One of the biggest differences between life in Bellevue, America and our year in Perugia is how much time our family spends together, most notably, how much time Matt and I spend together. It’s working out well; in fact, it’s even better than I expected. However, we each came with a list of individual goals and intentions to cultivate these separate interests. For Matt, these activities revolve around exercise. His first purchase in Italy was a used Cannondale road bike, and his first cycling destination was to Antognolla golf course, just 13 miles outside Perugia. Since then, he takes up to three trips a week through the back roads of the Umbrian hills and past the tiny country towns. After 10 months of hearing about the peace and beauty of these mornings, this week I decided to followed Matt and see what his “alone time” is all about.
by guest blogger Ray
Last Tuesday, Tom went with his class to Pompeii. (It’s a city that was buried a long time ago from ash when Mt. Vesuvius erupted.) So for two days, it was just me, Mom and Dad.
Tom left on a bus at 7am, and I went to school like usual from 8-1. I like school. I’ve made lots of new friends this year. Some are boys and some are girls. My least favorite class right now is Italian. We just finished a unit on journalism. Italians don’t have a “W” in their alphabet, but they still use “the 5 W’s” when studying newspaper articles. They pronounce it like, “oo, wat, were, win and wyee.” We had to read and write lots of articles. I’m glad we are finished. My favorite class is Math. I got a 9 out of 10 on my last test.
Anyway, after school my parents took me to Lago Trasimeno. This is a huge lake in Umbria that’s close to Perugia. When we got there, we found a little pebbly area near the water and skipped rocks for a while. I can skip a rock four times. My dad can skip a rock at least eight times. But my mom can’t skip at all.
We drove further on until we got to a restaurant called Faliero. This is a popular restaurant. Sometimes you have to wait more than an hour to order your food. We got there at 7:30 which is early for Italians, so we only waited 10 minutes. This place is famous for its “torta al testo” which is a triangular sandwich filled with sausages. That’s what I ordered. My mom and dad split one and had a plate of gnocchi too.
After dinner we drove home and watched an episode of Modern Family that we bought on iTunes.
The next day after school, we took another trip. This time we went to a city called Città di Castello. This is a small city about one hour away. First we went to a museum that was in an old tobacco drying warehouse. The whole building was full of paintings by an artist named Burri. He was an Italian captured in WWII by the Americans and put in prison. That’s where he got the idea to do art. His paintings are big and very different than other paintings we have seen in Italy. Most of them were very plain. None of them looked like anything I could recognize. We tried to find faces and heads in the paintings. One of the paintings looked like a human and the face of a dog, but it was hard to tell.
After the museum we started to walk around the city. First we went to a church. Then we walked past an old hospital. Next my legs started to get tired so we got gelato. My favorite flavor is still chocolate. Then we went to another church. It was more interesting than the last one because they had some candles to light. Right outside the church I saw a park and I played there for a while. I liked the swings the best. But my favorite part of the city was climbing the bell tower. There were a lot of stairs and a view on top. We were the only ones there.
We had dinner in Città di Castello and then had to drive back to Perugia to pick up Tom. His bus got in at 10:30 at night. I liked the trips we took. It was fun to see the lake and another city. But one of my favorite parts of Tom’s field trip was being able to use Tom’s Husky plate while he was gone.
Last week we met one of our favorite families for our first and only trip outside of Italy. We stayed together in a stable-turned-apartment near Hyde Park. During our four days, we boated down the River Thames, spent a morning in Kensington Gardens, spun a loop around the London Eye, took a peek at the Crown Jewels, and ate at several pubs with names like “The Dog and Duck,” “Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese,” and “The Queen’s Arms.” We also rode a double decker bus over the Tower Bridge and past Big Ben.
The most memorable excursion was an evening at the Arsenal vs. Everton soccer match. After an all-day search and a shady rendezvous with a scalper, we finally held what we hoped were eight tickets to the sold-out game. We rode a packed subway and arrived at the stadium full of fans wearing red and white. The weather was good, and we were in England watching real football.
Despite the final score of 0-0 and the surprising calm of the crowd, this was a fun night. We bought Arsenal scarves, we cheered, and we ate dinner in our seats. At 10 minutes before the end of the game, we decided to get a head start on the return trip. As we left the stadium we were surprised to join throngs of others running to the entrance to the Tube. The urgency was contagious. We each grabbed a kid and took off sprinting. It was pretty exciting, and at one point, Grace said, “It feels like we’re running for our lives!” Eventually finding a pocket of space to stand on the subway gave us the feeling of victory we had been looking for all night.
The next day we left London (several hours before Margaret Thatcher’s funeral). Our apartment in Paris was hilarious. There were just two rooms, each with a tiny loft. There was a kitchen too, but it was in one of the bedrooms. We decided right away that privacy was not much of an option. We put the kids in one room and the adults in another. The tight quarters were the basis for much of the humor during the rest of our stay.
