16 October 2019

It’s a pretty good rule of thumb that the answer to a newspaper headline that ends in a question mark is almost always “no”. This holds especially true in the very small local press. This headline is a case in point: Città della Pieve, red alert – is the water tower inside the covered market collapsing?

The resounding “er… no” that came from town council engineers no time at all later came as little surprise.

The whole article is a gem of an example of something that should never have been published, even on the website of a publication as humble as Chiusi-based Prima Pagina. The gist: in a rare idle moment a market stall holder – presumably the genial, cheese-purveying, pork-pie-hat-wearing Fausto – glanced over towards the water tank and happened to notice that the upright nearest him was slightly out of plumb and just a little chipped around the edges. A Prima Pagina scribbler must have been passing by at that moment, so Fausto (or whoever) took advantage of this bit of serendipity to share his observations.

Hold the front page!

“Some people will no doubt accuse us of alarming people needlessly,” the piece begins. Yes indeed, they certainly will. “The stall holder says he is there every week and has never noticed this state of affairs before.” He’s usually overwhelmed by baying cheese-buyers: should we be surprised?

If the water tank collapsed “it would be a drama. There’d be fatalities and injuries because there are people in the covered market, there’s a bar across the street, the main road is right outside and residents live nearby… We all saw what happened in Genoa to a structure on the verge of collapse.”

Now, I’m as concerned for the continued well being of my fellow pievesi as anyone, but I still feel it’s a bit of a stretch to compare one small-town water tank to Genoa’s towering Morandi bridge which killed 43 people when it plunged so tragically into the valley below in 2018. And I truly feel that one phonecall to the town council might have caused far fewer palpitations among the populace than five hundred words of scare-mongering purple prose.

It’s perfectly normal, the official reply explained patiently, for a structure supporting a great weight to be slightly splayed at the bottom to better distribute the pressure from above. All is as it has always been.

What I did find interesting in the Prima Pagina provocation however was one little snippet of a fact that I really hadn’t realised before. I knew that the venue of our covered market-plus-brilliantly concealed water cistern was the deconsacrated church of Sant’Anna degli Scolopi. And that the Scolopi (Piarists) are an order dedicated to giving an education to poor children. (Who knew that the reputation of the order suffered early set-backs because the Inquisition had doubts about its founder’s friendship with the ‘heretic’ Galileo… and because one 17th-century leading light was known to have a penchant for young boys, plus ça change?) But I wasn’t aware that the water tank had been inside the building since 1936.

Just a couple of weekends ago, architect friends visiting from the UK had us musing on how on earth that massive tank got in there, ingeniously inserted into the high round drum of the church (such a sensible use for a church, and far less aesthetically disheartening than an ugly utilitarian structure blighting the town skyline). Presumably it was constructed and welded in situ because there’s no other way. Now I’m kind of wondering: have they cleaned it out since 1936? A question mark I know, but let’s hope the answer to this one is yes.

My favourite excuse for my Pieve Suites  being rather less than full (though it is, I should say, still ticking over slowly but nicely, and getting more noticed all the time) is that it’s not so much a low-profile three-guestroom structure I’m selling; it’s more that I’m having to spread the word about a little-known town and an overlooked region. Umbria? Umbria? Is that in Tuscany?

So imagine my surprise when I bearded Roberto Wirth (owner not only of Rome’s classic five-star luxury Hotel Hassler but also, as of a few months ago, of our much humbler Hotel Vannucci) in his hotel-den a couple of weeks ago only to hear him launching immediately into the same lament.

Umbria? Umbria? Some people ask if that’s in Tuscany. The better informed ones look worried and mutter “earthquakes”. How on earth do I sell this?

If this scion of a generations-old hotelier family, with a PR machine of vast proportions at his beck and call, is flummoxed by the idea of selling Umbria, and Città della Pieve in particular, perhaps my excuses are just a little bit justified.

