25 April 2022

I’m working on a project just outside CdP. It’s an unusual one for me, because I’m coordinating works inside the house, after which I will hopefully progress to the garden. The other day I turned up and there wasn’t much in the way of works going on at all, so I called the delightful head builder to find out why.

The reason, he said, was desperate lack of staff. He was rather proud that it wasn’t Covid which had laid them all low. One of his men had blood pressure of 200/120: he was keen to get back on site but (wisely) no one thought that was particularly advisable. Another is a wine buff and had taken time off to go to Vinitaly – which is a brilliantly Italian-builder reason for absenting yourself from work.

There are few things I love more than a building site. Gardens, and garden-building sites, probably top my natural habitat list but a busy complex dusty challenging building site – my own or someone else’s – comes close behind, and is pure joy to me.

I love the tearing down and the immense potential, the dovetailing of manual tasks and technologies, the mesmerising edge where practical knowhow and engineering theory meet and make magic: it’s the grown-up version of my beloved childhood Lego… and then you can live in it.

I have little experience of building sites elsewhere but I strongly suspect many are not nearly such fun as Italian ones, especially those in a rural area full of stone houses of indeterminate date. The same traditions which went into construction through the ages is needed to turn those crumbling piles back into liveable spaces: I’m constantly made aware that these masons could slot themselves effortlessly into any century they like. But ancient skills blend with the sharpest edges of modernity too. It’s just brilliant.

Also brilliant is the ambience and chitchat – banter, methodological debate, repartee, philosophical ponderings, gossip, musings on the state of the world. When I meet with the plumber and the electrician and the joiner and the head builder these days, global supply chain issues are bound to come up: materials which six months ago arrived on site from one day to the next may now take weeks or even months, and cost 25% more than last time you needed them. Italy’s totally unwieldy but superb superbonus scheme (George Monbiot raves about it here) has, inevitably, aggravated an international problem by pushing domestic demand up dramatically.

The other day’s delays+costs conversation drifted sideways into packaging. I mean, when things do turn up, they turn up wrapped. The electrician bemoaned tiny lighting components arriving in huge boxes filled with protective stuffing. The plumber is fed up with bubble wrap.

The words “bubble wrap” set off a strange reaction of mutual recognition and indulgent smiles, and a strong sense that everyone knew what everyone else with thinking about.

I’ve written about Fratelli Binaglia before. It’s a massive hangar of a place down in the retail park in Po’ Bandino where lugubrious men – the eponymous Binaglia brothers –  pick slowly through the kilometres of shelves, and eventually come up with the piece of ironmongery that you have always needed but have never been able to find. These brothers, it seems, also have an aversion to bubble wrap but rather than chuck it they recycle it – at least the long strips of the ghastly stuff with larger air pockets. As customers purchase screws, nails and washers, they snip off individual pockets just below a seal, slide the bits and bobs into the open end and close the packet with a tiny bit of sticky tape. The mention of this set the building site team into gales of affectionate laughter.

Perhaps the best thing of all about the various building sites I find myself involved in is the humanity of it all. If a client is willing to be drawn into the process, to be fascinated by the whys and wherefores and to become a willing, participating part of the crew that’s pulling the project together, it’s just so rewarding. When I hear property owners (mostly, but not only, non-Italians) complaining about shiftiness, fecklessness, unreliability and even dishonesty in Italy’s building sector, I have to wonder: where oh where did you go so wrong?

I’m not completely naive. I know that operators of this ilk can be found on Italian building sites, just as they can be anywhere in the world. I also know that I am in the enviable position of having worked with just about everyone in this neck of the woods and being able, on the whole, to collaborate with the kindest and IMO best (not that there are many whom I would discard, I have to say). If I can inveigle my clients into immersing themselves into and enjoying their projects as much as I do, I feel I’ve done something good.

This article in the New York Times really made my heart sing when I spotted it last week. The nerdy pleasure I take in my Personal Weather Station reached its climax, I think, when I realised that it had registered the pressure wave from last January’s massive volcanic eruption in Tonga. And here’s the NYT extolling PWSs the world over for their contribution to monitoring a once-in-a-century shockwave. I’m proud to have been a part.

So many things are pointing to some kind of return to normality. At Pieve Suites I have bookings spread over the next few months, from visitors who are arriving from abroad. After two years of crazy last-minute August-only pile-ons, mainly involving Italians, this is a very welcome development.

