Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.
Browsing category: Italy Blogging Roundtable, Life in Umbria, Rebecca's Ruminations
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Italy Roundtable: Spring in My Step

This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable includes the debut of our new blogger (one of my personal favorites), the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward! Welcome aboard Kate, to this project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a power bar, and join in on the conversation.

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Spring

So, I’d been thinking about spring, because that is our Italy Blogging Roundtable theme this month. I’d also been thinking about women in Italy, for reasons that will become clear to you come the second Wednesday of May. And in the delta of these two streams of consciousness, it had come to me how much I hated the theme of spring and that perhaps I should suggest a substitute to my fellow Roundtablers. Except that one overachiever who shall remain unnamed actually WROTE HER POST three weeks ahead of time, so by the time I got around to suggesting a theme tweak it couldn’t be changed anymore.

I donned my creative cap with the word spring and, though there is a member of the Roundtable who shall remain unnamed who was really hoping for it, I couldn’t come up with any mattress spring-themed post that would be appropriate for a family show. Second on the interpretive list was “spring in my step” and what it is that puts it there when the weather turns warm. Without doubt one of the biggest sources of spring in my step is my annual spring fitness push.

With the thoughts of women in Italy that were already churning in my head, I started ruminating over the differences I’ve noticed over the years between how I (and most of my American girlfriends) approach physical fitness and as opposed to how Umbrian women (in my experience–which is confined to a small set and limited geographical area–so your mileage on my generalizations may vary) of my same age do.

First, a declaimer: I know fit American women and I know fit Umbrian women…and I also know out of shape women in both countries. Though the obesity levels in the US are over-the-top, my social group tends to be in more-or-less acceptable shape. The same is true for my Umbrian friends, who also generally eat much healthier food and have a healthier lifestyle. That said, I’ve found that how the two female cultures view exercise and sports is very different.

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What They Do

Americans are more fad-dy. I can say this, because I am firmly in this category. I do not have a particular love of sports, but I do have a very strong love of food. I adore eating but abhor shopping, so to keep me in pants and the zero sum equation balanced, there’s really only one solution.

The reason that I’ve burned through so many different physical activities in the past two decades isn’t due to an ingrained love of sport but a short attention span. I find that I get bored with what I’m doing after about two years. I’ve gone through a plethora of fitness activities–swimming, aerobics, step, spinning, Pilates, kick boxing, salsa, Zumba—and am always ready to try the Next New Thing.

Umbrian women, with a few exceptions, generally concentrate on two activities: walking and “palestra”, and stick with it. I do enjoy walking, but I have come to find that walking for exercise and walking with very chatty Umbrian girlfriends do not mix. Yes, they are there ostensibly to stretch their legs, but they are mostly there to catch up on gossip and swap recipes. When I’m up for a friendly stroll, that’s cool. When I am trying to power walk off a plate of gnocchetti al Sagrantino, I’m hoofing it hard enough to pant. It is not conducive to a lot of chit chat.

Palestra, the Italian word for gym or fitness center, is the most common response when you ask an Umbrian woman what she does for exercise. This is an umbrella term covering anything from walking on the treadmill for an hour to doing a circuit on the weight machines to taking the classes offered, which can range from your standard step aerobics to yoga. Things Umbrian women rarely do in palestra, based upon my two decades of observation: 1. sweat; and 2. lift weights.

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How They Do It

They rarely do n. 1 for the same reason that I find I can’t power walk with them. The average female gym-goer here does 3 minutes of actual exercise for every 17 minutes of leaning up against a machine to chit chat. So in an hour or two of “training”, there is really only about 12 minutes of actual exercise going on. They rarely do n. 2 because in the gym, as in life, Umbrian women are well turned out. They wear matching (often ironed) active wear, they come in full hair and makeup, they often take a break to head back into the locker room to pull themselves together, and they tend to choose fitness “light”…the stuff that doesn’t muss and fuss.

This is how I go to the gym: I wear a baggy-ass pair of yoga pants that has lost its drawstring, so I have to roll the top over onto itself to keep them up. I wear a Michelle Shocked concert t-shirt from 1991 that has a rip on the collar and is yellow in the pits. I come with no makeup and generally dirty hair (I figure I’m going to shower afterwards, so why bother.) And when I’m there, I work. Hard. At the weights. Again, not because I am particularly athletic but because I am 1. busy and need to pack as much action into 45 minutes as I can; 2. the biggest tightwad on earth. If I’m paying an effing gym, I’m squeezing them for all they’re worth, and 3. I like to eat. Have I mentioned the eating thing?

When I’m done, my face is beet red. My hair is plastered to my temples and I have sweat dripping from my chin. Even if I were to have the propensity to chat, I would hardly have the breath to do it. I am not attractive at the gym. Not attractive at all.

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And Why…

There is a big difference in my experience between the motivations behind exercise for American and Umbrian women. Almost all the Umbrian women I know exercise exclusively for esthetic purposes. To wit, to be thin. Though most American women I know have an element to esthetics in their fitness motivation, I also know many adult women who exercise primarily for sport (marathon runners are thick on the ground), for strength (Crossfitters galore), for peace of mind (meditive movement), and for competition.

