Parlando con il cuoco – Photo by Jed

"Parlano Con Il Cuoco" - They Speak with the Cook

“Parlando con il cuoco” – Speaking with the Cook

This is one of my favorite photos, taken in a restaurant in the town of Foligno in Umbria (close to Montefalco and the amazing Sagrantino wines of the area). We met this lively chef while doing a tasting a Caprai, and made an impromptu decision to lunch at his restaurant. The food was amazing, and the chef was known for sitting down at the table with you, pouring himself a glass of wine (from your bottle), and staying for a brief conversation (until he was needed back in the kitchen). Another unique feature of the restaurant was a glass wall dividing the restaurant. Diners were encouraged to “speak their minds” with graffiti. Unfortunately, I recently learned that this unique Osteria is now closed. I’m glad I found a moment in time to experience its unique offerings and ambiance.

Considering Moving to Italy?

Or, are you planning an extended stay in Italy?

Hollywood has helped build a heavily weighted view of living in Italy. While I liked “Under the Tuscan Sun” (Diane Lane is one of my favorite actors) for the sheer entertainment value, I found it a bit sugar-coated (unlike the book). Yes, there were hurdles and tests for Frances, but still it all happened just a little too magically – thanks to the Hollywood “spin” to make sure audiences walked away satisfied. Don’t get me wrong, there is a LOT of magic to be experienced when you live here, but there is also a lot of red tape and bureaucracy, and laws change frequently and unexpectedly. I’ve found things that seemed to be a “no-brainer” in the U.S. to be quite difficult here. For example, the Italian postal service is incredibly unreliable and unpredictable. If you want to raise your estimation of the U.S. Postal Service significantly, just come to Italy and try to post a letter back to the States.

A blue-themed restaurant just in front of the Pantheon in Rome.

A blue-themed restaurant just in front of the Pantheon in Rome.

You might think I’m trying to scare you away. I’m not. I’m just a big believer in due diligence and full disclosure when it comes to factors that can influence a major life decision. Italy IS an amazingly beautiful and endearing country, for countless reasons. However, many people make the move here, only to feel sideswiped by the non-romantic practicalities of living here. Disillusioned, they retrench and head home. I’d hate for that to happen to you.

All the hard work associated with making Italy my home has been worth it, thus far. My heart has been in it from the get-go, and I felt reasonably prepared with the intestinal fortitude needed to deal with a long list of logistics and regulations.

So, here’s my advice based on my experience and my personality, starting with #1, which is….

Have a dream, but pair it with a well-thought out plan.

When The Secret came out, a lot of people thought they only had to dream, and imagine something happening. I believe that is only half of the formula. The other half is the hard work of researching, planning AND doing. Do a vision board (I did) if that helps, and make a list of the details of your ideal life in Italy. Then, start a notebook, and research all the requirements of getting residency (or a long-term stay permit – a permesso di soggiorno), and all the practicalities of living in Italy once you have arrived. There are several good websites with information for potential expats, but I felt like I had to wade through information that didn’t pertain to my particular situation. I needed to know what living in Italy would mean for an American, not for an EU citizen. Believe me, there are some big differences.

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A Coffee Please…the Italian Way

Un cafè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

Un caffè dopo pranzo (a coffee after lunch).

God, I love coffee, and Italy is paradise for me in this regard. On one hand, I pass up (most of the time) pizza, bread and pasta, because I am one of those crazy low-carb critters (it really works for me). If I passed up the incredible coffee here also…well, that just wouldn’t be right.

Having just returned from a brief trip to the States, and after having to depend on Starbucks for my daily “fixes”, I’m delighted to be back in coffee-Utopia. I had brunch at a great bakery while visiting South Carolina. The food was exceptional but I found the “American” coffee so foul that I was shocked something so awful would be served and consumed without a mass protest. How people could drink that stuff without wincing was beyond me.

You’re thinking I’m some kind of stuck-up coffee snob now, right? Think what you may, but the Italians have trained me to appreciate REALLY good coffee. And you can find it almost anywhere in Italy. My dear friend Arun, who has also spent ample time in Italy, and I often remark about the exceptional quality of a coffee or cappuccino at the Auto Grill – a chain of auto and truck stops all over Italy. Stop by most truck stops and service stations in the States and you’ll usually get something that will perk you up, but it won’t make your taste buds sing. Stop by an Auto Grill for a coffee and your ire will surge realizing you’ve been cheated with most of the offerings back home.

