11 June 2012


Weather memory is most unreliable. June 11. Howling gale. June 10. Downpour over the Franchi stadium in Florence where we’re watching Bruce Springsteen. June 9. Splendiferous day, spent entirely in the garden. It feels like a weird, wild spring of unprecedented ups and downs. But I suspect that this is what spring is like. It’s just that we forget.

Like we forget, too, about the machinations of our dear builder Stefano, the one who transformed this house from a wreck into a masterpiece. Never without some calamitous physical upset, he currently has a viral infection in one eye which could turn into who-knows-what if he doesn’t take things easy. So he’s struggling through the vicious Sleeping-Beauty’s-castle thorns of the unhinged R. filipes Kiftsgate on the west wall of the chicken house to daub his own brand of artisanal render on the horrendous industrial blocks – placed there by him long ago – which shore the structure up. How we’ve lived with that, and with the nasty tin roof (soon to disappear beneath cane mats) all these years, I don’t know. Our selective blindness is dazzling.

But it was just like the old days this evening, being summoned by Stefi to stand in the gale and deliberate. One forgets, so easily, that when he calls on you to debate a motion, it is merely a smokescreen for telling you that you should want what he wants. And, give him his due, we generally do – either because any/either of the ways that he is ostensibly proposing is just fine, or because what he’s pretending is an alternative is in fact exactly the same thing. But still we fall for it, thinking he really cares what we have to say, until we snap out of it and accept that we’re just going through the process: to-ing and fro-ing, yes-ing and no-ing. Then he gets his own way. Perfect. Just as long as that side of the chicken house stops looking like something from a south American shanty town, that’s fine.

We were wondering, over dinner, whether Stefano had a sense of humour before he met us. I suspect he had the seed of that dark sense of irony that many Umbrians have – just that he had never had a chance to let it grow.

Lovely, dour old Mario up the lane has it in shovel-loads. He’s getting older and slower and very shaky. I sometimes find myself having circular conversations with him, of the kind you have with elderly people who are losing it a little; but still I can make use of the most subtle possible twist of irony and he’ll get it, always, and give as good as he gets, chuckling almost inaudibly to himself.

Stefano, too, had that Umbrian gene. But he had used it so little that he never seemed able to tell when we were joking and when we were serious. Now I can take the piss and he gets it. He even tries himself, occasionally. He showed me his wildly dilated left pupil, the result of the medicines he’s using for his infection. “Wow Stefano, you’re part junkie,” I said. (It sounds slightly wittier in Italian: “sembri mezzo tossico!”) And he chuckled a Mario-like laugh. Gratifying.


I almost killed my gardener on Thursday. In one of those weird conjunctions, he was in front of me on his moped going down towards the valley at seven in the morning. Vittorio was coming up the road in the other direction. In the split second when I turned my head to wave to Vittorio, Indi – thinking he had nothing behind him – screeched to a halt to do a u-turn to talk to Vittorio. And I went straight into the back of him. Before I could work out what had happened, he was spread-eagled across my bonnet, his helmet resting against the windscreen. My heart beats hard just thinking of it.

Indi got up and walked away, his back sore, his moped battered, but nothing worse. Miraculously. Since then, I’ve been driving like a little old lady, terrified that something might leap out at me and finish up beneath my wheels. I know what it feels like now to kill someone, because for a split second, I really thought I had. And I’m hoping I never have to feel that again.


Twice over the past couple of weeks I have visited San Giuseppe with admiring newcomers. Another gratifying thing. You spend all that time, working on a project and dealing with the intricacies of practicality and character, that you tend to lose sight of the result. But what these visits have shown is that we have created something rather lovely.

First Peter and I went with Kirsty McLeod and Primrose Bell, whose first book on Italian gardens is ripe for a follow-up. Then I led Pia Meda, from the Italian garden magazine Gardenia, around the place. The pergola garden in particular drew praise: it’s a bit early still for the vegetable garden to elicit anything other than rather abstract admiration.

This offsets nicely the other, nightmare, scenario I have been dealing with up at Parrano. The contractors I generally work with know how I work, and vice versa. They know that I want a quote which reflects the real final price with some degree of accuracy. And they know that if there is going to be extra expense, then I need to know before it happens. At this particular project, working with someone who came highly recommended, I found myself up against the opposite of this: a quote which was incomplete and work which, in the end, came out at almost double the expected price.

This is not dishonesty in any kind of rip-off sense: the hours were put in, the work was done very well, the materials really were used. It may even have been genuine ingenuity on the part of the earth-mover. But it may, however, have been coloured by that infuriating tendency of some Italians to presume that any foreign client has inexhaustible sources of wealth and therefore will shell out far more than originally envisaged without batting an eyelid. In this case, that presumption couldn’t be further from the truth.

So I find myself with clients doubting my abilities – maybe even my integrity – and with a contractor who thinks I’m accusing him of dishonesty. And all the time I’m wondering: why, with all my experience, didn’t I see this coming? How could I have been so naïve? There is always something for me to learn. I need a little more rigour.


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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