I think this may go back to something I’ve talked about before: the fact that most Umbrian women I know spend an enormous amount of time on domestic chores, cooking, and generally GM-ing their families. This doesn’t leave much for activities as self-indulgent as sport for the sake of, you know, fun. It’s mostly about keeping yourself looking good so your husband is less likely to stray. Or, so you are still marketable if he does.

American women tend to put less in their domestic gratification basket and more in their personal gratification basket. My American women friends spend a significantly less amount of time at the mop and ironing board, but read and blog, or train for cross-country bike races, or follow all the subplots in Game of Thrones, or pick up Spanish. This also circles back around to What They Do: if you are only exercising to keep in shape, you’re probably fine power walking or doing aerobics three times a week. If you are coming at it from the goal of sport, competition, or simply to pick up a new skill, you’re more likely to be attracted to trying something new and, at times, trendy.

Now, of course, I’ll need to come up with something interesting to say about women in Italy for May, since I blew my idea already this month. But that’s cool. I’ll give it some thought while sweating away at the gym.

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Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

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Italy Roundtable: The Colfiorito Marshlands

We continue the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a some sunflower seeds, and join in on the conversation.

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Mountains/Hills

In order to see birds it is necessary to become part of the silence. Robert Lynd

I am large. When I laugh, diners at neighboring tables look up. When I gesticulate, I take out all wine glasses and candles within a three foot range. When I cook, we are eating the leftovers for days. When I am happy or sad or angry, I’m all in; there are no shades of grey. I am often called by my Italian friends “un fuoco di paglia”–a fire fed with straw, quick to flare into bright, hot flames but just a quick to cool down, damaging nothing and leaving behind only traces of cool ash.

Perhaps because of this often oversized personality, I find I am drawn more and more to silence. I spend so much time cranking up the music, and revving the engine, and cracking my kneecaps on table legs, and swimming in—drowning in—rivers and rivers of words that sometimes what I crave is to turn down the volume for a few hours and be still. Be. Still.

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Luckily, Umbria is filled with silent places so I rarely have to go far to find a still moment. Recently I discovered a new quiet place to head to when life (myself included) just gets too raucous: the Colfiorito marshland.

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By far the smallest of Umbria’s seven regional parks, this postage stamp of a natural reserve is set in the rolling Colfiorito plateau above bustling Foligno in the valley below. The undulating Apennine plain was once covered in seven small lakes, but over the millenia most were drained by nature or man, leaving only one depression which continues to hold water all year round.

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This has become the Colfiorito marshland, a tiny basin of standing water teeming with migratory birds and wildlife which take cover in marsh’s thick reeds and acquatic vegetation. Depending upon the season, the spot becomes a faunistic pit stop for a number of wetland fowl, including majestic grey and purple herons, bitterns, little bitterns, mallards, and shovelers. If you’re able to sit still long enough, you may also be treated to a visit by the area’s mammal life—fox, boar, or deer–as well.

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My thirst for stillness over the past few years has led to an interest in birdwatching, which–along with a passion for opera and a craving for whole grains–is a sure sign that I have become either a fogie or a hipster, neither of which I find particularly heartening. But given that this turn of events has led a number of interesting new hobbies, I’m not going to lose much sleep over the larger meaning and just put on my Wayfarers, load up my iPod with some arias, throw some organic trail mix into my vintage courier bag, and go.

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I’d been thinking a lot about the Colfiorito marshland recently since my previous favorite-place-to-be-quiet-birdwatch-and-generally-hang-out, the Alviano nature reserve in the south of the region near Lake Corbara, was damaged this past fall due to severe flooding that hit much of central Italy. Volunteers have been working to clean it up in time for the spring migration, but for the time being my thirst for stillness must be sated elsewhere.

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And so I head up to the hills, winding along the serpentine Val di Chienti country highway to where the road skirts the wetland, past stands along the sides of the road hawking the local potatoes and lentils, lonely farmhouses, and a hell of a lot of cyclists. I pull off and head out on foot; the park has built a number of wooden walkways, pavilions, and bird blinds for passionate birders, though it’s nice just to take a quiet turn along the path which borders the marsh. I wander, taking frequent bench breaks to oversee the take-offs and landings, watch the sun set, and listen to the silence.

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And be still.

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Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.

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Italy Roundtable: A Drink for All Seasons

We are celebrating our second holiday season with the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, help yourself to some Christmas cookies, and join in on the conversation.

 

 

Drinking

If there’s one thing that I love, it’s reward for hard work.

If there’s one thing that I love even more, it’s reward for pretty much doing nothing at all.

Which is why one of my favourite liqueurs to make—and I make quite a number—is bay liqueur. Super simple and quick (unlike, for example, Nocino, which is a pain in the ass to make and takes roughly three years), bay liqueur is a crowd pleaser: easy on the palate, nice in the summer chilled (or, my favourite, on top of ice-cream) and excellent in the winter straight up or to spike an espresso. It comes out a pretty color, too, so present it in an elegant glass bottle with a bit of ribbon and you’ve got yourself a perfect hostess gift for the holidays.

Easy as pie. Actually, easier than pie.

Follow this monkey-proof recipe and watch the kudos pour in. It’s satisfying. Trust me.

Bay Liqueur: The Recipe. Annotated.

