WHO NEEDS FACEBOOK!

Who needs Facebook, when a major earthquake in your area can bring you all the old friends and family you could want. This is what happened last month when there was a major earthquake near my home in Umbria. I was inundated with phone calls and  fifty five (55!)emails not only from my best friends and closest family, but also from from people far in my past, peripheral in my life, and nearly forgotten. Quelle surprise!

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Of course, hours after the news broke, I immediately heard  from my closest and dearest: the people that sustain me,  which is always appreciated as living in Europe can sometimes feel like out of sight/out of mind.  Non e vero! Not true.  I was reminded of the connection, the love, the bond. So wonderful if  bittersweet. It’s too facile for me to think I’d been forgotten, even though, yes, I’m the one who left The States. Instead, my relationships that were made, nurtured, and maintained with great tenacity  over many decades proved again to be the real deal. Those closest to me know that I’ve never taken them, or our friendship for granted, and vice versa.  It reminds me of something my sister said to me many years ago: she didn’t know anyone who worked as hard as I did on my friendships.

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Yet to hear from former lovers, mere acquaintances, friends who had drifted away through the years, and family members who I haven’t seen in ages was such a  thrill. Even my tax preparer in California! Ok, she had my email address, but how did the others find me without Facebook? Somehow they did.   I was reminded of how many people I’ve touched through the years, no pun intended, and how many people, now no longer close to me, who were affected  by me in one way or another.  I was happy to hear from everyone near and far.

I’m now communicating with some of these people who’d faded from my life, and it all seems ok, if a bit weird. I guess that’s what Facebook can provide, although now I’ve proven that one doesn’t need that social network if you live in earthquake country. Phone calls and emails still suffice!

The fact is, while the earthquake didn’t do any damage to our house, it was a big jolt. A shaking that instantaneously I knew was an earthquake and not an explosion, nor thunder. It was startling and frightening. All lights came on in our house and everyone else’s in our piazza. Some people gathered outside. I went back to bed holding Georgia our dog, who had  awakened barking as the tremor hit. I comforted her,  as she comforted me, while my partner fell fast asleep.

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Having visited  the town of Amatrice and the immediate area of the epicenter of the earthquake many times in the past, made the moment vividly clear that we live in a seismically active zone, not unlike Marin County California where we last lived. The towns in Italy that were destroyed were so charming, so lovely in their antiquity, but so vulnerable. The takeaway must be to cherish the moment, embrace the good life we have, and mourn for those who were profoundly affected by such devastation.  Perhaps, also to start retrofitting this priceless but fragile country.

Days after the earthquake and this lovefest,  I booked a trip to The States.  Until then I’d had no strong desire to make the trek. Now I’m actually looking forward to spending time there in order to embrace family and dear friends, and old acquaintances too. Oh, and grab a few donuts and bagels while I’m at it!

 

 

 

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THE FLOATING PIERS

Brexit, schmexit. That’s a future post that will include pictures of our British friends in tears. For now, let me share  something less depressing, my giddy experience on Christo’s THE FLOATING PIERS.

My excited anticipation reminded me how as a child I couldn’t sleep the night before going to Coney Island, an annual outing. The Floating Piers created the same childlike, insomnia. This time I had to tolerate (only barely) the fact that we decided to meet up with some American friends at their hotel, find the train station in Brescia and arrive at The Floating Piers early enough to avoid what we’d heard were overwhelming crowds. I just wanted to go, damnit! Besides, coming from New York, my tolerance of crowds is greater than  most, so I ignored the press, but hedged my bets by going early in the morning, about 9am on a Monday.

Luckily the owner of our tiny b&b drove us to our friend’s hotel, and all we had to do was cross the street to the Stazione in Brescia, and board a new train that took us to the lovely town of Sulzano and the entrance to Christo’s piers. Total time of travel and having to contain my impatience: 40 minutes.

We walked the short distance to the entrance. Actually my friends walked as I ran to the entrance, which was obscured until the sudden reveal of this golden path before you. Observe… Magical, in a word. Stunning, in another. Art of joy and beauty! And no crowds!

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My giddiness only escalated as we began to walk on the piers along with hundreds of others who also had smiles of wonderment on their faces. With a saturated blue, clear sky, the saffron colored fabric could not have had a better complement. Well done, Christo, who had to be thankful, as we were, for the good weather, an unknown occurrence for many months this spring in Europe. Our timing was perfect.

