23 July 2015

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22 July 2015
It’s black as night here inside the house, which we’re kind of used to in this hot, hot, troglodytic summer in which we live behind closed shutters, only to emerge in the evening when there’s some semblance of cool.

But this is different. The shutters are all open now and the air coming through those windows I dare to open is almost cold. There’s no power; a recorded lady on the electricity board helpline informed me in a deadpan voice that they were working on a huge outage in the CdP area.

As I drove back from a lunch appointment across on Monte Cetona and a string of visits to shops and metalworkers, I watched as the car thermometer dropped – from 36° to 20°, in the space of not more than ten minutes. Big fat steamy drops fell on me in the carpark of the Etrusco shopping mall near the Chiusi motorway exit but that just made things hotter. As I drove towards Po’ Bandino, lightning danced vertically and great black columns of rain marched out of the hills. By the time I began climbing back to CdP I had the wipers on full tilt and the temperature was plummetting. On the town ring road I skidded as I rounded a bend, aquaplaning on the sheets of water that were racing towards me.

And when I reached home? Trees were bending at distressing angles, lanterns already glowing in the gloom (it was 4.30pm), thumping the branches. And the occasional drop was falling. We’ve had more since (it’s 6.30pm now), in angry squally bursts, but the rain gauge has just 4mm in it. Someone very close had a whole lot more.

And so my tomatoes have escaped unscathed. When I took the car to the mechanic’s the other day (the airbag light was flashing inexplicably) they told me that their panel beater had had to deal with six or seven cars badly dented by hailstones the size of tennis balls over towards Montepulciano earlier this month. Swathes of vineyards were stripped, apparently.

I’m glad that the toms have not been shredded, not only because I love having tomato mountains through the summer but because there isn’t really much else in the vegetable garden this year, apart from the bountiful beans. No, in fact, that’s not true: there’s lots in there. It’s just quite difficult to make it out.

After a tremendously efficient early spring, things slipped rather, and much was planted rather later than it should have been – right before the Great Heat hit and the plants all decided to energy-save by going very slow. Oh, and then there was the little matter of the shelf full of properous cucurbits of various kinds in the greenhouse that was somehow upset, leaving me with a heap of green-dotted potting compost from which I extracted then planted the now unlabeled green bits as best I could, but heaven knows what went in where. (Annoyingly, the plant of that family that is galloping away and beating all the competition is a butternut squash which I didn’t even plant: it came up spontaneously in an orto bed and grew so rapidly that I couldn’t bring myself to pull it out by the time I noticed it. It now has darling little squashes appearing.)

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I thought I was possibly the only person in the world (or in Italy anyway) who hadn’t seen La Grande Bellezza but I was wrong. Because when I cycled up to town the other evening to watch it on an interestingly ondulating screen in the rocca (part of the defensive town walls) with a gentle breeze shaking the occasional persimmon-missile from the big tree I was sitting under, the group of elderly local ladies sitting behind me clearly hadn’t either. But one of them had been to Rome, and was determined to impress her friends with her travels. “Oh look! look! it’s piazza Navona!” Ooos and aaahs from either side of her.

It was a rather wonderful setting for a film about very cynical, jaded Roman beau monde excess, and perhaps coloured my opinion of it. It was a beautifully shot, well acted, very flawed film which I enjoyed but which bored me slightly towards the end. I wasn’t quite sure what all the fuss – positive or negative – had been about.

To finish off the evening a badger scurried along in the weak and wobbling cone of my bike light for quite a way down the lane. Silly animal, it was utterly undecided whether to veer left or right.

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23 July 2015
I crept out of the house last night, powerful torch in hand (pointlessly as it turned out: the power was back on by the time I returned) for dinner with CdP friends – none of the locals, all of them Italian, all of them rather older than me. Unusually for the time of year. we ate inside. But later we went back into the garden, to watch a film on a screen outside, all of us huddled beneath a huge umbrella, me wrapped twice in my silk shawl and still feeling deliciously chilly.

The film was John Turturro’s Passione, which I had seen very recently. It’s a fantastic ode to Naples and its music. With omissions, and a couple of commissions (mostly involving a limp and rather creepy Turturro himself) that we could have done without. But it’s a marvellous collection both of Neapolitan voices and sounds, and of the little details of that amazing place: the people and gestures and attitudes and ways of being that make it unique.

What made this garden showing of the movie different for me (two fine film experiences in three days!) was the audience. Of course every Italian, especially of a certain age, knows some Neapolitan tunes. It’s a bit like being in your 50s and knowing the words to I’m a Believer. You have to.

I hadn’t quite grasped, however, to what extent these songs were part of the national psyche. From a city which is reviled and feared and looked down on as much as it’s loved, the songs are a national anchor. My fellow viewers (none of whom were Neapolitan) knew all the words, in dialect, and sang along as if to something as welcomely familiar as a fairy tale, or maybe the love songs that provided the soundtrack to their teenage years. I think there was only one number that they didn’t know and the very dismissive way they said so made it clear that they suspected it was a non-authentic interloper.

On the whole, I find Italian music unfathomable, especially popular music of 1960s-1980s singer-songwriters – the stuff that Italians go dewey-eyed about and which still informs the worst musical abominations as displayed with such fanfare and pride in that much-loved national (to me) enigma of absolute mediocrity, the annual festival di Sanremo. I simply can’t understand the appeal. There are some exceptions and part-exceptions. I can see that Mina at times has an interesting voice; Enzo Jannacci at least had the grace to be amusing; Eduardo Bennato had some fine angry moments.

Ah, but here we’re getting to the crux of my argument. Bennato is Neapolitan and best when he was angry about Naples. Neapolitan music is different. It owes more to influences – Spanish, Moorish… something weird and plaintive and mesmerising. For anyone who has been exposed to the best of it, it’s utterly familiar but utterly exotic too. It’s funny but telling that one of the most impressive performances in Turturro’s film was by a woman whom I now find is a Portuguese fado singer called Mìsia. None of my Italian friends twigged to this fact.

Of all the popular (and less popolare) music produced in Italy, Neapolitan is the one that speaks most effortlessly to something international, and speaks straight to the marrow.

Oh dear, now I’m going to have to contradict myself. Because things come out of Sicily too, as one would expect from another melting pot of immense culture. There can be few pieces of music written in the last ten years that are more beautiful than this one. And the very Sicilian Mancuso brothers who composed and perform it live right here in CdP.

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The kitchen patio as was. And as it has become….

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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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