Winter sucks. But it sucks a little less here

Brrr. It’s a little chilly here in Studio AP, where I put together these little dispatches from Italy’s version of Vermont. I could blame Vladimir Putin for the lack of heat, but that’s too easy. Besides, we have lots of propane right now. But the fact is, this is Europe in the Italyland province, and houses were built more to shield us from the heat of summer than the cold of winter.

I shouldn’t complain anyway. It’s January, and this month has been fairly benign. And it’s leagues better than the typical New York January, which I hear and my iPhone’s weather app tells me hasn’t been so bad this month for a change. And how’s this for role reversal? We had a real, actual, white, wet snowstorm earlier this week. It gave us lazy sods an even better excuse to build a fire and drink hot liquids and not do much else except for reading and finding good cooking videos on YouTube.

When people hear that you’re going to Italy, that usually conjures up a whole bunch of images. Golden sun, sports cars roaring along a curvy beach road, high fashion, great wine, and pasta. So much for high fashion: Most of the young and cool this week seemed to be wearing sweats, NorthFace puffy jackets, and Timberland boots. Yes, Timberland. The brand is huge here and there are Timberland stores everywhere, from the local upscale mall, er, sorry, centro commerciale to the main street in town where everyone walks up and down between 18:00 and 20:00 (6 pm-8 pm to you nord americani) to window shop, meet friends, and have a drink before dinner.

You might notice that there isn’t much of that here. Despite an app that told me it was almost springlike in Perugia, it was blustery and freezing and no one was lingering over anything, much less a cold alcoholic libation. In warmer weather, this pedestrian street is filled with tables and chairs and 20-somethings hoping to get lucky.

And how about the main piazza? Ditto.

We had to run a couple of errands in town. That usually means the aforementioned drinks while lingering at an outdoor table—a table set in the middle of the Corso Vannucci, for example, where that first picture was taken. We might meet friends walking around. And we like to go to the end of the street where there’s a nice cool green spot with a view of the Tiber Valley below. Instead, we rushed up the escalators from the Minimetrò (we parked the car in the big parking lot at the base of the hill) and headed straight to a clothing store to look for gifts. I was bundled up, but it didn’t keep me from looking longingly at some warm hats, I remembered that my coat has a down-lined hood and resisted temptation.

Then we ran to another shop. I can’t say anything about that because the thing we bought will be someone’s surprise. And we don’t want to spoil that, do we?

All good boys and girls get a treat at the end of this. I’d been jonesing for some Italian hot chocolate, and yesterday was the perfect time for it. We found our favorite bar to have it, and found a table. The waiter smiled when we told him yes please, with whipped cream on top. Italian panna, or whipped cream, isn’t sweet at all but it’s intensely milky. It balanced the luscious deep chocolate, which really is more like molten dark chocolate pudding. How could we not?

Otherwise, it goes. After a brief bureaucratic tussle over a supposedly unpaid bill for propane, we got a delivery. So now we old folks don’t have to build a fire if we want to stay warm. Turning on the gas will cost us, but when you stumble out of bed and need coffee and to stare at the walls and/or the scenery, the last thing we need is to empty out the fireplace, stack some wood in it again and set it on fire.

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.

In with the old, in with the new

I’ve been lazy. Uninspired? Bored? Had writer’s block? Nah. It’s just that living in an outer borough of New York and not going out much can be, well, not the stuff I want to write about. So I didn’t. I was struggling to do something profound, either about differences between Europeople and Americans. Or maybe about technology, or taking a quick road trip. I could show you the unfinished drafts in my queue. But that way you’d see my tortured thought process.

At one point, I even got a bot—the now famous ChatGPT—to write about driving from New York to the Boston suburbs. Then I thought maybe I’d critique what the bot did. Okay, I’ll give you a peek:

On a chilly weekend, we took a 400 km ride to the Boston suburbs in our Volkswagen Golf. Four of us traveled comfortably in the spacious car, but we had to make a couple of stops along the way for our pregnant daughter, who is in her last trimester. Despite the stops, the ride was generally smooth and we were able to make good time. One thing that struck us on the American highways was the lack of lane discipline. People would frequently pass us on the right and zig zag dangerously through traffic.

Kind of workmanlike, no? I gave the bot no instructions as to style or my attitude. I wonder how it decided that the car is spacious—in Europe it’s a midsize thing, in the U.S., the land of SUVs, like a matchbox. I’ve read worse copy in my way too long editing career, but at this point I’m not exactly scared that it’s going to take my place.

The Matalas coven takes over the living room.

