2 February 2012

  For a while, electric light seems uncannily bright when you’ve been without power for more than 36 penumbrous hours. It makes you understand one important reason why the original inhabitants had the living quarters in the upstairs part of these old houses (the other reason being that the heat from the animals stabled below rose, in theory, into the dwelling above, though in fact I think there may have been more cockroaches rising than warmth). For all the extra windows and french doors we added, it’s never as bright down here as it is upstairs.

But your eyes begin to grow accustomed to the murk. Actually, I say that but that’s probably just my romantic Little House on the Prairie reveries kicking in. As C pointed out, be as deep in snow as you want – and we’ve got about 35cm with more forecast for tonight – but you can’t channel the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder when your pantry’s full, your wood stove is burning brightly and you’re not living in a house where snow blows through the cracks in the walls. She has a point.

The snow fell overnight between Tuesday and Wednesday, when we woke up to a greater depth of the stuff than we’ve ever seen here before. Admittedly we were away for the great storm of March 2010, when 50cm fell in the space of a couple of hours. That, we were told, was wet sludgy rain which ripped huge branches off trees and deposited them all over the roads. This, on the other hand, is beautiful, powdery sugar-snow: the kind you’d love in a ski resort.

I had parked the car up in the top car park so we wouldn’t be trapped by the slope-plus-twist of the bottom one, but my preparations were inadequate for the situation and our car is now stranded at a jaunty angle, its tail end very close to my roses (poor things). As Lee attempted to exit, one chain disintegrated beneath the spinning wheel.

So off we trudged on foot, our computers in our rucksacks, up to town and the warm Café degli Artisti with its coffee and cornetti and wifi and civilisation.

It has been two days of such vindication for L.

First of all, his insistence that we live within walking distance of a coffee: that was his ne plus ultra criterion when we were buying a house in the country. Well wrapped up and setting a brisk, warming pace, it was almost pleasurable to tramp through the snow to town.

And secondly, his Transporter. I poured cold water on his funny little motorised glorified wheelbarrow with caterpillar tracks when he insisted on having it for his birthday last year. And often since I have wondered whether it was worth the great expense. But it has become our essential snowmobile now, flattening tracks for the car to pass over (except the car didn’t want to oblige) and, more importantly, hauling C’s huge suitcase up to the centre this morning, to a point where a taxi could pick her up and take her down to Chiusi to get the train to Rome and her flight to the UK. It’s a noisy contraption, and certainly gets itself noticed. But the stares all the way up to town were (I think) of admiration and if sales of Transporters go up around here over the next few days, it’s all due to L’s shiny red example.

It has also been two days (for me at least) of thinking of the future – not the future that we hope for, but a possible future in which weather patterns go crazy and we find ourselves having to deal with a whole new set of circumstances. In fact, a whole old set of circumstances.

When I mentioned at the supermarket checkout this morning that we had no power, the line was furious on my behalf. “Only in Italy,” harrumphed Marcello on the till. (I assured him that whenever a few flakes fell in England, everything went haywire, and much more so than here.) But I wasn’t furious. Maybe it’s the puritan in me, or just another of my far-fetched ideas. But I see it as training.

Here we are in our comfortable house, where the windows and doors fit and there are no draughts, where we’re well stocked with candles (for atmosphere, not light obviously) and where water continues to run when you turn the tap on. Yet there are still people up the road who, in living memory, had none of those things and thought it normal. Hiccups like this just reinforce my feeling that we’re living in a remarkable bubble of self-delusion. A bubble where we accept all kinds of things as normal which are quite abnormal.

The most obvious for me is the way we all eat food produced using God-knows-what by God-knows-whom – great faceless multinationals who don’t care about us but who have convinced us to buy from them rather than use the land and food heritage we have, depriving us in the space of just a few decades of any sense of responsibility for our alimentary well being. But I shouldn’t get started on that. We depend on power companies for light and heat: this is fine, they’re on our side (if only because they need us to make money). But what if they weren’t? What if someone else offered them more money than us? (I’m thinking here of the Chinese investing in the UK water supply.) But that’s way ahead – or least I hope so. For the time being, here we are in our valley at the end of a long and vulnerable bit of electrical wire. Why don’t we have any lamps and a bit of oil to hand? So simple, so efficient. The only ones I could find had rusted/rotted out at the barbeque and the wicks had corroded away. So we coped with a house full of candles. Very romantic. But not very good for coping ‘without’.

