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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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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INTERVIEWS by guest blogger Tom

written by Tom

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

I made a Venn diagram of the Italians and Americans

In two days we’ll be flying back to the USA.  I am super excited, but there was still one more thing I wanted to do in Italy.  I decided to ask four different Italians several questions about their lifestyle, interests, and dislikes.  Then I would ask the four people in my family the same questions.  Below are eight paragraphs containing each person’s answers.

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Alessandro is 11 years old and was my classmate this year.  His favorite thing about Italy is the food.  He really likes cheese pizza and pasta Norcina (sausage and cream).  His preferred gelato flavor is milk chocolate.  His favorite region is Lazio, mainly because of Rome.  The thing he dislikes the most about living in Italy is the amount of homework.  The most difficult English word for him to say is “antidisestablishmentarianism.”

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Here is Giovanni with his mom, Ray and me when we had lunch at his house.

Giovanni is 17 years old.  He is going to America next month as a foreign exchange student for his senior year in high school.  He chose America because he thinks it’s the strongest country in the world and he wants to learn English.  The thing he likes most about Italy is the pizza.  His favorite kind is sausage and mushroom.  His preferred gelato combination is pistachio and pine nut.  He really likes Rome, but his favorite region is Tuscany.  He said the worst part about living in Italy is the bureaucracy.  The hardest American word for him is “rubber” (not because of the pronunciation, but because he learned in English class that it means “eraser”, when in fact, in America, it means something else…)

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Christiano is 45 years old.  He works at a pasta shop near our apartment.  He really likes Italy, especially the weather, the people, and the quality of life.  The only thing he doesn’t like is the lack of ability to get things done.  He will eat any food (pasta, meat, dessert, pizza, etc.).  His favorite gelato, by far, is chocolate chip.  He likes Rome and Perugia, but he doesn’t like Milan.  His preferred regions are Sicily and Sardinia.  His favorite word is sole (sun).  He has gone to America three times.  He likes how unique each city is.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “teeth”.

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Paola turns 50 today.  She tutored Ray and me during the school year.  Her favorite thing about Italy is the history and the food.  She really likes pasta, mushroom pizza, and coconut ice cream.  Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Lazio.  The thing that she dislikes most about Italy is the politics.  Her favorite Italian word is amore (love).  The hardest word in English for her to say is “literature.”

Ray’s favorite thing about this year has been meeting new people and eating Italian food.  His really likes chocolate ice cream, sausage pizza, and pasta Norcina.  His preferred cities are Rome and Perugia, but he also likes the region Sardinia.  Ray’s favorite word is buffone (buffoon).  The one thing he dislikes about Italy is that so many stores go out of business.  The hardest English word for him to pronounce is “world”.  His favorite thing about the U.S. is the way the schools work.

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My mom said the best thing about Italy is the evening walks before dinner with all the people.  Her favorite phrase in Italian is ci mancarebbe, meaning “don’t mention it.”  She likes any pizza with ricotta cheese.  When we go out for gelato, she usually gets blueberry, mango and chocolate with whipped cream. Her preferred city is Rome, and her favorite region is Sardinia.  The English words that she has the most trouble with are “epitaph” and “potable.”  She said the best thing about America is the movies.

My dad said the best thing about living in Italy is being surrounded by beauty.  His preferred food is pasta (sausage, carbonara, garbanzo beans, etc.) and his favorite Italian phrase is ho capito (I understand).  His favorite city is Rome, but he also likes the region Tuscany.  He usually gets strawberry, mango, and lemon flavored gelato.  The hardest part about Italy for him is not understanding the language.  He also misses the efficiency of America.  The hardest English word for him is “synonym”.

For me, the best part about living in Italy is the amount of time I get to spend with my family.  My favorite Italian food is sausage and cream pasta.  My favorite pizza toppings are sliced hot dogs and French fries.  The tastiest gelato flavors that I’ve had this year were peanut butter, lemon-mint, and bubble gum (all from a place called LatoG in Rome).  My favorites cities are Lucca and Taormina, and my preferred region is Sardinia.  My least favorite thing about Italy is the school.  My favorite Italian words are oplah (oops), and bimbo (little kid).  I am excited to get back to America because of my friends, the sports teams, the variety of food, and having a place to play outside.  The hardest English word for me is “abominable”.

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Protest Murals

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Our days on the beaches in Sardinia were some of the most restful of the whole year.  We kept it easy.  During that time, we didn’t visit a single church or museum.  We didn’t explore the streets, stores or restaurants (in fact, we hardly saw the towns at all).  It was all about the beach and sun.

