10 February 2019

A slight hiatus, a long absence. I’m far away from my green Umbrian world and slightly out of my comfort zone, though I must say that at times I start worrying that I’m easing myself a little too whole-heartedly into this bizarre Lesvos microcosm. I can see how Stockholm Syndrome could set in.

I’m a tiny port called Skala Sikamineas (though there are as many spellings as there are maps: transliteration from the Greek is not an exact science) on the north coast of the island, looking across a narrow stretch of water to Turkey. When the light’s good, you can see each individual house over there with your naked eye. But even when rain needles down and huge waves heave stones up on to the water-side road, Turkey never quite disappears and the refugees who you know are hiding in the woods across there, waiting to hop into a dinghy and make the crossing, never quite slip your mind. It’s difficult to stop every white breaker turning into an imaginary vessel.

The crisis of 2015 with displaced Syrians pouring across the Aegean has become a distant blip in the news cycle but the flow has never stopped. There are fewer Syrians now; for the moment Afghans make up the bulk of arrivals. The first week I was here was one long downpour, but still there were boats washing ashore. Up to 7 February, 23 boats had already arrived on the island, bringing 805 desperate souls. Last night, when winds dropped after several straight days of gales, four boats came to Lesvos – three much further south – bringing a total 167 people.

On my very first night of spotting from the Lighthouse, 36 Afghans in a dinghy were almost on the beach below by the time we’d finished setting up the night vision equipment. We pulled them out of the surf, settled them in the abandoned lighthouse building then handed them over to the landing team which appeared on the scene half an hour or so later. After which we spent the next ten hours sitting in the grimy spotting hut with wet feet, frozen from the knees down. A tough introduction to emergency response work.

The next time I was up there, the opposite happened. A boat came over the sea border just as we were swapping the night vision equipment for the telescope. The Refugee Rescue rhib MoChara was already on the water, and zipped out to intercept before the dinghy reached the shore. The Hellenic Coast Guard bowled up in their great big boat, took everyone on board and off they went to Skala harbour without us having to move from the hut. As it turned out we didn’t/couldn’t move from the hut for another couple of hours because all available vehicles were elsewhere, transporting refugees and bringing new volunteers from the airport in Mytilini.

There was a silver lining to the wait. A pod of dolphins put on a leaping display for us. There may have been ten of them, including babies whose acrobatics as often as not ended in twisty, ungainly bellyflops. It was joyous and mesmerising in the early morning sunshine.

There are other positives too, in the funny little Skala world peopled by mostly extremely young people working/volunteering (like me) with Lighthouse Relief and its sister NGO Refugee Rescue.

For a start, there’s the glimpse it allows into this tiny fishing port which would be as dead as the many other little towns around here were it not for the constant presence of a heterogeneous crowd, from all over Europe and the US, which makes the harbour-side bar its office and daytime chatting spot, and spends enough in the two restaurants to tide them over from one bunch of sunny Sunday day-trippers to the next.

The volunteers are tolerated by some, adored by others. Returnees (and they do return) are met with hugs and cheers in Goji’s bar. There’s a language barrier obviously, so volunteers can’t slip so easily into village life. But there’s respect too, for example for tall, taciturn Stratos, the fisherman who was nominated for a Nobel prize for the selfless gut-reaction helping hand he has always extended to refugees on the water. As far as I can see, there’s none of the anti-refugee hostility that has driven NGOs out of Molyvos along the coast. The only signs of a crisis they have in that pretty (and at present pretty dead) holiday spot are Frontex boats in the harbour.

Also, I’ve come to understand the intensity – and eccentricity – of an experience C has been living since she started working with Lighthouse Relief two years ago. I thought C might be offended when I considered coming here. But no, she rather kindly told me that it would be salutary for the regular lot to see that they were not the only generation that cared about the world’s troubles.

I’m seeing the outfit at an unrepresentative time: in summer, I’m told, there’s a more studenty, less ‘professional’ feel. Even now though, there are very few people out of their 20s. But what people they are. Doctors, journalists, engineers, a marine biologist, a psychologist – all recently graduated (or still on their way there). With a dedication and seriousness beyond their years.

