500 hours of solitude (more or less): Hands across the ocean

These weeks here are definitely turning out to be less than solitary. Yesterday my new friend Angelo and I went to Norcia, which was hard hit by a fierce earthquake more than three years ago. Angelo’s a driver; he’s got a Mercedes van and he takes groups around Italy and into Austria, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. He lives in a church building in the next town over with his constant companion, a sweet little dog name Titi.

Angelo and his sidekick

After days of blazing sunshine, yesterday showed Umbria’s moody, foggy winter side. We climbed into the van, with the dog happily riding between us and headed south. Perugia’s commercial suburbs gave way to mountains. Somewhere near Spoleto you go left and into a 4 km (roughly 2.5 miles) tunnel. When you emerge, you’re in the Valnerina district.

It wasn’t an idle trip. Angelo knew some people who helped build the first new structure in Norcia since the earthquake—a lab and public rooms for Norcia’s kids. The building’s nice enough. What was remarkable about it was how it came together—a unique collaboration between Benedictine monks, Harvard Medical School psychiatrists, and the National Italian-American Foundation (NIAF). The Harvard guys are Richard Mollica, Director of the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma and Eugene Augusterfer, of Harvard’s Global Mental Health Center, and they specialize in helping traumatized people deal with the aftermath.,

After the quake, the foundation sent the Harvard-NIAF team to the area. But how would they connect with the traumatized locals? They found a connection in Padre Basil, a Benedictine originally from Arizona, who moved to Umbria and immersed himself fully the community. The three men met and the Americans got to know the Norcia community. It’s a proud little city with a long gastronomic heritage. Its pork products are famous throughout Italy, so much so that a slang term for a pork butcher from these parts is “norcino.”

Padre Basil, Richard Mollica and Eugene Augusterfer (in the blue jacket)

Eventually, the Harvard people, Padre Basil and NIAF decided to build the center, with the foundation kicking in $450,000 from its earthquake relief fund. The town’s high school was damaged by the quake and the kids attend classes in borrowed spaces. They needed labs for their science classes, a space for gatherings, and spaces for counseling. That’s where the Italian Trauma Center came in and helped coordinate the efforts to build it.

The three men share a few characteristics: They’re lively, extremely friendly and just ooze kindness and concern. Those traits were on full display as people gathered for the ribbon cutting. Officials, local cops, disaster recovery people, and the curious milled around beforehand. The project’s architect, Mario Solinas from Perugia smiled wanly as he looked around and told me, “Can you imagine? This is the first new building in Norcia since the earthquake and it took private funds and initiative to build it.” Others nodded and compared the slack recent government efforts to the aftermaths of previous tremors.

Architect Mario Solinas (left) in front of his work

The pre-inaugural gathering soon got a big energy injection as high school kids trooped up the road, their boisterous voices carrying far as they enjoyed a morning off from classes. Soon we were all rounded up as the school principal, the architect, local officials, and the Harvard and Trauma Center teams gathered to cut the ribbon.

Both national anthems were played, the Italians telling one another, “it’s the American one. No, we don’t have to know the words.” When the Italian anthem, officially called “Il Canto degli Italiani” came on, the kids and their teachers sang along boisterously, cheering one another on and challenging themselves on sheer volume.

Finally, the speeches, which were mercifully short, and short of boasts. If anything, the theme was community, cooperation, and survival. Fun fact: After disappearing for years, the local river reappeared after the quake. The speakers took it as a sign of rebirth.

They aren’t out of the woods yet. Behind the center is a still-incomplete new school. The kids may be able to use it next academic year. Or not. Here’s hoping. I have a feeling Padre Basil won’t ease up on his efforts to get it finished.

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

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

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

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

Ubaldo at the doorway of his workshop

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

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

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

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

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

500 hours of solitude (give or take): The mayor hangs up his shears

There are a bunch of things you don’t realize at first when you starting living for months or weeks at a time in another country. The big one is healthcare—what happens if you get sick? Then there are little ones, can I take my suit to a nearby dry cleaner? And where do I get a haircut? There’s one thing in Italy you don’t have to worry about: Where do you buy food? It’s everywhere.

