21 June 2022

This morning our neighbour called to say that they’d found a half-eaten deer in the field which adjoins ours. As they approached – very gingerly I expect – a large male wolf was still standing over the carcass, enjoying his breakfast: he ran off at the sight of humans and their dogs – as wolves tend to do.

Now, everyone knows there are wolves in this area but it’s quite another thing happening across them tucking into fresh kill in your very own fields and woods. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen one: something that loped across the bottom of the field many months ago looked very lupine to me, despite L’s reassurances that it was most definitely an inoffensive fox. The majority of countryside-dwellers around here has a wolf-sighting story to relate.

My feelings towards wolves fall very much into the same category as my feelings towards snakes: terribly proud on some kind of theoretical level that we live in such a diverse natural habitat, hosting fascinating reptiles and large predatory mammals; and at the same time, terribly anxious that aforementioned creatures keep well away from me, because really… I could do perfectly well without them.

Canis lupis italicus seems destined to play an ever greater part in our lives, however, with numbers definitely on the up. Until the early 1970s they were classed as ‘dangerous’ and fair game for anyone who cared to take pot shot. Farmers and other country folk did just that, to the point where numbers sank to perhaps as few as 70 beasts in the whole of Italy.

And so began the campaign – hotly contested by animal breeders and country folk of all kinds – to reintroduce them which is of course a noble aim… unless they’ve just devoured the flocks you depend on for your livelihood. A census carried out in 2018-2021 put numbers at around 3300 but who knows how many are really lurking in that dense bushy woodland that has run riot over land which until the 1970s was neatly cultivated? The tales told around here make it seem that there are hundreds of the beasts roaming our hills and valleys. Though the tales might well be wild exaggerations.

On quite a different animal note, the other day I looked up from my computer screen to find a hoopoe staring at me through the kitchen door. In all honesty, he might not have been able to see much of me through the mosquito screen but he was peering in with perky interest. I kept still, but not very: he seemed unconcerned. Off he hopped with a tsk-tsk-tsk, pecking away at the grass between the bricks and then at what passes as my lawn, oblivious to L who sidled over to take a look.

As a hoopoe’s ideal feeding spot is sparse vegetation where bugs can easily be ferreted out with those strong beaks, I guess I should take his obvious enjoyment as a bad sign. But it is sparse out there I’m afraid, and the paltry 2.01mm that fell last week has done nothing to change that. So go on hoopoe, poke away. I’m only too happy to share my bugs (of which there are many) with you.

I googled hoopoe (Upupa epops) naturally and was slightly disappointed to find that this extraordinary looking thing, with its jauntily collapsable crest and a penchant for spreading its wings and doing a bit of sunbathing along our dusty lane, is common as muck. I had been trying to convince myself that we were in some way privileged having so many about. But no.

I learnt, however, that the beast links this post to my last: in Aristophanes’ barking crazy play The Birds, the rapey king is turned into a hoopoe. The most interesting fact about them though has to be this gem from Wikipedia: “From the age of six days, nestlings can also direct streams of faeces at intruders.” Well, it’s one way of defending your territory.

I was telling Ilaria, the lady who helps me keep Pieve Suites clean, about the group of American language students who were doing a full immersion course in town. The students – all grown-ups: mostly retired people, some with grown-up offspring in tow – were staying at the Hotel Vannucci. Tom the teacher who had organised the jaunt stayed at my place.

His teaching method is task-based: his charges were set loose most days with a chore to complete, then report back on, all strictly in Italian. Gregarious Tom had paved the way, getting to know just about every shop and bar owner in town to explain what he was up to, and beg people not to flaunt their English. I told Ilaria how great the locals had been.

Ammappa,” said Ilaria, stopping to reflect, “we pievesi really have changed.”

And it’s true I guess, though perhaps not as much as she thinks. I mean sure, 20 years ago you wouldn’t have had to ask people to stick to Italian: many people – especially the older ones – were barely literate, never mind multi-lingual. And earnest foreigners let loose on the town would have been met with bemusement bordering on pity rather than enthusiastic participation. But I believe that an underlying kindness was there decades ago as it is today… even though sometimes the dour, sardonic Umbrian sense of humour makes it difficult to perceive.

