21 May 2020

0521FWe had lunch at the Café degli Artisti on Tuesday. I was less than enthusiastic, but L was keen, and helping the owners of a place we like to get back on their feet was a big enticement. The tables were widely spaced; the staff were kitted out in masks and gloves. Was I comfortable? No. And was this popular place humming with people keen for a taste of normality? No. It was almost empty.

We see pictures in the media of close-packed aperitivo-sipping crowds in urban nightlife hotspots, or shoppers piling back into retail meccas and think “is this really happening?” Actually, I have to say in my skeptical ex-hack way that I have very serious doubts about it indeed. Those piling-in photos could so easily be the result of well chosen positions and angles.

My attempts to find nationwide whole-crisis statistics on the number of people fined for infractions of anti-Covid regulations have come to naught. But the interior ministry gives a day-by-day summary. On May 20, for example, of the 125,582 people stopped by police just 460 were fined and of those only three were breaking quarantine rules – even fewer than I would have expected given my suspicions about the stupidity of people in general.

But as we know, “People Being Good” is never going to be an attention-grabbing headline, and “well behaved populace out and about minding its own business” doesn’t make a great photo caption. In their own portrayal of national behaviour, Italians don’t do much to dispel the undisciplined Mediterranean stereotypes.

Was it lockdown-cramp that needed a good old stretch – a grand gesture to ease the numbness? Or was it realising guiltily that our long period of forced (relative) inactivity could have been put to better use? Whatever made us do it, we finally got around last week to finding out what lurked in the jungle in the south-west corner of our field.

Is everyone’s life packed full of things which you’re always, always, always meaning to do but which somehow never get done? That corner down there has been a dense expanse of brambles and Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba) ever since we bought the place in 2001. Occasionally a brave man on a field-cutting tractor would chip away at the very edges of the mass to stymy its inexorable growth when it threatened to engulf more of the field.

Where collapsing terraces disappeared into the greenery on the western side, we could see the tops of a few walnut trees; each year the trunks became more invisible beneath their twining cover. And further down the field, it was a struggle between the climbers and the waving grey-green tops of a few willows – we couldn’t tell how many – to see which would beat the other to grab the most sunlight.

Now the climbers have gone and the willows are liberated. The water from the spring slightly further up (it’s on the neighbour’s land, not ours: I tried and tried to buy that strip but wily old Mario, who’s no longer with us, knew better than to abandon such a precious thing as a private water source) is now neatly channeled into a gently winding… well, I’d like to call it a stream but muddy ditch is perhaps more accurate.

The climbers were munched up and spat out; the wasted lower branches of the trees which had been denied any light at all for decades were stripped off and buried deep beneath what has now been remodelled into an extraordinarily graceful sweep of… again, I was about to get ahead of myself and call it meadow whereas in fact it’s mud after the bit of rain of the past couple of days. But in my over-enthusiastic (utterly unrealistic?) garden designer‘s mind’s eye, I’m well on my way to an 18th-century English landscape masterpiece.

The more down-to-earth me thinks: finally… a far finer prospect than before. (The downright banal me thinks: how on earth are we going to stop the brambles from taking over again?)

Once again it was my colleague Giuseppe Ciampani – he who reshaped the levels around the old concimaia for me last year and has worked on various of my professional projects – who interpreted my rather fluid and opaque requests/instructions into exactly what I wanted. He’s an artist with a digger.

I think if I could, I’d dedicate much of my professional life to reshaping. Of course I love greening and colouring and shaping gardens into spaces that make their owners/users feel like they’ve come home. But there’s something incredibly special about taking areas that have been ravaged – by violent vegetation, or neglect, or construction – and remodelling them, to turn them back into something that works… practically and on the eye. It’s extraordinarily satisfying.


