7 September 2017

I had my fireman-chimney sweep back this week, not so much because our crazy summer weather has ended (it has, kind of) but because that’s what I do once L has gone off to the Venice film fest and isn’t around to tell me that I’m being feebly over-cautious.

The sweep was efficient and jolly as ever, but said he needed a two-month holiday after a summer of dealing with catastrophic blazes.

“And the worst,” he said darkly, “may be yet to come.”

Temperatures, the media kept telling us at the end of last week, would plunge, plummet and descend in various other dramatic ways. And so they did. From 35° to 25°.

I was in town bright and early the day after a paltry amount of rain ushered in this new situation. Alarmed by the panic-inducing deluge of weather news, people had dusted off their warmest mid-season jackets, proving once again my theory that any temperature different from the one you’re experiencing in the instant is terribly difficult to conjure up in any realistic way inside your head.

It only took half an hour or so on that deliciously blue morning for all those jackets to be discarded, as people realised that what we now had was simply warm-normal – the pleasant summery climes we had been dreaming of during our long long hot hot season.

It was precisely this, though, that was making my chimney sweep nervous. People are thinking: it’s cooler, it rained – we can burn off those accumulated piles of mouldering biomass that have been lying around for months. But the few millimeters that fell ran straight off the brick-baked ground. Things are as tinder-dry as ever. And people are forgetting this, now that exiting through the front door doesn’t induce immediate heat exhaustion. Firemen are terrified as our levels of bushfire-paranoia plunge and plummet.

One sign of how little our little rainfall changed the status quo is our field below the house: generally, the first late-summer rains turn it magically from yellow and sear to waving and emerald – more or less overnight. To date, it remains brown.

0907N

Will my ‘lawn’ pull through?

I keep looking at where my grass (decidedly not lawn) used to be, and waiting for the miracle which will prove my theory – boringly elaborated to all and sundry throughout the summer – that it will leap back to its spring-like glory (a medium-to-low bar, if truth be told) the moment the heat lets up, despite my refusal to give it so much as a drop of water all summer. My vigil is becoming more anxious; my absolute confidence in my own theory slipping away just slightly. No. I can’t go down that path: it will return, it will. And so I cross my fingers quietly, and move swiftly on to another topic.

I was feeling a trifle inadequate about my cucurbits this year (there are just two pumpkins in my orto) until I noticed that Pumpkin Man – whose wire fence down in the valley next door to the Lidl carpark is generally festooned with vines dotted with huge orange orbs – has very few as well. It must just be the year, I was thinking… until I found the rest of them.

I’m usually fairly hopeless with smaller squash, so it was in an oh-well-let’s-see kind of way that I stuck some Cucurbita pepo Cream of the Crop seeds in the ground. Now I’m finding the pretty star-section cream-coloured fruit all over the place: we’re well stocked for winter. And then I pulled a few weeds from the beds below the pergola outside the kitchen and hey presto! concealed beneath rosemary and rue bushes were several more good-sized Marina di Chioggia pumpkins – that knobbly dark variety straight out of a vegetably Flemish still life.

Most surprisingly in this year’s Cucurbita production are the melons. Where did they appear from? I don’t know: nothing to do with me. But there are lots of them growing among the (dead?) rhubarb, possibly from seeds that survived composting.

And while I’m on the subject of unexpected food production, I’m wondering what to do with my rampant sweet potato plants. I had never grown them before but their name – Ipomea batatas – should have given me a hint, Ipomea being Morning Glory. You just don’t think of a root vegetable as needing a climbing frame, do you? It’s counter-intuitive. So my 12 little plants are making a bid for complete domination of the vegetable garden.

**********

I stopped at a petrol station down in the valley the other day, put my ATM card in the machine and programmed in €50 of fuel. When I squeezed the nozzle, nothing came out. I tried again. Whizzing wheezing sounds but nothing else, so I went in search of the petrol station boy to explain what was happening.

In the mean time, an elderly debonair Italian man in red shorts had driven his SUV up on the other side of the island and was listening to my tale.

“Did you use cash or card?” he asked.
“Er, card,” I said, in a rather surprised ‘what on earth has this got to do with you?’ way.
“Well of course it’s not going to work,” he pronounced, with all the bored superciliousness of an elderly man in red shorts dealing with an obviously stupid (ie any) female. “You can’t pre-programme it if you use a card.”
“Odd you should say that,” I said breezily, “because I do it often, at least once a week if not more, and have done for decades and I’ve never had any trouble.”

