3 July 2016

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The excitement the other day when I stepped into my first ever solar-heated shower was immense. When we restored our house, way back in 2002-5, I argued long and hard with the plumber about installing solar panels. He told me that they were useless – just cost money and did very little.

I tried explaining that I had lived with functioning, energy-saving solar panels (and I mean solar, not PV) in my childhood home from the late seventies. He was having none of that. Pointless. (Now I come to think of it, he may also have been telling me that I would never get permission from the regional cultural heritage overseers for panel installation in a very tightly controlled conservation zone like ours, but I chose to ignore that.)

Now that same plumber is only mildly enthusiastic about solar panels because he thinks they’re old hat. Been there, done that. How about pellets? Or biomass? Or a nice heat pump? Well I’ve stuck with the solar that I’ve always wanted. And as the environment is so very sexy these days, even the cultural heritage department in Perugia is slightly laxer in its approach. I persuaded them that mine wouldn’t be visible to anyone (not even – or do I mean especially not – to us) except perhaps to someone peering from way, way across the valley with binoculars.

I rounded off this adventure with a new condensing water heater too, but that is firmly switched off as the panels are more than enough for keeping the water piping. I will no longer have to grit my teeth – half at the waste of the world’s resources, half at the waste of money – in that way I tend to do every time I watch L turning the tap to hot to rinse off something that could just as well be rinsed with cold. Why does this bother me? I should find more important things to think about.

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With the same builders involved in town and country projects, this has slowed work on my project in town of course. Now I have a space there which is completely gutted – very exciting but dauntingly huge-looking. How will I ever find the money to furnish these voids? Stefano, my builder, is a potholer, and has been abseiling up and down the town walls in his harness, directing a chuteful of rubble from the garden to the bed of his truck parked below. I warned him that if any passing half-blind old blokes had heart attacks when they saw him plummeting down the walls towards them it was his fault not mine. He seemed to take that on board.

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Right on cue, and exactly as last year, the final week of June ushered in heat. Is it the Infiorata for the feast of San Luigi Gonzaga in town that mystically shoots us from spring to summer? (And why is this rather obscure northern Italian Jesuit of the 16th century the patron saint of one of Città della Pieve’s terzieri?) We’ve had a long run of 30°-plus days – some over 35° – and in the house the temperature upstairs is rising in small increments, to the point when even nights will be decidedly warm.

But the heat comes on the back of such murky weather – not particularly cold but very damp and very grey – that the vegetable garden is oddly patchy. Yes, this is partly due to my patchy attention to it. And to the fact that I have to move it – my Big Project for next year – because the trees around it have grown up to the point where much of it spends most of the day in the shade.

The climbing beans grew to about 30cm then stopped in protest at their shady conditions. The cucumber and courgette plants look like May. I think I might have some respectable onions in there but I don’t dare pull them because I think they’re the only thing coming between the healthy looking sweet corn plants I stuck in the same bed, and that same corn becoming a midnight snack for passing boar. It looks very much like onions put hungry animals off.

In the less shady extra vegetable space down by the house, I have already harvested some excellent garlic but my tomatoes are all plant and no fruit. The potatoes look sad, though I haven’t tried digging to see what’s beneath the unimpressive plants.

0703BThe only place, in fact, that I have things going like champions is outside the kitchen – purportedly a herb/flower space – where the cavolo nero which I planted last autumn and which languished in pathetic fashion through the winter when it was meant to flourish is now vast, and where a couple of pumpkin seedlings I stuck in there as a joke are rampaging over everything, looking ludicrously joyful.


All of which is a long way from what’s going on in the outside world. The first shock of Britain voting itself out of the European Union has passed but the thought of it still makes me feel vaguely nauseous and seethingly angry. How anti-historic can you be? And how heedless of everyone’s futures, especially those of younger people?

Obviously, there are people who voted out in the EU referendum on the basis of a clear-headed, well-informed deliberate decision. I happen to think they’re wrong but I respect their choice. What has been unfolding post-vote, however, shows that many more voted on misinformation, prejudice and ignorance which often shaded into extreme intolerance.

As absolutely wedded to democracy as I am, I am constantly stunned by its fearful limitations. I think that people in the western world are becoming more and more blasé, and selfishly unmindful of the implications, the privilege, the responsibilities of democracy.

In the UK, they ask the public to vote on the name for a new research vessel, something in which to do crucial work, and the public thinks it’s hilarious to opt for Boaty McBoatface. That’s just childishness, and a scary inability to take serious things seriously. It’s not a huge leap, I’m convinced, from that to voting for a man without a reasonable idea in his head and nothing to offer the country/world except the worst possible kind of lowest-common-denominator-pleasing bombast (Donald Trump), or to taking the UK out of the EU in the utterly mistaken, and odious, hope that this will rid the country of immigrants.

(In one Brexit debate I heard on the BBC – was it Any Questions? – the Green party’s Caroline Lucas was fighting outers’ contention that leaving the EU would allow Britain to ‘take back control’ from an undemocratic EU by arguing that it was only in EU elections that UK citizens really got to exercise their democratic rights, voting with a proportional representation system rather than the barely-democratic first-past-the-post system used in UK elections. Two little problems with her otherwise perfect argument: firstly, I have heard many many post-Brexit interviews with Brits who had no idea that European elections even existed and who have never bothered to vote in them; and secondly, auspicable as proportional representation may be, it’s the only system which allows idiots like Nigel Farage to actually win a seat somewhere.)

I’m itching (pointlessly) for faster progress on my Italian citizenship application. And wondering whether I could collect yet another passport by applying for an Irish one.

Some historian I heard or read about somewhere during these feverish days, was searching the centuries for another paradigm shift as massive as this one potentially could be, and had to go back to Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic church to find anything truly comparable. At first glace it seems like an exaggeration. But it has of course been magnified by history into something instantaneous and universe-shattering. The parallels are not entirely fanciful.

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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