The Raffle Ticket

 

 

photo courtesy of Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association

photo courtesy of Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association

(The very, very last post)

This month, the Seattle International Film Festival hosted “Cinema Italian Style.”  This was a ten-day event featuring 17 current Italian movies.  The mayor of Perugia attended as well as several Italian actors and directors from the films.  We haven’t had a lot of opportunities (besides eating) to really participate in anything Italian here in Seattle during these past five months, so we bought a couple tickets.  We also knew there was going to be a raffle with the grand prize being a one-week, all-expense paid trip for two to Perugia.  I bought five chances.

We attended opening night with the boys to watch a really fun movie about the adventures of a quirky Sardinian soccer team.  Then tonight Matt and I bought tickets for the closing feature, La Grande Bellezza.  Traffic was the pits, and we got there at the last minute.  We found two seats up front.  After thanking the sold-out theater for its record breaking support of this year’s festival, the announcer wheeled out the cage full of  hundreds of raffle tickets.  The suspense grew.  The ticket was drawn, and my name was read out loud.  I won.

It’s been five hours, and my heart is still beating at a dangerous pace.  Although I always knew that someday we would go back, I was thinking more like a decade.

Matt and I get to return to Perugia within the next year.

 

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The Sweet Life

The final post . . .

Last week we visited family in Vida, Oregon.  My parents grow hazelnuts in the McKenzie Valley.  Together with my aunts and uncles’ orchards next door, they cultivate over 100 acres of trees.  We figured that a short stay on the farm could serve as a reunion with what we love about Italy: local, fresh food, family crowded in every direction and, of course,  il dolce far niente (the Italians’ poetic motto meaning “pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness,” literally “the sweetness of doing nothing”).

It was a week of inspiration and creation.  It was a tribute to the food and lifestyle and culture of the Italians.  It was a canvas for remembering our favorite parts of the year abroad.

When we arrived, we took a sunny passeggiata around my parents’ place.  Then next door, my Aunt Heidi and Uncle Tom brought us to their Italian inspired terrace which they named, the Piazza. Later, we toured the gardens before settling into the kitchen where we made many of our favorite Umbrian (and Oregon) recipes including six different gelatos, daily pasta dishes and a tribute to roasted Umbrian wild boar.

The terrace with a thousand details (all made by hand).

The new Piazza with a hundred Italian details.

Our favorite corner of the piazza was the copper griffin that Tom made in honor of his experience in Perugia.

Our favorite corner of the Piazza is the copper griffin which my uncle made by hand in honor of his experience in Perugia with us last winter.

A crop of fagioline, the prized legume from Lake Trasimeno.  (Tom and Heidi snuck home a handful for their garden.  I was amazed with the result!)

Out in the garden: A crop of fagioline, the prized legume from Lake Trasimeno. (Tom and Heidi snuck home a handful to plant in their garden. I was amazed with the result!)

Tom cooked the pork shoulders all day.  They were perfect.

Close to wild boar! Tom cooked these pork shoulders all day.

Similar to our Sunday excursions in Italy, this trip to my parents’ provided opportunities to practice the concept of farm-to-table:

Similar to our Sunday trips in Italy, this excursion provided for many lessons in practicing the concept of farm to table. Aunt Paula taught Ray to fish.  He caught a trout for dinner.

The McKenzie River flows through their backyard.  Aunt Paula took Ray fishing, and he caught a trout for dinner.

Tom adds foraged chanterelle mushrooms and garden artichokes to his pot of Italian meat and tomato sauce.

Tom added foraged chanterelle mushrooms, home grown tomatoes and garden artichokes to his pot of Italian sauce.

After knocking apples off the trees, we pressed and canned 42 quarts of apple cider and left one large jug to ferment.

Fruit trees line the driveway.  After gathering apples, we pressed and canned 42 quarts of cider and left one large jug to ferment for a breakfast buzz.

Heidi fills jars after the guys press the fruit.

Heidi fills the jars while the guys press a wheelbarrow full of fruit.

My mom picked blackberries and made many pies with the boys.

My mom picked blackberries and made many pies with the boys.

Although the salmon aren’t swimming through Vida, my dad brought some to the farm and taught us how to cure and smoke them for our pasta dinner.

Although the salmon aren’t swimming through Vida, my dad brought some to the farm and taught us how to cure and smoke them for our pasta dinner.

When the temperature drove us out of the kitchen, my dad took the boys to his orchard for golf lessons, archery and paint ball.  Later,  Tom and Heidi led rafting trips down the river.

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We concluded the week with another late dinner on the Piazza.  Additional family members joined us.  In remembrance of Luke, we illuminated the table with candles which we brought from some of our favorite churches throughout Italy.

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The “Year in Perugia” was really over in June.  These lingering articles are just my arms reaching back for a little more.  But honestly, it’s time to sign off.  And with gratitude to the gods of Neat Round Numbers, this is the 100th post, a good place to conclude.

