Vlad made us do it

Life here on our hill ain’t all sunsets and spritzes. Maybe it would be if we had servants. But we don’t; we’re just two retirees trying to have a little fun and adventure. Gotta say though, in the week since our arrival, life hasn’t been much of an adventure. It’s been pretty dull in a nice way, in fact, after a way too busy holiday run-up. Call us happy stay-at-homes, at least until tomorrow, because we’re planning a run into the big city of Perugia (pop. 170,000). And we’ve had to catch up on our lives here before we can descend from our lofty patch of land.

First things first: After a day or so of traveling packed like sardines into two Lufthansa flights—a wide bodied A 340 and a narrow body A320, then a ride in our man Angelo’s van, we got here with just a touch of jet lag. More importantly, and unlike our return to New York in the fall, we didn’t bring Covid with us, or catch it in an airport or while aloft.

Did I mention it’s winter here too? That means no lolling around at the café in the piazza, definitely no beach day trips and no dinners on the patio. It’s not as cold as it is in a Northeast U.S. winter, but the days are short, the nights long and chilly, and we’re greeted every morning with a sea of fog in the valley which, I have to say, is pretty stunning. People jokingly call it the Umbrian sea and these shots give a good idea why.

We still have to heat the house. As we were leaving back in October, the price for propane was going through the roof as fears of a long, cold, natural gas-less winter took hold. We have huge buried tanks to hold said gas, but even when Vlad the Ukraine Invader isn’t doing his genocidal mischief, prices are high—about 80 cents a litre—and it costs hundreds of euros to fill the tanks.

Please heat up. All we need is 50 deg C. That’s not too much to ask.

Luckily, the previous occupants of our house put in these clever Klover fireplaces. They’re hooked into the house’s heating system, so all we have to do is start a fire. A big fire—the pump that drives the fireplace’s heat into the radiators starts pumping at 50 degrees Celsius—that’s 122 degrees F. for the metric-challenged—and that takes awhile, and quite a few pieces of wood. The Spartan Woman, living up to her nickname, managed to stack most of our remaining wood next to the living room fireplace. Thanks to her our nights have been toasty and only a little smoky.

But that wood. Before we left, we’d pass our supplier on our way to the supermarket. He had great mountains of wood in anticipation of a gasless cold winter. I called a couple of times and he assured me about the supply. But then he added that he was so busy that he wouldn’t couldn’t guarantee delivery before we left. And so we looked at our dwindling supply warily, treading a line between staying warm and making sure we wouldn’t be left to freeze on later nights.

Last week, the wood dude and I made contact before we left. We texted each other, he said just call or write when we arrive, happy holidays, etc. I did, and he promised a delivery yesterday morning. It didn’t happen. We waited and worried. Should I call? After years of editing other people’s writing, I’m tired of being a nag, so I waited without nagging until after night fell. “I’ll be there tomorrow morning.” “Can you tell me when?” “Around 10.” Phew.

He was good at his word. This morning a little dump truck arrived and tipped almost 19 quintali—that’s 1800+ kilograms or nearly 4,000 pounds of the stuff near our garage door. It was not a little pile, nor was it all stacked in a pretty box. If it were packaged nicely, it would have cost a lot more than €340, which is a fraction of what propane would’ve cost us to heat the house for the same period. TSW, with her superior logistical skills, designated areas for big pieces, kindling, and in-between annoying pieces, and we went to work. I must confess that she did more; a bad back, the result of my Summer of Coughing, made me take breaks after every dozen of chunks of wood stacked.

It wasn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours. At least we weren’t shut-ins staring at computer/phone/TV screens. Fresh air! Clouds! And that Umbria sea just below us, shifting its shape as the breeze and sun played games with one another. What we didn’t especially like, but can’t do anything about, were the shouts of men in the land surrounding ours. They were hunting for wild boar, and every now and then shouts, the barks of hunting dogs, and rifle shots rent the air. That’s the kind of stuff they don’t put in the tourist websites. But that’s winter in the Umbrian countryside, and I wouldn’t trade it in for anywhere else right now.

But there’s more.

TODAY IS JANUARY 6, SO IT WAS TIME, we decided, to descend from our aerie. The sun was bright, the sky blue, the “ocean” floating around in the valley, and our Covid tests negative. So we get in the car and drive the 20-something kilometers (about 12 miles) into Perugia. Not a big distance physically, but psychologically, it’s a big gulf.

Especially today—this is the last weekend of the holiday season in Italy. We say “buone feste” here—happy holidays—not necessarily to be caring and sharing with our non-Christian sisters and brothers across the world. The season literally consists of three big holidays, and a fourth, December 8’s immaculate conception (or something like that), which kicks off la stagione Nataliza (the Christmas season). We wanted to how Perugia looks before they take away all the lights and trees and decorations.

The roads were nearly empty as we headed into town, but the Minimetrò system was packed. A 10-minute ride from the outskirts of town to the historic center and we were in the middle of a cast of thousands. Even better was a parade of antique cars. I’m not sure what a prewar Lancia or Fiat has to do with Epiphany—gifts to the Magi (us)? perhaps? Who knows. It was fun to watch these old beauties parade slowly by as people reminisced about their father’s or grandmother’s car that took them on beach holidays or to school.

