For the past ten years, many of you have been with me on my journey as a Jersey girl living in Pontelandolfo. My second – or is it third – act as a quasi expat in a small Southern Italian village has been filled with unexpected life detours. Your support of my blog was the kick in the keister I needed to write a book about these Italian adventures. Gulp – the book is being published by independent press, Read Furiously! It even has an ISBN number – it is the freakin’ real deal. Wowza!
In these most unpredictable times, a fantastic get away is just at your finger tips! Sip a prosecco, sit in a cozy chair and read about places that you are not only visiting through my book, but can someday experience yourself. Giggle at the illustrations drawn by my best bud Janet Cantore Watson.
Pre-ording the book insures a copy lands in your mailbox at the same time it hits the book stores. All of you have always been here with me. As I think about you now reading my book, my heart fills with emotion. Thank you.
Maybe it is something in the water or the mountain air that has made our small Southern Italian village, Pontelandolfo, a breeding ground for talented artists, musicians, writers and actors. Michele Albini, a successful actor is a case in point. Pontelandolfese have cheered their native son as he appeared in numerous films, television shows and on professional stages.
Albini was born to be a performer. At the age of six, he was playing the piano. By seventeen he was acting. He even served as a young artistic director of Gruppo Teatrale Folk Ri Ualanegli. (Our folkloric dance and theatre company.) Yes, it is true, for decades we have had an incredible folkloric dance company in Pontelandolfo.
In 2001, after a three-year stint as an Air Force Officer, Albini decided to move to Rome and study theatre and music. Soon we were seeing him on posters, playbills and of course in theaters. 2012 found him accepting “Il Premio Massimo Troisi” award in the New Generation category. (This is a huge deal.) He has been on stage in such theaters in Rome as the Elysée, Teatro dell’Opera, Cometa Off, Teatro Due, as well as, at the Teatro Massimo in Benevento and at the Cimarosa in Aversa. Flicking around the television dial, we have caught him acting in shows like Gente di mare, Don Matteo, Il mostro di Firenze, Donna Detective 2, I Cesaroni, and La vita che corre. Instead of me prattling on about his talent – check out his Showreel!
Sadly, I’m in New Jersey this month so I couldn’t dash over to Rome and see Albini in his latest professional production, “L’Amico Ritrovato.”
Based on the internationally successful book, L’ Amico Ritrovato shares the story of two boyhood friends, Hans (played by Michele Albini) and Konradin whose friendship, was suddenly interrupted in 1935 by Hitler’s racial laws. The bond between a Jewish boy and a German boy is broken by episodes that will forever divide their lives. Many years after his separation from Konradin, Hans receives a letter that unexpectedly rewrites a part of their history.
Director, Alessandro Sena, using an adaptation written in collaboration with Marco Tassotti has created a moving work where the word, the movement and the music, create a strong scenic impact. The characters move in different historical moments from the 70s to the 30s recounting the horrors caused by Nazism and friendships that will always unite us.
When he is not acting, Albini is a writer and a musician. This past August, Jack and I were lucky to see him perform with his talented brother, Romeo in a musical biography of the Beatles, “In Spite of All The Danger”. Michele Albini wrote, performed and directed the piece. The production, produced by Egeria, was held in the village’s mini amphitheater. It was a perfect summer night filled with music, wine and the talented Albini family.
I am sure there will be more creative projects in store for Michele Albini and I hope we are on the right side of the Atlantic to see the next one.
Every time we leave our little hilltop Italian village and head back to New Jersey I get slammed with culture shock. Usually, it hits me in the wallet. I turn purple when I buy a cappuccino that sucks and costs me $3.00 or more. In Pontelandolfo, a fabulous morning cappuccino is only ninety cents. This year the culture shock surrounded the attitudes and regulations about Covid. For the past seven months we were living in a Southern Italian village that was Covid free and followed all the rules. (Yes, I know that Italy does have high Covid numbers – we live in a magical part of the country.) We had a “green pass” app on our phones that provided stores, restaurants, bars etc. with our personal QR code. That code let the business know that we had been vaccinated and had a booster shot. It also would be used for contact tracing if we had it recorded in a place where Covid was later unearthed.
