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.