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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casa, dolce casa, discreetly high tech

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

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

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

Some practical tips:

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

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

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

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

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.

Enough of that old stuff. Let’s see some modern architecture

People come here to see old stuff. There’s Assisi, with the hundreds of years old basilica, with Giotto’s frescoes. Perugia has a still intact Etruscan gate and mysterious Etruscan tombs on its outskirts. Spoleto has a Roman amphitheater. For those of you who missed Ancient European History 101, the Etruscans predated those newcomers, the Romans. You can see more modern construction from, say, the 1500s. And apartment buildings that are 100 years old or more are considered to be kind of new.

Along comes Kid no.2 and her partner in art and life. We haven’t seen them in months. And the atrociously hot, then tropically rainy summer kept us from going out much. (So did our continued Covid vigilance) So when those two arrived, it gave us a chance to get out of the house, off the mountain, and play sightseeing guides for a week.

What do you want to see? we asked. “Al (the BF) wants to see some modern architecture. Well…. But it does exist. Umbrians don’t sit on their ancient marble doorstops. And to be honest, looking for modern works was a nice break from Olde Europe,

Friends told us about Il Carapace, a winery like no other. The name means shell—most commonly a turtle shell, but animals like shrimp and lobsters have them too, The producers of prestigious wines like Ferrari bubbly, Lunelli, decided that they wanted a statement canteen.in their Umbrian winery, Castelbuono. So they commissioned sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro to build it.He’d done work for them before, but I have to say, this building came almost as a shock as we drove through sunflower fields and old-style vineyards. The Carapace rises out of the landscape like some alien space ship, a little menacing and a little humorous at the same time.

He asked for modern. He got it.

The surprises don’t end when you enter the belly of what could pass as a Klingon ship. The theme is copper, which clads the exterior, and whose paint adorns the inside. You feel like you’re in the belly of the beast, and a 360-degree view lets you meditate on the ancient vines. Castelbuono produces Sagrantino—Umbria’s most prestigious wine—and Rosso di Montefalco, a less intense, more easily quaffed red wine. If you need a Tuscan comparison, think Brunello to Rosso di Montalcino. The aging barrels sit in a huge underground space.

We had to eat, espcially after sampling three wines with a little nosh, so we left the Carapace to get lunch in nearby Bevagna. We were back in old Umbria, which has its abundant charms, not the least of which was a salad of raw ovoli mushrooms, which in their way looked as alien as the Carapace.

The mushrooms from another planet

A COUPLE OF DAYS LATER, we went to Foligno. We’d never been, except to the train station, which is a major transfer point for trains from the main Rome-Ancona line and the pokey local “regionale” to Perugia. The object? The modern art museum, the Centro Italiano Arte Contemporanea.

Foligno is unexpectedly interesting. On the outer rings of the small city, there are lots of Stile Liberty, or Art Moderne villas. There’s a long wide pedestrian street filled with porticos with bars and restaurants, and tons of shops and terrific window shopping. Who knew?

The modern art museum has one thing in common with the interior of the Carapace: a copper color. It basically looks like a copper box in the middle of a older neighborhood, and is instantly recognizable because of that. The permanent collection is pretty small and unfortunately they were between exhibits. But there’s more….

A 10-minute walk brought us to a deconsecreated church, the Chiesa della SS. Trinità in Annunziata. where, in the middle is a giant skeleton replica, by the secretive and subversive artist Gino de Dominicis. Its official name, “Calamita Cosmica,” or cosmic calamity. It’s pretty amazing, the kind of thing that held our attention as we walke around it. It’s not just the thing itself; it’s the context. De Domicis is described in the work’s website as “a controversial figure in modern postwar Italian art, with an eccentric personality, himself an endless work of art, original and full of secrets.” All I know is we just stared in wonder as we walked about the beast and tried to take photos that did it justice.

Well, why not?

