I’ll admit it. I tend to wax lyrical about the Valnerina. The dramatic valley–where the crystalline Nera river runs under steep rocky slopes, upon which tiny creche-like stone villages perch precariously–lends itself to waxing. The scenery in this largely unsung regional park is wild and rugged, stunningly beautiful yet foreboding. The weather can go from sunny skies to black clouds in a matter of minutes, and the isolated villages and claustrophobia-inducing sheer rock walls remind you that millenia ago the inhabitants of these inpenetrable craggy peaks held out against conversion to Christianity long after the rest of the region.
A spring storm in the Valnerina near Meggiano, Umbria, Italy
I was waxing thus to an Umbrian friend awhile ago—a fellow passionate aficionado of the Valnerina–and telling him how I love the juxtaposition of the bucolic scenery with an unsettling underlying darkness (a David Lynch-esque feel, if you will), and he nodded knowingly and said, “And, of course, there’s that business about the dragon.” I nearly spit out my drink. What?!? What dragon?
It turns out–as so often happens–I am practically the last person in Umbria to find out about the dragon. Everyone knows the story of Mauro and his son Felice, two Syrian pilgrims who arrived in the Naarte region (from the ancient Nare or Naarco River, from which the modern Nera derives) roughly six centuries after Christ’s death to proselytize to the recalcitrant locals. As fate would have it, they were having a bit of trouble with a nearby dragon and, in what must have seemed like a serendipitous means of killing two birds with one stone, called on Mauro to prove his faith by taking care of business. No one knew precisely where the beast lived (his toxic breath kept them from getting too close), so Mauro set off at dawn with a reed walking stick and mason’s hammer to search the monster out. When he reached the general area where the locals had indicated the dragon might be found, the holy man stuck his stick in the ground for safe-keeping while he set about building a stone hut for shelter. The stick immediately sent out roots and shoots, and Mauro took it as a sign that God was covering his back in this dragon thing. He returned to his masonry work and after a short time caught the unmistakeable sulfuric odor of dragon-breath…if you’ve ever woken beside someone who dined on aglio, olio, peperoncino the night before, you know what I’m talking about.
San Mauro (and/or San Felice) slays the dragon from the facade of the church of San Felice di Narco
Though he feared his end was near, Mauro took his mason’s hammer and somehow managed to skirt the flames, avoid the sulfur, and overcome the height difference (accounts speak of a good 27 meters of dragon) to bonk the monster on the head. While the unconscious beast lay motionless on the ground, Mauro used his hammer to detach large pieces of rock from the cliff above, which continued falling on the dragon until it died (apparently of blood loss, as the river ran with dragon’s blood for three days and three nights). This begs the question as to why Mauro didn’t simply finish the job with the hammer rather than go to all the trouble to detach stones from the cliffside, but the ways of saints and screenwriters of horror movies are a mystery to mere mortals. Regardless, the locals needed no further proof of Mauro’s holiness and his God’s bad ass-edness, so they promptly converted. Mauro and Felice lived out their lives in prayer and service (Felice died in 535 AD and Mauro in 555 AD) in the Valnerina.
The lovely Romanesque San Felice di Narco
Some of the details of the story remain unclear. There may or may not have been an angel involved. The dragon may have actually been slain (dragons never seem to be killed, only slain) by Felice. There is a nurse who pops up now and then and seems to have died of fever with Felice. But the legend holds, and the area still bears testimony of it on the facade of the lovely Romansque Church of San Felice di Narco near Castel San Felice. If you look carefully at the freize under the intricately carved rose window, you will see a detail of depicting the slaying of the dragon (not to scale, please note) and inside the crypt the sarcophagus of the Saints Mauro and Felice. The nearby town of Sant’Anatolia and Church of Sant’Anatolia also pay homage to the two saints by adopting their surname.
Sant'Anatolia di Narco in the Valnerina
I was talking about this dragon story to another local friend in that cynical, sardonic tone that we hipsters use when discussing Self Help Gurus, the Easter Bunny, and Compassionate Conservativism, when he said, “Yes, and there’s that dragon bone in Città di Castello, of course.” More drink spitting ensued.
I discovered that the Valnerina wasn’t the only area in Umbria known for harboring fire-breathing winged reptiles. In the pretty upper Tiber Valley, a rolling countryside in the north of the region bordering on Tuscany, yet another dragon was slain (see?) by a travelling Christian missionary, Crescenziano (a Roman patrician known as Crescentino in Latin texts). Having given up his worldly goods to the poor, Crescenziano arrived in the area on horseback and was immediately put to task by the local pagans in dispatching their troublesome dragon. He killed the beast, converted the inhabitants, and was promptly martyred by the Romans for his trouble.
The iconography of San Crescenziano almost always depicts him on horseback in the act of killing the dragon.
