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.)

IMG_2621

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.

IMG_3065

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.

IMG_3064.jpg

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.)

The Rick Steves Contradiction

I’ll admit it. I have strange habits. I know I should be serious and maybe even care about POTUS’ SOTUS, or whatever the acronyms are. But no. I shoot videos of sheep circling the pool and marvel at how the fog seems to hang out midair. This luxury won’t last long. I’m being bad right now, writing this instead of a travel piece. I like to think of this as practice for that article, though. Yeah, practice. Y’all are my test subjects.

Screen Shot 2018-01-31 at 15.09.24.png

So, expert procrastinator that I am, I looked at Rick Steves’ website. If you don’t know Steves, he’s the hugely popular host of travel shows on PBS. The guy is unthreatening; a Salon writer called him the Mr. Rodgers of travel. He schleps a backpack around Europe and urges people to have genuine experiences instead of the if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium kind of snapshot-dominated travel. He seems to have friends everywhere, so he gets to have dinner, or take a hike with charming locals that he’s known for years.

I read an interview with him some time ago. Behind the nonthreatening facade is a guy with an agenda, one that I pretty much agree with. He’s actually deeply subversive, at least these days of Trumpian triumphalism and over the top “patriotism.” He wants Americans to realize that they’re just ordinary people, part of the 7 billion or so souls on the planet. His shows emphasize personal connections. As part of that, he takes a lot of public transport (Republicans like George Will consider trains to be socialist), stays in B&Bs and eats in popular locals places rather than temples to haut cuisine.

Here’s the thing that fascinates me, though. He’s made what seems to be a thriving business from it. And that’s great, at least for him and his employees. But in seeming contradiction to his advocacy of self-reliance and independent discovery, his company runs guided tours. I’m still wrapping my mind around this—anyone else have a problem with it? I get the rest of it, the blogs of advice, the guidebooks, podcasts, whatever helps get you from Barcelona to Berlin. But the tours make my head explode, as does the almost religious adherence that his followers seem to have to the routes he pushes in his guidebooks.

And the forums. People ask others about the tours, or run itineraries around for inspection. You see over and over again that a lot of people don’t stray from the cities and towns Steves goes to. And most of the shared itineraries are exhausting. I’d kill myself before I’d visit six cities in seven days. Then again, I’m rediscovering my true, incredibly lazy self. It’s not that I’m opposed to learning about a place—for specific sites, or meals, it’s sometimes good to have a guide. I’m lucky that here we’ve had a community that’s embraced us and helped us get settled.

Maybe I’m just jealous. I truly respect the guy and what he’s accomplished. I wouldn’t mind having a thriving business. And if he’s helped someone get over his or her fear about mixing it up with the locals, that’s great. But he also seems to be enabling that kind of fear of the other by running these tours. And, judging by the forum posts, he gets repeat customers, to the different tours. So you have to wonder if they’re even picking up on Steves’ message. Maybe at some point, he should say, two tours and you’re done with the training wheels, go off on your own.

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?

IMG_1992

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.

 

Sankt_Georgen_am_Laengsee_Launsdorf_Kreisverkehr_Bildstock_St_Sebastian_02122015_2425

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.

IMG_2843

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.

What Would Nuccio Think?

Years ago when I was a 14-year-old teenage boy, I learned that my father had another name. In the United States, he’s known as Tony, and all my cousins—I have lots of cousins—call him Uncle Tony. But when we went to Palermo as a family, all my cousins there called him “Zio Nuccio.” (He’s the guy on the right at the top; the other man is his brother Ignazio.)

Scan 20

Gotta love the feathers: Nuccio in full bersaglieri regalia.

Nuccio a/k/a Tony’s real first name is Antonino, and Nuccio is a diminutive. He lived in Italy until he was 25, in the mid-fifties. It was a very different Italy. Think neorealism films. Think in black and white. The postwar economic miracle hadn’t yet taken hold. Nuccio had been in the army, first in school, then as part of the Bersaglieri, an elite brigade. They wore funny hats with big feathers. Dad kept the feathers in this sort of fez-looking container and when I was a little kid, he’d show them to me every now and then.

