10 January 2021

Città della Pieve

Since Christmas we’ve had just three days without rain. That’s after a final month of 2020 which, with 213.5mm in the rain gauge, broke my – admittedly not hugely long-running – record. (The next-closest was 121.5mm in December 2017.) As well as wet, it has been pitilessly grey, with each tiny sunburst a moment of quivering joy. Otherwise, it has been hard to take.

Our local weather sage – a man of few words who plays his cards close to his chest – is giving increased odds of snow*** over the next few days which if nothing else will be a change. But the change I really want is blue skies and infinite vistas, not this lowering threatening soul-crushing murk. 

I have to say though: if nothing else, it goes with the zeitgeist.

My new year’s resolution to get a grip on my doom-scrolling habit crumbled immediately thanks to the absurdities across the Atlantic. Though ultimately the rabble entering the Capitol was entirely predictable, it had a mesmeric pull which was 9/11-like in its intensity. I had a little twinge of pride when I noticed something that I’d retweeted – Don Jr’s vile vid of what appeared to be a Trump family riot-watching party – had been made unavailable. I suspect that’s slightly pathetic on my part. (Newsweek argues here that it was nothing of the sort; but why, then, was the video taken down?) 

The other day a friend here asked what a British friend of hers would have to do to take up residence in Italy now, post-Brexit. The short answer to that was ‘I really don’t know’ – though obviously I found FB groups and websites dealing with that kind of thing to share. The query, though, brought a rush of memories – and yet another wave of disbelief that the UK could be so short-sighted as to deprive itself of something so exceptional.

When we arrived in Italy in 1984, the UK had belonged to the EEC/EU for 11 years, but the Maastricht treaty with all its wonderful ideals of European citizenship and real freedom of movement wouldn’t appear until 1992. So we could be here, but there were so so so many hoops to jump through, hoops made tighter and higher by a country where bureaucracy was still deliberately crafted to drive you crazy.

God knows how many times we rushed to the Questura (police HQ) at dawn to grab a number to plead for documents at the ufficio stranieri; or how many hours we sat in the dank corridors of police stations to pick up essential papers, only to find that we were in the wrong station, or the wrong corridor, or clutching the wrong data for the paper we needed.

There was the permesso di lavoro (work permit), a document that no one ever understood. To get one, you had to have a job. But to get a job, you had to have one. It was a balancing act. I got one: I came across it in an old file the other day. But I don’t think I ever used it: there’s no employer data written on it – just my name and address.

If I remember rightly, there were years when our permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay) had to be renewed annually. Then it was every five years. When I got an indefinite one – we were in the police station on the Celio in Rome – I remember wanting to cry. Finally there were no extra hoops, specially designed to make non-Italians feel other. Suddenly, it was like we belonged.

Of course today’s British exiles (we used to tell people – only partly in jest – that we were refugees from Thatcher’s Britain) will find a system which is remarkably streamlined in comparison. They’ll never have the experience of getting to know multiple police stations and each extraordinary bit of Fascist-era detailing in Rome’s anagrafe (records office).

Now we’re Italian, so all of this has no bearing on us. But I feel that we were part of the struggle to grasp a very special set of rights and privileges: to belong fully to a union which – however flawed – pulls together so many, allowing them to be united despite their manifold differences. It feels criminal that this has all now been thrown away for some cock-eyed, half-baked idea of taking back control. 

For each resident in CdP, there’s €21.5k deposited in the town’s banks, according to this article in the local press. In the whole of Umbria, only Orvieto and Perugia have more squirreled away per capita. 

It’s a bit of a broad-brush number of course, but I’ve been trying to draw conclusions. Are we all quietly affluent, the monied elite of the region? Or are we terribly tight-fisted? Is this money all ours, or are there outsiders exploiting our friendly banks to stash their ill-gotten gains? Do we sensibly keep a financial life-jacket close at hand or are we utterly without imagination about how to invest, opting for the simplest solution for our excess cash? (Which leads me to wonder what a quick check on pievesi mattresses might yield.) If I had to plump for one answer, I think it would be the last… mattresses included.