Traces of this legend appear in a small bass-relief in the tiny country church of Pieve de’ Saddi, near Pietralunga (built on the spot where Crescenziano was martyred), and the coat of arms of Urbino’s cathedral—both of which depict Crescenziano on horseback impaling the dragon with a long spear. More convincing than this, however, is the 2.6 meter dragon rib bone, long conserved in the church of Pieve de’ Saddi until being moved to the cathedral in Città di Castello, where it is still stored, and a second rib bone, measuring 2.2 meters, kept in another tiny country church near Pieve de’ Saddi, San Pietro di Carpini. Scientists, skeptics, and spoilsports speak of the vast expanse of water which covered the area during the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (That’s roughly 23-5 million years ago. I googled it.) which was home to vast numbers of water and land animals, some quite large, of which numerous remains have been found by paleontologists over the years.
The church at Pieve de' Saddi marking the spot where San Crescenziano was martyred.
Academics, historians, and spoilsports also speak of the symbolism and allegory attached to the role of the dragon in myths. Both Umbrian legends originate from areas where there is a waterway—once interspersed with standing pools of fetid water harboring disease– and the work of draining and reclaiming the land for agriculture and ridding the area of disease may be symbolized by the slaying of a toxic, deadly monster. Man’s triumph over the wildness of nature, so to speak. The dragon was also historically used to symbolize paganism, and the Christian slaying the beast protrays this innovative religion’s advance.
Leonardo da Vinci's famous rendering of a dragon battling a lion.
Whale bones. Malaria. Swamp reclamation. Religious wars. Sure, it all fits, but what fun is that? I’ll take the fairy tale version, and continue to wax lyrical about the Valnerina (and all of Umbria) and her dragon.
This edition of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable is a hodgepodge, a mishmash, a mélange, a potpourri–a “Grab Bag”, if you will. Take a look at what my fellow bloggers including travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel (on leave this month), professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, the hilariously irreverent Kate Bailward and me throw into the pot. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some assorted chocolates, and join in on the conversation.
We opened up the topic this month for pretty much anything—I think most of us are limping over the academic year finish line and the creative energy necessary to come up with a compelling topic was just too much to ask—thus shooting ourselves in the foot. Because it turns out that nothing is more paralysing than unlimited choice, as anyone who has ever spent a Saturday evening at Blockbuster Video knows.
As I was ruminating over the topic buffet stretched before me, a recent conversation I had with a fellow expat about fluency came to mind. We had been talking about when, exactly, a person could be considered fluent in a second language; we agreed that the better we spoke Italian, the more we realized how far from fluent we were. And it came to me: perhaps one of the biggest steps towards fluency can be measured not by knowing what a word or phrase means, but by knowing what it doesn’t mean.
Italian is, like many languages, vastly nuanced and often the contextual meaning of a word or phrase and the literal meaning of that word or phrase diverge dramatically. These intricate subtleties are hard to master, and when you reach that magical sweet spot of not only understanding them but employing them to shade your own conversation, it’s a small personal triumph. Here are a few of my favorites, many of which took me years to grasp. Maybe with these helpful explanations, your learning curve will be steeper than mine.
1. una ventina di giorni
What it should mean: around twenty days
What it really means: I have no frigging idea when the spare part I need to repair your deep freezer will arrive-slash-that rash will clear up-slash-your tax returns will be ready for you to come in and sign but it seems either impolite or impolitic to admit it, so I’m just going to throw a random bookmark sort of number out there to appease you, which can either turn out to be tomorrow or turn out to be the 27th of November, 2017. So don’t start calling me on day 19, because that will perplex me. Just assume a zen acceptance of the unknown. And have a glass of wine. Wine helps.
“When will my cell service be active?”
“Una ventina di giorni.”
“Ok, I’ll go have some wine.”
2. una bella signora
What it should mean: a beautiful woman
What it really means: the first Pavlovian qualifier for any human being with two x chromosomes, regardless of any other accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes, or misdemeanors which they may have racked up over their lifetime. It can also be tacked on to the end of the list of accomplishments, achievements, talents, crimes, or misdemeanors, casting them into the shadow of the overpowering importance of being una bella signora.
“Jane Goodall, una bella signora, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues.” Or “Jane Goodall is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. Considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, she is the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and has worked extensively on conservation and animal welfare issues. She is also una bella signora.”
3. quanto basta
What it should mean: just enough
What it really means: If you find yourself staring at the page in the cookbook where 90% of the measurements fo ingredients listed in the pollo alla cacciatora recipe have, instead of metric quantities, q.b. next to them and you are scratching your head and asking yourself, “Well, how much is just enough?”and, “If I knew how much was just enough, I wouldn’t need a frigging recipe, would I?”, give up. You are obviously not genetically predisposed to the eyeball method of cooking employed with nonchalance and mastery by most Italian cooks and if you shadow them in the kitchen trying to quantify the handfuls and pinches and Nutella jars of ingredients they are tossing into the pot, you will be good-naturedly mocked. Just get yourself invited to dinner to eat the pollo and stick to bringing brownies (the good ones from your mom’s 1973 Better Homes and Gardens) for dessert. Italians love brownies.
