11 February 2016

0211A 0211B

It’s odd, the things that grab your attention. From the first time I took a look at my new house up in town, I was intrigued by a tiny patch of flaking plaster on the second floor. Yesterday I started picking, and chipping and scraping (well, I’d just popped up to take a couple of measurements and it started raining, then hailing: what was the point of rushing out into that?)

What’s emerging bit by bit is no renaissance fresco. I’d say it was more a mid-20th-century dabble. But the cornflower blue splashes on a yellowy-creamy background don’t appear to have been done with one of those textured paint rollers that were once so popular around here. (I still regret that the walls in our house here with quaint rolled-on patterns were beyond repair.) Who, I wonder, would take it into their heads to daub and splash this intricate decoration? This was certainly more than a speedy, slap-dash desire to cover up the deep old-rosy pink paint of the layer beneath, which is emerging at points where the blue-and-cream has peeled off with the plaster: a lot of thought and quite a bit of artistic fancy went into this.

When I’ve removed the lot, I’ll consult my restorer friends as to what to do next. What I’ve done so far is in pretty good nick: only in a couple of tiny patches is the underlying plaster anything but rock solid. But if I’m to keep the pattern – and I have every intention of doing so – then I’ll need to seal and fix it in some way. It’s fun to be working on even a tiny bit of my project.

Each visit reveals something new – mostly, I have to say, positive so far. The electrical system, I confirmed today, has all been redone at some point: wires buried in walls run through corrugated tubing as required by law. The heating system clearly worked until the gas was turned off, and the boiler is almost new.

With each discovery, and a bit of canny rejigging, my refurbishment plan is looking less ex-novo pie-in-the-sky and more inclusive of pre-existing facets: many of the lights are already in the right place, and only a couple of the radiators will need moving. Now I just need to get my permits in order.

I’m relieved that it’s going this way. I hear so many lamentations from Anglos who purchase property here, only to find that all is not as it seemed. It comes under the ‘wily Italians ripping us off’ heading. But it shouldn’t. As far as property deals are concerned, the law of caveat emptor (buyer beware) is alive and kicking here, in this country where consumer protection is slightly less entrenched. Legally, it’s up to the buyer to do the legwork: the buyer selects a notary public to do the research, checking that there are no hidden mortgages or fine-liable work done in the past without the requisite permits, and to draw up the contract.

Obviously, if you find after signing that the seller has helped the deal along by papering over huge structural cracks, that’s fraud, and a whole different kettle of fish. But on the whole it’s the buyer who is meant to have her wits about her. Which reminds me: I must have the asbestos water tank (intact, undamaged, and therefore causing no harm, I hope) disposed of. I agreed with the sellers that I’d do that if they handled various bureaucratic hassles, which is the kind of compromise you reach to smooth things along, I reckon.


The other day I rushed into Rita’s dry-cleaning shop to grab some shirts she had been ironing for L. Inside were Rita herself, another woman seated – as if for the duration – on the hard wooden chair inside, and a strange character with a walrus moustache, dressed in serious cowboy outfit. His white fringed stetson was sitting in splendour on the counter. I’d say he was all of 25. He didn’t seem to be having anything dry-cleaned.

Rita and her friend were giving him the third degree. He was from somewhere near Aquila he said; he had come to CdP for three days of R&R but he wasn’t sure he’d find any carparks up here so he’d left his car parked down in Chiusi Scalo. (I took this as a sign that he was part of the very large, very dilapidated circus that has pitched its tents down there by the Coop. If he wasn’t, then he was just plain barking.)

The ladies were being their usual mix of concerned, polite, insistant and very suspicious. He was enjoying the sound of his own voice, in a way that made me pretty sure he was making up most of what he said. When he had told his version of his life story, he picked up his stetson and swung, cowboy-gaited, out of Rita’s very unreconstructed shop.

Strano,” Rita says before the door’s even shut. “Che tipo strano.” What an oddball. Under their unrelenting magnifying glass (all my attempts to pay and get out are ignored) he swiftly passes from oddball to potential threat. He might be dangerous. “C’è tanta malvagità al mondo oggi,” says Rita. There’s so much evil in the world today.