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So we walked and gawked and talked all the while looking in amazement at this  wild and quite crazy art installation. It was rather mad in a sense, which was another reason I liked it. In fact, It didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but it didn’t need to. Instead it was an incredible sight, which took a visionary artist’s eye, and a whole lot of chutzpah too.  While the concept of walking on water is not new, the extravagant idea of creating mile long piers wrapped in fabric certainly was. Not to mention engineering it and actually bringing it to fruition  in Italy of all places, in two years,  a country where you can’t even get a tv to work properly in that time span. We’re talking about 3.5 miles of piers, covered with over 1 million feet of fabric! Ok, the fabric was produced in Germany, but still. The project opened on time, and was well organized. Viva Italia!

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The choice of location was a huge part of the beauty of the project. Originally planned many years ago for Tokyo Bay or a delta in Argentina, I can’t imagine a lovelier setting than the ultimate one chosen, nor one that might have enhanced The Floating Piers as much as this one. Perhaps a biased opinion, but perhaps not. Even on a scale of Italian beauty, these lakes and islands in northern Italy are breathtaking. The perfect backdrop to set the stage for such a dramatic art installation.

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Then again, Christo had a vision to create this ambitious, stunning tableau, one I hope to never forget. My initial excitement didn’t wane, and my childlike sense of wonderment was fulfilled. Magnifico! Bellissima! Fantastico! Bravo, Christo!

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…and a happy Fourth of July too

 

 

ALL IS FORGIVEN———–PEUT ETRE (perhaps)

I surprised myself how cool and calm I was sitting in court at The Palais de Justice in Nice, France a few days ago. Was it simply exhaustion? Boredom? Languor?  Or….oh, laissez faire. A fait accompli? Are you hearing my French accent yet?

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Alors…Two years ago, my car, which I’d purchased two weeks earlier ,was savagely vandalized in a locked, gated park above the old town in Nice.  I’d been directed to park there  by our Airbnb host, as she warned us about overnight parking on the street. Unfortunately, during the night a group of testosterone/drug fueled young men——quelle surprise!———-destroyed 11 cars in this “safe” area; 10 of the cars were destroyed beyond recognition, with windshields smashed, roofs cut open, interiors torn out and strewn all over the street, spray painted with profanity, etc. For some inexplicable reason our car incurred only minor damage, by comparison: a couple of windows broken, window ripped off, etc. The usual nightmare.

Amazingly, they caught the culprits because there was surveillance in this park, the police were called immediately and found these miscreants locked in this park with no way out! They obviously had entered before the lockdown, rampaged and had no way to escape. Mon Dieu!

The NIce police discouraged me from making an insurance claim, as all of these guys had jobs, and therefore could make  compensation. Also, the defendant’s attorney had written several letters to me in the last year  assuring me of reimbursement for all damages. Two years later I was summoned to appear in court in order to collect, or so I understood with my high school French.

I dreaded the thought of returning to the scene of the crime, and to a place that left me with awful images, and a compromised vacation. However, Nice is still the Cote d’Azur, and with the knowledge that my travel back to Nice would  be reimbursed, my partner and I planned a  getaway to The South of France .

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Still, before enjoying the sun, the markets, the beauty of Nice, I had to face the judge at The Palais deJustice. I rehearsed a few basic words and phrases in French: Je ne parle pas tres bien francais.  And: Ma voiture a ete ruinee’.  However, moments before entering the courtroom, an attorney who spoke some English told me that I would have to present a formal, oral statement in French that included who I am, that I was one of the victims. etc.  Unfortunately she dictated this to me in about 20 seconds and I scribbled something that ultimately even I couldn’t read. Flash forward 15 minutes later and I’m standing in front of the judge who immediately asked me, in French, if I would understand what she would be saying. I wanted to respond, I hope so (j’espere) but could only come up with: peut etre,  Place-du-Palais-de-justice-my-home-in-niceCTyN-VxUYAADsfp

perhaps. She smiled, and the court proceedings continued for two hours. By the time it was over I was understanding quite a bit of the language. I now understood the words victime (victim), and from the defendants: je ne suis pas responsable, j’etais ivre (I am not responsible, I was drunk.) Whatever.

