26 November 2022

How difficult it has been to get back to this space. Things are so disconnected and busy and in movimento. I’m forgetting chronologies and episodes and even plans. It’s just one of those moments.

And so some fragments…

The Uffizi galleries close on Monday. Who cares if this particular Monday is a major public holiday, a day of dazzling blue skies and shoulder-to-shoulder tourists packing the streets of Florence? If it’s Monday, we close. Punto e basta.

On this particular holiday Monday I’m not complaining though: I’m with a handful of people who, extraordinarily, are being let in anyway. The guide showing us around has to fight back tears. “You simply can’t understand what it means to be in here with so few people,” she says. “I’ve worked here for years and I’ve never, ever, seen it like this.”

Walking the empty halls, standing nose-to-canvas with those works with no heaving mass of humanity between you and them; there were moments when I found it hard to breath.

One thing I (yes, I admit it) miss about lockdown are those moments when we – through luck and privilege – found ourselves essentially alone: in eerie Venice, in rattling Rome, and in Florence too which has now returned to anything but relaxing. Clawing back something similar was precious and truly special. But the uniqueness didn’t finish there.

Next step was a dusty, echoing, glorious stomp along the kilometre-long Vasari Corridor which links the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti, skirting then crossing the Arno, passing over the Ponte Vecchio, poking into the church of Santa Felicità. It’s a building site (which is why we were there: the day was organised for employees and friends by the company doing the restoration, Fratelli Navarra) but building sites are my favourite places and the grimy windows, and piles of tiles and bricks, and torn and well thumbed blueprints tacked to walls contributed as much to the satisfaction as having the place our ourselves.

Standing above the Ponte Vecchio, watching the crowds and the river flow below, I stopped being dazzled just long enough to wonder if there’s any way tourism can be spun so that you still get extraordinary thrills – without, of course, extending the creeping cancer out into even further-flung places which would do far better without it. Unfortunately I think the answer has to be: no.

And still on the topic of special places I’d love – but of course won’t be able – to keep for myself… what a spectacular discovery just across the valley in San Casciano dei Bagni. Twenty four amazing bronze statues, some from the second century BCE, pulled out of the stinky hot mud behind the Bagno Grande.

For as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve been going to these stone pools where everyone – from the old ladies of the town to the young people of the towns around – immerses themselves in the slightly oozy hot water and soaks in what feels like goodness. It’s great for catarrh and aches and pains and sciatica and infertility, or so the legends go. And though the Bagno Grande basins themselves could date from any time – and have obviously been reworked over the centuries – they have a decided feeling of antiquity about them.

The antiquity and – perhaps – the fertility thing were the catalysts for a long-overdue dig in the thermal swamp around. The thick giant reed beds surrounding the pools were removed and replaced by green plastic fencing. The lush vegetable gardens (the water’s obviously good for plants as well as people) tended by elderly people from the town on the hill above lost their aura of timeless calm.

A temple emerged, and a sacred pool and some curious coins. Local arts and culture societies enjoyed guided tours. It was all really quite low-key until this discovery shot San Casciano into the limelight. Now the eyes of the world are on that lovely rustic valley, and some way of displaying this wealth of riches will be have to be found. Naturally. And rightly. But I very much fear the late-evening wallows in those magical pools – scrambling, damp, back into freezing clothes in winter – will now be a thing of the past. All hail to archeological discoveries which change our perception of history. But I say that with more than a twinge of nostalgia.

Did I rave about Italy’s impressive government programme of financing for house refurbishments? Huge hand-outs for making houses earthquake resistant and hugely more eco-friendly? I did touch on it here I see, but I must also have whittered on about it somewhere else too, in connection with my grandiose plans for a complete makeover of our slightly collapsing chicken house out the back. But strangely I can’t find that.

I had drawn up beautiful plans for what was going to become a sweet little house at the state’s expense. I’d designed the kitchen. I’d planned the garden. In my head it was already a fait accompli. But the Superbonus turned out to be more complicated than it should have been, and the chaos it generated – especially for anyone working in the sector who was overwhelmed by soaring demand and soaring prices – meant that somehow my dreams evaporated, leaving a slightly bitter taste. But also a feeling of “so what now?”

The answer to which is: more property.

Friends from Rome were staying in my Pieve Suites. “Who were those people looking out the front windows?” he asked me. Alarms bells rang.

My little B&B occupies a strange space. All the very ancient terraced houses along that vicolo run long and narrow, from street right out to the medieval town walls. But I don’t have the whole long narrow house: I have a corridor from the front door which takes me to my half of the house – the half which looks out over the walls and the countryside. The house was divided cross-wise many years ago by two sisters who used the same front door (mine) and had connecting doors elsewhere (now closed). Since I bought my half, the darker, slightly smaller street-facing part has been empty.

