6 September 2021

“Look at those fall colours,” a client said to me the other day. We were standing on her terrace, peering across at a densely wooded hillside of large oaks. They were, in places, looking very brown. “But – it’s August,” I said, with a dramatic pause to let the implication sink in. “That’s not autumn over there, it’s desperation.”

In the end 20mm of rain fell on our own hillside in August – one quick splash at the start of the month, another right at the end. But they did nothing at all to close up the deep cracks which are forming in the fields and garden, and of course nothing to replenish aquifers either. 

The trees I was looking out over with my client are large, well established specimens; the hillside rolls down to Lake Trasimeno – where the water is at extremely low levels but the landscape is hardly parched-looking. If those august trees can’t get their roots down deep enough to draw up sufficient water to keep their green mantle until October as usual, then there’s every reason to worry.

It was ironic then that the next communication I had from this client and her husband was to tell me – among other things – that the tail end of hurricane Ida had deposited six inches of water in their New Jersey basement. If the planet isn’t sending us messages…

Pienza, Val d’Orcia

In the last ten days, I’ve lost my cellphone twice. Is this senility I ask myself, or is my subconscious trying to tell me something? Perhaps a little bit of both. I hasten to add that these are, as far as I remember, the only two times in my whole life when I’ve lost my phone for more than about two minutes. 

The first time, I had left it in the basement in Pieve Suites, in a spot where there was no signal of any kind and thus no chance of hearing it ring when I got friends to call. I found it after two hours of mounting panic.

The second time, I left it on the roof of my car as I drove off from a client’s house outside town. The odd thing was, I heard a thud as I pootled around a bend on the road home and thought “what was that?” Can it have been my ancient iPhone sliding off the roof? I had the windows shut. Could I have heard it? Unlikely. Must have been something else.

I called from friends’ phones: unreachable. I retraced every step I’d made that morning, even to places where I knew it couldn’t possibly be, because I knew I’d had it subsequently… except by that time I was utterly bewildered, despairing not only at my abysmal absent-mindedness, but about all the safety precautions I had sworn I was going to take after the first incident, and of course hadn’t. I was feeling hopelessly stupid.

Back home I was slightly heartened to see the Whatsapp-slave on my computer springing to life again. I called my number. And someone answered – a lovely-sounding lady (mind you, anyone would have sounded lovely at that point) in a town 20 minutes’ drive away. She had seen it on the road, stopped, picked it up, struck up close friendships with various friends and artisans who had been trying to contact me and was just waiting for me to check in. I could have hugged her.

So when listening with half an ear to the BBC World Service that evening I heard a mention of The Kindness Test I thought yes, this was meant for me, right now. Those researchers at Sussex University devised this research just so that I could give some statistical heft to the kindness of a young woman who had bothered to stop on a dangerous bend along a country road to pick up the phone of a person who had been idiotic enough to drive off with it on the roof of her car. Strange but happy serendipity.

It was interesting, spending 15 minutes thinking about kindness and what constitutes it. 

Of course, surveys have the underlying problem of being over-simplified box-ticking exercises. A lady called from Demetra the other day and rather than saying briskly that I was just going out the door – my usual defence – before putting the phone down, I actually agreed to respond to her questions. (Boredom? Weakness? Displacement?) Some of the questions were fine (rate Mario Draghi from one to ten; rate Matteo Salvini from one to ten) but others offered such a reductive choice of answers to complex international issues that at one point I just had to stop the poor hapless woman’s spiel and ask “do you honestly think these issues are so totally un-nuanced?” 

To which her long-suffering answer was “well, I’ll put that down as ‘no opinion’, shall I?” If only she knew.

And all the time I’m thinking to myself “oh god, I’m being her nightmare responder, the one she really wishes had just hung up.”

Anyway, kindness: this survey too has its unfathomables. I mean how on earth does anyone think I can say “in general, how much do you think kindness is valued by people in the following places?” – with venues such a ‘at home’, ‘in green spaces’, ‘in places of worship’, ‘at the doctor’s’. How do I know what ‘people’ value… and who are these ‘people’ anyway?

But analysing the questions and options, there’s a clear desire in whoever set the survey to find out whether the person responding thinks there’s more kindness in city or country, and whether kindness rates higher coming from family and friends, or when it’s bestowed by complete strangers. Which is a strange idea if you ask me. Just as strange is the questionnaire’s apparent interpretation of ‘kindness’ as an act, rather than a permanent state or mode of behaviour.

