6 August 2018


Cool and magical, the beech woods of Monte Amiata

Being summoned to a hospital to find your husband laid out flat on a stretcher under a blood-flecked sheet, his neck in a brace and one side of his face swathed in bandages, is a bit of a shocker. It turns out, thankfully, that L’s latest flight from his bicycle was in fact less damaging than others – just three stitches in his face and lots of cuts and bruises, as against a fractured rib a month ago, and other bone breaks and ligament tears over the years. But somehow wounds to the face look so much more dramatic than those. I experienced a split second of panic.

Shock over, I’m now thinking of the experience as yet another chance to admire our healthcare service, and maybe gloat a little. In the three hours he spent on his stretcher (the corridors of the busy A&E were lined with them – a mix of serious injury and disease, and frequent returnees greeted by name by the remarkably cheery staff) L was seen by the doctor, had his face stitched, was x-rayed and given CT and ultrasound scans, had a tetanus shot and saw the doctor again for a final appraisal. At the end of which the doctor’s assistant, rather sheepishly, said that there was a charge to pay for the attention.

“Do we pay you?” we asked.
“No, no, we don’t take money. And the office where you pay is closed. Here are our bank details: you can pay at any bank,” he said.

How much? €10. TEN euros. $US11.50. £8.90. Would they come after us if we didn’t pay? Almost certainly not, despite vaguely threatening legal language on the discharge documents. I paid it though, immediately, in gratitude and admiration more than honesty.

This morning I had coffee in town with clients who live in the US. “You’d be looking at $10,000 dollars there,” they said. An exaggeration? Probably (hopefully). But it’s interesting, anyway, that their perception of the system where they live tells them that. Allow me, therefore, to gloat.

The doctor – a cyclist himself, with shocking-pink spectacles – lectured L on the need for a helmet that covered more of his face. He was jolly and chatty and, it seemed, a good bloke. But he also provided the only sour note of the evening, in a throwaway remark that I’m now wishing I’d called him out on. He ordered L, sportsman to sportsman, to get his tetanus jabs in order, to make sure he was properly covered.

“All this multiculturalism these days,” he said. “You never know.”

To imply that immigration is/immigrants are the underlying cause of tetanus – that they underlie any disease-spreading at all – is deeply shameful in anyone. In a doctor it’s unforgivable. No serious medical publication backs this up: The Lancet argues that, being predominantly vigorous young men, refugees and asylum seekers are on average healthier than western populations as a whole. So if it’s not advice based on science, it is – to be extremely generous – reprehensible casual racism. After an evening of impressive efficiency, this left a bad taste.


High summer colours

Well before we moved to CdP permanently – so, more than a decade ago – I joked and pondered with the new owners of the Albergo Vannucci in town about what would happen to the elderly-parent-parking service that the hotel in its pre-refurb manifestation had provided. The service was unofficial and possibly undesired, but in its boarding-house-like state, the Vannucci in summer was a magnet for all those troublesome quavering old ladies and slightly demented old men from cities whom offspring were keen to squirrel away somewhere safe and anodine and far away from themselves for the summer – somewhere ‘in collina’ (on a hill) which for me summons up visions of overheated Raj officials making for tea-bush-ringed hill stations but here, very prosaically, just means somewhere a degree cooler than their lower-lying urban place of residence.

Occasionally the old dears turned up with their badanti (carers) – usually eastern European women in various stages of terminal boredom but relieved, at least, to find fellow sufferers with whom to share the travails of the summer months. But more often the crumblies would be unceremoniously dumped, and left to drive the hotel staff to distraction with tetchy whining.

From time to time nowadays, the manager of the hotel still indulges in a bit of a moan to me about one or other of the palsied eld who pass through, but I imagined – with CdP getting a little younger and a little more up-market – that they were an ever rarer phenomenon. A few phonecalls over the past few days have persuaded me otherwise. It’s usually a woman who calls – a hassled-sounding woman with a snap in her voice.

“You have places to rent. I need somewhere for my parents.”

I fell for the first call, and took a very spiky chain-smoking but actually rather likeable old dame to show her my Mid suite – the only one available for the dates in August that her brisk daughter had mentioned.

I was a bit suspicious when the daughter explained that her parents were already in town, but had to change accommodation: why? I wondered (though never found out). Doubts deepened when I called mamma to make an appointment and she told me she could come that same morning “but not straight away because I have to get him up and get him showered.” This absolutely didn’t sound like the kind of sprightly, stylish, sophisticated independent traveller that Pieve Suites was designed to attract.

So I mentioned stairs.

“He can probably cope,” she informed me, though not with any real conviction. And so they came.

‘Cope’ was ambitious. She hauled the confused, muttering soul up to the first floor as I kept my fingers crossed and willed him not to plunge down my elegantly open stairwell to his death in the cellar. I could see her itching to light up another cigarette to replace the one she’d stubbed out on my front doorstep.

She really liked the room. My heart sank.

