20 March 2022

Of all our senses smell, I think, is the one that’s least taken into consideration as a serious portal between us as individuals and the world around us. I mean, we’re forced to endure some offensive lapses of taste through our eyes and ears but most right-thinking people agree that we’re free to loath them. Hardly anyone is surprised if, in my eyes, one particular wallpaper or item of clothing is unspeakably ugly. Or that I object vehemently to the music of one band but adore that of another.

Yet with smells, we’re expected to bow to what’s foisted on us. I’ve moaned at length elsewhere about stinking cleaning products, many of which turn my stomach. Now I ask: what is it with hotels and perfume? Why do they think they can decide which scent they can fill my room with? 

In a newish five-star in Florence, the wall of perfume nearly knocked me off my feet as we were ushered into our room. In no time I was retching. All right, I admit it: I’m not, as a rule. a perfume person. There are scents I love – but this cloying, throat-gripping one wasn’t one of them. 

I scoured the room for hidden diffusers which I always dispatch into the corridor: there were none. I threw the windows open (and so fierce was the odour that I only realised later that we’d been placed in a huge, plush inside room with not a single outwards-facing window – just openings on to the dead ochre walls of a tiny inside courtyard: not a great way to impress a journalist who’s come to review.) 

I was beginning to suspect that it was blowing in through the heating vents, so I called reception to have everything turned off. No, they said, that’ll be the perfume the cleaning ladies spray after they’ve finished a room. 

The sheets reeked, the pillows reeked. It really was horrible. Yet the man at reception seemed most put out by my complaint. Had the ladies ‘finished off’ my room by cranking up the complete works of Iron Maiden through some unlocatable, un-turn-offable sound system, would he have found it strange that I objected? Personally, I can’t see the difference.

This is, I realise, very much a footling issue. Given the state of our planet – with the ice caps melting and conflict rife – dwelling on perfumed hotel rooms is ridiculous. Displacement?

In CdP, everyone’s focussed on Ukraine. People are collecting and packaging and preparing for arrivals which – if they’re not already here – are coming any day. There’s a woman with an 18-month-old child. And at least one more family… perhaps, though no one’s really sure, but the uncertainty doesn’t stop the prep. A house has been found for them. People are discussing the things they might need, how they’ll be feeling, what the children will have been through. It’s all very heart-warming and infinitely kind.

American friends, coming to Italy for a couple of months, write to ask what they can do to help the refugee effort and I tell them that they just need to contact local civil society organisations or the town council where they’re staying. They’re amazed at the very idea that a mayor might be interested in the refugee business, and that it’s being handled at grass-roots level.

But that’s how Italy is. The Protezione civile is an extraordinary thing. It’s a government department which forecasts, oversees and coordinates… well just about everything, as and when needed – from the fire brigade (professional and voluntary) to the police and the armed forces and the health service and technical experts of all descriptions, mobilising each or all in the face of calamities. But the top echelons are of relative importance in the day-to-day business of dealing with distress: they provide an overall framework and policy, but subsidiarity is the key. Incidents are handled at the humblest feasible level. Every mayor is responsible for coordination of the Protezione civile in her or his area, making sure that emergencies are handled smoothly, by professionals and by a vast raft of volunteer organisations. 

Through the darkest days of the Covid pandemic Protezione civile chiefs informed, cautioned and reassured Italians in daily press conferences. But in CdP as elsewhere it was the town council that was responsible for despatching firemen and ambulance drivers to make sure old people locked in their houses were fed and well and provided with masks for those rare occasions when they could venture out, and who ensured that tracking and tracing and confining of Covid-positives to barracks was carried out as per orders from above. 

In September 2016, on the other hand, I located my chimney sweep Marco – whose day job is in the fire brigade – in earthquake-ravaged upper Lazio, digging survivors out of rubble. And how could I ever forget the radio interview with a trail-bike enthusiast from the Nucleo Enduristi di Cerveteri who, with his mates, was called out to deliver essential meds to people stranded in far-flung hamlets when roads are washed out or bridges shaken down?

I’m forever saying “in an emergency, call an Italian”. I think that the Protezione civile set-up emerges from and/or contributes to (I still haven’t worked out which is the chicken and which the egg) an intrinsic recognition of the value of mass availability and capability in situations of extreme need. There’s a whole lot of genuine, selfless concern for the commonweal, but at the same time it’s not at all woolly, touchy-feely or simply feel-good: when you’re summoned to do your bit towards dealing with a disaster, it’s not an am-dram sham that you’re called up for. Well-trained people’s time is rewarded, and their expenses are covered. It’s a form of voluntary which makes stepping up when society needs you into something more concrete than mere floundering good intentions. 

And for Ukraine? By the end of February the government, in coordination with the EU, had already declared an emergency and handed the case over the to Protezione civile. Local councils were asked to step up to host refugees (almost 60,000 of whom have already arrived in Italy at the time of writing). Local organisations began gathering aid to contribute to the national effort. In CdP our fire brigade has been working frantically. By the look of the decorations that have gone up in the windows, I’d say our primary school was preparing its charges for the possible arrival of war-shaken children.