Just a few days before – out of curiosity – I’d been to look around the house next door, which was going to be put on sale. The visit had tugged on my heart strings a little: there was no getting around the fact that these units were meant to be one, and not two like mine. Everything just seemed to go together better, the spaces made more sense. So I’d been thinking of my house, and its missing half, and how nice it would be to put it back together again. But who has money for that, eh?

Well, the answer to that question soon became “me” when it dawned on me that my missing part was on the market and people who weren’t me might end up occupying it. No no no no no. The final atto has yet to be signed but the deposit has been paid and hands have been shaken. Despite the expense, I feel like I’ve righted a wrong.

I’m walking down a street in Chichester, West Sussex, wondering why that old lady is being carried across the road. Then I realise that she’s being carried by my husband. He’s heading for a bus shelter, right in front of Chichester’s glorious cathedral. It’s pelting down and the lady is barely conscious.

And so begins the British ambulance-calling saga.

I explain that an elderly lady collapsed in the street and she has been carried to shelter on West St which runs along the side of Chichester cathedral.

Can I have a precise address? – Er, no.

Can you tell me the nearest house number? – No, all there is is a massive cathedral.

Can you give me the postcode? – Of course I can’t give you the postcode, I’m standing on West Street by the cathedral in the bus shelter. Isn’t that enough?

What town is that please? – Oh for god’s sake.

And on and on it goes.

Is the lady responding? – Barely.

Sorry I need a yes or a no. – Yes, barely.

Has she eaten in the last 24 hours? – But we just picked her up off the pavement. How on earth should I know?

Does she have rashes anywhere on her body? – Would you like me to remove all her clothes here in the bus shelter to check?

Perhaps it’s mean of me to complain. In fact, once the woman on the phone had finished her eternal, abysmal, pen-pushing, box-ticking litany the ambulance turned up after ‘only’ 20 minutes or so, staffed by two exhausted-looking young women (it was only mid-morning) who treated our old lady very kindly.

But the determination with which the woman answering emergency calls stuck to whatever was pinned to her clipboard was just so infuriatingly mindless, whatever her official rules of engagement might stipulate. It’s what has taken the place of efficiency in the health service in that post-developed dystopia.

The ambulance episode was all of a piece with our Health Service travails of late. Since September we’ve run the gamut from state-of-the-art intensive care to ramshackle local hospital where we had the impression that the whole truth was being studiously withheld in order to free up the badly needed bed being occupied by L’s stepfather. Obfuscation, plus lack of communication.

In his first meeting at the charmingly named discharge office, a lady informed L in no uncertain terms that stepfather was bedridden and doubly incontinent and needed round the clock nursing. But I’ve just bumped into him walking down a corridor chatting to people. Ah. More scrabbling about on the computer and yes, perhaps it’s more regular + Alzheimer’s residential care he needs.

Fine. Can you get him out asap? I’m doing my best.

L locates a friendly-looking home which sends the manager along to assess stepfather. Blood-out-of-stone style, she establishes that he has two MRSA superbug infections raging, which no one is doing anything about. Would the hospital really have been ok with releasing him in that state, to infect a whole nursing home? It seems so. What’s more, the small fall L had been told about was in fact one of four, which should be a red alert in a patient who has suffered major brain trauma. Has a CT scan been done? No.

It’s that heavy feeling of swimming though molasses, trying to establish which people do and don’t want you know which facts, for what end. Very distressing indeed.

So just as well there’s Chichester harbour to blow the confusion out of your brain. Each inlet is gorgeous in its own way, each coast-hugging path a treasure. Lazy herons and pecking egrets and the sound of lapping – unless you happen to get there at low tide for a scenario of endless mud. And thank goodness too for the stupendous yews of Kingley Vale, some of which are 2000 years old, making them some of the oldest living creatures in the UK. The walk though the wood there, en route to the top of the Downs beyond, sends shivers down my spine.

23 October 2022

The other day I came home to find L in the garden talking to an elderly man whom I see frequently up in town – not anyone I know, but someone who often stands chatting in huddles of other elderly men, some of whom I am acquainted with. And so I greet and smile at them all indiscriminately. It’s a CdP thing.

The man’s called Sergio. He’s in his Sunday best and he’s looking quite emotional. He was born in this house, he says, and coming back is very moving. I find myself wondering – you live in town: why haven’t you come down before? And also: another person born in this house? What was it? A maternity ward? But I brush these thoughts away because he’s recounting his childhood here.

Sergio is the nephew of Gigi. Gigi was the jovial spirit who would appear occasionally when we were restoring, and after we moved in, to check on progress and tell us tales. He’s 97 now and still in the land of the living, but confined to bed.

