8 March 2021

We’ve been travelling, which is a very strange thing to write. 

The journey to Berlin was virtual: L is an accredited journalist at the Berlin Film Festival so our screening room became a Berlinale venue a tutti gli effetti. L spent oodles more time there than me of course: he had films to review, just like the real thing. Except without moving, and with coffee/tea/good wine (delete as time-applicable) during screenings. The film-journo cameraderie was via Whatsapp. The line-up wasn’t bad but the best film prize was a let-down. 

Our other journey was to Venice, and it was real. Slightly surreal too, but definitely real. 

We were in that strange grey area of journalistic license. I had an article about the city that I had to write for The Telegraph. Did I really really really need to go? No. Will the end result be better for my having gone? I reckon. As I felt I should go – and I’d been offered rather splendid accommodation in extremely fine hotels – L too pitched a Venice story and had an article commissioned. 

For the whole of this weird stay-at-home year we’ve balked at the idea of playing the ‘have press card, will travel’ get-out-of-jail-free card. It makes any trips even tenuously work-connected legally possible – at which point (in our case at least) conscience kicks in and your home feels comfortably safe and you light the wood-burning stove and stay home. Similarly, I can travel for my garden-making work but I wriggled out of a January meeting in Rome with the client whose terrace I planted last November. And I have stood up another would-be client – again in Rome – who by this time must presume I’ve succumbed to something awful because I haven’t contacted her for many weeks. 

But Venice? Venice? Since the very beginning of all this, we’ve been longing to see the pandemic-paused city – desperate in its emptiness, glorious in its emptiness. 

As soon as we arrived we made our ritual trip to Dal Mas for coffee and cakes. It was bizarre, walking from piazzale Roma (we drove, to avoid scary ‘other people’ on trains), past the station, feeling loud and conspicuous because of our rattling wheely bags. We were the only people with them, in an area usually defined by them. 

The vaporetto trip to the hotel was moving, but also slightly chilling. There was our boat, and there was another moving in the opposite direction at one point. That was it: two vessels, mid-afternoon, on a Venice work day. Later, from our Grand Canal-facing window at the Gritti Palace, a gondola would occasionally slide into view, its oarsman taking passengers for a leisurely float up the empty canal – something unthinkable when the waterway is chaotic and the moto ondoso (wave swell) nausea-inducing.

When we were there at the end of February, the Veneto region was yellow. (It has since bounced back to orange, so our timing was good.) Yellow is a softly softly stage, where you can sit down and consume in restaurants and bars, though as they have to close at 6pm this means lunch, and anything up to distressingly early aperitivi. It’s a stage where residents feel they’ve earned the right to bustle about a little more, and that’s what Venetians were doing. 

Of course Venetians are always there, bustling. It’s just that in former times it was only those with a trained eye who could make them out among the throngs of slow-moving sight-seers. Now, they’ve been liberated and Venice feels like a real town – or as real as this unique place can seem.

There were some holiday-makers: oddly, negative-Covid-tested foreigners can enter Venice with no problems, whereas Italians from any region other than the Veneto are banned because no matter what colour band you’re in, you’re restricted to your own region. So there were the odd handfuls of French and northern European travellers, and – in the few museums and galleries that were open – surprising numbers of visitors, many of them local. (I fled Palazzo Grassi where there were far too many people at a Henri Cartier-Bresson show.)

We puttered across the lagoon to Torcello and were the only visitors, save for one man who had set up an easel by the cathedral. Emptiness pulls you in new directions. I have endless photos of the Ponte del Diavolo but had I ever crossed to the other side before? I really don’t think so. We walked along dirt tracks, past fields ready for sowing, along canals where I’d never thought to go before. It was all so beautifully rural and somehow lived-in, though in fact there were few human beings to be seen.

We went to Murano and ate at a restaurant, sitting in the sun along a canal with a friend. “The greatest gift that this pandemic has given us,” she said, “is the water” – after which I started observing the water closely. Previously, she explained, even on the quiet canal by her home, there had always been some movement in the water. Even in the very early morning, when she gets up to have an hour or so to herself before the family awakes, the moto ondoso, kicked up by never-ending boat traffic in the city, never quite stopped. Now the water is oil-like in its calmness. Reflections are deeper and richer. Waves start then finish, rather than rippling from one to the next endlessly.