Quite bizarrely, it seems that Italy will be seeking to get tourists back from 3 June. This week’s new rules say that travellers from the EU, Schengen area and the United Kingdom will be allowed to come with no quarantine restrictions as of that date. It’s a far cry from the autumn kick-off I predicted recently in The Telegraph. I’m hoping that my timescale doesn’t prove to be more sensible than the one that’s rapidly unfolding.

It feels like a huge leap. Greece, I see, has specifically banned UK travellers on the basis of the abysmal job the government there is doing of handling the pandemic. Spain, it seems, thinks Italy is making a big mistake. Italy is having no such qualms. On the same day that we can finally venture from Umbria to Tuscany (we’ve been confined to our own region until now) across a border that’s just down at the bottom of the hill, outsiders can in theory flock back. That’s two weeks before children are allowed into public playgrounds, and months before schools get going again. By and large I feel our government has done a good job handling this crisis. And the tourism industry – which generates 13 percent of Italian GDP – is understandably desperate to get going. Armchair criticism is so so simple, but there are contradictions in this particular bit of unlocking which somehow don’t seem right.

0521CI’m pondering my rentals at Pieve Suites, wondering how soon I should be disinfecting and bed-making and plumping up pillows. Will there be a suddenly exodus of exasperated Italian city-dwellers to our rural airiness? Will hordes of sun-seekers from northern climes descend on Perugia’s little airport? No season is easy to foresee but this one in particular is such a total blank page.

So far all I’ve done in the way of getting ready is ordered a temperature-taking pistol (anyone offering accommodation has been advised to check all arrivals) and ascertained that I can get large-ish bottles of hand sanitizer in a shop down in the valley. Oh, and I’ve agreed with my lovely cleaning lady who has finally returned to work that we’re going to start preparations next week. The important thing, I guess, is to be ready for anything.


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8 May 2020

0508EThis is going to be dangerous. We’re opening up slightly, regaining our right to roam – if only within the confines of our own regional borders. But it’s not so much a possible return to infection I’m fearing now (and it should be pointed out that CdP’s last lingering positive turned negative yesterday) but drivers.

Quello al centro è il freno, vero? (the one in the middle is the brake, right?) is everybody’s favourite funny quip.

Italian vehicle use fell by over 70 percent over the past couple of months when people had nowhere they were allowed to go, according to data from Google maps. So what were all those locked-down motorists doing instead of sitting hunched over the steering wheel? I like to imagine them peering yearningly into the distance from the windows of city apartments summoning up imaginary green fields, or – for the lucky ones in rural or less built-up areas – (re)discovering the natural details that they simply by-passed in their busy pre-Covid lives. I like to think they were letting their minds wander, musing on the inconsequential, learning to un-focus, to ramble mentally. Am I kidding myself? Maybe.

But on drives over the past few days, several cars have glided over the white line towards me before being yanked to the correct side of the road. It took a long bleat of my horn to shock one dreamy-driver back to reality before he careered into me. They’re definitely looking elsewhere, which objectively speaking is rather heart-warming… though not when you’re in an on-coming vehicle.

As of Monday I’ve been allowed back out to work. Each Iva (VAT) number holder belongs to a category, and my code as a garden-maker means I can travel about for work purposes not only in my home region of Umbria, but in other regions too.

0508DMy first foray was yesterday, back to the property on the far side of Lake Trasimeno where I left off in early March. The past two months just vanished. I immediately picked up an interrupted conversation with the plumber and the builder and the man from the vivaio (nursery) and (electronically) with my clients. And yet, and yet…

There’s still a discomfort about not shaking hands – an uneasy Covid shuffle on meeting. And that healthy distance you automatically leave between yourself and your interlocutor is, for me, filled with something like regret. I don’t need to do that in my lovely home where I’ve been forcibly holed up for the past two months and where behaviour is far more normal and spontaneous that anywhere beyond my gate. Admittedly it’s a universe of two people, which can be slightly limiting. But for this reason and others – connected as much to the magic of where I live as to my tendency towards being a hermit anyway – this being ‘liberated’ thing doesn’t bring me all that much relief.