And so of course it will now sound churlish of me when I say that the flip side of my unbounded admiration for everything that is being done is continued frustration that equally desperate people are drowning in the central Med or being pushed back to Turkey by heavy-handed border guards in the Aegean and Evros or living through unthinkable horrors in Yemen and Syria and Afghanistan. The latter doesn’t detract from the former. I can keep the two things distinct in my emotions. I’d just like the former to be more widely spread.

So far this month we’ve had 0.5mm of rain, and there’s no more on the forecast for the foreseeable future. My all-time (ie since my records began in 2013) March average is 80mm, which is already a large fall-off from, say, 2019 when it was 91mm. It’s distressing and scary and difficult to imagine what this summer will look like when already Umbria (“Italy’s green heart” as the tourist board says) is noticeably less lush and less verdant than it should be.

We spent this weekend at the dramatic Castello di Reschio which was of course rather spectacular but also spectacularly dry and dusty. (It’s in the immensely agricultural Niccone valley, which is a funny old place: extremely beautiful in its way, especially when its tobacco crop in brilliant green leaf. But it has something darkly arcane about it… and not necessarily in a good way. Its squat little settlements and ugly farm buildings to me are redolent of incest and gloom.)

Looking back through photos of our Marches past I see carpets of periwinkles and primroses in the woods and the first asparagus pushing its way through the ground. This year, despite the warmth of the past few days, all that seems far away, with the pale dry earth remaining relentlessly unproductive.

Of course there are exceptions. The wild violets are spectacular, and the daffodils are rather splendid too. My almond tree has been in bloom for I don’t know how long… whereas my crabapple, which is usually a mass of dark pink flowers well before it puts any leaves on, is producing leaves galore and not a single blossom. 

I’ve finally found a moment to sow some seeds in the hope that the vegetable garden will prove slightly less meagre than last season. It’s a struggle these days, finding a source of organically produced seeds. I can’t get them from my supplier in the UK any more: the post-Brexit customs duties would add up to more than the seeds themselves. Garden goods shops around here which always had a small organic selection seem to have lost interest in such worthy rubbish. So I’ve had to resort to a French supplier – Baumaux – which has sent me a bundle of little packets half of which are British and Italian products. It all feels rather ridiculous.

I was planning to dig down into the back row of my veg beds and remove at least 50cm of the dense, rocky clay which makes it so extremely difficult to coax anything edible out of the orto. Have I done it? Of course not. I’m blaming the unproductiveness of the season for my own lack of results. 

In Borgo di Giano, we have lost Antonio, the gruff, tall, shambling old man who lived in the house next to Pieve Suites with his compagna Teresa until she died a few years back, at which point Antonio became even gruffer and more shambling. 

Antonio fiddled with clapped-out motorbikes in his street-level garage, painstakingly bringing back to life vehicles which anyone else would have consigned to the scrap metal heap. In various states of (dis)repair, these two-wheelers sat outside the garage, often swathed in plastic coverings – a blight on countless photographs of our otherwise picture-perfect vicolo.

Whenever he clapped eyes on me he’d yell – usually from great distances – “Aaann-nnaaa”, drawing my short name out over unfeasibly long seconds. I’d reply – not nearly so boomingly – “Aaan-tooo—niooooo” which made him laugh. We’d shoot the breeze briefly – about weather and bad parking and annoying neighbours. (Borgo di Giano is not officially one way but by unspoken mutual agreement everyone brave enough to squeeze through it navigates the painfully narrow street from high end to low end. Not Antonio. He would deliberately enter from the ‘forbidden’ end, in a desperate attempt to rile the neighbours, all of whom he’d fought with at some point.) 

Then off he’d shuffle to one of his regular perches where he knew acquaintances would happen by at some point, and stop for a chat. 

CdP is a good place for the elderly who just need to chat. 

10 January 2021

Città della Pieve

Since Christmas we’ve had just three days without rain. That’s after a final month of 2020 which, with 213.5mm in the rain gauge, broke my – admittedly not hugely long-running – record. (The next-closest was 121.5mm in December 2017.) As well as wet, it has been pitilessly grey, with each tiny sunburst a moment of quivering joy. Otherwise, it has been hard to take.

Our local weather sage – a man of few words who plays his cards close to his chest – is giving increased odds of snow*** over the next few days which if nothing else will be a change. But the change I really want is blue skies and infinite vistas, not this lowering threatening soul-crushing murk. 

I have to say though: if nothing else, it goes with the zeitgeist.

My new year’s resolution to get a grip on my doom-scrolling habit crumbled immediately thanks to the absurdities across the Atlantic. Though ultimately the rabble entering the Capitol was entirely predictable, it had a mesmeric pull which was 9/11-like in its intensity. I had a little twinge of pride when I noticed something that I’d retweeted – Don Jr’s vile vid of what appeared to be a Trump family riot-watching party – had been made unavailable. I suspect that’s slightly pathetic on my part. (Newsweek argues here that it was nothing of the sort; but why, then, was the video taken down?) 

