Perugia, mon amour

We went antiquing the other day. You might say, “meh, so what?” But this was an unusual event for us. Well, okay, not the venue: Our nearest big city, Perugia, hosts an antiques market in one of the big piazzas on the last weekend of every month and we’ve been there before. Still, this was kind of a big deal. The heat, and still-widespread Covid cases, kept us on our mountain most of the time. But we got antsy and needed to go out. And in the process, with the heat abating somewhat, we’ve rediscovered our old love: Perugia.

There’s an amazing amount of both good stuff and kitsch. In particular, I have a thing for old magazines from the 1950s and ’60s, artifacts of “La Dolce Vita” Italy, the Italy that my sister and I reveled in as kids, when our relatives from abroad came to visit, or when we listened to the pop songs of the time. The Spartan Woman and I have even bought little stuff at the market, like an antique corkscrew or some prints.

Looking for artifacts of a former civilization

This time was different. We actually bought a large piece of furniture. The seller called it a libreria—a bookshelf. But it looked like the perfect breakfront for our kitchen in the country. The top part had glass doors, while the bottom doors were wooden. It looked like it came from nonna’s (grandma’s) house. The seller probably sanded it down and painted, then distressed the wood to give it that old country house feeling. Whatever. We liked it. The price tag was €490, which comes to about the same amount in dollars. We were just looking and the seller blurted out €300. Sold!

What happened afterward is what made the deal special. We told him we lived in the country, about 20 kilometers away. Does he ship? He said he did. It would take a few days, which was fine by us. We gave him our address, with some directions, and my mobile phone number. Did we want to leave a deposit? he asked. He quickly added, it’s not necessary. Would this happen anywhere else I wondered? At the time, it seemed to me that at this point he had no incentive to get the piece to us, but hey, it’s not as though we were going to lose out if he didn’t deliver.

After breakfast at a nearby café (coffee and pastries), we headed to our car. My phone rings. “Antonio, this is the antiques guy,” the voice on the other end said in Italian. “Are you going to be home soon? We can deliver the piece today if you want.” Sure, I said, we’re on our way. Give us an hour or so—the actual trip is 25 minutes, but we had to clear out a space for the piece. A couple of hours later, a delivery van arrives, I help the guy carry the heavy load into the kitchen. Delivery guy drinks three glasses of cold water after he complained that the ghost town next to ours didn’t even have an open bar. We give him the cash and now the piece sits nicely in the kitchen.

I know, this is not extraordinary. People buy stuff like this all the time. But what got to me, and what I love about living here, is the element of trust. The seller didn’t take a deposit, and yet he delivered the piece based on our word. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine that happening in New York. Or much of the U.S.

ON THAT SAME WEEKEND AS THE ANTIQUES MARKET, we had another terrific reason to go into town. Blame, or credit Laura. She’s part of the Santucci clan, which adopted The Spartan Woman back in the day, and which has become our chosen family here. In fact, the connection with Laura is where our Kid No. 2 was baptized. It’s a Romanesque church that dates to the 6th century, give or take, and was built using the columns of a Roman temple that previously stood on the site. Laura co-authored a book on the church, grandly called, at least officially, the Tempio di San Michele Arcangelo. But most perugini just called it the Tempietto di Sant’Angelo.

Perugia’s archeological museum hosted a presentation on the book and a general lecture about this extraordinary structure. It’s round, and set on a hill surrounded by lawns, with the neighborhood’s guard tower nearby. It’s such a tranquil and beautiful place that it’s got a waiting list of couples throughout Italy who want to be married there.

Laura Santucci, right, laughs at a co-panelist’s comment.

Besides its fame, it’s the local parish church, and hosts such activities as after-school recreation for latchkey kids in the neighborhood. And before Covid, its yard was the venue for an evening that Laura, her family, and friends organized called “Mangiamo Insieme,” or “Let’s Eat Together.” For a nominal sum, I think €10 or €15 a head (about the same in dollars), people in the neighborhood got together in long long tables for a full dinner. Some 200 people attended the one we were at; it was a beautiful night, bringing together just about everything that makes living in Umbria a pleasure.

After Laura’s presentation, we had a real need for some adult beverages and people watching. Perugia’s main drag, the Corso Vannucci, is a pedestrian island full of bars, cafes, restaurants, and shops. It’s also way too touristy for us, at least in Perugian terms—this city is decidedly not like the Holy Trinity of Italian tourist sites, RomeFlorenceVenice. You can spot the tourists easily: They’re the ones having dinner at 18:30 on the Corso.

So, avoiding the early dinner crowd, we went to a hipster bar, Mercato Vianova, on a side street. You can get sushi at this bar, if that’s your thing. But we were just into a drink and snacks.

I usually go for a spritz of some kind, but after seeing a glass of Franciacorta on the drinks list (like a lot of restaurants post-Covid here, you scan a QR code for the menu), we decided to have our bubbly unadulterated. (If you’re wondering, Franciacorta is Prosecco’s more grownup cousin. It’s aged and develops bubbles in the bottle, just like Champagne, and is usually drier than Prosecco.) Some house-made potato chips and toast with butter and anchovies, add some great people watching, and we fell in love again with the city that took TSW’s heart decades ago.

The housewives like fresh vegetables!

Let us go back in time. Way back. It’s around 1980 and we’re in a once-grand, now shabby student apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Right near Columbia University, in fact. We’re at a party with a bunch of grad students from the neighborhood; I forgot whether it was for any special occasion. Did anyone need one back then?

We’d been invited by a good friend of ours who back then went by the name of Drew. One of his roommates brandished some newspaper put out by Albania’s Communist Party (remember, this is the Upper Left Side, ground zero for left wing intelligentsia back then). “Pig iron production is up by 10 percent! All praise to our leader Enver Hoxha!” the roommates exclaimed before collapsing in laughter.

Meanwhile, there’s a cluster of women surrounding a guy looking, if I squinted, somewhat like the young Trotsky. They’re hanging onto every word of his. “I decided that I’d write my dissertation on the Italian anarchists,” Trotsky-alike said in a thick, somewhat plummy British accent. “That’s Carl,” I’m told. “He just got back from the London School of Economics.” The crowd surrounding him nodded in unison. I can be bad and say they looked like groupies surrounding Eddie Van Halen, but maybe they’re as fascinated by the Italian anarchists as Carl is.

Carl’s kind of people

I catch bits and pieces of Carl’s monologue. To my admittedly uneducated, bachelor degree at the time-only ears, the Italians that he’s describing—we’re talking post World War I and pre-Mussolini—sound like noble savages, selfless, instinctual in their generosity and class consciousness. Carl avers that Italians even now (well, in 1980) aren’t all that different. Then he utters the sentence that to him says everything: “The housewives like fresh vegetables.”

Did I mention that Carl grew up in Massapequa? As in Massapequa, Long Island? New York? Somehow I doubt that he spoke with that accent before he attended the hallowed LSE.

I’m writing about Carl, wherever he is now, because he was one of many people I met, and writers I’ve read, who look at Italians in this sort of folklore-y condescending way. Italians are passionate, they’re disorganized, they love their families, they’re Catholic, they drive fast, they have great food, they do funny things that we just can’t understand, but it’s so much fun to go there on vacation. This simplistic portrayal of a complex, modern society goes back to the days of the Grand Tour, when Brits of a certain class traveled south to learn about Art and gaze wistfully at the Tuscan landscape. Think of the E.M. Forster novel and film adaption of A Room With a View, and you’ll know what I mean.

I remember as a high school kid stopping in at a friend’s house, a friend whose family can trace itself back to the American Revolution. White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, in other words. Father (he was called that by his wife, who naturally was “Mother”) would greet me and then, knowing that I’m an American with Italian relatives, ask me about recipes for various Italian-American dishes. I’m sure he was just trying to make conversation, but I remember thinking, JH Christ, get real, as if every Italian-American kid has in his genes the ability to cook veal scaloppini.

