24 June 2017


There has been a population explosion in CdP. The town is packed with howling bundles of overheated misery being pushed about by proud nonne (grandmas) – the mamme I presume taking advantage of captive child-minders to stay in cool interiors.

We thought the population down here had grown too, but all that’s growing now is the mystery.

Coming home late one evening we rounded the corner past Mario’s house to see one of the Smogs (the semi-feral cats who extract food from me with hard stares, both of whom I’ve always referred to as ‘he’ or ‘it’) crossing the lane preceeded by a bouncing bundle of kitten. Just one tiny kitten. Since when, there have been no sightings. Smogs I and II are about, reclining in any cool spot they can find, or padding down the lane to sit outside the front door and do their hard food-extracting stares until I emerge and cave in spinelessly.

Did some passing fox get lucky and have junior for lunch, or are the Smogs keeping it well hidden? As the days pass, I’m suspecting the former.

There was an item on BBC radio the other day announcing that researchers had discovered a clear sense of ‘fairness’ in animals – a trait formerly linked only with humans, leading me to muse how (1) it was severely lacking in many humans and (2) I could have told them that anyway.

They couched their findings in rather negative terms, saying that a dog who saw another dog rewarded better for something that it too had done would get upset or aggressive. The Smogs – stand-offish and generally supercilious as they are – are a far better model of a positive kind of fairness.

When I pour nasty-smelling cat biscuits into the piece of roofing tile where I feed them, up near the new vegetable garden, there’s a very set ritual. Whichever of the two is present (and it’s generally the slightly friendlier one, the one that seems to enjoy lying on a damp patch of just-watered ground in the shade and listening to me wittering on to it about nothing in particular as I garden) leaps across to the tile and eats precisely half of what I’ve put down. Sometimes half length-wise, sometimes half width-wise, but always half. The divvying-up is almost mathematical. The other Smog appears later and hoovers up the other half.

There was a point, a couple of weeks ago, when for a while the uneaten food remained until the following day. At that point Smog I would return and finish it up 24 hours later. I was worried that Smog II had met a sorry end. But some days later II reappeared and the ritual resumed as normal. Now I’m wondering: was that when the kittens were being born? Did everything go pear-shaped and the rest of the litter die?

But the almost maniacal division of the goodies by two such ragged felines is hugely touching, I find. They’re looking out for each other. With an immense sense of fairness.

The very elderly man who sits on a step beneath a huge oak along the street between the Rocca and my project in town, chatting to anyone who’s willing to slow down or stop, and keeping his daemon – a splendid long-haired oyster-coloured cat by the name of Cioppi – company is back. Which is great, because I was beginning to fear that the winter had done for him.

I stopped briefly the other day and he immediately turned to his favourite theme: passano gli anni, the years go by.

“I’m going to be 100 soon,” he said, which stopped me in my tracks. All right, he looks elderly, but 100? I wouldn’t have said so.
“Gosh,” I said, “congratulations. I would never have said!”
“Yes, I’m 92 already!” he explained.

How wonderful to be 92 and already looking forward to your hundredth year. He clearly has no plans to leave us for a while yet.


Last year, my beautiful little street in town won – and rightly – the prize for CdP’s best kept and most flowery in the competition linked to the Infiorata, which is this weekend. Not wishing to let the side down with my cobwebby, dusty, builder-bashed entrance niche – a conspicuous black hole in a street overflowing with geraniums and aspidistras – I rushed up to do a bit of sweeping and install some pots of flowers. I’m so glad I took the trouble.

In the short time I was there, knocking nails into the brick walls to drape a lovely dark purple Clematis over, one woman contrived to saunter past four times to inspect my activity. And from a window across the street, an elderly signora leaned out to say “brava signora, brava: ha fatto una cosa bellissima,” thus making it all worth while.

Next day the builders, of course, were skeptical, pointing out that it just robbed them of space and got in their way.

I’m doing my civic duty, I said, in the true spirit of the Infiorata. And so they grudgingly admitted that it was all right … especially when I told them I was planning to remove the plants after the event was over.