Okay, so the one trick to this recipe is that you must use FRESH bay leaves. I had no idea what fresh bay might look like (my previous experience with bay was  a small plastic jar of greyish, brittle leaves on my mother’s 1970’s spice rack, which I duly added to stews when following the recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook) until I moved into a house in the Italian countryside with an immense bay bush growing in the front yard. And I only put into focus what type of bush it was the first time I pruned it and the intoxicating perfume of fresh bay hung over the garden for hours. (Never smelled fresh bay? It’s the most delicious scent EVEH. I have a tick every time I pass through my front yard of picking off a leaf and rubbing it between my fingers and sniffing my hand for the next hour or two. People kind of avoid me on the street, but it’s worth it.)

The good stuff. Fresh from the bush.

So, if you don’t have fresh bay don’t even bother making this recipe. I don’t know what will happen if you try to use dried bay leaves, but I can guarantee you that it won’t be good.

You’ll need:

  • 96 bay leaves (This is why you had children. Go send them out to pick the bay right now.)
  • Zest of two lemons, cut into strips
  • 1 kg plus 300 g sugar (the evil processed granulated white kind)
  • 1.5 lt water (tap is fine)
  • 1 lt alcohol (You can get 95% alcohol at the grocery store in Italy—You can’t get ibuprofen, but you can get 95% alcohol. Go figure.—but I know that isn’t true everywhere. I have friends in the States who use vodka.)

Put 66 bay leaves, the lemon zest, and the alcohol in a glass bottle, close tightly, and let it sit for 24 hours.

The next day dissolve the sugar in the water, add the remaining 30 bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Let it simmer for a few minutes over a low flame until the syrup takes on the bay flavour. I usually simmer for about 15 minutes.

Let the syrup cool, add the alcohol mixture, and strain it through a coffee filter into glass bottles.Cork or close tightly to store. When ready to serve, filter once more into decorative bottles (if the bottles sit for more than a few weeks there will be a bit of cloudy sediment at the bottom, which is not that pretty but does nothing to the taste.).

The main ingredients and the finished product ready to be stored.

 

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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The Piazza: Be There and Be in the Square

We are in the second year of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, help yourself to some pumpkin seeds, and join in on the conversation.

The Piazza

Nothing is as purely and quintessentially Italian as the Piazza Experience (nothing, of course, except the Bureaucracy Experience), but as any connoisseur of sipping and/or dining and/or wooing and/or watching knows, most piazzas in Italy develop over the centuries a specific vibe and purpose. Here are five of my favorite squares in Umbria, each one for a very different reason.

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Assisi’s Piazza del Comune could hardly be considered a hidden gem; one of the most visited hilltowns in Umbria also has one of the most trafficked piazzas. But the vast majority of travellers pass through with their eyes on their maps trying to navigate their way between the Basilica of Saint Francis and the Basilica of Saint Claire (Little tip, folks: relax. Just follow the road straight and it will lead you directly from one to the other through the Piazza.) or on the storefronts trying to navigate their way to the nearest decent gelato (Little tip, folks: give up. The gelato in Assisi pretty much sucks. Head down to the valley and look for the Vecchia Gelateria in Santa Maria degli Angeli across the street from the big basilica. That’s what you want.).

But the gem of Assisi’s piazza is worth a pause and a ponder: the Roman Temple of Minerva, dating from the 1st century BC and flaunting a fabulous facade, the best  preserved in all of Italy.  The fluted Corinthian columns, travertine stairs, and covered portico topped by a triangular pediment is all you’ve come to expect from Roman architecture in a bite-size serving. Skip the interior, no longer a shrine dedicated to the goddess of virginity but now a Baroque Catholic chapel, and instead occupy one of the benches facing the temple across the piazza to catch your breath and admire this singular view more than 2000 years into the past.

Outside the Box

My love affair with Bevagna continues (for those of you who click through, yes, Bevagna is still in her junior year), and one of the many sites that warm the cockles of my heart in this pretty, cockle-warming town (not least the fact that it is flat) is her quirky Piazza Silvestri. In a land of square–or, at the most edgy, rectangular–piazzas, Bevagna’s irregular “square”, which has one side composed of stately straight lines, right angles, and dour unadorned Romanesque facades, and the facing half looking like someone in the 12th century was like, “Listen, guys, just toss up the church and town council however they’ll squeeze in and let’s call Miller time. Oh, and throw a little fountain in there. No, don’t worry about it being in the exact middle. Just wherever is fine.” is a refreshing departure.

Unfortunately, the piazza is surprisingly bereft of a decent cafè to sit and bask in the Romanesque and Gothic facades. So poke your nose into the churches and snap some souvenir pictures before you move on to…

Where You Are Going to Shoot Your Next Movie Set In Italy

Montefalco. Shockingly, I still haven’t gotten around to blogging much about Montefalco, which is strange because it’s probably one of my favorite—if not my favorite—places in Umbria. It’s the wine, of course. And the food, of course. But my ardor is largely based on its near perfect piazza—if by piazza you mean a place where one can pass the evening at an outside table either sipping a Spritz or eating perhaps the best meal of one’s life and/or trip and watch the sun turn the surrounding buildings a soft rose and the kids pop out of nowhere for a cute pick-up soccer match and the little old ladies stroll by arm in arm (quite probably gossiping like vipers) and the little old men stand in tight groups with sweaters draped over their shoulders gesticulating (quite possibly about the same things their wives are gossiping about), and you have this deep, wide, true feeling that you are going to remember this moment forever.

