The Raffle Ticket

 

 

photo courtesy of Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association

photo courtesy of Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association

(The very, very last post)

This month, the Seattle International Film Festival hosted “Cinema Italian Style.”  This was a ten-day event featuring 17 current Italian movies.  The mayor of Perugia attended as well as several Italian actors and directors from the films.  We haven’t had a lot of opportunities (besides eating) to really participate in anything Italian here in Seattle during these past five months, so we bought a couple tickets.  We also knew there was going to be a raffle with the grand prize being a one-week, all-expense paid trip for two to Perugia.  I bought five chances.

We attended opening night with the boys to watch a really fun movie about the adventures of a quirky Sardinian soccer team.  Then tonight Matt and I bought tickets for the closing feature, La Grande Bellezza.  Traffic was the pits, and we got there at the last minute.  We found two seats up front.  After thanking the sold-out theater for its record breaking support of this year’s festival, the announcer wheeled out the cage full of  hundreds of raffle tickets.  The suspense grew.  The ticket was drawn, and my name was read out loud.  I won.

It’s been five hours, and my heart is still beating at a dangerous pace.  Although I always knew that someday we would go back, I was thinking more like a decade.

Matt and I get to return to Perugia within the next year.

 

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The Sweet Life

Last week we visited family in Vida, Oregon.  My parents grow hazelnuts in the McKenzie Valley.  Together with my aunts and uncles’ orchards next door, they cultivate over 100 acres of trees.  We figured that a short stay on the farm could serve as a reunion with what we love about Italy: local, fresh food, family crowded in every direction and, of course,  il dolce far niente (the Italians’ poetic motto meaning “pleasant relaxation in carefree idleness,” literally “the sweetness of doing nothing”).

It was a week of inspiration and creation.  It was a tribute to the food and lifestyle and culture of the Italians.  It was a canvas for remembering our favorite parts of the year abroad.

When we arrived, we took a sunny passeggiata around my parents’ place.  Then next door, my Aunt Heidi and Uncle Tom brought us to their Italian inspired terrace which they named, the Piazza. Later, we toured the gardens before settling into the kitchen where we made many of our favorite Umbrian (and Oregon) recipes including six different gelatos, daily pasta dishes and a tribute to roasted Umbrian wild boar.

The terrace with a thousand details (all made by hand).

The new Piazza with a hundred Italian details.

Our favorite corner of the piazza was the copper griffin that Tom made in honor of his experience in Perugia.

Our favorite corner of the Piazza is the copper griffin which my uncle made by hand in honor of his experience in Perugia with us last winter.

A crop of fagioline, the prized legume from Lake Trasimeno.  (Tom and Heidi snuck home a handful for their garden.  I was amazed with the result!)

Out in the garden: A crop of fagioline, the prized legume from Lake Trasimeno. (Tom and Heidi snuck home a handful to plant in their garden. I was amazed with the result!)

Similar to our Sunday excursions in Italy, this trip to my parents’ provided opportunities to practice the concept of farm-to-table:

Similar to our Sunday trips in Italy, this excursion provided for many lessons in practicing the concept of farm to table. Aunt Paula taught Ray to fish.  He caught a trout for dinner.

The McKenzie River flows through their backyard.  Aunt Paula took Ray fishing, and he caught a trout for dinner.

After knocking apples off the trees, we pressed and canned 42 quarts of apple cider and left one large jug to ferment.

Fruit trees line the driveway.  After gathering apples, we pressed and canned 42 quarts of cider and left one large jug to ferment for a breakfast buzz.

Heidi fills jars after the guys press the fruit.

Heidi fills the jars while the guys press a wheelbarrow full of fruit.

My mom picked blackberries and made many pies with the boys.

My mom picked blackberries and made many pies with the boys.

Although the salmon aren’t swimming through Vida, my dad brought some to the farm and taught us how to cure and smoke them for our pasta dinner.

Although the salmon aren’t swimming through Vida, my dad brought some to the farm and taught us how to cure and smoke them for our pasta dinner.

When the temperature drove us out of the kitchen, my dad took the boys to his orchard for golf lessons, archery and paint ball.  Later,  Tom and Heidi led rafting trips down the river.

 

We concluded the week with another late dinner on the Piazza.  Additional family members joined us.  In remembrance of Luke, we illuminated the table with candles which we brought from some of our favorite churches throughout Italy.

