16 November 2020

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.

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Remembering acqua alta. A photo essay, and an appeal

One year ago, on 12 November 2019, an exceptional acqua alta (high water) of 187cm devastated the city of Venice. I took the photos below over the days that followed.
Since then the wounded city has had to cope with a pandemic which has not only decimated the all-important tourism sector but also dealt a staggering blow to the artisans and artists who make up such a vital part of Venice’s glimmering fabric.

When planning Christmas presents, please consider helping the city by purchasing something from those hard-hit Venetians. Monica Cesarato has some great suggestions.

Between one exceptional tide and another, a casual visitor to Venice this week might not even notice the damage that water is doing to lives and livelihoods and property and morale. Because as always, Venetians have mobilised to keep things running, as far as is possible with burnt-out electrical appliances, and ruined goods and belongings drenched with sea water.

Acqua alta happens every year, true, but this week’s record highs have left Venetians feeling more helpless, more wounded, more furious and more frustrated than ever. Flood defences are a long-running saga with no end in sight; Mammon takes precedence over the safeguarding of the lagoon’s delicate ecological balance. The fabric and the soul of this extraordinary, unique city are being shaken to their core. Can we really not find a solution?

You can read more of my thoughts about acqua alta in Venice here.

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2 November 2020

I spoke too soon about the hunters. Their hounds were yapping down there in our valley all yesterday morning. I heard few shots. But as I endeavoured to pull weeds out of my soggy beds yesterday afternoon, a boar somewhere started roaring in what I can only imagine was pain.

The hunters’ noises had all but disappeared by then: the only other human sound I could hear was the chatter of olive-picking from across on the parallel ridge. My first instinct was to move inside. The boar sounded close and I pictured it gathering its last bit of strength for a final charge at a random representative – me perhaps? – of the species which had put a hole in it. 

The moaning-roaring-grunting came and went, and I realised (largely thanks to L who, fresh back from his bike ride, ignored my eminently sensible warnings and strode down into our fields to investigate) that it was further away than I thought – far down our valley and probably up the hill on the other side. So I returned to my weeding, with one ear to the pain. I tried to call hunters I know to ask them to investigate but no one answered. Surely one of those infuriating dogs could have tracked the poor beast down, rather than abandoning it to its fate. 

This morning I could hear nothing out there except the usual birdsong and insect noises. I hope the boar has died, its suffering over. Problematic as boars can be, it pains me to think of anything in pain.***

We spent all day Saturday – (almost) entirely literally – wrapped in the thickest of mists. It was as if the day didn’t really exist. It’s odd to find ourselves in that situation: we’re used to feeling oh-so-smug about our sunny uplands as we survey the sea of mist in the Val di Chiana, wondering as we do how they could possibly bear so many months of clammy, reduced-vision winter.

On Saturday though it seemed somehow to reflect the general state of the world as we flounder towards more lockdowns, more illness, more deaths, more confusion… and a possible second presidential term for a man who really does seem to present an existential threat far beyond his own borders. 

There’s much talk of Covid fatigue, lockdown fatigue, virus fatigue. The Italian media are full of accounts of violence as protesters take to the streets to demand an end to masks and restrictions. As always, I find myself wondering whether these stories are given prevalence because they’re really what’s happening or whether they fulfil a pre-decided narrative arc. I noticed that some in the British media were careful to stress that these were ‘small’ demonstrations in Italy; elsewhere the usual tiny groups of right- and left-wing rabble rousers were blamed. Political commentator Fabrizio Barca was at pains to point out yesterday that all press eyes in Rome were on a handful of anti-mask thugs in campo dei Fiori whereas just across the centro storico thousands of masked marchers were peacefully asking the government for far tougher measures – plus adequate financial support – with barely any coverage at all. 

In this small Umbrian microcosm what I’m seeing above all is tetchiness. On the town Facebook page long squabbles break out over things which have only tangential bearing on the situation and how best to handle it. 

One local woman was rushed to hospital last week for something unrelated and, before she expired, was found to be Covid-positive. Cue angry, lengthy complaints over suggestions that this could be classed as a ‘Covid death’. 

And then there’s the discrepancy between town numbers and regional numbers, these latter always slightly higher than the former with regards to CdP. The debate is endless. Has the region got it in for us? Is our mayor hiding something? Can we believe anything from anyone if the numbers don’t align? The completely plausible explanation that one counts residents who are effectively domiciled in town, and the other just considers where sufferers are officially resident doesn’t seem to calm anyone down. (As I write, I’m talking about a 16/18 case divergence.)