The denoument of the story…how could I resist using that gorgeous word…is that I must now wait a year to be compensated for my financial losses. Actually the end of the story is that we had such a great time in that magnificent, sunny city of Nice that I really felt that I’d made peace, moved on, and all had been forgiven.  Peut etre.

THE ITALIANIZATION OF THE AMERICAN CONSULATE

Mamma Mia, what a chaotic, disorganized, dysfunctional experience at the American Consulate in Rome yesterday.  I  realize that this consulate is located in the middle of Rome, Italy,  but I was lead to believe that this was an oasis amidst the usual chaotic/disorganized/dysfunctional norm of la bel paese. Non e vero, it’s not true.

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I had gone to Rome to renew my American passport. I had made an appointment online which took  2 minutes to do. I had lots of choices for an immediate appointment, and chose one within 2 weeks. My partner assured me that it took him all of 10 minutes once he entered the consulate, as the efficiency was so refreshingly American. Well, something got lost in the telling, or the American consulate has decided to become more inclusive by staffing the entire place with Italians who don’t speak English nor have any way of approximating American efficiency.

To be fair it wasn’t the lack of English being spoken in this American government building, but more that the sweet, pleasant Italian employees seem to have only a vague idea of what they were doing, and of course looked bored, chatted incessantly with their colleagues, and probably preferred to take another coffee. I felt like an intruder.

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Did I mention that this is the American Consulate that is surrounded by militia in camouflage? Machine guns in their arms, bulletproof uniforms from head to toe. The conundrum is that it’s an all Italian contingent, that means, well, yes, really good looking soldiers, but ones who you don’t want to depend on to protect you in case of an attack. They looked distracted by the pretty girls passing,  and checked their own appearance in every reflective surface.

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All this and I’m still not even inside the Consulate despite my 11 am appointment. That is because while I’m waiting on a line outside, with an Italian guard speaking only Italian to everyone, dozens of Italians without appointments are coming up to him with questions, problems, and offers for a coffee that have him completely distracted from his real task: to ferry people into to the building in a timely fashion. Who am I kidding? An Italian and timely fashion doesn’t exist. I know this, but keep thinking about what I’d been told about the efficiency of the process at renewing one’s passport. I was the cretino!

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Once I entered the building I of course needed to go through security, which like many things in Italy seemed random, casual, and a bit disorganized. Wasn’t I in the American Consulate though? Ushered upstairs, I took a number even though I had a specific appointment. This is when the real chaos began. So although I was in an area that read: AMERICAN SERVICES, the majority of people waiting were Italians and well, you can only imagine: 1) they had not completed their applications, 2) they forgot to bring photos, 3) they had a thousand questions for the clerks who, perhaps because they were also Italian, were patient, and had long conversations about every subject including ones about grandchildren.

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When my number was called I went to a cashier window where the cashier did not take my money, but instead merely confirmed my appointment. Then I waited about 40 minutes for all people ahead of me to straighten out every imaginable situation: stolen passports, emergency passports,etc. This might not have taken long, except that the clerks, a la most government offices , banks, etc in this lovely county, leave their posts often for a cigarette, a coffee,or a call to mamma. This was no different. So a transaction that might have taken 5 minutes took 20 minutes. How long does it take to down an espresso?

When I was called to an official window, the clerk immediately told me that my photos were not acceptable. They were the right size, but not the right head size.( This infuriated me, as  I had the pictures taken at my local photo shop, who had assured me they knew what was needed for an American passport). I was directed down two dark staircases to a photo machine. Can someone please turn the lights on this country!!!!

How easy is a photo machine? We’ve all used them in our lifetime, and know just how easy and fun they can be. Except this one that only took certain denominations of euros, which of course I didn’t have. So back upstairs to the cashier who apologized that he could not make change as no one had paid with cash. Instead I went from room to room looking for a compatriot to break 20 euros. Back to the machine to take the photo. Did I want to take a better photo, the machine asked? No, I couldn’t have cared less at this point. Hair askew, fury in my nostrils, I marched back upstairs with angry photos in hand.

Returning to the original window, the lovely worker said that the person who would complete my transaction had stepped away from her window. Not sure how she actually said that in Italian, but I knew it meant to sit down yet again and hope that she hadn’t left early for lunch. It was now 12:30, and I’d been there since 10:45 for this “10 minute” ordeal.

