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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Culture Shock

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We’ve been back for three days, but sometimes, Italy seems like it never happened.  It’s like a book we read or a dream we had.  Time feels distorted.  I feel disconnected.  It’s as if half of me missed the connecting flight.  Sometimes I can picture the windows overlooking Via Mazzini or the green tiles in the bathroom or the handle on the refrigerator door; it’s all so vivid. I am there.  But it disappears quickly when I open my eyes.  Then there are phantom sounds.  Yesterday, I thought I heard an Italian police siren in the distance.  This morning I thought far-off church bells were ringing.  But usually, it’s just very, very quiet here.

A friend pointed out that culture shock is more acute when one returns home after a long trip.  I think I understand.  When we left for Italy, everything was disorienting and different.  We expected it, and the adjustment came gradually and unnoticed because our brains knew they had to learn how to function in new surroundings.  Then, when we came back to our old home, the familiarity registered instantly and subconsciously; these past few days, I defer to rote movements when turning on the kitchen burners or unlocking the door.  However, these little tasks can surprise me.  My hands are used to pushing the knobs of the stovetop before turning.  When that doesn’t work, I need a moment to catch up and make sense of it all.  My brain says “home” but my muscle memory says a different home.  And in that moment, the colors of our Perugia apartment surround me.  And my heart dips as I realize again that we are no longer there.  I’m surprised when the clerk bags my groceries for me or when pencils have erasers or when there is no hard  mineral residue in my pot of boiling water.

I’m trying to figure out how to bridge the chasm between the two lives.  I want to make the experience of our last year part of me.  I want to stay connected and remember everything, but I don’t know how.

I had two wonderful encounters at the grocery store today.  The first was with Sara.  When I called her name, we ran into each other’s arms.  It was emotional and a little loud.  It was happy and exciting and full of disbelief that here we were together after a year.  It felt really good.  Soon after, when I was in the dairy department, I overheard an older couple looking for pecorino cheese, and they were speaking Italian.  So I quickly jumped in.  I told them I had just returned from Italy.  I asked where they were from.  We talked about Sicily and Umbria.  I helped them find the right cheese.  Then I helped them find Italian rice and Italian flour.  We kept talking and talking.  Then we made a coffee date for next Monday at 10am!  They are my new friends.  When I walked out of the store, I was feeling alive and hopeful.

Leaving Perugia in 15 minutes

We have said goodbye to everyone and everything.

So many gut-wrenching hugs, final words and last glances that we knew meant forever.

Not just with people, but places and our lifestyle.

Yesterday we woke up early just to make sure we could see it all for the last time.  We stopped by every store and street and piazza.  We had lunch at our favorite counter, La Bottega, where Geraldo made us a plate of Umbrian meats and cheeses and gave us a bag of dried sausages to eat on the way home.

I just can’t sum it up.  It’s been absolutely incredible.  Unforgettable.  Beautiful.  I don’t have the adequate words to express how in love I am with this city (and all of Italy) and how much I am going to miss it.

For their last day, we told the boys they could eat as much gelato as they wanted.  Tom finished 12 scoops

For their last day, we told the boys they could eat as much gelato as they wanted. Tom finished 12 scoops

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”.

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.

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.

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Saying goodbye to Maestra Milva

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.

The Emergency Room (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

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Tomorrow is our last day of school.  Yeah!  So today our teachers let us go outside.  One of my favorite games to play with my classmates is nascondino.  It’s a running game of hide-and-seek.  Only today, it wasn’t very fun.  When I was it, I tried to catch two of my friends.  While I was running, I bumped into someone, fell and hit the pavement.  When I stood up and saw all the blood, I thought my nose was bleeding and I wondered why my mouth felt like sand paper.  The teachers ran over, and when they saw me, they gasped and covered their mouths.  Then I had a feeling that I broke my teeth.  Everyone stopped playing and came over to help.  A teacher walked me inside and got me some water.  Another teacher collected my teeth off the ground.  Someone called my parents.  Unfortunately, they were in Deruta so it took awhile for them to get me.