As if to back up my day-dream theory, there was a car overturned in a field that shelves steeply down from a road just outside CdP as I made my way home from work. There were people milling, and no one looked particularly frantic so I left them to deal with it rather than adding my own vehicle to the jumble of parked cars of passers-by lending hands. On the front pages displayed outside the newsagent in town, there were tales of deaths in crashes on roads around the region.

As for the virus, who knows how that will go. In CdP, people are almost all masked as they make their way through town. Most of our restaurants are now open for takeaway. My favourite vegetable people from Bolsena are returning to our subdued, curtailed market tomorrow morning – something that brings me joy because that was one of the few things I really missed about lock-down.

But the papers are full of photos of crowds congregating outside bars in Milan’s trendy Navigli district (there’s no way I can verify that these were really taken since lock-down was lifted but…) when really, you’d think that in Milan they’d know better after all they’ve been through. And mayors have reverted to Facebook fulminations against groups of people enjoying themselves too much and too comunally in parks and gardens.

“We umbri will be all right,” said the rather bumbling plumber as we discussed the automatic watering system on my return to work. “We’re a pretty reserved lot. We don’t go in much for socialising. We’re not like those Tuscans and Milanese who always out making merry.”

I love the way that Umbrians wear their gruffness as a badge of pride. This strange situation has brought out Italian campanilismo – being firmly rooted around your own church spire – in all kinds of ways.

0805BThe reporting – in Italy and in the Anglo world – about Italy’s ‘phase 2’ has made me pleased and furious by turns, depending of course on the degree to which it mirrors what I feel/think. I’m nothing if not biased.

On the BBC World Service this morning there was an item on the 75th anniversary of VE day that got me thinking. Newsreel reports from 1945 of events and reactions were pure reporting: not a single vox pop. There was the news item itself, then descriptions of celebrations in various places. Basta.

Cut back to today, and Covid-19 restrictions being lifted in Hong Kong and Botswana and Italy and we’re subjected to endless ill-informed people-on-streets being given the same air time as experts and academics and journos. For most listeners the same air time translates into the same authority and importance and veracity.

You can find anyone ‘on the street’ with any opinion to back up any argument you wish to pedal. So those many articles I’ve seen on how Italians are all ready to march on parliament to demand that hairdressers be allowed to open before the set date of June 1 – articles pegged unassailably on one brief interview with Maria Concetta in Marghera and an off-hand remark from Leonardo in Campi Bisenzio – just don’t make sense. They’re irrrelevant. Why do we even accept this kind of banality? I could have provided the journalist with plenty of people who are loving their flowing locks and have no intention of ever visiting a barber again. Whereas in fact most people in my experience have resigned themselves to shagginess and pale roots and don’t give a damn.

Want to let us know about public opinion? Do an opinion poll. These appear to have gone slightly out of fashion recently. Do it scientifically – or as scientifically as possible. Ok, this won’t save us from biased writing because these too can be manipulated. But at least the media will have to work a bit on spinning that. Vox pop is too pathetically simple.

However Italians feel about the long slow road to something like normal life, if they took a brief look at the havoc wreaked in places where it really took hold, they’d think twice about throwing caution to the winds.

This report (in Italian only, sorry) from the national statistics bureau Istat and the Higher Health Institute (ISS) on mortality over the past three months is chilling. The excess mortality in 2020 as compared to the five-year average, is 94 percent in the north – a far far higher number of deaths even than the terrifying ‘official’ Covid-19 death toll.


In a fit of lock-down madness I have embarked on developing yet another bit of garden that has been bugging me for years – the north-facing arc beneath the big oak tree. Why am I doing this? I already have far more garden than I can possibly maintain. And by ‘developing’ I mean ‘taking a pick-axe to’ – an operation which left me with a thumping numbness across shoulders and back… but of course a great sense of self-satisfaction, nay smugness.