I can see there’s no way out of this. L’s shirts are still somewhere in the piles behind the counter and Rita is not at all interested in pulling them out, so I may as well join in. These conversations all follow the same pattern: truism, followed by much discussion with everyone arguing in animated fashion on the same side. The only hope for speeding it up is to throw spanners in the works.

I don’t think there’s any more nastiness today; it’s just that we hear more about it. The ladies don’t like this at all. They dodge and weave to avoid my quibbles.

People today think they’re so cultured with all their learning, says Rita’s friend, but they’ve lost the culture of values. This is getting very philosophical for banter at the drycleaner’s. Except it isn’t: the ‘youth of today’ moan manages to sound loftier in Italian but it’s still the same old moan.

All those poor women getting beaten up, Rita croons. When I point out that wife-bashing has always been a local sport, there’s a kind of embarrassed hiatus and a bit of shuffling. They move on.

It’s because there’s no control any more; everyone just does what they want. I was never allowed to spend a single night not under our own roof, says Rita’s friend. Not with my aunts, not with my cousins. My father wasn’t having any of that. I slept in the same house every night until my wedding night.

How old is this woman? Late 60s or early 70s. It’s another world, the cowboy is long forgotten and the ladies are getting sidetracked. We’re back to the good-old, bad-old days conversation. It’s amazing how often talk leads round to that. It generally comes quite late in the process: things are looking up for me now.

We weren’t allowed to go anywhere! Do you remember when Chiusi seemed so far away, Rita chuckles. ‘Look at him, you know where he’s been? Chiusi!’

She says ‘Chiusi’ (which is just down the hill) in a ‘to the ends of the earth’ voice.

And when someone went to Rome, well… people talked about it for weeks.

The ladies have gone all dreamy, absorbed in their reminiscences. I break into their reveries and finally retrieve the shirts.


I used to attribute a kind of inverted snobbery to boar and their tendency to decimate beautifully tended lawns. This (admittedly ridiculous) theory allowed me a certain smugness, buoyed by the fact that boar damage in my garden is generally limited to a bit of rooting for acorns beneath the big oak.

But not this year. The little bastards are rooting with glee. Every morning I find another crater in my straggly so-called lawn. Every evening when I go out, or simply step outside to close the shutters, there’s a miffed snorting and disgruntled grunting from somewhere very near as the beasts register their displeasure at my daring to disturb them.

They are utterly brazen. I’m expecting to find them swanning through the front door.


I was unpacking the shopping the other day and noticed a label on a netful of oranges. Trattato con Imazalil. Non consumare la buccia. (Treated with Imazalil. Don’t eat the skin.) It was written very small, almost as if they didn’t really want me to notice it. And so of course I resorted to Mr Google, to find that this fungicide liberally sprinkled on citrus and other fruits as a post-harvest protective treatment is a carcinogen, and has been linked with reproductive and developmental toxins and hormone disruptors – a whole host of horrors.

Of course the amounts are tiny but the ramifications are scary. Yes, we generally peel our citrus and use only the pulp and juice, but still: small amounts, they say, seep through the rind. This same stuff is sprayed on apples and other fruit that we eat without peeling: washing removes only part of it.

What’s more, it’s not true that we always discard the rind: all around this country little old ladies are brewing chemical-laced limoncello; and not-so-old ladies (like me) are making vats of malignant marmalade. Never mind those health-seekers who begin their day with a slice of lemon in hot water: they’re certainly not clearing out their systems… anything but.

Unless, of course, they’re using totally organic which is, of course, what I should be doing. But I let my standards slip too often, in the name of economy and also in an attempt to prove to myself that I’m not utterly obsessed. Except that this second reason all too often just reinforces my obsessions.

Another shopping trip, more (non-organic) oranges, this time not treated (allegedly) with Imazalil but with E904 and E901 – respectively shellac and beeswax. I suspect my fruit-soak in water and bicarb soda doesn’t really do much to remove these. But at least they’re a little less toxic.


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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