Reduced to Reading about Italy

Well, it is obvious now. I am really and truly reaching for Italy-related stories. Daughter Wiley, the Wiley Traveler, is leaving for real live adventures there next month, but I can’t go for a few weeks after that. Totally reduced to day dreaming and going through photos and helping friends plan trips there. And reading every book ever written on the subject of Italy. You should see how many books we have here in our house. We’ve had to put all the Italian themed ones in one room and they fill all the shelves there. Books, brochures, maps. Ok,the Library at Alexandria it is not, but it is pretty deep in there.

Here are a couple I’ve just added to the book shelves of our “Italian room” that show how wrongly eclectic we are, even within our Italian reading.

THE RELUCTANT TUSCAN

This first book is a bit of a surprise. Most books about moving to Italy and restoring an old house are so romantic and staryeyed you may want to spitup. I was beginning to think it was required for the genre. The author of Reluctant Tuscan, Phil Doran, clearly did not get that romance memo. He is the RT of the title and a smart mouthed Hollywood writer for TV shows. He was drug, kicking and screaming from LaLaLand to LaDolceVitaLand and just being himself he quickly runs afoul of his wife, his neighbors, and the town officials. He’s surely a better writer, than a neighbor. Actually, it’s a relief to hear a non-romantic version of the classic “moving to Italy” story.

Oh. Sorry. You wanted Romance?

HOW SWEET IT IS

At almost the opposite end (that would be towards the Saccharine end) of our book shelves would be “A Thousand Days in Tuscany” by Marlene de Blasi. Like Frances Mayes (Under The Tuscan Sun), Marlene is writing in and about our neighborhood. Mayes is just north of us in Cortona. And de Blasi is south and east of us in very nearby San Casciano dei Bagni. We are in Umbria, both of them are in Tuscany. They both are American writers with brand spanking new Boy Toys. And compulsive need to Cook and Tell. And boy, Marlene will tell. And not just about cooking. Maybe her new fella Fernando doesn’t read English, I don’t know. But if he does, he now knows she doesn’t fight fair. She mines every fight they have for all its literary worth. And then she writes about the makeup sessions. I just go by all the soupy stuff. And speaking of soup, i do just breeeze by all the recipes at the end of every chapter. Of any book. What is that about? I’m reading along in a novel and suddenly I need a recipe for “Deep-Fried Flowers, Vegetables, and Herbs”?

So there’s that. And she does want to tell us EXACTLY what she wore on any given day. Where writers I could relate to in a meaningful way might say “then I went to town” she would first tell you what she wore to town: “Twill jodhpurds, riding boots, a white lace shirt, its collar tight and high as my chin, a soft leather jacket the color of sweet wine, my hair pushed up inside a brown beret.” Wait, wait. Did anyone ask what you wore to town? Having said all that, she is an amazing writer and wordsmith and I’d read her again I suppose. Mixed in with all the frilly stuff are some evocative observations of everyday life and food and fun and festivals. And hey, she’s a neighbor. Must be supportive. She also has a book on Venice. You guessed it: 1000 days in.

SPEAKING OF COOK BOOKS?

Have you read Julie & Julia? Fair warning. Absolutely less than nothing to do with Italy. But I’d heard it had a blog theme. I kept reading about it, seeing great reviews, etc. The Julie of the title (Julie Powell) did a cooking blog where she attempts to cook every one of Julia Child’s 600 recipes in her original 60’s cookbook classic. In a single year. Even the goopy stuff only sophisticated continental types could possibly keep down like calves brains, tripe, marrow, the whole works. In whatever grisly order they happen to fall in the book.

So, I was thinking: Hey, my mom cooks. My mom has a Julia Child cookbook or two. She reads blogs. Well, I think she reads this one anyway. Why not get her this J&J book? Which is what I did for Christmas. Had it gift wrapped right at the store and sent it on its merry way to I-O-way. Without opening the book. Well. Here’s a Helpful Holiday Hint: don’t ever DO that. No, no, no. See the cute cover? And note that it seems to be a cookbook? I KNOW. Me, too. What I did not know, until 2 months after I sent it to my sweet, 85 year old, Sunday School teaching mother was this: Julie, sweet 29 year old Julie, swears like a tattooed sailor being led down to the brig. And even when she’s not swearing up a storm, she talks about stuff I would not go near. Not with nobody. Let alone my mother! Even allowing for all that, I have to admit, Julie is one laugh out loud funny funny funny writer. Hysterical. Sometimes, literally hysterical.

ENOUGH WITH THE BOOKS ALREADY

Lets talk booking reservations. Lets talk travel. Calendars seem to say Midge and I may get to go in May. And the Wiley Traveler should be traveling even sooner, in April. So soon, very soon, we’ll all be saying in happy unison . . .

See You In Italy!

Stew

DOUBLE DATES. COOKED FIGS. AND BURNT GOOSE.

With Midge and Wiley both on their way to Umbria, I look back on our trip last September. Stories that I had not shared here yet. Just to give you a taste of what kind of unplanned adventures a traveler could expect to have on any given fall day in Umbria. Part three of three loosely connected ramblings

PACIANO, UMBRIA — The grand finale of this day of our trip is going to L’Oca Brusciata in Paciano. The Burnt Goose Pizzeria. It is smack in the middle of Paciano. It is big, with flower-laden terraces right down to the street. It is on the main square and I’ve just never noticed it? How dense am I? Do not answer that. None so blind, I guess. In my defense, the sign is so tiny, the building is so nicely residential, so it could pass for a house?

I’ve never been on so many dates with my daughter. And dates they appear to be. Everywhere we go Eric and or Dante are sure to be. Some times planned sometimes not. A coincidence? I ask you. Like tonight, they are both there. I’m sure we are a strange group. Dante has jet black crew cut, and that clean-shaven, Young Republican, All-American, Boy Scout from California look. He’s wearing a golf shirt and clean jeans. So far we are all pretty much Norman Rockwell in Umbria cover of Post magazine. And then. Here comes Eric the Great Dane – in long blonde hair and beard, Harley Tshirt, carrying an open half liter of Henniken. He has a trucker billfold on chain, biker black boots, bold, tribal tattoos. Eric is ok. I’ve known him for several years. Making Umbrian figs into fig marmaladeHe plays at being shocking to nose-tweak some of the more conservative factions in this fairly traditional part of Italy. He is Danish but speaks perfect American English (he was Born in the USA. In the state of Springstein) and was raised eventually in Panicale. He starts rolling his own cigarettes as soon as he sits down but first asks waitress if its ok and she says no because there little kids at the next table and he pushes the tobacco gear back and sweet as a kitten says but of course, totally fine, I understand. Everyone assumes Eric has brought his own beer into the restaurant to tweak our collective conservative noses a bit. Wiley harassed him about it the next day and sure enough we’d all unjustly put him in that place. He’d bought the bottle from the waitress before he came to the table so it wouldn’t end up on our table’s bill. OK, we all got burnt judging a book by its cover. Typical day in the neighborhood when dad goes dating with daughter.

FURTHER FIG TALES

Here’s how hard it is to make fig marmalade: Not at all. A fig is almost jelly when its on the tree. But know this – your neighbors don’t want to see you go up that tree. If I’ve been told once today, I’ve been told twice (Carla and Bruno, separately) that you just don’t go there. Figs are strong plants and aggressive growers but they are more strong like corn than strong like oak. You wouldn’t climb very far on corn and I guess you don’t want to get up on a fig either. They LOOK like a tree but grow like weeds so don’t grow particularly dense wood. Carla says to Denise, ”Remember Old So and So?” Denise nods in a way that you know the story didn’t have a happy ending. Carla seems to have some sort of nursing background which is why she was consulted on the Australian malady earlier. She says ”I rode in the ambulance with Old So and So when he fell out of his fig tree” she looked at each of us and shrugged ”But he was dead. Poverino” ok, ok, I’ve been up the tree but not going up again. I notice later, sawing up a branch from our tree, that it saws like sheets of Styrofoam when you are doing a craft project. Gulp. Point taken.

Our Umbrian fig tree in full fruitBut I digress. Why am I sawing up a branch of our tree? It spreads its branches up and out to the street above us to share with the people passing by. Bus loads of them are now almost tearing it apart in a fig feeding frenzy. Even when we are in the garden. Turning the other cheek, Wiley will often gather a hand fulls of figs and take them up to the people on the street, just to get them to back off a bit. But still, would you believe the biggest branch was ripped right off the trunk? Weird, but true. Sweet older Italians of all stripes flocking to the tree to relieve some inborn fig deficiency. In the crowd of bus tourists, two old dears waved to us. We could just see their tiny bird like hands and their faces from the noses up above our garden wall. In trembling old-people voices they asked ”dove siamo”? I have days when I wonder what I’m doing, but usually I’m set on where I’m doing it. Afraid that the question is too easy I had to answer a bit tentatively ”Panicale?”no, no they mutter over the top of the wall, Che Provincia? They were in a state, they just didn’t know which one. Heck of bus trip.

FIGS AND NEWTON

I know. If you want figs marmalade, you must harvest your figs. But! Remember, under no circumstances am you to go climbing trees. You must use ladders at all times. The gravity of the situation will kill you. Things fall down. Check. But of course Alec the I am a Yorkshire Man came by at that time to say not to go up that ladder as he had a friend die of that. Chee. This is harder than I thought. Ok, assuming somehow figs have fallen into your hands, we will want them to be big and soft but mature. But try to harvest them before it rains. After rains mature figs split right open into three angry pieces, hideously meat red inside and looking like they are trying out for Little Shop of Horrors. And I’m not eating THAT.
Sunset over Panicale in UmbriaSo. . . Big and soft. But not split open. Bring them to the chopping board and merrily hack to pieces. Skin and all. Smaller the pieces, the smaller pieces in final product. Carla like them cut in only 3-4 pieces each. I like much smaller bits I’ve decided.

Sprinkle with white sugar, leave overnight. That’s it. Maybe cover. Don’t bother putting in frig or anything. The next morning boil long and slow. 2-3 hours max unless it interferes with shopping and gossiping. Then do more or less. Even I, with my minimal culinary skills, can hardly mess that up. Is that a sweet deal?

Well, there may not have been much of a plot or plan but we did have us a time last September and I expect Midge and Wiley will have one equally unstructured and fun time this September as well. My time will come. Thinking October.

Until then —

See you in Italy,

Stew

Secret Life of Plants.

As Midge and Wiley get ready to head over to Umbria, I look back on our trip last September. Stories that I had not shared here yet. Just to give you a taste of what kind of unplanned adventures a traveler could expect to have on any given fall day in Umbria. Part two of three parts

PANICALE, UMBRIA — Having maybe solved the Great Australian Skin crisis, (see previous episode) Denise and Carla and I are free to discuss figs and some of the fine points of Carla’s recipe for fig marmalade. Until that reminds me — I have a new batch on the stove — literally as we speak — and YIKE — have had for several hours! Hate to leave the sun and fun of the piazza but do rush home, turn off the long suffering jam and give it a stir or two.

While I’m there I’m home, I’m strangely transformed into something like a serial plant killer. I’m taking big fig prunings and runamuck wisteria’s cuttings and frantically chopping them all into tiny bits and stuffing their mutilated parts into garbage bags, so I can sneak them into the town dumpsters with the trash. My friends here say that is a big no no, but what the heck else are you to do? Their consistent sage advice? Just dump it in the country. But I’m not so sure about that. I keep on bagging.

I’ve really been after the wisteria. This is one tough plant. It is bending the iron rods holding its frame work up. The iron rods. One is almost ”C” shaped. So I cut that offending branch and pulled miles of connected vine out afterwards. Can’t even tell where I was working and cutting, as it is such a big healthy robust and aggressive plant. The trunk is fully as big around as I am. The contractors cut it right to the ground, to be able to put a crane in the yard to work on the house. I was crushed. The next year they had to cut the wisteria off to the ground again as it was threatening to be The Wisteria That Ate The Three Story Tall Crane.

Night blooming Umbrian flowers in our Panicale gardenWiley calls to tell me she is on her way home as she does everyday when she starts her inter-town hilltop hike. On the way back, she finds black berries on the side of the road and knows all their berry names now because she has a page of hand written school notes about just that subject. She takes that page out of her notebook and folds it up into a basket and gathers the berries to bring home. Berry poetic Wiley. She learned the basket-folding trick on Italian Kid Tv the other day.

We had lunch on the terrace, and now we are multi-tasking. Watching clothes dry. And figs ripen. At the same time! Sigh. Did i mention I’m in love? With a garden. All true. After a bit more of this post-lunch loafing, I attend to my little green friends for a couple hours, weeding and organizing, shaping climbing roses on the pergola etc. and notice it is getting hotter and hotter, but there is such a delicious September breeze that you’d hardly notice. Eventually, I do need a cool down moment and I give the ”beach chairs in dappled sun!” alert to Wiley and we plunk down and read beach novels off into the early evening when the sun sets behind Montepulciano. Not long after that magic moment, the giant Bella della Notte plant unfurles a raft of new, white, trumpet-sized flowers. You know the best part? We didn’t even PLANT that plant. It just showed up in our garden and now is as big as a Fiat car. As unplanned, but as welcome, as our days in Panicale.