My neighbor’s recipe for crostata:
Flour q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, you know, cicca. Enough to make a mound.”)
Eggs q.b. (“How many is that?” “Oh, it depends on how big they are. 2. Or 4. Sometimes I put in 5.”)
Sugar q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, not too much. You don’t want it too sweet.”)
Oil q.b. (“How much is that?” “Oh, enough to make a dough.”)
4. Ci vediamo.
What it should mean: See you soon!
What it really means: This is not in any way an allusion to a future meeting, so don’t be whipping out your daytimer to pencil in a chit-chat. This is merely a non-committal, amicable way to part company, and does not denote a particular desire for the declarer to either see or not see you ever again. This neutral nicety is completely devoid of promise, so when weeks pass and no invite for a drink or dinner comes, do not take it personally. On the other hand, a “Prendiamo un caffè!” may indicate a nano-micro-kind-of-committment, so if fates and the winds decree that your paths serendipitously cross over the next twelve months you may actually share an espresso. Or you may not. It could go either way.
“Sì, ci vediamo!”
“Who was that?”
“I have no idea.”
What it should mean: a casual dinner among friends at which a simple pot of pasta is served
What it really means: A fabulously prepared meal of at least five courses which rivals what you served at your own wedding, during which the hostess spends the entire evening apologizing because there’s not enough food and explaining that everyone should eat up now, because there are only three desserts. And gelato. Because she makes her husband leave in the middle of the meal to pick up some gelato. And for fruit there are just strawberries. But you can have them with whipped cream or sugar and lemon juice. Unless you want them with balsamic vinegar. Do you want them with balsamic vinegar? Because they’re out of balsamic vinegar but they can just call her mother who lives next door and she probably has some, or wait, her great-aunt always has balsamic vinegar. Who wants strawberries with balsamic vinegar? Because as soon as the husband comes back with the gelato he will be sent out again for balsamic vinegar.
“Listen, Saturday night you want to come around for dinner. Just some friends, nothing special. A spaghettata. There will just be around 30 of us. I started cooking ten days ago. No big deal, really.”
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.
Despite having lived in Umbria for the past 20 years, I remain fundamentally American. Thus, I evoke the father of my country when I declare, “I cannot tell a lie.”
I mean, of course, that I can tell a lie, and often do. It’s just that the truth is often much funnier.
And this is the truth: Spoleto is on my black list. Now, this is probably not the best way to go about winning one of the spots in the Spoleto56 Blogger Contest, which is what I am hoping to do so I can spend the duration of their historic and world famous cultural Festival dei 2 Mondi the first two weeks of July hob-nobbing with artists and writers, eating canapés, and getting culturefied. But the nit I have to pick with Spoleto is a large part of the reason behind why I am so hell-bent on participating in a blog trip which takes me to a destination exactly 42 minutes from my house.
The reason is this: I believe in second chances.
Spoleto blew her first chance with me because I got two unfair traffic fines there. Don’t give me that look. One I could have forgiven…but two?!? The first one I received (in the mail) was for an infraction on a date on which both I and my car were in Florence for a conference. I had a receipt from the hotel and my conference tickets and everything, but when I called the police station I was told the only way I could prove I was in Florence the whole time would be by turning over the tape from the hotel CCTV parking lot security camera. Which seemed like a lot of trouble for €87. And if there’s one thing I learned from a couple of seasons of watching CSI, it’s that I don’t have the cleavage for forensic investigatory work.
So, Spoleto was already on thin ice with me when I got a SECOND fine in the mail. To be fair, this one may have been valid, but who the hell remembers where they may or may not have parked in November of 2011?!? What I do know is that the original €76 was now €167.11 because I never paid the fine. What I also know is that I never received the original fine in the mail. I know this because when I do receive a fine in the mail, I spend at least three days stomping and railing and generally making life miserable for everyone around me, which means that I tend to remember when they arrive. And then, on the fourth day, I pay them.
Now, I don’t know about your town, but in my town €87 plus €167.11 is serious coin, and the insult of injustice added to the injury of more than €200 consumed in the fires of bureaucracy led me to solemnly declare, “Spoleto, honey, you are dead to me.”
This break was not painless. I love Umbria and I love writing about Umbria. I have spent most of the past ten years blogging about this region, publishing articles about this region, editing guidebooks about this region, and making an app about this region. If singing the praises of Umbria were an operetta, I would be headlining the Festival dei 2 Mondi. I also happen to like Spoleto. It is home to perhaps my favorite church in Umbria, has one of the prettiest hikes around, hosts one of the region’s most prestigious festivals, and shakes it up with a little contemporary art in this land of stately frescoes and Byzantine icons. I felt the loss.
