You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows

Call me a montanaro. You can translate it as a highlander or mountain dweller. That’s what my Perugian brother Federico called me last night. Our house perches atop a ridge that overlooks the valley of the river Chiascio, and across the valley we see the various hills leading toward the big daddy of the area, Monte Subasio. Because the house is built on a hill, it’s almost as though we have two ground floors: There’s an upper level, which is where we live, and a lower one, with its own entrances and even its own driveway.

This upper level has a driveway, too, and a front door. But it’s almost as though that side doesn’t exist, because your attention is drawn to the other side right away, with big windows and terrace doors that overlook the yard and the valley. We have a few linden trees lined up i the yard, so being here is like living in a treehouse. Right now I’m sitting at my desk looking out at the top of one of the lindens, and the mountains beyond.

Move along; nothing to see here

One of the dining room windows looks east toward the mountain chain that forms the spine of Italy, the Apennines. They’re pretty high and in the colder months, they’re snow capped. We learned this up close once when sometime in March last year, we drove up one peak, Monte Cucco, and encountered snow and ice that scared the daylight out of us. The
Apennines are fairly recent, as geological features go, and can be dangerously seismic.

All of this is a long way (a too long way? Sorry.) of saying that we see weather systems. In fact, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing the last week and a half or so. This early autumn has not been the golden sunlight Italy of people’s fantasies. It’s been the omigod it’s dark in here look at the curtain of rain approaching and shit the lights just went out again Italy. Most casual visitors to the Bel Paese don’t get to encounter this version of the country. Thankfully, we have decent windows, working furnaces and a fireplace that supplements the heating system and actually does a better job of heating the house once you get a good one going. (Note to self: Order more wood. On a sunny day,)

Subasio, meet storm

I wouldn’t normally write about the weather. But it’s curtailed some activities and meant that when the sun comes out, I drop everything I have to do and run outside to take in some sun.

Curtailed activities? Last Saturday I was supposed to help Franco, the neighbor of some friends of ours, pick his grapes. Franco (right, with cap) is 80 and has more energy than I do, but he does have a lot of vines. So we were going into his field. He makes a pretty decent white wine from those grapes—if you ever visit you will taste the wine and there are no excuses. And I thought here’s a chance to connect with some imaginary past, although my ancestors came from Sicily and fled their backbreaking farmwork. Unfortunately, last Saturday, while sunny, came after a couple of days of when will this stop thunderstorms, and if we had tried to do some picking, we would’ve been knee-deep in mud. And this Saturday looks no better.

So, dropping everything. A few days I took walks up the road and back. I’d wanted to go “trekking” or hiking in the woods to try out my spiffy light walking sticks, but it’s been too muddy. I’ve seen other hikers emerge from the woods with tons of dried mud on their boots, So I took to the road, which has some stunning views, some neighborhood dogs who follow me—actually, they’re following the doggie biscuits I carry for them—and Bernardo, his girlfriend whose name I forgot, and his pup Chai. If I pass as Bernardo and crew have risen and look out from their house, I get invited in for coffee.

I’ve also been prowling around some tombs of the Etruscan variety. I’ve been fascinated by this pre-Roman civilization for awhile, and decided to incorporate them into some work I’ve been doing. They’re fascinating; they didn’t leave tons of words, but they did leave a lot of funerary work, which shows how they lived. They amazed contemporary Romans and Greeks, too, who wrote about their sexual laxity, sybaritic ways, and lavish banquets. The visitors were amazed and a little scandalized by the fact that women participated in the banquets, not as servers/cooks and prostitutes, but as intellectuals who had a lot to contribute to the discussions. I like to think that a lot of that spirit lives on here today.

There are a host of tombs where Perugia meets Ponte S. Giovanni, one of its bigger suburbs, and the location is kind of strange. It’s right under a huge highway viaduct and next to the main rail line into the city. There’s a parking lot up the hill from the entrance. I couldn’t find said entrance when I left the lot so I called. The woman who answered said wait a second I’ll go outside. Just look to your left and meet me. Nice.

The tombs are set into a hill, and they vary from Greek style (single entrance) to full-on Etruscan, with multiple entrances and even timbered ceilings and other features meant to duplicate the deceased’s world in the afterlife. A separate building houses statues and other artifacts, and it’s easy to see how the Etruscans led a sensual life. Unfortunately, the big tomb was closed. The docent said that it was too enclosed a space for a safe visit during the Covid-19 pandemic.

