Lesvos, 22 February 2020

0222AThe seaside blows the cobwebs beautifully from the heads of people like me who live in green, landlocked places. And the salutary effects are even better – for me at least, as someone who doesn’t have much time for lying in the sun turning brown – if you get your dose of sea in winter, with ozone-laden wind penetrating your many layers of thermals and making short work of attempts to blow-dry your hair into any semblance of normalcy.

0222MNot that I need neat hair to do what I’m doing. In fact, yesterday evening I dried my hair and even put on my thick and functional woolly dress and non-hiking-boots – something few people around here ever wear – to drop by a party for two of the volunteers who have been working in this tiny port on the northern coast of Lesvos. But the moment I got ‘dressed up’ (it’s all relative…) what happened? The first boat-load of refugees to head in our direction in many many days washed up right here on the beach and I ended up chasing wind-tossed rubbish and hauling abandoned life jackets away to ready them for disposal.

Spotting and emergency response is a strange life of long long stretches of time-filling, punctuated with unexpected bursts of urgent activity. You have to be there, but you have to be resigned to not doing much, even though what you do eventually do is vital.

0222LBesides getting your fill of sea air (which, I’ve been reading, really doesn’t have all those health-giving qualities that we’re taught to think it has), being here is good for your faith in humanity… though bad too, at the same time.

Did I enthuse last year (see here and here) about the wonderful young people who pitch up here to do their bit? Of course I did. But I’ll do so again. The ambience is different this year – perhaps because there are more northern Europeans (last year there were more, more voluble Portuguese and Spanish volunteers) but perhaps also because the main bar – Goji’s – no longer allows vols to run up tabs (too many people neglected to pay before leaving) which means that it is no longer the unofficial HQ, brimming and noisy. But the commitment and efficiency remains. And it’s wonderfully heartening.

0222PIt’s not only here, naturally. There’s been so much talk recently about the horrors – and they are horrors – of the camp at Moria, but beyond the nightmare and the injustice and the suffering there are instances of humanity which so deserve flagging up, which is why this article in the Guardian, which came after days of reports of demonstrations and clashes on the island, was timely. However bad things get, you mustn’t lose sight of the good.

The other day I managed to get away to take a look around One Happy Family. OHF is closer to the ‘nicer’ Kara Tepe camp for the most vulnerable cases; it’s a 40 minute walk from Moria. But people do walk (they serve 1200 lunches a day on average, which gives an idea), because at their destination they find not only a little haven of civilisation, but also something to do. And inactivity is arguably one of the worst scourges of a refugee camp. Boredom breeds despair (mental health problems are rife in the camp), and it breeds violence (frustrated, idle young men in their thousands will get into fights, or take it out on others in some way).

0222SThere are a number of NGOs operating in OHF’s umbrella space, with staff and volunteers, but refugees too work hard here… or don’t, as they wish. There’s a primary school and a bike repair shop, a women’s space and a barber’s. There are people welding and doing carpentry and there’s a professionally run early learning centre. Then there’s the kitchen and the café.

But loveliest of all, for me, is the vegetable and herb garden. When I turned up an Afghan botanist was outside washing down the table which had been used for a sauerkraut-making workshop earlier that day. A toddler with a piece of stick was trying to poke Bella the dog who, however, was keeping just beyond his reach. It was clearly not the first time she had had to deal with that situation.

0222RSome men lounged at tables alongside the perimeter fence, deep in conversation. Inside the potting/herb drying shed, Afghan women were tending seedlings and in-putting data on the garden’s new computer.

