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: 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.

  

 

 

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Italy Roundtable: Earth–47, Morto che Parla

This is the ninth 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 Twizzlers, and join in on the conversation.

The Elements

Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust

They say if you really want insight into a country and its culture you have to spend some time in its kitchens and bedrooms. Well, I’ve visited innumerable kitchens in my years living in Italy (and far fewer—ahem–bedrooms) and though you can certainly glean a trove of useful information in those places, I think to really put your finger on the pulse of this nation you need to go where the pulse beats no more: the cemetery.

It may seem odd, but three of my favorite haunts (sorry) near Assisi are its cemeteries. Here’s why:

The Architecture

Italy’s cemeteries are lovely, in that way that old European monumental cemeteries often are. Generally, Italians of any import were buried underneath churches for centuries, until a Napoleanic edict at the beginning of the 19th century ordered the closing of crypts and subsequent burials to be done in cemeteries outside of the town walls. Thus, in most cemeteries in Italy, it’s difficult to find graves that date any earlier than the 1800s.

That said, a stroll through an Italian cemetery is an excellent mini-course on the progression of architectural styles over the past two hundred years. From the faux-Romanesque and the neo-Gothic, past the elaborate rinascimentale stonework, to the linear modern post-War styles: in just a few steps you can get a taste of what architectural schools have blown in and out of fashion over the past few generations.

Many of the more elaborate family mausoleums are also richly adorned with sculpture and bass relief work–in many cases of excellent quality—or flourishes of elaborate wrought iron or stonework. Noble, serene seraphim and angels, finely detailed reliefs of saints or busts of the deceased, delicate ironwork on gates and grilles, the odd mosaic or majolica tile…when you walk the stone and pebble paths in these campi santi you get as much eye-candy as a trip down an Italian town’s main street.

In this, Assisi’s pretty cemetery–just a kilometer from town outside the Porta San Giacomo city gate near the Basilica of Saint Francis—is no exception. An easy, shady walk from the historic center (some of the most beautiful views over the surrounding hills are from this cypress-lined lane and the cemetery itself), it is one of my favorite places to take a leisurely stroll on a beautiful day. The pink Assisi stone, the various stone and bronze statues of Saint Francis, the artisan iron- and stone-work: all the trademark details of the town itself, in miniature.

The Living

Though the beautiful mausoleums are certainly one of the reasons I have always been drawn to the Assisi’s main cemetery, it is her tiny, hidden country graveyards that I love the most for the sense of family and community that is so strong there.

In centuries past, almost each mountain parish had its own cemetery set back behind the small, stone country church. In the early 1900s, many of the rural cemeteries closer to town were closed, the deceased moved to the main Assisi cemetery, and the plots abandoned (or, in the case of our own parish at Costa di Trex, converted into surprisingly fertile vegetable patches). Tucked here and there in the more remote hills around Assisi, however, there are still the last hold-outs against this “urbanization” of the dead, and in Santa Maria di Lignano, a tiny group of farmhouses dominated by an incongruously large stone church about 15 minutes from Assisi in the Appennine foothills, there is still a miniscule, walled country cemetery.

This isn't Santa Maria di Lignano (currently under a meter of snow), but another country cemetery in Umbria.

It is here I see the soul of Assisi. The names on the stones that repeat over and over, underlining how generations live out their lives in this patch of land. The carefully tended graves, which are the work of the country women who make weekly visits to freshen flowers, polish marble, and—let’s be honest—catch up on the local gossip. They tenderly touch the portraits attached to the graves and quietly greet their loved ones, keeping them up to date on family news, how the crops are getting along, and their own aches and pains.

I especially love visiting this cemetery on the Festa dei Morti, when all the plots have been tidied up for this special day of remembrance and this usually quiet place is buzzing with visits not only of old women, but their men, children, and grandchildren. The cemetery becomes a momentary piazza as greetings are exchanged by distant relatives and neighbors who have moved away–down to the valley close to businesses and schools–and don’t make it back up to these remote hills very often. The elderly reminisce and the younger boast, children are admonished to “say hello to Nonno” as their hands are placed on headstones, and the cycle of life-death-life becomes complete.

The Dead

I am, as I have mentioned many times in my writing, a non-believer. I have cobbled together a  patchwork of ethics and principles to give me some sort of bearing in life—more or less the same Judeo-Christian model with which most of the Western world has been raised—but my feelings about what may or may not happen to us after death run more along the lines of molecular physics than resurrection.

