26 November 2022

How difficult it has been to get back to this space. Things are so disconnected and busy and in movimento. I’m forgetting chronologies and episodes and even plans. It’s just one of those moments.

And so some fragments…

The Uffizi galleries close on Monday. Who cares if this particular Monday is a major public holiday, a day of dazzling blue skies and shoulder-to-shoulder tourists packing the streets of Florence? If it’s Monday, we close. Punto e basta.

On this particular holiday Monday I’m not complaining though: I’m with a handful of people who, extraordinarily, are being let in anyway. The guide showing us around has to fight back tears. “You simply can’t understand what it means to be in here with so few people,” she says. “I’ve worked here for years and I’ve never, ever, seen it like this.”

Walking the empty halls, standing nose-to-canvas with those works with no heaving mass of humanity between you and them; there were moments when I found it hard to breath.

One thing I (yes, I admit it) miss about lockdown are those moments when we – through luck and privilege – found ourselves essentially alone: in eerie Venice, in rattling Rome, and in Florence too which has now returned to anything but relaxing. Clawing back something similar was precious and truly special. But the uniqueness didn’t finish there.

Next step was a dusty, echoing, glorious stomp along the kilometre-long Vasari Corridor which links the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti, skirting then crossing the Arno, passing over the Ponte Vecchio, poking into the church of Santa Felicità. It’s a building site (which is why we were there: the day was organised for employees and friends by the company doing the restoration, Fratelli Navarra) but building sites are my favourite places and the grimy windows, and piles of tiles and bricks, and torn and well thumbed blueprints tacked to walls contributed as much to the satisfaction as having the place our ourselves.

Standing above the Ponte Vecchio, watching the crowds and the river flow below, I stopped being dazzled just long enough to wonder if there’s any way tourism can be spun so that you still get extraordinary thrills – without, of course, extending the creeping cancer out into even further-flung places which would do far better without it. Unfortunately I think the answer has to be: no.

And still on the topic of special places I’d love – but of course won’t be able – to keep for myself… what a spectacular discovery just across the valley in San Casciano dei Bagni. Twenty four amazing bronze statues, some from the second century BCE, pulled out of the stinky hot mud behind the Bagno Grande.

For as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve been going to these stone pools where everyone – from the old ladies of the town to the young people of the towns around – immerses themselves in the slightly oozy hot water and soaks in what feels like goodness. It’s great for catarrh and aches and pains and sciatica and infertility, or so the legends go. And though the Bagno Grande basins themselves could date from any time – and have obviously been reworked over the centuries – they have a decided feeling of antiquity about them.

The antiquity and – perhaps – the fertility thing were the catalysts for a long-overdue dig in the thermal swamp around. The thick giant reed beds surrounding the pools were removed and replaced by green plastic fencing. The lush vegetable gardens (the water’s obviously good for plants as well as people) tended by elderly people from the town on the hill above lost their aura of timeless calm.

A temple emerged, and a sacred pool and some curious coins. Local arts and culture societies enjoyed guided tours. It was all really quite low-key until this discovery shot San Casciano into the limelight. Now the eyes of the world are on that lovely rustic valley, and some way of displaying this wealth of riches will be have to be found. Naturally. And rightly. But I very much fear the late-evening wallows in those magical pools – scrambling, damp, back into freezing clothes in winter – will now be a thing of the past. All hail to archeological discoveries which change our perception of history. But I say that with more than a twinge of nostalgia.

Did I rave about Italy’s impressive government programme of financing for house refurbishments? Huge hand-outs for making houses earthquake resistant and hugely more eco-friendly? I did touch on it here I see, but I must also have whittered on about it somewhere else too, in connection with my grandiose plans for a complete makeover of our slightly collapsing chicken house out the back. But strangely I can’t find that.

I had drawn up beautiful plans for what was going to become a sweet little house at the state’s expense. I’d designed the kitchen. I’d planned the garden. In my head it was already a fait accompli. But the Superbonus turned out to be more complicated than it should have been, and the chaos it generated – especially for anyone working in the sector who was overwhelmed by soaring demand and soaring prices – meant that somehow my dreams evaporated, leaving a slightly bitter taste. But also a feeling of “so what now?”

The answer to which is: more property.

Friends from Rome were staying in my Pieve Suites. “Who were those people looking out the front windows?” he asked me. Alarms bells rang.