There were eight (more or less) inhabitants of this house when Sergio lived here, generations squashed together in three bedrooms plus a smoky kitchen, above the animals on the ground floor. There was Sergio’s disabled grandfather and his wife, the grandmother. There were uncle Gigi and his siblings including Sergio’s father who must have been considerably older than Gigi. And there were various children. Sergio’s a bit dodgy on the numbers, and on dates. But he gets the idea across.

That inexplicable door high up on the wall of the chicken house which faces our house? There used to be external stairs going up there. Most people would have used that space to stored fodder for their animals, but this family didn’t: they kept it in what is now our projection room. So much more practical, being right by the animals. What did he call it? The erberaio perhaps: something that didn’t sound quite right. He confirmed that the space beneath the big oven (now a bathroom) was where the rabbits lived. There were two cows in each of the other downstairs spaces he said. On the valley side, where my study is, there was barely room to squeeze around the house without tumbling down the precipitous bank.

When we showed him a photo of the four brick columns which used to stand, crooked and crumbling, up by the top carpark, Sergio said that was the chicken coop they built; Mario (whom we bought the house from), on the other hand, used to call it the aia – the threshing floor. Maybe its function changed through the years. Sergio lived here from his birth in 1938 to the sale of the property in 1963 or 1964. Mario remained until he had built his ugly dream house up the lane, and left this property to decay until we bought it in 2001.

Sergio was exempted from military service because he was a farmhand but also because he was a war orphan – not that his father was dead but his mother was. And here a story emerged which I’d never heard during all my years of collecting war reminiscences from old people in the area. Over there, he said, pointing towards the carpark. She had been to get water from the vaschetta below and she took a direct hit – a grenade, in the chest. He was struggling to catch his breath with the emotion.

It was 19 June 1944 – the feast of CdP’s patron saints Gervasio and Protasio and the day the German occupiers were driven out of the town by British and Allied troops. About 70 people died in the final battle, including Sergio’s mother. While he lingers on the details of a death spread over several days which have been haunting him since he was six, I’m wondering, uneasily: whose grenade?  

The property was put up for sale as sharecropping was dismantled and outlawed. Sergio talks warmly about the owners of this property, whose name I have failed miserably to remember. I want to say it sounded like ‘pertosse’ but that means whooping cough so I don’t think that’s very likely. (I went into my office just now, 100% certain I could put my hand on the 1960s sales deed, but all I came up with among old papers found in the house was a dusty deed for the purchase of some other house, up in town, with names which I’ve never seen connected with anyone who lived here.)

They were good padroni: thoughtful and caring, he said, though I wonder whether the older generations would have agreed. Gigi’s tales of glassless windows, of insects crawling up the walls from the cowsheds below, of no running water, of a power line being brought down here only after the accident which left Gigi’s father disabled all sprung to mind… though I should add that each of these items in the litany of extreme deprivation was mentioned by Gigi to prove how you could still be happy even when you had so little.

It was an extraordinary thing, mezzadria (sharecropping) and even more extraordinary that it continued, in all its medieval unfairness, until so recently. The system was not only feudal, it was quintessentially patriarchal. A landowner entered into a contract with a capofamiglia (family head) who committed not only himself (and it was, naturally, always himself) but his whole household to handing over half of anything produced to the landowner. For this the mezzadro and his family got to live in a (generally) crumbling, utility-less, isolated rural farmhouse and work a surrounding portion of land.

Landowners’ obbligations were few. In our case they provided a feeble 110v electricity line to a family of eight, but only because the capofamiglia was bedridden. Water was funnelled down a channel from the spring to the south of house. There were no bathrooms – indeed there were no bathrooms or running water even when we bought the house and that was in 2001… years after mezzadria was abolished.

With the harvests in and the yield divvied up, mezzadria contracts came up for renewal each year on the feast of St Martin (11 November). Sharecroppers who failed to live up to the landowner’s expectations could be unceremoniously turfed out of one property on the estate and moved to another, or given their marching orders. Nothing was fixed. Sharecroppers were only as safe as the yield they produced. There are places in Italy where fare San Martino (doing a St Martin) still means moving house or job.

Mezzadria contracts were made less profitable for landowners by a 1964 law which gave sitting farm workers some rights; new mezzadria contracts were not banned outright until 1974; existing mezzadria contracts were not dissolved until 1982 – just two years before we arrived in Italy. Many landowners saw the writing on the wall well before, however, and began dismantling their vast estates. A wave of cooperative bank financing helped sitting tenants buy their farms.

Sergio’s family was, he said, offered this property in 1964 for six million lire – an unthinkable figure for them, with or without low-interest loans. And so, after generations on this plot, the family packed their bags and did a San Martino. Just months later those owners – so kindly and generous – sold it to Mario’s family for a knock-down three million lire. The very real resentment clearly still rankled.