In the family? That one’s complicated: family dynamics are weird but personally I can’t imagine why anyone would want to inhabit a private world of unkindness. Among friends? I would query the label ‘friend’ if that person were anything but kind to me. From strangers? That’s where an unsolicited act or gesture of kindness such as returning a lost cellphone stops you in your tracks and reminds you that there’s still unselfish thoughtfulness in the world. Happily.

Another question requires you to choose from a list of possible reasons why people might omit kindnesses; one reason is ‘not having enough time’. There’s no doubt that life in a small, slower-moving Umbrian town feels gentler than life in the maelstrom of, say, Rome. By which I don’t mean to say that we’re all sweetness and light on our happy hillside – far from it. But there’s a concentration of reciprocal concern and consideration here – something which came to the fore, for example, during lockdowns – which lends life a more kindly air. It’s something I relish. Even putting aside relative levels of honesty which of course have a bearing in cases like this, I was, in the end, more grateful than stunned that my lost belonging came back to me – not something I would say had all this happened in a city.

Val d’Orcia

We may still be suffering a dreadful drought but that hasn’t stopped the usual September end-of-summer feel. Thirty-degree-plus days have gone. L has taken himself off to Venice for the film festival. Most evenings are a bit chilly for eating outside. And I find myself occasionally, in the earliest, coolest hours of the morning, pulling up the light blanket that lies at the foot of the bed. 

Each time I do I realise how much I hate cold. (L thinks I’m crazy: he can’t wait for the extreme heat to subside.) Yes, all right, once it’s here and it’s full on and I have all my winter woollies out, I can resign myself to it and live with it. But I don’t like it. And more than anything I hate the idea of it – I hate feeling the heat slip away and having to brace for what’s coming. This is completely ridiculous on my part, mainly because it means I’m resenting the coming of winter when I should be revelling in the glories of late-summer (which I do, obviously… but with that proviso).

Lake Trasimeno

Last week we finally got around to picking up our Italian passports. We don’t really need Italian passports: there’s nowhere that we’re likely to go under the current circumstances that requires a passport of any kind. And anyway, I already have two others. But somehow having that document closed a circle which began so long ago. What’s more, we were quietly thrilled I think. It made us feel just a little bit more part of the landscape.

I was thinking about nationality – and Englishness in particular – reading this really rather wonderful article flagged up by a friend in Barcelona which develops far more eloquently and in detail than I did in this blog post our weird emotional link to food and how it defines us.

I read it with a horrified fascination and utter emotional detachment. Traditional staples of the English larder? There wasn’t a single thing mentioned in such nostalgic tones that moved me in any way except to a mild shuddering “yurk”. This is due, I presume, to the fact that my main childhood food provider was an Australian whose cuisine didn’t vary much even once we’d shifted to the UK. (The only Australian staple she imported – and which I continue to import – was Vegemite, of course.)

Intellectually I can understand the social implications of the foodstuffs he mentions, but I have no first-hand experience. Moreover it irks me intensely that food should have class connotations. It’s just so miserably English.

Like L’s dawning realisation that it has been a long long time since he’s supported England rather than Italy in any international sporting fixture, I realise that it would only be going into an Italian deli in some place other than Italy that would give me that same warm buzz of recognition and flavour-pleasure, combined with a sensation of being in The Right Gastronomic Place. Not that our own home cooking is 100% Italian – it definitely isn’t – but I would be proud of being somehow connected to that tradition; there would be no awkwardness or embarrassment.

So yes, we deserve our passports I reckon. We’ve reached the right level of saturation.

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15 August 2021

Up by the compost bins, something has gnawed through my irrigation pipes. Chewed right through: all along a 50cm-stretch you can see the teeth marks of a desperately thirsty animal. 

We did have some rain on 1 August – a 6.4mm splash which did little except raise humidity levels. It came in the wake of… next to nothing: 5.1mm in July (average 50mm); 19.3mm in June (average 51mm); 25.4mm in May (average 102mm). For weeks now, a day which doesn’t reach 30°C (86°F) is a blessing; today my thermometer climbed to 38.3°C (101°F). Which for our perch up here at almost 500m (1640 ft) above sea level is extraordinary.

Is it any wonder, then, that animals are excavating beneath my irrigated plants, ripping them up in a frantic search for the source of the dampness around them? Or that they’re chewing on those tubes from whence tantalising dribbles of water emerge? (I have, I should say, put bowls of water around the garden now.)