It’s an on-going mystery why Wirth bought this smart-but-ordinary four-star in a town which is absolutely not on the radar for jet-setting Hassler-type guests. Talking to him, I got the impression he was as bemused as the rest of us. I have heard endless variations on the theme of what he’s going to make it into. Will the current 30 rooms become a handful of luxury suites servicing a high-class cooking school? Will it remain much as it is, with a few extra curlicues to justify pushing prices higher?

Whatever happens, it will be interesting to watch the fall-out for CdP. The Vannucci is, after all, the only nice-ish, large-ish structure in town providing hotel accommodation for visitors to events and on busy holiday weekends. Make it extra-luxe and – while Pieve Suites might benefit – CdP loses infrastructure vital for any serious tourism strategy.

There’s also the (small) worry that Wirth might actually succeed: that CdP might really become one of those inexplicable small-town meccas which lose their souls to hordes of tourists bent on getting to the Next Place without really knowing what they’re doing there. And the industry is always on the look-out for the Next Place.

This may be my vivid imagination running away with me. We don’t have San Gimignano’s towers, Cortona’s Under The Tuscan Sun (bleugh) associations, Todi’s gothic cathedral, Pitigliano’s magnificent beetling tufo walls. But as traveller numbers swell and available Next Places dwindle, some enterprising travel PR might decide to make a case for Perugino’s  birth town, with a tenuous connection to Machiavelli hovering around its Rocca and some minor but quite charming Etruscan remains in a church crypt.

In the last couple of weeks I’ve met more people than I generally do (okay, I’m talking single figures but still…) seriously considering a move to this area. What they like about it – kind of ironically, given that they were all Anglo – is the genuine-ness, the fact that there’s a feeling of real Italian life going on, without that crushing let-down of running away from home only to find yourself surrounded by other ex-pats. Don’t sit in the Café degli Artisti for too long on a sunny weekend morning, I warned some: you might begin to think otherwise.

But they are, as I’ve said ad infinitum, correct. Real life really is quietly going on here in this rather overlooked, utterly beautiful corner of the world. And however complicated that makes it for me to sell my accommodation business, long may it stay that way.

Autumn continues ludicrously warm and blue. After a couple of (uncharacteristic) cloudy days our solar panels failed to heat our water to piping, so I switched the water heater back on again yesterday. Last year I switched it back on in mid-September. Thank you climate change.

We have used these lovely days for jaunts – to the Maremma coast, to Venice, to a very arty gathering in Chianti.

The first, with aforementioned UK friends, started life as a cycling holiday but relative chasms in cycling proficiency (and probably quite a lot of negativity from me) meant that time spent in the saddle was limited and anodyne – a very pleasant pedal along the Tombolo della Feniglia plus a bit of roaming around the hinterland in a long search for a brilliant trattoria which turned out to be not so much a rural treat as slap bang on the Aurelia highway with trucks screeching by.

We finally visited Niki de San Phalle’s loopy and really (I found – others disagreed) rather soulless Giardino dei Tarocchi. But most wonderfully, we had a key to let ourselves through a gate straight from the house Lee had borrowed from a colleague-friend into the Lago di Burano nature reserve where we walked past the flamingo-festooned lagoon to a beach where we were the only living beings for as far as the eye could see and, I’d bet, quite a lot further. In the moment, I was merely lapping up the wonder; with hindsight, I have to admit to a bit of a gloat when I thought of the oily, sweaty summer crush on much of that coast. The advantages of autumn. The water was warm: water temperatures always lag behind, and the air temperature was still high anyway. For we inhabitants of a land-locked region, it was pure bliss.

Venice on the other hand was a big splashy party for the inauguration of the new St Regis. We were trying to calculate how often we’ve been to Venice. Surely over 100 times – maybe many more. But with all the city’s problems and my grouses about it, it never fails to make my heart soar. This is still more true when your movements are all by cushy water taxi, and your visit to St Mark’s basilica is at 10pm when all the tourists have magically cleared out.

And the artsy, winey Chianti Saturday? The Castello di Ama is a winery I’m always happy to return to. Such a beautiful spot. And with a collection of contemporary art which is challenging and organic and even if my words- (and gardens-) focussed brain often grapples with the works with mixed outcomes, I always find that (perhaps egged on by the setting) the grappling is worth while. This event was a presentation of the latest addition to the collection, a pendant red string among towering stainless steel wine vats by Miroslaw Balka. I’m still mulling that one.