If you want to experience one of the most piazza-y piazzas of them all, head to Montefalco. And spend your time there jotting down the first draft of that film script that has been bouncing around in your head all these years. It’s going to end up being set here. You know it is.

Honorable Mentions:

Piazza with a View: Citerna. Strangely, though you get some amazing views from pretty much every hill town in Umbria very few offer a view from the main piazza. Tiny Citerna does, and some benches to enjoy it from. Good show.

People-watching: It’s a tie, and not a tie residents of either of these towns would be particularly happy with, given their long rivalry. The two principal cities in northern Umbria are Perugia and Foligno, and if you are hankering to observe the local fauna in its expensive plumage, either of these are a good choice. People in Foligno are nicer, though. But don’t tell the Perugians that I said that.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

 

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Italy Roundtable: Country Mouse, City Mouse

We are in the second year of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, pop a piece of Bazooka Joe in your mouth, and join in on the conversation.

Children

My children have recently decided that they want to relocate to America.

Now, before we waste a bunch of time and energy parsing the psychology behind this decision, or the economics behind this decision, or the sociology behind this decision, let me clarify that they regard the United States as the land of milk and honey based exclusively on the following:

  1. There is no school. (Or so they think. We always go during the holidays, so they have surmised that there must be no mandatory school in America as their cousins never seem to be attending one when we visit.).
  2. Bedtimes, discipline, and vegetables are all negotiable. (See above.).
  3. There are really cool flavors of chewing gum.

Now, when you are eight and eleven, these are more than sufficient reasons to make a big move. Come to think of it, I’ve known mature adults who have relocated based entirely on ephemera like weather or a promise of a job or a weekend fling, so I guess my kids are more rational than I give them credit for. That said, I posit that their life here in Italy is much richer and fuller and, ultimately, happier than what it would be if we were living in America.

Of course, this an impossible thesis to demonstrate with any amount of scientific credibility. I’m a big fan of chaos theory, sliding doors, and parallel universes…I realize that in a world where the flutter of a butterfly’s wings in Burkina Faso may influence the corn crop six months later in Iowa, there are simply too many variables to control when comparing a theoretical life in the US with a very real one in Italy, and a couple of theoretical kids in the US with the two very real nature and nurture cocktails that call me Mom here in Italy.

That said, there are a couple of really wonderful aspects to raising kids in the Italian countryside that I have a hard time imagining ever being able to replicate in an alternative life in the US, which would have almost certainly played out in an urban area. This is because though my children have been raised as country mice, and I am a city mouse. I live in the country now and have fallen in love with the rural lifestyle in many ways, but I remain a city mouse at heart. I would have never chosen this life path had I not had a farm essentially fall into my lap—believe me, I have days when I still wonder about the great karma wheel which dropped me here—and the circumstance of ending up with a farm to run in the US seems almost unthinkably improbable.

My country mouse sons will have a chance to pick up all the fun city mouse stuff that I so identify with in the future…the dynamism, the culture, the contact with all sorts of humans different from themselves. But in the meantime they are busy cultivating a foundation that I believe will be invaluable for them in the future, as mice or men, country or city.

A relationship with food

I have become quietly more and more messianic about food and farming with time. If rural Italy has taught me one thing, it’s the important—no, vital–connection between ourselves, our food, and our planet. Part of this is because Italy is such a food (as opposed to foodie) culture, part of this is because when you run a farm you inevitably become very well versed in agropolitics, and part of this is because the more I see of the world the more I value what I have in my own backyard. I have taken care to pass these lessons on to my sons (though, honestly, it has been part and parcel of living in Umbria). They have a very immediate relationship with the food they eat, the work that is involved in raising that food, and the difference between local, fresh food and imported, commercial food. This is such an important framework on which to build a more general philosophy of environmental sensibility, healthy nutrition, and cultural conservation and I feel fortunate that they’ve been raised in a place so conducive to developing these values.

Survival skills

Ok, I’m actually not a subscriber to the apocalyptic peak oil social disintegration scenario. Mostly because that just scares the bejesus out of me. I’d like to think that we are going to miraculously pull ourselves out of this tailspin of economic and social disfunction and, worse case scenario, end up with a world something like a Jane Austen novel: no fossil fuels but horses and crackling fires and strings of hares brought in the flagstoned kitchen by strapping young men.

And guess what. My kids can be just those men. They know how to do stuff. They know how to fix stuff. They know how to make stuff. All this because they have grown up on a farm in the country, where much time and effort each day is spent doing, fixing, and making stuff. They’re not very hip, I’ll admit. They are just starting to get interested in pop culture, video games, slang, and coolness in general. But if push comes to shove, the turtlenecked iPod-listening hipsters of Brooklyn are going to be pretty much screwed while my kids will be busy bringing home the bacon (after having raised, butchered, and cured it). Anyway, I’m cool enough for the three of us.

