31 July 2022

Friends here have abandoned their top floor. When the mercury hit 41° inside, they simply moved downstairs, trading in hot beds for cooler sofas in the living room. We’re still hanging on upstairs but the heat is relentless. The occasional rain dotted on the forecast quietly evaporates well before its scheduled time of arrival. We see angry black clouds laden with violent heat-rain pass over. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll release their load anywhere, and they certainly haven’t done so on us for quite a while. Yes, in the past few days temperatures have dropped… but that means to just below 35°C (95°F) rather than above.

This time last year

I was musing on C&B’s wedding, a year ago this week. At 2pm when we sat down to lunch it was 32°C (89.5°F)… alleviated just a little by the fact that the sun had moved round and the house was casting a shadow over the table. This year on 23 July at that time it was 37.2°C (99°F) and the heat radiating off walls assaulted by sun each day since May was ferocious. We would have had to shift the whole thing back until the blessed relief of after dark. There is no way anyone could have eaten outside in that.

And so I sit here in our dark shuttered house through the day, waiting for the release of (relative) cool in evening, and muse angrily on my favourite theme: “what’s so difficult to understand about ‘the world’s burning up and it’s our fault and we’re doing very little to stop it’?” The busy way we’re searching for non-Russian sources of hydrocarbons; the dusting off of decommissioned coal-fired power stations; the mad grab for any available air-con unit… the ostrich-manoeuvre hopelessness of it all. There’s so much to be ashamed and afraid of at this point in time.

Actually, it’s a complete lie that all my days are spent in our cool-cave. Much of my recent time has been spent burning assiduously through fossil fuel as I shuttle between one garden project and another, and all the other various things which require my being behind the wheel of the car to keep them running. Up at Pieve Suites rapturous guests wax lyrical about the air conditioning. I am, of course, as hypocritical as the rest.

Yesterday morning – early, before the real heat set in – I combed our field for signs of gory animal combat. There’s a family of boar who trot out there every evening now: the heavyweights plus their teenage offspring who grunt and head-butt and rock around the field in their hobby-horse way. There are hares and deer and I saw one big badger beetling across in a very determined fashion. I suspect the magic portal into his sett is where the stump of the big dead apple tree has moulded away gradually.

Very late the night before last there was such an ear-splitting screeching of fauna getting vicious. It was impossible to tell what kind of animals were involved but something was angry and something was suffering, and the din made your blood run slightly cold.

By the time we located a powerful torch, the noise had died down. From way down the field, two eyes glittered back towards us. They stayed there for some time, unmoved by our prying.

I was thinking, naturally, of the early-morning wolf attack in our neighbours’ olive grove last month and fearing for the lives of those baby boar, though all the time wondering whether even a very determined wolf would attack a piglet with parents of such monstrous size as the ones that roam our land.

In the event I found nothing – just one stray pigeon feather which I don’t think had anything to do with the altercation. There was no blood, no gore, no signs of kill being dragged off into the woods. Maybe the monster-pigs did get the better or whatever wanted their offspring for dinner. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into a bit of screechy squealing.

What I did get to marvel at as I roamed the property is the miracle of the endless water than flows from the spring up in the corner of our land. The bed that we’ve cleared out for the trickle is doing its job. It’s lined with stones now, thanks to L’s tireless clearing of the rocks which constantly and inexplicably appear in the fields: lying in wait, ready to break the teeth of the mowing machine we get to come in once a year. All around us people’s deep wells are drying up, mighty Lake Trasimeno is becoming a muddy ditch, watering limits are imposed and fishing water from local waterways is banned. But that tiny trickle just keeps on going. It’s a different cool green world down there.

And talking of water, we had a visit from Renato the rabdomante (water diviner) the other day. I’ve written about Renato here and here . Yes yes, I know: water divining is bunkum. Except it works, so what can I say?

Renato had called earlier to say he wanted to bring us lots of stuff from his orto. Gosh Renato I said, how kind… but I’ve got so much stuff in my own that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But about the only thing Renato still hears these days seems to be water running underground so he came anyway, with his great big bucket of tomatoes and beans and lettuce and courgettes and there was really no way I could tell him no.