He returned from the military to a city still suffering from the war. Allied bombers took out a lot of the historic center, and the ruins still stood as constant reminders. (In fact, they stuck around quite a bit longer, and Palermo’s core is still in recovery mode after a mass exodus to the outskirts in the 1960s and ’70s.) If you look at photos of the time, you’ll see the major streets leading out of the core empty and desolate, with a stray dog, maybe a car and a few people walking. It looked forlorn, a far cry from the vibrant and often chaotic Palermo of today, with its luxury shops and metro construction.

I’m writing about this because every time I drive around here in Umbria, I think of my dad. I FaceTimed him last night, and told him we’d done some shopping in Ancona, on the Adriatic coast, about an hour and a half from home. “I was there,” he told me. “For a few weeks. We shot canons into the sea, pretending that we were bombing Yugoslavians who were invading our country.” For him, mainland Italy was an assortment of places he’d gone for training, or drills, or just  to carouse like any young guy.

Nuccio didn’t go back to Italy for 16 years after he’d emigrated. And he returned a few times, the last with me about 14 years ago. It was a changed country, but he, in the embrace of a loving family, didn’t really interact with modern Italy except for the drink or meal outside or an occasional ride somewhere. So these days when I drive around, I wonder what he’d think of this strange life his elder son was living.,

I know that he approves. He gave me his U.S. immigration papers so that I could obtain an Italian passport—I had to show the consulate in New York that I was born before my father became an American citizen. My former colleague Alexander Stille wrote a book about his parents, writing at length about his father, a Russian Jew who ended up in Italy pre-World War II and eventually became the New York correspondent of the Milan-based paper Corriere della Sera. Alex wrote that not having grown up speaking Italian, he learned it and immersed himself in Italian culture as a way of understanding and getting closer to his dad.

Scan 1

Meet just a tiny part of the Paonita clan circa 1964. I’m the shirtless kid on the left with my nonno Ignazio, with whom I walked almost every day after school. Nuccio is top, center, and my mom is with my glum-looking sister up in front.

I think I had the some of the same motivation, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Being able to speak Italian to my father when I need to make something clear makes communication easier. Plus, it’s fun. I was always jealous of some of my Paonita cousins in New York who grew up bilingual. I’d heard Sicilian dialect and Italian through most of my childhood and understand a fair amount (and pretended not too, the better to eavesdrop), but I hadn’t learned the language formally until I was in college. But once I picked up the language, it was fun to talk to my father in his native tongue, and of course he had to correct me when I slipped up. It was good for both of us.

So now I do my errands, visit friends, and do the occasional interview for an article in Milan or on the phone, and I just wonder what Nuccio would make of it. I’m in a different part of Italy, and a lot of people would joke that Sicily isn’t part of the same country. (That’s for another post, or maybe never,) He’s reluctant to travel; he uses oxygen and worries that his portable machine would quit mid-flight. He’s a nervous traveler anyway; on our last flight together to Rome, I slept while he sat bolt upright and awake, arms folded. So much has changed since he last lived in this country, and, to be honest, a lot has changed in the past decade.

For better or worse, Italy seems to be the Italian-language province of Eurolandia. Multinational store outlets dot the suburbs, even here in Perugia. The same names familiar to most Americans fill the local centro commerciale (a mall, in other words): Zara, Benetton, McDonalds. Our local big supermarket has a big sushi bar right next to the deli counter. In fact, sushi’s a thing here; a new restaurant in central Perugia specializes in sushi and French oysters. It used to be that you went to a trattoria and had a first course of pasta, rice, or soup, then a meat or fish course. If you didn’t, you’d get looks and attitude from the waiter. Now, it’s pretty much do what you want, anddo you need gluten-free pasta? The youth here have their iPhones and use the same apps their counterparts in Billyburg use, and they lo9d1b4530659caed076d3a47367b4f42a--mens-blazers-scarf-menok pretty much the same, too.

The only way to tell Italians and their hipster American friends apart? When it goes below about 20 degrees C, or 68 degrees F, the scarves come out here, while a lot of American guys will go out in the snow wearing flip flops and shorts. Some things will probably never change, and for good reason.