They see all too clearly how mired-in-confusion officialdom fails to deliver on a large scale (the confusion as UNHCR pulls out further and leaves the running of refugee operations to the Greek government is an object lesson), and put their shoulders to the wheel doing things which, in an ideal world, would be completely out of their hands.

I keep saying it’s like a weirdly positive Lord of the Flies. But it’s better than that. It’s a beacon of hope and a very good sign for the future. They should be running the world.

And Lesvos? It’s a wild island, with a rocky, mountainous largely uninhabited centre and inexplicably extensive olive groves with trees emerging from drystone walls and terraces of startling green. The olives are magnificent – sculptural marvels of the type you rarely see in central Italy. There are lush fennel plants everywhere, and also tufts of green-blue asphodel leaves, indicators of the poorest possible soil of course, but it must be a frothing marvel of flowers in the spring.

The little towns are similarly rocky, their streets and ramps of steps paved largely in that same white stone. In smaller less trafficked places, after such unusual amounts of rainfall, these streets are engulfed with greenery. Often in village centres metal structures span streets and squares, with wisteria vines clambering over them. Again, it must be a gorgeous mass of bloom in spring. The citrus trees are magnificent: at this moment they’re drooping with lemons and oranges.

By the sea, doors and windowframes are painted a vast palette of blues. Further up in the hills, this gives way to browny burgundies, greys and greens.

All the towns have their grand constructions – solid, elegant, well heeled-looking dwellings, more often than not boarded up and in various stages of crumbling. Clearly there was a time when there was a little more wealth in this far-flung spot than there is now… if not for the masses, at least for the wealthy few who now seem to have given the place up completely.

Used to Italy with some lovely surprise in almost every little town, I expect other Mediterranean places to be the same but I’ve come to realise that Lesvos is too poor for that. The church in Agiasos was calmly beautiful; the great monastery in Matamados was too full of its own importance to be really moving. Along the coast from Molyvos in the ghost resort of Efthalou (it comes to life in summer), there’s a tiny white igloo-like hut jutting out to the sea containing a spring full of boiling mineral-rich water; it’s filled with steam but laser-streaked with light from small holes in the roof.

Most memorable of all, above Efthalou, a huge swath of hillside is where discarded life vests and tatters of dinghy end up in what’s known as the graveyard. I’m told that quite a lot of the debris has been moved away and disposed of. But the mountains that are left really took the wind out of me. It was hard to catch your breath when presented with so many symbols of individual desperation.

LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF URGENTLY NEEDS FUNDS TO CONTINUE ITS VITAL EMERGENCY RESPONSE WORK ON THE NORTHERN COAST OF LESVOS AND ITS PSYCHOSOCIAL SUPPORT PROGRAMMES IN RITSONA REFUGEE CAMP NORTH OF ATHENS. ANY DONATIONS TO THEIR GLOBAL GIVING CAMPAIGN WILL BE MUCH APPRECIATED. PLEASE SPREAD THE WORD.

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16 January 2019

Città della Pieve

It’s the end of an era. In town this morning the old signs were coming down from the façade of my bank and shiny new ones were going up. I loved the fact that it had remained – according to the signs at least – Banca dell’Umbria, an august institution dating from 1462 which died a very definitive death in 2005 when it was swallowed up by the Unicredit monster. Suspended between a disappeared past (outside) and a mediumly efficient present (inside), it seeemed like a happy metaphor for… something or other.

I have been walking. In the sense of stomping about the countryside. It’s something which was our default mode of getting the city out of our system for the 25 years that we lived in Rome. We’d go up to the Monti Lucretili or peaks further afield and spend whole days – sometimes weekends – trekking about. 

