4 October 2018

1004AI have little affection for the vintage Mercedes camper that has taken up residence in the top carpark, blighting (as I see it) my lovely cosmos-punctuated vegetable garden. It comes as a love-me-love-my-van package with our daughter’s partner. Its only plus points for me are (1) that it came in quite useful when I needed to transport a large-ish piece of decorative iron work to a client in Tuscany and (2) its rear-mounted spare tyre is a very good spot to prop my cellphone when I’m weeding up there. There’s a signal (never a given around here) and I don’t risk putting a spade through my device.

I’d forgetten this practical boon the other evening as I waved them goodbye. They were off to the hot springs in San Casciano dei Bagni. Fifteen minutes later, I leapt up from my weeding seat and yelled “oh [expletive]!” Not only my phone, but my camera were inside that wheel rim. Panic stations.

1004GNo answer on C’s phone, so I began my long slow troll up to town, peering down overgrown banks and amid long grass on verges. My camera I found amazingly unscathed in the middle of the lane up before Mario’s house. There was no trace at all of the phone. All I could ascertain was that it was somewhere with a signal.

By the time I eventually got through to C, a good hour had passed. I had resolved to wait until L returned home, then repeat my tramp to town with his cellphone, ringing my number in a final attempt to locate it beneath roadside vegetation. But it the end there was no need. C found the phone sitting, undisturbed, in the wheel rim. Not wedged. Just sitting. After 21km of bumps, hills, sharp twists and turns and a long rest in a very public carpark. Is there a patron saint of iPhones? Is s/he conspiring with that van to make me love it more?

We have been regaled with a series of perfectly blue autumn days, interrupted more by howling gales than by the rain which should bring relief to our lovely countryside at this time of year – we had just 9.5mm in September against an average somewhere in the high 60s.

Between long slogs up and down motorways to inject fresh post-summer life back into my various garden projects, I’ve been battling utilities companies.

At Pieve Suites the drains that had been merrily gurgling through the last days of my full-house August marked the departure of my last guests by blocking completely – brilliant timing, for which I was grateful. I called a drain purging firm, expecting to discover that city-dwellers used to more sophisticated waste disposal had chucked all kinds of everything down sinks and loos. An hour and a half later than scheduled, and not very long before ten lovely ladies were due to turn up down at home for dinner, a big burly bloke with a headful of Medusa curls stomped into my immaculate townhouse, stuck a hose through the inspection cap in the niche halfway down the cellar stairs and unleashed a high-pressure jet that sent a spurt of unspeakable stinking horror straight back into the house.

“It’s blocked,” he announced. Thanks.

As I tried to mop up the worst of the raw sewage sloshing about my shoes, watching the minutes till dinner time tick rapidly away, he began playing with his electronic toys, sending a camera down the pipe until it hit what looked like a solid black wall.

“About ten metres away,” he pronounced, then got his geiger-counter-like gadget to seek the spot his camera had reached. “It’s here,” he pronounced, pointing to the floor inside the neighbour’s garage. “And it’s about a metre and a half underground. You’ll need to call a builder to dig a hole.”

I demurred, pointing out that ten metres from the inspection cap would take us half way into the street outside. All I got was a withering look (what do women know about this kind of thing?) and some garbled explanation in a bored tone of voice about how I obviously didn’t understand measurements. I mentioned my architectural credentials: he was unimpressed.

But not nearly so unimpressed as I was. I abandoned my stinking house, went home and fed my friends, then called the water board before starting in next morning on a disaster clean-up operation.

Unless you actually have a geyser spouting through your floor Umbra Acque is remarkably slow to respond to emergency calls. But come they did, after many days (luckily for me I had no clients) of countless ever-grumpier phone calls. The first time it was just one muttering soul who poured yellow colouring agent down a bathroom sink, after which we stood side by side and stared into a hole in the street and waited, and waited, and waited. About 20 minutes later something he said was yellow (I had my doubts) trickled down the pipe.

“It’s blocked, but not completely,” he announced. Thanks.

More days passed and back he came, with two colleagues – one in a sewer-purging truck and the other in a van which looked like the bargain basement version of one of those undercover police surveillance vehicles you see in movies. They unreeled their camera-probe and sent it wiggling all along the sewer pipe which runs down the centre of the street.

I admit to being fascinated by some very strange things, but I loved this glimpse into our nether world – the simplicity of it all. It’s just a big tube, with smaller pipes emptying into it on each side from bathrooms and kitchens and gutter downpipes. There’s no grey water and black water: everything finishes up in the one place, and access to it is through what I had always thought were merely heavy iron rainwater drain covers in the street. It’s about a metre beneath the surface now, but that’s the only difference between today’s sewer and the open drains which would have run along the length of the street through most of history. So why doesn’t it stink in summer? Why don’t we have rats and cockroaches climbing up those extremely accessible pipes? My three workers, amenable as they were, didn’t offer any answers. Such eventualities had never seemed to occur to them.

