18 May 2022

Last weekend I shifted two cubic metres of growing medium. About three tonnes. By hand. Well, I mean by wheelbarrow but it had to be shovelled off the heap and into the wheelbarrow by hand, so I guess that counts.

It was a key stage in one of those exploits that you begin optimistically and very soon – when it’s just too late to turn back – think “why?!”

The soil in my vegetable garden has been a problem from the start. On one side it’s fine: not great, but fine. There’s rather more clay than I’d like, which of course means it tends towards glue (wet) or concrete (dry) but my additions of compost and mulch and various other healthy improvers over the years has turned it into something more or less workable. On the other side, every attempt to make it feasible has failed miserably. The plants that grow there do so grudgingly; the vegetables they produce are decidedly unimpressive.

And so I had the brilliant idea of (1) removing 30-40cm in the strips where I plant then (2) bringing in some really good soil to start all over again. What could possibly go wrong? Hah!

I spent weeks trying to find someone willing to remove the heavy, stony, intractable soil. When I did – and when they realised what they’d let themselves in for – they made their misery very obvious. I was busy. I went out. By the time I came back and they had disappeared, I realised that they’d more or less followed my instructions as they started out, only to lose interest/energy/the will to live as they moved along the row, digging out ever-narrower trenches which certainly didn’t correspond to the irrigation pipes which mark the planting areas. (They also chucked the unwanted soil in a very inconvenient place, but that’s another story.) Also, inexplicably, they dug even deeper than the generous depth which I’d suggested to them.

L named the resulting holes the Shallow Graves, and he had a point. They were more sinister criminal burial ground than intriguing Etruscan tomb. He said until I filled them in, he’d be behaving himself and watching his step.

Until I filled them in. Again: hah! These spaces were far too big for stuff in plastic bags. And anyway, I don’t like plastic bags and I don’t trust that stuff, even when it’s clearly marked “100% organic”. I asked garden contractor contacts but no one had much of an idea. Were they protecting their sources or did they really not know where to go? And anyway, would I have believed that the soil was truly free of chemical additives?

In the greenhouse my tomato seedlings were bursting out of their little pots, and still the Shallow Graves yawned. I really hadn’t thought this through.

Next idea: ask Giuseppe. This digger-wizard and staunch defender of the countryside can fix just about any problem: he’ll do it absolutely organically but he’ll do it in the most roundabout way possible. Through several days of back-and-forth we debated what I needed, while he told dark tales of how almost every soil supplier in the world was part of a great conspiracy to pass off polluted earth as clean dirt.  We even schlepped far away up hills and into the woods to visit friends of mine with a biomass/biogas plant on their property but for Giuseppe, using the waste products of this was definitely not going to work.

It took a visit to Giuseppe’s house (ostensibly to try his home-made balsamic vinegar, which passes through a series of ever-smaller wooden kegs over many years until the concentrated syrup can be drawn off from the tiniest of barrels) for him to admit that actually, he had exactly what I needed sitting outside his back door: his own rich mix of pozzolana (volcanic soil) and sawdust and manure and composted wood chips and other secret ingredients. Would he sell me some? He named his price: horribly expensive, he said. I pointed out that buying dubious stuff in plastic would have cost me more than twice as much. Impossible to get it to me: his new truck is too big to pass under the overhanging branches down our bumpy track. I called a builder with a suitably sized pickup.

And so my two cubic metres of growing medium was dumped outside the orto gate – just as L boarded a train to take him away for two weeks. And so the solitary shovelling fell to me. It must have done something for my muscle tone. And hopefully it will do even more good to my tomatoes, which are now burying their eager roots into clay-less, stone-less, ideal dirt.

So far this year has been one of anomalies and oddnesses. Rain? What’s that? Following hard on our dry, dry winter came a dry, dry spring. Every single month so far has pushed my averages down. Things should, you’d think, be suffering – and I’m sure that at some level they are – but they’re looking magnificently lush all the same and the fruit… oh the fruit! After last year’s 100% fruitless disaster, this year is just full of tiny promise getting larger by the day. We even have scores of incipient apricots on the two new little trees over beyond the chicken house. Apricots have always eluded me: will these trees turn my fortunes around?

That same late-frost disaster that did for my fruit last year also took out my wisteria. This year made up for it though. Now, as the spent blossom detaches itself from overwhelming cascades, it looks like it has been snowing outside the kitchen.

I have just gathered what I’ve decided is going to be my last bunch of asparagus and turned it into soup, to draw out the pleasure: as I’m home by myself at the moment the potful should last several meals. I’m eating artichokes and what remains of last winter’s chard and beet, and I’m watching anxiously as my pea plants creep up their wiggly sticks and produce promising flowers.