The British press is prone to this sort of thing, too. A Modern Languages Open paper examines British attitudes, arguing that most British narratives toward countries like Italy start from the viewpoint that British culture is superior. And a lot of Brits fully believe in the usual stereotypes: sunny Italy, sunset with a glass of Chianti, anarchic drivers, etc.

ABOVE: Image, meet reality

And as in Britain, so its anglophile cousins across the pond. And fairly recently. The New York Times, long a bastion of proper WASP snobbism, pointedly ignored last year’s bankruptcy and shutdown of the Italian airline Alitalia, which by most measures, was a huge business news story on the continent. At some point, someone must have noticed that Alitalia—once the official Vatican airline—had ceased operations and finally, the Grey Lady ran a silly oped, er, sorry, guest essay, by Christopher Buckley.

I’M NOT A NAIVE CHAMPION OF MY other country. The bureaucracy can drive you nuts, the voting pool is divided about 50-50, which makes it easy for weak coalition governments to be patched together and then fall after only a few months. (Just last week, Italian politicians, led by the feckless Cinque Stelle leader Giuseppe Conte, jettisoned a national unity coalition, handing Putin and the right wing a gift.) But if you look past the stereotypes, you’ll see that Italian society is actually a rules-based, established culture. The rules, however, take a while to learn, and are mostly unspoken and certainly, unwritten. They’re woven into everyday conduct. And once you’re used to them, going back to the Wild West of the U.S. can be a jarring experience in reverse culture shock.

To give a concrete example, walk into a shop of any size. Even a huge hypermarket. You make eye contact with the cashier or salesperson and you had better exchange greetings. There’s none of the sullen get right down to it business exchange that you’ll see in any American mall. If you walk into a clothing shop and start with “do you have a white shirt in a 42 size?” the clerk will immediately peg you as a rude lout and will often ignore you until you approach him or her correctly.

Another example: Days are structured here in ways that may not seem immediately obvious, except for the general lull in the middle of the day. For us retired people, it’s a structure that helps us avoid the feeling that we’re drifting through time aimlessly, like people in an old age home watching TV all day and seeing friends carted off periodically. And it’s a general structure that everyone pretty much follows.

You get up pretty early. Have coffee or whatever you need to wake up. Eat a little something. If you’re employed. you go off to the office/construction site/shop/whatever. If not, this is a perfect time to run errands. Then lunch, a pause of an hour or three. Then things pick up until either the aperitivo hour—time to meet friends for a drink. Then a light dinner and off to the finish line. I once made a lunch date with a source, a prominent lawyer for a large company here. Silly me, I asked him what time should we meet at the restaurant. He laughed, saying, “do I really need to tell you?”

I could go into the zillions of food rules, but others have it covered, especially on YouTube, where scores of videos tell you what not to do. Over and over again. So much so that you could be faulted for thinking you’re watching the same video on an endless loop. Here and here are examples. And best of all, for a video review of the rules we live by here, is Marco in a Box:

But the main rule? Enjoy yourself, try to greet people in Italian and get with the flow. And eat fresh vegetables whenever you can.

Come together?

So, it’s 2022 and Covid’s behind us and everything is just like the old days. Except that Italy reports more than 100,000 new cases on an average day. The United States records around 130,000 new infections daily. But hey, it’s just a bad cold, right? Let’s fly maskless, let’s go out to eat indoors, forget all those nasty restrictions.

At least that’s what it’s feeling like around here. Italians, who braved lockdowns and some of the most restrictive rules regarding vaccinations and gathering in public spaces, are partying like it’s 2019. It’s weirdly disconcerting, because while mass masking is clearly out, you still see bottles of sanitizer and plexiglass barriers everywhere. And don’t try getting on public transport without a mask. The local mall, er, centro commerciale is another thing…

We’ve been living with this strange situation the past couple of months. So basically we keep to ourselves and vaccinated/tested negative friends for the most part. But even given how fascinating we are to ourselves, sometimes you gotta get off the mountain, you know? And our region tempts us every day with festivals, places to hike (and people to do it with) and, bigly, as what’s-his-name once said, sagras.

What? You don’t know what a sagra is? Think of it as a big church supper, but without the church. (I’ve written about them before, but without Covid looming over them.) Substitute a town sponsor instead and add a single ingredient or dish as the star attraction. Add some cheesy merchandising, a band playing covers of everything from the Eagles (ugh) to Dua Lipa (!), not to mention gentle line-dancing for the elders. Enlist a platoon of locals to run the thing—the kids busing and waiting tables are especially adorable. And place said event (which usually lasts a few days to a week) in the local soccer pitch and you’ve got a sagra. The closest U.S. event I’ve been to is Staten Island’s Greek Festival, hosted by St. Nicholas orthodox church there.

Add fine china, a white tablecloth and a New York address and this would cost $40.

There’s one nearby that we can’t resist. It’s in Ripa, a hamlet two towns away from us. And it features truffles. Not the chocolate kind your mom got for Valentine’s Day, but the black, luscious, pungent, mysterious fungus that grows near oak trees. And the black tuber is on everything from toasts to pasta. It’s good, decadent fun on a budget. Similar food at a New York Temple of Gastronomy ™ would cost ya plenty, but a few dishes, a bottle of decent local wine and fizzy water set three of us back a whole €56, or $57.

Brits, especially, like to rank on Italians for being chaotic. (They should talk.) Go to a sagra, and you’ll see that the stereotype is just wrong. It’s all a matter of priorities. So while Roman traffic may be a free for all, food preparation and service at these sagre (*plural of sagra) is efficient and friendly. You wait in line while dispatching a friend or relative to find a table. That person texts the person on line which table number. Line person gives the order to the person in the booth and pays for it, and finds the table. Then table finder/sitter ventures out for drinks. You start on the wine and water and soon enough, an adorable 10-year-old kid delivers the food.

It’s more than the food. The people watching (and listening) can’t be beat. It’s great to see groups of family and friends out on a sultry night simply enjoying themselves and their place in the world. I like to see how the tribe organizes itself, and which combination of people are hanging out. Basically, the groups come in four models: the mixed generation family, usually three generations; the friends with or without kids and dogs; the elderly couples, either alone or in pairs. And us, a couple and an old friend who’s just moved here and we were showing him one of the glories of rural Umbria in the summer.

ANOTHER SUMMER HIGHLIGHT AROUND HERE is the Umbria Jazz festival. Only Covid stopped and then sharply curtailed it the past couple of years. But this year, for better or worse, the festival was back in its full glory, with free concerts in the streets and parks, an outdoor restaurant, paid big concerts in a soccer stadium—and lots of crowds jamming the small historic center of Perugia. The video below shows what the good old days (2017 here) were like.

We were leery and determined to stay up on the mountain and avoid the crowd. But I’d casually mentioned to a friend that The Spartan Woman would like to see the Canadian singer/pianist Diana Krall. I’d completely forgotten that I mentioned it until I got a text from my friend, saying “here’s a little gift.” Enclosed with the text were two free tickets, given to friends and family of the festival organizers.

Krall fits the “jazz” billing of the festival. But let’s say that the festival transcends labels. In the past we’ve seen artists as diverse as Caetano Veloso, REM on its last tour, Beach Boy genius Brian Wilson, and George Clinton and the P-Funk Allstars. We saw that we had reserved seats, so, unlike at the REM show it would be unlikely that a standing crowd would be jammed in right by the stage. We were right—our fellow concertgoers were a decorous bunch and we were able to socially distance from most of them.

