10-11 February 2012

There was a journalist from Forlì talking on the radio just now about the maltempo (bad weather) there. She gave all the usual information, about cut-off villages and heroic rescue operations by Carabinieri officers braving miles on foot through deep snow to pull ill and ancient people out of isolated farmhouses.

Then she started reassuring listeners that the wolves were just an urban (or, in this case, rural) legend. She was doing it quite seriously, scotching the talk of cold and starving beasts stalking the deserted streets of country villages, or lying in wait just beyond the last straggling houses. You can see how these conditions might induce such thoughts. I spent the first four days of this week in Berlin – colder than I’d ever experienced in my life but mostly sunny and, of course, a city to explore. Had I been here in this howling white-and-grey world since February 2 when the first snow fell, the phone cut off as it has been since then, battling through drifts from time to time to get up to town – indeed today battling even to reach the chicken house to bring in more wood – I might have started imaging wolves too. Irrational fears don’t seem so improbable when you’ve been viewing the world for days through an unwonted lens, the colours all wrong and the survival strategies unfamiliar. The noises that reach you from a world of snow are all different. There’s almost a feeling of justification, peopling this strange world with fairy-tale bogeymen.

The couple of days before we went away, and yesterday afternoon when I returned, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the whole scene was quite magically glistening. Today it’s five below and the air is thick with snow, falling and drifting together, blown horizontal beneath a funereal sky. A wolf howl wouldn’t seem out of place. There are immense snow sculptures everywhere, climbing the wall of the house on the chicken house side, edging up in sharp, delicately wrought ridges to meet the snow piled on the roof of the stairs. Outside the front door I have to keep clearing a semi-circle for door-opening, otherwise there would be 60cm of snow banked against it and I would be reduced to clambering out of the big window at the southern end of the living room (that’s my emergency exit strategy; the shovel now lives just inside the front door, always at the ready). It all weighs on you, quite physically. Thankfully, it’s almost time to shut the shutters and pretend it isn’t happening. Not that I’ve opened many today: it gives me the impression (utterly self-deceptive, of course) of being warmer that way.

The other thing I noticed, listening to Italian radio which I do so infrequently, is how in the litany of snow-woes, the word ‘Umbria’ was never uttered. Every other afflicted region was named and studied in depth. Are things worse there? They didn’t sound so from the descriptions. I suppose it’s more unusual for Calabria to be stricken this way, though in fact the high Aspromonte is more prone to heavy snowfalls than we are. And of course snow in Rome is such a rarity that it always makes the news… even when, as earlier this afternoon, it is expected rather than really falling. Is snow in Umbria not a story because people imagine us somehow remote and chilly anyway? Or do they simply forget Umbria in their romps down the boot?  Either way, I’d say that if this keeps up tomorrow – and tomorrow is meant to be the toughest day of all – then we’ll have had well over a metre of snow. And that, in anybody’s book, is rather exceptional.

I came back from Berlin to find my horrid little plastic greenhouse torn to shreds by the wind, and my seed trays and pots of cuttings buried deep. I have brought them all inside, and am trying to thaw them out. But the seed pockets I can squeeze are hard as rock, which makes me suspect that the compost is frozen quite solid in all of them. Have I just lost all my summer crops? I shall keep them in the living room now. I’ve set up the shelves from the terrace outside our bedroom by the south-facing window in the living room (leaving, obviously, an escape route for me to climb out of if the front door doesn’t open): it’s not warm in there but at least they should have sufficient light by that window.  My poor plants.


It snowed all night and most of the day today. I am beseiged. Each leg sinks into the fluffy snow half way up my thigh: you begin to feel that the next one may not follow. I had to shovel my way up to the chicken house to get more wood. That was after I shouldered hard to get the front shutters open just a tiny crack then had to apply the shovel through that crack in order to get any further.

I’m besieged, too, by birds. There was nowhere protected to put out water and seeds and bread so I left them sitting on the step right outside the kitchen. Two tits and a robin spent most of the day flitting between olive tree and food. The squabbled at times over who had precedence. But mostly they just flitted. And sat out there, peering at me in almost dog-like fashion. Nothing I did fazed them.  My cellphone – my umbilical cord to the outside world – sat by the window and rang and buzzed, I answered it and chatted, and they carried on as if I were nothing more than a minor inconvenience.  So pretty. And, as C texted to me from Cambridge, someone to keep me company in my isolation.

But there was another one too, one that was causing me immense anguish as it beat itself wildly against the inside of the chimney in the living room. The flue was closed, so it couldn’t get out into the house and I was in some ways pleased about that: I love birds sitting outside the window looking at me devotedly but when they start flapping about me, my bird phobia comes out. Still, as this creature – I was hoping it was nothing less savoury than a bird – had started making its din late at night, I could only imagine it was an owl. And the last thing I wanted was to have the death of an owl on my conscience. For Italians, they’re birds of ill-omen; for me, they’re great sweeping creatures who confer intelligence on the night. I decided to leave it just long enough for it to wear itself out, but not long enough for it to perish. Then I would save it. There was no sound coming from the flue when I got back after lunch from my walk to town. But still I couldn’t, quite. So I called my friend S who said, in her marvellously Wodehouse way, “gosh Anne, it’s at times like this that a girl needs a man.” That was it. How could I not rise to a challenge like that? I placed a big plastic box beneath the flue opening and was ready to pull the chain to open it with one hand, and slap the lid on the box with the other. But the lovely creature – a tiny brown owl – tumbled out a little sleepily nowhere near my box, did a couple of slightly stunned turns around the room, then flew obligingly out of the open window. I had the definite feeling that he (or she) too had decided to stop struggling and wait for me to set things to rights in the avian world. It was a good feeling.

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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2 Responses to 10-11 February 2012

  1. Pingback: 13 January 2017 | La Verzura

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