After half a day of forced labour I still haven’t quite finished the clearing, never mind the shaping.  Had I brought in someone with a little digger, it could all have been done in about half an hour. What is wrong with me?



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Notes from a lock-down V

0424AThe Acer campestre (field maple) at the south end of the house is humming. In certain lights, from certain angles, it’s a shimmering, murmuring mass. There are unfeasible numbers of bees zipping between the almost-invisible flowers. Sitting below it (we have already taken the big umbrella out, we were so hot having lunch out there one day), wrapped in the encircling buzz, you feel more removed than ever from the rest of the world.

But the world outside is now beginning – slowly, slowly – to open up. Baby steps, but it’s happening.

Queuing in front of the supermarket on my weekly big shop this morning, I got chatting to Gianna, from Trattoria Bruno Coppetta. “We were the last out,” I reminded her – and we were: we ate there on March 8, the night before the place bowed to the inevitable and suspended activities. It seems like an eternity ago. “Now we want to be the first back in.”

I said that, and she looked pleased, but I’m not sure that I really meant it. I mean… of course I meant it, because she and her husband are friends and we are, on one level, dying for everything to return to normal. But there’s a wariness and a hesitancy that it’s quite difficult to convey to anyone who isn’t living this experience at this point in its unfolding… a problem we’ve had all through this ordeal where Italy has been so much in the vanguard.

0424CLast week our mayor announced rather triumphantly (or so it appeared, though I may have read more into his dry little FB announcement than was really there) that our Saturday market would reopen for business – non all the tatty clothes stalls and what have you, but the food and plants and farm things part. Were we happy? No, we were not. We were livid.

The comments following on from the announcement broke down into two categories. There were the ones – quite understandably – riled by the fact that the town powers that be were allowing concittadini to congregate in the street to buy food when solitary trips to till and sow in out-of-town vegetable patches were still banned, at such a strategic time of year for cultivation. And then there were those who were simply irate that six weeks of housebound sacrifice might be thrown up in the air by a brief moment of communal retail. Later on Saturday, photos circulated of our determined mayor, grimly alone in front of a deserted fruit&veg stall, demonstrating quite how unpopular this move had proved.

But there was a third, less noisy, thread of comments, concealed among the outrage, from people connected with CdP but stranded far away – people with homes here, regular visitors, friends of CdP friends. These were mostly foreigners, and not in Italy. They were joyous, jubilant, and entirely dissonant. Finally! they wrote. Back to normal! What a relief! You must all be so happy!

Well no, we’re not. As yet there’s no great happiness or sense of relief. If we’re clambering out of this swamp, we want to do so tentatively, feeling our way forward with the utmost caution. Even though we got off relatively lightly around here, the horror and the threat were very real to us. And we know that the reason why we got off lightly is because the danger was taken seriously.

Since then, the mayor has rectified his orto (vegetable garden) faux-pas (which, if truth be told, was a matter of principle really, as little old farmer-types in their three-wheeler Ape vans had been secretly defying authorities and tootling along to their orti most mornings anyway). Perhaps as a result, there was far less outcry about the Friday food stall that set up in the square this morning.

0424DI went. Whereas we’re now all used to the supermarket scenario – the passing-in-the-aisles etiquette, the hanging back at the weighing machine, the minuet around the fish counter – it was disorientating to see 15 masked people stationed around the outer edges of the piazza rather than jostling for position at the stall. “Chi è l’ultimo?” (who’s last in line?) yelled out into the void, muffled by masks, seemed odd. But it was a good feeling, purchasing outside under a blue spring sky.

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about what our wider future will look like, for an article I was asked to do for The Telegraph. In fact, as often happens with The Telegraph, it wasn’t really the article I was asked to write at all: what they’d asked for was “so should we cancel our spring break in Italy?” But I thought I’d use that as a prompt to look a bit deeper.