One thing I wanted to do but forget on the way out was to get a hot chocolate. Italian cioccolato caldo is nothing like the thin, insipid stuff sold in the U.S. Think warm, intense, slightly less thick chocolate pudding. Next time…

Someone even brought a vintage Mustang.

What’s that about how you can’t go home again?

I’m sitting in the kitchen of our house in New York. It’s been awhile since I posted from here, say, six months or so. We got here a week ago and I guess I could’ve posted some fluffy thing about our smooth voyage back to the land of the compulsory national anthem.

But then it happened.

We innocently took ourselves up the street to our friendly locally owned pharmacy for the latest Covid omnicron bi-whatever booster shot. We’d faithfully gotten every vaccine, every booster. In Italy, we stayed away from crowds. We wore masks when we weren’t obligated to. We got here via one long van ride piloted by our friend Angelo, one night in a beachside hotel, an early morning cab ride and two Lufthansa flights, the first from Rome to Munich, then Munich to JFK. The flights were jam-packed, so much so that we got alerts on our phones to check hand baggage if possible to leave enough space in the overheads.

So we masked on board, except for meals. Sorry kiddos, but these old peeps gotta eat and drink. Then, remasked, The Spartan Woman settled in for some movies, while I, the dissolute blogger, took advantage of some pharmaceuticals and the delicious bubbly Henkell Trocken supplied by Lufthansa to get some needed sleep. As far as I’m concerned, the best flight is the flight that I barely remember.

Immigration in NY was swift, lubricated by a nice conversation with an elderly lawyer and his charming wife while on line for Mr. Passport Man. “How long was your stay?” asked the passport guy. “Six months, more or less.” Welcome home. An Uber later and a frenzied Lola the Bassotto (dachshund in Italian) was doing circles and screaming at the top of her lungs when we saw her. It was nice to be back.

So fast forward…it’s Saturday. We take the pooch out for a walk and head for the Greenmarket. We’re always thinking of Sunday pranzo (midday meal, spiritually more than just lunch), so we buy mussels, some beautiful tuna and swordfish, chard, and apples. Corn, too. In other words, we’re back to our New Yawk life.

Snug Harbor: Where art and botany live together in perfect harmony

Or so we thought.

It started late Saturday. You know that intuition that something isn’t quite right? I felt hot. I felt cold. I felt hot and cold at the same time, I couldn’t tell the difference. Pressure built up in my head. I looked over to TSW. She seemed to be a bit ragged too. It got worse. We tested. Negative. Phew. It’s just a reaction to the booster.

It wasn’t. A day (or was it two? It’s all a blur) later, TSW tests positive. I took a few home rapid tests, still negative. Still, as of Monday morning I would’ve been happy to have been knocked unconscious. I put my hoodie on and wrapped myself up in a fleece blanket. Then took it all off and hung out in my T-shirt. Rinse. Repeat. Or something like that. In the back of my fevered brain (yes, I had a fever of 102 by this point) I knew I was on deadline for an actual, someone’s paying me article. In a mighty show of pitiful mind over matter, I sat up and banged out a draft. Then I collapsed in an easy chair. I don’t remember much else except that an hour before filing the piece the next day I decided that I wrote it backwards, and rearranged paragraphs. Good thing I had 30 years of editing experience, so doing that didn’t take much brainpower or patching around the moved pieces.

She had to rest after all the excitement of seeing us.

More tests for me. Same result. TSW and Dr. Joe said get thee to a PCR test. Did that. Still negative, while TSW, daughter no. 2 and BF of daughter no. 2 all positive This does not make sense. Nope. None.

So that’s where we are. We get a little better every day. The other three at least have a name for how rotten they feel. Trust me, I’m not having sympathy pains, though by now I’m a day or so ahead and can approximate a human being.

We never did have that nice seafood dinner.

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.

You’ve just been erased

“That’s me in the spotlight/Losing my religion”

I had a pretty glam life in the Before Times. Working in publishing, even for trade journals, was pretty posh as far as jobs go. I was an editor for a weekly legal affairs newspaper—this is before the interwebs—and then I toiled, variously, as an in-house tech consultant, a magazine editor and writer, and a part-time restaurant critic. At the first gig, we had legendary Friday post-publication lunches at the dear departed Restaurant Florent, Champagne and bagel breakfasts, and wine-drenched expense account lunches with writers as we tried to tease the best stories out of them.

At the magazines, I became more visible. I donned a tux and gave awards to lawyers before audiences of 500 or so, was quoted in news releases and articles, and interviewed on video at conferences. I moderated panels of lawyers and executives and had lunch at places like The Four Seasons, once with a guy who’s now the president of Microsoft. I interviewed Richard Gere and Patti Smith at a Buddhist benefit, and hung out with Patti Labelle all day in her kitchen. If you googled my name back then, my editor’s notes and articles shot to the top. In short, in my little corner of the media, I had a public life.

Not my old newsroom, but you get the idea.

