In 2017, a few months after we got married, my wife, Maggie, and I took a six-week trip — part honeymoon, part yearslong delayed vacation. Leaving California, our first stop was in Brooklyn to see Maggie’s oldest friend, who we all knew was not going to survive a cancer that had returned after many years. It was a good visit.
Next, we flew to Barcelona and drove to a small coastal town, Sitges. While there, I learned that one of my oldest friends had just died, also from cancer, also at the end of a series of treatments. A few days later we flew to Florence, driving a few hours south to Panicale, a small hilltop town in Umbria. A friend — Steve Siegelman, a food writer in California — had lent us his renovated brick-and-stone rowhouse in what he jokingly refers to as the “new neighborhood,” because it was built in the 1500s, while the town’s main center, the piazza, dates back to the 10th century.
Steve had discovered Panicale on a trip with his parents years before. Rural hilltop towns all over Europe have been emptying out for decades as people move away to make a living, leaving houses to be bought by Americans, Britons and Germans as primary or second homes. They, along with the locals, help keep Panicale alive.
Early on, we badly needed to do our laundry. The washing machine in the basement could not be convinced to do the job, resulting in texts to Steve in California asking whom to call for help. He wrote back that his local fixer would get a plumber over at some point; in the meantime, he put us in contact with an expat couple, dear friends of his, Elida and Guenter, a half-mile away, with an olive grove and a brick house overlooking a valley. They immediately invited us to come for a meal and to use their laundry machines, which were set into a hillside like a wine cellar.