People often quote “Life is too short to drink bad wine.” For me, this goes for coffee as well.

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“Just Hanging” – New Painting by Jed

Watercolor of Just Hanging

Just Hanging

I love painting scenes of everyday life here in Italy. I don’t think I’ll ever grow weary of the rich street scenes I see everywhere. Gatherings of the “good old boys” is the focus here. I’m sure I’ll be revisiting this theme again. Visit my online gallery for more watercolors and other artwork and photography.

Stepping into an Italian Pedestrian Crossing? Proceed with Caution.

If you’re considering stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing. Be afraid. Be very afraid…especially if you are in Rome.

Beware of blithely stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing...you might be courting disaster.

Beware of blithely stepping into an Italian pedestrian crossing…you might be courting disaster.

Back in the States I could step into a cross walk with reasonable assurance that oncoming traffic would stop. Sure, I still had to be alert to the signs of hurried drivers who were loath to stop and wait for me to cross, but I found that to be pretty infrequent.

It’s not a great situation pretty much all over Italy, and Rome is the poster child for poor behavior and an overwhelming lack of adherence to the rights of pedestrians.

Beppe Severgnini, in a recent article (Google-translated into English with this link) in the Corriere la sera, quotes some pretty damn scary statistics:

“It is a disease that does not want to heal. In Rome: only 30% of motorists respect the pedestrian traffic lights and only 15% will stop in front of the strips”

I urge you to read this article and to prepare yourself for this unfortunate fact of life. Hopefully it will change, but I’m not willing to risk it. If you decide to assert your right of way in the pedestrian cross walk, you are inviting a game of chicken. Don’t do it unless you see clear signs of a driver slowing down and stopping.

The only places I see drivers in Rome “behaving” is when a police officer is in close proximity to the cross walks. And then, it is only done begrudgingly. Maybe it’s just overly developed paranoia on my part, but when I’m making a crossing, many of the looks I see through appear steely….only made more menacing when the driver is wearing sunglasses.

Beppe Severgnini has become my go-to expert on life and attitudes in Italy. Being a native Italian, he has the credentials to make some pretty astute observations about situations such as these. Read more about him here, and I suggest you consider reading his books and following his articles. He will be a great source of perspective as you build a life in Italy.

Disclaimer: These are my opinions and they, in no way, should be a substitute for your own research and experience.

Brunello Cucinelli believes in giving back, locally….

The school of Cucinelli in Solomeo - And inspiration to investing in the local community and "giving back".

The school of Cucinelli in Solomeo – And inspiration to investing in the local community and “giving back”.

Brunello Cincinelli – Luxury brand with a soul….

 

Yesterday, Simone and I had good sense to thumb our noses at the rain and the dreary atmosphere outside, and to embark on a local trip to the sweet little town of Solomeo. A forty-minute drive from our little hamlet in Umbria, the town of Solomeo is just southwest of Perugia. The drive, if you choose to forgo speed in the favor of a more leisurely drive, gives you a spectacular view of the countryside.

 

Brunello Cucinelli luxury Italian goods - made locally in Umbria, while supporting and giving back to the community of Solomeo.

Brunello Cucinelli luxury Italian goods – made locally in Umbria, while supporting and giving back to the community of Solomeo.

Simone had been telling me about the international luxury brand, Brunello Cucinelli, and how inspiring the owner has been in building his business model of providing exquisitely crafted product in a way that he gives back to and builds the local community. My ears perked up hearing about this, especially after recent news has been loaded with exposès of upscale brands who have gone abroad for cheap labor, and super-high gross margins. Come on…the idea of a product that costs €1,000, but costs only €40 to make seems, to me at least, like price gouging and taking advantage of cheap labor – NOT good healthy business practices. But, Brunello Cincinelli has a different, healthier vision in my estimation. He provides the luxury goods that people want, but he does so by training, supporting and building a local community. In Solomeo, il signor Cucinelli invests in the local resources and rising talent, underwriting their training and building local expertise in the artistry of designing and building clothing with the utmost attention to detail. He believes in the local Umbrian talent and resources. And, the net result is a robust community that continues to grow and thrive.