The Year of Living Differently

“THE YEAR OF LIVING DIFFERENTLY” HEADLINE CAME TO ME as I was swimming laps in the local Y pool. Thinking of a phrase there wasn’t odd by itself—I always came up with decent headlines and story ideas while walking, running, or swimming. But I was swimming late morning, right in the middle of the workday.

Other people’s workdays.

For almost a year, I haven’t had a day job. For some 33 years I did, but right after New Year’s Day, I and a bunch of my colleagues were reorganized into other endeavors.

My first reaction? Relief. I was tired of the routine, even though I had work that I enjoyed most of the time. But I’m not going to go on about this. I guess if I want to be pompous, I can say that my not being beholden to a regular job is the leitmotif of this post. But like the other media I used to sneer at, I’d like to look back semi-fondly at an incredibly weird year. Not as a political or reported article, but a personal look.

For one thing, our family lost a couple of souls this year that were precious to us. First off was our pal, no, our brother by a different mother Mick, lost to ALS. Mick was a romantic, a sweetheart, a truly funny guy with (and I say this with love and admiration) a twisted and original sense of humor. In his later years, he suppressed that side of him in favor of genuineness—I guess arch humor loses its appeal after awhile. But here’s a sample of his work for The Multiethnic Foundation, a guerrilla art group that he and er, I and The Spartan Woman had back in prehistory (ok, the early 1980s).

2013 multiethnic calendar.jpg

Happy Fascism!We actually put together a ‘zine once. Riffing off of an idea in Borges’ Ficciones, we put together a magazine of magazine covers. They’re the best part, aren’t they? Here are a few samples that Mick lovingly put together in a calendar for us a few years ago. (Keep in mind that he did this stuff with an X-acto knife and press-on type, cutting and pasting the rest.) Looking at some of this stuff, it was oddly prescient.

Sigh. We’ll miss him.

 

DSCN4607.jpg

Henry Aldridge Scozzare, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, 2005

We also lost a couple of members of the Villa Sconita family, sweet Pete the cat, and  Henry the Lab. Everyone thinks his or her pet is special, but Henry was something else. He was so keyed into our moods. He understood every language we could throw at him. So for the first time in years, we had a mostly animal-free house in New York.

You know that feeling that you’re standing on the precipice of something? That change is inevitable, so get used to it? 2017 has been that year. The lack of a day job freed me up from having to physically be in the U.S. We’d recently bought a country house in Italy, and we actually got to spend some time there. In the spring, we went for just a couple of weeks,  We scheduled the trip before my life was reorg’d.

IMG_1798

It isn’t every day that you do a panel discussion in a palazzo.

But it was good, anyway. For one thing, I got to do a panel discussion at the International Journalism Festival with my friend and former colleague, Fabio Bertoni. We talked about the dangers of the EU ruling on the right to be forgotten online. (And The Spartan Woman and I bought kitchens and ordered furniture. To be honest, the whole two weeks is a blur.)

Even better, we spent two months in Umbria over the summer.  (Our neighbors, the sheep of Agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto, are wandering around in the photo up top.) I hadn’t spent that much time abroad since I was a teenager. And that was with my extended Paonita family and just a tad less free. I didn’t have to beg for the time off, or work around others’ schedules, or get the disapproving looks of certain execs about daring to take more than a week off at a time. (Honestly, Americans are idiots when it comes to such things. Flame me if you want, but it’s true.)

I wondered before flying out how it would be, whether two months away would leave me yearning for, I don’t know, American TV or the language. And no, we passed the test. First of all, The Spartan Woman and I speak English to one another; every now and then we’ll say a phrase or two in Italian, but it’s not how we communicate most of the time. So we didn’t feel alienated. At the same time, interacting every day with shopkeepers and waiters and workmen did wonders for my Italian fluency.

Lest you get the wrong idea, we didn’t spend our days Looking at Art and aping the British Grand Tour. We were more like general contractors, overseeing a few platoons of plumbers, electricians, stonemasons and others getting the house in order. And I worked through a good chunk of it, sitting at the only table we had at the time, in the kitchen, looking wistfully out the door at the garden. Freelancing does has its benefits (but don’t ask me to praise the art of nagging for payment).

Ever notice how things go at once? Besides the pets, we said goodbye to a car, a washing machine, an iPhone, a MacBook Air…it goes on. I’m not saying there’s a conspiracy, but a guy can feel pretty paranoid about these coincidences.

