1 March 2018

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This late winter chill has cast an icy glaze over Umbria. Advertisements

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23 February 2018


Italian beverages in small-town NSW

Rome taxi drivers. They’re generally fairly unlikeable, like the one who took us to Termini station today. Laminated sheets of A5 stuck to the dashboard and the back of the front passenger seat welcomed fares who sat meekly and let him do what he wanted – persone gentili, well behaved people. That was the first, very short, sentence.

Then there was a long rant about how people who saw fit to try to teach him the ‘correct’ route, people who dare to answer back, people spoiling for a fight, people – in short – who made his life a misery could just exit the vehicle. You could tell he was on a short fuse.

From the hotel where we spent last night, he set off in the direction diametrically opposed to the station, which was our destination. We were so busy trying to find ways of stashing our sodden raingear without drenching our legs that I didn’t notice at first. There might well have been a simple explanation: the whole traffic system around the heavily militarised Colosseum area has been changed. L enquired, in a very friendly way I thought, why he had opted for that particular route.

A me? A me?” he thundered, glaring at us bug-eyed in the rear-view mirror. “Sta dicendo a me che strada fare?!You’re telling me which way to go?!

For a moment I thought we might be forcibly ejected. He muttered and grumbled and we sunk into the back seat, trying not to giggle. I wondered what kind of carnage a driver in the grip of an apoplectic fit might cause in chaotic Rome traffic. He was clearly not used to having his decisions queried.

The one who took me to the hotel the previous evening, on the other hand, was uncharacteristically pleasant, and interested to hear that I lived in Umbria because that’s where he was from. Except, it transpired, he wasn’t because he came from the Marche. But near enough. Kind of.

Of course the chat turned to food. Because this is Italy and it always does. He started listing all his favourite umbro-marchigiani meaty things. The city was log-jammed in the rain, and he had plenty of time to be horribly exhaustive. At a certain point, though, I guess it must have occurred to him that I wasn’t joining in. I was forced to admit that I don’t eat meat.


– So what do you put with your vegetables? You must have a steak every now and then?
– No.
Silence. I think he was beginning to worry that he had some psychopath, or maybe alien, in his cab. He was going to have to humour me. Previously, I’d told him that we’d lived in Rome for 25 years. So he tried again, with Roman food.

– But, like, at least you can eat pajata….?

Of all meat dishes, pajata is one that makes even the most callous carnivore balk. It’s the intestines of very young, unweaned veal, with the mother’s milk still inside. It’s boiled up in thick tomato sauce so that the milk curdles nauseatingly.

I try to explain to him patiently that that is possibly the most disgusting meat dish ever invented but he’s having none of it.

– But it’s just milk! Come on, it’s perfect if you don’t eat meat!

I let it slide.

Rome was awash, a sodden dystopia of broken umbrellas and crappy plastic bag-bins flapping everywhere. They’re a novelty. The bulking baronial-castle-fire-basket ones which actually – when you got used to them – looked rather fine and fitting but which caused such an outcry when they were introduced for the 2000 Holy Year have disappeared, presumably for security reasons. I would wager that they cost a fortune which had the happy side-effect of limiting their number.


Bernini & bag-bins

The new ones, on the other hand, are a disk of concrete with a metal stick coming out of them, ending in a thick plastic circle to which a big plastic bag is attached. They lean at drunken angles on the rocky pavements and flap inelegantly. No attempt at separating for recycling. And – I’ll wager because they’re relatively cheap – they are everywhere, blighting the city. I think I’d prefer rubbish on the ground, quite frankly because they are little more than rubbish raised slightly above it. In piazza Navona, I counted up to 30 of the things, all around that magnificent oval with those magnificent statues at its centre and those magnificent palazzi all around. Thirty-plus forlorn flapping bag-bins. It was disgusting. What is the hapless Rome city council thinking of?


Annoyingly inactive sweet potatoes

I’m trying to strike my own sweet potatoes. According to every single thing I’ve read about it, striking sweet potatoes is like falling off a log. Really? Mostly, so far, I’ve struck some very fine mould cultures and some very smelly water. Are they in too cold a spot? I shouldn’t think so because they had days of lovely sunshine before the current damp misery (punctuated with some snow here and there) set in. I’m going to persevere, though I don’t know for how long.

