7 February 2011

This post first appeared on my website.

The last two weeks have been extraordinary. We have forgotten the meaning of the word ‘cloud’. Warm days (well, warm after the first couple of sunny days when the snow which had fallen not all that long before left an icy wind which whipped into your marrow) and freezing nights with velvety-summery star-filled skies. The only problem, in fact, is that staying inside on days like this is torture. I stare out of the window and want to be out there. Truth to tell – I have been out there, a lot of the time: pruning roses and carrying on with the bank-clearing down beneath the house.

Yesterday we massacred the poor old tangled fig tree. It was obscuring our view, and producing little but watery figs, so high up that the birds got almost all of them… something which didn’t worry us unduly, I hve to admit, because neither of us is very fond of figs anyway. But it seemed rather pointless. Now, rather than pointless it seems pitiful. We were going for a spreading umbrella look. But as most of the branches were upright, this means that it has a bald, straggly look instead. Hey ho. We’ll see what it does in summer. And if necessary, cut it out.

We also removed immense piles of dogwood and scrubby elm down there – also obscuring our view which is now beautifully open. I’m full of thorns and scratches and bumps, but being out in the sunshine, getting things done, in February gives you such a bursting-with-life feel that you shrug off minor injuries with utter indifference. It’s just wonderful.

There are signs of spring everywhere. I mean, peach trees budding in February is to be expected: foolish things do this whenever they feel a few minutes or so of warmth. I guess I should be fixing them up with grease collars and spraying them wildly to try to stop leaf curl. But nothing ever does. And the funny thing is, that when I have to do all those winter pruning and treatment things dodging rain storms and nastiness, I am much more focussed: with what currently seems like all the time in the world, I put them off. Silly.

There are ranks of little daffodil leaf-tips poking up everywhere, and bees bumbling about already, searching for flowers which have yet to open. On Saturday we were sitting down at the south end of the house, eating lunch in the sun, when I saw a big cloud of what looked like smoke lift off the hillside across the valley. I watched it for a bit: it was moving slowly and twisted about sinuously before dispersing. L was worried: with no rain for such a long time, anything which is in the sun day after day can appear to be very dry (though not nearly as dry as L suspects: he’s always trying to convince me we need to get the watering system going when we patently don’t) and he feared a conflagration. As we were arguing about the possibilities of fire at this time of year, another puff rose up, further along the hill. This time it was clearly – something I had dismissed as an optical illusion the previous time – very yellow in colour. Sulphur yellow. The cloud hovered and quivered and dispersed. Then another, and another, all in different places. What was it? Plants letting off clouds of pollen? Or was it huge batches of insects hatching? Not all that much later, I was surrounded by infuriating little flies as I pruned my roses up by the front gate. I hadn’t seen them around since last summer. Was that what was puffing up, smoke-like, across the valley?

Despite signs to the contrary from ill-advised Nature, we’re under no illusions, of course, that spring really is upon us. We will, no doubt, be made to suffer further down the line for this period of grace. The one day in the year when you pray for terrible weather in Italy is February 2, the feast of Candelora – the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, or the purification of Mary… or Lupercale if you prefer the pagan version. There seems to be a bit of regional disagreement over the exact significance of Candelora weather. But around these parts they adhere to the rule “per la santa Candelora se nevica o se plora dell’inverno siamo fora”: if it rains or snows on Candelora, the winter is over… the inverse also being true, ie if it’s bright and sunny – and it couldn’t have been brighter or sunnier this year – then we still still have a whole lot of winter to go.

We had to get the chimney sweep around to scrape out our stove flue which was so tarred up that it was dribbling creosote down into our bedroom and smoking like… well, like a chimney I guess: a real fire risk. He was a jolly, bouncy type, rather reminiscent of an Umbrian Alexei Sayle. He could only come on Saturday. Because the rest of the week he was an upholsterer. His wife, on the other hand, runs a catering business. So much enterprise. You had to wonder whether he just swept chimneys for the thrill of it.

The comune (town council), desperate for money, has been getting locals hot under the collar by sending out ‘let’s-see-who-falls-for-this’ bills for all kinds of things. We had a bill/fine for almost €3000 for unpaid rubbish rates. Huh. It all seemed ridiculous to me, so I studied the thing carefully. Rubbish rates are charged according to habitable square metres. But they seemed to be including the chicken house and the threshing floor up the top which was only ever four wobbly stacks of brick, and even they fell down long ago (most of the bricks are now in our gate posts). And why oh why was all this being back-dated to 2005 when the house has only been officially ‘agibile’ since late 2006?

The rubbish girl in the comune office was quite quite lovely – auburn haired, with huge eyes set in a face from another, more genteel era. She would have looked fine in a bustle and a chignon.

When I showed her the photos and the certificates and the calculations of square metres, she admitted immediately that I was right. In fact, there was only one ‘misdemeanour’ I admitted to, and that was not having declared to the rubbish office that the bottom floor of this house was no longer a stable and was now habitable. But, I said, having obtained the permission to convert it from the comune, paid the comune handsomely for this privilege, reported the completion of building works to the comune and had the changes corrected in the land registry in the comune, I had been labouring under the impression that the news might have filtered down to the rubbish tax office in the comune. Alas, however: it was not so. Ms Auburn Locks looked mortified and began apologising profusely for the inadequacies of her country. I felt rather bad. But not bad enough not to stop me rejoicing that the resulting bill should be about one eighth of the original one.

Another sad sad sign of hard times in the town council: I overheard our indefatigable councillor responsible for culture – an admirable lady called Maria Luisa Meo – lamenting her lot. For the past few years, she has had a ‘whopping’ annual budget of €8000 to play with. For 2011, this has been cut. To €1200. Someone somewhere has taken to heart those immortal words of Italy’s philistine Treasury Minister Giulio Tremonti: “you can’t eat culture”. In Italy, where the tourism industry around culture is one of the country’s biggest earners. Ms Auburn Locks is right. Italian officials have a whole lot to apologise for.



About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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