Anyhow, then Christmas came, and three days later, we transferred to our Umbrian hill, so, yes! I have something to write about. First of all, the holiday. We’re not really subscribers to religion, but we’re culturally a tiny bit Catholic, and for years we’ve had The Spartan Woman’s Jewish cousins over for the day, as well as her parents and sister, etc. This year’s get-together was bittersweet for a couple of reasons. It was the first one post-Covid onset. And it could be the last one we do, because we may not be living in the U.S. this time next year.

All the same, it was terrific to see our kids and their second cousins hanging out together. We jokingly call them the coven; for years, hardly anyone in TSW’s extended family gave birth to males. I’m not the only one calling them a bunch of witches, they themselves encourage it and, well, it’s just funny. But in the next couple of months, that should end. Our number 1 kid, who got married this past March, is expected to actually bring a male infant into this world. “I don’t know what to do with a little boy,” TSW said at one point. I think she’ll manage somehow, she seems to have no trouble with grownup boys.

AFTER THE HOLIDAY, we had to scurry and clean up and get ready to spend a few weeks in Italy. Obviously, this isn’t our first time around the block for this. Still, we have to make sure stuff is taken care of there and that we remember to take what we need in terms of tech stuff and meds, weird food substances we use in the U.S. but impossible to find in Italy. [Tip: Cheddar cheese powder is really, really good on popcorn.]

The trip over was something else. Not that we were delayed or anything, like thousands of holiday travelers in the U.S. But for the first time since early 2020 airports and flights were jammed. I never saw so many people crowding JFK Airport’s bars/restaurants/shops. It was hard to find a place to sit at the gate. When I went to the least-crowded bar to get my by-now traditional preflight Martini, the bartender apologized for having to use a plastic glass because all the Martini glasses were being used.

The flights, first to Munich, then to Rome, were similarly jammed. Lufthansa kept texting us begging us to check our carryon bags (for free even!). We had huge bags anyway, and only knapsacks as carryons. Lufthansa in general is one of my favorite airlines. Its staff treat people like humans, the food and entertainment are halfway decent, as are drinks, and the Airbuses are pretty comfortable, at least in premium economy (and upward, though I can’t shell out for that).

I’d nervously been looking at flight stats; we had 1.5 hours between flights and with the chaos in the United States, our first flight was late on the days leading up to our departure. That had me looking at how often Lufthansa and affiliates flew between Munich and Rome. Happily, it didn’t come to pass. We left on time and arrived early. Since we’re EU citizens, we breezed through passport control. And somehow we landed at a different terminal, the same one as our second flight, so we even had time for a cappuccino and snack.

I’ve crossed the Atlantic countless times and I usually sleep through most flights. But I was so happy to be traveling that I pretended to be a tourist from my window seat. Long Island looked colorful and even a little glamorous as night had fallen. Germany looked tiny and modern, at least from the buildings I could see. And the Alps? Mozzafiati! (Breathtaking in Italian)

I never get tired of flying over the Alps.

So here we are. And yeah, it’s a nice place. But it’s more than liking the place and having nice scenery and food. Our friend Angelo picked us up at the airport and knowing that we didn’t have much fresh food at the house, gave us a big bag of fantastic oranges (there is nothing like Italian citrus). This morning, I walked next door to our neighbors Marjatta and Pasquale at the agriturismo Ca’ Mazzetto to pick up our car; they’d been car-sitting while we were away. They used it every now and then and returned it with a full tank and cleaned inside and our. Later, Pasquale dropped by to say hi and give us a tin of their fantastic organic olive oil. It’s great to be home.

We’re getting ready for a quiet and decadent New Year’s Eve dinner here with our old friend Doug and his trusty sidekick Georgia the dog. Shopping for it was like being at JFK, way too crowded but instead of making me crabby, the IperCoop near Perugia had a party vibe, with sales of good Champagne and Franciacorta (Prosecco’s upscale cousin, fermented in the bottle like Champagne). Since this is Italy, we’ll take Franciacorta—to go with some scallops in the shell from France.

Thanks for reading this year, and happy New Year! See you here after the holidays.

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.

Perugia? You know, the place where the chocolates come from.

More than 100 years ago, a woman named Luisa Spagnoli had a chocolate shop in Perugia. Spagnoli was married, had a kid, and was a successful business woman. But she wasn’t exactly faithful and carried on a longtime affair with Giovanni Buitoni of pasta-making fame. She and her paramour would send love notes to each other wrapped around chocolates. These notes, and those chocolates, became the basis for the famous chocolate and hazelnut confections known as Baci, by the company Perugina. That company is now unfortunately part of the sprawling Nestlé conglomerate. (I could go into what a disaster Nestlé has been for local employment…maybe another time. I want to keep this light.)