We went to the same fabulous seafood restaurant – Sesto Senso – once a week. Once a week the waiters, who all know our names, asked to scan our green pass. The family that owns the restaurant also tossed into storage half of their tables and chairs. Even when the place was fully booked, we were seated so far away from another table that I couldn’t eaves drop.
Without a green pass, or evidence of vaccination and/or a recent negative Covid test, one cannot eat in a restaurant, enter a bar, go to work, ride the train, take a bus or enter the airport. To get into the terminal at Rome Fiumincino Airport we had to show our green pass and wear an N95, FFP2 or KN95 mask. Made sense to me. As we approached the United counter, we had to again show the green pass and the certification of a negative Covid test taken in the last 24 hours. We showed that green pass again at security and at the gate. Jack tells me I am forgetting a few places. It was about six times that we had to have proof of vaccination and/or covid test.
Accidentally one day, I raced into the Mini Market – where I know everyone – and was asked to turn around, go out to my car and get my forgotten mask. Ooops. Masks rock! People wore masks taking a stroll around the piazza. They wore masks shopping, giggling, chatting, learning and living. To me their masks represented their concern for other people. My mask will protect you from me. Mask wearing is a commitment to the society we live and work in. Masked, my sneeze isn’t going to shoot villainous virus thingies over to you.
Then we landed in New Jersey. BOOM! There is no mask mandate. Once we left the airport we saw maskless faces. BOOM, BOOM! I went into an empty TD bank, wearing my N95 mask, and used the ATM. The bank branch was closed due to Covid. The ATM is in an enclosed space. Two unmasked men walked into to use the adjacent machine. I wanted to scream “put on a %$#&! mask!” Instead, I left. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM.
I was horrified that the receptionist in my dermatologists office wasn’t wearing a mask. Was I rude when I refused to go to her station? Everyone else in the doctor’s office wore a mask. BOOOOOOOM!
Is mask wearing such an onerous thing? I am quite used to wearing them.
May this holiday season find you and your loved ones healthy, happy and secure. Since we are still masking up and social distancing, I thought I’d share some scenes from pre covid holidays. Hmm, I think I did the same thing last year…
2018, 2019 – great years sigh… Actually, all the years leading up to today have been great years. Today is part of a great year. We are alive, traveling, laughing and creating. Our holiday seasons have been quiet and contemplative but is that such a bad thing? This Christmas Eve, Jack and I may be eating seven fishes alone but I learned how to make a great baccala mantecato! Did you know you could buy mussels in the shells frozen? Damn, this year I learned a lot about frozen fish.
2022 shall soon be here. We will all be another year bolder and better. I shall raise a glass to each and everyone of you as I sincerely wish you all a great New Year.
It all started quite simply. Thanksgiving, the fourth Thursday in November, is not an Italian holiday. We had doctor appointments that day and a dinner reservation at Sesto Senso. Sure, I love my USA family and friends but did I need a Thanksgiving dinner to speak to them? Nope. That is what FaceTime is for. The day moved smoothly along until we were sitting down at Sesto Senso. We always make a reservation for 8:00 PM and are usually one of the first couples in the place but something felt wrong. It was Thanksgiving and we are surrounded by …
Chaos! That is what one has on Thanksgiving! Too much food, screams of laughter, sighs of stuffed tummies and general mayhem. I had tuna tartare and no bloat. This night just felt wrong. I had to do something in a hurry. Without thinking it through I contacted my cousin Carmella and invited her and my extended Italian family for a real American taste of Thanksgiving. Since it was going to be on Sunday, I stole a moniker from my friend Janet. Same food, same chaos, different date equals Fakesgiving.