****

Up in town, everyone has pulled out their ski gear to stand in gaudily coloured huddles and moan about the weather. But aside from – in true Italian fashion – having the right outfits, they don’t know how to enjoy the meteorological conditions. The only kids I’ve seen having fun in the snow are Sri Lankan; Italian mothers are, no doubt, tetchily keeping their offspring inside with dry feet. The only sledge I’ve seen out – apart from ours of course – belonged to the boy who lives at the end of the other fork of our track, a 17-year-old with a French mother and therefore less hemmed in by convention. One snowman, on a table outside the Café degli Artisti. A couple of half-baked snowballs thrown by a tiny tot at his slightly larger sister, resulting in a shrill telling-off from his mother. Snow does nothing for me – I like heat, and hate that slipping sliding feeling under foot – but even I can see that this is wonderful snow, absolutely made to be played in. It makes me sad to see that it’s not being used as it should be.

And what of here? Well, all my plants are buried beneath gentle white mounds. I had begun the long slow job of pruning the other day. My rugosa roses up the top were looking so beautifully neat. Already they were worrying me though: I’d never had to cut out so much dead wood, and I was wondering whether this was just their age, or the drought conditions they had been struggling through for the last couple of months. They’ll get their water now: lots of it. But will they emerge alive from their shroud?

I was so proud of my fleece-and-canes covers for my little broad beans and struggling fennel, which had withstood near-hurricanes; but they cracked and collapsed under half a metre of snow, though the plants below, after I had dug them out, were remarkably unscathed, with the fleece still covering most of them. I have reconstructed something less ambitious over the broadbeans and spinach, and pulled up all the fennel which was looking unhappy anyway. I’m now cooking it to freeze. And I tucked my baby cabbages back under a bit of fleece, in the hope that they’ll pull through.

I’ve shaken snow out of fruit trees and olive trees, and tied a messy old bit of tarp over my orange-laden orange tree. Huge branches have cracked off the lovely field maple at the south end of the house, which is odd because there’s really no reason why that should happen. I hope the rest of the tree will be all right. A couple of the fallen branches are resting on my newly planted bank along there, but I have done nothing to move them for fear of disturbing the roses and cornus underneath. They’re tough those plants, and I put great mounds of mulch around them just the other day. Fingers crossed.

Since we woke up on Wednesday, power-less and with no hot water, our wood-burning stove (and of course the fact that we have a gas cooker) has been our salvation. We spent much of Wednesday trying to get through to the power company, ENEL. But we’d go through the recorded instructions, punching the  appropriate buttons and and waiting and waiting, only to be cut off just when it sounded like we were about to be attended to. So we gave up, and decided to wait until all the old bids, who were presumably calling in in their thousands, had gone to bed. We lit candles and played Scrabble and washed up with kettle-boiled water and a torch hanging over the sink. C even washed her hair, kneeling surrounded by candles in the middle of the kitchen floor. Just before midnight, we got through. The daytime wait had been infuriating. But they offered to send someone round then and there. We told them we were going to bed and not to bother. When the boys turned up this morning, they said they had been out until 3.30am and back at work again at 7am. After a 6am start on Wednesday. You have to hand it to them, once they know you’re in trouble, they react pretty rapidly and effectively.

They tried to get a big council bulldozer to clear the road down to us so they could get their equipment to the last pole, where the line had come down. We stopped that very quickly when we saw the dog’s dinner they’d made of the lane with a smaller machine as far as Mario’s: all the top has been scraped off – when the thaw sets in, the road is going to wash away. Very kind of them and all that, but that will already be an expensive mend; we dreaded to think of the flood coming down a misshapen, top-less track to us without the necessary cuts to channel the water off into the fields. So they scrambled down the hill from J&ML’s, across the valley, somehow manoevring their equipment through fallen trees and hidden brambles. And patched us up.

They’re saying to expect ten days of this. I’m wondering whether the woodpile will last. Mind you, we’re off to Berlin next week (if we can get there, of course) so that will help to eek it out. But will it last until L gets back? I’m only going for a couple of days. He’s staying two weeks. Will I once again find myself stacking 20 quintals of wood, all by myself? I do hope not.

Now all that remains to do is to get the phone line up and working again.


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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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