar, but in this area you tell the barista what you want and bring it to a couch or table and hang out until you need to go. First stop, then, was the Bar Dolce Vita in Pianello, behind a gas station. So what if it’s not romantically located? Good coffee, terrific outdoor seating, friendly baristas—it’s a genuine neighborhood hangout.

The first borgo on the list was Castel d’Arno (apologies for the outdate and weird-looking website). It’s a hamlet that’s part of Perugia and is up a narrow winding road. Yeah, you can describe most of the roads around here that way. We saw some workmen, and a guy supervising their work told us he rented out apartments in the hamlet. He told us to walk under an arch to an overlook and wow, even on a day full of threatening clouds and mists, the view was pretty fantastic.

It was raining down there, but not at Castel d’Arno.

Next up? Sterpetto, another tiny borgo, this time part of neighboring Assisi. Sterpetto is bigger than Castel d’Arno and looked in better shape. In general, Assisi seems to maintain its outlying hamlets better than Perugia, whose “frazioni” often seem to suffer in favor of the jewel-like historic center. Sterpetto has a working church and buildings that people actually live in. Its site is comparable in that wow factor, but Sterpetto just feels less like the 21st century has passed it by. Our gardener told me a funny story involving the borgo. A local businessman, a big man in every way, decided he’d lose weight by walking from the neighboring Pianello up the hill to Sterpetto and back. Sounds like a plan, right? Problem is, a guy works up an appetite on a long walk like that, and this man ate a couple of pizzas on the way back. Pizzas in Italy are individually sized, but still….

Would The New York Times call Sterpeto “tidy and well-kept”?
New desk lamp, meet old worry beads.

Speaking of the 21st Century, we next dropped into it by stopping at the megastore Leroy Merlin. It’s a French chain of big box stores that’s sort of like Lowe’s or Home Depot. Only L-M, or as The Spartan Woman pronounces it, “Lee-Roy,” is more stylish. With time to waste until pranzo (lunch), we looked at the light fixtures—I needed a new desklamp—and the tiles. We picked up some strong brackets to hang an amazing poster a friend sent us of the Spolete “Due Mondi” music festival, and took mental notes for a not-happening bathroom renovation.

Finally, lunch. We figured we still had some time to waste before the juice came on. We debated most of the morning off and on where to go. We could have gone north, back to our area to, perhaps, Il Panaro near Gubbio. Terrific torta al testo and rootsy homemade food. But there’s a strange waiter who may or may not pretend that he doesn’t understand our order and who once offended a diminutive but not too small friend of our kid’s by giving her a tiny wine glass.

We were almost in Assisi anyway. We normally avoid the place during the day, especially in summer, because it’s crawling with tourists and pilgrims and nuns and monks and souvenir vendors and….you get the idea. But on the off season and at night, it’s just a really pretty hilltown. The Spartan Woman remembered having really good stringozzi cacio e pepe at a restaurant right on the main piazza, the Taverna dei Consoli, which sounded good to me. We had equally decadent antipasti, little onion tartlets with a creamy truffle sauce for me, and a fonduta of pecorino and truffle for her. We spent a bit more than we normally would for an impromptu lunch, but it was worth it. Besides, we took the really long way back to the car, so we worked it off.

Even better, the lights came on an hour before they promised.

Image up top: the piazza outside the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, as seen from above and in black & white

Somehow we’ve managed to fill the void of having fewer guests this summer

We have a new guest this week, someone from the neighborhood. Or so it seems—it’s a horse, apparently a mare. She’s super skinny and she’s ravenous. This is good for one thing; it means I don’t have to mow the lawn which, after a heatwave and drought-induced slumber, is suddenly alive, green and growing. But it means occasionally dealing with the digestive results of her buffet. I just texted a neighbor who might know who her humans may be. [UPDATE: She belongs to our neighbors, who came by to encourage her to go home. She apparently likes our grass better.]

Howdy, neighbor!

Such is life in the Umbrian countryside. People ask me “what do you do all day?” Sometimes I ask myself the same question. But these few months have gone by way too quickly, and part of the reason is probably that it’s never dull around here, even without the parade of guests we’ve had in pre-Covid summers.

