26 July 2017

A few days ago the CdP town council turned the water off at night – or at least they said they were going to: I didn’t notice any difference. This last happened in 2001 and 2002, the dry, dry years when we had just bought this house, and where there was nothing much save muddy sludge where much of Lake Trasimeno should have been.

Just a very few drops of rain since March, on the back of an extraordinarily dry winter, and accompanied by record-busting temperatures from May to now, has left us gasping for moisture. Where my grass once was, I now have a dusty mat of thin straw.

But the last few hours have brought respite: 12mm of rain yesterday, almost the previous day. After so many weeks of checking my bag before leaving home to make sure I had my fan with me, it felt very strange, shivering as you step outside.

The forecast for the immediately future is back to big suns and temperatures over 35° each day. I can feel the weeds bursting out.

My brief tussle with Italian courts has (I think) come to an end. After my first shaky experience as a witness in a more-than-forgettable case of driver sueing insurance company, there were more false starts: the time when I schlepped across to Perugia to find that a strike had been called long before by the court’s office workers for that day but no one had deigned to inform me; the time when a summons was dispatched to me just four days before another hearing – a tardiness which, combined with our utterly hopeless postman, meant it didn’t reach me until after the event (with no dire consequences, I might add, so so much for intimations of contempt of court proceedings if I didn’t appear as ordered).

And so to the closing chapter, in which I turned up dutifully at the courthouse in Perugia, nabbed the same chair in the same room (now sweltering) I had occupied so many months before, and waited. And waited. And waited.

Until Ms Pompom from the lawyer’s office – unforthcoming as ever and sans jaunty headwear – shoved me through the door and manoevred me into a seat before the justice of the peace who failed for some minutes to acknowledge my existence. Then I was handed a sheet of paper with a formula to read, promising to tell the truth and accepting that if I didn’t I could be prosecuted. I read it. The judge told me to read the last paragraph again. I did. And again. I did.

“Do you understand what you’re saying?” she asked, talking as if to a habitually stupid child – both disinterested and aggressive in the same breath. “Yes,” I said. “It’s hardly difficult.” She shot me a look of pure venom.

She told me she was going to read me a series of statements. I was to tell her whether they were correct by answering yes, no or don’t know. Not a single other word. Did I understand?

“Seems clear enough,” I said. More venemous looks.
Sì. No. Non so (yes, no, don’t know),” she spat. “I don’t want to hear anything else.”
Bene (fine),” I said. I wasn’t going to give make things too easy for her.

The first question went something like “on the Xth day of month Y in year Z you, Anne Hanley, born in Australia on [date] were driving along via XX when your car collided with the VW Polo, license plate aaa bbb, of signor Pinco Pallino. Sì, no o non so?”

“Which bit am I answering?” I asked, not unreasonably I thought.
Sì, no o non so?” she said through clenched teeth.
“Date, yes. My name yes, name of road don’t know,” I began before she shut me down fast.
Sì, no o non so!”
I explained there was no simple answer.

“I’ll take that as a ‘don’t know’ then,” she snapped, and scribbled something down before moving on to the next compound and 100% unanswerable statement. By which time, already broken down by the system, I’d lost interest and couldn’t summon more than a weary non so to each spurt of the stream of nonsense that followed.

Was this what I had made all those pilgrimages to Perugia for, risking earthquakes and record-dry-summer bushfires, not to mention angry early-morning drivers and the aesthetic onslaught of the city’s ugly outer suburbs, for? Had I helped the wheels of justice to move forward in any way?

By the time I uttered my final non so, the judge was already scouring the next file and failed to look up or say any words of farewell. Ms Pompom shoved me out of the room as unceremoniously as she’d pushed me in. My part in this case, I gathered, was over.

0726H**********

On a recent work trip to Positano I learned two interesting things.

The first is that you should never swim in the sea before June 24. That’s because on that day San Giovanni (St John, whose feast day it is) heaves a burning wooden beam into the sea and heats it up to suitable bathing temperature. Why he does this, no one seemed to know. But as the tale comes to us care of the same southern Italian mamme who bring their bambini up believing that swimming without digesting for four hours after eating is sure to bring on the kind of cramp that will send you in gurgling agony to Davy Jones’ locker, I rather suspect that this might be another yarn invented by southern Italian women in order to spend a little of their time somewhere other than on the beach with a bunch of screaming kids.