I’m also going to give ginger another go. Someone (who?) told me that they grow tons of it, every year, around here. I think it might – like on my previous attempts – come unstuck in my sticky claggy clay soil, but there’s no harm in trying.

I think I won’t do potatoes this year. They’re very unsatisfying. They take up a whole lot of space and stay there for too long and then tend to go yucky in the pantry before we get around to eating them.

I am – I decided as I did my usual spring-time prowl through the Organic Catalogue – going to grow silly frondy things: odd oriental salady bits, outlandish kales. If nothing else, they’ll jolly up the vegetable garden.

End-February is the time when I generally start putting seeds in trays and my greenhouse begins filling up. But there’s so much snow on the forecast for the next five days or so, and such un-springy cold (-9°? We don’t get -9°!) that I’m absolutely going to wait.


The Pittwater harbour house where I grew up

It seems such a long time ago that we were sweltering in Sri Lanka, then me in Australia. I look back in shame at my endless moaning about the excessive heat last summer: never again will I talk badly of the summer. (I will of course, but hey.) My sore back should have seized up irremediably over long plane journeys but instead it vanished the moment we stepped out into summer. My shoulder, still aching from a bike tumble two years ago, was suddenly ‘cured’.

I even emerged unscathed from the kind of road trip – from the Snowy Mountains, all along the NSW coast up to Sydney and beyond – which should have finished me off. But I was warm, and it was wonderful, and it didn’t.

Now here I am, back in the cold, and my aches have rushed back in. I’m not made for cold. I can’t wait until this whoosh of air from the Siberian Arctic disperses and I can start thinking springy thoughts.



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5 February 2018

Travelling in much of western Europe, with a couple of languages at your command, there are few places where you can’t grasp a word or two here and there. You don’t necessarily understand what’s being said, but there’s comfort to be taken in the fact that you’re on more or less familiar ground.

At first it’s a bit like this with the vegetation in Sri Lanka. It’s full of plants in familiar families – Myrtaceae, Rutaceae, Moraceae, Fabaceae (not that I’m very proficient at telling these apart, mind you…) – but take a closer look and you’re lost: it’s familiar but alien, comforting but deeply frustrating. Overhearing otherwise incomprehensible conversations, the odd word generally doesn’t make me want to know much more: one look at the people chatting and often enough you’re pretty sure they don’t have much of interest to say to you. These plants, on the other hand, make me want to know everything. As I say, frustrating.

The problem dogged me through our ten days in Sri Lanka – in Colombo’s lovely Viharamahavedi park (“much simpler when it was Victoria park,” muttered an elderly friend whose husband was once Italy’s ambassador there), in the spectacular Peradeniya botanical gardens, way up in the southern hill country where we hiked through tea plantations both operational and abandoned and – perhaps most of all – in the Yala and Lunugamvehera national parks way down in the south-east where we spent three days bouncing through red dust on badly sprung jeeps, an excellent guide on hand who identified animals and birds deftly but looked blank and not a little embarrassed when I pointed hopefully to trees. I would so love to have had a botanist on board as well!

As it was, much of my time was spent in a googling frenzy, desperately trying to match leaves and flowers snatched from the side of the road with indecisive photos and patchy descriptions.

So to make myself feel a little more in control of my encounters with unfamiliar flora I’ve been combing the internet for good on-line courses in plant biology or plant identification or plant taxonomy and come up with… nothing. Maybe I just need a good old old-fashioned book. Something to work on for 2018.

This trip reminded me how much I adore flowering trees. Of course we have our wonderful fruit trees at home but they’re delicate, fleeting things: superb at their height but very transient. Late January, I learnt, is not a great time for massive showers of dazzling, ebullient tree colour in SL either – we were there in April last time, when the magnificent flame tree (Delonix regia) and cannonball tree (Couroupita guianensis) were in bloom – but there was enough to keep me happy… not that I can say with any certainty what it was that I was peering at, high up in the tree canopy.

