12 May 2019

0512AEvery now and then it feels like spring has arrived. Then it stops. With a bang. Over the past couple of weeks we’ve had night time temperatures going into perilously low single figures, snow suddenly reappearing on distant but visible slopes, winter jackets dusted off and zipped up firmly. And how very depressing it is to slide back into the habit of pulling tights on under trousers. It’s all very strange.

0512KI remember years when, at the Venice Biennale vernissage, I’ve had to douse myself in factor 50+ and sweat round the city in hat and short sleeves. This week it was sweaters, rain capes and very damp boots. But it was fun, nonetheless, to rub shoulders with the artsy people at what was one of the better art Biennales I’ve seen. Okay, the Massimiliano Gioni-curated show of 2013 still takes first prize for me. But that was all about working through an idea. This was about art, and there were some extremely bizarre things, rarely seen in Venice… like fine figurative paintings, and straight-down-the-line photography and what have you.

It’s amazing how much you walk in Venice. Well, not amazing really, considering that that’s all you do unless you can be bothered to wait about endlessly for over-crowded 0512Jvaporetti (or of course if you can afford water taxis). And the hard surfaces are tough on the feet/back of a country girl. I did about 43km over those not-quite-three days (thank you trusty step counter on my phone). But despite that I managed to miss the Lithuanian pavilion, which took the Golden Lion. Reasons to go back.

Back in my country life I feel positively sluggish, though I have mowed the lawns (getting in before last night’s deluge) and given Pieve Suites a good going-over for guests who arrive this week. The other thing I’ve done is potted on my courgettes and pumpkins which is a crazy thing to have to do. They should, by rights, be out in the veggie garden already but I just don’t trust this weather. And their roots were bursting out of their little cells. So they’re in bigger pots, in the greenhouse. Funny old spring. 

Our friend Alessandro who is standing in the town council elections and has taken it upon himself – as someone with a background in film-making and communications – to do the visuals for party PR, reports that he’s coming up against some knotty problems in his efforts to produce short film snippets for the campaign.

All the townspeople he talks to complain vehemently about our awful traffic.

Traffic.

We have traffic?

He’s been visiting the retail park down in the valley at what he hopes is rush hour, desperately trying to film a scenario which confirms that this is a valid concern, but as yet has found a maximum three cars in the same place at the same time. I suggested hiring a couple of buses and offering trips to rush-hour Rome to put ‘traffic’ into perspective.

In fact there are moments when you may find a (short) line of cars blocking your road, but nine times out of ten this is because those same people who moan bitterly about appalling traffic have come to a halt right in the middle of the road – a CdP speciality – and rolled down their window to chat with a passerby to whom they’ve been meaning to say something terribly important for ages and here’s a fine chance, not to be missed. As everyone does it, this behaviour is generally treated not with angry honking of horns and gesticulating but with surprising understanding and patience. Or it’s because those people have parked their vehicles (‘just for a moment, while I pop into the supermarket’) in a bottleneck where parking is strictly forbidden.

Oddly, this second point sprang to mind when I was reading George Monbiot’s good-in-some-aspects denunciation of over-fishing in the Guardian this week. (Yes, I admit, my lateral thinking works in mysterious ways.)

After nodding my head in vigorous agreement, and vowing to swear off fish (I don’t eat meat, but I do eat some fish) I thought, wait a minute… is that really going to stop the vast-scale industrial fishing sector going out there are devastating the oceans? There are strict national and international laws to curb over-fishing, and they’re simply not being enforced.

In fact the world’s full of excellent rules for all kinds of things, but where they’re poorly enforced, none of us (and this applies to each of us, as well as to multi-nationals and companies of all shapes and sizes) feels they particularly apply to us. The howls of protest that go up when our local police set up a speed camera on a quiet lane and fine dozens of people for exceeding speed limits, or the rare occasions when traffic wardens blanket-ticket cars parked in forbidden bottlenecks are cases in point: they’re out to get us! it’s not fair! is the inevitable response. No sense of being in the wrong, ever.

While I truly believe that trying to eliminate single-use plastic, and obsessively recycling everything possible are good things to do on an individual basis (ie doing your bit to mitigate the ghastly collateral damage of end-products) I am dubious that my individually giving up fish (a raw material) could ever have the kind of effect that simply policing the seas and peremptorily closing down any operation – however massive and powerful – that breaks rules could have. (Which doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be legislative crack-downs on plastic use and waste at all levels too.) But somehow, George, I don’t think a fish-eating boycott will cut the mustard. It’s a bit like disallowing all parking in CdP to stop the ‘traffic’ caused by a couple of cars obstructing the bottleneck.

Our little town has grown sophisticated over the years. Of course you can still find the odd elderly person who regards the outside world as something very removed indeed, but the younger people are as travelled and educated as people anywhere, and it’s rare that I find myself regarded with that exotic-creatures awe that we used, as foreigners, to inspire. So it was very odd, sitting waiting for my doctor the other day, to be treated to a flashback.

Also waiting was a young woman with her son, this latter with the truly unfair double whammy of Down’s syndrome and Tourettes – or maybe his little whoops of joy were just his way of communicating. He was a gorgeous boy of about ten with a melting smile and – I’d say – a lot of mischief in him. She was confident enough of being in friendly territory (one of CdP’s most endearing traits) to let him roam about the room while she sat down next to me. I could feel her edging closer and closer, peering over my shoulder at the LRB I was reading, her breath coming in those uneven bursts that mean someone’s trying to not draw attention to herself but which in fact get her noticed even more than usual. Finally it was all too much for her.

“Are you reading in, in… English?” she burst out, in a way where ‘English’ could have been replaced by ‘Martian’.

I gave her my biggest smile and told her that yes, that was English.

She expressed wonderment, and I went back to my article. But she was still right there, almost leaning her chin on my shoulder. A minute later she asked “but, how does it get here? Do they send it by… post?”

Yes, I told her, it comes in the mail. Her look was all amazement.

Returning for one moment to the Biennale, permit me another little rant. I had read that the boat that sank in the central Med in 2015 with 700+ migrants in its hold was on show there, and part of me was iffy and another – trying to be balanced – thought “good, if it makes people think”.

But as I stood in front of the boat – one hole in the hull where the boat had hit the vessel which was trying to rescue it, one larger hole where the hull had been cut open with acetylene torches to remove the bodies – my insides felt lacerated. All around me people were walking by, heading for the next pavilion or the nearest spritz. I didn’t blame them. They weren’t being callous. There was no contextualisation. But it wasn’t right.

I’m sure that the intention was good. I’ve heard the president of the Biennale saying that he hopes the boat’s presence there will shake consciences. But talking later to smart, well informed friends, I found they were completely unaware that the great hulk of rusting metal that they had strolled past in the Arsenale had any particular significance. In our world of constantly-rolling-onwards news cycles they had no recollection of that shipwreck and the tragic end met by so many people so desperate to get away to something better. Their consciences were unshaken.

Until they have 700 people lying by that hull to demonstrate the enormity of the loss, until they have more than a tiny explanation on a hidden piece of cardboard, until it’s clear that this is not art but a real-life reminder of an unthinkable tragedy, that ship should not be there. It’s not a fitting memorial. It shouldn’t be.

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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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