0726B
The second– perhaps more useful – thing is that you can grow courgettes up stakes. I spotted this is the wonderful vegetable garden of the Hotel San Pietro .

It’s odd, because courgettes are about the only cucurbit that I’d never thought of growing upwards. I construct odd tower-of-babel structures in giant reed stalks and bits of string for my cucumbers; I’m currently allowing pumpkins and squashes of various kinds to creep along the fence of the new vegetable garden, even at the risk of bringing it down. My courgettes on the other hand were doing what they always do: spreading their tentacles along the ground in such a way that paths become unpassable, and the mashed-up lower leaves in constant contact with the damp earth go swiftly mouldy and so infect the whole plant until I pull it up in frustration with nothing more than a handful of middlingly successful zucchine to show for my troubles.

0726AStaked, that doesn’t happen. Well: I say it doesn’t happen but what I mean is, it hasn’t so far.

I eased the knobbly central stems off the ground, tilted them up gently and provided a sturdy cane for each to rest against, tying stem to cane to make sure it stayed where it was put. Then I lopped off copious quantities of lower leaves, creating bare spaces at the bottom of the stalks and lifting the whole architecture of the plant into the air. Only leaf tips brush the soil; air passes around the plant. The plants look happier, incipient mouldiness seems to have dried up and I’m desperately trying to deal with quantities of courgettes which would feed a family of 12, day in day out.

Of course, our hot dry summer might also be helping lack of mould. It’s certainly helping keep black spot off the roses and bugs – apart from infuriating tiny flies – are at a minimum, presumably having thrown in the towel with no moisture to suck and no appreciable new growth to decimate.

**********

0726GAt my project in town, the end is tantalisingly nigh. But it keeps creeping closer, only to be whisked out of my grasp once more. The roof is on finally and the scaffolding down, but as yet I haven’t summoned up the courage (or found the time) to begin work on the garden, knowing that someone, for technical reasons, will need to dig up anything I might created out there.

Every now and then I’ll make a brave attempt to tidy up the debris left by the various passers-through – plumbers, carpenters, electricians etc – then the moment it’s looking well on the way to inhabitable, they sneak back in to finish off some vital thing, scattering chaos in their wake. Quite often I see them rushing about after each other with broom and dustpan but it’s all show: however much they wield these things, the chaos remains.

It’s a funny feeling, pressing switches and seeing lights come on. Come to think of it, it’s a funny feeling having switches. Now as we rush towards August and everyone vanishing along traffic-jammed highways towards ridiculously crowded beaches, I’m worried that the missing pieces of the puzzle will irk me until well after ferragosto (August 15), when ordinary life starts up again.

My usually reliable metal worker is the most foot-dragging. Each week, everything will be ready for the next. This has been going on for too long.

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24 June 2017

0624C

There has been a population explosion in CdP. The town is packed with howling bundles of overheated misery being pushed about by proud nonne (grandmas) – the mamme I presume taking advantage of captive child-minders to stay in cool interiors.

We thought the population down here had grown too, but all that’s growing now is the mystery.

Coming home late one evening we rounded the corner past Mario’s house to see one of the Smogs (the semi-feral cats who extract food from me with hard stares, both of whom I’ve always referred to as ‘he’ or ‘it’) crossing the lane preceeded by a bouncing bundle of kitten. Just one tiny kitten. Since when, there have been no sightings. Smogs I and II are about, reclining in any cool spot they can find, or padding down the lane to sit outside the front door and do their hard food-extracting stares until I emerge and cave in spinelessly.

Did some passing fox get lucky and have junior for lunch, or are the Smogs keeping it well hidden? As the days pass, I’m suspecting the former.

There was an item on BBC radio the other day announcing that researchers had discovered a clear sense of ‘fairness’ in animals – a trait formerly linked only with humans, leading me to muse how (1) it was severely lacking in many humans and (2) I could have told them that anyway.

They couched their findings in rather negative terms, saying that a dog who saw another dog rewarded better for something that it too had done would get upset or aggressive. The Smogs – stand-offish and generally supercilious as they are – are a far better model of a positive kind of fairness.