A bunch of non-New Yorkers who seemed to love every overhyped consultant they met ended all that. And Covid-19 dealt the coup de grâce. Now old enough to be on Medicare in the U.S., I’m fading away, at least as far as public life goes. I keep thinking of the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie “Erased.”

Why? It’s called “retirement.” And they don’t send you off with a lunch and golden watch any more.

It’s an interesting, if not altogether pleasing process. I didn’t really notice it while we were in Italy, because I was too busy either enjoying living there or dealing with new ways to do everyday stuff like getting an oil change or a haircut, and paying taxes. Back in my familiar New York City home, it’s easy to see what’s missing—dealing with the outside world, basically. One thing that struck me immediately is how isolating American life can be anyway. Here we’ve got neighbors mere feet (or meters!) away, yet we rarely interact with them. But in Umbria, on our hilltop, we regularly engage with neighbors and even passersby as we hike up our road or climb mountain trails. Even a trip to the drugstore can be a social event, because Italians are compulsively chatty.

The Omicron Covid surge ain’t helping. In just a couple of weeks, our neighborhood has become weirdly silent, a combination of it being January, the cruelest month as far as I’m concerned, and fear of contagion.

Writing this blog helps me ward off what I fear the most, turning into a mindless blob watching endless episodes of home improvement shows on cable. At least I’m keeping up my writing chops, and I’m slowly building an audience. I decided that when I write, I have to be in my home office sitting at the desk, even though I used a laptop and could be, well, in an easy chair, looking up every now and then at a home improvement show or, worse, cable news. And my good friend and former colleague Sue urged me to have a routine. For that, I have The Spartan Woman’s diet and exercise boot camp.

I’ve had different retirement models to follow. My father-in-law pretty much tuned out and watched crappy westerns all day. But my father, similarly cashiered after years of loyal service to his company, moved to the country and became an even more compulsive gardener than he was while I was growing up, his patch of land’s yield rivaling a small farm’s. At the end of a visit to my parents, he’d send us home with bags full of produce. I may not be the gardener my dad was (he’s been laid low by lung disease), but I sure know which path I want to take—albeit in a way that doesn’t involve too much dirt under my fingernails. (The Spartan Woman is our gardener.)

They say you gotta have friends when you don’t have work, and luckily I have lots. A bunch are, due to Covid and distance, virtual. Hello, Facebook, even though I hate you I cain’t quit you. Others live here in New York but still have to put in their time staring at their computers and getting paid for it. During the interregnum between Covid waves, I actually managed to hang out with some in the same meatspace.

Otherwise, I’ve renewed some old friendships. The unfortunate death of one of my best friends (we were besties in high school) led me to renew a friendship with another high school pal, someone who stayed in close touch with the guy we lost. It’s nice to catch up with him—we call each other on FaceTime and walk around our houses and yards. He’s even tapped me to offer some editing suggestions for an article he wrote for his practice, a task that, after years of fixing other people’s writing, is as natural to me as breathing.

It’s nice to be in the city of my birth for awhile. But I have to confess that I’m itching to return to the mountaintop. For one thing, there’s less traffic and a trip to the supermarket is less stressful. But more than that, TSW and I have more of a social life between Italian friends, a couple of Euro and Canadian expats, and the dogs down the road. They say that one of the best ways to delay becoming senile is to keep the mind busy, and I think living in a different country, albeit one that claims me as a citizen, could be how I do it.

Positively negative: The sequel

What a difference a few months make. You may remember this post and this one. If you don’t and haven’t clicked on the links, I’ll give you the quick version: Flying internationally then was fraught with bureaucracy. Lots of papers to fill out, lots of document checks and Covid testing and an added soupçon of fear and weirdness.

This time, a transatlantic flight was almost normal. But first, a little more backstory. We had return to New York trips booked on Alitalia, airline of the pope, Italian jet set types, and ladies from Bensonhurst. But as of October 14, Alitalia’s out of business, supplanted in Italy by something called ITA Airways, which apparently is supposed to exorcise the bad old ghosts of Alitalia and lead us Italians into a glorious, leanly staffed but full-service, digital (whatever that means) aviation future.

Move along, nothing to see here.

The problem for us was that ITA wouldn’t honor our tickets; under the deal with the European Commission that created the new entity, ITA was explicitly barred from doing so. In a mad scramble online, we bought new tickets, round trip from Rome, on the German airline Lufthansa. We’d flown Lufthansa before and liked its in-flight service—because of flight attendants’ propensity to pour a lot of wine I think of the carrier as the Riesling Express–and thought that it would be interesting to see if and how Covid-19 concerns changed that service.

In a few words, this time around it was pretty much the same,

Once we booked a return date and as that date approached, we had to do the usual stuff to gradually close the house: using up perishable foods, and not buying much either. We decided not to go out to eat that often, either, to reduce our chance of contracting Covid, even as a so-called breakthrough case. We saw that we needed a negative Covid test, 48 hours if it was a rapid preflight test, 72 hours for a PCR test—this is the phrase I loathe, “the new normal.” Our neighborhood pharmacy, Pagliacci in our town, could do the test and give us a two-day “green pass.”

We were poked up the nose here.