By the time I left the consulate at 1pm, I was furious, frustrated, and despondent knowing that I had to return in a month  to pick up the renewed passport.  At least now I can expect the usual chaotic, punishing hours waiting to get anything accomplished. And Americans have the nerve to complain about the DMV…ha!

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GUESTS LEAVING…

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Yes,  one of the best things about having guests, is their leaving—————–leaving wonderful gifts that they’ve brought . I know, I know you were all expecting the usual litany of complaints  having guests staying in your home.  That’s not this blog post, although the day will come. Meanwhile…

But seriously folks, I love the fact that many mornings I think of my friend Joani, as she brought the most delicious and expensive jar of peanut butter. Not only a thoughtful, and yes requested gift that she schlepped from New York, but it’s like an extended stay. She and her husband John “are still here” somehow. In a good way. The problem is that the peanut butter is almost gone! However, they also brought us a cherished bottle of sherry wine vinegar, so thoughts of them will continue to linger.

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Or how often have I silently thanked Paul’s brother John and sister in law, Barb, for acting as mules, drug runners. Ok, just to clarify:we’re talking otc drugs we can’t find here. Cold remedies, etc. There simply are things we prefer from The States.

 

This morning I mourned as I ate the last of the Thomas’ English Muffins. It was a conflicted decision to eat that last one. Several guests have arrived with these  American treats which I’ve squirreled away in the freezer to last as long as possible . It’s so weird to crave these because I’m not even sure I ate them in The States! And by the way, why is this all American product called English muffins?

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Sandra arriving with Grape Nuts and Saran Wrap and of course peanut butter (a given)  felt like Christmas in July. Considering how conservative we are with this cherished Saran Wrap, Sandra can be assured of her being in our thoughts, even at Christmas in December. We’ve learned to ration all these things because they’re so precious to us. How priorities change living in Italy.

Mickey and Tom, Paul’s brother and sister in law unpacked their contribution immediately upon arriving in September to insure a welcome stay at our house. No problem, as they brought dried cherries from Michigan,and our favorite soap. So now my granola is so much better with those phenomenal Michigan cherries, and I can shower with confidence once again.

The list goes on with French soap from Marybeth, and good French wine from Paul, my other Paul. Oh and the phenomenal Italian wine brought by Francesca and Luciano we smartly kept as long as we could; upon opening we thanked them again as it was one extraordinary bottle of vino. We still remember just how good it was!

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Maple syrup has become another cherished gift that several American friends have brought. We use it sparingly for french toast and pancakes which are no longer common breakfasts; but when we do make them, the pure maple syrup is savored generally with french toast made with panettone . We appreciate the gift, remember who brought it, and lick the plates. Or our dog Georgia licks the plates.

My cousins Marie and Vincent not only brought New York crumb cake Marie had baked, but upon leaving sent a care package of all the things we were unable to find here. Essentials like brown sugar, shredded coconut, and that elixir sherry wine vinegar. (One day I’ll  compile a list of recipes calling for sherry wine vinegar.) Crumb cake does not have sherry wine vinegar in it, fyi.

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Our British friends now know that to gain entry they must bring us some cheddar cheese. Who knew cheddar cheese of all things would be so missed. Trust me, it is. With all the good cheeses here in Italy, there’s nothing like cheddar, which still makes the best grilled cheese sandwich.  We can now make a good chunk of cheddar last months, as we don’t splurge. Instead we parsimoniously cut away at it. Thank you Tim and Patricia.

Paul’s clever friend Maureen shipped a box of goodies,including Grape Nuts Cereal, in advance of her 10 day stay. This was one smart cookie. Speaking of: bags of brown sugar and shredded coconut also helped me continue to bake cookies my most requested cookies.

My sister arrived with homemade jam, as did Bettina from her home in Provence. Nancy left us with all sorts of good things. Soooo Nancy! Maureen and Allen arrived with food gathered along their trip from northern Europe. The wine, the cheese, the ham! The ham? True love from my vegetarian friend!

Perhaps the cleverest gift was Judi,who stayed with us in July. Her thank you was a year’s subscription to The New Yorker. Weekly I bow in gratitude, as I gorge myself on all those long, well written articles.   So happy to know I’ve got another 7 months to go!

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So, come one come all, bearing the gifts that keep on giving.  Your generosity has made me feel closer, and still connected to dear family and friends, especially thankful as we approach that emotional rollercoaster known innocently as The Christmas Season.