Our Palio will be held for the first time since 2019; our Infiorata too. The traditional Easter market – for which the weather, uncharacteristically, was mostly fair – was a heaving mass of humanity. The town council is claiming market visitor numbers were up 80% over 2019, the last pre-Covid edition of the event. Is this realistic? Sure, there were lots of people there but that seems a little wild to me.

In fact, without wishing to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I’m seeing all kinds of fancy footwork where official statistics are concerned. Why, for example, did the Umbria region stop updating its town-by-town case data on 31 March? And why does our mayor’s weekly FB address to the populace now contain simply generic “numbers are plunging” statements, rather than any real information about what on earth is going? Because the town council can claim victory over Covid as much as it likes, but that’s not what I’m seeing all around me. As far as I can tell, people are dropping like flies.

Collective paranoia is shifting towards collective turning-a-blind-eye. Of course we well vaxxed people are unlikely (touch wood) to get much in the way of symptoms. But I still don’t want to have it. Being in the Golden Circle of the unscathed is rather comforting. It’s widely expected that all kind of Green Pass and mask mandate rules will be lifted from 1 May, and I’m filled with trepidation.

We went to Florence to see the Donatello exhibition which was wonderful and moving in the Palazzo Strozzi bit, and bewildering in the Bargello bit where it was kind of difficult to work out what/where the exhibits were, and even the many Donatello pieces always housed there were inadequately labelled and signposted. Hey ho.

We all know of his mastery of ultra-bas reliefs but when you get up close to them, in the flesh (or marble, or bronze, or terracotta) they are truly wondrous – the Pazzi Madonna and the Christ supported by Angels in Palazzo Strozzi, the Dudley Madonna in the Bargello.

Florence, too, was a leap back to a pre-Covid era, with centro storico crowds which had us hankering for the past two years of sneaky visits to echoing ghost towns. In piazza della Signoria we risked losing chunks of scalp to people with selfie sticks. Selfie sticks – why would anyone bother to blow the dust off them?

But the return of the hordes has brought new threats as this article explains. So far, drones have ‘only’ hit precious monuments. What happens when they start plummetting on to people too?

I can’t help thinking that the kind of person who brings their drone-toy on hols is someone who needs the grown-up equivalent of video games to shut junior up and give parents a quiet moment to savour an experience; that fiddling with a buzzy thing takes unenquiring minds off the fact that they don’t understand what they’re doing on holiday in a place which they’re not really interested in anyway. But maybe I’m being unfair.

26 February 2022

Picture the scene: I’m at my doctor’s to ask her opinion on odd headaches I’ve been experiencing since two rather stupid falls in which I hit my head quite violently. My generally (outwardly) calm doctor is in a state. Her brand new printer will only print A5 sheets: there’s no way she can force A4 sheets in. At the end of a long day, it’s driving her crazy.

So, she says, clearly focussing on the printer more than on me. When did these falls happen? 

Er… last…um, July?

That grabs her attention. July?! she says in an “are you out of your mind, woman?” way. So I deflect by shifting into printer-mending mode.

A short aside is called for here, in praise of our local health service over the past two weird and immensely exhausting years. From the UK we read and hear tales of people unable to see a GP since February 2020, of surgeries which are barricaded and patients struggling even to obtain online consultations. Ours, on the other hand, have never done anything less than in-person, and have never wavered. 

Of course there were none of the usual appointment-less crowds milling about outside surgeries in endless waits for a glimpse of the doctor. Then again, having to book a slot seems like progress to me. In the darkest locked-down days an elderly lady I often visit was feeling terrible. I texted the doctor (we share the same one) and an hour later the indefatigable medic was ringing her doorbell. She really never stopped.

As she lectures me on the need to stop neglecting myself, and insists on CAT scans and tests and various other check-ups (all of which will eventually come back negative), it’s clear that the doctor doubts I’m the printer expert she needs. Maybe, she says, we should alert the tech guy. In the interim, she summons the slightly clueless secretary girl who pokes about at the printer as I google the make and model and try to make sense of diagrams which look nothing at all like the machine in front of us. 

Hang on, says the clueless girl, there’s a manual in this cupboard. Her face falls when she sees it’s in several languages, none of which is Italian. I take over, and more by trial and error than by studying, the solution suddenly becomes incredibly obvious. Jubilation, female empowerment – no need for the tech guy. It’s one of those oh-so-human moments of total connection that we’ve been missing over the past 24 months. 

The crumbling facade of Palazzo della Corgna is now under wraps and receiving a facelift which is surely necessary, but I so so so hope it won’t be polished up too neatly. Frescoed, fiddly and charmingly délabré, mid-16th-century Palazzo della Corgna is a place of wonders. 