That said, there is one thing I do believe: life is a gift. A gift. Every sunrise we witness, every breath we draw, every moment of joy or desperation, abundance or hunger, confusion or serenity is a miracle brew of science and serendipity and just dumb luck. Unfortunately, at times life gives me such a shaking down that I lose sight of this immense, inconceivable (The Princess Bride just popped into your brain, didn’t it?) gift I have been given, and that’s when I know it’s time for me to head to the English War Cemetary in the valley below Assisi.

More than 900 allied soldiers were laid to rest there in late 1944, most of whom were killed in the battles between the Germans and the rallying Allied troops, who had taken Rome in June and were continuing their advance north through this region. The precisely trimmed lawn and disciplined rows of identical headstones give this graveyard an unmistakable Anglosaxon look, and from here visitors get a breathtaking views of Assisi on the hillside above.

But I don’t come for the lawn or the views. I come for my secret place: the bench at the back of the cemetary, the one under the big oak tree. In my bleakest moments, I make for that bench, winding my way through the rows of markers, each one with a name, an age, and a country. James, 19, United Kingdom. George, 21, Australia. Thomas, 24, New Zealand. Jacob (with a Star of David), 20, Canada. Peter, 28, South Africa. The names go on and on, calling me, mocking me, as I make to my bench. “You think you’ve got problems, lady? I didn’t live long enough to have your problems. I didn’t have time to fall in and out of love, lose sleep over my kids, worry about paying the bills, or health problems or aging parents or sagging buttocks. You think your life is hard? Well sit yourself down on that bench over there and look out over all of us and consider the alternative.” And I do. And I wail for them, and for myself, and for whatever curveball pitch I struck out on that has driven me here to my secret place.

And then I shake it off, and stand up again, and walk back out of the elaborate cemetery gates. Back to life.

 

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: Crafts in Umbria

This is the eighth 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 charcuterie, and join in on the conversation.

Crafts

There is an invasion afoot in Umbria, there’s no denying it. And it ain’t a stealth invasion, either. It’s a full-on, in-your-face, landscape-be-damned advance of the Big Box Stores.

I wish I could say that I have taken on a nom de guerre, gone underground, and organized a grassroots uprising against this disheartening trend which has turned much of the vista along Umbria’s main artery highway 75 into something akin to the blight in the far western suburbs of Chicago, but the fact of the matter is that I have found myself a customer more often than I would like to admit. Call it the convenience, the selection, the heavy weight of this current economic insecurity, but sometimes it’s hard to ignore the siren song of the one-stop-discount-shop, even though you know in your heart of hearts that you are just hammering one more nail in the coffin of a local economy which has survived for centuries—if not millenia—on the small and medium-sized family business.

I was pleased that the Roundtable topic chosen for this month was “crafts”, so I could talk up some of the amazing artisan wares—none of which are to be found in sprawling, low-overhead superstores–which come out of this region and bring my moral credit bottom line back into the black.

Food

If you can only stuff one thing in your suitcase to bring back from a trip to Umbria, it’s gotta be something to eat. Unfortunately, given the array of things that—tragically–can’t be taken overseas (I have managed to smuggle a salame or two over the border, but that was in the heady pre-9/11 days), you will have to strike the amazing local charcuterie, cheese, and produce from your list. There does remain, however, the incredible olive oil (Umbria produces some of the highest quality and most sought after oils on the market) and wine, truffles, honey, and heirloom legumes. Nothing brings back fond memories of your trip months later than being able to recreate some of the same dishes that were such an epiphany when you first ate them here.

Budget buy: Pick up some Perugina Baci chocolates at a local grocery store. A fun, easy gift for folks back home.

Ceramics

Ceramics are everywhere in Umbria, but the vast majority of them all come from the same town: Deruta. The name has become synonymous with high-quality hand-painted majolica over the past roughly seven centuries of artisan production, and if you’re looking for cheap factory-spat tchotchkes you will be sorely disappointed. The heartfelt ceramic tradition is still very much alive in the dozens of workshops large and small that line the highway and the winding roads up to the top of the hilltown itself and you can find anything from majolica tops for table seating twelve or contemporary ceramic sculpture running in the thousands of euros, to tiny painted beads made into unique earrings or pendants. Gubbio has its own unique history of ceramic production, the apex of which was the famed lusterware of Mastro Giorgio in the 1500s, and you can still find a flourishing tradition of majolica workshops in the center of town.

