Alienated in New York: a trip through my unpublished archives

It’s snowing today and our region is, as we say in Italian, “in tilt.” It’s more than the gentle flakes or even the short blizzard of flurries, if there can be such a thing. So for awhile we were out of power. I didn’t have an unread book handy, so I got my trusty laptop, which I can use for days without charging, and looked through old files on my hard drive.

Scrolling through my digital detritus, I found this essay that I’d written pre-Covid pandemic. I have no idea why I wrote it, what, if any, audience I was thinking of—whether, for example it was for this blog or not. It looks as though I wrote it quickly, right after the dinner I’d gone to. And boy, it rings even truer today than back in 2019. So I hope you don’t mind if I recycle it here, slightly edited to fit my current writing style:

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I HAD DINNER WITH friends the other night in Lower Manhattan near the South Street Seaport. Dinner was at Barbalu, the successor to a place I’ve been going to for almost ten years; the original version of the chic restaurant/Italian market was flooded during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. It’s a friendly place; I know the owners and this later version features authentic modern Italian food in a rustic yet sleek setting. 

I live on Staten Island, so I took the ferry across the harbor and walked about 20 minutes up to Barbalu. As far as commutes go in New York City, it’s painless and even scenic. When I had a regular day job, I took that ferry nearly every workday for some 30 years. In my last decade of trudging to a newsroom, my daily commute tracked my trip to the restaurant, except that the walk to work from the ferry was a little shorter. I’m a native New Yorker and have lived in the city just about all my life.

But that night, I felt like a tourist.

I can explain. I’m in New York for what seems like a fleeting visit. My wife, now retired, and I bought a country house in the Italian region of Umbria a couple of years ago. We’d planned to stay there sporadically, whenever I could get away. We were thinking of retirement, and retirement at the time seemed like something that would happen in the future. A couple of years away at least, in fact.

But our staying in the house for more than a quick week or two at a time came much sooner. Like many media professionals, I was excessed a couple of years ago along with about 20 of my colleagues. I’m not really supposed to talk about it, but the move supposedly was part of a sweeping redesign of our news operation, and as one corporate officer told me during what was surely a scripted phone call, “Your position has been eliminated.” (It wasn’t; they merely changed the name of it for a few months, then back to the original after we’d signed our severance agreements.)

So I, along with my comrades in words, had to reinvent ourselves. I became a freelance writer, and I don’t need to be anywhere in particular physically to do my work. Hence, Italy for at least a few months a year, in my spare euro-modern office or, better, at a garden table watching the view as I procrastinate.  

Inevitably, our country stays got longer and longer, and now amount to half the year. We can do this because of a precious gift from my immigrant father: an Italian passport. So we’ve been busy integrating ourselves into our little community. It’s a big change for a city boy like me. We live in a mountainous area in the foothills of the Apennines, the mountain chain that forms the spine of the Italian peninsula. Our neighbors are some 125 sheep and the people who own and care for them. When we take a walk, we amble down our road, waving to the hardy old—and retired—people who’ve lived in the town all their lives, and I’m sure their families have been there for centuries. Or, since we’re located in the middle of a network of hiking trails, we go exploring the hills when I’m done with my work, trudging up and down mountain paths and occasionally finding a ruin or wild asparagus in the woods.

But we’re in New York now [OK, I was in April 2019], and I have to say that I’m shocked that I feel so odd walking around my city. I was on the ferry that night, and I watched the tourists and the orthodox Jews and their families enjoying the ride during the week of Passover. And I realized that I’m a tourist too these days, here in town for only a few weeks.

The realization hit me viscerally, and this strange feeling of psychological distance stayed with me as I navigated streets that I’ve walked thousands of times. For one thing, since I stopped working in the neighborhood two years ago, a lot has changed. There’s a Hilton Garden Inn on Water Street, a truly strange name for a bland building that’s nowhere near a garden.

There are lots of new restaurants and lunch takeout spots, something normal in a town where eateries fold and open at a rapid clip. There’s something odd about the new places. They advertise their wares in their simple names, like Greens and Fresh. I’m an addicted menu reader, and their food seems to come from nowhere but some Californian notion of “natural” food: lots of kale, grains, an Asian overlay in the flavorings, bowls. The word “bowl” makes me smile; in four letters it manages to connote a lively lifestyle, clean living—lots of bike riding and yoga classes.

