We took a walk one day on an island in our landlocked region

How did we do this? Easy—there’s a big lake nearby, Lago Trasimeno. Brits sometimes call it Lake Thrasymene or some such, but they shouldn’t. It’s the biggest lake on the Italian peninsula proper, and if you’re a history buff, it’s where Hannibal’s great army fought the Romans. These days it’s somewhat less heroic, and probably more enjoyable. Lots of northern Europeople seem to like it; camping lots are filled with Dutch and German-plated cars. And Jeremy Irons and singer (sorta) Ed Sheeran have homes on or near the lake.

I was getting a little antsy after being in our mountaintop aerie a few days, except to descend to the plains to buy food and wine. We’re trying to continue social distancing as much as we can, avoiding large crowds and big cities. That leaves checking out or revisiting our favorite natural spots on weekdays, and the lake is one of those spots. Sure, there are lake towns that resemble beach resorts. But you can hop on a ferry and visit two of the three islands, Isola Polvese and Isola Maggiore, and hardly see anyone. (You guessed it: There is an Isola Minore.)

For this little trip, we chose Isola Polvese. For one thing, we’ve been there less often. And two, the walk around the perimeter of the island is relatively flat and the weather’s been either steamy like a New York August, or blazingly hot and pitilessly sunny. We looked at the forecast and chose steamy but slightly less hot, and it worked out.

The only problem, if you want to call it that, was the trip there. We wanted to make a mid-morning ferry without getting out too early, so we had to take the fast route, which involves our local highway (fast) and the Perugia ring road (hilly and traffic-clogged). Still, it was nice to be out. I’d dialed the ferry dock area into our navigation system, which was a mistake. I know my way around pretty much, but the nav is good for traffic and construction delays. It wasn’t that morning and seemed to like a ridiculously circuitous route that we ignored while The Voice practically shouted “fate un’inversione a U! (make a U-turn!).

Isola Polvese is uninhabited but has an elegant hotel and what looks to be a nice restaurant. It’s also home to a nature preserve, some ruins, including the shell of a castle fort, and most importantly, an environmental study center. The center gives guided tours on weekends, but we just wanted to have a different—and level—place to walk and picnic. For our elegant picnic, we toted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and water. I can just hear the cries of people saying that’s not Italian! What can I tell you? Lunch was easy to carry—and the jelly was Italian elderberry preserves.

While the bar we stopped in before taking the ferry was observing distancing rules, the ferry completely ignored them. We found ourselves on a boat packed with Slovakian teenage campers. Funny thing is, they were incredibly polite and quiet. As we found our seats, a few boys said “buongiorno,” and they mostly looked around and stared at their phones, as did their companions. Italian kids would’ve been much more boisterous and in constant motion.

The Spartan Woman and I sporting the latest in monocolor mask fashion.

It took 10 minutes to reach Polvese. I’d forgotten how beautiful the landscaping is. As you circumnavigate the island, you pass cypresses, fields, fairly dense woods, marsh areas, and a long alley that alternates cypresses and oleander bushes. Unfortunately for oleander almost everywhere around here, a late April frost almost killed them off. Most of us saved them by ruthlessly cutting down almost to the ground, and then the roots took over for new growth.

If you go, check the ferry schedule and the environmental center’s website, if you’re interested in taking a tour.

As for the other visitable island, we’ll probably head there in a few weeks. If we do, I’ll write about it then.

Slovakian campers waiting to dock.
Sometimes Italy can’t help looking like Italy.
A lake, a boat, fishermen, serenity
Even uninhabited islands need to have a crenelated fortress.
I was having a little too much fun with the saturation and vibrance sliders.

[Updated to fix a factual error. Thanks, reader Vian. ]

Il Sorpasso (The Overtaking)

I took the car in for servicing the other day. It’s starting to get hot, and the air-conditioning wasn’t pumping out cold air. The Renault needed an oil change, and as the mechanic looked it over, he told me that I should pop for new front brake pads, too. None of this is very exciting, I’ll admit, nor is it a particularly Italian experience.

But the service center is part of a dealership that sells not only new Volkswagens and Nissan, but trades in some exotic and a lot of expensive vehicles like Range Rovers and Maseratis. And the service center itself is really something. There’s a showroom in front that features some of the more exotic vehicles they’ve got. It seems like they stick to a theme when they can, and today’s four cars in the room were all Alfa Romeos of various vintages, including a gorgeous 2600 GT from the 1960s, a more modern Brera and a 75 Turbo from the ’80s, which I think was fairly successful in rallyes.

Made in Italy. But for how long?

All of this made me think about my relationship to cars and driving, and to Italian and American car culture. I grew up in an outer borough of New York City, where public transportation frankly sucked (and still does). Drivers’ ed and getting a car were rites of passage that were huge in Staten Island, just like in suburbs and rural places everywhere.

My first looked like this.

My first car was something I bought with my parent’s help (cue cliché) was a Fiat 128, bright red, stick shift, tiny but rev-happy engine. It hardly had any power, especially by today’s standards, but it was a blast to drive. They say that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast one slow, and I believe it. Staten Island has lots of curvy hill roads and traffic wasn’t much back then, so when I needed to blow off steam I’d charge around the hillsides, revving the 1100 cc engine to an inch of its life. (I went too far once gunning it onto a highway, breaking the timing belt, which sent a couple of valves into and fusing with pistons. Oh, and it warped the cylinder head. Oops.)

