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, 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 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!
We finally, after many false starts, technical problems, and delays—in short, Italy—installed wifi internet access at Brigolante. And I am thrilled. Really. Over the moon. Ecstatic. Tickled pink. Walking on air. On cloud nine.
Okay. I’m not happy.
Now, before I begin what I hope will be thoughtful analysis but fear will quickly degenerate into diatribe, let me be clear that I absolutely understand why internet access is indispensable while travelling. As a parent and small business owner, I either travel for work (so need to keep in touch with my kids) or travel with my kids (so need to keep in touch with work). Unfortunately, there is no way around that conundrum, however unfortunate it may be. I certainly am not judging guests who require internet access with the same presumption as running water and electricity. And I would never flip the switch—at this point Pandora’s box has been opened, for better or for worse.
It's a whole new world out there.
So, what’s my problem?
Let’s parse travel–specifically, why we travel– for a minute. You can compile an endless list of reasons for skipping town, but once you break them down it turns out that virtually each can be filed under a single category: connection.
Travel, which is like a greater and graver science, brings us back to ourselves. – Albert Camus
Camus saw travel as the moment in which we strip ourselves of all the accoutrements of normal life and are able to connect with and confront who we really are. I can very much identify with this; it has been during my travels in life that I have been able to shed the skin of others’ expectations and projections and reinvent myself from within according to my own. At times it has been frightening, but it has also been my most dramatic periods of growth.
There was a time when travel meant leaving. (And before you young whippersnappers out there get all condescending, let me say that it was not that long ago. Like, until the late 1980s.) You left. You were out of touch. Unless you had the foresight and organization to leave an itinerary and hotel phone numbers with someone back at the ranch, there was pretty much no way to track you down. Yes, there was poste restante, the American Express office, and those banks of public phones with the queues stretching down the block, but apart from being informed of a death in your immediate family by telegram, there was no expectation that you would be in touch.
Now, it is very rare that travellers completely disappear from the radar. We Skype, we post pictures on Flickr, we tell everyone about the amazing sunset we are enjoying while sipping cocktails on Facebook, we check in on Foursquare. I know many people who are more active online while travelling than when they are at home since they don’t have the nuisance of work to get in the way. But it begs the question of how much baggage we drag along behind us from home along with our suitcases, and how much it weighs us down. Do we expend so much energy staying connected with ex-schoolmates and colleagues on social media, Skyping mom every evening so she doesn’t worry, and living each moment as a meta experience of simultaneously composing our next blog post about it in our heads, that we have none left over for ourselves?
To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.—Bill Bryson
It used to be like this: It used to be that our guests would hang out in the garden together in the evening. Couples would sample wine and hold hands. Friends would spread out maps for tomorrow and laugh about the adventures they had had today. Families would tromp around the vegetable garden, teaching their kids the essential yet novel art of picking ripe tomatoes. Complete strangers would strike up conversations and, over the course of the week, swap hidden gem restaurant suggestions and compare day trips.
This is what I loved. This is the gift I gave.
A place just that removed from the hustle that at the end of a long day of culture, of art and architecture, of nature, of food and wine, there was the time and the quiet to connect with loved ones: to propose, to fall in love again, to conceive, to make new friendships, to have long and wandering conversations, to play hide and go seek, to spend that last week together before kids left for college. Sure, we had internet if someone needed to check their email. But you actually had to go into our office (by “office” I mean “home office” and by “home office” I mean “small, cluttered corner of toy-strewn living room”), and it was so nice outside, and there was still wine in your glass, and your kids were saying, “Daddy, just one more time!” and the sausages on the grill were just about ready and, okay, maybe tomorrow you would check. There probably wasn’t anything that important in your inbox, anyway.
It’s changed since we installed wifi. Not to say that these things still don’t happen, but less. Less. More staring at screens and missing the sunset. More staying inside where the wifi is stronger. More stressing about emails coming from an office 2000 km away. More keeping in touch with friends online and not meeting new ones next door. More partners sitting outside alone with a book. More kids saying, “Mommy, are you almost finished?”
Sure, internet access is something I now offer. But what have I taken away, I wonder?