But when it was time to leave, we chose to mix things up a little and take the long route through Sardinia’s interior. Known for mountains, wilderness, shepherds and bandits, we felt we were venturing into Italy’s wild west.  We only had time for one stop so we chose Orgosolo.  This village has a history of Robin-Hood-style outlaws, government revolts, kidnapping and protest.  Earlier in the week we met a man from there.  We asked him to tell us some stories.  He just shook his head and said, “I see nothing, hear nothing and say nothing.”  It sounded like a great movie setting.

It was the winding, narrow road up the Supremonte mountain range that proved to be the most challenging part of the excursion.  The last 10 miles were some of the sharpest curves we’ve ever driven, literal hairpin angles.  It was fun for us in the front seats, but the boys in the back got carsick.

When we arrived at Orgosolo, we parked the car, locked our valuables in the trunk and told the kids to stay close.  While there haven’t been many bandits or kidnappers in the last 10 years, we still wanted to be careful.  As it turns out, Orgosolo was tame and non-threatening.

In fact, it’s bright and lively and covered in paint.  The town is like an outdoor museum with over 200 murals on the houses and storefronts.  It started in the 70s when the townspeople took to painting their frustration and outrage.  These pictures are full of passion and energy and somber reminders of human suffering.  We spent all our time just walking the streets and looking at all the stories.

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We left Orgosolo after a big Sardinian lunch.  Then after one night in the region’s capital of Cagliari, we caught a plane back to Perugia. This was the last trip we will take.  In five days, our year in Perugia is over and we will be returning home.  I’m full of emotion now.  There are so many feeling running through my mind. I’m stressed about packing, sad to say goodbye to the Italians, depressed about leaving this awesome apartment in the center of town. I’m curious about returning home, and I’m also so excited to see our friends and our families.  But I feel fear about our big transition.  It’s hard to believe this is all going to be over so soon. I don’t know what to expect when we get home, but I keep thinking about something my uncle told me after his three weeks in Perugia, “You will laugh and breathe freedom when you get home and miss Perugia for the rest of your life.”

If I could paint protest murals, one of them would be against the frustrating inflexibility of time.  I just hate when things I love become only memories.

The End of Italian School

Ray's class presents a gift to one of the teachers

Ray’s class presents a gift to one of the teachers

The end of the school year is another cause for celebration.

Italian students and families commemorate with a big get-together centering (of course) around food.

Tuesday night was the sixth grade party.  We heard that it went so late that only two kids showed up for school on Wednesday.  However, we weren’t there; Tom didn’t want to go.  He said he would rather go to Rome for the day where he can buy glow-in-the-dark sling shot rockets from the unlicensed street vendors.  Since we all wanted to go to Rome, we took advantage of his request for a final visit.  Tom got his rockets but also got a talking-to by the police. He’s getting use to it.

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Ray’s party was yesterday.  This group of families is especially close since many elementary schools in Italy assign teachers in first grade who stick with the same kids for five years.  Even though Ray joined the class in its last year, he fit in well.  In the end, he made good friends.

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Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Marie Elena

Alessia, Valentina, Gaia, Ray and Maria Elena

The festa was held at Il Pioppo, an agriturismo  outside Perugia where the ingredients are sourced right there on the farm.  And this was no light summer lunch.  Our plates were filled to capacity. We started with a black truffle pasta tossed with the chef’s homemade tagliatelle followed by a second pasta course with tomato and sausage. Then we had a plate of roast pork and sauted greens and finally jam crostatas. Pitchers of wine and sparkling water were abundant.  The kids’ menu was equally huge but styled to suit their tastes.  However, with a pool and grassy field, they chose not to linger at the table.

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Ray's teacher playing some type of volleyball game with the kids.

Maestra Rita playing volleyball with the kids.

While the kids played, some of the parents told us about a new thing that schools are doing in Italy.  It’s called “American graduation” and it entails a celebration after eighth grade and another one after high school.  Previously, a graduation ceremony was held only after someone finished college, but several schools are importing our excuse to pomp and circumstance more often.  We told them that American kids even get to wear graduation caps when they finish preschool and fifth grade.  That made everyone laugh.

Saying goodbye to Daniele.  After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Daniele. After we left the party, Ray said he would like to stay in Italy for another year.

Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva.

Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva.

