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 Amanda Knox’s trial was 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.

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.

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.

Breakfast in Italy

After moving here, we had to get use to the way Italians eat.  Dinner is super late.  Lunch is enormous.  And breakfast, as we know it, is non-existent.  We say it’s the most important meal of the day, but Italians don’t eat when they wake up; they drink coffee from their espresso machines or brew some in a tiny coffee maker at home.  If coffee isn’t enough, many have a cigarette along with it.

It’s not until 10 or 11 am when the cafes open that Italians take a break from their morning and get a bite to eat.  But there are no breakfast menus.  No eggs Benedict.  No oatmeal.  No bacon.  Just pastries.  And here in Italy, powdered sugar donuts and huge cinnamon rolls aren’t just for kids.  Men in business suits eat whipped-cream filled croissants all the time.

A case full of choices at Santino

It’s 11:00 and the cafes are busy.

Most Italians enjoy their morning snack while standing up.  The cafes serve customers along a bar.  Traditionally and most commonly, patrons order an espresso to accompany their sweet bread and then eat on their feet.  You can sit at a table if there is one, but you have to pay more.  (And it doesn’t feel as authentic.)

The guys at Bar Pasticceria Accademia waiting for our order

Serving espresso and croissants on the bar at Antica Latteria

We haven’t entirely acclimated to this routine yet.  Once in a while I’ll make breakfast for the kids.  When some local friends heard about this, they wanted to know more.  What is a traditional American breakfast?  We got to talking and then decided to have them over for Sunday Brunch.

It took a week of planning and experimenting before we settled on the menu.  I wanted something with syrup.  And Matt wanted to include savory dishes.   We bought all sorts of ingredients in our search for the perfect flavors.  Since Italians don’t have breakfast meats like bacon, we bought an assortment of cured meats and sampled them all throughout the week.  Pancetta was too salty, so was guanciale.   We tried prosciutto crudo, prosciutto cotto and speck (smoked prosciutto).  Eventually, speck won the vote.

On Sunday morning we woke up early to start squeezing oranges.  By the time our guests arrived, all was nearly ready.  We had just a few frantic minutes with the oven and all four burners on at once trying to cook and talk in Italian while appearing in control (too difficult). I finally abandoned the cooking part and Matt took over.

When it was ready, we served big American cups of coffee, French toast, a breakfast casserole, egg sandwiches, apples with lemon and sugar, and smoked salmon toasts.  We even found a bottle of maple syrup (imported from Canada.)

French toast cooked in lots of butter.

Egg McMuffins

Sunday Brunch

As we were eating, we talked a little about a typical Sunday at home:  hanging out, watching football, going on a walk, barbecuing, etc.  However, since we are in Italy, Milena and Sergio proposed a visit to a nearby ruin.  This sounded perfect, albeit in great contrast to an American Sunday.  So after we finished brunch, we walked down the street for a tour of the 2000-year-old Etruscan acropolis that was discovered underneath Perugia’s giant cathedral in the 1980s.  It was just opened to the public this year.

The oldness of it all was mind-boggling.  During our tour, we walked up and down ancient roads that had been buried for two millennia.  We stood in the remains of an Etruscan family’s house.  We saw an ancient cistern for collecting rain water.  We touched a tall wall that at one point extended to the highest reaches of the city.  All the while, we were just two blocks away from our apartment and just a little bit underneath.

Later, when we got back home, all the dishes from brunch were waiting for us.  By the time we cleaned up, we were tired and ready for bed.  The last thing we wanted to do was cook dinner.  So instead, we walked downstairs for an ice cream cone and a beer, neither an Italian nor American meal.