Enough musing. It’s time to charge head first into 2018. Happy New Year/Buon Anno/Bonne Année everyone. My resolution: To keep on connecting with you, and to battle the darkness out there. Or on my Facebook feed—hint, let’s try not to let them drive us crazy.

 

Mr. Bickham, Joan, and Us

Version 2

Dennis and Joan posed outside the IFC Center, 11 November 2017

I haven’t written in awhile, not since we got back late this summer. Call it a combination of work, routine stuff, and not having any deep thoughts about what I did on my summer semi-vacation, or how I felt about returning from it.

But an outing this Saturday got me wanting to write here again. My old colleague-comrade Joan Cheever and her husband Dennis Quinn invited us to a screening of a mini-documentary they helped produce, Seven Dates With Death. It was part of the Doc NYC festival, said to be the largest documentary film festival in the world.  Seven Days riffs off part of Joan’s book Back From the Dead: One Woman’s Search for the Men Who Walked Off America’s Death Row. In one chapter, she describes the life and case of Moreese Bickham. (You should buy the book; Amazon’s selling it in digital form, too, and it’s an engrossing, thought-provoking read about capital punishment and redemption.)

Bickham lived in Mississippi and Louisiana for most of his nearly 100 years. He’d gotten into an argument with sheriff’s deputies in a bar back in 1958. Later that night, the deputies, without shields, and who many in the area said were Ku Klux Klan members, approached his house and opened fire. Bickham fired back, killing the two men. He was convicted of the murders and spent over a decade on Louisiana’s death row. He won seven stays of his execution date. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Furman vs. Georgia that capital punishment was cruel and unusual punishment; from that moment all capital murder sentences were commuted to prison terms, usually for life.

In Seven Dates, Bickham talks about the incident, and his life in prison and out. The guy (who died last year at the age of 98) talks without guile, and without bitterness. Sure, he takes blame for the two men’s deaths, but he’s cleared eyed about the bigotry and mistreatment of African-Americans that led to his spending decades on death row.

Joan and I worked together as editors at The National Law Journal, back then a scrappy print weekly. We worked out of a cramped and ugly newsroom in what is now Google’s New York base. Regular old-fashioned metal desks were pushed together, although there were rudimentary partitions for some reporters. Joan and I sat without partitions at the entrance of the main part of the newsroom, sort of like Tibetan temple guards. In that little, crowded space, we committed some terrific journalism—and we heard everything that went on.

IMG_2487

Three of the Florent Four: Rose Olander, Joan Cheever, and Anthony Paonita

Joan’s a lawyer, and through a friend was representing a death row inmate who eventually lost all appeals and was executed. She was getting into the capital punishment issue with the enthusiasm that is typical of her, and soon she was reporting and writing a book about the death row inmates whose sentences had been commuted by the Supreme Court’s Furman decision.

Suffice it to say, Bickham became our friend. I should really say “Mr. Bickham,” because that’s how Joan referred to him over the years, and that’s how I sort of know him. We heard all the updates about Mr. Bickham’s life, and in a way, everyone in the newsroom felt like we were part of Joan’s journey. Years later we were attending a memorial in the Bay Area for the spouse of an NLJ reporter, and Bickham lived in Oakland, and Joan and I went to the farmer’s market, where Joan bought Mr. Bickham a gift, wind chimes. I never got to meet him, though. At some point in the weekend, a friend took me on a whirlwind tour of San Francisco and the woods north of the city while Joan brought Mr. Bickham his gift.

The Seven Dates screening was pretty early for a Saturday, 10 a.m. We approached the theater and saw Joan and Dennis outside. We hugged like the old friends that we are, and I turned around to see Rosemary Olander-Beach, who was our copy editor at the paper way back when. It might have been awhile since I’d seen either of them, but we fell into conversation and laughs as though we’d seen each other the day before, at our then-regular Friday lunch spot, Florent. Soon afterward, another former colleague dropped by, ex-copy editor Joe Phalon. It was great to have part of the old gang together again.

Reunion016

The Florent Four, with Flo (left), at the infamous Table 8, during a 2002 reunion.