All in all, it was a terrific way to spend a balmy summer evening. To avoid the typical Perugian parking, we drove to the end of the city’s MiniMetrò line, where there’s a huge and free parking lot. The metro itself normally shuts down at a ridiculous 21:30 every night, but they extended it to 1:45 for the festival. We zipped in and out, masked as required. You could say that the line is gently used most of the time, but it was crammed; lots of people had the same idea.

We’re keeping our fingers crossed and stay masked in public places. It was great to get out and pretend life was back to normal for a couple of hours. But for the time being, it’ll always be a little fraught to do that, so we’ll be choosy about where to go and how to do it.

Can I make an appointment with Doctor C—? What? This afternoon?

I was thinking about my other country this morning. I started to write this post on the morning of the Fourth of July, which in Italy doesn’t mean anything. But I was seeing holiday memes pop up in my social media feeds, stuff like “salute those who paid the ultimate price for your freedom.”

Really, folks, does it always have to default to saluting the military for the way we live? How about the dudes who started the whole thing by brandishing words, not muskets?

Sorry, I can’t resist. The country of my birth, the United States of America, has not distinguished itself lately. The supreme court rulings, the attempted coup by Trump and his thugs, the endless shootings of kids by the insane and of unarmed civilians by cops paints a picture of a country that’s falling into violent chaos with no good end in sight. Our friends here are puzzled and even distressed, because they grew up with American culture and the romance of the open west.

Then again, daily life for most people is not affected that much by what happens in the news. Society changes on its own, often without much intervention by government or what the press tells people to do. And it’s in the little things, the day-to-day living, where the U.S. is falling behind, too. I honestly don’t think that’s entered the consciousness of my fellow citizens, who are fed pep talks since birth about how great a nation it is. And when people talk about what ordinary citizens of other advanced nation have, the pundits and Republicans immediately denounce “socialism,” whatever that is. And that people there drive funny little cars.

So I’m going to go micro. Let me recount a few details about what it’s like to get healthcare here in Central Italy, and leave it up to you to decide whether you still want to settle for what the U.S. grudgingly grants its people.

Romantic types rhapsodize about the sweet Italian way of life, la so-called dolce vita. It’s a little different living here than being on vacation. But bureaucratic stuff aside, it is less of a hassle here to do certain ordinary things than it is in the U.S., or at least in New York. Like, for instance, seeing a doctor. I once posted about the aftermath of a car accident here, which featured a doctor visit to ensure that my parts were still in the right place.

THIS TIME, HOWEVER, A LONG-STANDING condition came to a head. Every now and then, after inhaling mold or mildew, I develop a chronic cough. It’s been enough to scare fellow subway riders, who think that I have tuberculosis. The cough ranges from annoying to debilitating, and this time it became the latter. But my New York doctor dismisses it when I mention it or break into a coughing spell. He tells me to take Claritin if it’s bothering me. Like a lot of American doctors, he’d rather I go to the standard Medicare-paid tests for people my age, rather than address a really annoying problem right in front of him, as though I’m asking for a prescription for heroin.

I asked a friend here in town for the name of a good doctor. He gave me a name and phone numbers of a physician he said knows his stuff. I put off calling for a while—I’m great at avoiding new situations. I didn’t know how I’d have to negotiate the process of getting an appointment here after years of dealing with American medical office assistants, who act as though their primary responsibility is to keep people from seeing the doctor.

I didn’t have to worry. Our exchange went like this (translated from the original Italian):

Me: Hi, my friend M gave me the doctor’s name. I live in town and have a chronic cough and I’d like to see the doctor.

Nurse/assistant: Can you wait a minute?

Me: Sure

Man’s voice: Hi, I’m Doctor C. What’s the problem?

Me: I explain while coughing throughout.

Doctor: It sounds like allergic asthma. Can you come visit this afternoon at 18:30?

Me: Sure, thanks.

Doctor: I’m right off the piazza. I’ll be waiting for you.

The piazza, the center of life Valfabbrica stylee, seen from Dr. C’s office

I hung up in a semi-daze, just amazed that A DOCTOR I DON’T KNOW GOT ON THE PHONE TO TALK TO ME AND TOLD ME TO COME VISIT THAT VERY DAY. I’m used to calling my doctor’s office in New York, being put on hold, then a distracted office person tries to find me an appointment six months out for that date. And after that hanging out in the waiting room a couple of hours. I’ve left doctors because of that. Once during one of the cough emergencies i was shunted off to a PA in a clinic near a hospital because my own doctor (who really is not a bad guy at all) couldn’t see me for months.

To make a long story short, I saw doctor C. He listened to my cough, checked my blood pressure, sat at his desk and typed up a page of notes and three prescriptions. He demonstrated how to use the inhaler and told me to come back in….two weeks. Not six months. Since I’m not yet enrolled in the state healthcare system, he charged me €60 for the visit, or about USD $61. I’ll be reinbursed by private insurance I have here, which costs less than the typical Medicare deduction and much, much less than individual health insurance in the U.S.

The dude’s a little more buff

I took the prescription to our local pharmacy. It’s in a small modern shopping center just outside the center of our little town. There’s a supermarket, a bar (what we call a café in Italy), a garden shop, and a clothing boutique. The pharmacy is not a chain; offhand I don’t even know if chains like CVS exist here. I went in with my prescriptions, which were typed on the doctor’s letterhead along with detailed instructions on when and how to take the meds. The pharmacist took a look at one of the inhalers. “Do you have a tessera sanitaria (medical card)”? I don’t; I’m not a full time resident, so I’m not yet in the state-run medical system. “It’s expensive,” she told me. I told her that I needed it anyway. And the damage? Just under €22, or about $23. I traded meds info with my daughter in New York, who also has asthma. We looked up the equivalent inhaler in the U.S., and it costs, wait for it, $350 retail.

(Can I put in a plug for locally owned pharmacies here? The CVS near our NY house treats people with prescriptions like applicants at the welfare office, forcing them to stand in line and then wait for hours or even to return in a few days. They bought up all the good family owned ones in the area, except the one owned by our friend Nick.)

Doctor C, unfortunately, had a little problem. He tested positive for Covid, and posted on Facebook, knowing that he’s friends with his patients on Zuckerberg’s platform. I did call the office after two weeks, and his assistant told me that as soon as he tested negative, they’d get in touch. They did—actually, he did, a few days later, and told me to come in. I did, he did the usual checks and adjusted the meds. Plus he told me to see a lung specialist, who’s semi retired after heading the pulmonary department in Perugia’s hospital, but still sees patients. I thought, whoa, this is going to add another layer. But no. So, same drill, I called a mobile number, the good doc answers and tells me to come in in a few days. He tells me to send a text on WhatsApp, and he responds with his address and driving directions.

Dr. D’s office. Note packed waiting room.

I won’t bore you with the details; it was a typical asthma/allergy bunch of tests. I found the place easily; it’s a huge medical center that houses the clinics for the area. You go in and a color coded sign guides you to the right office. Dr. D answered the door himself. He was reserved at first but then became conversational as we spent a whole hour together. And—The Spartan Woman tells me this unheard of in New York—he did the breathing test and allergy prick tests himself. (In addition to mold and household dust, I have mild allergies to olive trees, cypress trees, and the nasty thorny weeds that populate our lawn.) The cost for a specialist visit? €190, or USD $194,also reimbursable.

And so there we are. Dr. D told me to text him periodically over the summer to let him know how I’m doing, and to see him next month. I’ll try to be a good patient, because these people seem to be concerned and less arrogant than a lot of the masters of the universe doctors I’ve seen in New York.

A few caveats: We live in a small town with about 3,300 people, so Dr. C probably has it easier than a lot of his counterparts in bigger cities. And our region, Umbria, is in Central Italy, and is known for its relative efficiency and medical services. (People here like to complain about everything, but trust me, it’s easier to do these everyday chores than in New York, which also presents its own set of challenges.)

