Wearing the American Flag

All four walls of this boutique were decorated in red, white and blue

Here’s a little follow-up to yesterday’s observations on Italian summer fashion.  I first noticed this trend at the swimming pool, but the colors come out in full force during the evening passeggiata.  Italian men, women, and children are wearing the American flag.  And it’s not just limited to shirts.  The stars and stripes are blazoned on bikinis, scarves, hats, shorts, skirts, tanks, and sweatshirts.  On Corso Vannucci alone, there are at least 10 window displays that include Old Glory apparel.  At first I expected to see familiar slogans attached like, “Don’t tread on me”, “These colors don’t run”, and “Freedom isn’t free”.  Instead, the Italians seem to pair the flag with hearts.  In fact, it’s not uncommon to find the flag in the shape of a heart.

From my limited experience here in Perugia,  I’ve found that the Italians love all things American.  The first question people ask once a conversation starts is, “Where are you from?”  When we answer the United States, they smile; they light up; they often swoon.  “My dream is to see America!” is a typical response.  This favorable impression has been reassuring.  When we arrived, I expected to encounter a little chill.  I didn’t know how the Italians felt about the war, fast food, or giant Starbucks lattes.   I worried there may be blame and negative judgement directed at us.  All those fears are at rest; people are nicer to us once they learn we are American.

However, I still wanted to find out what the flag craze is all about.  So this week, I went into a store and asked the shop keeper if she could explain its popularity.  She said that it started last fall when Ralph Lauren featured the American flag on some of his clothes.  Ralph Lauren is a big deal, she continued.  Italians love his line, so when he added this little design, it exploded.  The flag has been very popular since November.  By the way, I’m not a big follower of the fashion giants like Ralph Lauren.  I tried to learn more about this pivotal fall insignia, but my search has revealed nothing.  Let me know if you’re familiar with what she’s talking about.  Until then, I’ll resist buying Matt a red, white and blue speedo.

This shopkeeper told me she had just recently sold out of this shirt.


La Passeggiata (plus summer fashion)

Corso Vannucci intersects the historic center of Perugia just one block from our apartment.  This is the main street – a pedestrian only street – where Perugians take their evening stroll (la passeggiata).  In every Italian city beginning every night around 6:30 pm, the energy of the town goes up a couple notches.  The women dress up.  The men might dress up.   Friends, couples and families join the crowds for a couple hours before dinner.  It’s the most vibrant time of the day.  We can hear the noise from our windows.  When we look outside, the gelato line extends past the doors.  The outside cafes start to fill up.  The streets crowd with people walking slowly from “Piazza Italia” to “Piazza IV Novembre” and back again.   Often they’ll pause, light a cigarette, and look in a fancy window display or stop for an aperitif (more on that later this week.)  It’s hard to resist.  As we join in the parade, we realize it’s not about the destination (because, like I said, you just go up and down the street).  Instead, it’s about seeing and being seen. It marks the festive transition from the work day to an enjoyable evening.  It’s about getting a second wind before you start cooking in a hot kitchen.  And for us, it’s also an introduction to Italian fashion.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on dressing well (I just got rid of my fanny pack a few years ago) but here are a few observations.

A view towards “Piazza Italia”

A view from the opposite direction, looking towards “Piazza IV Novembre.” (I think metallic is in. And smoking has always been in here in Italy)

Skinny jeans and bright colors.  Pop.



Lots of bright pink polo shirts on the men

Lots of ankle boots with skirts and dresses

Lots of ankle boots with shorts (on the younger crowd)

Coordinating shoes and handbags

Classic black

Big, bold necklaces. Even mom’s shirt is wearing one.

Sandals that cover the ankles.

Animal prints and colorful pants. Also, notice the man’s hat. (More on that tomorrow)

Italian Grocery Shopping: the deli and fruit stand

Il Parma (the deli/grocery)

This is my favorite thing to do in Perugia.  I love grocery shopping.  I love that the fruit stand, fishmonger, butcher, baker, and deli are all within a five minute walk from our apartment.  I only buy what I need for the day  because   1. it’s too tiring to carry more than one bag up our six flights of stairs and  2. it’s just fun.  It’s my best chance to practice the language, meet people, and learn how to cook the local dishes.

This morning I started at Il Parma.  They sell cheeses, cured meats, drinks, pantry foods and dairy.  The owner’s name is Armando.  Near him, Alessandro slices meats, and Francesco rings up the bill. I don’t bring a grocery list anymore, I just tell them what I’d like to make.  Armando told me he’s a great cook, so I just follow his directions.  Today I wanted to make amatriciana, a simple red sauce.  As he weighed seven thick slices of pancetta, he pointed out the type of pasta and tomato sauce I should buy.  Then he explained how it was prepared:   Heat a little olive oil in a pan and then add half of a small chopped onion.  After a few minutes, cut the pancetta into small pieces and let it cook for five minutes with the onion. Then add a generous pour of white wine and turn up the heat until the alcohol burns off.  Next, add a jar of tomato puree and let it simmer for an hour, adding water along the way so it doesn’t get too thick.  When it’s dinner time, cook the spaghetti, and then add the drained noodles to the sauce with plenty of pecorino Romano.

