3 August 2021

Oh dear, where did July go? It passed by in a rush of good resolutions dampened by heat exhaustion. And in the end it was gobbled up by a wedding.

Wedding in the Time of Covid. Marrying off your daughter is a complicated business at the best of times I guess but in an era when planning is more a shot in the dark than a roadmap, it acquires extra levels of fancy footwork.

To be honest, some of the toughest hurdles were thrown up by the massive, unbending spirit of Swiss bureaucracy (our newly acquired son-in-law is Swiss) which moves ponderously and inexorably, never deviating from its well worn tracks. When global pandemic gets in the way, it continues down its usual route, flailing blindly as it presses up against obstacles, even when it is absolutely obvious that a little Italian-style side-stepping would speed things up immeasurably for everyone. The lady in CdP’s records office didn’t bother to hide her smugness. The Swiss? Ha! We’re soooo much more efficient…

So from a date in early June (when, admittedly, the guest list would have consisted of a rather sad us, the groom’s parents and two brothers, e basta), the event limped back to late July, and a handful of friends were summoned from continental Europe for the occasion (though not, alas, from the UK which still, at the time, had a two-week quarantine requirement for returning travellers). 

With all the requisite Swiss paperwork finally completed, Italian flexibility made the wheels turn smoothly. 

No more than 15 in the room where marriage ceremonies are performed, came the message from the mayor’s office. We’ll be 22, I said. Hey, the rather vague answer implied: who’s counting? 

Next complication? Our photographer-friend wanted to bring his drone. Are drones even allowed when our prime minister has his private residence just down the road? A local sometime-drone-user advised notifying the vigili urbani. When I went to the vigili, they looked nonplussed. They suggested notifying the mayor’s office. So I did. For the mayor, all was fine. For the premier’s security people not so much, and when the whiny thing tried to take off it was stymied by an automatic flight exclusion zone for several kilometres around the Draghi residence. One minute (and a nifty workaround) later though, it was in the air.

No authorities seemed perturbed. We’re still waiting for images from above our parched but pleasant land.

The Italian civil wedding ceremony is short, and over-long. It consists of just three simple, eminently sensible articles from the codice civile which say partners are equal, should each contribute according to his/her abilities, should decide together how to run the household and should each help any offspring fulfil his/her own ambitions. Then – in our case, as the groom is not a fluent Italian speaker – it had to be translated (by me). Then it gets repeated, under different guises, then there’s a lot of reporting back what has just been said. Then there’s some signing and explaining and general verbage. Then it’s done.

I say the three articles are simple and in fact they are, but when I tried to cut corners by googling for a translation instead of doing it myself I was amazed just how many weird and wonderful English variations I found. Sleek wedding planners with impressive websites have been leading newlyweds up some interesting matrimonial garden paths with vows to do things which really aren’t anywhere in the codice civile. I guess it’s the signature on the paper that counts.

One interesting thing about having groups of people hanging around your garden for the best part of three days, is seeing the way they use it. I – as I’ve often said – rarely sit in my garden: my idea of a nice time outside involves endless pottering. But here was a group of visitors most of whom were ignorant of the usual dynamics of the place, and all of whom had to be kept in the shade of trees for the best part of an hour before the wedding lunch could begin, when the sun had moved off the far side of the long long table we had created outside the kitchen. I threw rugs and cushions under the oak trees. The wedding guests plonked themselves down in that little-used space. And that became their salotto for the whole event… they made that shady slope very much their own. 

Ditto the poor neglected concimaia. The table from up there had been removed to extend the one outside the kitchen. The concimaia became the dancefloor, with the console (brought by one of the guests) on the never-lit barbecue and our Christmas fairy lights providing a twinkle around the perimeter. I crashed at about 3.30am; the music just kept on going. Living in the middle of nowhere has its advantages.

So I’m newly determined to plant the raggedy slope down from the oak trees: the collection of weeds there added nothing to the bucolic scene on the grass. And it would be lovely – one day, when I have the cash – to get a pergola over the concimaia table. There are so many bits of my garden which are beautiful in my mind’s eye – and hugely in need of work if I try to be objective. A fervid imagination is a great excuse for inactivity.