There’s manic activity in the house at the moment, with painters painting, carpenters fixing windows and electricians installing a heating and hot water system that looks big enough for a stately home. My fear now is that it will necessarily limp to a halt as these peripheral workers hit the buffers of the builder himself, who is failing to keep one step ahead of developments to allow the others to move forward.

The risers of the stairs need rendering otherwise they can’t be painted; the floor downstairs needs leveling otherwise the flooring man will arrive next week and be unable to do his work; there are still inexplicable holes in walls that have to be filled. I swing between manic happiness and utter despair. This can’t be good for my blood pressure.

In the huge barn of a hardware/builders’ supply store down in the valley I was buying lengths of steel cable in different weights to improve the droopy arrangement that holds up the two immense Concord grape vines that shade my little town garden so verdantly. (I have since abandoned the task, realising that the weight of the grape-laden plants makes it completely unthinkable.)

I like that place (there’s another tale from there, right down the bottom of this post). I rarely see another female in there, but as I generally go in with dilemmas to solve rather than straightforward requests, the two dour brothers who run it seem to have adopted me, displaying something like enjoyment as they rise to the challenges I set them.

The shorter brother was painstakingly measuring out steel cable for me when a customer (male, of course) blustered over and demanded to know where he should search for something or other. The look that the brother gave him was pure venom, and he raised his voice, barking out the metres at top volume as he counted to show his extreme displeasure at the interruption.

I’d love to think that he was fighting my corner against the type of man all too frequent around here who presumes that women have no place in hardware stores and must surely be doing something frivolous and totally interrupt-able. I suspect, though, that his ire was due to the fact that multi-tasking is simply beyond him.

Our ludicrous-for-June weather continues, without a day where it doesn’t go above 30°. As soon as we turned our backs – going down to Rome for the Queen’s Birthday Party of which more below – there was a downpour. We came back to 14mm in the rain gauge. Since when, we have sizzled.

My cleaning lady is indignant, and possibly a little heat-addled.

“This climate change thing,” she said to me. “ I don’t know what’s going to become of us. You know, on the news last night, they were saying that it’s so hot that the Chinese have even managed to grow potatoes on the moon.”

That took a few seconds to sink in. A week later, I’m still trying to work out what kind of stick must have been thrown for her to get hold of such a very wrong end.

We hadn’t been to the Queen’s Birthday Party for years – struck off the guest list for some odd reason but now, equally as inexplicably, reinstated. It was a packed event in fantastic Villa Wolkonsky, the ambassador’s residence in Rome. The new ambassador was decked out in a long lamé Vivienne Westwood number that lent her an uncanny resemblance to those men who gather coins for standing stock-still in piazza del Popolo dressed as Tutenkhamun.

The theme was English Village Fete and wandering around the gardens were Alice with a Red Queen, a couple of Sherlock Holmes with their Watsons and at least one Shakespeare whom we bumped into at the coconut shy (L won an unidentifiable pink furry animal-like thing with a masterful shot).

But who are you? I asked, to be informed haughtily that he was William Shakespeare, quite obviously.

No, I said, apart from that. I know you from somewhere.

He was, it transpired, an Australian bit-part actor who had been in a comedy TV English teaching show that L wrote for Rai Educational about 100 years ago. It was the 1980s, we hadn’t been long in Rome, and we were extremely poor. The amount he earned for that series – presumably considered risible by RAI standards because Educational was not where the Big Money went – seemed like a fortune to us.

I like to think we’ve moved on just a little bit since then. This man, though, was being Shakespeare at the QBP: I think that probably counts as a step backwards.

L told him that he still has VHS tapes of their show somewhere.

“Oh wow, you should put them on YouTube!” he shot back.

Is that it? Is that the hope that unsuccessful actors cling to? That one day you’ll put some of your opus from long long ago on YouTube and it will become an internet sensation, propelling you to long longed-for stardom?

Sadly, I think it is. Equally sadly, I suspect it’s not going to happen.


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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