Act like you fit in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bean there, done that

My mother was endlessly inventive in the kitchen. Married to a guy from Palermo, Sicily, she had to come up with a “primo” for dinner most nights. We didn’t have the traditional meat and two sides on one plate. My dad insisted on our following the typical Italian meal progression: a “primo,” either pasta asciutta (with sauce), soup, or rarely, rice. The meat or fish or frittata (omelette, Italian-style) followed. At the end of dinner, my father peeled and cut up pieces of fruit, which he doled out to us on the tip of his paring knife.

Those primi stick in my mind the most. I always preferred pasta to the second course. Twice a week we had spaghetti or some other pasta with tomato sauce—what most people back then thought was the only way to eat “macaroni.” But in between were pastas with broccoli or cauliflower, either in dry form or as a soup, escarole soup, spaghetti with clams…the list goes on. Having this first course made us less ravenous when the secondo came around, and I’m sure that it helped stretch the food budget, too. And at least once every couple of weeks, pasta e fagioli, which on the U.S. is often rendered in some obsolete dialect as “pasta fazool.”

Pasta e fagioli is the star of this post. It’s cheap, nutritious and can be fun to cook, and is delicious too. The variations can make your head explode. I’m going to tell you how to make my favorite version, which is an adaptation of what I first had one long afternoon, way too long ago.

Some culinary history: Mom usually used kidney beans, specifically canned kidney beans, for pasta e fagioli, because back in the dark ages of American grocery stores, kidney beans were everywhere, mostly to the exclusion of every other bean. Sure there might be navy beans, which are almost tasteless and resemble the canellini bean’s little brother. And you could buy lentils and split peas. But back then, there wasn’t much choice. Angie/Mom made it palatable by injecting a fair amount of garlic and some tomato broth to the mix. If she had some lying around, she’d chop parsley.

You can all them cranberry beans or borlotti. Either way they’re creamy and sfiziosi.

Years later, Perugian friends took us to an agriturismo (working farm with restaurant and/or rooms) over the border in foreign Toscana—Tuscany in English. The folks at the Castello di Sorci supplied a multicourse meal with two primi, one of which was an amazing puréed bean soup with homemade tagliolini, or thin homemade egg noodles. This was new to me; I’d never thought to purée the beans for the soup. Back home in New York, I made my own versions, one of which stuck. I love fennel and will sneak it in wherever I can. I did it with the bean soup and found that the addition of the fennel mellowed the soup out. At the same time, you wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t look for it—just like chefs now use anchovies to increase the umami in a dish.

The supporting star

We’re starting to make soups like this as the weather turns cooler. So far this November it hasn’t cooled that much, but with the long nights this soup feels right somehow. You can put it together in 40 minutes or so using canned beans, or plan ahead, soak some good beans overnight and cook them before making soup out of them.

HERE’S THE NON-RECIPE RECIPE. I don’t measure anything, and this soup has endless variations in quantity and what you put into it. The orthodox version is pretty straightforward, though I have no idea whether anyone in Umbria ever purees fennel along with the beans.

You’ll need a package of canellini or borlotti beans. If you can’t find them, navy or kidney beans of whatever color will work. If you’re using dry beans, you’ll need to soak them overnight and cook them ahead of time. Otherwise, a couple of cans of white or borlotti (cranberry) beans will work.

A bulb of fennel—if you can’t find or don’t like fennel, you can use celery

One onion

2-4 cloves of garlic

One carrot

Tomato paste or a couple of peeled canned whole tomatoes (mainly for color adjustment; otherwise the soup can be way too beige)

Wine to deglaze. Or white vermouth.

Short soup pasta, or broken up spaghetti, or sheets of egg pasta cut into strips or irregular shapes. Quantity is up to you. About a cup works but it really depends on how soupy or solid you want the final version to be.

How to start:

Dice a small head of fennel, saute in good olive oil. Add a diced onion (red, yellow, or white, it doesn’t really matter). Dice a carrot. All of this doesn’t have to be perfect; you’re going to purée this toward the end. Add 2-4 smashed garlic cloves, and, optional, a pinch of hot pepper flakes or a little hot pepper—what we call “peperoncino” in Italian. Get the vegetables past soft and translucent; you’ll want a bit of golden color because it will taste better.