American Lessons

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I started tutoring last February.  Once a week, I give English lessons and teach American culture to a 17-year-old who is preparing for his senior year in the United States.  I met him after visiting with a ceramic artist in Perugia who mentioned that her son was planning a year abroad as a foreign exchange student and needed someone to help him improve his language skills.  It sounded fun, so I volunteered.

This student, Giovanni, is another one of those people I am so glad to have met.  I love Tuesday afternoons.  Our weekly sessions turn out to be just as culturally insighful to me as we contrast the differences of growing up in two different countries.  Tom and Ray also look forward to these days because Giovanni can relate with their homework rants and complaints about mean teachers.

Yesterday, Giovanni interrupted the lesson to ask Ray if he would play a game of chess.

Yesterday, Giovanni interrupted the lesson to ask Ray if he would play a game of chess.

When we first met, we started with the basics. I tried to give Giovanni an overview of American culture by suggesting that he watch Forrest Gump, Crash and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off as well as some Vietnam movies. Then we converted the metric system into American units.  That way, if someone asks Giovanni how tall his is, he can say 5’11 instead of 180 centimeters.  We also looked into Fahrenheit so he knows to bring a jacket if it’s under 60 degrees or to bring a swimming suit if it’s in the 80s.

Since he likes to cook and is a little worried about adjusting to American cusine, we spend time in the kitchen.  One of the first questions he asked was how to make coffee in the USA.  He’s never heard of drip or a French press so I showed him some pictures on the internet and explained the process while naturally making coffee for ourseves with the traditional Italian moka machine.

The lesson begins with coffee.

The lesson begins with coffee.

In preparation for dinning out, we pulled up some menus from typical American restaurants and sorted through the various dishes and discriptions.  Among the most confusing aspects of a meal was the amount of choices in salad dressings.  Italians use only oil and vinegar.  This led me to pull up a photo of a grocery store with an entire aisle dedicated to salad dressings.  I tried describing the flavors of 1000 island, ranch, French and Russian.  I also cautioned him about seeking out “Italian” restaurants.  After looking at a few menus, it became evident that we all have different interpretations of true Italian cooking.  Giovanni has never heard of fettuccini alfredo and he sternly insists that carbonara sauce never has shrimp or chicken in it.  Besides salad dressing and Americanized pasta, I explained some other novelties such as the bagel, the club sandwich and several possible answers to “How would you like your eggs?”  Later we looked at recipes and translated the following abbreviations:  pkg, tsp, tbl, and gal.

One afternoon we made a box of Kraft mac and cheese that one of our American guests brought over.  Pretty funny.

One afternoon we made a box of Kraft mac and cheese that one of our American guests brought over. Pretty funny.

One of my favorite days was when we read emails from some high school students. I enlisted the help of relatives and former babysitters from home who then wrote Giovanni letters describing school in America.  Beyond the classes, sports and social functions, they naturally used common phrases that were unfamiliar (but necessary to learn) such as “hang out, “a bummer” and “pretty cool.”  Giovanni even started a pen pal relationship with one of these high schoolers from Portland.

Finally, this week, Giovanni received the news he’d been waiting for all year – his American destination.  I was really happy to hear that out of all the towns in the United States, it turns out he is going to live with a family in a small, seaside town in Oregon just five hours from our home near Seattle.  This means we will easily be able to visit him next year.

Looking at Chamber of Commerce videos of Giovanni's new home town.

Looking at the Chamber of Commerce videos of Giovanni’s new home town.

Impressions

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It’s grey and cold in Perugia today.  We only have five weeks left before we pack up and fly home.

I can’t help getting into reflective moods these days.  I think about regrets and highlights.  I think about the year in Italy nearing its end.  I think about coming home.

Lately, whenever we bump into people, they ask us questions about our experience here and our return to America.

Several have asked us if we wish we could stay longer. The thought of leaving gives me knots in my stomach; however, I think a year is probably just right. We’ve seen the four seasons, experienced all the holidays and worked through an entire school year.  We’ve had enough time to really get to know Perugia, see most of Umbria and visit 18 cities outside this region (with six more planned).  We’ve lived big, and we’ve embraced each day.  We’ve been observers of the Italian culture for nearly 11 months.  However, by the end of June, I’ll be ready to return to where I belong.  I’ll be ready to be part of my own culture and be with friends/family who really know us.

Another common question people ask is what our favorite Italian cities are.  This is a tricky one to answer because Italians act offended if their hometown is not the favorite.  So naturally, we agree with them. Secretly, Ray likes Florence, Tom likes Lucca, Matt and I like Rome the best.