In the run-up to The Event, L decided that it was impossible to have a wedding party on our burnt, sear “lawns”. So he decided to water, and I decided to humour him. It’s good for a relationship, going along even when you know that what’s being watered is mostly expanses of extremely dead annual weed (with a little grass mixed in) which has no hope at all of being revived until the next generation pops out, egged on only by autumn cool and returning showers. Somewhere deep down I was hoping for L’s sake that some other vaguely green thing might miraculously appear. 

For a few evenings we dragged sprinklers around. I even carried on after he disappeared off to the much-delayed Cannes film festival. The result was… as I expected. The very little grass that there is certainly benefitted. The rest, however, continued to look sear. But it’s not only my so-called lawns that are in a desperate state: everything is sunburnt and parched. Plants are behaving oddly. It’s not a great year for things being green.

From wet and cold we went all too swiftly to hot and dry (my July rainfall total of 5.1mm was vastly lower than an average of about 40mm; just under 20mm in June was similarly pathetic). In spring, there was no opportunity to dodge the showers to get plants into the water-logged ground (and those who did lost much to the great Easter freeze). Then all at once temperatures were more August than June: growth was blocked, everything looked stunted. My tomato plants, which should be tumbling off the highest point of their supports, are barely more than knee-high. There’s fruit, yes, but it’s small: what should be huge beefsteak tomatoes are the size of sad, bland supermarket specimens. My courgettes have given up the uneven struggle. There’s none of the usual cucumber avalanche (which is a shame because I’ve become rather partial to cold avocado and cucumber soup – very refreshing in this hot weather.)

If all this didn’t make you think about climate change, you’d have to be pretty determined to ignore it. So what are we going to do? I mean… apart from protest and campaign and raise awareness and all that. Short of trying to grow tropical crops – which I think is rather sweeping the problem under a rug and pretty sure not to work – I’m going to have to research more heat-resistant varieties, and perhaps have a larger, more productive greenhouse where I can really get things going properly before planting them out. 

So far at least (and with fingers crossed, and knocking on wood) our water supply has held out, which is a bit of a rarity around here where I’m constantly hearing tales of sinking water tables and essential liquid being shipped in by the exorbitant truck-load. On that front, I count us lucky. Red-faced Renato the water diviner who told us where to dig all those years ago still swears from under his pork pie hat, every time I see him, that our water will never run out. Fingers crossed.

With all this in mind the comments under a recent photo on a town Facebook page made me smile. The photo shows post-war people in nearby Montepulciano, harvesting wheat together in the fields. It’s just like when I was a child, in Maranzano! said one. Maranzano is an outlying part of CdP. My wonderful mother and all her girlfriends went out to harvest by hand, she wrote. The good old days!

I rather wonder whether the mother would agree that old times were so very good, after weeks of agonising cutting and bending and stacking and stooking – skin roasted and hands sliced to pieces by rough corn stalks. But at the very least there must have been some regularity (inevitability?) in those seasons which could be better or worse but not one long inexorable slide towards a state which we – to a greater or lesser extent – have brought upon ourselves.

In the mean time as I sit here writing the loud-quiet of massed cicadas is broken regularly by passing helicopters, each of which makes my heart miss a beat or two. I presume they’re patrolling. With everything so very dry and gusty breezes shaking the foliage, it’s perfect bushfire weather.  

***I should point out that not all these photos were taken by me. But I can’t remember whom I need to credit. Lee, Sabrina, perhaps David. Thanks for your contributions, whoever you were.

20 December 2019

I’m finding the slide towards Christmas harder with every year that passes. I like the family coming together. I like the decorative part of the season: the tree-dressing and… well that’s it really.

The thing that gets me is presents. I’m hating presents more and more. I don’t like thinking of them, or buying them or – more than anything – receiving them. There’s nothing I need really (except perhaps a hedge trimmer but for some reason no one wants to give me one of those; they say it’s not Christmassy enough).

Quite a large part of this is due to laziness/inertia on my part. It used to be easy when we lived in the city: there was so much frantic Christmas retail going on all around that you were dragged along by the tide, ending up with a dense Christmas tree understory of things you could quite well have lived without. Here in the country, on the other hand, it requires effort: you actually have to pro-actively go somewhere and think things through rather than just happening by chance across the perfect(-ish) gift. Which is tough.

How did I become so anti-festive when I live in a place where really rather tasteful (well, it’s all relative and at least it’s not over-the-top) Christmas decorations don’t go up until a perfectly acceptable date in December, where retail frenzy is represented by a sprinkling of ‘scenic’ wooden huts selling trinkets that people look at but rarely buy, where yuletide excitement consists of a “Music of the 1960s and ’70s” night in the theatre to gather funds for the local old peoples’ home or horse-and-carriage rides around the centro storico at weekends?

