Our big oak is magnificent. We’ve always known that, but now we know it more. The elms – then more recently Dutch-elm-disease-ravaged skeletons – that hemmed it in have been removed. We’re slowly learning to cope with our wide open spaces, wondering how the sheltering hydrangeas will cope with their sudden exposure. (It’s amazing how much shade even bare elm branches cast.)
Seen from the higher level, the oak has a remarkable symmetry. And a remarkable, noble breadth.
I’ve been trying to find out how to eradicate the elm tree stumps. The answer seems to be… well, one answer is glyphosate but there’s no way I’m doing that, and anyway, apparently the vile poison needs to be applied to the trunk within seconds of cutting. The my-kind-of-answer seems to be… there is no answer. Just resign yourself to years, decades, of lopping off suckers as they try to colonise your whole garden. Either that or get a bloody great bulldozer and destroy most of the garden to grub out stumps and their endless root system. I don’t see that happening any time soon.
I see people on online forums suggest putting an upended bucket on each trunk, to encourage the kind of damp conditions where wood-eating mushrooms might go on the rampage. But that sounds like a long long process and as we have ten or 12 mighty trunks, now cut down to ground level, I would need to get giant-sized buckets and it would turn that whole area into an odd site-specific bucket-themed installation. I don’t think so.
Now we face the problem of what to do in the empty spaces. I’d love to plant new, different trees – some limes, perhaps, and a couple of almonds. But in the back of my head I keep thinking “what if we win the lottery? What if one day we really do find the money to fix up the chicken house?” If that day ever comes, I would push the whole structure way back up the hill, and the only way into the building site without destroying much of the existing garden would be down Mario’s old farm track on the far side, outside our property… and it’s that side where I’d like to plant new trees. So do I leave the area untrammelled for a major construction project that may only ever exist in my dreams? Or do I just stick some trees in? A quandary.
And while I’m on the topic of major building sites, my project in town continues to throw up the kind of surprises that make me tingle.
Rather than plaster the bumpiest of ancient walls, previous owners have simply lined them with a veneer of thin hollow bricks. This reduces the overall square metrage of course, but it also makes passing electrical wires and plumbing pipes through the spaces between real wall and wall lining a doddle. I’m finding spots now, however, where leaving this extra layer makes no sense, as in the ground-to-first-floor stairwell, where working with (rather than eliminating) an existing ceiling beam would mean an 85cm wide staircase with hollow brick wall and a 100cm wide staircase without it.
So off came the lining wall. And out came… another hidden door. It’s the house of hidden doors.
My previous hidden door, on the first floor, is now completely exposed and looking rather wonderful.
This second one is a beautiful brick arch, filled in now but once passing, I presume, from my house to the one next door. These were all stables, I’m told, for the fortress/castle at the top of the road. It makes sense that you could pass from one part to another. It’s not only the archway that’s brick: the whole wall is rather regular, rather perfect and totally brick – an anomaly in houses where any old rubbish that came to hand was used for construction. Elsewhere the uncovered walls are a mix of stone and bricks of all sizes. Here, it’s relatively uniform and extremely elegant.
This will now become the backdrop to my staircase. To howls of disapproval from L (who hates exposed walls) I will have it repointed and leave it as is. The doorway, unfortunately, will disappear in part, hidden by the stairs themselves and the under-stair space supporting them. But the arch will be part of the long wall at the back of the stairs – disappearing intriguingly into the rising steps.
This is a great consolation. I had an idea of very essential, very see-through metal steps ascending in that point. It was, I admit, a kind of silly whim of mine, seeing as only a small sector of the stairway would actually have been visible in the way I wished it to be. But it was what I had envisioned, until I came up against the massed pessimism of my builder, my geometra and even the metal worker Paolo who usually backs me up in my crazy schemes. So I’ve had to re-think, and compromise. I’m insisting on the thinnest possible masonry-built steps, resting on the thinnest allowable metal beams which will disappear into the structure, to form a narrow diagonal white line up the brick wall behind. Or at least, that’s how I see it.
I suddenly got it into my head, early one morning when we had guests staying, to make scones for breakfast; but so as not to heat up the house too much (this was before the big storm three weeks ago which cooled down our scorching air, only for temps to rise again) I opened the back door wide, and remembered to prop up the 30cm-high piece of plyboard which I wedge into the doorframe to keep out crawly things and the less intelligent/agile scurrying lizards.
I harbour few illusions about this line of defence: I know most things could get over it if they were really determined. But it sets my mind at rest.
When the scones were ready and the oven off, I went to shut the door but as I bent down to remove the plyboard, I found a grass snake – a lustrous black, flecked regularly with greeny-gold – lounging up against it, sunning itself. Its tail was off towards my office. Its head, I couldn’t see: it must have been somewhere around the stairs on the other side. The door is 1m20 wide. This beast must have been well over 1m50. Thank goodness he didn’t take it into his head to slither over my defensive wall.
The following day, I walked through the front door then thought: what was that on the front step? I opened the door a crack then slammed it shut, sweating. There was a little viper, neatly coiled on the threshold.