The Spartan Woman had a Fiat, too. In fact, I was really interested in a girl who knew how to drive a stick shift, had a car with a twin-cam engine, and who knew how to change her own oil.

All of this sounds like fun, but even as I thundered around banked curves, I felt guilty. The left side of my brain, te more rational, politically aware one, knew I was polluting the planet. I hated what cars did to cities and the ‘burbs. I knew that Robert Moses, who got chauffeured around in a huge Packard, loved cars and back then, and the relatively affluent people who drove them. And he hated subways and the peons who rode buses and trains. The car can directly be blamed for those wide boulevards of nowhere, with the same chain stores, gas stations, and restaurants, not to mention the emptying out of cities around the U.S. I went to Cleveland a few years ago and I was shocked to see so many big parking lots right downtown.

Besides, driving in and around New York had become a drag. We always like small, zippy cars with manual transmissions, going from the Fiats to a pair of Mitsubishis, to Honda Civics. When we got had two kids and a Labrador retriever, we bought a Volkswagen Passat wagon and traveled around the Northeast and the province of Québec, Lab in back and a Thule box on top. At the same time, Americans were going for ugly, boxy, huge SUVs and pickups. C’mon people, do you need to drive to the mall in a Ford F150? Gimme a break.

By then I was renting cars on our Italian vacations. What fun. No, really. Once out of the cities, it’s a breeze, especially in a responsive European car, rowing the gears, downshifting around turns. (One daughter, however, was not thrilled. Prone to carsickness, we’d have to stop by the side of the road while she, um, righted herself.)

Here’s the thing, though. At first rentals were Italian cars: Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo. These marques were under the rule of Fiat and the Agnelli family. The company was a source of pride to Italians—and also a target for left wing critics. It is not by accident that this country has some of the best highways in the world, but also for years did not invest enough in modern public transportation. Still, these companies made sports cars, tiny city cars, family haulers, elegant luxury models—the whole gamut. But if you look now, Fiat’s reduced to a few small to slightly larger cars and crossovers. Alfa is two models, a beautiful sedan and an SUV. Poor Lancia, star of the movie Il Sorpasso, is now one weird little model based on the tiny 500.

Now Fiat, like the Chrysler it took over a decade ago, is part of this oddly named multinational called Stellantis. Basically, Peugeot, the historic French carmaker, fused with Fiat-Chrysler to become this hydra-headed tri-national, based in Paris, Torino, and Detroit. And instead of Alfas or Lancias closing in on me in the left lane, I see Audis. Black Audis, mainly, which seem to have become the favored car of Italian asshole drivers.

They don’t make cars, they make “mobility solutions,” whatever those are.

This reduced Italian-ness, for want of a better term, seems to be a symbol of Italian life today, from the postwar miracle to the Italian-speaking province of Eurolandia. I like living in Eurolandia—it’s superficially more prosperous, modern, global, etc. But at the same time you can’t help feeling that something’s been lost. And that sense of loss is what fuels populist movements and political parties. People like to feel that they’re part of something. Being a consumer of the world’s goods doesn’t cut it for a lot of people—and the left, both the angry old commies and the new hipsters, haven’t yet offered enough of an alternative to those disoriented and saddened by this homogenization.

Google Maps doesn’t know where we live

We exist. I swear. But couriers from, so far, Amazon and our insurance company, don’t seem to know that. Take a look at this map satellite view. This is a screenshot of Google Maps, which I suspect is the problem. You can see our house, the shed and the pool. You can see the coordinates elsewhere on the map. But Google doesn’t see our address. By the way, Apple Maps has no problem whatsoever. If I call up the weather on my iPhone, our address appears at the bottom of the app’s window.)

I’ll admit, addresses in the country here are problematic. The same street could be called a couple of things But, and this is a big but, the couriers don’t even bother to follow explicit instructions. Or, even, to call for directions.

It all started with a simple order. We use the same account for Amazon Italia as we do in New York. We don’t try to replicate our life in the U.S. except for a couple of things. We like popcorn, and over the past few months when we were basically confined to the house, we used an exercise bike. So, stupid us, we ordered a popcorn maker and a bike from Amazon, thinking they’ll come within a couple of days and that’ll be it.

Ha.

The first adventure was with the small package, the popcorn machine. Tracking said that a courier service allied to the post office here was the designated courier. Within a couple of days, after the shipping alert came, I saw that a courier tried to deliver the thing but couldn’t find us. Hmmm. I looked through my amazon.it account info. There was my name, my credit card, my address, my….oops, wrong—old—phone number. So I went through the steps and gave Amazon directions and my phone number just in case.

You’d think that would be it. You would be wrong. The courier kept courier-ing, we kept waiting. Nothing. Worried about the bigger shipment, the bike, I got on amazon.it’s chat function. We had a nice exchange in Italian—I am so happy I worked for an Italian company for a couple of years and learned to type as fast in Italian as I do in English. Mahmoud assured me that the vendor and courier for the bike would get the directions and my phone number. And he reimbursed us for the popcorn machine.

