“Look at those fall colours,” a client said to me the other day. We were standing on her terrace, peering across at a densely wooded hillside of large oaks. They were, in places, looking very brown. “But – it’s August,” I said, with a dramatic pause to let the implication sink in. “That’s not autumn over there, it’s desperation.”
In the end 20mm of rain fell on our own hillside in August – one quick splash at the start of the month, another right at the end. But they did nothing at all to close up the deep cracks which are forming in the fields and garden, and of course nothing to replenish aquifers either.
The trees I was looking out over with my client are large, well established specimens; the hillside rolls down to Lake Trasimeno – where the water is at extremely low levels but the landscape is hardly parched-looking. If those august trees can’t get their roots down deep enough to draw up sufficient water to keep their green mantle until October as usual, then there’s every reason to worry.
It was ironic then that the next communication I had from this client and her husband was to tell me – among other things – that the tail end of hurricane Ida had deposited six inches of water in their New Jersey basement. If the planet isn’t sending us messages…
In the last ten days, I’ve lost my cellphone twice. Is this senility I ask myself, or is my subconscious trying to tell me something? Perhaps a little bit of both. I hasten to add that these are, as far as I remember, the only two times in my whole life when I’ve lost my phone for more than about two minutes.
The first time, I had left it in the basement in Pieve Suites, in a spot where there was no signal of any kind and thus no chance of hearing it ring when I got friends to call. I found it after two hours of mounting panic.
The second time, I left it on the roof of my car as I drove off from a client’s house outside town. The odd thing was, I heard a thud as I pootled around a bend on the road home and thought “what was that?” Can it have been my ancient iPhone sliding off the roof? I had the windows shut. Could I have heard it? Unlikely. Must have been something else.
I called from friends’ phones: unreachable. I retraced every step I’d made that morning, even to places where I knew it couldn’t possibly be, because I knew I’d had it subsequently… except by that time I was utterly bewildered, despairing not only at my abysmal absent-mindedness, but about all the safety precautions I had sworn I was going to take after the first incident, and of course hadn’t. I was feeling hopelessly stupid.
Back home I was slightly heartened to see the Whatsapp-slave on my computer springing to life again. I called my number. And someone answered – a lovely-sounding lady (mind you, anyone would have sounded lovely at that point) in a town 20 minutes’ drive away. She had seen it on the road, stopped, picked it up, struck up close friendships with various friends and artisans who had been trying to contact me and was just waiting for me to check in. I could have hugged her.
So when listening with half an ear to the BBC World Service that evening I heard a mention of The Kindness Test I thought yes, this was meant for me, right now. Those researchers at Sussex University devised this research just so that I could give some statistical heft to the kindness of a young woman who had bothered to stop on a dangerous bend along a country road to pick up the phone of a person who had been idiotic enough to drive off with it on the roof of her car. Strange but happy serendipity.
It was interesting, spending 15 minutes thinking about kindness and what constitutes it.
Of course, surveys have the underlying problem of being over-simplified box-ticking exercises. A lady called from Demetra the other day and rather than saying briskly that I was just going out the door – my usual defence – before putting the phone down, I actually agreed to respond to her questions. (Boredom? Weakness? Displacement?) Some of the questions were fine (rate Mario Draghi from one to ten; rate Matteo Salvini from one to ten) but others offered such a reductive choice of answers to complex international issues that at one point I just had to stop the poor hapless woman’s spiel and ask “do you honestly think these issues are so totally un-nuanced?”
To which her long-suffering answer was “well, I’ll put that down as ‘no opinion’, shall I?” If only she knew.
And all the time I’m thinking to myself “oh god, I’m being her nightmare responder, the one she really wishes had just hung up.”
Anyway, kindness: this survey too has its unfathomables. I mean how on earth does anyone think I can say “in general, how much do you think kindness is valued by people in the following places?” – with venues such a ‘at home’, ‘in green spaces’, ‘in places of worship’, ‘at the doctor’s’. How do I know what ‘people’ value… and who are these ‘people’ anyway?