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BUON NATALE, HAPPY HOLIDAYS

 

 

Buon Appetito

So I had such good intentions to finally write about my favorite subject, food. This was in June. Unfortunately I was confronted with a gastrointestinal condition that was not condusive to writing about food intake. Plus the summer in Umbria was so brutally hot that I was not able to sit in my non air conditioned office and use my computer. So, I apologize for the hiatus. Well, I’m back. My medical condition is resolved, and the weather is like early fall. Tutto bene.

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I was motivated to write after receiving a batch of Bon Appetit Magazines from my friend Marybeth. As much as I’ve missed reading  American magazines, Bon Appetit left me dazed and confused. Dazed by the complexity of the recipes, and confused by just how much  my perspective on good food had changed. The recipes, in general, seemed unnecessarily complicated with their long lists of trendy international ingredients. Ok,  I admit part of it is that I just can’t get many of these ingredients, like sriracha, cilantro (which I love), harissa, dill, pomegranate molasses,etc. More significantly, I’ve come to enjoy and appreciate the inherent simplicity of Italian cuisine, allowing the quality of the ingredients to shine.  Does one really need 20 ingredients to make a sandwich, as one recipe I saw in Bon Appetit? Or even a homely tuna melt that nowadays requires 11 ingredients including turmeric? Give me an Italian panino with freshly sliced prosciutto and grilled zucchini. Perfetto.

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Perhaps my constant impatience dovetails  perfectly with simple cooking. My idea of a good meal is to make my favorite pasta, lemon pasta, which has a total of 4 ingredients and takes 15 minutes to prepare. Recipe to follow*. Or red pesto, which has three ingredients (sundried tomatoes, fresh thyme, olives). The key to Italian food is that few ingredients are used but they are of the best quality, which are easy to find. Here in Umbria I have access on a daily basis to farm fresh eggs, vegetables just pulled out of the ground, freshly made ricotta, mozzarella di Bufula driven up here 2 days a week from Napoli. The olive oil is from a frantoio in walking distance. Not to mention the gorgeous pork products that have turned me into a carnivore for the first time in my life!

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Embracing such simple cooking surely didn’t come easily, as I was a typical Californian eating pasta one day, Mexican food the next, Thai after that, etc. Not to mention having access to all the amazing food stores in Northern California, it was difficult to not enjoy a huge array of food and a wide variety of cuisines.  Now, though, when I visit The States, I still keep my eating to a much narrower diet. A great bagel with Nova lox is what I crave most. That is, besides all the Mexican food I can devour. Guacamole always looms large.

Yet old habits, die slowly. To illustrate:  My partner and I  decided to have a pizza party for a bunch of Italian friends here in Umbertide a few months ago. We thought this would be fun, as it always was in America. Wow, were we culturally ignorant! We’d prepared enough dough so everyone could make their own individual pizzas. We then had bowls of probably a dozen ingredients including mozzarella, olives, grilled eggplant, anchovies, capers. Not a pineapple in sight. However one guest after another seemed completely awkward stretching the dough, and then proceeded to place a paltry amount of one ingredient on it. It was as if they didn’t get the concept, or at least not our American concept of what a pizza should look like! Meaning load the damn thing with as much as you possibly can throw on it.

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First of all we found out later that italians are not used to cooking in the home of the host. Furthermore, Italians simply like few ingredients in all their food. They like to know what they’re eating, thus margarita pizza remains the most popular pizza. A bit of tomato sauce, a bit of mozzarella.  To us the pizzas our friends made looked sad, meager, bland. However have you ever tasted pizza bianca? Two ingredients. End of story. We’re learning.

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I’m also reminded of potatoes I ate years ago at an Roman friend’s home. His sister had prepared potatoes that remain the most delicious I’ve ever eaten. Every time I’ve returned to Gabriele’s house for a meal, I continue to ask his sister Claudia how she makes those amazing potatoes. At this point she’s probably tired of repeating : ” I do nothing: potatoes, olive oil, salt and pepper, rosemary, roasted in the oven.”

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I don’t know, but these people can really do magic with very little. WelI now I know that you can “do nothing” when your ingredients are the finest. It’s why Italian chefs who attempt to be creative here in Italy, are wasting their time and talents.