Genius loci

I have a visceral love for Chicago, the city that formed the backdrop to most of my first 20 years on this earth, but I don’t any real connection to a specific place there. My grandmother sold her big, rambling Victorian a few years back for a modern condo, soul-less but without a roof that needed replacing and radon in the basement. None of my other relatives live in houses that are part of my past. When I go back to the city, I feel both at home and a stranger. I have no roots there.

My kids are incredibly rooted here. I will be doing my best come their 19th year to kick them out of Italy for at least a period of higher education and career development, but they will always have that elusive yet centering sense of belonging to a place that I sometimes long for. Their home is Brigolante, just like their father, their grandfather, their great-grandfather, and at least five or six generations before him. In hard times, rough waters, job loss, break-ups, sickness, suffering, solitude…they can always come home again. Not many people in our roiling, boiling, mobile America can say that—I certainly can’t–and I suspect that it gives one’s wings just that little extra bit of lift knowing that there will always be a nest to come back to.

So my sons can continue to dream of the New World and the better life they envision there. But I’ve seen the grass on both sides of the fence, and for the moment it’s greener right here where we are.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

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Italy Roundtable: A Fit of Giggles

We are in the second year of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli (on temporary leave), art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have a popsicle, and join in on the conversation.

Fit

They say that there are two universal languages: music and laughter. I’ll buy the music argument, but in my experience laughter is a little trickier.

Nothing is harder to translate than humor. Sure, slapstick knows no boundaries (though the last person who found slapstick genuinely funny was my Greek uncle Nick in the early 1970s, but his English wasn’t so good—I think the only thing he knew how to say was “My English not so good”–so he spent his afternoons on the plastic-covered couch watching The Three Stooges and chain-smoking) but anything more sophisticated than Laurel and Hardy involves either a certain shared set of cultural references or linguistic subtleties of wordplay that are hard to shift from one culture to another without getting lost in the translation, both figuratively and literally.

There have been a couple of milemarkers measuring my advancing sense of assimilation (or integration. or adaptation. depends.) into Italian culture, including my shift in comfort foods, frustration tolerance, and parenting…but perhaps the most rewarding has been the increasing frequency of “getting it” and, on the flip-side, getting “got”. Which, as it turns out, tends to be one of the biggest factors in a general sense of well-being. Laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, and the inability to get a laugh or join in on one is of the loneliest places we social beings—especially born wisecrackers like me—can find ourselves.

I’ll admit I have a tough sense of humor. Laced with ironic pop-culture references and word play, with a firm foundation of sarcasm, and forever teetering precariously on that razor-fine edge between irreverent and inappropriate, it can perhaps be best summed up as follows:

 

For all of those reasons, or, perhaps, any one of those reasons, the first few years that I lived in Italy folks just didn’t get me. My self-depreciating cultural referencing were taken as name-dropping, my sarcasm as meanness, and my irreverence as disrespect. I spent a lot of time mumbling, “I’m funnier in English,” as my witty one-liners inevitably landed like a big brick in the middle of the dinner party repartee.

Just as mortifyingly, I was often the one dimwit in the group who didn’t get the joke. Italians also dose their humor heavily with word play, which often presumed a fluency and vocabulary I simply didn’t possess. They love ironic cultural referencing, which is tough if you haven’t grown up here and don’t have a vast mental repository of ‘70s pop songs and cartoons, and rely heavily on regional stereotypes and stock characters (the carabiniere is to the Italian what the Pollack and the Blonde was to the American, back when we used to tell Pollack and Blonde jokes), which were all new cast members to me.

But perhaps more galling was the lightly veiled social satire and criticism that weaves its way through most Italian conversation—and some of its best comic television and cinema–when political figures from the 1960s are pulled out of the hat along with the scandals for which they are remembered, government corruption and consumer fraud taken raw, sauteed with a bit of sweet and sour sauce, and served back up hot, fresh, and strangely palatable, bureaucratic ineptitude recounted with the comic timing and flair of true masters of the art, which was miles beyond my reach.

I longed to be part of these lightening exchanges, not only because it would mean that I had finally acquired the linguistic and cultural knowledge which I so coveted, but because I would be able to do what the Italians often do to survive: use humor as a lightening rod to diffuse the frustration and anger that so often accompanies the energy and time-consuming navigation of the daily life in Italy.

And then, almost without my realizing it, something clicked. I started cracking people up…not as often as I do in my mother-tongue, but often enough that I started to feel like me again. And, even better, I started chortling at others, as well. I had just enough context under my belt that I didn’t have to ask for an explanation at every burst of laughter. Just every other burst of laughter. And then, maybe every third or fourth. And now, miraculously, I am often right there in the thick of it, tossing out sardonic puns and bitingly witty social criticism and wiping the tears of mirth from my eyes.

Speaking the universal, or not so universal, language of laughter.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments! 

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Italy Roundtable: All Shook Up–Reliving the Earthquake

This is the 13th installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some lemon bars, and join in on the conversation.

The Earthquake

There are some experiences in life which inevitably unite humans in a strange, heterogeneous brotherhood. Childbirth (especially painful). The extraction of wisdom teeth (especially painful). War (no painless version there). And natural disaster.

