Visit to Umbria by Lisa Aigen

My last year of university and Kate’s first, I was an exchange student in Jerusalem. She said, “Good. We’ll divide the world like the pope did.”

Kate called Mother’s stories name dropping. For me, they were her way of sharing her wild youth with us. Funny that Kate never lets a conversation go by without mentioning the celebrities she treats in her practice as chiropractor.

Our mother studied with Uta Hagen, the Stanislavsky pioneer for American theater. In Mother’s class were the young Jack Lemmon and Sidney Poitier. Humphrey Bogart visited Uta often and when he heard it was Mother’s eighteenth birthday, he kissed her in front of the whole class.

I live in Israel, Kate in New York. Since our parents died, my trips there have become less and less frequent. I hadn’t seen my sister in eight years. Suddenly she decided to attend my daughter’s wedding. It was the first time she ever visited me. She was surprised by the warmth and joy of my children and friends. My heart went out to her. She has no children: just two spoiled cats. I admired their pictures on her cell phone.

Kate has a small place tucked in a cobbled street in Umbria. She invited me to visit her in Italy.

I still hoped we might occupy the same hemisphere with impunity, although she asked me not to come on a Shabbath as Anthony, her Catholic husband would be distressed. As soon as I got to her house she showed me that she had new dishes for me. To make things easier, I had brought kosher food and wine. She made space in her refrigerator.

I ignored the crucifixes decorating her living room. She collects them. Anthony is not religious.

It was June and mild, lemon flowers blooming along the way to Assisi. We drove past blue and yellow and pink houses, stopping at a local museum. My sister was surprised that I know a bit about renaissance art. I had been painting for twenty years!

When we arrived there was a festival. Parishioners and priests paraded a lovely slim Madonna through the streets, stopping at each of the striped churches of Assisi. Her altar was canopied to prevent the sun fading the ancient paint. It was so heavy the bearers had to be changed every few meters. It seemed Maria was checking the shop windows as we were.

We passed carved olivewood, oiled to bring out its dappled beauty, flamboyant hand painted pottery, green, red and black pastas in every shape imaginable. Saint Francis’s and Saint Claire’s. Embroidered linens set invitingly on tables. We suddenly realized we were famished.

Kate took me to a small restaurant which of course wasn’t kosher. She ordered wine.

“Sangiovese is very popular now in New York, but I prefer this Canailolo from our local Umbrian vineyards” she said, “This from a great boutique place.”

She swilled the wine in her glass, and it glinted purple in the sunlight. “They’ve been making wine here since the Etruscans. Know what they are doing.” She made a face of pure ecstasy.

I was starving. A huge pizza oven radiated heat in one corner of the room. I watched the chef make the dough of flour yeast and water and asked if he could bake some with only tomatoes and basil by itself before the one with prosciutto that my sister had ordered.

I ordered a large beer in a green bottle and drank it all. I excused myself to go to the toilet. It was clean and bright, mirrored on all sides. I watched myself in triplicate, on the edge of tipsy.

My special pizza was wonderful.

“Why can you eat in a restaurant and not in my house.” Kate asked.

Outside in the sunshine we passed a library. I thought “Wow. Most of the books there are in Italian”. Kate stopped a merchant to ask about a wooden tray. I bought it for her.

We passed a dance studio. Little girls on the second floor floated above us in their tutus like angels.