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20 September 2019

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We’ve been on the Amalfi Coast, and it was wonderful. I was long overdue for a change of register from green to blue.

The crowds took me aback. I’m rarely in that neck of the woods other than way out of season. I thought the second half of September might have been at the very least a quieter shoulder time. The hoteliers I talked to were as amazed as I was at the throng. The season used to wind right down as September began. Now places are booked out through the whole of October.

The weather (thankyou global warming?) helps: our two days were hot and glorious with just the occasional cloud to take the edge off the glare. And the Costiera amalfitana, like all Italian destinations, gets the run-off effect from the dwindling number of ‘safe’ getaways around the globe. But the fact that glamorous Positano (where we were partying) was so much more packed than more homely Praiano (where we were staying) shows that this is just part of the booming tourism model: it’s famous because you saw that Kylie Jenner visited, so you have to go, Instagram it and move on. For the been-there-done-that tourist as well as the sophisticated globetrotter, Positano is very much On The Map.

I spent some time in Positano observing the Selfie Smile, and wondering, how do people do that? There’s a particular thing that the young female preeners do as they sit on walls with azure Med backdrops. Having flicked their hair – a vital preliminary – they then arrange their face in such a way that all their teeth are showing, and they make it look like a smile. When I try to do it, it looks like rigor mortis – or at the very least like a sickly grin. I know (since really quite recently) that selfies have spawned a whole new concept in make-up containing some kind of shiny reflective something to make you look perfectly plastic and unblemished. But is it also changing the way facial muscles work, creating toothy grimace-free smiles? You do have to wonder.

There were crowds, too, up on the Sentiero degli dei – the walking track along the high crest of the costiera. This was a different kind of visitor, however, tending towards the bag-full-of-heavy-lenses style of photography and considerably older. They’re the people who would be in the Cinque Terre had they not read that it was completely overrun. The Sentiero degli dei is less compact than that more northerly path and so accommodates more hikers. But they’re flooding in in ever-greater numbers. I do hope that very special place isn’t ruined.

Our hike took us up the endless steps above Praiano to the convent of San Domenico  where I would have been happy to stop. Nothing doing. Upwards and onwards to Colle Serra where two French horn players were tootling by the side of the track, to an audience half of which (like us) had clambered all that way for that very reason, and the other half of which was utterly bewildered at happening across this spectacle in such an isolated spot. It was wonderful, and almost compensated for the quaking leg muscles.

And why were we there at all? Two new works, by artist Rita Ackermann, were being hung in Le Sirenuse, my favourite hotel on the whole costiera. The paintings were strong and suited their room perfectly. The festivities for their arrival were – as always – superb.

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Lake Trasimeno

Back in CdP, things are quiet but not too quiet, and the sun continues to shine. It’s rather odd that Italy’s green heart is more burnt-looking than the salt-wind-swept and much more sultry Amalfi coast, but that’s how it is. Days (like today) of tramontana northerly wind dry things out even more.

The wind does, however, have the advantage of flushing out the mosquitos which have (along with a long list of other insects) been the bane of my life this summer. Why have they suddenly developed a taste for me?

0920J

Things you find in your lily pond

Maybe I’m suddenly full of lactic acid which, according to this fascinating article, is one attractant. Then again, in the body lactic acid is produced by extreme muscle exertion and quite frankly… that doesn’t sound like me. Or maybe for some reason I’m cleaner, with fewer mozzie-repellent bacteria lurking on my skin: perhaps I should rectify that. I don’t wear perfume and I don’t use smelly soaps and I don’t (often) drink beer. So why oh why do they suddenly have it in for me?

As I perused that article (which doesn’t oddly, contain my new favourite word anautogenous, ie ‘needing a blood meal before being able to reproduce’, though in the case of mosquitos it could have done) spotting all the reasons why they shouldn’t like me and feeling hard done by, one fact gave me some grim satisfaction. Unlike wasps, which I’d dearly love to hate for their uselessness as well as for their meanness, mozzies really don’t seem to have any purpose – unless you consider keeping human numbers down by injecting fatal diseases into them to be a purpose. So I can hate them whole-heartedly without a modicum of guilt.

