21 June 2022

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.

7 June 2022

There are days when you keep on learning surprising things. For example, a Ukrainian journalist asked to comment for the BBC World Service on her country’s football defeat at the hands of Wales noted that the beleaguered city of Donetsk was founded by the Welsh. That brought me up short as I chopped onions for dinner.

It’s not technically true, my research showed me. There was some kind of settlement quite a long time before John Hughes set up his coal mines and steel plant there in 1869. But this Welshman clearly made his mark because the place was rechristened Hughesovka (or Yuzovka, a Russian version thereof), a name that stuck until Soviet times.

That discovery followed hard on the heels of poison courgettes/zucchini. In an update on her micro vegetable production on her Athens terrace, C asked whether courgette plants which appeared spontaneously might be poisonous. I had no idea what she was talking about. At which point I discovered that the internet is full of people being amazed at the news that this very bland – but very versatile – veggie stalwart is far less dull than I thought.

It is possible, apparently, for very high levels of toxic cucurbitacin to accumulate in any member of the gourd family (courgettes but also cucumbers, melons, pumpkins etc) which has been accidentally cross-bred with a non-edible squash, and perhaps also in plants grown in severe-stress conditions. This toxin is thought to deter grazing animals from nibbling: it’s horribly bitter apparently, which is the sign to look out for if you’re starting to worry about what potential threats you may be raising in your vegetable garden beds.

Tales of ‘toxic squash syndrome’ abound: violent nausea, hair falling out, gastric upheavals, dizziness. There are rumours of fatalities, but I failed to find any hard and fast cases.

As for my poor zucchini seedlings for this year, they languished in my greenhouse, their little roots winding round and round and round the bottom of their tiny pots, for far longer than any plant deserves. Now that they’re in the ground, I creep up to the orto each evening to splosh extra water on them in a desperate attempt to assuage my guilt. As the season drags on I will no doubt find myself wondering why on earth they’re looking so lacklustre and producing such paltry fruit. Deep down, I know perfectly well.

With work building up in a very satisfying (but very time-consuming) fashion, I’m barely able to keep on top of my vegetable production, never mind the rest of my garden. My peas – planted too late – were such a disaster that I ripped them out, though the mangetouts are doing minimally better and so have been given a reprieve. In their fancy new growing medium the tomatoes are going crazy: if I don’t remove their laterals at least every second day, I have trouble making out which is the main vine and which offshoots are just going to mess up my neat rows.

At the risk of being very tedious indeed, I’m going to moan once again about the lack of rain. May: 7.6mm against my 2013-2021 average of 94mm. And yet and yet… when Giuseppe came round with his digger to tidy up the far end of the stream, and cut the grass on the banks, and fill in a large hole in the field (the result of his earlier work in which he dug a ditch, chucked unwanted vegetable matter in it and covered it over… knowing of course that as the biomass composted a depression would appear) and what have you, he too couldn’t quite reconcile the lack of rain with the unusually immense height of the grass in the fields. Giuseppe is the fount of all rural knowledge, so to see him nonplussed like this came as a shock.

Besides being dry, it is also hot. Like, very hot. When it doesn’t sail beyond 30° it hovers very little below it in the hottest hours of the day. In the first seven days of June 2021, daily maximum temps went from 24.3° to 28.5°; so far this June, on the other hand, we’ve ranged from 29.8° to 33.8°. And we – remember – are at just less than 500m above sea level: this is a nice cool area. It is truly worrying.

If I have to pinpoint a good thing about such heat so early in the season, it’s that we enjoy summer days but nights continue cool and the house really hasn’t heated up inside yet. The bad things – I mean, apart from the thought of the planet burning up – are manifold but one nags away at me particularly distressingly each time a darkish cloud moves across the sky. It’s difficult to imagine this hot&dry breaking in any way other than a cataclysmic storm, probably with hailstones the size of golf balls. In which case the rampant tomatoes and the swelling apricots would be mulched into the ground. When I’m not simply enjoying the glorious weather, I live in a state of dread.

We’re all out and all about and this return to things we always did naturally makes you notice things which before you took for granted. The mass academic-year-end shifting of school pupils of all ages and levels as they attend events and presentations and prize givings and whatnot in locations around town: I’m presuming that always went on though I can’t say I ever paid much attention before.

On one occasion I stepped off the pavement on corso Vannucci to make way for a long crocodile file of neatly-coiffed elementary school children, all in freshly pressed grembiuli (pinnies), all of them masked but clearly in festive mood nonetheless (yes: the two things are not mutually exclusive, even for 5/6/7 year olds). At the front of their line was a bright-eyed, dark-haired young teacher, urging on her charges with a smile while waving and greeting just about everyone who passed along the busy street.

Ma, come mai tutti la conoscono?” (How come everybody knows her?) gasped one little boy to his friend, clearly amazed that teachers have lives beyond the classroom. There was definitely a note of admiration in his voice.

A proposito di absolutely nothing, the third surprising thing I learnt in quick succession was the origin of the saying “living in cloud cuckoo land”. Am I the last mediumly well educated person in the world to discover that it comes from Aristophanes’ play The Birds? Νεφελοκοκκυγία – somehow that even looks cloud-cuckoo-like in Greek. Now I’ll have to read the crazy bird-brained play.

When the garden became a cinema…