30 September 2022

I always argue that if your garden is making you miserable, you’re doing something wrong. It’s messy? It’s overgrown? It’s just not how you want it? No worries! (Almost) everything can be rectified with time and patience. In the mean time calm down and enjoy it… you’re probably the only person who notices the displeasing disorder anyway.

But driving down our lane after an unexpected eight days in the UK, which followed on the heels of an intense work period coupled with rainy weekends that meant my garden had remained totally untouched for several weeks, I have to admit that even my heart sank. When I find that the knee-high weeds scraping the car’s undercarriage as I make my way down the drive occupy my mind far more than the glorious tangle of late-summer blooms in the garden beds, I really start to worry.

Tangled blooms

Long ago in a Sunday supplement in a UK paper I skimmed through an article in which some supposedly not-appearance-obsessed journo was sent on a series of beauty treatments, most of which she declared very nice thank you but she wouldn’t be bothering with most of them ever again. (I remember this because the accompanying before-and-after photos suggested that perhaps she took more care of herself habitually than the article let on.) Asked if there was one treatment which had made her feel instantly more elegant she replied “the eyebrow tweak”: it made her face seem looked-after by drawing attention away from the neglect elsewhere.

So, I ask myself, what’s the garden eyebrow-tweak equivalent? For me, it is lawns. Ok, on this particular occasion I began with a quick sweep down the drive with the strimmer (weedwhacker). That removed the main angst catalyst. But it was only when I found a couple of hours before the weekend downpours to whizz around the lawns with my trusty mower that the whole place took on a finely curated look. The flower beds are full of weeds? But look at those lawns! (Though please don’t look too closely at those lawns which are in fact weedy collections of rough field grass hacked into a semblance of sward.) There’s harmony and unity and a definite (though utterly deceptive) air of things being minutely cared for.

Autumn is here. Gosh, is autumn here. Not the colours as yet: we’ll have to wait a bit for those. But the meteorological conditions, certainly. I returned from the UK last week to skies of limpid blue and temps rising to a lovely mid-20s during the day. But it was that kind of weather when you can easily be tricked into venturing out into the nippy morning in clothes sufficiently heavy to leave you sweating through the middle of the day, until the cool of evening brings relief. It’s all very confusing.

I received a full blast of “non ci sono più le mezze stagioni” (we no longer have mid-seasons) taxi-driver wisdom the whole way from Chiusi station up to CdP on my return. But both this temperature range and my wardrobe tell me otherwise. If this isn’t mid-season, what is? I have clothes for heat. And I have clothes for cold. During these weeks in between I’m often to be found, floored, peering into my wardrobe in mild despair. I simply have nothing to wear.

The clear blue crisp that the tramontana (north) wind sweeps in has now given way to something sticky and southerly: there’s rain in abundance, which kind of makes you forget that it’s relatively warm out there. Also, it makes the drawing-in evenings seem even shorter – something that fills me with dread. Winter is around the corner. My panic mounts.

A welcome intruder

Last Sunday morning we voted – for all the good it did (though CdP voted left… just). We’ve voted in local and European elections, which was possible as Brits before the UK committed Brexit-harikiri. But it wasn’t enough for us, especially as our right to vote in the UK had been withdrawn after 15 years out of the country. It was this disenfranchisement which prompted us to submit our Italian citizenship requests: at the time Brexit wasn’t even on the cards. The timing was, however, fortuitous: round about the period we might have been applying were we Brexit-driven was when requirements were toughened and timescales extended hugely by the execrable Legge Salvini.

So this was the first time since becoming Italian citizens (me in 2018, L in 2019) that we’d had a say in who runs the country. It was really quite moving.

The scene was very jolly, like a Sunday morning in CdP’s cafés, transported to the corridors of a local high school. The boy from the Old Man Bar was checking ID and handing out ballot sheets. About a third of people in the queue to vote were friends or acquaintances: there was much banter and analysis though not really of the political situation – it seemed a bit late for that.

Outside in the carkpark representatives of the factions were standing in little huddles, keeping an eye on the proceedings, in a “why am I doing this?” kind of way. Carabinieri had donned their special-occasion uniforms and were striding about importantly, without giving the least hint that they thought they would really be needed.

As lunchtime approached (I was across the road, filling my bottles with sparkling water from the town water dispenser by this time) they all dispersed: clearly the call had arrived to say the pasta was about to be tipped into the pot. You have to have priorities.

And the UK? Oh, what a sad place! We were there for a family emergency, just as the royal family were living out their family loss. This meant nothing to us. I suspected, too, that it didn’t mean all that much – or at least not nearly as much as the media would like to make out – to many many people. In central Chichester, the tributes to Her late Majesty seemed to consist mainly of a few limp bunches of supermarket flowers on the steps of the Market Cross. Plus a general feeling that another day’s holiday is always welcome. Or perhaps I’m reading my own feelings into things.