He gave me a look of utter contempt, grabbed the nozzle on his side and squeezed. Nothing came out. And so the petrol station boy sauntered across to the underground tank (thoughtfully extinguishing his cigarette before he opened it), flicked a switch to activate another tank, and nodded to me to try again. It worked.

Red trousers man turned his back on me and pretended I didn’t exist.

**********

Last week my little alleyway up in town organised a cena del vicolo (street dinner) to celebrate our victory in the floweriest street competition. Everyone brought something edible, tables and chairs were lined up down the middle of the vicolo and we ate between overflowing flower pots and beneath fluttering flags and washing.

0907G

Borgo di Giano

“What was that you brought?” asked the elderly lady sitting next to me. She was kind of curious and kind of accusing: was I trying to trick them with my fancy foreign fare?
“It’s a kind of salad made with barley,” I told her, and reeled off the ingredients.
“Hmph,” she said to her neighbour, now very suspicious indeed. “Sarà roba inglese (it must be English stuff).”

I told her I didn’t cook ‘English’, I just made things up as I went along. But clearly for my older neighbours food isn’t food unless it’s the recipes that mamma and nonna made. Which was fine by me, as it meant I had lunch made for the following day too.

My house in town is now a hair’s breadth away from ready. I had people round the other evening for drinks, and they milled about in the big open spaces which I had come to love so much that it was rather a shock when my builder finally brought the sofas back.

I had arranged for these to be brought to the house weeks ago, telling the builder that he was to be out and finished by delivery date, to which he responded by hijacking the delivery truck and having the sofas deposited elsewhere until he was ready to bring them to their destination. In the event, ‘ready’ turned out to be yesterday. Which was fine, because they weren’t in my way while I was hanging curtains and the like.

But oh how crowded the rooms look now – no more long vistas. On the other hand, the suites are now rather more practicable from a sitting down point of view – kind of necessary if people are actually going to stay in them…

All that remains, more or less, is to hang blinds and attach the skirting board (plus of course the kitchenettes but I’ve put them off until winter).

The skirting board is something I didn’t want, but have been forced to accept because of the type of flooring I have used. I’m looking for something minuscule, just to hide the expansion zone around the edges. But fitting skirting board to walls which date back to the 14th century can be a challenge, those walls being big-dipper curvy. Finding just the right material is an on-going quest.

 

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Pearl barley salad

Pearl barley is a wonderful base for a substantial salad: satisfyingly chewy with a slightly woody taste… in a good sense. This salad takes a little forethought but, in the end, not a lot of time, and it can be flavoured with just about anything. The essentials for me are browned onions, fresh thyme and capers. But in fact you can add whatever grabs you. Here’s one version.

0830BarleyPearl barley – 200g
Red and/or yellow (bell) pepper – 2 medium
Smoked fish (salmon or herring) – to taste
Cherry tomatoes – about 30
Capers, salted – 1 tbsp
Fresh thyme – large-ish bunch
Onion – 1 large
Garlic – 2 cloves
Olive oil – to taste

Cut your cherry tomatoes in half and place them on a baking tray, cut-side-down. Drizzle them with a little olive oil and grind some black pepper over them. Strip the tiny leaves from about one third of your thyme and sprinkle them on top. Then place the tray in the oven at 180°C and let the tomatoes dry out, until the juice they have run is bubbling in slightly caramelised (not burnt!) fashion around them on the tray – about half an hour or 40 minutes should do. Turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes in there until you need them.

At the same time bring a small saucepan of water to the boil, pour in the well rinsed barley, and cook it at a gentle boil for about 20 minutes. Taste it from time to time while it’s cooking because different barleys cook at different rates. The result you’re looking for is still firm but cooked through: it will kind-of-squeak against your teeth. Strain the barley, rinse it under the cold tap and place it in the serving bowl which, by this stage, should already have various other ingredients in it (see below). If it doesn’t (or even if it does), stir in just enough olive oil to make sure the barley grains don’t stick to each other.

While all this is going on, peel a large onion and cut it in half, then slice the halves very very thinly. Peel and mince a couple of cloves of garlic. Pour a little oil into a frying pan, get it nice and hot, then cook the onions and garlic over a medium heat. Don’t stir them too much: the salad is tastier if you leave the onions to brown at the edges, move them round before they start burning, then leave them to brown again… several times. When they look just right, add them to the serving bowl, leaving any excess cooking oil in the frying pan.