I SUPPOSE THAT I’m an old curmudgeon. But curmudgeons aren’t necessarily alienated from a place—just from a period of time. Walking through the oldest part of New York that’s busy remaking itself, I felt conflicting emotions, happiness that I would escape to my mountaintop soon, but a kind of sadness for feeling somewhat uncomfortable in the city where I was born. The contradiction actually made me feel queasy, as though I weren’t just pulled in a couple of directions emotionally, but physically.

That feeling stayed with me over dinner with my friends. I worked with them some 20 years ago and that alone probably contributed to the weirdness. Seeing them made me think of a time when New York was my city, my hometown. I had a part-time restaurant reviewing gig on the side back then, and it meant hanging out at hot new places, tasting everything. Now I was a part-time interloper, listening to people talk about their current jobs, their current president. I’m an American, but I also have another country’s politics to think about, and to fret over. While I participated in the conversation, I couldn’t help but think that I can just get on a flight and not spend much time thinking about Donald Trump’s latest escapades. 

And the prices…really, people, restaurants, even places I love, are ridiculous. My tablemates, knowing I’m a wino, sorry, make that someone who knows a thing or two about wine, especially those from Italy, had me choose. I looked at Barbalu’s list, and it’s a good, selective one. But the prices sent me into alienation mode again, when the cheapest bottle is around $40, and I know that I can go to a decent restaurant in Umbria and pay a few euros for a nice carafe of whatever’s local. I know that restaurateurs have to price drinks like that in New York; it pays the rent. I suppose that when people are using corporate cards it doesn’t matter much, but how can regular people afford to go out?

The kids were alright.

They don’t. They take the ferry and the subway back and forth every day and night. And that night, the weather was clear and warm. I sat on the back of the boat and watched the tourists take snapshots of the skyline as we sailed across the harbor. Soon they got tired of the view and went over to the side to see the Statue of Liberty. Right about then, an African-American girl with a distinct city kid accent sat next to me. Two boys, somewhere around 14, stared at the harbor view, which is nice enough during the day, but truly stunning at night. They laughed, they joked, they wisecracked like the city kids I’ve known all my life. They danced around, obviously flirting with the girl and competing for her attention and approval.

I’ll miss the place when I finally leave.

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

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…

Our pre-Thanksgiving country life in the big, big city

I could whine, but I won’t. I was driving to a Trader Joe’s one recent morning. It’s on the other side of Staten Island—just another boring day in New York’s outer boroughs, right? As I approached a traffic light, the light turned yellow, then red. A law abiding guy, I came to a stop. But in my rear view mirror, I saw that a Honda Accord was tailgating. Thankfully, the driver didn’t smash into my car, but he or she plainly objected to my stopping, so the car whipped around my car and charged through the light. Luckily, no one was coming through the intersection.

But I avoid most of that by not going out much, or at least not to that side of the island much. Instead, we’ve stuck to our neighborhood. Unlike whole swathes of this island and New York City in general, it’s just beautiful. We’re surrounded by parks and woods and, a little further away, the harbor and a historic fort. So we can take walks that resemble those sun-dappled pharmaceutical commercials.

Today we went for a hike. Being a little lazy and wanting to maximize the pup’s off leash (shhh!) time, we drove to Allison Pond down the hill. There’s a pond, no surprise. But behind it are acres of woods. The pond was named after the daughter of George A. Outerbridge, an engineer who owned the property and designed the Outerbridge Crossing that connects Staten Island with Perth Amboy, New Jersey. One of the many Staten Island oddities is the bridge’s name. Looking at a map you might think that the bridge is so named because it’s out there, near the southern tip of Staten Island and, really, New York State. But no. It was named after its designer, Outerbridge, and instead of calling it the Outerbridge Bridge they had to use the word “Crossing,” a word that about 10-15 years ago came into vogue in the names of shopping malls.

But I digress. Take a look at the gallery below. This is November, and the light on sunny days is beautiful and golden. It’s such a contrast to what I usually think of November, gross windy rainy days and the only outdoor colors seem to be black, brown, and gray.

Here and below, click on photos to enlarge.

