How difficult it has been to get back to this space. Things are so disconnected and busy and in movimento. I’m forgetting chronologies and episodes and even plans. It’s just one of those moments.
And so some fragments…
The Uffizi galleries close on Monday. Who cares if this particular Monday is a major public holiday, a day of dazzling blue skies and shoulder-to-shoulder tourists packing the streets of Florence? If it’s Monday, we close. Punto e basta.
On this particular holiday Monday I’m not complaining though: I’m with a handful of people who, extraordinarily, are being let in anyway. The guide showing us around has to fight back tears. “You simply can’t understand what it means to be in here with so few people,” she says. “I’ve worked here for years and I’ve never, ever, seen it like this.”
Walking the empty halls, standing nose-to-canvas with those works with no heaving mass of humanity between you and them; there were moments when I found it hard to breath.
One thing I (yes, I admit it) miss about lockdown are those moments when we – through luck and privilege – found ourselves essentially alone: in eerie Venice, in rattling Rome, and in Florence too which has now returned to anything but relaxing. Clawing back something similar was precious and truly special. But the uniqueness didn’t finish there.
Next step was a dusty, echoing, glorious stomp along the kilometre-long Vasari Corridor which links the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti, skirting then crossing the Arno, passing over the Ponte Vecchio, poking into the church of Santa Felicità. It’s a building site (which is why we were there: the day was organised for employees and friends by the company doing the restoration, Fratelli Navarra) but building sites are my favourite places and the grimy windows, and piles of tiles and bricks, and torn and well thumbed blueprints tacked to walls contributed as much to the satisfaction as having the place our ourselves.
Standing above the Ponte Vecchio, watching the crowds and the river flow below, I stopped being dazzled just long enough to wonder if there’s any way tourism can be spun so that you still get extraordinary thrills – without, of course, extending the creeping cancer out into even further-flung places which would do far better without it. Unfortunately I think the answer has to be: no.
And still on the topic of special places I’d love – but of course won’t be able – to keep for myself… what a spectacular discovery just across the valley in San Casciano dei Bagni. Twenty four amazing bronze statues, some from the second century BCE, pulled out of the stinky hot mud behind the Bagno Grande.
For as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve been going to these stone pools where everyone – from the old ladies of the town to the young people of the towns around – immerses themselves in the slightly oozy hot water and soaks in what feels like goodness. It’s great for catarrh and aches and pains and sciatica and infertility, or so the legends go. And though the Bagno Grande basins themselves could date from any time – and have obviously been reworked over the centuries – they have a decided feeling of antiquity about them.
The antiquity and – perhaps – the fertility thing were the catalysts for a long-overdue dig in the thermal swamp around. The thick giant reed beds surrounding the pools were removed and replaced by green plastic fencing. The lush vegetable gardens (the water’s obviously good for plants as well as people) tended by elderly people from the town on the hill above lost their aura of timeless calm.
A temple emerged, and a sacred pool and some curious coins. Local arts and culture societies enjoyed guided tours. It was all really quite low-key until this discovery shot San Casciano into the limelight. Now the eyes of the world are on that lovely rustic valley, and some way of displaying this wealth of riches will be have to be found. Naturally. And rightly. But I very much fear the late-evening wallows in those magical pools – scrambling, damp, back into freezing clothes in winter – will now be a thing of the past. All hail to archeological discoveries which change our perception of history. But I say that with more than a twinge of nostalgia.
Did I rave about Italy’s impressive government programme of financing for house refurbishments? Huge hand-outs for making houses earthquake resistant and hugely more eco-friendly? I did touch on it here I see, but I must also have whittered on about it somewhere else too, in connection with my grandiose plans for a complete makeover of our slightly collapsing chicken house out the back. But strangely I can’t find that.
I had drawn up beautiful plans for what was going to become a sweet little house at the state’s expense. I’d designed the kitchen. I’d planned the garden. In my head it was already a fait accompli. But the Superbonus turned out to be more complicated than it should have been, and the chaos it generated – especially for anyone working in the sector who was overwhelmed by soaring demand and soaring prices – meant that somehow my dreams evaporated, leaving a slightly bitter taste. But also a feeling of “so what now?”
The answer to which is: more property.
Friends from Rome were staying in my Pieve Suites. “Who were those people looking out the front windows?” he asked me. Alarms bells rang.