This year we have the slightly surreal addition of piped Christmas-themed music in town, which gives it an air of an outdoor supermarket without much on the shelves – and, for that matter, without shelves. Christmas-themed music here is always a bit hit-and-miss. Italy has nothing like our Anglo-Saxon tradition of carols, so they borrow, mixing Silent Night and Away in a Manger quite indiscriminately and incongruously with Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town. Unwittingly sacred and profane.

Back in Rome we’d drag our heathen selves to All Saints’ Anglican church to belt out carols with the Anglo comunity, and scoff mince pies and innoculate ourselves against the over-decorated yuletide streets outside with mulled wine. Often we’d drag Italian friends along. They’d emerge dewey-eyed and full of wonder: “but how come you all know the words? It’s amazing!” Carols, I’d explain, are imprinted on our DNA.

Another major seasonal bugbear is my burgeoning allergy to spending money on people (even the people dearest to me) who really don’t need much, when there are so many people who do – and by extension, to spending money on things that don’t merit it

As the seasonal Spirit of Scrooge grips me more and more tightly, I find myself ranting loudly about badly spent resources.

Way back during my acqua alta Venice visit, I found the number of crowd-funding initiatives springing up quite bewildering. Of course there were many many people and institutions who/which absolutely merited all the support they could get to pull themselves out of the mud; I listed some of them here. But there were many more appeals for financial help which left me thinking “sorry? what? but don’t you have insurance?” Am I being unfair? (One Venetian resident I talked to told me that everything they valued had been shifted to upper floors, leaving only crates of her dearly departed mother-in-law’s stuff downstairs where the high tide washed through. “We really didn’t know what to do with it. Now nature has come to our aid.”) My worry is that the dubious appeals devalue the really worthwhile ones. I so want to see donors’ kindness going to causes that merit it.

From there, through many orders of magnitude, I find myself raging at a wild variety of things, right up to the thought that Michael Bloomberg is blowing an estimated $4.2 million dollars per day on ads for a presidential campaign that is so clearly destined to fail. Until suddenly I get a grip on myself and think: “maybe you should get out more.”

For me, the ideal present is a donation to something I care about*. I admit, this sounds goody goody but really, more than anything it gets me out of the terrible bind of having to pretend to have always been dying to possess that thing really quite dispensable thing.

There’s a new traffic police(wo)man patrolling the valley road from Moiano to Castiglione del Lago, who has local drivers up in arms. In fact they’ve formed a committee: il comitato dei multati seriali della SS71 (serially fined users of the SS71, which is the name of the road). There has been at least one noisy meeting which I was tempted to attend – not because I’ve been fined (I haven’t), but to hear what kind of logic they would use to put the ticket-issuer in the wrong and themselves in the right.

I was away, though, and missed the event which apparently ended with all the injured parties agreeing to look into the possibility of a class action. So I’m still in the dark as to whether anyone brought up the obvious point: if people are finding themselves with three or four fines daily from three or four hell-for-leather journeys along this long straight flat stretch of tarmac (many sections of which have recently been resurfaced meaning that speediness no long always results in crushed wheel rims and damaged axles) it is only because they’ve been exceeding the speed limit and therefore breaking the law. They couldn’t possibly be fined if there were behaving as the rules demand. They are, in a nutshell, guilty as charged.

Risks and bets are part of everyone’s life I reckon, and doing 90kph along a long straight smooth stretch of road where the limit is 70kph is a risk that I, personally, am willing to take probably rather too often.

Even more ridiculously, I pretty sure that there are evenings when I emerge from a dinner party or a restaurant with enough alcohol in my system to get me in trouble should I be stopped. I’m not a heavy drinker, especially when I have a drive home ahead but… well, just one more glass perhaps, despite the lurking fear that the final sip could result in my license being revoked and therefore being deprived of my livelihood because if I’m not independently mobile, I can’t work. You’d think that would put the fear of god into me. But no.

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that Italians consider rules not so much as proscriptions but as gentle promptings – that a red traffic light is little more than a suggestion (it isn’t) and that taxes should be paid only as an absolute last resort (not, for the vast majority of honest souls, true). But at some level there is definitely a resistance to authority that Italians can’t shake off. The class action will not be against the fines themselves so much as against the fact that there was no indication anywhere (in the form of a hi-vis speed camera or big flashing sign) that the risk levels had gone up. That’s just not fair play! When authority surreptitiously tips chances in its favour, resentment sets in.