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2 September 2019

0902G

My endless procrastinatory musing this afternoon has been about horseflies. Gadflies. March flies. Cleggs (who knew?).

There’s a point just after you take the final fork into our lane – up above Mario’s house – where, from early August onwards, clouds of the beasts materialise from nowhere and buzz aggressively through any car windows (which in my case usually means all of them) which have been incautiously left open. After which the rest of the drive home is one belligerant twitching effort to keep the brutes from digging their painful probosci into bare flesh while not swerving right off the road.

0902JWhat I’ve been pondering is: when finally I park the car and flee, do they then fly back to the comfort of their nests? And if so, how far away can you take them before they lose their homing instinct? My (admittedly sketchy) research has been singularly unenlightening on that front. It did, however, provide me with a brilliant new word: anautogenous, which means ‘needing a blood meal before being able to reproduce’. Very vampire-ish. (Yes, it’s the females which attack and cause so much pain, while the males are out sipping nectar.) And it revealed that the horrid horsefly (Tabaninae) is related to the equally horrid deer fly (Chrysopsinae) which came as no surprise whatsoever given that the two of them conspire viciously to make my time spent outside so distressful from the insect point of view.

After perusing various scholarly and not-so-scholarly articles on the nest-or-no-nest theme I’ve come to the conclusion: no one knows. Otherwise surely there would be some mention of it somewhere. ‘In the vicinity of water or dampness’ really isn’t good enough. But they certainly don’t hang about around here after being chauffeured down the lane by a frantically batting me; and they always bear down on the car in great numbers at the very same point, suggesting they return to the starting line after each trip. Of course the fact that they’re always lying there in ambush also begs the question: how can I forget to close the windows every single time? Not very smart of me.

Anyway they’ll disappear soon, because that’s one of The Signs.

There’s a strange disconnect between the 28°C (84°F) days and all the signs that summer is fading away. Like last year, we’re having an almost equatorial pattern of sunny mornings then stormy evenings – sometimes with much rumbling e basta, sometimes with rain. One storm last week sent me scuttling down into the house from the vegetable garden when a lightning bolt fell so close that my first thought was that we’d had an earthquake. That same flash blew the phone socket right out of the wall at a neighbour’s house.

There are people who spend the summer here who are leaving; people who spend the autumn here who are arriving; and L has packed his bags and gone off to Venice for the filmfest. Evenings are so dark so much earlier. And did I hear a gun shot this morning? No, I hope not because the hunter-blight isn’t due to begin until September 15.

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Renzo Piano’s Paul Klee gallery

Our sole jaunt over the summer was to Bern, to visit C in her current temporary home. There we learnt that the favourite sunny-day Swiss pastime is allowing yourself to be swept along in the glacial (quite literally) water of fast-flowing rivers. This describes the ‘sport’ in Basel. (Ah, look, The Guardian must have been eavesdropping because it belatedly came up with this.) It’s no different in Bern where people have been known to bob all the way down the Aare from Thun, about 28km away. You pack your clothes and belongings into waterproof bags which also serve as flotation devices and splosh, off you go. Odd. And not an idea I found very attractive. Does it say something about the national character? Smiling as you freeze half to death and lose all control over your fate. Perhaps. People drift briskly along, chatting in groups and grinning almost as if they were enjoying it.

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A castle in Thun

I’d only really ever driven quite swiftly through Switzerland – never stopped to take a look. It all looks ridiculously Swiss, the great wide valleys with their perfect fields and perfect wooden houses, against a backdrop of snow-capped crags. Very pretty but very dull too. And was I imagining it or was the disapproval quotient unbearably high? Rather than being carried down river from Thun we – extremely ambitiously for me – cycled upriver to Thun from Bern. There was a family-fun cycling event coming in the opposite direction. We were cycling on wide dedicated paths where we had every right to be but you’d never have known that from the tutting – sometimes quite audible – of the participants coming towards us. Midnight Express-like, there’s no room in that country for anyone moving in the opposite direction.