Add a splash of white wine or dry vermouth and get all the toasty bits off the pot. Add a squeeze of tomato paste or a peeled tomato or two. Add two liters/quarts of low salt vegetable stock or water. Add the cooked/canned beans. Bring to a boil and then let it settle into a simmer. At this point you’ll want the flavors to come together, so let it simmer for about 30 minutes.

Take the soup off the heat. Using an immersion blender, purée until smooth. You can keep some beans out and leave them whole if you want. It’s your soup. If you don’t have an immersion blender, a normal standalone blender or even a food processor will work.

Turn the heat back on. Add pasta. There are two schools of thought here. I’ll usually cook the pasta in the soup, but a lot of people will cook it separately and then bring the pasta and soup together just before serving. Cook the pasta until just before being al dente–it will continue cooking as you serve it.

The finished product

Serve the soup in bowls, drizzle good olive oil on top.

Variations

Possible additions: Greens. You can even just tear some rucola (arugula) up and it will wilt in the bowl and give the soup a peppery note. Finely chopped Tuscan (black) kale, escarole, or chicory are good additions.A pinch of red pepper flakes or chili oil will satisfy those who like things spicy.

You can also choose not to purée the soup. In that case, make sure you dice the supporting cast of vegetables finely and uniformly; it’s all got to fit on a spoon. Or you can ease up on the water or broth and make the dish semi-solid.

Photo at top of page: Jeremy Keith from Brighton & Hove, United Kingdom

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.

It’s something we think about all the time here

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

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

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

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vino and a panino, anyone?

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

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

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.

Can I make an appointment with Doctor C—? What? This afternoon?

I was thinking about my other country this morning. I started to write this post on the morning of the Fourth of July, which in Italy doesn’t mean anything. But I was seeing holiday memes pop up in my social media feeds, stuff like “salute those who paid the ultimate price for your freedom.”

Really, folks, does it always have to default to saluting the military for the way we live? How about the dudes who started the whole thing by brandishing words, not muskets?

Sorry, I can’t resist. The country of my birth, the United States of America, has not distinguished itself lately. The supreme court rulings, the attempted coup by Trump and his thugs, the endless shootings of kids by the insane and of unarmed civilians by cops paints a picture of a country that’s falling into violent chaos with no good end in sight. Our friends here are puzzled and even distressed, because they grew up with American culture and the romance of the open west.

Then again, daily life for most people is not affected that much by what happens in the news. Society changes on its own, often without much intervention by government or what the press tells people to do. And it’s in the little things, the day-to-day living, where the U.S. is falling behind, too. I honestly don’t think that’s entered the consciousness of my fellow citizens, who are fed pep talks since birth about how great a nation it is. And when people talk about what ordinary citizens of other advanced nation have, the pundits and Republicans immediately denounce “socialism,” whatever that is. And that people there drive funny little cars.

So I’m going to go micro. Let me recount a few details about what it’s like to get healthcare here in Central Italy, and leave it up to you to decide whether you still want to settle for what the U.S. grudgingly grants its people.

Romantic types rhapsodize about the sweet Italian way of life, la so-called dolce vita. It’s a little different living here than being on vacation. But bureaucratic stuff aside, it is less of a hassle here to do certain ordinary things than it is in the U.S., or at least in New York. Like, for instance, seeing a doctor. I once posted about the aftermath of a car accident here, which featured a doctor visit to ensure that my parts were still in the right place.

THIS TIME, HOWEVER, A LONG-STANDING condition came to a head. Every now and then, after inhaling mold or mildew, I develop a chronic cough. It’s been enough to scare fellow subway riders, who think that I have tuberculosis. The cough ranges from annoying to debilitating, and this time it became the latter. But my New York doctor dismisses it when I mention it or break into a coughing spell. He tells me to take Claritin if it’s bothering me. Like a lot of American doctors, he’d rather I go to the standard Medicare-paid tests for people my age, rather than address a really annoying problem right in front of him, as though I’m asking for a prescription for heroin.

I asked a friend here in town for the name of a good doctor. He gave me a name and phone numbers of a physician he said knows his stuff. I put off calling for a while—I’m great at avoiding new situations. I didn’t know how I’d have to negotiate the process of getting an appointment here after years of dealing with American medical office assistants, who act as though their primary responsibility is to keep people from seeing the doctor.

I didn’t have to worry. Our exchange went like this (translated from the original Italian):

Me: Hi, my friend M gave me the doctor’s name. I live in town and have a chronic cough and I’d like to see the doctor.

Nurse/assistant: Can you wait a minute?

Me: Sure

Man’s voice: Hi, I’m Doctor C. What’s the problem?

Me: I explain while coughing throughout.

Doctor: It sounds like allergic asthma. Can you come visit this afternoon at 18:30?

Me: Sure, thanks.

Doctor: I’m right off the piazza. I’ll be waiting for you.

The piazza, the center of life Valfabbrica stylee, seen from Dr. C’s office

I hung up in a semi-daze, just amazed that A DOCTOR I DON’T KNOW GOT ON THE PHONE TO TALK TO ME AND TOLD ME TO COME VISIT THAT VERY DAY. I’m used to calling my doctor’s office in New York, being put on hold, then a distracted office person tries to find me an appointment six months out for that date. And after that hanging out in the waiting room a couple of hours. I’ve left doctors because of that. Once during one of the cough emergencies i was shunted off to a PA in a clinic near a hospital because my own doctor (who really is not a bad guy at all) couldn’t see me for months.

To make a long story short, I saw doctor C. He listened to my cough, checked my blood pressure, sat at his desk and typed up a page of notes and three prescriptions. He demonstrated how to use the inhaler and told me to come back in….two weeks. Not six months. Since I’m not yet enrolled in the state healthcare system, he charged me €60 for the visit, or about USD $61. I’ll be reinbursed by private insurance I have here, which costs less than the typical Medicare deduction and much, much less than individual health insurance in the U.S.

The dude’s a little more buff

I took the prescription to our local pharmacy. It’s in a small modern shopping center just outside the center of our little town. There’s a supermarket, a bar (what we call a café in Italy), a garden shop, and a clothing boutique. The pharmacy is not a chain; offhand I don’t even know if chains like CVS exist here. I went in with my prescriptions, which were typed on the doctor’s letterhead along with detailed instructions on when and how to take the meds. The pharmacist took a look at one of the inhalers. “Do you have a tessera sanitaria (medical card)”? I don’t; I’m not a full time resident, so I’m not yet in the state-run medical system. “It’s expensive,” she told me. I told her that I needed it anyway. And the damage? Just under €22, or about $23. I traded meds info with my daughter in New York, who also has asthma. We looked up the equivalent inhaler in the U.S., and it costs, wait for it, $350 retail.

(Can I put in a plug for locally owned pharmacies here? The CVS near our NY house treats people with prescriptions like applicants at the welfare office, forcing them to stand in line and then wait for hours or even to return in a few days. They bought up all the good family owned ones in the area, except the one owned by our friend Nick.)

Doctor C, unfortunately, had a little problem. He tested positive for Covid, and posted on Facebook, knowing that he’s friends with his patients on Zuckerberg’s platform. I did call the office after two weeks, and his assistant told me that as soon as he tested negative, they’d get in touch. They did—actually, he did, a few days later, and told me to come in. I did, he did the usual checks and adjusted the meds. Plus he told me to see a lung specialist, who’s semi retired after heading the pulmonary department in Perugia’s hospital, but still sees patients. I thought, whoa, this is going to add another layer. But no. So, same drill, I called a mobile number, the good doc answers and tells me to come in in a few days. He tells me to send a text on WhatsApp, and he responds with his address and driving directions.

Dr. D’s office. Note packed waiting room.