Which brings me around to why I am enthusiastically throwing my hat into the ring for the Spoleto56 Blogger Contest. It’s not so much because I dig the party vibe that Umbrian towns get when hosting a festival, or because I’ve only made it to the Festival dei 2 Mondi a handful of times over the years and would love to hunker down for the duration, or because it’s always so stimulating to hang with creative and gifted people, or because Umbria and her towns never fail to delight me with new discoveries, or because one of my favorite Italian bloggers evah will be there and I want a little of her lucky mojo to rub off on me…though all of this is true.
It’s because I’ve made mistakes in my life. Big ones. I’ve epically blown it a couple of times along the way. We all have. But I’ve been lucky enough to have been given second chances, and from those second chances new, amazing, unimagined paths taking me in completely unexpected directions have opened up.
This is why I hope to make it to Spoleto at the end of June. I want to give Spoleto the second chance it deserves, and see where the city and its people take us.
But I’m leaving my car at home.
If you think Spoleto deserves a second chance, help me out by tweeting this post using #e20umbria (yeah, the hashtag kind of sucks…) and come and like it on the contest FB page. The karma wheel will come around to you.
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.
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. I recently went ot Skycube and found some great tips for weight loss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read the posts, leave comments, share them with your friends – and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
I have something to tell you. Yes, you.
Either you’ve been reading my ramblings here and there online for the last decade, or you’ve stuck with me on this blog for the past year and a half, or you just happened to stumble upon this post today. Regardless, you’ve taken a minute out of your busy day to stop by, so you are the first person with whom I want to share my Big News.
I have a friend who plays the lottery with religious fervor and scientific methodology. He’s been playing for years, and every once in awhile he’ll actually manage to cash in (though, truth be told, I suspect he doesn’t even come close to recouping his losses from the past decades). He is perennially (and quite amusingly) ticked off when he reads about the blessed souls whom fortune has kissed each week. “Look at this!” he’ll snap the newspaper in front of my eyes, “Can you believe this joker won!?! Says here it’s the first time he even played the damned thing. Says here he let his little boy choose the numbers. Says here he forgot he even had the ticket in his wallet until he was searching around for some coupon.” And he’ll storm off, muttering to himself about probability and systems and beginner’s luck.
The thing is, he’s not upset that someone else has won…he’s upset that someone else undeserving has won. Someone who just plays for fun, with no foresight or mathematics or gravitas. A dabbler.
Getting a paid gig blogging, especially travel blogging, has roughly the same odds as winning the lottery. It just doesn’t happen that often, and when it does it’s because there is a writer out there who has played the game with religious fervor and scientific methodology. These writers are certainly talented, but–more importantly—they are also born networkers, motivated, and tirelessly dedicated to working the system by massaging their Google rankings and updating their WordPress plugins and attending seminars on the latest in SEO.
And then there are bloggers like me. Writers who write for the sheer frivolous joy of putting words down on a page. I couldn’t find my Google ranking if it bit me on the butt, don’t bother with plugins unless my webmaster makes an executive decision and puts them in (which often leads to a panicked phone call to long-suffering Marcel, who explains that everything is fine and I just need to keep on doing what I’ve been doing), and am so indifferent to SEO that I don’t even put tags on my posts. I am a dabbler who, if the universe were a completely fair place, would never win the lottery. But guess what.
Yep, that’s right. You are now reading the words typed by a paid travel writer and blogger (I may bill you…I haven’t decided yet.). Not only did I win the lottery, I won it twice over by picking up two incredibly fun and challenging new gigs in a way so effortless and seemingly happenstance that it still feels very surreal—and a little tenuous. This is how it happened:
This past spring a number of Italy travel apps for the iPhone were published through Sutro Media, many of which were authored by people I knew. I thought to myself, “Huh. That would be fun…to write a travel app for Umbria.” A short while later, I learned that the formidable travel writer Alex Leviton (who wrote the Umbria guide for Lonely Planet) was writing the Umbria app for them, so I went on with my life. Apparently, destiny had other plans, as I ended up meeting Alex through a mutual friend not a month later and we immediately hit it off personally and professionally…to the point that Alex said, “You know, I could really use a writing partner locally in Umbria to make this app rock.” (She actually said that. She’s from California. They say rock and totes a lot.) “Are you interested in coming on the project?”
And so, just like that, I found myself hired to co-author of the Umbria Slow: Food, Culture & Travel iPhone app, which does, indeed, rock. Totes.
This past spring I was invited on a weekend blogging trip promoting Umbria called “Umbria on the Blog”. It was fabulous fun, and I ended up meeting other bloggers from around Italy and a few local movers and shakers in the social media marketing world. I thought to myself, “Huh. That would be fun…to write for an official blog about Umbria and be able to meet with bloggers in and out of Umbria more often.” But the weekend ended (a huge success), and I went on with my life. Apparently, destiny had other plans, as the brains behind the Umbria on the Blog project contacted me soon after to tell me about an ongoing blogging project in the works and ask if I would be interested in writing and curating their English language content.