A couple of days later, a bedraggled delivery guy showed up with, yes, the popcorn machine. He and the box looked a little worse for wear and tear. “I tried calling you [on the old, wrong number] but finally I went to the post office and asked them. They told me where you are. It’s so easy to get here, I don’t know what the problem is,” he said. “Do you use Google Maps?” “Yeah.”

Bingo.

This is getting tired, I thought. But like someone who thinks that if you keep at it, you’ll get your just reward, I kept contacting the bike’s third-party vendor and leaving messages for the DHL courier service. I’d get responses asking me to be patient. The vendor mysteriously signed its messages with the admontion, in Italian, “have a nice life.”

The bike never came. I gave up this morning and asked for a refund. My request was not polite. Italian business correspondence is usually fogged with lots of polite stuff and a little sarcasm. I didn’t bother. I called DHL a bunch of imbeciles and strongly suggested that amazon.it find other partners, both as sellers and delivery services. At least I’ll get my money back.

Oh, and I went onto Google Maps, went to the “hamburger” menu and added the address to our location pin. With any luck, Sergey and company will add it to everyone’s Google Map, and deliveries by drivers with Android phones may start up again.

This is not the first time Google’s vaunted service has failed us here. Well, not really us but houseguests who I guess put their faith in the data-mining company. They set out for dinner. Us lazybones weren’t in the mood or were too sunburned and Prosecco-ed to want to go out. They went up the road, where Google said a local restaurant was open. We told our friends that we had our doubts, but Google insisted.

It was closed. So was another allegedly open eatery.

So, my friends, as you can see, life here in the Umbrian hills isn’t all Aperol spritz sunsets. (Hmm, I haven’t had one yet and it’s almost three weeks. Must work on that.) Our global life means that our quotidian frustrations have a way of following us around. And just maybe The Great Google has a bit of that man behind the curtain thing going on.

But then we take a walk in the these hills and see this:

And then our neighbor Luciano shows up with this, freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta:

Cremoso!

And maybe the universe knows that we’re missing our joint custody pup, Lola. We get almost nightly visits from Lapo, the wonder dog. And during our morning walks up the road and back, we’re escorted by these little fellows, Bandito and Rocky (say the latter with an Italian accent; if you say it in English he doesn’t respond.)

Meet Row-key and Bandito

Positively negative

This pandemic thing sure put a damper on our plans last year. But at least we’ve made it through so far. We couldn’t spend the warmer months on our mountaintop. The pool for which we raided our savings stayed covered and unused. And we basically hid out all summer in our New York living room, air conditioning on full blast, binge watching Mexican Netflix shows. (Watch “The Club” and “House of Flowers.” You won’t be sorry.)

A big part of our life last year

The Spartan Woman made it extraclaro that she wasn’t going anywhere without a vaccine. And Dr. Fauci told us not to travel. But I did, just to inhabit the house in Umbria a bit and clear out the inevitable cobwebs, run the appliances, and drive the car. Truth is, we really didn’t know when we’d get back here, and the previous U.S. government didn’t seem inclined to make a horrible pandemic any better.

But sometime this winter into spring, the situation in the U.S. looked better. The Biden gang made vaccinations a priority, and TSW was an early subject, getting her first shot in January. I followed by about a month, and soon most of our friends and immediate family were vaccinated.

We still didn’t know what we’d do about coming here until a friend texted me. Alitalia was offering a 20 percent discount, he said, making a premium economy seat with its luxurious two-bag allowance and better legroom fairly reasonable. We jumped at it. Right around that time, the Italian airline and its code-share partner Delta started running what they call Covid-tested flights. If you test negative before the flight and upon landing in Rome, you wouldn’t have to submit to a 10 or 14-day quarantine. Our booked flight wasn’t on the list, but it was the right time for us. I quarantined myself last year, so if it came to that, we figured, it wouldn’t be terrible.

As it turns out, Alitalia added our flight to its “Covid-tested” list. It sent us emails telling us about the change, and then had a woman call from Palermo to tell us what we had to do. (I wondered whether I’d be charged for receiving a call from Italy; thankfully it didn’t happen.) We were to get a PCR (molecular; the more accurate method) test no more than 72 hours before the flight. And upon landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we’d be given a rapid test. If the first test was positive, we could reschedule or cancel; once in Italy, a positive result means quarantine.

We were in prep mode to be away mode all of a sudden. That’s become almost routine. And we and our vaccinated friends started carefully to socialize. In the middle of all this we had to get tested. I’d gotten a rapid test back in November after returning from Europe. But with this one, we had to time it right. New York’s test site is pretty helpful, showing locations throughout the city. We had a 72-hour window both for the test and results. I found a drive-in site near our house; the city’s site just gave a street address and didn’t specify the venue.

Turns out, the site was a CVS pharmacy. There was no signage outside showing what to do, but a sign showed where a drive-in pharmacy was located. It looked like an alleyway, but we drove through, wondering if we were in the right place. Turns out we were. The pharmacist, acting as though our scheduled tests were a complete surprise to her, put together our kits, slid them through the drawer and told us what to do. (Basically, stick a swab 1″ or 2.5 cm. through your nostrils and put the swab in a test tube.

We worried about whether we’d get the result back in time–they said 1 to 2 days, which would be cutting it close. And the CVS website cautioned that due to high volume, there could be delays. So we waited to schedule a time to get to the airport, where if we had to, we could be tested. As it turns out, they emailed us the results less than 24 hours after our tests. Negative!

