We must reduce

If you have a native-born American, English-as-a-mother-tongue father, you have my sympathy. It’s so boring. Having an Italian-born dad has its advantages. An outsider’s perspective on a bewildering country? Check. Interesting friends and relatives? Check. A place to stay in other countries? Ditto. Better food? Yup. Mangled but humorous colloquialisms in English? You got it.

This last couple of bits gave me the idea for this post. Nuccio, my dad, sometimes gets English expressions just a little wrong. “You must cry the consequences,” he once told me. I honestly don’t remember why he said that, but boy would it make a great country or Elvis Costello song title. And, “you must reduce.” He meant diet. And he’s right.

I never realized how active an office job could be. Or, at least, one based in Manhattan. And how not going to the office can affect your wellbeing. I walked a lot when I had a day job. To get there, I took a ferry, most often with friends, after which I took a .6 mile, or the more sexy 1 kilometer walk to the newsroom. The building was huge and occupied an entire city block. You had to walk a block to get to the bathrooms. When I got bored or sleepy in bad weather, I’d just take a walk around the block indoors. At lunchtime I did eat most often at my desk, but that was to save time for a brisk walk around lower Manhattan. And my web editor and I often took a mid-afternoon coffee break that involved a few blocks’ walk.

Now, not so much. I work out of my home office. My commute to my home office involves taking a few steps from the espresso machine and fridge in the kitchen. Slowly but surely, even when I managed to get out for exercise, I was packing on the pounds. It was like the proverbial frog in a pot of water. I didn’t notice I was cooked until it was too late. Almost.

Enter The Spartan Woman. She’d seen a similar gain, partly from stress, partly from an ear infection that kept her from her aquacise class. So she looked around, found the Weight Watchers app on her iPhone, updated it, and we were off. Only we’re talking about The Spartan Woman. She is decidedly not into plain steamed broccoli and tofu. We’re talking about someone who all her life has tried to game the system. (Don’t play cards with her if you aren’t a card shark. You will lose. Trust me.) Rather than limiting our diet, the regime brought forth an explosion of creativity. We usually split cooking duties, but for this, I was all too happy to just watch (and eat). She probably didn’t trust me anyway to use a light hand with the olive oil…

Can I share some of what she’s come up with? All of this is legit according to WW, and low in points. (I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about.) And it’s working pretty well. (Downsides? I miss having wine with dinner every night, or having to earn it. But if it’s made the local liquor store sad, it’s had a good effect on our checking account balance, and I manage to be more alert most of the time. I’m not sure yet whether that’s a good thing.)

Here’s a lighter version of the Turkish classic imam bayildi. It’s slow cooked eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions and mint. The classic is cooked in lots of olive oil. This one isn’t, but manages to be pretty sensual.


Next up is a riff on ramen. This version has tofu, lots of vegetables and a soft-boiled egg.


Here we’ve gone for something a bit Brit (and something I put together): cold spring pea and leek soup with lemon and a dollop of (light) sour cream:


Next up, baked cod with sort of an Italian version of succotash—fava beans, corn, peppers, and I forgot what else. But it looks good, and it tasted good, too.


Gotta have dessert. Phyllo cups filled with chocolate flavored ricotta and chocolate chips.


Not bad, huh? I’ll keep this going. It’ll be a challenge over the summer to do it in Umbria, where temptations are everywhere. Gelato, anyone? And then there’s the aperitivo hour….

Machine Learning

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Nope, not gonna do it. No, no no. Please, just a “like”?

I took a few days off posting, commenting, and reacting on Facebook. It was interesting, like having an itch that I couldn’t scratch. I did go onto the site on my MacBook, I’ll confess. I felt like a lurker, an interloper, a kid looking at a candy or toy store window.

I felt left out. (Sorry Mark, but olives do not count as a vegetable for dinner.)

This little exercise got me thinking about technology and its effect on our lives. And I think that despite the Facebook craving, it’s been pretty positive. I’ll admit, though, that I’ve built a mental wall around that elephant in the corner, the privacy thing. I’ll get to that later.

