Escaping to visit Irmy and Le Marche

(In real time, I’m back in Spello for the upcoming Infiorata in June, and working more on the house, but I didn’t manage to get a single blog posted while I was back home in Sacramento for two weeks. I got to see my husband, Mike, and my kids and their dogs, plus go to a family wedding, have a hawk land on my gloved arm, plant my vegetable garden, clean up the flowerbeds for summer, see my friends, and make progress on the things I had let slide at home. More about those later—but I thought it best to catch up on the blogs, and keep on moving forward. Here goes!)

I had been planning some days away to Jesi, to see my friend Irmy, but when I got a call from Pall to come to VinItaly, Irmy graciously let me swap days so that I could go with Pall to Verona. About a week later, I caught the train at Spello, changed to the train heading east over the mountains to Le Marche and the Adriatic Sea (one of the most scenic train rides I have ever taken here in Italy) to spend a few days with Irmy. She is Austrian, has lived in Italy for 30 years and married an Italian, and teaches foreign languages in Jesi, near Ancona, but also has a side business coordinating study abroad programs for both American students coming to Europe, and Italian students going to San Diego for English immersion. We met in London, when she was the coordinator for the study abroad program there in 2007 that Barbara and I attended with other students from Sierra College. Irmy (“Irmtraut,” actually) immediately connected with Barbara and me, and we spent our Thanksgiving holiday that year with her, flying Ryanair from London to Ancona. Ever since then, she and Barbara and I have remained connected, both here in Italy (me), but both Barbara and I see her when Irmy brings her students to San Diego for their classes, or she comes to stay with me in Sacramento.

In the train, I could not take my eyes off of the woman seated across the aisle on the train. She was reading a stack of newspapers, drinking a can of Coke (the only piece that didn’t fit), and never once turned my way. I was transfixed—she was the image of my former boss, Judy Bramson: under 100 lb. and slight, right down to the shoes and corduroy pants like those Judy wore; the same hair color and style; the big turtleneck sweater; and the glasses a bit out-of-date for the current fashion. Judy died about 3 years ago, just as Alzheimer’s was taking her from all of us, and I am always finding things that remind me of her—but this was a strange coincidence, and the resemblance was so strong that I was frozen, staring at a stranger on a train. So I sneaked a photo, to remind me of Judy whenever I think of her and miss seeing her.

This woman looked so much like my former boss that I could not stop staring at her

Irmy and I headed to Senigallia, 30 minutes away on the Adriatic Sea, for a walk around the old parts of the town (a regular event for us), and for dinner out. She had just taught her last day before the Easter (“Pasqua” here) holiday from school, and no one was going to be cooking that night. In a candy shop, I caught a few photos of the chocolate eggs that are the tradition here, always with a “surprise” inside to be discovered when the recipient cracks the egg open. They can be very elaborate, have very nice gifts (expensive watches, engagement rings, soccer or opera tickets) inside, and are given as gifts to kids, spouses, family members and friends.

Hundreds of elaborate chocolate eggs, waiting for buyers

I saw this one with a resident mouse family apparently living inside, but I’m certain there was still a gift hidden inside the chocolate shell.

This egg is a decoration for the table, THEN a dessert

In the guest room that I use while staying at Irmy’s home, usually serving as her office, I saw a poster advertising this summer’s student abroad program in San Diego for Italian students—and got a surprise. Barbara and I went to San Diego a year ago for New Years, when Irmy was visiting on business, and Barbara and I entertained ourselves with harbor tours, the attractions at Balboa Park and other side trips around San Diego while Irmy had business meetings.

Irmy's new San Diego poster, fresh from the printer

On the harbor tour at sunset, I had taken photos as our boat passed under the Coronado Bridge, and Irmy had asked for a copy of one she particularly liked—and here it was on her poster! I was happy to see it had been used, and I had already given her permission to use it any way that suited her for her programs. A nice surprise for me, though, to see that she had incorporated it into her advertising poster!

Photo from the San Diego harbor cruise, under the Coronado Bridge

The next day, expecting guests at Irmy’s house for dinner, we decided to go and find an artisan cheese producer that Irmy had heard about, not far from Jesi, and add in a cheese plate to a simple dinner we had planned. When we pulled in to the farm, the cheese shop was right next to the dairy herd and the barns—all automated, solar-powered, and using the latest technology. Walking around behind the first barn, we were both startled to see a herd of “bufala,” the water buffalos whose milk is used for the “bufala mozzarella,” a special favorite of mine. (Once you’ve tasted fresh “bufala,” regular mozzarella is bland and flavorless by comparison.)