But here in the countryside, with walking opportunities all around us, L tends to hop on his bike at which point I retire to my garden and label that ‘exercise’ which I guess, in its way, it is. (In fact I’m reading all over the place now that half an hour of intense garden pottering just as good a workout as swimming, non-speedy cycling or jogging – though my back after a hard day of turning soil or heaving compost about might provide arguments against its health-giving benefits.)

Pulling on hiking boots and setting out right from our front door into our extraordinary unspoilt environs is a such a privilege. It was a friend who urged me to join her group with a local guide just before Christmas. She wanted to show me the ‘hippy village’, which turned out to be one of those CdP mysteries for which everyone has their own interpretation.

According to my friend, these were disaffected alternativi from Rome in the 1960-70s living an off-grid lifestyle deep in a far-flung Umbrian wood; until, that is, they became disaffected hippies and drifted back to the Big Smoke. According to the guide, it was a holiday village built by a local who ran into financial problems and the property was eventually engulfed into the drug rehabilitation centre over in that valley and left to disintegrate.

Whatever the truth, it’s a psychedelically weird and melancholy oasis in a lovely bit of woodland. 

I was amazed at the energy that walking gave me. So last weekend when L’s knee started playing up and cycling became agony, I got him out exploring paths with me. 

The idea was to make our way round to the other side of our valley, to where woodcutters have been driving us crazy with their whining chainsaws since well before Christmas. Every day, except Christmas Day; from shortly after six AM until sundown. It’s a bit of an upheaval in a valley so quiet that we even moan about loud birdsong when it disturbs our sleep of a morning.

So I have to keep reminding myself: it’s good for the forest to be husbanded like that. 

Umbria’s forests are impressive: the region isn’t called Italy’s Green Heart for nothing. Latest figures (from 2008, but hey) show that 46% and rising of the region’s territory is wooded, which is a whole lot more than the national average of 29%. And deciduous forests of native species (mostly oaks of various kinds and hornbeam) account for 87% of this. (It’s interesting, too, that ten years ago 80% of licensed woodcutters were Italian, of which 17% were over 64. Figures today, I’m pretty sure, would show a vast growth in the number of young eastern Europeans, by which I mean Macedonians who are, as far as I can see, the favoured manpower in our woods.) 

Surprising bamboo

What they’re doing across there is, I think, called compound coppicing in English (ceduo composto), leaving tall standards here and there. In this way, the stools (the age-old trunk-stumps and what lurks underground) will produce new growth alongside the standards. Varying ages of timber – with diseased plants and those anomalous species which have infiltrated the woods (like the very surprising stand of bamboo I happened across in the wildest, most remote bit of valley which we managed to scramble to) removed – make for a healthy woodland. I love the thought that, governati like this, the stools are basically immortal. There really is no limit to how long they may go on pushing out new timber. Trees are marvellous.

But our hopes of clambering in the newly tidied bit of the hillside came to nothing: the lengths of sizeable trunk were neatly stacked in mounds, but between the standards was an impenetrable mesh of smaller branches and twigs, blocking paths and preventing anything like freedom of movement. Also, we realised, our interlocking valleys are so confusing: this wasn’t the hillside we really wanted to walk along at all.

Instead we swung around to the next ridge and plunged down into the Tre Mulini valley, the one that stretches north-east from our house. Someone had been down there cutting back the undergrowth along the path, but it was piecemeal. There is, I’ve been told, a plan lodged in the town council for fixing up and marking all these old trails through the Ripavecchia-Tre Mulini woodlands. But there aren’t, as we know, the funds for such frivolities. Which is a shame, because the trails are an important part of local history. It was along these paths that the downtrodden share-cropping tenants of the big estates made their way from one farmhouse to another, and from those houses to town. Kids trudging to school. Farmers sharing equipment. Women bringing their washing to one spring or another. 

There are bits down in the valley which have been worked on extensively, and provided with more waymarks perhaps than needed: those bits that have been integrated into the Via Romea Germanica trail (see here and here), which follows the old pilgrim road from northern Germany to Rome. But there’s so much more to do. I’m rather ashamed that I’m so lacking in energy. I should be fighting for this. I guess.