In this summer which is looking increasingly like a summer from ‘normal’ times on steroids, many faces which disappeared from the scene over the past two years have crept back, smiling, and clearly ecstatic. “We sat at home dreaming of Città della Pieve and then telling ourselves, ‘no, we’re being ridiculous, it really can’t have been that wonderful’,” one British couple who used to have a house here told me. They hadn’t been able to return for the past two years because of pandemic and illness and a host of other factors. “But when we got back we realised we hadn’t been wearing rose-tinted spectacles at all: it’s even lovelier than we remembered.”

I’m biased of course, and I know I have a tendency to ignore the bad and focus starry-eyed on the good, but this kind of encounter is a good antidote to one thing that really hasn’t changed about pievesi over the years. And that’s their tendency to moan about the place – its (perceived) dullness, disorganization, disorderliness, lack of facilities, hopeless fellow-citizens with no initiative who fail to support anyone who tries to do anything: the list goes on and on and on. There are grains of truth, but also a lot of small-town grumpiness.

I shall end with some photos stolen from the Facebook page of our N°1 citizen journalist whose group both dispels and acts as echo chamber for pievesi gripes of all kinds, in equal measure. I knew that the Brits swept in to liberate CdP on 19 June 1944 (slightly later than planned, leaving other forces in the lurch) but I didn’t realise that our little town featured alongside other more illustrious – or at least better known – battles on their regimental guidons (I’ve learnt a brand new word). We’re up there with the Somme, Palmyra, Ypres and El Alamein in their lists of horrors never to be repeated. Now I know.

18 May 2022

Last weekend I shifted two cubic metres of growing medium. About three tonnes. By hand. Well, I mean by wheelbarrow but it had to be shovelled off the heap and into the wheelbarrow by hand, so I guess that counts.

It was a key stage in one of those exploits that you begin optimistically and very soon – when it’s just too late to turn back – think “why?!”

The soil in my vegetable garden has been a problem from the start. On one side it’s fine: not great, but fine. There’s rather more clay than I’d like, which of course means it tends towards glue (wet) or concrete (dry) but my additions of compost and mulch and various other healthy improvers over the years has turned it into something more or less workable. On the other side, every attempt to make it feasible has failed miserably. The plants that grow there do so grudgingly; the vegetables they produce are decidedly unimpressive.

And so I had the brilliant idea of (1) removing 30-40cm in the strips where I plant then (2) bringing in some really good soil to start all over again. What could possibly go wrong? Hah!

I spent weeks trying to find someone willing to remove the heavy, stony, intractable soil. When I did – and when they realised what they’d let themselves in for – they made their misery very obvious. I was busy. I went out. By the time I came back and they had disappeared, I realised that they’d more or less followed my instructions as they started out, only to lose interest/energy/the will to live as they moved along the row, digging out ever-narrower trenches which certainly didn’t correspond to the irrigation pipes which mark the planting areas. (They also chucked the unwanted soil in a very inconvenient place, but that’s another story.) Also, inexplicably, they dug even deeper than the generous depth which I’d suggested to them.

L named the resulting holes the Shallow Graves, and he had a point. They were more sinister criminal burial ground than intriguing Etruscan tomb. He said until I filled them in, he’d be behaving himself and watching his step.

Until I filled them in. Again: hah! These spaces were far too big for stuff in plastic bags. And anyway, I don’t like plastic bags and I don’t trust that stuff, even when it’s clearly marked “100% organic”. I asked garden contractor contacts but no one had much of an idea. Were they protecting their sources or did they really not know where to go? And anyway, would I have believed that the soil was truly free of chemical additives?

In the greenhouse my tomato seedlings were bursting out of their little pots, and still the Shallow Graves yawned. I really hadn’t thought this through.

Next idea: ask Giuseppe. This digger-wizard and staunch defender of the countryside can fix just about any problem: he’ll do it absolutely organically but he’ll do it in the most roundabout way possible. Through several days of back-and-forth we debated what I needed, while he told dark tales of how almost every soil supplier in the world was part of a great conspiracy to pass off polluted earth as clean dirt.  We even schlepped far away up hills and into the woods to visit friends of mine with a biomass/biogas plant on their property but for Giuseppe, using the waste products of this was definitely not going to work.

