Jack and I came home to Pontelandolfo to find a bag of scrumptious fava beans on our door step. Our neighbor, Lina, had left them for us. (You’ve heard me talk about the ever growing and traveling fava bean before. Click if you haven’t.) The beans themselves are nestled in a furry lined pod. I sat down to clean them and realized I was “unmasking” the hidden delights.
As I unmasked the raw beans, I saw each little bean as a person who had been safely ensconced and came home to me unharmed. On May 4th, we arrived in Italy from the unmasked state of New Jersey. Frankly, since Covid was still active, I never felt particularly safe with the unmasking edict. Prior to boarding our flight to Rome, I was thrilled to read that Italy still had some stringent masking travel rules in place. The FFP2 masks remain mandatory on airplanes – as well as other methods of travel. (FFP2 is similar to N95 or KN95 masks.). Every passenger on our United Flight should have read all the Covid rules and regulations.
Of course, there is always someone who doesn’t read, doesn’t care or obviously knows better and can be a pain in the butt about it. “Why do I have to put on a mask?” shrieked the woman boarding the plane a few people behind me. The United employee at the gate was very calm and tried to explain that it was a rule. The loud mouth continued screaming, “we don’t have to wear masks anymore – didn’t you get the message?”
You who know me, know what is coming. I couldn’t bear it another nanosecond and pulling my school administrator stop the riot voice of authority out of my ass turned and bellowed – “It is an Italian law. We are taking a plane to Italy and Italian law supersedes whatever it is you are talking about.” Jack grabbed my arm and pulled me forward.
I mean what is the big deal about a mask? Since we arrived in Pontelandolfo, we have been surrounded by masks. The day we got here, after a short nap – OK from noon until 7:30 PM – we tossed on some clothes and went to dinner at our favorite seafood restaurant, Sesto Senso. Everyone working there was wearing a mask. Patrons wore masks until they got beverages. Tables were more that ten feet apart. No one complained. Masks in the grocery store, masks in the pharmacy, masks at the butchers, masks anywhere groups of people were congregating and no one was bitching.
Back to the fava beans. The little pods protect the beans until they are big, strong and scrumptious. I enjoy being protected by my mask and look forward to the end of Covid and being strong and scrumptious too.
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.
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.
Hmm, is Midge telling a big bugia? Her “First” big Italian Wedding – doesn’t her sister’s wedding – replete with major politicians – count? How about nephew Joey’s – taking place in a New Jersey palace? If we are concerned about the truth here – how about her “simple wedding” to Jack. The ceremony featured ballerinas and a harpist? Stop! It is absolutely the truth – Midge and Jack went to their First Big Italian Wedding in Italy! For tradition, glamour and length, being at an Italian family wedding in Italy tops all those others.
I thought it would be fun to glide over those things that are the same and talk about the differences between the weddings I’ve witnessed before and this one. Let’s start with the invitations. In today’s frenetic USA world, save the date notices are often sent out a year before the wedding. Here in Pontelandolfo, no one is notified until one month before the wedding – after Il Promesso – I told you about that a month ago. That “Promise” is the contract to really truly get married. A few days after it, the bride and groom hand carry the invitations to everyone within driving distance. Giusy did e-mail invitations a wee bit in advance to the United States. I bet Antonio did the same thing for relatives who live far away. How incredibly personal! The invitations were printed on a natural fiber that was imbedded with wild flower seeds. After the wedding, invitees were encouraged to plant the invitations. They had witnessed the love between Giusy and Antonio bloom and next spring would watch the flowers blossom.
About two weeks before the big day, I couldn’t understand why my cousin Carmella was frantically calling a caterer, cleaning and perking up her house. I figured an incredible venue had been booked why stock food for the masses at the house? Tradition. The morning of the wedding the bride’s family – which included me – was expected to show up at the bride’s home, eat a bit and celebrate la sposa. Ladies, imagine, the day of your wedding a bunch of family members happily visiting you as you tweaked your make up?
A week before the wedding – we ladies did what women around the world do. We dragged the giggling Giusy away for a day with the ladies. We went to a fabulous spa, Fonte del Bennesere Resort in Castelpetroso.
