14 June 2021

It’s a joy, each morning, opening the windows and breathing in the perfume of roses and pinks and general late-spring freshness. But there’s an element of dread too. I brace as I open each shutter. Somewhere out there, I know, lies carnage. 

I was blaming porcupines for the piles of precious green parts of plant mixed with stones and soil strewn across the grass in various points around the garden. But lately I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just bulb-munching porcupines that are out to get me: it’s a diabolical plot between them and the boar. There’s a real battle of wits going on here.

“And porcupines don’t even belong here,” a friend said to me, trying to sound sympathetic. “The Romans imported them from Africa.” 

They are so much not in the Italian animal vernacular: so exotic-looking. We surprise them often as we drive down our lane, clacking along in front of the car for long distances before making up their minds which verge to veer towards. Once, way over near San Casciano dei Bagni, I spied six of them scuttling along the side of a quiet road – two parents and four waddling, flip-flopping babies in a neat line. 

Now, furious I may be with porcupines, but it seems a bit harsh to blame the ancients for the devastation in my flower beds. Especially as it seems the Romans aren’t responsible at all. According to this scholarly study, there were probably prehistoric native porcupines, once upon a long long time ago, but they were frozen (or something) into extinction. It looks like the ones we have now were imported from north Africa, but much more recently, probably on a whim, in the 16th century perhaps. Bad call chaps: you don’t want pets who do this.

Yet in fact it’s only the quills which set them apart. They’re just big rodents really. They’ve been protected in Italy since the 1970s, despite the fact that they’re rated LC (least concern) by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Protected status didn’t use to prevent them from ending up on the table: I remember old people telling me years ago that you have to pack them in mud, put them in a big pizza oven, then crack open the baked mud at which point the quills will fall away to reveal a perfectly cooked animal. Bleugh. It’s a while since I’ve heard anyone boast of their istrice-cooking skills.

While porcupines go for the bulbs of my beautiful dark purple-blue iris, the boar have other favourites. They’ll scatter any pesky plant that comes between them and the bulbs of Muscari spp, a taste, I should add, that they share with much of the population of southern Italy for whom lampascioni – the bulbs of Muscari comosum – are a traditional speciality. What they’re digging up in my garden is mostly Muscari armeniacum (grape hyacinth), some of which I planted in the past but which have popped up here there and everywhere over the years. So out come my dahlias and my liatris, turned topsy-turvy in heaps of dirt and stone just as they’re ready to flower, abandoned by boar with their minds on just one thing.

Elsewhere, something has devoured swathes of the snake’s head iris (Iris tuberosa) bulbs which grow wild all over the southern side of the house. I would have thought this was porcupines but honestly, can you dig such deep holes and chuck such large stones about when you’re sporting a coat as weighty as theirs? I’m in two minds. And I’m flailing about desperately trying to calm my ire by finding silver linings.

Whatever is working on the Iris tuberosa certainly did a good job of turning over the tough, hard, rocky soil along there – a definite aid to weeding between the large Rosa Guizzo Rosso (Barni) which are too much of a challenge for them to haul out in their feeding frenzy… so far. And of course the occasional discarded tell-tale calling-card quill always comes in handy. I’ve discovered that a poke about with a quill is the very best thing for reactivating those tiny holes in my garden watering system when they get all glugged up with chalk and other desposits. Small comforts.

This is the spring of broom (Cytisus scoparius), the warm sultry smell of which is everywhere. We are drunk with it by the time we’re half way up the lane: Fabio our neighbour has given up all pretence of keeping his land manicured which is fantastic for nature though not so great for our car’s paintwork. And it was a spring of wonderful asparagus though I have now called a moratorium on that, to give the plants a break after six weeks of over-indulgence on our part. I notice there is some debate as to whether you stop picking asparagus on the feast of St Anthony of Padua (13 June) or of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June). But each year is different. I just stop when I’ve had enough. The next crop looking like it’s going to out-perform all other years is sweet corn, which is almost always a disappointment in my vegetable garden, though I do persist. 

Figures from the last available tax year (2019) have emerged  to show that Umbrians are poorer than the Italian average. Actually, that’s not news really because they always are, though driving around the region certainly wouldn’t fill you with pity for the poverty-stricken locals. On the contrary.

