[Hey, check it out! This post was written mostly by Mark.]
Even before we'd made any concrete plans to travel to Italy, Mark's uncle, Rob, had been extolling the virtues of Umbria and Perugia, who had been there many times himself to visit his wife Sanda’s family. He encouraged us to visit some distant relatives and all but guaranteed an amazing time. Not that Umbria is much of a hard sell, and we're always big fans of visiting with locals, no matter where we go. He put us in touch with someone named Paolo, although the relationship seemed rather distant. I’d contacted him a few times by email and Skype, and each time the answer was something to the effect of "sure, let's meet if you make it to Italy." Which was a reasonable response, since those conversations took place while the trip itinerary was still very speculative.
So the day finally arrived. And, honestly, we had almost no idea what to expect. We had plans to get together on a Sunday morning for brunch, but weren't sure how much the language barrier might limit our interactions. Perugia, by all accounts, was a great town to visit. Failing all else, we could certainly find our way around to see some sights, perhaps take in a festival or two if our timing was right, or else find a nice little osteria to nosh at.
With the help of a borrowed GPS, we arrived at Paolo's house at the appointed time, still somewhat uncertain how the day would unfold. We rang the buzzer at the gate and we let in by a kindly older woman who turned out to be Paolo's mama and who spoke surprisingly good English. She led us into the house, up a spiral staircase reminiscent of those we’d recently climbed in various castles, and on into a parlor filled with fine Italian furniture. We realized that this was her house. She sat us down, served coffee, explained how we were all distantly related (Paolo's father being my Aunt Sanda's uncle) and even showed us an photo of Uncle Rob from one of his visits to the house in what must have been the '70s. Fun stuff! But, ehm, where's Paolo?
After some conversation, a firecracker of a five-year-old sparked into the room. We were introduced to Francesca, Paolo's adorable daughter. She immediately began babbling to us excitedly in Italian, arms flying (despite one limb in a cast), hair flipping. A Sophia Loren in training, to be sure. When we tried explaining to her, apologetically, that we only speak a little Italian, she rolled her eyes theatrically, waved away our ignorance with a gesture, and continued her brisk monologue unfazed. She showed us her school books, a drawing of her dog “Luna,” and a neon pink Barbie-like electronic toy. Good times! But where's Paolo?
Eventually a somewhat harried-looking Paolo showed up, sat down and briefly explained that he only knew a little bit of English, before he was distracted away by some Francesca-fueled commotion on another floor of the house. So we sat in the parlor getting to know Paolo's mother a little better with a combination of our first grade Italian and her more skillful English. Sonia & I were becoming vaguely anxious about whether this might be bad timing or if either the language barrier or the distance as relative might prove to be too wide to bridge, and had a growing sense moreover that Paolo might be too busy to hang with us that day. We considered making a polite exit…
Before we acted on that instinct, Paolo returned. We learned that we would be going out for lunch shortly and meeting up with his wife, Rita, who had to work that day in her flower shop being that it was a busy time of year in Italy -- All Saints Day. We were explaining our visit to Frontone and attempting to describe where it was when Paolo suggested looking at a map online, so up the spiral stairs we ascended into Paolo’s room. It was there that I spied a contraption that looked like a prop from a 1950s science fiction movie. “Are those a pair of mono vacuum tube-powered HiFi amps I see on the floor over there?” I asked tentatively. “YES!!!” came Paolo’s knowing reply, and with the realization of this shared rarified interest in exotic stereo equipment, Paolo's English seemed to improve!
Paolo shows off his homemade stereo
We compared favorite musical genres and performers and the commonality seemed to deepen. Paolo demonstrated to us his fiendishly complex, Unix-based file cataloguing system, which contained tens of thousands of music files played through a handmade stereo and fantastic Sonus Faber speakers. A meeting of the minds -- music lovers (and techno-geeks) rule!
But this would have to wait, for now. We were off to a nearby agriturismo for a wonderful lunch. It was one of those experiences that’s largely out of reach to typical tourists; a privilege reserved for those lucky enough to have the benefit of a knowing a hospitable guide. Paolo discussed each course with the waiter and ensured that we were served the best wines and the finest beef. Plate after heaping plate of family-style dishes kept issuing forth from the kitchen... spinach gnocchi, tagliatelle, two kinds of prime steak, three desserts. It was, once again, a sumptuous (and copious) Italian feast, and we loved every minute of it!
After lunch we walked off some of the calories as we were led on whirlwind tour of central Perugia, which, like most medieval cities, is entirely uphill. We rode the funky little Mini Metro up to the city center, and sampled several historic sites while “nonna” patiently waited down below. Perugia is a beautiful place, and now that we’d had a taste of it we regretted not having more time to explore it, especially as the denizens were preparing for the annual chocolate festival. We did breeze through the Palazzo dei Priori, saw a Ferarri, took some pictures at Fontana Maggiore, peeked in and out of the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, and then delved into the ancient medieval underground. (Who knew there was an entire city, perfectly preserved underneath modern Perugia? Extraordinary!) If we'd been on our own, we’d definitely have spent more time exploring, but we were very grateful to Paolo for having given us the “best of” tour. He clearly has a lot of pride in his town and understandably so.
Part of the reason for returning to the house was to meet up with two of Paolo's friends, who had stopped by to test drive a new handmade stereo component. Most of what ensued for the next hour or two was erudite discourse on vacuum tube components, custom made speaker wiring, and detailed comparisons of magnificently intricate pieces of classical and jazz music. We spent the evening sitting in the dark swaddled in beautifully crystalline sound, an homage to contemplative listening parties of yesteryear wherein the participants would listen reverently to an LP played in its entirety. It was pleasantly surprising, in an “I-never-expected-to-be-here-doing-this” kind of way.
But as it began to get later and later, the pleasure of being treated to such a pure musical appreciation was beginning to be undermined by the looming reality of a long and somewhat arduous drive back to Le Marche, threading between and over the mountains in the pitch-black night. It seemed to us that it was probably time to go, but it soon became apparent that we’d forgotten we were in a Mediterranean country that has different sense of time than the US.
her royal highness
After several hours of immersive listening and with it being after 10:00 pm, we spiraled downstairs to say our goodbyes to the women of the house, only to find them preparing to serve dinner. We offered our heartfelt thanks for a wonderful day, thinking it would be the polite thing to do to not wear out our welcome but rather leave them to enjoy their family dinner and make our way back. But the look of disappointment on nonna's face made me instantly realize that this dinner was in fact intended for the guests of the house, and to leave now would be the height of rudeness. Drive be damned! We hung our coats back up and stayed to enjoy yet another privileged experience of travelers with friends “on the inside” -- a homemade dinner with a local family complete with a full array of digestivi afterwards. Again, this is the kind of encounter you're not going to find in a guidebook, and is one of the reasons we find travel so compelling. Connecting with local folks, getting to see a slice of real Italian life, being invited into someone's home; that's what we call “travel gold.” It had turned out to be a very full day, and despite a somewhat bleary midnight ride back to LTM, we thoroughly enjoyed our serendipitous day with our newfound Italian relatives who epitomized the generosity of Italian hospitality.
* browse all Perugia pics
* browse all Umbria pics
* A greener way to travel to Umbria's capital
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