Though I didn’t spell it out in so many words tourism, too, is another area where Italy is a step further up the pandemic reality ladder, seeing things that anyone on a lower rung simply can’t envisage. Even if – or perhaps especially if – this country’s staged return to normality (whatever that is now) goes swimmingly, the very last thing we want is to have it all brought tumbling down by incomers who are lagging behind in the recovery process.

However great the hit to the tourism sector is – and it is truly unimaginably massive – no one I talked to in my research had any desire to risk being plunged back into pandemic pandemonium. It will be many many months before Italy, the world’s fifth most visited country, welcomes its visitors back.

0424EPerhaps the most painful take-away for me from my musings has been what it has made clear to me about the family. C won’t be back home from Athens any time soon, and that’s a very difficult thing to resign myself to. Greece is handling things well, or so official figures suggest. Perhaps potential travellers from Greece will be among the earliest with the right to roam in other EU countries.

But how long will it be before nations trust each others’ handling of the crisis sufficiently to drop quarantine-upon-entry requirements? And how long will it be before EU countries permit C’s partner – who is Swiss and therefore not an EU citizen – to enter its territory? No precedent means no real road map – just trial and error. It’s impossible to know. I may not see my daughter for a long time.

It’s very springy. The bougainvillea is splendid; I can’t believe the amount of incipient fruit on the pear and cherry trees. I’m still revelling in my miraculous irises which have finally produced a splendid show of blooms, three years after the dreaded porcupine ate its way from one end of the garden to another. Some of the bulb relics I rescued and replanted were clearly viable.

After a long run of glorious weather we had three cold grey days of on-off rain this week. Now the sun is out again. As I walk about my reasonably neat garden I think of that time, very few weeks ago, when I worried that I might run out of weeds to pull. Ha. Ha. Ha. I’m now about to re-embark from where I started, hoping to keep a step ahead. While others lament an excess of lock-down time, I’m never short of something to do.


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Notes from a lock-down IV


Have any of the number crunchers whose dreadful, mesmeric coronavirus charts I pore over daily ever turned their thoughts, I wonder, to sourdough? Someone surely must have tried to concoct some baking-tracking algorhythm to ascertain the state of mind of locked-down populaces?

There are few gaps on our local supermarket shelves. I’ve mentioned the momentary chick-pea hiccough. The flour section, too, can look a little depleted at times. When L tried to buy live yeast this week he learnt it has become a top-value commodity, kept hidden behind the deli counter like worth-their-weight-in-gold pine nuts: if you ask nicely and they may sell you a piece.

0412BI don’t know why L wanted it particularly. Because he’s now the proud parent of a sourdough mother. He mentioned – weeks ago at the Berlin Film festival in another era when people still traveled and film festivals still happened – to some UK critic friend that he’d never managed to get a mother going. Was it a terribly boring film they were watching? (And did L point out, I ask myself, that he did start one years ago but that his horrid wife murdered it because she couldn’t be bothered to spoon-feed it when he took off for the Venice film festival and she was left holding the baby?)

The result of this filmfest exchange was a monumentally soggy package left up in the shed by the postman about ten days ago, ectoplasm oozing from every fold and bit of sticky tape. Had I been a postman I would have had it straight off to the nearest bomb disposal unit. But no, there it was, spreading yeasty gunk all over the benchsaw. Which made me think: in these odd times, has sourdough-mother-through-the-post become a thing?

The bread he has produced from it so far has not been quite Instagrammable. Which I think makes us about the only household in the western world not to have Instagrammed a crusty, thrusting sourdough loaf – yet. Usually, I’ve noticed, the loaf pics appear quite early on in the lock-down process, tailing off as isolators realise that they can avoid a lot of kitchen mess and grief by supporting their local bakeries. But we’re doing things back to front. We’ve held off for over a month of home-bound life. I’m sure, though, that that will change: the perfect sourdough loaf must be on its way.

