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.

The end is near

My car mocks me. It sits there right outside the front door, all bright red and curvy. It says, seductively, “Let’s go! Where can we explore today, Anthony?” and the best I can manage to do is pass the car and circle the closed pool for exercise. It’s sorta like being a prison inmate during exercise hour, but more scenic.

One day more of quarantine, admittedly a self-inflicted one. I get more antsy yet more lazy by the day. I started out with ambitious goals: to post to this blog every other day while writing a soon to be filmed novel, and to record all the instruments to songs that a band I was in played back when.

So far, I have an outline, and I dragged out the MIDI controller that will allow me to mimic guitars, basses, drums, keyboards and other assorted instruments on my Mac. I find myself strumming chords and saying, hmmm, how would that sound on a concert grand? A glockenspiel?

I also thought I might have fun cooking for myself. I love to cook. I will think of ridiculously labor-intensive ways to prepare relatively simple dishes. (Yes, you absolutely must fry each vegetable separately when you make caponata, or else it’s just a bunch of veggies thrown together. And don’t you dare just put that fresh shrimp in the pasta sauce without pushing it on the grill first.) But cooking for yourself is nowhere near as satisfying as being around your favorite people and enjoying it together.

So let me just say that decent store-bought pesto is a good thing. And so are these frozen seafood preparations that you can get in Italian supermarkets. And tetra-pack beans are so much better than canned ones….

Quick bachelor lunch, beans, tuna, rucola (ok, arugula), with pane carasau

I did have one surge of energy a few days ago, when I emulated The Spartan Woman and baked some bread. It wasn’t my first—that was a semi-successful attempt at no-knead bread in a Dutch oven. But TSW can practically do it in her sleep, and I was out of bread and I had nothing better to do, so…. Of course, she coached me. It’s great how we can chat across continents for just the monthly Internet fee, isn’t it? I’m kind of proud of the result:

Happily, friends here are planning activities for when I bust out, or more accurately, descend from the mountaintop, in second gear, hugging the right side of our narrow road.

¡Hey, Quarantena!

Songs pop into my head at random intervals—even as I’m about to wake up in the morning—but the Macarena? Strange. At the time, I was doing a mild workout (more about that later) when that song popped into my head (note to self: next time bring earbuds). On second thought, it’s not so weird. Macarena rhymes with what I’m under now: quarantena, Italian for quarantine.

Call me a glutton for punishment. After nearly six months of basically confining myself at home on Staten Island, I came here to green, tranquil Umbria to be confined to quarters for a couple of weeks. Back Stateside, I was turning into a shut-in with the A/C cranked up. Oh wait, everyone in New York was doing that. But I was worried about leaving this house empty too long. Would the hot water heater self-destruct? Would we get strange animal squatters?

No and, kinda. My Italian is pretty good, but I learned a new word this time around, ragnatela. It means cobweb, and I’m spending a good chunk of my time going around the house with a Swiffer clearing them out. But that presents me with a dilemma. Spiders are a good repellant toward other insects, like mosquitoes and the nasty little biting flies we get here. So do I go after them? No, not intentionally.

I know this is boring minutiae. Welcome to my world. I know, Italy holds a special place in people’s imaginations. You know, golden sunsets, great food and art, fashion and style. And that’s all there, somewhere, I guess. But when you come here in the middle of this damn pandemic, instead of Aperol spritzes and Piero della Francesca, you get to stay home for a couple of weeks and contemplate spider webs and the decaying food that you left in the fridge six months ago. (On the plus side, it’s ridiculously scenic up here.)

Even bad weather looks good.

Anyway, to back up, here’s what solo quarantining in the Umbrian hills is like. I somehow procured enough food to see me through, so I’ve been cooking for myself. I’m fully embracing the Italian (or Japanese) aesthetic of limiting dishes to an ingredient or two. Gotta make it last, so, no, I won’t add that red pepper to the salad. It and its companions can become a good pasta sauce, or a peperonata, thin sliced peppers to pile on bread (which I’m going to have to bake myself) or put into a frittata. I use the olive oil sparingly. Part of it is to limit my fat intake, but the other consideration is to make it last.

Who knew that there are distinct tomatoes designed for stuffing with rice?

Speaking of quarantine itself, here’s how that works. I wrote a few days ago about the journey here, which basically entailed sanitary and isolation measures and filling out the same information about my whereabouts on multiple forms. I was told to register with the local health authorities, which I did on Sunday. I guess I could have waited until Monday, but I was curious about whether someone would answer that day because Sunday is still kind of sacred in this country. A woman did answer, and we had a nice little conversation. She gave me an email address to send my basic info to, which I did.

