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More New Friends, Assorted Observations, and Noteworthy Advice

Updated: Apr 24, 2022

Near the end of my trip this spring, I had a coffee date with Anna, a young Canadian with roots in Fossacesia whom I’d met in one of the online Abruzzo expat groups. She’d recently moved back to the old country to be with her boyfriend, whom she’d met while visiting family. When I asked if such a permanent transition had proven difficult, she said the only thing she really missed was feeling warm in the winter.

It’s true that the houses here, usually made of stone and often drafty, never feel quite warm in winter unless you put the heat up scandalously high. (I keep it at a minimum in winter so the pipes won't freeze, nevertheless got hit with a heating bill of 1800 euro for a three-month period. That’s a helluva lot for a home that’s maintained at a very low temperature while nobody’s actually living there. Turns out a workman who'd come to fix the roof had needed to work from inside the attic and had opened the windows for ventilation. He'd forgotten to close them.)

It’s always nice to compare notes with other English speakers, particularly about things you yourself feel insecure about. When I lamented to Anna that I had trouble understanding the local dialect, she confided that she did, too. That made me feel better, particularly given she’d just landed a great job in graphic design over there, so her Italian must be pretty good.

{Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. A simple question like “Come vanno le cose?" (How are things going?) sounds like this in "national" Italian: Coh-may-vah-no-lay-coh-say?

In the neighborhood hair salon, where dialect reigns, it sounds like this: Coovuhlecoosh?

I can just about make that out based on the general rhythm and familiar string of consonants. But ask me in dialect what I think of the local government, and I’m likely to answer that I’d like blonde highlights.}

Anna told me where to go to get great vegan gelato, takeaway coffee, and olive oil locally. I thought the olive oil I’d been buying was out of this world, but she, having taken a course to earn some sort of certificate in judging olive oil, directed me to a new label — Arrizza, a few blocks from my house. (I hope to do an interview with the producers during harvest in November.) Apparently, to the educated palate, olive oil, like wine, can reveal all kinds of flavors from the soil —artichoke, tomato, etc.

Stupidly, I forgot to take a picture of the winsome Anna. I hope there’ll be other opportunities. She invited me to go to a yoga class with her as we left the cafe, but I wasn’t dressed for it and wouldn’t really have had the time to go home and get ready in time. I hope that'll be an option for another day, though. Taking something like a yoga class would lend a welcome normalcy to my time in Fossacesia and make me feel more a part of the rhythm of life there.

A born “connector,” Anna put me in touch with her friends Daniela and Massimo, and the three of us met up a few days later down at the lido, where Massimo and his brother own a popular gelateria called Happy Days.

Massimo was born in Abruzzo but has lived in Canada and the U.S., too. Daniela is Bulgarian by birth but moved to Montreal at 23. These days, the two divide their time among three countries and manifold enterprises. They were wonderfully friendly.

Daniela’s current passion project is a book and web community dedicated to female power and, more specifically, to reclaiming it on our own terms. She believes women have gone too far in the direction of trying to live like men and have wound up playing both gender roles — to our own detriment. “We’re not having it all; we’re doing it all," she says. Stay tuned! Her poly-national experience and POV should prove interesting.

Massimo is a former policeman, entrepreneur, and accomplished chef from whom I learned a little something about Italian cooking. He told me to “layer” my sautéing, allowing each ingredient to reach its full potential before adding the next. The order mandated for most dishes I’d be preparing is this: Sauté onions in olive oil, then add garlic, then parsley, then a stream of white wine, then tomatoes. (Massimo assures me a little white wine will add a welcome density to virtually any dish.)

Daniela and Massimo both believe in simplifying life, and further believe that Abruzzo is the place to do it. Together, they’ve written Cucina, Vini & Castelli: Italian Favorite Recipes for the Discerning Palate.

The book, aimed primarily though not exclusively at male readers, addresses how to cook and pair wines with food -- at least partly in the interest of serving up a good date.

In the hour or two I spent with them, I learned a good deal about local life and custom. I hope to learn more about and from this urbane couple when my landings in Abruzzo coincide with theirs.

And speaking of learning…a short baedeker to shopping locally

I was crowing to Massimo and Daniela about the wrought iron coffee table I’d just bought in Guardiagrele — for what I considered a great price. Without any trace of condescension or tsk-tsking about my naivete, they gave me some helpful info to bear in mind next time I’m shopping:

Point 1: Abruzzo is a land of haggling. That I knew. I’ve listened to Antonio haggle to the point where I really needed a sedative. Alas, I’m incapable of it in both Italian and English.

Point 2: Merchants will treat you differently once they realize you’re not from Abruzzo. Because he was born here, Massimo does all the talking when he and Daniela go to buy something. Daniela keeps her mouth shut so nobody hears an accent.

Point 3: The farther you’ve traveled, the more disposable income merchants will assume you have; they'll name their prices accordingly. It's best not to heighten the impression by wearing affluence on your sleeve.

Point 4: In short, the price will likely rise as the following information piles up:

1) You’re a tourist -- if only from another part of Italy. $

2) You’re a tourist from another country. $$

3) You’re an American. $$$

3) You’re from New York. $$$$

4) You’re well-dressed. $$$$$

So here are my practical tips for American visitors thinking of buying something substantial in Abruzzo:

1) Don’t speak; rather, point. Do haggle if you can manage it in mime.

2) If you must speak, use any language available to you that’s not English.

3) If you’re ID’d as an English speaker and your interlocutor speaks English, too, have a back story prepared about your humble roots.

4) Carry a backpack and some bread and cheese to give the impression you’re not staying at a hotel so much as dropping into a field come nightfall.

5) Wear what you wore yesterday and skip the morning hair styling. For that matter, skip the makeup and jewelry. Consider knocking out at least one of your teeth. You can always replace it with the money you’ve saved.*

*All kidding aside, I'm still very pleased with my table purchase.

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