The oddest forest folk: i mulai

A coda to my woodland musings. Discussing the valley with Elisa – the diminutive, wiry woman who brings us fuel for our wood-burning stoves and whose team of Macedonians regard her with a mix of awe and adoration – she told me the oddest forest folk of all were the mulai, the muleteers. Mostly very old, and living to all intents and purposes in quite another century, they are the ones who lead their mules deep into forests to retrieve timber cut down in places where not even the most manoeuvrable tractor can reach. I’ve never spotted them: I didn’t know such people still existed. The photo above is taken by Elisa. 

Collecting my Pieve Suites linen from the laundry down in Chiusi Scalo the other day, I noticed that the number of duvet covers coming back to me didn’t look right. The owner and I counted. And recounted. One was missing. He was upset. 

Not many people around here use duvets he said, looking flustered. It’s a bit of a northern thing, he pointed out. It’s just you and Ed Sheeran who send them to me. Maybe he has yours.

Had you asked me, I wouldn’t immediately have said I had much in common with Ed Sheeran, who has a house in a town not far away. But now I know that we are fatally linked by our laundry, and our use of duvets. Odd. In the end, it transpired that one duvet had been neatly ironed and folded inside another. Mystery solved. I can’t accuse Ed of having stolen my duvet cover.

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28 December 2018

1228MDecember disappeared. (Just like much of 2018 really.)

Quite early on I attended one of those ceremonies: the quick dash and tricolor sash. In the public records bit of the CdP town council building, with dear friends T&A giggling in the background and L snapping away to immortalise the moment, I swiftly swore to respect the Italian Constitution and signed various very large bits of paper and hey presto, I was Italian. Good.

A jaunt mid-month to the UK – a ruse to avoid spending Christmas there – honed my desire to have nothing to do with that country or the self-harm it’s inflicting on itself. There’s no other topic being dealt with – on TV, on the radio, on the streets and in every home. It’s hashed and rehashed and debated endlessly, yet in alienating fashion. There’s really nothing to say that hasn’t already been said, ad infinitum and definitely ad nauseam. Each solution (other than that of saying ‘ooops, took a wrong turning, how silly, we’d better stay’) is one more unfeasible than another. Positions are consistently fuzzy. On the evening news intrepid reporters step out to hear the voice of a people which seems even less well informed and – in glassy-eyed fashion – less engaged than ever (something which perhaps bodes badly for those urging a second referendum). It all has a surreal feel to it, utterly disengaged from planet Earth. 

How refreshing, then, to jet back to a world where the main reaction to Brexit is “what? haven’t they gone yet?”

Prior to that disturbing UK turn, we had another of our luxe experiences in Rome, this time at the hotel recently opened at the Fondazione Alda Fendi HQ overlooking the arch of Janus behind the Capitoline. I say hotel but actually The Rooms of Rome comes on more as a ‘residence’, its suites equipped with kitchens and dining tables and more square metres than the average Roman apartment. Jean Nouvel did the décor which I found I warmed to despite myself: Nouvel is not an architectural name which generally fills me with admiration.

At first glance there’s something a tiny bit old hat about the design of the 25 suites: with its distressed walls and ‘60s-type tiles it sails close to tired. The huge stainless steel boxes (they contain wardrobes and what have you) breaking up the spaces verge on the cold. And the white white bathrooms (some are blocks of other colours or tones, but all are monochrome) fashioned out of Corian has a kitschy space-age-‘80s air. But somehow the various elements hang together, working well with the shadowy corners and hugely high ceilings, and oodles of space for stalking about. 

Far be it from me to compare my own little suites with these entirely-on-another-level ones, but there’s a similar lack of clutter here: clean lines and empty space predominate. He has stuck (unaware, of course) close to my mantra of comfortable-minimal. I enjoyed it. (And I felt I’d climbed into my very own comfortably feathered nest in the red Gaetano Pesce chair.)

