The Raffle Ticket

 

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photo courtesy of Seattle-Perugia Sister City Association

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(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.

 

 

Fish

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Umbria is the only landlocked region on the peninsula of Italy.  It’s safe to say that Umbrians are not famous for their fish.

As an American, I’m used to eating fish or any other food that traveled many miles.  I’ve had Dungeness crab in Chicago, sushi in Idaho, and Rhoda Island oysters (in Seattle).  A few extra miles don’t bother me, so I was curious to try the fish offerings in Perugia.  Every day, we passed a beautiful fish market on the way to the fruit stand.  Clearly, they were Umbrian and didn’t seem to have a problem with the seafood.   So this spring, after nine months, I finally stopped by.

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La Perla Nera is a family business.  Signora Patrizia, Signor Franco and their son Michael are open four days a week.  I loved them immediately.  They were funny, confident and always generous.  They prepared my order with great care, always gutting, skinning, filleting and slicing it to perfection before tossing in a handful of parsley.  And they never let me leave without a detailed recipe.  I decided right away that I would try every fish dish they could teach me.  I started with spaghetti and clams.  Then I made fried calamari, salmon rolls, fish coquettes, swordfish sandwiches, fried filets, marinated squid with olives, fish with cognac, and fish soup.  I kept a list of the greats and politely forgot the not-so-greats.  The more I tried, the more recipes Signora Patrizia gave me.

calamari

calamari

a sword fish and zucchini sandwich

a swordfish and zucchini sandwich

I’m getting close to unpacking the last of our belongings.  The other day I found the stack of La Perla Nera recipes, and so tonight, with very, very, very fond memories of this awesome family and their fish market, I am going to make my favorite dish: fish balls (I promise, they taste way better than they sound.)

To make fish balls, you need an assortment of fish.  I can’t find the Italian fish that La Perla Nera sells, so I’m using ling cod, Alaskan rock fish, and Petrale sole.  Combined, the fish should total a pound.  To prepare, lightly sauté them in oil and garlic.  Gently break apart with a fork as they cook.  Then add about 4 or 5 gulf prawns that have been whirled in a food processor.   Add salt to taste.  Remove the cooked fish and prawns from heat and allow it to cool.  Then add a tablespoon or two of chopped parsley, an egg and bread crumbs until the mixture just starts to hold together.  Mix with your hands and then form into rounds the size of golf balls.  Fry the balls in oil and then add to a pot of marinara sauce.  Cook for a few minutes.   Serve as is or toss with spaghetti.

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La Bottega

The physical year in Perugia is over.  The inspiration to write and photograph has taken a monumental dip, but I’m not quite ready to end the blog . . . almost, but not quite.  There are a couple places I especially miss and a few corners of the city that I’d still like to post. Like this:
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La Bottega is one of our favorite spots in Perugia.  It’s a tiny four seat sandwich counter that serves the best selection of cured meats and cheese we ever had.  The selections are titled in Perugian dialect with Italian translations.  The offerings are simple and pure.  The menu includes 16 sandwiches and two combinations of meat and cheese boards.  The only variation was on Thursday when Signor Geraldo added slices of seasoned, roasted pork to the menu.

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We ate here more than any other place in town.  Matt and I stopped by at noon way before most self-respecting Italians would consider eating lunch.  There would be a couple stools available where we could watch the meat being sliced and assembled between a nice Umbrian bun.  We would order a glass of wine or a local beer and feel outrageously lucky for this perfect Italian hour before the kids came home from school.

Translation:  happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

Translation: happiness is a sandwich and a glass of wine.

It became a special occasion place too. On November 22, when every American we knew was waking up to Thanksgiving (and not a soul in Perugia recognized its significance) Matt and I walked down to La Bottega and ordered a plate of dried sausage, prosciutto, capocollo, ciauscolo, coppa, mortadella and pecorino cheese. We felt very thankful.

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During the last week in Italy, when our bags were packed and we were preparing to close the door on our year in Perugia, we took the kids to La Bottega for their first time and then ate there three lunches in a row.

And now that we are back, La Bottega’s menu sits in our kitchen inspiring me to search out the best available ingredients and begin to assemble a repertoire of sandwiches that I can recreate at home.  So far, I’ve found one product that makes the cut, salamis from Olli Salumeria.

