Thursday, March 19, 2009

Out of Exile

It was a good omen when the cats never uttered a sound on the way home. When we had gone to Perugia three months ago to escape the daily rigors of fetching firewood and the terror of heating bills, they sang a sad lament all the way, and once inside the apartment, they hid under the bed for two weeks. Now they're home, taking the sun in the morning and sitting by the fire in the evening.

Our own return was traditional in that upon our arrival, Filotea, the most generous and prolific cook in the village, presented us with a large batch of freshly made fettucine. While she suggested it would be good to freeze them right away, I would have none of that, so we cooked and devoured most of them right away. Thank you Filotea. Yesterday, our second full day back, we joined the rest of the villagers at the funeral of Romana, a 95 year old woman we'd seen every morning for many years waiting in the piazza for the bread delivery van to appear. Later, we foreigners gathered for our weekly Happy Hour at the Circolo. This week's discussion centered around the AIG bonus scandal. Yes, even here in rural Umbria, people are outraged. The day's best arguments on the subject come from Gail Collins, on the lighter side, and Eliot Spitzer, with a meatier analysis.

Perugia was OK. We enjoyed the opportunity to spend more time with two of our grandchildren and their parents. Just as August is not the ideal time to spend in Miami if you want to visit that city, the three months of winter are not the ideal time for a sojourn in Perugia, although it served our purpose and it gave me a chance to know the city a little better.

I see Perugia as three distinct zones, corresponding roughly with heaven, purgatory and hell. The compact hilltop center can be seen as a paradise for pedestrians. Corso Vannucci, the main street, is a wide avenue, closed to traffic, and always full of people. Along with Perugia's stepped and arched streets, it is prominently feutured in a wonderful book I've had for nearly 40 years, Streets for People, by Bernard Rudofsky. The book is a tribute to the world's most pedestrian friendly places, many of them being in Italy. It also gave me another little push toward moving here.

Unfortunately, just outside the medieval walls enclosing the center, the more recently built neighborhoods that continue down the steep hillsides have been built with the "rational" idea of having the streets follow the contours of the land. (Oh, if only the crackpots who had imposed the rectangular grid on San Francisco had operated here!) The result is a serpentine weave of long, looping, terraced streets that make short distances seem immense. From my daughter's balcony you can look down on a supermarket about 400 or 500 meters away and the equivalent of 15 stories below. Walking up with a lot of groceries is beyond the abilities of the aged or infirm and there is no simple and direct path to walk, so going there typically involves a 2 or 3 km trip by car, assuming we use one or two slightly illegal shortcuts to avoid long loops on one way streets. Otherwise the trip might run to 10 km. There are some straight (up or) down the hillside streets (we lived on one) but they often have one lane for parking, one for traffic, and no sidewalks. What could be a small area, easy to traverse on foot, has become a zone almost completely given over to short trips by car, with all the attendant problems of parking.

Once you get to the bottom of the hill, the new Perugia (Zone 3- Hell) begins. The flatter terrain should have meant easier and better planning. Instead the city fathers went with the 1960's American strip mall pattern and we have an unplanned nightmare of of big box stores and factories on roads divided into right and left turn lanes forcing you to go to God knows what other anonymous horror of a place. The outer circles of this hell spread well beyond the city limits to other growing towns which have engulfed the surrounding countryside, leaving the occasional old rural building sitting in the midst of mostly garish new strip malls and apartment buildings. Perhaps the worst is Via Settevalle, a complex series of chainlike one way roads resembling an urban road racing circuit. Just as lane markers identify the pit lane of such circuits, here they determine the direction you must take at the end of each 500-800 meter straightaway. Obviously pedestrians are banned here, and when someone accelerating to swerve to the other lane happens to crash into another car slowing to pit at the parking lot of a big box store, the police (race wardens?) also must arrive by motorized vehicle to sort out the mess. Despite my love of auto racing, shopping on a F1 circuit has little appeal.

Note: Objectivity requires mention that younger members of my family find a paradise in this hell. Inside those big boxes can be found all manner of stuff, from Chinese electronics to cars, to baby accessories, clothes, housewares, and international kitch. Being of an age where I no longer have any further need or desire for more stuff, I can only tender my apologies to the makers and vendors of stuff for not doing more to support the economy. My only possible help for Perugia's economy is to suggest that they put more people to work building sidewalks and stairs.

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