A 16-year-old with a heart-melting smile told me he’d arrived four months ago. It took six hours to cross from Turkey he said, because the outboard kept stopping and the ignition rope broke so they had to get it going again with shoelaces. There were 45 people on his eight-metre dinghy he claimed, the men sitting along the edges and the women and children down on the floor in the middle. His school in Kabul had been bombed three times. His mother – an economist he described her as – had lost her job. So the two of them and his sister had left. I didn’t dare ask about his father. They’d been on the move for a year, travelling through Pakistan and Iran and Turkey. He told it all with such grace, in good English and not calling for pity. Was he giving his story some extra gloss? There’s every chance that, far from exaggerating, he was concealing the really ghastly bits behind that gorgeous smile.0222Q

With chronic overcrowding in Moria camp, and asylum interviews being carried out either too quickly for refugees to seek that tiny bit of legal advice that is available on the ground or only after many many months or even years of waiting (there is little middle ground), the situation looks intractable. Locals are fed up – with the refugees and with the authorities’ seeming inability to come up with solutions. It’s quite comprehensible. The righter bits of the right-wing government milk this for all it’s worth, stirring up discontent, against refugees and the NGOs that bring some little comfort and solace.

Amid purely silly threats to build walls in the middle of the Aegean, and scarier ones to construct closed internment camps on the islands, nothing much seems to be happening. In the interests of fairness – which I have to say, really is more than the authorities merit – it should be said that transfers off Lesvos up to mid-February this year have been more (2241) than arrivals from Turkey (2053), though hardly a dent in the 21,700 refugees currently blocked on the island, according to Aegean Boat Report. What I am unable to work out is whether these are all being transferred to the mainland for further consideration of asylum claims, or whether they’re being deported back to Turkey. The government says over 24,000 were pushed back from Greece last year. Police reports say only 48 were deported from Lesvos. It’s difficult in this chaos to get at the truth.

And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about people fleeing from the kind of situation where even the risks they run on dangerous journeys and the cold shoulder offered once here are preferable to what they have fled from back home. But for how long? If authorities are aiming to dissuade desperate people from pitching up here, it’s working for some. The coordinator here at Lighthouse Relief told me that a Syrian friend had shocked her the other day by announcing that he was giving up, and making his way back to Syria, because he felt he stood no chance in Europe. Could there be any greater condemnation?



En route to Lesvos I stopped in Athens to stay with C who is living there for the moment. Athens is a funny place, that I had spent a total of four hours in before this trip.

I like its energy. It is admirably green, even if much of the green is atrociously maintained. Its antiquities brought on culture-awe palpitations, quite literally. But it’s an ugly kind of place, and I don’t think I was quite prepared for that.

Somehow I was expecting it to fall into the Rome/Istanbul category, where everything around tells you that this is a city that was at the hub of unfolding history for centuries or millennia. But it doesn’t. Its ruins are splendid but its venerable age doesn’t seem to trickle down into the lived city. Its period in the limelight was too long ago. Its phases of insignificance were too lengthy. Its unplanned, merciless growth came at a time when protection and conservation were non-existent. And of course the country’s recent travails have done nothing to improve the situation.

Its multi-culturalism is of a downbeat sort, or at least that’s the impression I had in the immigrant-packed streets around C’s flat. Many of the people loitering around the piazza at Victoria metro station are in a Moria-like state of limbo – one step forward, in that they’ve managed to leave the islands, but still suspended, untended and unresolved. On one level there’s a feeling of hopelessness. On the other, the area is buzzing with little Middle Eastern eateries and what have you. I think I need to go back to get the measure of the place better.


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31 January 2020

0131B 0131A

It’s Brexit Day and I’m afraid I’m feeling uncomfortable not so much about the UK’s senseless self-harm as about my lack of leaving-induced emotion of any kind at all. I even called a dear Remainer friend in the dyed-in-the-Brexit Cotswolds this morning in a last-ditch attempt to catch a little of her despair, but it didn’t work. Lovely as it was talking to her, it failed to plunge me into mourning.

My Britishness is a funny thing, I guess. Anyone who meets me presumes that that’s what I am. That’s certainly what I sound like. That’s where I spent my senior school days and lived my university life – important times for personal development, and for forging lasting attachments. But how much time have I spent there? I lived in the UK between the ages of 12 and 21 – important, but not long. How strange to think that that’s fewer years than I spent in Australia (0-12) with which I feel almost no real bond, except nostalgic ones to a handful of significant places from my childhood which now, when I visit, seem impossibly small and somehow removed.

So Italy, where I’ve spent over 35 years, beats those two countries hands down. But you’re not going to find me pulling up the drawbridge and coming over all nationalist-patriotic for this country either, despite my recently acquired citizenship.