WILEY GOES HALF NATIVE

As Midge and Wiley get ready to head over to Umbria, I look back on our trip last September. Stories that I had not shared here yet. Just to give you a taste of what kind of unplanned adventures a traveler could expect to have on any given fall day in Umbria. This is part one of three parts.

The Annual Grape Harvest Festival in Panicale, Umbria
DOWNTOWN, UMBRIA — We always get a big bang out of September in Panicale because that is when the Grape Havest Festival is. But that is not the only fun we had in September. Almost everyday this month, Wiley has had a nice hilltop to hilltop walk from Paciano to Panicale. I think that walk became very special to her. Good way to peacefully sort out all the system-overload from two hours of intense, private Italian lessons etc. She can, by the way, and does, seriously string sentences together in a meaningful way now. I think she is pleased as punch. She had a friend from Maine here earlier in the week. Then, a few days later, she was off to see Jenny where she was studying in Florence. They have decided that between them, if they stick together, they can cumulatively say nearly anything in Italian! Wiley made me proud when she went right up to the ticket window at the train station in Chiusi and ordered her own train tickets. Look out now.

Girls enjoying Italian Gelato in Perugia on a fall day in UmbriaThe other day after I dropped her off at class in the morning I got a fresh loaf of chibatta at a bakery, two crooked brick alleys away from her school, and talked to a lady weaving in her shop a few doors from that and bought some samples of the weaving. Then I was nursing a coffee and listening to the stories an American guy I know was telling me at the outdoor part of the café (yes, it appears he has had 1) one Norwegian wife and 2) two Swedes and now lives in Italy with an American wife – number 4) four. And if you think I was going to miss any part of THAT story. . . ) Anyway, deep in Scandinavian lore we were when Ms Wiley and her Professoressa Daniella strolled by us for one of their many coffees of the morning. They were just a-laughing and a-chatting up a storm from what I could see. And she could not have looked more intent when I popped in on them later in the garden back of the school. They were sitting in the Umbrian sun. The green valley stretching out in front of them all the way to the lake. All good, happy and memorable moments.

DANGER. HOT JAM ALERT

Our uphill neighbor Youngi was in the café and bought me coffee and croissant. As Wiley says ”it is not a croissant dad, this is Italy, it’s a cornetto. And a cornetto is better.” Right you are. Either way, Aldo wants to know which kind I want: créme or marmalade filled. Apricot marmalade, please. And then, after I’ve chosen, he almost won’t let me have it. He’s got it in his hand, but is holding it back, protecting me from. . . The hideous danger. That is. Hot jam. Can he cut it open? Can I make another choice? Please. He’s alarmed, Youngi is alarmed. Alarmalade Crisis? I assure them I can work my way through hot jam. And did. Yesterday, Daniella absolutely refused to warm up an egg and ham panini because it had mayo on it. I grill Grilled Cheese Sandwiches after slathering them with mayo. Have done so since doing a TV shoot about mayo in the Kraft Kitchens in Chicago. And have lived to tell the tale. Here, today, hot mayo is something out of a horror movie and not to be considered lightly.

Cars were featured in a news paper supplement that Simone, Aldo and Daniella’s son and I are looking at. And relative to that and the herd of Ferraris that have just exited the piazza we have a good car talk.Then, I filmed a bit of Biano at his barbering best and then caught a moment with the Ladies of Linda’s. All the ladies from the grocery store were having their morning coffee clutch and they drug me into the café with them. Earlier Linda’s store and the meat market were jammed to the teeth but now it is just the family and me and the video camera. I was there yesterday and got behind a lady with maybe forty coupons and ordering bedspreads with what must have been the Italian version of Green Stamps and oh my gosh I didn’t think that would ever end. What a long, strange trip that appeared to be.

in an Umbrian garden havesting lavenderPAULETTE GETS OUT OF A JAM.
BETTER LIVING THROUGH CHEMISTRY.