The other day a friend here asked what a British friend of hers would have to do to take up residence in Italy now, post-Brexit. The short answer to that was ‘I really don’t know’ – though obviously I found FB groups and websites dealing with that kind of thing to share. The query, though, brought a rush of memories – and yet another wave of disbelief that the UK could be so short-sighted as to deprive itself of something so exceptional.

When we arrived in Italy in 1984, the UK had belonged to the EEC/EU for 11 years, but the Maastricht treaty with all its wonderful ideals of European citizenship and real freedom of movement wouldn’t appear until 1992. So we could be here, but there were so so so many hoops to jump through, hoops made tighter and higher by a country where bureaucracy was still deliberately crafted to drive you crazy.

God knows how many times we rushed to the Questura (police HQ) at dawn to grab a number to plead for documents at the ufficio stranieri; or how many hours we sat in the dank corridors of police stations to pick up essential papers, only to find that we were in the wrong station, or the wrong corridor, or clutching the wrong data for the paper we needed.

There was the permesso di lavoro (work permit), a document that no one ever understood. To get one, you had to have a job. But to get a job, you had to have one. It was a balancing act. I got one: I came across it in an old file the other day. But I don’t think I ever used it: there’s no employer data written on it – just my name and address.

If I remember rightly, there were years when our permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay) had to be renewed annually. Then it was every five years. When I got an indefinite one – we were in the police station on the Celio in Rome – I remember wanting to cry. Finally there were no extra hoops, specially designed to make non-Italians feel other. Suddenly, it was like we belonged.

Of course today’s British exiles (we used to tell people – only partly in jest – that we were refugees from Thatcher’s Britain) will find a system which is remarkably streamlined in comparison. They’ll never have the experience of getting to know multiple police stations and each extraordinary bit of Fascist-era detailing in Rome’s anagrafe (records office).

Now we’re Italian, so all of this has no bearing on us. But I feel that we were part of the struggle to grasp a very special set of rights and privileges: to belong fully to a union which – however flawed – pulls together so many, allowing them to be united despite their manifold differences. It feels criminal that this has all now been thrown away for some cock-eyed, half-baked idea of taking back control. 

For each resident in CdP, there’s €21.5k deposited in the town’s banks, according to this article in the local press. In the whole of Umbria, only Orvieto and Perugia have more squirreled away per capita. 

It’s a bit of a broad-brush number of course, but I’ve been trying to draw conclusions. Are we all quietly affluent, the monied elite of the region? Or are we terribly tight-fisted? Is this money all ours, or are there outsiders exploiting our friendly banks to stash their ill-gotten gains? Do we sensibly keep a financial life-jacket close at hand or are we utterly without imagination about how to invest, opting for the simplest solution for our excess cash? (Which leads me to wonder what a quick check on pievesi mattresses might yield.) If I had to plump for one answer, I think it would be the last… mattresses included.

I’ve been accused by one of my regular readers of being tautological in my boar/hunter musings. Don’t like the boar. Don’t like hunters. 

Tautological, moi? I don’t think so. I prefer ‘nuanced’. 

I have nothing against boars per se: they are more than welcome to snuffle about in the fields and the woods if they want to. I love the sight of great multi-generational clans of them grazing and frolicking down there on summer evenings.

Of course there are boar actions which infuriate me. I’d thank them not to create crevasses in the field, chucking out huge stones which will eventually break expensive teeth on the grass-cutting tractor as they seek tasty roots. I’d have appreciated it if they’d gone on taking their mud baths down in the soggy valley rather than reshaping (unshaping?) my freshly styled rill during the Great Clean Up of last spring along the border of the field. I wasn’t all that thrilled when what sounded like hundreds of them scared me out of my skin when they crashed away through undergrowth near enough to reach out and touch as I took my regular stomp around the fields just the other day. But that’s just boar-y behaviour I’m afraid… and at least they were running away.

Hunters qua hunters, on the other hand, I can say I unreservedly loath (though see the proviso below) – because they deck themselves in Rambo kit and invade, gung-ho, anywhere that takes their fancy, smug in their conviction that no one can stop them; because they’re senselessly indiscriminate in their testosterone-fueled blasting; because for months of the year a smallish percentage of the 750K old men (the vast majority are between 65 and 78 according to Wikipedia) who have hunting licenses hold the whole country hostage, stopping the rest of us from going for walks even in our own fields without fearing for our lives on five days out of every seven (the rest of us get Tuesday and Friday, hurrah!). I could go on (and frequently do). 

The proviso to this is, of course, that quite a lot of these hunters are people who (when they’re not being hunters) I know, work with… even like. And I should also say that I do realise that there’s a probability that boar could take over were their numbers not controlled in some way or other. But that means well-organised occasional hunts overseen by the Forestry Police, aimed at removing a scientifically determined number of animals from circulation. Basta.

It’s good to get that out of my system every now and then.

***Shortly after writing that the snow started falling. Great soft flakes. Little of it has lain… so far.