I love, too, the clean green neatness of tea plantations, with their occasional glimpses of those tiny, fragile camelia flowers which remind you of what you’re looking at/drinking. Not that I drink it: I’ve never really liked the stuff, and after our estate ramble at the wonderful organic Amba Estate where we were staying, when presented with a glass jar of black tea to sniff in the estate office, my left eye promptly started watering to the point where I had tears dripping off my chin and I could see nothing. Is my dislike for tea actually an allergy? I’d never thought of that before. I mean it may just have been coincidence (I can find no trace of anyone else on the whole internet who reacts to tea that way: tea bags are widely recommended for use as poultices to stop sore, swollen eyes) but it was a strange one if so.

Walking through the countryside around there, along paths beaten through fields and woods by generations of tea pickers, the sound of human voices was never very far away – a little like olive-picking time around us, except this was exclusively female, like the pickers themselves. Brightly dresses ladies dotted the tea gardens, their hands always steadily in motion.

Our stay up in the hills set in motion our ruminations on tourism in its various manifestations. From our very simple, restfully isolated perch on the Amba Estate (in fact we were here rather than in the estate-owned property but it adds up to the same thing) we were fed fantastically and left to our own devices. Our various walks took us up to rocky look-outs and to the marvellous Ravana Falls which we reached along the chattering channel that still takes water to a small hydro-electric plant in a disused (but soon to be revamped) tea factory, across a rickety bridge and through tall trees guided by an elderly gentleman whose great-grandfather owned the whole estate until the 1970s, but who is now the cook at a British-owned hotel on the far side of the river, the land of which we hiked through to the waterfall.

We had the high pool of the Ravana falls almosts to ourselves, the only other people there being an Anglo-French couple staying in Clove Tree House with us. It was magical.

The next day we trekked through plantations and eucalyptus forests (planted, clearly: not native), seeing maybe five people – locals, all of them – to Ella Rock where twenty-somethings in board shorts and flip flops/thongs lounged on rocks and seemed underwhelmed by the splendour in front of them. They had walked up the other side, from Ella town itself, a charming little outpost according to articles and guides but in fact (as we found when we climbed down to it on the other side, through streams of similar hikers coming up the other way) utterly overrun and far from charming – clearly still featuring high on this year’s south-east-Asia backpacking check-list.

You could see the progression. Ella must have started out as a tiny town amid failing tea estates, perhaps with small homestays and little but glorious, unkempt nature to offer. When the backpackers arrived, quick-off-the-mark locals created amenities in the visitors’ image: burger bars and large loud eateries serving pan-Asian generics, and cafés selling Lavazza coffee at 20 times the price of a cup of the Sri Lankan brew. At one of these cafés we listened as two Aussies and two Germans compared burgers in various points across that geographical region. It was clear that all the countries visited were essentially one big back-packing blur.

But things were stirring again on the tourism front, pushed along by the town’s new-found ‘success’. At one extreme, some smart little eco-lodges were aiming at a different category of independent traveller: less frivolous, arguably, and probably more monied. And at the other, some biggish hotels with Chinese script on the notice boards out front were straggling up the hill from the main street: nothing fancy, mind you – probably destined for Chinese tour groups. Which will win out? For the beauties of the surrounding countryside, I kind of hope it’s the eco-tourists rather than the vast coachloads of bewildered Chinese one-nighters.

Meanwhile just outside town, where the Ravana waterfall eventually comes crashing to its lowest point – way lower than the magical spot we had hiked to the previous day and far too close to Ella town itself – the large flat rocks just off the road were heaving with sun-bleached bikinied girls squealing and naked-torsoed young men trying to match looking coolly detached with being on the prowl. I doubt anyone was pondering the magnificence of the setting. From the road, local tuk-tuk drivers looked resigned, clearly interested only in their next fare.

I say that eco-tourism – a label that covers a multitude of sins and vaguenesses – is preferable to mass invasions but it is certainly no guarantee of anything at all sensitive. Down south, where we stayed at the brand-new Wild Coast Tented Lodge, we saw just how bad so-called eco-tourism can be at the Yala national park.