About that green pass—for Italian residents, it’s a digital QR code that’s stored in a smartphone app. But for us nonresidents, a paper document worked, although I could have downloaded a digital version from Italy’s health ministry. One of these days I’ll write about Italy’s newfound digitalization. Later.

We made an appointment to get the “tampone”—the Covid test and literally, a swab, and when Monday afternoon rolled around, we went down the hill to the pharmacy. Unlike testing in NY, tests in Italy aren’t free; we had to pay €22 apiece, with €44 coming to abouit $51. A short wait and we got our passes. We were negative. The odds favored this; the entire region of Umbria has about twice the population of Staten Island (which is about 500,000), but it has about half the number of new daily Covid cases.

Then we headed into the trip vortex. The next day we went through our closing down the house checklist. Gas off, furnace off, security system engaged, etc. At least we had something pleasant after that. When we dropped our car off at our neighbors’ place, they invited us in for some bruschetta so we could taste the new olive oil. It’s always a pleasure–their two friendly Maremmano sheep dogs greeted us near the door and then we sat around talking, eating the delicious oil on the bread, and talking some more. Finally, we had to leave; our friend and man with a van Angelo would soon be arriving to drive us to the airport, where we planned to stay overnight for an early morning flight to Munich, and then change for one bound for JFK.

The next 18 hours or so are a blur. Angelo arrived, we loaded our bags, bade a sad ciao! to the house and hills. We stayed in a funky boutique airport hotel called Hello Sky–it had a great, very blue, very very blue bathroom. We’d planned to go into the town of Fiumicino for a seafood dinner, but we were exhausted and ate some paninos in our room. Sad!

Up early the next day, we hustled our bags and sorry bodies across the skybridge to Fiumicino’s Terminal 3, found the Lufthansa area and expected to be grilled and checked and documented. But, pleasant surprise number 1, nope. No line. The Lufthansa woman smiled (!), scanned our passports (American ones–EU people weren’t allowed into the U.S. just yet), and looked at our green passes. Security was just as quick.

If you haven’t been through Rome’s main airport lately, you’re in for a surprise. It’s actually pleasant. No, really. There are cool bars everywhere, the food is good, as we were able to enjoy a last bar-made cappuccino and cornetto. Sure, there’s the usual GucciPucciFerragamoArmani silliness, but there are also nice long soft bench-couch places on which to relax, subtle lighting and, I am not kidding, a sushi bar. But it was too early for sushi.

Munich’s airport: Decent food, easy to get around, straight simple lines

We had to go through Munich, and we had to wear masks for both flights. So, short crowded flight there with minimal service. A couple of hours in Munich’s Bauhaus-y airport, complete with sticker shock (Italian prices spoiled us.) We then, in an orderly way, boarded our Airbus A350 for the ride to New York. We fly premium economy so we can take more bags and stretch out some. (It also means a gentler reentry.) Lufthansa’s inflight service is pretty terrific compared to US based carriers. I’ll just show you the meal, etc., rather than describe them. An early rise and a few glasses of German bubbly meant that I conked out and didn’t get to see the ending of the Elton John biopic Rocketman,

At this point you probably expect me to diss JFK, US immigration and customs. But you would be wrong, A combination of a nearly empty flight, no other flights landing at the same time, and a glitch in the matrix means that we sailed through all of it. We didn’t have to scan our passports, the passport dude was semi-friendly. Our bags came out quickly—hey, with maybe 40-50 people on board, there wasn’t much luggage on that plane—and we were outta there. Neighborhood friend Wendy was there to welcome us and drive us home and…well….the Belt Parkway. But we were too tired to care.

That said, JFK’s Terminal 1 felt awfully shabby. The moving sidewalks didn’t move, there was ratty carpeting everywhere. It doesn’t feel like a gateway to a world capital city, much less a country that holds itself up as the world’s standard bearer. In general, it feels kind of decrepit around here after being away for so long.

I’ll write more later about what it feels like to be back in New York after more than five months of being on an Umbrian hilltop. But sheesh, people, was this country always so strange and stressed? You can feel it on the road and in the supermarket, where the masked and the unmasked eye one another suspiciously. The political strife. Even our nice morning dog group seems to have split up into factions. It’s as though this invisible hand is pushing us across the ocean,.

But our kids are here. And so is the glorious dachshund Lola. Damn,.

To know her is to love her.

Home (alone) for the holidays

Christmas spread, pre-pandemic

IF THIS WERE A normal year, I’d be helping to come up with a menu for Christmas day. I’d be sending out invitations to our annual get-together. And I’d probably be heading into Manhattan a couple of times for drinks/lunch/dinner with friends.

But it’s not a normal year, so instead I’m mostly confined to this house except for a morning walk in Snug Harbor with the dog. We won’t be having anyone over for the holiday. And I’m having trouble remembering which day it is, although today feels very Thursday-ish for some reason. I do try to remember, because I have to remind The Spartan Woman which day it is periodically. (The pup does not care, as long as she gets out to the park, and gets treats.) At least we have garbage collections days to remind us as well.

Henry liked the evil red chair, too. And it did the same thing to him.

I usually get grouchy in late November/early December. I don’t like the plunge into cold weather, and I intensely dislike the early sunset. Plus, holiday prep annoys me, all that forced running around for…what, exactly? This year, probably due to the boredom of being home just about every day, I fight off narcolepsy, or what seems like narcolepsy. Especially if I sit in the evil red chair in the living room. It’s so easy. Just sit and read or watch TV. Pretty soon, gravity seems to get stronger and my bones start to resonate with that invisible force. I can’t get up. Next something—could it be gravity here, too?—grabs my eyelids and pulls them down. Honestly I had nothing to do with taking that nap. Damn that chair!

The not very inspiring view from my office window

I could look out the window, but all I see are other houses. We do hear ambulances all too often, as the novel coronavirus takes over most of the city again. There’s a hospital just a few blocks away, which normally would be reassuring. Not now though, as we cringe when we hear an ambulance heading down the next one-way street toward it.

So, we’re not going to have our annual Christmas Day bash. There’s a history behind it. The Spartan Woman’s Aunt Bessie married a Jewish grad student back after World War II. They had three kids and raised them in the Jewish faith. It became a tradition for them to gather with their gentile relatives for Christmas. We inherited the tradition when we bought this house. We’re an ecumenical bunch—most of us are nonsubscribers or cafeteria practitioners when it comes to religion, but there’s still culture and tradition. If the two holidays coincide, more or less, we’ll light a menorah, and we have a dreidel on our Christmas tree. The Spartan Woman sometimes makes latkes for the crew, too. It’s really one of the best days of the year, even for me, who basically loathes the forced jollity of the holiday season.

This would not be a good idea this year.

I loved it when The Spartan Aunt was still alive and well. She was a worldly, curious woman who, like her husband, was a trained biologist. She wrote the kid’s book, All About Snakes. Bessie was a really good cook, as well as her husband’s frontline and probably best editor. I realized after a year or two of hosting these get-togethers, that I was cooking for her. I wanted to surprise her, or, on a childish level, to get her approval. She always brought bottles of very nice Bordeaux, and her wine fueled great conversations.

Another year, a young cousin of mine was visiting New York over Christmas. She and her boyfriend (and her family) live in rural Sicily, where the family business is a veterinary diagnostic lab. I got in touch with her and asked her if she wanted to come over for the day. I’d met her years before, at my grandmother’s (her great-grandmother’s) 90th birthday party, but didn’t really know her. I arranged to pick her and her boyfriend Francesco up at the ferry terminal and I was almost shocked when she got in the car. I knew she sort of looked like a lot of us Paonita clan members, but what was—is—a testament to genetics is that Annalisa could be my older daughter’s sister. They’d never seen one another but there they were, identical smiles, similar gestures and weirdly similar voices. They’ve been in touch ever since.

Sisters or second cousins?

Sigh. Forget bah humbug. We’re really going to miss these people this time around.

Looking for a gift? How about a terrific cookbook for yourself, straight from the hills of Umbria? Order Festa Italiana and A Kitchen With a View by Letizia Mattiacci, a/k/a La Madonna del Piatto. And watch her YouTube trailer to get into the mood.

Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

The superwide angle lens in the shot makes this room look bigger than it is. Behind the room is a postage stamp yard and the houses on the next block. The view is, in a word, boring.

No wonder Americans like(d) to work so many hours outside the home.

I’m whining because, if you’ve followed me on the social interwebs, you’ll know that I left the green hills of Umbria for the tough streets of New York City. Only we’re talking about Staten Island and….[yawn] I’m sorry, I dozed off. There are lots of nice parks around here, and I’m told that pleasant interesting people walk their dogs in the morning in those parks.

But I wouldn’t know because I’m in jail, a prisoner of Andy Cuomo and his warden, The Spartan Woman. Okay, it’s quarantine and the adult part of my brain understands That This Is Necessary and it’s all about Protecting My Loved Ones and Neighbors. But the lizard part of my brain screams get me out! Now! Except it’s dreary and gray out there. I’m pretty much confined to this room during the day and have to wear a mask when I venture out, mainly to grab my guitar or ask for a snack or some coffee. (The good side is that I’m barred from doing anything in the kitchen. After nearly two months of fending for myself for nearly every meal, this isn’t the worst thing to happen.)

Got drugs?

Eh, we didn’t think this was going to get bad again, did we? Not just my current incarceration, but the whole thing, the resurgence of Covid-19 cases, the renewed clampdown, The Donald denial of reality…. Wait, that last bit was completely predictable. As I prepared to leave, the Italian government had instituted new measures, like mandatory outdoor mask wearing and earlier restaurant and bar closures. And there’s an ongoing discussion about the need for another lockdown. Already, Lombardia, with Milan at its core, is under a nighttime curfew. Contrary, or maybe in addition, to the common perception of Milan as this serious hard-working Eurocity, it’s also party central, with great nightlife, bars, ethnic restaurants and places to just hang out outdoors with friends.

To get back to New York, I got a ride from the great Angelo, who along with his little pup, are great company for a road trip. Rome’s airport, Fiumicino, was a ghost town, as you can see in the photo below. I took a room in Hello Sky Air Rooms Rome, a hipster airport hotel because I had a morning flight and I hate leaving the house before dawn. It makes a depressing trip even worse.

