29 November 2019

1129GIt’s the penultimate day of November and my rainfall total for the month is 299mm***. That’s the biggest monthly accumulation ever recorded by me. Which isn’t really saying hugely much because I only bothered to start adding up the monthly figures in 2016 but all the same – it’s a whole lot of water, and unquestionably more than the 94mm-odd which is our November average.

After our splendid October, November has been joy-sappingly drear. Only autumn colours – which arrived with the rain and have been superb… though it would be nice to have some sunny illumination to highlight them – have made the darkness bearable. They came on lightning quick, and I feared they would drop off the same way. But no, they’re clinging beautifully.

The ones that have surprised me are the mulberries by the front gate. They’re usually the harbingers of autumn, turning acid yellow and falling well before the others. But this year they’re just beginning to turn as the others begin to fall. What strange mix of moisture and daylight and temperature caused that surprise? Trees are nothing if not mysterious.

Last week, in a spirit (I hope) of curiosity rather than self-righteousness, we decided we’d go single-use-plastic-free for seven days. That was Sunday. We needed milk to brew up some home-made yoghurt (brownie points) but at the supermarket I was faced with a stark choice: milk in a plastic bottle, or milk in a plastic-lined tetrapak carton with a plastic screw-top lid. I opted for the latter (worst of two evils?) and vowed to begin my plastic-free week properly on Monday.

That was easy. We had a kitchen full of food. No need to go to the plastic-filled shops. Ok, the new liquidiser goblet we’d ordered arrived swathed in bubble wrap, but that wasn’t our fault, was it? We’d have to live with that. And, we were told, there was a local farmer who might sell us milk. True, it was sheep’s milk but that would probably be all right. Did we follow this up? No.

1129AOn Tuesday we needed bananas. When I got to the supermarket, other necessities presented themselves to me and I (rather ostentatiously) weighed, placed loose things in my basket and stuck the sticky price labels around the edge of the basket to present one by one at the till. Then after all my efforts I noticed that there were paper bags lurking beneath the piles of plastic ones. I could have used them. Not so cleverly virtuous then. The little plastic stickers on the apples identifying the producer irked me terribly when I noticed them at home.

On Wednesday I stopped by our favourite cheese shop in Chiusi Scalo to get some ricotta. Before I gathered my wits together the girl behind the counter had dropped it into a seal-able plastic tub. “I wanted it in paper!” I wailed, but she said it was pointless at that point because she’d just have to throw out the plastic container anyway.

And that’s when I gave up. Pathetic. Where are my principles?

In the market last Saturday, where the boys at my favourite produce stall tease me weekly when I demand that everything be tipped loose into my big bags (but do it nonetheless), Roberto decided to lecture me about how his plastic bags are made of corn starch and completely bio-degradable therefore I was being ridiculous. I pointed out that the raw materials had to be harvested and processed and transported then the finished product had to be transported and distributed and that in fact those so-called biodegradable bags really need to be industrially composted anyway.

“But I throw them in my fields. After a month or so they’ve more or less disappeared!”

So how many of those bags does he throw away each week? Maybe 20, maybe more? That’s 80 bags strewn round his fields in various states of decomposition at any given time. Leaving aside aesthetics, is that even practical? I don’t think so.

Of course long before I’d finished trying to explain this to him he had given me a despairing look and wandered off to another customer. Am I very boring? Perhaps there is an element of self-rightiousness here after all.

Driving down the lane one night a couple of weeks ago, we passed a beautiful little owl sitting on the slim trunk of a recently decapitated bush on the verge. I know nothing at all about owls but I’m going to guess it was a barn owl, with its gorgeous white moonface. It watched us with wide wondering eyes, unperturbed, as we rattled past.

“We could take it to Athens with us,” said B, partner of my daughter C. They were just about to move to Greece.
“Er, why?”
“You know, owls to Athens.”

B is Swiss. Something was clearly being lost in translation.

It is, apparently, the Swiss version of “taking coals to Newcastle”. But the Swiss, I have since found out, have simply purloined an ancient Greek saying. Athens is the city of the goddess of wisdom Athena/Minerva, and Athena’s symbol is an owl. Ancient Athenian coins were stamped with the picture of an owl. So taking more owls to the city was otiose, hence the saying.

It’s so much more beautiful than coals and Newcastle. I’m going to use it from now on.

And while we’re on the subject of the ancient Greeks.

I took a pile of L’s shirts to Rita’s funny old dry cleaning shop to iron.

“Where’s your daughter these days?” she asked. Rita likes to be informed of everybody’s movements.
“She’s moved to Athens.” Blank look. “Greece.”
“Oh, Greece!” Short silence. “Is it… dangerous?”
“No! Of course not!”
“But are they, at least, er, Europeans?”

Rita’s curiosity bumps up against a world view circumscribed by having rarely set foot outside CdP. She is genuinely, kindly fascinated by everything but not always sure what the right reaction is to the information she gleans. In this question, ‘Europeans’ falls somewhere between ‘Christian’ and ‘white’, or maybe a mixture of the two. I’m absolutely sure that Rita has no objection to people of other beliefs or colours; I’m convinced that she’d greet them in the same affably bumbling way that she greets everyone.

I pull myself up to my full height, which is about twice Rita’s (though she’s almost twice as wide as I am).

“Rita! The Greeks! the ancient Greeks! They’re the cornerstone of our European civilisation!” I tell her sternly.
Ah, sì! I greci. Antichi. Grandiosi!” she gasps, suddenly full of classical fervour.

1129L

Taking part in ‘sardine‘ protests in Perugia

This week a friend who speaks very little Italian asked me to go with her to Perugia’s Silvestrini hospital – a healthcare city on the outskirts of Perugia itself – for some urgent tests. We located the right department in the vast complex, took a number, then sat down and awaited our turn to talk to the women at the reception desk and were promptly accosted by an elderly man in a white coat (doctor? nurse? self-appointed busy body? impossible to say) who seemed dead set on telling us that we were doing everything wrong. Wrong place probably, but wrong paperwork definitely: there was an official prescription from the CdP doctor missing, and there was no way these tests could possibly be done.

Except. Hang on.

Off he bumbled, then returned to beckon us through to the microbiologist whose name was on the CdP doctor’s note. She shook her head and said, nope, wrong kind of request. I explained that my friend had no national health coverage and was aware that she’d have to pay for the tests. The microbiologist looked worried. No way.

Except. Hang on.

And so she led us back to the original desk and got the woman there to see what could be done. The elderly man weighed in. “You know you’ll have to pay. I mean, you’ll have to pay. Pay, you know? I hope you have private insurance. You have private insurance? Phew! Just as well!”

A bit of fiddling with a computer, a bit of concerned consulting with colleagues, and two minutes later: “that’ll be €5.20.”

Five euros, twenty cents. Everyone looked shell-shocked as we handed the money over. Having to charge someone the full price. Scandalous.

Italians moan about their healthcare system everywhere. They moan about our little CdP hospital which if you ask me performs miracles; and they moan about this labyrinthine hi-tech hospital-city on the outskirts of Perugia. But there’s a reason why Italy ranks so high in international healthcare comparisons (see here and here) and it becomes crystal clear when you need something, fast. Of course the all-purpose rule of  ‘everything difficult, nothing impossible’ has to be applied here. You have to know how to work the system and run the gauntlet of catastrophism before emerging with what you want.

Even before we’d handed over the unthinkable sum, the microbiologist was back, waving a piece of paper with neatly printed analysis results. And so we exited to find the car in the immense carparks that surround the Silvestrini hospital-city. All of which are free. The moaners don’t know how lucky they are.

***It reached 304 by the end of the month.

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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