I didn’t care about the haircut thing until a few years ago when I had so much to do before leaving New York that getting a haircut beforehand didn’t even enter my mind. When I got here, it was so hot that the mane I was sporting was just too much. I scoped out the neighborhood and settled on a taciturn guy on the next hill, across t he street from the bar where English-speaking foreign students drank too much and passed out on the mostly-pedestrian street. He was good, but every time I went he insisted that I part my hair on the other side and when he did, I felt as though the world had flipped over. You don’t realize how much stuff like that can change how you move through the world,

Then I noticed Franco. His little shop was down the street from where we were living. He had a bunch of wooden walking sticks that he’d carved in the window and the shop was decorated with photos of old Perugia. Why didn’t I go to him first? I forget. Anyway, I started going to him, and other than his propensity to take a lot off the top, I got decent haircuts.

Franco’s domain

But more important, he was fun to talk to. We’d chat about everything: our families, Perugia, New York, restaurants, Barak Obama (he’s a fan), Agent Orange (not really), urban planning and transport, being our age—only a few months separate us. The added bonus was that it was all in Italian, which was great because The Spartan Woman and I speak English to each other, except for certain words and phrases that only make sense in Italian. (Antipatico is one word. It’s the opposite of simpatico, but how to say it in English? )

What also made it fun was his clientele and his role on the block. His customers ranged from college students to the local politicians, lawyers and architects. The mailman or woman always stopped in for a chat, and if we passed by and he had no one in the chair at the moment, he’d come out to talk. Sometimes, I’d end up spending a lot more time than I’d planned just because of the stream of visitors and other customers.

So last week, just as I dragged my bag into the house after arriving from NYC, my iPhone rings. I don’t notice the number, but answer anyway. “Ciao Antonio,” I hear. “T’invito alla mia festa di pensione questo sabato. Puoi venire?” (Ciao A. I’m inviting you to my retirement party Saturday. Are you coming?) Between fatigue and jet lag, at first I didn’t realize who was speaking. But he knew my name, so I played along for a bit. Finally it hit me.

It’s official, kinda

A couple of days later, I had to go into town. And I didn’t realize what a big deal it was. Franco’s shop was closed, but there was a retirement certificate of sorts in the window: “Diploma of Deserved Retirement. Given with full rights to Franco P, who will continue to do nothing…but from today he’ll be doing it at home.” A notice below, which was posted for a stretch on the street as well, invited the neighborhood to his party at the local social center, conveniently located across the street from our place. Well, convenient except when ’70s music fans have an end of term party and blast Led Zeppelin at 2 in the morning, but it’s all part of the experience.

Of course I had to go. I didn’t know most of the people there, but that was ok, There were big cartons of wine, and a butcher was in attendance. All Umbrian parties worth anything have porchetta and the region’s dryer, chewier prosciutto. The butcher was slicing the ham surgically then offering people slices from the tip of his knife. As the party began to ebb, a small army made panini of porchetta and piled them high on the table for people to take home for dinner.

Porchetta, anyone?

Best of all (at least for me)? Franco promised that he’d do house calls.

500 hours of solitude (give or take): Let’s talk about global elites, baby

After a couple of days getting over jet lag, dealing with cobwebs, and laying in supplies, it was time to come down from the mountaintop. I got an invitation on Facebook from my Franco-Italian friend Gilles to attend a talk in the French consolate in Perugia on the roots of anti-European populism. Policy geek that I am (it comes and goes), I hit the “attending” button and got an e-ticket to the event. Yes, a ticket—I was thinking, was this really that popular a thing?

It was. Perugia is a big college town, after all.

But I’ll back up a little. We bought a little apartment in Perugia’s historic center some years ago. We spent a lot of summer vacations based there. I say “based there” because we’d move in, have meals and sleep there, but every chance we got we’d go out, either to the next hill to hang out at a café, or we’d hop in the rental car to go exploring.