Armed with that, we headed to the airport a couple of days later. If I could give you advice for one of these flights, I’d say bring a pen. And look for QR codes to scan with your phone. The Italian health ministry had us fill out forms giving the reason for entering the country (“to return home”) and we had to promise to quarantine if necessary. A QR code, once scanned, led to a site where you can alert the Fiumicino health people to your imminent arrival.

Otherwise, the JFK experience was slightly less surreal that it was last August. More bars and restaurants were open and there was a slightly bigger crowd in Terminal 1. The main difference was the paperwork–agents at the gate checked ours and it felt like giving your homework to the teacher. A few corrections and we boarded.

The bar was open, and I was able to have my traditional pre-departure Martini.

I’ve written about the flight. Nothing’s changed. Not the reduced drinks and meal service nor the crew’s reluctance to interact much with us. You’d think a flight filled with people who tested negative would be different, but you’d be wrong.

Landing in Rome, however, was a different story. They herded us onto two lines, with people having connecting flights given priority. A jovial gatekeeper kept us entertained. We then went to someone who checked us in and collected a €20 a head fee. Then around the corner to a line to be tested. They had pretty permanent looking booths up, and the testers were doctors as well as nurses. This rapid test was just as invasive as the PCR test we’d gotten in New York. Afterward, we had to sit and wait for our number to called for the results. We were negative again, and so, no quarantine.

The next few hours are a blur. We found our friend who drove us almost to our home. We had to stop first to get our car. And somehow we managed to get everything in. It was nice to drive a car with a stick shift again, and there are no traffic lights on the country roads we take.

Once home we were famished. Luckily, before I left last fall I bought the components or a fast meal: canned tuna, tomatoes. Pasta. It’s traditional for returning Italians to have a “spaghettata”—basically spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chilies. We had no garlic, so TSW put together a quick tuna sauce, while I used the blood oranges, olives and fennel our driver friend gave us for a Sicilian salad. Home at last.

“Anyone can do steamed broccoli”

We were bad. Lots of people were. Still are. This thing that’s kept us home alone also contributed to our gross domestic girth. We’d watch a cooking show or tutorial on YouTube. “I can make pâte à choux,” she’d say, and later we’d have creampuffs. Or Montréal-style bagels. Or a baguette. Or steamed bao.

The Spartan Woman wasn’t the only offender. I began to like how butter added an extra sheen to the tagliatelle with a mushroom ragù. Or risotto. And you need to use a fair amount of olive oil for spaghetti with clams to taste right. Right?

I was getting into ridiculous rationalizations, too. If I was going to be cooped up for months at a time, I sure as hell wasn’t going to drink ordinary wine. Hello, Honor Wines! They delivered in a funky blue vintage truck. I’d call Laurie, and she and I would talk about what I feel like drinking. It was like visiting a shrink, except instead of more self-awareness, I’d know more about rosé wines from the Trentino-Alto Adige region of northern Italy. Which is not a bad thing, but when you’re habitually drinking 2/3 of a bottle every night, those calories pile on.

I started to avoid wearing jeans. Even my big boy jeans. She wasn’t too happy, either. Our usual exercise outlet, the local YMCA pool, was closed. And it didn’t feel right to take long walks. Besides, winter. Yuck.

Finally, with a last toast and blowout New Year’s Eve dinner for two, we decided to do something about it. I’d dry out in January. Let me tell ya this was not easy, if you can think back to the days when the orange lunatic was braying about a supposedly stolen election and his deplorables attacked the Capitol. I ended up extending the drying out into April, with exceptions for Joe Biden’s inauguration and Easter with one of the kids.

Ciao for now

So, a diet. But not a diet. It was winter, we were depressed, and TSW said she couldn’t live on steamed broccoli and tofu. That’s her usual way of dissing over-virtuous regimens. We’re also almost-vegetarians. We eat fish and seafood as a naughty treat, although I’m beginning not to like the fish part so much. So planning meals posed an extra challenge. But we’ve been down that road before, and we resolved that this would be it.

I’ve mentioned before how TSW likes systems, but also likes to game those systems. She applied that to our food. (Note: I do cook; we usually split the chore. But this time I let her drive, since rightly or wrongly, I’m to blame for our gastronomic excess. Plus, after living alone in Italy last fall, and feeding myself almost every day, I was happy to take a break. Plus, I threw out my back sometime in January…)

With this in mind, I’ll set out how we managed to lose about 20-25 pounds so far and actually enjoy it. This will just be the intro. Like obsessed, annoying Instagramers, we take photos of almost every meal, so I have a lot of material.

First, this is an adoption of the WW points system. TSW chose the version that’s most restrictive in points, because it’s extraordinarily permissive when it comes to stuff we like to eat: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Fats are limited (think a couple of tablespoons of olive oil between us at dinner), as are simple carbohydrates and sugar.

We do adapt what we used to eat to this routine—we’ll sub out white pasta for whole wheat in a dish, for example. But the past few months have unleashed TSW’s creativity and ingenuity. She’ll use silken tofu to make decadent banana-mango puddings, and we’ll reduce broth and wine for sauces instead of relying on the butter/oil crutch.