And (at the risk of sounding like I don’t know the difference between climate and weather, but I do, really) is it any wonder that the IPCC is ringing deafening alarm bells, telling us we have (a) to accept that increasing extremes are all down to our ill-advised activities and (b) we really don’t have much time left to do something serious to reverse it. Animals can’t cope; plants are struggling to adapt to conditions which are foreign to them.

It is horribly distressing – though I suspect/fear that it may be so to such an extent that most of us are still, ludicrously, pitifully unresponsive rabbits frozen in headlights… allowing those that govern us to get away with not doing enough while we continue with our displacement activities. 

In this summer of immense news stories, it’s difficult to know which diversion to latch on to. It’s far simpler to let it wash over you, helpless before the tsunami. Not content with a global pandemic which isn’t going away, we have a climate emergency which is hurtling towards irreversibility underscored by immense wildfires, an earthquake in Haiti even greater in magnitude than the one which flattened much of the country and left between 160,000 and 300,000 dead (they never finished counting) in 2010 and Afghanistan imploding before our eyes at breakneck speed after decades and billions and promises and utterly phenomenal self-delusion. 

So perhaps I’ll come back down to earth and stay closer to home, with a small glimmer of hope for my forlorn vegetables and – who knows – maybe the rest of the garden too. The funny thing is, that in this hottest of all hot weeks in this long and sweaty summer there are odd signs of activity up in the orto. They’re small. In fact, only someone who watches as obsessively as I do would notice them. But there are tiny green branchlets pushing their way out of stems which I thought were moribund, as if the shorter days – and the days are shorter – are a signal that it’s time to try some spring-like tricks. I’m not holding my breath; I’m not deluding myself. But I am slightly crossing my fingers.

A few chirpy words, too, on the pandemic-scenario as seen from CdP. I’m enjoying Covid Summer II. I like the numbers in our town this year – so many locals and curious Italians, without the heaving Palio-season crowds and the packs of braying anglos (though the Dutch are back in swarms). My Pieve Suites is packed, at least for these few central weeks, with a couple of long long bookings stretching towards autumn. 

Green Pass requirements came into force last week, with the kind of quiet recognition that it’s for our good that has become the hallmark of Italy nowadays… a fact marvelled at by the New York Times which should be reaching the point now where “wow! Italy is organised! whoever would have thought?” stories feel far too familiar.

On the morning after Green Pass proof of disease-resistance became necessary for consuming inside bars and restaurants I stepped into the Benzina Bar for a quick coffee only to find that the QR-code checking was generating huge hilarity. The lovely lady behind the bar was in playful mood, scanning the Green Pass data and teasing people about their real names hidden behind nicknames, and their no-longer-concealable venerable ages. 

Standing outside chatting at the inauguration of a photo exhibition in homage to our Palio which has been cancelled again this year, I was once again struck by the extent to which locals have interiorised certain ways of behaving in the interests of all. Several people whom I called out to, to encourage them to visit the show, started towards the door then stopped short, saying “oh but I can’t possibly, I don’t have a mask with me.”

Now, this exhibition is inside the vast echoing space of a deconsecrated church, the one with the town’s water tank carefully concealed within its drum-shaped upper regions. The huge wooden doors were open and air was circulating freely. The only difference between being outside and being inside the ex-church is that inside it’s freezing, year-round. But no, people don’t want to be inside unless protected… either that or it was a simple excuse for skipping the show.

Another little pat on the back for Italy and its grown-up approach: L finally nipped across to the UK to sort out his stepfather, coming back to Italy and five days of quarantine. In England, there was no indication whatsover that anyone was interested in his vaccine documents or test results. Returning to Perugia, his locator form was scanned. Then what to do?

The answer turned out to be: nothing. First thing next morning an email bounced into his inbox, ordering him not to leave the house for five days, giving him strict instructions about what he should and shouldn’t do, and telling him to present himself at a drive-through testing centre not far away where an appointment had been fixed for him on the morning of the fifth day after his return. The PCR test, needless to say, is free. The email was also sent to our mayor – just to make sure the local authorities can keep keep him in line.

I said that it was high time the NYT stopped expressing amazement at every sign of Italian togetherness. But this one surprised even us. Over an article in the Guardian last week, when the Green Pass was introduced, was a headline which beautifully (perhaps more beautifully than the headline-writer even realised) encapulated the attitude of most Italians at this moment in history: “It is a bit annoying.” It’s easier, I guess, to feel no more than a ‘bit’ annoyed when things are arranged so as to lessen the inconvenience.

