Spello, Luke’s birthday and a couple personal cliff-hangers

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There was some kind of unexplainable, weird energy enveloping us this weekend that began once we set out on our trip to Spello.  We found ourselves constantly torn between feeling cursed and somehow protected.

We chose to visit Spello because of its acclaimed Infiorita, an annual flower festival in which the town stays up all night carpeting the streets with intricate mosaics made entirely out of flower petals.  This year, the Infiorita fell on Luke’s birthday. On Sunday, he would have been 14.  After looking for something special to do in honor of our son, we decided that a city covered in flowers would be a safe and sweet setting for our love and sadness.

On Friday, we packed our bags and headed out. First I wheeled my suitcase to the post office where I mailed a letter.  Then I met Matt and the boys for our drive.  We arrived in Spello nearly an hour later.  That’s when it began. Matt started unloading the car and then portentously asked why my suitcase wasn’t in the trunk.  I could feel my heart sink.  As I retraced my steps I realized I must have left it sitting in the post office.  I pictured it there, all by itself with my computer inside (loaded with every digital picture I’ve taken since we arrived) and also packed with several other material possessions with which I’m attached.  We had no choice but to immediately go look for it.  The ride was grueling as I tried to come to terms with my stupidity and the loss of my belongings.  I imagined the rest of the year without writing emails or a blog. I dreaded having to buy a new computer.  The questions ended when we entered the post office and saw my black suitcase standing in the middle of the room right where I left it.  It had apparently remained untouched for two hours.  We marveled at our astounding luck before once again driving to Spello.

That night in our hotel, after we were all sound asleep, my phone rang.  It was the landlord of our next-door neighbor in Perugia.  She said her tenant had just called because he was worried; our apartment door has been wide open all day.  He had finally decided to shut it, but was wondering if we were okay.  In my foggy haze, I imagined robbers had forced their way in and were emptying our cupboards and drawers in search of  something valuable.  I woke Matt and we assessed the likelihood of a break-in.  We considered the timing and the difficulty of getting past our thickly bolted door at the top of our six story building.  We decided it was most probable that one of us (me) accidently left the door open on our way out and that there was no need to hurry back to Perugia.  Needless to say, sleep was elusive.

There would be more suspense; but first, the beautiful flower mosaics of Spello:

Saturday was full of activity.  In the evening, teams of artists began constructing their pictures.  Many groups set up long tents over their work and hung electric lights inside to illuminate their progress through the night.  The streets were lined with children, parents and grandparents sorting flowers by color and cutting petals into different sizes.

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Visitors from all over Umbria and beyond crowded the space to see how the garden art was made.  The designs were first drawn on paper, which was stuck to the ground.  Flowers were then arranged on top according to the color that was specified by the artists.  As the night went on and more and more petals were laid out, unbelievably detailed scenes emerged.

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By 8am the next morning, only the finishing touches remained.  Finally once the tents were removed, everyone could see the stunning work that was created during the night.

Pope Francis and St. Francis

Pope Francis and St. Francis

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The disheartening aspect of this tradition is the bishop’s procession.  Just three hours after the mosaics are complete, a holy entourage exits the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and gets to walk over all the pictures.  With these footsteps, the painstaking work is ruined. Even though this procession is all part of the festival, it seemed such an appalling demonstration of disrespect.  It was upsetting to watch even though the mosaics were made for that purpose.

The bishop and his entourage entering the streets of Spello

The bishop enters the streets of Spello

Another image of power dominating beauty

power dominating beauty

It was around this time that the four of us separated.  Matt and Tom went to get a coffee and play cribbage while Ray and I toured the streets.  When we rejoined, Matt gave me a disparaging look and told me his phone had been stolen.  He had left it for a few minutes on a cafe table, and then it was gone.  He asked around, but had no luck.  We immediately tried calling his number, but there was no answer.  Next we sent texts to his phone in both English and Italian asking whoever had it to please, please, please give it back.  Before admitting defeat, we returned to the cafe, at which point, one of the servers brought it to us saying it had just been turned in.  We couldn’t believe it.

Afterwards, we sat to a long lunch outside in the sun.  We considered staying another night but decided to go home and check on the apartment.  On our way out of town we passed the disheveled mosaics and shook our heads at the scattered pedals.  You could see the imprint of the shoes that walked all over the mosaics.  Matt and I both commented that it reminded us of the picture on the infinite “Footprints” cards we received after Luke died (the ones that talk about the single set of footprints in times of difficulty because God must be carrying you.) But instead of prints left on sand, these were on the flowers of Spello.