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The “Year in Perugia” was really over in June.  These lingering articles are just my arms reaching back for a little more.  But honestly, it’s time to sign off.

Thanks for following.  Thanks for checking in.  And thanks for being a part of it.  It was exhilarating to have so many readers.  I loved the comments and emails and all the appreciation.  I savored each compliment and treasured each word of encouragement.  Without feedback, it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun.

With a bittersweet sigh and a thousand memories of la dolce vita . . .

Arrivederci,

Jill

Postscript:  Last February, a reader got in touch with me.  He is a professor of classical studies at DePauw University.  He told me he was interested in taking his family to Italy for a year and wanted to visit and ask some questions.  We invited him over for lunch and quickly become friends.  He is now living with his wife and three sons in Perugia, just blocks away from our old apartment.  They are documenting their year on a blog titled Shades of Umbria.  Tune in.

A winter lunch with Pedar in our Perugian apartment.

A winter lunch with Pedar in our Perugian apartment.

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.

Easter (and Easter Monday)

Easter Sunday with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Together last weekend with my parents in the courtyard of San Pietro

Easter lasts for two days in Italy.  There is Easter Sunday (Pasqua).  And then there is Easter Monday (Pasquetta) which is equally important as far as holidays go.

This was my second Easter in Italy.  The first I spent in the region of Campagna 23 years ago with my dad and brother.  I remember it well.  That afternoon as we were walking throught the streets of Naples, a moped sped by me and ripped the backpack off my back.  (It contained our passports, our train tickets and all my money.)  I was able to hold on to the strap and run after the driver for a little ways before using my last ounce of strength to yank it back.  The force of my pull knocked the thief off balance. He started to topple before letting go of the backpack and speeding away.  I had rescued our goods.  It was my first ever sensation of bad-assness.
This year was also memorable but in a much less dramatic way. In fact, by Perugian standards, we had an ordinary Easter.  But that was my goal: to celebrate with local traditions.
We started Saturday night with a little visit to the nearest church.  We brought lots of food because Perugians get their Easter meal sanctified before eating it.  When we arrived, the priest was busy in the confessional, so we decided to bless the food ourselves.  Since my mom knows the most saints, we figured she should do the honors.  Using the holy water and wand from near the alter, she sprinkled a prayer and benediction on our groceries.
Here's my mom with priest tools giving our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

My mom uses the priest tools to give our cheese bread a proper hallelujah

The next morning, we arranged the spread.  Once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee for breakfast.  On Easter, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), hard boiled eggs, cheese bread, wine and a cake called ciaramicola.
picture:  once a year, Perugians sit down to more than just a coffee and cigarette for breakfast.  On Easter morning, tables are filled with capocollo (a cured meat), cheese bread, hard boiled eggs, wine, and a frosted dessert called a ciaramicola  The boys also ate a giant chocolate egg with a toy surprise inside.

Breakfast

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

The boys also got giant chocolate eggs with a toy surprise inside.

Then, of course, we joined the Catholics and went to mass.  Out of the 20 or more options in downtown Perugia, we chose the Church of San Pietro, an ornately decorated cathedral near the edge of town.
My mom and I spent the afternoon preparing lamb and artichokes.   Not quite sure how to cook lamb, I decided to fry it.  The Italians say that even the sole of a shoe tastes good when fried.  It worked.
My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

My mom talked Ray into trying lamb.

The next day was Pasquetta.  Our friends Milena and Sergio invited us to their house in the country.  They wanted to meet my parents and introduce us to some of their relatives.  We joined them for a grand lunch starting with champagne, capocollo, cheese bread, wild asperagus and pecorino cheese.  This was followed by two platters of cannelloni, four types of grilled meats, artichokes prepared two ways and another big ciaramicola.  
A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

A walk on the rolling, green, olive-tree-covered hills of Umbria

Milena's mamma serves cannelloni.

Milena’s mamma serves cannelloni.

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

My parents pass around a bowl of meats

"Ciaramicola" - the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.

“Ciaramicola” – the rainbow sprinkled, meringue frosted Easter specialty of Perugia.  It’s red inside because of the bright liquor used to color it.

We ended the day with a walk gathering wild asparagus from around the trunks of olive trees.  Pretty cool.

For the first time since 2007, I’ve been enjoying holidays.  Distancing ourselves from past traditions, we get to peer into those of the Italians and participate as students of culture rather than as emotionally rooted members.

