Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Day 1 - C is for Hot

I settle into my seat with a mixture of anticipation and regret, excitement tinged with the slightest melancholy, as the big jet shakes and wills its way off the runway and into the air, leaving behind T.O. to do battle with his former Eagle teammates as we head toward a place where, thankfully, he is known by no one and cared about by even fewer. My destination is Italy, for only the second time this year. A brief 11 days to see some old friends, explore a little, try my hand at tour guiding and to continue the healing process as I recover from the death of my mother earlier this summer.

With me on the flight are Javier Casuso, the Spanish-born ceramicist who resides in Perugia and runs the D’Arna ceramics studio, and Jeff Gilleran, a long time buddy and co-worker of mine who has traveled to Italy with us in the past. Noticeably absent are my wife, Suzy, and our children. A long summer spent in Florida with my father and brothers has made it difficult for her to slip away from Washington, and besides, the kids have just started back at school. So while I am looking forward to some new adventures in the land of Cristoforo Columbo on this Columbus Day, a part of me feels like it has been left behind in the land of T.O.

The flight passes incredibly quickly for an 8 hour ordeal sealed inside what is no more than an enormous bullet shell, as it and its 300 passengers are fired from Philadelphia to Rome. I have been lucky enough to win a coveted upgrade to Envoy class from steerage, and I happily settle into the cavernous seat with so many recline and lumbar controls that a silhouette map of the seat, with separate arrows and buttons is required to control it. I imagine myself as a lottery winner, being presented an outsized cardboard check like a Publishers Clearinghouse sweepstakes grand prize winner -- payable to Bill Menard one big ass seat. Although there really is no Prize Patrol or balloons or crowds here, one look around the cabin confirms that most everyone else up here feels the same way, a certain giddiness that we will not only survive this aerial ordeal, we might even arrive in Rome having enjoyed ourselves.

And as the plane touches down at Rome’s Fiumicino airport, while I have not exactly had a swashbuckling good time (my television was broken), I have slept soundly for nearly 6 hours, a record of sorts for me, and I am ready to begin my Italian odyssey. We pass through immigration, a perfunctory stamp of the passport without the strip search and private screening room harassment that had greeted Javier when he arrived in the U.S. a week earlier, collect our bags and emerge from the dingy, antiseptic terminal into the cool shade of a crystal clear, crisp blue Roman morning. At slightly after 9:00 in the morning the temperature is a perfect 70 degrees and the sun is gently but surely bearing down on us, warming not only our outer skin but announcing to every fiber within that you are welcome here, to where civilization began in so many ways thousands of years ago under this same sun that warms and welcomes us now. As my eyes adjust from the cold yellowish light of the terminal to the cool white light of the sun, they marvel at the progression of blues, from a light, creamy blue of the horizon to the darker, deeper blue of directly above head, that is not punctuated by a single cloud. Nature does indeed seem to be rolling out the welcome mat and I feel in an instant, that I have returned home.
Our agenda for the day, or program as Javier calls it, is simple. Lunch and dinner then sleep, in an attempt to thwart jet lag and adjust to the six hour time difference. We get in Javier’s car and begin the two hour drive to Perugia through landscape dotted with some awful industrial zones and unattractive buildings, but set into beautiful, craggy hills that are covered in wall to wall green punctuated by the light gray of rocky hills. After just 15 minutes, the program is interrupted. We must stop for a coffee.

What a welcome first activity in Italy it is to take a coffee. Even at the Autogrill, the ubiquitous roadside rest stop chain found alongside autostrade throughout Italy you will find a first rate coffee bar that will put any American Starbucks to shame. Where we Americans have our McDonalds and Taco Bells along the highway, Tiger Marts with prepackaged sandwiches and vending machines, the simple Autogrill has refrigerator cases of fresh cheeses, dozens of salamis, assortments of pastas and, of course, the coffee bar. A creamy espresso and frothy cappuccino are offered up along with a simple sandwich of crusty bread and a few slices of prosciutto. It is another gift from the Italian sun who is watching over us today.