Tight fit: If you need to pick up something for your neighbor who has been watering your plants while you’re away, but are down to your last ounce of baggage weight, slip in a painted ceramic wine cork (or two). The fit perfectly in the toes of packed shoes.

Textiles

Cloth
I have waxed poetic about Umbria’s traditional damask and jacquard hand-loomed at the Brozzetti workshop in Perugia repeatedly, so I won’t bore you with it again. Or, on second thought…hands down one of my favorite places to visit in Umbria, both for the dramatic workshop (housed in a 13th century church in the center of Perugia) and for the breathtaking cloth Marta and her assistants are still weaving by hand today. Ok, I’m done. If you can’t make it to Brozzetti, excellent quality cloth is also to be had in specialty boutiques across Umbria, principally in Montefalco and Spello.

Lace
In a strange historic quirk, a bit of Ireland lives on Isola Maggiore (the largest of Lake Trasimeno’s islands) in Pizzo di Irlanda—Irish lace. At the beginning of the 1900s a local noblewoman asked a few Irish maids in her service to teach their lace-making craft to local women, and generations later you can still find these delicate crocheted pieces in shops on the island and in towns around the lake shore. One of the towns near the Lake, Panicale, has its own rich tradition of embroidered tulle –known as Ars Panicalensis—which has been producing intricate flower, medallion, bird of paradise, and baroque scroll patterns for convents and bridal veils for over a century.

Punto Francescano
I love to walk the backstreets in Assisi, where sooner or later you inevitably come across a Signora sitting in the afternoon shade busy stitching a motif of griffins, birds, or stylized flora on a piece of rough, unbleached linen in bright blue, brick red, or soft brown silk. Ubiquitous in the souvenir shops around town, this traditional embroidery—a mix of cross and Holbein stitches—was first produced from around the 1200s through the 1500s, when it seems to have become a lost art. Revived again by local women artisans in the 1800s, there is nary a home in the entire greater Assisi area which does not boast at least one hand-embroidered runner. I have two.

Hard core: If you are passionate about textile history, there are a number of small but excellent museums in Umbria, including Tela Umbra in Città di Castello, the Museo del Tulle in Panicale, and the textile collection in Palazzo Sorbello in Perugia.

Glass

If you think that only Venice does glass—well, you may be right. That said, in the late 13th century glass artisans migrated from the famed Venetian glass-making island of Murano to Piegaro in Umbria and continued making exquisite pieces in their new outpost. Piegaro is now home to one of Europe’s largest industrial glass factories, but more compellingly a glass museum located in the restored historic glass factory. For a look into a glass museum that continues to actively produce, stop in the fabulous Studio Moretti Caselli, a family atelier which has been producing hand-painted stained glass windows for cathedrals and monuments world-wide since its founding in 1860.  Now in the fifth generation, the studio is still an active workshop and offers guided visits and a small gift-shop (just in case you don’t have room in your luggage for an entire window).

Really cool: Ok, if you want to know how to be the absolutely positively hippest cat in town, get yourself a pair of bespoke eyeglass frames from Ozona in Perugia. It doesn’t get any craftier than this.

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: The Blogging Gift

This is the seventh 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 shook things up a bit by adding a bunch of chairs to the table and inviting bloggers to join in on the conversation. Please have some Christmas cookies and join in!


Gifts

I’m a pretty pragmatic person (with, apparently, a knack for alliteration). For years people—friends with whom I corresponded, initially, and then folks I got to know over at Slow Travel where I first began publishing pieces online—would say, “You’re such an entertaining storyteller. You really should try your hand at writing.” And I would pooh-pooh them, because I had a business to run and sons to raise and the whole creative writing thing seemed frivolous and slightly self-indulgent.

Then, almost two years ago now, my webmaster super-hero guy Marcel (who, as a side note, is the husband of fellow Roundtable blogger Gloria…Italy is a small country) said, “Listen, you should really put a blog on your website. It will help traffic.” Oh. Well, then. I mean, if it’s for business….