It’s true what they say about holidays being the hardest days.  When you lose the person with whom you celebrated, you lose the meaning as well.  Holidays have really sucked since Luke died.  Our family’s traditions faded away, yet we were still surrounded by everyone else celebrating the same old way.  This year, the physical distance from our culture’s customs, as well as having the distraction of another’s, has brought objectivity.  Discovery has replaced menacing compulsions; novelty has replaced stagnant etiquette; and the freedom to experiment has replaced the sense of obligation to assimilate with past traditions. Instead of running from the holidays, this year, I feel more inclined to step into them.

Spring Break

Biking in Lucca

Biking in Lucca

The boys completed another week of character building at their respective schools.  They finally made it to Easter Vacation, a ten day break.

Unfortunately, after school, I was called in for a conference with Tom’s math teacher.  I knew it was going to be a doozy, so I asked Signora Paola, the boys’ tutor, to accompany me.  As a teacher herself, she is part of the inner circle of Italian educators.  Beyond that advantage, she is intelligent, fair, and understands Tom.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

We wait in the halls of San Paolo Middle School.

By 1:15, we entered the meeting.  We got an earful, and with it, I gained a greater understanding of Italian culture, something I should be grateful for, I guess.  The good news is that Tom got the highest grade on his math test that any 6th grader earned all year.  But he still didn’t show his work, which she didn’t like.  And he complains about the uniform, which she also didn’t like . . . among other things.

Oh well, he still gets three more months to adapt.

That afternoon, we caught a train to Pisa and began our vacation.  As it turns out, it was New Years Day in Pisa.  (They celebrate once on January 1st and once on March 23rd.)  Completely by accident, we reserved a room on the second floor of a hotel overlooking the Arno where the grand firework display was held at 11pm.  We seriously had the best seats in town, especially considering the pouring down rain drenching everyone below.  It was a spectacular show with music and two barges (one on either side of our windows) blasting off fireworks for 25 minutes.

A room with a view

A room with a view

The next morning, we walked to one of Italy’s most famous monuments, the Leaning Tower of Pisa.  We circled around, climbed to the top, and joined hundreds of others in assuming unoriginal poses in front of our camera.

Leaning . . . just like the tower

Leaning . . . just like the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Trying to straighten the tower

Pisa is big and festive and famous all smashed into one town.  I loved it, but after one day, I was ready to leave.  It’s like a party and hangover all in one.

Next we went to Lucca, a sweet, soft, small, walled Tuscan town.  Not only the name of the city reminds me of Luke but the streets too.  They were full of pink bikes.  One of my favorites was similar Luke’s first bike.

The bike-renter's son owned this one.  I wanted to tell them about Luke.

The bike-renter’s son owned this one. (I wanted so much to tell them about Luke.)

Another pink bike I liked was owned by a woman who gave us an impromptu tour of the outside of Puccini’s house-turned-museum the day we showed up after closing.

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However, not all of Lucca is gentle.  We visited The Museum of Torture which I thought sounded entertaining, but turned out to be a huge bummer.  While it was a well-done exhibit, it left us all sick to our stomachs and hopeless.  It’s hard to believe that humans were (and still are) so capable of such psychopathic brutality.  It made my thumbs and tongue hurt, as well as my shoulders, bum and boobs.

A couple showcased devices from the first room

A couple showcased devices from the first room

We tried to calm the disquietude by heading, yet again, to Trattoria Gigi, maybe the most charming little restaurant we’ve met.  In three days, we ate there three times.

This afternoon we left Lucca.  After stopping in Florence for a few hours to look at Michelangelo’s house, we caught a train to Rome and met my parents at the airport.  They are spending the second half of Spring Break with us as well as two additional weeks.  In preparation for Easter, we are planning on soaking up Catholic monuments including the Sistine Chaple and tons of churches.  This Sunday we will return to Perugia for a traditional Perugian Easter celebration which includes an unusual breakfast of hard boiled eggs, cake with rainbow sprinkles, and red wine.

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Gramma and Grandpa with the kids here in Rome

Candles

Today at Santi Aposoli

Today at Santi Apostoli

Six years ago, Luke died.  Suddenly and unexpectedly, he stopped breathing after an insidious bacterial infection took over his body.  On that day, we started lighting candles.  That little bit of light gave us something to look at.  Now every year on February 17th, we get together with friends; we talk about Luke; we miss Luke; and we always light candles.

