I will dance on Noma’s grave

This being January with pretty lousy, cloudy, I don’t go out much weather, I’ve had a lot of time to read the early obituaries of Noma, which is closing late next year. In case you don’t follow “fine dining,” Noma is a restaurant in Copenhagen that appears on every best-restaurants-of-the-world list. The place and its owner/genius chef René Redzepi have inspired a whole bunch of creative chefs who go out and pick odd plants in the forest or in tide pools, do something transformative with the stuff, and then charge scenester diners a few hundred bucks for the privilege of ingesting what they foraged and tortured. A night at Noma, for example, costs around $500 a person.

Noma will follow El Bulli and Del Posto to the big food court in the sky. To which I say: no great loss. It’s not jealousy—I was a part-time restaurant critic back in the 1990s, when the big deal restaurant scene hadn’t yet metastasized into the monster it has become. Still, there were previews of what was to come in multi-course tasting menus in a breed of French restaurants that, looking back, served as a bridge between the snooty old French establishments and brave rich-hippie vibe of Noma. Not to put too fine a point on it, you can think of a Noma fan as the foodie equivalent of an investment banker who collects Grateful Dead concert tapes.

The rustic charm of Noma for an elite few. Courtesy of Wiki Commons

I’m not going to lie. I thoroughly enjoyed my decade of dining at my newspaper’s expense. It made me really popular, because The Spartan Woman and I usually invited a couple of friends to come along so that we could sample enough dishes. We ate at the new wave of Spanish/Catalan restaurants, fancy French eateries, aristocratic Italian establishments, as well as the occasional Hong Kong style of Chinatown palaces that were just beginning to establish a beachhead in New York. The review pace was gentle—I was on the hook every four weeks for a review, so it was just enough to be fun and not enough to be routine and boring. And when our girls were old enough, we often took them along. (They were tougher critics than our friends, who were just thrilled to have a free meal at a hot restaurant.)

After 10 years, though, we’d had enough. By then we just wanted to hang out with friends and family, either at home or in a local ethnic restaurant where we’d like the food but wouldn’t have to pay homage to it. I remember a colleague once went to El Bulli, the restaurant in the Catalan region of Spain, which had pioneered “molecular” cuisine. I asked him how it was. “Tiring,” he said. I’m paraphrase, but he said something like, “It was so exhausting. Open this lid, inhale the fumes three times, then pour the contents onto this plate and stir counterclockwise 4.5 times, then eat using these tweezers.” Sorry, that ain’t food, that’s entertainment for a very small cult audience.

Move over stove, we’re making foam—from a Barcelona exhibit about El Bullì and its owner. Kippelboy, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons Ferran Adri

And then there was Del Posto in New York. Its owner sought to elevate (so they thought) Italian food to the same rarified altitude of classic French cuisine. Talk about flawed concepts from the get-go—”Italian” food (a term I have trouble with because this country’s eating habits are hyper-regional) isn’t supposed to be the snobby refuge of the wealthy. My neighbors on our hill, who tend sheep and have an organic farm, make ricotta that would make you cry it’s so good. But there are a lot of people like them here and they’ll insist that good food is their birthright, not just a boasting point for the bourgeoisie.

EATING IN ITALY ENCOURAGED my move away from culinary preciousness. For one thing, the dominant characteristic of food here is to find really good ingredients and prepare them in a way that lets them shine. There’s little torturing of plants or animal bits to make them something else. And with the exception of a few Michelin-starred places, there are fewer celebrity chefs lording over everyone. Hey, this is Italy, where everybody is a star, and no one cooks better than Nonna (grandma) or your mother.

A clan gets together outdoors at a popular restaurant. Twenty-eight wouldn’t fit in the kitchen.

I know I’m lucky; as a teenager I stayed with relatives my first times in this country. I had a front-row seat to the food culture, which basically was just as my mom cooked back in New York, although mom, being a native New Yorker, pretended to be a normal American every so often and would give us steak and potatoes or peanut butter sandwiches in our lunchboxes.

But it’s interesting to see the differences between the cultures of my two countries when it comes to eating out. In cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco, it’s become a high-stakes scene (and is bouncing back post-pandemic). Rents are high, food and liquor and wine prices are through the roof, so in an attempt to squeeze some profit restaurateurs pay their staff peanuts. Noma’s Redzepi himself said that fine dining has become economically unfeasible, and his complaints mirror what thoughtful American restaurant chefs and owners have been saying. In the U.S., the handful of successful celebrity chefs expand their operations into empires. The Bastianich group, headed by matriarch Lidia Bastianich and run by her son, has 30 eateries spread across the world. Thirty!

This craziness is fueled by a media and PR machine that glorifies celebrity cooks and runs competitions on TV instead of showing people how to cook. And there’s a definite high/low culture thing going on. The well-heeled eat at one of the Bastianich or Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurants; normal people eat at the Olive Garden, which cuts corners by not salting pasta water in an attempt to cut down on spending for pots. The well-heeled use their experiences as conversations starters, and they love to spend big.

It’s different here. Sure there are TV competitions; in fact Joe Bastianich is one of the stars of MasterChef Italia. But beyond that things tend to be more democratic. One of the biggest complements Italians give to a restaurant is “si mangia bene e si spende poco” (you eat well but spend a little). Restaurants are basically extensions of the small kitchens that many Italians have (most of the country lives in apartments; think of New York but better designed). Often, clans or groups of friends will go out because they can’t fit everyone into the kitchen or day room, but they know that their outing will lead to a great meal that won’t wreck their bank account.

It’ll be interesting to see what Redzepi comes up with next. He says he’s turn Noma into a “food lab” and try to figure out new models for feeding people creatively. El Bullï’s Ferran Adria said the same thing when he closed his legendary restaurant more than a decade ago. Maybe I haven’t been paying attention, but I haven’t heard much of what his lab has done. I’ve subscribed to his newsletter to see what’s up there. In the meantime, buon appetito, enjoy what you eat, and don’t think about it too much.

Illustration at top of page courtesy WikiCommons

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.

Act like you fit in

On my friend Mick’s first day of kindergarten, his father gave him some good advice: “Act like you fit in.” I guess even back then, his dad knew that Mick was an artist and a gentle sweet soul who’d have a rough time navigating a sometimes hostile world. Funny how his advice seems really valid now to us. I’m looking at boxes and stacks of books and a guitar case, thinking about how we’re finally close to reversing the moves made by my father and my mother’s parents decades ago to the United States.

The Spartan Woman and I were driving around the other day doing some errands, and we talking about people we know who’ve become expatriates in Italy. And in a way we felt a little, I don’t know, pleased with ourselves that we were raised in New York in immigrant families and communities. “If I had to pin down my nationality,” said TSW, “I’d say New Yorker.”

But that’s almost too easy. After being in Italy almost six months, and after two years of pandemic-driven isolation, we’re realizing that our New York doesn’t exist any more, except in pockets where recent immigrants live and work. Still, whether New York has morphed into something different, we’re still a different breed from Those People Out There and we’re proud of it. Growing up in New York makes you—us—citizens of the world. And that has prepared us for our little adventure in reverse immigration.

Here’s how. I’ve told you about Holly Street before, where I grew up. The street was populated by a mix of recent European immigrants (Italian, German, Irish, Scottish) and old-time Staten Islanders. The Spartan Woman has an immigrant past, too—all four grandparents were born elsewhere, her paternal grandparents from in and around Palermo, Sicily, and her maternal grandparents from Sparta in Greece. Combine that with the local dialect, where Yiddish syntax influences how we speak English, and you get a native New Yorker of a certain age. Our certain age.

And while the immigrants’ native lands change, it’s heartening to know that our kids had similar experiences. Their friends from childhood into adulthood either came from or are the first generation of people who came from Argentina, Slovakia, Chile, and the Caribbean. Oh, Italy too—it’s Italy’s lasting shame that each generation seemed to send some of their best people away.

I could bore you with an autobiography here—my high school, Brooklyn Tech (left), for example, was a hotbed of recent immigrant kids from around the world. But it’s enough to say that growing up around here meant we literally had the world at our feet. (Please let me be snarky here—these trustafarians that we saw colonizing Brooklyn pre-pandemic. Can they please go home now? Gentrification is bad enough, but do they have to turn this city into the suburbs they crawled out of?) I knew Polish, Dominican, Greek, Russian, Chinese, and Jamaican kids, among others.