The hotel, located in the Yala park buffer zone, was striking and special – teething problems to sort, but impressive. The Yala safari experience was a curate’s egg: wonderful because we had a fantastic guide, employed by the hotel, who seemed to enjoy having clients who weren’t just there for what he referred to as ‘charismatic fauna’ – ie leopards – but to experience the lot… including some extraordinary birds which, he said, he didn’t even bother to point out to many visitors.

We did see a leopard, fleetingly (L’s picture of blurry vegetation has been studied and re-studied but we can’t work out where the leopard is lurking), and lots of elephants and crocodiles and lizards and peacocks galore (I still think they look plain silly in the wild). But we also witnessed the scariest animals of all: in a tremendous traffic jam, yodeling tourists threw their weight about in jeeps – jostling with each other, encouraging drivers to push other vehicles off the road and generally behaving like hooligans, to see a pin-point on a distant rock which someone had decided was a leopard. It was as humiliating as it was distressing. The taste it left was bitter. Our guide, who had managed up to that point to steer us away from these scenes, was mortified.

Six hundred jeeps plough into Yala each day, packed in a majority of cases with gawpers whose interest in the fauna and its habitat – to the extent that it even exists – has clear funfair overtones. And this is called eco-tourism. It really isn’t doing the planet much good. But maybe small patches of natural beauty have to be sacrificed to that kind of traveller in order to leave the rest to those more timid animals which shun the human presence, and to people who can do without ‘charisma’.

Our idea of safari-perfection was infinitely more low-key: killing the jeep engine to sit quietly and watch an elephant wading through a lotus-filled pool with an egret balanced on his back; or lingering by a muddy hole where a painted stork went about his business calmly, unaware of the banal, everyday family-drama dynamics of the water buffaloes pushing and shoving and stirring up the mire.

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21 January 2018

One evening last week there was the most extraordinary sunset, which passed through dramatic shades of apricot with strange whispy white fronds dropping from dense rolls of cloud, to the kind of intense bruise colours backlit with burnished bronze that you might, if you’re lucky, find over the sea (Positano does a nice line in them for example) but not in our landlocked neck of the woods.

I was down in the valley, rushing to get too many things done in some rare outbreaks of local unsightliness, snapping with my inadequate old phone camera, quite transfixed each time I stepped out of the car and gaped at the sunset’s progression. When the spectacle reached its climax, I was in the carpark of our local Lidl. There I stood, marvelling. (Not a sentence you can often write about Lidl or its carpark.)

The woman climbing back into the car next door was impressed in quite a different way: “I don’t like it,” she said to her husband. “It’s scary. Something bad’s going to happen: an earthquake or something. It’s just not natural.”

Which is odd because you can’t get much more natural than a technicolor country sunset. But in this case it was just a little too out of the ordinary: rather than accepting nature’s surprises as a marvellous gift, there’s a very arcane tendency in country parts to see them as an evil omen.

In a garden project just outside CdP I’m working with a friend – an engineer of many years’ experience with whom I agree about most things but not about rabdomanti (water diviners): he doesn’t trust mine, and mine doesn’t trust his. When you think about it, it’s a very odd thing for intelligent, rational people (I’m referring to him, of course… I do my best) to disagree about.

Mine (Renato) took his fob watch for a walk around the property a couple of months ago and laid sticks down on the ground, way below the house, on the level beneath the swimming pool. More than 70 metres deep, he said.

“He never fails to get things wrong,” was my engineer-friend’s disdainful response. I sprang to Renato’s defence: since he found the (touch wood) unquenchable source on our property he has done the same for several of my clients.

But some weeks later, the engineer’s diviner, Giancarlo, had his say too. I wasn’t there to witness the spectacle. He knocked his picket into the middle of what must have once been a football pitch or a tennis court: there are high chain-wire fences on two sides, and vague plans on the owner’s part to created some kind of labyrinth in there. Not an ideal spot.

And so, we took the only path that could possibly occur to intelligent, rational people: we got a third rabdomante – Marco – in.

Now, as I’ve probably said before, I don’t particularly want to believe in anything as medieval and hocus-pocusy as water divining. There’s always a part of me that clings to the kind of arguments posited in this recent article in the Guardian. But bunk or not, I’ve seen water surge up from the very spot and the very depth that rabdomanti have pinpointed. What can I say? They are, I suppose, just lucky guesses. And long may they continue.