I mentioned a neighbor. Our house was part of a working farm that takes in guests. The owners sold us this house and almost two acres of their land. The business is called an agriturismo, and this one specifically is named Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic and it produces olive oil and wool from a flock of about 125 Sardinian sheep.

Ca’Mazzetto also produces interesting people. One of them is Joonas Sotgia, a young guy about the age of our younger daughter. Joonas is half Finn and half Italian, though to look and listen to him he’s 100 percent Italian; his mother is from northern Finland. He got back about a week ago from Afghanistan, where he was working for the Italian NGO Emergency in the southern city of Lashkargah. Joonas isn’t a doctor, he took care of logistics and hiring of the nonmedical staff at the group’s hospital there.

Joonas relaxes with a drink the Taliban don’t approve of.

I did a formal interview with him the other day, which I’ll release soon. But that evening we sat out in the yard and updated each other about our lives; it’s been two years since he, The Spartan Woman, and I were in the same place. We talked about how we handled this pandemic, his last job in Slovakia for Amazon (key takeaway—he won’t buy from them, ever), and how the Taliban left the Italians alone, and when they came into the hospital they left their guns at the gate.

We don’t just sit around and talk. Like I’ve written before, The Spartan Woman and I walk. We walk up and down hills, we follow trails, rutted roadways, cow paths up mountains, etc. We continue to do it; doing so is part of The Spartan Woman’s boot camp for the nearly elderly. This is contagious, and we’ve taken to judge our guests by whether they like to hike with us or not.

For example, an America friend from our Staten Island neighborhood stayed with us for a bit. TSW and she do take walks through Staten Island’s Botanical Gardens at Snug Harbor. But those are level and not that long. Wendy (the friend) was craving escape and Italy, but when we told her about our morning routine, she said she’ll stay by the pool and read a book and let us have all the fun. Fat chance. She was addicted the first time up the road. Maybe it’s the vistas. Maybe the neighborhood dogs, which are impossibly cute and impossibly addicted to the biscuits we give them. By the end of her stay, Wendy was charging up hillsides and goading us to walk further. Now back in the U.S., she’s, um, strongly encouraging her husband to get vertical and move.

TSW and Wendy enjoy a break in Spello from climbing up steep hills.

So if you visit us, you’ve been warned.

We tried to find good places for Wendy to practice her new favorite hobby. We drove around the region, keeping in mind that because of Covid-19 we didn’t want to hang around with too many people. So we drove up into the Valnerina to visit one of our favorite places, the Piano Grande di Castelluccio, and on the way back we stopped to eat in Norcia, the gastronomical capital of Umbria. While we had a terrific lunch, it was heartbreaing to see that much of the town is still in ruins as a result of the devastating earthquakes of 2016.

What’s left of Norcia’s duomo.

What else? Gelato! Okay, I’ve been eating the stuff since I was a kid. It’s different from American ice cream in being made mostly from milk rather than cream. Plus it’s less aerated and the flavors are more intense, possibly because it’s servied a bit warmer than ice cream.

We’ve got our spots in the big cities. Well, okay, in Perugia (population about 170,000). And it’s terrific. But our friend Angelo pointed us to the Oxy Bar in the hamlet of Palazzo di Assisi, and we’re hooked. Great flavors, terrific service—all the standard stuff is terrific. What Oxy adds is its location. It’s right in the center of the small town, across the street from a castle that’s become a warren of restaurants and apartments.Oxy is next door to the town’s church, which conveniently has lots of places in front to perch.

If it’s a summer night, it’s time for a gelato.

There’s nothing quite like a summer night in Italy when the gelateria is one of the only games in town. The older folks sit at the tables in front, while everyone else is either standing in groups, walking around saying hello, or finding a spot in front of the church to hang out. You hear that flowing babble that characterizes the Umbrian accent when you’re not paying attention to what people are saying. And everyone’s united in the easy pleasure of a sweet treat on a summer night.