Thus began an adventure which has, in many respects, changed my life. Aside from the wholly frivolous and self-indulgent pleasure in putting words down on paper, especially words that make me cackle to myself in front of my computer, blogging has been a conduit to forming an amazing array of new friendships, professional contacts, and kindred spirits here in Italy and beyond. When I think of how much my personal and professional lives have expanded past the borders of this tiny region of Umbria to encompass Italophiles from across the Bel Paese–and the world over–I must acknowledge that this crazy new-fangled blogging thang has been, oddly, one of the biggest gifts I have ever received.

Case in point: the amazing posts submitted over the past few weeks as part of this month’s open call to bloggers who were willing to jot down their thoughts on December’s theme of “gifts” with an Italy angle. I spent a fabulous evening reading through them all and was at turns amused and moved. It was almost impossible to whittle it down to my five favorites (This is why I could never judge X Factor. Just in case I’ve been short-listed by their casting department.), but whittle I did and here are my five favorites (in, by the way, no particular order):

Once More, With Feeling

Valerie from 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree traces the path of integration into her village’s life and soul by way of gifts given and received. It’s a common theme among expat bloggers in Italy (touched on by Sicily SceneBellavventura, and An Italophile this month, as well), but Valerie’s take went right to my heart and reminded me again what a gift friendship and acceptance can be when you are a stranger in a strange land.

Taking the Words Out of My Mouth

Huh. Just when you think you know–at least by name–all the bloggers in Italy, here comes out of left field an excellent blog written by a Swiss woman now living in Tuscany. (Oh. Maybe that’s why I’ve never run across her before. I don’t do Tuscany.) Barbs aside, her post about the light and dark sides of living here absolutely spoke to me (I had to laugh about her experience of sudden popularity once she was living in Italy and had an available guest room. Yep. Been there.), as did her discovery of how sometimes it takes a move abroad for us to appreciate our homeland. For a wonderful flip-side to that story, take a look at Alessandra’s charming story of her mad escape from Umbria, which led to her ultimate love affair with it.

What’s Really Important

In 1997, Umbria was struck by a traumatic earthquake. I didn’t lose anything, but many, many people saw their lives literally reduced to rubble in a matter of seconds. That has been a lesson for me many times in the years since, and Kate’s tear-jerker of a post at Little Paradiso underlined once again of how fleeting life can be, and how easy it is to forget what is really important. I dare you to read her post without getting misty-eyed. Go ahead, try. And then bust out your credit card and send a couple of bucks to those folks down there during this holiday season.

Wait, what?

I love crazy-ass shit like No Onions Extra Pickles’ What to Get the Italian Futuris Who Has Everything.  I mean, it’s pure, unadulterated, highbrow silliness. And that’s just fine with me. This blogger is whip-smart, sarcastic as the dickens, and apparently knows her way around Italy. Possibly my favorite submission. In fact, I think I’m going to go read it once more, just for the fun of it.

One Word.

Cookies. Enough said.

There were a couple of posts that deserve a quick mention, as well. I loved the Puglia gift basket, and the great shot of heirloom produce from Le Marche. Supporting local artisans is one of my things, so I was thrilled to read about some wonderful workshops in Florence from Cross Pollinate. Oh, and of course Life…Italian Style. Because she tweeted it at 11:59. And that’s the kind of pluck I admire.

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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An Invite to Bloggers: A “Gift” from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Many of you know that, since May of 2011, five of us have been writing a monthly post on a given topic and we call it the Italy Blogging Roundtable. Each month we decide the topic in advance and the only rule is that it has to be connected to Italy; the posts are posted on the same day and cross-linked so that readers can enjoy our diverse experiences. You can see posts by participating writers here:  Alexandra from Arttrav, Gloria from At Home in Italy, Jessica from WhyGo Italy, Melanie from Italofile, and me.

Normally we don’t tell anyone the topic in advance, but our post for December 14th is an exception. Why? Because we want you to participate. The topic is “gifts” (or “presents”). It’s inspired by the holiday season, but does not have to be limited to “Christmas gifts”. For this month, we’re inviting bloggers to expand upon the topic of “gifts”–somehow connected to Italy–on their blogs.

Here is how to participate:

  • From December 1st to the 13th, post on your blog about “gifts” (and Italy).
  • Include in your post a reference to the fact that this is part of the Italy Blogging Roundtable’s invitation to post on this topic.
  • Include, at the end of your post, links to the Roundtable blogs: Arttrav, At Home in Tuscany, WhyGo Italy, Italofile, and Brigolante.
  • Let us know by tweeting it with the hashtag #Italyroundtable. If by chance you don’t use Twitter, email it to one of us (my email is info@brigolante.com). We’ll read them all, and retweet some, too!
  • On December 14, 2011 we’ll post on the same topic and include links to our favorite posts by the larger community. We’re aiming to link to five posts submitted by others, but that depends on how many people participate!