Why am I writing this? For a couple of reasons. First, I’m pushing Joan’s book and documentary short. But it also got me thinking about journalism, how people working in the profession formed long-lasting bonds—and how the business has changed, and not for the better. A lot of my best friends come from that era; we worked closely, and there’s something about that editor-reporter bond. It’s almost like a doctor/patient relationship. The reporter supplies the work for the editor, and places his or her life—the painstakingly crafted or even tossed off story—into the editor’s hands, hoping the editor will make it better.

Version 2

Joe Phalon came, too.

Newsrooms until sometime earlier this century, or maybe even back into the 1990s, were full of brilliant and eccentric people. The so-called grownups, the editors, tolerated a lot of what would be deviant workplace behavior elsewhere from the reporters and from one another. It was more than tolerance, actually—we wanted it, cultivated it. We knew that people somewhat on the edge were sensitive and driven enough to connect with sources and really draw something great out of a conversation. Truly curious people tend not to be drones. We derisively called normal work environments “insurance companies.” (Apologies if you’re in that fine, fine trade.)

If we worked hard, we played hard, too, and not just in the approved way of meeting after work for drinks. We often drank on deadline nights; it helped with the headline writing. And we had a tradition of ducking out after the paper went out at lunchtime to a diner-turned-into-24-hour sanctuary for the weird and creative, Florent in the old meatpacking district. What started out as a restrained meal with a glass of wine turned into a legendary thing, with a core group of editors consuming bottles of wine with lunch, and having cocktails or armagnac for dessert. Occasionally our editor in chief would drop in when we were already pretty drunk, and ordered a bottle of the paper’s house Champagne, Veuve Clicquot. We started that day—our weekly deadline—with bubbly and bagels for breakfast. That sort of behavior probably would get us fired now.

What kept the sacred newsroom that way was separation. We existed apart from the business side of the operation. Good editors protected their wacky charges from such concerns as circulation and ad sales. But that couldn’t last. Maybe the business side’s resentments got the ear of management, but today’s newsroom often resembles that reviled insurance company. It’s a quiet place, with reporters often just emailing sources. They’ve got production quotas and metrics, and should they forget, there are large flatscreens showing how many mostly casual readers have clicked on their stories. As el Cheeto Loco might say: Sad!

In short, American business practices have taken over the news business and turned its workers into digital drones. Maybe I’m just a nostalgic curmudgeon, but the kids getting into it now are working in a more sterile, less adventurous, more orthodox careerist environment.

Do I or any of my ex-colleagues want to go back to that? I doubt it. Maybe the memories are like insects preserved in amber, pretty to look at and think about, but of a particular place and time that can’t be replicated.

I Met Her Online

I was a member some years ago of SlowFood, the back-to-basics food movement founded in Italy by Carlo Petrini. The organization supports local agriculture and traditional foods, and rejects industrialized, standardized methods of food production. Petrini founded the group after seeing a McDonald’s open in Rome’s Piazza di Spagna and decided the world needed an antidote to fast food.

I had joined the U.S. branch, but after awhile, I left the group. The Americans  seemed to be more interested in luxury food, rather than participating in the then-nascent farm-to-table movement, and I decided that it wasn’t for me.

But it left a legacy: Sandra Cordon and Letizia Mattiacci.

IMG_1957

Letizia (left) and Sandra, old friends sharing stories.

It’s a little complicated, but going through the SlowFood site, I must’ve stumbled onto Slow Travel, which had message boards for travelers who wanted a different experience from the package tours and the usual Rome/Florence/Venice routine. In particular, there was a message board just for Italy. I was fascinated by the kinds of questions people would ask and the ensuing discussions. At some point, I noticed that there was a woman who was really into Perugia, and either asked questions about logistics or answered them for would-be travelers.

Sandra is Canadian and now works for the United Nations in Rome. We got to know her—my memory is vague, but she sent me a personal message. And at some point, we managed to be in Perugia at the same time, and she, The Spartan Woman, and I had a terrific lunch. We told stories and walked around Perugia via our favorite streets and had gelato at Augusta Perusia, the best gelateria in the city (and just maybe, the world). Sandra and I have a lot in common: We’re recovering journalists who once had full-time jobs in that wonderful and crazy and stressed out profession. Our politics are in synch and we like to get out of North America, either full-time for her, or part of the year for us.