Could it be that I’m living proof of the hapless Theresa May’s famous dictum “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means”? Well actually, er (heaven help me), perhaps, um… yes? Except, in my opinion, in a good way.

I do like to think I’m a citizen of the world, in that this is my planet and I’d love to feel I could roam it as I wish – with respect for differences but infinite curiousity. But a citizen of nowhere? I don’t think so. I feel a certain loyalty to the place(s) which are particularly ‘mine’. Not being dogmatically, nationalistically attached to my places of origin or my chosen home puts me in a special position. I make no claim to objectivity. But I do get that delicious sense of looking at issues from inside and outside simultaneously.

Do I understand what ‘citizenship’ means? Frankly, no. I ponder it quite a lot, then give up. I have been known to argue that it should be based on the right to have a say – even if this say is one vote in millions every four years or so – in the running of the place where I pay my taxes. To some extent, this may be flippancy on my part. Accidents of birth don’t stand up to much scrutiny. Ius sanguinis? Ius soli? Buying citizenship with ill-gotten wealth?

What I do find extremely appealing is supra-national citizenship, the idea of sharing some kind of identity with a group of nations with common interests and common goals – a belonging which is inclusive rather than exclusive. Which is what for me makes the EU a no-brainer. It has been an integral part of my whole adult life and I hope – now that I’ve put myself beyond the Brexit bear trap – it will continue that way forever. It allowed us to opt for our Italian existence. It has melted away barriers without melting local or national differences. It has made us allies. The thought of Brexit leaves me unmoved. The thought of future generations not being able to make decisions and build relations like we did fills me with sadness.

0131COnce again, I’ve been energized by Milan. It’s a buzzy place. We were only there for one night this week but it was a good injection of urban oomph. Our country life is my ideal but I have to admit, you need that from time to time, especially at this point in the winter which can start to seem so very long if you don’t break it up.

For a start it gave me a chance to catch up with an old friend. How does it come about that I let real, close friendships slide? We tried to work out when we’d last seen each other but decided for our own peace of mind to call it a day when we got to ten years. No point in delving back further.

But there’s a special feeling when you see someone after all that time and pick up as if you’d seen each other last week. That’s a good thing.

The ‘real’ reason for our trip? Two new shows being presented at the Fondazione Prada. I’ve raved about this place before. But please bear with me while I do so again. I love its spaces and its colours and its brilliant repurposing (thankyou Rem Koolhaas) of what would otherwise have crumbled just like the other remnants of hulking, looming industrial architecture which are visible around. But even better was something summed up by one of the curators of the show we went to see.

This was called ‘The Porcelain Room‘, and consisted of a small space filled with Chinese porcelain of the 16th-19th centuries which might have been claustrophobic were it not some weird tardis opening up a multi-coloured world of objects which you might not like, the significance of which you definitely won’t understand unless you’re an expert in the field but which somehow are mesmerising.

As this curator said, it’s not a natural choice for a temple of the contemporary but because of the way the FP sees its mission, it fits. And he said that staging this particular exhibit here was far more straightforwad than staging it in a more ‘classical’ setting.

If art historical labels cease to be the point and contemporary ways of seeing take pride of place, then the items on show take on a whole different form and significance. It’s a fascinating approach.

When I drove back down the motorway from Arezzo yesterday in blazing sun, the car thermometer read 15° (59°F). It was kind of wonderful and kind of scary.

0131DThese final three days of the January are the giorni della merla– the blackbird days – which in popular tradition are cold enough to freeze blackbirds off their branches. There are various stories explaining the name, but all of them boil down, more or less, to extreme low temperatures – which even today, which has been grey and glum and intermittently drizzly, we certainly haven’t had.

February 2 is Candelora (Candlemass, groundhog day) about which I have written before. What Candelora weather signifies is complicated. Per la santa Candelora se nevica o se plora dell’inverno siamo fora (if it rains or snow on Candelora then winter’s over) some people say. But other rhymes from other regions directly contradict this – one great cacophony of weather predictions.

