Our weather did what it’s meant to do and – after an initial bit of autumn murk – was rather wonderful until the feast of San Martino (November 11) then deteriorated. Indian summer in Italian is estate di San Martino.
On an icy day in the fourth century AD St Martin of Tours cut his cloak in half and gave one half to a freezing beggar – which always makes me wonder: what kind of a saint only gives half his cloak to a freezing beggar? why not the whole thing? But legend relates that he was able to make up for this not entirely selfless oversight when he found another freezing beggar to give the other half to. At which point the weather ‘miraculously’ brightened up and everyone was warm anyway.
On so many levels, it’s not a very satisfying saintly deed.
Another of Martin’s claims to sanctity is not dying when he withdrew to the island of Gallinara for a bit of hermiting and tried to keep himself alive by eating hellebore plants. Hellebore. It’s so recognisable. And so poisonous. We’re meant to admire this man? Sometimes you have to wonder.
One feature that has marked our autumn so far has been mist. Misty mornings which give way to misty afternoons and evenings. It’s very trying. A friend in town was muttering darkly about how we’ve been swathed in mist ever since the 1980s when they built the vast articificial lake by Pietrafitta power station in the Tavernelle valley.
“I don’t have any scientific evidence to back this up,” he said. Indeed not. We’ve been here for 20 years and in all that time there’s never been quite so much mist at our great altitude as there has been this autumn. Usually we’re smugly beaming down on the miasma from our sunny uplands perch. I think the general situation is clouding people’s vision of the world.
Umbria is an orange zone now, which means cafés and restaurants can open but only for takeaway, and you’re not allowed to cross regional or even municipal boundaries unless you have a very good reason for doing so. The one panic reaction, pre-status change, was the ravaging of shelves in the budget supermarkets down in the valley near the roundabout-border. Tuscans were clearly spooked at the thought of surviving without our Umbrian Lidl. But on the whole, the feeling around here is, as far as I can tell, that we’ve got this now – we can handle it, we know the ropes, we’ll just get on with things because we know how it’s done. It’s amazing, really, how quickly world-altering upheaval becomes just another thing you take in your stride.
Ill-feeling is being kept in check by some very charming waivers. For example, it being the olive-harvesting season, and olive harvesting being one of life’s essentials around here, you and your picking family can cross borders if you happen to have extra-territorial trees.
But the fact remains, we have 38 cases in town now – distressing except that most of them are family groups, families now being by far the most dangerous spreaders of the coronavirus apparently. One has to hope that a whole family is properly quarantined because of a first individual case, before it transpires that the whole tribe has the disease – ie that it remains in the family and doesn’t spread to the community. But still… the day that the total leapt by 14 cases left a sinking feeling that even the announcement of a 90 percent effective vaccine was not quite enough to quell. (Ooops, and another one as I write.)
A psychiatrist friend of mine once told me (I can’t imagine why we were talking about this) that it takes forever for the details of modern life to filter into dreams, and that he’d never had a single case of a patient dreaming about computers or cellphones. Even at the time – a few years ago but not all that long – I thought that his patients must be severely electronically challenged or just extremely old, because I definitely did. I chose not to disappoint him by telling him.
The other night I had a clutching, sweaty, panicky dream about finding myself out and about without a mask: very similar to those pre-exam dreams where you were at school without a skirt or underwear. At some deep level, there is anxiety.
L has joined my Pilates class. For such a long time – when these things happened in real life – I refused to let him: the thought of having him there in the gym with me was off-putting. This shouldn’t be, but it is. I don’t want to feel he’s itching to correct me. (He can’t help it: he’s male.) But now that it’s all online, I’ve caved, though naturally he has to be in a different room.
His presence however has thrown up a problem far worse than my personal insecurities: gendered language – and it’s not just my problem. Our poor teacher merrily addresses us all with the usual female-suffixed criticisms and accolades, then mumbles and havers and corrects herself to alter them to the masculine form. A whole class of women, but L changes everything.
When romance languages are your thing, you kind of take for granted that one male among a million women changes agreements. But every now and then you’re brought up short before the immense ingrained sexism – nay misogyny – that’s built into everything we say. When even native speakers like my Pilates teaches flounder, it’s quite a shock.
And yet, and yet… for a fluent speaker of Italian or French or Spanish – or indeed German or so many other languages – using a feminine suffix when addressing a group which includes ever so few males is a bit like me and my efforts to refer to a single person with a non-binary identity as ‘they’ and ‘them’ in English. I so want it to come naturally, because I can see where the objection to ‘normal’ pronouns comes from. But it still sticks in my throat as I try to get it out. Imagine, then, how far I am from tailoring my agreements to the majority in the room in a language which I’ve merely borrowed.
(This LRB podcast takes an interesting look at the inadequacies of language and ‘missing’ pronouns, with Thomas Jones contributing insights from the Italian.)
So. Farewell then, Smog. Smog was born in our chicken house. Her mother, one of the many semi-feral cats that hang about here, picked her out of a pile of stillborn kittens and made off with her, but not for long. The mother disappeared. Poor skinny, sickly looking Smog stuck around, her eyes full of pus and her fur dull and patchy. Our neighbours Fabio and Viola fed her; we treated her to fish bones occasionally. Though she never ventured far from the area between our two houses, she remained feral.
She was mute – the only sound she made was a gentle hissing – though not entirely deaf because she would respond to noises and calls if they were loud enough. The intent way she watched the movement of my feet and ankles as she sat warily – always a metre or more away – watching me work in the garden made me suspect that her eyesight wasn’t up to much. Occasionally she would produce a kitten but they were short-lived. In my anthroposizing, I fancied she wanted to understand affection but just didn’t get it: she edged closer and closer but fled at the least hint you might try to touch her. (I used to find myself thinking: “I know people like that.”) With all her infirmities, she soldiered on for many years – eight? ten? I really can’t remember. On 4 Nov we found her body in the chicken house: she had returned to her birth place to die.
I’ll miss the way she suddenly materialised behind me as I dug in the vegetable garden; or sat at the top of the steps outside the front door, unblinking, willing someone to emerge; or stalked spirit-like past the table outside the kitchen however many people were sitting around making a racket as they ate. She was part of our world.