We had lunch at Adriatic Mar – one of our favourite Venice bacari – with another friend, and discussed the situation with its cordial owner. This tiny place has been open through thick and thin, except for the darkest of times when everything was forced to shut. Why? “We have a high percentage of Venetians among our regular clientele.” Being part of the genuine fabric makes all the difference.

The big-label international designer shops along calle larga XXII Marzo are still open because they can afford to be, but shop staff behind the plate glass are lonely-looking conspicuously under-employed. I don’t think I saw a single customer. Some tourist knicknack shops are open – presumably because their owners have nothing else to do. Many restaurants and cafés are shuttered. In campo Santa Maria del Giglio the old man who stations himself and his easel alongside the main tourist route to sell brightly coloured Venetian paintings (which I suspect may have been pre-prepared somewhere in the far east) continued to do so for the days we were there. For passing locals he might have been invisible. I’d guess it was months since he’d sold anything at all.

Both the Gritti and the St Regis – the other hotel where we stayed – had opened for the mid-February St Valentine’s weekend. That weekend, staff there said, occupancy was 50%, since when it had dropped to 20% or below – more than they expected, much of it absolutely last-minute which makes life complicated and logistics difficult for five-star hotels on the Grand Canal which are used to dealing with near-full occupancy most of the time with very high staffing levels to guarantee lots of excessive pampering. I’m presuming many smaller hotels are holding out for the summer – if they manage to keep their heads above water until then. 

The article L will write will ask what kind of Venice will emerge when all of this is over. The truth is, I fear, that things will, eventually, go back to the dreadful overcrowded scenario, so unrespectful of this special place, that counted for normal before. There’s little political will to do the things which might change this: no incentives to entice people to live here to keep Venice real, nothing to make property owners favour renting to residents rather than making a quick buck out of tourists. Moreover, over the years the infrastructure of a real town has been whittled away. Even if residents drift back to redress the tourism/reality balance, where will their children be educated if schools have been sold off and converted into hotels? 

The Venetians (and adopted Venetians) we talked to seemed pretty resigned to a return to the status quo ante, however much they wished there were some alternative. Like the Amalfi Coast hotelier musing on his Positano last June they know that what is best is not what is economically viable. There’ll be a breathing space though. The crowds won’t return this year. They may not even return next year. But suddenly travel-deprived people will be wanting to make up for lost time. Poor Venice.

On the evening of 8 March last year, we went out to dinner, with friends, in a restaurant. I remember it well, because we’d forgotten it was international women’s day and were surprised to find that our table was the only one with men on it in the whole of the very jolly restaurant. It feels like light years ago. Even if I could, I’d probably turn down the chance of sitting inside a restaurant with friends now. I look at photos on news sites of crowds in city centres and think: “but why would they want to be with all those people?”

Every now and then you realise what you’ve metabolized over this weird year – what you now take for granted. In those early days of lockdown we were truly scared, especially here in Italy where Covid-19 struck early and hard. Not only were we terrified for ourselves, we were alarmed for everyone else: however much we tried to explain what was thundering down the track towards them, friends and acquaintances elsewhere seemed unable to take it in. The healthcare services were swept up in something they didn’t understand and didn’t have the wherewithal to cope with. It was a very bleak world indeed. 

When L sliced a piece of his finger off last March, taking him to the hospital was traumatic – not because of his accident (which was, of course, shocking) but because simply being at what felt like the epicentre of all-enveloping contagion shook me to the core. We were panic-stricken, petrified, gaping bleakly into the unknown. But what did we have here at that moment in time? Sixteen cases. Sixteen. Chicken feed.

Yesterday we did another dash – it’s becoming a regular March event – to our superb primo soccorso after L neatly removed the nail from his index finger. He did this with the circular bench saw, which I use with terror and trepidation. So all in all, paring off a fingernail was a lucky escape. He could, in an instant, have removed so much more. 

I was at the ricicleria when he called to suggest I come home immediately. The tip had been shut through a couple of weeks of rising case numbers; on this first weekend after its reopening, I had been sitting in a long long queue of junk-packed cars and had just one car in front of me. I swung out of the queue feeling quite disgruntled – though please don’t think me heartless: he hadn’t explained quite how much damage he’d done, or with what. 