That final week before the wedding, the push was on to finish all of the guest gifts. Groom, Antonio De Michele raises bees and produces some of the finest honey in the area. Giusy and Antonio – with the help of family – bottled 200 small jars of Antonio’s honey, decorated and boxed it. Seating charts always take time to figure out. The design was a no brainer – honeycombs! Each table had a name and all guests were listed in bee hives. Check. Two jobs done. Then came the work on the love phrases. Yes, love phrases – Giusy and Antonio researched and chose quotes that dealt with good relationships by famous authors. Each guest found the gentle love reminder at their place. “Salutarsi è una pena così dolce che ti direi addio fio a domani.” William Shakespeare. (Saying goodbye is such a sweet pain that I would say goodbye until tomorrow.)
Knowing that party was going to go on into the wee hours, Jack and I decided to do an advance trip to the venue and see if slightly drunk/tired we would be able to find our way home. We followed the GPS round and round hill top roads to Villa Clodia in Pago Veiano (BN). The majestic wedding palace is in the middle of nowhere on roads that this lady in her third act didn’t want to navigate at night. We booked a B&B down the road.
Wedding gifts in Pontelandolfo seem to always be in cash. There are no bridal registries. No one ships silver or crystal to the bride to be. The cash is also a set amount per person. I kept asking about this and heard the same amount and same story from numerous people. Couples use the gifts to pay for the elaborate wedding parties. Some misanthropes, I’m told, make sure the cash is in small bills in the “busta.” If they don’t feel they are getting bang for their bucks at the reception, they pull out some of the euros. I’m not making this up – really – more than one person told me. The opposite is also true. Annarita told me she and Emanuele went to a wedding that was so opulent they opened their gift envelope and stuck in an extra euros.
Wedding day was finally here. Hair dressers, make-up artists, videographers, photographers and Jack and I all paid a visit to Giusy and the Mancini family at home. This tradition of the extended family seeing the bride off from her home is very sweet. The house was festooned with flowers, tulle and camera boxes. Everyone was smiling and laughing as the video and photography team managed the show. Hmm, were we dress extras?
Time for the church! The mass was scheduled for 11:00 AM. A morning event, I discovered, doesn’t necessarily mean one dresses in a tea length dress and pearls – like I did. There were women arriving at the church in bejeweled evening wear. I will admit, I felt correct in my navy blue silk. Equally sure that the gorgeous women in floor length finery felt equally correct. The exterior of the church was decorated by Nicola Ciarlo and really set the stage. Speaking of stage – there was a drone flying over head videotaping our arrivals.
Applause! This hit me as something I hadn’t seen in the USA. Led by the priest, the audience was encouraged to applaud for the bride and groom not just at the end of the service but three or four times during the service. I love it! Applause was a mainstay later at the reception too.
We dashed off after the mass to La Vecchia Fattoria, the B&B we booked. The rooms were clean and utilitarian – if you like youth hostels. The place was country-set beautiful and we found the parking lots packed. Turns out it an agriturismo with a stellar reputation for lunch. We landed in foodie heaven! Leaving our bags, we drove the three minutes to Villa Clodia. First step, proof of vaccine. Second step, fill out the contact form. Third step, join our “hive” of friends at a table for 8 under a giant pergola. The cocktail hour was glamorous. Uniformed waitstaff flowed between tables pouring Prosecco and tempting us with small plates of everything from seafood to rice balls. Knowing that a multi course meal was scheduled, I held off and only tasted a bite or two. Yumm.
The wedding was a moving feast. The next stage was the grand ballroom. The couple did something very clever. Each table entered the foyer to the ballroom as a group. They were then placed by the photographer around the bride and groom for a photo. That insured that every guest was in a shot with the stars of the show. A three piece combo was set up in the corner of the ballroom. We found our hive and began our 6 hour – or was it 7 hour – feast. No one was dancing. We were told due to COVID dancing was not encouraged. Applause was encouraged by the band. Applaud the grandparents. Eat a new course. Applaud the parents. Eat a new course. Applaud the sibling. Eat a new course. Thanks the goddesses for the energy expended applauding. It freed up space in our filling stomachs. Actually, the applause was heartfelt and fun. After the second or third Primi Piatti, the bride and groom did their first dance. When the parents and grandparents were encouraged to join them, Jack and I snuck in. Hell, we are old enough to be their grandparents.
