11 August 2020


Finally I know what beast has been chucking my compost out of its box. Such large quantities of stuff (nice fine almost-ready dirt but also the very un-ready sticks and stones and lumps of all sorts that go into my very indiscriminate composting) regularly end up on the grass or behind the box by the hedge. So I was envisaging something sizeable: a cat, or perhaps a marten.

Once again last week I found most of the contents of the well advanced left-to-rot section strewn on the grass. When my annoyance had died down I found myself kind-of thanking the culprit: it had sorted and sifted and broken up the compost nicely, and deposited it in a place which made it easy to shovel into the sieve and thence to the ripe-for-use section.

A couple of days later I returned with a barrow full of biomass and something moved in the empty section: a blackbird, giving me a look which said clearly that it was as irked by me as I had been by it. It sat there for a moment, then ducked through a hole in the back of the box. It didn’t seem to be in any hurry: it departed in a very “go on, take it all away from me, see if I care” way. They’re determined little things, blackbirds.

Turdus merula, the common blackbird or true thrush. It eats a diet of insects, earthworms, berries and fruits, all of which are abundant in my compost box. What’s more it’s damp-ish and – at night – probably relatively cool in there. Perfect territory for happy blackbirds. Unless I come along to ruin the fun.


Yesterday morning I took some sheets from Pieve Suites down to the laundry in Chiusi Scalo where I have them washed and ironed. The shop also hires out linen to hotels and renters. Pino the manager was looking frazzled. Since lockdown he has groaned whenever I ask how business is going: a dire summer after a dire spring. Yesterday, things had changed. He said that for the first time in his whole laundering career he was worried that he might run out of sheets and towels. Everyone had arrived at once. Everything had taken off.

“Hotels?” I asked. “Or villas?”

It was villas of course. Anything for rent around here has been snapped up – anything, that is, that gives the feeling that you and your family are far away from the germy crowd. Tourism, suddenly, is booming.

You can see it up in town, where you have to book well ahead if you want to eat out, and where the streets are packed… sometimes to uncomfortable levels. “Any good coronavirus stories for us?” someone at The Telegraph asked me the other day. “Hardships after lockdown? Businesses forced to close?”

Er… frankly: no. I dust off my usual proviso: CdP’s a strange place that goes against trends. Firstly the brand new suspended walkway (pictured below) that gives pedestrians a spectacular view of the Valdichiana as it skirts the church of San Pietro and avoids a traffic bottleneck was inaugurated.

Then in one bumper Saturday we celebrated openings of one new organic veg shop, one revamped and under-new-management bar and one extravagant and inexplicably over-sized (over-ambitious?) chic new restaurant and winebar in a restored olive press. Admittedly, that doesn’t happen every Saturday, but the area feels boomy – though with the now inevitable slight dread of what awaits us just round the corner.


Some British guests who arrived at Pieve Suites ten days ago seemed surprised at all the activity. “It looks like everyone’s out enjoying themselves exactly as normal,” they commented. And they were right: the town was humming. Of course there are those who are taking risks, and forgetting rules of behaviour in these odd pandemic times. But on the whole, those people out there enjoying themselves of a summer evening are conforming. You just need to look closely to see it.

For a start, physical contact – handshakes, kissing – between people who aren’t clearly of the same family group occasions sharp intakes of breath. This from people who are famously physical. Sitting (well spaced out) outside a café with friends on Saturday morning, I watched in horror as a CdP returnee-from-abroad walked up to one of my group and planted kisses on both his cheeks. He was as shell-shocked as I was, and clearly couldn’t quite believe he hadn’t had sufficient wits about him to parry the attack. His son-in-law, also at our table, muttered about putting him straight into isolation the moment they returned home.

Then there’s the distancing. We instinctively calculate. At the weekend openings, L was proud of how he’d positioned himself to one side and upwind of a friend who is one of those people for whom chatting necessarily involves sidling up and whispering in your ear. The way we arrange our chairs at café tables, the way we fan out across the street to chat, the way we wait for people to emerge from narrow shop aisles before moving into them… a wide berth is the default mode now. (Looking back, I see that fanning out was adopted quickly: on March 14 I noted odd strolling formations.)

On top of that, we do sanitizer (there’s a jar at the door of every venue open to the public) and masks.