When I left, he said that next time, he’ll teach me how to make perfect spaghetti carbonara.

Then I needed some meats and cheeses for our lunch.  Alessandro sliced a couple of the boys’ favorite choices, then I pointed to an especially dark salumi and asked about it.  “That is bresaola.  It’s cured beef, not pork.  Serve it on a bed of arugula with shavings of Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.  You can finish it with squeeze of lemon,” he explained.

Armando and Alessandro

Bresaola served on arugula

On my way out the door, Francesco gave me the ingredients to make panna cotta, a cream based dessert served with fruit preserves.  He handed me his recipe.

Then I walked to the covered market which has a beautiful array of fruit and vegetable stands.  I usually go to Grifo Fruta.  Marcello recognizes us and always offers the boys a peach or a banana.  He gave Ray an entire cantaloup for his birthday.  Again, I don’t bring a list.  I ask him for suggestions.  Lately, I’ve been loving fruit salads, called macedonia.  If that’s what I’m making, Marcello fills a bag with plums, nectarines, kiwis, grapes, pears, peaches, and melon.  He also adds a lemon and an orange for me to squeeze on top.  We had the best macedonia in Mantua last week.  The fruit salad was served in tiny cut-up pieces.  It looked like a bowl full of jewels.  That’s how I’ve been making it here in Perugia.  We toss it with a couple tablespoons of sugar, and it makes a really good dessert.

Ray and I with Marcello at Grifo Frutta


Road Trip (last stop): Mantua

There have been a couple spontaneous decisions during this little trip, one of them being our  final destination.  When we asked for suggestions before leaving Bellagio, the waiter, hotel manager and pool guy unanimously agreed we should visit Mantua (Mantova in Italian.)  So we set off.  Before today, all I knew about Mantua was that Romeo was forced to move there after killing Tybalt.  But now I also know that roast donkey is the local specialty.  And I know what it tastes like, too.

Seeing the sites. Here are the boys in front of the Cathedral of S. Andrea

As soon as we arrived, we booked a tour with Daniele.  He’s a guide we found on the internet.  The first stop was the Cathedral of Sant’ Andrea.  This is a pretty big church for such a small town.  But there’s a good reason.  Daniele explained: Back when Jesus was nailed to the cross, some drops of blood fell to the earth.  They were later collected in a jar and brought to Mantua.  This church was built to house the holy relics.  Unfortunately the containers were lost over the years.  But fortunately, they were found again in a different area in Mantua.  And so another cathedral was built.

Now there are two cathedrals in this small town

We didn’t get to see the blood because there was an earthquake last May and many of the rooms which display art and artifacts are under renovation.  But we’ll be back because this was one of our favorite Italian towns so far.  I loved the tiny winding streets, the four interconnecting piazzas, the pumpkin tortelloni, the sparking red wine , and the lady who owns the hotel where we stayed.  Our one-night excursion turned into two.  But I would have liked to stay for a week.

On Sunday evening, our northern Italian trip ended.  We arrived home to find a dead bat on the living room floor.  Later that night, the power went out.  Matt was able to find the fuse box on the ground floor while I stayed in the apartment.  We communicated with text messages until the proper switch was flipped.  And after hiking back up six flight of stairs, it went off again.  It was definitely time to open that souvenire bottle of lambrusco we brought back from Mantua.

Road Trip (part 2) Bellagio

Filling up at the gas station

After two nights in Bologna, we drove nearly 3 hours north to Lake Como, and after a horrible 30 kilometer drive down a one-lane road with a million turns, we arrived at Bellagio (not the real Bellagio in Las Vegas, but the Italian Bellagio.)  This little town rests at the tip of a lush green peninsula that jettisons into Lake Como.   Our guide books pronounced Bellagio “the prettiest Italian town”.  Truly, there is nothing like it.  The lake is narrow and deep and long.  The cliffs rise from the water into tall mountains.  We are nearly in Switzerland, and it’s easy to imagine how the steep precipices morph into Alps.

A view from our hotel

We spent three nights here.  During the day we swam in the pool with the Germans, Swiss, French, and English.    There was hardly anyone speaking Italian; they must have gone somewhere else for vacation.  (Certainly not Perugia or Bologna.)  But we got along with all the other nice tourists.  An English family taught us a new card game.  It was perfect for the four of us: easy to learn, entailed a bit of strategy and can be played in about 10 minutes.  A hit.  It’s called “Sevens”.  To play, deal out a deck of cards to three or more people.  Arrange your cards in numerical order by suits.  Aces are low.  Whoever has the seven of diamonds begins the game by laying his card face-up on the table thus starting a stack of diamonds which will be played in ascending and descending order.   The player to his left then plays either a six of diamonds by placing it below the seven or an eight of diamonds by placing it above.  He may also set down one of the other three sevens and begin a new pile in that suit.  The game continues clockwise.  Players must add cards in ascending and descending order and by suit.  If someone can’t play, he passes.  The object of the game is to be rid of your cards first.  Strategy is introduced when a player tries to suspend play for the others by holding onto a card.  For instance, if I have more than one option to play, I will decide which card is the most important for others to be able to play, and then hold onto it.  I would choose to play a king before a 10 because a 10 would then allow the jack then queen then king to be played.  Players must play a card if they can.  (No optional passes.)  Hope that makes sense.  Post questions on the comment bar.  Here’s a photo of the game as it nears an end:

Get it?

