I had my fireman-chimney sweep back this week, not so much because our crazy summer weather has ended (it has, kind of) but because that’s what I do once L has gone off to the Venice film fest and isn’t around to tell me that I’m being feebly over-cautious.
The sweep was efficient and jolly as ever, but said he needed a two-month holiday after a summer of dealing with catastrophic blazes.
“And the worst,” he said darkly, “may be yet to come.”
Temperatures, the media kept telling us at the end of last week, would plunge, plummet and descend in various other dramatic ways. And so they did. From 35° to 25°.
I was in town bright and early the day after a paltry amount of rain ushered in this new situation. Alarmed by the panic-inducing deluge of weather news, people had dusted off their warmest mid-season jackets, proving once again my theory that any temperature different from the one you’re experiencing in the instant is terribly difficult to conjure up in any realistic way inside your head.
It only took half an hour or so on that deliciously blue morning for all those jackets to be discarded, as people realised that what we now had was simply warm-normal – the pleasant summery climes we had been dreaming of during our long long hot hot season.
It was precisely this, though, that was making my chimney sweep nervous. People are thinking: it’s cooler, it rained – we can burn off those accumulated piles of mouldering biomass that have been lying around for months. But the few millimeters that fell ran straight off the brick-baked ground. Things are as tinder-dry as ever. And people are forgetting this, now that exiting through the front door doesn’t induce immediate heat exhaustion. Firemen are terrified as our levels of bushfire-paranoia plunge and plummet.
One sign of how little our little rainfall changed the status quo is our field below the house: generally, the first late-summer rains turn it magically from yellow and sear to waving and emerald – more or less overnight. To date, it remains brown.
I keep looking at where my grass (decidedly not lawn) used to be, and waiting for the miracle which will prove my theory – boringly elaborated to all and sundry throughout the summer – that it will leap back to its spring-like glory (a medium-to-low bar, if truth be told) the moment the heat lets up, despite my refusal to give it so much as a drop of water all summer. My vigil is becoming more anxious; my absolute confidence in my own theory slipping away just slightly. No. I can’t go down that path: it will return, it will. And so I cross my fingers quietly, and move swiftly on to another topic.
I was feeling a trifle inadequate about my cucurbits this year (there are just two pumpkins in my orto) until I noticed that Pumpkin Man – whose wire fence down in the valley next door to the Lidl carpark is generally festooned with vines dotted with huge orange orbs – has very few as well. It must just be the year, I was thinking… until I found the rest of them.
I’m usually fairly hopeless with smaller squash, so it was in an oh-well-let’s-see kind of way that I stuck some Cucurbita pepo Cream of the Crop seeds in the ground. Now I’m finding the pretty star-section cream-coloured fruit all over the place: we’re well stocked for winter. And then I pulled a few weeds from the beds below the pergola outside the kitchen and hey presto! concealed beneath rosemary and rue bushes were several more good-sized Marina di Chioggia pumpkins – that knobbly dark variety straight out of a vegetably Flemish still life.
Most surprisingly in this year’s Cucurbita production are the melons. Where did they appear from? I don’t know: nothing to do with me. But there are lots of them growing among the (dead?) rhubarb, possibly from seeds that survived composting.
And while I’m on the subject of unexpected food production, I’m wondering what to do with my rampant sweet potato plants. I had never grown them before but their name – Ipomea batatas – should have given me a hint, Ipomea being Morning Glory. You just don’t think of a root vegetable as needing a climbing frame, do you? It’s counter-intuitive. So my 12 little plants are making a bid for complete domination of the vegetable garden.
I stopped at a petrol station down in the valley the other day, put my ATM card in the machine and programmed in €50 of fuel. When I squeezed the nozzle, nothing came out. I tried again. Whizzing wheezing sounds but nothing else, so I went in search of the petrol station boy to explain what was happening.
In the mean time, an elderly debonair Italian man in red shorts had driven his SUV up on the other side of the island and was listening to my tale.
“Did you use cash or card?” he asked.
“Er, card,” I said, in a rather surprised ‘what on earth has this got to do with you?’ way.
“Well of course it’s not going to work,” he pronounced, with all the bored superciliousness of an elderly man in red shorts dealing with an obviously stupid (ie any) female. “You can’t pre-programme it if you use a card.”
“Odd you should say that,” I said breezily, “because I do it often, at least once a week if not more, and have done for decades and I’ve never had any trouble.”
He gave me a look of utter contempt, grabbed the nozzle on his side and squeezed. Nothing came out. And so the petrol station boy sauntered across to the underground tank (thoughtfully extinguishing his cigarette before he opened it), flicked a switch to activate another tank, and nodded to me to try again. It worked.
Red trousers man turned his back on me and pretended I didn’t exist.
Last week my little alleyway up in town organised a cena del vicolo (street dinner) to celebrate our victory in the floweriest street competition. Everyone brought something edible, tables and chairs were lined up down the middle of the vicolo and we ate between overflowing flower pots and beneath fluttering flags and washing.
“What was that you brought?” asked the elderly lady sitting next to me. She was kind of curious and kind of accusing: was I trying to trick them with my fancy foreign fare?
“It’s a kind of salad made with barley,” I told her, and reeled off the ingredients.
“Hmph,” she said to her neighbour, now very suspicious indeed. “Sarà roba inglese (it must be English stuff).”
I told her I didn’t cook ‘English’, I just made things up as I went along. But clearly for my older neighbours food isn’t food unless it’s the recipes that mamma and nonna made. Which was fine by me, as it meant I had lunch made for the following day too.
My house in town is now a hair’s breadth away from ready. I had people round the other evening for drinks, and they milled about in the big open spaces which I had come to love so much that it was rather a shock when my builder finally brought the sofas back.
I had arranged for these to be brought to the house weeks ago, telling the builder that he was to be out and finished by delivery date, to which he responded by hijacking the delivery truck and having the sofas deposited elsewhere until he was ready to bring them to their destination. In the event, ‘ready’ turned out to be yesterday. Which was fine, because they weren’t in my way while I was hanging curtains and the like.
But oh how crowded the rooms look now – no more long vistas. On the other hand, the suites are now rather more practicable from a sitting down point of view – kind of necessary if people are actually going to stay in them…
All that remains, more or less, is to hang blinds and attach the skirting board (plus of course the kitchenettes but I’ve put them off until winter).
The skirting board is something I didn’t want, but have been forced to accept because of the type of flooring I have used. I’m looking for something minuscule, just to hide the expansion zone around the edges. But fitting skirting board to walls which date back to the 14th century can be a challenge, those walls being big-dipper curvy. Finding just the right material is an on-going quest.