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3 August 2021

Oh dear, where did July go? It passed by in a rush of good resolutions dampened by heat exhaustion. And in the end it was gobbled up by a wedding.

Wedding in the Time of Covid. Marrying off your daughter is a complicated business at the best of times I guess but in an era when planning is more a shot in the dark than a roadmap, it acquires extra levels of fancy footwork.

To be honest, some of the toughest hurdles were thrown up by the massive, unbending spirit of Swiss bureaucracy (our newly acquired son-in-law is Swiss) which moves ponderously and inexorably, never deviating from its well worn tracks. When global pandemic gets in the way, it continues down its usual route, flailing blindly as it presses up against obstacles, even when it is absolutely obvious that a little Italian-style side-stepping would speed things up immeasurably for everyone. The lady in CdP’s records office didn’t bother to hide her smugness. The Swiss? Ha! We’re soooo much more efficient…

So from a date in early June (when, admittedly, the guest list would have consisted of a rather sad us, the groom’s parents and two brothers, e basta), the event limped back to late July, and a handful of friends were summoned from continental Europe for the occasion (though not, alas, from the UK which still, at the time, had a two-week quarantine requirement for returning travellers). 

With all the requisite Swiss paperwork finally completed, Italian flexibility made the wheels turn smoothly. 

No more than 15 in the room where marriage ceremonies are performed, came the message from the mayor’s office. We’ll be 22, I said. Hey, the rather vague answer implied: who’s counting? 

Next complication? Our photographer-friend wanted to bring his drone. Are drones even allowed when our prime minister has his private residence just down the road? A local sometime-drone-user advised notifying the vigili urbani. When I went to the vigili, they looked nonplussed. They suggested notifying the mayor’s office. So I did. For the mayor, all was fine. For the premier’s security people not so much, and when the whiny thing tried to take off it was stymied by an automatic flight exclusion zone for several kilometres around the Draghi residence. One minute (and a nifty workaround) later though, it was in the air.

No authorities seemed perturbed. We’re still waiting for images from above our parched but pleasant land.

The Italian civil wedding ceremony is short, and over-long. It consists of just three simple, eminently sensible articles from the codice civile which say partners are equal, should each contribute according to his/her abilities, should decide together how to run the household and should each help any offspring fulfil his/her own ambitions. Then – in our case, as the groom is not a fluent Italian speaker – it had to be translated (by me). Then it gets repeated, under different guises, then there’s a lot of reporting back what has just been said. Then there’s some signing and explaining and general verbage. Then it’s done.

I say the three articles are simple and in fact they are, but when I tried to cut corners by googling for a translation instead of doing it myself I was amazed just how many weird and wonderful English variations I found. Sleek wedding planners with impressive websites have been leading newlyweds up some interesting matrimonial garden paths with vows to do things which really aren’t anywhere in the codice civile. I guess it’s the signature on the paper that counts.

One interesting thing about having groups of people hanging around your garden for the best part of three days, is seeing the way they use it. I – as I’ve often said – rarely sit in my garden: my idea of a nice time outside involves endless pottering. But here was a group of visitors most of whom were ignorant of the usual dynamics of the place, and all of whom had to be kept in the shade of trees for the best part of an hour before the wedding lunch could begin, when the sun had moved off the far side of the long long table we had created outside the kitchen. I threw rugs and cushions under the oak trees. The wedding guests plonked themselves down in that little-used space. And that became their salotto for the whole event… they made that shady slope very much their own. 

Ditto the poor neglected concimaia. The table from up there had been removed to extend the one outside the kitchen. The concimaia became the dancefloor, with the console (brought by one of the guests) on the never-lit barbecue and our Christmas fairy lights providing a twinkle around the perimeter. I crashed at about 3.30am; the music just kept on going. Living in the middle of nowhere has its advantages.

So I’m newly determined to plant the raggedy slope down from the oak trees: the collection of weeds there added nothing to the bucolic scene on the grass. And it would be lovely – one day, when I have the cash – to get a pergola over the concimaia table. There are so many bits of my garden which are beautiful in my mind’s eye – and hugely in need of work if I try to be objective. A fervid imagination is a great excuse for inactivity.

In the run-up to The Event, L decided that it was impossible to have a wedding party on our burnt, sear “lawns”. So he decided to water, and I decided to humour him. It’s good for a relationship, going along even when you know that what’s being watered is mostly expanses of extremely dead annual weed (with a little grass mixed in) which has no hope at all of being revived until the next generation pops out, egged on only by autumn cool and returning showers. Somewhere deep down I was hoping for L’s sake that some other vaguely green thing might miraculously appear. 

For a few evenings we dragged sprinklers around. I even carried on after he disappeared off to the much-delayed Cannes film festival. The result was… as I expected. The very little grass that there is certainly benefitted. The rest, however, continued to look sear. But it’s not only my so-called lawns that are in a desperate state: everything is sunburnt and parched. Plants are behaving oddly. It’s not a great year for things being green.

From wet and cold we went all too swiftly to hot and dry (my July rainfall total of 5.1mm was vastly lower than an average of about 40mm; just under 20mm in June was similarly pathetic). In spring, there was no opportunity to dodge the showers to get plants into the water-logged ground (and those who did lost much to the great Easter freeze). Then all at once temperatures were more August than June: growth was blocked, everything looked stunted. My tomato plants, which should be tumbling off the highest point of their supports, are barely more than knee-high. There’s fruit, yes, but it’s small: what should be huge beefsteak tomatoes are the size of sad, bland supermarket specimens. My courgettes have given up the uneven struggle. There’s none of the usual cucumber avalanche (which is a shame because I’ve become rather partial to cold avocado and cucumber soup – very refreshing in this hot weather.)

If all this didn’t make you think about climate change, you’d have to be pretty determined to ignore it. So what are we going to do? I mean… apart from protest and campaign and raise awareness and all that. Short of trying to grow tropical crops – which I think is rather sweeping the problem under a rug and pretty sure not to work – I’m going to have to research more heat-resistant varieties, and perhaps have a larger, more productive greenhouse where I can really get things going properly before planting them out. 

So far at least (and with fingers crossed, and knocking on wood) our water supply has held out, which is a bit of a rarity around here where I’m constantly hearing tales of sinking water tables and essential liquid being shipped in by the exorbitant truck-load. On that front, I count us lucky. Red-faced Renato the water diviner who told us where to dig all those years ago still swears from under his pork pie hat, every time I see him, that our water will never run out. Fingers crossed.

With all this in mind the comments under a recent photo on a town Facebook page made me smile. The photo shows post-war people in nearby Montepulciano, harvesting wheat together in the fields. It’s just like when I was a child, in Maranzano! said one. Maranzano is an outlying part of CdP. My wonderful mother and all her girlfriends went out to harvest by hand, she wrote. The good old days!

I rather wonder whether the mother would agree that old times were so very good, after weeks of agonising cutting and bending and stacking and stooking – skin roasted and hands sliced to pieces by rough corn stalks. But at the very least there must have been some regularity (inevitability?) in those seasons which could be better or worse but not one long inexorable slide towards a state which we – to a greater or lesser extent – have brought upon ourselves.

In the mean time as I sit here writing the loud-quiet of massed cicadas is broken regularly by passing helicopters, each of which makes my heart miss a beat or two. I presume they’re patrolling. With everything so very dry and gusty breezes shaking the foliage, it’s perfect bushfire weather.  

***I should point out that not all these photos were taken by me. But I can’t remember whom I need to credit. Lee, Sabrina, perhaps David. Thanks for your contributions, whoever you were.

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29 June 2021

How intelligent are plants? Quite aside from my own slightly loopy belief that most plant life is wildly smarter than the average human being, I have been observing my wisteria and wondering: has it been learning lessons? 

My summers are always one long battle to keep wisteria tendrils from reaching out from the pergola and across to the wall of the house. I presume the ultimate aim of the wisteria is to engulf the building, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. But in the shorter term, it provides a superhighway for the ants which populate the greenery but which would much rather (because they’re evil and have it in for me) invade my home. I keep a pair of secateurs in the kitchen for the purpose, and snip away a few wandering fronds each evening. For the past few days, however, I’ve noticed a change: the tentacles heading housewards are no longer leaf-bearing. They all end in droopy, full-of-promise buds which open out as they come into contact with the wall. 

Now, snipping off leaf branches is simple. But sacrificing flowers – especially after this spring’s icy disaster – is quite another matter: who has the heart to do that? I’ve never had this dilemma before. I’ve never had flowers heading for the wall. Have they, in some strange way, wised up to the fact that they can get away with anything if they sprout some blooms on their tips? I can’t think of any other explanation.