The third diviner was not told what his two colleagues had found. Nor does he know them: if the two diviners in our small town are at daggers drawn, they’re unlikely to look favourably on some upstart-interloper from the other side of Lake Trasimeno. Marco began his to-ing and fro-ing, back and forth along the terraces of olive trees.

“There’s a strong vein coming down here,” he said at one point. “Some of it veers off over there near those pomegranates, but most comes down here.” He stuck a stick in the ground where he stood, and indicated that the vein continued down towards the terrace below the pool. Then he set off, head down, back up the slope. “I’m intrigued,” he said. “I want to find where this vein comes from.”

With his whole attention on his bit of bent rebar, he started off up the hill, back towards the house and the garden where we’re working. He hadn’t been there before. He knew nothing about the works going on. He had his head down, not looking more than a step or two in front of him. I followed him as he scrambled, up until the moment when he almost tripped over the old well which is now being turned into a water tank.

“What’s this?” he said.
“A well,” I said. “But it has no water in it.”

If it doesn’t, he reckoned, it was only because the water level had sunk. But the water definitely hadn’t gone away. It was right there – just deeper down that it had once been. For some reason, the fact that his rebar had led him to that very spot filled me with joy.

To be fair to the second water diviner, I insisted that Marco sweep the property from the other side too. I had removed the stake from the middle of the tennis court, but left a mark in the dirt that only I would have been able to identify among the many other scuffs. With the heel of his shoe, diviner N°3 drew a line across the court to show where he could feel water flowing: it went straight through the point where Giancarlo had put his stake, and continued down the hill, right to a spot below the pool where it intersected with the first vein – precisely where my rabdomante had said right from the start. And that, eventually, is where the well will be sunk and – if all goes to plan – a ‘lucky guess’ will put another dent in my skepticism.

A couple of nights ago, C told us, her refugee-boat-spotting team on Lesvos had called to say that a dinghy had been sighted heading across from Turkey, but so rough was the sea that the search and rescue boat wasn’t given permission to put out. With two colleagues, she hopped in a car and drove along in the coast in the direction the boat seemed to be heading.

Their valiant rescue efforts ground to an ignominious halt when they got the car stuck on a sandy beach. But while they were trying to dig/push the vehicle out, the dinghy washed up right there beside them with 30-odd people on board. Food and emergency blankets were distributed from the marooned car. Then rather than behave like everybody’s idea of hapless refugees, one group of the new arrivals seemed more concerned with helping to extract the car than with their own predicament. They dug and pushed but nothing doing though: it was stuck fast.

“You seem very calm about this situation,” one jolly Iranian complimented C. At which she pointed out to him that for someone who had just risked his life crossing the Aegean in a leaky dinghy he seemed pretty calm too. He laughed long and loud, she said.


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11 January 2018

0111ALate last night in an idle moment I clicked on Weather Underground and found this. Cue a double, then a triple and quadruple take. I mean, we’ve had our good days and our less good days – some biting cold and some rain but yesterday, for example, it was 13° (55°F) with resplendent skies. Minus 15°? Difficult to get your tired evening brain around.

Shocked, I reloaded the site, and this forecast had gone. The earth had slid back on to its correct axis. Things looked much as they have been – a bit of rain and generally warmer than normal for this time of year. Had the algorhythms gone wild? Or were the people on the other end just having a bit of a giggle? Checking whether anyone was still awake?

L keeps saying he can smell spring, and some of my plants agree with him: the Teucrium fruticans (tree germander) is in extravagant unseasonal bloom and some of the roses have sprouted emerald leaves which look healthier than anything I ever get in summer. I’ve sworn off making springy predictions until well into February: you never know what that fickle month might throw at us around here. But it’s a joy to see the days surreptitiously lengthening. If I could just steer myself outside, there might be some hope for my garden.

