Italian School: Wine and Shopping

Teachers and staff at Comitato Linguistico:

I enrolled in another week of language school at Comitato Linguistico. There aren’t a lot of international students in town during January, so the classes were small.  In the morning I met with three others to study grammar and conversation.  We focused on fashion and cinema terminology and a difficult verb called il congiuntivo.  I think I used it correctly just once this entire week.

Ismael, Luca, Boris, Laura and me.

Ismael from Palestine; Luca, our Italian teacher; Boris from the Netherlands; Laura from Germany and me.

After the difficult session with verbs, the cultural second half of the morning is always fun.  We listened to interviews with Georgio Armani as well as other Italian designers who are projecting the trends in menswear for 2013.  According to the experts, we can expect a mix of sporty and elegant with a lean towards a one-of-a-kind look, meaning a preference towards original and limited edition pieces (kind of like back in the 1800s when your mom made your clothes instead of H&M).

In the afternoon, I was the only one in Luca’s class, so I asked if we could turn the sessions into a series of little field trips.  He thought that was a great idea and had lots of places to show me since he’s kind of an expert on Perugia.  We started with an artisan shopping excursion.  Luca took me to several nearby stores where the owners work and create everything right there.   My favorite was Ozona where I met the incredible Sandro Gonnella who makes lenses and sunglasses.  Sandro earned a degree in design in Milan and then worked for a couple high-end companies before opening his own studio here in Perugia.  While he sells many ready-to-wear models, much of his work is in creating the perfect pair of glasses for individual clients.  He explained the process to me. When someone comes to him looking for frames, he begins by carefully studying the shape of the face.  He takes a picture and then creates a series of virtual glasses on the computer.  At the next appointment, the client and he will meet to discuss the best option before he begins work on a prototype.  Once that is complete, the client tries it on for size. If it works, colors are chosen and then construction on the actual pair of glasses begins. With an infinite variety of colors and shapes, each pair is different.  It can take a month before the glasses are ready.  Let me just say that it might be impossible to set foot in this inspiring studio without making an appointment for Sandro to begin creating your own pair of glasses.

Sandro with some of his raw materials

Sandro with several samples of acetate, the material used to make the frames.

Sandro models several styles

Sandro models several styles

Trying on a bold look

Later this week we went wine tasting.  I asked if I could bring a couple friends to which Luca agreed.  So the whole family came.  On Thursday, we filled his car and drove out to Lungarotti Vineyards in Torgiano.  When we arrived, Grazia, a guide, sommelier and olive oil expert, gave us a private tour.  She walked us through each step of the wine making process starting with the vineyard then moving through the stages of crushing, fermentation and bottling. We concluded the visit around a table with a glass of white and two reds then left with several bottles of our favorites.

Starting outside near the grape vines.

Starting outside near the grape vines.

Lungarotti Vineyards produce two and a half million bottles a year.

Lungarotti Vineyards produce two and a half million bottles a year.

Grazia offers an olive oil tasting.

Grazia offers an olive oil sampling.

Grazia taught Luca how to "open up" the flavor of the oil before tasting it.

Grazia taught us how to “open up” the flavor of the oil before tasting it.  We sandwiched the plastic cup between our hands then rotated our palms back and forth.

We didn’t get a chance to visit, but just down the road, Lungarotti has a wine spa called Bella Uve Spa where you can schedule therapeutic wine baths, grape scrubs, wine tasting massages and other types of vintherapy.  The website boasts the healing and relaxing powers of wine both in the body and on the body.  Hard to believe, but very tempting.

My language classes are over for the week; I have six hours next week, and Matt starts an intensive course on Monday.

Dressing the Italian Man

Fabrizia and Sergio in front of Donati

Sergio Donati is one of the most fashionable men in Perugia.  Twenty-eight years ago, he opened his eponymous men’s clothing store in the center of the city.  And for the past 25 years, his employee, Fabrizia, has worked along beside him.  Together they dress their customers in beautiful clothes of the highest quality.  Every single item sold at Donati, from shirts and sweaters to shoes and suits, is made in Italy.

We met Sergio shortly after we arrived.  He helped Matt choose a couple summer shirts and jeans back in July (Matt Hearts Shopping).  Since then we’ve become friends.  His small store is only two blocks from our apartment, so we get to see him often.  This week, we stopped by to ask him some questions about men’s fashion for fall and winter.  Using Matt as a model, Sergio demonstrated some of the most dashing Italian looks for the colder weather.  By the end of the day, I wished that Matt could take home everything he tried on.