But I won’t. Back to fitting in and if we do or not. When I think of a permanent or long-term move to Italy, I’m grateful for the good training I had for the jump across the pond. One side of my family was made up of recent immigrants who hadn’t yet been assimilated into America. And TSW grew up hearing Greek and eating the Greek-inflected food her mom cooked. We both were used to a tight family structure and traditions that carried over.

The result? We’ve had it easier than the classic expat with no Italian background or citizenship. But even for us, it’s not always smooth sailing to become integrated into a country where you didn’t grow up though. I may be fluent in the language and get most of the social norms, but I didn’t go to Italian schools. I didn’t serve in the Italian military, for which there was a draft when I was of draftable age. So I’m missing the backstory, as journalists like to put it. (The guy on the right—my dad—had the opposite experience. He went to Italian schools and served in the army, and moved to the U.S.)

Whatever. We made our choice, now we have to live with—through?—it. I don’t know if I’m trying to convince myself or not, but being here temporarily in my native city feels strange these days, as though those five months here and there made me miss some development and it’s impossible to catch up. I can’t wrap my head around $30 cocktails, bad espresso in expensive restaurants, and the crazy drivers in unstable trucks.

Plus, the pleasures of living in Italy are undeniable, especially if you’re semi-retired and don’t have to deal with actually going to a workplace. Cheap, delicious food, the aperitivo hour (happy hour on steroids), easy access to kilometers of breathtaking hiking trails, good friends. Okay the bureaucracy sucks, but tell me where it doesn’t.

Cheap drinks may not be enough to convince someone to move to Italy. But they make dealing with the bureaucracy less painful.

I just wish I could take with me my fast Internet connection, Flushing’s Asian food courts, and my daughter’s dachshund, which we raised from puppyhood while Liv was in school. Hope she’s not reading this in case I plan a dognapping…

No, Big Tech isn’t going to save the world. But it’s made our little world a little easier

If you’ve ever worked with me, you’ll know that I have distinct geek tendencies. Back in the late 1990s I took a break from being a full-time editor to play with machines. The project involved bringing a few newsrooms up to modern standards. One newsroom went from an archaic and incredibly strange Windows PC and Mac setup with no way to track files, to what was then the standard for publishing, the Quark Publishing system. But it was pretty no-frills at the time, with the first project not having direct Internet access until a year or two after the system was in use.

I think about technology a lot, although at this point I don’t earn a living by sharing those thoughts. But with our weird one foot in each place life, I have to say that tech has smoothed the way, making it easier to stay in touch with family and friends, and—sometimes I’m not completely convinced this is a good thing—it’s made it easier to live similar lives on both sides of the pond when it comes to music and video. I guess that I’m writing this because I get tired of the constant drone of negativism about where we are in 2022 when it comes to humans and machines. Yeah social media can be a menace. But the emphasis is on “can.” It doesn’t have to be and the fact that it’s easy to misuse makes it more important for us to be vigilant.

I’ll come clean right away: We’re in the Apple ecosystem; we trade a little more expense for fewer complications. The Spartan Woman started it years ago when she brought a Mac home from school one summer. Her school’s principal figured that the computers would be safer living with teachers than stored in the school over the long holiday. Back then I was taken immediately by how easy the Mac made it to do stuff like move files around, rename them, duplicate them, etc. I was a convert, and the following year, we bought our first Mac. I actually used it to gather wire copy and send it into the publishing system at work.

SO WHERE DOES TODAY, AND THIS BLOG come in? Well, when you think about it, we’ve got the digital equivalent of an RV—we carry our media home around, as long as we’ve got an internet connection. Only it weighs a little less and uses a lot less energy.

Our approach: We only buy laptops as computers, and we have iPhones; they like to work with each other. iPads are optional. We have little HomePod mini speakers, so we can have our music in both places without carrying around CDs (remember them?). All of our devices work with both U.S. and European voltages. I bought some Apple plugs that fit right into the AC adapters, so there’s no bulky and problematic adapters. We’ve laid in a supply of European rechargers, too, so that we don’t have to cart everything around. The only time things get complicated is when we aren’t going from one home to another directly. In that case, we need a couple of rechargers with Euro or American plugs to work in hotels and rented apartments.