Eerily quiet for a Tuesday early evening
Last dinner. Sigh.

My room was a cool monk’s cell. The nice guy behind the check-in desk’s plexiglass barrier showed me the limited restaurant menu and suggested ordering room service: “There is no penalty for having dinner delivered to your room.” I don’t remember much of the rest of the evening except that channel surfing was fun because the chain promoted a Monocle magazine sort of multiculturalism that was completely reflected in the choice of TV channels. TV Algérique, anyone?

The rest of the trip was pretty much a mirror image of my way to Italy. Alitalia did not cancel the flight; it’s actually been one of the more reliable airlines during the pandemic. I had to be more American this time and show the blue passport so that the nice Customs and Border Patrol people would let me into the country. I scored a bulkhead seat, read a novel, ate crappy sealed-in-plastic food, drank San Benedetto naturale water (the only on board beverage choice) and slept some. Arriving at JFK, I practically flew through passport control—props to the polite and even friendly people!—and when I exited the customs area the New York State folks grabbed me and made me fill out a form promising to do this quarantine thing.

Which brings us to today. I write. I go down the YouTube rabbit hole. I started watching Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are on HBO Max, which is nicely atmospheric. I’m not sure yet where it’s going, but Guadagnino (he’s from Palermo, like my family) definitely knows how to capture a place and time. The contrast between the little America vibe of the base and kids’ interactions with local Italian kids is pretty interesting. I’ll have more to say when I’m done with it.

I’ve also become a fan of cheesy Mexican crime/comedy shows on Netflix. The best so far has been Casa de las Flores, or House of Flowers, about a wealthy Mexico City family that owns a flower shop. And the family is falling apart in interesting ways. Big repressed sister is a riot; she speaks in a slow Spanish enunciating every syllable. It’s really odd, but I read that it’s how certain matrons of that wild city speak. Another good one is The Club, about a few rich Mexico City kids combine phone apps and MDMA sales, get rich, and run into turf wars with the established drug cartels. Watch it for the architecture; upper class houses in the city are fascinating to look at.

But for now, I have this. The Warden’s brought me a snack. Hey, maybe prison won’t be so bad.

And let’s give a listen to this post’s theme song:

Here we go again

Call me superstitious. I was getting nervous seeing all the press coverage of how Italy overcame the Covid-19 virus. Here’s one example: In Italy, doctors beat back the coronavirus and are now preparing for a second wave. As of yesterday, October 13, this country had more than 7300 new cases, a number not seen since the height of the first wave. World press, you jinxed us.

Until last week, I was pretty happy leading a semi-normal life. Sure, I had to wear a mask in public places indoors, or in public squares after 18:00, or 6 pm. But that was more a precaution than a necessity. The evening mask order is an effort to keep the country’s very sociable kids from hanging out and getting one another sick.

Now it’s a necessity, if we want to beat the thing back. Yeah, I know it pales in comparison to some other countries. The United States, for one, which saw 54,000 new cases yesterday, or, for a better comparison, France, with more than 14,000 new cases. Still, 7300 ain’t nothing to sneeze at.

Remember to keep your distance—this is in a little bar-cafe.

But as the doctor in that NBC article said, Italy speaks with one voice, rather than the patchwork of health systems of the United States. So, just as I plan to return to the anarchic U.S., the government here—the national government—has imposed new rules and recommendations. First of all, masks are obligatory. That’s it. You go out? Wear a mask. In a car with people you don’t live with? Wear a mask. Going to the supermarket? You’ve been wearing a mask. Not wearing one? You can be liable for a fine of up to €1000 ($1170). I forgot once in the supermarket and you should see the looks I got. I went to the little protection table in front and immediately bought a package lest I be shamed any further.

In case you don’t read Italian….

There’s more: Bars and restaurants must close by midnight, which puts the kibosh on young late night revelers. You can have a wedding reception, but the limit’s come down to 30 from 200. The government strongly recommends against having friends over for dinner. And if you do insist, it says keep that dinner party to six people at most.

I’ve said before that I hate comparisons in the way people act in different countries. Local culture is just that, and while we could learn, it’s not helpful to say German do X when Americans couldn’t do that if they tried, because they have a different mindset. I was trained to be this way as a kid, because my family existed in two countries, and if you don’t want to lose your mind you just accept each culture’s way of doing things as the way they behave. Cultural bilingualism, I guess.

Having said that, as far as I can tell, adherence to the health rules transcends political leanings. I know conservatives here who keep strict social distance and see it as common sense. No one, they think, is out to mess with their freedom. It probably has to do with the highly developed Italian survival instinct. Plus, at this point a certain amount of social cohesion comes just naturally; when it comes to public health and survival, politics don’t come into it. There was an anti-mask rally in Rome last weekend and turnout was pathetic.

Mask wearers on Perugia’s main drag

All of this is in addition to what I’ve gotten used to just getting around. I’ve gotten used to having my temperature scanned before entering a store. The notoriously anarchic Italians have gotten used to separate, one-way entrances and exits to shopping centers and big box stores. Plexiglass dividers are everywhere, and we pay with our phones or contactless credit cards. Cash was king, now it’s only for Luddites and tax evaders.