As I was rushing home, CdP had 85 active cases – a number that, during that first wave, would have signified a tragedy of unthinkable dimensions. Nowadays, we’re just glad that CdP has climbed down from its high of… what was it? 121? Our movements are still curtailed: we’re not allowed beyond CdP city limits without good reason; we’re not meant to visit each other; bars and restaurants are still limited to takeaway. 

But all this feels perfectly normal now. Having to go to the hospital was an inconvenience, not a nightmare. We know what we’re up against; we know our chances; we know the precautions we need to take, and opting to take them or otherwise is a decision we make on the basis of ‘facts’ (though of course there’s a wide selection of fact and pseudo-fact available); we’re pretty sure that we’ll be taken care of adequately and we just cross our fingers and hope we don’t end up as a grim statistic. There are still people kicking hard against the situation but for the vast majority, a kind of acceptance and resignation has wormed its way into our lives and I really don’t think any vaccination (which, we are promised, will have been offered to all adults in Italy ‘by the end of summer’) or cure will rid us of it for a while.

In Australia (which reported just ten new cases in the whole country yesterday, a daily figure which we have on occasion beaten in CdP) the pandemic has slipped from dominating every news bulletin to being an item that pops up only if something really significant happens, my sister and brother-in-law have told me. People go out, unmasked. People have parties and eat in restaurants. It’s just like normal, they assure me. Except it isn’t. Do people shake hands or kiss when they bump into friends? Absolutely not. Can you travel around the country freely? Absolutely not. And all those desperate Australians still stuck far from home after a year who can’t get back into their own, shuttered-up country? And those people in Australia dying to get out? There are trappings of normality but really, it’s still very odd.

It occurred to me the other day: I haven’t seen a single robin this winter, which is extremely sad. Right at the beginning of the season there was a shy bird which fluttered between bushes when I was outside by the carpark and I thought it might be one of my robins. But now, it apears not (unless a passing cat ate it but birds are generally smarter than that). I’m not going to despair: it may just be yet another strange thing about this year. 

What I did see last week however, pecking away at the grass outside the south-side window in the living room, oblivious to my presence on the other side of the glass, was the most beautiful goldfinch. I have never knowingly seen one before. The bright gold bands along its wings made it easy enough to identify. Such a beautiful little thing. 

I’ve begun cleaning out winter debris from the vegetable garden, and planted a few nursery-bought lettuces in a bed. Above the ground, my garlic and aglione look like they’ve sailed through the extreme damp of December and January. Who knows what they look like below ground though. We’re eating a few broccoli calabresi and the cavolo nero is still producing. When did I pick my first asparagus last year? I can’t remember. I picked the vanguard spear today, before it went over. There are various tiny noses peaking through but I think it might take some rain before we get enough for a risotto. We’ve had no rain for three weeks. Today was meant to be the Big Soak but so far… nothing.

I’m dying for rain not only for the asparagus but because L bought me a natty weather station. It took forever to find a place on our steep tree-filled spot where I could place it with sufficiently few obstacles but near enough to the house for it to send its radio signal to the control centre inside. Of course now that I have it, it’s given up raining so I have no idea how accurate it is. Isn’t that typical…

23 January 2021

Città della Pieve

A chilly, shiny few days between grey and grey were sufficient to dry out the soil, to the point where I could start preparations for a spring which we were cajoled – briefly –into believing might soon be here. Hah! A sky so low you could almost touch it and windy gusts have now returned to put paid to that dream.

Those few days were my window for having a go at the asparagus patch. Which had become a couch grass patch. Gingerly, gingerly I tried to prize out the worst of the gramigna root entanglement without damaging the precious underground web of asparagus. Slightly worryingly, my proddings hardly disturbed a single recognisable bit of the roots I wanted. Never fear, I told myself: they’ve just gone deeper. I hope I’m right. Much back breaking weeding; a generous layer of compost on top to revive the poor things which (up to now) have always produced heartily despite being in the kind of heavy clay-y soil which they should loathe: I just hope we get the usual abundance.  

That’s about all I’ve found time for in the garden, save a little half-hearted fruit tree pruning – both because it’s needed of course, and in order to replenish the kindling. I find it inexplicably difficult at this time of year – especially after such a long, damp hiatus – to propel myself back outside: the gardening reflex muscle seizes up very quickly. But when I do finally get down to things, being out in the open air on a sunshiny day feels quite exotic. Best of all, it gives me a chance to experience at first hand quite how long our days have become, compared to back on the other side of Christmas. Now that really does hold out a promise of spring.