But the peas that are really threatening to take over the vegetable garden are not comestible: they’re sweet. How long have I been trying to make sweet peas grow in my garden? It’s a flower I adore, perhaps because it smells of my mother, who loved them. It’s only now that I’ve completely abandoned the uneven struggle, that they’ve decided this is their perfect natural habitat. Up they come quite spontaneously and in delightful abundance, swamping chard and spilling over the narrow paths. You can smell them from way down the drive.

May 1 brought an end to all kinds of Covid restrictions… and brought Covid right to my door. Not the door of our house, but to Pieve Suites: first, to the female half of a charming American couple who quite inexplicably caught it from friends they were travelling with (not staying with me) and failed to pass it on to her husband (in her presence 24 hours a day); then to the female half of a lovely Dutch couple who were frequent pre-Covid visitors to CdP and whose post-Covid return to our town marked a small victory for us all.

In the former case I had other guests arriving on her scheduled departure so really couldn’t extend her stay and welcome newcomers to a leper-house: she, with her friends, found a villa outside of town to rent and holed up there in glorious rural isolation until they were declared fit to fly home. In the latter, a local pharmacist offered very sound advice (once she had ascertained they were driving home, alone, in their own vehicle): “I haven’t seen you,” she said, “and you haven’t done a test. Get in your car and drive, and don’t stop until you reach your destination.” Which is what they did the very next morning.

It’s funny – and probably telling – that I never had to deal with a Covid emergency all the way through two years of pandemic. Only now, as we edge towards some kind of normal, are things hotting up.

As requirements fall away, oldish habits haven’t really been dying in our little town: on the whole most people seem to have some kind of face covering somewhere about their person, if only hanging from their wrists. On shop windows there are still signs kindly asking clients to cover up, and a vast majority of them still do.

On a warm day when I hadn’t stopped for lunch and decided that ice cream was probably a sufficiently balanced substitute for real food I stopped off in our gelateria and queued behind a father with his son, who must have been about six or seven. Both were masked. At a certain point the girl behind the counter handed the little boy a wafer. Quite spontaneously he stepped outside the door (casting a withering look towards his anxious father who was yelling “come back in here, don’t go outside”), removed his mask, ate his wafer, replaced his mask and returned inside the shop.

The mask-averse might flag this up as a sign of the worst kind of brainwashing. I see it as an example of how even small children can be taught that simple gestures aimed at keeping the collettività safe really aren’t anything to get hot under the collar about – requirements or no requirements.

25 April 2022

I’m working on a project just outside CdP. It’s an unusual one for me, because I’m coordinating works inside the house, after which I will hopefully progress to the garden. The other day I turned up and there wasn’t much in the way of works going on at all, so I called the delightful head builder to find out why.

The reason, he said, was desperate lack of staff. He was rather proud that it wasn’t Covid which had laid them all low. One of his men had blood pressure of 200/120: he was keen to get back on site but (wisely) no one thought that was particularly advisable. Another is a wine buff and had taken time off to go to Vinitaly – which is a brilliantly Italian-builder reason for absenting yourself from work.

There are few things I love more than a building site. Gardens, and garden-building sites, probably top my natural habitat list but a busy complex dusty challenging building site – my own or someone else’s – comes close behind, and is pure joy to me.

I love the tearing down and the immense potential, the dovetailing of manual tasks and technologies, the mesmerising edge where practical knowhow and engineering theory meet and make magic: it’s the grown-up version of my beloved childhood Lego… and then you can live in it.

I have little experience of building sites elsewhere but I strongly suspect many are not nearly such fun as Italian ones, especially those in a rural area full of stone houses of indeterminate date. The same traditions which went into construction through the ages is needed to turn those crumbling piles back into liveable spaces: I’m constantly made aware that these masons could slot themselves effortlessly into any century they like. But ancient skills blend with the sharpest edges of modernity too. It’s just brilliant.

Also brilliant is the ambience and chitchat – banter, methodological debate, repartee, philosophical ponderings, gossip, musings on the state of the world. When I meet with the plumber and the electrician and the joiner and the head builder these days, global supply chain issues are bound to come up: materials which six months ago arrived on site from one day to the next may now take weeks or even months, and cost 25% more than last time you needed them. Italy’s totally unwieldy but superb superbonus scheme (George Monbiot raves about it here) has, inevitably, aggravated an international problem by pushing domestic demand up dramatically.

The other day’s delays+costs conversation drifted sideways into packaging. I mean, when things do turn up, they turn up wrapped. The electrician bemoaned tiny lighting components arriving in huge boxes filled with protective stuffing. The plumber is fed up with bubble wrap.

