The Crisis and other Conversations

There are four topics that come up with nearly every Perugian we meet.

First there is the saltless bread, which I’ve mentioned before. During the Middle Ages, the popes staged a long and repressive reign over Perugia.  One of the many injustices was the exorbitant tax on salt.  So the Perugians just stopped using it, and to this day they don’t salt their bread.  Friends talk about it, tour guides note it, language teachers discuss it, and every summer, Perugia stages a production of The Salt War, a play which reenacts the events of the mid 1500s.

The cheerless underground city which was buried after the Perugians refused to pay the salt tax.

Pope Paul III’s army destroyed the wealthy sector of Perugia as punishment for the town’s insubordination.  This broody corridor is part of what is now referred to as the underground city.

They also talk about how dramatically their city has changed in the last 10 years.  They speak nostalgically of the past:  “The streets use to be full every night.  And on Saturday, you could hardly walk because it was so crowded.  Back then, we all lived in the historic center, but now it’s practically empty; everyone has moved to the outskirts.”  Having little to compare it to, we are always enchanted with the beauty and vibrancy of Perugia.  It’s charming. There are lots of Italians.  To me, Perugia feels authentic and alive.  But every time I share my feelings, the Perugians shake their heads and insist that in its day, this was once a fabled city; one of Italy’s best.

Then of course, everyone talks about the infamous murder of 2009.

The courthouse is just around the corner from our apartment.

The courthouse where the trials were held is just around the corner from our apartment.

And finally, they talk about la crisi, (the crisis) . . . Italy’s financial situation.  Some say it started as early as the 1980s when Italian companies began outsourcing the production of their famously well-made, high quality goods to China, Bangladesh, and India.  The subsequent loss of Italian jobs and the obvious downward spiral of “having less money/needing cheaper goods” is just one factor.  Others say la crisi is a result of the mafia and the corrupt government.  They point to the lying, cheating, stealing, sneaky politicians who make headlines but should really just be in jail. Even though new elections are scheduled for the end of February, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for change. We heard someone say that what Italy needs is to be CONQUERED.  There’s also the problem of taxes.  These days, Italians pay half of their income to Uncle Spaghetti.  And they explain that most of that money finds its way into the hands of the aforementioned politicians.  Finally, things really started to sink low for Italy after the global financial crisis of 2008 and the European debt crisis of 2011.

As visitors here in Perugia, we see (or hear about) the effects of la crisi.  Almost every family needs two incomes to support themselves.  Some teachers’ salaries have been frozen for seven years.  College graduates cannot find jobs. Family-run businesses are being replaced by sterile chain stores.  And two of our neighbors, both popular restaurants in the city, closed since we arrived.  It’s a challenge for guidebooks to keep current with what is recommended and what is still in business.

Gus:  This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

Gus: This restaurant was featured in the NY Times last spring

But even amidst their troubling financial problems, Italians continue to dress spectacularly.  And compromises are never made when it comes to wine, food and coffee.

Two weeks ago we were taking a walk from our apartment down Via Alessi, and Matt pointed out a cafe that we had never noticed before.  We stopped in for an espresso and tried a little pastry.  We were impressed. This place was incredible. When we asked how long they’ve been here, they said the shop is brand new.  We commented on how rare it is to find a new cafe when so many are closing.  They agreed but are hoping to help revive this once busy part of town.  Since we first set foot inside, we’ve been here every day.  And each time, it fills up more and more.  It’s like a little celebration inside.

The owners, Benito and Pietro d'Andrea, are originally from Salerno.  They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

The owners, brothers Benito and Pietro d’Andrea, are originally from Salerno. They specialize in Campagna pastries and coffee from Naples.

Signor Pietro mades cannoli downstairs in the kitchen.

Signor Pietro makes cannoli downstairs in the kitchen.

This is Anna who makes the coffee and explains the finer points between each pastry.

This is Anna who makes the coffee and serves pastries.

We’ve heard it said that despite the problems, Italy enjoys a high standards of living.  It’s evident.  Even with debt, unemployment and a bleak political future, Italians know how to create a beautiful, if brief, moment.  This is inspiring.  They take time for pleasure.  They respect daily traditions. Changing the system might be overwhelming, but they still exert control over the finer points of life.  And while they tolerate corruption, they don’t tolerate bad coffee.

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Our First Visitors!

Yesterday, we had dinner with an old friend.  Krysta French and her husband Eric are spending their honeymoon in Italy.  We convinced them to swing by Perugia for a visit.  It was beyond wonderful to spend time with friends after our long week so far away from home.

Before we sat down to eat, we thought we’d show them around.  Since we are brand new to the city, there wasn’t much to point out besides a couple restaurants, the bank and the laundry mat.  However, there is one impressive tourist site we remembered from our reconnaissance visit in April.  The boys hadn’t seen it yet either, so we took a walk to the underground city.

Hundreds of years ago, shortly after the Salt War, which inspired Perugia’s tasteless bread, the Pope sought some revenge.  He directed his army to pay a holy visit to this city and destroy it.   The soldiers arrived and somehow managed to bury the ruling families’ homes and buildings and leave everyone for dead.  (I think somebody needs to go to confession . . .) The Pope then erected a monument on top of the destruction and claimed victory.  Ever irreverent and always the ones to have the last word, the Perugians snidely referred to his structure as La Rocca “the rock”.  Later on, once the Pope was out of town, the Perugians destroyed La Rocca.

Now, the underground city has been excavated and one may walk through its ancient corridors and stop for photos under the arches.

Exiting the underground city.

La Rocca ruins                                                                                                           La Rocca Ruins

Dinner with Krysta and Eric was great.  We sat outside at La Taverna until midnight drinking wine, twirling pasta, and catching up. 

Waving goodbye.  Photo courtesy of Eric Pan taken from inside the train as it left Perugia.

Cone or a Cup?

Matt in front of Perugia’s central Post Office.

It’s been a week.  We are just beginning to navigate the nuances of cultural idiosyncrasies.  Just beginning.  Today we needed to get our Permesso di Soggiorno (another ridiculous document that allows us to stay in Italy for the year – as if the visa wasn’t hard enough).  So Matt stepped up to the challenge and talked his way through several obstacles at the post office.  This led us to three additional government buildings, at which point we were instructed to return tomorrow.  (That sounds familiar.)

By then it was time for ice cream.  With Umbria Jazz over, the line for gelato was less than five minutes.  And the boys are finally getting the hang of how to make an order.  Here’s how it goes: They begin by specifying a cono or a coppetta depending on whether they want it in a cone or a cup.  Then they select the size.  Italians don’t say, “one scoop or two,” (because the ice cream is transferred via a spatula).  So instead, they say, “piccolo , media or grande”.  After that, they chose the flavor.  If they can’t decide between amaretto and peach, for instance, they have them both.  Finally, the server may ask if they want panna.  That’s Italian for whip cream.

The last topic is bread.  This would be insignificant except for the fact that our fridge is still broken and we’re still eating out every night.  And since Italians don’t eat dinner till 8pm, and since we’re still acclimating, we sit down starving.  Luckily, the waiter soon brings bread.  However, it’s dry and tasteless . . . confusing . . . because everything else tastes good in Italy.  The answer for this travesty:  The Pope.   Here’s the proud story we’ve heard repeated over and over.  Hundreds of years ago, the Pope put a huge tax on the Perugians’ salt.  They rebelled and didn’t buy his damn salt.  The boycott worked, and to honor their victory, Perugians have never added salt to their bread since.  Hilarious.  In your face, Pope.