As the traveler who has once been from home is wiser than he who has never left his own doorstep, so a knowledge of one other culture should sharpen our ability to scrutinize more steadily, to appreciate more lovingly, our own.” — Margaret Mead
I have often said, and repeat here, that leaving my home country has made me a patriot. Not, of course, because I espouse that insidious “love it or leave it” vein that seems to have become the cultural trope in the US in the past few years, but because the distance and separation have given me the perspective necessary to be able to appreciate those aspects of American culture which do, indeed, make it a great country (and a critical awareness of some substantial problems that real patriots should care enough to fix). It’s kind of like how your mother is an absolute moron until you leave home and start raising your own children while still maintaining a career, social life, and your sanity. Suddenly she becomes the smartest woman you ever met (and you understand her flaws much better, as well).
But to acheive the kind of distance and separation to put that vast cultural panorama into focus, you need—ahem—distance and separation. The day is made up of only so many hours, so if we fill them with constantly checking the CNN newsfeed on our iPhones, watching Glee on our iPads, and listening to Morning Edition on our iPods (It seems like I have it in for Steve Jobs. Not really. I just like alliteration.)—essentially floating through our travels in a bubble of familiar language, politics, customs, and trash tv–there simply aren’t enough left over to observe and absorb the culture we are visiting in a way essential to useful juxtaposition. At the end of the day, can you ever really understand your mother until you’ve moved out of her basement?
I suppose all this ambivalence can seem patronizing and high-handed. After all, we are all grown-ups here and make our own decisions about how and why we travel. After all, I’m just a business owner providing services clients request. After all, all this connectivity has revolutionized my line of work, largely for the better. After all, before we had wifi all I did was bitch about not having wifi. After all, it’s one of the first things I ask when I book an accommodation myself. After all, it’s progress, right?
There saints of whom I am particularly fond. San Francesco, because we eat mostaccioli on his feast day (Umbria’s singular contribution to cookie-dom). San Costanzo, because we eat torcolo on his feast day (any cake that is considered a viable breakfast food is good, in my book). San Giuseppe, because we eat frittelle di riso on his feast day (in a land lacking donuts, we turn to fritters for our cholesterol). And San Martino, because we go to Mass on his feast day.
Just kidding. We eat roasted chestnuts and drink young wine on his feast day.
San Martino, San Martino, Castagne e Vino (Saint Martin, Saint Martin, Chestnuts and Wine)
Dishes associated with the celebration of a particular saint usually have a symbolic connection with their life and legend. Mostaccioli (a lovely anise infused crisp cookie sweetened with grape must) were Francis’ favorite sweet and the Poor Clare Jacopa di Sottesoli is said to have prepared him a batch on his deathbed. Torcolo (a sweet bread ring rich with candied fruit, raisins, and pine nuts) recalls, with its circular shape, the wreath of flowers mourners placed around San Costanzo’s neck to hide the signs of his decapitation. San Giuseppe, patron saint of the destitute, is fittingly fèted with fritters traditionally prepared with only rice and lemon peel. The modern versions are more elaborate and use ingredients which would have been too precious for poor farmers centuries ago (eggs, flour, sugar), but the symbolism of a poor man’s sweet for the poor man’s saint remains.
San Martino, a pragmatic ex-soldier who ran his sword through his own cape in order to give half to a freezing beggar, doesn’t cotton to any of that highbrow symbolism. To celebrate him, we eat castagne and sample Vino Novello because, well, they’re in season.
If you’ve only ever tasted the blackened balls of mealy styrofoam hawked on winter streets in most northern American cities, you have missed one of the great miracles that the alchemy of heat + nut can produce. Chestnuts from Umbria—particularly marroni from the forests surrounding Spoleto—are sweet, creamy flavour bombs and overdose is avoided only because liberating them from their piping hot toasted peels is particularly labor intensive (and leaves you with charcoal-tinted fingertips for days). Umbrian’s score the reddish-brown shells with a sharp knife before roasting the nuts whole in perforated metal pans over the coals in fireplaces, woodstoves, or bonfires. Once the shells blacken and peel back from the escaping steam of the cooked nutmeat inside, they are wrapped in a large cloth and rolled between the table-top and able hands to loosen the shells from the interior.