When I pour nasty-smelling cat biscuits into the piece of roofing tile where I feed them, up near the new vegetable garden, there’s a very set ritual. Whichever of the two is present (and it’s generally the slightly friendlier one, the one that seems to enjoy lying on a damp patch of just-watered ground in the shade and listening to me wittering on to it about nothing in particular as I garden) leaps across to the tile and eats precisely half of what I’ve put down. Sometimes half length-wise, sometimes half width-wise, but always half. The divvying-up is almost mathematical. The other Smog appears later and hoovers up the other half.

There was a point, a couple of weeks ago, when for a while the uneaten food remained until the following day. At that point Smog I would return and finish it up 24 hours later. I was worried that Smog II had met a sorry end. But some days later II reappeared and the ritual resumed as normal. Now I’m wondering: was that when the kittens were being born? Did everything go pear-shaped and the rest of the litter die?

But the almost maniacal division of the goodies by two such ragged felines is hugely touching, I find. They’re looking out for each other. With an immense sense of fairness.

The very elderly man who sits on a step beneath a huge oak along the street between the Rocca and my project in town, chatting to anyone who’s willing to slow down or stop, and keeping his daemon – a splendid long-haired oyster-coloured cat by the name of Cioppi – company is back. Which is great, because I was beginning to fear that the winter had done for him.

I stopped briefly the other day and he immediately turned to his favourite theme: passano gli anni, the years go by.

“I’m going to be 100 soon,” he said, which stopped me in my tracks. All right, he looks elderly, but 100? I wouldn’t have said so.
“Gosh,” I said, “congratulations. I would never have said!”
“Yes, I’m 92 already!” he explained.

How wonderful to be 92 and already looking forward to your hundredth year. He clearly has no plans to leave us for a while yet.

0624L

Last year, my beautiful little street in town won – and rightly – the prize for CdP’s best kept and most flowery in the competition linked to the Infiorata, which is this weekend. Not wishing to let the side down with my cobwebby, dusty, builder-bashed entrance niche – a conspicuous black hole in a street overflowing with geraniums and aspidistras – I rushed up to do a bit of sweeping and install some pots of flowers. I’m so glad I took the trouble.

In the short time I was there, knocking nails into the brick walls to drape a lovely dark purple Clematis over, one woman contrived to saunter past four times to inspect my activity. And from a window across the street, an elderly signora leaned out to say “brava signora, brava: ha fatto una cosa bellissima,” thus making it all worth while.

Next day the builders, of course, were skeptical, pointing out that it just robbed them of space and got in their way.

I’m doing my civic duty, I said, in the true spirit of the Infiorata. And so they grudgingly admitted that it was all right … especially when I told them I was planning to remove the plants after the event was over.

There’s manic activity in the house at the moment, with painters painting, carpenters fixing windows and electricians installing a heating and hot water system that looks big enough for a stately home. My fear now is that it will necessarily limp to a halt as these peripheral workers hit the buffers of the builder himself, who is failing to keep one step ahead of developments to allow the others to move forward.

The risers of the stairs need rendering otherwise they can’t be painted; the floor downstairs needs leveling otherwise the flooring man will arrive next week and be unable to do his work; there are still inexplicable holes in walls that have to be filled. I swing between manic happiness and utter despair. This can’t be good for my blood pressure.

In the huge barn of a hardware/builders’ supply store down in the valley I was buying lengths of steel cable in different weights to improve the droopy arrangement that holds up the two immense Concord grape vines that shade my little town garden so verdantly. (I have since abandoned the task, realising that the weight of the grape-laden plants makes it completely unthinkable.)

I like that place (there’s another tale from there, right down the bottom of this post). I rarely see another female in there, but as I generally go in with dilemmas to solve rather than straightforward requests, the two dour brothers who run it seem to have adopted me, displaying something like enjoyment as they rise to the challenges I set them.

The shorter brother was painstakingly measuring out steel cable for me when a customer (male, of course) blustered over and demanded to know where he should search for something or other. The look that the brother gave him was pure venom, and he raised his voice, barking out the metres at top volume as he counted to show his extreme displeasure at the interruption.

