Winter in Umbria ~ Week 1

It has taken over 10 days to accomplish it, but I am thrilled to be back online! It is rather strange, and probably not entirely healthy, to realize how unconnected to the rest of the world you can feel being without internet even for such a short period of time. We were extremely lucky that we even managed to get connected so quickly as the waiting list was really 45 days, but fortunately for us, our builder friend who has been an absolute lifeline helping us get settled in, pulled some strings to get us connected much sooner than we would have managed on our own.

I have received so many emails from IFF visitors who have asked me to keep posting updates about our Umbrian adventure that I have decided I will try once a week to post something about our new life here in Umbria, including both the challenges we face, as well as the joy we experience living in this wonderful area of Italy.

Week One ~ Our actual return to Umbria was relatively uneventful although the Alitalia flight was overbooked so we were unable to obtain an empty seat between us as we usually do for Luca in his dog carrier. Instead, we were both given isle seats by the Alitalia clerk who stated upon check-in that aisle seats at the back of the plane (the VERY last row I mean!) would give us more room for the carrier.

It turned out the exact opposite was true and in fact his carrier would not even properly fit under the seat in front of me so that I had to leave it on the floor giving me no room for my feet. Poor Luca who was used to flying in the seat beside me wasn’t too happy to be stuck on the floor. Initially, I bent over to pat him in his cage on the floor, and to try to keep him quiet, but then my husband suggested putting my foot into his crate instead.

Luca is used to sleeping next to me in bed anyways, and loves to be under the covers so we covered his crate with an airplane blanket and I unzipped his carrier on one side and simply stuck my bare foot inside. He was quite content the rest of the flight laying his little head across my ankle to sleep, but it made for a long flight for me with my foot stuck in the dog crate for 9 hours!

I can’t even imagine what the young Italian couple next to me thought as I pulled out my bare foot from his carrier to stand each time they needed to get out to the aisle, but I am sure they appreciated the fact I was able to keep Luca quiet the entire trip so they could sleep. I did however feel more than a little silly, but I did what I had to to keep Luca happy and quiet. What we don’t do for our beloved pets!

It is still difficult to believe that we are now home owners of two wonderful, if very cold, stone farmhouses in the Umbrian countryside but here we are settling in and finding our way around our new community. The weather has been quite cool and wet the first week, and part of each day is usually spent in the fog which seems to make it feel even cooler. We have however had one amazingly clear sunny day, which more than made up for those less pleasant ones.

On that beautiful sunny day we headed out for a walk along the road in front of the house up to Piedicolle, the closest small town to us with Luca in tow. We were amazed, and quite excited (you can tell we are obviously foodies!) to find wild herbs growing everywhere. That day I picked wild chives, rosemary, arugula, and bay leaves.

We have also been told that in the spring wild asparagus grows all over the hills behind our house, in summer the raspberry bushes clustered all along the roadway are full of ripe berries, and in the fall the abandoned fig trees behind us are full of fat ripe figs. Although we have had only that one sunny day so far, it did remind us that when we return in the spring we will once again enjoy the wonderful Umbrian sunny days and clear blue skies that we remember from all of our previous trips to this region during warmer months.

As anticipated, we have a fire going from the time we rise until we head to bed each night to try and keep the house relatively comfortable. Even with the heaters running every morning and evening and a fire burning continually we quickly learned that the way to keep warm is to layer clothes and I usually have so many layers of t-shirts and sweaters that I probably look 20 or more pounds heavier than I am, but quite frankly could care less as being comfortable and somewhat warm is much more of a priority than looking nice (or thin)!

We both learned to love anything fleece which seems to keep you warmer than most other fabrics for some reason. It is really amazing how creature comforts take primary importance over all else when something as simple as warmth which we all take for granted, is absent. Back home, I admit that after getting dressed, every so often, I’d ask my husband, “Does this look okay?”. After 35 years of marriage this is code for “Does this make me look fat?”

Being a smart guy, my husband’s answer is always, “Looks fine!”. Or, if he really thinks what I am wearing is not very flattering (meaning it does indeed make me look heavier than I am), he will politely say something like, “Looks fine, but I think I like your black pants better!”. All vanity has now fled up here in the hills of Umbria, and as I pile on the layers every morning he is much more likely to encourage me to add an extra layer of clothing than to ever worry how I look. I now look in the mirror after getting dressed and think I now look a lot more like the Michelin man than my former self, but it really is no longer important. Really!

I know folks reading this will think I am the biggest wimp ever complaining about the cold when folks in Canada and the United States have had bitterly cold temperatures this past week, but it isn’t so much the outside temperatures that create the problem. Often, it honestly feels much warmer outside than it does in our house. The house is solid stone with walls two feet thick and rough terra cotta tile floors and hasn’t been heated all winter. I believe the cold actually permeates from within the house although as each day passes with the heat on twice a day and a continual fire it is finally warming within the house.

The first week has really flown by as we shopped for more furniture, had visits from our builder and electrician, a delivery of more heating oil for both houses, as well as the delivery of the antique pieces we had chosen on our last trip that were cleaned and refinished for our return. I was quite excited to see how the new pieces would look in our empty house but after cleaning them and placing in new shelf liners I have now made the decision that I am more of a “mobili in stile” kind of person rather than an antique lover.