The next morning, I got a call. When did you arrive? Do you have any symptoms? What are your living arrangements? The guy seemed happy that I’m living alone, and told me someone would come by to administer a Covid-19 test. No one’s come by yet.

————————————-

The local health service sent instructions.They exaggerate; no one has called one or twice a day until the last day, as it says in the first line.

—————————

[And now, a side discussion. Languages can be fun, especially when you’ve got what linguists call false friends. They are words in other languages that resemble a word in your mother tongue, but which can have entirely different meanings. In this case, for a Covid-19 test in Italian you use the word for “swab,” which turns out to be, and I kid you not, tampone. So yeah, one of these days someone’s coming by to give me a tampone, not a feminine hygiene product. Another favorite false friend is preservativo. To us English speakers, it sounds like chemicals put in food to make it last longer. No, no, no. The word for those chemicals is conservante. Preservativo means something quite different: condom.]

</side discussion> Other than waiting for the tampone tech, I try to amuse myself. Luckily, we have just enough land to be able to take a walk without violating the quarantine rules. The pool is closed, but it’s still useful. Instead of swimming laps, like I usually do, I walk around it for exercise. It’s the only place with a sizeable regular pavement, so a klutz like me won’t break an ankle the second I stop looking down. I did 50 times around yesterday, which shows up amusingly on my watch and phone’s exercise app. I listen for the neighbors’ sheep. The bells and their sounds are pretty hypnotic. If none of that works, there’s enough alcohol left by last year’s summer guests to stock a bar,

I was around the green marker when THAT song popped into my head,

Still to do: Bake that bread. Dust off the guitar chops and record that album, Prince-style. And write a novel, which, let me tell ya is hard to do when the view out the window looks like this.

He ran out of mussels. But we managed

Over the course of this damn pandemic, we’ve developed connections for various foods and liquids. Honestly, it sometimes felt as though we were trying out drug connections as we figured out who shipped coffee our espresso machine likes, who’s got good fruit, where we could get paper towels and dishwashing detergent.

And so, seafood. We used to get a lot of it from LaBella Marketplace, all the way on the southern tip of Staten Island. But we avoided supermarkets and that was really out of the way, too. We then found Pierless, a wholesaler who, with his usual restaurant clients shuttered, turned his operation into an online with delivery retail service. We liked this, because he didn’t deliver to our island, but did in Brooklyn. We’d go in on an order with Daughter No. 1, which had the benefit of driving over the bridge to see her. Our visits were short and masked, but it was great to see the kid, even if it was for 15 minutes. .

We could fall back on a favorite, the Saturday Greenmarket in St. George. The seafood guy there is expensive and has only local stuff, so forget shrimp and salmon, but his wares are extremely fresh and always highest quality.

So it was this past Saturday. We try to plan ahead for meals, because we’re still careful about how and where we buy stuff. I was thinking spaghetti with mussels and beans. It’s a good combo, garlicky and delicious and takes hardly any time if you’ve got canned or cooked beans on hand. Unfortunately, the Greenmarket guy had run out of mussels, even at only 9 a.m. So I asked for a couple of dozen littleneck clams. I figured I’d come up with something different from the usual spaghetti with clams, which I love, but have already done too many times the past couple of months.

We had some zucchine, or if you must, zucchini on hand (see my post about gender-morphing pasta and vegetables). Zucchini goes really well with seafood, its sweetness a good foil to the salinity of the clams in this case. Problem was, I didn’t want to just have some diced squash with the clams in their shells. The clams were too big, so I’d have a texture problem with the dish.

I wrestled with this big problem for the better part of a half hour. Ok, five minutes, and I came up with my usual crutch: zucchini cream! Unless you really push zucchini, with a lot of olive oil and salt, it can be boring and even a little slimey. But sauté it gently with a clove or two of garlic, salt, pepper, white wine and, if you’re feeling decadent, a little saffron. Then toss that into the blender with a few basil leaves and you have a nice pasta sauce.

I steamed the clams in a little wine in a pot I’d later use to boil the pasta, taking care to pull out clams that opened, so that they wouldn’t overcook. Once I pulled them all out, I strained the briny juices and put that into the zucchini purée. Once the clams cooled down I diced them and they went into the sauce, too. I added a little white vermouth to the pot to brighten it. Plus booze always makes sauces better. I could have added a knob of butter, but I’m Trying To Be Good.