Two earthquakes shook the ground in Emilia Romagna at the end of May, killing 26, injuring hundreds, leaving around 16,000 temporarily homeless (most are holed up in tent cities and public buildings), and causing billions of euros of damage, numbers which indicate.both property damage and damage to the economy in one of Italy’s most wealthiest regions. A leader in the food, manufacturing, biochemical, and automotive industries, Emilia Romagna’s various centers of production were effectively brought to their knees as factories and warehouses collapsed and many of those remaining standing were deemed too unstable for employees to enter.

It seems strange that one of Italy’s most developed regions would be caught so offguard, but Emilia Romagna was never considered a region at particular seismic risk—their last major earthquake was about five centuries ago—unlike other regions of Italy, where the ground shakes on a more-or-less regular basis. Umbria, my adopted home for the past two decades, is one of the areas in this unstable boot where minor earthquakes are felt frequently. And it was the citizens of this region, 300 kilometers south of the epicenter, which I found glued to television screens and newspaper pages for the past three weeks, reliving the terror and powerlessness of waking to your bed shaking, your walls crumbling, and your children calling for you in the dark.

Umbria had her own devastating earthquake in 1997, which killed 10 (one a friend) and left thousands sleeping in tents and trailers. The damage amounted to less economically than what the Emilia Romagna earthquake will leave in its wake (Umbria’s economy is significantly smaller), but the damage to historic monuments and irreplaceable artistic treasures—including some of the frescoes inside the Basilica of Saint Francis–was enormous. But most heartbreaking, and what I hope will not be repeated over the next decade (to be realistic) of rebuilding in Emilia Romagna, was the damage to the social fabric in so many small hilltown communities.

The historic centers of Umbria had been emptying out for decades, as modern, more user-friendly suburbs popped up in the valleys…close to workplaces and transportation, full of public green spaces and parks for kids, offering the shops and services that are often absent in the old centers. With the earthquake, the few remaining families and elderly who had held out in the town centers moved to safe shelter outside…and many simply never moved back. The earthquake in Umbria was not so much a natural disaster than a social one, as communities unravelled and have no way of building themselves back up. These centers are full of empty houses, itinerant renters, and—in the lucky tourist centers—B&Bs. Assisi, once a teeming center of thousands, now holds less than a thousand…on winter nights it can seem a ghost town.

An excellent example of this is Nocera Umbra, a pretty little stone town in the Appennine foothills that was once a bustling hub. Almost the entire historic center was devastated by the earthquake in 1997 and most was sealed off as the long wait for funds for rebuilding began. Now, 15 years on, most of the center is still empty…homes and stores either not yet restored or restored but standing empty. Most of those who once lived in the center live in drab, prefab housing containers at the foot of otherwise lovely, rolling hills. The whole area has a forlorn, soul-less look about it and leaves me heartsick every time I visit.

While many Umbrians followed the news and exclaimed over the collapsing houses and endless tent cities, I was mourning a quieter, less dramatic disaster. The National Guard, the Red Cross, the volunteers, the politicians, the media…thousands have swept onto the scene and are seeing to the immediate needs of the citizens. But of the long-term damage to the social fabric of their communities? This is the real damage, these are the real costs.

Want to give a hand to the folks in Emilia Romagna? Take a look here and at the practical tips and suggestions from Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica.

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Italy Roundtable: Happy Anniversary to Us!

This is the anniversary installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) This month we celebrated by adding a bunch of chairs to the table and inviting bloggers to join in on the conversation, picking one of the topics we’ve tackled over the past twelve months.

Anniversary

Remember when Fred Flinstone would get chased through the house by Dino and the same roughly-hewn stone armchair, tv set, and grandfather clock would flash by in an eternally-repeating background loop until Dino would finally jump him and despite having hoofed it for at least long enough to have covered several city blocks, Fred would be prone on his living room floor only about a foot from where he started?

Well, some years feel like that.

And then there are other years. Those years where you look back over your shoulder to where you were just twelve months before and you realize that so much road has passed beneath your feet that you barely recognize that place, that person, and that life. Those are the precious years.

This past year has been one of my precious years. The earth has made a single revolution around the sun and during this same time my existence has gone through a revolution of sorts, as well. Like all revolutions, my personal uprising has left its share of scorched earth and burnt bridges, but this is a small price to pay for the newly conquered lands which have opened up to me, with horizons that stretch wider than I could have ever imagined just a year ago, and peopled by friends and colleagues who challenge me, inspire me, encourage me, and make me laugh until I snort.

Among these, I feel unbelievably fortunate to count the ladies of the Italy Blogging Roundtable: Gloria, who was one of the driving forces behind my decision to start blogging over two years ago; Jessica, whose interview of Lonely Planet writer Alex Leviton on the Eye on Italy podcast led me to co-author an iPhone travel app; Melanie, who passed me my very first gig writing for a printed travel guide (which led to me very quickly concluding that writing for printed travel guides—heretofore my Holy Grail–actually kind of sucked and I needed to take my eggs out of that basket); Alexandra, who is articulate and savvy and rigorous and whose tiny doppelganger sits on the corner of my desk and silently raises one critical eyebrow whenever I plow through a piece of lazy writing. And I sigh, and delete it, and work harder.