Which is fitting really, given how the climate is behaving.

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18 January 2020 – Colours


It was a shock a couple of days ago, opening the shutters and not having to blink in momentary blindness as my eyes adapted to the winter sunshine. The grey only lasted a few hours, but it was tough. So imagine the shock when I woke in the middle of last night to hear rain. We’d forgotten what it sounded like over our month of brilliance.


Down on Lake Trasimeno, before the rain returned…


And the first full moon of 2020…

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6 January 2020

I have been known, I know, to crow about how you can more or less forget garden exertions in winter. But since a couple of days before Christmas when the drear damp that had plagued us for weeks gave way to pale crispy blue, I have found myself resenting every moment I’m not raking up the soggy half-decayed leaves that are damaging my so-called lawns or grappling with the crouch grass that ran rampant across my garden beds all through autumn inundations. It feels like a liberation.

We’ve been walking too – not much I admit but in speedy mediumly ambitious spurts very locally. I love walks that don’t involve cars. Striding straight out the front door is so satisfying. As L contemplates the little illustrated walking guide to the Amalfi Coast he’s going to write for guests at Le Sirenuse, I’m thinking: perhaps I should do the same (in a slightly humbler fashion) for my guests at Pieve Suites. I’ll see what I can come up with.

Market chats with strangers: I love them.

There was hardly anyone at my favourite vegetable stall as I rushed by last Saturday morning, so I stopped to avoid coming back later at a more convenient time for me only to find myself waiting endlessly in the usual scrum. The vegetable boys are kindly, but fast-talking and sardonic. For the past 20+ years they have worked their land down near Lake Bolsena all week (they also have an agriturismo which I’m told is lovely) and brought their produce to Città della Pieve on Saturday morning.

“What are you doing with all that bedding?” said Roberto nodding towards the big white bed cover I had in my arms. I explained that I had just washed it and was taking it back to Pieve Suites. Then I explained what Pieve Suites was, as I’d never told him about it before.

“So you rent to Germans?” he asked.
“Why on earth Germans?!” I said, knowing what was coming.
“Aren’t you German?”
“Of course not! You’ve known me for years Roberto: you should know that! In fact… I’m Italian.”
“Hah! What kind of Italian do you think you are? You’ve got to be joking!”
“I have an Italian passport (actually I don’t, but I could) and I’m very very proud of it,” I told him.

A huge snort from Roberto.

“You see?” piped up the only other person at the stall. “She’s proud. Are we proud? Not at all.”
And off he went on a long elucidation of Italy’s glories. “And do we appreciate all this? No, all we do is criticise and complain. We don’t know how lucky we are!”
“But I, on the other hand, chose it,” I pointed out (as I always do: I’m a bit of a broken record on this theme). “I knew what I was letting myself in for and I chose it, not like you people who just happened to be born here. And now I have every right to be proud of it.”
“That’s how we should be!” said the other vegetable purchaser enthusiastically. But Roberto just snorted and looked at us pityingly.
Poveri voi!” he said. Pathetic, both of you.

His vegetables are wonderful.

We did our main Christmas meal on the evening of December 24th this year. C and her partner had to rush off to his parents straight after lunch on Christmas day so it seemed logical. I was in the midst of my usual organised chaos in the kitchen at about 7.10pm when the phone rang. On the other end was a man from Telecom Italia.

Our phone line has been driving us up the wall since mid November. It, like me, doesn’t like winter. It doesn’t like wind or rain. For weeks it had been intermittent, our adsl connection had been grindingly slow, our land line dropping in and out. Infuriating.

I had reported problems over and over again. Technicians had popped down to the house and fiddled with wires; men with chainsaws had cut away vegetation beneath the poles. Still it came and went. Then we lost it completely, a week before Christmas, dead as a dodo. Miraculously, on 23 December, a whole swarm of Telecom boys had appeared in the valley and removed a tree that had fallen on the line and brought it down. Merry Christmas! But even newly patched up, the connection continued hopeless.