The Fendi Foundation (aka, for reasons best known to the fondazione, Rhinoceros) is also a rather good restaurant, a roof terrace with a view over Rome to make you weep for joy and a gallery with a handy deal with the Hermitage. It had been inaugurated some days before with a show of sketches by Michelangelo. As we poked about in dark corridors and on empty landings late at night, there they were: Michelangelo drawings just for us. You could put your nose right up to the glass cases and inhale the wonder. It was all rather special.

December also saw me embarking on the long-planned concimaia makeover though after a brief spurt of extraordinary progress, this has ground to a halt. I have little to blame but myself: the weather has been gorgeous and the season is right for the shrub-shifting, earth-moving tasks needed to complete the whole thing. I haven’t even been particularly busy. I simply haven’t pushed myself to get around to it.

I have one thin line of defence, in that the contractors who will – I hope – do the rest of the work have been otherwise engaged and not at all loath to put the whole thing off until the new year. 

So since that mid-month flurry of activity, I find myself looking over in that direction occasionally, and am startled by incongruous new walls I had almost forgotten about, not to mention great piles of earth waiting to find some place useful to be stuck back.

This corner is another example of (the many) things I see so clearly in their finished state in my mind’s eye that getting around to actually carrying my ideas through becomes almost academic. But there are moments – especially when my roses are ragged and my grass is a brown and leaf-covered mess like right now – that I look beyond these neglected bits to even worse, long-term dereliction and wonder how on earth I can call myself a garden designer if I don’t pull my finger out and create beautiful elements – liveable rooms, focal points, things of elegance and calm – for myself. It’s all a bit of a hopeless wilderness.

Now days are getting longer again, or at least they are in theory. In fact this year I thought I was detecting signs of hope even before the solstice, though that was probably a mixture of wishful thinking and some utterly glorious cloud-free days that brought extra light into our winter-bound home. I’ve done those year-end indulgences such as tidying my seed box and slavering over the Organic Catalogue and drawing up my wishlist for next year’s perfect orto. I’ve even planned that perfect expanse of intensive veggie production, bed by rotating bed.

But that’s about the full extent of my gardening activity: all on paper (or rather, on screen). At times I love to revel in the fact that there’s really nothing much that has to be done outside when it’s cold. And I slink about the place without achieving very much. But in the end I realise I’m wasting precious time.

The garlic needs to go in the ground now, otherwise the cloves will not divide properly. This sounds like an old wives’ tale, but some pretty trustworthy sources maintain that without a month or two of single-digit or even sub-zero temps you risk finding yourself with heads of just a couple of huge cloves. My aglione (a giant garlic, seeing a revival here in the Val di Chiana) this year was a case in point: many of the onion-sized heads emerged from the ground as a single clove. I planted quite late in the spring. Of course now I don’t know what to do about replanting: deciding what goes into the ground and what goes into the pot is tough when there’s not much to go around.1228L

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3 December 2018

Last weekend, on a lovely, mild December Saturday I was driven inside, and I was furious.

Shots were ringing out all around the house – far too close and from far too many directions around the vegetable garden where I was struggling to extract sweet potatoes from heavy clingy mud. I knew they knew I was there: one of the outliers had come over to let me know they’d seen me, and he would therefore have communicated it around the gang with his walky-talky.

But did I trust them, in their testosterone-fueled gung-ho blood-lust, to remember my presence in that overwrought moment when they spotted a boar skipping by? Absolutely not. It was the first time ever that I hadn’t stood my ground, the first time I had headed for cover. It makes my blood boil.

Who do I talk to to challenge this behaviour? When I hear gunshots and see hunters in their hi-vis jackets around the fields, I kind of presume that they have the good sense (though of course their shooting their own doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence) to all shoot in the same general direction, hopefully away from people’s homes. At the height of today’s detonations, my ears rang from shots which came simultaneously from somewhere immediately down the steep slope from the orto towards Mario’s field to the north and, very close, from beneath the stand of Arundo donax that cuts through the olive grove to the south. Dogs from both sides were going crazy around my garden. Did both these groups of shooters know that I was the filling in a (potential) collateral damage sandwich?