Enjoy this pasta, perhaps my favorite recipe. It’s crazy easy and amazingly delicious.

*Spaghetti al Limone

INGREDIENTS:

9 oz. spaghetti

JUICE OF 3 TO 4 LEMONS

2/3 CUP OLIVE OIL

SEA SALT AND FRESHLY GROUND PEPPER

2 HANDFULS FRESH BASIL, LEAVES CHOPPED

3 TABLESPOONS PINE NUTS, LIGHTLY TOASTED

5 Oz. FRESHLY GRATED PARMIGIANO

COOK THE SPAGHETTI, al dente, IN A GENEROUS AMOUNT OF BOILING SALTED WATER, THEN DRAIN THOROUGHLY AND RETURN TO THE SAUCEPAN

 

MEANWHILE, BEAT THE LEMON JUICE WITH THE OLIVE OIL, THEN STIR IN THE PARMESAN UNTIL THICK AND CRAMY. THE PARMESAN WILL MELT INTO THE MIXTURE. SEASON, AND ADD MORE LEMON JUICE TO TASTE.

 

ADD THE SAUCE TO THE SPAGHETTI AND SHAKE THE PAN SO THAT EACH STRAND IS COATED WITH THE CHEESE. FINALLY, STIR IN THE CHOPPED BASIL, AND IDEALLY SOME GRATED LEMON ZEST.

SPRINKLE PINE NUTS ON TOP

JOSEPH’S NOTES: USE THE BEST OLIVE OIL AVAILABLE

THE LEMON ZEST MAKES A BIG DIFFERENCE

YOU MAY NEED SOME PASTA WATER

THIS RECIPE CALLS FOR ONLY 9 OZ. PASTA!  PLUS A JOSEPH HANDFUL MORE!

Buon Appetito

 

 

MY PASSAGE TO UMBRIA, Part 1: be careful what you wish for

I wished to live in Europe. I wished to start a new and exciting chapter in my life. I wished to leave California  . I wished for a new adventure.  So did my partner. There we went ……………………………………………

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Though we jumped off the proverbial cliff by selling our property  in California and getting rid of most of our belongings, we somehow believed we’d have a soft landing in Umbria . Instead it’s been more of a crash landing ! I was imagining our move to be filled with the excitement of Space Mountain at Disneyland or the breathtaking leap of the Parachute Jump. I mean,  I’ve always loved amusement park rides! In fact as a child my favorite day of the year was the one in which my family would go to Coney Island. Bumper cars, tilt a whirl, roller coasters, etc. However, a thrilling amusement park ride that lasts a couple of minutes is one thing, and 2 years of scary, dizzying, disorienting experiences in a foreign culture is another.

circa 1955:  Low-angle view of people descending from the parachute ride at the Coney Island Steeplechase amusement park, Brooklyn, New York.  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
circa 1955: Low-angle view of people descending from the parachute ride at the Coney Island Steeplechase amusement park, Brooklyn, New York. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

One of the disconcerting revelations has been just how different  everyday life is in rural Italy. Dramatically, enormously different. So though I’d lived in Rome, and had visited the country countless times, nothing prepared me for life in a small Italian town .  I expected and wanted a different life, but I was hedging my bets that living in Umbria would just be a more romantic, more interesting, more enlightening, more exciting version of the life I had in California. I expected something dreamlike , like a walk in the clouds. Have I mentioned my stubborn aversion to reality?

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My anticipation of moving to Italy gave me visions of Roman Holiday and A Room with a View. (The fact that these movies depicted beautiful people spending a few romantic moments in Italy never seemed like a stretch.) Also, dare I mention that charmer Frances Mayes, who seduced me with that lovely-but-rose-colored  tale of living under the Tuscan sun? Her story is the equivalent of riding tame, sweet Dumbo in Disneyland with its gentle undulation.  My experience living in Umbria has been more like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride or some terrifying roller coaster. Crazy, unpredictable, scary.

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For several years my partner and I were  wanting to move out of Marin County, and never could find a place in The U.S to our liking. Too cold, too hot, too expensive, too provincial, etc.  We’d both survived serious medical challenges, but now were back in great health and ready for a totally new life.  Well, be careful what you wish for, as we surely discovered .   While it’s not exactly been a battle with the Cyclops, it has been a difficult, challenging, wearying time for us. Roman warriors we’re not. The Cyclops nearly won!