Sandra brought us a gift: Letizia Mattiacci. On her posts, Sandra frequently mentioned Letizia, so like any good ‘net citizen, I did some Googling. Turns out Letizia is a cooking teacher and with her husband owns a bed and breakfast in the hills near Assisi, La Madonna del Piatto, a stone’s throw from Perugia. (You can see Assisi from Perugia, and the two cities were bitter rivals until the pope took over the region and put an end to intercity rivalry, and, well, pretty much else that was interesting about Umbria. That lasted until Italy’s unification, and it’s a topic for another post.)

Eventually, Letizia and I got to know each other through social media, but for some reason, we never met. Until Sandra intervened, that is.

Last month, Sandra came to Valfabbrica to check out our country spread. We had a great afternoon drinking prosecco, complaining about the heat wave Europeans dubbed “Lucifer,” munching on snacks and bringing ourselves up to date with one another. She mentioned that she was staying at Letizia’s place, and I told her I’d love to finally meet Letizia in person. By this point, Letizia has attained a kind of stardom—she published a terrific cookbook, has been featured in articles in The New York Times, and has pretty much established herself as the expert on Umbrian cooking and culture to the rest of the world. The next day, Sandra invited us to meet Letizia at her school/B&B.

So it was with a little trepidation that we drove over the mountain to Assisi, through switchbacks and what Italians call a “strada bianca,” an unpaved, narrow gravel track. We pulled up and there she was, along with her husband Ruurd (he’s from the Netherlands) and Sandra. The trepidation was totally unwarranted: Letizia is warm,, welcoming, and funny. She’s also razor sharp—she and Ruurd, in a former life were entomologists who met at a conference in Paris and pursued a long distance romance through grad school and work.

We had so much fun that night. The Spartan Woman and Letizia hit it off and excitedly traded recipes and stories. Letizia and I talked about our Sicilian families. She served us fresh mystery-flavored gelato. No one guessed what it was; it turns out it was a subtle, real licorice from the real plant, not the anise-flavored stuff that often is passed off as licorice. She then brought out her own homemade arancello, the orange version of limoncello. It was strong, sweet and vividly flavored.

IMG_1965.jpg

Letizia (right) is having way too much fun signing her cookbook.

Letizia may be warm and welcoming, but she also has strong opinions (and I agree with most of them when it comes to food in Italy). She mentioned that a lot of her American students found the orange liqueur to be too strong—”that’s because they’re so used to watering down their drinks with ice!” In a recent column on an English language Italian website, she weighs in on celebrity chefs altering such culinary icons as carbonara and passing them off as the real thing.

We ended the evening by driving into Assisi for dinner at one of the family’s favorite places, Trattoria degli Umbri, right on the central piazza. We had a table dead center on a very crowded night, and had a simple meal, the best thing to do when you’re in Umbria. Assisi’s an amazing place; it caters ways too much to the pilgrim/Catholic tourist trade with lots of tacky souvenir shops selling statues of St. Francis and the like. Yet at night, after the day trippers have gone, it’s got a party vibe, especially on a warm summer night.

IMG_1979.jpg

Francesco Was Here

IMG_1926.jpgOne of the selling points of this house was its proximity to the Sentiero Francescano, a trail from Assisi to Gubbio that San Francesco (St. Francis of Assisi) took hundreds of years ago. The trail happens to pass through Valfabbrica and, happily for us, through and around the hills near the house.

We were sitting around having coffee and I got restless (hmm, coffee, restlessness, connection?). “Let’s go for a walk,” I told The Spartan Woman. For once, now that it was safe to walk without having a stroke, she agreed. We got in the car, just to avoid the boring walk to the trailhead, ditched the car, and set off.

And oh.my.god. It’s just stunningly beautiful. The views, the blue sky, the ruins, the little country church, the olive trees, the sound of rustling leaves. See for yourself:

IMG_1930.jpg

The trail is actually a “strada bianca,” or white road at this point, fairly wide with some gravel. There’s a steep incline to start, but it levels off somewhat and there are enough vantage points to take in the view. This was our first exploratory walk, so we weren’t sure how far we’d go. We did it on a lark, so no water, etc. But every corner urged us to go further.