And now, at 7.15pm on Christmas eve, I found myself on the phone to a slow-speaking man with an air of resigned despair, the weight of the telecommunications world on his shoulders, who was determined to talk me through all the possible convolutions of what could be wrong with the way our phones and modems and routers and boosters are plugged into our system. Picture me with the phone lodged between shoulder and ear as I chop and peel and mix, trying to be as patient as I could because he seemed to be so quietly determined to solve all my problems that I really didn’t feel I could let him down.

On and on he droned, for about quarter of an hour, sounding mildly disappointed – like a parent who doesn’t want to let on her child see how catastrophic its exam results are – at those points where I told him that no, right then I really couldn’t go upstairs and unplug everything and plug it in again. I felt I was letting him down terribly.

But there just came a point when I couldn’t take any more. My neck was aching and I had burnt my hand on the oven doing complicated baking manoeuvres with a phone threatening to slip into the heat from its position under my chin.

“Sorry,” I interrupted him, “but aren’t you planning to have any Christmas dinner?” Italians tend to celebrate on the evening of 24th. He sounded a little crestfallen – though also perhaps secretly proud.

“No, no, I don’t have any plans to. Someone has to be here to handle emergencies,” which hardly describes a phone line which at that point had been failing on and off for six weeks. “Anyway, Christmas really isn’t my thing,” he added wistfully.

I was almost tempted to invite him to join us. Truly, Telecom Italia moves in mysterious ways.

***Shortly after posting this piece I bumped into Nuvola the donkey and her owner Ettore (pictured at the top) trudging down our lane. Both looked disgruntled.

“She was meant to accompany the three wise men on their procession through town,” said Ettore. Yesterday was Epiphany, 6 January, when the three wise men (or kings, depending on the version you choose) dropped by to see the newborn baby Jesus in Bethlehem. “But she just put the brakes on and refused to take a single step. She made me look terrible!”

Poor Nuvola. She has been subjected to all kinds of indignities over the past few days, being mauled about by kids (and nuns) in the local kindergarten and officiating at various costumed yuletide events. Maybe she’d just had enough.

Or maybe she knows her Christmas folk tales too well. Who ever heard of a wise man (or a king for that matter) on a tiny donkey? They needed imperious camels or perhaps elephants to carry them to the stable, not a delicate donkey fed up with festive brouhaha.

All of which goes to prove that even a CdP ass is better informed than many right-wing Italian MPs – the kind who invoke (their) religious beliefs as some kind of gold standard –  who fell by the wayside when asked where Jesus was born (in Italian only, sorry). And then they moan that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas.

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20 December 2019

I’m finding the slide towards Christmas harder with every year that passes. I like the family coming together. I like the decorative part of the season: the tree-dressing and… well that’s it really.

The thing that gets me is presents. I’m hating presents more and more. I don’t like thinking of them, or buying them or – more than anything – receiving them. There’s nothing I need really (except perhaps a hedge trimmer but for some reason no one wants to give me one of those; they say it’s not Christmassy enough).

Quite a large part of this is due to laziness/inertia on my part. It used to be easy when we lived in the city: there was so much frantic Christmas retail going on all around that you were dragged along by the tide, ending up with a dense Christmas tree understory of things you could quite well have lived without. Here in the country, on the other hand, it requires effort: you actually have to pro-actively go somewhere and think things through rather than just happening by chance across the perfect(-ish) gift. Which is tough.

How did I become so anti-festive when I live in a place where really rather tasteful (well, it’s all relative and at least it’s not over-the-top) Christmas decorations don’t go up until a perfectly acceptable date in December, where retail frenzy is represented by a sprinkling of ‘scenic’ wooden huts selling trinkets that people look at but rarely buy, where yuletide excitement consists of a “Music of the 1960s and ’70s” night in the theatre to gather funds for the local old peoples’ home or horse-and-carriage rides around the centro storico at weekends?

This year we have the slightly surreal addition of piped Christmas-themed music in town, which gives it an air of an outdoor supermarket without much on the shelves – and, for that matter, without shelves. Christmas-themed music here is always a bit hit-and-miss. Italy has nothing like our Anglo-Saxon tradition of carols, so they borrow, mixing Silent Night and Away in a Manger quite indiscriminately and incongruously with Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Unwittingly sacred and profane.