I won’t bore you with the details; it was a typical asthma/allergy bunch of tests. I found the place easily; it’s a huge medical center that houses the clinics for the area. You go in and a color coded sign guides you to the right office. Dr. D answered the door himself. He was reserved at first but then became conversational as we spent a whole hour together. And—The Spartan Woman tells me this unheard of in New York—he did the breathing test and allergy prick tests himself. (In addition to mold and household dust, I have mild allergies to olive trees, cypress trees, and the nasty thorny weeds that populate our lawn.) The cost for a specialist visit? €190, or USD $194,also reimbursable.

And so there we are. Dr. D told me to text him periodically over the summer to let him know how I’m doing, and to see him next month. I’ll try to be a good patient, because these people seem to be concerned and less arrogant than a lot of the masters of the universe doctors I’ve seen in New York.

A few caveats: We live in a small town with about 3,300 people, so Dr. C probably has it easier than a lot of his counterparts in bigger cities. And our region, Umbria, is in Central Italy, and is known for its relative efficiency and medical services. (People here like to complain about everything, but trust me, it’s easier to do these everyday chores than in New York, which also presents its own set of challenges.)

[Inhaler photo and asthma diagram courtesy Wikipedia Commons]

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.

Somehow we’ve managed to fill the void of having fewer guests this summer

We have a new guest this week, someone from the neighborhood. Or so it seems—it’s a horse, apparently a mare. She’s super skinny and she’s ravenous. This is good for one thing; it means I don’t have to mow the lawn which, after a heatwave and drought-induced slumber, is suddenly alive, green and growing. But it means occasionally dealing with the digestive results of her buffet. I just texted a neighbor who might know who her humans may be. [UPDATE: She belongs to our neighbors, who came by to encourage her to go home. She apparently likes our grass better.]

Howdy, neighbor!

Such is life in the Umbrian countryside. People ask me “what do you do all day?” Sometimes I ask myself the same question. But these few months have gone by way too quickly, and part of the reason is probably that it’s never dull around here, even without the parade of guests we’ve had in pre-Covid summers.

I mentioned a neighbor. Our house was part of a working farm that takes in guests. The owners sold us this house and almost two acres of their land. The business is called an agriturismo, and this one specifically is named Ca’Mazzetto. It’s certified organic and it produces olive oil and wool from a flock of about 125 Sardinian sheep.

Ca’Mazzetto also produces interesting people. One of them is Joonas Sotgia, a young guy about the age of our younger daughter. Joonas is half Finn and half Italian, though to look and listen to him he’s 100 percent Italian; his mother is from northern Finland. He got back about a week ago from Afghanistan, where he was working for the Italian NGO Emergency in the southern city of Lashkargah. Joonas isn’t a doctor, he took care of logistics and hiring of the nonmedical staff at the group’s hospital there.

Joonas relaxes with a drink the Taliban don’t approve of.

I did a formal interview with him the other day, which I’ll release soon. But that evening we sat out in the yard and updated each other about our lives; it’s been two years since he, The Spartan Woman, and I were in the same place. We talked about how we handled this pandemic, his last job in Slovakia for Amazon (key takeaway—he won’t buy from them, ever), and how the Taliban left the Italians alone, and when they came into the hospital they left their guns at the gate.

We don’t just sit around and talk. Like I’ve written before, The Spartan Woman and I walk. We walk up and down hills, we follow trails, rutted roadways, cow paths up mountains, etc. We continue to do it; doing so is part of The Spartan Woman’s boot camp for the nearly elderly. This is contagious, and we’ve taken to judge our guests by whether they like to hike with us or not.

For example, an America friend from our Staten Island neighborhood stayed with us for a bit. TSW and she do take walks through Staten Island’s Botanical Gardens at Snug Harbor. But those are level and not that long. Wendy (the friend) was craving escape and Italy, but when we told her about our morning routine, she said she’ll stay by the pool and read a book and let us have all the fun. Fat chance. She was addicted the first time up the road. Maybe it’s the vistas. Maybe the neighborhood dogs, which are impossibly cute and impossibly addicted to the biscuits we give them. By the end of her stay, Wendy was charging up hillsides and goading us to walk further. Now back in the U.S., she’s, um, strongly encouraging her husband to get vertical and move.