0412AIt’s noticeable how, when asked “how are you getting on?”, so many locked down friends’ immediate response is “well… we’re eating really well”. Now, many if not most of our friends are fairly foody types – I don’t think (in that smug way that privileged people have) that I know anyone whom I suspect of surviving on junk when my back’s turned.

So for them to report an improvement – especially given restrictions on movement and therefore access to raw materials – is kind of counter-intuitive. But I think possibly we are doing the same. Is this just a time issue: having longer to dedicate to menus and preparation? Or is it that food is comforting, and baking – even more profoundly – is more of a going back to something ancestral, something from a real other time rather than the bizarre ‘other’ pre-Covid time?

Of course my musings are the thoughts of immensely lucky/privileged people – large house, garden, fields to wander in, no children or elderly people to worry about, entertain or be driven to despair by, work that can be done from home with no sign of it drying up (well, L anyway). I realise that many people don’t have the luxury of fretting about rising dough, and I count my blessings.

I’ve reduced my need for supermarket visits by discovering home deliveries which, to some extent, spread my contact with the rest of humankind. But these are fleeting contacts – with the girls who bring delicious apples and vegetables from La Saporita in Paciano, and Beppe from Fattoria Pianporcino on the Val d’Orcia road to Pienza who turns up in CdP twice a week with the best imaginable ricotta and yoghurt (the one I use as a starter for my own yoghurt) and sheep’s milk cheeses. Beppe says he’ll continue with deliveries with or without Covid19. He says that it makes more sense for him to deliver pre-ordered stuff than keep a shop open day after day not knowing who will turn up and what they’ll be looking for. Which is possibly bad news for the person we call Punky Girl, the slightly spikey young woman who runs his tiny store in Chiusi Scalo. But it’s indicative of how, on their own very personal level, people are rethinking what they had always taken for granted.

My weekly Pilates class has always been something I’ve struggled with – first to remember, and second, to arrange my other appointments around – though of course I’ve always been pleased when I do make it… or almost always, except when there’s been more chatting than stretching. Now that it has transferred on line, I’m unrolling my mat four times a week. No hell-for-leather last-minute dashes, no interruptions, no talk of local basketball teams or cat ailments – just my teacher leading us through solid work. There’s a lot to be said for staying home: I think my teacher will be under pressure to keep this rhythm up.

0412E0412DI continue to think and fear that even this planetary upheaval will not suffice to stop us, as a species, carrying on in the same self-harming way we did before, under the guidance of and pressure from those who stand most to gain from the status quo ante-Covid19. This article gives an interesting take on how we might circle back round. But forced as individuals to drop everything and retrench, we might at least break with routine: “think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.”

0412FCittà della Pieve should be heaving this weekend, with its Easter market and its tableaux vivants of the Passion. And of course it should have been high season for me at Pieve Suites. (The only activity there was one sneak visit by me, en route to the supermarket, to prune the grape vines and turn on the watering system.)

Irony of ironies, the rain that every single year sees raggle-taggle market stall holders struggling to stash wares into their vans and trucks for a soggy early get-away is nowhere to be seen on the forecast. It is, in theory, the perfect weekend for a scampagnata.

With all this time on our hands there’s a feeling that we should be reading and studying and musing profoundly. The only thing I’m doing profoundly is weeding. I find that all this free time evaporates into nothingness. I haven’t managed to finish a single book in this month of lock-down. It’s so easy to make the bubble I’m living in all-encompassing: the slightly numbing pleasure of being able to go nowhere and do nothing is balm.

So it comes as a shock – in a very distant, academic way – when I see that supermarkets in parts of Italy now have armed guards to stop theft (much of it, I suspect, by people who have no other way of feeding their families) and that store staff report stand-offs with people pushing straight through check-outs, refusing to pay. It’s less surprising that organized crime is now handing out food parcels to ensure the loyalty of those in need. But the government warnings last week that right-wing extremists may be planning ‘actions’ under the cover of self-isolation? That sounds like something out of one of those novels I continue to fail to finish.