A propos of nothing… our beautiful theatre

He’s tiny – getting tinier I think – and I’ve never seen him without his pork pie hat. When I went up to the top carpark to meet him he was busy working his water-divining fob watch above the well. It was swinging vigorously. This isn’t because of the water he found for us all those years ago which – touch wood – is still running strongly. Once a vein has been ‘stroncato‘ (broken into) the spell is broken.

“There’s another vein immediately beneath yours,” he said, “at 92 metres.” Ours is at 86m. “It’s not as strong,” he said when he finished counting off the 92 pulls on his chain. “But it’s not bad.”

“Fantastic,” I said, “if we ever need it we can dig down deeper.” He looked at me like I was being completely stupid and come to think of it, I was.

“No,” he said in a ‘how can you not see how that couldn’t work?’ kind of way. “How would you attach more tubing below the tubing you already have? There’s no way you could get it down there.”

So. Great. We have lots more utterly unreachable water hardly any distance below the lots of water we already have. Thank you Renato for that invaluable advice.

A visit from Renato is never just about water, or vegetables. It’s really about Renato finally having a captive audience for his endless rural-philosophising which he does in a just-audible monotone. It’s very difficult (and kind of pointless given his deafness) to break into and even more difficult to steer towards an end.

“So,” he said, “what do you think we should do about Draghi?” This was just days before our ‘tecnico‘ prime minister finally threw in the towel and left Italy’s fractious politicians to clean up their own mess. Renato, it should be said, also found Draghi’s water for him and has located a vein for a second well. It’s a bit close to the cemetery, he said, but because Draghi’s Draghi, they might give him a special waiver… which to me sounded like a very undesirable perk of Draghi’s esteemed status, given the kind of potential run-off there might be.

We made some dismissive comments about what the immediate political future might hold but this was of no interest whatsoever to Renato. What he wanted to do was tell us about the minivan taking him and his fellow workers (he used to be a builder) to some building site many decades ago in which there was one character who insisted on smoking Gauloises as they drove along. Other times.

Renato takes immense pleasure in telling stories about what a thug he was when he was young. Given that he’s tiny even by Umbrian contadino standards this is quite difficult to imagine. He sorted the Gauloises smoker out, he said, by getting his neck in an armlock and choking him until he had to be resuscitated when the rest of the crew pulled Renato off him.

In some difficult-to-fathom Renato-esque way this story was related to the question of what Draghi should do next. I had a fleeting mental image of SuperMario, one foot on Matteo Salvini’s neck as Giuseppe Conte’s face, emerging from beneath his armpit, gradually turned deep purple as the result of a protracted armlock. But no. Unlikely.

In the end Draghi handed the hot political potato back to the people stacking coals on the political fire, and I accepted Renato’s veg with as much grace as I could muster then gave them to someone in town who needed them more than I did.


Scouring the horizon for rain that never comes…

On the radio on one of my endless fuel-guzzling jaunts, Italian pundits were musing on the Conservative party election to replace the foully feckless Boris Johnson. It was early days in the competition. What most struck these Italian commentators?

There are ten candidates, someone pointed out, and seven of them are from ethnic minorities. (Silence.) And… this is not even news.

There was criticism galore for Britain and its politicians, who were being compared most unfavourably to (at the time) Italy’s immensely grown-up looking government (though that screeched to a halt very soon thereafter). But there was also unbounded wonder at the fact that a country could – at some level – be so utterly integrated that a right-wing party can field seven out of ten ethnic minority candidates and no one bats an eyelid.

Such a pity, then, that ethnic origin has become so totally divorced from consideration for would-be immigrants. Such a pity that knee-jerk racism remains such a part of the fabric of other areas of society. Such a pity too that a Brexit campaign can be victorious to a large extent on the back of massive, totally contrived, anti-immigrant and xenophobic scaremongering. It’s a weird and very contradictory country. I’m so very over it.

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.