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.

Tourists in Perugia

My mom and dad are ready for the tour of Perugia

We’ve had 20 guests over the last nine months, the latest being my parents and my brother’s family. During the past couple weeks, we devoted several mornings to long walks around town and a tour of our favorite sites.  Our must-see list is always changing; we have new favorites all the time.  And while there really isn’t any required stop in Perugia, there are lots of little interesting things to do and see.

For a little dramatic punch, I like to start at the eerie, 2000-year-old Etruscan Well.  It’s right around the corner from our apartment, and it only takes about five minutes to see.  Once you enter, you can walk down a dark, damp, stone path to a bridge which crosses the base of the well.  The air is warm and humid.  It looks and smells ancient.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

My dad and mom wave from down below.

More Etruscan feats are found all over the city.  The enormous Etruscan Arch sits nearby.  When Caesar Augustus defeated the Etruscans, he carved the new name of the city on this arch, “Augusta Perusia.”

Oliver under the arch

And even more Etruscans ruins: five minutes outside the city is Ipogeno dei Volumni where 200 tombs are on display.  The best part is the walk into the dark underground chamber where the largest tombs lie.  On both sides of the stairway sit the carved stone urns which held the ashes of the dead.

Mom, Dad and Matt head below.

Back in the center of town, some important sights are found around the main square, Piazza IV Novembre.  First, there’s the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.  San Lorenzo is one of three patron saints of Perugia.  He was grilled to death by the Romans when Christianity was illegal.  Inside the church sits the wedding ring of Mary.  Yes, the actual wedding ring of the actual Virgin Mary.

My parents in Piazza IV Novembre.  Behind is the city's biggest fountain and the Cathedral of San Lorenzo.

From the main piazza, one can take Corso Vannucci to the other side of town.  On the way, there is the National Museum of Art, which is okay.  It’s a far cry from the Uffizi; however, if you like paintings of the Madonna with child, Tom and Ray counted more than 75. Next door is the Collegio del Cambio, a small room that was frescoed by Perugia’s most famous Renaissance artist, Pietro Vannucci, known as “Perugino.”  This is a more efficient stop for art.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio di Cambio.  No photos allowed inside.

Mom and Dad outside the doors of the Collegio del Cambio. The frescos would make the top of my list for art in Perugia.

Corso Vanucci stretching across the historic center of town

Further down the street sits a piece of the Rocca Paolina, a huge fortress build by Pope Paul III to assert his dominance over the rebellious Perugians.  On it is the inscription, “To curb the audacity of the Perugians.”  We always take visitors down the escalators (underneath La Rocca) to see the remains of Perugia’s medieval city that Pope Paul destroyed. The Perugians later destroyed much of the fortress.

A corner of the Rocca Paolina

One of Perugia’s assets is its location high on top of the hills.  The benefit is a great view in every direction.  To simutaneously see the countryside and the city, we walk down Corso Garibaldi to Porta Sant’ Angelo.

The boys take in the view with their cousins last week.

And on the other side of town, in Piazza Italia, we can see two of Perugia’s most important churches, San Dominica and San Pietro.

My mom and I in Piazza Italia.

Finally, whether for coffee before the sites or a glass of prosecco after, we like to visit the oldest and most distinguished cafe in Perugia, Sandri.

Matt and my mom at the bar

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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Domenica

Corso Vanucci with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo just as mass ended.

Piazza IV Novembre with the Cathedral of San Lorenzo (just as mass ended).

For most Italians, the weekend lasts a single day, Sunday.

Kids get a one-day break from school.

Stores are closed (except the cafes and bakeries).

Families go to church and then meet relatives for Sunday lunch, the biggest meal of the week.

There is an elegance and energy on the streets.  It feels like a holiday.  In fact, a common greeting in Italy is “Buona Domenica!” (Happy Sunday).

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By 11:00 this morning, Corso Vanucci was full of people.  Many stop by Sandri, one of the oldest cafes in Perugia, to buy pastries for dessert.  In Italian bakeries, trays of sweets are wrapped in paper and tied with ribbons. (I love seeing people carrying presents down the street.)