I’d be negligent not to mention the trattoria across the street from Oxy, Not the hipster-vibed “Gnocco e gin” place in the castle, but the friendly, family run Osteria del Cambio. Food like it serves up would be an expensive night out in New York, but here it’s mom’s home cooking. Or grandma’s. It’s Angelo’s favorite hangout, and he calls it by the proprietor’s name, Catia. When I came alone last year, Angelo and I had lunch once a week there. TSW, Angelo, and I recently had dinner at Catia’s and we didn’t hold back–antipasti, tagliatelle with black truffles, a “secondo,” wine and coffee, and the damage was all of €48, or about $56. You might get a pizza and a couple of drinks for that at Ribalta in New York.

For best results, combine Catia’s and Oxy.

We’re heading into autumn now. The weather’s changing, alternating between brilliant dry days and cloudy changeable ones. It’s time to close the pool, wear long pants when we go into the city, and to think of more ambitious hikes. Our aim is to tackle the uphill path to Assisi with a reward at the end in town: a decadent lunch.

Where’s Gualdo?

Saluti da Valfabbrica! Stavo per scrivere qualcosa profonda, intellettuale, pieno di osservazioni, ma….

Oops, wrong language. Greetings from Valfabbrica! I was about to write something deep, full of observations, intellectual even. But I didn’t like where I was going. I must’ve been in a bad mood. Anyway, we have Wendy the houseguest hanging around these days, so we’ve been showing her around, including a Sunday morning trip to one of our favorite hill towns, Gualdo Tadino. Maybe we’re trying to convince that by being here, we’re doing right by us? I dunno. in any event, I’m addicted to my iPhone’s camera, and this is what we’ve been up to. Deep Thoughts will have to wait.

First WendyDay: Pizza at Perugia’s Mediterranea, with outdoor Covid-compliant tables. Sourdough chewy crust. Perfect.
Not the Staten Island Ferry: We took the boat from Tuoro sul Trasimeno to Isola Maggiore in the lake. It was a good place for The Spartan Woman and Wendy to catch up.
Great place—the ruins of an ancient mill—to store a motorcycle, no?
I just like this courtyard. Move along.

Gotta FaceTime with my dad every couple of days.
Covid meant that our town’s annual pre-autumn celebration was shorter and by reservation only. But we’re happy it wasn’t completely canceled, like last year’s.
We walked around town after dinner at the “taverna”—when towns set up outdoor restaurants for celebrations. The iPhone’s night mode always makes the mundane look interesting, even if I have to admit that our cantilevered town hall is pretty interesting by itself.
Our neighbor has a sheepdog pup (breed: Maremmano Abruzzese), who came to visit the other morning. He’s a quick study; he took to doggie biscuits right away.
Cappuccinos on a Sunday morning in (finally) the town of Gualdo Tadino, one of our favorite towns around here.I don’t remember what The Spartan Woman and Wendy were talking about, but they laugh together a lot in general.
There’s something endearingly eccentric about the town. And its main square is a splendid public living room.
I love the upper part of Gualdo, which has some of the most interesting buildings in the region. Most of this part of town is pedestrian-only, too.
I don’t usually do this, but somehow the trees told me to get them to stage a photo.

If it’s Tuesday, we must be trekking

trekking
trek|king
pronuncia: /ˈtrɛkking/

sostantivo maschile

escursione impegnativa realizzata su sentieri montani, in genere di ridotta accessibilità

In other words, hiking

Last week I mentioned how we continue to distance socially. The dreaded Delta Covid-19 variant is working its way around Italy , and although almost everyone we know here is fully vaccinated, and that breakthrough infections are pretty rare, it’s better to be sure(r). So when I get antsy (it’s usually me. The Spartan Woman is surreally happy with her own company), instead of checking out a town/winery/restaurant/museum, we’ve taken walks in the country. It doesn’t mean we’re total hermits; I was happy to bump into a friend at the local bar when we had a post-walk cappuccino. But we’ve cut down on socializing.