TSW and Wendy enjoy a break in Spello from climbing up steep hills.

So if you visit us, you’ve been warned.

We tried to find good places for Wendy to practice her new favorite hobby. We drove around the region, keeping in mind that because of Covid-19 we didn’t want to hang around with too many people. So we drove up into the Valnerina to visit one of our favorite places, the Piano Grande di Castelluccio, and on the way back we stopped to eat in Norcia, the gastronomical capital of Umbria. While we had a terrific lunch, it was heartbreaing to see that much of the town is still in ruins as a result of the devastating earthquakes of 2016.

What’s left of Norcia’s duomo.

What else? Gelato! Okay, I’ve been eating the stuff since I was a kid. It’s different from American ice cream in being made mostly from milk rather than cream. Plus it’s less aerated and the flavors are more intense, possibly because it’s servied a bit warmer than ice cream.

We’ve got our spots in the big cities. Well, okay, in Perugia (population about 170,000). And it’s terrific. But our friend Angelo pointed us to the Oxy Bar in the hamlet of Palazzo di Assisi, and we’re hooked. Great flavors, terrific service—all the standard stuff is terrific. What Oxy adds is its location. It’s right in the center of the small town, across the street from a castle that’s become a warren of restaurants and apartments.Oxy is next door to the town’s church, which conveniently has lots of places in front to perch.

If it’s a summer night, it’s time for a gelato.

There’s nothing quite like a summer night in Italy when the gelateria is one of the only games in town. The older folks sit at the tables in front, while everyone else is either standing in groups, walking around saying hello, or finding a spot in front of the church to hang out. You hear that flowing babble that characterizes the Umbrian accent when you’re not paying attention to what people are saying. And everyone’s united in the easy pleasure of a sweet treat on a summer night.

I’d be negligent not to mention the trattoria across the street from Oxy, Not the hipster-vibed “Gnocco e gin” place in the castle, but the friendly, family run Osteria del Cambio. Food like it serves up would be an expensive night out in New York, but here it’s mom’s home cooking. Or grandma’s. It’s Angelo’s favorite hangout, and he calls it by the proprietor’s name, Catia. When I came alone last year, Angelo and I had lunch once a week there. TSW, Angelo, and I recently had dinner at Catia’s and we didn’t hold back–antipasti, tagliatelle with black truffles, a “secondo,” wine and coffee, and the damage was all of €48, or about $56. You might get a pizza and a couple of drinks for that at Ribalta in New York.

For best results, combine Catia’s and Oxy.

We’re heading into autumn now. The weather’s changing, alternating between brilliant dry days and cloudy changeable ones. It’s time to close the pool, wear long pants when we go into the city, and to think of more ambitious hikes. Our aim is to tackle the uphill path to Assisi with a reward at the end in town: a decadent lunch.

Is this what they mean by fusion cuisine?

If you wander around food-related sites on the interwebs, you might notice a strange little trend: Italian cooks reacting to the horrors visited on Italian dishes by non-Italian cooks. Some of those non-Italians might even be pretty famous, like the British restaurateur and TV personality Gordon Ramsay. You’ll see the Italians wincing as Ramsay and others put cream in spaghetti carbonara, or cook pasta in jarred tomato sauce. One of my favorites is the couple Harper and Eva (he’s American, she’s Calabrese) who good naturedly explore Whole Foods and Domino’s Pizza. Eva’s reactions alone are worth the time suck.

Eva does not like Ramsay’s “carbonara.” Not at all.

Here on our mountaintop getaway, we manage to visit other horrors on the food of this region. You see, there really is no such thing as “Italian food” because the cooking in Italy is so regional. No, hyper-regional, because dishes can change even from town to town. Get a local nonna (grandma) to show you how to cook a local dish and she’ll give explicit directions and mention what is absolutely forbidden: no onion and garlic together in X, put celery in Y and you’ve dishonored all your ancestors, etc.