I cooked some spaghetti, and once it was a minute or two short of being done, I tossed that into the pot along with a small ladleful of the pasta cooking water, turned up the heat until it was all of a piece. The pasta course was done.

Do as I say, don’t do as I do

I live a few houses down from our neighborhood’s main drag, Forest Avenue. And ever since the city has allowed restaurants to open outdoors, we’ve been clucking about their permissiveness. We’ve seen unmasked patrons hugging, drinking heavily and hanging out at close quarters, and we’re worried that it’s not going to end well.

We’ve been in New York all summer, not on our Umbrian mountaintop (damn you, novel coronavirus!). And for the most part, we’ve continued our distancing. We don’t go out much, except for walking with the pup, and visiting the weekly greenmarket and a local fruit and vegetable stand. We haven’t hung out with our kids, and we’ve turned down social distant dinner invitations from close friends. I’m not liking it, but as our fake suntanner in chief says, it is what it is.

It’s definitely not like the old days. In a past lifetime, the one that ended 3 years, 7 months, and 13 days ago, I used to ride the ferry into work with a jolly bunch of people. We called–still call, actually–ourselves The Ferry Posse. We usually sat in one spot and violated the quiet zone with our jokes and giggling. We were serious, too, as we all got older, our kids grew, our jobs changed or inevitably got more annoying. We tried doing the virtual bit early in the lockdown and it was fun, as far as that goes. And there’s a looonnnngggg Apple Messages text thread that serves as a sort of posse glue.

That changed when last week, one of the posse members suggested that we meet at Snug Harbor’s community supported agriculture’s Wednesday distribution. If you follow my moves on social media, you’ll know that I post tons of photos from the Harbor, mainly of the decorative garden. The complex also hosts a working organic vegetable farm, which in normal times supplies restaurants and also has a CSA. (We used to belong to local CSAs but stopped when we ended up spending summers abroad. And we had no idea earlier this year that we’d basically be on lockdown for a few years. At least it feels like that.)

I know what you’re thinking of the CSA distribution: earnest vegetarians getting together for some yoga before walking off with their organic parsnips. But no. This, folks, is hipster north shore Staten Island, where people try to sneak a bit of fun into everything.

The fun in this instance is the occupation of the old fruit stand by the Burrito Bar, a local Tex-Mex restaurant with a psychedelic hippie vibe. Its popupP stand sells potent magaritas by the 16 ounce cupful or by the bottle, with some guacamole and chips on the side. So while I did overhear a granola type say to another, “Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about the Buddha,” I heard more from the excellent speakers blasting everything from King Sunny Adé to Toots and the Maytals and Daft Punk, courtesy of makerparkradio.nyc. (Maker park is a collective space near the old docks where artists and craftspeople can create whatever it is they do, and these folks supply the soundtrack. They have seriously good taste and they stream their programming.)

So, okay, pre-pandemic, this wouldn’t be a big deal. But it was great to see a few friends IN THE SAME MEATSPACE on a warm summer night. The lighting, even with the clouds, was excellent. It reminded me of the ironic twist facing The Spartan Woman and me: Just as we start thinking about living elsewhere, this part of Staten Island is becoming a really interesting place to live.

I’ll be less censorious of the people up the street, I promise. But Peter, Lenny, Kathy and I did keep our distance from once another. I remember one fist bump, which the Italian government during the worst of that country’s pandemic said was acceptable.

And I’ll be there next Wednesday.

PS: We did get some of the great stuff that the farm produces. It had a huge surplus of zucchine flowers, which Kathy-not-my-wife bought and gave out to, I think, eight of us.

It’s all their fault

[Hey, Tea, here are some of my memories of Umbria.]

It was April 2002 and I was on a reporting trip in Italy. The trip mainly involved interviewing lawyers about the Italian economy and dealmaking possibilities for U.S. multinationals (I’ll write about that someday when I’ve had too much grappa to drink). I conveniently scheduled my trip to straddle a weekend: a few days in Milano, a weekend to chill, and a few days in Rome.

The weekend started on Friday afternoon. I took the train to Perugia and my “dad” there, Franco Castellani, picked me up at the station. He said we had to hurry because he and his wife Giovanna Santucci had a surprise. Franco drove faster up Perugia’s winding streets than usual, cursing about half the other drivers for having the nerve to share the road with him.

