The “New” Old Italian Stone Wall is Under Way

The "new" old wall is reinforced and is being carefully constructed in the best possible way (including new drainage). And what a handsome wall it will be!

The “new” old wall is reinforced and is being carefully constructed in the best possible way (including new drainage). And what a handsome wall it will be!

This past week, after yet another week of intensive Italian classes, I raced home, grabbed an overnight bag, and began the three-hour drive to my home in Umbria. The sole purpose of this short trip was to see the progress being made on my Italian stone wall adjacent to the house, which collapsed after heavy rains just three weeks ago. If you want to follow the journey from the beginning of this saga, be sure to see the photo and read about the initial collapse in another post.

Again, I have to salute my dear neighbor Carlo, who made calls and orchestrated getting the work going (a bit of a rarity to be able to initiate work so quickly here in Italy). When I drove up to the house at dusk I saw a cement mixer, piles of sand and large stones (mostly reclaimed from the collapse of wall). And, I saw a beautiful new section of wall about 2/3 of the way to completion. Setting aside internal calculations as to what this would set me back, I marveled at the amazing craftsmanship and structural integrity. This was a wall under construction that would mesh beautifully with the existing wall, while providing me assurance that heavy rains wouldn’t bring the land above me crashing down. I could sleep with greater ease.

Read More

The Ebb and Flow of the Feral Cats of Italy

During a Thanksgiving trip to Italy several year ago, this was the scene that greeted my friend Nicole and me upon rising the first morning. That's Oscar's mom left to the center (tawny with the green eyes) before she embarked upon a life of pregnancy after pregnancy.

During a Thanksgiving trip to Italy several year ago, this was the scene that greeted my friend Nicole and me upon rising the first morning. That’s Oscar’s mom left to the center (brownish grey fur with the green eyes) before she embarked upon a life of pregnancy after pregnancy.

On a sunny Saturday February afternoon in the hills of Umbria, my next door neighbor Amalia and I have followed Micia, the mother of all mother cats, from inside Amalia’s house, where she has been resting (even though she is a feral cat) contentedly by a nice fire. Micia is now in the middle of the gravel drive, yowling in “those” tones. The sounds are desperate, insistent, and deeply disturbing. Yes, this is her provocative mating call.

Two tom cats we’ve not seen before in our little hamlet have heard the call and are circling Micia in the driveway. Both are tabbies. One has grey tones with a white chest, the other is a ginger boy. Micia continues her call, and the grey fella moves in, bites the back of her neck, and the “act” is soon completed. Yuck. Cat sex is never pretty. I’m disgusted with myself for even watching. Amalia and I look at each, shake our heads and start calculating when to be on the lookout for this new litter. Let’s see, 65 days from now takes us into the middle of April. At least the bitter cold will be past, and the kittens will have a fighting chance.

And so the cycle keeps going. Even though I remember when Micia was just a kitten about five years ago, I’m sure she already has had at least eight or nine litters of kittens. Last year she had back-to-back pregnancies, with barely three months in between (the second litter of four died because she couldn’t produce milk). After this upcoming litter we know we need to talk to a local vet who volunteers to neuter feral cats – especially in a community of cats that can and does occasionally get out of hand. When our feline population has boomed a couple of times, weather, other wild animals, and an occasional car speeding along our tiny road have knocked back the population. Even so, we always become attached to these wonderfully entertaining personalities. We all feed then (hence the “camp” outside my front door in the attached photo). They keep the rodents and snakes at bay and we all get along famously, in spite of their using the gravel path and sitting area in front of our house as one giant litter box. It’s never fun to have guests over, sitting in the garden admiring the view, and unearthing a cat turd while inadvertently repositioning one’s foot. Again, yuck.

Read More

La frana del muro – the collapse of the wall.

Three days of non-stop rain caused a breach in a very old wall next to our house.

Three days of non-stop rain caused a breach in a very old wall next to our house.