In response to a very peremptory order from our charmless (or at least, I haven’t yet discovered his charms) new mayor I have had my bit of Medieval town walls up at Pieve Suites cleaned. They were desperately in need of a tidy. My trusty gardener-contractor Marco sent a couple of his boys shimmying up there one sunny morning and they did it in no time, removing great piles of itchy-scratchy Parietaria officinalis (wall pellitory I believe) but leaving me my beautiful caper plants. I also arranged the same service for a couple of neighbours. It all went fine until a far-too-neatly parked car didn’t give the boys room enough to set up their ladders with any degree of safety.

How to get the car moved? I went to the traffic police who said I needed to procure an order from the town council and then they’d put up an official sign saying that the car would be towed if it wasn’t moved within x days. That evening, I was relating events to a friend over an aperitivo.

“There are people who park there and don’t move their cars for weeks,” I said, moaning slightly. “I don’t really want to be responsible for impounding anyone’s means of transport but I can’t see any alternative. There’s this white VW Golf that looks like a permanent fixture.”

“Is it very clean?” she asked me pointedly. She’s German and is the kind of person who might be expected to have a very clean car. It was, I told her… and of course it was hers. That’s one the great things about living in such a small town. It only takes an aperitivo to solve your problems.

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Città della Pieve

And so to work. My swings and roundabouts professional life went into one of its cyclical slow phases at the beginning of the summer, only to suddenly find myself with two new projects possibly in the offing all of a sudden. So why am I procrastinating? I’m giving myself time to mull… or so I tell myself. I’m imagining scenarios in my mind’s eye and trying to get back into the swing of things. In my own defence, I must say that I spend much time shifting mental trees and carrying out theoretical earth movements. And I have plans on my computer all ready to have my imaginings conjured up pictorially on them. I presume, though, that the garden owners would far rather have something concrete right away. I’d better get down to it.

What I will do is use that as a procrastinatory tactic viz my asparagus bed. I love my asparagus plants. They were so totally wonderful in spring, giving us mountains of delicious spears for weeks. But when I decided that I would sap them of too much life if we kept on guzzling, I rather abandoned the patch. Now I’m inching with severe back strain through a matted mess of couch grass with roots the thickness of electrical cables. Not a fun kind of gardening.

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13 August 2019

0813AToday is textbook torrid. Gloomy. Airless. Leaden. Even when things stir a little, what’s moving oozes so much heat that you wish it wouldn’t.

It reminds me of when northern visitors (none this summer so far) come to stay in these dog days and can’t understand why I have doors, windows, shutters closed. “But we have to get a breeze going!” they plead. But what good is a breeze, I explain, if the air in motion is hotter and more stifling than the cooler, darker air so carefully preserved inside?

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A jaunt into Tuscany

Once again we’ve been occupying empty air-conditioned rooms at Pieve Suites at night. I hate not sleeping in my proper bed, but there are moments…

And staying there means I find out important things, like all the batteries in all the bathroom scales are dead. Could no guest have mentioned this to me? I wouldn’t have been hurt! Or perhaps no one ever uses them. Perhaps that little extra touch doesn’t win hearts or make for more enjoyable stays. I’ve put new batteries in anyway.

And I’ve been finding hair. It’s the dread of every rental property owner. Well, it’s the terror of this one anyway and I expect I’m not alone. A review on some much consulted booking platform detailing stray hairs would put me off staying in a place: I don’t want tales like that emerging from mine.

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Preparations for our Palio

In my own defence I should say that the cleaning I do when we’re going to stay is less thorough than the OCD blitz done before guests arrive. But so much of that blitz is taken up with hair removal. It’s completely weird, and quite inexplicable. It’s always there, it’s always long, and it’s always black. Even when the departing guests were blonds or redheads or bald. Where does it come from? Does a wicked hair-spreading sprite invade?