I’d love to think that he was fighting my corner against the type of man all too frequent around here who presumes that women have no place in hardware stores and must surely be doing something frivolous and totally interrupt-able. I suspect, though, that his ire was due to the fact that multi-tasking is simply beyond him.

Our ludicrous-for-June weather continues, without a day where it doesn’t go above 30°. As soon as we turned our backs – going down to Rome for the Queen’s Birthday Party of which more below – there was a downpour. We came back to 14mm in the rain gauge. Since when, we have sizzled.

My cleaning lady is indignant, and possibly a little heat-addled.

“This climate change thing,” she said to me. “ I don’t know what’s going to become of us. You know, on the news last night, they were saying that it’s so hot that the Chinese have even managed to grow potatoes on the moon.”

That took a few seconds to sink in. A week later, I’m still trying to work out what kind of stick must have been thrown for her to get hold of such a very wrong end.

We hadn’t been to the Queen’s Birthday Party for years – struck off the guest list for some odd reason but now, equally as inexplicably, reinstated. It was a packed event in fantastic Villa Wolkonsky, the ambassador’s residence in Rome. The new ambassador was decked out in a long lamé Vivienne Westwood number that lent her an uncanny resemblance to those men who gather coins for standing stock-still in piazza del Popolo dressed as Tutenkhamun.

The theme was English Village Fete and wandering around the gardens were Alice with a Red Queen, a couple of Sherlock Holmes with their Watsons and at least one Shakespeare whom we bumped into at the coconut shy (L won an unidentifiable pink furry animal-like thing with a masterful shot).

But who are you? I asked, to be informed haughtily that he was William Shakespeare, quite obviously.

No, I said, apart from that. I know you from somewhere.

He was, it transpired, an Australian bit-part actor who had been in a comedy TV English teaching show that L wrote for Rai Educational about 100 years ago. It was the 1980s, we hadn’t been long in Rome, and we were extremely poor. The amount he earned for that series – presumably considered risible by RAI standards because Educational was not where the Big Money went – seemed like a fortune to us.

I like to think we’ve moved on just a little bit since then. This man, though, was being Shakespeare at the QBP: I think that probably counts as a step backwards.

L told him that he still has VHS tapes of their show somewhere.

“Oh wow, you should put them on YouTube!” he shot back.

Is that it? Is that the hope that unsuccessful actors cling to? That one day you’ll put some of your opus from long long ago on YouTube and it will become an internet sensation, propelling you to long longed-for stardom?

Sadly, I think it is. Equally sadly, I suspect it’s not going to happen.

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12 June 2017

Dear Mr Porcupine who has been devastating my garden since early spring, digging up all my bulbs with particular attention to the iris,
in recognition of your sterling work over the last couple of nights, I would like to rescind all – no, make that some – of the blasphemous insults I have hurled at you and instead thank you. By assiduously digging up all the bulbs – overcrowded and desperately overdue for lifting and breaking up – on the bank beneath the pale yellow roses and arranging them in neat piles (I have to say, I found that a bit brazen) ready for many more nights of toil-free munching, you have saved me hours of back-breaking digging. I have removed all the viable bulbs and hidden them away from you (two can play at brazen). The rubbishy leftovers – if you’re interested – I tipped down the slope beneath the big oak tree. Now I’d ask you kindly to throw a fit of pique, storm off to someone else’s garden, and leave me to replant my bulbs without fear of their being dug straight back up again. Just a word of warning: don’t even think of wreaking your revenge by tunneling under the vegetable garden fence and decimating my potatoes. If you do, I’ll get the forestali on to you.

It has been hugely, ridiculous hot for early June and it shows no sign of letting up. The last time rain fell was on 7 May and that was a measly few drops. This is the time of year when all I ever seem to do is struggle to find time to mow the grass which springs to knee height whenever my head is turned. But I haven’t mown it for three weeks now: it doesn’t seem right hauling the lawnmower about merely to lop the heads off a few undaunted and very annoying chicory (Cichoryum intybus) upstarts.