My other sunny day gotta get out trip was to the domineering Subasio (there’s even a local radio station named after it, Radio Subasio. It’s got an iPhone app that works pretty well and when we’re in New York, we plug our phones into the car stereo and pretend we’re here). I’ve been a little obsessed about going to its summit for awhile, since I look at it every day. So yesterday I jumped in the car and went. I usually look at maps before I go, but this time I remembered that there’s a park up there and that the summit is past the Carcere di San Francesco, a place the saint would go to chill. I followed the road to the Carcere and saw signs for the park. A few, no, at least a dozen hairpin curves later, I was there, along with a few Dutch and German tourists in small Euro RVs and a smattering of young Italian hikers.

I see you: Upper left, our house; marker at the bottom, Subasio

Like every mountaintop, the view is breathtaking (the Italian equivalent is one of my favorite words: mozzafiato) and the air is cool and fresh. I looked at the map on my phone and found our house, and pointed the camera that way. Just ‘cos I could.

Somewhere out there is home.

The road taken

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

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

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

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

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

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

Agriturismo Val di Marco, waiting for summer’s guests

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

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

Casa, dolce casa (home sweet home)



Short, cool summer (so far)

This year is not like last year. It’s been kind of nice, cool and breezy with bright sun and some rain, like the other day. That lasted all day and refreshed the greens that surround us up here on the hilltop. It’s definitely different from last summer, which basically was an outdoor oven. The all-summer European heatwave even had a nickname: Lucifer.

We’ve been lucky, although I’m jonesing to go swimming. The relative chill most mornings means it’s time to walk. This zone is full of places to do that, from steep gravel and dirt paths in the woods, to level riverside walks (the Chiascio, which winds past the town) to, even, our road. The road connects the hamlets of Coccorano and Monteverde (“green mountain”), which we call home.

We wake up decently early most days. It’s good enough for us to have some coffee, zone out skimming the headlines and our Facebook feeds, and then head out. We usually just head up the road. It’s hilly, to be sure, but the relatively easy footing is good for someone like me, who’s basically a klutz hampered by a torn meniscus that I can ignore most of the time. Besides, when we walk up the road and back, we get to talk to neighbors (they’re 1 km. away, but a mother and daughter pair usually sets out the same time we do), and we often get a canine escort. There’s a little terrier that likes to keep us company. I’m sure the biscuits that The Spartan Woman packs for him have nothing to do with it.

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Our little bodyguard

So we walk. Today, we covered 5 km (a shade over 3 miles) and my watch tells me an elevation difference of 119 m (250 feet, give or take). I’ll share.

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We see vistas like this every time there’s an open area.

When we first started doing this, I was struck by the big panoramas. To this New York City boy, though, most of the plants were, you know, plants. That’s nice. But I didn’t really notice their diversity and how they unfolded as June progressed. The other thing that takes awhile, and still surprises me, are the houses and outbuildings. It takes awhile to scope them out, because the gorgeous views are so distracting. Like this house, perched high on a ridge. They must have an amazing view.

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At some point, we came across signs telling us that the road traveled over a city—okay, town—aqueduct. Is it accidental that there’s a mini-oasis here? Does the aqueduct leak, or is this from the other day’s rain?

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Finally, on a clear day, you can see Perugia, some 25 km away.

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Sex Change Operations, Zucchine/i, and Lasagne. Or Lasagna?

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A friend of mine moved to Spain some years ago. She and I used to speak Italian to each other every so often, but once she was getting ready to head over, she forbade any Italian. “Please,” she said, “learning Spanish is confusing enough. I can’t have the two languages blending together in my head.”

So let’s talk about Englitalian. Or Italish? The mashups occurred to me as we got Sunday dinner together today. First, let me describe the day. It’s gross. We thought we’d escaped the New York winter, and we did for the most part. But today into Tuesday, we’re facing il gran gelo (deep freeze to Anglos). It’s been snowing in a half-ass way, not really piling up but with the wind blowing, it stings your face and makes for general misery. Looking out my studio window, I can barely see beyond the fruit trees outside the house.

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It’s starting to stick and look like an outtake from an early R.E.M. album cover photo.