Pasticceria Sandri.  A popular spot on Sunday

Pasticceria Sandri

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Residents from the outskirts come into the city to take walks and meet friends in the piazzas.  Some go to church.  As usual, Italians know how to look good, even when they are all bundled up.

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Because no one has to work today, meals are a little more extravagant and take longer to prepare.  A traditional Sunday lunch may includes lasagna or another pasta al forno (oven baked pasta).  Because Ray was especially interested, I asked around and found a couple recipes.  Most of them require a ton of ingredients and take all afternoon to prepare, so we try to make enough to serve on Monday too.  One of our favorites is made with sausage meatballs, béchamel sauce, tomato sauce, hard boiled eggs, breadcrumbs, herbs, fresh penne, parmesan and provalone.

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The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

The meatballs are ready to add to the tomato sauce where they will cook before becoming one of the layers in the baked pasta

Ray adds a layer of sliced hard-boiled egg and cheese then I cover it all with the pasta.  Once it's assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

Ray adds sliced hard-boiled eggs and cheese, then I cover it all with béchamel sauce and tomato pasta with meatballs. Once it’s assembled, the trays of pasta al forno cook for a half hour.

While the four of us often spend Sunday visiting cities outside Perugia, the boys prefer to stay here where the pace is less dependent on train schedules and restaurant reservations.  There are times when I agree.  Cold winter days like today remind me how easy it would be to settle into the comfortable Italian pleasures of relaxing at home with the family while cooking lots of good food.

Christmas Chickens, Hats and Hunchbacks

It’s Christmas Day.

We celebrated in the morning with the annual routine:  wake up excited, open presents and then play.

Puzzles from Santa

Then the afternoon focused around local traditions.  As with every holiday in Italy, it’s all about cooking and eating. Months ago I started consulting friends and store owners and anyone I could talk to.  We found that three dishes comprise the traditional Perugian Christmas dinner.  Each recipe was described with swooning detail and passion.  I tried to listen carefully and take notes.  Each one sounded difficult, and they all required hours to prepare.   So we started early.  The past several days were full of visits to the butcher, the grocer and the vegetable market. This was followed by prep sessions in the kitchen.  Together with Matt, Tom and Heidi, we faced a handful of obstacles and put our heads together when problems needed solving.  We moderated recipes and finally made a delicious Perugian Christmas feast.

Preparing vegetables and meat for a stock

1.  Capelletti and Brodo  (little hats in broth)

I practiced making this one back in September.  I wrote the recipe in a post on pasta.  It’s the easiest of the three Christmas courses.  While the broth takes about three hours to cook, it can be made ahead and kept in the refrigerator.  And with Cristiano down the street, I can skip making the capelletti by hand and just watch him make them.  (It felt like cutting corners, but everyone else is doing it.)   So this afternoon, we started with a bowl of capelletti and broth; our first course.

2.  Galantina (Christmas Chicken with a cup of gelled broth)

This dish is considered very Perugian.  Armando at the grocery store assured me that it’s so provincial that you won’t even find it served in nearby Assisi. Basically, it’s a whole skinned and deboned chicken that is then ground with veal, prosciutto, pistachios, eggs, parmesan cheese, salt and nutmeg. Then all the ingredients are wrapped up in the chicken skin and sewed up with a regular needle and thread before being boiled for two hours, pressed under a heavy weight for another hour and then chilled overnight.   People looked at me skeptically when I said I was making it.  “It’s very difficult,” they reminded me.  Rinaldo, the butcher, walked me through it.  He deboned my chicken and removed the skin in one entire piece.  He ground all my meat for me and explained the process.

Stuffing the skin

Stuffing the skin

Tom sewed like a surgeon

Tom sewed like a surgeon.

3.  Gobbi Parmesan (layered hunchback with meat sauce and cheese)

“Gobbi” means hunchback in Perugian dialect.  In Italian it’s “cardi.” In English it translates to “cardoon.”  It’s a member of the artichoke family.  When it’s ready to be picked, it falls over a bit, resembling a hunchback.  Anyway, I made the meat sauce for the dish several days ago.  Then yesterday I went to Marcello’s vegetable stand to get my gobbies.  But there were none left.  Apparently, no one waits until Christmas Eve to start preparations on this bad boy.  There was one produce seller with a couple boxes left, but they were wilted and brown.  So I decided to make eggplant parmesan instead.  In doing so, I bypassed hours of gobbi cleaning, stripping, and boiling.  And the final product looks similar.

the word in Italian is "brutto"

Heidi fries the eggplant

It all came together this afternoon.  We poured prosecco and toasted to being together and our attempts at creating an authentic Italian Christmas dinner.