“So how much is it?” she asked.

I told her, feeling slightly irritated with the daughter for leaving it up to me to break the news to this plain-speaking mamma.

“What?” she screeched, “but we could stay in the Vannucci for less than that!”

Er, yes. You could. But that’s the whole point of what I’m doing here. In the hotel the room would be smaller and you wouldn’t have a kitchenette and it’s not nearly as chic and elegant as my place. She stared at me in horror.

“I could rent an apartment in piazza Navona cheaper!” she said.

I looked dubious, and patiently explained “but this isn’t an apartment to rent. Think of it as a hotel. A hotel that’s more expensive than the Vannucci. You want to take one of my hotel rooms for a month. And that’s how much I charge.”

And so they left, though not without her listing all her friends and relations who’d love to come and stay with me, even at that price. I kept schtum.

Now when I get those “my mother needs…” calls, I know to mention the stairs first thing. So steep. So many. No railings. High probability of fractures or even fatality.

I’m not going to be their hill station. And I’m definitely not going to be their badante. Now I’m wondering: what more do I need to do to my site to make that absolutely perfectly clear?


Great concert, phenomenal setting. Incontri in Terra di Siena

Il Pozzetto down in Moiano is a very ordinary local trattoria made slightly different by the fact that the son of the family, Luca, produces seafood worthy of a much more sophisticated venue, especially on Friday and Saturday when the kind of crowd that appreciates this gravitates there.

On the terrace recently – L slurping oysters, me with a wonderful salad of raw fish, tart green apples and various other ingredients I’ve since forgotten – we found ourselves next to a table occupied by a family that definitely wasn’t there for the fish. In fact, the waiters – kind and friendly as they were – dispensed with any mention of fish, and went straight for pizzas.

The older couple (I hesitate to say ‘elderly’ because there’s a good chance that, wrinkled and lived-in as they looked, they were no older than us) were celebrating their 39th wedding anniversary. That was the only piece of information that their lively and clearly bright granddaughter of about eight managed to pry out of them. For the rest of the time he stared at his plate and grunted a bit, and she gawped at us as though we were just another show on the TV that I’d wager she kept turned on, volume at max, at all times at home. There was no real sign of interest on her part: she was just blankly mesmerised.

Spanning the generations was a daughter who mainly kept her head down. No one complained – well, no more than a few extra-loud grunts from grandpa – when the waiters good-naturedly kind-of-forget them, and their food took forever to turn up. This was just – one immagined – confirmation of their expectations of how life has to be dealt with: a bitter resignation to always being at the tail end, mute but darkly resentful, a bovine brutishness. Outsiders are greeted with baleful brooding; inside the family, one suspects communication is limited to shouting and clouting.

This is a local type of another generation which you rarely see nowadays and will not be missed when it fades away. It’s a hangover from the days of mezzadria (sharecropping) when raising your voice to il padrone might lose you even that scrappy bit of land that you worked to death to feed your family, and when education – especially for girls – took a very distant second place behind getting the chores done and the crops in. In 1962 the school-leaving age was raised from 11 to 14 but in country parts this was widely ignored and illiteracy was the norm. By 1999 when the age was raised to 15 (and 2003 to 16) however, things were looking brighter. Education is a wonderful thing, and not just for filling heads with facts.

That younger generations are growing beyond their grandparents was (thankfully) made clear when the little girl threw herself across to give her mother a big hug. Incapable of anything as dynamic as shock, the grandmother looked aggressively baffled.

“What you doing?” she shouted, at which the little girl snapped around and gave her a very hard look.

“Whatever I want. And don’t you go trying to ruin it for me,” she said, in a way that showed she was used to grandma disapproving. She still has a battle ahead.


Hot and dusty but the field, finally, has been cut

It’s hot now – well over 30° every day – and we’re in troglodyte mode, staying inside with closed shutters for as much of the day as possible, and venturing out after six pm. The wonderful thing about this summer so far has been the evenings: cool, sometimes breezy. There has been only one night in the whole season so far when we’ve turned the fan on in our bedroom. It couldn’t be more different from last year when we sweltered for over two months.

It’s odd when the hottest of the hot descends when you’re already noticing that the evenings are getting shorter. It’s odd, too, having had to wait until August 1 to pick my very first ripe tomato (partly my fault for getting them in the ground a bit late but also the fault of this season).

I was expecting the immense quantities of green fruit to ripen all at the same time, leaving me with a mountain of stuff to process into passata in an overheated hurry. But no, they’re coming good very gradually. Now my fear is that as the days get shorter they simply won’t have sufficient hours of sunshine to behave as they should. I very much hope I’m wrong.


Still the floweriest of them all: Borgo di Giano celebrates

About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden and landscape designer, working throughout central Italy and beyond. I have lived in Italy for over 35 years – first in Rome but now in Città della Pieve, Umbria, where I have restored my country home and transformed a medieval townhouse into three rental suites. To relax, I tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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