Finally arriving at their home near the top of a hill, we rushed inside. “Just put your bag down, we timed this exactly right.” I went into the kitchen to greet Giovanna, who just then pulled some baby artichokes out of the frying pan and put them in a paper towel lined basket. A quick spritz of lemon, a sprinkling of salt and she shoved them toward me. I should tell you that at this point, no one had sat down. “Use your fingers! They’re perfect right now!” Franco said. The three of us stood around fishing the precious nuggets out of the basket, blowing on our fingers because the suckers were hot, And crispy. And lemony. And soft inside. And yes, perfect. We just smiled at each other.

By that April, we had been chosen family for years. The Spartan Woman met up with them back in the 1970s when she had done a year of veterinary school in Perugia. It’s a long story, and the short version is that this couple had adopted us as their American kids. They got to know The Spartan Woman’s parents, we got to know their daughters and extended family, and we’ve been together ever since. We’re Catholics so lapsed that we should be excommunicated, but Franco and Giovanna stood as godparents to our younger daughter back in 1992. All of us have stayed in each others’ houses, we’ve seen elders pass, babies born, and one of their nephews has run a few New York Marathons. You get the idea.

The clan gets together for a summer dinner at Il Laghetto near Perugia, a couple of years ago.

For The Spartan Woman, her studies in Perugia were punctuated by Franco sounding his horn outside her apartment. “Gimmo!” he’d say, the Perugian dialect word for “let’s go,” dragging her out for a ride in the country. He read electric meters at the region’s businesses, and so knew every inch of his beloved Umbria. Franco knew where to get the best prosciutto, the best cheeses, where a special bread could be found. He loved to cook, which invariably meant a huge cleanup for his wife, because he was the kind of cook who would leave flour clinging to the high ceiling of his kitchen, He was almost a parody of the postwar Italian male, with tons of hair product, a walk that frequently involved dangling a cigarette from his lips and spinning his car keys.

Despite his outward bravado, Franco (left, photobombed with the power salute by grandson Francesco in the 1990s) was a sweet man, generous of spirit and time. (But not of gasoline; he’d coast downhill, and whenever I rented a car, he was very happy to ride shotgun while I drove everywhere.) I still hear his voice when I drive around Perugia. “Metti la freccia!” (use your turn signals); sempre diritto! (go straight, always here), vai, vai! (go, go as I gunned it to get onto a highway).

If Franco was the brash, extroverted side of the marriage, Giovanna was the quiet and deep counterpart. She was a career woman, working for the local fashion house Luisa Spagnoli. She took care of things, raised her daughters, and kept the household humming. She was my language tutor; my Italian wasn’t bad 30, 40 years ago, but she helped by giving me The Look when I said something wrong. She kept the spare bedroom ready for us; I used any excuse on a few solo trips to drop by and stay a few days.

See this picture? That was taken on one of the funniest days I’d ever spent with those two. “We’re going to Norcia today, ” announced Giovanna (shown enjoying a postprandial cigarette). I’d been in Perugia for a week, after a week spent with relatives in Sicily. I love both Palermo, where my father’s from, and Perugia. The latter on this trip was a quiet balm to the livelier, bigger Palermo and my family, who are masters in the peculiar Italian art of multiple simultaneous conversations.

So we got into Franco’s Mini, I riding shotgun, Giovanna stretched out in the backseat chainsmoking. The ride seemed back then like forever, but I’ve gotten used to it now; in fact, I visited Norcia in February to see the opening of an important schoolkids’ social center. For the uninitiated, Norcia is a town up in the Appenines famous for its salumi, or charcuterie, its cheeses and truffles. It’s a great place to eat, in other words.

That morning, Franco parked the car, and the three of us walked around from shop to shop, buying dried sausages with names like coglioni di mulo (mule’s balls), reflecting its large round shape. Franco had parked near a bakery he knew, which still used an ancient wood-fired oven, and bought a huge country-style bread. Shopping done, we stopped for the pleasant lunch that’s shown in the photo.

“Porca miseria!” Franco shouted when we got back to the car. “Figlio di puttana!” (son of a bitch). We were parked okay, but for one thing: Franco had forgotten to put his disco orario, or time metering disk, in the windshield, and he was fined the equivalent of $50 for the lapse. There are meters everywhere these days, and you put the receipt in the window. In 1996, not so much.

Franco was good at dishing, not so good at taking it. That night, as we sat down for a light supper, he sliced the bread. Taking the slices, Giovanna and I rolled our eyes and generally acted like we’d gone to a mock heaven. “Giovanna,” I asked her in Italian, “is this not the best bread you’ve ever eaten?” “Si, Antonio, I bet such perfection must have cost a pretty penny.”

Franco just growled.

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.)