Of course, we worked up a powerful hunger after that expedition. Happily, Foligno was there for us, with a festival of first courses. In the progression of an Italian meal, the “primo,” or first course, is actually the second. It’s composed of pasta, soup, or rice. Note that it is not what Americans call a main course; to an Italian, a huge plate of overcooked spaghetti serving as the main meal is a travesty. The festival was terrific, even if it was a rainy day and we had to traipse all over the center of town. Big signs and a handout map guided us to various restaurants around town that served regional primi; it was fun to pick and choose, for a really good price of €5 (5 bucks) a plate, with cheap good wine to go with it.

A “tris” of primi

We’ll be going back to Foligno as soon as we can. The festival got us acquainted with what seemed to be dozens of cool bars, restaurants and shops. Can’t wait.

Positively negative: The sequel

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

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

Move along, nothing to see here.

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

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

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

We were poked up the nose here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To know her is to love her.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You could feel almost human in premium economy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other photos are by author.

Where’s Gualdo?

Saluti da Valfabbrica! Stavo per scrivere qualcosa profonda, intellettuale, pieno di osservazioni, ma….

Oops, wrong language. Greetings from Valfabbrica! I was about to write something deep, full of observations, intellectual even. But I didn’t like where I was going. I must’ve been in a bad mood. Anyway, we have Wendy the houseguest hanging around these days, so we’ve been showing her around, including a Sunday morning trip to one of our favorite hill towns, Gualdo Tadino. Maybe we’re trying to convince that by being here, we’re doing right by us? I dunno. in any event, I’m addicted to my iPhone’s camera, and this is what we’ve been up to. Deep Thoughts will have to wait.

First WendyDay: Pizza at Perugia’s Mediterranea, with outdoor Covid-compliant tables. Sourdough chewy crust. Perfect.
Not the Staten Island Ferry: We took the boat from Tuoro sul Trasimeno to Isola Maggiore in the lake. It was a good place for The Spartan Woman and Wendy to catch up.
Great place—the ruins of an ancient mill—to store a motorcycle, no?
I just like this courtyard. Move along.

Gotta FaceTime with my dad every couple of days.
Covid meant that our town’s annual pre-autumn celebration was shorter and by reservation only. But we’re happy it wasn’t completely canceled, like last year’s.
We walked around town after dinner at the “taverna”—when towns set up outdoor restaurants for celebrations. The iPhone’s night mode always makes the mundane look interesting, even if I have to admit that our cantilevered town hall is pretty interesting by itself.
Our neighbor has a sheepdog pup (breed: Maremmano Abruzzese), who came to visit the other morning. He’s a quick study; he took to doggie biscuits right away.
Cappuccinos on a Sunday morning in (finally) the town of Gualdo Tadino, one of our favorite towns around here.I don’t remember what The Spartan Woman and Wendy were talking about, but they laugh together a lot in general.
There’s something endearingly eccentric about the town. And its main square is a splendid public living room.
I love the upper part of Gualdo, which has some of the most interesting buildings in the region. Most of this part of town is pedestrian-only, too.
I don’t usually do this, but somehow the trees told me to get them to stage a photo.

If it’s Tuesday, we must be trekking

trekking
trek|king
pronuncia: /ˈtrɛkking/

sostantivo maschile

escursione impegnativa realizzata su sentieri montani, in genere di ridotta accessibilità

In other words, hiking

Last week I mentioned how we continue to distance socially. The dreaded Delta Covid-19 variant is working its way around Italy , and although almost everyone we know here is fully vaccinated, and that breakthrough infections are pretty rare, it’s better to be sure(r). So when I get antsy (it’s usually me. The Spartan Woman is surreally happy with her own company), instead of checking out a town/winery/restaurant/museum, we’ve taken walks in the country. It doesn’t mean we’re total hermits; I was happy to bump into a friend at the local bar when we had a post-walk cappuccino. But we’ve cut down on socializing.