I don’t subscribe to that school of thought – common among non- and anti-hunting locals – that it’s ‘dangerous’ to shop the animal-slaughterers to the authorities: I know enough of them not to suspect them of homicidal tendencies. But I think the place to start is with a leader of the hunter pack. Next time I see one of the gun-toting bigwigs I’ll make sure he knows what I think of being startled out of my own vegetable garden.

Some months ago an Italian friend grew quite angry when I told him that we’d applied for Italian citizenship. This application had nothing – or almost nothing – to do with lemming-leap Brexit. We did the paperwork well before the referendum: after it had been called, but when the very idea of the “leave” option emerging victorious still brought guffaws of laughter. It wasn’t fear of possibly having no legal foothold in Europe that drove us to it, but the fact that we’d been disenfranchised for years and were getting sick of it.

“I don’t think you should just be able to opt to have one nationality or another,” this friend said. “It’s not right. Citizenship is something you’re born with. I mean, which country would you die for?”

His starry-eyed ideal of the sacredness of patriotism bumped up against the hard-nosed blasé-ness of someone who already has two nationalities (British and Australian) and could have another (Irish) but has no real feeling of mystical attachment to any nation – just varying degrees of affection for those ones and several others.

I might possibly lay my life on the line for my family or the values I hold most dear, but wouldn’t die for any country, I told him. On the other hand I pay taxes here, so I want to be able to vote for the party I most trust to use my money wisely.

1203PSo I couldn’t quite account for an odd little butterfly flutter at the top of my cynical  stomach a couple of weeks ago when I checked the status of my slow-moving process on the cittadinanza website to find that after two years and six months all the requisite signatures, right up to the presidential palace, had been placed on my application and it was full(-ish) steam ahead.

I’ve now picked up my citizenship decree from the prefecture in Perugia. All that remains is to take it to our town council and swear to respect the Italian constitution which, incidentally, I do: it’s a very sensible constitution hammered out after World War II by politicians of far greater intellectual and moral depth than almost any who are running the country today.

Our current jokers have just produced a “law & order” bill which is to a large extent a smokescreen for cracking down on immigration. It quite brazenly invites us to equate immigration with crime and lawlessness. It also makes becoming Italian a lengthier process, and makes it easier, once you have succeeded, to have that citizenship revoked.

We were worried that L’s application, presented a couple of months after mine, might have fallen into this populist “keep ‘em out” quagmire but no: his too is moving forwards it seems. Can we then stop bristling about Brexit? Probably not.

My affection for my fellow pievesi and their tendency to turn out for municipal milestones receives constant confirmation. I mean, getting up early on a Saturday morning to watch the mayor cut a ribbon for, and the parish priest sprinkle holy water on the new waste water processing plant? Many people (not including me) did.

1203NBut it was the packed hall for the presentation of our new domestic violence centre (as in, against domestic violence) that really impressed. L has written (though in Italian only – sorry) about domestic violence here (and elsewhere). In an area which emerged within living memory from that kind of peasant culture where many considered women in much the same light as they considered cattle, things have moved ahead in leaps and bounds… with unfortunate relicts about which everybody knows and nobody says much. In the years 2012-16 Umbria had far and away the worst record on women murdered, mostly by partners or family members.

The idea behind this Centro anti-violenza is to offer support to victims, while working on local children and teenagers to make sure they understand that there’s no justification for indulging in it, and no reason they should take it. Bravissimi tutti.

The one thing that pievesi are less than reliable for is turning up at our gorgeous theatre for artsy performances, so it was exciting to see people actually being turned away from last night’s concert at the theatre in Solomeo, meticulously restored fiefdom of cashmere baron and modern-day enlightened industrialist-benefactor Brunello Cucinelli. Of course Solomeo benefits from being very close to Perugia, and also – widely – to having brokered a deal with a theatre there to shunt punters out of town and into this model village.