And so, just like that, I found myself hired to blog for Umbria on the Blog in English, which has the amazingly wonderful side benefit of being able to collaborate with others just as passionate about Umbria as I am (but with much better contacts. These are people who can actually come up with press passes.).
So, what does this mean for you, dear reader? Nothing, really. (Except, of course, you now have just one more excuse to fill your glass with Sagrantino and toast to the randomness of life.) If you like the tips and suggestions I’ve been throwing out here on my blog, you may want to consider downloading the Umbria Slow app, which includes lots of the same stuff but in a much less wordy way and with groovy Google mapping so you actually know where the hell you are going. If you like the “slice of Umbria” posts here, check in at Umbria on the Blog where you’ll find more of those style posts (I post twice a week, plus there’s a photo blog and a bits and bobs section called “What I’m Loving”. There are lot of bells and whistles over at UOTB, but it’s still me behind the curtain.).
I will still be blogging here. This is my home, where I come and put on my saggy-ass sweatpants and sprawl on the couch and let it all hang out. I can do stuff here that I can’t over at the office (like swear, name specific businesses, and bitch about my in-laws). That said, I may be here a little less over the next few months while I try to get a system going with all this new writing-for-pay business going down.
In short, this post wasn’t about tooting my horn (okay, maybe just a little tooting) or trying to get you to buy my app or read my posts (okay, maybe just a little promoting) or any of that. It’s about thanking you—yes, you—for reading my words for the first time or, perhaps, for the 100th time (There are 134 posts on this blog! Yikes. No wonder my house is such a mess.). If it hadn’t been for you, I would have quit this writing pipe dream ages ago and my life would be that much less rich and full right now. So, thanks.
Now, go read my stuff.
This is the fourth 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 Little Debbie pecan pies, and join in on the conversation.
Back to School
Draw near, draw near, stranger, as I spin you an epic yarn. A timeless story of love and betrayal, of struggle and suspense, of triumph and failure. There are heroes, young friend, and villains galore. I will tell of innocents and schemers, of noble causes and fiendish designs, of the loftiest and the basest of human desires. Draw near, wanderer, and listen to my tale of fate, destiny, and—ultimately—a moral to it all.
Hear me as I sing the tragedy of How My Children Transferred Elementary Schools.
No, wait. Don’t get up. It’s a great story, I swear. It really does have all that stuff in it. Listen, your beer’s on me if you’ll just sit here for ten minutes and hear me out. Ten minutes. Seven. Seven minutes. Ok? Ok.
The school year began here in Umbria this week, and as I lightheartedly dropped my sons off to their second and fifth grade classrooms, I couldn’t help remembering this same time last year. My older son was beginning the fourth grade, and we were both anxious. He had had a particularly tough third year; his favorite teacher had retired after the second grade and he and the new teacher had locked horns for the subsequent nine straight months. I had gone back and forth about simply switching him to the other local elementary school (in Italy you get the same teacher for all five grades of primary school, so if you don’t see eye to eye you are kind of stuck), but had decided to continue where we were (and enroll my younger son in first grade there, as well).
It quickly became clear that something had to give. My nine year old was desperately unhappy, thus we were all unhappy. He started asking me if he could change schools and maybe take this as a chance to apply to some Atlanta private schools, which gave me pause, as his best friends were all classmates. He was obviously at the end of his rope. So, come January, I took both my sons (the first grader wanted to be with his brother) out of their elementary school and enrolled them in the other public school about half a kilometer away. Thus began a golden period in their lives, and a private hell in mine.
Fine, private hell might be overkill (though I did promise you drama), but let’s just say I was completely blindsided by the social ripples caused by what was, in my mind, a relatively innocuous (and, I may add, completely none-of-anyone’s-business-personal) decision. You see, it slips my mind sometimes that I live in a small town. It’s easy to forget, because Assisi gives the impression—what with the crush of millions of visitors a year—of being a teeming metropolis. But the fact is that only around 1,000 people actually live in the historic center and–of those–999 are all up in your business.
I also tend to underestimate the dark underbelly of small town dynamics because I went to hands down the most awesome, lefty, fun, accepting, smart high school in North America. I realize the correlation may be fuzzy, but from what I understand from friends (and bootleg copies of Glee), the average American high school educates you not only in algebra and creative writing, but also in how to navigate cliques, handle gossip, recognize the mean girls, and generally hone those delicate antennae indipensible in managing the subtleties of social interaction. Because–despite all the romanticizing and idealizing–life in a small town is pretty akin to life in high school, except the median age is higher and the chaos which can be wrought more damaging.