I guess the best thing at this point is to show you what we eat. And as I write more, I’ll be explicit with recipes and simple cooking tips.

First of all, up top is a tray bake of vegetables and feta cheese. There’s asparagus, grape tomatoes, striped sweet peppers, red onions, cremini (supermarkets insist on calling them baby bellas or some such) mushrooms, shishito peppers, and slices of feta cheese. It’s simple to make, fun to eat. Spray it all with olive oil–do yourself a favor and buy either a good non-aerosol brand or get a spray bottle and fill it with decent oil that you like. Toss with salt and pepper, maybe some chilis if you like. Roast at 375F/180C for 35-40 minutes. Pair it with farro, brown rice, or whole wheat orzo or couscous.

Color-adjusted bean soup

Beans are a vegetarian’s (or a wimpy semi-vegetarian’s) best friend. This soup, Central Italian style, got us through a lot of cold nights. Cook some dry navy, cannelini, or cranberry (borlotti) beans yourself, or for a quick lunch or dinner, use good canned beans. Using a spritz or, if you’re feeling decadent, a tablespoon of oil, saute diced fennel, an onion, and a carrot until they’re translucent. Add the beans and either water or vegetable stock. Let it all come together, about 15 minutes-half an hour. Use a hand immersion blender or pour the solids and some of the liquid into a blender and purée it. Return to the pot and heat, add some small soup pasta. If it looks too gray, add some tomato paste or puree, and season it.

It doesn’t have to be cold out to enjoy this. You can let it cool down a bit, and, if you like, add a drizzle of fresh olive oil.

Finally, Asian-style food suits this thing pretty well, too, and TSW spent a lot of time working on various ways to put great mock-Chinese meals together. She’s like an alchemist in the kitchen, and over the past few months has figured out how to make seitan, a meat substitute that’s make of wheat gluten and a few other ingredients, depending on how and where you want to use it. In the meal shown below, she paired mock duck with broccoli and other vegetables, and on the right, there’s a silken corn dish over soft tofu. I’ll update this page with a recipe.

You’re a New York City boy/You’ll never have a bored day

—old Pet Shop Boys song, video here

Liars (sorry, Pet Shop Boys). When there’s no New York City in New York City, it might as well be Tysons Corner or suburban Columbus. Peoria, even.

And we’re pathetic. How pathetic? We drove to New Jersey yesterday to pick up groceries. To Wegman’s in Woodbridge, to be exact. You would have had to bribe me in the Time Before to drive to Woodbridge; I always got lost in New Jersey. But sat-nav now makes it easy, even when it insists I’ve arrived and I’m too dense to look to the left for the destination.

Woodbridge NJ, here we come

And getting decent groceries qualify as a Destination.

This is what we do these days—at least on days when we’re not glued to the TV by civil insurrections or new presidents being inaugurated (Hey, Joe!). We order online and either pick the stuff up curbside, like yesterday, or have it delivered. At one point before Christmas, we were getting so many deliveries that we felt like Roald Dahl’s Matilda in the movie of the same name, forced to stay home to sign for deliveries.

Driving through suburban hell sure beats watching the news during Trump’s final weeks. A friend a couple of years ago met up with me at the local Greenmarket one Saturday, after Trump had done something awful. It’s hard to keep track. “It’s like you tell yourself it can’t get any worse,” she said. “Then it does.”

Watch this

Speaking of our former lives, we watched Martin Scorsese’s tribute series to Fran Leibowitz, Pretend It’s a City, over the weekend. Seeing New York, or at least Manhattan, full of busy people walking purposefully seemed like a weirdly modern, digital form of archeology. We were looking at a civilization that doesn’t exist any more, and won’t for awhile. [Critic’s take: I used to think of her as out there, really cutting and ascerbic. She just seems to be the soul of common sense and humanity to me now. Is it me? Or her?]

I started this blog a few years ago to document our gradual move to the Italian region of Umbria. And it began like that, with posts about hiking, festivals, houseguests, and people we know there. But now it feels as though we’re stalled somewhere over the Atlantic, not quite here but definitely not there, either. Wanna hear something really pathetic? We tell our smart speakers “play Radio Subasio,” with an American accent, and our local Italian radio station starts to play. That way, we get to hear the news, traffic reports, and the weather, while trapped on Staten Island.

Remember last spring? Try. It was sort of like now, only with the stupid hope that by now we might be living a somewhat normal life again. I even managed to live a semi-normal life while taking care of business in Italy in September and October. Back then, the press was congratulating Italy for beating the virus, and while you had to wear a mask in public indoor places like shops and restaurants (except while eating), it seemed like that vibrant social life that marks that country was coming back. Now we’re all in a second or third wave, and the resolve that Italians showed last year is crumbling, like its government, thanks to Italy’s most despised politician, Matteo Renzi. UPDATE: The government hangs on by a thread.

So now we amuse ourselves with groceries and cooking. Only we can’t be so indulgent because the first wave, with the indulgent baking and wine drinking left its mark. But I’m pretty lucky being married to The Spartan Woman; she even makes dieting a challenge to do something fun. She’s always trying to game the system; even a somewhat restrictive food regimen. (I can do it, too, but she’s better at it and has a clearer idea of how to make lean food taste and feel good.) Here are just a few examples.

