11 November 2016

1111aI’m seeking coping strategies for a terrible week. I thought I’d drown all thoughts of the US tragedy, the disastrously lost wallet, the sudden onset of proper cold weather by musing on progress in my project in town. Even there, though, there’s a hitch: I see that the government is proposing hiking the flat-rate tax on the kind of short let I’m planning from 10% to 21%***, therefore slashing my return on investment in dramatic fashion.

I don’t know. Were it not for the grace and beauty of the world immediately surrounding me, I think I’d be feeling that there was an end-of-days pall to things at the moment.

Having miscalculated so badly over the Brexit vote, I rather stupidly went for exactly the same plan: going to bed telling myself that no one could be so stupid, sleeping soundly, and waking at 8am to find that I had been indescribably, wildly, unconscionably naïve.

Clearly there was something deep down inside warning me though, because I dreamt that a whole clutch of snake eggs had hatched, and that outside the front door long skinny beige-coloured snakes with bulging black, white-ringed eyes were slithering about. Friends were staying here in my dream, and their child had left the front door open. One snake ventured in, but I crushed it under my heel, its head splattering across the floor.

That was Tuesday night. After a fraught Wednesday, I lay down in bed and, eyes half closed, felt everything moving beneath me exactly like on the night of the most recent earthquake. But there was no quake.

Was this me, sloughing off the day as I slumbered? Or was it L, freshly returned from London, rocking our foundations with his endless anguished tossing? Somewhere between the Fiumicino railway ticket office and his seat on the Rome-bound train he mislaid his wallet. It may have fallen out of his pocket, but it’s perhaps more likely that it was removed from said pocket by dextrous fingers. Inside it was everything: British credit cards, Italian credit cards, press card, driving license, health card… even his Venice vaporetto pass. His whole life was in there. It felt like a metaphor.

And yet and yet.

It’s raining and grey and far chillier than it has been up to now in this ridiculously mild autumn – though I should say that daytime temps are still in double figures. Today I had lunch with a friend whom I’d helped a little with her garden in a remarkable spot with an oh-my-god view over the Val d’Orcia. She told me that guests had commented to her “but I guess you must get used to this view…”

No! She doesn’t, as I don’t. What kind of insensitive dolt could take what we have for granted? It doesn’t matter what’s happening to blight the rest of the world. Each morning, opening the shutters brings a deluge of joy. Every day there’s something wondrous and new outside. We are hugely privileged and hugely blessed. It’s what keeps us going.

And so to my house in town.

Today they were demolishing the old stairs. This is a conquest. The stairs were my interior equivalent of the capanna del contadino. When I’m working in stunning places, up high, with beautiful views, there’s a nine out of ten chance that right in the spot where the panorama is most heart-stopping, someone has built an extremely handy, sinfully ugly hut to keep his clapped-out tractor in.

Similarly, decades ago when my building was split into two houses, some insensitive soul opted to install flights of stairs in such a way that my windows were obscured and the view out towards the green green valley and Monte Arale was punctuated by masonry. I’ve had new flights put in now, in the light-less space at the centre of the house. And today the old steps were coming noisily and dustily down. Success.

The initial phases of this work seemed endless, and especially so as my builder unearthed arcane problems which, yes, any venerable structure throws up but which he tends to make a particularly large meal of. When actual building begins, however, it’s incredible how quickly those hollow bricks go up. Building, in fact, is the simplest, quickest part of the whole. I should refer to what I’m doing as ristrutturazione, not building. Building is hopelessly reductive.

Standing on the first floor the other day, I looked around and felt some slight disappointment at the fact that what had been the largest bedroom in the house seemed somehow reduced – far smaller than its original self. Adjusting the new stairwell, allowing it to eat into that room in order to skirt an unfortunately placed beam, seemed to have shrunk the room considerably. Back home, I adjusted my groundplan to take account of the real measurements and did some calculations. Odd. The first floor bedroom space is now almost three square metres bigger than it was originally: it must be the lay-out, the new unplastered walls – and of course at that point the fact that the old staircase was still eating into it – that made it feel so much smaller. And it has retained the biggest bathroom in the house.

With the ceiling between second floor and attic removed, that space now feels airily, wonderfully light-filled. This week the poor builders hauled immensely heavy iron H-beams into place, ready to install the mezzanine floor which will half-replace the attic (the rest will remain open).

I visit every day, often more than once. I find the whole thing fascinating, mesmerising. Perhaps I should go back and convert my landscape architecture degree into a proper architecture one. There’s nowhere I prefer being than getting dusty – and perversely I really do get filthy because fatalmente I always visit with some part of my wardrobe black – in a building site. At times I wonder whether I don’t prefer it to being in a garden, though of course this thought may be conditioned by the fact that it’s now cold and grey and very damp.

And talking of gardens… a twinge of conscience. My own here is looking bedraggled and abandoned. There are so many things I want/have to change. So I plan it all out beautifully in my head, then use putative changes – which may not come about for years – as an excuse for inactivity. When I look at it objectively, this is both distressing and infuriating. The forecast for this weekend is cloudy but not wet. I shall endeavour to make some headway.

*** Bless PM Matteo Renzi’s little cotton socks. “I don’t raise taxes, I cut them,” he declared after news that this amendment had been introduced to his finance bill at committee stage. “Even on AirBnB.” (13 Nov)

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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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