Because you’re now going to fry the peppers, which you will have sliced lengthways into beautiful thin strips. Fry these over a lively heat for ten minutes or so. Again, a little browning around the edges will improve the flavour of the salad. When they’re ready, add them to the serving bowl.

How much and what fish you use (or if you use fish at all; feta cheese is also an option) is entirely a matter of taste. If it’s salmon, slice it roughly and add it to the bowl. If it’s smoked herring, I recommend rinsing it very well to remove some of the salt and slicing it with a sharp knife into very small thin pieces, otherwise it will overwhelm all the other flavours.

Now add any remaining ingredients to the bowl: the capers (salted preferably, with the salt rinsed off under copious running water), the thyme leaves and of course the tomatoes which are alarmingly easy to forget in the oven: I have found them looking sad and shrivelled there the next morning on several occasions. If necessary, add more olive oil to the mix.

At this point, the salad will probably be lukewarm, which is a good thing in that a little heat will help the flavours blend together well. Leave it until it’s cool enough to put in the fridge, then serve it cold.

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26 August 2017

0826M

Restoring & adoring the Mystic Lamb

We’ve been in Belgium – a spur-of-the-moment decision not entirely unconnected with the existence of a reasonably cheap flight from Perugia to Charleroi. L thought Bruges might be a good base, but fortunately changed his mind and went for Antwerp.

We visited Bruges though. In the half hour after our train got in at 9.30am, we rented bikes and pedalled to the lovely Begijnhof, along deserted canals beneath glorious trees. It was only later that we realised how privileged we’d been.

About ten the day trippers start arriving, great hordes packing into a quaint but cramped centro storico. We rattled round the empty Groeninge museum – most day trippers don’t care for Flemish primitives it seems – then exited into the melée. Claustrophobia mounting, we pedalled out of town for lunch, way down the canal towards The Netherlands to Damme, where a cackling old man straight out of a Breughel allowed us to climb the pigeon-shit-filled steeple of a roofless church for a view over long lines of poplars winding along with the canal that circles the town.

Our return was held up, in a very Belgian way, by a barge with an Audi lodged on its back deck making its interminable way through a canal lock, drawbridges going up and down to allow it passage, and massed bicycles idling by the barriers.

Back in Bruges, panic took us by the throat and we fled – though that word implies speed and of course there was none of that as we forced our bikes through the masses – back to the station and inexplicably empty Antwerp. How precious that quiet morning half-hour seemed!

Why has tourism become this? It made Venice seem almost calm in comparison.

There were long cantankerous queues for quick rides in ugly tin craft around the canal (there’s only one, really) where boats jostled for space. Narrow bridges with picturesque backdrops were blocked by irritated photo-snappers, frustrated that others kept getting between them and their subject. Everywhere you looked, guides were shepherding droves of visitors in a linguistic cacaphony. Few seemed to be enjoying themselves – or maybe I am projecting my feelings towards them on to them.

I found myself asking myself the same questions that come to me in Venice. And, I suppose, in CdP. Is it misguided local authority policy that makes places end up like this? Is it permits given to too many shops selling tack? too many Ye Olde Chocolate Shoppes? too many ‘historic’ boat trips in ugly overcrowded vessels?

There must surely be a pull factor. It can’t just be operators deciding that Bruges/Venice/poor benighted Barcelona is THE place and packing their clients in. If it’s policy, it’s shameful and extraordinarily short-sighted. Day trippers are a dead weight and a dead loss. The longer I struggle with my tiny perch in CdP, the more I think it’s vital that anyone involved in tourism should bring value and appreciation rather than just hordes – a concept I’m trying to develop with other potential hosts here. And so where do we send the travelling masses? Putting the fear of god into all those would-be visitors to those vast resorts on the north African coast – forcing them to crowd into startled Bruges et al – could be interpreted as one of the cruellest legacies of Islamist extremists.

We liked Antwerp, though. What a fun buzzy city. Somehow it felt more southern than northern European – a very good thing in our eyes. Though oddly quiet (mid-August?), it felt like a busy place, with its port and its offices and its superabundance of eateries.