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A plate of galantina and meat gel.  Trust me, it was great.

The evening is winding down.  Aunt Deanne and Uncle Richard gave us the six Star Wars movies for Christmas.  We are already on the second one. Merry Christmas and lots of love from Perugia.

Lights, Penguins and Baby Jesuses

Perugia's Fontana Maggiore with the city's brightest Christmas tree

Perugia’s Fontana Maggiore with some holiday lights

We don’t have a Christmas tree (or any decorations for that matter).  The only sign of December inside our apartment is the freezing cold.  We bought two more blankets yesterday.

But outside, it’s beautiful. Every street in downtown Perugia is illuminated with big hanging lights.  Even on the most rainy and windy nights, we make time to take a walk.  It feels so festive and winter-wonderlandy.

A view down Corso Vanucci

One of the things I love most about Italy in December are the nativity scenes.  They are everywhere.  All the churches have one.  Many of the stores too.  Even the banks.  There seems to be no limit to how grand, gaudy, quirky, confusing, unique, extravagant, or detailed these displays are.

Tonight, Ray and I walked down to Sant’ Antonio Church to see for ourselves what Perugians call the best nativity scene in the city.  It was kind of a long walk from our apartment.  But as soon as we entered the back room of this church and saw the extravagant display, my throat constricted and I kind of felt like crying.  The nativity village was animated with sounds of thunder clapping, a fire crackling, a baby crying, and soft lullabies – all the sounds you might expect from that legendary night.  Then after several minutes, everything changed.  A rooster crowed and the “sun” rose.  The entire scene changed from night to day.  Many of the tiny figurines came to life.  A woman started baking bread.  A man cast a fishing line into the river.  And two friends started playing cards.  Ray and I stayed for three or four “days” continually finding more hidden details in the scene.

A small corner of the city's largest nativity scene at Sant' Antonio Abbate

A small, but important, corner of the nativity scene at Sant’ Antonio Abbate

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus.

A game of poker occurring simultaneously with the birth of Baby Jesus. 

A woman baking bread in an oven that really flickered.

A woman baking bread in an oven with flames that really flicker.

As we left, the attendant thanked us for coming and encouraged us to return when the snow machine is working and the village gets a blizzard.

Another hallmark of a Perugian Christmas are the penguins that line the street on Via dei Priori.   These penguins are all designed on cardboard.  They stand alone or nestled in groups among window displays.  This “Invasion of Penguins” is based on a story about Perugia where all the citizens disappear as penguins fill the streets.  It’s cute and kind of fun to look for hidden penguins.  But today I talked with a shopkeeper on Via dei Priori who admitted to not liking the story because of its subtle racist undertones.  So I picked up a copy of the story to try and figure out what he’s talking about. I’ll let you know.

A few penguins at the bookstore.

 

Dressing the Italian Man

Fabrizia and Sergio in front of Donati

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notice the neatly folded handkerchief to complement the formality.

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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Our Apartment in Perugia

We’ve been here almost three months.  And while we have no intention of staying a single day over one year, we do refer to this place as home.  When we visit another city for the weekend, we come home on Sunday.  When we pick up the boys from school, we come home for lunch.  And after an afternoon navigating the foreign, loud, confusing city below, we can always retreat to our apartment and feel like it’s ours.  It’s a good place.

But not perfect.

By now we’ve had time to get familiar with the nuances.  The good has only gotten better, and for the most part, the bad is just a big inconvenience. For anyone interested, here’s a little tour.

I’ll start with the disadvantages

1.  The water.  One of the first things I noticed when we moved in, was a strange, filmy, white residue left in the pot after we boiled water.  And the tea always has the look of an oil slick floating around on top.  I thought the pot had some leftover toxins from the previous tenants, but after buying a new pot, I had the same problem.  So I Googled “white residue” which led me to “hard water” which led to “calcium and iron magnesium”.  It turns out this suspicious film is a result of all the mineral deposits.  Upon further investigation, I learned that we are getting a full day’s supply of calcium and magnesium just by drinking water from the facet!  So this actually might be a good thing.  But it’s gross.

left: the mineral deposits left over in the pot.      right: the sludgy look of tea made with a daily dose of calcium and magnesium.