Thanks for following.  Thanks for checking in.  And thanks for being a part of it.  It was exhilarating to have so many readers.  I loved the comments and emails and all the appreciation.  I savored each compliment and treasured each word of encouragement.  Without feedback, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

With a bittersweet sigh and a thousand memories of la dolce vita . . .

Arrivederci,

Jill

Postscript:  Last February, a reader got in touch with me.  He is a professor of classical studies at DePauw University.  He told me he was interested in taking his family to Italy for a year and wanted to visit and ask some questions.  We invited him over for lunch and quickly become friends.  He is now living with his wife and three sons in Perugia, just blocks away from our old apartment.  They are documenting their year on a blog titled Shades of Umbria.  Tune in.

A winter lunch with Pedar in our Perugian apartment.

A winter lunch with Pedar in our Perugian apartment.

Longing

It seems like every time I close my eyes and imagine Perugia, via Mazzini or our apartment, I can’t stop this awful ache from welling.  The details are easy to picture, yet it’s so inaccessible now.  It feels far, far away.

I had a good year, a great year; maybe the best year of my life.  It felt purposeful, alive, delicious, challenging, melodic and stunningly gorgeous.   I felt a lightness I haven’t felt in six years.  I miss those feelings, but mostly, I just miss being surrounded by Italy.

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It was a life-changing experience, and I was hell of lucky to have it.

Yet, truth be told, while I’d like to beam myself there for a couple hours every day, it’s not where I want to live with my family permanently.  It’s not even where we want to live for another year.  For the boys, the familiarity of friends and the freedom of a grassy back yard have rekindled their social lives and athletic interests.  For Matt, the stimulation of work and the warm embrace of the English language have elevated him to the top of his game.  We are here, to stay, by choice.

So now it’s time for the busy work of transition, or rather, integration: How to take all the richness of a year of art, tradition, and history along with that proud, food-oriented, family-centric, festive, passionate lifestyle and make it work here . . . in the suburbs of the East Side . . .

A couple ideas:

Clear cut the tangle of blackberry bushes at the end of the street and build a piazza where the local farmers could sell their grapes and cheeses and where a dapper barista could pull espresso for the neighbors (no caramel macchiatos).  A church, too.  I don’t really care what religion it is as long as there is a bell tower.

Offer Italian in the Bellevue public schools.  While it’s practically useless in the Pacific Northwest, it’s beautiful.  And there’s something to be said for speaking beautifully.

Throw annual medieval festivals in the neighborhood and hold raucous horse races with other neighborhoods.

Have all the working moms and dads come home for lunch and fill the streets with the aroma of garlic and tomatoes and the sound of pouring wine.

Decide on a neighborhood patron saint or some kind of folk hero with whom we can identify ourselves.

Honk our car horns more.

Transitions take time, and while we sort out the details of change, we count our blessings for the two most important aspects of Italian lifestyle going for us:  This hill is full of awesome neighbors (talented, creative, very smart, etc.) and most importantly, we have a community fountain.

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Travels at Home

One of my favorite routines during our year in Italy was packing a bag on Saturday and heading into a new town for the night.  Even though we arrived feeling disoriented, after a long walk and a good meal, we would begin to settle in and recognize the patterns.  While each place has its own traditions, history and culinary specialties, there were also similarities: there was the central piazza, the cathedral, the landmark fountain, the Renaissance masterpiece  and the acclaimed cafe.  With guidebooks, a map and notes in hand, we would hit the highlights.

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

We were missing the accessibility of weekend adventures until it dawned on us that we can travel and explore from our home in Washington. So last week, we bought a local guidebook on Pacific Northwest road trips and ticked off two from the list: Tom headed to Lake Chelan with some friends while Matt, Ray and I drove up to Mt. Rainier for wilderness hikes and sub-alpine scouting.  Meticulously following the suggested route of our book, we were often surprised to encounter parallels with a typical trip in central Italy.

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we followed the advice of our guidebook and stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!)  The towns claim-to-fame is an old church (of all things).  The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history.  It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world!

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!) The town’s claim-to-fame is an old church (how familiar). The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history. It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world.

Meticulously following the itinerary of our Lonely Planet guide, we stopped in Ashford for espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse.  We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us, “Bacon Brown Sugar Latte.”

Next stop: Ashford for a shot of espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse. We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us:

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Italy isn’t the only place full of ancient beauty.  This tree was born in the 1200s.

The nature museum at Longmire.  Italy isn’t the only place full of old stuff; this tree trunk was born in the 1200s.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami sandwiches at Richsecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami paninis at Ricksecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

While Ranger Anne didn't hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

While Ranger Anne didn’t hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

We never made it to Terni's famous waterfall Italy, but the cascading waters of Narada were spectacular.

We never made it to Umbria’s famous cascades in Terni, but the Narada waterfall under Mt. Rainier was spectacular.

There were also many moments that could never be duplicated in Italy.  Ray climbed trees on a hike at Longmire.