Perugia, Perugina, Baci, chocolates. The city became intertwined with its most famous product. Whenever people ask where we are in Italy, I’ll tell them Perugia, and if they look puzzled, I usually add “you know, where the chocolates come from” and they sort of get it. This city is also known for hosting festivals seemingly every other day, but I exaggerate, The biggest one is Umbria Jazz in the summer. “Jazz” is applied loosely here; we’ve been to concerts by REM, the P-Funk mob, and Caetano Veloso.There’s a journalism festival around Easter time. And if it’s October, it’s time for Eurochocolate. This city is not about to let a marketing opportunity go untapped.

Except when stuff like Covid-19 pandemics hit. In 2020, they were all canceled, as was the journalism festival this year. But Umbria Jazz and Eurochocolate came back in limited, socially distanced, vaccine-proofed ways. We avoided Umbria Jazz this past summer, but we couldn’t miss the chocolate bash. Instead of holding it in Perugia’s historic center, the organizers moved the show to Umbria Fiere, a convention center in the burbs. Entry was ticket-only, and it seemed that ticket sales were designed to keep crowd sizes down. Or maybe it was just because we decided to go on a Thursday?

If they had intended to hold attendance down to encourage social distancing, it sure didn’t look like it. The parking lot isn’t exactly sprawling, but the lines to get in–or I should say the space for the lines to enter–were long and wound around the building. You can see from the photo below that organizers channeled the different kinds of ticketholders into different lanes. The weird thing was you could count on one hand the number of people in each lane. And all three lanes converged so that one guy could check our “Green Pass“–proof that we’ve been fully vaccinated or had a negative Covid test within the previous 2 days.

Three goes into one at some point.

Whatever. The scene inside was crazy—seemingly every artisanal chocolate maker in Italy was present, as was the German chocolatier Lindt and, of course, Nestlé, er, sorry, Perugina. But the whole thing begged the question, how successful an experience could Eurochocolate be without its usual context. And I’d say, good try, but let’s try again next year for the real thing. It’s no fault of Perugia or Eurochocolate; Covid-19 is the culprit. Still, going out to the convention center and wallowing on chocolate wares wasn’t the worst way to spend a Thursday afternoon.

Part of the charm, if you want to call thousands of people crowding the centro storico (historic center) of Perugia to look at and taste and buy chocolate wares charming, is of the city itself as a backdrop. Baci candies are produced by a company called Perugina, and chocolates are a big part of the fabric of this place, giving it fame that it might not have otherwise. There are quite a few beautiful small cities in Italy, and they’ve gotten good at being known for one thing. Ravenna, up in Romagna, is about the same size as Perugia. And although it’s not a college town like Perugia, it’s got priceless and beautiful mosaics that attract people and keep them coming. (Below, Eurochocolate kept a small presence in Perugia to remind people that it was happening, and to sell some happy stuff.)

Umbria Fiere, the venue for this special edition, is a sprawling convention center near Assisi and only about 25 minutes away from our house. It’s in a town called Bastia Umbra, which is a fairly prosperous satellite town of Perugia’s, at least judging from the shops you see, like the French furniture seller Roche Bobois. There’s a compact center that’s okay, but there’s lots of suburban sprawl of the kind that must make romantic Brit and American Italophiles break out in hives. (I’ll save for later the subject of how the food in strip malls in such nondescript places sometimes beats what you find in more atmospheric spots.)

In any event, I made sure I had enough samples and bought a couple of artisanal chocolate things to keep me happy. The people at the stands and helping out on the floor were cheerful and helpful, and it was nice to see some Sicilian producers. Umbria chocolate makers have a real rival in the producers from my father’s island. And I probably will remember the dark hot chocolate I had at one stand (gallery below, lower left) for the rest of my life.

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.

It’s all their fault

[Hey, Tea, here are some of my memories of Umbria.]

It was April 2002 and I was on a reporting trip in Italy. The trip mainly involved interviewing lawyers about the Italian economy and dealmaking possibilities for U.S. multinationals (I’ll write about that someday when I’ve had too much grappa to drink). I conveniently scheduled my trip to straddle a weekend: a few days in Milano, a weekend to chill, and a few days in Rome.

The weekend started on Friday afternoon. I took the train to Perugia and my “dad” there, Franco Castellani, picked me up at the station. He said we had to hurry because he and his wife Giovanna Santucci had a surprise. Franco drove faster up Perugia’s winding streets than usual, cursing about half the other drivers for having the nerve to share the road with him.

