29 September 2015

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Sitting on public transport last week – en route to Venice and in that city – was entertaining, from a foible point of view.

On the Bologna-Santa Lucia high-speed train, the elderly couple across the aisle from me had been given an iPhone, perhaps for a big anniversary or some such occasion. It was clearly a huge novelty, and their whole very extended family – one after the other – was calling to ask how they were enjoying it. They hadn’t mastered the mute button so the ringer squealed constantly. And, I suspect, they were rather deaf and so had to bellow into the thing as they passed it back and forth. But they were so terribly thrilled, it was impossible to hold it against them too much.

On a vaporetto, chugging along from San Basilio towards San Zaccaria, I’m sitting next to an elderly man, also with a smartphone. He is utterly wrapt, selecting cars from a line-up of high-octane vehicles and racing them along a virtual track, leaning back and forth as he corners and crests hills. When your whole life is slow-moving vaporetti, you can be forgiven for craving speed and exhaust fumes I guess.

It was good to be back in Venice, as always. I was checking out some hotels for my Telegraph guide. The skies were largely grey and water kept lapping in menacing fashion without actually turning into acqua alta. From the jaw-dropping terrace atop the Bauer Palazzo hotel, at 10am, the city roofscape was outlined starkly against the one of the blackest skies imaginable. I didn’t have a camera. And I never think of using my cellphone. But I could never have caught adequately the 270° sweep of impending doom which then passed meekly elsewhere.

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The previous week I had insisted on dragging never-resting L away for a couple of days’ computer-less respite on the north Tuscan coast. We put the bikes on the back of the car (my concession to his obsession, not that he really has any desire to pedal with such a slothful amateur as me) and drove to San Vincenzo and Poggio ai Santi. It was lovely, as always, and the restaurant was perhaps even better than we remembered.

But a hot, distressing scirocco wind blew constantly, bending large trees and filling the air with debris. I kept thinking we should have taken the kite but on reflection I reckon it would have been ripped out of our hands. We couldn’t swim. We could barely stay upright on our bikes. We were trapped in a nice-ish place. Then we came home and the sun was shining and the tomatoes were ripening and everything looked magnificent.

It’s the problem – if that’s the right term – of living in a place of extraordinary beauty. Anywhere else you go has to have serious added difference-value otherwise you’re far better off at home. Rural idyll is pointless. Sea definitely counts, but not if it’s useless – being whipped into a frenzy by an endless gale. At that point, it’s so much better to head to somewhere determinedly urban, with attractions which nature and the elements can’t do all that much to detract from. Venice is perfect. All the innumerable times I’ve been there, it has always been an excellent choice, whatever the meteorological conditions. I’ve sweated and frozen and sploshed about in my wellies. Nothing can detract. Urban is good; unique-urban is better.

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Before I began all that gadding about, I had a visit from my friend V and her mother. V had (thankfully – most people presume I’m just being polite when I lament having excess produce) taken my appeal for help consuming my peaches to heart, and brought her mother down to pick a basketful to turn into jam. V’s mother grew up in our Canadian neighbours’ house, and knew our place well. It’s funny the way old people around here talk about their rural childhoods as if it were a different country rather than just down the road, another historical era detached from them utterly and somehow unconnected with their lives. I suppose it was long ago, in times they may get dewey-eyed about but which in fact were grindingly harsh, so in a way it is.

V rolled her eyes as her mother started telling her tales (we hear this every Christmas, she said) but coming to them fresh, I loved them. The sheer slope between us and the neighbours’ – it’s a brush-dense wilderness now – was all cultivated: ploughing that by hand was the worse job that could fall to anyone. Any trees that there were, were grown for necessary wood.

When ‘militari’ were flying above – she said tedeschi (Germans) but I presume actually they were Allies chipping away at the Trasimene line and she didn’t want to offend me – bombing our valley, her family dug a big hole in the field, and stuck her in it, with the ham so that any hungry troops marching through wouldn’t steal it and eat it. She sat in the hole and cried and cried, she said. But they’d given her a knife too (I didn’t understand whether this was to defend herself or just by chance) so she cried and sliced slices of ham and ate and cried and sliced and ate and cried and sliced and ate. Worse than marauding soldiers.

She called our big field and that of our neighbours la piana. It was really the only place worth cultivating she said: the only place that produced good crops. Along the trickling stream between the two properties they grew the best melons; sixty years later, she is still raving about those melons. They also worked what she called the colmata – the strip of land along the stream down in the valley that is now so thick with tall trees and vegetation that there’s no getting through it.

She confirmed what Rita the dry cleaner up in town always says: that to get to our front door there was no other way but slithering down a bumpy slope – no path, no steps: just a steep drop of mud or dust, depending on the season. And she talked about the tracks that criss-crossed the valley, now barely visible except when the trees are bare and a snowfall picks out the ghost of a trail. There was a sickly child at Le Selve, the house we see on the top of the hill across the valley: someone walked from there each evening to get milk for this child from her father’s cows. To get to town, the Selve people would walk down into our valley and up the other side to Camparca. Occasionally, if someone was very ill or injured, they’d send an ox and cart to pick him or her up.

She was, of course, (gratifyingly) amazed at the house. Her memories were crystal clear. Oh, you’ve added a bit on there. You’ve knocked through from the sheep pen (our projection room) into here (the kitchen). And look, you’ve made that door into a window. She seemed to remember it all in remarkable detail.

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I used L’s absence – at the Venice film festival first and the San Sebastian one second – to tie up various loose ends: rearranging insurance policies, getting the plumber to fix manifold drips, getting the electrician to turn the empty fitting on my pergola into a functioning over-table light… just when the weather has turned too chilly for it ever to be needed.

I had bumped Giorgio the electrician a few weeks ago at the inauguration of a new wine cellar – presumably wired in by him. He’s a fantastically accommodating, caring plumber… if you can get past his immensely morose exterior. As he mumbled no-hope predictions about wiring my light (it is now working seamlessly, and took very little time to attach) I made polite conversation.

Bella, the cellar, isn’t it? I mused.
He looked at me accusingly.
Is it? Is that what you really think?
Difficult one.
Well, the whole thing really isn’t to my taste, I said in a rather inelegant back-pedal. But what they’re doing there – creating a really serious winery on an interestingly small scale: that’s a good thing and important for the area.
This answer wasn’t going to appease him.
Yes, but do you really think it’s bella?

I’ve come across this before: a local habit of refusing point blank to have (or at least to express) an opinion of your own, and chasing other people’s, almost as if the questioner wants to get to the bottom of the whole bizarre concept of ‘having an opinion’. The only way of dealing with this, I decided, was attacking back.

Why? Why do you want to know?

People, he said, had told him it was ugly: too dark, too Tuscan, too this and too that. Now he wanted me to be as lapidary as others had been, but I tried to wriggle away.

Everyone’s entitled to their own opinions I said, and to their own taste. That style (rather an ersatz simil-Tuscan to my eye) doesn’t do it for me, I repeated, but the intention is laudable.

While he grilled me for mine, Giorgio was not prepared to rise to my challenge and give his own taste-related opinion. I’m still not sure though whether this means he diesn’t feel he’s entitled to one – or that he simply can’t grasp how anyone arrives at one.

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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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One Response to 29 September 2015

  1. Lesley doyal says:

    Great writing as ever. I am still lying in bed with plastered leg. Only one difference. Len broke his wrist just a couple of days after I sent out my previous medical bulletin. So we now have one functioning limb between us and he couldn’t cook even before! In this context we have bought and sold Barbican apartments (God willing! and completion will hopefully be Friday. Shit..what a silly situation!

    love L

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