2.  Old appliances that break or don’t work well.   Since we’ve moved in, we’ve had to replace the washing machine and the refrigerator.  We had to live without both for nearly four weeks.  Then last month we had to repair the hot water heater after two days of freezing, cold water.  And the intercom used to communicate with visitors when they arrive downstairs (and also open the door to our building) hasn’t worked for weeks, meaning one of us has a long hike every time a someone rings, which leads me to . . .

3.  Living on the sixth floor.  There is no elevator in our building.  We climb up and down 89 steps at least three times a day.  I never buy more than a day’s worth of groceries at a time, one reason being that it would be too heavy.  I dread the ascent after a weekend away with the extra weight of suitcases.  It’s tiring.  It’s sweaty.  But I think I’m getting stronger.

4.  The shower leaks and makes a puddle on the bathroom floor after each use.

5.  The toilets are really hard to flush.

6.  We have woodworms in all the antique furniture and wood shelves.  I’ve tried getting rid of them, but they seem to be very resilient.  They have burrowed themselves too deep in the wood for me to see, but they leave plenty of evidence with a brown, sawdusty powder all over.

7.  The bells.  Outside our bedroom window is the city bell tower.  It rings every hour.  It also rings every 15 minutes.   Matt did the math; that God forsaken bell rings 456 times a day.

I’m starting to detect a little whine in my voice, so I’m going to switch over to the benefits of this lovely place.

1.  The ceiling.  Above the living room is a bright fresco of a horn, a ribbon, and some holly branches.  Another ceiling has beautiful red stones mortared into it.  I love it.  When I look up, there is no doubt we are in Italy.

2.  The boys each have their own room.  This has been so nice, especially since there isn’t a back yard to play in or much space in the apartment to get away from each other.  When they need a break from the rest of the family, they now have their own place to be alone.

Tom’s room is decorated with football pictures he gets in the mail from friends back home.  (Those are all his school books stacked on the right.)

3.  The location.  No other detail about our life here makes as big a difference as this one.  We are in the middle of it all.  We are in the center of the center.  With the warm weather, we keep the windows open and can hear silverware and plates down below at Perugia’s most popular restaurant.  The boys can go downstairs and across the street to the best gelataria in town, and we can see them the whole time from our windows.  We are are less than five minutes by foot to the kids’ school.  From our dining room table, there is the frequent sound of street musicians.  Then there is the constant traffic of fashionably dressed Italians walking past down below.  We are surrounded with so much vibrancy and energy.  It feels great.

4.  The way our oven cooks potatoes.  This is weird, but every time I make roasted potatoes, they turn out perfectly.  I don’t even have to do anything except cut them up and pour salt and olive oil over them.   I don’t even know how hot the oven is because it’s in celsius.  I just turn it on the highest number and check on them every 10 minutes.  It’s amazing.

5.  The fireplace.  There’s a little fireplace built into the wall.  You can see it from the photo above.  It’s adorable, and I think it will be really cozy in the winter if we can find some place to buy wood.

6.  The postcard wall.  Every time we visit a new city, we add a postcard from that location to our kitchen wall.  As the postcards accumulate, the wall of this apartment record the highlights of our year.

6.  The photo wall.  Thank God the apartment came fully furnished.  The landlords have done a nice job decorating it.  Most of their paintings on the wall are fine, but we knew we would want something from home to make this place feel like ours.  So we brought pictures of all our friends and family and stuck them above the shelves in the entryway.  It looks fantastic.

7.  A place for Luke.   The top shelf is dedicated to Luke.  In addition, we packed the pink candle that we light in his memory.  And I brought the framed picture that our friend gave us on the five-year anniversary.  It’s called Flight of the Recently Departed.  We keep them together near the kitchen table.  They hold a space for Luke.  While we didn’t bring very many personal items for home, these were essential.  These pictures and objects of Luke’s might be the most important features of our apartment.