At one point, we got a closer view of a ruin that we’d seen from across the road from our house. I was wondering what it was—from afar it could’ve been another farmhouse on a ledge. Of course we had to climb the hill and round the curve to check it out.

IMG_1943.jpg

We met hikers coming from the opposite direction, one of whom seemed nervous about the sheep further down the path and the sheepdogs. We had to assure him that the dogs were harmless and they were only interested in guarding their charges. Their human is Luciano of our neighboring agriturismo, Ca’Mazzetto.

IMG_1948

The Sentiero, we’ve learned, is just part of a network of trails that run through this area. The trails are well-marked, and there are periodic info signs that tell you what you’re seeing—even in English.

IMG_1947One of the trails, the Via Francigena is actually a long series of trails that, incredibly enough, connect Canterbury, England, to Rome, and onward to Puglia. We decided that that was a tad too ambitious for this Wednesday morning. Its site looks pretty good, and offers all sorts of advice for those who want to tackle at least part of the route. Eric Sylvers, a reporter who wrote freelance pieces for my old magazine, actually followed the route through much of Italy 10 years ago. You can see some of his videos here.

 

A Long Day of Doing Nothing Much at All

IMG_0946

We’ve been running around a lot. The first month, for me, was a whirl of flying, metro trains and a small hotel room in Milan, meetings and meeting friends. Then home to Perugia, where I rented a car and drove right away out to the house in Valfabbrica, where a small army of workers was practically camping out. They were rushing to finish a pool because they knew we were coming, and the weather was just getting hotter and hotter.

I practically have to look at the pictures I took to remember July. I vaguely remember driving to Rome to pick The Spartan Woman (TSW) up from the airport, and the next day we drove out to Ancona to the big IKEA store there. We had a deadline: Our daughter and her cousin were coming in soon and needed beds to sleep in, and we needed tables to sit at and cooking utensils.

Most people come here to sightsee or to sip Aperol spritzes while watching the sun set. We got to know the local big box hardware store, the French furniture store and various housewares emporia. One of these days, if I have the stomach for it, I’ll tell you about cisterns, water pumps and hot water heaters.

Then the young ones came (and so did a bunch of friends to play in the pool and have dinner and…etc.)

Phew. So here, finally, a day of nothing much at all. We did get out to buy a lawnmower, but that was a quick run (to another French retailer, no less). Otherwise, nothing. Feeding the feral cats who come by for food. One likes spaghetti; the other potato chips. We give them cat food, too. Wine for me. Maybe we’ll fix some dinner in a couple of hours.

52510995666__F41D24BB-7C4A-4911-95AB-B40D86240AF8.jpg

We’re sitting at our patio table watching stupid bugs fly into citronella candles and listening to planes occasionally land and take off somewhere over the mountains, where there’s a gently used regional airport. If I were in New York, I wouldn’t even notice, but the noise disturbs the rustling of the leaves on one of the few temperate days we’ve had this summer. I’m playing with Siri, summoning her—it?—with the command, “hey, Siri” and telling her/it what song to play (So far, Bowie, Travis, R.E.M.’s “Wichita Lineman” cover, Daft Punk).

Oh, and we passed up being at a party at Sting’s estate in Toscana, sorry, Tuscany. A big part of me wanted to go. No, really. I’ve seen previous years’ videos, where he does a killer acoustic version of “Message in a Bottle.” But it would’ve meant dressing like a grownup, getting into the car, driving a couple of hours. (Plus, I had to think to about mowing the lawn, maybe tomorrow. Exhausting!) Sally, I’d love to do it next year, but today just didn’t feel right.

It’s taking me awhile to get used to this relative quiet. I’ve been on the go for decades, going to an office every day or working at home and staying in contact for fear of being forgotten. Living with TSW has always been akin to being near the eye of a hurricane: not always frantically spinning around but being sucked into the vortex often enough.

Italians have a word for it: La dolce far niente, the sweet do-nothing. I guess I’m not just doing nothing. I’m sitting here writing about doing nothing, which I’ll admit is a contradiction. While I’m writing this, TSW is reading me news headlines about this exotic land across the ocean run by, get this, a failed real estate developer. She chortles at words like “fake news” and “Bannon.”