Paris was all about short stops at big sights during the day and long dinners in small restaurants at night.
The most fascinating aspect of Paris, and the one that left the biggest impression (especially among the kids) were the pickpockets. In fact, the week before, the Louvre unexpectedly closed for a day because the problem was unmanageable. We were further warned by many: Always hold your belongings close. Watch out for people holding a “petition” and asking for signatures because while you peruse the paper and write your name, hands will be busy underneath the clipboard empting your purse. Sure enough, on day one, in the middle of a busy square, we encountered a hoard of young women looking for unsuspecting victims. Our tour guide, Jacques, spotted them first and reminded us to be careful. We watched the attempts from a distance. Later, Jacques showed us all his protective measures.
During the rest of the day, the kids tried to weasel belongings out of the adults’ bags and pockets. I was horrified when they later offered me back my wallet, my lipstick and my sunglasses. The only defense I had for being such easy prey was that I allow my kids closer than I would a stranger. Still, Matt said he would be more comfortable carrying my valuables.
The last morning in Paris started at 3am when we all woke up and caught rides to the airport for an early morning flight. The Halls returned to Seattle and we came back to Perugia. The first thing we did when we got home was stop for a gelato where some of the other customers were speaking French. Later that afternoon, we noticed a new crepe stand on the street outside our apartment. And for dessert, we ate meringues. It felt good knowing that some of Paris followed us home.
The best vacations need some continuation, something to take away;
something to unpack when the missing of those good days is heavy;
something to connect the rhythm and pace of the trip with the patterns and predictability of home;
something more than a souvenir.
The best vacations need to come home.
Last weekend, my parents left Perugia. The day before their flight, my dad made a request. He wanted to learn how to cook pasta ‘ncasciata. This was his favorite meal in Italy, and he wanted it to be his “take-away.”
Pasta ‘ncasciata is a Sicilian specialty given to me by my friend Giulia. Her family is from the south where eggplants are reportedly the most delicious eggplants in the country. The name “’ncasciata” is a Sicilian word that may translate to either “cheese” or “pan.” (There is some disagreement among Sicilians.) Guilia says that both translations make sense since the pasta is cooked with cheese and baked in a pan.
So on the evening of my parents’ last day, we shopped, chopped, fried, simmered and layered until we had made a beautiful pan of pasta.
1 tablespoon of butter for greasing the pan
250 grams (8 ½ ounces) of pasta (macaroni or short penne)
3 tablespoons olive oil plus 2/3 cup
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1/3 diced onion
150 grams (5 ½ ounces) of sausage (remove casing)
150 grams (5 ½ ounces) ground veal
125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of peas, fresh or frozen
½ cup of red wine
500 grams (18 ounces) of purred tomato
125 grams (4 ½ ounces) of fresh ricotta
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced
50 grams (2 ounces) of diced or grated provolone
10 basil leaves
1 tablespoon Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste
1. Grease an oven-proof pan with the butter
2. Slice the eggplant lengthwise and sprinkle with salt. Then let it sit in a colander for 20 minutes so it can release its bitter juices.
3. Sauté the garlic and onion in three tablespoons of olive oil until onions are translucent.
4. Add the sausage and ground veal and cook. Then add peas. Then wine. Cook until the wine reduces (about five minutes). Then add the tomato puree. Simmer slowly for 15-20 minutes.
5. In the meantime, rinse the slices of eggplant and pat dry with a paper towel. Then fry them in 2/3 cup of olive oil on medium high heat until golden brown. Set aside on a plate lined with paper towels.
6. Cook the pasta for half the time it calls for. (It will continue cooking later in the oven.) Drain the pasta. Add it to the tomato sauce. Add ricotta and mix well. Tear the basil into pieces and stir in.
7. Layer: Begin with a third of the pasta and tomato sauce. Cover with half the eggplants. Add half the provolone and one of the sliced hard-boiled eggs. Then add a layer of everything one more time saving a third layer of pasta for the top. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese.
8. Cook in a 350 degree oven for 1/2 hour or until hot, bubbly and slightly brown on top. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.
. . . I just got an email from my dad. The trip home was long. They are tired. The transition isn’t easy. However, the first dinner they made after unpacking their bags was pasta ‘ncasciata.
We’ve had 20 guests over the last nine months, the latest being my parents and my brother’s family. During the past couple weeks, we devoted several mornings to long walks around town and a tour of our favorite sites. Our must-see list is always changing; we have new favorites all the time. And while there really isn’t any required stop in Perugia, there are lots of little interesting things to do and see.
For a little dramatic punch, I like to start at the eerie, 2000-year-old Etruscan Well. It’s right around the corner from our apartment, and it only takes about five minutes to see. Once you enter, you can walk down a dark, damp, stone path to a bridge which crosses the base of the well. The air is warm and humid. It looks and smells ancient.