YESTERDAY’S AFTERNOON WALK WAS slightly more urban. We took Lola to her usual morning place, the Snug Harbor Cultural Center. I’ve probably posted dozens of photos of the place to Instagram/Facebook and bored everyone I know. But the place is really special. And it’s where our neighborhood here began. Trader Robert Randall traded what became the area around Washington Square for acres of land on Staten Island’s north shore. He established a home for retired seamen on the land fronting the Kill Van Kull, the strait that separates Staten Island from Bayonne, New Jersey. He built a beautiful campus full of Greek Revival buildings, and the establishment was self-sufficient, with its own farm, livestock, chapel and cathedral, dormitories, and sadly, a cemetery. The land uphill of the home became Randall Manor in the 1920s—where we live in New York.

The old guys were shipped to South Carolina some decades ago, and hungry developers wanted the land for condos and the usual horrors visited on this island. But Jackie Kennedy Onassis, among others, campaigned to save the historic buildings and beautiful grounds.

Today, it’s a art center that boasts studios for artists, museum spaces, and a gorgeous botanical garden that includes one of the few Chinese scholar’s gardens in North America.The administration does what it can with a severely limited budget. A few years ago a visiting cousin from Switzerland was shocked at what she saw as neglect of a beautiful place. It’s better now, if not up to Swiss standards, and Greg, the botanical garden’s chief, does an incredible job of rotating plants through the year.

So most mornings we walk Lola through the grounds. We have dog friends, and so does Lola. The Harbor in general has a low-key hippie vibe that fits in perfectly with that part of the island, which boasts a historic district and scores of gracious 18th and 19th century homes. It’s been cold the past few mornings, so we’ve waited until the sun warms things up a bit. The reward has been this golden light that makes me look like a better photographer than I am.

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.

Il Sorpasso (The Overtaking)

I took the car in for servicing the other day. It’s starting to get hot, and the air-conditioning wasn’t pumping out cold air. The Renault needed an oil change, and as the mechanic looked it over, he told me that I should pop for new front brake pads, too. None of this is very exciting, I’ll admit, nor is it a particularly Italian experience.

But the service center is part of a dealership that sells not only new Volkswagens and Nissan, but trades in some exotic and a lot of expensive vehicles like Range Rovers and Maseratis. And the service center itself is really something. There’s a showroom in front that features some of the more exotic vehicles they’ve got. It seems like they stick to a theme when they can, and today’s four cars in the room were all Alfa Romeos of various vintages, including a gorgeous 2600 GT from the 1960s, a more modern Brera and a 75 Turbo from the ’80s, which I think was fairly successful in rallyes.

Made in Italy. But for how long?

All of this made me think about my relationship to cars and driving, and to Italian and American car culture. I grew up in an outer borough of New York City, where public transportation frankly sucked (and still does). Drivers’ ed and getting a car were rites of passage that were huge in Staten Island, just like in suburbs and rural places everywhere.

My first looked like this.

My first car was something I bought with my parent’s help (cue cliché) was a Fiat 128, bright red, stick shift, tiny but rev-happy engine. It hardly had any power, especially by today’s standards, but it was a blast to drive. They say that it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast one slow, and I believe it. Staten Island has lots of curvy hill roads and traffic wasn’t much back then, so when I needed to blow off steam I’d charge around the hillsides, revving the 1100 cc engine to an inch of its life. (I went too far once gunning it onto a highway, breaking the timing belt, which sent a couple of valves into and fusing with pistons. Oh, and it warped the cylinder head. Oops.)

The Spartan Woman had a Fiat, too. In fact, I was really interested in a girl who knew how to drive a stick shift, had a car with a twin-cam engine, and who knew how to change her own oil.

All of this sounds like fun, but even as I thundered around banked curves, I felt guilty. The left side of my brain, te more rational, politically aware one, knew I was polluting the planet. I hated what cars did to cities and the ‘burbs. I knew that Robert Moses, who got chauffeured around in a huge Packard, loved cars and back then, and the relatively affluent people who drove them. And he hated subways and the peons who rode buses and trains. The car can directly be blamed for those wide boulevards of nowhere, with the same chain stores, gas stations, and restaurants, not to mention the emptying out of cities around the U.S. I went to Cleveland a few years ago and I was shocked to see so many big parking lots right downtown.