L had promised this would be one holiday where he wouldn’t don lycra and leave me, a cycle widow, to entertain myself. To compensate, we joined the city’s remarkably functional bike sharing scheme and pedalled the length and breadth of the place.

We approved of the way many one-streets were specifically designated as places that bikes were allowed to go the wrong way, and how no one seemed to disapprove of cyclists on any pavements that weren’t particularly crowded. Sensible.

We left for the city – fleeing our merciless summer of heat and drought, which still hasn’t relented, even on the cusp of autumn – with uncharacteristically little forward planning, and so were pleasantly, unexpectedly charmed at the Plantin-Moretus museum. What a joy printing is! And how magically it encapsulates our learning and our cultural development. The museum, with its presses and its documents and its evocation of the printed word in so many forms is completely mermerising.

Ghent was our last-day stopover, mostly to see the in restauro Adoration of the Mystic Lamb – though we managed to squeeze in a Mich-starred lunch too  The altarpiece is in pieces, which isn’t a bad thing at all. The glorious central panel is being worked on behind glass at the museum of fine arts: your view here is at eye-level, remarkably close-up – better, probably, than were it in its rightful place in the cathedral. And though you’re deprived of the impact of Van Eyck’s work as a whole composition, taking it piece by piece gives you that frisson of experiencing a very special privilege.

Back home, I am being showered with garden design work which is rather wonderful and gratifying, though of course disorientating as I try to finish up in town.

0826KI’m taking that task day by day at the moment, refusing to hurry: I take bags full of stuff up and place them more or less where they will go in the long run, my heart sinking slightly each time I think that the carpenters will return to finish off X and the fabbro (metalworker) to do Y. These artisans, gifted as they are, are hopelessly blind to the mess they make at the best of times; in a place which they’re used to treating as a building site, what are the chances that they will handle it gingerly as a spotlessly cleaned living space? Zero, I’d wager. I dread being forced back to that sticky-dusty-messy stage.

Last weekend a friend came to stay – a friend with a spectacular house to rent and a long pedigree as a PR in the luxury travel sector among others. She asked me how I was planning to market my suites. I told her that perhaps I had been focussing too hard on just getting the damned place finished; that marketing hadn’t really been in the forefront of my mind.

Well when you work it out, she said, can you let me know because I certainly haven’t found the key… slightly disconcerting from someone with her background.

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26 July 2017

A few days ago the CdP town council turned the water off at night – or at least they said they were going to: I didn’t notice any difference. This last happened in 2001 and 2002, the dry, dry years when we had just bought this house, and where there was nothing much save muddy sludge where much of Lake Trasimeno should have been.

Just a very few drops of rain since March, on the back of an extraordinarily dry winter, and accompanied by record-busting temperatures from May to now, has left us gasping for moisture. Where my grass once was, I now have a dusty mat of thin straw.

But the last few hours have brought respite: 12mm of rain yesterday, almost the previous day. After so many weeks of checking my bag before leaving home to make sure I had my fan with me, it felt very strange, shivering as you step outside.

The forecast for the immediately future is back to big suns and temperatures over 35° each day. I can feel the weeds bursting out.

My brief tussle with Italian courts has (I think) come to an end. After my first shaky experience as a witness in a more-than-forgettable case of driver sueing insurance company, there were more false starts: the time when I schlepped across to Perugia to find that a strike had been called long before by the court’s office workers for that day but no one had deigned to inform me; the time when a summons was dispatched to me just four days before another hearing – a tardiness which, combined with our utterly hopeless postman, meant it didn’t reach me until after the event (with no dire consequences, I might add, so so much for intimations of contempt of court proceedings if I didn’t appear as ordered).

And so to the closing chapter, in which I turned up dutifully at the courthouse in Perugia, nabbed the same chair in the same room (now sweltering) I had occupied so many months before, and waited. And waited. And waited.

Until Ms Pompom from the lawyer’s office – unforthcoming as ever and sans jaunty headwear – shoved me through the door and manoevred me into a seat before the justice of the peace who failed for some minutes to acknowledge my existence. Then I was handed a sheet of paper with a formula to read, promising to tell the truth and accepting that if I didn’t I could be prosecuted. I read it. The judge told me to read the last paragraph again. I did. And again. I did.

“Do you understand what you’re saying?” she asked, talking as if to a habitually stupid child – both disinterested and aggressive in the same breath. “Yes,” I said. “It’s hardly difficult.” She shot me a look of pure venom.

