Live. And Learn.

typical Italian dinner at moms Panicale, Umbria, ItalyPANICALE, PADOVA, TORINO, Italy–If we live to be a hundred, we will never get to the point on the Generosity Chart where Italians seem to be born. Like a Ferrari, the average Italian has some extra gears they can shift into, at a moment’s notice. They make it look so easy and effortless,

A couple examples. We were in Padova, years ago, at our Italian foreign exchange student’s home for the first time. We were seeing the house and doing the polite, “What a lovely home. Love that painting! Gorgeous flowers here on the balcony . . .” Which was all fine, until we got ready to leave and they had elaborately wrapped gifts for all of us. And after those individual be-ribboned and bowed packages had all been opened, there was one more. A bonus round “for the family.” It was the framed oil painting we’d admired on the wall. You have to be careful out there, admiring things.

And food. Be careful there too. That tide may only flow one direction. We were almost coaxed into a food coma at our friends in Torino’s home. They fed us like Christmas geese. “This is wonderful, but three helpings is fine, please, thank you” didn’t seem to work. And so we were lovely and polite, and kept on eating our way through the food pyramids in front of us.

Later that vacation we invited them to a similar feast in their honor at a place we were renting near Sarzana. They looked at the food we put in front of them, and looked at us like we were a tiny bit deranged. “What is all this food they asked?” They ate a bit of this and a bit of that. You know, normal people portions.

naturamorta italian still life with wine, grapes, tomatoes, melonSo, if you think you can “get even” or return the favor, that would be a rookie move. Here in the states we hear people say “Oh, we owe so and so a dinner. They had us over and we need to pay them back.” This is patently impossible in Italy. Repeat after me: You can not out-gift or out-feed Italians.

We ate so much marvelous food on our most recent trip. But I’m quite sure my favorite was Lunch at Bruno’s Mom’s. She’s ninety, her garden is vast, and lunch was equally so and fit for a king. The home-made tagliatelle was the best ever. I told her so and she waved me off. This? I just tossed this together” They double-teamed me. They had me at the end of the table, between them. When I looked to my left at mom while we talked, Bruno on my right, would fill one of my glasses, with the more of the fine red wine he made from her grapes. If I looked back his way, mom would upend a serving dish of pasta or salad on my still-full plate.

And even though we were all going to a town-wide Festa Dell’uva dinner that night together, Bruno and I still got a to-go box. The grapes are mom’s, as are the tomatoes. The melon? Bruno and I liberated it from a field outside Paciano that had been mechanically harvested. They missed a couple. We didn’t.

pacianopozzo pozzo or well, outside Paciano, Umbria, ItalyMoral of the story: When you are up against the kindest, most generous people on the planet, you cannot compete. To have an Italian friend is to be constantly in debt to them. You can but live and learn. And maybe–if you are good, very good in this life – you may get to come back. As an Italian.

See you in the next life,

Stew Vreeland

Man about town. A brush with passion.

PANICALE, Umbria–To say Bruce likes to paint while he’s in Italy, is like saying The Pope has a bit of a religious background. Bruce has stayed at our place in Panicale before and I’ve always admired his painting of Panicale. But, I’ve never been there when he was there. It was fun to catch him in action. And easy, too. Here’s why: Panicale is small. And he’s out on the street, in one spot, painting until he’s satisfied he’s got it right. And that was true every day unless it was pouring buckets. And we knew when night had fallen, because he would actually come home then.
manabouttown Bruce Kidman painting up a storm in Panicale, Umbria, Italy
But lunch? Not so much. We’d be eating something fun, basking in the lunch-time, garden sun, plucking a fresh fig off the tree to nibble on while reflecting on the flowers close at hand or the lake in the distance, when I’d realize Bruce was MIA. “No problem” Kiki would say, with a dismissive wave of her hand “he’s painting.” She was right, he could not be lured away from his art. It didn’t matter if he was a few houses away, or on the other side of town, he made it clear, he’d much rather paint than eat. He’d pull a candy bar out of his pocket and keep on painting up a storm.

I so admire the passion. And the paintings that are the tangible results of that persistent passion. Complimenti, Bruce, complimenti, pure.

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

THE WORLD GOES ROUND. AND COMES BACK TO PANICALE. AGAIN.

artichokeoil370PANICALE & NEW ENGLAND¬–-It is interesting how things work out. In ways you never expect. James and Elizabeth from nearby NH wrote us here awhile ago and we went back and forth the way we do in email. As often happens when the subject is Italy, it seemed we had a lot in common and so naturally we were happy to find our spring trips overlapping. We found them in person at Aldo’s almost as soon as we rolled into town. Just one more reason to love life in a small Umbrian town.

Both James and Elizabeth artists and “Lets keep this party going. We’ll see you in Massachusetts! That show opening was yesterday. The gallery was mobbed, the work was breathtaking, and it was selling like hot cakes.

SEE THE WORK. HUGE, HIGH CONCEPT SHOW.
He did a master work once a week, for a year, blogging about it the whole time. And the carrot was: when the work was done, they would treat themselves to several well-deserved weeks in Panicale. When we were there, they were done with the art part, but going back to prepare for the show.

They had several friends there at the show who had been to Panicale and at a certain point some of us were standing in front of this painting shown here. We were admiring it and saying “Isn’t that Lake Trasimeno? And the view from Masolino’s balcony? We were all locked in that guessing game when Elizabeth said “I’m not sure about the view. But I do know the artichokes are from Panicale.” “We got them at Linda’s!” Linda’s Bottega Marconi is just steps from our house, her husband Bruno just fixed our rental Lancia, (scroll down one blog) and their daughter Diletta is coming to stay with us in a few weeks. Yes, we sure did know who she was talking about. And there were Linda’s artichokes immortalized forever in oil on canvas. Che piccolo mondo.
midge elizabeth italian painting in gallery
One of the great joys and unexpected surprises of doing what we do here, is the people we’ve met over the years. This weekend just proved the point once again.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland

FAILURE TO LANCIA . . .

or . . .

HOW RENTING A CAR IN ITALY TAUGHT ME TO SOLVE PROBLEMS. With my billfold.

at the lancia grill, panicale, umbriaPANICALE, Umbria, Italy – It’s a Saturday. And a civilized, but somewhat early departure. We’re spending the day with Paul and Betty. He’s an Italian wine importer back in the States. They had just blown in from Rome for two intense weeks of wining and dining their way across Italy. And on this particular day we had our tourist plates heaping full. So, chop, chop, let’s go.

We jumped in and fired up the renta-Lancia and . . . WHAT’S THAT NOISE? Better yet, what’s that eerie silence? Key goes in here, turns to the right. Still. Way too quiet. Especially in Lancia Central. No door lights, no seat belt warning ding, ding dings, no radio hum. No, nothing.

Maybe it’s jet lag but Paul’s as baffled as I am. And he has two Prima Donna Lancias he drives daily in Maine. But yet, he throws up his hands at the utter lack of logic here. Did I mention that this car is literally brand new? Exactly zero miles on it when he picked it up in Rome. Zero. Picked it up, turned it on, drove it here non-stop and parked it.

So. There we were. Standing in the shadow of the tower of the contessa’s palazzo, kicking pieces of gravel around the parking lot. And recalculating our finely tuned plans for the day. And thinking of the tone of voice we hope Paul can take with the rental company when he gets them on the phone. About that time, our neighbor Bruno drives by in his 30-year-old, used-to-be red, Fiat Panda. I wave my hi-how’s-it-going, garden-variety wave. I really couldn’t do the omg-save-us! wave. He fixed our howling mad, guest potty two days ago. Gratis. And well, I just couldn’t seem this needy, this soon. Which worked out fine. He waved and kept going, anyway.

There is a God. And he’s got his avenging angel Bruno backing up the one-way street toward us. “Che succede ragazzi?” What’s happening? Where are we off to? Since you ask: We’re headed nowhere, Bruno. Not with this rig. “Open the hood” he says. Ok, I guess we could have gone that far, maybe. He points at the battery, gives us a “What on earth did you do THAT for?” look, rolls his eyes and said “AntiFurto.” Which becomes our new fun Word of the Day and means anti-theft device. And it is what Bruno is calling that iPad sized thing hanging off to one side of the battery, just bristling with important-looking wires. Yes, I was gently nudged out of Iowa State’s Mechanical Engineering program at a young age. It is clear even to me that the idea spot for this AntiFurto to be would on the top of the battery.

gmb pensive Midge castiglione del LagoSo, why was it laying down there in the first place? How did that happen? Which is exactly what Bruno still wants to know as he picks it up, mounts it back on the battery, and cranks its big lever, locking it back in place. He makes that international hand motion sign for “Uh, turn the key?” We do that and it is all systems go. Thanks, Bruno. He shook his head, gave us a sympathetic “good luck” wave over one shoulder and he was gone. Before we can think of some other trouble for him.

And we were left thinking: surely we could have been so much more manly and guy-like if we’d just had coffee first? Yeah, that’s it. So off we go to GMB (in the zona industriale, Castiglione del Lago) to solve that problem. Which, if you haven’t been there, trust me, GMB is sufficient grounds for getting on a plane and curling up with that inflight magazine for a few hours. For me, it is the sweet, pastry-filled center of the known coffee-drinking world.

Happily our truculent Lancia actually got us there. Coffee’d up, there remained the one true test, can it get us back? As it turns out, no, actually. To be fair, it did start when we asked it to. And we were soon barreling up, up the twist-y turn-y hill road past Villa Le Mura when Paul swears he heard a little mechanical “THOCK.” Motivation ceased, our theater went dark. Which was an awkward moment since, as I implied, we going UP hill. Did our AntiFurto fall off again? Is there some sort of fighter jet ejection seat devise that blows this big honking device physically off the top of the battery at road speed?

antifurto italian for anti theftHmm. Did you know they have dayglow roadworker vests in the side pockets of these cars for just this kind of event? We figured that out well after I’d guided Paul backwards down a hill, into a farm driveway totally commando, sans light up vest. Next time, we will use the vest, I think pessimistically.