Besides, driving in and around New York had become a drag. We always like small, zippy cars with manual transmissions, going from the Fiats to a pair of Mitsubishis, to Honda Civics. When we got had two kids and a Labrador retriever, we bought a Volkswagen Passat wagon and traveled around the Northeast and the province of Québec, Lab in back and a Thule box on top. At the same time, Americans were going for ugly, boxy, huge SUVs and pickups. C’mon people, do you need to drive to the mall in a Ford F150? Gimme a break.

By then I was renting cars on our Italian vacations. What fun. No, really. Once out of the cities, it’s a breeze, especially in a responsive European car, rowing the gears, downshifting around turns. (One daughter, however, was not thrilled. Prone to carsickness, we’d have to stop by the side of the road while she, um, righted herself.)

Here’s the thing, though. At first rentals were Italian cars: Fiat, Lancia, Alfa Romeo. These marques were under the rule of Fiat and the Agnelli family. The company was a source of pride to Italians—and also a target for left wing critics. It is not by accident that this country has some of the best highways in the world, but also for years did not invest enough in modern public transportation. Still, these companies made sports cars, tiny city cars, family haulers, elegant luxury models—the whole gamut. But if you look now, Fiat’s reduced to a few small to slightly larger cars and crossovers. Alfa is two models, a beautiful sedan and an SUV. Poor Lancia, star of the movie Il Sorpasso, is now one weird little model based on the tiny 500.

Now Fiat, like the Chrysler it took over a decade ago, is part of this oddly named multinational called Stellantis. Basically, Peugeot, the historic French carmaker, fused with Fiat-Chrysler to become this hydra-headed tri-national, based in Paris, Torino, and Detroit. And instead of Alfas or Lancias closing in on me in the left lane, I see Audis. Black Audis, mainly, which seem to have become the favored car of Italian asshole drivers.

They don’t make cars, they make “mobility solutions,” whatever those are.

This reduced Italian-ness, for want of a better term, seems to be a symbol of Italian life today, from the postwar miracle to the Italian-speaking province of Eurolandia. I like living in Eurolandia—it’s superficially more prosperous, modern, global, etc. But at the same time you can’t help feeling that something’s been lost. And that sense of loss is what fuels populist movements and political parties. People like to feel that they’re part of something. Being a consumer of the world’s goods doesn’t cut it for a lot of people—and the left, both the angry old commies and the new hipsters, haven’t yet offered enough of an alternative to those disoriented and saddened by this homogenization.

Polish dulce de leche and a serendipitous wedding

I haven’t written much since we’ve been back in New York—and I haven’t posted what I wrote. Too busy with the usual stuff, work and (ugh) taxes. Truth is, it’s been kind of dull, except for good things like seeing the kids and having the dog around.

But this past week was different. Nope, not talking about the Mueller report. This is about me, remember?

First up: The Spartan Woman had to go to a teacher’s union meeting near Wall Street. She’s retired, but they keep the alums in the fold. I tagged along, having nothing better to do and wanting to get out of the house. I used to work in the neighborhood, so I have my favorite walks. One of them took me to Eataly, where I used to enjoy a mid-afternoon espresso with one of my deputies most days. It may be a semi-pretentious temple of Italian gastronomy, but they actually make good coffee there and it’s not ridiculously priced. Then I walked through the Oculus, which I love in spite of the $4 billion price tag. The passageway under West Street took me nearly out to the river, where I started to head downtown along the Battery Park Promenade. The harbor’s my thing. After living on a mountaintop, the crush of people on the street is a bit much.

One of the few places to get a decent espresso in the city.

So I walk, and I see a tent. There’s a party going on, apparently thrown by the I Love Poland Yacht. People have gathered, but it’s not a huge crowd. “Help yourself to the buffet,” someone told me. I was tempted, but I wasn’t into sausages, sausages and huge balls of stuffed cabbage. But the drinks stand called me. “Some vodka or beer?” Yes, please, the vodka being herb flavored and delicious over ice. A young woman was walking around with a tray, while kids were getting helium-filled balloons. “This is a traditional Polish pastry,” the woman said. “It’s filled with something like dulce de leche.” Thus fortified, I continued my walk and saw views like this:

New Yorkers sometimes forget that they live on a beautiful harbor.