My little B&B occupies a strange space. All the very ancient terraced houses along that vicolo run long and narrow, from street right out to the medieval town walls. But I don’t have the whole long narrow house: I have a corridor from the front door which takes me to my half of the house – the half which looks out over the walls and the countryside. The house was divided cross-wise many years ago by two sisters who used the same front door (mine) and had connecting doors elsewhere (now closed). Since I bought my half, the darker, slightly smaller street-facing part has been empty.

Just a few days before – out of curiosity – I’d been to look around the house next door, which was going to be put on sale. The visit had tugged on my heart strings a little: there was no getting around the fact that these units were meant to be one, and not two like mine. Everything just seemed to go together better, the spaces made more sense. So I’d been thinking of my house, and its missing half, and how nice it would be to put it back together again. But who has money for that, eh?

Well, the answer to that question soon became “me” when it dawned on me that my missing part was on the market and people who weren’t me might end up occupying it. No no no no no. The final atto has yet to be signed but the deposit has been paid and hands have been shaken. Despite the expense, I feel like I’ve righted a wrong.

I’m walking down a street in Chichester, West Sussex, wondering why that old lady is being carried across the road. Then I realise that she’s being carried by my husband. He’s heading for a bus shelter, right in front of Chichester’s glorious cathedral. It’s pelting down and the lady is barely conscious.

And so begins the British ambulance-calling saga.

I explain that an elderly lady collapsed in the street and she has been carried to shelter on West St which runs along the side of Chichester cathedral.

Can I have a precise address? – Er, no.

Can you tell me the nearest house number? – No, all there is is a massive cathedral.

Can you give me the postcode? – Of course I can’t give you the postcode, I’m standing on West Street by the cathedral in the bus shelter. Isn’t that enough?

What town is that please? – Oh for god’s sake.

And on and on it goes.

Is the lady responding? – Barely.

Sorry I need a yes or a no. – Yes, barely.

Has she eaten in the last 24 hours? – But we just picked her up off the pavement. How on earth should I know?

Does she have rashes anywhere on her body? – Would you like me to remove all her clothes here in the bus shelter to check?

Perhaps it’s mean of me to complain. In fact, once the woman on the phone had finished her eternal, abysmal, pen-pushing, box-ticking litany the ambulance turned up after ‘only’ 20 minutes or so, staffed by two exhausted-looking young women (it was only mid-morning) who treated our old lady very kindly.

But the determination with which the woman answering emergency calls stuck to whatever was pinned to her clipboard was just so infuriatingly mindless, whatever her official rules of engagement might stipulate. It’s what has taken the place of efficiency in the health service in that post-developed dystopia.

The ambulance episode was all of a piece with our Health Service travails of late. Since September we’ve run the gamut from state-of-the-art intensive care to ramshackle local hospital where we had the impression that the whole truth was being studiously withheld in order to free up the badly needed bed being occupied by L’s stepfather. Obfuscation, plus lack of communication.

In his first meeting at the charmingly named discharge office, a lady informed L in no uncertain terms that stepfather was bedridden and doubly incontinent and needed round the clock nursing. But I’ve just bumped into him walking down a corridor chatting to people. Ah. More scrabbling about on the computer and yes, perhaps it’s more regular + Alzheimer’s residential care he needs.

Fine. Can you get him out asap? I’m doing my best.

L locates a friendly-looking home which sends the manager along to assess stepfather. Blood-out-of-stone style, she establishes that he has two MRSA superbug infections raging, which no one is doing anything about. Would the hospital really have been ok with releasing him in that state, to infect a whole nursing home? It seems so. What’s more, the small fall L had been told about was in fact one of four, which should be a red alert in a patient who has suffered major brain trauma. Has a CT scan been done? No.

It’s that heavy feeling of swimming though molasses, trying to establish which people do and don’t want you know which facts, for what end. Very distressing indeed.

So just as well there’s Chichester harbour to blow the confusion out of your brain. Each inlet is gorgeous in its own way, each coast-hugging path a treasure. Lazy herons and pecking egrets and the sound of lapping – unless you happen to get there at low tide for a scenario of endless mud. And thank goodness too for the stupendous yews of Kingley Vale, some of which are 2000 years old, making them some of the oldest living creatures in the UK. The walk though the wood there, en route to the top of the Downs beyond, sends shivers down my spine.

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.