All of this means that I’ve spent a lot of time either alone or alone with a friend or loved one in a window on my computer or iPad. Speaking of devices (how’s that for a lousy transition?) if you caught Apple’s annual iPhone extravaganza, you could easily have thought that the company was introducing a new line of cameras. Not that I mind; the first iPhone now seems like a joyless, businesslike thing compared to today’s models. Most people back in 2007 were obsessed with how they would type emails on the glass screen and joked about it not being much of a phone.

So I’ll come clean: Every photo on this blog was taken on my trusty iPhone 7. It’s not as fancy as the later models, not having a superwide lens, or night or portrait mode. But it acquits itself pretty well, and I haven’t taken a separate camera with me on trips in years.

What does this have to do with Covid-19, social distancing, masks and Italy? Simple. Being alone for me means either sitting here in my office writing (and wasting time by going down the YouTube rabbit hole), or taking a walk. It’s stupidly scenic here; taking a walk is often an occasion. So here are some pictures from those walks. To avoid injury while walking alone, I try to avoid steep rocky trails. But that’s easy. I can walk up and down this road, or, as I did the other day, I parked the car down the hill and walked along a river path. That path had a few surprises; for being in a valley it sure did have a lot of curves and slopes. The other was toward the end of the path, where I met a guy who grows his family’s vegetables. We talked for 20 minutes about where we’re from (me: NYC him: Napoli) and why we like it here. I was hoping he’d offer me the fine head of lettuce he was carrying…

Ruins like this are scattered around the countryside.

A little further along, I saw a little ancient church and a small settlement called Barcaccia. While looking around, a big group of weekend bicyclists came zipping by, everyone saying hi and cheering as they passed by. Some things never change.

The vanguard. Soon afterward at least a dozen serious riders flew by. I was too immersed in the moment to record it.

Adventures in repurposing

Day 3,756 of the Great Lockdown. We’ve ground the last of our backyard winter wheat to use for pasta, and bartered hothouse tomatoes for Lenny L’s eggs. We still have some zucchini and beans from the last rationing quarter. Queen Ivanka says that the virus should disappear on its own by the summer solstice; so far, average winter temperatures of 37 degrees C/98.6 degrees F haven’t had an effect on its spread. But we’re not allowed to say that.

Sorry about that. But it’s feeling endless, no? We alternate between days trying To Do Things, and crashing all day in the living room eating peanut butter and mango preserves on graham crackers while HGTV shows preach the virtues of family time in open concept homes.

On Sunday, one of our busy days, we made umbricelli—Tuscans call them pici (pronounced “peachy”). You make a basic pasta dough, with or without eggs depending on who you ask, then take little bits and stretch them out by hand. It can take a long time to do. But then again, do I have anything better to do?

Version 1: Umbricelli with a spicy “arrabbiata” sauce

I had some pasta dough left, so the same lump turned into tagliatelle. Only Daughter No. 2 had our pasta machine, Fair’s fair: We’re holding her dog hostage. So I got out The Spartan Woman’s heavy, really heavy, marble rolling pin. The thing could be a murder weapon in a Hitchcock film. And I cut off pieces from the lump of dough and rolled them really thin, the old-fashioned way. Gotta say, it worked pretty well. We took the thin sheets and cut them into tagliatelle. I will confess that the first batch ventured into wider, pappardelle territory.

I could have used some truffle purée that we’ve got in the cupboard to go with the pasta. But there were a half-dozen zucchine/zucchini (see my screed about sex-changed food here) in the fridge, and if we didn’t use them soon, they’d go bad. Problem is, tagliatelle and sautéed zucchini aren’t a natural pairing. Plus, we had some cooked navy beans that had to be eaten soon.

Tagliatelle with too much sauce

So, never to pass up an opportunity to be decadent, I realized that I could concoct a zucchini cream, and the beans would love to come for the ride. I sautéed all of the squash, then added the navy beans. On the side, I put together a quick béchamel. Then I took the béchamel and about two-thirds of the zucchini/bean mixture and threw them in the blender. With some seasoning and a little nutmeg, we had a smooth, creamy, and decadent sauce to go with the fresh tagliatelle.


Need a recipe? You’re in the wrong place; this boy cooks by instinct. But okay, I’ll try. You don’t have to make the pasta; you can buy tagliatelle or fettuccine or even pappardelle. If you do want to make your own, you’ll need, for two servings, 2 cups of Italian “00” flour, or low-gluten cake flour, 2 extra large eggs plus a yolk, and a little pour of olive oil. Double the recipe for four people.

Make a well in the flour and crack your eggs and egg yolk. With a fork, work the flour and egg together. And pour a tablespoon of olive oil into it. Work the dough for about 10-15 minutes into a smooth ball. You can also throw it all into a food processor or mixer and let the machine do the work.

Then, using either a pasta rolling machine or a rolling pin, roll the dough in batches into this sheets. Bolognese grandmothers say they should be translucent; paper thin is what you’re aiming for. A “4” setting on your pasta machine should be enough. Then fold and, either using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter, cut into strips.