Finally arriving at their home near the top of a hill, we rushed inside. “Just put your bag down, we timed this exactly right.” I went into the kitchen to greet Giovanna, who just then pulled some baby artichokes out of the frying pan and put them in a paper towel lined basket. A quick spritz of lemon, a sprinkling of salt and she shoved them toward me. I should tell you that at this point, no one had sat down. “Use your fingers! They’re perfect right now!” Franco said. The three of us stood around fishing the precious nuggets out of the basket, blowing on our fingers because the suckers were hot, And crispy. And lemony. And soft inside. And yes, perfect. We just smiled at each other.

By that April, we had been chosen family for years. The Spartan Woman met up with them back in the 1970s when she had done a year of veterinary school in Perugia. It’s a long story, and the short version is that this couple had adopted us as their American kids. They got to know The Spartan Woman’s parents, we got to know their daughters and extended family, and we’ve been together ever since. We’re Catholics so lapsed that we should be excommunicated, but Franco and Giovanna stood as godparents to our younger daughter back in 1992. All of us have stayed in each others’ houses, we’ve seen elders pass, babies born, and one of their nephews has run a few New York Marathons. You get the idea.

The clan gets together for a summer dinner at Il Laghetto near Perugia, a couple of years ago.

For The Spartan Woman, her studies in Perugia were punctuated by Franco sounding his horn outside her apartment. “Gimmo!” he’d say, the Perugian dialect word for “let’s go,” dragging her out for a ride in the country. He read electric meters at the region’s businesses, and so knew every inch of his beloved Umbria. Franco knew where to get the best prosciutto, the best cheeses, where a special bread could be found. He loved to cook, which invariably meant a huge cleanup for his wife, because he was the kind of cook who would leave flour clinging to the high ceiling of his kitchen, He was almost a parody of the postwar Italian male, with tons of hair product, a walk that frequently involved dangling a cigarette from his lips and spinning his car keys.

Despite his outward bravado, Franco (left, photobombed with the power salute by grandson Francesco in the 1990s) was a sweet man, generous of spirit and time. (But not of gasoline; he’d coast downhill, and whenever I rented a car, he was very happy to ride shotgun while I drove everywhere.) I still hear his voice when I drive around Perugia. “Metti la freccia!” (use your turn signals); sempre diritto! (go straight, always here), vai, vai! (go, go as I gunned it to get onto a highway).

If Franco was the brash, extroverted side of the marriage, Giovanna was the quiet and deep counterpart. She was a career woman, working for the local fashion house Luisa Spagnoli. She took care of things, raised her daughters, and kept the household humming. She was my language tutor; my Italian wasn’t bad 30, 40 years ago, but she helped by giving me The Look when I said something wrong. She kept the spare bedroom ready for us; I used any excuse on a few solo trips to drop by and stay a few days.

See this picture? That was taken on one of the funniest days I’d ever spent with those two. “We’re going to Norcia today, ” announced Giovanna (shown enjoying a postprandial cigarette). I’d been in Perugia for a week, after a week spent with relatives in Sicily. I love both Palermo, where my father’s from, and Perugia. The latter on this trip was a quiet balm to the livelier, bigger Palermo and my family, who are masters in the peculiar Italian art of multiple simultaneous conversations.

So we got into Franco’s Mini, I riding shotgun, Giovanna stretched out in the backseat chainsmoking. The ride seemed back then like forever, but I’ve gotten used to it now; in fact, I visited Norcia in February to see the opening of an important schoolkids’ social center. For the uninitiated, Norcia is a town up in the Appenines famous for its salumi, or charcuterie, its cheeses and truffles. It’s a great place to eat, in other words.

That morning, Franco parked the car, and the three of us walked around from shop to shop, buying dried sausages with names like coglioni di mulo (mule’s balls), reflecting its large round shape. Franco had parked near a bakery he knew, which still used an ancient wood-fired oven, and bought a huge country-style bread. Shopping done, we stopped for the pleasant lunch that’s shown in the photo.

“Porca miseria!” Franco shouted when we got back to the car. “Figlio di puttana!” (son of a bitch). We were parked okay, but for one thing: Franco had forgotten to put his disco orario, or time metering disk, in the windshield, and he was fined the equivalent of $50 for the lapse. There are meters everywhere these days, and you put the receipt in the window. In 1996, not so much.

Franco was good at dishing, not so good at taking it. That night, as we sat down for a light supper, he sliced the bread. Taking the slices, Giovanna and I rolled our eyes and generally acted like we’d gone to a mock heaven. “Giovanna,” I asked her in Italian, “is this not the best bread you’ve ever eaten?” “Si, Antonio, I bet such perfection must have cost a pretty penny.”

Franco just growled.

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

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

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

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

Franco’s domain

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

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

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

It’s official, kinda

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

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

Porchetta, anyone?

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

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