So off I went, down the winding road, onto another winding road that eventually took me to my secret parking spot. I purposely avoided the highway that would’ve taken me faster into Perugia. It was nice to be driving a stick shift car again; in fact it was the car that got smashed up last summer, now looking good as new. I had fun downshifting through a few hairpin turns, and less fun being tailgated by sociopaths. I was driving fast enough.

Looking better than on a certain July afternoon

In about 20 minutes, I was back in the old ‘hood, which happens to be the university student quarter of the city. Yeah, you can go back home again. I walked down our street and checked the apartment. All was ok, except for the recalcitrant heater. I’ll have to take some time later to sort it out. I headed out again, aiming for Perugia’s main drag, looking for our bank’s bancomat (ATM to English speakers) and my favorite place to get an espresso standing up at the bar. It was all very very quiet—I realized that I headed out just before the afternoon break was over.

Soon I was joined by people walking around talking, enjoying the springlike weather. It was around 15 degrees C, or 60 degrees in Amurrican, and I window shopped, looked for any changes, because it had been four months. It all looked pretty much the same. I had some time to kill, so I found a park bench and took in some sun, while eavesdropping on the conversation going on at the next bench. The three, including a woman of a certain age wearing a hat that looked like peacock feathers, were psychoanalyzing a common acquaintance. Soon, Ms. Feathers got out her phone, called said acquaintance, and started shouting into it. Mostly she was saying, in Italian, “can you hear me?” (mi senti?). If he couldn’t, everyone within 10 meters could.

Then it was time to head to the French consulate. The building, off of Piazza Morlacchi, looks disconsolate, down on its luck, and the stairway up a flight didn’t change that impression. But when I got in the room, O…M….G. The room was already half full, and we had to sign in. The crowd was a mixture of students, professorial types, and the Italian equivalent of people who might go to a lecture at the 92nd Street Y.

The talk itself featured Corriere della Sera editor Federico Fubini and Bocconi University Prof. Gianmarco Ottaviano, and was entitled “Unione Europa, Perché Odiarla? Alle Radici del Sovranismo Antieuropeista.” That translates as “European Union, Why the Hate? Seeking the roots of anti-european nationalism.” That last word is problematic to me—”sovranismo” is more than just nationalism, and the speakers made a distinction. It refers specifically to the actions of governments like that of Trump and Johnson in the UK, or to what Salvini in Italy preaches. It’s more than an appeal to God, Tradition, and Country in the old days; it’s coupled with anti-immigrant actions like imposing punitive tariffs and withdrawing from international treaties. Anyone out there have anything to add?

In any event, the roots have been out there for us all to see. The EU, they said, is a perfect vehicle for the world that existed in the 1990s, the somewhat fuzzy promises of globalization, a mobile, educated populace, speaking English and tech-talk, seamlessly moving around doing important Internet stuff. Problem is, the world the Eurocrats set up led to wide dislocations as people from Southern Europe moved north for jobs. At the same time, stupid decisions like the US invading Iraq led to the refugee crisis, with thousands braving the sea to reach European shores. Italy in general feels hollowed out, its once huge auto industry, for example, rushing into a marriage with the French Peugeot. And that’s just one big example.

So yeah, there’s a reason for people who aren’t English speaking tech savvy consumers of iPhones and Camembert to feel left out of it. The speakers were charming, yet a lot of what they were saying seemed obvious, at least to me. What we need, if we want to avoid the ranting, racist appeals of Trump and Johnson, are policies that make angry people feel like they’ve been invited to the party. And mealy-mouthed, fiscally prudent centrist policies ain’t gonna do it. Seems to me that we’re at one of those historic junctures that demand structural change, much like FDR did to save US capitalism back in the 1930s. And it doesn’t look like the current crew is going to do it. Are there any grownups out there?