 

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Mom and Dad came, they were worried.  The teachers told them to take me to the emergency room. The hospital was 20 minutes away.  It was a big place, and it took a long time to find the dentist department.  After my mom signed some papers, they took us to a room, and a doctor and two nurses started working on my teeth. I was scared.  I thought there would be a lot of pain, and I thought it was going to take a long time. First they cleaned my mouth.  I tried to relax, but it was hard so I clenched my hands over my legs.  The doctor was nice and tried to speak English to me, but after he heard me speak in Italian, we decided to talk in Italian.  He sanded down my teeth with an electric tool.  That was the most painful part.  Then he glued my old teeth back on and added a little bit of fake tooth to fill in the missing parts.

We weren’t there very long.  I was glad when it was done.  It only cost 26 euros! (But I didn’t have to pay.)

The doctor told me to be very careful with my teeth.  He said to eat soft foods (like gelato) for a week and to not chomp with my front teeth.

We drove back to our apartment for lunch.  By now, school was over.  All my friends and my teachers started calling.  Everyone was wondering if I was okay.  I told them that I felt good and that I would definitely be at school for the last day.  I’m excited for tomorrow because after school, everyone is meeting for lunch at a restaurant in the country that has a swimming pool.

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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 Tom’s work: 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 “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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.

My Field Trip to Pompeii (written by Tom)

by guest blogger Tom

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I just got back from an overnight trip with my class to southern Italy.  We left on a Tuesday morning.  I met my teacher and the other students at the bus stop at 7:00 am for a five-hour drive down to Pompeii to visit the ancient ruins.

My classmates were excited to visit a city together and stay overnight in a hotel.

During the bus ride down, kids listened to music on their phones to pass the time.  I played Uno with my friend Luca.  Halfway through the trip, we stopped at an Autogrill to eat lunch and buy a snack.  I bought two big bags of marshmallows.

We stayed at the Hotel Vittoria near Naples.  We arrived around noon and checked in.  The hotel itself was good.  I shared a room with Matteo and Giovanni.  There were no teachers or chaperones in our room telling us when to go to bed so I stayed up until 1 am listening to music and watching a movie. Only one unfortunate thing happened while we were there.  I was playing with a toy that Matteo brought.  It was a squishy ball filled with powder that stretches into many different shapes.  When I was trying to twist it into a face, it suddenly exploded and sent white powder everywhere.   It was all over the beds, the chairs, the carpet and all over me.  It took forever to clean up.

Here's what the room looked like before the explosion.

Here’s what the room looked like before the explosion.

Unfortunately, the food wasn’t so great during the trip. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the dining room of our hotel.  Dinner was pasta with ragu, steak and potatoes and then gelato for dessert.  Lunch was gnocchi, potatoes, chicken and gelato.  For breakfast we were served a bagged croissant and a jar of pear juice.  (American breakfasts are so much better.) During the trip, we stopped for a gelato break three times.  Italian kids eat so much ice cream.

During our first afternoon, we went to look at the Pompeii ruins with a guide.  Pompeii is an ancient city that was buried by ash in 79 AD after the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius.  It was interesting for a little bit, but after a while it got hot and I became tired.  At the end of the tour, we  visited the museum  which displays casts of humans who were buried by the ash.  We also saw the houses and stores where those people lived and worked.  We spent most of the day in Pompeii and got back to the hotel around 8pm

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During the second day we visited Il Antro della Sibilla a Cuma which is a cluster of caves up in the hills.  These caves used to be the homes of fortune tellers during the time of the ancient Romans.  People could visit and ask the women (called sibyls) a question about their fate and the women would give them a vague answer.  We spent about three hours up there looking at the caves.  There were lots of plants and trees and geckos.  And there was a great view of the ocean too.

This is one of the caves we saw

This is one of the caves.