With taps inside Pieve Suites running at full tilt, no water was coming out of any of the pipes below the street. They ran their camera through my inspection cap inside and found the blockage almost ten metres away… out in the street, of course, and precisely where I’d said it would be. But not quite as far as the main sewer pipe, which meant the blockage was in my feeder pipe and was therefore my responsibility, they told me in no uncertain terms.

At which point, having established that they didn’t have to do anything, they simply went ahead and solved all my problems. Everything is impossible until, hey presto, before you know what’s happening it’s done: it’s a common enough phenomenon among Italian tradesmen and one that I treasure, storing up memories of positive outcomes for the infuriating times when it all goes pear shaped. In this instance, a high pressure hose, a suction pipe to remove any foul stinking back-wash well before it cascaded down the cellar steps, and 20 seconds later they had blown out what was probably a lump of concrete which had settled there decades before, then accumulated other hard matter around it until it almost (but not completely) blocked the pipe. With heavy use at Pieve Suites over the summer, it had been unable to cope.

They rolled up their equipment, cleaned up after themselves and drove off. Two weeks of waiting. Two hours of musing. Twenty seconds to fix it. Better than digging a completely unnecessary chasm in the neighbour’s garage…

My other battle has been with Telecom Italia, which is not only slow but inscrutably awful. I can’t bring myself to go into detail. The frustration is too great and, to some extent, on-going. Suffice it to say that our attempt to hitch our home number to CdP’s shiny new fibre optic network was less than successful: we soon realised that in our splendid rural isolation we were too far from the source to get a good signal, with frequent breaks in any kind of signal at all.

Fine. Back to ADSL. This was quite within our rights, and sounded simple. Hah.

After who-knows-how-many calls from Telecom re. my “request” to cut off this phone line (no!), cut off my line in town (no!), convert my line in town back to ADSL (no!), change my phone number (no!), change to fibre (no! – how can I if I already have it?), have another line installed (no!) and so on ad infinitum/nauseam, I yelled like a banshee at not one but two very nice-sounding ladies who on successive days called to ask when I’d like a technician to come round to revert from fibre to ADSL.

“No! Don’t touch it! Leave me alone! We’ll keep the fibre! Stay well away because you’ll only make things worse!”

Just hours after the second call, a technician turned up at the house, removed the fibre and hooked us back to ADSL.

“Fibre was never going to work down here,” he said. Thanks.

Since when, our ADSL line has worked far worse than the fibre optic one ever did. Ci vuole pazienza.


Overheard in the doctors’ surgery as I wait to meet my new doctor, my previous very lovely one having sadly succumbed rather to her troublesome nerves…

Man to woman sitting next to him: “is this new one any good? Because I need to change from that awful man I have.”

“Why’s that?” the woman asks.

“Well, last time I took my father there he said ‘what’s the point of bringing him to me? He’s over 80: why should I bother to do anything for him when he’s over 80?’ Well now I’ve turned 70, I bet he doesn’t care whether I live or die either. I think it’s time to change. And anyway, he’s never there because he gets drunk every night and can’t get up in the morning.”

Just to confirm that that particular doctor is not really up to scratch, a well dressed elderly lady – kindly looking and wholesome – walks up to his surgery door, which is shut with a ‘no doctor today’ sign stuck on it. “Vecchio stronzo,” she declares and strides away. Old piece of shit indeed.

1004HThis is another van that has marked our life in the last few days – a van that took away part of our life, in fact.

On the top floor of the chicken house (so-called) we stashed everything, from the ghastly Spode dinner service that my father kindly bought for my disappointed mother in about 1979 when she had been hoping to choose one for herself (how did it even get there?!), to ugly iron bedheads that were in this house when we bought it, to sections of the caravan we had towed away aeons ago, to old bikes and rocking horses.

But I fear that one day in the not too distant future a particularly strong breath of wind or virulent downpour is going to bring that whole building down, and the less stuff cluttering it up, the easier it will be to deal with the collapse. So I got some blokes with a van and had it all cleared and hauled away.

Well, when I say all… I was trying to be resolute but for some reason the dinner service is still sitting up there. I kept C’s rocking horse too. There were some photos that I managed to snatch from their arms as they stashed it all in their van. Now I’m sure for years to come I’ll snap out of sleep in cold sweats thinking of the memory-infused things that I allowed them to drag off by mistake.


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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