500 hours of solitude (give or take): Day 1, alone with the neighbor’s sheep

This was the deal: The house in Umbria was unoccupied for a few months, and this is not a good idea. It’s one thing to leave an apartment—you just close up, turn the gas off, make sure the espresso machine’s emptied of water, lock the door, and you’re good to go. It’s rather different with a country house, especially one that’s pretty visible. Our red car wasn’t in front, and a close viewer would notice the lack of activity.

Only both of us couldn’t get here this winter. The Spartan Woman has a bunch of things to do, and she’s more successful at doing them if I’m not around. And it doesn’t matter where I am to do my work. So here I am, up on the mountain with the sheep. Someone had to do it.

I’ve never been alone up here for more than a few hours. So this is an experiment. Can I live here and do what I need to do without turning into a crazy man talking to myself? Oh, wait, I do that anyway. Can I do it without turning into a sloth in sweats, a hermit with the sheep and if I’m lucky, the neighbor’s sheepdog as company?

We’ll see. So far, things are fine. I got here yesterday via a smooth and nearly frill-free but comfy Alitalia flight (premium economy is almost civilized.) The airline’s perpetually bankrupt, but it keeps up a good face and premium economy comes with a better, more spacious seat and priority check-in and boarding. Then a friend of a friend picked me up at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. That saved me from either a combination of trains and then begging for a ride, or a slow bus and begging for that ride from Perugia. Plus, the guy was great to talk to—total Italian immersion—and his sweet little dog fell asleep on my lap.

When I got here, the poor house felt neglected, with cobwebs in the corners, a fridge with some scary items in it, and the wind howling from the north. Luckily, though, the Internet connection still worked and a friend turned the heat on before I got here. It’s still chilly but not frigid in here.

The house still stands. The old shed is missing the summer’s pool toys.

I’ve had back again stuff to do–get in some groceries, fill up the car, and some work. And being alone means I get control of the TV remote and, as usual the few times I did, I got lost down the YouTube rabbit hole.

The town’s still there.

I’m going to try to blog more often as a way of chronicling my adventures. Or document my going insane. If I can’t think of anything halfway interesting to write, I’ll post photos.

This winter I went swimming

(with apologies to Loudon Wainwright III)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I can’t wait for the summer.

Davy Brooks is wrong just about everything

Some of you may know about my on-again, off-again obsession with New York Times columnist David Brooks. You might even wonder why, other than his sheer laziness and obviousness. I’ll let you in on my eternal shame: I once shared a byline with him, in the now-defunct women’s magazine More. The piece was a feature about “Alpha Women.” Brooks wrote the intro; I did the write-ups of the women themselves. We never spoke to each other.

But I have another reason for the headline. It’s about Brooks’ periodic praise for American innovation, or what he sees as innovation. The narrative goes like this: The United States is a tougher place to live than Europe, where people enjoy things like universal healthcare, long vacations, and a decent safety net. But the United States gives us something that they can’t—the freedom to dream and innovate and be like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. All this cool stuff like iPhones and Amazon’s Echo comes from the U.S., not those sclerotic old soft countries across the pond.

Sigh. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s wrong with this way of looking at the world, and The Spartan Woman and I have been batting around ideas. Living in both the dynamic, young inventive USA and tired old Europe, I try to resist the kinds of comparisons a lot of people do. I hear it all the time; Sentences that begin with “We have xxx,” or “Ours are different” or “How come they….” You get the drift. Both regions are what they are.

Then again, let’s talk about innovation. In American terms, it’s almost always a synonym for “technology.” When Brooks and his brethren (they’re almost always guys) gloat about American inventiveness, they invariably bring up the iPhone, or Google, etc., and boast about how they dominate the world. Okay, fine. But are they everything? Is computer-related technology the only way people can innovate, or think of new or more useful ways to live?

