22 January 2013

Last week I noticed that the gas in our tank was getting low and my heart sank. We couldn’t risk getting snowed in without enough gas, especially with a dwindling woodpile which might not last us through freak weather conditions like last year’s. But having it filled is so painful on the bank account.

We all love swapping LPG tales around here, where it’s the only way of heating isolated farmhouses. Each year the price leaps up; each year keeping warm makes more of a dent in the household budget; each year we moan about the horrible imposition. But some of the prices I had heard in idle conversation seemed so unlikely – so much lower than what I remembered paying.

I called the gas company which quoted me a price of €1.44 a lire “though I can probably give you a three cent discount,” said the rather stroppy woman at the other end of the line. Even the €1.36 per litre I paid for a delivery last February seemed ghastly… and it was a rise of about 25% on the previous year. So I called round and forced people to look at their bills. Some were paying 92c a litre, others 98c, some as low as 84c though these were cases of much larger consumption than ours.

I called the gas company HQ and explained to a very understanding lady that I’d really like someone to explain to me why we were charged so much more than others. She couldn’t tell me, but a man from the billing office would get back to me the next morning. Fine.

In the mean time the gas delivery man turned up, assuring me that they’d deal with the price issue later. How much did I pay last time? €1000? All right, he’d put in enough to bring it up to the same figure at the new price. Which new price? He didn’t know. My panic rose with the gas counter: he had put in 900 litres, as opposed to the 630-odd litres of last time. I was facing a horrific bill, far more than I had envisaged paying. On the receipt he put the quantity and “price to be decided”. And off he drove.

The next day, no one from the gas company phoned. So I called. “No,” said the woman at the call centre, “there was no need for him to contact you.” “Why?” I said. “Because it has all been settled.” “Oh yes?” I said “Well I’d like to be let into the secret.”

From €1.44 a litre my price had plummetted to 95c a litre. That’s a 34% drop, just for a phone call, and without ever talking to the right person. I hadn’t raised my voice. I hadn’t threatened to change suppliers. I hadn’t even really complained. How can they run a company like that? I felt jubilant, but – stupidly – I also felt bad for all those people who struggle on, for no appreciable reason, at the higher rate.

It’s the pollo (chicken) factor: a pollo in Italian is someone who presents their neck meekly to the butcher’s knife. You’d think, though, that large fuel distribution companies would have a more scientific way of deciding their price policy.

 **********

When I went to fetch wood for the stoves last night, I turned the light on in the chicken house and something came swooping towards me from the top of the woodpile, swerved abruptly when I jumped (almost out of my skin) and shrieked, hit the side of the steps going up to the top room then collapsed on to the ground, only to shake itself up and fly, slightly tipsily, back to the woodpile again.

Owls. I do love them. I can’t imagine why Italians think they’re birds of ill omen. It looked so inscrutable and wise as it sat there, watching me and readjusting its ruffled feathers. I like to think that it was the same one that I rescued from the chimney last winter, though of course this is pure fancy on my part. If it is, it must think of me as a bird of ill-omen because I am intimately connected with terrible shocks in its life.

I have scoured my bird book but I can’t tell what kind it is: not huge, a tawny kind of face, and when it shook its wings there were thick brown streaks underneath, on the top edge.  By virtue of its lack – as far as I can remember – of ear tufts, I am going to pronounce it a barn owl which has, my book tells me, the most widespread range of any bird in the world. Though it could also be a tawny owl. It could be just about anything, in fact.

  **********

There have been burglaries around the place recently, which isn’t a good feeling in a community where doors are left unlocked. I mean, it does happen, from time to time. But this is a veritable spate. Aside from the woman at the tobacco shop in town, who had her day’s taking stolen on her doorstep, there have been break-ins. Mostly they’re in houses where people are out – some of them just out for a short while, so obviously they’re being watched.

One woman went to investigate an alarm ringing in a neighbour’s house and found four men in there. They shone a bright light right in her face, so she couldn’t see them properly, but one was very thin and extremely tall. Someone – the same people? – broke into the house of our friend K when she was in Rome. It was very professional: they went straight for her jewellery (most of which wasn’t there) and took the recorder with photos from her security cameras. But she had noticed, she said, that whoever had done it had managed to open top cupboard doors which she – a tall person – needs a ladder to get to. So a pattern seems to be emerging.

I wonder if having an alarm and security cameras is a signal to thieves that there’s something worth taking; whether looking inconspicuous and unwealthy is not perhaps the best defence. Then again, what looks poor to me, for example, may look rich to someone who comes from different circumstances. So no, in the end, that’s probably no guarantee at all.

Now poor K has to live with the thought that they might come back to finish the job. Which of course, having found nothing there the first time, they probably wouldn’t. But it’s something which nags away at you, especially, I should think, when you’re living alone. It can’t be a very comfortable feeling, poor thing.

And now we all lock our doors and speculate as to whether our shutters would withstand a determined onslaught by professional house-breakers. For a community which has never had to worry much about these things, it’s a rude awakening.

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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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