The weeks following the school switch (I should probably add that I had been my sons’ PTA president for six years, so admittedly we weren’t the most low-profile family in the school)–during which a whisper campaign was initiated, teachers I had known for years publicly denounced my decision, families with whom we had travelled and socialized since our children were three years old stopped speaking to me, friends quickly separated themselves into wheat and chaff categories, and acquaintances whom I hardly knew by sight stopped me on the street to chat conspiratorially in the hopes I might let something slip unpolitic enough to stoke the flames of debate at the local cafè—were perhaps the steepest learning curve of my adult life. My kids went back to school, and, in a way, so did I. However, while they stopped shedding tears over their lessons, I began shedding them over mine.
It’s the Economy, Stupid.
Nothing gets people’s dander up like the specter of job loss, an aspect I had naively underestimated when making my decision. Assisi has two elementary schools in the historic center, which is simply mathematically untenable given the size (and age) of the population. This is a known but unspoken truth; every spring when enrollment begins the two schools fight tooth and nail for students, because if they don’t reach a minimum class size teachers are transferred or let go. It’s that simple. So, when students leave—especially students of somewhat outspoken, public, influential families—the school (and their teachers) immediately circle the wagons, and their first priority becomes damage control, spin, and desperate number crunching. Perhaps not the noblest of instincts, but human, nonetheless.
No One is Disinterested.
If there’s one thing you learn very quickly when you move to a small town, it’s that you can’t pick your nose in the car. Because everyone knows you. Even people you don’t know know you. They know you, they know your significant other, they know your boss, they know your cleaning lady, they know your postman. Not only do they know them, they are probably related to them. They may not like them, they may barely speak to them, but if the universal currency of information is on the block, you can be sure that there will be some exchange…and often the heftiest price paid is by you. And in a social crucible where knowledge is power, where gossips wield stunning power, and where—to be honest—very little goes down of particular interest on any given day, even the most banal of events (who had coffee with whom, whose car was seen parked where, whose kids were taken out of one school and enrolled in its rival) acquire the whiff of scandal.
Change is a Big Effing Deal.
The City is all about change. About progress. About evolution. About new horizons and frontiers. The Province is all about tradition. About history. About roots. About stability and comfort-zones. And I like that about the Province; after a life of constant movement and adaptation, I like the sense of past and belonging to a larger social tapestry. I especially like that for my children. That said, just as the dynamism of cosmopolitan life can veer into superficial self-absorption, so can the solidity of country life veer into stodgy mistrust and fear of change. Career transitions are whispered about as if they were some sign of failure, rather than simply that of a wish to try something new. Separations are akin to a death in the family, rather than an opportunity for a new beginning. New hairstyles and hobbies are viewed with raised eyebrows and pursed lips. And a change in schools—even to one that is just a few blocks away, even when the classmates are all friends from preschool, and even when the teachers are familiar faces from around town–is viewed as a traumatic, life-altering folly. (Just for the record, my sons are thrilled with their new school and have been from day one. I should have trusted my intuition and transferred them earlier. Another lesson learned.)
I’ve Been Damned Lucky.
The most positive lesson taken from all of this has also been the hardest to internalize: gratitude. I have learned to be grateful that I can both enjoy the advantages of living in a small community, yet see beyond it to a bigger picture. I can get past defensiveness and finger-pointing when I feel censured, and take a hard look at myself and the mistakes I’ve made. I have a life that is so stimulating and joyful that I don’t need to pay much attention to the minutiae of my neighbors’ days to fill my own. The deep roots I’ve put down have favored, not stunted, my growth and I see the challenge in change, not just the apprehension. Though I smile and wave and chit-chat and trip my social butterfly way across the piazza, I know who my true friends really are…in Tucson, Bali, Piemonte, California, Castiglione del Lago, Chicago, and—a precious few—here in Assisi, I have the extraordinary fortune to have a crowd watching my back, supporting without second guessing, and caring without judging.
And I suppose that if there is a moral to this story, it lies here. You can’t appreciate the light until you see the darkness, the loyalty until you feel abandoned, the serenity until you get lost in the chaos. The microcosm of small town society puts this into sharper relief, perhaps, but these lessons are all around us regardless of where we are. Life is full of teachable moments, but we have to show up to class with our minds open, pencils sharp, and pride tucked away in our lockers. Because life is also a tenacious bitch of a professor, and each time you flunk her class you can be sure that you’ll keep finding that same topic covered on the next final exam until you finally—finally—get the answer right.
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.
If there’s one thing my mother taught me, it’s this: If you don’t have something nice to say, say nothing at all. (Second only to: Always wear clean underwear in case you’re in an accident. A life lesson slightly less useful but still memorable.). Which is why there are certain areas in Umbria that I don’t talk about much; I just don’t have very many nice things to say.
I admit that Lake Trasimeno and environs has been, for many years, one of those areas for me. Not that the Trasimeno basin isn’t lovely…it certainly is, in a bucolic, softly rolling hills, postcard-y sort of way. I am a more dramatic, craggy, sturm-und-drang school sort of gal (see my lauding ad nauseam of the Valnerina), however, and the resort town atmosphere around the lake feels somehow staged.