Back in Rome we’d drag our heathen selves to All Saints’ Anglican church to belt out carols with the Anglo comunity, and scoff mince pies and innoculate ourselves against the over-decorated yuletide streets outside with mulled wine. Often we’d drag Italian friends along. They’d emerge dewey-eyed and full of wonder: “but how come you all know the words? It’s amazing!” Carols, I’d explain, are imprinted on our DNA.

Another major seasonal bugbear is my burgeoning allergy to spending money on people (even the people dearest to me) who really don’t need much, when there are so many people who do – and by extension, to spending money on things that don’t merit it

As the seasonal Spirit of Scrooge grips me more and more tightly, I find myself ranting loudly about badly spent resources.

Way back during my acqua alta Venice visit, I found the number of crowd-funding initiatives springing up quite bewildering. Of course there were many many people and institutions who/which absolutely merited all the support they could get to pull themselves out of the mud; I listed some of them here. But there were many more appeals for financial help which left me thinking “sorry? what? but don’t you have insurance?” Am I being unfair? (One Venetian resident I talked to told me that everything they valued had been shifted to upper floors, leaving only crates of her dearly departed mother-in-law’s stuff downstairs where the high tide washed through. “We really didn’t know what to do with it. Now nature has come to our aid.”) My worry is that the dubious appeals devalue the really worthwhile ones. I so want to see donors’ kindness going to causes that merit it.

From there, through many orders of magnitude, I find myself raging at a wild variety of things, right up to the thought that Michael Bloomberg is blowing an estimated $4.2 million dollars per day on ads for a presidential campaign that is so clearly destined to fail. Until suddenly I get a grip on myself and think: “maybe you should get out more.”

For me, the ideal present is a donation to something I care about*. I admit, this sounds goody goody but really, more than anything it gets me out of the terrible bind of having to pretend to have always been dying to possess that thing really quite dispensable thing.

There’s a new traffic police(wo)man patrolling the valley road from Moiano to Castiglione del Lago, who has local drivers up in arms. In fact they’ve formed a committee: il comitato dei multati seriali della SS71 (serially fined users of the SS71, which is the name of the road). There has been at least one noisy meeting which I was tempted to attend – not because I’ve been fined (I haven’t), but to hear what kind of logic they would use to put the ticket-issuer in the wrong and themselves in the right.

I was away, though, and missed the event which apparently ended with all the injured parties agreeing to look into the possibility of a class action. So I’m still in the dark as to whether anyone brought up the obvious point: if people are finding themselves with three or four fines daily from three or four hell-for-leather journeys along this long straight flat stretch of tarmac (many sections of which have recently been resurfaced meaning that speediness no long always results in crushed wheel rims and damaged axles) it is only because they’ve been exceeding the speed limit and therefore breaking the law. They couldn’t possibly be fined if there were behaving as the rules demand. They are, in a nutshell, guilty as charged.

Risks and bets are part of everyone’s life I reckon, and doing 90kph along a long straight smooth stretch of road where the limit is 70kph is a risk that I, personally, am willing to take probably rather too often.

Even more ridiculously, I pretty sure that there are evenings when I emerge from a dinner party or a restaurant with enough alcohol in my system to get me in trouble should I be stopped. I’m not a heavy drinker, especially when I have a drive home ahead but… well, just one more glass perhaps, despite the lurking fear that the final sip could result in my license being revoked and therefore being deprived of my livelihood because if I’m not independently mobile, I can’t work. You’d think that would put the fear of god into me. But no.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that Italians consider rules not so much as proscriptions but as gentle promptings – that a red traffic light is little more than a suggestion (it isn’t) and that taxes should be paid only as an absolute last resort (not, for the vast majority of honest souls, true). But at some level there is definitely a resistance to authority that Italians can’t shake off. The class action will not be against the fines themselves so much as against the fact that there was no indication anywhere (in the form of a hi-vis speed camera or big flashing sign) that the risk levels had gone up. That’s just not fair play! When authority surreptitiously tips chances in its favour, resentment sets in.