It took a visit to Giuseppe’s house (ostensibly to try his home-made balsamic vinegar, which passes through a series of ever-smaller wooden kegs over many years until the concentrated syrup can be drawn off from the tiniest of barrels) for him to admit that actually, he had exactly what I needed sitting outside his back door: his own rich mix of pozzolana (volcanic soil) and sawdust and manure and composted wood chips and other secret ingredients. Would he sell me some? He named his price: horribly expensive, he said. I pointed out that buying dubious stuff in plastic would have cost me more than twice as much. Impossible to get it to me: his new truck is too big to pass under the overhanging branches down our bumpy track. I called a builder with a suitably sized pickup.

And so my two cubic metres of growing medium was dumped outside the orto gate – just as L boarded a train to take him away for two weeks. And so the solitary shovelling fell to me. It must have done something for my muscle tone. And hopefully it will do even more good to my tomatoes, which are now burying their eager roots into clay-less, stone-less, ideal dirt.

So far this year has been one of anomalies and oddnesses. Rain? What’s that? Following hard on our dry, dry winter came a dry, dry spring. Every single month so far has pushed my averages down. Things should, you’d think, be suffering – and I’m sure that at some level they are – but they’re looking magnificently lush all the same and the fruit… oh the fruit! After last year’s 100% fruitless disaster, this year is just full of tiny promise getting larger by the day. We even have scores of incipient apricots on the two new little trees over beyond the chicken house. Apricots have always eluded me: will these trees turn my fortunes around?

That same late-frost disaster that did for my fruit last year also took out my wisteria. This year made up for it though. Now, as the spent blossom detaches itself from overwhelming cascades, it looks like it has been snowing outside the kitchen.

I have just gathered what I’ve decided is going to be my last bunch of asparagus and turned it into soup, to draw out the pleasure: as I’m home by myself at the moment the potful should last several meals. I’m eating artichokes and what remains of last winter’s chard and beet, and I’m watching anxiously as my pea plants creep up their wiggly sticks and produce promising flowers.

But the peas that are really threatening to take over the vegetable garden are not comestible: they’re sweet. How long have I been trying to make sweet peas grow in my garden? It’s a flower I adore, perhaps because it smells of my mother, who loved them. It’s only now that I’ve completely abandoned the uneven struggle, that they’ve decided this is their perfect natural habitat. Up they come quite spontaneously and in delightful abundance, swamping chard and spilling over the narrow paths. You can smell them from way down the drive.

May 1 brought an end to all kinds of Covid restrictions… and brought Covid right to my door. Not the door of our house, but to Pieve Suites: first, to the female half of a charming American couple who quite inexplicably caught it from friends they were travelling with (not staying with me) and failed to pass it on to her husband (in her presence 24 hours a day); then to the female half of a lovely Dutch couple who were frequent pre-Covid visitors to CdP and whose post-Covid return to our town marked a small victory for us all.

In the former case I had other guests arriving on her scheduled departure so really couldn’t extend her stay and welcome newcomers to a leper-house: she, with her friends, found a villa outside of town to rent and holed up there in glorious rural isolation until they were declared fit to fly home. In the latter, a local pharmacist offered very sound advice (once she had ascertained they were driving home, alone, in their own vehicle): “I haven’t seen you,” she said, “and you haven’t done a test. Get in your car and drive, and don’t stop until you reach your destination.” Which is what they did the very next morning.

It’s funny – and probably telling – that I never had to deal with a Covid emergency all the way through two years of pandemic. Only now, as we edge towards some kind of normal, are things hotting up.

As requirements fall away, oldish habits haven’t really been dying in our little town: on the whole most people seem to have some kind of face covering somewhere about their person, if only hanging from their wrists. On shop windows there are still signs kindly asking clients to cover up, and a vast majority of them still do.

On a warm day when I hadn’t stopped for lunch and decided that ice cream was probably a sufficiently balanced substitute for real food I stopped off in our gelateria and queued behind a father with his son, who must have been about six or seven. Both were masked. At a certain point the girl behind the counter handed the little boy a wafer. Quite spontaneously he stepped outside the door (casting a withering look towards his anxious father who was yelling “come back in here, don’t go outside”), removed his mask, ate his wafer, replaced his mask and returned inside the shop.

The mask-averse might flag this up as a sign of the worst kind of brainwashing. I see it as an example of how even small children can be taught that simple gestures aimed at keeping the collettività safe really aren’t anything to get hot under the collar about – requirements or no requirements.