We’re in Umbria, a small, mostly rural, landlocked region tucked between Lazio (Rome’s region) and Tuscany in Central Italy. For a region with a population just shy of 900,000, it’s sure got a distinctive cuisine. it’s a land of black truffles, legumes, mushrooms, pork products, and grains. Try to picture all that and you realize that mostly of this food is brown or black. A typical snack is chicken or goose liver paté on toast—I was served that along with a drink the other day.

If you’ve grown up with that, it’s fine. Our Perugian “mother,” Giovanna, shunned most vegetables and compensated by having huge bowls of fruit on hand for dessert. (Her idea of health food was to bake eggplant slices with lots of crumbled sausage on top.) But The Spartan Woman and I have Sicilian (100 percent for me; 50 percent for her) and Greek ancestry. Both Sicilian and Greek cuisines are colorful, vegetable-friendly, bright flavored and citrusy, while Umbrian food tends to be heavier, more comfort-food like. Add to the mix the fact that we’re native New Yorkers, and therefore entitled to eat any kind of food we like that exists on the planet, and you’ve got the makings of either interesting contrasts or a disaster. Having relatively good taste, we’ve managed to avoid most disasters.

Oh, and we don’t eat meat, which keeps a big part of the food here off-limits to us. We do eat fish when we feel decadent or lazy Plus us native New Yorkers (sorry copyeds, but I’m using NYC dialect here) grew up eating seafood. A couple of decades ago this would have probably cramped our style big-time, because Umbrians didn’t eat much fish and you could hardly find any in the markets. Lately, though, they’ve embraced seafood and supermarkets have huge fish departments.

Two years ago, pre-Covid, our town of Valfabbrica got together for a multicourse seafood dinner.
An Asian market in Perugia

In good weeks, we’ll get gifts from our neighbors and friends. When Angelo picked us up at Rome’s airport, he gave us a care package, the fixings for a Sicilian blood orange salad, complete with olive oil that his friend produced. And our neighbors at the agriturismo Ca’Mazzetto occasionally show up at the door with freshly made sheep’s milk ricotta.

So what do we cook? Let’s call it Umbria-Sicilian-New York fusion. We pay homage to Umbrian food—I haven’t met a truffle I didn’t like—while at the same time keeping it light and bright with lots of different colored vegetables and spicier/brighter flavors. Luckily, the olive oil here is incredible, green and a little spicy, and enobles simple dishes like borlotti beans stewed with garlic and tomatoes. The markets carry tons of fruits and vegatables, and Italians have embraced healthier food between, you know, a morning Nutella-filled cornetto and an afternoon gelato.At the same time, being Americans generally and New Yorkers in particular, we occasionally crave Asian food. Our area is pretty well served by sushi restaurants and Chinese markets, so it’s not that hard.

But here are some examples of how we feed ourselves and others.

Farro tagliatelle with zucchine, shrimp and tomatoes with Greek egg and lemon sauce
Whole wheat rigatoni with a mushroom ragù
Salad with farro
A Sicilian classic: fried eggplant to put atop spaghetti
Sheet-pan roasted vegetables and feta, a variation of a NY Times recipe

Positively negative

This pandemic thing sure put a damper on our plans last year. But at least we’ve made it through so far. We couldn’t spend the warmer months on our mountaintop. The pool for which we raided our savings stayed covered and unused. And we basically hid out all summer in our New York living room, air conditioning on full blast, binge watching Mexican Netflix shows. (Watch “The Club” and “House of Flowers.” You won’t be sorry.)

A big part of our life last year

The Spartan Woman made it extraclaro that she wasn’t going anywhere without a vaccine. And Dr. Fauci told us not to travel. But I did, just to inhabit the house in Umbria a bit and clear out the inevitable cobwebs, run the appliances, and drive the car. Truth is, we really didn’t know when we’d get back here, and the previous U.S. government didn’t seem inclined to make a horrible pandemic any better.

But sometime this winter into spring, the situation in the U.S. looked better. The Biden gang made vaccinations a priority, and TSW was an early subject, getting her first shot in January. I followed by about a month, and soon most of our friends and immediate family were vaccinated.