Friday Morning. Fifteen people are coming on Sunday. Where do I find a turkey? Do they sell stuffing in a bag? The mayhem I craved roared into my life. Take a breath Jack intoned. Grabbing a piece of paper I made a menu – my mom’s 1960s menu. Appetizers and cocktails – deviled eggs, doctored cream cheese stuffed celery sticks, cute pitted olives and cheese cube on a toothpick. Main – turkey, stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes, green vegetable, three bean salad and succotash. Dessert – pumpkin pie, apple pie and whipped cream. Feeling so much calmer now that I had a plan, I leaped in the car. First stop the Marcelleria. Butcher, Stefano, said sure he could order a turkey breast and a turkey leg/thigh for Saturday. It would be enough for 15 people. Whew. One check on my list. Knowing I wouldn’t find canned broth for the stuffing or gravy, I bought about 3 pounds of chicken wings. Next, on to the vegetable store. Nicole found me apples, celery, onions, potatoes and joy of joy – broccoli. Lima beans, fava beans – any small green bean for succotash was out of the question. I grabbed a bag of dried white beans. At Diglio Forno I bought two loaves of bread. Next stop – Conad – pumpkin puree in a can – WHAT this is the land of homemade. My mind flashed to our veranda. My landlord had decorated with giant pumpkins. I could roast one and make my own puree. I decided to cheat and buy refrigerated pasta sfoglia for pie crusts. Heavy cream came in these little boxes on the shelf and required no refrigeration – hmmm. Cream cheese, of course they had Philadelphia. I loaded my cart with everything else I could think of. We had tons of olives processed after the harvest, so I didn’t need those. My last stop was a quick run to the cheese store. Check, check and check. Did I mention it has been raining for five days. Every time I went into a store I got drenched. Drenched and more drenched. The very dry Jack and I unloaded the car and I grabbed a pumpkin. The stock pot was loaded with the chicken wings and what ever vegetables were turning in my refrigerator. The chicken stock would slow cook over night. Sigh… What was I thinking.
Friday Afternoon. Desserts. Today, I will simply focus on making dessert. “Jack,” I bellowed, “Can you cut his fahkackatah pumpkin in half?” Jack ambled into the kitchen and pulled out a big knife. He looked at me. I looked at him. I left the room. A few hacks and curses later the pumpkin was halved and seeded. It was so large, I put the oven tray on the lowest rack and only roasted one half at a time. While the roasting was happening I commandeered Jack to start peeling apples for the apple pie. I was madly toasting bread – two cuts at a time – to get dried bread for stuffing. Other cuts of bread were stuffed in the oven around the pumpkin.
Ok. Now I have roasted pumpkin. What I do not have in Pontelandolfo is a food processor to turn the roasted pumpkin into puree. I call Carmella. She has something called a Vorwerk Bimby – food processor, cooker and fairy godmother. We dumped in the still warm pumpkin and out poured puree. So much puree. I mean buckets of puree. Soup! I’ll add pumpkin soup to the menu! Yeah, Midge why not just make more work for yourself. Chaos! I craved the chaos. Apple and pumpkin pies were made. The chicken stock was simmering. The ugly white dried beans I would use for the succotash were soaking. The table cloth and napkins were on the table. Broccoli was prepped. Vodka was poured.
Saturday. Rats. It is raining – AGAIN. Another drenched to the skin trip to the butcher. Mancini Marcelleria was packed. What are all these people doing standing outside in the rain waiting to buy meat? Covid rules – only two at a time in the store. From under my umbrella and with wet feet, I texted Jack. “This sucks.” Stefano knew I was there for the turkey parts. He went in the back and groaned under the weight of the package. The thigh and leg was so freakin’ large I started laughing. Is that from a dinosaur I asked? No, I was told a “tacchino maschio.” Man those Toms sure grow up here in the hills. If I were a hen turkey I’d be running the other way. The breast had to be ten pounds. I figured I had twenty pounds of turkey pieces. I lugged them home, hand rubbed them with herbs. Since they were sadly skinless, I layered pancetta over all of the pieces and squished them in the fridge. Saturday was a blur. My eyes were tearing from all the onions chopped. Eggs were cooked, three bean salad tossed, stuffing made, potatoes peeled, celery sliced, cheese cubed, beans cooked, pumpkin soup recipes searched, table partially set. Vodka poured.