[Inhaler photo and asthma diagram courtesy Wikipedia Commons]

They survived the earthquakes, and it was great to get back in touch

I was going to write this post a few days ago. But then I thought that following the U.S. supreme court’s terrible decisions regarding abortion/privacy rights and gun control laws, it just seemed superficial. On the other hand, this post isn’t just about tourism, it’s about the friendships we make along the way, even if they’re fleeting and our time together lasts for just a couple of hours once a year.

The scene is the Piano Grande di Castelluccio. It’s a glacial plain up in the Apennines, the mountain chain that forms the spine of the Italian boot. The Piano is an amazing place, a huge basin, the kind of geological feature that you don’t often see in Italy—especially if your vision of the country is quaint villages, big cities with museums, and picturesque coasts. It’s a wild place, where sheep graze and where you can ride a horse Western-style and pretend you’re in the Wild West. Lots of European vacationers with campers congregate there, forming their own kind of little village as they set up camp and watch daytrippers like The Spartan Woman and me wandering around.

We’ve been going up there for years; it’s about a two-hour drive from our mountaintop. Timing can be crucial for one event, the annual outburst of wildflowers and some blue cultivated lentil blossoms. This fioritura brings a big splash of color to an already stunning tableau. It takes place around the end of June and beginning of July and on weekends, the place is insane. The crowds have gotten so bad that you now have to register online for a parking space and a shuttle to take you to the Piano and the nearby village of Castelluccio.

Unfortunately for Castelluccio, it was nearly leveled by two successive earthquakes in the autumn of 2016. And that’s where this story really starts. Before then it was a friends and family ritual to visit the Piano, then head to the Taverna Castelluccio for a decadent lunch. The Taverna was in a building on the edge of town, and if you sat outside, you had a great view of the expansive lentil fields below. (Castelluccio lentils are small, brown, and don’t dissolve into a brown mush.)

My friend Doug and I first went to the Taverna about eight years ago. We were seated next to a woman with a teenage daughter who was apparently teaching the daughter about good food and wine. She talked to the kid about the dishes, they sampled a bunch of them. They tasted some good wine, and at one point we began talking to her. She’s a pretty well known food blogger and TV personality based in Rome and I wish I could remember her name. At one point, she ordered an incredible dessert wine, and she insisted that we have a taste.

Last year in Norcia

That visit was the first of a few annual visits, with both daughters and one year, with our daughters’ friends. We loved the location, and the food was traditional with a twist, with pasta like homemade spaghetti alla chitarra with the local lentils and fresh ricotta. And since we were near Norcia, the culinary capital of truffle-dense Umbria, a lot of dishes came with the prized black funghi. More than the food and wine list, though, were the owners. The wife in the mom and pop pair would take a seat at the table and chat for awhile. Hearing our accent, she was curious about where we’re from. Not a whole lot of Americans know about the Piano Grande and its delights. We always came away from lunch sated and happy that we made a human connection with the proprietors.

Disaster struck in 2016, with two successive earthquakes. The first was on August 24, and that caused some damage to Norcia and its surroundings, including the hamlet of Castelluccio. I texted the restaurant and asked if they were okay. They said yes and that the restaurant was intact, save for a couple of cracks. They were just waiting for the authorities’ okay to go back. But the second, on October 30, was devastating. Norcia’s cathedral was almost leveled, with only the façade remaining intact. Castelluccio was another story; the town was destroyed and was declared a no-entry red zone. The Taverna and all the other businesses were history.

Or so we thought. I’d seen that it had set up a temporary tent, but for one reason or another we never went. But this year, a friend posted to Facebook that she had eaten there at the more permanent setup outside the wrecked town, and that it was terrific. She urged people to go. So we went—after a few days at home I was eager for another road trip, even if it was to a place I’d been quite a few times, and that’s a couple of hours away, taking us on winding roads through mountain passes in the area called the Valnerina.

Sheep crossing!

Being pensionati, we were lucky to be able to go on a weekday; even on a Thursday the Piano hosted lots of people there for the fioratura. The flowers weren’t in full bloom yet, but we saw enough colors and textures to keep us happy. That, and a run by a couple hundred sheep kept things lively. But lunch was the day’s main attraction for us. The Taverna is in one of two containers outside the hamlet that host a bunch of restaurants and shops. We found the Taverna and we shown to an outside table, as requested.

It’s weird to say that the new site has a better view and is nicer than the “real” restaurant. At least objectively. Subjectively…. here in Italy, nothing is better than saying that something is originale (I think you can figure that out). Unlike the neighboring French, who tend to plaster over cracks and holes in stucco, for example, Italians will leave the signs of aging and use, either to show authenticity, or just because they think it looks better.

If the container was new, the filling was as it always was. The Taverna still trades in slightly creative, upscale versions of local dishes with “km 0” (farm-to-table) ingredients, and we were happy to indulge in a plate of local pecorino cheeses, including one that resembled Brie. The Spartan Woman went real roots and had lentil soup, while I happily indulged in the local pasta, stringozzi, showered with tons of local truffles. She had the truffles atop her trout, while I went off our usual meat-free diet because I had this weird craving for Umbrian sausages. We had some sauteed wild greens, almost like spinach to go with it, and a small pitcher of local wine.

But more than the decent food and the beautiful view were the Taverna’s people. Our young waiter heard our accent and asked where we’re from. When we told him New York he smiled and said the Italian equivalent of “wow.” He kept watch over us the whole time, apologizing for a lag between courses because a large party had the kitchen in caos. The owner came by to chat, and we told him that it was good to be back. “We’ve been here since 2019,” he said. We replied that with Covid, etc., it was impossible to come. No, we said, we were patrons of the original Taverna, and he shot us a big smile.

Before I went up to the counter to pay the bill, I rifled through my phone’s photos to find some of the old place. I showed it to the owner when I paid, and he got teary eyed. “Look, look at the pictures,” he said to his employees, and passed around my phone so they could see what it was like. Still, a little weepy, he gave me a little hug and patted me on the back. “Thanks for looking out for us, and coming back. Please come back soon.”

We will, promise.

To go where no Rick Steves or Stanley Tucci has gone before

Like I said here, we did an Ikea run a couple of weeks ago for some odds and ends. This being Italy, Land of Perpetual Roadworks, we hit a couple of detours going and coming. For some reason on the way back, our iPhone’s navigator took us off the highway and routed us through a town in the mountains, in the Le Marche region, just over the border from our Umbria. We couldn’t figure out why exactly we were on a main street in the small city of Fabriano; we didn’t see any obvious road closures.

A road runs through it

But we were intrigued by what we saw. Fabriano looked prosperous; there was a mixture of architectural styles, from baroque and older to some strikingly modern blue glass-sided structures. At one point, the road went through a park. Being conditioned by living in and around Perugia, we scouted for parking spaces, saw some, but didn’t stop. Not with a bunch of Ikea booty in the hatch, anyway. But when we got home, we looked the place up and decided to pay it a visit, especially when we realized the city is only 40 minutes from home.

Okay, so now I’ve put my flame shields up and I’ll explain the headline. Making fun of people who do the Rome-Florence-Venice axis is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s way too easy. But I’ll say this. If you limit a trip to Italy to those places, you’ll “see” a lot, but you won’t really get what this country is about. Stanley Tucci and Rick Steves tried to remedy that in their TV series. But rather than getting people to explore places on their own, Steves, especially, unwittingly created a sort of cult that follows his guidebooks and shows religiously, following his itineraries as though they’ll fall off the planet if they wander off elsewhere. A lot of people here blame him for singlehandedly ruining the Cinque Terre.