Selected things have resisted the August-like torpor and are still growing, though. We’re eating peas and green beans from the vegetable garden, and the sweet cherries have never been so fantastic. There are baby green tomatoes on the plants, though I have to say they drop off with worrying ease whenever I’m a bit too enthusiastic with my weeding. And the courgette plants are full of incipient edibles. All of which is satisfying.

And that’s just as well because once again I’m at my wits’ end in town – which I admit may have more to do with my overheated mood rather than with progress or lack of it.

Because there has been progress. I have bought sheets and towels. The bathroom mirrors are ordered and the metal furniture I’m having made is very well advanced. I have a couple of rather beautifully restored windows already in place. And the painters are in this week, plugging up holes and getting going on making it look less like a bombsite.

But they’re complaining that the builder isn’t far enough towards completion for pressing ahead with painting without the risk of everything being ruined by flying dust. And by the time they do get everything finished – in two or three weeks – the man who’s going to lay the floor has a long list of engagements elsewhere and heaven knows when he’ll be able to get to me. And of course there’s the little matter of my roof which still doesn’t have any tiles on it. Et cetera. It’s all very frustrating.

So just as well we’ve been taking our minds off things with a couple of jaunts. Yesterday, I joined L (who had been accompanying an American group on a Tuscan weekend) at Villa di Geggiano, where I hadn’t been for many many years. I have a strange affection for the place because it was there, I think, that I heard the wonderful, almost onomatopoeic word verzura (verdure: you can almost hear the breeze through the lush foliage) for the first time – and immediately adopted it for my website and blog.

The house, with its lovely gentry-playing-at-country-folk murals and spectacular papiers peints is quite wonderful. The garden is too, in its way, though there are parts – including the teatro di verzura itself – which blur the line between charmingly délabré and distressingly dilapidated. I’m the very first to say that over-zealous upkeep and/or restoration is more often than not a garden’s worst enemy. But there’s a limit to everything. Of course, the extreme dryness didn’t help; neither did the collection of art dotted rather anomalously around the place, as part of some works-among-the-vineyards initiative. But just a little more tlc lavished in the right direction would give such huge rewards.

Even better, from a sloughing off tension point of view, was the previous weekend when we took to the waves, on a magnificent craft about which L was writing. Satori: 42 metres long, all in teak and mahogany and walnut, luxurious cabins with marble bathrooms, and an on-deck cinema. Not to mention a masseuse and a Michelin-starred chef. (All for hire of course, though slightly beyond our holiday budget.)

We sailed from Scarlino to Elba – and when I say ‘sailed’ I really mean with sails up and running fast before the wind – for some of our brief hop. We swam in the sea (oddly warm for the time of year, but quite in line with our bizarre year). We visited Napoleon’s pad in Elba (another garden which with just a tiny bit of tweaking could be a marvel). And we came back salty, which is landlocked Umbria is a very nice feeling from time to time.

 

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29 May 2017

I’ve got August grass. Until last week it was green and fairly lush. But it’s now four weeks since we had even a drop of rain and my thick crop of well tended spring green stuff (you can’t really call it ‘lawn’) is gasping. It’s turning into a tough spring.

I have my watering systems going, of course, in those places where they’re fit for work. The utterly neglected area behind the chicken house and beyond the barbaque where my poor hydrangeas have been left exposed to the sun since the dead elms were removed is unattached, all the tubes having been bashed about and left seriously in need of patching. Now the neglect means I can’t find them any more, and the hydrangeas are looking even more bedraggled and thirsty. I need to find time to get in there and do some repairs.

The slow-moving vegetable garden has drip-pipes linked to a network the ends of which poke forlornly out of their dusty hole near (but not attached to) a tap, getting in the way of the hose which I have to drag about every evening, filling the little depressions around the base of my plants – the ones that should be filled by the drip pipes – with enough water to see them through the next, hot, 24 hours.

For the first few moments I rather enjoy watering. But frustration soon sets in. It just seems a pointless waste of time.

Locals love to tell you that l’orto vuole l’uomo morto – a vegetable garden puts one man out of action (literally, needs a dead man), in the sense that one person has to dedicate all his (and it is almost exclusively his) time to keeping it going. This is of course nothing more than a pretty lame excuse for the man of the family to get out of doing anything, being able to absent himself among his tomatoes and courgettes whenever it’s suggested that he might help with something more useful or have any contact with his nearest and dearest. Because a cheap timer and a few metres of plastic drip tube would liberate him from about 75% of the work that any on-going orto involves.