That means we’re housebound, at least today. And dinner—we do the Italian or French thing on Sundays and the midday meal is the star. I thought I’d try to replicate the flavors of a pizza that the terrific pizzeria Ribalta in Manhattan puts together. It’s got the usual mozzarella, but they add what I’d call zucchini cream, and grilled zucchini. It’s sweet and nutty and creamy at the same time. Only this time I thought it would make a terrific lasagne. Or lasagna, if you prefer, but Italian Italian style, with thin layers and béchamel on top with some crispy bits.

Lasagne. Lasagna. Zucchine. Zucchini. That’s where my linguistic confusion comes in. There are a lot of words, mostly food related, that differ in the Italian spoken in Italy, and the supposedly Italian words, or names of dishes, in the U.S. “Lasagna” is one of them. In the Italian-American (and, I guess, the Olive Garden) canon, it’s a layered pasta dish with tons of ricotta, mozzarella, meat sauce. In Italian, “lasagna” means one single, solitary noodle. Hence “lasagne,” or the plural. The feminine plural, to be precise.

“Zucchini” is another odd duck. When this green summer squash crosses the ocean, it gets treated to a sex-change operation from the original plural feminine “zucchine.” To say “squash” in Italian, it’s “zucca”—feminine singular. The -ina or -ina suffix means a little one.

Don’t get me started on the poor panino, masculine singular. One sandwich, and it doesn’t have to have melted cheese and squished in a sandwich press. “Panino” means a little bread, or a roll. In the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, you hear people saying “I’ll have a prosciutto and mozzarell’ panini” and I cringe.

So the dilemma: When in Rome, so to speak? It just sounds weird to say “zucchini lasagna.” The poor dish gets one gender wrong, and one quantity wrong, leaving us with a transgendered vegetable accompanying a singular noodle. Or something like that. But if I did go around saying the proper Italian pronunciation to an English speaker it would come across as possibly confusing and definitely pretentious.


The Non-Recipe Recipe

In any event, here’s how to put it together. However you say it, it’s delicious. We managed to transfer the flavors of Ribalta’s pizza to a gooey, decadent, perfect-for-a-snowy day pasta dish. Disclaimer: I am not a professional recipe writer, and this presupposes you have some cooking chops and can figure it out where I’ve messed up.

Preheat oven to 375F/200C. Take 7 or 8 medium zucchine/i. Slice fairly thin lengthwise. Place on oiled baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper, sprinkle liberally with olive oil. Roast for about 40 minutes, until they’ve given up all their liquid and some may be a little browned.

Take 1/3 of the squash (gotcha!) and place in a blender or food process. Zap with about 250 ml or a cup of heavy cream or Italian cooking cream (panna). Add a good handful of grated parmigiano or grana cheese. Do NOT use pecorino; it’s too sharp for this dish.

Have some ricotta and béchamel lying around. If you’re lucky enough to be near an Italian gourmet shop, you can get prepared béchamel. Otherwise, make it yourself.  You’ll also need no-cook lasagna sheets.

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In a baking pan, spread béchamel on the bottom. Add some milk. Layer the first pasta sheets. Spread with ricotta and grated cheese, and a layer of squash.

Layer 2: pasta sheets, your zucchini cream.

Layer 3: Like layer 1.

Layer 4: Pasta sheets, bechamel, grated cheese, and some bread crumbs.

Cover with foil, place in hot oven for 30 minutes. After that, remove the foil and let it brown. Remove from oven, let it rest for 15 minutes. It’ll be easier to cut and portion out., Serve with a green salad.

Gone to the Dog

IMG_3260.jpgI signed up on Quora.com awhile ago. I was intrigued by the mixture of questions, from genuinely wanting to know something, to clueless, to trolling. So I thought hmm, maybe I’ll use that format here. In the absence of real questions (feel free to ask me some via email), I’ll make up some of my own.

What the hell do you do up in the country?

I had no idea watching the color of the hills change by the hour, sometimes by the minute, could take up so much of my time. And in an unaltered state of consciousness, no less.

Seriously, what do you do?

We serve Retu. It is our job to feed him, praise him, get him to sit, teach him other languages, and did I mention feed him?

Whose dog is he?

IMG_3187Retu belongs to Ca’ Mazzetto, our neighboring agriturismo. Supposedly. But I’m getting the feeling that the dogs along our road don’t belong to anyone. Or, they belong to everyone. I’m trying to figure that one out.

What is an agriturismo?