I like what I’ve seen of Tucci’s series. (CNN, for some reason, blocks me from seeing it here.) He goes into the social and political aspects of the culture and food here. They’re often inseparable, like why bread can be so bland here in Umbria (the Pope’s salt tax back when is cited as the main reason). But like Steves, his restaurant choices on the show may throw a lot of business to the places, but they have the effect of spoiling them for the regulars. It’s almost a joke, and my favorite YouTube cooking couple, Harper and Eva as Pasta Grammar, make a point of hiding the name of a restaurant they like so that Tucci can’t ruin it.

You should subscribe. They’re great to watch, great as a time-waster too.

Back to Fabriano. We’re usually in a hurry going through airports and we’re terrible at window shopping. But you may have noticed shops in Italy that feature paper from Fabriano. We didn’t know it until recently, but artisans in Fabriano over 500 years ago figured out how to produce paper on a large enough scale to make it a regular medium for writing and printing. I won’t go so far as to call it industrial—the process was fairly laborious—but Fabriano paper was once a really big thing and was shipped throughout Europe. The city’s close connections to shipping ports like Ancona made distribution throughout Europe easy and cheap. In fact even now, a lot of the Euro currency notes in daily use throughout Europe are produced in Fabriano, and the city lies on the rail trunk line between Ancona and Orte/Rome.

And so we took off to see what Fabriano is like. Unlike a lot of precious towns and cities in Umbria and Toscana, Fabriano makes it easy; there’s a big free parking lot adjacent to the park I mentioned above. It’s a short walk through shop-lined streets to the main piazza, a large area that features a fountain that was influenced by our fountain in Perugia, in the Piazza IV Novembre. Like any Italian city, the piazza has a vibrant cafe life. We took a break after our arduous (not!) 40-minute drive to sit with the Fabriani and have that second shot of coffee.

Coffee break!

The Spartan Woman and I have a non-routine routine when we visit a new city. We ignore the guides for awhile and just walk around. We look at the shops downtown—Fabriano has lots of pretty high end clothing shops. And we look at how people are dressed and the kinds of cars they drive. In Fabriano’s case, there were lots of women in long, flowing, almost diaphanous multicolored dresses. And there was a high percentage of Audis on the streets; Audis being the brand for the upwardly mobile Italian these days.

After all this socio-economic analysis, we had to eat lunch. TSW found a restaurant online on a central square, Nonna Rina, that looked good. I found its Facebook page and texted for a reservation on its day off; the owners responded almost immediately. It apparently featured a fish menu—we’re mainly vegetarians but eat fish and seafood when we want to splurge or feel decadent. But when we arrived we saw that the fish menu was only for weekends. To compensate, the regular menu has lots of creative, and we found out delicious, vegetarian dishes.

Food porn alert: We had a shared appetizer of a fritto misto, crisp fried vegetables, fried mozzarella balls, and the local delicacy, olive all’Ascolana. These last had a little chopmeat in them; I made the sacrifice and scarfed them up. TSW followed with orecchiette with pesto; I had the local specialty called pincinelle, simply dressed with olive oil, garlic, chilis, and bread crumbs. The pincinelle resemble the Tuscan pici, or Umbrian umbricelle, in being thick homemade long pasta with a chewy texture. But these are made of stoneground whole wheat and, unusual for pasta, yeast. Historically, pincinelle were made from some set-aside bread dough.

The secondi followed, and we began to think we over-ordered. In fact, when TSW asked about side dishes, our cheerful and friendly server told us that the quantities were quite enough and that we didn’t have to order any side dishes, which is common elsewhere in Italy. The Marchigiani, in fact, pride themselves on the generosity of their hospitality, and that pride was in full evidence. We had a little local sparkling white wine, a bottle of fizzy water, and coffees. The price? A princely €55.

At that point, we would have gladly stumbled to our car and driven home. But I’d reserved a spot on a tour of Fabriano’s Museo della Carta e della Filligrana (Paper and Watermark Museum). I love little museums with a peculiar specialty, and this sweet place fits the bill. It’s definitely worth a visit. We paid our lunch bill and walked over to the museum, waiting for it to open after its lunch break. After entering and waiting in the courtyard of the former convent that houses the museum, we were gathered by our guide, who showed us all the steps to medieval papermaking. She was terrific; they don’t appear to do tours in English, but the demonstrations were quite visual. You can just look around without a tour anyway. Our guide must have been a teacher because she’d ask the few kids questions and at times handle the paper. We were treated to a demonstration of some real papermaking, and then satisfied, left to find our car and drive back home through the mountains.

Master paper maker at work

Some thoughts: Fabriano sees few tourists. It’s a real, working small city with a fair amount of industry, including nearby home appliance factories. That said, there’s a pretty large historic center, which is a mix of medieval, baroque, and modern buildings. Its inhabitants seem justifiably proud of their city, and it’s got a hip vibe to it. In fact, that vibe is common in a lot of Italy today—Fabriano, like Perugia and Ravenna and other small cities, feature sushi/poke bars, independent bookstores, wine bars and restaurant workers who know their menus and the history behind them. A lot of restaurants riff on traditional ingredients, and it’s great to see that the country is not becoming one big museum for tourists. Maybe we’ll set cities like Florence and Venice aside for that, while we go on living our everyday lives.

I’m too lazy to think, so here are a bunch of pictures of everyday life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the differences in everyday living and those Big Philosophical Differences between my two countries. And I start writing about them and then I stop somewhere in the middle. I either get bored, or it seems too obvious, or I’m reacting to a terrible event, like the killing of children in an American school and I get depressed. So I’m going to punt. I said to myself that once I was mostly done with meetings and other people’s deadlines, that I would keep to one of my own, to keep that journalism thing going. And I let it slip. So here goes, one of many posts that step in for something that might have been meatier—but also may have been me whining about something.

That said, living in a place is different from being on vacation—even here in Central Italy. We don’t sit around in scenic cafes sipping Chianti all day, though I guess if I really put my mind to it, I could. But there are dishwashers to be unloaded and loaded, floors that need sweeping, and bills to pay. Especially that last bit. One of the joys of Italian life is that a lot of stuff comes up piecemeal: the real estate tax, the garbage tax, the various insurance policies, you get the idea. Thankfully, you can take care of most of that online.

So we’ve been getting the place into shape. We pretty much skipped over 2020, though I came here to turn lights on and clear cobwebs. Last year we were just happy to be here, so we didn’t really take care of stuff beyond what was necessary. This summer looks like it’s going to be a hot summer, and we’re not flush with Lotto winnings, but we have (courtesy of our prior thrift) a nice pool. I called the people who built it and who do the heavy lifting in opening and closing it, and soon two ragazzi (guys) show up and did their thing. We’re hoping that this year’s weather will cooperate. Last year an incessant wind blew sand into the pool every day from the Sahara, and the water kept evaporating because of that wind. We kept topping it up and the water never really warmed up.

A good place to escape the world. The highest mountain is Subasio, home to St. Francis and his Assisi.

One big part of our day as pensionati (retired people) is our morning walk. We try to get in at least 4.5-5 km every morning. That’s 2.75 to 3.2 miles. It doesn’t sound like much, but the terrain here makes it a little challenging, because we’re up in the mountains. The only flat walk is down by the river, and that doesn’t go very far. The upside is that our walks are ridiculously scenic. The Spartan Woman makes sure we do this at least five times a week; more typically it’s six days in a row until I rebel. She would’ve made a good drill sergeant. The gallery below shows how taking a walk around the block has a whole new meaning here; we were on the Sentiero Francescano della Pace (St. Frankie Peace Trail) and it’s hard to see here, but some of the climbs are near vertical. We have trekking poles.

