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.

12 December 2021

As Christmas bears down on us there’s a sense of things condensing, overlapping and getting completely out of hand. 

We’ve already had our first respectable dump of snow (snow? in November?!) The splendid leaves of this magnificent autumn are clinging on gamely: it was disorientating seeing snow blanketing russets and ochres rather than balancing along the bare branches of our predominantly deciduous natives. Driving along the Pievaiola towards Perugia on that snowy Monday morning, white powder fell from great amber oaks forming an arch across the road. So very beautiful.

Even unseasonable snow and the endless dripping damp of November (we were only not-quite-back to our monthly rain average finally, but it felt like a veritable deluge after so many dry months) were preferable to the quick trip to the UK which we inserted mid-month. My last trip there was in December 2018. I can’t say I was missing it. Neither am I in a rush to return… ever.

Autumn shades were lingering prettily in Chichester too – and here ends my positive take on the country. 

A shift back in the general direction of caution has been ordered from the top now, apparently, but when we were there – in West Sussex, with one of the country’s worst daily case rates – the whole town was a heaving mass of unmasked people piling, coughing, into shops and public spaces of all kinds. 

There seemed to be no awareness – or no desire to give any thought to – the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away, nor any kind of consideration for general well-being. How I longed for the taken-for-granted common sense of my Umbrian town! I spent a week with my FFP3 mask firmly on; but even this didn’t quell my mounting terror that I might catch something and not be allowed on the plane home. My negative pre-flight test result was sheer elation.

Apart from the general lack of any care for the commonweal, other English oddnesses struck me – the disengaged, infrequent visitor and not-so-objective observer. 

The food shops, to begin with. We paid an initial visit to a huge supermarket on the edge of town, which was recognisable and relatable to, as a place to go to buy stuff for the preparation of meals. Yes – as reported in the press – there really were big gaps on the fresh food shelves during our late-afternoon shop: plenty of onions and carrots and those veg which could, possibly, be grown in the UK but a distinct lack of many more ‘exotic’ greens. 

In the city-centre supermarkets, on the other hand, what was on the shelves was as baffling as it was uninviting. There was a distinct lack of ingredients – plenty of “food”, little raw material. The quantity of ultra-processed, oven-ready everything was shocking. 

I’ve mused on this before (“eat proper food” being my favourite mantra). 

The chart I reproduced in that post is from a 2018 report. It lamented the fact that ultra-processed food had climbed above 50 percent of everything consumed in the UK. Take a look around any smallish city-centre store in that neck of the woods and you might wonder what they use to produce the almost 50 percent of non-processed food: there’s not a lot of the genuine thing.  

Next up: business models. I went into Boots to buy some foundation. “It’s three items for the price of two,” says the very kind, very over-made-up girl serving me. Why not? I select a couple of lipsticks but as I’m examining the colours she creeps up on me and shoves a ‘£10 off’ voucher into my hand. “Use this too,” she says, encouragingly. Great.

So I have one item that I really wanted which cost (I’m ad-libbing here: I can’t remember the prices) £10 and another two which I kind-of wanted which also each cost £10. All of which together cost… £10. Brilliant. But what am I to think? That the ‘real’ prices are simply a rip-off? That everything should be reduced by two-thirds so that they can save on the cost of printing ‘3 for the price of 2’ posters and ‘£10 off!’ leaflets? Or do they want me to feel in their debt somehow, eternally coming back to enjoy their largesse while actually giving them quite a bit of my money? I just don’t get it.

I feel safer with my simpler, less generous but more straightforward Italian retail arrangement. I remember being… disturbed? amused? by the relationship between vendors and purchasers when we first moved to Rome in the early 1980s. The power still lay firmly in the hands of the shopkeeper. You had the distinct feeling that the days when the grocer agreeing – or not – to a credit arrangement meant the difference between the family eating or starving were not nearly long enough ago for comfort. The shopkeeper called the shots; you kept your head down and accepted the conditions.

It has changed of course. Chains have replaced the individual corner shop, and competition between them gives the purchaser the upper hand. In that, Italy is no different from the rest of the developed world. But with variations. Italy is so (mercifully) atrocious at international-impersonal. Little supermarkets in small towns like ours tend to be family-run franchises of major national labels, managed by locals. Even at the Lidl down in the valley, shoppers greet the people on the cash desks by name. Fresh foods and the lower end of processing (pasta, coffee, bottled pulses) are everywhere; ready meals are banished to dark corners.

Other UK oddities? It struck me that the same kind of people who will stare resolutely at their shoes, ignoring your existence as they walk through town parks will greet you openly as they stride past you on a country footpath. Why? 