It’s distressing how easy it is to pick up bad habits. The long restructuring works on my Pieve Suites project in town – and in particular the final stages where I was personally hauling furnishings and bits and pieces – distracted my attention from all kinds of regular activities. Until then, my more-or-less usual mode of reaching town was a healthy pedal. With the excuse that I had too much to carry, the car replaced my bike. Now it rarely occurs to me not to drive up the lane, polluting the countryside and doing nothing to tone my thighs.

Likewise my garden. Much of my final flurry coincided with our absurdly short spring and grimly hot summer: it was no sacrifice really to find reasons to be inside, fiddling with decorative details. After months and month of easy excuses, though, I’m finding it’s a massive effort to propel myself into some gardening clothes and out the front door. Once I have my trowel and secateurs in hand, it’s a breeze. It’s just getting to that point that I’m finding ludicrously difficult. Which has predictable results on the state of the garden.

The one area which has partially escaped my agorophobic sloth is the veggie garden, where garlic (though not onions) and peas are now in, and where there’s a mediumly satisfying crop of turnip greens and cavolo nero to save me from horticultural self-loathing and despair. My giant broccoli plants continue to run rampant without the faintest whisper of a head of broccoli. At least, though, from afar they give the impression that it’s a successful and well tended orto.

I’m thinking that perhaps the only way to steer myself outside in any kind of organised way is to plan some bits of makeover. I don’t seem to have any trouble getting out into the gardens of all the various people I’m working for at the moment. Obviously I need a project to draw me into my own. And quite frankly, having grown up in dribs and drabs, with very little overview behind it, it could certainly do with some major shake-ups.

Though in general I loath teaching, and I fought long and hard against pressure to accept the task, it turned out to be an interesting experience, doing a course on garden design recently for our hyper-active Libera Università  (free university). This used to be called the Terza Università (basically adult education, though the connection with terza età, ie the aged, gave it overtones of some kind parking lot for the old and infirm) until some bright spark realised that the median age might plummet if it sounded a bit more rad. And so it did. Well, a bit.

Pulling together all the various strands of my approach to garden design in order to share them with my class focussed my mind very effectively on what I do and how I do it. It’s good to take stock from time to time. And it was a relief to discover that, yes, I do have some kind of method in my approach. You can lose sight of your underlying structure when you’re winging it on auto-pilot.

As I pulled together my lesson plans in a last-minute scramble (of course) and floundered about seeking illustrations to drive home my points, my big takeaways were (1) that garden/ing magazines are full of clever pictures of extremely uninspiring gardens and (2) my own garden served to a worryingly large extent to illustrate mistakes that you should avoid. Not exclusively, I hasten to add: I do love my messy, unstructured space. But it became more and more clear to me why many newcomers to my property react saying “oh, so, you’re, um, a garden designer you said. Um, really?” than with avalanches of admiration. So yes, time to tweak away.


Christmas seems an age ago. We had fun, just the three of us, wallowing in the pools of hot-spring water beneath the town of San Casciano dei Bagni and tramping the woods around the prehistoric site of Belverde, L and C wearing ridiculous wigs – a Yule tradition they invented a few years ago and show no sign of abandoning. (The few other Belverde visitors greeted us with a straight-faced buon Natale! with no allusion to the headgear. Were they keen not to engage too much with the mad people in the dark woods?)

C decamped to Lesvos and her refugee-spotting even before 2018 arrived, and we went back to our usual work, with the exciting addition of a full house up at Pieve Suites.

But there’s one bit of Christmas that is still to come, and that’s L’s main present – a DNA tester to discover his distant roots.

How on earth it can take from December 15 until January 9 to get a small spit-kit from the Netherlands to Italy, I don’t know. Did someone walk here with it? By the time it arrived I had cancelled that one and another is doing the same route, hopefully more swiftly.

During the wait, though, I heard a radio interview with a 79-year-old who had been given a similar kit recently and whose life had been all shook up by the results. He had always believed, he said, that he was English through and through. But the results came back showing he was over 25% Polynesian islander.

When he told his equally aged sister, her reaction was a laconic “oh, didn’t they tell you you were adopted? I thought you knew.” A very discombobulating thing to learn at 79. (His grandson, he said, had a very different risposte: “now you’ll have to learn to do the haka.”)

So what will we learn about L? The way the postal service is going, we may never learn anything.

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