A tale of two cities: we’ve been to Naples and to Rome, the former a heaving joyous mass of humanity and the latter looking eerily August-empty. Admittedly we were in Naples over the weekend and Rome mid-week but in the capital only the decorations gave the seasonal game away.

In Naples, L had to interview Marco Ferrigno, the latest in many generations of producers of nativity scene figures. His narrow, figurine-dense shop in via San Gregorio Armeno is an over-stuffed wonderland and his non-stop top-volume banter makes it feel even fuller. He was just back from Milan where he’d been decorating the shop windows of Dolce & Gabbana. Dovetailing Neapolitan creativity and Milanese efficiency, he said, was an explosive experience: the whole country should take note.

Climbing up to the first-floor workshop were clients who invest in another minor masterpiece each year, people who had commissioned portraits of loved ones in the guise of Holy Birth attendants to add to their presepe and bewildered out-of-towners just trying to avoid domino-effect devastation.

At the other end of the scale, he had to interview Sylvain Bellenger, the charming Frenchman who runs the Capodimonte museum. I had already luxuriated in a long, slow tramp around the palazzo and its superb collection as L did the official chat. But afterwards, the director frog-marched us around once again, explaining his vision and his plans and milking us for reactions and comments in a way that was hugely stimulating fun.

When you run a place like this, he said, you end up only seeing the faults. I like visiting Capodimonte through fresh eyes.

Any time, Sylvain, any time.

I know I fill my blog with “Italy: everything difficult, nothing impossible” tales but yesterday’s experience in Rome was an extreme example so I’ll risk telling the tale (as concisely as possible). To be employed with her new NGO in Greece, C needs an arcane piece of paper: a document confirming that her official birth certificate exists, stating the names of both her parents, in all EU languages. This piece of paper can be obtained through a long postal odyssey, or by going yourself (or sending your mother) to the town council office in the place where you were born. I was going to Rome so great, I’d drop by the Anagrafe.

Fine, they told me after an hour’s wait which gave me time to admire the beautiful detailing of this Fascist-era construction. I waited for the piece of paper to be handed over. Er, no: you have to come back in two weeks’ time. If you think about it, this is not entirely unreasonable: locating a paper document from 1990, checking its validity, transcribing the information, passing it between offices – all odd ideas in an age where everything is digital but also somehow comforting in how it makes paper so crucial.

But… the whole point of my going to the Anagrafe is that C needs the document immediately and she will only be here for a few days over Christmas when going to Rome and collecting papers would be difficult. Two weeks is too long.

“But I need it now!” I wailed. No way. Except.

The very nice girl (they were all extremely pleasant) told me to go to another office where they might just be able to call the official records office (a completely different department though housed in the same vast building) and see if they could speed up the process of digging the original out of the vaults, scanning it, and sending it through to the Anagrafe.

No, it seemed not. The young man at the desk seemed completely flummoxed by my request, but did just happen to mention that the records office was right upstairs – not that the general public were allowed anywhere near it… but I could just sneak up and see if there was anyone still there who’d talk to me. By this time it was after 5pm. The chances were slim.

I went upstairs and knocked on the door. Nothing. But a busy looking older woman hurried by and asked what I wanted. I told her. Two weeks, she said. I explained my situation. Hmmm, well, how about tomorrow at 11am? No, I would have left Rome already. (I think my English accent might have helped here: I suspect she thought I had a plane to catch.) Sit there signora, so I sat looking as woebegone as possible on a seat outside the door while she disappeared through it, armed with C’s name and date of birth.

Twenty minutes later the birth certificate had been located, scanned and sent, and the Anagrafe office on the far side of the sprawling building had produced for me an insignificant-looking scrap of A4 paper with birth details in various languages. It seemed so unimpressive after all my efforts that I felt quite deflated. But it’s what she needs. And a two-week process had been reduced to quite a lot of mild-manned determination on my part and an after-office-hours tour de force by kindly Rome council employees.

I love how you can do that in Italy: an abiding belief that rules and regulations can be adapted to personal requirements is not such a bad thing after all.


There’s a Caravaggio down there


*Some of my favourite causes:

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