Vino Novello, is the perfect foil to the richness of roasted chestnuts This ‘young wine’—which officially goes on sale on November 6th, but is traditionally consumed the evening of the 11th to celebrate San Martino– is a light, fruity (sometimes slightly fizzy) red similar in taste and production to the French Beaujolais Nouveau. Made by accelerating the fermentation process, Novello does not have tannins and will go bad if not consumed the same day it is opened. Not to be confused with Vino Nuovo (which is simply ‘new wine’, or wine that has just finished its traditional fermentation process and has not yet begun to age…most rural farm families drink their home brew Vino Nuovo on the night of San Martino), Novello can be found in most wine shops and cantine through the winter.
If you are in Umbria around November 11th, take the time to drop in at a local Castagnata (chestnut roasting) for the Festa di San Martino. Here you can sample the local marroni, Vino Novello, and, if you are lucky and are treated to one of those unseasonably warm days that can pop up even late into autumn, toast to l’Estate di San Marino (Saint Martin’s Summer).
As a rule, I am not a big fan of books about Italy written by non-Italians. They are often condescending, superficial, and/or naive.
That said, I loved Dianne Hales’ entertaining and informative La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language and was so honored when she asked me to contribute a blog post about my experience raising my children bilingually in Italy.
You can read my post (and see a very cute picture of my little diavoli) here!
I never used to cry. I mean, first I never used to cry in that slightly unhealthy maybe-you-need-a-little-therapy-and-some-getting-in-touch-with-your-feelings way. Then I never used to cry in that hipster I’m-your-sassy-best-girlfriend way. Then I never used to cry in that pragmatic it’s-just-how-I-am way.
Now I cry at the drop of a hat. I have the frustration tolerance of an overtired two year old who had Cocoa Pebbles for both breakfast and lunch and Wants. Them. For. Dinner. I cry about my dry cleaning getting lost, my telephone bill being exhorbitant, and my dentist running 40 minutes late. I tear up at PTA meetings, at the car mechanic, and the police station.
Last week I was on the phone with a vendor negotiating some details of a contract and we disagreed about the conditions in one of the clauses. The conversation was getting heated, though remained—I thought—cordial, until out of the blue the vendor announced he felt under attack, wasn’t used to clients treating him this way, and that I should take my business elsewhere. At which point I very professionally began to sob. With him on the phone. Mortifying, wracking, nose-blowing sobbing.
And I remembered a scene that once when down when my son was a toddler and we were driving home late from a birthday party. He piped up from the backseat, “Mamma, what’s a thaw?” And I said, “A what, sweetie?” “A thaw.” “A thaw?” “No, a THAW!” And I kept asking him to repeat himself and telling him I couldn’t understand his question, and he kept repeating the same word and getting increasingly agitated until I finally said, “Hey, mister, no yelling at Mamma, please. I don’t like getting yelled at.” At which point he began to sob. Desperate, pathetic, heart-breaking sobbing. So awful that I had to pull over, climb into the backseat with him, and figure out what the question was to calm him down. (“Is it a toy? Is it something we eat? Is it an animal?” “No, Mamma! It’s the little light that does twinkle, twinkle in the sky!”).
I recently got an email from a fellow expat here in Italy who stumbled upon my blog. She wrote, to summarize, “You seem so upbeat about expat life. I am having a really hard time. What’s the matter with me?” And I felt terribly guilty, because I recall those months after having my first child when I was reading all the books and magazines about how wonderful motherhood was while I spent my days alternately crying and raging and felt like somehow I was doing something wrong was being denied boarding on the Happy Mom Express. So, I’m going to step away from the sunny schtick for just a second and talk honestly about the dark side of expat life.
And to PL: There’s nothing the matter with you. It’s tough sometimes. Keep the faith, kiddo.
Remember that adage about Ginger doing everything Fred did, but backwards and in heels? Well, that’s what my days are like. All the craziness that being a working mother who is active in the community and full of social commitments entails–but in a second language. And I’m not bilingual, so expressing myself in Italian still requires concentration, lucidity, and energy. It’s exhausting, frankly. There are times when I get to end of the day mentally devastated, which means that any tiny glitch seems like A Big Effing Deal.