Casa, dolce casa, discreetly high tech

In Italy, we don’t watch broadcast TV; we have a smart TV with an Apple TV. I know that’s redundant, but the Apple TV interface is much easier to use, and it gives us access to more services. The setup gives us Italian public TV stations via the app RAI Play, plus all the streaming services that we use, like Netflix and Mhz Choice. By the way, the latter is terrific, featuring European programming with subtitles, just in case you’re challenged by, say, Icelandic.

I guess that I wouldn’t be writing this post if we just vacationed for a week or two. Back then, we somehow managed to live without our music collection for a couple of weeks. But we’re older and spend a lot of time at home, especially in the winter, when Umbria is usually dark, cold, and wet. And thinking back further, The Spartan Woman and I wrote each other nearly every day that we were apart. Yeah, it was sweet.

Now, though, I can do remote work when it happens. Our hilltop Italian ‘net connection isn’t the fastest, but it gets the job done. And when it wigs out, we use our phones as hot spots. So what if a video chat is grainy or freezes every so often? It’s better than paying through the nose for a 3-minute phone call, like in the old days.

Some practical tips:

• You’ll need a lot of rechargers, recharging cables, adapters, dongles, etc. Put them all in a big Ziploc bag and carry that bag in hand luggage. Make sure your devices are fully charged; USB ports on planes aren’t the most powerful. Buy a portable battery pack or two just in case. (My bag of tricks on the right.)

• Put your laptop in a padded case. Because of airport security, make sure it isn’t a pain to haul it out and open the case. The faster you can get stuff in and out, the faster you’ll get through security. European airports seem to have more sophisticated scanners and the more polite security folks don’t make you take everything out of a knapsack or computer bag.

• If you have a choice, buy what you can in the U.S. Italian value-added tax (sales tax in Amurrican) is 22 percent, versus 8.something in New York. The weakening Euro means higher prices in Europe in general. There are negligible differences between U.S. and Euro models, but you might be disoriented by the laptop keyboards on European models. They typically have a bigger “return” key, and have keys for letters with accents, such as è and á.

• Don’t expect to find wifi everywhere. In fact, if you’re a frequent traveler, you might notice fewer hotspots than before. Why? European mobile plans cost a lot less than plans in the U.S., and typically have tons of high-speed data included. So Europeans these days have less of a need to hook up to a wifi network when what the speeds they get on cellular networks is perfectly adequate.

Don’t worry, it’s still safe to visit us

When I was 18 I was shipped off to my grandmother and aunt in Sicily. I didn’t have a summer job, it was in the middle of a bad recession, and my parents didn’t want me hanging around. It was terrific; my Italian cousin and I spent a good part of that summer hitchhiking around Palermo, going to the beach, getting a good buzz on in the local bars, and going to parties. Even as a 17-year-old, he was an excellent tour guide, and I got to know my father’s city.

Why am I telling you this? Back in 1975, Italy’s communist party typically got about a third of the vote in national elections, and the American press was sounding the alarm that the country “would go communist.” As I got ready to leave for Italy, people kept asking me if it was safe to go to a place that was really about to turn, you know, communist. I was a smarmy college kid then and dismissed all the talk. And when I got to Italy, I saw that things hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d been there, except that the developers’ rape of Palermo continued apace. And that was definitely not a commie plot.

In other words, after this last election, which will bring the right to power, don’t sweat it too much. I am not dismissing its importance, however. I am not a fan of Giorgia Meloni and her fascist-descended Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party. The tone of Italy will change. But life will go on, as it did a couple of years ago when the Matteo Salvini’s Lega right wing party dominated the news with its hostility toward refugees sailing across from Libya. The tone of the country will change in ways that matter most to foreigners in government and media, and locals who pay attention to government machinations. But you’ll be able to visit the Vatican, have an Aperol spritz at aperitivo time, and do the things that most people do when they visit Italy.