All of these are people I met online (though half of the Roundtable I have had the pleasure of also meeting in person), which reminds of a time not so long ago—last year, I think–when I was convinced that “online relationships” were somehow more ephemeral and superficial than “real relationships”, a sign of our unraveling social structure and just one more step towards the implosion of modern humankind. A mere year later I realize how wrong I was, as I have formed so many online connections—both professional and personal, and often a bit of both—over the past twelve months which have enriched my life enormously and strengthened my sense of connection, not weakened it.

Each time we’ve opened up the Italy Blogging Roundtable to outside bloggers, I’ve realized just how many people I’ve met online through writing and blogging. So many of the contributors are people whose writing I read with pleasure and with whom I often have a rich correspondence. Last month we extended an invitation to bloggers to participate in May’s Roundtable by writing about one of the eleven topics the five of us have touched on over the past year, and we had a number of wonderful pieces (you can see all of them in Alexandra’s post here). I especially loved Linda from Travel the Write Way’s poignant account of Why I Write about Italy, Diana from A Certain Simplicity’s freeform poem on The Elements, and master racconteur Kate from Driving Like a Maniac’s two contributions: Why I Write about Italy and Gifts. A huge thank you to everyone who participated and a huge thank you to the ladies of the Roundtable…same time, different place, next year!

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

 

 

 

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Italy Roundtable: An Invitation

It’s hard to believe, but next month we’ll celebrate our first anniversary of the Italy Roundtable. Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, Jessica and I have enjoyed tackling a new topic each month, and we’ve especially enjoyed hearing from readers. In fact, we were so pleased with how our last invitation went for bloggers to join us at the Roundtable that we thought we’d extend another! This month, not only is the Italy Roundtable topic INVITATIONS, we’re inviting anyone who wants to participate to blog about one of the past year’s Roundtable topics. Our invitation details are at the bottom of this post.

Invitation

Enter This Deserted House

But please walk softly as you do.
Frogs dwell here and crickets too.

Ain’t no ceiling, only blue.
Jays dwell here and sunbeams too.

Floors are flowers – take a few
Ferns grow here and daisies too.

Swoosh, whoosh – too-whit, too-woo
Bats dwell here and hoot owls too.

Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee, hoo-hoooo,
Gnomes dwell here and goblins too.

And my child, I thought you knew
I dwell here… and so do you

–Shel Silverstein

These photos were taken in the abandoned village of Umbriano, a walled fortress town completely uninhabited since the 1950s.  Founded in 890 to defend the the abbey of San Pietro in Valle (which sits on the slopes on the opposite side of the Nera River Valley) from advancing Saracens, popular tradition holds it to be the first city of the ancient Umbri civilization. In truth it lies across the river from the Umbrian territory, in the land once ruled by the Sabines. But it’s a good story, and a fascinating ghost town to explore. Park at the hamlet of Macenano along the SS 209 and hike the picturesque trail to Umbriano.

A very special thanks to Armando Lanoce, who organized our excursion and took these lovely pictures!

As we’re preparing for our one-year anniversary of the formation of the Italy Roundtable, we’d like you to pull up a chair (so to speak)! We invite you to choose one of the topics we’ve blogged about in the past year and write a post about it. We’ll highlight some of our favorites in our own Roundtable posts next month. Here’s a list of the topics we’ve covered so far – and remember, you can be as creative with your interpretation of it as you like! (We sure are…)

May 2011: Why I Write About Italy
June 2011: Driving
July 2011: Favorite Art in Italy
August 2011: vacation month, just like the Italians!
September 2011: School
October 2011: Autumn
November 2011: Comfort Food
December 2011: Gifts
January 2012: Crafts
February 2012: The Elements
March 2012: Roots
April 2012: Invitations (the post you just read!)

Link to our five blogs in your post (ArtTrav, At Home in Tuscany, Brigolante, Italofile, & WhyGo Italy), and be sure to send one of us a link to your blog post or tag it with #ItalyRoundtable on Twitter so we can find it. Your deadline is May 1. Have fun and we look forward to reading your contributions!

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.

 

 

 

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Italy Roundtable: Zen and the Art of Making Gnocchi

This is the tenth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some caramel corn, and join in on the conversation.

Roots

I just woke up one day and knew it was time. I mean, you can only live in fear for so long. You can only avoid your demons for so long. You can only exist in a state of denial, shame, and self-imposed existential isolation for so long. At a certain point, it’s time to stand up and take back your life.

It was time to make gnocchi.

Yes, okay, I know. I’ve been living in Italy for almost twenty years and I’ve never had the courage to make gnocchi. There are a few dishes I’ve never made in all my years here for the simple reason that I have access to a number of elderly country ladies who are masters at dishes like torta al testo, torta di formaggio, and tagliatelle. So, when I have a hankering, it’s just plain easier to ask one of the zie to whip them up for me than go to the trouble of making it myself. Plus, it totally makes their day (Week. Month. Year.). I figure that when they start dying off on me, I’ll go to the trouble of learning their secrets myself.

This is not the case with gnocchi. I don’t know any older Umbrian women who are particularly talented at gnocchi, which is not a traditional dish in Umbria. Sure, they can throw a bowl of them together under duress, but it’s clearly not their piatto forte. Which is probably the very same reason that I’ve been avoiding making them for all these years. I mean, if Zia Anna—who can almost single-handedly butcher an entire pig and cook up its entrails into something enticing in her 300-year-old wood burning oven in the farmyard out back—can’t make a decent plate of gnocchi, it must be incredibly tricky, right?

