This morning our neighbour called to say that they’d found a half-eaten deer in the field which adjoins ours. As they approached – very gingerly I expect – a large male wolf was still standing over the carcass, enjoying his breakfast: he ran off at the sight of humans and their dogs – as wolves tend to do.
Now, everyone knows there are wolves in this area but it’s quite another thing happening across them tucking into fresh kill in your very own fields and woods. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one: something that loped across the bottom of the field many months ago looked very lupine to me, despite L’s reassurances that it was most definitely an inoffensive fox. The majority of countryside-dwellers around here has a wolf-sighting story to relate.
My feelings towards wolves fall very much into the same category as my feelings towards snakes: terribly proud on some kind of theoretical level that we live in such a diverse natural habitat, hosting fascinating reptiles and large predatory mammals; and at the same time, terribly anxious that aforementioned creatures keep well away from me, because really… I could do perfectly well without them.
Canis lupis italicus seems destined to play an ever greater part in our lives, however, with numbers definitely on the up. Until the early 1970s they were classed as ‘dangerous’ and fair game for anyone who cared to take pot shot. Farmers and other country folk did just that, to the point where numbers sank to perhaps as few as 70 beasts in the whole of Italy.
And so began the campaign – hotly contested by animal breeders and country folk of all kinds – to reintroduce them which is of course a noble aim… unless they’ve just devoured the flocks you depend on for your livelihood. A census carried out in 2018-2021 put numbers at around 3300 but who knows how many are really lurking in that dense bushy woodland that has run riot over land which until the 1970s was neatly cultivated? The tales told around here make it seem that there are hundreds of the beasts roaming our hills and valleys. Though the tales might well be wild exaggerations.
On quite a different animal note, the other day I looked up from my computer screen to find a hoopoe staring at me through the kitchen door. In all honesty, he might not have been able to see much of me through the mosquito screen but he was peering in with perky interest. I kept still, but not very: he seemed unconcerned. Off he hopped with a tsk-tsk-tsk, pecking away at the grass between the bricks and then at what passes as my lawn, oblivious to L who sidled over to take a look.
As a hoopoe’s ideal feeding spot is sparse vegetation where bugs can easily be ferreted out with those strong beaks, I guess I should take his obvious enjoyment as a bad sign. But it is sparse out there I’m afraid, and the paltry 2.01mm that fell last week has done nothing to change that. So go on hoopoe, poke away. I’m only too happy to share my bugs (of which there are many) with you.
I googled hoopoe (Upupa epops) naturally and was slightly disappointed to find that this extraordinary looking thing, with its jauntily collapsable crest and a penchant for spreading its wings and doing a bit of sunbathing along our dusty lane, is common as muck. I had been trying to convince myself that we were in some way privileged having so many about. But no.
I learnt, however, that the beast links this post to my last: in Aristophanes’ barking crazy play The Birds, the rapey king is turned into a hoopoe. The most interesting fact about them though has to be this gem from Wikipedia: “From the age of six days, nestlings can also direct streams of faeces at intruders.” Well, it’s one way of defending your territory.
I was telling Ilaria, the lady who helps me keep Pieve Suites clean, about the group of American language students who were doing a full immersion course in town. The students – all grown-ups: mostly retired people, some with grown-up offspring in tow – were staying at the Hotel Vannucci. Tom the teacher who had organised the jaunt stayed at my place.
His teaching method is task-based: his charges were set loose most days with a chore to complete, then report back on, all strictly in Italian. Gregarious Tom had paved the way, getting to know just about every shop and bar owner in town to explain what he was up to, and beg people not to flaunt their English. I told Ilaria how great the locals had been.
“Ammappa,” said Ilaria, stopping to reflect, “we pievesi really have changed.”
And it’s true I guess, though perhaps not as much as she thinks. I mean sure, 20 years ago you wouldn’t have had to ask people to stick to Italian: many people – especially the older ones – were barely literate, never mind multi-lingual. And earnest foreigners let loose on the town would have been met with bemusement bordering on pity rather than enthusiastic participation. But I believe that an underlying kindness was there decades ago as it is today… even though sometimes the dour, sardonic Umbrian sense of humour makes it difficult to perceive.
In this summer which is looking increasingly like a summer from ‘normal’ times on steroids, many faces which disappeared from the scene over the past two years have crept back, smiling, and clearly ecstatic. “We sat at home dreaming of Città della Pieve and then telling ourselves, ‘no, we’re being ridiculous, it really can’t have been that wonderful’,” one British couple who used to have a house here told me. They hadn’t been able to return for the past two years because of pandemic and illness and a host of other factors. “But when we got back we realised we hadn’t been wearing rose-tinted spectacles at all: it’s even lovelier than we remembered.”
I’m biased of course, and I know I have a tendency to ignore the bad and focus starry-eyed on the good, but this kind of encounter is a good antidote to one thing that really hasn’t changed about pievesi over the years. And that’s their tendency to moan about the place – its (perceived) dullness, disorganization, disorderliness, lack of facilities, hopeless fellow-citizens with no initiative who fail to support anyone who tries to do anything: the list goes on and on and on. There are grains of truth, but also a lot of small-town grumpiness.
I shall end with some photos stolen from the Facebook page of our N°1 citizen journalist whose group both dispels and acts as echo chamber for pievesi gripes of all kinds, in equal measure. I knew that the Brits swept in to liberate CdP on 19 June 1944 (slightly later than planned, leaving other forces in the lurch) but I didn’t realise that our little town featured alongside other more illustrious – or at least better known – battles on their regimental guidons (I’ve learnt a brand new word). We’re up there with the Somme, Palmyra, Ypres and El Alamein in their lists of horrors never to be repeated. Now I know.