I’m happy to spend time mowing, weeding, sowing, planting, strimming: these are things where my presence is vital and unavoidable. But watering? It’s better done by very simple, affordable technology.

(A digger operator on a project I’m working on in the far north of Tuscany was singing the praises to me this week of his robot-mower. “Even Queen Elizabeth doesn’t have lawns as smooth as mine, and I never ever have to cut them myself,” he boasted. It was on the tip of my tongue to tell him that prato all’inglese (English-style lawn) is my pet hate in rural settings and simple gardens. I managed to summon up some diplomacy and changed the subject.)

0529J

Yesterday evening our local Sri Lankans (or at least, the buddhist part of the community) celebrated Buddha’s birthday with a party on the big piazza down near the schools. They were out in force among the beautiful home-made lanterns, attempting valiantly to light the tealights picking out a giant Buddha-head across the square which never really got going in the steady breeze. (I’m told that later, after we left, the breeze dropped and the head sprang to life.)

There was wonderful food, and Sri Lankan music, and happy children, and general festivity but relatively few pievesi bothering to come by to join in the event. All right, to give them their due, it wasn’t advertised at all: just word of mouth. And the native turn-out there was considerably more impressive than that the previous day for the presentation of our local artist residency initiative, held in our contemporary art gallery  which in itself is a pretty remarkable thing for such a tiny place.

But on the whole – and with a few notable exceptions: a handful of people who really make sure they participate – it’s difficult to drum up pievese interest for anything much outside of Sunday markets and things involving pasta and boar. Is it unreasonable to think that they might be prepared to move out of their comfort zone for happenings handed to them on a plate? Or is that just presumptuous of me (who – incidentally and in the interests of full disclosure – isn’t all that good at putting in appearances herself, though that’s a question of laziness/disorganisation rather than spurning) to presume that they should appreciate being introduced something if not “better” then definitely different?

I was discussing such attempts at dovetailing incomer and native interests with a highly successful veteran architect at a lunch party over the weekend. He told me about a super-mod winery he had designed some years ago for a major Tuscan producer. When the building was ready, a party was thrown for the people who had worked on the project and all the locals. They came, they saw, they marvelled or griped, depending on their disposition.

Some years later this architect was working on another project in the same area. He turned up at the site one day to find a huddle of vigili there, and his heart sank. Vigili urbani are the local police force, something akin to traffic wardens but also responsible for seeking out violations of the kind of niggly by-laws that Italy specialises in, and which drive you up the wall. Vigili are generally regarded – not always, but often with good reason – as the kind of official who makes up for his/her bottom-of-the-pecking-order status with extra officiousness. They’re not generally given credit for much foresight or imagination. And you really don’t want them poking around your building site.

So it was with dread that he approached and asked if he could do anything for them. Totally unexpectedly, one of the vigili came towards him and said “so, are you making another masterpiece?” He had been at that party years before, and had been blown away by the ultra-contemporary design. This architect said that for him, such praise from that quarter had been a moment of immense pride.

Up in town , the carpenters are working on my windows and French doors now, and I needed to get handles to match the interior doors.

“I got them at Marchi in Sinalunga,” I said, and the carpenter gave a snort of disdain.

“We’re in Umbria,” he snapped. “We get our handles in Perugia. We’ll get them for you.”

0529B

It’s that time of year that’s permeated with the perfume of Rosa Felicia and lovely pinks. Opening the bathroom window each morning is a joy.

The carpenter making the inside doors had directed me to Marchi; he’s down in Chiusi Scalo, which is just across the border into Tuscany… by about half a kilometre. The window carpenter is in Po’ Bandino, which is about a kilometre into Umbria. They’re practically neighbours.

As the crow flies, I don’t think there’s any difference at all in the distance between here and Perugia/Sinalunga. No, Google maps is telling me: it’s just the same. And in fact, zipping along the autostrada then the Siena superstrada, it’s probably quicker to reach the latter. So this clinging to your regional identity is as impractical as it is bygone-era charming. And it’s absolutely typical.