But then a couple of things happened. One is that my friend and professional chef Jennifer started shaming me almost daily about it. It was bordering on a bullying-like situation. My self-esteem was beginning to suffer. And then–to rub salt in the wound–Jennifer showed wine blogger Mary Cressler how to make gnocchi in roughly 37 seconds, and Mary went home to make a perfect pot of gnocchi on her first go with complete nonchalance. Nonchalance, I say. And Mary had been in Umbria for all of five days. I’ve been here for 19 years.

It was humiliating.

As a final catalyst, there was the looming monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, with the appalling theme of “roots”. Whoever came up with that idea is clearly a raving idiot (yes, it was me). But then the lightbulb clicked on. Roots! Potatoes are root vegetables! And potatoes are the main ingredient of gnocchi! I would make gnocchi!

Let the record show that when I said those exact same words to Jennifer over the phone, it was met with a disconcerting silence. The life of a genious is a lonely one, my friends.

So gnocchi it was. I was stoked. Ready. Yet potato-less.

Yes, potato-less. You’d think that living on a farm would guarantee a virtual endless supply of basic foodstuffs like eggs, potatoes, and grappa…but we had finished the potatoes from last year and the spring spuds aren’t ready yet. So, I called Jennifer back to ask what kind of potatoes I should buy from the grocery store.

The words grocery store were met with a disconcerting silence.

Which is why I found myself driving around the Umbrian countryside in search of a farm truck hawking locally grown potatoes. Because if my first go at gnocchi was going to crash and burn, it wasn’t going to be because I had the wrong damn potatoes. Luckily, I came upon a truck pretty quickly and the guy there had bagged me up a couple of potatoes when I mentioned I was making gnocchi with them. At which point he snatched the bag out of my hands and dumped them back in bin with a look like I was the biggest cretin who had ever pulled over next to his pick-up. “Why didn’t you say so? You don’t need the Colfiorito reds, then. You’ll be wanting the Avezzano browns. They’re grown in the sandy soil along the river.” Ah. I nodded wisely. He went on to discuss the merits of making gnocchi with potatoes from Avezzano for several minutes. Other clients chimed in. Advice and warnings were given.  Pointers. Tips. Trouble-shooting solutions. None of which were particularly encouraging.

I got back home assembled the rest of the ingredients, according to what Jennifer had told me over the phone:

  • Four to six potatoes. I’m not even going to try to tell you what kind. Ask your farm truck guy.
  • An egg, slightly beaten with a fork.
  • Four to five cups of flour. Have five ready just in case.
  • A small handful of grated parmesan cheese.
  • Salt. (I forgot to put the salt in and they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the salt thing.)

And then I took about 20 minutes to decide on what music I wanted to listen to while I cooked. Because my priorities are straight.

I washed the potatoes and put them in a pot of salted water, brought it to a boil, and then lowered the heat to a simmer and, in theory, let the potatoes cook until fork-tender. What really happened was that I got distracted by this singularly hilarious blog post by my friend Michelle, which pulled me down the rabbit hole of capes, Borsellinos, and cigars until I suddenly realized that I had probably overboiled the potatoes. As it turns out, they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the overboiling thing.

I drained and peeled the potatoes (while roughly still the temperature of the surface of the sun) and then went to pick my sons up from school. I wanted to involve them in the gnocchi-making process, as it involves a) the food mill (big fun); b) mixing dough by hand (bigger fun); and c) rolling out snakes and cutting them into pieces (playdoh-level fun). And, of course, if my first go at gnocchi was going to crash and burn, I could blame them.

When we all got home, we put the cooled potatoes through the mill, then made a well with about three cups of the flour and added the potatoes, beaten egg, and cheese. My sons took turns mixing and mashing it all together, gradually adding more flour until the dough wasn’t sticky. My gut feeling is that we worked the dough a little too much (My turn now! No, let me knead it now!) but as it turns out, they came out fi…oh, wait. I won’t spoil the ending for you. But don’t sweat the kneading thing.

The boys broke off chunks of dough to roll into snakes, which they then cut into the classic little pillow-shaped squares. I kind of gave them free reign at this point, which risulted in a hodge-podge of sizes, shapes, and scored vs. unscored gnocchi on our final tray. But we’re less about form and more about function at our table.

It was time for the reckoning. I cooked the gnocchi in two batches in a large pot of salted, boiling water so they wouldn’t stick together (they only take a couple of minutes to rise to the surface after you dump them in, so it’s easy to keep the first batch warm while you quickly cook the second) and dressed them with our own pesto, which we make in summer and freeze to use the rest of the year.  They looked pretty good…they had retained their shape (a promising sign that they wouldn’t be too mushy) but also swelled just slightly while cooking (a promising sign that they wouldn’t be too tough).

And it was underwhelming. I mean, not the gnocchi. The gnocchi were fabulous. Perfect. Despite a strong probability that we used the wrong potatoes, despite forgetting the salt, despite slightly overboiling the potatoes, kneading the dough to death, and having made no two the same size.

Which just goes to show you. Sometimes the secret to success is not sweating the small stuff.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.