Moroccan-style vegetables over whole-wheat couscous

Seitan “cutlets,” Italian-style

Hong Kong style tomato soup with whole wheat noodles

Home (alone) for the holidays

Christmas spread, pre-pandemic

IF THIS WERE A normal year, I’d be helping to come up with a menu for Christmas day. I’d be sending out invitations to our annual get-together. And I’d probably be heading into Manhattan a couple of times for drinks/lunch/dinner with friends.

But it’s not a normal year, so instead I’m mostly confined to this house except for a morning walk in Snug Harbor with the dog. We won’t be having anyone over for the holiday. And I’m having trouble remembering which day it is, although today feels very Thursday-ish for some reason. I do try to remember, because I have to remind The Spartan Woman which day it is periodically. (The pup does not care, as long as she gets out to the park, and gets treats.) At least we have garbage collections days to remind us as well.

Henry liked the evil red chair, too. And it did the same thing to him.

I usually get grouchy in late November/early December. I don’t like the plunge into cold weather, and I intensely dislike the early sunset. Plus, holiday prep annoys me, all that forced running around for…what, exactly? This year, probably due to the boredom of being home just about every day, I fight off narcolepsy, or what seems like narcolepsy. Especially if I sit in the evil red chair in the living room. It’s so easy. Just sit and read or watch TV. Pretty soon, gravity seems to get stronger and my bones start to resonate with that invisible force. I can’t get up. Next something—could it be gravity here, too?—grabs my eyelids and pulls them down. Honestly I had nothing to do with taking that nap. Damn that chair!

The not very inspiring view from my office window

I could look out the window, but all I see are other houses. We do hear ambulances all too often, as the novel coronavirus takes over most of the city again. There’s a hospital just a few blocks away, which normally would be reassuring. Not now though, as we cringe when we hear an ambulance heading down the next one-way street toward it.

So, we’re not going to have our annual Christmas Day bash. There’s a history behind it. The Spartan Woman’s Aunt Bessie married a Jewish grad student back after World War II. They had three kids and raised them in the Jewish faith. It became a tradition for them to gather with their gentile relatives for Christmas. We inherited the tradition when we bought this house. We’re an ecumenical bunch—most of us are nonsubscribers or cafeteria practitioners when it comes to religion, but there’s still culture and tradition. If the two holidays coincide, more or less, we’ll light a menorah, and we have a dreidel on our Christmas tree. The Spartan Woman sometimes makes latkes for the crew, too. It’s really one of the best days of the year, even for me, who basically loathes the forced jollity of the holiday season.

This would not be a good idea this year.

I loved it when The Spartan Aunt was still alive and well. She was a worldly, curious woman who, like her husband, was a trained biologist. She wrote the kid’s book, All About Snakes. Bessie was a really good cook, as well as her husband’s frontline and probably best editor. I realized after a year or two of hosting these get-togethers, that I was cooking for her. I wanted to surprise her, or, on a childish level, to get her approval. She always brought bottles of very nice Bordeaux, and her wine fueled great conversations.

Another year, a young cousin of mine was visiting New York over Christmas. She and her boyfriend (and her family) live in rural Sicily, where the family business is a veterinary diagnostic lab. I got in touch with her and asked her if she wanted to come over for the day. I’d met her years before, at my grandmother’s (her great-grandmother’s) 90th birthday party, but didn’t really know her. I arranged to pick her and her boyfriend Francesco up at the ferry terminal and I was almost shocked when she got in the car. I knew she sort of looked like a lot of us Paonita clan members, but what was—is—a testament to genetics is that Annalisa could be my older daughter’s sister. They’d never seen one another but there they were, identical smiles, similar gestures and weirdly similar voices. They’ve been in touch ever since.

Sisters or second cousins?

Sigh. Forget bah humbug. We’re really going to miss these people this time around.

Looking for a gift? How about a terrific cookbook for yourself, straight from the hills of Umbria? Order Festa Italiana and A Kitchen With a View by Letizia Mattiacci, a/k/a La Madonna del Piatto. And watch her YouTube trailer to get into the mood.

Half of this month just slid right by (and I probably buried the lede)

I had a blog post all ready to go, except for photos, the night before the election. And then the election and its very, very weird aftermath took over my brain, your brain, and everyone else’s. That post just looked silly and outdated, and the Covid-19 pandemic just got worse with no end—or national government action—in sight.

Staten Island’s quarantine zone in the 19th century [photo courtesy NYPL Digital Collection]

This happens a fair amount. I’ve got seven aborted drafts in the can, and I’ve deleted a few drafts completely from my WordPress library, too. Sometimes events overtake the abandoned posts. Or I was in a bad mood when I wrote them. Or I’ll reread the thing and think that no one could possibly find that solipsistic piece of crap interesting, so into the vault it goes.

The latest aborted draft seems so innocent and unknowing. It began like this:

I got my last call from the New York Health Department a couple of hours ago. “Your quarantine ends tomorrow,” Yvonne told me. “You can resume your regular activities, wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course,” she added. Of course.

Problem is, what are my normal activities? Or anyone’s? Tomorrow is Election Day, but I did my bit early via absentee ballot. I’ve read all sorts of ominous stories saying that the present occupier, oops, occupant of the White House will declare victory tomorrow night, even if all the absentee and mail ballots aren’t yet counted.

Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s like we’re the villain in a Road Runner cartoon. We’ve gone over the cliff but we’re still running, unaware that there’s no ground under us.

Hey, maybe I wasn’t so innocent and unknowing after all. It still kind of feels like that doesn’t it? Orange Man did declare victory. And we’re still in this weird limbo, avoiding unnecessary outings and maintaining social distancing.

So I’ll just write about what I’ve been up to, or not been up to. I haven’t been working, not for lack of trying. But I’ve been trying to straighten out stuff. My desk has actual surface area, and we’ve got new phones to replace an obsolete one whose battery percentage plunged precipitously if I so much as looked at the screen. The Spartan Woman continues to be an alchemist in the kitchen; I’m amazed at what she does with bread flour. She’s been channeling Montréal’s Fairmount Bagels to make these beauties:

I’m also trying to wean myself from the semi-evil Facebook. I told my iPhone to limit my exposure to 15 minutes a day, enough time to scan my feed to see if anything important happened to a friend, but not long enough to do much about it except call or text the friend via non-Facebook means. My tech setup surprised me by applying that limit across all my Apple devices (see below), so I get shut down even on this MacBook, unless I tell it to override the limits. I set a rule for myself: I can only override the limit if I’m in the middle of writing a personal text to someone.

Result? So far, it’s working. I haven’t spent hours reading memes and clicking on shared articles about the surreal situation we’re in. I can find those articles pretty well by myself. And I haven’t been angry at the extended family members who post opposing and often, racist or just plain mean or stupid remarks about the current and soon-to-be occupants of the White House. So all in all, I think this little experiment is doing what I hoped it would do, to lower my emotional temperature regarding events over which I don’t have much control.

At the same time…well, I feel a little erased. Being mostly homebound and not having a regular gig means that my social life is sporadic and virtual. I’ll concede that I was spending too much time on Facebook. But that was partly by necessity; for some friends and relatives, that’s the only way they’d stay in touch. I definitely feel like less of a participant in the world, whether it’s virtual or real. (And maybe what’s “real” isn’t. In my wandering I’ve learned that philosophers and metaphysicists are arguing whether we’re just bots in a machine.)

I haven’t yet exchanged that time for more useful action in the real world, because I’m obsessed with the news and the crazy refusal of the Republican Party to let go of the wannabe dictator squatting in the White House. Let’s not forget, he lost the popular vote in 2016 by some 3 million votes, a margin doubled this month.

Here we go again

Call me superstitious. I was getting nervous seeing all the press coverage of how Italy overcame the Covid-19 virus. Here’s one example: In Italy, doctors beat back the coronavirus and are now preparing for a second wave. As of yesterday, October 13, this country had more than 7300 new cases, a number not seen since the height of the first wave. World press, you jinxed us.

Until last week, I was pretty happy leading a semi-normal life. Sure, I had to wear a mask in public places indoors, or in public squares after 18:00, or 6 pm. But that was more a precaution than a necessity. The evening mask order is an effort to keep the country’s very sociable kids from hanging out and getting one another sick.

Now it’s a necessity, if we want to beat the thing back. Yeah, I know it pales in comparison to some other countries. The United States, for one, which saw 54,000 new cases yesterday, or, for a better comparison, France, with more than 14,000 new cases. Still, 7300 ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

Remember to keep your distance—this is in a little bar-cafe.

But as the doctor in that NBC article said, Italy speaks with one voice, rather than the patchwork of health systems of the United States. So, just as I plan to return to the anarchic U.S., the government here—the national government—has imposed new rules and recommendations. First of all, masks are obligatory. That’s it. You go out? Wear a mask. In a car with people you don’t live with? Wear a mask. Going to the supermarket? You’ve been wearing a mask. Not wearing one? You can be liable for a fine of up to €1000 ($1170). I forgot once in the supermarket and you should see the looks I got. I went to the little protection table in front and immediately bought a package lest I be shamed any further.

In case you don’t read Italian….

There’s more: Bars and restaurants must close by midnight, which puts the kibosh on young late night revelers. You can have a wedding reception, but the limit’s come down to 30 from 200. The government strongly recommends against having friends over for dinner. And if you do insist, it says keep that dinner party to six people at most.

I’ve said before that I hate comparisons in the way people act in different countries. Local culture is just that, and while we could learn, it’s not helpful to say German do X when Americans couldn’t do that if they tried, because they have a different mindset. I was trained to be this way as a kid, because my family existed in two countries, and if you don’t want to lose your mind you just accept each culture’s way of doing things as the way they behave. Cultural bilingualism, I guess.

Having said that, as far as I can tell, adherence to the health rules transcends political leanings. I know conservatives here who keep strict social distance and see it as common sense. No one, they think, is out to mess with their freedom. It probably has to do with the highly developed Italian survival instinct. Plus, at this point a certain amount of social cohesion comes just naturally; when it comes to public health and survival, politics don’t come into it. There was an anti-mask rally in Rome last weekend and turnout was pathetic.

Mask wearers on Perugia’s main drag

All of this is in addition to what I’ve gotten used to just getting around. I’ve gotten used to having my temperature scanned before entering a store. The notoriously anarchic Italians have gotten used to separate, one-way entrances and exits to shopping centers and big box stores. Plexiglass dividers are everywhere, and we pay with our phones or contactless credit cards. Cash was king, now it’s only for Luddites and tax evaders.