Anyway it impinged not a whit on our consciences as we juggled family stuff and cleaning out an elderly relative’s unspeakably dirty house. To cope with the strain L came up with one of his Great Ideas: a very particular place to stay.

A pair of swans sailed up to welcome us to this tiny sleeping quarters on a floating platform among the yachts in Thorney Island. (Then they left in disgust and never reappeared once they realised we had no intention of sharing our food with them.) There were some yachty types coming and going, and dozens of walkers in the distance, stomping along the path which goes all around the military base which occupies most of the so-called island (it’s a peninsula really).

From our little wooden deck we watched as the tide rose then fell to expose endless mud, all tinted by sunsets and moon rises, and disturbed by busy sea birds.

12 December 2021

As Christmas bears down on us there’s a sense of things condensing, overlapping and getting completely out of hand. 

We’ve already had our first respectable dump of snow (snow? in November?!) The splendid leaves of this magnificent autumn are clinging on gamely: it was disorientating seeing snow blanketing russets and ochres rather than balancing along the bare branches of our predominantly deciduous natives. Driving along the Pievaiola towards Perugia on that snowy Monday morning, white powder fell from great amber oaks forming an arch across the road. So very beautiful.

Even unseasonable snow and the endless dripping damp of November (we were only not-quite-back to our monthly rain average finally, but it felt like a veritable deluge after so many dry months) were preferable to the quick trip to the UK which we inserted mid-month. My last trip there was in December 2018. I can’t say I was missing it. Neither am I in a rush to return… ever.

Autumn shades were lingering prettily in Chichester too – and here ends my positive take on the country. 

A shift back in the general direction of caution has been ordered from the top now, apparently, but when we were there – in West Sussex, with one of the country’s worst daily case rates – the whole town was a heaving mass of unmasked people piling, coughing, into shops and public spaces of all kinds. 

There seemed to be no awareness – or no desire to give any thought to – the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away, nor any kind of consideration for general well-being. How I longed for the taken-for-granted common sense of my Umbrian town! I spent a week with my FFP3 mask firmly on; but even this didn’t quell my mounting terror that I might catch something and not be allowed on the plane home. My negative pre-flight test result was sheer elation.

Apart from the general lack of any care for the commonweal, other English oddnesses struck me – the disengaged, infrequent visitor and not-so-objective observer. 

The food shops, to begin with. We paid an initial visit to a huge supermarket on the edge of town, which was recognisable and relatable to, as a place to go to buy stuff for the preparation of meals. Yes – as reported in the press – there really were big gaps on the fresh food shelves during our late-afternoon shop: plenty of onions and carrots and those veg which could, possibly, be grown in the UK but a distinct lack of many more ‘exotic’ greens. 

In the city-centre supermarkets, on the other hand, what was on the shelves was as baffling as it was uninviting. There was a distinct lack of ingredients – plenty of “food”, little raw material. The quantity of ultra-processed, oven-ready everything was shocking. 

I’ve mused on this before (“eat proper food” being my favourite mantra). 

The chart I reproduced in that post is from a 2018 report. It lamented the fact that ultra-processed food had climbed above 50 percent of everything consumed in the UK. Take a look around any smallish city-centre store in that neck of the woods and you might wonder what they use to produce the almost 50 percent of non-processed food: there’s not a lot of the genuine thing.  

Next up: business models. I went into Boots to buy some foundation. “It’s three items for the price of two,” says the very kind, very over-made-up girl serving me. Why not? I select a couple of lipsticks but as I’m examining the colours she creeps up on me and shoves a ‘£10 off’ voucher into my hand. “Use this too,” she says, encouragingly. Great.

So I have one item that I really wanted which cost (I’m ad-libbing here: I can’t remember the prices) £10 and another two which I kind-of wanted which also each cost £10. All of which together cost… £10. Brilliant. But what am I to think? That the ‘real’ prices are simply a rip-off? That everything should be reduced by two-thirds so that they can save on the cost of printing ‘3 for the price of 2’ posters and ‘£10 off!’ leaflets? Or do they want me to feel in their debt somehow, eternally coming back to enjoy their largesse while actually giving them quite a bit of my money? I just don’t get it.

I feel safer with my simpler, less generous but more straightforward Italian retail arrangement. I remember being… disturbed? amused? by the relationship between vendors and purchasers when we first moved to Rome in the early 1980s. The power still lay firmly in the hands of the shopkeeper. You had the distinct feeling that the days when the grocer agreeing – or not – to a credit arrangement meant the difference between the family eating or starving were not nearly long enough ago for comfort. The shopkeeper called the shots; you kept your head down and accepted the conditions.

It has changed of course. Chains have replaced the individual corner shop, and competition between them gives the purchaser the upper hand. In that, Italy is no different from the rest of the developed world. But with variations. Italy is so (mercifully) atrocious at international-impersonal. Little supermarkets in small towns like ours tend to be family-run franchises of major national labels, managed by locals. Even at the Lidl down in the valley, shoppers greet the people on the cash desks by name. Fresh foods and the lower end of processing (pasta, coffee, bottled pulses) are everywhere; ready meals are banished to dark corners.