It did seem symbolic; we admitted to having the most incredible luck here and couldn’t help but feel the presence of something protective.

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Back in Perugia, Matt and I entered the apartment first and did a quick scan of the rooms.  It seemed as if no robbers had busted in and that every instance of this weekend’s suspense resulted from our own distraction and negligence.  It provided for the perfect kind of excitement – a little danger and uncertainty followed by a positive outcome.

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The Ceri Races of Gubbio

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May 15th marks the annual ceri races in the Umbrian town of Gubbio (just an hour away from Perugia).  This is one of Italy’s longest standing celebrations.  Since 1160, this festival has taken place year after year uninterrupted.  The frenzy, the intensity, the color, the history, the dedication, the passion (as well as the insanity) of the Gubbian citizens are legendary.  We’ve been hearing about it since we arrived in July. Some have said it is the most spectacular event in all of Italy.  So, last Wednesday we joined the party.

Although the details of the origin are in doubt, the holiday is clearly recognized as a tribute to St. Ubaldo, Gubbio’s patron saint, who died in 1159.  Since the one-year anniversary of his death, the citizens have raced through the town carrying three mammoth pillars (representing ceri or candles) with statues of saints on top. The rules of the race are strict.  The two-mile trek begins in the center of town.  Groups of men run through the course carry the saints in formation.  St. Ubaldo must always be in the lead followed by St. Giorgio and then St. Antonio.  The whole point of the race is to get the three 600-pound ceri through the town and to St. Ubaldo’s church on the top of Mt. Ingino.  Speed and complete physical exertion are expected by the honored men who carry these statues.

The town divides itself into teams.  Citizens can choose the saint for whom they will cheer. Nearly every man, woman and child in Gubbio was dressed in the traditional color of their saint.  Yellow stands for St Ubaldo, the patron of masons (in addition to the patron of the whole town); blue is for St. George, the saint of craftsmen and merchants; and black is for St. Antonio, protector of farm workers.  Everyone is united in color by tying a red scarf around the waist and neck.

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While the actual race doesn’t begin until 6pm, the day is filled with pageantry and ritual.  We missed a couple of the highlights, but made it in time for one of the special events of the day, “the exhibition” which is the procession through town to visit all the people who are too old or tired or sick to attend the race.  The exhibition also passes by the homes of former ceri-carriers. Up and down the narrow streets, men display the ornate wooden pillars to the windows of the townspeople.  Crowds follow.

The people for St. Ubaldo leading their procession up Via dei Consoli

The people for St. Giorgio leading their procession up Via dei Consoli

St. Giorgio near the church of St. Francesco

The exibition rounding the church of St. Francesco

After a communal lunch, the athletes of each team meet in Piazza Grande.  At 6pm, the captains of the celebration ride horseback down the road signaling that the race will begin.  By now the race course is packed with spectators.  Thousands of people line the streets.  It feels exciting and dangerous.  The boys said that the pull of the crowds reminded them of an undertow at the beach.  It got the blood pulsing. There’s a fine line between curiosity and panic, and when you hit it just right, you feel completely alive.  That’s what this day did to me.

Moments before the St. Ubaldo’s team passed through, men in yellow came running ahead of the statues pushing any unlucky fan to the side.  While we witnessed no injuries or deaths this year, the runners and carriers are ruthless and single-minded.  This is no family parade.  Any careless mistake can get you trampled.

Moments before the St. Ubaldo’s team passed through, men in yellow came running ahead of the statues pushing any unlucky fan to the side. While we witnessed no injuries or deaths this year, the runners and carriers are single-minded.  Any careless mistake can get you trampled.

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Before heading up the mountain, the ceri make three turns around the flag

Before heading up the mountain, the ceri make three swift turns around the flag in Piazza Grande.

After the ceri pass, the crowd hurries through shortcuts to another viewpoint of the race.  It continues like this until the saints begin their assent up Mt. Ingino.  Everyone boarders the long narrow path winding up the hill.  We found a spot toward the bottom and watched these men run uphill with great speed and strength.

After the ceri hurry pass, the crowd makes their way through shortcuts to another viewpoint of the race. It continues like this until the saints begin their assent up Mt. Ingino. Everyone boarders the long narrow path winding up the hill. We found a spot toward the bottom and watched these men go uphill with great speed and strength.

The most impressive moments were when a fresh group of men would relieve the runners.  Without slowing down, the athletes hooked arms and transferred the ungainly 70-foot tall structure to new shoulders.  The pillar rarely tottered.

The most impressive moments were when a fresh group of muscles would relieve the runners. Without slowing down, the athletes hooked arms and transferred the ungainly 25-foot tall structure to new shoulders. The pillar rarely tottered.