Happily, one of the benefits of living in a region like Umbria is that it’s mostly rural and that means we’re near everything from lakes to rivers to rolling hills to the mountains that form the backbone of the Italian peninsula, the Apennines. And Italians have embraced hiking and being outdoors in general to an enormous degree. That means well-maintained and well-marked trails almost everywhere. We have a couple of trailheads right down the road from our house, but we wanted to take a ride Tuesday, too. (For some reason, it’s always a Tuesday. )

So off we went to the felicitously named Monte Cucco (say “kook-koh”). The mountain is on the border between Umbria and our neighbor, Le Marche (lay MAR-kay), and at 1566 meters high, is the centerpiece of a national park. It’s maybe 45 minutes from us normally, though a detour due to a closed section of highway slowed us down a little. It’s amazing how different an area that close to us can look. Maybe they’ve decided to go with that mountain resort look on purpose, but one of the towns at the base of the mountain, Sigillo, has a strong Alpine vibe. The buildings have roofs with more pitch than usual around here, for example.

You hang a right to an unassuming street but with the all-important brown sign indicating a Big Deal Tourist Attraction—the Monte Cucco park—and once past some apartment buildings, you climb up the usual (for here) mountain road, complete with switchbacks and occasionally bereft of Armco barriers.

We found ourselves, as we did two years ago, in the middle of what looked like an Alpine hideaway. There were a few campers, a shower/bathroom building, and a rustic hotel-restaurant. Picnic tables are spread throughout the area; just right for us because we brought sandwiches and fruit. We did not bring warm clothes, though. Although it was warm down in the lowlands, up on the mountain we felt an unusual thing–cool crisp air. We momentarily envied the young couple we saw wearing windbreakers.

Armed with trekking poles

Then we hiked. Our kids bought us trekking poles and this was our inaugural hike using them. Where have they been all my life? What seemed dangerously vertical two years ago now was an easy walk. Sure, we used our arms more, but it was a small change compared to the huge benefit. Plus, we’ve shed our Covid-19 extra kilos (don’t ask about the other kilos that hang around stubbornly), so traipsing up and down hills doesn’t seem like such a big deal.

This year, we took a left turn—there are two main trails in this part of the park, called the Val di Ranco. At various points I couldn’t sworn I was on a trail in New York’s Catskills, or even on our little Staten Island. Most people don’t picture dense woods and Italy together. But believe me, they exist. I like to think of old-growth forests—and this is one, judging by the lack of low dense shrubbery—as a sort of natural green cathedral, and the paths in the valley fit that description nicely.

[continues]

Green cathedral

We weren’t alone. Every now and then we heard the murmur of the Central Italian dialect. If you don’t listen carefully to the words, it’s like a running brook of voices. At a couple of points, a fearless teenaged boy on the mountain bike passed in the opposite direction. He reined in his leaping style to avoid us. At another point we saw a young family group—parents and young girls—walking down a precipitous slope with the nonchalance of someone walking down Madison Avenue. At one point, we thought that the path looped around back to where we started because we saw the same kid on his bike twice. We were right, sort of. We did loop back near the parking area, but we were about 30 meters or about 100 feet above it.

Unexpected fellow hikers

So we turned around and retraced our steps. Soon we heard footsteps behind us—decidedly non-human footsteps. We turned to see a beautiful mare and her foal out for a little stroll. They were too used to humans to be wild. After some sottovoce encouragement—she was guarding her baby—the two horses passed us and were soon our of sight.

Lazy afternoon

After lunch at one of the picnic tables—sandwiches and a caprese salad and fruit—we got back into the car and headed up to one of the peaks. I’ve decided that my main job for the rest of the summer is to get to all the mountain peaks around here. We passed a herd of cattle—how do they get up here?—and found the parking area. We’d been here two years ago and it all looked as expected. But we did not expect to see the green-blue of the Adriatic Sea shimmering in the distance, past the coastal flatlands.

The Adriatic’s out there.

That reminds me. Gotta get to the beach one of these days.