That same urban recalcitrance seemed to have gripped the man in a Chichester market stall selling a range of fat olives from big vats. He grunted when I stopped at his stall to examine the goods, and was clearly not about to offer any assistance. Can I mix them? I asked, switching to Italian. No surprise, no inquisitiveness – but the bolshy uncommunicativeness gave way to all the description I needed in some kind of southern Italian accent, the perfect clipped but informative Italian shopkeeper. 

There are various household items which have never worked for us – destined to fail from the word go. Salt was long a problem: every grinder we had swiftly rusted; every salt cellar silted up irrevocably. Now we’ve resorted to a big, canteen-style tin one. It seems ­– fingers crossed – to work.

Dishwashers, on the other hand, are a never-ending saga which shows no sign of ending. I’ve lost count of how many dishwashers we’ve had since we moved in here: five? six? Boh. It might be because they seize up due to under-use: more often than not, when there are just two of us (and there usually are), we wash up by hand. 

But all this is immaterial. What I really wanted to say was: when did repair men lose touch with spanners? In my most recent attempt to rescue the dishwasher, which was groaning to a halt about a quarter through the cycle, two men of few words turned up, pulled the machine out of its nook into the middle of the kitchen floor and stood looking at it. I described what it did and didn’t do. They shuffled about, one of them poking it a little.

They suggested pouring a barrage of toxic chemicals through it, at intervals. They had the chemicals in their van: they were expensive but they might do the trick. But that will destroy the delicate equilibrium in my perfectly balanced septic tank, right? I asked them. Yes, they agreed. Then no, I said. What now?

They wiggled assorted pipes in lacksadaisical fashion and advised running it empty a few times. Great. And that will be €50 please. Fine. They left and I began running the dishwater. A long slow snake of water made its way across the floor from beneath. Out of the frying pan. 

Thinking about the €50 tecnici it occurred to me: no tool bags, no tools. Clearly no intention of actually getting their hands dirty repairing the machine. 

There are fields where I revel in Italy’s wealth of craftsmen standing by to resolve any problem: the smiths and plumbers and artisan builders who’ll stick things back together for you at the drop of a hat. The moment anything approaching hi-tech is involved, forget it. My pre-call-out detaching of pipes and blowing down them was far more technical than anything those men did.

There’s nothing technical about a tecnico any more: he’ll sell you stuff; sometimes (but not this time) he’ll try to connect the machine’s motherboard to HQ for diagnosis which works solely on a cellphone signal which of course we don’t have in our secluded valley; or he’ll make wild theoretical stabs at things which might do something… anything. But he won’t, ever, unscrew bits and try to see what’s wrong.

Discarding and replacing is so massively taken for granted in our modern lives, it drives me to distraction. I’m going to start waving my flag for the Right to Repair movement. Fancy actually having to fight for the right not to have to chuck your electrical or electronic goods the moment they’re a trifle ropey. The EU is planning to put an end to built-in-obsolescence on its statute books some time next year. But will a generation of tecnici with spanners come to our aid?

This morning I had my third Covid jab. The latest omicron variant is pushing numbers up in Italy… though even as this country bursts through the 20K new cases a day barrier we can still smugly observe the UK with its almost-60K burden. (Fingers crossed that I don’t have to eat my words any time soon.)

The rules have been tightened slightly: interiors of bars and restaurants are only open to those who have been jabbed – repeat testing is no longer good enough. At the Caffè Matucci the other morning a woman ordering at the counter was complaining loudly about not being able to sit inside. “She does it every day,” the girl behind the bar told me. “She just wants to make a point. Then she sits outside.”

At some point, though, someone’s going to have to redefine ‘outside’. I mean, the thigh-height Corten planters defining the Matucci’s  ‘dehors‘ now have head-height perspex screens extending upwards. Huge white umbrellas cover the whole area and patio burners keep everything warm. For the latest in comfort, I see they’ve soldered a door to the planters on either side of the entry-gap. With icy winds and temps rarely going into double figures, it makes the outside more amenable to those unable or unwilling to go inside. But at what point does it stop being ‘outside’?

And moreover, how serious is this winter wave going to be? I asked myself this question as I gaily dismissed yet another request for a Pieve Suites New Year booking this afternoon. I’m completely full from 30th to 5th: it feels like old times. But… will regions be closed down if the situation gets out of hand? Will the bevvy of children who form part of the second party of guests fall prey to the contagion which is ripping through the youngest demographics? Will this bounce-back turn out to be a damp squib? We don’t plan these days, we dream.