I’ve been accused by one of my regular readers of being tautological in my boar/hunter musings. Don’t like the boar. Don’t like hunters. 

Tautological, moi? I don’t think so. I prefer ‘nuanced’. 

I have nothing against boars per se: they are more than welcome to snuffle about in the fields and the woods if they want to. I love the sight of great multi-generational clans of them grazing and frolicking down there on summer evenings.

Of course there are boar actions which infuriate me. I’d thank them not to create crevasses in the field, chucking out huge stones which will eventually break expensive teeth on the grass-cutting tractor as they seek tasty roots. I’d have appreciated it if they’d gone on taking their mud baths down in the soggy valley rather than reshaping (unshaping?) my freshly styled rill during the Great Clean Up of last spring along the border of the field. I wasn’t all that thrilled when what sounded like hundreds of them scared me out of my skin when they crashed away through undergrowth near enough to reach out and touch as I took my regular stomp around the fields just the other day. But that’s just boar-y behaviour I’m afraid… and at least they were running away.

Hunters qua hunters, on the other hand, I can say I unreservedly loath (though see the proviso below) – because they deck themselves in Rambo kit and invade, gung-ho, anywhere that takes their fancy, smug in their conviction that no one can stop them; because they’re senselessly indiscriminate in their testosterone-fueled blasting; because for months of the year a smallish percentage of the 750K old men (the vast majority are between 65 and 78 according to Wikipedia) who have hunting licenses hold the whole country hostage, stopping the rest of us from going for walks even in our own fields without fearing for our lives on five days out of every seven (the rest of us get Tuesday and Friday, hurrah!). I could go on (and frequently do). 

The proviso to this is, of course, that quite a lot of these hunters are people who (when they’re not being hunters) I know, work with… even like. And I should also say that I do realise that there’s a probability that boar could take over were their numbers not controlled in some way or other. But that means well-organised occasional hunts overseen by the Forestry Police, aimed at removing a scientifically determined number of animals from circulation. Basta.

It’s good to get that out of my system every now and then.

***Shortly after writing that the snow started falling. Great soft flakes. Little of it has lain… so far.

2 November 2020

I spoke too soon about the hunters. Their hounds were yapping down there in our valley all yesterday morning. I heard few shots. But as I endeavoured to pull weeds out of my soggy beds yesterday afternoon, a boar somewhere started roaring in what I can only imagine was pain.

The hunters’ noises had all but disappeared by then: the only other human sound I could hear was the chatter of olive-picking from across on the parallel ridge. My first instinct was to move inside. The boar sounded close and I pictured it gathering its last bit of strength for a final charge at a random representative – me perhaps? – of the species which had put a hole in it. 

The moaning-roaring-grunting came and went, and I realised (largely thanks to L who, fresh back from his bike ride, ignored my eminently sensible warnings and strode down into our fields to investigate) that it was further away than I thought – far down our valley and probably up the hill on the other side. So I returned to my weeding, with one ear to the pain. I tried to call hunters I know to ask them to investigate but no one answered. Surely one of those infuriating dogs could have tracked the poor beast down, rather than abandoning it to its fate. 

This morning I could hear nothing out there except the usual birdsong and insect noises. I hope the boar has died, its suffering over. Problematic as boars can be, it pains me to think of anything in pain.***

We spent all day Saturday – (almost) entirely literally – wrapped in the thickest of mists. It was as if the day didn’t really exist. It’s odd to find ourselves in that situation: we’re used to feeling oh-so-smug about our sunny uplands as we survey the sea of mist in the Val di Chiana, wondering as we do how they could possibly bear so many months of clammy, reduced-vision winter.

On Saturday though it seemed somehow to reflect the general state of the world as we flounder towards more lockdowns, more illness, more deaths, more confusion… and a possible second presidential term for a man who really does seem to present an existential threat far beyond his own borders. 

