Solitary man

Greetings from jail!

I left this:

To be here:

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

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

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

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

Got drugs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

¡Hey, Quarantena!

Songs pop into my head at random intervals—even as I’m about to wake up in the morning—but the Macarena? Strange. At the time, I was doing a mild workout (more about that later) when that song popped into my head (note to self: next time bring earbuds). On second thought, it’s not so weird. Macarena rhymes with what I’m under now: quarantena, Italian for quarantine.

Call me a glutton for punishment. After nearly six months of basically confining myself at home on Staten Island, I came here to green, tranquil Umbria to be confined to quarters for a couple of weeks. Back Stateside, I was turning into a shut-in with the A/C cranked up. Oh wait, everyone in New York was doing that. But I was worried about leaving this house empty too long. Would the hot water heater self-destruct? Would we get strange animal squatters?

No and, kinda. My Italian is pretty good, but I learned a new word this time around, ragnatela. It means cobweb, and I’m spending a good chunk of my time going around the house with a Swiffer clearing them out. But that presents me with a dilemma. Spiders are a good repellant toward other insects, like mosquitoes and the nasty little biting flies we get here. So do I go after them? No, not intentionally.

I know this is boring minutiae. Welcome to my world. I know, Italy holds a special place in people’s imaginations. You know, golden sunsets, great food and art, fashion and style. And that’s all there, somewhere, I guess. But when you come here in the middle of this damn pandemic, instead of Aperol spritzes and Piero della Francesca, you get to stay home for a couple of weeks and contemplate spider webs and the decaying food that you left in the fridge six months ago. (On the plus side, it’s ridiculously scenic up here.)

Even bad weather looks good.

Anyway, to back up, here’s what solo quarantining in the Umbrian hills is like. I somehow procured enough food to see me through, so I’ve been cooking for myself. I’m fully embracing the Italian (or Japanese) aesthetic of limiting dishes to an ingredient or two. Gotta make it last, so, no, I won’t add that red pepper to the salad. It and its companions can become a good pasta sauce, or a peperonata, thin sliced peppers to pile on bread (which I’m going to have to bake myself) or put into a frittata. I use the olive oil sparingly. Part of it is to limit my fat intake, but the other consideration is to make it last.

Who knew that there are distinct tomatoes designed for stuffing with rice?

Speaking of quarantine itself, here’s how that works. I wrote a few days ago about the journey here, which basically entailed sanitary and isolation measures and filling out the same information about my whereabouts on multiple forms. I was told to register with the local health authorities, which I did on Sunday. I guess I could have waited until Monday, but I was curious about whether someone would answer that day because Sunday is still kind of sacred in this country. A woman did answer, and we had a nice little conversation. She gave me an email address to send my basic info to, which I did.

The next morning, I got a call. When did you arrive? Do you have any symptoms? What are your living arrangements? The guy seemed happy that I’m living alone, and told me someone would come by to administer a Covid-19 test. No one’s come by yet.

————————————-

The local health service sent instructions.They exaggerate; no one has called one or twice a day until the last day, as it says in the first line.

—————————

[And now, a side discussion. Languages can be fun, especially when you’ve got what linguists call false friends. They are words in other languages that resemble a word in your mother tongue, but which can have entirely different meanings. In this case, for a Covid-19 test in Italian you use the word for “swab,” which turns out to be, and I kid you not, tampone. So yeah, one of these days someone’s coming by to give me a tampone, not a feminine hygiene product. Another favorite false friend is preservativo. To us English speakers, it sounds like chemicals put in food to make it last longer. No, no, no. The word for those chemicals is conservante. Preservativo means something quite different: condom.]

</side discussion> Other than waiting for the tampone tech, I try to amuse myself. Luckily, we have just enough land to be able to take a walk without violating the quarantine rules. The pool is closed, but it’s still useful. Instead of swimming laps, like I usually do, I walk around it for exercise. It’s the only place with a sizeable regular pavement, so a klutz like me won’t break an ankle the second I stop looking down. I did 50 times around yesterday, which shows up amusingly on my watch and phone’s exercise app. I listen for the neighbors’ sheep. The bells and their sounds are pretty hypnotic. If none of that works, there’s enough alcohol left by last year’s summer guests to stock a bar,

I was around the green marker when THAT song popped into my head,

Still to do: Bake that bread. Dust off the guitar chops and record that album, Prince-style. And write a novel, which, let me tell ya is hard to do when the view out the window looks like this.

Adventures in repurposing

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

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

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

Version 1: Umbricelli with a spicy “arrabbiata” sauce

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

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

Tagliatelle with too much sauce

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


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

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

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

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

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

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