Safely off the road and parked in the tall grass, we now know enough to pop the hood and sure enough, the rascally Anti-Fur Toe has jumped ship, again. We do what Bruno did, again. It starts, again, and we were soon on the phone telling the rental company to park this one where the sun don’t – oh just get us another one. Please.

havinga-gas-with-lanciaThey were happy to trade us it turns out. But only if we would take life and limb in hand and drag this bad dog to Arezzo. Arezzo?! I’ve been as lost as I ever want to be in Arezzo. It’s an actual town. It may even be a city. I remember well trying to worm my way thru Arezzo to their monthly antique fair a year ago. So, I was tepid about adding this side jaunt to a program that had already taken on shades of Amazing Race reality TV show.

We got there. But only due to Paul being able to drive and coordinate with his smartphone’s nav system at the same time. The system worked. We arrived at the car rental office. We had just talked to them and now the office was securely locked? When we found the operator, and did the key swap, he said, pointing, that our car was “down by the city park.” And yes, yes it was. Right under the Circus Coming to Town billboard was the twin of the Lancia we rode in on. Same color, same model. But yet. We have ignition! The key turns AND the motor turned on.

But, so did the annoying Danger Orange light on the dash shaped like Aladdin’s Lamp. We realized this about half way back across Arezzo, headed out of town. Something new to not relax about. OK, page 22 of the manual, something about that being the Must-Change-Oil-Right-Now light. Oh, good, pop the hood. Well, it’s got oil. Full as a tick, in fact. And you know what? We are so not stopping to change the oil on this back-up rental beater.

Later that same day, by then more closely approximating midnight, we were coming back from a seven course feast at a friend’s osteria in Siena, when Paul said, “Huh, look at that. No more warning light!” To which I was able to proudly reply, “I know. I fixed it” “Where was I?” Paul said unbelieving. “How’d you do that?”

“I fixed it with my billfold,” I replied. He gives me a look. Then looks back at the dash where he notices my billfold propped up in front of the light.”

Another travel problem solved. You’re welcome.

See you in Italy!

Stew Vreeland
pinkpoppie
PS: As you can see we did stop to smell the poppies in the midst of all these adventures. Worth whatever it takes to get to that sweet spot, isn’t it?

SHOPPING. FOR A MOM. ON A RUN UP TO MOTHERS DAY IN ITALY.

MONTEPULCIANO, SIENA, ETC ITALY – We paid for this holiday in many ways. Do not go shopping with a mom at this time of year. Especially if she is your wife. Not on the day before Mothers Day. The operative phrase seemed to be “well, tomorrow is Mothers Day” What can you say, facts are facts. You might as well release your grip on your credit card for a minute and start picking bags and Sherpa-ing them to the car. That was our day in Montepulciano. And Siena, too, now that I think of it. Glorious, non-stop sunshine kind of day.

saintmadonna, poggi, umbria, italyThe actual day of Festa della Mamma dawned dark and sort of stayed that way. So we took a trip to nearby Poggi to see friends’ reno progress. Their house project shares a painterly and pastoral hilltop at the edge of Poggi with a tiny temple-like brick church. Its always been closed the many times we’ve been there. But this day it was open. They shouldn’t do this when tourists are loose in the area. You know what they say? Permesso? And in they come.

From the outside, this church-ette has a quietly abandoned look about it. But inside it is somewhat grand and ornate and seems ready for business. In fact there had been a baptism that very day. Which was why it was open. The church’s cleaning lady in no nonsense black apron, much to the annoyance of her leather jacketed son, ran and got us laminated Virgin Mary cards oblivious to her sons dark looks, beetled brow, the motor running on his car, just outside the door. The two of them perfect cartoon characters. A brooding devil and a beaming angel. One for each shoulder. We said our “la ringrazias” and backed out.

The next day, back in Panicale, our cleaning lady and good friend Anna had her purse’s contents spread out on our madia, rifling thru papers of all sizes and shapes, searching for the one with the hours she had worked for us written on it. Like a card shark dealing from a familiar deck, she moved past receipts, souvenirs, and what is this? Yes, it is a laminated Saints Card, not unlike ours. Which she held up for our edification. I pulled down our card from where I’d stuck it into the edge of the mirror frame and handed it to her. Whereupon it was promptly and affectionately kissed.

Nice to have cards like the other kids.

Here’s the card, and what Stew thinks it says. This is our translation, we welcome yours.

saintpreghiera, card from church in Poggi, Umbria, ItalyOUR REQUEST, OUR PRAYER

Remember, o most pious Virgin Mary, that there is not anyone in the world that ever has turned to you for your protection, implored your for your help and asked your sponsorship, that has ever been abandoned.

Spurred on as I am by this confidence, I appeal to you oh Mother Virgin of all Virgins, to you I come, eyes full of tears, heart full of sins, prostrate at your feet, begging for pity. Mother of the spoken word please do not despise my voice, but gently listen and grant my wish. Amen.

Indulgence of 300 days granted, every time. Limit one per customer, per month. Now, with new ecclesiastic approval. Collect all seven cards today!

Ok, that last bit was Stew-ified a small amount.

All best to all,

See you in Italy,

Stew Vreeland

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