Happily, one of the benefits of living in a region like Umbria is that it’s mostly rural and that means we’re near everything from lakes to rivers to rolling hills to the mountains that form the backbone of the Italian peninsula, the Apennines. And Italians have embraced hiking and being outdoors in general to an enormous degree. That means well-maintained and well-marked trails almost everywhere. We have a couple of trailheads right down the road from our house, but we wanted to take a ride Tuesday, too. (For some reason, it’s always a Tuesday. )

So off we went to the felicitously named Monte Cucco (say “kook-koh”). The mountain is on the border between Umbria and our neighbor, Le Marche (lay MAR-kay), and at 1566 meters high, is the centerpiece of a national park. It’s maybe 45 minutes from us normally, though a detour due to a closed section of highway slowed us down a little. It’s amazing how different an area that close to us can look. Maybe they’ve decided to go with that mountain resort look on purpose, but one of the towns at the base of the mountain, Sigillo, has a strong Alpine vibe. The buildings have roofs with more pitch than usual around here, for example.

You hang a right to an unassuming street but with the all-important brown sign indicating a Big Deal Tourist Attraction—the Monte Cucco park—and once past some apartment buildings, you climb up the usual (for here) mountain road, complete with switchbacks and occasionally bereft of Armco barriers.

We found ourselves, as we did two years ago, in the middle of what looked like an Alpine hideaway. There were a few campers, a shower/bathroom building, and a rustic hotel-restaurant. Picnic tables are spread throughout the area; just right for us because we brought sandwiches and fruit. We did not bring warm clothes, though. Although it was warm down in the lowlands, up on the mountain we felt an unusual thing–cool crisp air. We momentarily envied the young couple we saw wearing windbreakers.

Armed with trekking poles

Then we hiked. Our kids bought us trekking poles and this was our inaugural hike using them. Where have they been all my life? What seemed dangerously vertical two years ago now was an easy walk. Sure, we used our arms more, but it was a small change compared to the huge benefit. Plus, we’ve shed our Covid-19 extra kilos (don’t ask about the other kilos that hang around stubbornly), so traipsing up and down hills doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

This year, we took a left turn—there are two main trails in this part of the park, called the Val di Ranco. At various points I couldn’t sworn I was on a trail in New York’s Catskills, or even on our little Staten Island. Most people don’t picture dense woods and Italy together. But believe me, they exist. I like to think of old-growth forests—and this is one, judging by the lack of low dense shrubbery—as a sort of natural green cathedral, and the paths in the valley fit that description nicely.

[continues]

Green cathedral

We weren’t alone. Every now and then we heard the murmur of the Central Italian dialect. If you don’t listen carefully to the words, it’s like a running brook of voices. At a couple of points, a fearless teenaged boy on the mountain bike passed in the opposite direction. He reined in his leaping style to avoid us. At another point we saw a young family group—parents and young girls—walking down a precipitous slope with the nonchalance of someone walking down Madison Avenue. At one point, we thought that the path looped around back to where we started because we saw the same kid on his bike twice. We were right, sort of. We did loop back near the parking area, but we were about 30 meters or about 100 feet above it.

Unexpected fellow hikers

So we turned around and retraced our steps. Soon we heard footsteps behind us—decidedly non-human footsteps. We turned to see a beautiful mare and her foal out for a little stroll. They were too used to humans to be wild. After some sottovoce encouragement—she was guarding her baby—the two horses passed us and were soon our of sight.

Lazy afternoon

After lunch at one of the picnic tables—sandwiches and a caprese salad and fruit—we got back into the car and headed up to one of the peaks. I’ve decided that my main job for the rest of the summer is to get to all the mountain peaks around here. We passed a herd of cattle—how do they get up here?—and found the parking area. We’d been here two years ago and it all looked as expected. But we did not expect to see the green-blue of the Adriatic Sea shimmering in the distance, past the coastal flatlands.

The Adriatic’s out there.

That reminds me. Gotta get to the beach one of these days.

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.