Sunday – Fakesgiving. Like everyone who makes a turkey that weighs more than most cars here, I was up early. The turkey was weighing down the counter and the oven was preheating. I figured it would take five hours. I was wrong. I have a great convection oven and the turkey was in parts! It only took 2.5 hours and was done in advance. NOOOOOO! That wasn’t the only drama.
“Jack,” I queried, “where are the rest of the wine glasses?”
“Why didn’t I know that?”
“You didn’t break them.”
Breathe. Not everyone drinks wine and a little mix and match is charming. I found a great recipe for pumpkin soup. Since I made the incredible chicken broth for the stuffing and I had puree all I needed was heavy cream. Plop. Yes, plop. The heavy cream that comes in the little boxes and don’t require refrigeration literally plop out of the box in one big disgusting white plop. Making the pumpkin pies, I had experienced this the day before, but it seemed grosser plopping into the orange soup. Tons of sage later, the soup was bubbling away. To add color to the cooked white bean and corn succotash, I diced jarred roasted pepper and tossed in some red. Potatoes were mashed. Broccoli started to steam. People arrived. We ate every bit of that menu. Giggles turned into guffaws over the 1960-esq appetizers – but I noticed all the stuffed celery was eaten.
My pumpkin soup was a smash. They adored the stuffing, vegetables and turkey. Antonio said, “Do this again next year.”
I looked around the table at the smiling faces. Remembered I had missed the chaos and said, “Certo.”
Isola Ecologica or Hillsborough Dump – by any other name the dumpster diving is just as sweet. For over thirty years, an ornate Jacobean carved hutch graced my homes. When we made the decision to spend more time in Italy, I never should have sold it. The piece was found by my mother, sans the doors embazoned with nude figures, in the Hillsborough dump. Her pal found the doors in another part of the dump. In the early 1960s a Saturday morning run to the dump was an adventure. You brought your garbage and left with someone else’s garbage. Only it wasn’t garbage it was a treasure in need of a new home. Sigh, I miss those days…
Here in Pontelandolfo, fifty years later – could that be true – I was taken back to those blissful adventures at the local dump. We contracted a new internet provider and found ourselves with an old Dish TV style antennae. The big lug stared at us and dared us to toss it. We stared back from Tuesday until Saturday. We won. It would be tossed and we would take our first trip to the Pontelandolfo dump! Excuse me – dump is too common a term for the Sannio Hills. That Saturday, we followed the newly resurfaced mountain road to the Isola Ecologica! One thing the ugly wind turbines did for the town was the repaving of roads going up the mountain. I am embarrassed to say that in ten years I had never ridden the road we live on that far up the incredibly beautiful hill.
Soon houses were gone and more and more intricately shaped white boulders peppered the fields. The road took us up past enormous nature carved rock faces hugging the mountain side. The ride was gorgeous. We didn’t know what to expect so we kept on waiting for a sign or something. No, not a sign from the celestial hill side. A sign that said Isola Ecologica.
The sign was – well there was no sign. Like a dumpster diving oasis, the Isola Ecologica just rose up out of the mountain side. We weren’t sure what the protocol was and like “Harriet the Spy” parked outside the gate and spied.
Jack, I whispered, look some guy is stacking pieces of wood on the roof of his car. Seriously, he isn’t dumping it, he is taking it.
I started laughing so hard the Fiat rocked. Another guy was rummaging through what looked like a giant display of electronics after the Black Friday sale had reduced it to rubble. Until he stood up and proudly raised a monitor over his head, I had only seen his legs. Here on an Italian mountaintop, I had been transported back to the Hillsborough, New Jersey dump! I could see my mother and her pals dragging chairs missing only one leg or a seat out of enormous piles.
We finally pulled into the yard and Lorenzo, the helpful super of the yard, pointed to the bin the giant dish should go into. There was the electronics bin, wood bin, plastics bin, section for things like refrigerators and stoves, furniture piles and something I have never seen before.