It was all looking rather fairy tale-ish with its twinkling Christmas tree lights and flaming braziers in the piazze but for me it’s all a bit too perfectly manicured. I mean, full marks to him and all that for saving a tiny centro which might otherwise have crumbled away, but it’s that kind of perfection that can have overtones of the wrong kinds of corporatism – a feeling highlighted by a glimpse through an uncurtained window of a room lined with banks of CCTV screens. Yes, I know, we’re all watched the whole time, but is a private individual – however much he has donated to the local community – allowed to monitor movements in a space which is, when all is said and done, public? Seems fishy to me. Still, the performance by the Perugia Chamber Orchestra was excellent. In the mood of the moment: bread and circuses.

One of the many lovely old (in the sense of long-term) friends who pitched up to help us celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary last month surveyed Pieve Suites and commented that she’d far rather take the whole place with a few friends than merely occupy a single suite: perfect, she pointed out for being together without extraneous bods but maintaining a large degree of couple-autonomy.

So why hadn’t I thought of that? It never ceases to amaze me how firm ideas get in my head, blinding me to any other possibility.

I added listings for Pieve-Suites-as-whole-house to booking sites and hey presto, I clocked up more interest in the space of a few days than I’ve ever had before. I mean, I’m not exactly turning people away, but things are definitely more lively.

I say I’m not turning people away but in fact, I have had to do just that which is the one pitfall of this new approach: a very short one-suite booking can stymy a lengthy whole-house one if the less interesting request comes in before the far simpler to handle but hugely more remunerative group one does. Now I’m going to have to think of mechanisms to deal with this. Even after a year of this, I’m still on a very sharp learning curve.

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12 November 2018

 

We’ve had so many people staying recently that I had to resort to the industrial-scale washing and drying machines in the very purple-hued local launderette to deal with my mountain of sheets and towels. Unfortunately, because days and days of rain had stopped people getting to their washing lines, so had many others.

I say unfortunately (and time-wise that was so) but in fact it’s a neat glance into bits of local life.

I get the feeling that some little girls who live in Le Barricate – the oddly named out-lying bit of town where the launderette is located – look upon the place as a play-house. One sat there for ages when I was there the other day, talking importantly into a cellphone which I’m pretty sure wasn’t connected to anything, announcing from time to time to anyone who’d listen that her father was about to appear with washing to put in the machine. He didn’t.

Women who flash metaphorical razorblades to ensure no one gets to the driers out of turn will then help each other fold piles of sheets, chatting cordially as if there had never been any tension at all.

A friendly burly woman who looks after the linen for my friend Silvia said she muscled in on the job when she saw the cack-handed way that the previous male sheet-washer was bungling the job: in the realm of the CdP launderette, men are truly the epitome of incompetence.

As the last of my sheets tumbled about in the drier, the non-stop rain that had marked the end of October and early November gave way to bright sunshine and coat-free temperatures. Our drought-ish September, with less than 10mm of rainfall, was amply compensated by 122mm in October – hopeless for getting any work done on my various projects but not quite enough to dampen spirits for our 30th wedding get-together of far-flung friends.

A big round number has that effect, and it’s wonderful. It mobilizes people – in this case from around Europe but also from as far away as Seattle – to make journeys they might not otherwise have undertaken. What a joy.

Now that it’s gloriously sunny after our heavy rains, I’m back in the same holding pattern as last spring: clients clamoring, contractors overwhelmed. I recently shed – in a very amicable way – one client, who said she couldn’t possibly pay me so much for a “project” which consisted of “a computerized drawing and some ideas”. Which got me thinking about what I do as a garden designer and the various ways it’s perceived.

First, of course, I pointed out to this very lovely lady that that was, reductio ad absurdum, my job description: using my training, experience and expertise to come up with ideas for improving and beautifying gardens and landscapes which I then represent clearly in graphic form.

1112FBut mostly it made me reflect once again the degree to which garden-making – so terribly important IMHO in magicking a property into a unified whole – is looked on as something of an afterthought, even by people with connections to very important gardens indeed. Of course (rightly), the garden is always the last thing to done in any (re)building or makeover. And so I often find myself working with the left-over small change of clients who just want the whole lengthy process – most of which I haven’t been involved in – to end, fast.