I’m not trying to trivialize things. But at my age, I’m trying to be less hysterical about everything, and definitely less hysterical than Americans tend to be. And I’ll try to explain why 40 percent of Italian voters (about a third didn’t bother to vote) chose the right wing coalition.

First of all, you can argue that the outgoing government headed by “SuperMario” Mario Draghi (left) was illegitimate—it’s a fact that he wasn’t elected. The outgoing parliament, elected in 2018, had two leading parties, the 5 Stelle (5 Star) rebel party and the right wing Lega. The first government (in parliamentary systems, the term “government” means administration featuring one or more parties) was a coalition between those uneasy partners. 5 Star is a weird, populist group composed of disaffected people, techies, environmentalists and libertarians that tries to evade the usual left-right definition. (When it comes down to it, it’s a volatile sort of left-ish party that doesn’t know how to effectively govern.) The Lega’s Salvini, who was interior minister in that administration, decided that he’d rather be prime minister and spent the summer playing DJ and flirting with the ladies on the beach. Campaigning, in other words.

Salvini brought down that coalition of convenience, but got fucked: The Democratic Party (PD) and 5 Stelle got together and did an end run around him. He and his party were cast out of government, while the previous losers (the PD) became part of a governing coalition. (When I say cast out of government, I mean the ruling coalition. They stay on as members of parliament.) After a PD-5 Stelle coalition fell, Italy’s president during the Covid pandemia got most major parties to play nice and unite under Draghi; Meloni kept her party out of it.

SO, WAS “DEMOCRACY” SERVED by this? The end run pissed a lot of people off—a lot of conservatives, but also people who thought that the will of the people, as expressed in the election, had been subverted. And it wasn’t the first time; back about 10 years ago during the Euro crisis, investor speculation led to the fall of Silvio Berlusconi’s regime and the installation of a technocratic administration. And the dissatisfaction wasn’t just among people on the right. A lot of people who might have voted for the center-left felt that the PD left them out in the cold, that, basically, the PD and its allies were basically supporting governments that were more anxious to satisfy institutional investors rather than people. (This all begs a bigger question: What does the left stand for anyway? That’s another blog post. Or ten,)

So where are we now? First of all there’s none of the weird histrionics that characterized American transitions of late. The winning coalition partners are jockeying for position. Meloni and her male partners are negotiating and probably arguing over cabinet posts. Given the bad showing of Salivini’s Lega, you can probably bet that he isn’t going to call the shots in her government.

What won’t and will change? Unfortunately, they’ll be restrictions on immigration and probably more rhetoric directed at preserving the traditional family. A lot of the latter will fall on deaf ears. Lots of Italian couples don’t bother to get married, even after they’ve had kids. Unlike what happens in the U.S., I don’t think the incoming government will dismantle Italy’s terrific public healthcare system and other features of this fairly modern welfare state. We’ll still have fast trains, a decent amount of public transit and most of what makes Italy’s quality of life so good. We’ll also probably see more demonstrations as unpopular programs are introduced. Meloni now owns whatever happens and won’t be able to stand in opposition.

A word about the democratic process. Much of the press coverage of the election asked, through an American filter, whether Meloni and her crew are “a danger to democracy.” It’s really too early to tell but I have a couple of thoughts on that score: First of all, Hitler was elected. Both George W Bush, first term, and Trump were “elected” despite having lost the popular vote. And both U.S. presidents ruled as though they’d been given a mandate. I think we as Americans confuse procedure with substance. There’s more to governments and nations than whether people voted or not—there’s substantive issues, and whether governments are responsive to what their citizens need.

The U.S., even before this recent crisis of democracy, has pretty much screwed its populace for the past 40 years. Workers lost most protections, healthcare still remains a pay as you play game, as does most of politics. Millions of jobs were shipped overseas, and Americans aren’t guaranteed paid time off, as are Italians and citizens of the European Union. So ask yourself whether Americans can really say that before the advent of a wannabe strongman like Trump, that their democracy was really working anyway.