I’d say no. Let’s talk about how people move around in their environment. The U.S., for all the buzz about autonomous cars, is way behind the rest of the world. Stubbornly and proudly dumb about it. Highways are jammed, in the older cities, public transport is falling apart; here in New York it’s a battle to keep the subways and trains in any kind of working order. New York is still struggling to start building a new rail tunnel to link it to the rest of the country as the one in use crumbles and soon will be dangerous to use. Smaller cities are car-only, with maybe a rudimentary bus system. (Those cities out west that are building and expanding light rail systems are a noble exception.) In a way, the autonomous car thing is a perfect metaphor for the U.S.—high tech will come to the rescue of a way of life that’s stubbornly holding on and killing the planet.

Way faster than the Acela

In Europe–and even in Italy, which isn’t usually thought of being ahead of anything modern–you can zip around on fast trains. It takes just an hour and a half to go from Florence to Milan; the Rome-Milan trip, which is about 500 km or about 300 miles, takes under 3 hours.

There are lots of other examples where “innovation” doesn’t necessarily mean computers or online anything. As an American, have you remodeled a kitchen recently? How long did it take, and how much did it cost? We put in a kitchen in our Italian mountain house, with sleek white and grey laminate cabinets and the usual appliances. It took a couple of visits to a store, a little plumbing and electrical work, and then the kitchen was done in a day. The innovation came in the form of design; the manufacturer has a bunch of modules, with some custom work. It sends a “geometra,” someone who measures everything, looks at where the outlets and gas lines are, etc. Two guys and a truck later, it was all there. (And it came to about $5,000.)

All in less than a day’s work

And then there’s the espresso machine. At least for me, it’s improved my life more than, say, digital internet (sorry FIOS, you’re not my first love). So, once again, my usual disclaimer: I’m not saying that one place is necessarily better than the other–well, okay, in nonmaterial quality of life, one is better, but you might not agree. It’s just that there are other ways of looking at what’s important, and how life should be lived. We as Americans should look around some more.

And, er, Davy’s wrong.

Photo of the semi-hidden visage of Brooks at the top: By PBS Newshour – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, 0

We went forest bathing with Mother Aquehonga

We’re back. And we’re a little homesick for the mountain and the Sentiero Francescano della Pace. So what do two people who live on a mountaintop criss-crossed by great hiking trails do when they’re back in New York City? They go hiking in the hills of New York City. The Japanese call it forest bathing, which is a pretty neat term, I think.

Let explain. Take a look at this satellite map of Staten Island.

See all that green stuff in the middle? That’s the Greenbelt, an inadvertent gift from none other than Robert Moses, that enemy of open green spaces. He planned a parkway right through that green north-south belt, the Richmond Parkway. It would have run from the Staten Island expressway in a southwest direction. And it would have run through and destroyed hundreds of acres of virgin forest. But that was no obstacle to Moses; he usually got what he wanted.

What the great builder and destroyer didn’t count on was Todt Hill. The neighborhood, smack dab in the middle of his planned road, happens to be one of the wealthiest in the city. Back then, we’re talking about the 1960s, it was an enclave of discreet wealth—nice big Tudor homes, tasteful mansions, fieldstone farmhouses with ponds, that sort of thing. If you’d taken photos of the area at that time and said it was New Canaan Connecticut, no one would’ve challenged you (except for the denizens of that exclusive community). Today, Todt Hill is rather less tasteful (see the monstrous McVersailles below), but I’ll leave that for another post.

The route also would’ve run alongside the Richmond County Country Club, golf course and watering hole of said community, as well as Moravian Cemetery, where generations of Vanderbilts are buried. Yes, those Vanderbilts. They came from Staten Island, of all places.

Now it’s one thing to ram a highway through the South Bronx. Sure, people opposed the notorious Cross-Bronx Expressway, but they didn’t have much clout. It’s another thing to wreck a wealthy wooded enclave. The good people of Todt Hill organized and fought Moses. After a struggle, helped along by the support of Jackie Onassis, the highway never was built. But what’s left is a fabulous green swath of land in the heart of the island, which is public property and which features terrific hiking trails and nature preserves.

