One curious phenomenon has made an impression me during this trip: the conspicuous social gathering of men. Every day, cliques of six to 10 fellows ranging from their 50s to 90s meet in tight circles all across Italy — outside coffee houses, bars, enoteche, restaurants, piazzas, parks, and really, anywhere that offers those plastic red chairs that advertise coffee or beer.

No matter the town, I find these coteries in impressive numbers — in front of a pizzeria in Castiglione in Teverina, outside the movie theater in Bagnoregio, and atop the belvedere in Lubriano. Since many of them are past retirement age, these gentlemen hold court all day, debating and discussing things unknown; the 50- and 60-somethings join them mid-conversation after work. What’s most notable is how tightly they sit together, and how animated their debates appear, as if life or death depends upon them discussing whatever it is that they have to share.

As someone passes by, they pause mid-sentence to see who is looking at them, as if they are discussing national secrets or their bank PIN numbers. Never do they include a woman in their company. (Naturally, the conversation must also stop in order for them to give a thorough once-over to any woman walking past.)

I find their behavior especially remarkable, because in America it is most often women who gather in such circles. Unless it’s a bachelor party, it’s much more common to see groups of women engage in power catch-ups over cocktails than to witness groups of men deep in conversation all over town.

Driving through Bagnoregio recently, after finding six pairs of thickly bespectacled eyes gazing back at mine from Massimo’s seats in front of the post office, I mused to Tony, “What it is that these men talk about all the time?

Without hesitation, he quipped, “Many important things: shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax. Of cabbages –and kings– and why the sea is boiling hot — and whether pigs have wings.” It was so apt –and oh-so-Tony– that I thought he divined these words spontaneously; he had to remind me that this was a quote from Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter.

We’ve tapped into that phrase several times hence –cabbages and kings– because of how often we encounter these enrapt men, just as we did during yesterday’s trip to Lago di Bolsena and through the surrounding hill towns of Castiglione in Teverina, San Sebastiano, Civitella d’Agliano, and Lubriano. Helen, Tony, Bernardo, and I drove through the narrowest of alleys to see these picturesque paese which, while full of character, do not have the majestic presence of Civita. Just when I think I have learned to appreciate this place, I travel somewhere else and see even more deeply how well preserved and special it is on my return.

Yet, over lunch with Tony and Helen at Antonio’s bruschetteria today, I realized that Civita is the one place where I don’t see the all-male gathering phenomenon. While it has significant presence, it does not have populace. With that, our own conversation suddenly took an animated turn as I voiced a desire that has been growing in my head for weeks: to start a NIAUSI food institute –perhaps in partnership with Slow Food– in Civita.

Food is so important –integral– to Italian culture, especially in regions such as Lazio. Likewise, sharing meals has always been an important teaching tool for Astra, though I wasn’t around to participate in her famous didactic dinners, and everyone who visits goes home with lovely memories of –and recipes from– cooking lessons with Tony.

I thought back to the “Friends & Fellows” meal that I held in July as part of my fellowship work — everyone who attended came away feeling more connected, inspired, and perhaps gifted with a larger slice of the world as seen through someone else’s eyes. Food is really the glue that brings it all together, sometimes in unintended but swiftly convivial ways.

Like men in front of a bar, the more we discussed the topic, the closer our heads became. Yes, architecture and urban design are part of our study in Civita, but the idea that we could add a layer of instruction in the cultivation and cooking of local food –as well as the social component of gathering around those meals– seems a logical next step and potentially quite a draw for the whole town. Helen had an idea to include a NIAUSI cafe with the food institute, and the next thing we knew, we both committed to living in Civita each May through October to run it together.

Of course, with all this excitement, there are sobering elements, like funding and tempo. Too much change too quickly will kill the magic here; yet, there are strong agrarian roots that could be nurtured to grow something very authentic and fortifying for Civita’s culture, economy, and natural environment through urban agriculture and gastronomy.

Not to build upon these strengths seems a waste; after all, if tourism remains as Civita’s only mainstay, there will never be those gatherings of men outside Peppone’s Bar or Antonio’s bruschetteria.

Yet, perhaps a couple of passionate women –their heads together in animated conversation– can inspire new growth in Civita — first cabbages, then kings.

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