Image credit for chart at the top: CC-by-SA 4.0 (Wikicommons)

Meloni photo: Vox España, CCO, via Wikimedia Commons

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It’s something we think about all the time here

Let’s talk about food, shall we? And where you consumed said food? (Sorry if the headline led you to think I was going to write about that other obsession.) I’m thinking about food in Italy these days, since I’m here. It really is an obsession, and not just with “sovrappeso” [overweight] me. I’ve overheard chic saleswomen talk about what they were going to have for lunch in tones that were, well, erotic. And if you happen to be in Italy and happen to get onto YouTube, your feed will soon be blitzed with food videos. I don’t think it’s just mine.

First off, most Americans without the good luck (or misfortune. It depends.) of having relatives living in Italy don’t get the full-on experience. They–you?–have to go to restaurants. And that’s a shame, especially if you’re in the big tourist cities. Why? Because restaurant food may be ok, but eating in an urban restaurant in Italy doesn’t come close to the real deal, and in big cities and touristy locations, many restaurants serve a kind of national “Italian” food that doesn’t reflect what people really eat in this intensely regional country. Plus they miss the vibe, where people loosen up and sit with friends, family, lovers, kids, dogs, whatever, just enjoying the moment. Or a town festival. Or, in the case of our town, any excuse to get together. Any.

First, friends and/or family. One of my most memorable “meals” here, if you can call it that, happened before we had a place of our own. My magazine astoundingly let me come to Italy on a reporting trip. My assignment was to make the rounds of lawyers and business analysts and give American lawyers an idea of what to expect if their companies or clients tried to buy an Italian company. I cannily scheduled interviews for the latter part of the week in Milan, and the early part of the week in Rome. Oh, dear, what to do in between? Live in a lonely hotel room? Eat meals by myself?

Nope.

I visited friends who happened to live in Perugia, about two-thirds of the way south to Rome. After a couple of train rides, my Italian papà Franco picked me up at the station. “We have to hurry,” he said. “Giovanna’s in the middle of a surprise for you.” Franco, never a quiet pensive kinda guy, gunned it, shouting at anyone who dared to drive any slower. “Figlio di puttana! Bastardo!” he shouted. After holding on for dear life—Perugia doesn’t know from straightaways—we got to their house. “Hurry! Just leave your bag. You can keep you jacket on. We have to do this NOW!” Franco told me.

What was the fuss all about? Artichokes. Glorious crunchy salty hot just from the fryer pieces of artichoke. “I’m squeezing lemon on these, ok?” said Giovanna in Italian (these two didn’t speak English; this is all translated), more as a statement of purpose than a question. “Eat with your fingers.” She had put the freshly fried artichokes in a paper lined basket and shoved it at me. “Eat with your fingers.” The three of us didn’t even sit; we just stood there eating, blowing on our fingers between bites.” When we weren’t wolfing down the artichokes, we were drinking and smiling at each other. It was one of the best food events I’ve ever been at. I know we sat down to a regular lunch after that, but for the life of me, I can’t remember it. Can you blame me?

If you don’t have an Italian friend or relative, the next best thing is probably eating at an agriturismo, or at least a country restaurant. If it’s the right season, eat outside. Yeah, there’s an Under the Tuscan Sun thing going at these places. But you’ll see what makes it all worth it. Some years before that reporting trip, we’d gone to an agriturismo high above Lago Trasimeno, the big almost ocean-like lake around here. I can still taste the pasta course, with an eggplant purée (no tomatoes) and bits of sausage. But what I really remember was the vibe. There we were, our family, plus our Perugian surrogate parents and their dog, just relaxing around a table with a view of the lake below for the whole afternoon. And it cost maybe a half of what a city restaurant would’ve charged. Maybe less.

ANOTHER WAY TO ENJOY NON-RESTAURANT food is at a sagra or a festival. They’re held all over Italy, and here in Umbria there seems to be one every day or so somewhere. They serve as fundraisers for the town’s pro-loco associations, which support soccer teams, after school activities for working parents, and the like. But they’re also a way to get the whole town involved in something—and, for people to connect with their history. Local volunteer cooks take care of the food, sometimes, but only sometime, under the guidance of professional chefs. Of course, doing so often involves getting done up in medieval drag, which seems to happen for any excuse, but I digress.