Memories can be triggered by the smallest things. I miss that ornately carved hutch, restored by my mom and loved by everyone who visited my homes. I miss my mom and the joy she could find in a day of dumpster diving. Next time I feel sad, I’ll take something that may or may not need tossing and visit the Isola Ecologica.
Sitting in the piazza on November 1st, my heart was full and tears slowly slid down my face. Across from my table, parked in Piazza Roma was a portable – fully operational – medical unit. They were here not because there was an earthquake or flood or any other tragedy. They were here to prevent the tragedy of families loosing wives, mothers, sisters and daughters to cancer. Cancers that can be cured or held in remission with adequate warning. This was a portable screening center for female centered cancers. Pap tests, mammograms and colon screening tests were available. The set up was in the piazza all day, from 9:00 AM until 6:00 PM. The posters and social media posts all touted “ Campagna di Prevenzione Oncologica Gratuita.” This was a free health project of the Region of Campania. The medical unit was stopping in small towns all over the region. It was so simple for people to access this service. Women only had to call Pontelandolfo’s city hall to make an appointment for Pap tests or mammograms. The colon test kit was available by simply walking up and asking for it.
The sun was shining on the outdoor waiting area. From my seat, sipping my cappuccino I could hear “numero 25 mammografia.”The medical team welcomed people as they ventured near the area. I noticed that men have also gone in to pick up the colon cancer test.
The set up was slick. The front had video projections “Mi Voglio Bene” talking about each of the available tests. This campaign urging women to love themselves and get screening is fabulous. Imagine, something like this pulling into small towns all over America! Actually, I would love to imagine it but sadly I don’t know if it would ever happen. I mean, politicians don’t seem to give a tinker about women’s health issues and too many voters don’t understand the validity of universal healthcare.
I first found out about the testing center on FaceBook – which is the major news vehicle here. Later, the posters in stores, on walls and in the newspapers reminded me to find out what I was eligible for. At first, the snarky Midge giggled at the thought of joining a line of woman, without underpants, waiting for their internal exams and pap smears. Crude of me, I know. Then I started to think about my mom dying of breast cancer because the diagnosis was too late and I stopped giggling. I started appreciating what was happening not only in Pontelandolfo but all over Campania.
When I first got to the piazza at 9:00 AM, there weren’t any people waiting for services. I was one of the first women up the steps. Everyone was warm and friendly. I stoped at the reception desk and jokingly said I knew I was too old for everything but a colon test. Why did they limit mammography to women between the ages of 50 to 69, I asked. Younger women get ultrasounds. Both tests are given if something is found on one. I always wondered why we don’t use ultrasounds more in the USA. Believing on earring on the side of caution, I have been know to tell a tale to get an ultrasound. My breasts are dense and since my mom died of breast cancer, I often come up with some strange complaint to get one.
Then, I asked about the other age restrictions. Just like the USA’s medicare and other insurances, the national health care system restricts tests based on some data or another. For a Pap test the age range is 25 to 64. Every year a I beg for a pap-test. Medicare doesn’t cover them for old ladies either. Don’t old women get utero cancer??? A mammography is available for women between the ages of 50 and 69. I was obviously too old for that too. Though, when I talked about my mother dying of breast cancer, I discovered that they of course make exceptions. The Colon Cancer Screening kit was for folks between 50 and 74. It was the only test I hadn’t aged out of. The receptionist, who was charming and answered all my questions, asked for my health card and phone number. She then, just like at the deli, she gave me a number. I’ve noticed that in Italy, numbers are given out in medical waiting rooms. As part of their privacy laws, the nurses can’t bellow “Guerrera.”
My test — – Since I was the only one there, I didn’t really need the number. I was immediately ushered into a private room and asked for my particulars – name, address, phone number, my health insurance card had pulled up my residency and date of birth information. A second nurse came into the room and explained the test. Simple – take sample from – no I will not describe how to take a stool sample. The important thing was after the sample is in the glass holder, I had to take it to the analysis center in Morcone. I wondered why people couldn’t just run home, do what they had to do and bring the sample back to the portable center. Morcone is only five minutes away so it will be no big deal. If I don’t hear anything in ten days, the test was negative. I wish they would tell you either way. I think I’ll ask.