Now, I don’t like snakes of any variety, but at least my common sense tells me that grass snakes (a) don’t kill you and (b) run away. Vipers (a) do and (b) don’t. What’s more, they’re very territorial and if a viper decides your front step is his home, it’s his home.
Much as we both hate killing things, we couldn’t see much alternative. L rushed around the house to grab a spade, and dropped it on the poor animal. But to kill a snake you need to get its head, and this angry thrashing poisonous thing was now pinned ineffectively to the earthy bit between the bricks of the front path. L had to keep it there. While I sped around to grab another spade (and put on the longest thickest rubber boots I could find) and finish it off. I trembled for about an hour afterwards.
Earlier this month, on a very quick dash to Venice, we spent a night on Burano (and another in a rather fantastic room-with-a-view at the Europa & Regina right on the Grand Canal – a panorama temporarily rendered dramatic and depressing by the Sunday evening parade of departing cruise ships).
Crazy-coloured Burano is the kind of place we avoid in anything like high season: a seething den of hot and tetchy tourists, snapping up ‘real’ Burano lace quite probably produced in sweat shops on the other side of the globe. So staying here – in Venissa’s brand new suites – was a revelation.
It’s a jolly, buzzy place when the visiting hordes have gone. Yes, there are boarded up houses and ‘for sale’ signs a-plenty. But there are also cafés with locals catching up – probably after hiding for the rest of the day. And the quirky little gardens with their odd outsider-art-ish pebble, shell and tacky statue arrangements are certainly not there by order of the tourist board.
On the train crossing from the mainland to Venice proper, there was a French family next to me – slightly older parents (or were they grandparents?) and a child of about nine or ten. “Wow!” said the little boy as Venice hove into sight. “C’est comme les Hawaii!”
I’m still racking my brains for similarities between the two.
In a pleasant little B&B I took a look at in the northern Santa Croce area of Venice, I noticed two serious bicycles parked in the courtyard. Not only are bicycles absolutely useless in a city without roads and with endless bridges with steps to cross, they’re also illegal. I asked the B&B owner what they were doing there, and she shrugged.
“They’re Brits. They didn’t realise they couldn’t ride around the city. It happens quite often.”
I mentioned this to a British friend of mine living in Barcelona, still reeling from the Brexit referendum, and she was livid. “That people whose powers of research are this limited can vote for my child’s future is wrong, it’s just all wrong.” Exactly.
Our winding route home took us to the Labirinto di Masone in Fontanellato near Parma, the folly of publisher Franco Maria Ricci . We had lunch with Ricci and his wife in their extraordinary house next door – an end-of-empire feeling place, both for Ricci’s advanced years and poor state of health, and because the whole place, swathed in his beloved bamboo, felt more Indian jungle lodge than Emilia Romagna wealthy bolthole.
His bamboo obsession extends to the massive maze, which, yes, includes many varieties but only an expert would recognise this. For the layman it all looks kind of same-y. No one expects a maze to be variegated, of course, but the bamboo here is so tall and frondy that at times all sense of perspective is gone. You lose sight of the fact that you’re in a maze at all: you could simply be wandering along a very eccentric garden path.
At the heart of the complex is a forbidding pyramid, a red-brick temple to who-knows-what.
I sound disapproving. And perhaps, in some ways I am. But in fact the dedication to making a dream come true, and the passion obvious in the adjoining art collection – beautifully hung however you feel about the works on show – are infectious.
At a wedding party last week, our wonderful neighbour Maria – the one who never married because she couldn’t find a man who could repair a tractor as well as she does – was looking incredibly smart, in bright red platform heels which made her only slightly taller than her usual height of half way between my elbow and my shoulder. She was wearing the shiniest imaginable gold necklace.
“Two ladies whom I looked after when they were old and ill left me some money,” she told me. “I didn’t need it, so I went and bought a gold necklace that cost the amount they left me.”
It’s strange that Maria would have thought of a necklace. She’s definitely not a jewellery type. It was pretty in its way, but I suspect it was the gold rather than the aesthetics that mattered to her: an investment, not a fashion statement.
“This is the first time I’ve ever worn it.” She had told me the value in lire, so she must have purchased it before 2002. “And I’m going to tell you where I keep it because if I die, I don’t want them to throw it away by accident.”
Maria being one of the most remarkably full-of-life people I know, and only ten years (and one day) older than I am, I really don’t think she’s about to leave us any time soon, as I pointed out to her. But she was having none of that. “It could happen any day.” All right Maria, anything you say.
I’d love to think that this was a sudden outpouring of confidence in me, a need to share her deepest secrets with a treasured neighbour. But I suspect she has told her big secret to most of town: that would be very like ever-trusting Maria, to whom everyone is a treasure (with the exception of her ghastly brother who has brought her lovely agriturismo business to a halt with his grasping manoeuvrings). The funny thing is though, that I’m quite sure everyone she has told will defend her property staunchly. Maria’s the kind of honest contadina who inspires absolute loyalty.