Before we got on the bus to go back to Perugia, we stopped at another gelateria.  I got a popsicle shaped as a watermelon with chocolate for the seeds. Then, we headed home.  During the bus ride, we played “monkey in the middle” with a bottle of water, but after a while, the teacher told us to stop so we sat quietly until we arrived in Perugia.  My parents and Ray were waiting for me.  I went to sleep as soon as I got home, but I still felt tired for the next few days.

My Two Days (written by Ray)

by guest blogger Ray

Sitting by Lago Trasimeno

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.

Waving goodbye to Tom's class

Waving goodbye to Tom’s class

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.

Me and Dad skipping rocks

Dad and me skipping rocks

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.

Torta al testo

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.

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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.

At the top of the bell tower

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.

Go Dawgs

Perugia’s Pantry

Federico and Antonio at Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e drogheria

Federico and Antonio at “Bavicchi Antica Spezieria e Drogheria”

In five days, my parents will be here.  They are staying for three weeks in the apartment next door.  For months I’ve been looking forward to their visit.  Like all our friends who have come to Perugia, they want to see more than the Etruscan Arch or San Lorenzo Cathedral.  They want to see how local life is lived. They want to see where modern Perugians do their grocery shopping, take their evening walk and get a great espresso.  So we’ll visit Cristiano’s pasta store, Rinaldo’s butcher shop and Marcello’s vegetable stand.  We’ll walk down Corso Vannucci and Corso Cavour.  And of course we’ll stop by Bar Alessi or Café Oscar along the way.

But there’s another place I can’t wait for them to see. It’s Bavicchi, the spice/bean/chocolate/and so much more store.  It started over a hundred years ago as a shop selling cleaning supplies and dried legumes. Bavicchi has maintained its roots while offering some of the most delicious standard and specialty ingredients in the historic center of Perugia.

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Owner Antonio Galli runs the small shop with his employee Federico Roselli.  The space is a mere 320 square feet, but it’s bursting with variety.  The walls are covered floor to ceiling in exquisite, colorful, aromatic, and even exotic goods.  Besides beans (over 80 kinds)  and spices (nearly 100), Antonio notes that many of his customers come in looking for nuts, dried fruit, and other ingredients for Italian desserts.  Wines, honey, and chocolate are some of the other big sellers.  Antonio also pointed out some of his more unusual offerings including maple syrup, tahini, powdered mustard, soy sauce, curry, and one jar of cranberry sauce (for the occasional American . . . in November).

vinegars, wines, and preserves.

vinegars, wines, honeys and preserves.

This is the house brand bitter. Like other amaro in Italy, this drink is served chilled and sipped after dinner. It's dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret.

This is the house brand bitter. It’s dark, strong and herby; and the ingredients are top secret. 

Bavicchi also has chocolates. The most popular brand  is Perugina chocolates which are made in Perugia’s oldest chocolate factory. Perugina began production 90 years ago and established the city as Italy’s chocolate capital.  Since then, the company has been bought by Nestle.  Vanucci is another brand on Bavicchi’s shelves.  This is a high quality artisan chocolatier that tries to create what Perugina once made.  They even have their own version of the famous Perugina Baci, only better.  Then there is Augusta Perusia Chocolate.  This is the smallest of the local companies.  Beyond these three, Bavicchi sells lots of other Italian and European brands.  With Easter just around the corner, a lot of the space in the store is used to display chocolate eggs.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good.  While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite, banana chocolate is popular too.

Federico offered me a banana chocolate that turned out to be surprisingly good. While hazelnut chocolate is everyone’s favorite in Perugia, banana chocolate is popular too.

Sometimes I come in not knowing what to buy and needing a suggestion.  When that happens, Antonio gets his red box of recipes off the shelf and hands me an idea.  Today he gave me a copy of crostini con fagiolina del Trasimeno, an appetizer of toasted bread topped with beans grown near Lake Trasimeno, just 20 minutes away.  We made it for lunch today and will make it again when my parents get here.

While the beans are probably impossible to find back in America, one could make a similar spread with a creative substitute.  Note that these beans from Lake Trasimeno do not need to soak before cooking while many other beans do.

Crostini with Bean Spread

250 grams of beans

1 carrot

2 stocks of celery

1 small onion

2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons of tomato puree

hot pepper flakes

salt and pepper

fresh bread

Cook the dried beans in salted water with the carrot, celery and half the onion for 40 minutes.  While they cook, sauté the other half of the onion in the olive oil until it is soft and translucent.  Add the tomato puree, salt, pepper flakes and pepper to taste and continue cooking for 5 minutes.  When the beans have cooked, add them to the onion/tomato sauce mixture.   Add a cup of water and cook for another 20 minutes.  Spoon the beans on top of toasted bread and drizzle with olive oil and more salt. Serve as an appetizer.

Or as we did, eat it as the main course.

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Three More Months

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Last weekend we caught a train to Florence.

Whenever we leave Perugia, I try to imagine what it will feel like the last time we pull away from the station and watch the walls of the city shrink in the distance.   Sometimes I think I’ll be ready to leave.

Like when the hot water doesn’t work.

Or when the space inside this apartment gets so cramped that I want to scream, “Go outside and play!” (but can’t because there isn’t a backyard; there’s not even a park nearby).

Or when Tom tells me some of the discouraging comments his teachers say to him.

I’m 100% positive that I wouldn’t want to live here permanently.  Our life is rooted deep back home.  It is where we belong.  It’s who we are.  It’s where we are truly understood (literally). So I guess twelve months is the right amount of time.

However, I’m not ready to go yet. I want to be ready to go.  I hope I will be ready to go.  But I’m just not ready, and June seems right around the corner.

When we leave, I wonder if it will be unbearably sad. I wonder how we are going to say goodbye.  Of course we can visit Perugia again, but when we part, we permanently say goodbye to this apartment, to these neighbors, to this experience.  We will permanently say goodbye to the details of our daily life.  (When I think about that, my stomach hurts.)

Sunrise filling the archway to Piazza IV Novembre.

Sunrise in the archway to Piazza IV Novembre.

One of our favorite walks.

One of our favorite walks.

Mirella and Cristina, the sisters who own Bar Oscar across the street from our apartment.

Mirella and Cristina, the sisters who own Bar Oscar across the street from our apartment.

Italy is good.  I love the ancient stone walls, the churches filled with candles on every corner, the pecorino cheese and the Umbrian sausage.

I love having everything right outside our front door.  I love not driving.

I’m going to miss it.  I will miss speaking Italian.  I will miss living downtown surrounded by city life.  I will miss evening walks, cobblestones and aqueducts.

I’m even going to miss the bell towers constantly ringing outside our bedroom window.

I will miss the sound of an Italian police siren and the 89 steep steps leading to our front door

and really good espresso

and being able to just catch a train to Florence for a couple days.

This is where I want to be right now.  In Italy.  Not forever, but for the next three months.

Chow (written by Matt)

by guest blogger Matt

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Oh no. My to-do list is down to the two items that are always at the bottom: writing about Italy and learning Italian.  In July and August I avoided these chores by setting up our apartment, adjusting to our new life, dressing like an Italian and traveling around Italy.  September, October and November brought school for the kids, learning to cook, biking, practicing golf and planning weekend trips.  December brought welcomed guests, the holiday and an extended trip to northern Italy.  January meant completing the year-end accounting duties I agreed to handle at work.  Now it’s February.  I have no more excuses.  So here I am.  Writing.  And I’m also learning Italian.

You would think I would want to learn Italian.  For six months, the majority of my conversations are with Jill, Tom, and Ray.   That’s it.  Outside of those conversations, I am limited to small talk.  Actually small talk is generous; I am really limited to salutations.  “Hi.  How are you?  It’s cold.  Can I have a double espresso?  I mean one espresso but with two espresso shots in it.  Put it in just one cup, please.  Thank you.  That is a beautiful espresso.  Thank you again.  Goodbye.”