But we are in Italy, after all, and there’s food at the end of the trail. Lots of good stuff, everywhere. The small local supermarket in town would be a dee-luxe food shoppe back in the U.S. Lots of good local cheeses, most of them pecorino (sheep’s milk) variants, along with some foreign cheeses; Italians like Emmentaler, or Swiss. Salumi, meats from neighboring Tuscany if you’re into that kind of thing, black truffles, terrific bubbly like Franciacorta (Prosecco’s posh rival, more like decent Champagne)…you get the idea. We do spend a lot of time thinking about and preparing meals. One of the advances of the past couple of decades is that inland Umbria has suddenly become a seafood lover’s paradise; we can get tiny clams called lupini, slighty bigger clams called vongole veraci, oysters, spiny lobster, mussels, branzino (sea bass) all about half the price it would be in New York.

The place also inspires the mad baker in The Spartan Woman. We got her a stand mixer to serve as the Italian cousin to her beloved Kitchen Aid, and she’ll prepare great focaccia or bread with very little prompting. Usually all it takes it running out of bread in the house and our reluctance to leave our mountaintop.

We do errands too. We’ve been in the house, off and on (and mainly off during Covid) for five years now. We needed a few pieces of furniture for storage or just to finish rooms off. But we didn’t want to break the banca. So we went off to Ikea, about 80 minutes away near the Adriatic port of Ancona. Forget any notions of romantic seacoast lunches; we ate at the cafeteria. Of course, Ikea adapted to the area; when you check out at the restaurant, the cashier asks if you want a post-prandial coffee. I did, and when I was done with my gravlax and veggie balls, I went up to the bar and had a good espresso made from organic coffee beans. What’s funny, though, is that in addition to the identical wares with funny Swedish names, were our fellow customers. For the most part they looked identical to the clientele in the Elizabeth, New Jersey Ikea, adjusting of course for the New York area’s racial and ethnic diversity.

It’s not all errands and drudgery. The other day we drove to the town of Gualdo Tadino up against the Apennines because of a planned power interruption. We walked around, looking at the often whimsical architecture of the place, stopped at a bar for coffee, window shopped—and then lunch. There’s a terrific restaurant outside—La Terrazza di San Guido—above the town, set in a pine forest, with a deck that has a panoramic view of the town and its surroundings. The food is really good, quite traditional but carefully prepared with good ingredients. We spent the princely sum of €49 We reckon the pasta alone would cost somewhere around that in New York. Talk about turning lemons into limoncello.

Food can get weird when it crosses the ocean

I’m talking, of course, about the food here in Italy. Note that I didn’t say “Italian food.” There’s no such thing. This country has existed as a political entity only about 160 years and food here is intensely regional. Hell, until the postwar-WWII era, people from different parts of the country barely understood one another due to the prevalence of regional dialects and languages, let alone had national dishes.

But I digress. Yes, the food. Yesterday’s lunch was a Sicilian peasant thing, short whole wheat pasta with local chicory greens, diced potatoes, and grape tomatoes, all sautéed together with a decent amount of olive oil. You can see it here. It definitely wasn’t fancy stuff, but The Spartan Woman is a terrific instinctual cook and we actually sighed as we ate.

Cheap and delicious, at home

There was no “sauce” per se. The bottled sauce industry in the U.S. would have you believe that Italians eat pastas topped with tons of red stuff or “Alfredo,” whoever that is. (I kid. The original dish, as though you could pin it down, is “pasta in bianco,” pasta with tons of good butter and parmigiano Reggiano. It’s a dish fed to kids, the elderly, and people with stomach aches.) Instead we, like a lot of people here, paired the pasta with seasonal vegetables, and used some of the pasta cooking liquid to keep it moist.

But I’m not going to go into the Italian vs. Italian American rabbit hole. I’m going to try to demystify what eating here is like, and highlight the differences in food culture between my two nationalities.

To simplify things greatly, Italians eat locally-plus. There’s a strong base of local tradition, upon which they add what’s trendy right now. This applies both to eating at home and at family gatherings, and eating out. Unless people are going out to an ethnic restaurant on purpose—here in Umbria there are Chinese, Japanese, and Indian places, among others—they kind of expect what’s familiar in a restaurant. It’s because people go out for different reasons than Americans do. Or at least the Americans where I come from, New York City. In my 10 years as a part-time restaurant critic there, I remember going through Paris bistro, Belgian, French country, Tuscan, Southern Indian, Catalan, and new American phases. It’s all about a celebrity chef or the latest find, and is rarely rooted in any kind of culinary tradition.

I’ll concede that a lot of that trend-seeking is peculiar to New York. But where the city goes, the culture tends to follow. Italians, however, especially those who live outside of the big cities, eat out to be with friends in a large group, or to celebrate a big occasion. Often, their home kitchens are small and they simple don’t have the room to have 10 people at a table, so they see the osteria in the country as a home surrogate.

I’ll compare apples to apples, or pizza to pizza. Earlier this spring I went to a newish pizza place on Staten Island. Yeah, Staten Island; its North Shore has suddenly become a hipster kind of place, with really good and inventive restaurants popping up in spite of the Covid pandemic. The pizza restaurant, Seppe’s PizzaBar, has an industrial look—it doesn’t do that Olde Worlde schtick that used to be common in NY Italian restaurants. It featured beer from local microbreweries and organic/biodynamic wines. The pizzas had slow-rising, chewy crusts and inventive toppings.

Pizza in hipster Staten Island

But here’s the thing: The tab. I’ll break it down. Two people. so two pizzas, $20 and $21. Two beers at $7 apiece. Espresso at $3 each. It ended costing the two of us about $50 each for an okay, not transcendent meal, after tax and tip. And I think we got away cheap. In Perugia, our closest big city (population about 165,000), a similar outing would’ve run us about €28, or $30 total. For one thing, you don’t tip in Italy; waiters and cooks make decent salaries and tipping is not part of the culture. Sure, in touristy places in Rome, the staff have gotten used to foreigners leaving some cash on the table, but here, the credit card receipt doesn’t even have a line for a tip.

Perugia’s finest, only €7

There are lots of reasons for the price disparity. New Yorkers are paying for the restaurants’ rent, plus all the other overhead, like chefs’ salaries, the computer system, the expensive stoves and cookware, etc. And you can’t forget the ingredients; stuff like mozzarella and parmigiano cheese. All of that is just regular food in Italy; you can get fresh mozzarella for a couple of euros, and even exotic like fresh black summer truffles are €15 for the equivalent of a couple of ounces.

This brings up something I’ve been thinking about for some years, ever since I wrote about food and restaurants mid-career. Maybe it’s obvious, but stuff that’s just normal in other countries becomes almost a fetishistic object in the U.S., especially if it’s Western European and has become a part of the culture at large. Decent Italian restaurants in big East Coast cities charge $25-30 for very ordinary pasta, for example. Steak frites have become a luxury item, and a drink that might cost a few euros in Barcelona or Milan becomes a $20 “curated” cocktail.

I think it’s more than just economics at play here, and it’s almost as though a good reason for being a world capital like New York manifests itself in bad ways. There’s a disconnect between the food producer and the consumer, and that leads to what I’d call a cult of connoisseurship. The thing—whether it’s burrata cheese, or an espresso, or even Nutella—may be just something you find in a supermarket here, but in the U.S. is foreign, therefore it’s exotic and a luxury. I once bought coffee from an online source based in (where else?) Seattle. I keep getting sales emails for $2,000+ espresso machines. Trust me, you can make a decent cup of espresso with a machine that costs a tenth of that. I wonder sometimes if those super expensive machines are like Viking stoves and the like, there to impress guests more than be useful kitchen tools.

American media plays this great dishes of the world stuff up. Food mags tend to be upscale creations, big city restaurant critics pride themselves on knowing what a proper cacio e pepe is like—and so up goes the price, apart from the economic factors that boost the prices and preciousness of imported goods. I’m grateful that someone like Guy Fieri is looking out for the quirky, downscale, noncorporate eateries that still manage to survive.