But analysing the questions and options, there’s a clear desire in whoever set the survey to find out whether the person responding thinks there’s more kindness in city or country, and whether kindness rates higher coming from family and friends, or when it’s bestowed by complete strangers. Which is a strange idea if you ask me. Just as strange is the questionnaire’s apparent interpretation of ‘kindness’ as an act, rather than a permanent state or mode of behaviour.
In the family? That one’s complicated: family dynamics are weird but personally I can’t imagine why anyone would want to inhabit a private world of unkindness. Among friends? I would query the label ‘friend’ if that person were anything but kind to me. From strangers? That’s where an unsolicited act or gesture of kindness such as returning a lost cellphone stops you in your tracks and reminds you that there’s still unselfish thoughtfulness in the world. Happily.
Another question requires you to choose from a list of possible reasons why people might omit kindnesses; one reason is ‘not having enough time’. There’s no doubt that life in a small, slower-moving Umbrian town feels gentler than life in the maelstrom of, say, Rome. By which I don’t mean to say that we’re all sweetness and light on our happy hillside – far from it. But there’s a concentration of reciprocal concern and consideration here – something which came to the fore, for example, during lockdowns – which lends life a more kindly air. It’s something I relish. Even putting aside relative levels of honesty which of course have a bearing in cases like this, I was, in the end, more grateful than stunned that my lost belonging came back to me – not something I would say had all this happened in a city.
We may still be suffering a dreadful drought but that hasn’t stopped the usual September end-of-summer feel. Thirty-degree-plus days have gone. L has taken himself off to Venice for the film festival. Most evenings are a bit chilly for eating outside. And I find myself occasionally, in the earliest, coolest hours of the morning, pulling up the light blanket that lies at the foot of the bed.
Each time I do I realise how much I hate cold. (L thinks I’m crazy: he can’t wait for the extreme heat to subside.) Yes, all right, once it’s here and it’s full on and I have all my winter woollies out, I can resign myself to it and live with it. But I don’t like it. And more than anything I hate the idea of it – I hate feeling the heat slip away and having to brace for what’s coming. This is completely ridiculous on my part, mainly because it means I’m resenting the coming of winter when I should be revelling in the glories of late-summer (which I do, obviously… but with that proviso).
Last week we finally got around to picking up our Italian passports. We don’t really need Italian passports: there’s nowhere that we’re likely to go under the current circumstances that requires a passport of any kind. And anyway, I already have two others. But somehow having that document closed a circle which began so long ago. What’s more, we were quietly thrilled I think. It made us feel just a little bit more part of the landscape.
I was thinking about nationality – and Englishness in particular – reading this really rather wonderful article flagged up by a friend in Barcelona which develops far more eloquently and in detail than I did in this blog post our weird emotional link to food and how it defines us.
I read it with a horrified fascination and utter emotional detachment. Traditional staples of the English larder? There wasn’t a single thing mentioned in such nostalgic tones that moved me in any way except to a mild shuddering “yurk”. This is due, I presume, to the fact that my main childhood food provider was an Australian whose cuisine didn’t vary much even once we’d shifted to the UK. (The only Australian staple she imported – and which I continue to import – was Vegemite, of course.)
Intellectually I can understand the social implications of the foodstuffs he mentions, but I have no first-hand experience. Moreover it irks me intensely that food should have class connotations. It’s just so miserably English.
Like L’s dawning realisation that it has been a long long time since he’s supported England rather than Italy in any international sporting fixture, I realise that it would only be going into an Italian deli in some place other than Italy that would give me that same warm buzz of recognition and flavour-pleasure, combined with a sensation of being in The Right Gastronomic Place. Not that our own home cooking is 100% Italian – it definitely isn’t – but I would be proud of being somehow connected to that tradition; there would be no awkwardness or embarrassment.
So yes, we deserve our passports I reckon. We’ve reached the right level of saturation.