It took a recent impromptu fishing excursion recommended by friends from San Diego Sportfishing to rethink my blanket dismissal of Trasimeno. (Let me preface this by saying that I do not like fishing. Patience is—ahem—not a virtue for which I am particularly known, and if you want to see an otherwise competent, mature, and self-possessed woman morph instantly into a squealing mess of a girl, have her unhook a writhing carp from a fishing line.) But it was a cloudless day in May and perfect weather to be on a boat, so I went. And discovered that underneath the beaches and nightclubs and boutiques ringing the lake, there are real people who have lived and worked in symbiosis with its waters for generations.
The traditional fishing boat is flat-bottomed and wooden.
We met up with our fishman/guide/capitano (Who sized us up rather skeptically. He was apparently familiar with the morphing issue.) at the Trasimeno Fishing Cooperative in the unassuming town of San Feliciano and immediately set out in a traditional flat-bottomed wooden boat.
Our pensive captain. He knows what he's dealing with here.
After motoring to the nearby fishing grounds, our captain cut the engine and stood in the center of the boat rowing in the traditional style–criss-crossing the handles while alternating pulls on the right and left oars–and somehow managed to keep a straight course. Like the Venetian “voga” rowing style, it looks damned easy until you try it and find yourself going nowhere fast.
The traditional rowing style looks easy. It ain't.
We cut slowly through the placid waters, casting long nets and hauling in the cone-shaped traps for eel, pike, tench, and carp. (And crayfish from the Southern US, who somehow inexplicably have ended up in the Bel Paese.)
Hauling in a cone-shaped trap.
While we fished we chatted with the friendly-yet-taciturn captain (have you ever met a chatty fisherman?) as he told his story of following in his father’s footsteps, and about the history and culture of the local fishing town. As he talked passionately about the lake and his life there, I felt myself warm to Trasimeno…which suddenly seemed less like a movie set and more like a community.
Letting out the nets.
We only had time for a quick trip out on the water, but excursions usually include a turn around the lake with a stop on the Polvese Island where your catch is grilled up on the beach (something I certainly plan on doing with my kids this summer). Alternatively, your haul is weighed and sold at the Cooperative, which supplies the area restaurants. The local landmark “Ristorante Da Settimio” is half a block from the Cooperative and docks and features fish caught by the Cooperative, if you are curious to sample the lake’s bounty.
A real fisherman repairing real nets on real Lake Trasimeno.
To reserve a fishing excursion with the Cooperative, I suggest actually stopping by the office in San Feliciano. They may know where the fish are biting, but they’re not so good with the answering emails and phone calls thing.
The toughest trial the newly-minted expat has to endure is that clunky, awkward, square-peg-in-round-hole exercise of superimposing one’s own largely culturally dictated belief system on that of one’s new host culture, and–with a little cutting and pasting, giving and taking, conceding and demanding– cobbling together a new one.
Okay, the second toughest trial. The first is, of course, bagel withdrawal.
When it works (a fun story of when it works), the exercise is an alchemy of skimming the cream off the top of both cultures and creating something greater than the sum of its parts. When it doesn’t work, it produces the Bitter Expat…the one who does nothing but harp on the host culture at dinner parties, boring fellow expats with tales of woe and offending locals with claims of how everything is bigger, better, and faster in one’s home country.
I moved to Umbria as a vegetarian. Luckily, not a new vegetarian, so I had shed the holier-than-thou affect of the newly converted, but a vegetarian nonetheless. Umbria is a region of meat eaters. Not only meat eaters, but meat raisers and meat butcherers. This traditional, rural area still has vast swaths of farmland where the turn-around time between barnyard and dinner table is a few hours at most. Though older Umbrians remember a diet based largely on grains and legumes (flavored with pork fat and charcuterie) with meat reserved for special occasions or, for the more prosperous, Sundays, the steadily climbing standard of living over the past two generations means that meat has become a mainstay of the local diet.
The sight of fresh homemade sausages hung to dry warms the cockles of any Umbrian's heart.
That said, the modern regional cuisine continues to reflect the poor hunting and farming culture that dominated Umbria for millenia with its heavy use of game (hare, fowl, and wild boar) and–the uncontested monarch–pork. The pig was, and remains, the foundation upon which the lion’s share of Umbrian dishes rest for a number of reason. Pigs once had a symbiotic relationship with the land (less so now as most are no longer kept outdoors), as each fall they were herded under oak trees bordering farm fields to consume the fallen acorns and—ahem—fertilize the fields along the way. Pigs are a smaller, less dangerous animal than cattle and their care and feeding were often the responsibility of the family’s children. And, most importantly, pigs can be consumed down to the last centimeter. Nothing was wasted when a pig was butchered, and during a time when a family of twenty had to stretch out a single pig to cover a year (something often done), this could make a big difference.
They say that pigs are highly intelligent animals. After having them as next door neighbors for 18 years, I have my doubts.