While strolling through Solomeo, we passed the theatre that il signor Cucinelli built for the village. The chiseled plaque above the entrance reads “Brunello Cucinelli wanted this theater of man, in the presence of nature’s theater, to always remind us of the eternal values of the beauty and the dream.”

I find his dream inspiring, and I hope that other brands will learn from his example….

 

Two glasses of white wine and a plate of meats and cheeses - after touring Solomeo and the artistry of Brunello Cucinelli

We enjoyed a glass of white wine and a plate of meats and cheeses – after touring Solomeo and the artistry of Brunello Cucinelli

Italian Hand Gestures – Artistry in Action

Using the hands to punctuate conversation and emphasize emotional content in a conversation is essential to Italians. For them, the hands are as essential as the mouth for communicating. Hollywood has had a heyday with this…to a fault. I’m not saying the portrayals are inaccurate, just a bit over the top. Sit an Italian in front of a movie screen or TV featuring Italian “characters” and ask them to “weigh in”. Most will roll their eyes and make hands gestures of their own to express outrage that the Americans are “at it again”.

Check out the following “brief” YouTube videos explaining some of the most prolifically used gestures. WARNING: In the second video some of these are a bit explicit, so if swearing offends you, you might want to skip over. However, if you’re planning on spending much time in Italy, you’d better start getting used to creative swearing, with words and hands.

www.youtube.com/watch?v=iB-kz4Rj7MY

 

www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wWhnFgSFMM

This brings me to share a piece of advice. Embrace the language and do everything you can to perfect your vocabulary and pronunciation, but leave the Italian hand gestures to the Italians. Understand the “vocabulary” of the Italian gestures so that you know when a person is emphasizing a point, expressing outrage, saying someone is bullshitting them, telling someone to go f#*k themselves, or communicating countless other sentiments. But, if you try to emulate these hand gestures, in my humble opinion, you’re playing with dynamite. These movements of arms and hands are so natural and fluid for Italians because they starting learning them when they were starting to walk. Just try reading up on the breadth of hand gestures and soon you’ll realize how you could end up “mis-pronouncing” with your hands. Italians will spot the pretense right away and it won’t be endearing.

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“Sister Has Wheels” – Recent Painting by Jed.

I’m happy to share with you a recent Jed Smith watercolor, “Sister Has Wheels”, insipired by a nun cruising by the cafe where I was having a coffee (after a visit to the commune office to inquire about the procedure for obtaining my residency and identity card in order to obtain my own “wheels”, a.k.a. my own car). See this and other watercolors in my online gallery.

Watercolor of Sister Has Wheels

Sister Has Wheels

“The Card Game” – Photography by Jed

The Card Game

Just head to almost any piazza across Italy mid-day to late afternoon, and you’re likely to find a group of “the boys” immersed in a serious card game.

I want to share with you one of my favorite photos that I captured in the beautiful Umbrian hill village of Montone. I love seeing the engagement and intensity in these gatherings of locals. I will never be at a lack for such compelling vignettes of daily life here in Italy. Check out this and other black and white photos in my online gallery.

This Chandelier’s Journey to a New Home

The Chandelier's New Home

Who would’ve thought an invitation to a friend’s villa for Sunday lunch would result in a beautiful new chandelier hanging in our Umbrian home?

Just last week we drove up in Umbria (from Rome) to warm up our little home, to check mail, and to see our newly installed chandelier. We couldn’t be happier…or more grateful for how we received such a magnificent addition to our home. At the heart of this chandelier’s journey to a new home is a story of Italian generosity and hospitality.

We met Marcello and Romana almost two years ago at the home of one of our neighbors in Umbria. Their warmth and easy laughter helped us feel welcomed into our quaint locale. We saw each other many other times at meals with friends, and at local events, each time vowing to make lunch plans at their home soon. Conflicting schedules (mainly due to our busy travel schedule) made it seem like it would never happen. But, in late October we called, and Marcello and Romana invited us to a Sunday lunch at the family villa about twenty minutes away.

A sunny November Sunday afternoon, and a verdant drive leading to a magnificent estate.

A sunny November Sunday afternoon, and a verdant drive leading to a magnificent estate.