Are you trying to confuse me by changing the subject? Well, ok. An agriturismo is a working farm that takes in paying guests. Ca’ Mazzetto has a few apartments, a pool, about 125 sheep and a bunch of olive trees. They produce cheese, fabrics (wool, of course) and olive oil. I may be missing something, and, hey, Joonas, did I? (Joonas is the son of the proprietor and sits on our town council, too.)

What kind of dog is Retu?

He’s a relatively rare breed that is native to these parts, called a Maremmano. According to Wikipedia, the Maremmano is “a breed of livestock guardian dog indigenous to central Italy, particularly to Abruzzo and the Maremma region of Tuscany and Lazio.” The breed is known to be intelligent, loyal, protective, and friendly. He definitely was smart enough to find a sucker in The Spartan Woman, who actually buys dog food for him and, this evening, fed him tagliatelle with truffles.

How is that breed used?

Again, from Wikipedia: “Maremma used as livestock guardian dogs are introduced to sheep flocks as puppies so they bond to the sheep. Some ranchers place Maremma puppies as young as 3–4 weeks old with young lambs, but beginning this bonding process at 7–8 weeks is more typical.[19] Although it is easiest to bond Maremma to sheep and goats, cattle ranchers have found that the dogs bond with cows and Maremma are increasingly used to protect range cattle.”

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Does Retu live up to his breed’s reputation?

He’s a splendid young dog. But if he has bonded to the 125 sheep that live next door, it remains to be seen. One of his owners said that Retu has decided to take early retirement. Whatever sheep guardian attributes he may lack, Retu is definitely good at bonding with humans and bending them to his will.

Be Our Guest

January into early February was a busy time up here on the mountain above the comune of Valfabbrica. We had three friend-guests. Really good, fun-to-be-with guests. The house encourages this sort of thing. We have plenty of room, with a semi-separate apartment on the ground floor. In the cooler months, The Spartan Woman and I live upstairs—we have our own kitchen, dining and living rooms, my office, and bedrooms. And when it’s cooler, our friends get to have their own place, too. That way, we get together when we want, and don’t get in each other’s way. (When it gets warmer, we move kitchen operations downstairs, because the kitchen there opens into the garden. And it’s easier to get to the center of all the summer action, the pool.)

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Wendy and Tim, usually teetotalers, get acquainted with the Aperol spritz.

Let me introduce Wendy, Vicky, and Tim. Wendy and Tim are neighborhood friends and former comrades in the battle over a special public school a couple of decades ago. Tim’s a lawyer (feel free to send him sympathy cards), and sisters Wendy and Vicky are semi-retired teachers. They’re retired enough so that they can spend a month after the holidays wandering around Italy, while Tim worked out of his laptop when he needed to. And when Tim had to head back to the U.S., Wendy and Vicky hung back.

We’ve known Wendy and Tim a long time, more than 20 years. Vicky, however, was an unknown quantity. We heard from Wendy that she was reluctant to take the trip. Their original intention was to case the joint, to find a country house of their own. Vicky was understandably wary; it’s a big responsibility and damn near impossible if you don’t have a network to depend on.

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Apricot tart, anyone?

Now Wendy and Tim had been here and elsewhere in Italy pretty frequently; Vicky less so. But that reluctant traveler turned out to embrace this area the most. She loved everything she saw. She sat outside on chilly winter days just staring at the view of the valley and town below. She shopped, she fed the neighbors’ working sheepdogs (and by doing so she turned one of them into an indolent nonworking sheepdog). She learned how to bake bread and make a fruit tart.

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Vicky, about to throw some garlic and shrimp into the pot.

We’d heard that Vicky wasn’t into cooking until recently, either. At some point, she realized that restaurant and takeout food wasn’t that healthy, so she became a late-blooming semi-obsessional cook. She wanted to take a class while here—where better to learn the Italian way of feeding oneself than in Italy itself. So we arranged with our friend, cooking teacher and innkeeper Letitia Mattiacci, to hold a class for Wendy, Vicky, and The Spartan Woman. (Letizia’s school is called La Madonna del Piatto, and her classes are terrific—I “audited” their class while drinking some good local wine.) Another woman joined the group, an American lawyer from Pennsylvania no less. (We kept bumping into her in Perugia for the rest of our stay here, but that’s another post.) As you can see above, Vicky got into that cooking thing. She made shrimp scampi (bringing a bit of Italian-American via an Egyptian-American to Umbria). And heaven forbid we get store bought bread. She baked her own rolls and the apricot tart in the picture.

img_2956.jpgWendy had a couple of goals. To drink—she’s basically a teetotaler. To see what it’s like to live in Italy. And to learn to drive a stick shift—she was sick of paying extortionate rental rates here for automatics. Well, two out of three ain’t bad; by staying in the place downstairs and going food shopping, she got a taste of everyday life here, as opposed to being a tourist. We did ply her with alcohol in the form of wine as much as we could. Goal number three, though, didn’t pan out. The only stick shift was in our rental Renault Clio. With only 4800 kilometers on it, we didn’t think that Europcar would have liked it if we unleashed a newbie on the poor Clio.