A dairy herd of water buffalo, for making the "bufala" cheese I adore

We could get up very close to the animals, but I didn’t dare find out what type of disposition these “girls” had by reaching out to touch one. (I suppose if they are milked every day, they are just as domesticated as the other cows on the farm.)

This one was curious about the lady with the camera in her hands

The regular dairy herd was being fed, with a couple of water buffalo at the end of the line

Inside the cheese shop, our choices were overwhelming, and every one was made right there from milk of their own production. Many of the fresh cheeses were being placed in the cases after being formed in the back room, and were moving out the door as fast as they were being re-stocked. Fresh cheeses with hot peppers, some with herb mixes, and also stuffed hot peppers and olives were made there on the farm.

Olives, stuffed hot peppers, and fresh cheeses

Some of the aged cheeses were particularly interesting—like the one with fennel seeds inside. I’m a sucker for fresh fennel, fennel sausage, and fennel salami, so I cast my vote for some of this, and it was wonderful.

A first for me--cheese with fennel ("finocchio") seeds

We chose about 4 types of cheeses, got a sample of warm bufala mozzarella, and also some bread for Irmy made there, from kamut (instead of wheat), since she is not eating wheat any more. A surprise was the young man behind the counter, who works mornings just across the street from Irmy’s condominium in the “edicola,” selling daily newspapers and magazines. He supplements his income by working in the afternoons in the cheese shop, and gladly made arrangements with Irmy to be her “delivery boy,” carrying to her any cheeses from the shop that she wanted to get through him, and she could pick them up the next morning in the edicola. His concern, though, was that they would not be fresh enough if she had to wait overnight to collect them—that’s quality control!

Irmy, making our selections for dinner

I saw a young girl drooling over the case of gelato—made there, from the fresh milk of the herd. She was frozen in place, trying to make a decision on which flavors to order, as soon as Dad got done with is cheese order behind her.

"How many scoops can I have, Dad?" FRESH gelato, from the dairy farm

During a quick stop at the local nursery, where Irmy was looking for geraniums to fill her balcony planter boxes for the summer, the color was exploding, and many of the plants were prepared as gift to carry for Easter, just a few days away.

Spring color arrives at the nursery, with gift plants for Pascua plentiful

In fact, I had heard about the procession on Good Friday in Spello just as I was leaving to go visit Irmy, and was struggling with being away, not knowing when I’d be back to Spello to ever see the procession again. Instead, Irmy sent me home a day early, in time for the procession that evening, and I was relieved to not have to miss it.

Each morning, as a part of her new routine for health and stress reduction, and for her new, smaller figure, Irmy walks 90 minutes into the hills just behind her home in Jesi. She is in a complex of many condos, but the road leads into the hills immediately behind her, and the scenery changes from suburbia to the rolling landscapes of Le Marche. Irmy takes her trekking poles and sets a fast pace, uphill for most of the first part of the walk, but I managed to keep up (taking photos when I needed to catch my breath, and hoping Irmy didn’t notice that I was gasping).

Irmy sets the pace, I lag behind taking photos (and trying to breathe)

From our shaded country lane, only 5 minutes’ walk from her busy suburban street, we looked out in all directions to farm lands, tilled furrows and pruned vineyards, and beautiful homes tucked into the surrounding trees and gardens.

Typical Jesi/Le Marche countryside landscape scene

A yellow swallowtail butterfly discovers a lilac beside the roadway

Almost back to the suburbs, back from our walk

We watched the clock to get me back and to the station on time for my train, and my brief visit was soon finished.

Le Marche remains one of the “undiscovered” (I think) beautiful spots in Italy, with fantastic seafood along the coast, fine wines found no other place (the nearly-black Lagrima Moro d’Alba, for instance, and the sweet Vino di Visciole, made from tart wild cherries), very reasonable prices and with beautiful agricultural landscapes everywhere. I hope to be back again soon! (And did I mention the Varnelli, a clear anise liquor I love, called “Varnish” by a good friend who shares my love of this magic elixer?)

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