It was amusing, then, when I went off to Sinalunga anyway, then was uncertain exactly what I needed, and got the handle-seller to talk directly by phone to the carpenter. After sidling around each other and communicating as if each considered the other far from up to scratch, my carpenter said “so, I don’t suppose you send your agents this far.” Of course,” said Marchi, “do you want someone to pass by?”

It turns out that Perugia may be Umbria but it’s hopeless for handles. I feel I’ve struck a blow for better inter-regional relations.

0529A

 

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15 May 2017

The slowest-moving project in the history of vegetable gardens took a significant step forward over the weekend. We were meant to be on this, cruising towards Elba, but for various dull reasons it all fell through. I took that as a sign that I was destined to do something more prosaic, though arguably ultimately more satisfying. So I applied myself to the orto. (And will get to go boating in June, I hope.)

It has taken me a long time to get round to it but now I have more planted in there than the onions, garlic and potatoes which I stuck in weeks ago. It was about time. My runner beans were about to escape from their little pots in the greenhouse, and every local house I passed had some wizened old man outside, putting tomato seedlings into the ground and making me feel guilty and behind-hand.

My excuse to date (aside from work commitments and iffy weather just when I’d hoped to be outside digging) had been rather too many electrical storms forecast: I didn’t want to lose my precious plants to battering hailstones. But we haven’t had a single one of those. And the season is too advanced for my kind of sloth.

0515GAs I dug and hoed and raked and generally did battle with the not hugely wonderful soil I have in my new vegetable garden (I’m adding vast amounts of compost in an attempt to improve) I looked up to see a porcupine sauntering nonchalantly across the carpark outside. Mid-afternoon. Like he owned the place. When I invited him to f-off, he shuffled his quills about half-heartedly, manoeuvred himself around slowly, and strolled away in an unconcerned fashion. Brazen.

Around easter, there was a series of bank holidays, on one of which the phone rang, surprisingly, well before nine in the morning. It was the Romanian housekeeper of our Canadian neighbours who were away at the time, and she was clearly fighting back the tears.

“Signora Anne! I don’t know what to do!”

I imagined a disastrous break-in, or at the very least a dead dog.

“He’s destroyed the potatoes. There’s nothing, nothing left. Trashed. What can I do?”

The housekeeper was convinced it was the badger that wanders the area. One entrance to its sett is in a bank just up past Mario’s house, and he often chooses the moment we’re passing in the car at night to dash across the lane. But omnivorous badgers eat earthworms mostly – hundreds of them each night, I’ve read. They’ll eat fruit, nuts, rats, toads, baby hedgehogs… all kinds of things. They don’t as a rule appear to be particularly interested in potatoes. Unlike porcupines. Porcupines are herbivores, with a passion for bulbs and tubers. Our porcupine was a much better bet in this case.

I tried to calm the housekeeper down. I told her there was little you could do against these fiendish burrowing beasts. I suggested that she could try leaving a radio on down in the vegetable garden at night.

“But you know,” I told her. “In the end, you can’t fight it: it’s just nature.”

She didn’t seem very impressed with my philosophy. Which was, I have to admit, more smug and far less blasphemous than my reaction when I discovered that our neighbourhood istrice had descended on my hemerocallis, dahlia and iris for its dessert, tossing well formed plants into piles of upended soil and – infuriatingly – nibbling the bulbs without actually consuming them.

So what exactly was this (generally nocturnal) beast doing on its most unusual afternoon stroll yesterday? Was it sizing up my potato patch? Doing a bit of a recce? I’m under no illusions. To have any hope of keeping it out, I would have had to sink the Cor-ten edging of the garden into the soil for 50cm or more. Instead, it goes below the surface for about 10cm. Out the back of my new orto on the valley side I keep finding deep holes, usually with rocks in the bottom. Is this the porcupine having a go at getting in, but knocking his head on a stone, thinking it’s not worth it and going elsewhere? Very likely. Will the time come when he finds a spot where sliding under the edging is simple? I wouldn’t be surprised. I won’t, naturally, be feeling very philosophical if he does.