The other day I swung my car into the driveway of a local hotel-restaurant which has been closed for years but will soon reopen. I was there to hand out some plant-tending and replacing advice. The place is right opposite the gate of our prime minister’s house, and as I stepped out of the car I peered across to the gate, and mused (as I do every time I’m in the vicinity) about the utter misery of sitting in a Carabinieri patrol vehicle in relentless sun hour after hour outside a closed gate with nothing more to look at than a not-particularly-busy road where the most exciting thing that ever passes is a couple of perambulating old ladies taking their evening constitutional.

I often wonder whether the choice of car denotes whether Mario Draghi is in residence or not. Sometimes there’s a smart SUV; others there’s a down-at-heel Fiat which really doesn’t give the impression that it would come out on top in a struggle against determined marauders. On this particular afternoon, the car fell pretty much into this second category, though I knew (because everyone knows everything in CdP) that Draghi was home.

He’s not a man who likes showiness, our Mario. The story in town – which may or may not be true – is that despite the less-than-impressive nature of his gate-side protection, there are bodyguards all over the place and for a while they were being boarded and lodged in the Hotel Vannucci, the town’s priciest and smartest accommodation option (though of course my Pieve Suites beats it hands down for style). That was – the story goes – until Draghi (who has, incidentally, waived his prime ministerial salary) found out how much it was costing the public purse and shifted the lot into a far cheaper motel down in the valley.

But that’s by-the-by. I had been dispensing advice for 20 minutes or so when a car screeched through the gate. Two young men hopped out and asked to talk to the owner. The owner had made himself momentarily unfindable.

“We’re Carabinieri,” they announced. I actually thought the were joking. “We are Carabinieri,” they insisted: obviously my skepticism showed. And so I asked if I could help instead.

“Who does that black car belong to?” It was mine (and full marks for spotting the black beneath the filth and dust). 

“And who are you?” 

I explained. I swore it was mine. I tried my hardest to look very unlike a sniper. 

The hyper-thermic guards at Draghi’s gate had watched me pull in, noticed me peering in their direction, and called the local police station for back-up. To protect the premier from me. I’d like to think I have a vaguely dangerous air. But I suspect it was boredom and perhaps just a smidgeon of a desire to take some revenge on those colleagues who were enjoying a quiet afternoon in the civilian world. It’s good, though, to know that they’re looking out for the PM.

Useful Marco turned up yesterday with his tractor and began the weary job of cutting the grass in our bottom field. He inevitably does this on the hottest days of the year, sitting atop his heat-belching old tractor: no cabin nor anything apart from a backwards-facing baseball cap to protect him from the sun, chuntering about the parched field in a cloud of choking dust.

It’s sad to think that he’s munching up all the marvellous orchids which I’ve been trying to learn to identify this year. 

I’ve been snapping photos and lining them up with sitings on this fascinating site but frankly, I’m not sure whether I’ve spotted a couple of varieties or far far more: the thing that I merrily call a lady orchid (Orchis purpurea, of which we have many: my grass-mowing weaves and dodges around the ones that spring up in inconvenient spots in the garden) could be any number of these lovely specimens but I like the name. Down in the bottom field, there were scores of what I have airily dubbed Anacamptis pyramidalis (but which could have been many other things). All their dainty heads will have been lopped off now, which is sad.

But it’s also, I presume, what makes them grow. When our field was 100% unkempt, there wasn’t much of interest down there: it really was very scrappy. Now that we have it mowed once a year, it gets more wondrously packed with beautiful blooms each season. 

Having blithely (and necessarily) erased the orchids, Marco was much more excited about the lupins. I’d never given much thought to lupins, though I have at times wondered about the many kinds of Fabaceae running riot through fields and hedges – another wild plant family about which I know next to nothing. He’s right, it seems: central Italy is full of them. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled to stand up his claims that we have Lupinus albus, the kind that produce the orange pods you find lurking in murky brine on market stalls, waiting to be spooned into cone-shaped paper twists, de-hulled and consumed. 

I’ve never really understood lupini: they’re hard work to get at, and taste like salty wax. Italian as I’m trying to be, it’s a part of the culture that I haven’t yet made mine.

I expect it’s to do with childhood (compare and contrast my vegemite dependence). 

Last week a friendly courier came bowling down the lane and after he’d handed over a package said to me “you’re English aren’t you?” It was easier to nod ‘yes’ than to go into details. “Can you explain something to me? This morning I had to deliver a package to another English signora from The English Food Company.” His pronunciation was charming.

“But I don’t understand. Why would anyone order Engish food? Isn’t all Italian food so much better?”

