the pomegranates tale
PANICALE, Umbria– True Confession: I was raised on a farm in Iowa. You could tell I wasn’t a native Umbrian? What gave me away? Oh, that accent thing. I’m WORKING on it. But imagine this farm boy’s surprise to find himself watching a big John Deere tractor going back and forth in the distance on a lazy fall afternoon. It is far enough away that I can’t hear its distinctive putt-putting but I know John Deere green and yellow when I see it, even at this distance. But how strange and disorienting. Instead of watching the tractor from a back stoop in Conrad, Iowa, at its level across a wide, flat plain – we’re looking down on the fields and the tractor. We see the Deere almost like a bird would see it from high up in our pocket garden’s terrace.

Even more surprising, it is late October and we’re still in short sleeved shirts and lounging around on lounges we thought had long been put away for the season. The sun is trying to dry some clothes on the line but first it has to work its way through the big fig tree at the end of the garden. FIGS! Can you imagine? I led such a sheltered life that I’m not sure I’d ever seen or tasted a fig outside a Newton, until we found we had a tree full of them in our own yard here. We missed them this year as they are more of a September sort of fruit. They have long since taken that final suicide dive from their high branches, splatting their gooey selves all over the stone terrace there and long since been cleaned up by long-suffering Anna. I do hope she took a few bushels home with her as a preemptive defensive move ahead of the purple rain of fruit. Look at us. We’re half complacent about figs. Yawn, oh, figs. Didn’t we always have a fig?

pomegranate on the bush in umbrian gardenHERE’S A NEW CROP TO SELL AT OUR ITALIAN FARM STAND?

Right next to the fig is this year’s big surprise. Our pomegranate. How the heck did that get there? Is it a bush? Could it be a tree? It is higher than my head and wider than it is high, bent over with heavy, dense, baseball-sized, fruit on every side. I cut the fig back to give the pomegranate some sun last year and the greedy little booger filled that space and more and went on a crazy fruit-making spree. Every day the fruit gets redder and the leaves yellower. Getting closer to the way La Foce’s pommes looked the week before. I know they get more winter sun than we do.

Back to my original question? Where do pomegranates come from, Mommy? One of the best things that has ever happened to us is that Elida knew Nico. And she knew he was an architect and a sculptor and a plant lover. And she further knew he had designs on our garden. In typical matchmaker fashion she threw a dinner party to introduce us and we said Heck Yes, Design Away. He did us a selection of the most wonderful plans I’ve ever been privileged to see. Pure genius what he had in mind for this long, skinny, curved terrace hung between two tiny Umbrian streets. It was hard, but we chose one and said do it just like that. Almost. We took out one sculptural rock – too Zen for us I guess and we took out a single plant. The pomegranate. But yet, we have a pomegranate, don’t we?

box of italian pomegranatesNico objected to both deviations to the plan, but we won him over eventually and proceeded with out those two items. For a couple months. Our frequent guests and long longtime friends, the Traveling Lambarts, arrived about that time. What great houseguests! They even weed! Nico joined them for weeding and pruning a few times that spring when the garden was so young. And before they left they wanted to surprise us with a gift for the garden. They consulted the maestro and who appeared to think about the idea for a minute and then said, You know, I think a pomegranate would look great. Right about here. Under the fig. Of course he was right. It is perfect. Thank you, Nico. Thank you, Lamberts. Thank you, Elida. It took a village. But we got pomegranates.

All the pomegranates in the photos here were grown and photographed in our Umbrian Garden of Eatin’. We ate the one in the title right on the spot. Some friends were over we had some wine and cheese and what the heck will you have some fruit with that? Why yes, we will. And did. The rest of the “harvest” is in that box you see here and hopefully drying out to become guilded Christmas decorations another year. Is that just too Martha Stewart? Thats what I thought, too, but we’re trying it anyway.

Our goal for ’07: to keep thinking warm holiday thoughts all year round!

See you in Italy,


Uh, oh. Company Coming.

This is another WileyReport. This was a lost file from last month’s September Grape Harvest festival.

Today- I did two loads of dishes, one of laundry, spruced up the whole house, took out the trash- please tell me I put it in the right dumpster! Swept the garden, scraped all the dropped figs of the ground- there were bucket loads. And buckets more appeared as soon as I had finished. Went to Castiglione del lago for gas and phone money. Worked on a web page.
Went to the piazza and struggled through a conversation with Simone at the bar to ask if there was music in town tonight- there wasn’t -but no matter, but I understood what he said and tonight I go to Bertonni to see Celia.
But man was I tired- never underestimate how long chores can take- if you’re not really sure what you’re doing!

I was just heading over to Celia’s to watch a folk music concert- which actually turned out to be a comedy play and town Cena! When I found a note on my door saying PAULETTE WAS IN TOWN!!!! YEAH!!!!!! The gray clouds don’t matter- life is good I got another party buddy, and an arty, fun up for anything one at that! So I make my way down to her door- and ambush poor, fresh-from-San Francisco-via-a-week-in-Paris, Paulette into coming with to Celia’s- and of course she was up for it. We went to a great Cena (town dinner of Pici and Duck) near Celia’s and then headed home before it got to late, only to go back to Paulette’s and stay up drinking wine and talking until 3.00! Excuse me- how did that happen?! (photo is the kitchen ladies in their official shower caps resting post cena . . .near Bertoni. By Paulette and her trusty Sidekick cell phone)

Then Friday was the day of reckoning- More tidying, more website, at 6.00 Paulette came over for some snacks and wine- and to send me on my way to Rome- alone- to pick up Daniel. OH MAN! Well the drive there was fine; I made it all the way, with surprisingly good radio, and little traffic. Daniel got it at 12.45 from London we were on our way back by 1.00- late but fine.

. . . And then our trip took a little detour! Well, y’know it is such an easy ride back from Rome, and it really is, especially in the daytime- but at night there are a lot of things you took for granted in the day.

Like it’s only my 5th day driving in Italy. I’m driving a new car (see photos) that has loads of new dash instruments, a little distracting green light in the rear view mirror, a massive overhead skylight. Italian direction signs that look different at night. Loads of twists and turns, and an exit that goes straight! While the main road takes a jagged badly signed veer. Then when you take that exit, and realize it seconds too late, because its easy to see in the day, but invisible at night, you think you’ll be able to just hop right back on…oh no! You drive 20 minutes until you see a hotel, run in and teach your boyfriend how to say- bona sera, parla inglese? Oh thank goodness the answer is yes! He tells us how to get back onto the main rd. where I see a sign for the airport and think ’ forget it I’m starting over’! So back at Fiumicino we begin again. I tell Daniel to take a nap- and head out- and I feel relaxed, until I see my knuckles are white and my jaws clenched- ok relax girl, there is no traffic and its easy- stay focused- don’t look at the clocks that say 3.30- eeek! But we make our way back and are home by 5.00 am. When Daniel suggests I open my birthday presents! Yeah! I feel my second wind! So we do that, and they are all great! Really lovely and I even got a jacket which I needed as it’s a touch cold and rainy lately, but never mind that, because after all the excitement of the night before- we are ready for the Festa!!!


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.


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.

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.


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.