So, in search of some quiet and green space, we took to the hills. We parked our car across the street from a couple of monstrous McMansions, one of which is big enough to be a hotel, checked out the map, and went hiking. First, accidentally, we went through the St. Francis/San Francesco woods—you may remember this post from a quite different Francis forest—and then decided to hang south

The path took us along the spine of the hills. At one point we could see the ocean, and according to the map, we walked alongside and above the country club fairway. The trails are well-marked and not too challenging–there’s enough variation to keep you entertained, but it never feels like you’ll fall off a cliff. But with the thick early autumn foliage, all we saw were trees and shrubbery.

One of these days, I’d love to walk the whole length with a naturalist. But this wasn’t the time; we had to get back to the car before it got dark.

If you want an out of NYC yet in NYC experience, go here:

50 minutes to paradise and back

It’s been awhile since we’ve done anything to further the St. Francis brand. So as good, upstanding part-time Umbrians, we scoured our social media feeds (yes, they know where we are) and saw an organized walk to the Bosco di San Francesco (St. You-Know-Who’s Forest) this past Sunday.

Well, scratch that. We don’t do organized things, and in the morning? On Sunday? Still, the place is intriguing, and I’d seen photos of the sylvan woods with a stream running through it, and I’m a sucker for a good walk. So off we went toward Assisi. This place has the added advantage of being outside the city walls, so I didn’t have to deal with parking and other hassles of going into a town’s historic center.

There’s a cool reception center, and there’s a suggested donation of €5 a person. The woods are administered by the Fondo Ambiente Italiano (FAI), the Italian Environmental Fund. The acronym’s pretty neat; it means “do”–and they, indeed, do throughout the country, cleaning up sites and opening big natural areas to casual walkers and serious hikers alike.

The Bosco has two main hikes. One takes you up, up, up to the Basilica di San Francesco, the towering cathedral that dominates Assisi’s skyline and features frescoes by Giotto, among others. The art inside is breathtaking, as can be some of the crowds. We didn’t take this hike. By the time we got there, the relatively benign September sun was shining ruthlessly. And did I mention that it’s a steep uphill climb?

So, wimps that we are, we took the “Terzo Paradiso” or Third Paradise walk. Hey, how could we resist it with a name like that? The paradise in question is a “land art” work by Michelangelo Pistoletto. It’s in a clearing in the woods and is overlooked by Assisi’s fortress. The artist used oxen to inscribe three circles, a large one in the middle surrounded by two smaller ones. The length is infinite since they’re interconnected. Then FAI and the artist planted a double row of 121 olive trees, and there’s a steel shaft in the middle that symbolizes the meeting of heaven and earth. (Now this is a real olive garden.)

Paradise, found

I know this sounds awfully conceptual and, like, deep. But to experience is both awe-inspiring and fun. First off, it’s a beautiful place. Walking around it is just plain enjoyable. If you haven’t been near olive trees, they’re silvery green and reflect sunlight in a particular way. So when you’re walking around the circles, the trees shimmer around you.

Olive trees and cypresses up there, where we didn’t climb
Water, water, nowhere, except in a plastic bottle

Third Paradise isn’t the only attraction. The woods themselves are beautiful, with outcroppings and the usual central Italian mix of vegetation. Despite the four or five (I lost count) heatwaves we had this summer, everything is still amazingly green. FAI has thoughtfully put benches throughout, so you can take a break and, like the F-man did, contemplate the universe, or the bug circling your head.

The only thing is the stream that runs through these woods, is, to paraphrase Monty Python, a former stream. A stream that is no longer. It has ceased to be a stream, at least for now. We’ll come back after the fall rains to see if that’s changed. And just maybe we’ll scale the hill to the Basilica. Hey, the parking’s free down by the woods.

If you’re around and want to walk where Francis walked—or one of the places—just look up on your sat-nav or phone “Bosco di San Francesco.” FAI also has directions on its site. And there’s what looked like a nice restaurant adjacent to the site, but we didn’t try it out.