She told me she was going to read me a series of statements. I was to tell her whether they were correct by answering yes, no or don’t know. Not a single other word. Did I understand?

“Seems clear enough,” I said. More venemous looks.
Sì. No. Non so (yes, no, don’t know),” she spat. “I don’t want to hear anything else.”
Bene (fine),” I said. I wasn’t going to give make things too easy for her.

The first question went something like “on the Xth day of month Y in year Z you, Anne Hanley, born in Australia on [date] were driving along via XX when your car collided with the VW Polo, license plate aaa bbb, of signor Pinco Pallino. Sì, no o non so?”

“Which bit am I answering?” I asked, not unreasonably I thought.
Sì, no o non so?” she said through clenched teeth.
“Date, yes. My name yes, name of road don’t know,” I began before she shut me down fast.
Sì, no o non so!”
I explained there was no simple answer.

“I’ll take that as a ‘don’t know’ then,” she snapped, and scribbled something down before moving on to the next compound and 100% unanswerable statement. By which time, already broken down by the system, I’d lost interest and couldn’t summon more than a weary non so to each spurt of the stream of nonsense that followed.

Was this what I had made all those pilgrimages to Perugia for, risking earthquakes and record-dry-summer bushfires, not to mention angry early-morning drivers and the aesthetic onslaught of the city’s ugly outer suburbs, for? Had I helped the wheels of justice to move forward in any way?

By the time I uttered my final non so, the judge was already scouring the next file and failed to look up or say any words of farewell. Ms Pompom shoved me out of the room as unceremoniously as she’d pushed me in. My part in this case, I gathered, was over.

0726H**********

On a recent work trip to Positano I learned two interesting things.

The first is that you should never swim in the sea before June 24. That’s because on that day San Giovanni (St John, whose feast day it is) heaves a burning wooden beam into the sea and heats it up to suitable bathing temperature. Why he does this, no one seemed to know. But as the tale comes to us care of the same southern Italian mamme who bring their bambini up believing that swimming without digesting for four hours after eating is sure to bring on the kind of cramp that will send you in gurgling agony to Davy Jones’ locker, I rather suspect that this might be another yarn invented by southern Italian women in order to spend a little of their time somewhere other than on the beach with a bunch of screaming kids.

0726B
The second– perhaps more useful – thing is that you can grow courgettes up stakes. I spotted this is the wonderful vegetable garden of the Hotel San Pietro .

It’s odd, because courgettes are about the only cucurbit that I’d never thought of growing upwards. I construct odd tower-of-babel structures in giant reed stalks and bits of string for my cucumbers; I’m currently allowing pumpkins and squashes of various kinds to creep along the fence of the new vegetable garden, even at the risk of bringing it down. My courgettes on the other hand were doing what they always do: spreading their tentacles along the ground in such a way that paths become unpassable, and the mashed-up lower leaves in constant contact with the damp earth go swiftly mouldy and so infect the whole plant until I pull it up in frustration with nothing more than a handful of middlingly successful zucchine to show for my troubles.

0726AStaked, that doesn’t happen. Well: I say it doesn’t happen but what I mean is, it hasn’t so far.

I eased the knobbly central stems off the ground, tilted them up gently and provided a sturdy cane for each to rest against, tying stem to cane to make sure it stayed where it was put. Then I lopped off copious quantities of lower leaves, creating bare spaces at the bottom of the stalks and lifting the whole architecture of the plant into the air. Only leaf tips brush the soil; air passes around the plant. The plants look happier, incipient mouldiness seems to have dried up and I’m desperately trying to deal with quantities of courgettes which would feed a family of 12, day in day out.

Of course, our hot dry summer might also be helping lack of mould. It’s certainly helping keep black spot off the roses and bugs – apart from infuriating tiny flies – are at a minimum, presumably having thrown in the towel with no moisture to suck and no appreciable new growth to decimate.

**********

0726GAt my project in town, the end is tantalisingly nigh. But it keeps creeping closer, only to be whisked out of my grasp once more. The roof is on finally and the scaffolding down, but as yet I haven’t summoned up the courage (or found the time) to begin work on the garden, knowing that someone, for technical reasons, will need to dig up anything I might created out there.