We arrive at last at Perugia, one of the most beautiful cities in Italy, winding our way up the road that circles back and forth up the hill on which the city is built. Our destination, despite Javier’s efforts to the contrary, is the Hotel la Rosetta (Piazza Italia 19, Perugia, tel., www.perugiaonline.com/larosetta), smack dab on the main street in the middle of the old city. I have stayed up the street at the Hotel Brufani in the past and walked past la Rosetta dozens of times, but I had never noticed it before. The main entrance is on the Piazza Italia, but the better entrance is off the main street, the Corso Vannucci, through a lovely small terrace that, once again, I have passed dozens of times without ever noticing. After some formalities involving passports and license tags, we are shown upstairs to the guest rooms. As I pass through corridor after corridor, motion sensing lights switch on and, as we pass through each room, switch off, bringing to mind Agent Maxwell Smart and the automatic doors through which he passes on his way to meet the Chief.

The room is simple with nice furnishings and definitely worth the Euro 130 per night, especially given the hotel’s prime location in the heart of city center. A high, domed ceiling, painted with scenes of maidens reclining in landscapes scattered with cherubs fills the imagination, the last image seen before nodding off in a jetlag induced slumber.

But it is not yet time to sleep. We rejoin Javier and drive to Ponte San Giovanni, a bedroom community of Perugia located in the valley below. Here we return once again to the Deco Hotel (via del Pastificio 8, Ponte San Giovanni (PG) 06087, tel., www.decohotel.it), a regular haunt of Javier and one which we have shared with him numerous times on visits to Perugia and Deruta. We (Javier) are greeted warmly by the manager, who rushes to the door to open it for Javier and welcome him back to town (he has been to Spain as well as Washington and away from Ponte San Giovanni for several weeks). We are shown our table and the feast begins. Javier has his usual pasta and clams and Jeff tries a penne with truffle sauce. I have a grilled fish (coda di rospo) and we wash everything down with a nice pinot grigio. Before dessert Javier orders a plate of prosciutto, which is sliced from a fresh leg that is brought in, replacing the spindly, sickly looking bone that was on display upon our entrance. Then it is on to grappa (what lunch would be complete without Italian rocket fuel which the Italians claim is important to good health) and coffee. We say our goodbyes after several hours in this lovely sun filled room, a glassed in space in the middle of a lovely, colorful garden. It is then off to Javier’s apartment for a little port and cheese, soaking up some more of the sun on his terrace, and then back to Perugia.

Javier drops us off at the hotel and we plan to reconvene for dinner in several hours and Jeff and I decide to explore Perugia a bit. Our first stop is the local wine store, which Suzy and I stop by on every visit to Perugia. The staff there stock a huge selection of Umbrian wines and are both very knowledgeable and proud of their local offerings. I engage one clerk in conversation, getting some good suggestions and we buy a couple of bottles before leaving.

Wandering around an unfamiliar neighborhood, we hear a strange clanking noise and arrive at a doorway opening into a cavernous darkened room, blanketed with smoke. The noise is from the collision of billiard balls, as we have discovered a real life Italian pool hall in the bowels of this university city. We rent a table for an hour, drawing a few stares from the locals who are clearly Italians and clearly college students (we clearly are neither) as we pass through. The experience is quite different from any I have experienced in Italy, but quite restrained and wholesome, not at all the raucous affair I had expected. A couple players pose for a photo on our way out.
Dinner approaches, as it has now been more than 24 hours after we left Washington and Javier calls from his car, his four children in tow. He suggests the Pizzeria Mediterraneo, a favorite of Suzy’s and mine, just at the end of Corso Vannucci, and I am excited to agree and to return there. We place our orders, seven pizzas, and they begin arriving at the table two or three minutes after we order them. They are delicious, topped with four cheeses, mushrooms, sausages and the like, each the personalized treasure of the diner. No dessert tonight. Just a quick dinner and a stroll back to la Rosetta, where a cozy bed is calling out my name. I am asleep before the light goes out, dreaming of adventures to come tomorrow.

Only a day earlier I boarded a jet in Washington, DC, looking forward to returning to Italy, a place I love and which has for the past several years has been the focus of my business and professional life. That excitement was tempered, however, with some apprehension about leaving Suzy behind as well as other family responsibilities that need to be tended to. The ease with which I rediscover the rhythms and rituals of Italian life make the transition easy. And as I take a shower before dinner, reaching instinctively for the knob marked "C" and realizing that "C" is for "Hot" (caldo), rather than "Cold" (freddo) and amusing myself with evil thoughts of Americans who have probably scalded themselves in this very same shower, turning the "C" knob even further as their screams bounce off the domed ceiling, painted cherubs and maidens secretly laughing to themselves. I have returned to a place where I belong and where I can sometimes secretly laugh to myself about those outsiders as well.

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