An accidental Italian

This expat thing…I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Kid number 2 was here this month, so it forced me to think about my two lives and weigh the one in New York and our few months a year up on this hilltop.

We’re aren’t here full-time, but we’re here in big enough chunks for it to feel routine. Still, it’s a leap, and I didn’t realize at the time how things would shake out. I started on second base compared to most Americans who move abroad. I grew up as a Sicilian kid living in the U.S. My father’s from Palermo, so as a kid I was surrounded by the language. My mom cooked Sicilian food more than half the time. I was always used to the Italian temperament: the different sense of personal space than Americans are used to, hearing two or three simultaneous conversations. I always felt like an interloper in the U.S.—of the place by birth, but somehow faking it.

Meet the family. That’s me on the left, with my nonna Maria. My grandfather’s to the right of her, and my father’s standing in between them. My mom and baby sister are on the right.

So coming here for a couple of months at a time wasn’t going to be too weird. My first experiences in Italy involved staying in the home of close relatives like my aunt and grandparents. I knew what shopping was like, I was used to how people live in Italy, and the food, even here in Umbria, in central Italy, is a lot like what I grew up on and what I’m used to.

There was one barrier; while I understood a fair amount of the language—and successfully hid that fact–I know that while I’m pretty fluent, I’ll never be taken for a native. I have an accent. I’d love to be able to take how I speak Italian and put it through a computer into English to see what the equivalent Italian person-speaks-English would be like. But I know that I’m missing some of the connective tissue of the language. I say “uh” when I’m thinking of a word mid-sentence instead of something that sounds like “erh” here in Umbria. Italian is more formal than American English; here we say “however” and “thus.” And word usage is more precise. There’s a difference between jealous and envious, and when a machine isn’t doing what it should do, it doesn’t function.

Daily life as a semi-resident is almost like learning to walk again. I’ve had help; we have friends here who don’t speak English, so it’s been a forced total immersion. But until the past couple of years, I felt like when I speak, it’s someone else. I’m really good at bending and twisting English to say what I want to say. I didn’t feel like that for a long time with my second tongue; I was happy to be able to communicate enough to do what I had to do, or to connect with a friend or my cousins in Palermo. A couple of years ago, though, I realized that my personality, for better or worse, was coming through. I can joke in Italian now; I’ve figured out how to be sarcastic. Irony is a hard thing and you have to express it differently than you do in English. You can used the same kind of words, but your intonation has to be a little different to convey it correctly. Otherwise you can get blank stares or you’ll find that you’ve insulted someone.

This all came together a few weeks ago when I was in a car crash. I was stopped, waiting to make a turn into a supermarket parking lot when a driver hit my car at a pretty high speed from behind. My first reaction was shock at what seemed like pure evil to me, at least for that instant. And then I felt like I was reduced to being a kid again. I didn’t know what to do, who to call, how to behave. The guy in the car behind me passed out after his airbags deployed. I was in shock, I think, and I couldn’t think straight even in English. I called my wife, and could barely get “I just had an accident” out to her.

Ouch! Or “aio!”

It’s good thing that we have friends nearby who came to help. A crowd gathered, too, and a couple of people calmed me down. One woman went into her house and brought out a bottle of water. Someone called the police and ambulance. They commiserated with me, and my friends helped me talk to the police. The EMTs in the ambulance were kind and checked me out while trying to figure out how the other guy was doing. The whole episode in short, kind of crystallized how far I need to go, and at the same time, what I like about living here. You’re never quite alone.

I guess I’ll always have a thing for my hometown of New York. Not the glitzy current city, which has turned into a kind of Disneyland for the One Percent. But taking the ferry and looking at the harbor, or a glance down a street still paved with cobblestones, the bones of old New York come through. There’s nothing like the sound of a foghorn on a zero-visibility day, or the crazy mashup of ethnicities and accents and foods, mostly found these days in the outer boroughs. And for that reason, I can’t just live in one place—seems like when I’m here, I look nostalgically at New York, and when New York drives me crazy, I think back to the hills around here.