I told him it was probably something attached to childhood memories, something to sate nostalgia more than hunger. But he had a very good point. I’m not sure how sincere my response was. 

In two of the jobs I worked on during the lockdown, agapanthus featured. Agapanthus frequently feature in my work. Where they are appropriate, they bring not only architectural structure but also – in my opinion – sheer joy. 

One project was a Rome terrace with a superb view over the dome of St Peter’s. The client was male, southern Italian, in the legal world and with a propensity to pay in large denomination bills which would have been funny had it not been… let’s say less than 100% legal.

He wanted nothing obscuring his view over the cupolone. Fine. The plants that went into the planters around the walls of the terrace were mostly low and/or trailing. Higher plants went around the sides. But in a couple of those Vatican-side planters, I did stick one or two Agapanthus africanus. For height variety, I explained, and – when the marvellous blooms emerged – to frame the dome.

I thought he’d understood. I thought he’d agreed. Then a couple of weeks ago I received a video message saying that those stalks (flowerless at the time) were too high, they were going to disturb his view, and that they had to be lopped off at the same height as the parapet, no higher. I was, quite literally, speechless.

When I recovered I called the architect friend who had passed the job on to me. Just ignore it, he said. Hopefully he’ll forget.

Then some days later I learnt that the heart-broken gardener had indeed been forced by my client to lop the tops off the offending plants… I didn’t dare to ask whether he took them off from the bottom or left the tragically mutilated parapet-high stalks as initially requested. I rather hoped the latter. It seemed fitting.

The same morning the agapanthus bloomed in the second garden where I had placed a strip at the head of the lovely pool. ” I just love the agapanthus,” wrote that very different client. “They are like an elegant troupe of dancers all escaping their shrouds at different angles and with different shapes. One of them, amazingly, has coiled the stalk like a French horn — a complete round near the base of the plant. You are giving me daily joy watching them!”

Some clients are definitely more satisfying than others…

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14 June 2021

It’s a joy, each morning, opening the windows and breathing in the perfume of roses and pinks and general late-spring freshness. But there’s an element of dread too. I brace as I open each shutter. Somewhere out there, I know, lies carnage. 

I was blaming porcupines for the piles of precious green parts of plant mixed with stones and soil strewn across the grass in various points around the garden. But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just bulb-munching porcupines that are out to get me: it’s a diabolical plot between them and the boar. There’s a real battle of wits going on here.

“And porcupines don’t even belong here,” a friend said to me, trying to sound sympathetic. “The Romans imported them from Africa.” 

They are so much not in the Italian animal vernacular: so exotic-looking. We surprise them often as we drive down our lane, clacking along in front of the car for long distances before making up their minds which verge to veer towards. Once, way over near San Casciano dei Bagni, I spied six of them scuttling along the side of a quiet road – two parents and four waddling, flip-flopping babies in a neat line. 

Now, furious I may be with porcupines, but it seems a bit harsh to blame the ancients for the devastation in my flower beds. Especially as it seems the Romans aren’t responsible at all. According to this scholarly study, there were probably prehistoric native porcupines, once upon a long long time ago, but they were frozen (or something) into extinction. It looks like the ones we have now were imported from north Africa, but much more recently, probably on a whim, in the 16th century perhaps. Bad call chaps: you don’t want pets who do this.

Yet in fact it’s only the quills which set them apart. They’re just big rodents really. They’ve been protected in Italy since the 1970s, despite the fact that they’re rated LC (least concern) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Protected status didn’t use to prevent them from ending up on the table: I remember old people telling me years ago that you have to pack them in mud, put them in a big pizza oven, then crack open the baked mud at which point the quills will fall away to reveal a perfectly cooked animal. Bleugh. It’s a while since I’ve heard anyone boast of their istrice-cooking skills.

While porcupines go for the bulbs of my beautiful dark purple-blue iris, the boar have other favourites. They’ll scatter any pesky plant that comes between them and the bulbs of Muscari spp, a taste, I should add, that they share with much of the population of southern Italy for whom lampascioni – the bulbs of Muscari comosum – are a traditional speciality. What they’re digging up in my garden is mostly Muscari armeniacum (grape hyacinth), some of which I planted in the past but which have popped up here there and everywhere over the years. So out come my dahlias and my liatris, turned topsy-turvy in heaps of dirt and stone just as they’re ready to flower, abandoned by boar with their minds on just one thing.