After the Covid shutdown, the region came alive this year. We’ve been to a few. The first was for the food, in Ripa, two towns down the main road here. The town itself is a tiny hamlet, with a circular historic center, and various memorials to Gino Bartoli. He was a heroic figure, a Tour de France bicyclist who smuggled citizenship documents for Jews during World War II by stuffing them in his bike’s tubes and delivering them. Ripa holds a truffle sagra, and the food’s pretty good if you’re a fan of the underground fungus. (We are; Ripa sagra shown below.)

There’s a biggie around here, too. The small town of Cannara, near Assisi, is known for its onions. They’re sold in all the grocery stores and to be honest, we’re spoiled. I won’t say you haven’t lived until you’ve had a really fresh onion—but like a lot of produce, being grown locally makes a real difference. Cannara puts on a pretty big show, with various “stands” (yes, in English), really kitchens/outdoor restaurants, with each producing dishes that feature, yes, onions. Cipollamisu, anyone? It was a lot better than you’d think, with the typical tiramisu ingredients topped with a compote of sweet onions.,

Valfabbrica, where we live, goes all out. It’s bigger than Ripa, as far as towns and hamlets go around here, but smaller (population around 3,400) than the surrounding towns. There’s a week-plus celebration of being a valfabbricheso, with pageants, jousting tournaments, and, of course, food. The town’s historic center turns into a restaurant, and the town has a communal kitchen that churns out tons of dishes based on local produce and history. Gotta say, it was pretty good.

But the most charming event involving food was last weekend. Our town likes its parties, and the old medieval tower was restored recently. Most places would have the mayor cut the ribbon and leave it at that. Valfabbrica? Uh-uh. It got Italy’s only all-female jazz marching band to escort the mayor to the tower, playing Stevie Wonder’s Sir Duke and The Beatles A Hard Day’s Night. The women walked up the tower with Enrico (we’re all on a first-name basis here)

We don’t have dull ribbon-cutting ceremonies in Valfabbrica.

I know, this is supposed to be about food. Sure enough, after the music and the ribbon-cutting and the speeches about the historic importance of the tower, there was a free aperitivo* in the piazza. Older guys sat behind tables with loaded with decent boxed local red wine and porchetta panini* and doled it all out. I haven’t eaten much meat in a decade, but one of the guys shoved a panino at me after I poured myself a healthy glass. It seemed churlish to say no—and it was great to be hanging out in the main piazza on a beautiful late summer night with our fellow townspeople.

Vino and a panino, anyone?

*”Aperitivo” refers not only to a pre-dinner drink, but food to go with it. Places like Milan and even good bars elsewhere elevate it to the point where it can substitute for dinner. At that point you can all the meal an apericena—aperitivo and cena, which is what the nighttime meal is called.

* The word is “panino” for a single sandwich. “Panini” is plural. More than 1 sandwich. Ok? I get a little nuts when I hear “I’ll have a panini .” It’s like nails on a blackboard.

Addio, Alitalia. It’s been sometimes good to know you. Still, we hate to see you go (because you owe us).

I flew for the first time on July 4, 1971, when I was 14 years old. My family took an Alitalia flight from New York City to Rome, and I was on vacation with my parents and my younger sister and brother. The trip was a big deal for us; it was my father’s first time back to his native Italy in 16 years, and it was our first trip abroad. I remember a lot of the details. The plane was a new Boeing 747, and even in economy class they gave us slippers to wear. The dinner’s centerpiece was a filet mignon in a red wine and mushroom sauce. Excited to be on a real vacation, my 11-year-old sister and I explored the plane. “Maria, come here!” I called to her as I peered beyond the curtain toward the first-class cabin and its spiral staircase. “No, go there,” the mustachioed flight attendant told me, pointing us back toward steerage.

Ever since that first flight, I’ve taken Alitalia a couple of dozen times. The Italian flag carrier was historically generous with its mileage loyalty programs, and its direct flights to either Rome or Milan were a godsend to people who dislike changing flights and going through security more than once. It served as the unofficial carrier of the postwar Italian diaspora, and was the pope’s official airline. 