Sometimes I just simply don’t have the linguistic and cultural finesse to express myself how I’d like. I accidently step on toes, I offend, I come off as too aggressive or too indifferent, or I can’t get my message across. Or, on the flip side, I sense that I am losing in translation a subtle shading that I just can’t manage to put into focus, like a flickering shadow right outside my field of vision. And the harder I try, the more elusive it seems until I am so discouraged and overwhelmed I go into nuclear meltdown.
There is much existential solitude in being an expat, even when I spend my day surrounded by people. I certainly have dear friends who are Italian, there will always be some cultural gaps that no amount of affection or familiarity can bridge. I also have dear friends who are fellow foreigners, but the expat diaspora is varied and saying that the mere fact of being two Americans living in Italy is enough foundation to build a friendship is like saying that the mere fact of possessing double X chromosomes means that women world-over are united in loving sisterhood (whereas there are, honestly, many bitches out there I would love to slap. Coulter, watch your back.) or the mere fact of holding a passport from the same nation should have kept the Serbs and Croats from going at each other’s throats. When you feel like you are von Trier in a nation of Spielbergs, the tears can sometimes come easily.
I’m Treated Like a Two Year Old
I speak Italian like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. So, inevitably, I tend to get treated like a third grader, and not the sharpest knife in the drawer third grader. Which is galling, because I consider myself pretty sharp (in an obtuse sort of way), rather articulate (in a bad speller sort of way), and relatively capable (in a screw-up sort of way). It puts my teeth on edge to have people—with kind intentions, make no mistake—explain the obvious to me slowly and using simple words. Because it’s humiliating. And humiliated people are often not the most even-keeled. See: long world history of social uprisings.
I’m Second-Guessing Myself
Sometimes I look at my life and wonder what it is exactly I’ve been doing over the past 17 years while all of my friends back in the States seem to have been busy building fabulous careers in amazing places using the latest electronical gadgets. My only solace is the knowledge that they look at me and wonder what they’ve been doing over the past 17 years while I’ve been busy building a fabulous career in an amazing place while not slave to the latest electronical gadgets. Seriously, Italy can be a tough place to have a rewarding career even if you are Italian, fluent, well connected, and big time lucky (even Pier Luigi Celli (the former director of the RAI) advised his son to leave Italy in an open letter citing nepostism and lack of prospects for young professionals. If Celli Jr. can’t land a decent job here, the rest of us truly are chopped liver.). It’s hard to feel like you are spending your time spinning your wheels and perhaps Italy isn’t all you dreamed it would be, even if the food is fabulous.
So why am I still here? The truth is that my experience has been, despite all the whining and crabbing above, ultimately rewarding. It’s a challenge, but so are most gratifying things in life–from building a lasting relationship to being a good parent to making a difference as a volunteer to having a successful professional or creative life. There are days when the fatigue and frustration and loneliness wash over me in pounding waves and I find myself coughing and sputtering for air, but those days are rarer. Most days my glass is half full and I’m able to look back at everything I’ve learned and everything I’ve accomplished since I moved here in 1993 and think, “Damn, girl.”
And then I get a parking ticket. Sob.
There is how the Big Boys do it, and there is how we do it. Wine, that is.
The Big Boys carefully plan their vineyard and select grape varieties appropriate for the soil, sun exposure, and altitude. They take great care in cultivating the delicate vines: pruning the shoots, selecting the stronger plants, replanting old or weak vines. They consult with botanists, agronomists, viticulturists, and agricultural historians. They monitor and treat for mold and insect damage.
Our grapes, of the select "uh, who knows?" variety.
We just go with whatever my husband’s grandfather planted together with his brother 40 years ago on a piece of land near the house that they chose because they eyeballed it figured it looked sunny enough, given that we are on the north side of Mount Subasio. We occasionally fill in the gaps left where vines have died, but only when it gets to be a couple in a row. If you ask my father-in-law what grape varieties he has, he will respond: Red and White. When pressed, he will concede with a nonchalant shrug that there are probably Sangiovese, Merlot, and Sagrantino vines planted, and white Malvasia grapes and “Boh, something else but I can’t remember” grapes. Mold and insect damage get noticed and commented on at the dinner table.