The good reason? Americans, at least not the fearful types, are adventurous, at least when it comes to trying new cuisines and foodstuffs. But because of the incredible centralization of food production—remember, there are only a handful of U.S.-based meat producers and distributors, to give one example—people are alienated from their own food, the kind of food that used to be grown or pulled out of the ocean just a few miles away. I’m reminded of the difference when I drive around our area in rural Central Italy; we’re surrounded by farms and vineyards that produce the food that we see in the markets and on restaurant tables. It wasn’t that different decades ago in the U.S. Growing up in my New York neighborhood, the guy three houses up the street was a big fisherman and he gave mackeral and bluefish to the neighbors. Truck farms only a few miles away grew produce, which was sold in local markets.

When I was reviewing French/Belgian/Sicilian/Catalan/Burmese restaurants back in the 1990s, I was always asking myself if there indeed was a local cuisine. New England and the South have held onto their traditions. I did a little research and yeah there was at one point. Fish lovers went crazy every spring when the shad swam down the Hudson, and local oystermen on Staten Island supplied the taverns and high-end restaurants alike. Some New Yorkers are rediscovering local produce at greenmarkets. Maybe high energy prices and a breakdown of the global supply chain will bring the mid-Atlantic back to its roots.

In the meantime, let them eat overpriced cacio e pepe.

[Edited/updated to fix typos and clarify some points.]

Let’s just call it normalish

We were so innocent and full of hope last year around this time. We’d been vaccinated against Covid-19. An apparently sane group of people replaced the wannabe dictatorship in the White House. And it seemed that maybe, just maybe, life was going back to normal.

Fools.

We made our customary trip across the Atlantic, though, and at least the trip felt more normal this year. We booked on Lufthansa, and flight service was fine. Drinks, regular food, some wine, a nap, masked when we weren’t drinking or eating. No one checked our vaccination cards, or even seemed to care. But when some fellow passengers didn’t put their masks back on after the meal, they were admonished by the flight attendants. You do not want to piss off Lufthansa’s people, who are normally and pretty sweet and attentive.

Not wanting to drive the winding roads of Umbria while jet-lagged, we instead booked a room at the Hotel Tiber, in the somewhat gritty town of Fiumicino, a few stones’ throws from Rome’s airport, and a few steps from the sea. It felt like a mini-vacation without having to go into an empty house and turn all the stuff on while gazing at six months’ worth of cobwebs.

We ate out a couple of times, and while we’ve given up meat, we still love fish and seafood. And Fiumicino, on the coast, did not disappoint. From spaghetti con vongole verace e lupini (the local smal and smaller but intense clams), the seafood joints did not disappoint. And now, friends, I am going to bust one of the biggest stereotypes about “Italian” (there really is no such thing; it’s all regional but I’m not gonna go there right now) food: the absolute no-no about mixing seafood and cheese. It seems like every restaurant menu in town featured spaghetti con cozze e pecorino—spaghetti with mussels and pecorino cheese. The Spartan Woman tried it first and said it was good; I followed the next day. And I concur. So throw out the rulebook, if you’ve got one.

The next day, our friend with a van, Angelo, picked us up and took us home. Well, after lunch anyway. First he was going to come later in the day, but changed his schedule. I have more than a slight suspicion that he wanted to have a nice seaside lunch, too. And who can argue with that? It was terrific getting reacquainted, and since we only speak Italian with him, it was also good to get the mouth working the right way. American English is a lazy mouth affair, with vowels that sound alike or slide around as dipthongs. Italian is crisper, sharper, and more musical, and after six months of speaking English most of the time, it was good to be immersed again in my other language.

It wasn’t an altogether peaceful ride—a friend of ours, who was going to be our houseguest, was stranded on the autostrada. But Angelo came to the rescue, finding a tire place and getting our friend’s car sorted.

And then….Ommm. We got back to our treehouse. At least that’s what our main floor feels like, because the house is on a slope, so from this desk I’m looking at tree tops. This area in general is incredibly green and lush in the spring. We’ve never gotten here this early in the season, so who knew that we have wisteria and lilac trees blooming all over the place? Wild orchids, too? All this greenery has a couple of good effects: 1-I can feel my blood pressure easing, and 2-Somehow, it makes it easier to ignore stuff like the madman Putin a little easier. Not completely—hey, we got broadband here—but without the drumbeat of MSNBC et al, it’s isn’t dominating my thoughts quite as much.

But coming back to Umbria reminds us that, unlike the weird rush to act as though the pandemic never happened in the U.S., Covid never went away. More people wear masks here, especially indoors. Stores and public spaces still have social distancing reminders everywhere, and the stats aren’t that great.

Still….we walked over to our neighbors next door to say hi and collect our car. We’d parked it there before we left, and it was a terrific excuse to see them after being away for nearly six months. Another day, we walked to the center of our hamlet, where we saw an acquaintance pruning his olive trees. He invited us into his courtyard for coffee, and we sat around updating one other. His neighbor saw us, a courtly older man who tracks our comings and goings and is probably the epitome of the kind, gentle soul that’s common in this region. It’s the place that gave birth to St. Francis of Assisi, after all (and we’re reminded of it regularly around here).

We’re laying low for the time being. New Covid cases are common, with the daily totals sticking stubbornly in the tens of thousands in Italy. We’ll venture out to eat when it’s consistently warmer. In May, the weather can go from your fantasy of Sunny Italy to Wuthering Heights in minutes.

Okay, so we make an exception for gelato. Sue me.

It’s great to be back. More later.

Due fratelli

HO CONTROLLATO una prova scientifica senza saperlo. I soggetti di questa prova erano sono recentemente morti, mio padre, Nuccio (nome formale Antonino) e di suo fratello leggermente maggiore Ignazio. È straziante che abbiamo perso queste due anime meravigliose nello spazio di un paio di mesi, ma mi ha dato la possibilità di riflettere sulle vite che hanno condotto. [Il post continua sotto la foto; versione inglese qui]

Due fratelli, per strada dove sono cresciuti, Corso Calatafimi Palermo, 2003

PRIMO, I CV. Ignazio, nato ottobre 1928 a Palermo, e residente fino alla sua recente morte. Era vedovo, sposato con una grande donna di nome Elena Beghin, da Treviso in Veneto. L’altro era mio padre, Nuccio, nato marzo 1930, anche lui a Palermo. Emigrò negli Stati Uniti nel 1955 ed era anche vedovo, sposato con mia madre, Angelina Ancona, nata nel Lower East Side di New York City. Nuccio visse a Brooklyn, poi Staten Island, e alla fine si trasferì nella Pennsylvania orientale quando è andato in pensione. Ignazio ha vissuto nello stesso quartiere per tutta la vita, tranne un periodo nell’esercito italiano.

I due fratelli avrebbero potuto anche essere gemelli. Guardando le loro foto della metà degli anni ’50, Elena mi ha detto che non poteva distinguerle. (Posso; Ignazio aveva le sopracciglia inclinate mentre Nuccio era arrotondato.) Ignazio era studioso e infilato. Nuccio non così studioso. Da ragazzo, è stato incaricato di guidare suo fratello a letto quando dormiva intorno al loro appartamento. Di conseguenza, mio padre era sempre un dormiente leggero. Le loro voci erano quasi identiche: Ignazio, che era un operatore radiofonico dell’esercito, parlava inglese passabile, rendendo la somiglianza vocale ancora più forte.