Are Umbrians really poorer, or better at manipulating tax returns? Do we have better accountants (the answer to which is a resounding no, in my experience)? Do we lie (again, another no, at least in small the part of it I know well)? So perhaps Umbrians are just better at bella figura – they know how to put on a good show in the face of adversity. Città della Pieve is in a respectable position in the top half of the chart – which sounds kind of right.

I am half-vaccinated now and sufficient days have gone by for some kind of resistance to have kicked in. Whatever odd algorhythms decide these things depatched me off to far-flung Tuoro on the other side of Lake Trasimeno for a 9.35 appointment on a Sunday morning. Which seemed a little harsh.

The thing that has struck me since Italy started vaccinating is how almost unanimously vaccinat-ees tell tales of amazement not only about the efficiency of vaccination centres but by the sheer niceness of everyone involved. Which, seeing we’re talking about Italian doctors, is just plain weird.

Italian doctors – especially the male ones of a certain age – are famously some of the most unpleasant, grumpy, least empathetic people to walk the earth. It’s pretty rare to hear anything but complaints about them. On the rare occasions I’ve had to have anything to do with them (I choose my GPs carefully, and they’re always women) I’ve had a very strong feeling that I’m an inconvenience in their surgeries and the sooner I leave the better. But not the vaccinators: they’re a different race… though also, to a large extent, of a different age which not only helps but gives one hope for a better future.

For my less-than-a-minute ritual I was ushered into a room with one sweet silent girl who did the jab and two completely adorable young men joking and joshing and generally turning my painfully early Sunday morning start into a jolly game. Ok, it was the beginning of the day and they might not have been so jovial towards evening. But they more than confirmed what I’d been told.

Umbria is a ‘white’ zone now, which is good of course, but scary at times too. More and more people are taking advantage of the fact that masks aren’t obligatory outdoors unless you’re in a situation where you can’t avoid being in close contact with others. Unmasked people anywhere public unnerve me. 

Our beloved curfew has been lifted, opening the floodgates for guests who never leave. We were at a dinner party in Montepulciano a couple of weeks ago, before the curfew was removed. Wine and conversation removed all concept of time. When we left, just after 11pm, we drove along near-deserted roads with our hearts in our mouths, feeling clandestine and expecting retribution. It didn’t come, and we arrived home feeling oddly exhilarated.

I’m told by people in cities that the marvels of emptiness which we were so lucky to experience are fast disappearing. We nipped up to Florence ten days ago. Mid-week it was still superbly rattly. Poor Venice has already witnessed its first cruise ship arrival, as I wrote in this article, and crowds are fast filling its calli and campi. It worries me that we’re moving forward far too fast. Then I wonder: am I crazy? Fast? After all these months? Still, there’s plenty of scope for things going pear-shaped again.

2 November 2020

I spoke too soon about the hunters. Their hounds were yapping down there in our valley all yesterday morning. I heard few shots. But as I endeavoured to pull weeds out of my soggy beds yesterday afternoon, a boar somewhere started roaring in what I can only imagine was pain.

The hunters’ noises had all but disappeared by then: the only other human sound I could hear was the chatter of olive-picking from across on the parallel ridge. My first instinct was to move inside. The boar sounded close and I pictured it gathering its last bit of strength for a final charge at a random representative – me perhaps? – of the species which had put a hole in it. 

The moaning-roaring-grunting came and went, and I realised (largely thanks to L who, fresh back from his bike ride, ignored my eminently sensible warnings and strode down into our fields to investigate) that it was further away than I thought – far down our valley and probably up the hill on the other side. So I returned to my weeding, with one ear to the pain. I tried to call hunters I know to ask them to investigate but no one answered. Surely one of those infuriating dogs could have tracked the poor beast down, rather than abandoning it to its fate. 

This morning I could hear nothing out there except the usual birdsong and insect noises. I hope the boar has died, its suffering over. Problematic as boars can be, it pains me to think of anything in pain.***

We spent all day Saturday – (almost) entirely literally – wrapped in the thickest of mists. It was as if the day didn’t really exist. It’s odd to find ourselves in that situation: we’re used to feeling oh-so-smug about our sunny uplands as we survey the sea of mist in the Val di Chiana, wondering as we do how they could possibly bear so many months of clammy, reduced-vision winter.