I hope, at least, that he has identified where the potatoes are and, if he gets in, that he goes straight for them. The worst thing is when these predators crush other things beyond redemption in their mad rush to their goal.

In my fit of activity I planted out tomatoes (four varieties, with supports), runner beans (with a rather fine net to clamber over), capsicums of various sizes and colours (far too many for our purposes but they’re planted so close so I can rip some out if they don’t perform well enough) and aubergines (ditto). My peas now have a bit of net to grow up, though I’d be amazed if they ever reach the net: I stuck some random peas in the ground far too late, then forgot they were there so failed to water them through our dry dry early spring. I put out some cucumber plants with a teepee to crawl up. And I even got courgettes into their little holes. I wonder if they’ll produce there, or simply succumb to the powdery fungus that always used to envelop them in the old orto.

If there’s one thing that the prowling istrice has done, it has done away with any lingering feelings of guilt I may have felt towards animals and their favourite snacks. I did have a vague twinge when finally I ripped up my immense forest of bolting cavolo nero outside the living room door. This remarkable specimen had survived 18 months, providing endless dark crinkly leaves for us, and tree-like trunks for some animal – I never did work out which – to scrape away at night after night, dislodging the dry bottom leaves in order to gnaw at the waxy outer layer of the thick stems. You could see the teeth marks.

I found this ‘we take the high part, you take the low part’ sharing out of resources rather charming until other things – lovage, hyssop – started coming up healthily around the base of the cavolo, only to be crushed in the nightly marauding of the unidentified animal. Still, I was aware as I pulled up the huge bushes – now with hardly any edible leaves – that I was depriving this creature of its nightly fun. Now with my new vegetable garden under threat I don’t give a damn. Animals are the enemy. Let them get their food elsewhere. I just want them to leave my plants alone.

There are moments when Italy infuriates you, like when you check on line to see how your application for Italian citizenship is going and it’s stuck at the same stage of the grindingly slow process that it has been in for the past seven months. And others when you think, “wow!”

My ID card was about to expire, so I went to the town hall last week to renew it, a process which lasted about three and a half minutes and which cost €5.40. A pleasant, smart woman tapping information into a computer. The usuals – name, occupation, height. She was a bit nonplussed about my hair colour. How do I describe it these days, since I decided to go natural? I tell people that it’s silver, but that doesn’t seem to be an officially accepted term. She went for brizzolato – grizzled – which for me has overtones of a weathered old sea dog or woodsman, but let’s not dwell on that.

Other questions. Organ donation: yes I want to, no I don’t want to, I don’t want to decide now. How extremely sensible to have this on your ID card. Married state: do you want it to appear?

“Privacy” has become an Italian word, and an Italian obsession: when it comes to bureaucracy, things are kept very secretive. But my ID card renewal came just days after C and I had become very hot under the collar about the daughter of a family friend who had changed her surname on Facebook the very day of her wedding. Why is it that British women still automatically adopt their husband’s name the moment they marry? Why would anyone want to abandon a name that has identified them their whole lives from one day to the next and take on the completely different name of someone else, a name that has everything to do with someone else and nothing to do with you? Does this mean that you’re content to see your identity as somehow being engulfed by that person?

In Italy, women keep their own names. This has nothing to do with feminism. I rather suspect that it might have had its origins in sparing overloaded bureaucracy one further complication. But the codice civile (art. 143) states that women keep their birth surnames. And as of 2016, you can give your children the mother’s name instead of, or as well as, the father’s. So finding out that nowadays you don’t even have to own up to being married at all is very refreshing. It’s an odd twist to the idea of “privacy” but hey, why not? Why does anyone who happens to look at your ID card have to know your married state? What can that possibly say about you that other people have an automatic right to know?

I opted to hedge on the organ donation. And I proudly declared myself married (though fiercely keeping my own name.) But I felt very grateful to be allowed to have my say on both.

And the world’s slowest moving building site? I’m taking deep breaths and trying to keep my blood pressure down.

Between haranguing the builder and veering towards despair, I dwell on lovely, baby steps forwards like shiny new shutters or metal doorframes – something I had  imagined as simplifying things given my loathing of regular doorframes, but which on the contrary came to seem like an almost insurmountable hurdle – finally installed. Small mercies.

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