My little B&B occupies a strange space. All the very ancient terraced houses along that vicolo run long and narrow, from street right out to the medieval town walls. But I don’t have the whole long narrow house: I have a corridor from the front door which takes me to my half of the house – the half which looks out over the walls and the countryside. The house was divided cross-wise many years ago by two sisters who used the same front door (mine) and had connecting doors elsewhere (now closed). Since I bought my half, the darker, slightly smaller street-facing part has been empty.
Just a few days before – out of curiosity – I’d been to look around the house next door, which was going to be put on sale. The visit had tugged on my heart strings a little: there was no getting around the fact that these units were meant to be one, and not two like mine. Everything just seemed to go together better, the spaces made more sense. So I’d been thinking of my house, and its missing half, and how nice it would be to put it back together again. But who has money for that, eh?
Well, the answer to that question soon became “me” when it dawned on me that my missing part was on the market and people who weren’t me might end up occupying it. No no no no no. The final atto has yet to be signed but the deposit has been paid and hands have been shaken. Despite the expense, I feel like I’ve righted a wrong.
I’m walking down a street in Chichester, West Sussex, wondering why that old lady is being carried across the road. Then I realise that she’s being carried by my husband. He’s heading for a bus shelter, right in front of Chichester’s glorious cathedral. It’s pelting down and the lady is barely conscious.
And so begins the British ambulance-calling saga.
I explain that an elderly lady collapsed in the street and she has been carried to shelter on West St which runs along the side of Chichester cathedral.
Can I have a precise address? – Er, no.
Can you tell me the nearest house number? – No, all there is is a massive cathedral.
Can you give me the postcode? – Of course I can’t give you the postcode, I’m standing on West Street by the cathedral in the bus shelter. Isn’t that enough?
What town is that please? – Oh for god’s sake.
And on and on it goes.
Is the lady responding? – Barely.
Sorry I need a yes or a no. – Yes, barely.
Has she eaten in the last 24 hours? – But we just picked her up off the pavement. How on earth should I know?
Does she have rashes anywhere on her body? – Would you like me to remove all her clothes here in the bus shelter to check?
Perhaps it’s mean of me to complain. In fact, once the woman on the phone had finished her eternal, abysmal, pen-pushing, box-ticking litany the ambulance turned up after ‘only’ 20 minutes or so, staffed by two exhausted-looking young women (it was only mid-morning) who treated our old lady very kindly.
But the determination with which the woman answering emergency calls stuck to whatever was pinned to her clipboard was just so infuriatingly mindless, whatever her official rules of engagement might stipulate. It’s what has taken the place of efficiency in the health service in that post-developed dystopia.
The ambulance episode was all of a piece with our Health Service travails of late. Since September we’ve run the gamut from state-of-the-art intensive care to ramshackle local hospital where we had the impression that the whole truth was being studiously withheld in order to free up the badly needed bed being occupied by L’s stepfather. Obfuscation, plus lack of communication.
In his first meeting at the charmingly named discharge office, a lady informed L in no uncertain terms that stepfather was bedridden and doubly incontinent and needed round the clock nursing. But I’ve just bumped into him walking down a corridor chatting to people. Ah. More scrabbling about on the computer and yes, perhaps it’s more regular + Alzheimer’s residential care he needs.
Fine. Can you get him out asap? I’m doing my best.
L locates a friendly-looking home which sends the manager along to assess stepfather. Blood-out-of-stone style, she establishes that he has two MRSA superbug infections raging, which no one is doing anything about. Would the hospital really have been ok with releasing him in that state, to infect a whole nursing home? It seems so. What’s more, the small fall L had been told about was in fact one of four, which should be a red alert in a patient who has suffered major brain trauma. Has a CT scan been done? No.
It’s that heavy feeling of swimming though molasses, trying to establish which people do and don’t want you know which facts, for what end. Very distressing indeed.
So just as well there’s Chichester harbour to blow the confusion out of your brain. Each inlet is gorgeous in its own way, each coast-hugging path a treasure. Lazy herons and pecking egrets and the sound of lapping – unless you happen to get there at low tide for a scenario of endless mud. And thank goodness too for the stupendous yews of Kingley Vale, some of which are 2000 years old, making them some of the oldest living creatures in the UK. The walk though the wood there, en route to the top of the Downs beyond, sends shivers down my spine.