Elsewhere, something has devoured swathes of the snake’s head iris (Iris tuberosa) bulbs which grow wild all over the southern side of the house. I would have thought this was porcupines but honestly, can you dig such deep holes and chuck such large stones about when you’re sporting a coat as weighty as theirs? I’m in two minds. And I’m flailing about desperately trying to calm my ire by finding silver linings.

Whatever is working on the Iris tuberosa certainly did a good job of turning over the tough, hard, rocky soil along there – a definite aid to weeding between the large Rosa Guizzo Rosso (Barni) which are too much of a challenge for them to haul out in their feeding frenzy… so far. And of course the occasional discarded tell-tale calling-card quill always comes in handy. I’ve discovered that a poke about with a quill is the very best thing for reactivating those tiny holes in my garden watering system when they get all glugged up with chalk and other desposits. Small comforts.

This is the spring of broom (Cytisus scoparius), the warm sultry smell of which is everywhere. We are drunk with it by the time we’re half way up the lane: Fabio our neighbour has given up all pretence of keeping his land manicured which is fantastic for nature though not so great for our car’s paintwork. And it was a spring of wonderful asparagus though I have now called a moratorium on that, to give the plants a break after six weeks of over-indulgence on our part. I notice there is some debate as to whether you stop picking asparagus on the feast of St Anthony of Padua (13 June) or of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June). But each year is different. I just stop when I’ve had enough. The next crop looking like it’s going to out-perform all other years is sweet corn, which is almost always a disappointment in my vegetable garden, though I do persist. 

Figures from the last available tax year (2019) have emerged  to show that Umbrians are poorer than the Italian average. Actually, that’s not news really because they always are, though driving around the region certainly wouldn’t fill you with pity for the poverty-stricken locals. On the contrary.

Are Umbrians really poorer, or better at manipulating tax returns? Do we have better accountants (the answer to which is a resounding no, in my experience)? Do we lie (again, another no, at least in small the part of it I know well)? So perhaps Umbrians are just better at bella figura – they know how to put on a good show in the face of adversity. Città della Pieve is in a respectable position in the top half of the chart – which sounds kind of right.

I am half-vaccinated now and sufficient days have gone by for some kind of resistance to have kicked in. Whatever odd algorhythms decide these things depatched me off to far-flung Tuoro on the other side of Lake Trasimeno for a 9.35 appointment on a Sunday morning. Which seemed a little harsh.

The thing that has struck me since Italy started vaccinating is how almost unanimously vaccinat-ees tell tales of amazement not only about the efficiency of vaccination centres but by the sheer niceness of everyone involved. Which, seeing we’re talking about Italian doctors, is just plain weird.

Italian doctors – especially the male ones of a certain age – are famously some of the most unpleasant, grumpy, least empathetic people to walk the earth. It’s pretty rare to hear anything but complaints about them. On the rare occasions I’ve had to have anything to do with them (I choose my GPs carefully, and they’re always women) I’ve had a very strong feeling that I’m an inconvenience in their surgeries and the sooner I leave the better. But not the vaccinators: they’re a different race… though also, to a large extent, of a different age which not only helps but gives one hope for a better future.

For my less-than-a-minute ritual I was ushered into a room with one sweet silent girl who did the jab and two completely adorable young men joking and joshing and generally turning my painfully early Sunday morning start into a jolly game. Ok, it was the beginning of the day and they might not have been so jovial towards evening. But they more than confirmed what I’d been told.

Umbria is a ‘white’ zone now, which is good of course, but scary at times too. More and more people are taking advantage of the fact that masks aren’t obligatory outdoors unless you’re in a situation where you can’t avoid being in close contact with others. Unmasked people anywhere public unnerve me. 

Our beloved curfew has been lifted, opening the floodgates for guests who never leave. We were at a dinner party in Montepulciano a couple of weeks ago, before the curfew was removed. Wine and conversation removed all concept of time. When we left, just after 11pm, we drove along near-deserted roads with our hearts in our mouths, feeling clandestine and expecting retribution. It didn’t come, and we arrived home feeling oddly exhilarated.

I’m told by people in cities that the marvels of emptiness which we were so lucky to experience are fast disappearing. We nipped up to Florence ten days ago. Mid-week it was still superbly rattly. Poor Venice has already witnessed its first cruise ship arrival, as I wrote in this article, and crowds are fast filling its calli and campi. It worries me that we’re moving forward far too fast. Then I wonder: am I crazy? Fast? After all these months? Still, there’s plenty of scope for things going pear-shaped again.

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