There were fairly long periods of time between courses – I counted 14 courses but could be wrong. People would go outside and sit on the well appointed terrace and amble back just as waiters scurried about with the next course. After the fruit course, which – groan- we realized was probably the last, I went to the ladies room. Sadly, I was there for a while. When I got back, the grand ballroom was empty. Not a guest. Not a waiter. Not a band member. No one except Jack. He didn’t know where everyone went. I sure as heck, not having been in the room, had a clue where all the people were. We walked out of the ball room to the upper terrace and didn’t see a soul. We left. WHAT A COLOSSAL MISTAKE!
The party had apparently moved to the lower level of the property. Tables were set poolside. Waiters ported huge trays filled with glorious pastries from table to table. Prosecco was poured. After dinner drinks and coffee were available. Music filled the late night air. The couple cut the enormous wedding cake – actually it was a faux cake and they just pretended. During Covid, buffets and touching the cake are off limits. Individual tiramisus made there way to each guest. Then the scent of grilling meats filled the air. An after the party, party of more food was about to begin. WE MISSED IT ALL. The next day in the piazza, I was chastised by a friend for not saying goodbye to anyone and just leaving. That is when I discovered what we had missed. I felt incredibly stupid for not understanding or asking in advance what the usual protocol was. Sorry for leaving my First Big Italian Wedding before it was over.
Living in Pontelandolfo and blogging about our life, I am often sent questions. The most often asked is, “Just what do you do all day in a small Italian village.” When I’m feeling snarky, I tell folks, I walk to the well and pull up water and then hand wash our clothes in the stream. What I really do is leap into village life with both feet and get involved on lots of levels. Since my brain was pre-wired to love the visual and performing arts, I get involved with the arts here in Pontelandolfo too. Note the poster above. (Thank you Valerio Mancini for the graphic.) In two weeks, we are producing an art exhibit at my house! Talk about an up close and personal setting. It is open to the public. Who knows how many people will show up? I hope a lot. Now I am not thinking like the a member of the Medici family. These famous patrons of the arts often shared the work of their favorites with polite society. I don’t want to share Rito Ruggiero’s art. I want people to buy it and bring the fabulous pieces home. This is an art show and sale. Hmm, I am getting ahead of myself. We need the Who, What, Why and When. Let’s start with Who.
In 2018 as part of a weeklong festival of the arts, Rossella Mancini and I produced a huge art exhibit that featured the work of Pontelandolfo artists. It was during that crazed week that I was first introduced to the art of Rito Ruggiero. I was so impressed that I immediately put a “sold” sticker on one painting and took it home. It proudly hangs in our dining room. The work represents Pontelandolfo’s past.
Rito tells me, that since he was a boy, he as been passionate about the arts – especially painting. A visit to his home confirms that. A table is set up in his studio filled with supplies designed to entice his grandchildren to share his love for painting. Hanging upstairs in his dining room are a number of incredible works in charcoal pencil. The images of children’s faces, faces of actresses, women’s nudes and mountain landscapes defy anyone to think they were drawn years ago by teenage Ruggiero. He later worked in watercolor, tempera and oil.
He has participated in several national and international painting competitions. His work has garnered numerous awards including gold and silver medals.
Even though he was a banker for most of his adult life, he kept on painting. No matter where he was, the art supplies came along. His work encompasses scenes from all over Italy, as well as, still life and nudes. He has a huge inventory of framed finished work. Now retired, he is revisiting his work and that bring us to the What.
Before the evil pandemic set in, I promised Rito we would organize a solo show of his work. The show is September 12, 2021 from 4:00 PM to 7:00 PM. Yes, there will be wine!. The air here is fresh and clear, the exhibit will be on our covered terrance so everyone can social distance.
Now you have the what and the when. The where is on the poster. If you happen to be in my area, come and introduce yourself. Enjoy the art and the conversation.