The words “bubble wrap” set off a strange reaction of mutual recognition and indulgent smiles, and a strong sense that everyone knew what everyone else with thinking about.

I’ve written about Fratelli Binaglia before. It’s a massive hangar of a place down in the retail park in Po’ Bandino where lugubrious men – the eponymous Binaglia brothers –  pick slowly through the kilometres of shelves, and eventually come up with the piece of ironmongery that you have always needed but have never been able to find. These brothers, it seems, also have an aversion to bubble wrap but rather than chuck it they recycle it – at least the long strips of the ghastly stuff with larger air pockets. As customers purchase screws, nails and washers, they snip off individual pockets just below a seal, slide the bits and bobs into the open end and close the packet with a tiny bit of sticky tape. The mention of this set the building site team into gales of affectionate laughter.

Perhaps the best thing of all about the various building sites I find myself involved in is the humanity of it all. If a client is willing to be drawn into the process, to be fascinated by the whys and wherefores and to become a willing, participating part of the crew that’s pulling the project together, it’s just so rewarding. When I hear property owners (mostly, but not only, non-Italians) complaining about shiftiness, fecklessness, unreliability and even dishonesty in Italy’s building sector, I have to wonder: where oh where did you go so wrong?

I’m not completely naive. I know that operators of this ilk can be found on Italian building sites, just as they can be anywhere in the world. I also know that I am in the enviable position of having worked with just about everyone in this neck of the woods and being able, on the whole, to collaborate with the kindest and IMO best (not that there are many whom I would discard, I have to say). If I can inveigle my clients into immersing themselves into and enjoying their projects as much as I do, I feel I’ve done something good.

This article in the New York Times really made my heart sing when I spotted it last week. The nerdy pleasure I take in my Personal Weather Station reached its climax, I think, when I realised that it had registered the pressure wave from last January’s massive volcanic eruption in Tonga. And here’s the NYT extolling PWSs the world over for their contribution to monitoring a once-in-a-century shockwave. I’m proud to have been a part.

So many things are pointing to some kind of return to normality. At Pieve Suites I have bookings spread over the next few months, from visitors who are arriving from abroad. After two years of crazy last-minute August-only pile-ons, mainly involving Italians, this is a very welcome development.

Our Palio will be held for the first time since 2019; our Infiorata too. The traditional Easter market – for which the weather, uncharacteristically, was mostly fair – was a heaving mass of humanity. The town council is claiming market visitor numbers were up 80% over 2019, the last pre-Covid edition of the event. Is this realistic? Sure, there were lots of people there but that seems a little wild to me.

In fact, without wishing to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I’m seeing all kinds of fancy footwork where official statistics are concerned. Why, for example, did the Umbria region stop updating its town-by-town case data on 31 March? And why does our mayor’s weekly FB address to the populace now contain simply generic “numbers are plunging” statements, rather than any real information about what on earth is going? Because the town council can claim victory over Covid as much as it likes, but that’s not what I’m seeing all around me. As far as I can tell, people are dropping like flies.

Collective paranoia is shifting towards collective turning-a-blind-eye. Of course we well vaxxed people are unlikely (touch wood) to get much in the way of symptoms. But I still don’t want to have it. Being in the Golden Circle of the unscathed is rather comforting. It’s widely expected that all kind of Green Pass and mask mandate rules will be lifted from 1 May, and I’m filled with trepidation.

We went to Florence to see the Donatello exhibition which was wonderful and moving in the Palazzo Strozzi bit, and bewildering in the Bargello bit where it was kind of difficult to work out what/where the exhibits were, and even the many Donatello pieces always housed there were inadequately labelled and signposted. Hey ho.

We all know of his mastery of ultra-bas reliefs but when you get up close to them, in the flesh (or marble, or bronze, or terracotta) they are truly wondrous – the Pazzi Madonna and the Christ supported by Angels in Palazzo Strozzi, the Dudley Madonna in the Bargello.

Florence, too, was a leap back to a pre-Covid era, with centro storico crowds which had us hankering for the past two years of sneaky visits to echoing ghost towns. In piazza della Signoria we risked losing chunks of scalp to people with selfie sticks. Selfie sticks – why would anyone bother to blow the dust off them?

But the return of the hordes has brought new threats as this article explains. So far, drones have ‘only’ hit precious monuments. What happens when they start plummetting on to people too?

I can’t help thinking that the kind of person who brings their drone-toy on hols is someone who needs the grown-up equivalent of video games to shut junior up and give parents a quiet moment to savour an experience; that fiddling with a buzzy thing takes unenquiring minds off the fact that they don’t understand what they’re doing on holiday in a place which they’re not really interested in anyway. But maybe I’m being unfair.