Nuccio e Ignazio ebbero ciascuno tre figli. Si può quasi dire che noi bambini siamo venuti in coppia. Quindi, io e mio cugino Giorgio siamo a poco più di un anno di distanza. Mia sorella e la sorella di Giorgio Assunta sono nate lo stesso anno, così come mio fratello Chuck e nostra cugina Loredana. Entrambi i fratelli lavoravano anche nelle fabbriche elettroniche, servendo in varie funzioni di caposquadra. Hanno fatto abbastanza per sostenere le loro famiglie, e non erano ricchi ma non avevano mai fame. Entrambe le famiglie hanno vissuto un’esistenza abbastanza comoda.

Ho stabilito che questi ragazzi erano notevolmente simili. Quindi, in che modo erano diversi? Semplice: Ignazio rimase in Italia e Nuccio se ne andò. Ed è affascinante vedere come questo abbia influenzato quasi tutto nella loro vita. Ho seguito questi due nel corso dei decenni, prima inconsciamente, ma negli ultimi due decenni ho pensato più metodicamente alle loro vite parallele come a una sorta di corsa di cavalli. Chi ha condotto una vita più confortevole e spiritualmente più ricca? C’era un vincitore? Puoi anche chiamare le loro vite una gara?

Arriverò subito al verdetto. Ignazio è partito in un posto più precario materialmente, ma è finito avanti. Ed è interamente dovuto a come gli Stati Uniti e l’Europa hanno trattato le loro popolazioni nel corso degli anni. In effetti, andrò oltre e dirò che Nuccio era molto avanti all’inizio, ma la mancanza di protezioni per i lavoratori e un programma sanitario completo negli Stati Uniti ha eroso il suo vantaggio decenni fa.

LA GARA INIZIA. Entrambi i fratelli hanno prestato servizio nell’esercito italiano negli anni ’50, ma mio padre è stato congedato nel 1955. Questo servirà come nostro colpo di apertura.

Nuccio ha sposato mia madre americana e si è trasferito a New York. Sono nato poco dopo e all’inizio abbiamo vissuto nello stesso quartiere che mia madre chiamava casa, la East New York di Brooklyn. Mio padre ha lavorato prima in una fabbrica di scarpe e poi, felicemente per me, ha trovato un lavoro in un piccolo produttore di giocattoli a gestione familiare. Dopo aver ottenuto la cittadinanza statunitense nel 1960, ci siamo trasferiti in una piccola casa stilo “Cape Cod” a Staten Island. Mia sorella era arrivata da allora. La casa era quella che veniva chiamata una casa di partenza, con un seminterrato e una soffitta incompiuti. I miei genitori erano costanti miglioratori domestici. La soffitta è diventata due fantastiche camere da letto per me e mia sorella. I patii sono stati costruiti e ampliati. Un enorme giardino ha fornito molte delle nostre verdure.

Nuccio in occhiali da sole, con i suoi cognati e mio nonno materno a destra, negli anni ’50

Materialmente, non siamo stati privati di nulla. Mia madre era davvero brava a controllare il budget e mio padre ha ottenuto un lavoro migliore dopo l’azienda di giocattoli. (Ero orgoglioso di lui, ma allo stesso tempo odiavo il fatto che non sarei stato un soggetto di prova per i nuovi prodotti del produttore di giocattoli.) Le auto usate alla fine hanno lasciato il posto a nuovi modelli più grandi. E la nostra piscina per bambini nel cortile si è trasformata in una più grande in cui potevamo effettivamente nuotare, quindi le nostre estati infantili sono state fondamentalmente trascorse in acqua e all’aperto in generale. È stata una bella vita e mio padre, mentre lavorava sodo, stava vivendo una versione del sogno americano per tutti gli anni ’60, fino ai primi anni ’70.

Nel frattempo in Italia, Ignazio era ancora nell’esercito e lui ed Elena erano una coppia, avevano un figlio ma lo tenevano un segreto perchè senza lavoro voleva rimanere nell’esercito; Palermo a quel tempo era difficile trovare un buon lavoro, infatti, i primi anni ’60, una volta appesi all’uniforme, erano un momento di scrivere lettere ai datori di lavoro e agli amici di amici che potevano aiutarlo a trovare un posto. La giovane famiglia viveva con i miei nonni, il che non era una situazione facile per mia zia, abituata alle libertà personali di cui godevano le giovani donne del nord. Infine, ad un certo punto Ignazio ottenne un lavoro in una fabbrica gestita dal monopolio telefonico di stato italiano, e la famiglia si trasferì in appartamenti propri, non lontano da dove sono cresciuti i due fratelli.

I due fratelli durante l’ultima volta che si sono visti di persona, novembre

Quindi a questo punto, i fratelli sono equamente abbinati. Ma finiva presto. Anche la moglie di Ignazio ha lavorato per alcuni anni quando i bambini sono cresciuti. Avevano una famiglia che viveva vicino che poteva tenerli d’occhio. Hanno comprato il loro appartamento quando è andato in vendita; hanno accumulato un gruzzolo. Aumenti regolari e un nuovo sistema sanitario nazionale hanno consolidato questi guadagni. Uno dei figli di Ignazio andò all’università locale, che era libera di frequentare, ad eccezione delle tasse e delle spese di soggiorno. Ha ottenuto una laurea. In Italia, i proprietari di case non pagano le tasse immobiliari sulla loro abitazione principale. In generale, Ignazio e la sua famiglia facevano parte dell’aumento generale del tenore di vita per la maggior parte degli europei. Si è ritirato con la maggior parte del suo reddito pre-pensionamento ed è stato in grado di aiutare i suoi figli.

Nel frattempo, Nuccio ha visto i suoi salari ristagnare, come hanno fatto molti lavoratori americani. Le nuove auto sono diventate quasi inaccessibili. Io e mia sorella siamo andati all’università, ma siamo andati all’università della città perché i nostri genitori non potevano permettersi di mandarci via Nuccio in realtà è stato sottoposto a un taglio salariale mentre l’azienda a gestione familiare per cui lavorava ha venduto la sua sede di Soho per milioni; alla fine è stato costretto a uscire e ritirato sulla previdenza sociale con un piccolo gruzzolo. È stata una fine umiliante di una vita di lavoro. I miei genitori hanno venduto la loro casa a Staten Island e si sono trasferiti in una molto più economica nei Poconos. Tuttavia, hanno dovuto pagare pesanti tasse immobiliari, in gran parte a causa del modo decentralizzato in cui le scuole sono finanziate negli Stati Uniti. La vita per i miei genitori è stata molto più una lotta che per suo fratello, in generale.

Io e mio padre durante una sessione FaceTime l’anno scorso

Ignazio faceva parte del servizio sanitario italiano. Nuccio e sua moglie si sono iscritti nel sistema Medicare per gli anziani, ma dovevano pagare un supplemento perche Medicare paga solo 80 percento. Mio padre, doveroso come sempre, è stato lasciato a pagare un’enorme bolletta ospedaliera per la degenza terminale di mia madre,

Di tanto in tanto mio padre esprimeva rammarico per aver lasciato la sua patria. Il suo inglese non è mai stato fantastico e penso che, insieme a una paura generale di nuovi ambienti, lo abbia trattenuto. Una volta mi ha detto: “Forse avrei vissuto meglio laggiù. Ma ho fatto la mia scelta con te e tua madre, e ho fatto del mio meglio per assicurarmi che avessimo una buona vita”.

Puoi esprimere il tuo giudizio su questa storia di due fratelli. Ci sono molte variabili, e la grande è come essere un immigrato negli Stati Uniti modella la vita che conduci. Ma credo anche che si dica molto, e niente di grande, su come un ragazzo che ha lavorato duramente per tutta la vita e ha fatto tutte le cose giuste, si sia trovato in condizioni molto peggiori man mano che invecchiava. Ha dovuto lasciare la casa in cui ha cresciuto la sua famiglia e ha finito per vivere in un ambiente molto più duro solo per sbarcare il lunario.