A British couple with a house here were amazed that they’d been asked to leave the little town supermarket when they went in without face coverings. But we just don’t. As in, it’s against the law, and has been since early March. I was there yesterday, standing on the steps between ground and first floors, when L called me. I answered the phone and in a moment of absent-mindedness slipped my mask off to talk to him, completely unaware of what I had done. I carried on our conversation wondering all the while why the man weighing his vegetables just below was staring at me. At first – presumptuous as I am – I thought it was admiration. Then I realised he was glaring, with growing hostility. And rightly so. In his position I would have said something to me. When it dawned on me what I’d done, I felt pretty bad. I still do.

As a rule, most people will remove their masks out on the street. It’s pretty hot here still, though this year’s surprisingly few dog days broke last week with a brief but very loud thunderstorm-plus-hail which minced my lettuces but spared (thankfully) my tomatoes. Mask-wearing in full sun, though, is a hot business. You can see why people might want to remove them. imageBut when news broke of three new cases (a mother and children, recently returned from that dangerous place ‘abroad’ and already self-isolating when diagnosed) in Chiusi just across the border into Tuscany the reaction was immediate: from one day to the next the heat didn’t matter any more. The next morning just about everyone I passed in the street was fully covered.

The upshot of all this caution? Well, it allowed the Corriere della Sera to run a map of European contagion rates under the headline “we’re surrounded!” the other day. Italy is quietly proud of its record. And elsewhere, the success of its efforts is being recognised.

The New York Times lauded the country last week and said that the US could take a leaf out of our book. Which is an understatement if ever there was one. The LA Times ran a good piece. The British press has cast many approving glances in our direction.

0811FIt’s a novelty for Italy to be held up as an example, but I’m going to repeat the old trope I always pull out: “in an emergency, call an Italian”. It just seems that this time, the effects of the good work done in the crisis – that, plus a beleaguered-but-strong public health service and a national obsession with hygiene – has carried over into the lull. Will it last? Sanitized fingers crossed.

Here in Umbria, as I write, we’re not doing badly. The fact that there are 18 positives in the Franciscan monastery in Assisi has been duly noted… with all the expected jocularity and snide remarks from the non-believer camp (myself included).

Word of Umbria’s good record has spread. My phone has been ringing constantly. Booking.com has been working hard on my behalf. For a brief patch over the August 15 holiday I am actually full, with a couple of very quick turnarounds of the kind that always happen when there’s no way my cleaning lady can get away from her other jobs. Hey ho.


A British friend arrived at her house up in town and messaged me: “where are the bats and swifts from our balcony? Why have they all disappeared?”

What could I tell her? No idea.

All kinds of things are missing here too. My tomatoes are splendid and weirdly intact – not riddled with damage wrought by shield bugs which are generally the bane of my life in August. Cabbages are growing happily in the veggie garden with none of the usual larva-lacework. I haven’t had to cover my mini-lily pond outside the kitchen because there are no swarms of thirsty wasps descending on it from their nests beneath each roof tile. Consequently the bats that perform graceful arabesques above the roof all summer, gobbling up wasps on the wing, are absent too. (I should point out that the wasps appear to have migrated town-wards: it’s almost impossible to sit at a pavement table and have a drink without the risk of swallowing one of the things – something I’ve never experienced here before.)

Some of these things are welcome, of course. But all of them are eery. And all the more so in this anomalous year when it’s easy to feel that everything’s pointing to something.

15 June 2020


Occasionally I read back over what I’ve written and wonder what planet I’m living on. The answer, of course, is planet CdP and every now and then it hits me just how far out in the solar system it is.

My arguing for national behavioural trends on the basis of our Saturday market is right up there with a friend who recently tried valiantly to convince me – on the basis of the youth she knows in a village so small it makes CdP look like a metropolis – that young Italians were all happily employed (in April unemployment among under-25s stood at 20.3 percent – a 6.2 percent drop on the previous month but only because so many had given up in desperation and stopped seeking jobs during the lockdown.)

I see they’ve had to park armoured police cars in central Perugia to enforce an aperitivo-hour curfew. And even here in CdP, there’s a definite snuggling-together feeling in bars. In a queue in Lidl in Castiglione del Lago the other evening I saw a bunch of excited kids who looked about 12 years old paying for large crates of beer. I’m presuming that the smart ones who don’t want to get caught are doing their distance-free social drinking in fields and abandoned buildings, of which there are many.

Though grabbing a mask as you head out the door is now something you do, it doesn’t come naturally – at least not to me who through the worst of the lockdown was mostly safely ensconced down our lane and rarely needed to don the troublesome thing. So it’s easy to slip, but I still feel a shudder when I realise I’m standing or breathing or confiding too close to someone. Hopefully that shudder will keep me in line. But I’m not holding my breath for a smooth return to normality. The sense of crisis, of urgency, of extraordinariness is fast fading. And this, I suspect, is a handy back door for a second wave.