We still didn’t know what we’d do about coming here until a friend texted me. Alitalia was offering a 20 percent discount, he said, making a premium economy seat with its luxurious two-bag allowance and better legroom fairly reasonable. We jumped at it. Right around that time, the Italian airline and its code-share partner Delta started running what they call Covid-tested flights. If you test negative before the flight and upon landing in Rome, you wouldn’t have to submit to a 10 or 14-day quarantine. Our booked flight wasn’t on the list, but it was the right time for us. I quarantined myself last year, so if it came to that, we figured, it wouldn’t be terrible.

As it turns out, Alitalia added our flight to its “Covid-tested” list. It sent us emails telling us about the change, and then had a woman call from Palermo to tell us what we had to do. (I wondered whether I’d be charged for receiving a call from Italy; thankfully it didn’t happen.) We were to get a PCR (molecular; the more accurate method) test no more than 72 hours before the flight. And upon landing at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, we’d be given a rapid test. If the first test was positive, we could reschedule or cancel; once in Italy, a positive result means quarantine.

We were in prep mode to be away mode all of a sudden. That’s become almost routine. And we and our vaccinated friends started carefully to socialize. In the middle of all this we had to get tested. I’d gotten a rapid test back in November after returning from Europe. But with this one, we had to time it right. New York’s test site is pretty helpful, showing locations throughout the city. We had a 72-hour window both for the test and results. I found a drive-in site near our house; the city’s site just gave a street address and didn’t specify the venue.

Turns out, the site was a CVS pharmacy. There was no signage outside showing what to do, but a sign showed where a drive-in pharmacy was located. It looked like an alleyway, but we drove through, wondering if we were in the right place. Turns out we were. The pharmacist, acting as though our scheduled tests were a complete surprise to her, put together our kits, slid them through the drawer and told us what to do. (Basically, stick a swab 1″ or 2.5 cm. through your nostrils and put the swab in a test tube.

We worried about whether we’d get the result back in time–they said 1 to 2 days, which would be cutting it close. And the CVS website cautioned that due to high volume, there could be delays. So we waited to schedule a time to get to the airport, where if we had to, we could be tested. As it turns out, they emailed us the results less than 24 hours after our tests. Negative!

Armed with that, we headed to the airport a couple of days later. If I could give you advice for one of these flights, I’d say bring a pen. And look for QR codes to scan with your phone. The Italian health ministry had us fill out forms giving the reason for entering the country (“to return home”) and we had to promise to quarantine if necessary. A QR code, once scanned, led to a site where you can alert the Fiumicino health people to your imminent arrival.

Otherwise, the JFK experience was slightly less surreal that it was last August. More bars and restaurants were open and there was a slightly bigger crowd in Terminal 1. The main difference was the paperwork–agents at the gate checked ours and it felt like giving your homework to the teacher. A few corrections and we boarded.

The bar was open, and I was able to have my traditional pre-departure Martini.

I’ve written about the flight. Nothing’s changed. Not the reduced drinks and meal service nor the crew’s reluctance to interact much with us. You’d think a flight filled with people who tested negative would be different, but you’d be wrong.

Landing in Rome, however, was a different story. They herded us onto two lines, with people having connecting flights given priority. A jovial gatekeeper kept us entertained. We then went to someone who checked us in and collected a €20 a head fee. Then around the corner to a line to be tested. They had pretty permanent looking booths up, and the testers were doctors as well as nurses. This rapid test was just as invasive as the PCR test we’d gotten in New York. Afterward, we had to sit and wait for our number to called for the results. We were negative again, and so, no quarantine.

The next few hours are a blur. We found our friend who drove us almost to our home. We had to stop first to get our car. And somehow we managed to get everything in. It was nice to drive a car with a stick shift again, and there are no traffic lights on the country roads we take.

Once home we were famished. Luckily, before I left last fall I bought the components or a fast meal: canned tuna, tomatoes. Pasta. It’s traditional for returning Italians to have a “spaghettata”—basically spaghetti with garlic, oil, and chilies. We had no garlic, so TSW put together a quick tuna sauce, while I used the blood oranges, olives and fennel our driver friend gave us for a Sicilian salad. Home at last.