We are lucky here in Italy because there are candles everywhere.  Every city has a hundred churches.  And every church has a corner where candles wait for a prayer.  We started our day in Florence with our great friends Kelli and Oliver, then tonight we will return to Perugia.  We will light candles along the way.

The Duomo in Florence

The Duomo in Florence

I don’t completely understand the allure, but I know it must be done.  I want to strike a match and say his name.  I want to leave a sign.  I want fire.  These candles are our little messages in the dark.  They are our mysterious, small, hot, dangerous intentions.  They are quiet testaments to our hope and our heartbreak. And today they are proof that while I may not believe in God, I believe in something stronger than myself.

Tall tapers in the church of Santi Apostoli in Piazza LImbo.  Matt came across this church.  It was the oldest church we visited, build sometime in the first millennium.

Tall tapers in the church of Santi Apostoli in Piazza Limbo. Matt came across this church. It was the oldest church we visited, built sometime in the first millennium.

Matt in Santo Spirito

Matt in Santo Spirito

Ray, Oliver, Tom and Kelli in  Santa Croce

Ray, Oliver, Tom and Kelli in Santa Croce

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Even though it’s still morning for all our friends and family back home, we have received so many emails.  They come with pictures of candles.  There are flames across the world for Luke:

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Day of the Dead

The ruins of Ancient Rome

Italy sort of celebrates the Day of the Dead.  Not with the vibrant pageantry of Mexico nor in the reflective, communal way that our family has celebrated since Luke died, but it recognizes the holiday enough to give the kids a day off from school.  Combined with All Saints Day, this long weekend justified a trip to Rome.  So on Wednesday, we hopped on a train from Perugia.  We spent Thursday counting fountains, eating gelato and dodging rain.  When Friday arrived.  I felt nostalgic.  I knew if I were home I’d be hanging paper skeletons and lighting candles.  I knew our house would be full of friends.  It would feel warm, sacred and festive.  Instead, it was just the four of us way over here.  But I still wanted that lighthearted, irreverent confrontation with death and I wanted to feel a connection with those who have died, so we did our best to create an itinerary immersed in old bones.

In front of Julius Caesar’s tomb

It started at the tomb of Julius Caesar in the heart of the Roman Forum.  His burial site actually resembles a Day of the Dead alter; there are flowers and notes strewn on nearby rocks in honor of this Roman ruler who was killed 2000 years ago.  We listened to stories of his rise to power and his betrayal by his senate friends (ex-friends, I guess).  Later, we walked to the site of his assassination.  It’s adjacent to the famous Cat Sanctuary.  For a price, you can adopt real Roman cats which are believed to be reincarnations of the ancient emperors.

Hundreds of cats roam the ruins while a group of volunteers takes care of them. There’s a little yellow and white emperor under the temple.  Caesar was stabbed somewhere in this scene.

That evening, we jumped ahead 1500 years (and millions of dead people later) to the Capuchin Crypt.  The guide-book descriptions did not do this place justice.  It was way more edgy than we expected and perfect for our day.   I still don’t quite understand what happened and why, but apparently, about 400 years ago, when the an order of Capuchin friars relocated from their old monastery to the present one at the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione, they brought the bones of their fellow monks with them.  They didn’t have enough room to bury them all, so they used the bones to create intricate mosaics and decorations all over the walls of their chapel!  Seriously.  And it’s actually pretty.  Coffee colored skulls, femurs and pelvises from thousands of bodies are arranged artistically in four little white alcoves down a warmly lit corridor.  The chandeliers that light the rooms are also made of bones  (small ones, maybe vertebrae and fingers).    Some of the bones have been put together to form a complete skeleton.  Some are just neatly stacked.  Some are arranged in the shape of flowers.  There was a message printed as we peered into one of the rooms that reads, “What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be…

The lighting was much better in person: orangy and atmospheric (not that anyone could ever feel “cozy” in here.)  I wish you could see the entire ceiling in these pictures.

As we were looking around, someone told us the crypt was closing early.  She told us that once a year, on the Day of the Dead, a mass is celebrated among the bones, and we were welcome to stay if we wanted.  I couldn’t believe our luck.  Tom and Ray saw it differently, though, so they chose to get gelato and take a walk with Matt while I joined about 20 live Italians and 4000 dead monks for a short service.

Later on, after we returned to our hotel, I received several emails from friends at home who were making alters, remembering people who died and keeping the spirit of this holiday strong.