In the back of my mind, it’s all a prelude to going back to what some think is the real world. I’ll be getting back to work, and some home improvement back in New York. We’re having visitors from here in October, and we’d like to show them more than our usual chaos. But first, I’ll do some more travel writing. I wanted to write something today, but I didn’t want to put much energy into it.

Tourists Wanted

There’s been a spate of stories in places like The New York Times and the Guardian about anti-mass tourism demonstrations and laws to curb tourism in European cities like Barcelona, Venice, and Rome. I can’t say that I blame the local authorities and demonstrators. Large groups of selfie-stick wielding tourists take a toll on a place and its inhabitants, who have to move around and get to work and home. Plus, mass tourism deforms the local economy: If you go to the popular haunts in a city like Florence, you’ll see that nearly every shopfront is either a pizzeria, gelateria, currency exchange, or snack bar. These businesses push out the tailors, bars, and bookstores that cater to residents.

But I’ll make an exception to the anti-tourism mood. Come to Umbria. We need you. Not all of you, and we’d prefer that you don’t travel in large packs. But last year’s earthquakes in the mountainous zones in the Valnerina scared a lot of people away from Umbria. It’s hard to get an exact count, but I saw estimates immediately post-quake of as much as 30-to-40 percent.

The ground has stayed solid lately, and, as a friend said, traveling in Umbria no more risky than going to California or Japan. And it’s a lot more relaxed. Sure, the Catholic faithful mob Assisi, but otherwise, it’s cool runnings. And I’ll tell you that you’ll have a more authentic Italian experience. Why? Here’s the thing: You can find pictures of monuments everywhere. But it’s really easy to have chance encounters with really nice, warm people here, people who haven’t been made cynical by an onslaught of visitors.

In the next few posts, I’ll show you why. First up, Isola Maggiore (“big island”) in Lago Trasimeno. “Lago” means “lake.” It’s the largest lake on the Italian peninsular, and it’s where Hannibal met his defeat during the Punic War in 217 BC. The place can fool you; it looks as big as an ocean from certain vantage points, and it’s a cool shade of turquoise on a sunny day.

IMG_1777It’s got islands, too. One of them, Isola Polvese, is an environmental research center. If you want to see what they’re up to, you have to sign up for a walking tour. Isola Maggiore (big island) is an easier experience. Go to Tuoro’s marina and take the ferry.

Isola Maggiore is hilly and has lots of well-marked hiking trails. There’s one big climb, but it’s not a hard slog. You won’t have to climb any rock faces. And once you’re up there, you’ll encounter an ancient church with frescoes and a friendly guide. Groves of olive trees fill the island, and you can’t really get lost. If you want to get back near the ferry landing, just head down the hill. The views of the lake from up there are pretty stunning, as you can see.

In a way, being there reminds me of an Italian version, in miniature form, of hiking on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. You’ve got a neat combo of water, trees and hills, with decent hiking and great views.

And just like Mt. Desert Island, there’s a payback: a good meal at the end of your hike. Isola Maggiore has the same lazy hedonistic feel to its big Maine counterpart, and pleasure is part of the experience. We always head to Da Sauro, a hotel/restaurant near the ferry dock. There’s a dining deck and room as you get into the little village, but walk a bit further and there’s a garden on the right. The garden has a splendid view of the lake, and friendly pheasants come to visit.

The food’s pretty good. There’s a bargain lake fish menu, featuring, for the most part, lake perch, or persico in Italian. We usually embellish the two courses (pasta, second perch skewer or fish stew course, vegetable) with an antipasto, like a mixed fried fish platter to share. Wash it down with cold, local white wine, have a coffee, and relax.

IMG_1803.jpg

They’re really sweet there. Last week, I was talking to one of the owners while paying the tab. I mentioned that we went back every year to Da Sauro and that it’s become a family tradition. She thanked me, and as I started out the door, she ran after me with a chilled bottle of the white house wine. “This is to thank you for coming back with your family. We hope to see you soon,” she said in Italian, as we shook hands.

Now doesn’t that sound better than running from monument to monument on a hot Roman day?