I finally decided to take an Italian class – a one-week intensive course.   There were only two students in the class, me and Erwin from the Netherlands.   Every word, including all the directions, was in Italian.   The first night, the teacher gave us a long homework assignment.  He told us to conjugate 30 verbs.  It took me two hours.  The next day he was really impressed.  He had only really asked me to list 30 verbs.  Well, after five days, I was ready for a break.  The lessons helped, but I have a long way to go.  Case in point:  when I stopped by the dry cleaners, I dropped off my pants and mentioned Jill would be dropping off some more clothes that afternoon.  Things happened, and Jill did not make it that day.  Several days later, we went back together.  When they saw Jill, they looked surprised.  They said something to Jill.  She gave me a funny look and asked why I told them we weren’t married anymore.

Another misunderstanding happened earlier this year.  On my bike route to the golf course, there is a bar that has the same name as a friend back home.  I thought it would be nice to send her a picture of me in front of the bar.  So I found a customer, and in my best Italian asked if he would take my picture.  He agreed.   However, instead of accepting the camera from me, he walked underneath the sign and posed.  When I realized that he thought I wanted a picture of him, I was too embarrassed to attempt to sort it out.  So I took his picture.  It’s a beauty.

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Fortunately, the weather looked good this week so I bagged the idea of another week of Italian classes.  Instead, on Monday, I grabbed my bike and headed out to the golf course.  I didn’t make it far.  Just about the time I reached the first busy piazza, the sack with my clean golf clothes got caught in the spokes and immediately stopped my front wheel.  It sent me flying over the handlebars and flat into the cobblestones.  I sprained my wrist and bruised a rib.  The bike broke.  And that put an end to golfing or biking for the week.  Instead I’m sitting on the couch eating Advil and searching webmd.com for home treatments.

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We just passed the half-way mark of my sabbatical.   Great revelations have not yet found me.  However, I do know that being surrounded by over 2,000 years of human history has me feeling insignificant.  At first this seemed negative, but the more I consider it, the more freeing it becomes.  My logic is, if I don’t matter, then what I do doesn’t matter; and if what I do doesn’t matter, then I should do something I enjoy; and if I am doing something I enjoy, I should do it as well as I can.  Since I really enjoy my current work and my family and my friends and the activities I do in my free time, this only reaffirms that I’m on the right track.

Putting it into perspective -  visit to the Monumental Cemetery.

Putting it into perspective – a visit to Perugia’s Monument Cemetery.

And while we’ve tried to assimilate as best we can to the Italian culture, I’m not sure how I can incorporate this lifestyle into my routine back home.  It is different over here.  There is no hurry; everything takes a long time and everything is done with care and with enjoyment. I experience this from the shop owners in the stores we frequent.  The owners are the primary workers, and they work long hours.  They take pride in the products they have chosen.  And even though they close for three hours every afternoon, it’s with good reason.  It’s to have a nice big lunch with their family.  Food and family – the two most evident cultural values.  The consumer and business person in me hates it.  However, my soul loves it.  It is inconvenient, but the statement of value is inspiring.   And it is not inconvenient to an Italian who couldn’t imagine it any other way.

They say that with pain and discomfort comes growth. I keep reminding myself of this as I bumble through the awkwardness of basic communication, the embarrassments of my cultural incompetence, and the humbling need to be dependent on others.  Yes, I think one year is plenty of time for this kind of exposure.  At the same time, I have to admit, I’m a little nervous about leaving.  There is so much I still want to see and experience here, and there is so much I will miss when we are gone.  I will miss two long meals a day with Jill, Tom and Ray; grocery shopping and cooking with Jill; long afternoons playing cards with the boys; weekend adventures in medieval Italian towns that are within a hour’s drive; having everything I want within walking distance; the constant architectural sites around every corner; and of course the coffee and food.  While I’ve been trying to reflect on the impact of this year and what it might mean to my life, it’s possible that the real impacts of my sabbatical won’t be known until I return home.