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Italy Roundtable: Eating in the Comfort Zone

This is the sixth 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 rice pudding, and join in on the conversation.

Comfort Food

If you’re very lucky, at least once during your years here on this earth, your life will fall apart.

If you are truly fortunate, you will wake up one day and find you no longer recognize yourself. And in that instant of existential prosopagnosia, everything around you will shift—infinitesimally, yet just enough to somehow strain the molecular structure of your universe until it disintegrates into a shower of glittering, lethal shards. Your universe will land in a million fragments at your feet and the more you panic and struggle to gather them up and fit them back together into the shape of the universe you once thought was eternal, the more you are left cut and bleeding until you finally realize that the only way to save yourself is to walk away forever.

And this moment–the moment that you walk away, that you close your eyes and jump, that you let go of one trapeze, trusting that you will manage to grasp the next–is both the most terrifying and the most empowering moment you will ever live. If you’re very lucky.

I am living this moment. In my inconsequential reality, my universe has shattered. I have taken a giant step off the path, and this shift in my perspective has obscured the landmarks I once used to as guides and brought into view a completely different set of reference points. It has been a period of one of the steepest learning curves of my life, of reflection and revolution, of destruction and creation, of waging battle and making peace. The dust is settling. I am doing a bit of emotional triage. I am evening out my shifted ballast. I am becoming the person I want to be.

I am eating a lot of mashed potatoes.

Yes, because there have been many lessons learned during this time of excruciating, exhilarating change. I’ve learned that if someone falls into your lap for no apparent reason, go with it. Because, more often than not, there’s a reason. I’ve learned that though you’ve pooh-poohed the notion of finding wisdom from virtual strangers online, sometimes that’s exactly where you will find the wisdom you need. I’ve learned that sometimes the hard part is making a decision, and everything else falls into place once you have. I’ve learned that there is no shame in looking someone in the eye and admitting that you are having a hard time and need help. I’ve learned that we are generally more powerful, more courageous, and more creative than we think we are. And I’ve learned that when you are going through a total life overhaul, a system reboot, a closet clean, a throwing out of baby with bathwater, a part of you still needs to be soothed by the familiar.

In my case, this craving for some tiny part of my life to remain within the safe confines of the known manifested itself in two ways. First, I actually exhumed some cassette tapes of music from my college days. Cassette tapes, people. Suddenly, my house was full of the sounds of Jonie Mitchell and early REM. I found long-forgotten Radiohead albums and mix tapes with Indigo Girls, Smokey Robinson, and Blues Traveller (I have eclectic taste). I had some scratchy Aretha and quirky Lyle and angry Alice in Chains. And, oddly, mixed in with these I had some of my favorite Francesco de Gregori, Vinicio Capossela, Fabrizio de André, and, of course, my beloved Bandabardò.

Second, I started dreaming of—and preparing—dishes I hadn’t even thought about in years. Creamy soups, scalloped potatoes, pot pies, and banana bread galore. I pushed aside my new millenium low fat ethnic whole vegetarian locavore cookbooks and fell in love with the Rombauers and their schoolmarmish, slightly scolding elderly Aunt Irma and Marion tone all over again. Our dinner table starting looking like the set of Leave it to Beaver, as I put meatloaf and tuna casserole and baked beans and pudding on the table. And, oddly, mixed in with these I found myself putting down penne in bianco, minestrina, pappa al pomodoro, and pasta e fagioli like there was no tomorrow.

It was a bit of an epiphany for me to discover what should have been self-evident: after spending almost half my life in Italy, my comfort zone has expanded to include elements of this country, as well. I had somehow presumed that when I fell down and scraped my knee, I would head to the mother who would make me chicken-noodle soup and sing me “Hush, Little Baby” but I found that more often I would head to the mother who would make me pane e olio and sing me “Ninna-nanna”. And that, in itself is comforting. Because perhaps I’ll get lucky again at some point in my life, and find myself starting from tabula rasa…and for a little TLC I won’t have to go far. I’ll have my music, I’ll have my food. I’ll have myself.

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.