500 hours of solitude (give or take): All the pretty colors

I overestimated. Those 500 hours I thought I’d spend alone seem rather less, and that’s probably a good thing. While I’m talking to myself a fair amount, it’s not any more than usual. And I keep bumping into people I know, or they or I make appointments to meet. I forgot that I have more of a social life here than in New York,

Part of the difference is location. Our house in New York is in an outer borough-—the outermost borough, in fact: Staten Island. It’s a pain to meet people for lunch when they’re in Brooklyn or Manhattan. I either have to drive over a bridge or take a ferry and probably the subway. Up here on the mountaintop, we’re only a few kilometers from the town and an easy 20-minute drive to the nearest city. Plus Italians are more spontaneous. Chances are if you say let’s have lunch or a drink, they’ll say yes. New Yorkers, and Americans in general, have to check their calendars first. It’s the cult of busy-ness. If you ain’t busy, you’re a loser.

Anyway, I was reminded of Staten Island’s outer outer borough status by a friendly gentleman who sells ceramics. He’s Ubaldo Grazia, and his family’s company has been selling this beautiful stuff for, like, forever. I met him because a friend of mine visits him every year. She comes to Perugia most winters for a few months and take a language course, but this year her visit was a short one because she and her husband just moved into a house they built. But Grace, a semi-retired lawyer from Pennsylvania, wanted to get some kitchen accent tiles, and since she and I planned to get together, she asked if I could drive her to see Ubaldo. He likes to know his visitors and asked me where I was from, in English. “New York” “But where?” “New York City.” “But where in New York City?” “Staten Island.” “You’re not from New York,”

Ubaldo at the doorway of his workshop

Yeah, right. Just listen to my accent. I think the way I write has a New York City kid accent too. But anyway I promised in the first of these posts that if I didn’t have a lot to say I’d just post pictures. So here they are. They look great on my Mac laptop, I hope the colors pop on whatever you’re using, These are all Grazia ceramics, from the capital of ceramics around here, Deruta,

That was hard work, looking at all that eye candy. So we went off to Torgiano, mostly famous these days for the Lungarotti winery/Relais & Chateau hotel. But the Lungarotti family isn’t the only game in town. Our friend Letizia, of the cooking school and bed & breakfast La Madonna del Piatto said we should try out Siro for its rootsy Umbrian food. I’m glad we did.

It still may be winter, but artichoke season is upon us here, a few weeks early. So how could we not indulge? First, some fried small ones:

And my lunch companions had this pasta, olive leaf-shaped packets of artichoke cream.

It was all washed down with a bottle of my latest favorite white wine, Trebbiano Spoletino. In particular, Adarmando from the producer Tabarrini from Montefalco. If you can find it, grab it.

This winter I went swimming

(with apologies to Loudon Wainwright III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t wait for the summer.

The old grind

I whined a couple of weeks ago about the dark, grey, rainy weather we’d been having and how it sent me wandering around the local Centro Commerciale (somehow “mall” sounds better that way). One of our friends here had a suggestion: She said we should visit the Antico Molino Bordoni, an old-fashioned flour mill outside Foligno, a few towns south of us. They use millstones, they’re powered by water, and their wheat and corn—for polenta—flours are better than anything you can buy in the supermarket.

Our friend, Letizia Mattiacci, was right. And she should know. Letizia is the Madonna del Piatto, a cooking school and B&B outside of Assisi. She gives great classes and puts up students, if they wish, in her beautiful old farmhouse up in the hills. She’s often quoted in the U.S. press whenever American travel writers somehow manage to wander from neighboring Tuscany to see what this little region next door is like. If you’re in Umbria and you like to cook, you should take a class from her. (In fact, you should make a special trip here to cook with her; it’s worth it.)

Of course, being my usual procrastinating self, we didn’t get around to visiting the mill until the weather turned sunny and springlike. No matter—it was a splendid way to spend President’s Day. We pointed the Renault’s nav system to the address, and off we went, dodging the usual maniacal black Audi drivers on the highway.

When we got near to the mill, we found a main road under construction. The exit we saw in real life didn’t match the exit on the navigation map; they apparently are turning a minor road into a limited access highway-type thing. So we breezed right by it. “Recalcolo percorso,” the female robot voice said. “Fate un inversione a U.” (Recalculating route…make a u-turn.) Ms. Renault was going apoplectic and I couldn’t stop giggling every time I heard “a U,” which sounds sort of like “ah-oooh!”

We doubled back, found the right way off, and drove down the street. It all looked unassuming, and we found a spot right out in front. You wouldn’t know by looking at it that there’s been a mill on this site since the 14th century. There was a little storefront with a few sample bags out on a shelf, along with a multilingual poster about the place. People were obviously at work in the workshops in back and off to the side, but it seemed like no one was taking care of the retail end. Or so we thought until the owner’s son came over to greet us. We told him that Letizia sent us, which brought a smile and an offer to show us around.