For the sauce: Dice 4 zucchine/I into 1/2 inch cubes. Sautéed with good olive oil and a pat of butter. I added two smashed but whole cloves of garlic and a splash of white wine. When the squash is almost cooked, add a can of navy beans, or a cup of beans that you’ve cooked.

On the side, make a cup of béchamel. Or avoid it by heating a cup of heavy cream; your choice. The usual formula is one tablespoon of butter, one of flour, and a cup of milk. Cook the flour in the melted butter, then add milk slowly, whisking all this time. Bring nearly to boil. Turn the heat off when it’s thickened and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg if you like that.

Blend most of the squash/beans with the béchamel. Cook the pasta, add the zucchini cream, toss, serve. Drink lots of wine.

A Seinfeld kind of life

First off, thanks everyone for getting in touch. I’m okay, even if I was in the COVID-19 infested Italy only three weeks ago as I write this. And I was even in the terrific city of Milan while in Italy, visiting colleagues and getting a dose of big-city life. It seems so long ago now. Because of my possible exposure to the virus, I’ve stayed home for the most part this month, doing so before it became the thing to do. Even when I was in Umbria I stayed home a lot because 1-it was winter and didn’t exactly encourage wandering and 2-it’s just a nice place to hang out in.

Number 2 is what I’ve been thinking about a lot. The European Union has closed its borders to non-EU citizens, and the U.S. State Department put out a notice discouraging Americans from going abroad. But hey, I’m an EU citizen, too, and a big part of me would rather be there than in New York. Nicer weather, for one thing.

But I’m not. And instead of views out to Monte Subasio, I’ve been looking at way too much TV. One of the things I’ve caught, besides the perpetual “reno” of HGTV, are reruns of Seinfeld. Remember that? The joke was that nothing ever really happened. They just talked and obsessed about themselves. People popped into Jerry’s apartment, they said funny things, and occasionally they went to the diner to say funny things. It’s just like us under this kind of house arrest. Only we don’t say much that’s funny and the local diner only does delivery now.

So, like millions around the world, on s’amuse, as Judy might say. We had a cocktail hour the other night. A virtual one, with my ferry posse. Back when I was a respectable citizen with a day job, I rode the Staten Island Ferry to work every day, usually taking either the 8:30 or 8:45 boat from St. George. A bunch of us met in roughly the same place nearly every day, breaking the peace of the unsuccessful silent zone. Our ringleader was John Ficarra, former editor of Mad magazine. Besides him, we had a recording engineer at an advertising shop (The Romantics’ “What I Like About You” is one of the songs he engineered), a lawyer, one of John’s editors, a video advertising guy, a couple of social workers, and an HR woman at a publishing company. That was the core, anyway—others dropped in and out as our work schedules changed.

Anyway, we’ve had a text chain going for awhile. Sometimes it’s a can-you-top-this of witticisms, but it’s a good way to stay in touch. Peter found out that you can take an Apple Messages multi-person text thread and convert it temporarily to a FaceTime video session. Since we all have iPhones—no Android bottom-dwellers among us—we could have a virtual cocktail hour, almost, but not quite as good as the in person one we have every few months.

Here’s the evidence. Props to Lenny for the most glam drink, a blood orange martini. Do this: squeeze a bunch of blood oranges. Combine the juice with vodka and a dash of limoncello. I want one now.

Today is particularly grim, being the first day of a stricter lockdown in New York, and a nasty day outside, rainy and cold, so no solitary outside exercise walk.

Italian doctors predict that people under lockdown will, at the end of it (should that ever happen), gain between 4 and. 8 kilos, or about 9 to 18 pounds. Lord knows we’re just as guilty as any. But first let me show you what we’re missing by being here. This is a photo of our Umbrian friend Angela, who’s just picked a huge bunch of wild asparagus in the hills outside her parents’ home:

We’ve been indulging in less wholesome food experiences. One type, and I know this will bother a couple of our friends, is to experiment with fake meat. We haven’t been eating meat for about 10 years now (though I confess that I stray when I’ve had a few glasses of wine or I’m at a friend’s house). It feels a little odd, to take some ingredients and torture them into something they’re not. The Spartan Woman has become pretty good at taking gluten, nutritious yeast, and jackfruit and turning them into a fair approximation of boneless pork ribs. Basically, she’s making seitan, whose use, according to Wikipedia, has been documented to the sixth century. Here’s the result:

Meanwhile, we’ve been looking at what modern technology has been up to. We’ve had Beyond Meat hamburgers, which are scarily like real hamburgers. You can also get “sausages” and the hamburger “meat” in bulk. Have nothing better to do for Sunday dinner, I decided to attempt what we call Giovanna’s roulé, an Umbrian meatloaf our dear departed Perugian mama used to cook for us when she was with us and we were staying with her. She’s take ground beef and sausage meat and make a dense round loaf, and braise it with onions, wine, and broth. I used the Beyond products, and came up with this:

It was good, but I’m wondering: Are these gateway drugs back to being carnivores?

[Image at the top: The Spartan Woman’s bread, baked just because she could]