Next time, Wendy, next time. (And they bought lots of stuff, but not a house.)

Big City Boy in a Small Town

I have to say that I had my doubts about this whole thing. Buying and maintaining a house in the country is a big deal. I’m not exactly handy—let’s just say that on Staten Island, when it came down to either buying a lawnmower or hiring a lawn service, I outsourced my homeowner duty.

Plus, again, true confessions here, I had my doubts about a small town. Sure, we’re high above the comune (municipality) of Valfabbrica, but eventually you have to go into town to buy groceries, pay taxes, get a coffee at the bar, get cash from the ATM and, invariably, you run into your fellow townspeople. What would they be like? I remember when I was a kid riding through small Sicilian towns, with the old ladies in black crocheting, backs to the road, while their menfolk eyed us suspiciously. I know it’s a stereotype, but it’s an impression that’s stuck with me ever since.

We’ve had sensei here, though. Our real estate agent and her pal have helped us navigate some, and they’ve introduced us to a cast of characters. We’ve also had another guide, and his name is Joonas. He’s the son of one of the brothers we bought the house from, and he also happens to be on the town council. Fun fact: He’s about three weeks older than our younger kid, which means he’s all of 25 years old,

Joonas hangs out with us every now and then. He probably thinks New Yorkers are exotic. In any event, it’s mutual: He’s half Italian and half Finnish, which explains his first name. Last summer, we tried out a new place in town, a bright and clean snack kind of place that features local cheeses and salumi, artisan beers, and you can go there with empty bottles and fill ’em up with local bulk wines. What’s not to like?

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Joonas indulges a couple of old people with a selfie.

The day after that, we joined a few hundred other Valfabbricanesi to watch a pageant that turned the main drag in town into a medieval fantasy. It features readings, chanting, singing, mysterious looking hooded people, a very ribald song, and vigorous drumming by the town’s young guys. I’ve put a sample below. It was pretty sophisticated, and at times reminding me a lot of Montréal’s Cirque du Soleil. That’s probably not so strange, since both come from the same Commedia dell’Arte tradition.

 

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By Johann Jaritz – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45485693

 

Again, this weekend, we participated in a town event. Joonas had seen from a Facebook post that we’d arrived and PMed a circular about the patron saint festivities over the weekend. The saint, by the way, is Sebastiano, probably best know for inspiring hundreds of homoerotic images of the martyr being shot through with arrows.

 

One of the events was a pranzo sociale, or social lunch, at a local restaurant. We figured it would be a good way to check out the neighbors and participate in the weekend events. It was. We found the place, and the owner immediately recognized us as the people who reserved places via the restaurant’s Facebook page. (I’m also about 99 percent sure that we were the only people he’d never seen before.) The local priest soon zoomed in on us and introduced himself. Poor guy—he’s not going to see us at his establishment…

Then, the usual Italian dinner bash ritual. People standing around, lots of talking, friends seeing each other, smokers ducking out. I could’t figure out immediately how I’d pay, but then saw a couple of people at the bar. I went over, asked the owner, who told me, get this, €20 a head. It was a long, terrific lunch of antipasti, two pastas, a main course and dessert, wine, etc., all included. We figured it would be about $75 in New York.

But the best part was being around the neighbors. As chance would have it, one of our table mates is a local teacher. (I’m convinced that teachers have this built-in tracking device for their own. Yes, The Spartan Woman is a retired teacher. But they never really stop being teachers.) They knew the family we bought the house from, told us that Joonas got the most votes in the city government vote (that boy will go far) and told us about others in town. I may have been a little apprehensive at first, but the warm welcome and easygoing nature of the lunch went a long way to make us feel at home.

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Pranzo at VillaVerde, Valfabbrica

That night, we stood on our balcony with our houseguests watching fireworks in the town below. It was a beautiful ending to a sweet day.