We’re back under Orange Zone rules in Umbria and life is so circumscribed that finding much to write about is hard work. Our own personal rut is, of course, a special one – surrounded by beauty, feeling safe, able to move about our tiny world quite freely, being together with plenty to keep us busy, work-wise. But still, when the sky is grey and drizzle is streaming down the windows it’s easy to wonder whether this half-life will ever end. 

Before we slipped back from Yellow to Orange, we thought we’d do something wild, and walked up to town to have lunch in a restaurant. A real restaurant, where you can sit at a table and order and be served. We thought there’d be few people about on a Friday lunch time. We thought we could slip in and out without succumbing to people panic. In fact, by the time we’d eaten a plate of pasta the place was as full as widely spread tables would allow, and we couldn’t wait to get out. People indoors are terrifying. I wonder how long it will be before we’re able to sit inside again without constantly glancing about to evaluate our chances of coming away uncontaminated. 

I say we feel safe here, and really we do. Dog-walking friends report gaggles of maskless teenagers congregating in wooded areas where they’re unlikely to be seen by authorities, but I can’t remember the last time I saw an uncovered face in town, and distances are definitely kept. That said, there are far too many cases around for a place of fewer than 8000 souls: positives climbed to 39 yesterday if you accept our council’s figures, or 50 if you’re going with the Umbria regional dashboard which, however, chalks up every positive case officially registered as resident in CdP as opposed to the people who are actually domiciled here, which is a very different thing. 

Our cases – one centro-dwelling friend pointed out slightly dimissively – are mostly in outlying villages which are part of the CdP comune area. And they’re mostly – again, if you take the council’s tally as gospel – more or less symptom-free. Sitting in that restaurant the numbers came back to haunt me. Perhaps that safe feeling is self-delusion.

The other day I misplaced an uncle, and as a result did some serious musing on the oh-so-many old and lonely people whose lives are always solitary but who at this strange juncture truly are lost souls, and in danger. 

I called my crotchety old uncle in the UK to wish him a happy 91st birthday. No answer. I tried again over a couple of days. No answer. I recalled he used to play bowls: Google provided me with an ancient photo of him presenting a cup to someone in a competition so I contacted his bowls club where a kindly member asked around. No one had seen my uncle for months (“you know, lockdowns and all that”) but several people tried calling: no answer.

So I called the police. 

He’s a stand-offish, argumentative type my uncle. I wasn’t surprised when an appeal for information I put on our on-line family tree produced no feedback. His wife died a couple of years ago and they had no children. I hadn’t talked to him for months.

The 24 hours I waited for the police to get back to me gave my imagination ample time to range over the possible scenarios beyond his front door. None of them were pretty; all of them focused my mind on how easy it is for people with no one to fall through the cracks.

In the end, the police tracked him down to a local residential care home where he’d been taken by social services – frail, confused and with “loneliness issues”. By the time I talked to him he sounded rather jolly.

I like to think that nothing like that could happen in this small town where most people are related to each other at least distantly, and where the elderly (and not so elderly) make it their business to know everything about everyone else. Then I think of all those old people living in 19th-century conditions in tumbledown farmhouses that we never even see, or the odd or grumpy or widowed or simply withdrawn ones who, under the cover of Covid, have edged backwards into their cocoons, telling themselves they don’t need anybody anyway. Their days must be endlessly long and full of dreadful thoughts. These are terrible times for the lonely.

A friend called to ask if we had a large piece of board she could do a huge jigsaw puzzle on. Instead of just pulling out an appropriately sized bit, L pulled everything out of the shed… then remembered a pressing deadline and left me to sift, throw out and put back. I wasn’t best pleased.

We’re not talking interesting junk here: these were inexplicably stashed away offcuts of wood, the rest of which became shelves and cupboards. Many of them had insects munching through them. It was difficult to imagine how we thought most of it could ever be useful. 

The one thing that made it (almost) worthwhile was the doors I didn’t know we’d kept: the front doors of the house we fell instantly in love with in 2001 – the house that chose us to make our home here. No insects in that tough old wood, and they look no more battered than the day we removed them. I’m glad we kept those.