Every now and then I’ll make a brave attempt to tidy up the debris left by the various passers-through – plumbers, carpenters, electricians etc – then the moment it’s looking well on the way to inhabitable, they sneak back in to finish off some vital thing, scattering chaos in their wake. Quite often I see them rushing about after each other with broom and dustpan but it’s all show: however much they wield these things, the chaos remains.

It’s a funny feeling, pressing switches and seeing lights come on. Come to think of it, it’s a funny feeling having switches. Now as we rush towards August and everyone vanishing along traffic-jammed highways towards ridiculously crowded beaches, I’m worried that the missing pieces of the puzzle will irk me until well after ferragosto (August 15), when ordinary life starts up again.

My usually reliable metal worker is the most foot-dragging. Each week, everything will be ready for the next. This has been going on for too long.

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24 June 2017

0624C

There has been a population explosion in CdP. The town is packed with howling bundles of overheated misery being pushed about by proud nonne (grandmas) – the mamme I presume taking advantage of captive child-minders to stay in cool interiors.

We thought the population down here had grown too, but all that’s growing now is the mystery.

Coming home late one evening we rounded the corner past Mario’s house to see one of the Smogs (the semi-feral cats who extract food from me with hard stares, both of whom I’ve always referred to as ‘he’ or ‘it’) crossing the lane preceeded by a bouncing bundle of kitten. Just one tiny kitten. Since when, there have been no sightings. Smogs I and II are about, reclining in any cool spot they can find, or padding down the lane to sit outside the front door and do their hard food-extracting stares until I emerge and cave in spinelessly.

Did some passing fox get lucky and have junior for lunch, or are the Smogs keeping it well hidden? As the days pass, I’m suspecting the former.

There was an item on BBC radio the other day announcing that researchers had discovered a clear sense of ‘fairness’ in animals – a trait formerly linked only with humans, leading me to muse how (1) it was severely lacking in many humans and (2) I could have told them that anyway.

They couched their findings in rather negative terms, saying that a dog who saw another dog rewarded better for something that it too had done would get upset or aggressive. The Smogs – stand-offish and generally supercilious as they are – are a far better model of a positive kind of fairness.

When I pour nasty-smelling cat biscuits into the piece of roofing tile where I feed them, up near the new vegetable garden, there’s a very set ritual. Whichever of the two is present (and it’s generally the slightly friendlier one, the one that seems to enjoy lying on a damp patch of just-watered ground in the shade and listening to me wittering on to it about nothing in particular as I garden) leaps across to the tile and eats precisely half of what I’ve put down. Sometimes half length-wise, sometimes half width-wise, but always half. The divvying-up is almost mathematical. The other Smog appears later and hoovers up the other half.

There was a point, a couple of weeks ago, when for a while the uneaten food remained until the following day. At that point Smog I would return and finish it up 24 hours later. I was worried that Smog II had met a sorry end. But some days later II reappeared and the ritual resumed as normal. Now I’m wondering: was that when the kittens were being born? Did everything go pear-shaped and the rest of the litter die?

But the almost maniacal division of the goodies by two such ragged felines is hugely touching, I find. They’re looking out for each other. With an immense sense of fairness.

The very elderly man who sits on a step beneath a huge oak along the street between the Rocca and my project in town, chatting to anyone who’s willing to slow down or stop, and keeping his daemon – a splendid long-haired oyster-coloured cat by the name of Cioppi – company is back. Which is great, because I was beginning to fear that the winter had done for him.

I stopped briefly the other day and he immediately turned to his favourite theme: passano gli anni, the years go by.

“I’m going to be 100 soon,” he said, which stopped me in my tracks. All right, he looks elderly, but 100? I wouldn’t have said so.
“Gosh,” I said, “congratulations. I would never have said!”
“Yes, I’m 92 already!” he explained.

How wonderful to be 92 and already looking forward to your hundredth year. He clearly has no plans to leave us for a while yet.

0624L

Last year, my beautiful little street in town won – and rightly – the prize for CdP’s best kept and most flowery in the competition linked to the Infiorata, which is this weekend. Not wishing to let the side down with my cobwebby, dusty, builder-bashed entrance niche – a conspicuous black hole in a street overflowing with geraniums and aspidistras – I rushed up to do a bit of sweeping and install some pots of flowers. I’m so glad I took the trouble.

In the short time I was there, knocking nails into the brick walls to drape a lovely dark purple Clematis over, one woman contrived to saunter past four times to inspect my activity. And from a window across the street, an elderly signora leaned out to say “brava signora, brava: ha fatto una cosa bellissima,” thus making it all worth while.