Our guide for the morning

And what a show. I loved this stuff, being a food geek and a manufacturing geek. I love watching videos of assembly lines, and my father worked for a company that made electronic connectors, and I used to love going to work with him and watching the big presses and molding machines do their thing.

“Everything is run with renewable energy,” our guide started off. Being a mill, there’s a river nearby. It used to turn the turbines that turned the stones, and it still can all work that way. But they combined new electric mills with old-fashioned, real stones, and all the power is generated by the water rushing by. They rerouted the water to run their generators–a pretty neat trick.

The real thing
A river ran through it.

They still have all the old stuff though. We walked out to the street and down a stairway that looks like your typical New York City stairs to an apartment house boiler room and found ourselves in an stone and arch wonderland. The old millstones stood by waiting for another batch of farro or red corn, and the old water channel stood mute, waiting for the river to run through it. To be honest, the place would make a terrific party or dance venue, with some decent lights.

What really impressed though, is something I’ve seen time and again here: pride in the craft. Our guide obviously buys into the whole operation; it’s provided his family’s livelihood for a century. He knew everything about the place and its history and how everything works. We learned about the difference between what they do and what big producers do, from the texture of the millstones to the grains they use. These people use strictly local grain—he had a couple of ears of dried corn to show us what goes into the polenta. It was dark red and yellow, “more nutritious than the lighter corn the mass producers use.”

That pride isn’t limited to Italy, though it seems easier to run across small producers in this part of the country that’s dominated by small producers and artisans. You see it in New York City’s greenmarkets, too. You can spend hours talking to a farmer or cheesemaker if that’s your thing. Mass produced food may be cheaper, but it’s usually less intense. I find myself adding hardly anything to vegetables I buy at the greenmarket or in the local markets here, because the food doesn’t travel far to get here, so you get a more developed flavor.

Decisions, decisions…impossible. So we bought one of each.

We bought a bunch of different flours at the mill. We’re trying the polenta tomorrow. It’s not the instant, add hot water and stir kind. I’ll be stirring for about 45 minutes. I take Letizia’s word that it’s worth it. In fact, she stopped by yesterday with some handmade treats, one of which is the most intense orange marmalade I’ve ever tasted.

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)



Italia in Tilt

Nope nope nope. Not gonna write ’bout no Italian elections, although they’re a dark spectre haunting Europe here on Sunday. Here’s something more important: snow. Cold snow. Freezing rain. Slush. And no water at home.

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Perugia in disaster mode, believe it or not.

I’ll back up. We came here in January with the thought of escaping the New York winter. You may recall that it didn’t start out too well, with days of freezing cold weather, a couple of snowstorms, the usual misery.

And it worked, at least for awhile. January into February felt like early spring. Our friends who stayed with us pulled a couple of garden chairs outside and took in the view and sun. We walked around with light jackets and sweaters. Flowers bloomed.

Then last weekend…It was really cold, down in the 20s Fahrenheit, and further, like -14 C (you do the math). We thought we were pretty swift; we have a fireplace that doubles as a furnace. It circulates hot water throughout the heating system, reducing the need to keep using expensive and probably Russian gas.

Back when we got here, we were talking to our architect about various things. One of the items was an enclosure over the water valve. See, there’s this valve and exposing pipe that sends water to our cistern and house. He said it might freeze in cold weather and said we should enclose it. We added it to our to-do list.

We should’ve hopped to it instead.

The other day, the connection froze. We’re lucky; we have a place in the city to stay. So the cold-induced cabin fever is so over. But walking up and down Perugian streets is dicey, except for all the 20-something college kids who won’t be deterred from their cafe and pub hopping. We did get around, and even saw a movie (The Phantom Thread. Ask me later what I thought about it).

We aren’t alone, though that doesn’t make me feel much better All of northern Italy is frozen, literally. Trains either didn’t run or had hours-long delays. (The train company’s boss keeps apologizing in the press.) Heavy trucks were banned from the roads. The local hospital has treated hundred of fall-related injuries. I scanned the website of a local paper and saw a photo of a highway accident and it featured a wrecked police car in the middle of it.

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Only the brave or the very bored dare climb this hill.

Now here’s the kicker. We aren’t talking about a blizzard. It’s maybe an inch or two, or 4-6 cm. if you’re metrically inclined. That’s all. But streets are still a mess, and when they’re nearly vertical, getting around isn’t easy.

I’m beginning to think we bring bad weather with us. We’re due to fly back to New York soon,

You’ve been warned,