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

If you wander around food-related sites on the interwebs, you might notice a strange little trend: Italian cooks reacting to the horrors visited on Italian dishes by non-Italian cooks. Some of those non-Italians might even be pretty famous, like the British restaurateur and TV personality Gordon Ramsay. You’ll see the Italians wincing as Ramsay and others put cream in spaghetti carbonara, or cook pasta in jarred tomato sauce. One of my favorites is the couple Harper and Eva (he’s American, she’s Calabrese) who good naturedly explore Whole Foods and Domino’s Pizza. Eva’s reactions alone are worth the time suck.

Eva does not like Ramsay’s “carbonara.” Not at all.

Here on our mountaintop getaway, we manage to visit other horrors on the food of this region. You see, there really is no such thing as “Italian food” because the cooking in Italy is so regional. No, hyper-regional, because dishes can change even from town to town. Get a local nonna (grandma) to show you how to cook a local dish and she’ll give explicit directions and mention what is absolutely forbidden: no onion and garlic together in X, put celery in Y and you’ve dishonored all your ancestors, etc.

We’re in Umbria, a small, mostly rural, landlocked region tucked between Lazio (Rome’s region) and Tuscany in Central Italy. For a region with a population just shy of 900,000, it’s sure got a distinctive cuisine. it’s a land of black truffles, legumes, mushrooms, pork products, and grains. Try to picture all that and you realize that mostly of this food is brown or black. A typical snack is chicken or goose liver paté on toast—I was served that along with a drink the other day.

If you’ve grown up with that, it’s fine. Our Perugian “mother,” Giovanna, shunned most vegetables and compensated by having huge bowls of fruit on hand for dessert. (Her idea of health food was to bake eggplant slices with lots of crumbled sausage on top.) But The Spartan Woman and I have Sicilian (100 percent for me; 50 percent for her) and Greek ancestry. Both Sicilian and Greek cuisines are colorful, vegetable-friendly, bright flavored and citrusy, while Umbrian food tends to be heavier, more comfort-food like. Add to the mix the fact that we’re native New Yorkers, and therefore entitled to eat any kind of food we like that exists on the planet, and you’ve got the makings of either interesting contrasts or a disaster. Having relatively good taste, we’ve managed to avoid most disasters.

Oh, and we don’t eat meat, which keeps a big part of the food here off-limits to us. We do eat fish when we feel decadent or lazy Plus us native New Yorkers (sorry copyeds, but I’m using NYC dialect here) grew up eating seafood. A couple of decades ago this would have probably cramped our style big-time, because Umbrians didn’t eat much fish and you could hardly find any in the markets. Lately, though, they’ve embraced seafood and supermarkets have huge fish departments.

Two years ago, pre-Covid, our town of Valfabbrica got together for a multicourse seafood dinner.
An Asian market in Perugia

In good weeks, we’ll get gifts from our neighbors and friends. When Angelo picked us up at Rome’s airport, he gave us a care package, the fixings for a Sicilian blood orange salad, complete with olive oil that his friend produced. And our neighbors at the agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto occasionally show up at the door with freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta.

So what do we cook? Let’s call it Umbria-Sicilian-New York fusion. We pay homage to Umbrian food—I haven’t met a truffle I didn’t like—while at the same time keeping it light and bright with lots of different colored vegetables and spicier/brighter flavors. Luckily, the olive oil here is incredible, green and a little spicy, and enobles simple dishes like borlotti beans stewed with garlic and tomatoes. The markets carry tons of fruits and vegatables, and Italians have embraced healthier food between, you know, a morning Nutella-filled cornetto and an afternoon gelato.At the same time, being Americans generally and New Yorkers in particular, we occasionally crave Asian food. Our area is pretty well served by sushi restaurants and Chinese markets, so it’s not that hard.

But here are some examples of how we feed ourselves and others.

Farro tagliatelle with zucchine, shrimp and tomatoes with Greek egg and lemon sauce
Whole wheat rigatoni with a mushroom ragù
Salad with farro
A Sicilian classic: fried eggplant to put atop spaghetti
Sheet-pan roasted vegetables and feta, a variation of a NY Times recipe

Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

The superwide angle lens in the shot makes this room look bigger than it is. Behind the room is a postage stamp yard and the houses on the next block. The view is, in a word, boring.

No wonder Americans like(d) to work so many hours outside the home.