“Sempre qualcosa” is a phrase I have come to use with greater and greater frequency. It means “always something”. And, because I have an old Umbrian home there is indeed “always something”…

Early last week, Simone and I were having a nice lunch at a favorite place here in Rome (in Trastevere), when I received a text message to contact Piero, a neighbor in Umbria. Simone called him, since Piero only speaks Italian, and because I’m not quite fluent (yet). I watched Simone’s eyes widen as he spoke rapidly with Piero, and I heard the word “muro”, which means “wall”. I knew this couldn’t be something good. After the call ended, Simone looked at me and asked “Do you want to know?”. I’m a big believer in steering right into addressing a difficulty. I was informed that the old (at least 200 years) stacked stone wall adjacent to the house and on the other side of the drive had partially collapsed, due to incessant rains just a few days before. I felt the familiar surge of adrenaline (and probably the stress hormone cortisol) I experience when faced a situation that ignites my mind to rush towards dark imaginings. That’s the flip side of being very creative. I think Simone saw the color vanish from my face, and he quickly added that Piero said it wasn’t terrible, and that there was no need to rush back to Umbria. Still, I knew I had to see for myself, either to allay my fears or accept the reality and deal with it.

Read More

“Talk of the Town” in the Hills of Umbria

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

Even daily laundry can be cause for speculation and commentary amongst the neighbors.

I guess small towns are pretty much the same wherever you go in the world…

You see, my neighbors in Umbria talk about my underwear. Yes, my underwear.

Living in a small rural village in Umbria, everyone pays attention to everything. This is a good thing, because the “neighborhood watch” is fierce. Our home in Umbria is in a hillside cluster of 10 or more homes. Things may appear quiet, but ears are always alert to the sounds of strange footsteps or car engines, and eyes furtively peek out from darkened windows. In these small Italian hamlets, if that’s where you end up living, you’d better get used to your life being up for village commentary and speculation. This won’t be the first and only posting about having my life on display in Umbria. I’m not at all upset about it. I find it endearing and humorous.

I was prompted to write this after having a lovely New Year’s Eve dinner with our next-door neighbors from Umbria, who also live in Rome during the winter. During the course of the meal, my neighbor delightfully recounted a conversation she had during the summer with another neighbor, who lives just around the corner. This was regarding my underwear. We share a communal clothesline, always being respectful of one other’s needs and being sure not to monopolize use of the clothesline. One day I hung out a load of laundry that included a dozen pair of my Italian briefs, courtesy of Intimissimi (a guy has to feel sexy whenever he can). I’m one of those people who like to have at least three weeks of underwear on hand, and I end up washing them in bulk.

Apparently this prolific display of underwear ownership caused quite a stir and my neighbors remarked about my investment in the underwear industry. They chuckled about this “indulgence” of mine, and I’m sure word spread throughout the village. Pretty much anything qualifies for conversation fodder – and this isn’t exclusive to the expats. It hasn’t been unusual for us to be having a coffee at our favorite bar/alimentari at the bottom of the hill, only to find out that people are aware of our activities and whereabouts just two days before.

The bottom line is that we’ve been welcomed with great hospitality and affection and the “talk” isn’t malicious in the least. I like knowing people are looking out for us. So what if my underwear strategy undergoes scrutiny in the process?

Maybe you’re choosing a secluded home up a beautiful cypress-lined drive, and this will afford you much privacy. But, be prepared, because it will also prompt commentary from the locals, and this will be turbo-charged with colorful speculation. Italians are masters of storytelling.

I can only imagine what other stories have been told as the result of the astute observations of our comings and goings. With a bit of exploration, and sufficient consumption of wine and grappa, I’m sure we’ll be able to loosen lips….

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.

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.

Gotta have wood…..

Four thousand pounds of firewood for my wood-burning stove have just been delivered.

Four thousand pounds of firewood for our wood-burning stove have just been delivered. Now the transferring and stacking work begins.

 

Well, it’s that time of year when we, especially those of us living deep in the hills and countryside of Umbria, order our firewood. Each year we bet on what kind of winter is ahead and how much wood we’ll need to stay warm.

Read More
Page 3 of 3123