Most country families in Umbria still butcher a pig each year (though now the meat is consumed by about four people, and much less of it is cured in favor of freezing), and many urban families reserve a pig in the spring at a local farm, which raises it for their clients until the following winter. This tradition is so strong that a recent EU regulation banning home butchering was amended to allow a limited number of pigs to be home butchered (across Italy). The ingrained frugality continues, and the pig is still consumed from snout to tail (head cheese helps clear up the scraps, as does blood pudding (a blood, sugar, raisin, pinenut baked concoction that my husband’s 105 year old grandmother still makes), heavy use of lard in cooking, and generosity with the dogs.).
Le dejeuner sur l'herbe
So, have I mentioned that I’m a vegetarian? Yes, and I may as well fast forward over the first years of avoidance ( I would simply head out of town for the weekend) followed by reluctant acceptance (I would hunker down inside the house for the weekend) to my current whole-hearted embrace (I invite friends for a “salsicciata”, or sausage roast, for the weekend). It has been a long road to reconcile my American urban vegetarian value system with the Umbrian rural farming value system, but I have done it. Here’s how:
Respect the Pig
Ok, there’s no way around it. The pigs end up dead. Yep. They are killed in the end. So, if that’s a deal breaker for you, it’s going to be a problem. I realized that it’s not so much a deal breaker for me if 1) the animals are treated well during their life and 2) the animals are treated well in death. Which they are, on both counts.
There's no getting around this.
Umbrians (and, I suspect many cultures who maintain a much more immediate relationship with their food than most Americans do) tend to treat their animals well…they eat well, they have ample room and fresh air, they are not given hormones, antibiotics, or fillers, they are allowed to grow at a normal rate and are given adequate vet care. This not because Umbrians are more soft-hearted about animals in general (their unsentimental view of dogs can be jarring), but because they care about what they eat and any animal who has been badly fed, stressed, and medicated is not going to make for good eating.
The actual killing of the pig is, I daresay, anticlimactic. There is no throat-slitting, no trauma, no slasher-film graphic. They take a compressed air pistol shot to the temple, and are already gone when they hit the ground. That’s how it’s done. It took me years—years—to work up the courage to stand by and watch, and then I felt silly for making such a big deal of it. Some squealing occurs, not because of pain or terror but because pigs are stubborn, ornery SOBs who don’t like to be moved around, be it from one sty to another, from one pasture to another, or from one dimension to another.
Three generations of "norcini" or hog butchers.
Respect the Earth
There is no environmental impact in family farm stock raising. We feed them the forage we raise in our fields, and use their waste to fertilize our fields. This is not a feed lot. There is no manure lagoon. They roam freely in their pen. They are never medicated (unless, of course, they get sick). All those misgivings I had about meat consumption in the 1980s in the US do not apply here. In fact, much of the Umbrian landscape—the patchwork of tiny, oak-ringed fields, pastures, vineyards, and olive groves–would be very different were it not for the history of the small, family farm which dabbles a bit in stock, a bit in forage, and a bit in produce.
It's a tag-team job of hands and knives (and tongues).
Respect the People
To love Umbria is to love its culture, history, and people. And it’s hard to separate that from the dinner table. There are some practices that have roots in history that I consider indefensible (genital mutilation comes to mind, for example), but the annual hog kill is not one of them.
Once a year, the extended family gets together (with various neighbors, friends, and passers-by who catch a whiff of fresh sausages frying) for what amounts to more of a party than a chore. In Umbria, the heavy work of sectioning the meat, grinding mixes for sausage and salame, and preparing haunches and shoulders for salting and curing is primarily the men’s job, though that’s not true in all of Italy, and the women spend the day bustling back and forth from the kitchen with pots of boiling water, spices, and lots of unsolicited advice.
Making the salame is serious business accompanied by lots of banter.
There is laughter, light-hearted ribbing, and hours and hours of story-telling. Long dead family and friends are brought up as if they had just departed yesterday, and children (mine included) are handed knives and taught how to correctly cut ribs (usually by four different people with four conflicting methods), make head cheese (in a perplexing development for this vegetarian mom, my eldest son’s favorite task is also arguably the goriest one), and, in a subtle way, internalize the cycle of life-death-life. The day culminates in a sausage roast come dinner time, when the numbers swell and often an organetto appears from nowhere to wheeze out traditional tunes.
My son's favorite task is, clearly, also the most dangerous and disgusting.
Have I begun eating meat? No (more out of habit that principle–honestly, many of the same moral and ethical arguments made against the meat industry can be made against the sugar and cocoa bean industry but that doesn’t slow my chocolate consumption one bit, baby) but I learned that though we began our journeys from two points of departure that seemed diametrically opposed, somehow the Umbrians and I have ended up in the exact same place.
Our charcuterie curing under a thick layer of salt, pepper, and garlic.
Intrigued by home curing meat? Follow Judy from Divina Cucina as she spends the next twelve months showing us her thighs, breasts, and belly during Charcutepalooza!