I’m whining because, if you’ve followed me on the social interwebs, you’ll know that I left the green hills of Umbria for the tough streets of New York City. Only we’re talking about Staten Island and….[yawn] I’m sorry, I dozed off. There are lots of nice parks around here, and I’m told that pleasant interesting people walk their dogs in the morning in those parks.

But I wouldn’t know because I’m in jail, a prisoner of Andy Cuomo and his warden, The Spartan Woman. Okay, it’s quarantine and the adult part of my brain understands That This Is Necessary and it’s all about Protecting My Loved Ones and Neighbors. But the lizard part of my brain screams get me out! Now! Except it’s dreary and gray out there. I’m pretty much confined to this room during the day and have to wear a mask when I venture out, mainly to grab my guitar or ask for a snack or some coffee. (The good side is that I’m barred from doing anything in the kitchen. After nearly two months of fending for myself for nearly every meal, this isn’t the worst thing to happen.)

Got drugs?

Eh, we didn’t think this was going to get bad again, did we? Not just my current incarceration, but the whole thing, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases, the renewed clampdown, The Donald denial of reality…. Wait, that last bit was completely predictable. As I prepared to leave, the Italian government had instituted new measures, like mandatory outdoor mask wearing and earlier restaurant and bar closures. And there’s an ongoing discussion about the need for another lockdown. Already, Lombardia, with Milan at its core, is under a nighttime curfew. Contrary, or maybe in addition, to the common perception of Milan as this serious hard-working Eurocity, it’s also party central, with great nightlife, bars, ethnic restaurants and places to just hang out outdoors with friends.

To get back to New York, I got a ride from the great Angelo, who along with his little pup, are great company for a road trip. Rome’s airport, Fiumicino, was a ghost town, as you can see in the photo below. I took a room in Hello Sky Air Rooms Rome, a hipster airport hotel because I had a morning flight and I hate leaving the house before dawn. It makes a depressing trip even worse.

Eerily quiet for a Tuesday early evening
Last dinner. Sigh.

My room was a cool monk’s cell. The nice guy behind the check-in desk’s plexiglass barrier showed me the limited restaurant menu and suggested ordering room service: “There is no penalty for having dinner delivered to your room.” I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening except that channel surfing was fun because the chain promoted a Monocle magazine sort of multiculturalism that was completely reflected in the choice of TV channels. TV Algérique, anyone?

The rest of the trip was pretty much a mirror image of my way to Italy. Alitalia did not cancel the flight; it’s actually been one of the more reliable airlines during the pandemic. I had to be more American this time and show the blue passport so that the nice Customs and Border Patrol people would let me into the country. I scored a bulkhead seat, read a novel, ate crappy sealed-in-plastic food, drank San Benedetto naturale water (the only on board beverage choice) and slept some. Arriving at JFK, I practically flew through passport control—props to the polite and even friendly people!—and when I exited the customs area the New York State folks grabbed me and made me fill out a form promising to do this quarantine thing.

Which brings us to today. I write. I go down the YouTube rabbit hole. I started watching Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are on HBO Max, which is nicely atmospheric. I’m not sure yet where it’s going, but Guadagnino (he’s from Palermo, like my family) definitely knows how to capture a place and time. The contrast between the little America vibe of the base and kids’ interactions with local Italian kids is pretty interesting. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with it.

I’ve also become a fan of cheesy Mexican crime/comedy shows on Netflix. The best so far has been Casa de las Flores, or House of Flowers, about a wealthy Mexico City family that owns a flower shop. And the family is falling apart in interesting ways. Big repressed sister is a riot; she speaks in a slow Spanish enunciating every syllable. It’s really odd, but I read that it’s how certain matrons of that wild city speak. Another good one is The Club, about a few rich Mexico City kids combine phone apps and MDMA sales, get rich, and run into turf wars with the established drug cartels. Watch it for the architecture; upper class houses in the city are fascinating to look at.

But for now, I have this. The Warden’s brought me a snack. Hey, maybe prison won’t be so bad.

And let’s give a listen to this post’s theme song:

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]