It ranks right up there with the mystery of old people’s larders. The fridge and food cupboards in my father-in-law’s house are purged of all their long-out-of-date contents every three or four months by L or C or whoever else of younger, sounder mind happens to be visiting. Yet every time a clear-out happens, there are packets which ran out 18 or 24 or 36 months previously. Is there a shop which specialises in ancient foodstuffs, just to make sprightlier visitors feel superior to crumblies?

**********

My vegetable garden continues lacklustre – productive enough for now but nothing for laying aside. People all around are grumbling. I have little moan-ins with the man who runs the funny little petrol station beneath the town walls whom we call Bashar al Assad (a passing resemblance) but who may be called Samuele. Or Daniele. Or something like that. He is my yardstick for tomatoes. He and his father Elmer Fudd (again, a passing resemblance) grow enviable tomatoes and this year, peering out the grimy window as I put my PIN into the machine, their plot looked far lusher than mine.

“It’s all foliage,” said Bashar ruefully. “Hardly any fruit at all.” So if they’re having trouble, it makes me feel a little less hopeless.

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From outside

Not far along the town walls from there, I stood yesterday evening peering up at the jungle that is Pieve Suites’s garden with Marco, one of my useful gardening people. All we owners of houses overlooking the walls have received a less-than-friendly missive from our less-than-jovial new mayor pointing out that are bound by law to keep our bits of town walls looking presentable.

This is a slightly odd by-law, in that we are the owners of our bit of wall only until such time as we want to do something to it (add a downpipe, open up a doorway), at which point it is very very definitely part of the town fabric. But hey, I have no objections to tidying up the dripping mass of itchy rash-inducing Parietaria officinalis that hangs there. Though I will of course keep the marvellous caper plants that festoon the old stones with their firework-flowers.

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From inside

When will Marco return to do the work? Next week, he swears and I look at him with all the skepticism I can muster in the heat. Yeah, very likely. He’s a great procrastinator. I point out to him that this year I had given up on him entirely for pruning the Concord grape vines in Pieve Suites’ garden, and had hacked them back mercilessly myself.

“Yes,” he says, “that’s why they’re all leaf. I bet there’s no fruit though.”

Huh! It’s laden as always, and even with the new support I put in last March to stop the vines drooping to play-house height, those plump bunches hit heads hard.

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Back at home, in an effort (vain?) to encourage veggie progress by making the plants there feel more loved, I spent two days trying to knock some kind of order into my orto – which mostly involved removing the thick stands of glorious cosmos which had more or less taken over – very pretty but intensely smothering.

0813BI love my cosmos. I threw a pack of mixed seeds into the beds outside the vegetable garden a few of years ago, since when they have grown untended and unbidden, reaching prodigious heights as they benefit from the watering system up there. Until now they’ve been well behaved, remaining outside the fence. This year, they decided to invade, riding rough shod over me and my produce.

In the end I won. And also lost, because it almost broke my heart ripping them out. Now just a well behaved few stand in the usual spot beyond the fence (actually not true: I did leave one or two colourful stragglers). Have I ruined my chances for next year? Will they all come back or will they sulk and disappear?

In the mean time I’ve been pondering self-seeding plants which are, in theory, perfect for my type of too-disorganised-to-get-much-in-the-ground style of gardening which means that things like annuals (an idea I’ve always disliked anyway) are completely beyond me.

I have various things that expand from year to year, such as Anemone x hybrida Honorine Jobert which I utterly love and which – I’m reminded – very much need dividing. And the rather wonderful but at times overwhelming Salvia nemorosa Caradonna which makes a wonderful backdrop for the roses outside the kitchen… when I manage to stop it engulfing everything in its path.

0813FThings which self-seed here successfully are few. Nigella damascena (Love in a Mist) has years where it forms thick clumps here and there and years (like this year) when single plants pop up all over the place. The dazzling yellows and oranges of Calendula officinalis (marigold) are welcome fixtures, in the orto and among the herbs outside the kitchen. I made the terrible mistake of putting Salvia sclarea (clary) in the top bed along the drive then spent the next five years trying to rid myself of it: in fact, I’m still battling. It’s very pretty for about three days, after which it’s dry-looking and foul-smelling but absolutely determined to populate every nook and cranny, however little water you give it.