There’s much talk of Covid fatigue, lockdown fatigue, virus fatigue. The Italian media are full of accounts of violence as protesters take to the streets to demand an end to masks and restrictions. As always, I find myself wondering whether these stories are given prevalence because they’re really what’s happening or whether they fulfil a pre-decided narrative arc. I noticed that some in the British media were careful to stress that these were ‘small’ demonstrations in Italy; elsewhere the usual tiny groups of right- and left-wing rabble rousers were blamed. Political commentator Fabrizio Barca was at pains to point out yesterday that all press eyes in Rome were on a handful of anti-mask thugs in campo dei Fiori whereas just across the centro storico thousands of masked marchers were peacefully asking the government for far tougher measures – plus adequate financial support – with barely any coverage at all. 

In this small Umbrian microcosm what I’m seeing above all is tetchiness. On the town Facebook page long squabbles break out over things which have only tangential bearing on the situation and how best to handle it. 

One local woman was rushed to hospital last week for something unrelated and, before she expired, was found to be Covid-positive. Cue angry, lengthy complaints over suggestions that this could be classed as a ‘Covid death’. 

And then there’s the discrepancy between town numbers and regional numbers, these latter always slightly higher than the former with regards to CdP. The debate is endless. Has the region got it in for us? Is our mayor hiding something? Can we believe anything from anyone if the numbers don’t align? The completely plausible explanation that one counts residents who are effectively domiciled in town, and the other just considers where sufferers are officially resident doesn’t seem to calm anyone down. (As I write, I’m talking about a 16/18 case divergence.)

Then there are the voices wailing that depriving children of their right to go to school is criminal. As things stand, no one is actually doing that. Kids of all ages have returned to their places of education, though classes where positive cases turn up are sent straight home. But this situation will probably change tomorrow when the latest government orders are issued: all but the very smallest children will probably return to what is currently my favourite new Italian ‘word’/neologism: dad, ie didattica a distanza

In theory I agree utterly that the learning and socialising and learning to be a member of society that school provides is essential… as is every parent’s right not to have to deal with children 24/7, and this is particularly so with women who in Italy – as everywhere, though perhaps more than in some places – find the burden of childcare fully on their shoulders. But I can’t help noticing that case numbers leapt not as a result of our fun summer of relatively carefree socialising, but came the moment three things happened: colder weather meant we started spending more time indoors (and inside, as this brilliant infographic shows, is dangerous); far more people started using crowded public transport for everyday moving about; and kids packed on to school buses and returned to classrooms. 

We were so relaxed, so confident about being in good hands. For the majority (of which I’m a part), the confidence is still there. Tomorrow’s new measures won’t include a full lockdown, but that will come I reckon, and it’s not too far away. The numbers are scary and the thought of what awaits us over the winter months is distressing.

Less scary and less depressing, though, because we’re here. 

My trip last week to Rome to plant a terrace was traumatic, even though I drove down, and spent the whole day backing away from workers and colleagues and clients outside on a terrace – a terrace with a view over the dome of St Peter’s so beautiful it almost took my mind off contagion. Almost.

Too many people about though, and without the same respect I feel here. Is it because country folk have more space, and more leisure to consider the effects of their actions? Is it because (here at least) they’re all more or less related to each other so don’t want to feel they’re infecting the family? No, I think it’s the same idea of local pride that keeps our streets so clean and our townscape so well cared for. We care about our shared space. And we don’t want to be seen to be letting the side down.

I’ve started putting my non-garden designs on my website – probably a vain task given the small number of people who happen upon my site and the even smaller number who spend time leafing through it. But if nothing else it’s important to have a record of the things I do, and something to show people should they ask. And I do love fiddling about with photos and websites.

 ***I’ve just noticed that all the thanks I got for my heart-ache for wounded boars was much serious digging all over what I call my lawn. There must have been dozens of the brutes out there last night. There are bits that look like they’ve been ploughed over, and holes you could break your ankle in. So not so much sympathy for the moment.