After the saints passed us on the hill running towards the finish line, we made our way back to the town square then headed home.  However, the Gubbians told us that some of the most lively hours of the day begin after the races when the bars and restaurants and piazzas fill up all night with festivity.  We couldn’t stay; it was getting late, and we had to drive back to Perugia.

Before leaving, we did make a stop at the Fontana dei Matti which, legend has it, will give one the propensity for insanity (like the local townspeople) if circled counterclockwise three times while being simultaneously splashed by a Gubbian.

Ray decided to give it a try.

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Fat Week

DSC_0177 Today is Fat Tuesday.   There is music and confetti in the streets; people dress up in masks and costumes; and the bakeries are full of fried desserts.  But it doesn’t last just one day.  This is the season of Carnevale.  The word comes from “carne” meaning “meat”  and “vale” meaning “allowed.”  It use to be that Catholics abstained from eating meat during Lent. Carnevale is the period before – where nothing is denied.

The big celebrations started nearly a week ago on Giovedì Grasso (Fat Thursday) with parties and parades.  During the weekend, the festivities culminated as several neighborhoods decorated their streets, set up stages and hosted parties for the city that ran late into the night.

On Friday night, we walked down to Corso Cavour

On Friday, we walked to Corso Cavour where floats were lined up for a late night parade.  Vendors sold horns, confetti, silly string and masks.  There was music and dancing.

We have a group of friends in Perugia who invited us to their 5th-grade class party on Saturday.  All of their children attend the same school, and Signora Paola (our kids’ tutor) is the teacher.  The parents rented a room at the community center, and everyone brought food.  As students and parents entered, they were bombarded with handfuls of confetti by the others.

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Tom and Ray didn't want to dress up, but we privately gave them each 10 euros if they obliged, so that we would all fit in a little better.   Ray liked his pirate costume so much that he wore it to school today (for free).

At first, Tom and Ray didn’t want to dress up, but we privately gave them each 10 euros if they obliged.  They thought that sounded like “bad parenting.”  We agreed, but it was worth it. Ray liked his pirate costume so much that he wore it to school today (for free).

We paid Tom an extra euro to wear the wig.

We paid Tom an extra two euros to wear the wig.

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For the first couple hours we talked, listened to music, ate platters and platters of food, drank pop and watched the kids dance.  Later in the evening, the parents brought out a karaoke machine.  DSC_0188

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The next day there were parades throughout the city.  We could watch from the window of our apartment, but it was more fun to be in the middle of it all. DSC_0108

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This morning we bought a little of everything, just in case sweets grow scarse during Lent.  Some of the traditional Carnevale desserts include frappe, brighelle and strufoli.

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Immersion

Milena and Tom study their lottery ticket.  If they win, they'll split 50-50.  It's a big one.  The numbers are drawn on Epiphany.  If Tom wins, he and Heidi will buy the apartment next door to us.

The Italians have their eyes on the BIG ONE tonight.  Here Tom and Milena are studying their lottery ticket.  They’ve decided to share the winnings 50-50 in the hopes that Tom and Heidi can move here perminantly.

We have just two days left before my aunt and uncle return to the States.  I really wish that all our guests could stay for so long.  They’ve been here nearly a month.  We’ve had so much fun without ever feeling rushed.  We’ve had time to show them all of Perugia, several Umbrian towns, and then two extraordinary spots in northern Italy.

An afternoon at Perugia's San Pietro Cathedral and medieval gardens

An afternoon at Perugia’s San Pietro Basilica and medieval gardens

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

Visiting the art and antique fair in Arezzo.

New Year's Eve in Venice.  We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown.  The crowds were so great needed to hold hands so as not to get separated.  Even so, we lost Matt.  New Year's is crazy.  Over 350 people were injured in Italy.  And two deaths.  We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

New Year’s Eve in Venice. We joined thousands in Piazza San Marco for the countdown and the shower of champagne. The crowd was so massive we needed to hold hands to stay together. Even so, we lost Matt for a while. New Year’s is crazy, so much so that over 350 people were injured in Italy. We returned to our hotel by 12:30 and watched the chaos from the window.

By now, Tom and Heidi have been here long enough to meet Italians and experience true Italian livin’.  They have made friends with our friends.  In fact, everyone who meets them wants to hang out.  This week Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, invited us over for dinner.  And no experience is more authentic than eating a meal in an Italian’s house.