Sergio believes that it’s important to buy clothes that will last for many years.  Therefore, he steers away from fleeting trends and chooses classic styles with current, up-to-date details.  For example, this year, men are wearing more color than last fall; therefore, his collection of pullovers extends beyond the usual grey, blue, brown and black.

He began by dressing Matt in a bold suit with a principe di galles (Prince of Wales) checks.  Sergio told us that square patterns are gaining more popularity, so some of his suits have a more pronounced design than last year.

However, it takes a unique client to feel comfortable wearing this much pattern head to toe.

A close up of the Prince of Wales checks. Sergio recommends a flared handkerchief for a casual look; otherwise, a straight edged fold looks nice for a more elegant mood.

Every look needs to experiment with the ubiquitous men’s scarf. The popularity of this accessory is evident out on the Perugian streets during cooler days. All of Sergio’s scarves are made from soft,  lightweight cashmere.

This rain jacket is warm enough for cold winter days. The cream color is an example of how one might see lighter, brighter colors this winter.

Next, Sergio pointed out a couple shoes and coats with a slight military edge.  He dressed Matt in a super soft, grey, wool jacket stuffed with goose feathers for lots of warmth.  Matt is wearing cream-colored pants.  While white jeans are restricted to the summer months, Sergio advises wearing these off-white jeans only in fall and winter.

For a sporty look, Sergio dressed Matt in a stone-washed leather jacket.  There are two zippers on this jacket so you can zip up the second one when driving to feel less restricted and more comfortable. Whenever possible, turn up the collar, he said.  This goes for casual shirts, jackets and coats.

Add a scarf too.  This is a good view of the off-white jeans.  These grey suede shoes are 100% waterproof.

Next Sergio showed us his grey 2-in-1 winter jacket.  This is perfect for the man who wants some options with the weight and warmth of his coat.  The outer sweater can be unzipped and removed, thereby turning this piece into a lightweight but warm waterproof jacket.

Finally, Matt tried on a wool, pin striped, dark blue suit.  As Sergio was tying the tie, he mentioned that Italians like to leave the narrow back half of the tie un-tucked.  It gives the appearance of imperfection.

Sergio purposefully separates the two flaps of the tie creating that “I’m-so-perfect-I-don’t-need-to-look-perfect” look.

Notice the neatly folded handkerchief to complement the formality.

Before leaving, we asked Sergio to recommend his one must-have item.  He said that the best article of clothing you can buy would be a Herno brand jacket or coat.   While all of the clothes and shoes in his store are classically designed and well made, the Herno jackets will last even more than 20 years.  And because they are so comfortable and lightweight, they are easy to wear every day.

And as for a gift, Sergio pointed to the obvious, a scarf.

Florence 23 years later

Florence back in 1990 with my mom, Stacia and Kelli

Twenty-three years ago, I spent my junior year in Florence.  This week I took a few days by myself for a little reunion with this incredible place.

Every hotel in Florence claims to be centrally located.  This dense city is tightly packed with a wealth of paintings, architecture, food, history, sculptures, craftsmanship, fashion and tourists.  I can’t imagine a greater concentration of art and admirers anywhere in the world.

During the two-hour train ride from Perugia, I wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to do in Florence.  It quickly became apparent that three days is not enough time to get it all done.  It was time for an honest talk with myself.  Could I return from a stay in Florence without going inside the Duomo?  How shameful would it be to walk by the walls of the Uffizzi without going in to awe at Bottecceli’s Birth of Venus? Could I possibly pass up the chance to see the David in person?  The answer was yes, because when it gets right down to it, eating, shopping and aimless walking sounded like so much more fun.  (I can’t believe I just admitted that.)

Before setting out, I tried to look up some of the best streets to window shop.  As luck would have it, I found the website of Maren Erickson, an American woman offering shopping tours of the finest in Florentine leather, silk, paper and gold.  I met her at Piazza Santa Croce.  We hit it off immediately.  It turns out she is from Seattle but lives here six months out of the year.  (In fact, her daughter worked at my husband’s real estate company last year.)  Bottom line, we had a blast.  She took me to some of the most incredible stores where I met some people who have worked in the trade all their lives.  It was so fun to breeze by all the tourist traps of mass-produced, cheap goods and find the best that Florence has to offer.  