Sadly, for the three hours I sat at Bar Elimar I didn’t see hordes of women going to the center. November 1st, Festa di Tutti i Santi – All Saints Day, and a national holiday so it should have been easy for people to come. They are constantly coming but there is not a surge or a long line. Gulp, I just remembered women made appointments! Perhaps they are staggered appropriately.
For fun, when I got home I googled the ranking of the United States on health care issues. Every list I found from the World Health Organization to independent foundations ranked the USA – well not well. Never in the top 20. Just another reason to rethink the system of providing health care for not only women but all Americans.
I am proud to say that, since I was twenty-one, I have voted in every election. Correct, I haven’t missed one. Voting is a privilege that I don’t take lightly. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a political family. When fall came around, I was licking stamps and stuffing envelopes. Phone banks are part of my DNA.
Now, sister Susan and I may have posed for this press kit shot BUT, I learned to work the phones when I was old enough to talk. Other kids went to football games, I went to political fundraisers. I must admit, when election time comes around I still miss the electric charge of working on a campaign. The after parties were pretty charged too. Of course, spending the summer and fall in Italy does put a little damper on electioneering activity.
Democrats Abroad is a great organization and I have phone banked through my computer to help with voting from outside of the country. They also hold events, classes and get togethers.
Voting from outside the United States should be a simple process. I usually go through the Democrats Abroad website to https://www.votefromabroad.org/ and get an absentee ballot emailed to me. Vote from Abroad is a non-partisan service. You can also go to New Jersey’s home page and search for the documents. I found it easier to use Vote from Abroad. For New Jersey residents here is the process –
Fill out the on-line information.
Wait for an absentee ballot to be sent to you via email.
Print out the ballot and all the forms that come with it.
Complete the ballot.
Sign the electronic transmission sheet.
Sign the Waiver of Rights to a secret ballot. Obviously, if you email your ballot back people will know who you voted for. I voted for Governor Phil Murphy! Doesn’t bother me if you know that.
Scan all the documents and email the package back to the email address you received for the County Board of Elections. I did all that on October 7, 2021.
The only thing that is squirrely is that legislation from 1995 that was amended in 2008 declares that I “pledge to place the original voted ballot in a secure envelope, together with another required certification, and send the documents immediately by airmail to the appropriate County Board of Elections”
Sending mail from Italy guarantees that no one will get it. Or if they do get it, it will be a year or so later. I can attest to this since I have sent birthday cards from Italy that no one got. Forget postcards – they get eaten in transit. When we voted in Somerset County my ballot was always approved. I would call and be told not to worry. This year I called Mercer County and was told if they didn’t get the very slow snail mail copy by the week after the election my ballot would be tossed.
Panic set in. On October 8, I googled FEDEX and found an office in Campobasso. With our packet in hand we raced to the city, found the place and I ran in. Gasping for breath, in my only passable Italian, I told the clerk I wanted to get my ballot to New Jersey quickly.
Where is the label, the clerk asked.
Can’t I complete a label here?
No you have to pay from your computer, print out the label and complete the package.
This is a print shop. You have three computers. May I use one, print out the label, pay you and you FEDEX this ballot to New Jersey?
No. You must do it at home.
I got back to the car about ready to explode. Hmm, I might have exploded. We raced back to Pontelandolfo and hoped the Ufficio Postale would still be open. I mailed the package and paid extra for tracking. Ha Ha.
Then I did what any good politicians daughter would do. I contacted my Assemblymen and Senator. My vote is important and I wanted to know what could be done to insure it would be counted. Senator Shirley Turner called Mercer County and was told the ballots would be counted. I love Senator Turner! Yeah! But I’m still worried.
As of today, my ballot was received but not accepted. I’ll check the day after the election. You are probably thinking it is only one vote. One vote can change more than we realize…