We showed up at 8pm, which is customary since Italians like to eat late.  Paola and her husband live outside Perugia on a small farm.  They have olive trees and a big garden.  As we arrived, Paola’s entire family was waiting for us.  We met everyone including her husband, two sons, daughter-in-law and granddaughter.  The table was full of drinks and appetizers, so we sat down immediately.  Paola’s husband, Willy, poured his homemade hot pepper apertif, which was made from infusing garden-grown peppers in alcohol for several weeks.  (We liked it so much that they later sent us home with a bottle.)  Then platters were passed and we filled our plates with chicken liver crostini, pieces of pork head, fennel and grapefruit salad, anchovy and egg crostini, pecorino cheese with an assortment of homemade spreads, and potato chips.  We were all full before the official first course.

The huge table filled the entire kitchen

The huge table filled the entire kitchen

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Then Paola served plates of mushroom pasta while explaining that her mother-in-law foraged the mushrooms out in the woods herself.  New bottles of wine were opened.  Knowing the boys weren’t mushroom fans, Paola offered a meat and tomato pasta for them.  The next course was wild boar with a side of broccoli rabe.  We were stuffed before the first bite; however, each dish was so good, we continued to eat and eat and eat.  Next came a plate of oranges drizzled with olive oil, salt, and pepper.  One bite and I was convinced that this is the best way to enjoy a slice of orange.

For dessert Paola and Willy offered five different kinds of cookies and three home made after-dinner-drinks.

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It was a feast.

It’s like this every weekend, Paola said.

Before we left, Paola's son performed some magic tricks

Before we left, Paola’s son performed some magic

Tom got to be the magician's assistant, but still couldn't figure any of the tricks

Tom got to be the magician’s assistant but still couldn’t figure out any of the tricks

While I would never have enough courage to cook an Italian meal for Paola, I asked if she would consider visiting us in the United States.  She agreed, so  maybe  someday we can return the favor.

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Eurochocolate and the Baraccone: a couple quick fixes

The majestic central piazza of Perugia has been transformed into a stage full of giant Lindt chocolate bears

Just when we needed a little distraction from the rigors of school, language, and missing friends, two annual events set up camp in Perugia.  The first, Eurochocolate, is right outside our window running up and down the main streets and piazzas in the historic center of town.  The 10-day festival includes hundreds of chocolate vendors from around Italy and all of Europe, and it attracts thousands of visitors who arrive by the bus-load every day filling the streets and leaving the biggest mess of wrappers and chocolate everywhere.

I think some of the wrappers got stuck to this lady

Our street

The theme of this year’s Eurochocolate is “iChoc.”  Besides an assortment of chocolate bars, many booths sell iPhone inspired designs on their candy.  You can also buy an iPad case that looks like a slab of chocolate.

Little chocolate app cakes

This event is less about sampling Europe’s finest chocolate than about merchandise and commercialism.  It does, however, provide for some entertaining walks around town.  And all chocolate, even that decorated like the Facebook icon, can momentarily ward off the challenges of a backpack full of Italian homework.

If chocolate isn’t your thing, there’s also a beer keg set up by 10am right outside our apartment.

The second festival is taking place in a nearby parking lot that has been transformed for one month into a swirling, circling, plunging, jolting, neon-colored spectacle of fair rides.  The Perugians refer to this carnival as the “Baraccone.”  We’ve visited twice.

The first time we came was last week with some local friends.  We had a blast.  (The boys had a blast; I had fun watching them have fun.)  They rode a roller coaster, a tunnel of horror, and lots of plunging, twirling rides.  Since neither our friend Sergio nor I can stomach the spin factor, we watched.  Matt, however, loves anything with speed and thrill, so he stood in line with the kids.  Milena hated to see him ride alone, so she often joined him.

for some reason Matt reminds me of Will Farrell in Elf

Tom found an NFL-themed ride that he couldn’t wait to try.  He went on by himself.  It went so fast and so high that I had to take a little walk to calm my nerves.  When Tom finally got off, he said it was fun for the first part, but he wouldn’t do it again.  And it seems like Italy doesn’t have the same concern for safety that America has, he added.

It got even higher, but I couldn’t watch

By Saturday, we had our fill of the crowds, the carnival and the chocolate.  We hoped on a bus to Assisi for the night.  After touring through the famous churches and visiting the tombs of St. Clare and St. Francis, we headed 4 kilometers into the hills above the city and saw the secluded caves where St. Francis and his friends lived.  Then we walked through the woods for hours.  It was silent and beautiful up there.  Ray said he would count it as one of the best side trips we’ve taken since we arrived in Italy.

heading into the woods

Gubbio

Matt in front of Palazzo dei Consoli

For the past month, weekends have been dedicated to travel.  We’re only here a year, and there are so many cities to see.  On Saturdays, we usually meet the boys at school and head out for the night.  While we each have different interests and priorities, we’re learning how to explore new places together.  Gubbio proved to be a good attempt, but left much to be desired.