The next day, we walked the Avenue. We live a few houses up from Forest Avenue, the neighborhood’s commercial strip. A few months ago, I walked up and down it with one of the kids, who, looking around, said something like “When did this go all Brooklyn on you?” It’s true–we always had bars, but now we’ve got cafés, cool restaurants, including my favorite local Syrian place, hipster barbers, a bakery that has a gelato stand when it gets warm…you get the idea. We stopped in for breakfast at the On Your Mark Café, a breakfast and lunch place that employs people with special needs. The servers are super-attentive and food’s decent. I’m not a breakfast person but I couldn’t resist the chocolate chip pancakes, made with chocolates the organization makes next door in its chocolatier.

Chocolate, the breakfast of champions

The best adventure, though, was on Friday. I was heading into Manhattan to have lunch with an old friend who was in town the same time I was. We’d been missing each other for the past couple of years when it came to being in New York at the same time. The bus to the ferry was slow and I started to hustle to get the 11:30, just to have a little walking around time in Union Square. But another friend, Joan, intercepted me. “Want to see a wedding on the boat?” she asked. What? Her son was going to tie the knot on the next boat. I guessed that that explained the young woman running around the terminal in a wedding gown. We went over where the other guests were hanging out; I saw another old friend and a former co-worker from 20 years ago.

Making a vow or two.
Meet Gary and Joan, parents of the groom

We boarded, went downstairs and, yeah, this was an official wedding, with a bridal party decked out (and sporting similar retro sneakers). The officiant gave a little speech, saying he didn’t have many profound things to say, but that we were all gathered there because of love. “And that’s a good thing, right?” Right.


Rent

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So the other night we celebrated kid number 2’s birthday. We did it like we always do: We go out to eat, and usually it’s at the kind of place that’s more of an occasion than the place up the street. After 10 years of writing restaurant reviews in a prior life, I keep up with what’s happening, more or less. The only thing is that someone isn’t paying the tab any more, so it’s more less than more.

The birthday girl (my wife, kids) or boy (me) gets to choose. Every now and then, Ms. Birthday can’t make up her mind, so The Spartan Woman or I make it up for her. Liv couldn’t decide or think, or probably was too busy to find a Brooklyn hot spot this time. So I saw that Eataly’s Flatiron rooftop restaurant/bar, Birreria, had a cool seasonal popup  called Baita, an Italian Alpine-themed eatery. Supposedly. By mid-spring, polenta had vanished and the food seemed fairly New York dee-luxe Italian, with the exception of Alpine cheeses and wines from northern regions.

Version 2So, fine. It was all delicious, well-prepared. We had a great time. The boyfriend and kid number 1 came, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. But really: a cheese plate with three bites for $15? A seafood fritto misto in a dainty little bowl? Some reasonably priced wine, but you can get two or three Aperol Spritzes for the price of one at Birreria.

Coming from Perugia, it all seemed faintly ridiculous. I know, I get it. This is New York, and it’s an expensive city. We aren’t just paying for the food and drinks, we’re paying for the privilege of being part of a scene in The Greatest Fucking City on Earth. Rent.

Or is it? I’m a native, but the city seems distinctly Disneyland-New York-themed to me these days. It’s as though the city, especially Manhattan and the more precious Brooklyn precincts, is like a movie set for those not privileged to be native New Yorkers to live out their fantasies. I realize that New York has always been a place to retool oneself and be cooler than…well, out there somewhere. But sheesh, there have always been real people living in Manhattan and Williamsburg. Until, it seems, now.

This Disneyland for the 1 percent quality isn’t accidental. Check out this interview in Gothamist with Kim Phillips-Fein about how this unreal movie set of a city isn’t accidental, but a result of deliberate policies set in motion back during New York’s 1970s financial crisis.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photos of a dinner we had with our pal Fabio Bertoni a couple of weeks ago in Perugia, at l’Officina, probably the city’s biggest scene of a restaurant. It doesn’t lack for creativity; in fact, the food was fancier than what we had at Baita/Birreria. These shots are from the vegetarian tasting menu; a few courses with generous pours of wine throughout cost €25 a head. You read that right.IMG_0209IMG_0208