Singularly Washington.

Fish

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Umbria is the only landlocked region on the peninsula of Italy.  It’s safe to say that Umbrians are not famous for their fish.

As an American, I’m used to eating fish or any other food that traveled many miles.  I’ve had Dungeness crab in Chicago, sushi in Idaho, and Rhoda Island oysters (in Seattle).  A few extra miles don’t bother me, so I was curious to try the fish offerings in Perugia.  Every day, we passed a beautiful fish market on the way to the fruit stand.  Clearly, they were Umbrian and didn’t seem to have a problem with the seafood.   So this spring, after nine months, I finally stopped by.

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La Perla Nera is a family business.  Signora Patrizia, Signor Franco and their son Michael are open four days a week.  I loved them immediately.  They were funny, confident and always generous.  They prepared my order with great care, always gutting, skinning, filleting and slicing it to perfection before tossing in a handful of parsley.  And they never let me leave without a detailed recipe.  I decided right away that I would try every fish dish they could teach me.  I started with spaghetti and clams.  Then I made fried calamari, salmon rolls, fish coquettes, swordfish sandwiches, fried filets, marinated squid with olives, fish with cognac, and fish soup.  I kept a list of the greats and politely forgot the not-so-greats.  The more I tried, the more recipes Signora Patrizia gave me.

calamari

calamari

a sword fish and zucchini sandwich

a swordfish and zucchini sandwich

I’m getting close to unpacking the last of our belongings.  The other day I found the stack of La Perla Nera recipes, and so tonight, with very, very, very fond memories of this awesome family and their fish market, I am going to make my favorite dish: fish balls (I promise, they taste way better than they sound.)

To make fish balls, you need an assortment of fish.  I can’t find the Italian fish that La Perla Nera sells, so I’m using ling cod, Alaskan rock fish, and Petrale sole.  Combined, the fish should total a pound.  To prepare, lightly sauté them in oil and garlic.  Gently break apart with a fork as they cook.  Then add about 4 or 5 gulf prawns that have been whirled in a food processor.   Add salt to taste.  Remove the cooked fish and prawns from heat and allow it to cool.  Then add a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley, an egg and bread crumbs until the mixture just starts to hold together.  Mix with your hands and then form into rounds the size of golf balls.  Fry the balls in oil and then add to a pot of marinara sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.   Serve as is or toss with spaghetti.

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La Bottega

The physical year in Perugia is over.  The inspiration to write and photograph has taken a monumental dip, but I’m not quite ready to end the blog . . . almost, but not quite.  There are a couple places I especially miss and a few corners of the city that I’d still like to post. Like this:


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La Bottega is one of our favorite spots in Perugia.  It’s a tiny four seat sandwich counter that serves the best selection of cured meats and cheese we ever had.  The selections are titled in Perugian dialect with Italian translations.  The offerings are simple and pure.  The menu includes 16 sandwiches and two combinations of meat and cheese boards.  The only variation was on Thursday when Signor Geraldo added slices of seasoned, roasted pork to the menu.

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We ate here more than any other place in town.  Matt and I stopped by at noon way before most self-respecting Italians would consider eating lunch.  There would be a couple stools available where we could watch the meat being sliced and assembled between a nice Umbrian bun.  We would order a glass of wine or a local beer and feel outrageously lucky for this perfect Italian hour before the kids came home from school.

Translation:  happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

Translation: happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

It became a special occasion place too. On November 22, when every American we knew was waking up to Thanksgiving (and not a soul in Perugia recognized its significance) Matt and I walked down to La Bottega and ordered a plate of dried sausage, prosciutto, capocollo, ciauscolo, coppa, mortadella and pecorino cheese. We felt very thankful.

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During the last week in Italy, when our bags were packed and we were preparing to close the door on our year in Perugia, we took the kids to La Bottega for their first time and then ate there three lunches in a row.

And now that we are back, La Bottega’s menu sits in our kitchen inspiring me to search out the best available ingredients and begin to assemble a repertoire of sandwiches that I can recreate at home.  So far, I’ve found one product that makes the cut, salamis from Olli Salumeria.

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Culture Shock

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We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened.  It’s like a book we read or a dream we had.  Time feels distorted.  I feel disconnected.  It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight.  Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there.  But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes.  Then there are phantom sounds.  Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance.  This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing.  But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.

A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip.  I think I understand.  When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different.  We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings.  Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door.  However, these little tasks can surprise me.  My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning.  When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all.  My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home.  And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me.  And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there.  I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard  mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.

I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives.  I want to make the experience of our last year part of me.  I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.

I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today.  The first was with Sara.  When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms.  It was emotional and a little loud.  It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year.  It felt really good.  Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian.  So I quickly jumped in.  I told them I had just returned from Italy.  I asked where they were from.  We talked about Sicily and Umbria.  I helped them find the right cheese.  Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour.  We kept talking and talking.  Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am!  They are my new friends.  When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.