We had lunch at the Café degli Artisti on Tuesday. I was less than enthusiastic, but L was keen, and helping the owners of a place we like to get back on their feet was a big enticement. The tables were widely spaced; the staff were kitted out in masks and gloves. Was I comfortable? No. And was this popular place humming with people keen for a taste of normality? No. It was almost empty.
We see pictures in the media of close-packed aperitivo-sipping crowds in urban nightlife hotspots, or shoppers piling back into retail meccas and think “is this really happening?” Actually, I have to say in my skeptical ex-hack way that I have very serious doubts about it indeed. Those piling-in photos could so easily be the result of well chosen positions and angles.
My attempts to find nationwide whole-crisis statistics on the number of people fined for infractions of anti-Covid regulations have come to naught. But the interior ministry gives a day-by-day summary. On May 20, for example, of the 125,582 people stopped by police just 460 were fined and of those only three were breaking quarantine rules – even fewer than I would have expected given my suspicions about the stupidity of people in general.
But as we know, “People Being Good” is never going to be an attention-grabbing headline, and “well behaved populace out and about minding its own business” doesn’t make a great photo caption. In their own portrayal of national behaviour, Italians don’t do much to dispel the undisciplined Mediterranean stereotypes.
Was it lockdown-cramp that needed a good old stretch – a grand gesture to ease the numbness? Or was it realising guiltily that our long period of forced (relative) inactivity could have been put to better use? Whatever made us do it, we finally got around last week to finding out what lurked in the jungle in the south-west corner of our field.
Is everyone’s life packed full of things which you’re always, always, always meaning to do but which somehow never get done? That corner down there has been a dense expanse of giant reed (Arundo donax), brambles and Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba) ever since we bought the place in 2001. Occasionally a brave man on a field-cutting tractor would chip away at the very edges of the mass to stymy its inexorable growth when it threatened to engulf more of the field.
Where collapsing terraces disappeared into the greenery on the western side, we could see the tops of a few walnut trees; each year the trunks became more invisible beneath their twining cover. And further down the field, it was a struggle between the climbers and the waving grey-green tops of a few willows – we couldn’t tell how many – to see which would beat the other to grab the most sunlight.
Now the climbers have gone and the willows are liberated. The water from the spring slightly further up (it’s on the neighbour’s land, not ours: I tried and tried to buy that strip but wily old Mario, who’s no longer with us, knew better than to abandon such a precious thing as a private water source) is now neatly channeled into a gently winding… well, I’d like to call it a stream but muddy ditch is perhaps more accurate.
The climbers were munched up and spat out; the wasted lower branches of the trees which had been denied any light at all for decades were stripped off and buried deep beneath what has now been remodelled into an extraordinarily graceful sweep of… again, I was about to get ahead of myself and call it meadow whereas in fact it’s mud after the bit of rain of the past couple of days. But in my over-enthusiastic (utterly unrealistic?) garden designer‘s mind’s eye, I’m well on my way to an 18th-century English landscape masterpiece.
The more down-to-earth me thinks: finally… a far finer prospect than before. (The downright banal me thinks: how on earth are we going to stop the brambles from taking over again?)
Once again it was my colleague Giuseppe Ciampani – he who reshaped the levels around the old concimaia for me last year and has worked on various of my professional projects – who interpreted my rather fluid and opaque requests/instructions into exactly what I wanted. He’s an artist with a digger.
I think if I could, I’d dedicate much of my professional life to reshaping. Of course I love greening and colouring and shaping gardens into spaces that make their owners/users feel like they’ve come home. But there’s something incredibly special about taking areas that have been ravaged – by violent vegetation, or neglect, or construction – and remodelling them, to turn them back into something that works… practically and on the eye. It’s extraordinarily satisfying.
Quite bizarrely, it seems that Italy will be seeking to get tourists back from 3 June. This week’s new rules say that travellers from the EU, Schengen area and the United Kingdom will be allowed to come with no quarantine restrictions as of that date. It’s a far cry from the autumn kick-off I predicted recently in The Telegraph. I’m hoping that my timescale doesn’t prove to be more sensible than the one that’s rapidly unfolding.
It feels like a huge leap. Greece, I see, has specifically banned UK travellers on the basis of the abysmal job the government there is doing of handling the pandemic. Spain, it seems, thinks Italy is making a big mistake. Italy is having no such qualms. On the same day that we can finally venture from Umbria to Tuscany (we’ve been confined to our own region until now) across a border that’s just down at the bottom of the hill, outsiders can in theory flock back. That’s two weeks before children are allowed into public playgrounds, and months before schools get going again. By and large I feel our government has done a good job handling this crisis. And the tourism industry – which generates 13 percent of Italian GDP – is understandably desperate to get going. Armchair criticism is so so simple, but there are contradictions in this particular bit of unlocking which somehow don’t seem right.
I’m pondering my rentals at Pieve Suites, wondering how soon I should be disinfecting and bed-making and plumping up pillows. Will there be a suddenly exodus of exasperated Italian city-dwellers to our rural airiness? Will hordes of sun-seekers from northern climes descend on Perugia’s little airport? No season is easy to foresee but this one in particular is such a total blank page.
So far all I’ve done in the way of getting ready is ordered a temperature-taking pistol (anyone offering accommodation has been advised to check all arrivals) and ascertained that I can get large-ish bottles of hand sanitizer in a shop down in the valley. Oh, and I’ve agreed with my lovely cleaning lady who has finally returned to work that we’re going to start preparations next week. The important thing, I guess, is to be ready for anything.