Next day the builders, of course, were skeptical, pointing out that it just robbed them of space and got in their way.

I’m doing my civic duty, I said, in the true spirit of the Infiorata. And so they grudgingly admitted that it was all right … especially when I told them I was planning to remove the plants after the event was over.

There’s manic activity in the house at the moment, with painters painting, carpenters fixing windows and electricians installing a heating and hot water system that looks big enough for a stately home. My fear now is that it will necessarily limp to a halt as these peripheral workers hit the buffers of the builder himself, who is failing to keep one step ahead of developments to allow the others to move forward.

The risers of the stairs need rendering otherwise they can’t be painted; the floor downstairs needs leveling otherwise the flooring man will arrive next week and be unable to do his work; there are still inexplicable holes in walls that have to be filled. I swing between manic happiness and utter despair. This can’t be good for my blood pressure.

In the huge barn of a hardware/builders’ supply store down in the valley I was buying lengths of steel cable in different weights to improve the droopy arrangement that holds up the two immense Concord grape vines that shade my little town garden so verdantly. (I have since abandoned the task, realising that the weight of the grape-laden plants makes it completely unthinkable.)

I like that place (there’s another tale from there, right down the bottom of this post). I rarely see another female in there, but as I generally go in with dilemmas to solve rather than straightforward requests, the two dour brothers who run it seem to have adopted me, displaying something like enjoyment as they rise to the challenges I set them.

The shorter brother was painstakingly measuring out steel cable for me when a customer (male, of course) blustered over and demanded to know where he should search for something or other. The look that the brother gave him was pure venom, and he raised his voice, barking out the metres at top volume as he counted to show his extreme displeasure at the interruption.

I’d love to think that he was fighting my corner against the type of man all too frequent around here who presumes that women have no place in hardware stores and must surely be doing something frivolous and totally interrupt-able. I suspect, though, that his ire was due to the fact that multi-tasking is simply beyond him.

Our ludicrous-for-June weather continues, without a day where it doesn’t go above 30°. As soon as we turned our backs – going down to Rome for the Queen’s Birthday Party of which more below – there was a downpour. We came back to 14mm in the rain gauge. Since when, we have sizzled.

My cleaning lady is indignant, and possibly a little heat-addled.

“This climate change thing,” she said to me. “ I don’t know what’s going to become of us. You know, on the news last night, they were saying that it’s so hot that the Chinese have even managed to grow potatoes on the moon.”

That took a few seconds to sink in. A week later, I’m still trying to work out what kind of stick must have been thrown for her to get hold of such a very wrong end.

We hadn’t been to the Queen’s Birthday Party for years – struck off the guest list for some odd reason but now, equally as inexplicably, reinstated. It was a packed event in fantastic Villa Wolkonsky, the ambassador’s residence in Rome. The new ambassador was decked out in a long lamé Vivienne Westwood number that lent her an uncanny resemblance to those men who gather coins for standing stock-still in piazza del Popolo dressed as Tutenkhamun.

The theme was English Village Fete and wandering around the gardens were Alice with a Red Queen, a couple of Sherlock Holmes with their Watsons and at least one Shakespeare whom we bumped into at the coconut shy (L won an unidentifiable pink furry animal-like thing with a masterful shot).

But who are you? I asked, to be informed haughtily that he was William Shakespeare, quite obviously.

No, I said, apart from that. I know you from somewhere.

He was, it transpired, an Australian bit-part actor who had been in a comedy TV English teaching show that L wrote for Rai Educational about 100 years ago. It was the 1980s, we hadn’t been long in Rome, and we were extremely poor. The amount he earned for that series – presumably considered risible by RAI standards because Educational was not where the Big Money went – seemed like a fortune to us.

I like to think we’ve moved on just a little bit since then. This man, though, was being Shakespeare at the QBP: I think that probably counts as a step backwards.

L told him that he still has VHS tapes of their show somewhere.

“Oh wow, you should put them on YouTube!” he shot back.

Is that it? Is that the hope that unsuccessful actors cling to? That one day you’ll put some of your opus from long long ago on YouTube and it will become an internet sensation, propelling you to long longed-for stardom?

Sadly, I think it is. Equally sadly, I suspect it’s not going to happen.

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