Other UK oddities? It struck me that the same kind of people who will stare resolutely at their shoes, ignoring your existence as they walk through town parks will greet you openly as they stride past you on a country footpath. Why? 

That same urban recalcitrance seemed to have gripped the man in a Chichester market stall selling a range of fat olives from big vats. He grunted when I stopped at his stall to examine the goods, and was clearly not about to offer any assistance. Can I mix them? I asked, switching to Italian. No surprise, no inquisitiveness – but the bolshy uncommunicativeness gave way to all the description I needed in some kind of southern Italian accent, the perfect clipped but informative Italian shopkeeper. 

There are various household items which have never worked for us – destined to fail from the word go. Salt was long a problem: every grinder we had swiftly rusted; every salt cellar silted up irrevocably. Now we’ve resorted to a big, canteen-style tin one. It seems ­– fingers crossed – to work.

Dishwashers, on the other hand, are a never-ending saga which shows no sign of ending. I’ve lost count of how many dishwashers we’ve had since we moved in here: five? six? Boh. It might be because they seize up due to under-use: more often than not, when there are just two of us (and there usually are), we wash up by hand. 

But all this is immaterial. What I really wanted to say was: when did repair men lose touch with spanners? In my most recent attempt to rescue the dishwasher, which was groaning to a halt about a quarter through the cycle, two men of few words turned up, pulled the machine out of its nook into the middle of the kitchen floor and stood looking at it. I described what it did and didn’t do. They shuffled about, one of them poking it a little.

They suggested pouring a barrage of toxic chemicals through it, at intervals. They had the chemicals in their van: they were expensive but they might do the trick. But that will destroy the delicate equilibrium in my perfectly balanced septic tank, right? I asked them. Yes, they agreed. Then no, I said. What now?

They wiggled assorted pipes in lacksadaisical fashion and advised running it empty a few times. Great. And that will be €50 please. Fine. They left and I began running the dishwater. A long slow snake of water made its way across the floor from beneath. Out of the frying pan. 

Thinking about the €50 tecnici it occurred to me: no tool bags, no tools. Clearly no intention of actually getting their hands dirty repairing the machine. 

There are fields where I revel in Italy’s wealth of craftsmen standing by to resolve any problem: the smiths and plumbers and artisan builders who’ll stick things back together for you at the drop of a hat. The moment anything approaching hi-tech is involved, forget it. My pre-call-out detaching of pipes and blowing down them was far more technical than anything those men did.

There’s nothing technical about a tecnico any more: he’ll sell you stuff; sometimes (but not this time) he’ll try to connect the machine’s motherboard to HQ for diagnosis which works solely on a cellphone signal which of course we don’t have in our secluded valley; or he’ll make wild theoretical stabs at things which might do something… anything. But he won’t, ever, unscrew bits and try to see what’s wrong.

Discarding and replacing is so massively taken for granted in our modern lives, it drives me to distraction. I’m going to start waving my flag for the Right to Repair movement. Fancy actually having to fight for the right not to have to chuck your electrical or electronic goods the moment they’re a trifle ropey. The EU is planning to put an end to built-in-obsolescence on its statute books some time next year. But will a generation of tecnici with spanners come to our aid?

This morning I had my third Covid jab. The latest omicron variant is pushing numbers up in Italy… though even as this country bursts through the 20K new cases a day barrier we can still smugly observe the UK with its almost-60K burden. (Fingers crossed that I don’t have to eat my words any time soon.)

The rules have been tightened slightly: interiors of bars and restaurants are only open to those who have been jabbed – repeat testing is no longer good enough. At the Caffè Matucci the other morning a woman ordering at the counter was complaining loudly about not being able to sit inside. “She does it every day,” the girl behind the bar told me. “She just wants to make a point. Then she sits outside.”

At some point, though, someone’s going to have to redefine ‘outside’. I mean, the thigh-height Corten planters defining the Matucci’s  ‘dehors‘ now have head-height perspex screens extending upwards. Huge white umbrellas cover the whole area and patio burners keep everything warm. For the latest in comfort, I see they’ve soldered a door to the planters on either side of the entry-gap. With icy winds and temps rarely going into double figures, it makes the outside more amenable to those unable or unwilling to go inside. But at what point does it stop being ‘outside’?

And moreover, how serious is this winter wave going to be? I asked myself this question as I gaily dismissed yet another request for a Pieve Suites New Year booking this afternoon. I’m completely full from 30th to 5th: it feels like old times. But… will regions be closed down if the situation gets out of hand? Will the bevvy of children who form part of the second party of guests fall prey to the contagion which is ripping through the youngest demographics? Will this bounce-back turn out to be a damp squib? We don’t plan these days, we dream.