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Notes from a lock-down III


The scent of broad (fava) beans always takes me by surprise. I never expect such a syrupy, cinnamon-y perfume from a plant which is really quite banal. I mean, I have nothing against broad beans but the plant itself is fairly unprepossessing. You wouldn’t even necessarily notice the flowers were it not for the scent.

I’m wondering whether in this slowed-down time where nothing seems particularly real we are growing more sensitive to things around us. We have so much time to stop and stare and inhale and crouch down to get a closer look. Or is it just me, on my unhurried ambling around my garden which is getting more attention than usual – though perhaps not as much as I thought it might when we were first ordered to shun the outside world.

As I tidied the weedy paths in my vegetable garden the weekend before last, then moved into the top bit of orchard, digging out weeds from places which long ago returned to wild countryside, I found myself thinking “oh my god, what if I finish everything? What will I do then?”

Cue slight panic because for me, ‘being in the garden’ is not the floppy hat and the deckchair that normal people might yearn for. I can’t sit down in the garden. I can’t read books there. I need to be constantly on the move, weeding or pruning or tidying in one way or another. It’s not a sense of duty or a maniacal striving for perfection (haha). It’s just what being outside does to me. It’s how I live it and how I love it. It’s my meditation spot and I can only meditate in motion.


So this momentary image of myself with our lock-down going on until there are no more weeds to pull caused split-momentary anguish, then hilarity. No, lock-down may in some ways present me with fresh opportunities for being blown away by the glories of the season. But it isn’t going to teach me serenity and relaxation; it isn’t going to change my approach to the world outside. Because it’s the weirdest spring ever, but it’s still spring: weedy leaves push themselves up in beds painstakingly cleared of unwanted vegetation just days before. Spring gardening is a fine antidote to possible isolation inactivity.

The oddness of the season comes not only from our virus-shunning isolation. Just when you think life can get no more surreal than it already is, our 20°C (68°F) days were suddenly replaced by snow, ice, gales and the kind of sub-zero temperatures that simply didn’t happen all last winter. There’s more cold, and perhaps a little snow, forecast for later this week. April’s a bit late for that kind of thing.


We Italians have suddenly mutated from viral voice in the wilderness to pandemic agony aunt. Things move so slowly, but they also race so fast. Was it just ten days ago we were yelling “no! stop! don’t you get it? can’t you see what you’re racing heedlessly towards?” to a world that we knew wasn’t taking us seriously, that thought we were being our usual over-dramatic selves, that failed to see the harm in ‘just’ a meal out here or a visit to an elderly relation there.

Now we’re the go-to counsellors for nouveaux-isolators, a deep well of survival knowledge. Can you really buy a whole week’s supplies in just one shop? Well yes, to my surprise, I find you can, as long as the fruit and vegetables in your store are really very fresh and you eat the more perishable ones sooner. Do you find yourself having homicidal thoughts after a week stuck in the same house with the same person? Again to my surprise, no – though (to be serious) I count my blessings that I am in the relationship I’m in, because I’ve read that the incidence of domestic abuse is sky-rocketing.

This article by Italian novelist Francesca Melandri is her answer to all those questions which we’ve been fielding in our Skype dinner parties and aperitivi. We could all write our own version. Mine would share some points and differ wildly on others. I haven’t taken La Peste or A Journal of the Plague Year off the bookshelf though I admit the thought did cross my mind; I’ve joined no on-line time-filling groups though I’m overjoyed that my Pilates teacher has been keeping we faithful followers limber through IGTV; I’ve called close friends with uncharacteristic regularity and I’ve communicated with people I’d almost forgotten about but her idea that you might make supermarket queue appointments in order to catch a glimpse of friends simply never occurred to me.