Battling-a-Cyclops

Within weeks of moving to Umbertide in April of 2013, my health fell apart. Immediately my romanticized Italian scenario was shattered by the reality of herniated discs,  mysterious rashes, gastrointestinal misery, depression etc. I was now spending all my time going to doctors and hospitals all over Italy, instead of enjoying my passage to Umbria.  Meanwhile we had moved into our home that was still under construction! It was insane to do it, with the noise, the chaos, the leaks from every door and window, the lack of privacy all overseen by a contractor who was way over his head. It was a nightmare. The following cartoon is a funny take on our experience that was anything but.

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Yet through all of the frustrating challenges, we’ve had so many wonderful, rewarding experiences to keep us from packing it up. Grazie Dio, thank God our highs were as precipitous as our lows.  We immediately made friends and found community with lots of local Italians, and expats. We began to find our way.  We bought a car. Our language skills improved. We learned where to shop. We discovered one beautiful town after another. We learned to go to Rome or Florence on a regular basis for a city fix. We navigated the Italian bureaucracy and got all of our legal papers.  Plus our home slowly but surely became a beautiful place in which to live. In Umbria, Italy. The place we dreamed of.  The life we wished for. The place we’ll stay. For now.

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Dolce and Gabbana, aka Dopey and Grumpy

I’ve had the most surprising reaction to the Dolce and Gabbana kerfuffle, that has Elton John with his panties in a twist, and other celebrities threatening to burn their Dolce and Gabbana duds . First let me take a moment to  thank all involved parties for giving me so many potential subjects about which to write, including :  GAYS IN ITALY.  TRADITIONS DIE HARD. ITALIAN PROVINCIALISM.  NON- ITALIANS IGNORANCE OF ITALIANS.  THE INFLUENCE OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.  SICILY, THE LAST FRONTIER, etc. Grazie mille D&G, or as I refer to them: Dopey and Grumpy.

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Allow me to try to explain this ridiculous controversy.  This one pits the Italian fashion company Dolce & Gabbana against Elton John and I guess many homosexuals.  I say cue The Godfather music, but to a disco beat, as this is one incongruous and really overripe culture clash to me; and that’s all that it is.

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In a  recent interview for some minor Italian magazine, the openly gay  D & G ragazzi (the boys, who are 56 and 52 years old) , while extolling motherhood and women and their latest collection,  said that they consider IVF as creating synthetic children.  Dolce said ” I am opposed to the idea of a child growing up with 2 gay parents. I could not imagine my childhood without my mother. I believe in the tradition of family.”  An Italian man without his mother? Inconceivable, pun intended. A gay American or British man making such statements, even more inconceivable.

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Upon reading the provocative statements from Mr. Dolce and Mr. Gabbana however, I immediately thought how innocent and typically Italian this perspective is.  Family and tradition trump everything else in Italy. Being gay is a side line.  A world view, a larger understanding is not the Italians’ strong point. End of story. Were these ignorant comments hurtful to Elton John and others who have created “less traditional families?” Sure. However, it could have been a learning moment for the Italian guys, instead of more publicity for an already successful fashion line.  Instead, the reality is that these two Italian chuckleheads had no idea of how ignorant, backward, and offensive their opinions might play elsewhere . I really believe that, living here amongst them. This place is a time warp.

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A gay Italian friend of ours, here in Umbertide, has tried to explain to us  that she is not surprised by the local Umbrians, and other Italians embracing my partner and me, because we are stranieri, foreigners. On the other hand,Italians are still very uncomfortable accepting homosexuals into their own families. That code of silence remains.  Most Italian gay men remain closeted.

So it would follow that Dolce and Gabbana design clothes for “real women” and “real men”, not some “hybrid”, nor some modern take on sexual identity.  Note in these photos that these gorgeous clothes are worn by very feminine women with breasts and hips, and very masculine men with no ambiguity to their maleness. This is how the genders are still perceived in this country, for better or worse. Move on, Elton.