It was Sunday,”Il giorni dei morti” – the day of the dead, which is the day after “Tutti i santi” – All Saints. Halloween had been Friday yet the most evidence I’d seen of Halloween in Italy were a few pumpkins sitting about (no carved Jack ‘O Lanterns), and a couple of decorative witches. No trick or treating here. If you dressed up in a costume and headed around the neighborhood to knock on doors and get candy, you’d probably give someone a major freakout and you’d end up getting shot instead (October IS, after all, the beginning of hunting season here in Umbria).

Our Sunday lunch with Marcello and Romana (and with our good friends and neighboors who had introduced us) was a 4 1/2 hours affair. We had been gifted with a day of brilliant colors, light that presented everything in amazing clarity, and unusually warm temps. Their home is a magnificent 9,000 square foot abode, with origins in the late 1200’s. It is lovingly and painstakingly restored. Frankly, I don’t know how Marcello and Romana keep the house so immaculate, and how they also work the land – which is also substantial.

When first we entered the house into the great room, where we were to have our long, leisurely lunch, I knew we were in for a special experience. A robust fire drew us into the the room, and I soon noticed a spit of sausages cooking in front of the fire. Romana emerged from the kitchen, where she had been hard at work, and we exchanged greetings and kisses. Then, Marcello took us for a tour of the property and the house. The house kept unfolding and unfolding, like Russian nesting dolls. Every room was unique, and the artistry of lamps, doors, tables, etc. was inspiring. I would need a map, or GPS to find my way through this house again without getting lost. There were seventeen bedrooms alone, and at least ten bathrooms. Geez.

Bottle "art" in the cellar of our friends 600-year old villa.

Bottle “art” in the cellar of our friends’ 700-year old villa.

The hearth in the great room, greeted us on our arrival for a long, leisurely Sunday lunch.

The hearth in the great room, greeted us on our arrival for a long, leisurely Sunday lunch.

We returned to the great room for lunch, and after the hour-long tour, I was famished. One of the many things I have come to love about life here in Italy is the communion that is inherent in having meals together. This is certainly not a news flash to anyone who has experienced life in Italy, or a Thanksgiving or Christmas “Italian style” in the U.S. But, I feel compelled to extol the benefits of such a way of life and a way of slowing down (no checking emails or texting at the table) to be present. I, in particular, have not always exhibited such appreciation and respect for being present. This was a good lesson for me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t not have been truly present for great generosity and warmth.

Our meal, which was served alongside loads of hearty conversation and laughter was:

Verdure fritte (sage, onions, cauliflowers)
Pepperoni ripieni (green peppers stuffed with meat)
Zuppa di zucca (pumpkin soup)
Salsiccia arrosto e tacchino fritto (roasted sausages and fried turkey breast)
Frutta (fruit)
Torta di noci e ananas (nut and pineapple cake).
Cafe
Castagne arrosto e novello falo vino (roasted chestnuts and new wine from Lungarotti – an essential pairing).

Le castagne

“Le castagne”, or chestnuts roasted (truly) by an open fire, capped off our amazing Sunday lunch.

Il Vino Nuovo

“Il vino nuovo”, new wine, from Lungarotti is a crucial pairing with freshly roasted chestnuts.

 

You’re probably wondering, by now, where the hell is the chandelier in this story. Well, at this point it makes its entrance…

We were wrapping up our amazing lunch, and I was leaning back in my chair while letting my gaze move around and take in everything in the great room. I saw a fairly sizable chandelier, and remarked at how beautiful it was. Marcello smiled and asked me if I wanted it. I was embarrassed, and my partner quickly tried to back pedal on my behalf. But, Marcello, wanted us to have the chandelier. He insisted. And, I said “Grazie, sei troppo gentile!” – Thank you, you are too kind!

So ended our afternoon together, and our conversation in the car on the way home centered around when the chandelier would show up at our house. “Probably sometime much later.” we concluded.

Yet, a week later, we received a call from our neighbor Anna, telling us Marcello was arriving shortly with the chandelier in tow. He arrived, smiling profusely, and he and Anna’s husband carried the fixture into its new home. Soon our modern Ikea light would come down and be replaced with a light with great character and history. For our eclectic mix of old and new, this would be perfect. And, now that we have seen it installed, it is indeed perfect for us.

Just think…this chandelier’s journey to a new home began during a warm, wonderful gathering of friends in the Umbrian countryside. I continue to be blessed in new and unimagined ways.

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