Similarly, my fears of virus-ridden foreigners flooding into the country when it (technically) opened its borders on 3 June were also unwarranted. Out of interest, a couple of days before that date I tried to make a fake booking on some UK-Italy flights. €1100 to fly from Manchester to Rome in 7h20mins? Seventeen hours and five minutes to do London-Venice? Of course we weren’t going to be inundated: there’s simply no reasonable way of getting here.

The few people who have managed to sneak back in, heaving sighs of relief, have been greeted with leaden skies and frequent rain. The end-of-winter feel that May delivered in 2019 is coming in mid-June this year. As I pull out my stashed-away woollies it’s weird to think that in April we were basking in temperatures approaching 30°. Still, nature is grateful for the rain and the landscape remains beautifully green.

0615DUnlike cities and towns with wild animal invaders, I don’t think we can credit lockdown quiet for the mass return of warm-weather fauna. These odd months haven’t been appreciably quieter in our neck of the woods, give or take a missing plane or two overhead.

But we have a fox that noses its way around the field – though it’s fast disappearing from view as the grass reaches record heights. The grass snake that lives in the chicken house (which I’m still trying very hard, without much success, to love – or at least to accept that it has every right to be there…) has been sunbathing on the bricks outside the front door. A brilliant high-speed flash exploded across the field one day when we were having lunch outside: I’d never seen a golden oriole around here before but our bird book tells us that central Italy is part of its habitat.

The tiny frog that took up residence in my mini-lily bowl outside the kitchen last spring appears to have returned. Of course I can’t vouch for its being the self-same frog but it’s the same kind of frog, and clearly equally as silly because it’s the worse possible place for a frog to be, what with passing semi-feral cats using that dirty algae-filled water as their main drinking bowl through the summer and buzzards and owls doing frequent fly-bys – and occasionally perching on the pergola right beside the bowl. Not to mention me bumping the little galvanised tin container about when I mowed around it, plus0615G constant foot traffic.

Do frogs have homing instincts? And anyway, where do they hang out in the colder months? Ah, I see that they go semi-comatose, generally at the bottom of ponds. So maybe my froggy friend was there the whole time, lurking in the very shallow depths. Moreover, unless some hungry bird of prey has them for breakfast, they’re pretty long-lived: some frog/toad species live for 40 years. Who knew?

Then there are deer bopping about the field ever more frequently (dropping their horrid disease-vector ticks I presume) and of course the boar, who were clearly delighted at our artfully sculpted, immensely neat little gurgling brook newly created at the edge of the field – so much so that they’ve thrown themselves into it (quite literally) with gusto and turned our landscape art into a massive muddy wallow to their own tastes. Only to be expected. This too we accept with all the good grace we can muster as part of our rural lifestyle.


Since doing that oh-so-satisfying work in our fields during lockdown, I’ve spent quite some time perusing the Umbria region’s website map pages, where there are aerial photos dating back to 1954. In 1954 Umbria was still pretty Third World. In fact, it was pretty feudal. The land was in the hands of very few families; the land was worked by sharecroppers whose lot was cripplingly tough. And how it was worked! We tend to think of our valley as ancient woodland but it isn’t. The only bits left wooded in this 1954/5 photo (our house is in the red square) are unfeasibly, slippy-steep. All along the stream which is now an impenetrable jungle, all down any slope where there was a 50/50 chance of not dying under an overturned tractor: they grew crops on the lot for their land-owning masters. It’s stunning and shocking and completely fascinating (below, for comparison, is a Google Earth picture from 2020, with plenty of evidence of the brutal coppicing that has been done over the past two years).


Perhaps our final big (immediately post-) lockdown task was covering the horrible red corrugated iron on top of the chicken shed lean-to. The previous covering had finally disintegrated after many years of sterling service.

When we last camouflaged it, in June 2012, the reeds used were – I believe – from Lake Trasimeno. When I asked the guy in the reed-mat place down by the lake if their mats were still lake reeds, he told me of course: what else would they be?

“Ah,” I said, “because I’d heard you weren’t allowed to harvest them any more.”
The powers that be, I had read, had banned this ancient practise because the reed beds weren’t regenerating themselves as they should, putting the whole lake environment at risk.
“Well of course not,” he said, as if he was dealing with a complete idiot. “You can’t pick our reeds.”
“Er, but, I thought you said they were reeds from the lake?”
“Yes, of course they are,” he said, in a ‘duh’ kind of way. “A lake in Hungary.”