Filled bins, waiting in a line like soldiers about to be shipped to the Western Front.
The Big Boys organize their grape harvest using white lab-jacketed professionals who begin to pick after monitoring the level of sugar, acid, and pH of the grapes. Clusters of grapes are selected according to their stage of ripeness over a period of days, and overripe or damaged fruit is attentively weeded out. The grapes get carefully placed in small crates which are sorted by variety and loaded on flatbed trailers to be transported to the winery with minimum damage and bruising.
Zio Gino, our oldest picker.
Nicolò, our youngest picker.
Our grape harvest includes Zio Gino, Zia Viola, our neighbors, my inlaws, my nine and six year old sons, and occasionally sporting guests at Brigolante and is begun after tasting a couple of grapes to see if they are sweet and monitoring the weather report on Rai Uno. The vineyard is stripped of every cluster of grape over an afternoon regardless of ripeness, lest it begin to rain or run into dinner time. The grapes are chucked indiscriminately into big 50 gallon plastic garbage pails (which we use only for this purpose), and then loaded onto the back of the tractor where they make the bouncing and bumping trip back to the garage.
My father-in-law Ugo's hi-tech harvesting tools.
The Big Boys then proceed to destem, crush, ferment, and press the grapes, sorted by variety, in gleaming modern cantine with stainless steel mechanical equipment and small chemistry laboratories used to monitor and adjust sugar, yeast, and alcohol. The rooms are temperature controlled to calibrate the speed of fermentation, and after the must is pressed the wine is stored in massive stainless steel vessels or new oak barrels for the remainer of the secondary fermentation and aging…under careful watch by the vitner’s enologist who runs periodic tests checking the status of the wine: pH, titratable acidity, residual sugar, free or available sulfur, total sulfur, volatile acidity and percent alcohol.
Our grapes ready to give their life for a bigger cause. Notice the odd white cluster. Eh, just toss it in!
After much swearing and searching for an adapter for the German plug, we fire up our little mechanical crusher/destemmer in the garage and set it on two wooden planks above a big plastic vat the size of a Jacuzzi. (We don’t have a Jacuzzi, of course, but I’ve seen them.) First the white grapes all get tossed in, and the must immediately passed to our old wooden basket press, which is cranked by hand either by my father-in-law or my older son, depending upon if it’s a school day. The white wine is immediately trasferred to the fiberglass vat to ferment and age, because none of us like white that much so if it doesn’t come out that great no one cares. Then the red grapes all get tossed in to be destemmed and crushed, and stay there fermenting in the vat with an old wool plaid blanket thrown over the top to try and keep the temperature warm enough in the cold garage. Every day or two my father-in-law tosses a saccharometer (which looks kind of like a floating candy thermometer and measures the sugar content) in there to see how things are going, but since his eyes aren’t that good and both my husband and I have grave doubts as to whether he actually knows how to read the calibration even if he could see the tiny markings, it’s pretty much a crap shoot. When we notice all the neighbors pressing, we figure we may as well. Then the wine gets stored in big old wooden barrels next to the washing machine and the tool bench for a couple of months.
Tossing the grapes into the crusher/destemmer.
The Big Boys polish their wines with blending and fining, and stabilize them with preservatives and filtration. Often, the results are—unsurprisingly–fabulous. Their wines are bottled in new glass wine bottles, labeled beautifully and informatively, and shipped all over the world.
This is much more fun than going to school.
We open up the taps at the bottom of our barrels and vat in the spring, and drink whatever comes out. Sometimes it’s suitable for nothing more than dressing a salad, together with olive oil and salt. Sometimes the results are—surprisingly–fabulous. We fill pitchers with our rough farmer’s red that we set on the table for mealtimes directly from the vats, or bottle some in bottles we’ve washed and put aside from store bought wines, which we then manually cork and stick a label on that I print off a Word document on my computer. Our wine is incredibly instable; just the altitude difference between our house and the valley under Assisi is enough to make it turn. Which means we drink it all here, just friends, family, guests, and the odd passer-by.
And I’d rather have that than be a Big Boy any day.
This is what's in our wine.