I’m thinking about the first couple of months this year in Italy. Centuries ago, when The Spartan Woman was going to university in Perugia, and I wasn’t, staying in touch wasn’t easy. You could say it was romantic—we wrote each other zillions of aerogrammes, which were thin sheets of paper that you folded into an envelope. It was more expensive than a postcard, but cheaper than a letter. Even so, it was a major expense for a college kid. It was kind of adorable, though—hey Kat, do we still have them? Every so often, we’d call each other. Oooh, long long distance, such an extravagance.

Things were a bit different in January. We drove sleepily to the house, dragged our bags into the house, opened our laptops, and….arg, nothing. Our satellite Internet connection (all of 30 mps) wasn’t working. Having to buy some food, we went to the hypermarket, where I bought a SIM card from Vodaphone with 30 gb of data. I swapped iPhone SIMs, told The Spartan Woman the password, and life returned to normal, with texting, emails, Facebook, the whole works. I think we managed to feed ourselves, too.

An email and call to the provider, though, and it all worked. They just had to remotely prod our satellite dish and routers into doing their job. And for the next couple of months, while we hung around with our friends and houseguests, we stayed in touch. My dad is 87 and no slouch when it comes to a digital life. I was able to do FaceTime with him and my sister. I took my pals Dimitra and Ray on a virtual tour of the house. I even wrote an article for a travel site, and dealt with the gentle edits (thanks, Eliza!). Skype kept my phone calls to the U.S. reasonable, and I managed to interview people for a secret project—sorry, no names.

All in all, then, having this made being thousands of miles away not quite so distant. What made it easier was our walled garden. I know, I know, Apple keeps you trapped in its ecosystem (I’m writing on a new MacBook Pro, with an iPhone at my side and an Apple Watch on my wrist), but it’s an ecosystem that works most of the time. I’ll trade a bit of autonomy for a lot of convenience.


Old MacBook Air, meet the new Pro (right).

Our devices—the complete rundown is two MacBooks, two iPads, two iPhones and a watch—just remember all the logins, from the New York house to those in Italy. When my trusty but overworked MacBook Air exhibited some keyboard weirdness that would’ve led to a $500 repair bill, I swapped it for this machine. I opened the lid, the new one started and asked me to log into my Apple account. A couple of hours later, all my stuff was exactly where it was on my old machine, all done automatically in the background. I’ve heard horror stories from the other side, and I’m just happy to be able to avoid them.

The one non-Apple device that made life more interesting was an Internet TV that we picked up, an LG. We knew that it was a so-called smart TV. What we didn’t know was that it would offer to get into our wi fi network and that once it did, with a few easy logins we were catching up on the Netflix Danish crime dramas we were addicted to. (Winter nights on the mountain are long and cold…)

Now, the privacy thing. Yeah, it’s bad. And it’s been bad. They slice and dice our data, and try to manipulate what we think. But I hope that no one who reads this is naive enough not to know that our habits have been tracked ever since companies and governments realized that our browsing habits are of interest. Yes, it’s pervasive and sinister. I’m still working this one out, though. I’ve been reading the Interwebs for pros and cons of, for example, shutting down your Facebook account. I think my going almost cold turkey earlier this week is typical. We’ve gotten used to a certain way of communicating with one another, and when that’s taken away, it leaves a gap.

So I’ll leave you with this. Try to imagine life in your great-grandparents’ time. If your family was typical, they lived in closer quarters. Maybe a crowded urban neighborhood. There were lots of means of social control—neighbors, the extended family. The church (or whatever religious institution held sway). Tabloids screamed with inflammatory headlines, just like Fox and MSNBC do today. I’d say that the combination of religious and sexual repression, as well as generally more authoritarian  institutions like schools and the military, kept people pretty much in line and afraid of going off the reservation.

Is that qualitatively any different? I have no answer right now. Maybe we should talk about it. Not here—how about in a bar, in the meatspace?

Landing, Culture Shock, Dueling Populisms, and Puppies

First of all, we’re back in the U.S. of A. So buy me lunch, those of you with the few remaining expense accounts. My calendar is pretty open right now.