Other famously self-seeding things just refused to play ball. Poppies died. Welsh poppies died. Crocosmia died. Eryngium died. Dianthus plumarius (pinks) do fine but don’t spread, even though I’m dreadful about deadheading them.

Matthiola incana (stock)? Nah. Lathyrus odoratus (sweet pea)? Nah. Echinacea purpurea (coneflower) flourishes but the number of plants remains the same.

So for this year’s trick, I’m trying Nicotiana. I idly ordered a mixed pack from the Organic Catalogue, kind of surprised that ornamental tobacco came in any colours except white and pale green. Now Nicotiana plants in startling, superb shades of red are spreading like crazy through my new bed above the barbecue. Will they become another clary? These at least have the grace to go on flowering abundantly throughout the summer rather than turning arid and stinky almost immediately.

Another self-seeder which I haven’t tried is Myosotis (forget me not) which I mention for reasons completely divorced from gardening. L returned from a long bike ride the other day to tell me, cracking up, that he had pedalled past a residential home for Alzheimer’s sufferers down near lake Bolsena called ‘Non Ti Scordar di Me’ (forget me not). Did someone think that was touching? Or was it invented by a sadist with a very nasty sense of humour? Whatever. It stuck me as comically cruel.

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1 August 2019

Eight weeks with no rain to mention then boom! 56mm last Saturday in a show of pyrotechnics the like of which I hadn’t seen for a long time. We went to bed around midnight with the bottom field (beautifully mown, I should mention) illuminated with bright-as-day flashes. I awoke at 3am to check my phone (two elderly ladies staying in Pieve Suites had been coming home late from a concert: I was panicking – rather belatedly – that they might have been sending me frantic messages as they were washed away in a downpour: they hadn’t) and the light show was still going on.

Pieve Suites has been busy for the past six weeks. It’s beginning to feel like a business. I’m still not the world’s best salesperson, I admit. But – thankfully – others step in where I neglect to tread and slowly, slowly I feel I’m getting somewhere. Word of mouth continues to be my most successful platform: bookings sites provide very little of my business. And I’m very happy that it’s panning out that way, because I end up, on the whole, with great guests/clients. And that makes it all worth while.

0801KWill the fact that I’m now on The Telegraph’s travel pages change this? So far, all I’m getting out of that bit of publicity is emails containing very dubious offers of sexual favours that could be provided on my premises should I so wish. It’s funny: I’ve done so many of those reviews for Venetian hotels in the Telegraph and often wondered whether it made any difference whatsoever to a hotel’s trade. I shall now find out.

I love how people visiting Città della Pieve for the first time ask me questions that I no longer put to myself, and make me ponder the place I live.

One grown-up son of a lovely American family wanted to know whether you ever really learn how to order in restaurants.
What?
He told me that when they’d placed their order, the waiter told them that they’d asked for far too much and would never eat it. “No waiter would ever tell you that back home!” But… hats off to the waiter.

That was an unusual one.

The question that I get most often – and which I find most intriguing – is: “but what do people do here? How do they make a living?”

Well yes. How do they?

0801HOne time I was asked that question, I was sitting with the inquisitive guests at the Café degli Artisti. And so I was able to identify many of the passersby by their trade. “Builder, builder, Rita the dry cleaner, digger operator, notary, bloke from the supermarket.” Not that I know everyone in town and what they do. But it’s a small town, and you tend to be pretty familiar with a lot of people.

What I don’t know are any people who are unemployed. I guess this is by virtue of the kind of people I tend to know. Unemployment in Umbria in Q1 this year stood at 10.4% (against 9.2% in the same period of 2018 and 10.4% nationally). Youth unemployment was 31.1% (against 30.8% in 2018 and 33.2% nationally).