The end of mezzadria (sharecropping) in the 1960s left the owners – the Mazzuoli family – with many debts, a whopping tax bill and little income, hence the palazzo passed to the municipality. It’s a huge pile, right opposite the cathedral – the kind of place that’s a poisoned chalice for any small town administration which struggles to find a use for it and can barely scrape together the funds to keep it standing. 

But stand it does, and inside is our library, our adorable natural history museum, some remarkable frescoed halls for weddings, seminars and exhibitions, spaces under the eaves for the classes of our hyper-active Libera Università and a terrace on the first floor with the most spectacular view you could ever imagine over the roofs of CdP and the Val di Chiana beyond. 

In typical pievese fashion, the scaffolding hadn’t even been unloaded from the truck before the bickering began. Will the horrendous Fascist-era balcony be removed? (There was, at a certain point in history, a fashion for adding the kind of excrescences that il Duce might have enjoyed delivering a rant from.) What Fascist-era balcony?! Haven’t you seen the stone struts holding that up? Are you kidding? That balcony has been there since at least the 17th century! 

We’re nothing if not wedded to historical consistency around here.

Unfortunately there was no chance at all of saving another local monument which has been removed and uprooted with unseemly haste. The spectacular holm oak (Quercus ilex) in the little square at the top of via Borgo di Giano is no more. 

I stood and watched one morning, ready to cry, as men with chainsaws dismantled it limb by gracious limb. I pass by this green giant most days en route to Pieve Suites, observing canoodling teenagers and talking (mad cat-lady-like) to the local felines who liked to sit around its roots in the shade. As I watched, everyone who passed stopped to tell me about the games they played in that green cool when they were children. But depressingly, everyone seemed resigned to its demise.

I wasn’t. I observed closedly as they reached the bottom of the trunk, ready to do completely otiose battle against a feckless town council were it to prove less than rotten. But rotten it was, except for a tiny healthy section of the otherwise perishing trunk. 

I discussed this loss at length with my friend Giuseppe who is not only the best earth-mover but also the most Taliban of tree obsessives. 

It had to go, he admitted. But it didn’t have to go like that. It should have been a learning moment for new generations on how not to treat our trees: infant and junior school pupils should have been brought to say goodbye to this monument, encouraged to identify seeds to take home and plant and nurture for the rest of their lives, watching their progress from trifle to trophy, instilling instinctive resistance to the multi-decade cycle of brutal, unwarranted intervention andfatal neglect which had reduced the oak to its pitiful state. 

From 1 March Italy will do away with testing for all vaccinated or recently recovered visitors to this country. The news, I suspect, has fallen on oh-so-weary ears. I haven’t noticed any huge leaps in viewings of my Pieve Suites site by non-EU visitors dying for the bel paese

(They don’t know what they’re missing, of course, these people who are showing no interest: I have pruned my grapevines beautifully and installed incredibly stylish plastic-combatting soap dispensers produced by Ecomenities… and before anyone objects that I’m hardly being environmentally sound bringing dispensers from Australia, I should explain that Ecomenities is… my sister.)

In Venice earlier this week, we were taken aback by the crowds but that was, at least in part, because the empty eeriness of our February 2021 visit is so firmly etched in our minds. And because our rural existence has given us an ever greater aversion to pack-’em-in experiences.

We stayed at the Londra Palace, on the heaving, tack-filled riva degli Schiavoni. (The hotel, I should stress, was neither heaving nor tack-filled but calm and gracious in a slightly old-fashioned-but-good way.) Photo-snappers swarmed around masked-and-wigged Carnevale poseurs many of whom – we noticed to our surprise – were French and no spring chickens either: clearly dusting off the costumes to strut about Venice is considered a Thing To Do in some sections of French society. On the rare occasions when our Venice visits coincide with Carnevale, I find myself wondering: why are the costumes always so straight out of the packet and predictable-flouncy? Where are the creative souls coming up with something more striking? Clearly not in Venice.

Though elbowing our way through the daytime throng was trying, the city returned to its customary quiet at dinner time, with few people venturing out as the evening drew on. Were all these Carnevale visitors just daytrippers?

We know Venice too well to feel any particular need to sightsee. We usually take in any interesting exhibits, then walk walk walk. This time we decided to return to old favourites, and visited Palazzo Grimani and the Museo Querini Stampalia – two marvellous institutions. How very enlightened (at the first) to return so much of the original antiquities collection to that magnificent high-domed display room with Ganymede hovering. And the details in the frescoes: the birds, the insects, the plants… just the kinds of things you need to take your mind off Russian troops invading Ukraine.