This song always goes through my head as we approach JFK or Newark:

I’ve never been more mindful than now of the gap between Cool America (rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, rap, Kerouac, Georgia O’Keefe, Brooklyn, Yo La Tengo, etc.), and weird uncool America (a certain combover artist with a fake tan, Branson, Missouri, the NRA, Paul Ryan, The WSJ editorial board, Fox News,). It’s always been this way, but folks, we’ve reached the point where we’re living in different universes.

Our departure from the mostly cool country of the Repubblica Italiana was sad and a little painful., Okay, quite painful, literally. I succumbed to the flu, despite having gotten the vaccine a few months ago. I guess it didn’t cover the Italian variety. I spent days on a recliner—the bed was too horizontal and I felt as though I were drowning—and prone to freezing and then being overheated within a 15-minute timespan. We delayed our departure, only to worry about a strike the day we left in honor of International Women’s Day. Luckily, the strikers provided for a few hours for safe passage and we took off more or less on time.

But then…after a terrific flight on Norwegian—good prices, good premium economy cabins, decent food and drink and legroom—we landed in Newark. In one way, it trumped JFK; no one was shouting at us as we went through passport control. On the other hand, no one guided us, either, and the time savings allegedly granted by using the app Mobile Passport proved illusory, except at the end when our keepers decided to let users through, like they should’ve at the start. Note to self: Sign up for Global Entry.

We left an Italy with a caretaker government following indecisive elections that split the vote basically 3 ways, between the “populist” Movimento 5 Stelle, the center-right (including the inflammatory Lega) and what’s left of the Left. None of those by themselves got enough votes to form a government and nearly two weeks later, the jockeying and negotiations drag on.

The results are being compared to the fuck-you Trump vote in the U.S. And yeah, a lot of people who voted for M5S and the Lega were motivated by the same reasons otherwise nice Americans voted for the odious Trump. The establishment parties haven’t exactly done right by the peeps and haven’t really offered a compelling vision of life with them other than to say, hey we’re not crazy.

But there’s a big gap between the continents. In the U.S., with the Republicans controlling the legislature, executive, and probably the courts, there’s been a rollback of everything that makes a country civilized. These Ayn Rand acolytes have tried to kill the Affordable Care Act, enacted the most regressive tax regime in decades, and have killed off scores of environmental rules. They aren’t even trying to give lofty reasons for their actions. It’s just Obama did this, so we’re undoing it.

Looking at the victorious parties in the Italian elections shows a different story. None of them talked about reverting to a free-for-all health care market. In fact, they criticized some of the erosion demanded by the European Union budget masters. And both the Lega and M5S plan to implement a minimum income for citizens; they differ in the amount (either around €800 or €1000 monthly). Where they do resemble the Trumpistas is in their contempt for immigration. But there, they’ve got some facts on their side. Italy has taken up a disproportionate burden of rescuing thousands of refugees at sea. And like Greece, it’s taken a budgetary and a social toll on the country as Italy’s Euro partners look the other way. It’s a bit different from the non story that is the U.S. being overrun by Mexicans, when in fact since the Great Recession, traffic has gone the other way.

It’s a sign of how far to the right political discourse has gotten in the U.S. And also a sign that to some extent, Europe right now is still more open, more tolerant and more equitable than its old partner across the Atlantic.

There’s one unambiguous, wonderful thing about being back. We’re back with our kids. And knowing that the InterWeb loves the doggies, this little creature is back cuddling, begging for food, and stomping around Snug Harbor Cultural Center like she owns it.


Italia in Tilt

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


Perugia in disaster mode, believe it or not.

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

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

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

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

We should’ve hopped to it instead.

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

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


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

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

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

You’ve been warned,

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

The Non-Recipe Recipe

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

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

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

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


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

Layer 2: pasta sheets, your zucchini cream.

Layer 3: Like layer 1.

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

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

Gone to the Dog

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

What the hell do you do up in the country?

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

Seriously, what do you do?

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

Whose dog is he?

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

What is an agriturismo?

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

What kind of dog is Retu?

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

How is that breed used?

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


Does Retu live up to his breed’s reputation?

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

Be Our Guest

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


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.


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.


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.

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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?


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.



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.


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.)

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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.

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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.