13 January 2017



We’re frozen. I don’t mean in here, where the wood burners are going nicely. But outside things are crunchy.

For almost a week now, I’ve been putting out a bowl of water for the birds and passing felines (hoping, of course, that they don’t visit at the same moment). When I open the kitchen shutters of a morning, the water in the bowl is rock hard.

From time to time, those feral cats – two indeterminate-coloured beasts known as Smog1 and Smog2 – sit on the living room windowsill, mewing miserably in the general direction of the glowing interior. We give them food, and know that they have access to the warmer bits of the chicken house. (It would be nice if they’d thank us for our thoughtfulness by catching some of the mice that nibble through the plastic cat food bag, and have gnawed a hole right through the toe of my woolly wellies. But they don’t.) Each time I turn off the ignition and head for the house, I see a shape slink car-wards. They don’t sit on the bonnet. Is there some ledge up by the engine where they can perch in the residual warmth?

0112cYesterday it was odd to find a fire blazing in my project in town. My builder has gone AWOL. He has definitely embarked on some other project, leaving me gritting my teeth and cursing. He has an excuse though, or in fact two. (1) There’s no way he can do the roof in this cold, because the cement wouldn’t draw, an obvious drawback which I’ve been warning him would arise for weeks as I harangued him to get it done while the weather was mild. (2) The plumbers and electricians are working there, so they’d just fall over each other. And this, to some extent, is true. The place is humming, and for some reason most of the activity involves blokes lying across doorways. Or so it seems.

It’s disquieting to find that the new walls of hollow brick which I waited so, so long to see put up are now full of holes and channels. Pipes and outlets and black corrugated tubing through which electrical flexes will be threaded form a messy network across walls, and in channels cut in the old tiled floors. Pierced and punctuated like that, walls that should be solid dividers, the comforting markers of space and purpose, signal fragility and impermanence.

Until the age of almost three, C slept in a curtained-off bit of our bedroom in Rome. Then we knocked through all the partition walls and rebuilt in such a way that the flat had two bedrooms rather than one. Her new room was source of immense pride; perhaps even she grasped the significance of a move to her own domain.

Mounting a new radiator in the bathroom next door, workers hammered just slightly too hard, and cracked the wall through, creating a rent on the other side, just above C’s bed. She was frantic, and for hours quite inconsolable. Even when the crack had been puttied up and painted over, it took her time to cope with the knowledge that she had seen beyond the semblance of solidity – my words, obviously, not hers.

The patchiness of my new walls reminded me of that, and I sympathised. These flimsy hollow-brick things are paper-thin (once plastered, they don’t exceed 10cm), and give the feeling that everything is temporary and set up to be shifted. Contrast that with the mountains of brick and stone and ancient mortar of the solid existing walls of my house. The ground floor, I’ve worked out, was likely put up around 1291 as stabling for the rocca (fort) at the end of the road where construction began in that year. No one then, I’m sure, thought of building something to survive nine centuries, but they did it anyway: things were just expected to last. Nowadays, we’re wedded to the ephemeral.

These thoughts ran through my head as I surveyed the heading-in-the-right-direction damage, but didn’t last long. Instead I started wondering where that burning smell came from.

One of the plumbers had lit a fire. The ugly 1970s fireplace on the ground floor came down long ago, but the flue in the wall remains, and was efficiently sucking smoke from a small pile of broken planks and crumpled advertising flyers just below. It was bitter inside the house – just possibly warmer outside, as long as no howling wind ruffled your hat and scarf – but from time to time the workers would haul themselves up from their uncomfortable positions and warm their hands over the token fire.

It was one of those fires that always make me wonder: how is it that some people can conjure a flame from nothing at all, and leave it to burn undisturbed for hours, never needing to be fed more fuel? I often wonder quite what percentage of my winter I dedicate to hauling wood, cleaning out ashes, polishing glass, anxiously hovering around stoves to check that the wood hasn’t turned to blackened ashes in the bottom of the burner. And I seem to be adding wood constantly. Odd that.

The forecast from Sunday is full of snow. I wonder what will transpire. Are we in for another 2012, when I spent almost a month in my wondrous white world? That exceptional year had unexpected consequences, such as a generally unproductive apricot tree later laden down with unimaginable quantities of excellent fruit. Since then, it has yielded just about nothing.

Subsequent mild and muggy winters have been disastrous from a bug point of view. Which was the year when the olives were so full of maggots that no one picked? 2015? 2014? This cold should kill of some off the olive mosca. Perhaps it will take out a shield bug or two. Will aphids suffer? That would be a blessing!

As it is, the earth is so solid that even the sunniest, most brilliant days – and we’ve had plenty of those – go to waste, gardening-wise. Which means, of course, that my usual nature observations have been limited. One thing that has struck me though is the lack of robins. Where are they? My little friends come back year after year, but I haven’t seen one so far. There are robin-like birds darting about. They have russet-coloured tails so I’m going to stick my very ill-informed neck out and say that they’re possibly redstarts. But not a single red breast. That’s sad.

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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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3 Responses to 13 January 2017

  1. Pingback: 22 January 2017 | La Verzura

  2. From Democracy to Madness sounds like quite a good tagline for the US of A at the moment. Will email. Baci.

  3. juliark says:

    Another captivating post!

    I’m marvelling at the melting pot of seasons here. On my morning walk this morning under a radiant blue sky I came across roses in full bloom, iris, cacti, bird of paradise, oranges and lemons, amidst towering pine and fir trees and silver birches – amazing!

    can I ask what template you use for your blog from Word Press? I am having some trouble getting going with a template which needs to be very simple! Any ideas please send my way.

    Stanford after week one is overwhelming but in a good way. Seminars on topics from Democracy to Madness and Capitals to Longevity. Meeting lots of interesting people and have lots of dinner invites already.

    Hope you don’t freeze too much!

    Love Julia x

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