A tale of two cities: we’ve been to Naples and to Rome, the former a heaving joyous mass of humanity and the latter looking eerily August-empty. Admittedly we were in Naples over the weekend and Rome mid-week but in the capital only the decorations gave the seasonal game away.

In Naples, L had to interview Marco Ferrigno, the latest in many generations of producers of nativity scene figures. His narrow, figurine-dense shop in via San Gregorio Armeno is an over-stuffed wonderland and his non-stop top-volume banter makes it feel even fuller. He was just back from Milan where he’d been decorating the shop windows of Dolce & Gabbana. Dovetailing Neapolitan creativity and Milanese efficiency, he said, was an explosive experience: the whole country should take note.

Climbing up to the first-floor workshop were clients who invest in another minor masterpiece each year, people who had commissioned portraits of loved ones in the guise of Holy Birth attendants to add to their presepe and bewildered out-of-towners just trying to avoid domino-effect devastation.

At the other end of the scale, he had to interview Sylvain Bellenger, the charming Frenchman who runs the Capodimonte museum. I had already luxuriated in a long, slow tramp around the palazzo and its superb collection as L did the official chat. But afterwards, the director frog-marched us around once again, explaining his vision and his plans and milking us for reactions and comments in a way that was hugely stimulating fun.

When you run a place like this, he said, you end up only seeing the faults. I like visiting Capodimonte through fresh eyes.

Any time, Sylvain, any time.

I know I fill my blog with “Italy: everything difficult, nothing impossible” tales but yesterday’s experience in Rome was an extreme example so I’ll risk telling the tale (as concisely as possible). To be employed with her new NGO in Greece, C needs an arcane piece of paper: a document confirming that her official birth certificate exists, stating the names of both her parents, in all EU languages. This piece of paper can be obtained through a long postal odyssey, or by going yourself (or sending your mother) to the town council office in the place where you were born. I was going to Rome so great, I’d drop by the Anagrafe.

Fine, they told me after an hour’s wait which gave me time to admire the beautiful detailing of this Fascist-era construction. I waited for the piece of paper to be handed over. Er, no: you have to come back in two weeks’ time. If you think about it, this is not entirely unreasonable: locating a paper document from 1990, checking its validity, transcribing the information, passing it between offices – all odd ideas in an age where everything is digital but also somehow comforting in how it makes paper so crucial.

But… the whole point of my going to the Anagrafe is that C needs the document immediately and she will only be here for a few days over Christmas when going to Rome and collecting papers would be difficult. Two weeks is too long.

“But I need it now!” I wailed. No way. Except.

The very nice girl (they were all extremely pleasant) told me to go to another office where they might just be able to call the official records office (a completely different department though housed in the same vast building) and see if they could speed up the process of digging the original out of the vaults, scanning it, and sending it through to the Anagrafe.

No, it seemed not. The young man at the desk seemed completely flummoxed by my request, but did just happen to mention that the records office was right upstairs – not that the general public were allowed anywhere near it… but I could just sneak up and see if there was anyone still there who’d talk to me. By this time it was after 5pm. The chances were slim.

I went upstairs and knocked on the door. Nothing. But a busy looking older woman hurried by and asked what I wanted. I told her. Two weeks, she said. I explained my situation. Hmmm, well, how about tomorrow at 11am? No, I would have left Rome already. (I think my English accent might have helped here: I suspect she thought I had a plane to catch.) Sit there signora, so I sat looking as woebegone as possible on a seat outside the door while she disappeared through it, armed with C’s name and date of birth.

Twenty minutes later the birth certificate had been located, scanned and sent, and the Anagrafe office on the far side of the sprawling building had produced for me an insignificant-looking scrap of A4 paper with birth details in various languages. It seemed so unimpressive after all my efforts that I felt quite deflated. But it’s what she needs. And a two-week process had been reduced to quite a lot of mild-manned determination on my part and an after-office-hours tour de force by kindly Rome council employees.

I love how you can do that in Italy: an abiding belief that rules and regulations can be adapted to personal requirements is not such a bad thing after all.


There’s a Caravaggio down there


*Some of my favourite causes: