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.

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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Travels at Home

One of my favorite routines during our year in Italy was packing a bag on Saturday and heading into a new town for the night.  Even though we arrived feeling disoriented, after a long walk and a good meal, we would begin to settle in and recognize the patterns.  While each place has its own traditions, history and culinary specialties, there were also similarities: there was the central piazza, the cathedral, the landmark fountain, the Renaissance masterpiece  and the acclaimed cafe.  With guidebooks, a map and notes in hand, we would hit the highlights.

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

Bevagna, Norcia, Siena and Assisi

We were missing the accessibility of weekend adventures until it dawned on us that we can travel and explore from our home in Washington. So last week, we bought a local guidebook on Pacific Northwest road trips and ticked off two from the list: Tom headed to Lake Chelan with some friends while Matt, Ray and I drove up to Mt. Rainier for wilderness hikes and sub-alpine scouting.  Meticulously following the suggested route of our book, we were often surprised to encounter parallels with a typical trip in central Italy.

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we followed the advice of our guidebook and stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!)  The towns claim-to-fame is an old church (of all things).  The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history.  It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world!

Before we even entered Mt. Rainier National Forest, we stopped in the town of Elbe (pronounced like the Tuscan island!) The town’s claim-to-fame is an old church (how familiar). The on-site caretaker, Dick, showed us around and provided some history. It turns out, this is one of the smallest churches in the world.

Meticulously following the itinerary of our Lonely Planet guide, we stopped in Ashford for espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse.  We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us, “Bacon Brown Sugar Latte.”

Next stop: Ashford for a shot of espresso at Whitaker’s Bunkhouse. We declined the tempting daily special written on the blackboard behind us:

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Italy isn’t the only place full of ancient beauty.  This tree was born in the 1200s.

The nature museum at Longmire.  Italy isn’t the only place full of old stuff; this tree trunk was born in the 1200s.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami sandwiches at Richsecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

We picnicked on mozzarella salami paninis at Ricksecker Point in front of a goose bump view of Mt. Rainier.

While Ranger Anne didn't hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

While Ranger Anne didn’t hold a candle to the engaging Signor Luciano of Rome, she did provide an interesting lesson on ancient history (albeit geological).

We never made it to Terni's famous waterfall Italy, but the cascading waters of Narada were spectacular.

We never made it to Umbria’s famous cascades in Terni, but the Narada waterfall under Mt. Rainier was spectacular.

There were also many moments that could never be duplicated in Italy.  Ray climbed trees on a hike at Longmire.

Singularly Washington.

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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Cala Gonone . . . Wow

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We’ve seen beauty everywhere this past year. Whether in marble, bronze, gold, fresco or oil, images of heaven have been depicted all over Italy; but none have been as stunning as the natural scenes made of sand and water in Sardinia.

After two days in San Teodoro, we traveled down the eastern coast to Cala Gonone, a town situated between rugged mountains of isolated wilderness and the cleanest, clearest water I’ve ever seen.

The nearby beaches are accessible only by water, so each morning, after packing sandwiches and a cooler of drinks, we rented a motor boat for the day and returned only after the sun had set behind the steep cliffs.

The farthest beach was only a 43 minute boat ride.

The farthest beach was only a 45 minute boat ride.

With her experience on sailboats, Stacia gets lots of practice tying knots so she was in charge of fastening the anchor.  Then Matt would pull up next to the beach and let us off before dropping the anchor 100 yards from shore and swimming in.

With her experience on sailboats, Stacia gets lots of practice tying knots, so she was in charge of fastening the anchor. Then Matt would pull up next to the beach and let us off before dropping the anchor 50 yards from shore and swimming in.

Cala --- the first beach we visited.  There were only a few other people there.  We found rocks to climb and deep water to dive into.

Cala Sorgente, the first beach we visited. There were only a few other people there. We found rocks to climb and deep, jeweled water for diving.

Stacia takes a leap.

Stacia takes a leap.

We also stopped at "Venus's Pools", a deep, green swimming hole away from the beaches.

We also stopped at “Venus’s Pool,” a crystal clear swimming hole offshore.

Cala Mariolu, with great jumping cliffs and another spectacular beach

Cala Mariolu, with great jumping cliffs and another spectacular beach

Matt on the edge . . .

Matt on the edge . . .

Tom's descent

Tom’s descent

While we were playing on the beach at Cala M, someone offered to take the boys on a mini scuba diving adventure.  They put on all the equipment and went for a short and shallow dive.

While we were playing on the beach at Cala Mariolu, someone offered to take the boys on a mini scuba diving adventure. They put on all the equipment and went for a short and shallow dive.

After leaving Cala Gonone, we met a proud Sardinian who shared his thoughts with us.  He said that when God created the earth, he was content, but then he created the island of Sardinia and was completely satisfied.

After leaving Cala Gonone, we met a proud Sardinian who shared his thoughts with us. He said that when God created the earth, he was content, but then he created the island of Sardinia and was overjoyed.

A Little North of Umbria

Urbino:  The Duomo and Duke Federico's Palace

Urbino: The Duomo and Duke Federico’s Palace

The day after school got out, we left Perugia for our longest trip of the year.  This morning we’re in Ferrara, sleeping in after six days of heavy sight-seeing. Soon we will head to Sardinia for our second week.

We started in Urbino, our first visit ever into the region of the Marches.  This small town is where Raphael was born, and if you didn’t know it upon arrival, it was a hard fact to miss; many streets, restaurants and piazzas are named after him and his masterpieces.  His centrally located home is now preserved as a museam. There is also a large monument in his honor as well as many of his original and reproduced paintings around town.
There's Raphael with his paintbrushes

There’s Raphael – way up on top

Urbino also prides itself on the legacy of Duke Federico who ruled the city in the 1400s and is known for being a fantastic mercenary and true Renassance man.  We toured his palace and walked through the piazzas and courtyards that he commissioned.  His image has been painted all over.  (He is always viewed from his left profile because he lost his right eye in a duel.)
Piero della Francesca's famous portraits of the Duke and Dutchess of Urbino.  The original is in the Uffizi, but the town is filled with copies.

Piero della Francesca’s famous portraits of the Duke and Dutchess of Urbino. The original is in the Uffizi, but the town is filled with copies.

On the way north to the region of Emilia Romana, we cooled off at “Acquafan.” Not surprisingly, it’s been the best part of the trip for the boys.  There were 19 waterslides, a wave pool, swimming pools and granitas served in tall, take-away containers.  You could order up to seven flavors at once.
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Then we headed to Ravenna, one of the cutest towns in Italy.  Its pedestrian streets look like a movie set, and its churches are world famous for their 1500-year-old mosaics.  Present-day Ravenna has embraced the mosaic motif and created modern designs on nearly everything: garbage cans, planters, store fronts, and street signs.
charming Ravenna

charming Ravenna

our hotel's street

a street sign

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of colored glass make the ceiling of this centuries old mausoleum.

Hundreds of thousands of pieces of colored glass make the walls and ceiling of this ancient mausoleum.

This beautiful city has more that mosaics.  Tom was excited to visit the Duomo’s famous labyrinth said to absolve Christians of their sins.  However, once he saw how small and simple it was, he gave me a familiar look of disappointment.  I think he was hoping it would be made of hay.
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Our last stop out of town was to the Boarderline art exibit which featured famous works by 20th century artists on the boarderline of insanity and normalcy.  Many of the pictures looked like nightmares or crime scenes.  However, the museum cheered us up with more mosaics on the first floor.
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And now we are in Ferrara warding off mosquitos.  There is a castle across the street with the most swampy green mote I’ve ever seen (which satisfied our curiosity as to the mosquito population.)
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Looking forward to this evening when we visit the oldest wine bar in Europe, Al Brindisi. Copernicus drank here.

Looking forward to this evening when we visit the oldest wine bar in Europe, Al Brindisi. (They say that Copernicus drank here.)

The Ceri Races of Gubbio

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

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

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

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

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

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

St. Giorgio near the church of St. Francesco

The exibition rounding the church of St. Francesco

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray decided to give it a try.

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