But then I come up against the ‘one step up from a couple of pots of geraniums’ school of thought. Anyone can stick some plants in is a common attitude among people who have called me in nevertheless – people who would never, for example, say “anyone can stick some curtains up and paint a wall” – things which are equally true. Why do they think that a garden designer is any lower in the pecking order than an architect or interior designer?

Then there’s the problem I have with some clients – more often than not women – who overlook the ‘designer’ part of my job title and focus on the ‘garden’ – as in gardening: a nice thing to potter about doing of a Sunday, wearing your pretty straw hat and your flowery gloves. By extension, they see what I do as a hobby job, rather than the fruit of long architectural training. “I really don’t understand what I’m paying you for,” one client many years ago announced – then proceeded to employ a (male) colleague at great expense to work on another area of the garden with no qualms or questioning.

Am I moaning? Only a little, because the vast majority of the garden owners I work with and for are wonderful. Most, I have to say, really do get it.


Last weekend, on a take-your-breath-away visit to the Villa Albani Torlonia in Rome, I found myself musing on how that owner/garden designer relationship might have been when the immense garden of a suburban villa, designed to wow visitors into abject amazement, was being plotted. Of course, the client there was an aristo with little interest in the professional pride of his designer. But there must have been some kind of implicit mutual understanding of the huge importance of the outside reflecting the grandeur of the interior.

I was quivering with emotion, visiting those magnificent parterres. This villa – six hectares now engulfed in Rome’s northern suburbs – was something I studied in depth for my Landscape Architecture degree. But at that time it was a dark secret: not even world-class scholars got past the Torlonia family – hugely private and perhap embittered by battles with the state over what they could and couldn’t do with their vast art collection… if it still existed and if they hadn’t spirited it away, into collections in the Gulf and the US (it seems that most of the culture ministry’s worst fears have been disproved).

Photographs of the villa were rare, as they still are now that the family has relaxed its rules just a tiny bit: visitors are forced to sign a document swearing not to snap as they go around the place on pain of being sued. This has the fascinating side-effect of making people look. The group we were with were itchy and jumpy to start off with when deprived of their devices. Some people couldn’t resist getting cellphones out – ostensibly checking messages or taking notes but very possibly defying the rules. But by the end, most were peering and staring, and asking questions in a way that they would not have had they been filtering the experience through a lens. It was a very good thing.

We were there as part of the extravagant package of entertainments for yet another relaunch of the Grand Hotel, now the St Regis Grand. The evening before, we guests were taken in our black tie finery to sip champagne inside the Baths of Diocletian, shut of course at that hour, and splendidly illuminated just for us. It was, naturally, breathtaking.

And so on for two days. We managed just 16 hours of the event but were there for the ballroom dinner jamboree, with a scenografia that was quite magnificent, and floral arrangements in Victorian decoupage/Belle Epoque decadence tones which were truly marvellous… though they did make conversation with guests on the other side of the table rather complicated.

And now, after parties and celebrations of various magnitude, we hunker down for the cold months. Each day you tick off the signs, for better and for worse. The hot water bottles. The stoves lit in the evening, then perhaps mid-afternoon. Those small dazzling spots of lower-in-the-sky morning sunlight breaking in around the edges of the closed shutters to hit unlikely points on living room and kitchen walls. The night time trip to the bathroom that leaves your teeth chattering as you hurry back to bed.

Outside, I’ve taken down the tomato supports. Gales battered the persimmon leaves badly so they’re not as startlingly scarlet and salmon this year but the luminous fruit glow as ever. I’m trying to find a moment to give the grass (such as it is) one final cut before I take my brave neglected lawn mower to be serviced, but it’s still too damp underfoot. The trees across the valley looked so green for so long this year that I had begun wondering whether we’d have autumn colours at all but I shouldn’t have worried.

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