In theory, Gubbio is a must-see.  Our guidebook describes it as the most thoroughly medieval of Umbrian towns with picture-book pretty streets.   It also hosts a 900-year-old festival every May called the Corso dei Ceri.  It’s considered one of the most lively, rough and exciting festivals in Italy next to Sienna’s Palio.  I thought a town with this kind of edgy, competitive spirit might appeal to the boys, so we booked a room for the night.

Once we arrived, we knew we’d need to make some compromises with the kids if we wanted to spend time meandering up and down cobblestone streets while stopping into the occasional museum or church, so we found a hotel with a pool.  Unfortunately, the pool seemed designed more for meditation than Marco Polo.  There were contemplative, soft-edged shapes emerging from the ceiling and corners; there was droney spa music everywhere; and there were doors leading to hydrotherapy tubs that were restricted to adults only.

To make matters even weirder, big bathrobes and yellow flip flops along with swim caps were required in order to enter the pool area.  There were video cameras keeping tabs on everyone.  We saw a man get in trouble for not wearing his swim cap.  And I got in trouble for letting the boys jump in the water and make a splash.

After a few hours of quiet swim time, we figured it was fair to start our city tour.  We misjudged how close the historic center of town was to our hotel, so by the time we arrived at the main piazza, the kids were ready for bed.

On Sunday, we got smart and rented Elf.  The boys stayed in the room for nearly two hours watching Will Farrell while we explored Piazza Grande and tried to get into the Etruscan Museum before it closed.

Heading up the steps to the museum

A view of Palazzo Grande

We met the boys back at the hotel for lunch where, to our disbelief, they were each served a small glass of prosecco (yet another indication that the staff was not used to children.)  Ray was excited; he’s often asking us for sips when we pour a glass.  Tom, on the other hand, never wants to taste wine, but he made an exception.  Later he commented that while he didn’t like the taste, he kept wanting more.

On our way out of town, we finally found something for everyone to enjoy: a tram with little cages that lifted us to a church perched on the highest lookout over the city.  Inside was the nearly completely preserved patron saint of Gubbio, San Ubaldo.  He was suspended in a glass coffin above an alter.  The only thing missing were his three fingers which were cut off by his manservant as a memento to their friendship.

Kind of like Tom said, I didn’t really like it, but something about it makes me want to come back for more.

What is Umbria Jazz?

One block from our apartment

What is Umbria Jazz?  A thousand more experienced people could answer this question better than me.  Most of them are outside my window right now listening to one of many al fresco concerts. (P.S.  It’s 12:45am.)  But from what I can gather after five days is this:  It’s a two-week, city-wide party with over 50 scheduled musicians and countless street performers.  The town is packed.  The hotels are booked.  We met a couple yesterday who arrived with no reservations.  They tried seven hotels before finding one that offered lodging (as long as they are willing to change rooms every night).  Of course, they accepted.  Restaurants are overflowing.  And if you waited like we did tonight, you don’t get a table until 10:00pm.  The boys were completely melting down until Ray noticed “Nate and the Dagos” playing right outside the entrance.  So after eating, we joined the crowd and listened.   We had heard them for the first time yesterday from our apartment window.  Then today, Tom noticed the lead singer standing by a newsstand and asked him if he was playing again sometime soon.  The guy speaks English, and we soon found out he is from Seattle and lives in Perugia.  He gave us the location of his early evening gig then offered to meet Matt and the boys for a game of basketball once the festival buzz wears down.  Tom was over the moon.

Other Umbrian Jazz details from our perspective:  Matt saw a fight during his moonlight concert between 2:30 and 4am last night.  Sting plays tomorrow night.  The gelato line from out our window is currently 36 people deep.  Beer is sold in plastic cups and can be taken to-go anywhere in the city.  Apparently, the later the night gets, the fancier the dress code.  And finally, if you like a singer, yell, “Bravo.”  If you like a band, yell “Bravi.”  (Italian grammar fact #1)

Umbria Jazz ends tomorrow night.  But there are scheduled bands into the wee hours of Monday morning.  (The day isn’t officially over until the sun rises.)

The boys watch a trio while eating gelato.

“Nate and the Dagos”. That’s our apartment on the top right corner. There’s a white curtain blowing out the window.

Outside the patio of La Rosetta where we ate dinner

Things really get going after midnight

A line for gelato as seen from our window.