View towards Assisi (the collection of shining-white buildings on the site of Monte Subasio at center)

View towards Assisi (the collection of shining-white buildings on the side of Monte Subasio, center-top)

Perugia is not perfect.

First, it is hard to find a patch of green grass anywhere in the stone- and brick-paved centro storico. There’s one bit by the top of the scale mobile on the side of the hill with a fantastic view towards Assisi, but people use it to curb their dogs.

The park at Cupa

The park at Cupa (and its Etruscan fortification walls)

There’s green space and a playground below us at Cupa, but there one has to beware of drug dealing as well as dogs.

The Chiesa di San Francesco al Prato in Perugia

Then there’s a fine patch at the bottom of our street in front of the lovely Chiesa di San Francesco al Prato (begun in 1281), which in spring is full of students and lovers. (The complex also houses the Accademia di Belle Arti [Fine Arts] begun in 1573, and which has a wonderful museum of casts.) And the lawn in front of the circular Chiesa di San Michele Archangelo (started in 5th c.) near the city gate of the same name. There are larger parks on the edges of town, such as at Pian di Massiano, which are popular on weekends and holidays, and which are in varying states of upkeep.

Given all the hard surfaces in the town, and the nature of  its steep topography, which facilitates quick run-off of rain to the valleys below, one might not expect an insect problem. And generally, there isn’t.

There are some zanzare, the onomatopoeic term for mosquitoes, but they are not terribly numerous (unlike Minnesota). Nevertheless, every spring the sindaco, or mayor’s office, reminds the citizens not to leave out old tires or containers that might collect stagnant water in which they could breed.

No, the villain is one very nasty beastie, by which we have suffered, and which only this week we have at last caught.

Read on, if you dare.

Oggy (blue cat on the right) and his, um… ‘friends’

One of Micah’s favorite cartoons here in Italy is Oggy e i Maledetti Scarafaggi (“Oggy and the Damned Cockroaches”), a translation (though the cartoons have hardly any speaking) of the French original, Oggy et les cafards. It is a throw-back, Tom & Jerry-like production of 6-minute shorts based on slapstick comedy.

The amiable Oggy and his rougher friend, Jack, are constantly being tormented by three mischievous cockroaches (named after the members of the Ramones). The usual calamities ensue.

Our tormentors are not cockroaches, nor bed-bugs. There are hardly any creepy-crawlies in our apartment whatsoever (unlike Indiana).

Until this week we had never heard or seen the things that are biting us. Here is what we knew:

  1. They tend to appear a day or so after a rain that was followed by warm, sunny weather;
  2. They seem to prefer morning and evening feeding;
  3. They are completely stealth — no sound, and too small to see;
  4. They wait in the shower-bathroom (the window of which we have to keep open to vent steam, or mould grows on the ceiling) or the laundry loft (the window of which we have to keep open to allow clothes to dry, or mould grows on the ceiling), and then attack;
  5. When we have bedroom windows open because of warm nights, they bite us (we’ve learned not to do that);
  6. The bite is felt nearly immediately, but too late to aim a slap;
  7. The bite welts. We then run to grab an ‘After-Bite’ stick (basically, ammonia);
  8. The bite gets worse, especially 3-4 days afterward, when redness expands an inch or so out. This lasts 7-10 days.
  9. We apply anti-ich cream, complain a lot, and then try to pretend the bite isn’t there. The closest comparison one can give to the experience is that of the bite of chiggers (like Indiana).
  10. Sometimes the bug gets inside one’s shirt and bites repeatedly, just to be mean. This is unfair.

You might wonder why they don’t believe in window screens here in Italy (they don’t), but there may be no mesh fine enough to keep out these little terrors.

This week Simon (who, along with Rebecca, seems particularly vulnerable to their predations) was bit between the fingers after he took his morning shower (he truly dreads entering that room, and feet skittering on the floor like a wounded antelope, he tries to exit the shower stall as quickly as possible, leaving a drip trail on which we then slip after they are off to school.)

Simon’s ninja reflexes resulted in the smushing of the bug (that’s the technical kill-term), and he brought it to me at breakfast, saying: “See! It is like a flying scorpion! I told you!” (One of our house myths was an earlier Nessie-like sighting by Simon which described the bug as, well, a ‘flying scorpion’.)

We don’t have a macro-lens on our camera, but by combining a pair of eyeglasses and an iPhone, we got these photos, which I’m sure you’ll agree are as revealing as the famous pictures of Nessie:

exhibit A

exhibit A

exhibit B

exhibit B

One can see by the pointy abdomen why Simon thought it was a flying scorpion. We cannot, however, make out any wings whatsoever by visual inspection, so the bit about flying remains a mystery. It has a black head with two pointy things at the front, a brown thorax with three legs either side, and a black, hard-looking abdomen with sharp tip. I have no idea which end bites us. It looks like a wingless hornet. Its total length is about 2.5 millimeters (1/10″).

That makes it too small for a black fly (doesn’t look like one anyway)/It is about the size of a biting midge/sand fly/no-see-um, but those creatures tend to have a different shape, and clearly identifiable wings. So we have no idea. I even Googled ‘flying scorpion‘. Not what I was looking for. Other people have encountered these abominations in Umbria, and the collective Internet wisdom seems to be that these “small black insects with a nasty bite” are some kind of no-see-um or midge. Maybe. But no visible wings.

If there are any entomologists out there, we would love to know what these things are.

Meanwhile we have performed several nameless and foul rituals on the carcass to keep it from resurrecting. Just in case.

– – –

UPDATE, 1 JULY

Well, we have learned more, largely because when the weather warmed up and after rains came, the feeding frenzy got much much worse. Micah has maybe 50 bites all over his body. But we know what they are now, and they don’t seem to be the wasp-like things pictured above (though they bite too).

They are called pappataci (phlebotomus papatasi). They look like this:

They are otherwise known as a type of “sand fly”. They are tiny, silent, feed at night (they don’t like light), and reproduce in organic detritus. Only the females bite (Rebecca seems to be immune, but all the boys are getting attacked here). Their bites can cause pappataci fever, a flu-like disease, a version of which (Toscana virus) is present in Italy.

We have killed a few (they don’t live long anyway, but they reproduce with alacrity) and made positive identification. How to deal with them?

  • keep a light on (though it’s really sunlight, not lamplight, that they avoid most);
  • keep a breeze going (a fan, for instance);
  • use a citronella-based plug-in device (but make sure there is ventilation in the room if you do this);
  • spray on bug repellent

There’s no sure-fire method. You can’t really see or hear them; you feel them when it is too late. You may just have to suffer through them. Good luck.