All of this means that I’ve spent a lot of time either alone or alone with a friend or loved one in a window on my computer or iPad. Speaking of devices (how’s that for a lousy transition?) if you caught Apple’s annual iPhone extravaganza, you could easily have thought that the company was introducing a new line of cameras. Not that I mind; the first iPhone now seems like a joyless, businesslike thing compared to today’s models. Most people back in 2007 were obsessed with how they would type emails on the glass screen and joked about it not being much of a phone.

So I’ll come clean: Every photo on this blog was taken on my trusty iPhone 7. It’s not as fancy as the later models, not having a superwide lens, or night or portrait mode. But it acquits itself pretty well, and I haven’t taken a separate camera with me on trips in years.

What does this have to do with Covid-19, social distancing, masks and Italy? Simple. Being alone for me means either sitting here in my office writing (and wasting time by going down the YouTube rabbit hole), or taking a walk. It’s stupidly scenic here; taking a walk is often an occasion. So here are some pictures from those walks. To avoid injury while walking alone, I try to avoid steep rocky trails. But that’s easy. I can walk up and down this road, or, as I did the other day, I parked the car down the hill and walked along a river path. That path had a few surprises; for being in a valley it sure did have a lot of curves and slopes. The other was toward the end of the path, where I met a guy who grows his family’s vegetables. We talked for 20 minutes about where we’re from (me: NYC him: Napoli) and why we like it here. I was hoping he’d offer me the fine head of lettuce he was carrying…

Ruins like this are scattered around the countryside.

A little further along, I saw a little ancient church and a small settlement called Barcaccia. While looking around, a big group of weekend bicyclists came zipping by, everyone saying hi and cheering as they passed by. Some things never change.

The vanguard. Soon afterward at least a dozen serious riders flew by. I was too immersed in the moment to record it.

Freedom’s just another word for havin’ lots to do

That didn’t take long. Well, maybe it did feel like forever when I was quarantined but it’s over and I’m free. My friends around here didn’t waste any time, taking pity on a man alone on a mountaintop.

But the first thing I needed to do was shop. I’d run out of fresh food, but by not being a pig and eating through the pasta, canned tuna and tetra-packed beans, I emerged in pretty good shape. So, gathering some garbage (we don’t have pickup here; you have to take trash to locked bins down the road) I headed toward one of the local supermarkets.

I was curious to see what, if anything, was different, and the answer is, not much. People here wear masks out a lot and you’re not allowed indoors unless you’re wearing a mask. But even hidden behing paper and cloth, Umbrians are the same people I knew back in that former life called “last year.” It felt great to be walking up and down the aisle, not feeling as though I were violating some law, as I did the day I landed and foraged for lockdown food.

Masks only please. And in a country with real grownups, this is not a problem.

Like I said, my friends didn’t waste any time. Debora and Angela were first, inviting me to a “cena-barbecue con distanziamento sociale” (a socially distancing dinner-barbecue). They set up a table outside their spectacular new house and invited neigbhors over, too. They live in a hamlet above the center of Valfabbrica called Poggio S. Dionisio, and somehow the name fits. The women exude a sense of carefree fun when they’re entertaining. And I don’t know if it was the influence of his homemade wine, but sometime later this month I’ll be harvesting grapes from neighbor Franco’s vineyard.

Angela keeps the home fires burning.

Then the guy who picked me up at Fiumicino (Rome’s main airport), Angelo, asked me if I’d like to see some Pintoricchios. The town of Spello, a small jump from Assisi, was opening its churches at night for guided looks at a couple of spectacular frescoes. I knew of the frescoes and saw one of them a few years back, but, savage that I am, I’d just look at the colors and the backgrounds. I also found it amusing to see Italy behind what was supposed to be a biblical scene set in the Middle East. Dinner came first, the Osteria del Cambio in Palazzo, a homey place where, for €25 ($28) for two, you have have a pasta, main course with salad, wine and coffee. Our pasta course alone (tagliatelle with black summer truffles) would set you back in New York more than what we paid for the whole meal.

My bad. A sign said photos were strictly forbidden. Oops.

It’s curious to see, or rather hear and feel the difference in people here since the virus struck with catastrophic results back in the spring. People here usually complain about everything. And Italians in general aren’t particularly nationalistic. There’s none of the flag-waving here that you see in the U.S. But people seem proud of what they accomplished together. It’s been a morale boost for people who’ve been traumatized by COVID-19 and have lived through decades of a weak economy. Despite a recent spike due in large part to returning vacationers, Italy in general, and Umbria in particular, have beaten back the virus so that we can cautiously and taking precautions, live fairly normal lives.

Finally, to round out the weekend, I took a ride with Letizia and Rudd to the Valnerina, south of here and east of Spoleto. Letizia wanted to try a little restaurant called Il Sovrano in a hamlet called Sant’Anatolia di Narco. The meal was a relaxing finale to a busy weekend. The place specializes in the local pecorino cheese, and, of course since it’s truffle territory, black truffles. The food was good, the setting on a bluff overlooking the valley, idyllic. It was the perfect way to end my liberation weekend.

Letizia chose well.