On Saturday though it seemed somehow to reflect the general state of the world as we flounder towards more lockdowns, more illness, more deaths, more confusion… and a possible second presidential term for a man who really does seem to present an existential threat far beyond his own borders. 

There’s much talk of Covid fatigue, lockdown fatigue, virus fatigue. The Italian media are full of accounts of violence as protesters take to the streets to demand an end to masks and restrictions. As always, I find myself wondering whether these stories are given prevalence because they’re really what’s happening or whether they fulfil a pre-decided narrative arc. I noticed that some in the British media were careful to stress that these were ‘small’ demonstrations in Italy; elsewhere the usual tiny groups of right- and left-wing rabble rousers were blamed. Political commentator Fabrizio Barca was at pains to point out yesterday that all press eyes in Rome were on a handful of anti-mask thugs in campo dei Fiori whereas just across the centro storico thousands of masked marchers were peacefully asking the government for far tougher measures – plus adequate financial support – with barely any coverage at all. 

In this small Umbrian microcosm what I’m seeing above all is tetchiness. On the town Facebook page long squabbles break out over things which have only tangential bearing on the situation and how best to handle it. 

One local woman was rushed to hospital last week for something unrelated and, before she expired, was found to be Covid-positive. Cue angry, lengthy complaints over suggestions that this could be classed as a ‘Covid death’. 

And then there’s the discrepancy between town numbers and regional numbers, these latter always slightly higher than the former with regards to CdP. The debate is endless. Has the region got it in for us? Is our mayor hiding something? Can we believe anything from anyone if the numbers don’t align? The completely plausible explanation that one counts residents who are effectively domiciled in town, and the other just considers where sufferers are officially resident doesn’t seem to calm anyone down. (As I write, I’m talking about a 16/18 case divergence.)

Then there are the voices wailing that depriving children of their right to go to school is criminal. As things stand, no one is actually doing that. Kids of all ages have returned to their places of education, though classes where positive cases turn up are sent straight home. But this situation will probably change tomorrow when the latest government orders are issued: all but the very smallest children will probably return to what is currently my favourite new Italian ‘word’/neologism: dad, ie didattica a distanza

In theory I agree utterly that the learning and socialising and learning to be a member of society that school provides is essential… as is every parent’s right not to have to deal with children 24/7, and this is particularly so with women who in Italy – as everywhere, though perhaps more than in some places – find the burden of childcare fully on their shoulders. But I can’t help noticing that case numbers leapt not as a result of our fun summer of relatively carefree socialising, but came the moment three things happened: colder weather meant we started spending more time indoors (and inside, as this brilliant infographic shows, is dangerous); far more people started using crowded public transport for everyday moving about; and kids packed on to school buses and returned to classrooms. 

We were so relaxed, so confident about being in good hands. For the majority (of which I’m a part), the confidence is still there. Tomorrow’s new measures won’t include a full lockdown, but that will come I reckon, and it’s not too far away. The numbers are scary and the thought of what awaits us over the winter months is distressing.

Less scary and less depressing, though, because we’re here. 

My trip last week to Rome to plant a terrace was traumatic, even though I drove down, and spent the whole day backing away from workers and colleagues and clients outside on a terrace – a terrace with a view over the dome of St Peter’s so beautiful it almost took my mind off contagion. Almost.

Too many people about though, and without the same respect I feel here. Is it because country folk have more space, and more leisure to consider the effects of their actions? Is it because (here at least) they’re all more or less related to each other so don’t want to feel they’re infecting the family? No, I think it’s the same idea of local pride that keeps our streets so clean and our townscape so well cared for. We care about our shared space. And we don’t want to be seen to be letting the side down.

I’ve started putting my non-garden designs on my website – probably a vain task given the small number of people who happen upon my site and the even smaller number who spend time leafing through it. But if nothing else it’s important to have a record of the things I do, and something to show people should they ask. And I do love fiddling about with photos and websites.

 ***I’ve just noticed that all the thanks I got for my heart-ache for wounded boars was much serious digging all over what I call my lawn. There must have been dozens of the brutes out there last night. There are bits that look like they’ve been ploughed over, and holes you could break your ankle in. So not so much sympathy for the moment.