For those not familiar with mobili in stile, it is a type of artisan furniture made from new wood, but made to look antique. Often the old fashioned methods of furniture making are even used to create wonderful pieces that are very new but look like they might be hundreds of years old. We have a new hutch in our dining room that apparently is considered a treasure by many, but I have a hard time getting past the termite damage and general wear and tear it has taken over the past hundred or so years!

Although we have actually accomplished quite a bit in just one week, we are both a little frustrated in how much longer it seems to take to get anything completed. We had hoped to have the rental house ready for guests by May, but now have realized the house will not be ready until June at the earliest.

For anyone who loves to cook, particularly Italian cuisine, living in Italy is really a dream come true. Within our first week we managed to hit two street markets, and have stopped to check out every grocery store and food market we pass, often not leaving without buying something.

I was very excited when we stopped in Deruta for their Tuesday market to be able to buy 15 fresh purple and green very fresh artichokes, which I rushed home to cook two different ways. It is really quite sad how happy a large bag of fresh artichokes can make me but I admit buying them really made my day. I thought it great that the women selling her produce gave everyone a carrot, an onion, and a stalk of celery as a gift.

These three vegetables are the holy trinity in Italian cuisine, used as the base for almost every sauce, or soup, and she simply included the three in every bag she filled with other produce purchased. Despite the fact our new kitchen has only a scant few tools, I have been cooking every day, making hearty soups for lunch each day to help keep us warm, and some interesting dinners from local products we find that we have both thoroughly enjoyed (recipes to be posted soon!).

I really appreciate the fact that the produce stands at the local markets here in Italy only sell seasonal items grown within the country. You can find tomatoes and oranges from Sicily, but most of the produce sold is locally grown, and you are not going to find products from all over the world shipped days if not weeks earlier, as you often do in North American grocery stores.

We headed out to the market in Perugia early Saturday morning which was very large compared to the one in Deruta, and ended up coming home with two dozen fresh eggs and two kilogram bunches of both bietole (swiss chard) and rapini, and although my husband thought we had bought way too many greens for just two people I simply could not resist after spying the stand overflowing with fresh picked greens of every description.

The stall selling eggs also sold birds of every size and color, and many folks were lined up to buy both large crates of eggs, as well as a few of the colorful birds. After getting my greens home, I washed both, then spent an hour looking through cookbooks and planning how I was going to use them. The joys of having such easy access to the freshest of Italian produce!

In Umbria, almost every store is closed Sunday until Monday afternoon, so you have to think ahead to buy the necessities you might need. If you run out of milk Sunday morning, there is no running to the corner store to buy a quart like we do back in North America. Sunday morning I wasn’t feeling too well as my cough had returned, but my husband talked me into heading back to Perugia as we had heard a few folks sold some smaller pieces of Deruta ceramics on the Duomo steps and he wanted to check it out.

It was the coldest day we had experienced yet, and we did indeed make it to the Duomo, but there was no one there selling anything. At least nothing we would be interested in! Despite the cold day though, many Italians were out walking the streets in the center of the city with their family, taking their dog’s for a walk, or simply enjoying a cappuccino and pastry from the local bars and chatting with friends.

Taking a “passegiata”, or stroll seems to be a popular pastime all across Italy, particularly on a Sunday after church, either before or after lunch. The trip to Perugia was not entirely wasted as we did enjoy a cappuccino and a delicious traditional Umbrian pastry at a local pastry shop before heading home.

Interesting tidbits I learned our first week…..Italians do not have dryer softening sheets, probably because most do not use dryers! They also do not have Ziplock bags and still use the thin bags with twist ties we used before the entrance of the indispensable zipper bag. Surely the company who makes Ziplock bags needs to bring this wonderful invention to Italy?

My favorite acquisition this week has to be my wonderful Saeco coffee machine. We looked for days trying to decide on the best one for quality and price and finally made the leap and bought our Saeco. I am a coffee snob and know what a good Italian espresso, or cappuccino should taste like, and this wonderful machine makes the best cup of coffee I have tasted outside of an Italian coffee bar.

Unfortunately though, it is huge, and very modern in appearance and takes up most of the little counter space I have for food preparation. My husband thinks it is an eyesore in our country kitchen and we are looking around for a better place to move it.

My husband’s favorite purchase is probably his new TomTom GPS navigation device. We want to program it with all of our favorite stores and restaurants and to include it for folks renting the other farmhouse. Unfortunately, even though we chose to have the instructions and voice use English, the woman who gives the directions is definitely Italian, and I have decided with her sexy low voice she must look like a young Sophia Loren.

Her English however is pretty bad, and she speaks English like an old southern Italian man in Brooklyn, NY. who learned English late in life. She adds vowels where no vowels were meant to be and throws in a few Italian words here and there just for fun. For example, if she meant to say, “Take the next left turn in the round about”, she would actually say, “Taka the nexta lefta turna nella the rounda bouta”. After a week or so of listening to her, we are actually starting to understand her, but we will have to download a true English voice as soon as soon as we get online!

January 2009


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