12 April 2014


C has gone off to Venice for work. L has gone off to Sicily for work. Outside there’s thunder rumbling around the night sky but I’ve closed the shutters against that and the lightning flashes, and sit here, eating my own just-picked asparagus and hoping that it will all roll on by and that I will be able, finally, to spend a day in my garden tomorrow.

The spring season is most definitely upon us, and my days are all about horribly early starts and late homecomings. It’s Orvieto that has been occupying my time this week, with two odd tales attached – one amusing, and one distressing.

In my search for someone to carry out the planting, I contacted the Vivai Michelini nursery near Viterbo that I worked with many years ago in Tarquinia. I liked them, despite their odd old-fashioned ways, because they had beautiful plants – fruit trees especially. They came back to me quickly with a quote, but every time I asked to talk to the owner, they were evasive or dismissive or, at one point, just plain rude as if I were asking for something totally stupid and I should have known better. All through, people kept mentioning that he was ‘in comune’ – at the town hall – which I thought was rather strange. Until one day when I was out and about without the nursery phone number and googled it and him, only to find that he was spending all that time in the town hall because he is now not only a purveyor of plants and garden contractor but mayor of Viterbo. Someone could have told me.

Two good days planting (and the plants, as I remembered, really are excellent) were marred by money disappearing from my wallet, left in my bag in the unlocked car (it would never occur to me to lock the car in such an out-of-the-way place). The first day, I just presumed that the €50 I thought was in there had fallen out, or that I had left it at home by mistake: it’s the kind of thing I do when I’m rushing, earlier than I even like to be awake in the morning. But when €20 vanished the next day, I knew it was no absent-mindedness on my part. I find it baffling. And oddly hurtful. There were many people coming and going – nursery people and others – in that in-the-middle-of-nowhere garden on those two days. But they were all very nice, perfectly normal-seeming people working hard, doing their jobs well, and to all appearances above any suspicion. Which makes the whole thing worse. I can understand theft in desperation. But in my naivety, I simply don’t get theft for its own sake. I suffer it as a personal affront. And I truly resent being forced to mistrust people and lock my car.

Oh, and there was a third thing about my days in that garden, or in this case going to that garden. Yesterday the Val di Chiana was a dense sponge of fog. I drove down from our sun-washed hilltop into the thick of it, and made my way along the motorway at 80kph or so, then wound cautiously up the hill beyond town. I emerged, and Orvieto’s duomo emerged: the two of us floating on a sea of cloud. The scene was pure magic.


What is it about ticks and tummies? As children in Australia we were checked regularly for the little nasties, but I can only remember having ticks burying their horrid jaws into me twice and both times – both in Italy and the second incident this week – it was just next to my belly button. It seems to be a common enough problem: putting ‘tick’ and ‘belly button’ into a search engine brings an avalanche of wailing.

They’re hopeless creatures, I’m learning. They just hang about on blades of grass or twigs, waiting for someone to brush against them (‘questing’ this is called, which is rather a nice word for lying in opportunistic ambush) at which point they’ll crawl about a little bit looking for some nice dark fold to bury into. Well my tummy button doesn’t fold, so why do they like it so much? And what did I brush against to make myself a successful target of its questing?

The family wisdom handed down to me was that swamping it in cleaning alcohol would make a tick release its grip. This is complete bunk, apparently, and might actually make them regurgitate their potentially disease-carrying stomach juices into you more swiftly. Ditto for all the other many old-wives’ solutions such as burning them out or suffocating them under a blob of vaseline. Then again, the ‘right’ solution – a steady tug with pointy tweezers from as near your skin as possible in a direction perpendicular to the bit of body it has latched on to – didn’t seem to work very well either, and the head remained firmly embedded. Now I’m left wondering whether the sore-looking patch where it was is an infection, or the aftermath of my digging about in my own flesh with a sterilised needle to hack the head out. I rather suspect the latter.

Was it worth being so thorough? My research tells me that infection with tick-borne diseases – Lyme disease or meningoencephalitis – is more common in the mountainous north of Italy, and in the northern Appenines. And that even there, the chances of a tick bite leading to infection are about 1 or 2% – ie hardly worth disfiguring myself for.

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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