At some point in the last 12 months I saw a banner headline on a poster outside the newspaper shop saying CdP went against the trend, with higher employment rates than other places in Umbria. Can I find that article? Of course I can’t. But I have to say I know more people in Rome worried about their offspring’s lack of employment than I do around here. For what that’s worth…

0801LAlso, I’ve never met anyone who works anywhere except within a small radius of CdP. There are people whose jobs take them to Castiglione del Lago, and Tavernelle, and Chiusi. But I’ve never even met anyone, for example, who commutes to Perugia which is our nearest large-ish city. Everyone I know whose job I can pinpoint is local.

So, I ask myself, is there a size/type of town that is to some degree self-sustaining? Do we provide each other with sufficient call for shops/builders/dry cleaners/opticians/digger operators/accountants/florists etc (the list could go on and on and on) to make this a fairly circular economy?

Sure, we keep couriers (locally based couriers of course) silly-busy buzzing up and down our lane bringing parcels from large on-line retailers which we should really be shunning. But our food shopping is done in the immediate vicinity, and our little supermarkets (tiny offshoots of large national brands) often have big boxes of produce from local growers. (Admittedly vendors come from outside CdP for our Saturday market, but they’ve all been setting up their stalls here on a weekly basis for so long that they’re practically part of the scenery.) I can’t recall ever seeing a non-local construction company’s logo on any signs outside any building sites.

I need to find some useful sociology/anthropology/economics student who’s looking for a topic for her/his thesis. I’d love to know how much of our economy remains entre nous.

The other pressing question I’m asked is “why does this town feel different from other country towns?” and the answer to that one is: young people.

0801MSo many towns around here are supremely lovely. But dead. We’re not.

So why don’t young people move away from here? I don’t think it’s because there’s more work for them here than elsewhere. I certainly don’t think it’s because they’re more entrepreneurial and are making livelihoods for themselves in exciting innovative ways… though of course there are those who do. I don’t think they’re more mammone (mummy’s boys) or less adventurous than elsewhere. But I do think that the very strong terziere structure (which I wrote about here) helps to give them reasons (or excuses) to hang about. Not only is there the cameraderie aspect, but the active performance thing counts too.

I was thinking about this at a party we went to recently where the flame spitters of Castello turned up to do a performance. How many towns boast their own fire eaters, available for any occasion? Then there are the drummers and the archers and the flag throwers, all skills requiring hours of dedication (the war drums have started now: the thumping drifts down to us from town every afternoon) and considerable team work. They’re all things that give shape and routine to life in a small town, things you might miss if you drifted away.

**********

Since the rain we’ve gone back to hot hot days and lovely nights, unlike the sweaty nights before the weather broke. Quite frankly, once I’m asleep I’m asleep, hot or not, but L was so restless in the fug that one night we even took advantage of one empty room air-conditioned room at Pieve Suites.

0801JIt’s the kind of dry hot now where I find myself doing silly things, like digging in the vegetable garden for hours on end, hardly aware that my shirt is soaking and my face a distressing shade of puce. In this odd year when we went from spring (March/April) to sting-in-the-tail winter washout (May) to scorching (June 1 on) everything is topsy turvy. Or it is for me. I got nothing planted early because I was working too hard. I got nothing planted in May because the ground was sodden. By the time I put anything in the ground in June it was already so hot that plants were shutting down in alarm and doing that high-summer stalling thing.

So far we’ve consumed some cherry tomatoes, a handful of runner beans, a few cucumbers, some peppers which have been tasty but not at all fleshy. The garlic – now curing in the chicken house – looked good and copious. The rest: meh.

Will we have a magnificent September-October growing season? Perhaps a slightly cooler August will help speed things along? I hope my plants can hang about until conditions are better, to give me the abundance I need to squirrel away in the freezer and jars for the rest of the year. I’d hate not to feel just a little bit auto-sufficiente.

What has come along in a rather satisfying way (mostly by dint of huge amounts of hand watering by me) is my reorganized bit of garden beyond the concimaia. I wrote about this here and here. Gosh, was it as late as April when I did that earth-moving? How slow I am to get things done! Getting a watering system (for the plants, not the grass: I don’t irrigate any of my grass, on principle) is proving extra-slow too. I reckon it will be well into autumn before I finally drag the blokes who have promised to revamp my whole Heath Robinsonesque ‘system’ down here.

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