Ricardo in his silk store selling gorgeous scarves and ties

Nino’s shoe store. That’s him in the middle. Maren is on the right, and the cute girl on the left helps find the right fit.

After a couple hours, we stopped for an apertivo and decided to meet later for dinner.  So after a long walk through familiar streets and nostalgic piazzas, I met Maren on the site of an ex-prison converted-into-trattoria where we enjoyed a long, long dinner.  It was one of those nights where the problems of the world were solved, and I felt sure that I was in the company of a wise philosopher (and at times was one myself).  I’m sure it was due in no small part to the bottle of Chianti that we ordered, but nonetheless, we had such a good time that we made dinner plans for the following night.

Big meals were sort of the theme of my stay.  The next afternoon I planned my day around a solo lunch at Zeb.  A friend from Perugia told me that it’s one of the best spots in town.  I was the first to arrive at this tiny place and sat at on one of the 15 stools surrounding part of the kitchen.  Behind the counter was Alberto and his mom, Giuseppina.  They were super sweet to me and called me “tesoro” (treasure) when they dropped off a new plate of food.  I went completely Italian on them and ordered every single course offered (pasta, meat, vegetables, dessert, coffee). I managing to finish every bite, more out of appreciation than out of hunger.  I loved it all.  The best plate was the pici al pesto.

The counter at Zeb

Mamma Giuseppina and Owner Alberto

Before dinner with Maren, I took my stuffed self to a couple alternative museums.  The Salvatore Ferragamo museum had a really cool Marilyn Monroe exhibit featuring all the shoes she owned by the famous Italian designer.  I also learned a couple things about Ferragamo himself.  For one thing, he studied anatomy so he could know how to build the perfect shoe.  Then I headed to Palazzo Strozzi to peek at a 1930’s art exhibit.  I don’t know much about designer shoes or 1930’s Italian art, so both made me feel a little clueless.  Then I took a long walk up to Piazza Michelangelo which looks out over the entire city.  And who should I see but a copy of the David!  I got a little Renaissance art after all.

The next day I had to pack up and head home.

I left Perugia kind of nervous about traveling solo.  Sometimes I feel self-conscious when I’m walking around by myself, or especially when I go out to a restaurant alone.  There’s no one with whom to share the new experience, and there’s no one to look at when I eat.  Sometimes I had to fight the urge not to think of myself as a bit of a loser.

I decided there are two virtues I’d like more of: courage and confidence.  The past few days taught me that courage is a choice.  I can identify my fears and consciously face them.  (This trip offered some opportunity for that.) Confidence, on the other hand, is not a choice, but is a result of acting courageously.  In other words, self-assurance was earned once I confronted my fears.

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”

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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


Ankle boots with skirts and dresses


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)

Matt Hearts Shopping

Matt arrived with few possessions.  In preparation for our trip, he thinned out his closet to the bare minimum and decided that once in Perugia, he would build a wardrobe based on The Italian Look.

During our first week here, Matt has clocked in several hours of shopping.  Armed with a few key phrases, he takes afternoon excursions around our neighborhood.  Once he finds a promising store, he quickly enlists the help of a salesperson, and after trying on several outfits, turns matters over to him or her saying, “Lei decida” (You decide).  This offer always brings enthusiasm.  Then colors are selected, choices are narrowed and outfits presented.  And that’s where Matt begins to build his knowledge of Italian style.  As the hem is pinned up, he learns that Italians wear their pants higher than Americans.  The same goes for jacket and blazer cuffs.  Men often wear long sleeve shirts in the summer and simply roll up the sleeves if it gets hot.  Jeans of all colors are worn, as long as they are tight.  And a scarf should be flared in a blazer pocket unless wearing a tie, in which case, it should be smartly folded.   And of course, bathing suits should be much tighter and shorter than American standards.

Yesterday, as Matt left the store, dressed in his new clothes, the owner called out, “Che fico!“  Which means something like, “That man looks fantastic!” in the Perugian dialect.

Shirts may be left out, but Sergio prefers them tucked in, especially with jeans, so the brand can be easily spotted from behind.

Matt’s becoming so Italian, he just might move back in with his mamma when he returns to Bellevue.

Sleeves rolled up, shirt tucked in.

Only 10 more days until we go to the beach!