What Bellagio lacks in ancient ruins, Renaissance influence, and an adventurous atmosphere, it makes up for it all in pretty flowers and great food.  We ate fresh fish caught daily from the lake, the creamiest risotto ever, and a meat sauce that rivaled Bologna’s.  And we always had an appetizer of gelato around 6:00.

Most of the streets in Bellagio are actually wide fights of stairs, like this one. One of our favorite restaurants is on the right with the white table cloths.

Favorite flavors in Bellagio: limon, mint, peach, and dark chocolate

And I’m sure everyone is wondering about George Clooney.  He has a villa somewhere nearby , but we failed to spot him.  We did, however, hear a rumor among the locals that he is selling his house to Tom Cruise.

Road Trip (part 1) Bologna

On the way to Mantua on Strada Provinciale 72

Perugia was feeling empty.  Many stores and cafes are closed till September.  August is the month when Italians pack up their bags and head to the beach. So we thought we’d take a little vacation too (even though we are already on vacation).  Avis gave us a good deal on this Fiat 500, so we rented it for a month.  It’s like a minivan in many ways.  Deciding on an itinerary was hard, so we limited our destinations to northern Italian towns in Emilia Romagna and Lombardy.  With a couple guide books, our GPS, and the camera, we set off for a five-day trip.  (That was seven days ago.  We’re still not back.)

Our first stop was Bologna, birthplace of  . . . bologna!  Yes, the ubiquitous pink lunch meat was invented here under the name “mortadella.”  (However, I think that after the introduction to America, it underwent some unfortunate modifications.)  Curious to sample the real deal, upon arrival, I ordered a plate of mortadella and Parmesan cheese.  It was . . . actually, I was a little let-down.  The Parmesan, however, was wonderful.  It’s made nearby in Parma.

Look beyond the boloney special.  Notice the plate of deliciousness that Ray is eating.  That’s spaghetti Bolognese.  He had a hard time fighting me off.

Bologna has several other specialties as well, one being tortellini.  They are on the menu of every restaurant.  The most common preparation is tortellini in brodo, a simple bowl of ricotta stuffed pasta in a rich, clear broth.  The origin of tortellini is actually pretty interesting.  It turns out that hundreds of years ago (maybe thousands) Venus, the goddess of love and beauty, took a summer vacation to Bologna.  After she checked into her hotel, she decided to have a little nap.  The chef of a nearby restaurant heard that the famous goddess was staying, so he thought he’d introduce himself.  But when he arrived at her door, he got nervous.  Instead of politely knocking, he took a little peek through the key hole.  Venus was asleep on her bed (naked, of course).  The chef caught a glimpse of her belly button and was inspired to commemorate this delicate feature for his dinner.  Thus, tortellini was invented.

Did Venus have an innie or outie?

Besides eating, which we did a lot of in Bologna, we spent time sight seeing.  We visited the Duomo, a massive unfinished church that was originally going to exceed the the size of St. Peter’s in Rome.  However, the church leaders decided to use the money to build Europe’s first university.  But their motives were not entirely scholastic.  The Pope was nervous about the scientific teachings that were taking place in the homes of the local professors.  So the university was built as a way to monitor the lessons and make sure that no courses on astronomy were taught.  (It was scandalous to consider that anything other than Planet Earth was the center of the universe.)  As time went on, however, perspectives evolved.  The university’s reputation expanded, and it became a prestigious center for learning.  One of the most famous rooms in the university is the dissection room.  In here, one can sit around the table where dead bodies were opened up and studied.

The dissection room

Among all these restaurants, markets, and famous buildings sit the two main piazzas in Bologna: Piazza Maggiore and Piazza del Nottuno.  Here we admired the famous fountain of Neptune and his mermaids.  And here, Ray raced across the huge open square trying for a personal best.  His record was 10.4 seconds.

Tom and Neptune’s fountain

Going for a record

Another view of Piazza Maggiore. Apparently, most of the Bolognese are all on vacation too.  Next stop:  Lake Como

Wild Waves of Perugia

Hiking up the hill for another ride

Make no mistake, if it were up to me, I would have chosen a charming medieval hill town to explore, maybe buy a postcard and a glass of wine.  But I’m just one vote.  So on Thursday, we piled in the Fiat and drove to the Tavernella Water Park, just 25 minutes from our apartment.  We arrived at this technicolor oasis in time to get one of the last umbrellas.  The boys quickly put on swim caps and headed up the hill to slide. Matt ordered us a cold glass of sparking wine while I unpacked our beach bag.  A giant portion soon arrived in a keg cup.  And here we played until closing at 7pm.  I humbly admit that it turned out to be the best day we’ve had all week.  The boys were super happy.  And the watersides were fast and fun.

Tom heads down backwards.

a view from our umbrella

yes, that’s a speedo

Required swim caps in all Italian public pools