There are cars with bows on them outside the gate. Aldo had warned me: wedding today. Busy place, just got busier. Now Dante is at the door, asking if I will meet them at Masolinos for dinner. We are celebrating that his aunt, our friend Paulette has been cured. Praise the Lord. Her doctor in California said Cipro and there was Cipro and it was Good. Some places you might need a prescription. Funniest thing. But in Italy you may get lucky and just be able to verbalize it to the Pharmacist. (Do they all smoke here? All the pharmacists?) Anyway, the pharmacist listens to her description of the medicine, takes a couple deep and meaningful drags on his cigarette, exhales thoughtfully, steps over his dog and hands her a sack of Cipro. A day later she was cured — after a week of weakness and misery. She must have been too screwed up to have thought to call her doctor or underestimated the take no prisoners attitude of the ”malatia”. Now she and Wiley are in the garden making interesting little sweet smelling, braided sculptures out of our lavender. Paulette’s hands guided her down memory lane to total recall moment from her childhood. In short order she remembered exactly how her Italian grandfather had taught her to make them when she was a little girl. I was glad I was there to see her uncover that moment.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD DAY: THE KEY INGREDIENTS

I woke up to morning bells ringing out eight times in the blue blue skies. Before waking Wiley, I started laundry and put the fig marmalade we’ve made the night before on to simmer for a couple hours. Eventually, Wiley and I made it to Aldo’s for our morning coffee. For several mornings in a row we’ve met Emma and her friend Manuela there too, just on the same general schedule.

Emma and everyone we met that morning is atwitter about the coming fireworks in Panicarola. I Fochi d’la Madonna del Busso. I don’t know how they could beat Panicale’s fireworks, during our fun Festa del’uva. Seems almost disloyal to praise another festival, doesn’t it? When viewed from a distance of a couple car lengths from where they were being set off, filled me with sufficient awe. Totally tilted me off my axis, mouth wide open and making ooooh noises as every explosion seemed to be the finale but then, no it just got wilder and bigger and louder by the minute. What a rush. And yet . . . . they say, ”that weren’t nothing, wait till you see the famous ones from Panicarola. Probably just watch them from the balcony here as Panicale looks over Panicarola.” Finally! Some people with a real fireworks tie in. A solid, logical reason for lighting off some major explosions. The story is that some local fishermen, years ago were out doing it the easy way. Easy, but typically illegal way. The way where you throw a bomb overboard, it stuns or kills everything in the vicinity and you go about scooping up what looks good to you. The local equivalent of the ever-popular ”jacking deer” with spotlights as rumored to be practiced in the wilds of Maine.

Italian fireworks festival in central UmbriaBOMBS AWAY
So it seems that the ”fishermen” were really just ”mad bombers” doing this bit of illegal activity when one of their fish bombs went off a bit prematurely. In their boat. Living to tell about it seemed such a miracle, they quickly founded a church, of course, of course, and named it Our Lady of the Bomb. And now, there is a full blown festival of fireworks in honor of those original bad boys and their fireworks. Being saved from aborted criminal activity seems fairly far off the list of usual saintly miracle reasons to start a church. But, who am I to decide when to start a church?

After coffee and that quasi-religious moment, I walked over to city hall and shook hands around for a minute to remind them I’m here and to not forget about my part of town. When are we really going to repave our street? Wasn’t that supposed to be LAST fall? No pressure, just saying I saw the poster with last year’s date on it and you know, wondered. Again.

Back at the bar, one of the town’s Australians needs a doctor. He does what I do when I have a problem. Go to the bar and tell Aldo, the bar owner and head barista. Steve looks like he might have a a good case of oh, I don’t know, leprosy or something. Nice rash, Big Guy. Whew. Someone is wicked allergic to something. The whole bar votes and decides Steve needs to run off to Pronto Soccorso. Pronto.

More September soon to come. Stay tuned to this spot on your dial.

Avoiding Megane Headaches


Here is your helpful travel hint of the day: at some point early in your rental car experience, note whether the car they give you is gasoline friendly or more of the diesel persuasion. This trip, they gave me the same general Renault Megane Diesel I had last summer. Which I then suavely filled with gasoline at the first opportunity. Leaving me and three 14-year-old girls stranded by the side of the road. Sigh. It all worked out fine. Happy to report this slow learner is much older and wiser this time. Not fooling me twice by tucking that Diesel label way around where you literally can’t see it. Well, not until your wife and the tow truck guy (who are both tasked with rescuing you) helpfully point it out. Actually a very nice car, big and roomy and behaves very well under all circumstances. Other than the aforementioned operator-error incident.


Saw this interesting house near Gioiella today, the first of many to hear Giancarlo tell it. We did a drive-by preview of two others and seeing yet three more tomorrow. This one had nice sunny exposure, good views; intown Gioiella is always a plus for me. Was renovated and ready to move into. Details to come.
Will be busy getting pictures up as soon as digitally possible. Would have done more this evening but friends called and painted a lovely picture of the mountains of fun food we would be consuming. Believe there was mention of two kinds of fish, fresh bread, bean soups and multiple desserts including, but in no way limited to, poached pears. Oh yes, we grabbed a coat and away we flew.