More Etruscan feats are found all over the city. The enormous Etruscan Arch sits nearby. When Caesar Augustus defeated the Etruscans, he carved the new name of the city on this arch, “Augusta Perusia.”
And even more Etruscans ruins: five minutes outside the city is Ipogeno dei Volumni where 200 tombs are on display. The best part is the walk into the dark underground chamber where the largest tombs lie. On both sides of the stairway sit the carved stone urns which held the ashes of the dead.
Back in the center of town, some important sights are found around the main square, Piazza IV Novembre. First, there’s the Cathedral of San Lorenzo. San Lorenzo is one of three patron saints of Perugia. He was grilled to death by the Romans when Christianity was illegal. Inside the church sits the wedding ring of Mary. Yes, the actual wedding ring of the actual Virgin Mary.
From the main piazza, one can take Corso Vannucci to the other side of town. On the way, there is the National Museum of Art, which is okay. It’s a far cry from the Uffizi; however, if you like paintings of the Madonna with child, Tom and Ray counted more than 75. Next door is the Collegio del Cambio, a small room that was frescoed by Perugia’s most famous Renaissance artist, Pietro Vannucci, known as “Perugino.” This is a more efficient stop for art.
Further down the street sits a piece of the Rocca Paolina, a huge fortress build by Pope Paul III to assert his dominance over the rebellious Perugians. On it is the inscription, “To curb the audacity of the Perugians.” We always take visitors down the escalators (underneath La Rocca) to see the remains of Perugia’s medieval city that Pope Paul destroyed. The Perugians later destroyed much of the fortress.
One of Perugia’s assets is its location high on top of the hills. The benefit is a great view in every direction. To simutaneously see the countryside and the city, we walk down Corso Garibaldi to Porta Sant’ Angelo.
And on the other side of town, in Piazza Italia, we can see two of Perugia’s most important churches, San Dominica and San Pietro.
Finally, whether for coffee before the sites or a glass of prosecco after, we like to visit the oldest and most distinguished cafe in Perugia, Sandri.
It’s impossible to visit a city in Italy without facing centuries of death. It seems that every town is filled with crypts, catacombs and necropolises. Some of the most compelling sites in this country are the graves of illustrious Italians. We’ve seen the tomb of Michelangelo, Julius Caesar, St Francis of Assisi and Galileo Galilei among many others. Even when the dead aren’t famous, their graves sometimes are. They are everywhere.
Beyond the famous burial sites, Italy is filled with cemeteries. There is a “monumental” cemetery in Perugia that Matt and I visited a couple months ago. Some of Perugia’s most important families have erected ornate (and fanciful) mausoleums here to house their remains.
Last weekend we were in Cortona, Tuscany. As we were taking in the view from the top of this small hill town, Matt saw a big beautiful cemetery in the distance. We decided to visit it on our way home.
Italy does cemeteries well. The grounds are bright and colorful. Nearly every grave or slot on the wall is full of flowers, flickering electric lights and framed photographs. There is nothing creepy or ghosty about them. The atmosphere is soft and the souls seem tangible. The people look at you from their pictures, and you can’t help but want to know more. I can imagine them once living and eating pasta, making wine and gesturing.
We arrived through the main gate with my parents (who are here for a few more days). Once we entered, the six of us separated and wandered through the rows. During our visit we admired the old names and we admired the elegant photos. We tried to find someone who had lived for up to 100 years (with no luck). We found the most recent date-of-death (February 23, 2013). We saw graves of kids. We saw tombstones for entire families, and we discovered many parents who outlived their children.
We finally left the grounds when the wind picked up. Despite the sunshine, we were freezing cold. As we drove away, we talked about the graves and the people who died. Tom and Ray both said that this cemetery was way better than a museum or church.
Then we talked about what we wanted to do with our own remains. The boys are undecided about cremation or coffins. Matt wants to donate his whole body to research, so do my mom and dad (then they want to be buried near Eugene or at their farm.) I think I might want my ashes to be gently tucked away in an Italian cemetery like this one.
Easter lasts for two days in Italy. There is Easter Sunday (Pasqua). And then there is Easter Monday (Pasquetta) which is equally important as far as holidays go.
We ended the day with a walk gathering wild asparagus from around the trunks of olive trees. Pretty cool.
For the first time since 2007, I’ve been enjoying holidays. Distancing ourselves from past traditions, we get to peer into those of the Italians and participate as students of culture rather than as emotionally rooted members.
It’s true what they say about holidays being the hardest days. When you lose the person with whom you celebrated, you lose the meaning as well. Holidays have really sucked since Luke died. Our family’s traditions faded away, yet we were still surrounded by everyone else celebrating the same old way. This year, the physical distance from our culture’s customs, as well as having the distraction of another’s, has brought objectivity. Discovery has replaced menacing compulsions; novelty has replaced stagnant etiquette; and the freedom to experiment has replaced the sense of obligation to assimilate with past traditions. Instead of running from the holidays, this year, I feel more inclined to step into them.