A few weeks ago, someone asked us to describe our impressions of Italy.  He wanted to know the little things that surprised us or struck us as unexpected.  As an example, he commented that on a trip to America, he was amazed that people bought milk in one-gallon containers.  How would you ever finish it before it expires? he asked.  He also thought Costco was weird.  After thinking about this question, we listed our observations:

The presence of hazelnuts.  It seems to be everyone’s favorite flavor of ice cream.  It’s often in chocolate bars.  And many breakfast pastries and desserts have hazelnuts or a combination of chocolate and hazelnuts.  I haven’t met an Italian who doesn’t LOVE HAZELNUTS.
Today's flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate chip/grapefruit and vanilla/hazelnut/strawberry

Today’s flavors: chocolate/hazelnut/vanilla, hazelnut/chocolate-chip/grapefruit and hazelnut/vanilla/strawberry

School work is an art form.  The correct answer isn’t as important as color-coding each step.  It’s no wonder some of the greatest artists were Italian.  Grid paper is also used to align the various components of an assignment.  It’s taken the boys all year to accept the “form over content” mentality.
compare September vs. May

compare September vs. May

Regionalism.  Everyone is proud of their own city and their region.  Being Italian is secondary to being Roman or Florentine or Perugian.  At home, if I brought someone a gift from another place, it would be special, unique and cool.  Here, to most Italians, it would be an insult.  I tried this with Theos chocolate from Seattle.  I gave some to a friend and later wished I hadn’t.
Banana-chocolates from the local "Vanucci" chocolatier are a more appropriate hostess gift than an exotic brand from outside Perugia

Banana-chocolates from the local “Vannucci” chocolatier are a more appropriate hostess gift than an exotic brand from outside Perugia

Gestures.  Italians talk with their hands.  Someone told us this is because every region has their own dialect.  Sicily and Sardinia have their own language.  So before the peninsula was united and schools taught standardized Italian, people relied on hand motions to help communicate.
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Eating.  I don’t understand how Italians eat so much and so fast.  I can never keep up.  I’ve seen disapproving looks when we go out to eat with friends.  Someone once shook her head at my unfinished dinner and said, “What a shame.  It’s better your stomach bursts than leave food on a plate.”
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Drinking.  At sporting events and parties, Italians don’t drink much.  They act drunk, but they aren’t.  In America, we drink to liberate ourselves, open up, and feel happy.  Italians are like that without drinking.
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The customer is always wrong.  Here, you have to look out for yourself.  If you buy the incorrect size, you keep it.  If you buy a defective product, you keep it.  There are no cash returns.  You are responsible for leaving the store with the right merchandise.  I’ve been burned several times, even in a restaurant.  The other day I ordered cherries for dessert.  The waiter brought a bowl of wrinkly, sour, old looking cherries. I could only eat a couple.  When he asked how my dinner was, I explained the problem with the fruit.  He looked at me like I was an idiot and said that it’s still a little early for good cherries.  My fault.
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Protection of children.  Italians don’t leave kids alone, not even 14-year-olds.  It’s considered dangerous and bad parenting.  A couple times, Matt and I have left the kids in the apartment while we go across the street for dinner or on an evening walk in our neighborhood, but I’d never tell an Italian this.  Once, when Tom was playing by himself right outside our apartment, he was picked up by the police and brought home.  They told me that I shouldn’t let my 12-year-old play by himself outside even though it was still sunny out.  Ray, in fifth grade, is not allowed to walk five minutes home alone after school.  Teachers will not dismiss him without a parent.
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Finally, it is becoming evident to me that Italians don’t have a lot of experience saying goodbye.  This may be because an Italian doesn’t move around the country the way an American does.  They usually don’t live outside the town of their birth.  Many Italians live within a block of their mammas, papas and siblings. And several of our friends live in the same building as their parents.  So they don’t get much practice saying goodbye.  When we talk about leaving, Italians say, “Don’t worry, just come back and live here again.” They don’t seem to understand that while we may visit sometime in our life, we will never come back to live.  The awkward sadness that I’m feeling doesn’t translate well.
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Therefore, next month, when we say our final goodbyes and close the door to this apartment for the last time, I’m handing out postcards of Seattle with our address on it.  We have room in our house for visitors and I’d love to bring some of Italy to our home.  When they tell us to “just come back” I will invite them to come to America.  In the meantime, there are still five weeks if anyone can make it over here.