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The Salt Wars

I’m sure you all know about The Salt Wars of the 1500’s. I didn’t either until I moved to Umbria and wondered why the bread was so tasteless.  It seems…and I’m not making this up… that due to an insurrection by the city of Perugia against the Papal States, Pope Paul III decided to levy a new tax on salt; and so the people of Perugia  stopped putting salt in their bread to prove their recalcitrance. You’d think by now, 500 years later , that the Umbrians would have gotten over this punishment, but you’d be wrong. Instead, salt is still non existent in the breads of the region. Then why, I’ve asked, is a basket of this poor excuse for bread always put on the table, since no one seems to eat it? Because the practical Umbrians use the bread like a broom, una scopa, to push their food on to their forks. Maybe they should consider other non-culinary uses too for this inedible bread.

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If I’d only paid better attention in world history class to wars in central Italy, I might have chosen a different province of Italy in which to live, as I’m a breadaholic. Yes, my name is Joseph, and I am addicted to really good bread. Having lived in New York, Los Angeles, and The Bay Area, I’d gotten quite used to the availability of the best and the biggest variety of breads. Crusty loaves , seeded italian ,multi-grain, pretzel bread, bagels, baguettes, jewish rye, english muffins. I’d make pilgrimages to Dean and DeLuca in New York before flying back to California. I’d go to the Ferry Building in San Francisco to buy multiple loaves of Acme bread, visit The La Brea Bakery in L.A. for another orgy of bread buying.

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Here in Umbria I’ve simply resorted to bringing back bread from all my travels and freezing it, as I require a freezer full of many kinds of breads. It’s my security blanket, and an affliction that my sisters inherited too.  When I go to Rome, my last stop is  Roscioli Panificio which has a huge variety of wonderful breads. From Palermo, I returned with a shopping  bag full of seeded loaves from various bakeries. From London, I recently brought back as much as Ryanair baggage limits would allow of Poilane breads. Yes, the most famous French bread baker has now opened in London, which is how I chose the location of my hotel.

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Funny enough,in the middle of writing this post I went to the gym to work off some of the great Poilane bread I had eaten this morning for breakfast. I happen to walk into a spirited,hands-flying conversation amongst two Italians about the tasteless bread in Umbria. I jumped onto my stairmaster soapbox and to added my frustration and misery, and somehow found it easy to converse in Italian on such a personal, profound subject. However what amused and bemused me most was the resignation of these Italians  that this situation is permanent . I have more (history) lessons to learn: The Salt Wars, and their aftertaste, are here to stay.

 

 

Winter in Italy Redux

A few posts ago I raved about how wonderful it is to spend the winter in Italy, when all the tourists are gone and all the popular museums are completely empty.  While that’s true, I have now discovered why most rational foreigners wait until spring to come to Europe. This continent is friggin’ cold and wet at this time of year. Day after day after day.

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My partner and I thought we’d figured out the panacea, and that was to fly to Palermo, Sicily where at least the temperature would be higher than here in Umbria, and that we would become reaquainted with the sun.  Dream on. Instead of gently swaying palm trees, warm breezes, and some bright days, we were inundated with torrential rains, freezing temperatures, and a hotel that couldn’t understand why we were upset due to the lack of a working heater in our room. We changed rooms 3 times before we were remotely warm.

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To be fair to poor ol’ Palermo, my ancestral home, Rome was even worse. We’d taken a train there the day before flying to Sicily, and walked around the city in pouring, steady rain all day and night . Flooded streets, ice cold restaurants, and soaked clothing. Isn’t it romantic, tra la, tra la.

Our 45 minute flight from Rome to Palermo ended up taking 7 hours, as both airports were intermittently closed due to not only hard rain, but also very strong winds. Eventually our flight that should have arrived at noon, got us safely to Palermo at night———-in torrential rain. Ok, but we were safe; that is until we went searching on foot for a recommended restaurant in total darkness, and again, pouring rain. We arrived at the restaurant with a broken umbrella and looking like orphans of the storm. In fact the entire city was strewn with broken, abandoned, useless umbrellas.

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Our friend Giuseppe, a native of Palermo, couldn’t stop apologizing for the biblical and “unusual” weather; and pleaded with us to return very soon…well not very soon…but in the spring to enjoy Palermo properly. We assured him we were still enjoying ourselves, which was true, particularly after I bought a heavy coat and rain boots.

In the end we returned having learned that January and February in Italy is 50 shades of gray (or is it grey? and how could I resist?) , and that if you want a warm, more colorful getaway better head to Kenya or The Seychelles. Or back home in Umbria, where it turned out to be sunny and warmer than Sicily.

So much to learn, so little time. Tra la, tra la…………….