I keep thinking of Sergio’s mamma, and of artillery raining down on our peaceful home. It’s difficult to imagine. But then again I shouldn’t think Sergio and his family ever expected such horrors to descend on them. And neither did the peaceful country-dwellers (or anyone else for that matter) in Ukraine over the past eight months. Nothing is fixed.

Did I mention that last month, with 220mm, was the wettest September since my records began (2013)… though as an awful lot of that came in two biblical downpours it didn’t feel all that wet really. Since then we’ve had nights where temperatures rarely venture below 10°C (when I went to bed after midnight last night it was 17°C: a temperature fit for summer evenings); and days which are in general beautifully (though rather alarmingly) blue and balmy.

We used a couple of these to head for our first taste of sea after a land-locked summer. Early October can go very badly or very well indeed, and this was utterly splendid. We were glamping, our luxe tent ‘pitched’ (‘constructed’ might be more accurate) about 20m from the shoreline in Chiarone, on the southern Tuscan coast.

The tented resort was closing when we arrived: they kept it open an extra night for us which meant that we had it totally – and the beach mostly – to ourselves. L swam; the water wasn’t quite warm enough for me to wet anything above my knees. We rode bikes along the coast through the WWF reserve, spotting flamingos. We basked in glorious sunsets.

We also spent a less-than-idyllic day at Orbetello hospital – the latest in our collection of ‘Italian emergency rooms we know’. This was not a cycling accident, which is the usual reason for our A&E visits. But it was bike-connected in that something in L’s back had reacted badly to being shaken along dirt roads in the Eroica the previous weekend. The pain was along the left side of his chest, shooting down his left arm. Leaving nothing to chance, I insisted that a doctor look at it to be sure it was back- and not heart-related.

I was envisaging a shot of Voltaren. What we got was the full coronary protocol.

The procedure started out most impressively: within a very few minutes L had had a TC scan, an MRI and countless bloodtests. For a while I was perversely enjoying the sub-di-Chirico-esque hospitalscape. L was fine: nothing was irregular… except one blood test value which came back with an asterisk by it. And so began the saga.

More blood was drawn. Lee was placed in a corner of the emergency room, treated to a front-seat viewing of A&E practice which didn’t seem to include providing privacy for anyone at all. I lingered in the carpark, collaring every doctor, nurse and orderly who emerged from the emergency room entrance, all of whom assured me that L would be discharged any minute. Lunch time came. Still no L. Should I head back to the beach and return when he called? No no no, he would be no time at all.

Inside, L’s second blood sample was stuck. The testing equipment had broken down, the technicians had gone to lunch, the results were unclear and the test had to be repeated, the results were lost somewhere in the building. As this particular value had little bearing on the state of L’s heart, I can only think that the woman doctor who was keeping him prisoner was doing so because she enjoyed his company. After five hours he talked his way out of the place: she promised to text results when they came and he promised to take appropriate action if necessary. Her all-clear text arrived as we strolled on the beach, full of smiley faces and exclamation marks. It was only then that it dawned on us: the unshakeable coronary protocol had been followed so totally to the letter that no one had told L what was wrong with his back.

It’s a pretty accurate snapshot of central Italy’s health services: areas of immense efficiency and efficacy mixed with a little human bumbling and some blinkered box-ticking. Then again, thanks to unresolved back pain we’re now pretty sure that L’s heart is in very good shape.

For the first time in several years, we’ve picked our olives. Well, when I say “we” I mean “someone”. Each year the olive harvest gets earlier, each year we get lazier and/or busier. September’s rain – after our long hot summer and before late-summery weather returned – made the olives explode: from looking few and shriveled, suddenly they were dragging the branches down.

At about 2.30 one afternoon our neighbours called to say the van from the olive press was picking up the last of their crop at 4.30. Had we picked our olives? They’d take ours too and put them together with theirs.

Had we picked our olives? Of course we hadn’t. Nor did we have any intention of doing so. So I asked, half joking, if they wanted to send their team of pickers down to deal with our trees too (we only have five big old trees after all). They arrived, they spread their nets, they whizzed down the terraces with their quivering battery-powered fruit-dislodging machine, they took four overflowing plastic crates away. Our olives yielded about seven litres which will come to us eventually (it needs time for the impurities to settle) mixed with oil from the neighbours’ trees in our 25-litre drum. This morning they brought us a tiny bottle of cloudy green liquid, a foretaste of what would be coming our way. It’s grassy and tangy and peppery enough to make you catch your breath ever so slightly. Where olive oil is concerned, we’re ridiculously spoilt.