Then there are the voices wailing that depriving children of their right to go to school is criminal. As things stand, no one is actually doing that. Kids of all ages have returned to their places of education, though classes where positive cases turn up are sent straight home. But this situation will probably change tomorrow when the latest government orders are issued: all but the very smallest children will probably return to what is currently my favourite new Italian ‘word’/neologism: dad, ie didattica a distanza

In theory I agree utterly that the learning and socialising and learning to be a member of society that school provides is essential… as is every parent’s right not to have to deal with children 24/7, and this is particularly so with women who in Italy – as everywhere, though perhaps more than in some places – find the burden of childcare fully on their shoulders. But I can’t help noticing that case numbers leapt not as a result of our fun summer of relatively carefree socialising, but came the moment three things happened: colder weather meant we started spending more time indoors (and inside, as this brilliant infographic shows, is dangerous); far more people started using crowded public transport for everyday moving about; and kids packed on to school buses and returned to classrooms. 

We were so relaxed, so confident about being in good hands. For the majority (of which I’m a part), the confidence is still there. Tomorrow’s new measures won’t include a full lockdown, but that will come I reckon, and it’s not too far away. The numbers are scary and the thought of what awaits us over the winter months is distressing.

Less scary and less depressing, though, because we’re here. 

My trip last week to Rome to plant a terrace was traumatic, even though I drove down, and spent the whole day backing away from workers and colleagues and clients outside on a terrace – a terrace with a view over the dome of St Peter’s so beautiful it almost took my mind off contagion. Almost.

Too many people about though, and without the same respect I feel here. Is it because country folk have more space, and more leisure to consider the effects of their actions? Is it because (here at least) they’re all more or less related to each other so don’t want to feel they’re infecting the family? No, I think it’s the same idea of local pride that keeps our streets so clean and our townscape so well cared for. We care about our shared space. And we don’t want to be seen to be letting the side down.

I’ve started putting my non-garden designs on my website – probably a vain task given the small number of people who happen upon my site and the even smaller number who spend time leafing through it. But if nothing else it’s important to have a record of the things I do, and something to show people should they ask. And I do love fiddling about with photos and websites.

 ***I’ve just noticed that all the thanks I got for my heart-ache for wounded boars was much serious digging all over what I call my lawn. There must have been dozens of the brutes out there last night. There are bits that look like they’ve been ploughed over, and holes you could break your ankle in. So not so much sympathy for the moment. 

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On Monte Cetona

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I can’t claim this recipe as 100 percent my own. It began life in the kitchen of Positano’s beautiful Le Sirenuse hotel. The recipe was good to start with, but I’ve fiddled and tweaked a little to make it (in my opinion) even better. It’s a good way to start your day, especially when paired with chopped fresh fruit and yoghurt.

Rolled oats/oatflakes – 400g
Whole unblanched almonds – 100g
Sunflower seeds – 100g
Pumpkin seeds – 100g
Chia seeds – 2 tbsp
Runny honey – 150g
Dried apricots – 100g
Sultanas – 100g
And/or any other dried fruits or seeds that take your fancy

Set your oven to its minimum temperature. If you have the type of oven that does 90°C, that’s great. If you don’t, just put it on the lowest possible setting.

Ideally you should halve each of the almonds – which should be the type with the brown inner skin still clinging, not the paler blanched ones – but who has time or patience for that? Chopping them into large-ish chunks will do.

Mix everything except the apricots and sultanas in a large bowl, making sure that the honey is spread evenly through the cereal and seeds. What seeds and nuts you use, I should add, is entirely up to you. You can mix and match and vary, but try to keep the proportions more or less the same. 

Line a large baking tray (one of the ones that belongs to your oven might be best) with oven paper and spread the granola mix evenly across it, to a depth of no more than a centimetre or two, then put it in the middle of the oven. If yours, like mine, has a higher minimum temperature, prop the door open very slightly with the handle of a wooden spoon to let some heat escape. 

While it’s cooking, cut the apricots into strips or good-sized chunks. Again, what fruits you use is entirely up to you: I say apricots and sultanas here because that’s what I like. But in fact you can add just about anything in the dried fruit line – again, respecting the proportions.

I start checking on the granola after about 45 minutes, just to make sure nothing’s getting too brown: nicely golden is what I’m after. When it’s beginning to look right – probably after an hour – sprinkle the dried fruit over the surface evenly, quickly replace the tray in the hot oven. Then turn the oven off and leave the granola in there as it gradually cools down. 

If on the other hand you’re cooking at 90°, check the colour as you go along but plan on adding the fruit after an hour and a half. Bake for a further ten minutes, then remove the tray from the oven and set it aside to cool.

The result (probably) won’t be a solid mass: just a crumbly fragrant mess with some larger stuck-together bits in it. When it’s completely cold, use an egg slice to ferry the granola into a big tightly sealed jar. How long it keeps I can’t tell you because mine disappears well before it has a chance to go soggy, but for a month or so it should be fine.

©Anne Hanley

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