After almost a month of lock-down, seeing others by arrangement – other than of the electronic kind – barely feels like part of my life. Even unexpected meetings are unnerving. When a neighbour, out for a stroll, knocked on our front door to wave at us through the glass the other day it took an effort to overcome the shock. I smile and chat with walkers who appear down our quiet lane but I find myself edging further and further away from them as we talk.

Supermarkets, in fact, are beginning to scare me. No, that’s not true: once I’m there it’s mostly fine, though I do find myself wondering who has coughed over which produce, and doing complicated calculations of what I should touch with plastic gloves on and what would be best to use bare hands for in order to curtail possible contagion.

No, it’s going out the door – leaving my safe haven – to do the shopping that fills me with dread. And then returning to that haven armed with items and bags which could be carrying the virus. This way paranoia lies.


One point I’d dearly love to agree with Melandri on is that when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same. I so want that to be true. I want people to grow up, think of things other than themselves, reshuffle priorities, understand what is important, understand what desperately needs to be changed, take it upon themselves to ensure that the lessons of these weeks and months – and it will surely be many many months because it’s difficult to understand how we’re going to draw a line under this rolling pandemic – will serve to improve. But I’m not convinced this will happen.

It’s true, as my old colleague Rob Cox says in this article, that a pandemic sorts real leaders from the self-serving, short-sighted ones. It’s true too, as Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in the NYT, that we have made immense shifts in our ways of working in no time at all and with little in the way of harmful effects – though only, I’d like to add, for we privileged, wordy few. It’s true, as Jonathan Portes argues here, that we have arbitrarily given ourselves ways of ‘reading’ the economy which simply ignore the fact that it doesn’t always go that way; we could, if we chose, just write off this corona-freefall and set off on an alternative path. (Apologies to all these writers for picking out single points rather than dealing with complete arguments.)

But we’re so hard-wired to keep on keeping on, always preferring the devil we know to the possible angel hidden round the corner. Will we emerge from this with the scales fallen from our eyes, ready to do battle against those elite powerful forces for whom the status quo guarantees riches and success measured on a pre-pandemic scale? Or will we say “yeah yeah, whatever” in our exhausted state, just happy to slip back into anything that isn’t this dystopia?

I hope we’ll do the former, and fear we’ll do the latter. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.


It’s becoming hugely difficult to keep up with our Covid-19 sufferers here in CdP where the 3.30pm bulletin from the town hall continues to beget hope or despair. We’ve gone days now without another case. Yesterday came the good news that two of our positives had been negativizzati – which naturally has gone straight on to my list of favourite words. Passing from positive to negative, being cured. I love Italian bureaucratese.

Do we have a total of 16 cases? Perhaps. As I say, it’s complicated.

On a national level there are little glimmers of hope: fewer new cases, more negativizzati, a timid feeling that perhaps we’ve pulled together and beaten it. But no one’s holding their breaths. It may be a sign of returning hope, though, that after so many weeks in which the figures and the disease were the story, little snippets of sub-stories are sneaking out.

Is it true that mafiosi in Italy’s prisons are getting disgruntled because they’re not getting their pocket money – usually taken from a kitty of cash-only protection funds, paid by owners who are no longer allowed to open their shops and so aren’t in place to pay up? Is it true that burglars are having the worst time of their lives because occupiers never leave the houses they’d usually be ransacking? Is it true that ‘Ndrangheta delivery boys are too scare of catching (the virus) or being caught (by virus-control police) to carry on peddling their high-grade cocaine?


L created our own personal secondary narrative by slicing a large piece of his left index finger off the other evening. Having to go to the hospital was almost as agonizing as the wound itself: it’s not the place you want to spend time during a pandemic. But once he’d managed to get through the door – which is firmly locked, with a bell to ring and wary masked emergency room staff only letting you through if you swear you haven’t so much as sneezed for days – L was dealt with in record time by jolly medics who were as keen on getting him out of there as he was to exit.

It’s wonderful, our little hospital.


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