But Alitalia is about to taxi back to the big hangar in the sky, joining other defunct airlines like Sabena, TWA and Pan Am. Years of bad management, wildcat strikes, patronage staffing levels, and indifferent service took their toll. Alitalia has been in receivership since 2017, and the Italian government of Mario Draghi and the European Union finally pulled the plug. Sure, successive Italian governments tried to keep Alitalia aloft, but after billions in bailouts and repeated, unsuccessful efforts to find it a suitor, everyone called it quits. 

Sorry, your flight’s been canceled and there isn’t much that you can do.

There’s a psychological element to the carrier’s end. Although a lot of Italians had become tired of its hijinks, Alitalia remained one of the last cornerstones of Italy’s postwar boom, which saw the mostly rural, war-torn country become a modern economic and social power. Indeed, Alitalia’s fate echoes the fate of other big Italian companies, like the auto giant Fiat, which once stood for that postwar economic miracle and is now just a part of a French-led conglomerate, Stellantis. This hollowing out of Italy’s big companies has taken a big toll on Italian pride, no matter how many soccer championships the national team wins. This psychological toll is one of the reasons for the ascendancy of populists like the Lega’s Matteo Salvini, and the right wing party Brothers of Italy. The latter is led by the photogenic Giorgia Meloni, who can be thought of as the Italian equivalent of the French politician Marie Le Pen.

Taking Alitalia’s place will be ITA, or at least a company called ITA at this moment, which may or may not use the Alitalia brand and aircraft livery when it takes to the skies this month. A public sale of the old company’s assets will be held soon. Think of the change as something akin to the bailout of General Motors back in 2009, when the U.S. government severed the automaker’s assets from its debts and let the “new,” debt-free GM continue to operate. Only this time, the EU specified that there’s to be less continuity between the old and new companies. Ticketholders for flight’s after Alitalia’s October 14 demise have been told, basically, tough luck, file for a refund. 

Despite all the bad times, some of us will be sad to see Alitalia land for good. Sure, thousands of people complained about bad service. Booking agents could be impolite or even hostile; delays were, for a time, legend. But the airline served as a cultural bridge and a symbol of the stylish, dolce vita Italy. When you boarded an Alitalia flight at JFK—an often-chaotic ritual, to be sure—you felt as though you were already in Italy, for better or worse, between the Italian announcements and the proper, rather snobbish attitude of the designer-attired cabin crew.

You could feel almost human in premium economy.

For one thing, Italy’s humanity in all its glory seemed to be embodied by the flight attendants. I once watched a female attendant watch with concern as a very young couple tried to soothe their screaming infant. “Give to me,” she told them in accented English. Putting a napkin on her shoulder, she walked up and down the aisle with the infant, rocking it softly and cooing to it. The baby fell asleep within minutes and she gave it back to the parents. “See?” she asked them. “It’s not so hard. Be calm.” 

Alitalia’s premium economy service was a terrific medium between the lay-flat luxury of “Magnifica” class and the awful, cramped economy cabin. Flight attendants brought us glasses of prosecco and swag bags by designers like Dolce & Gabbana and Diesel. The cabin was intimate, with only 17 seats. For a small premium, budget-minded travelers could feel cosseted and a little special. 

Often, though, those good moments were punctuated by less-happy times. The cabin crew wasn’t always interested in keeping flyers happy, retreating to the back of the plane and telling people they could serve themselves from the cart if they were thirsty mid-flight. The meals declined in quality—a recent Covid-19 compliant meal consisted of a few overcooked, stuck-together ravioli and two bottles of mineral water. Italian speakers often got much better treatment than non-Italians. Forget about it if a celebrity boarded and headed to first class; most of the crew would migrate to the front, leaving the other passengers to fend for themselves.

The final indignity, at least for my wife and me, came recently with an email canceling our flight back to New York. We’ve been here in Umbria a few months now, and have to get back to New York for the holidays. And I’ve filed for a refund from the €100 million the government has set aside for people like us,  and rebooked on another airline. It seems that under the agreement with the European Union creating ITA, the new entity doesn’t have to honor our tickets nor does Alitalia have to find us flights on other carriers—which is the usual procedure here in Eurolandia  

So farewell, Alitalia, it’s been a tempestuous affair between you and me. But I’ll still miss you. Now where’s my refund?

Photo up top: Andrea Tavoni, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other photos are by author.