7 & 10 July 2022

With no rain to speak of since the first half of April, we were expecting fireworks when it finally came. There was no hail, for which my ripening tomatoes thank the weather gods. In the end we had over 43mm. It came down hard and in a remarkably short time, accompanied by lightning flashes and rumbling round the valleys. And it took out our electricity line somewhere impervious where the repair men are clearly struggling to reach it. So I shall sit here in the gathering gloom until the battery on my computer runs out. And then I shall go to bed.

I’m hoping that this dousing will cool our roof. Our roof is well insulated of course but in the last couple of years I’ve been wondering quite how well. Does insulation become depleted? Or are our summers hotter and/or is our personal heat resistance waning? I don’t know what I’m saying ‘we’. Yes, I wouldn’t mind if it were a couple of degrees cooler up on the first floor but it’s certainly not giving me sleepless nights (what does?) Not so for poor L though who feels he’s being baked alive and is clamouring for air-con.

My objections to air-con are manifold. They’re ecological and financial and most of all they’re personal because I hate that worked-over air which dries my insides up and makes my head feel hollowed out. Also, I loath being cold.

As we debate the issue (over and over) I think of the winter – the hauling wood and the piling on sweaters – and I want the summer to go on for ever. Just as L is finding hot increasingly difficult, I’m struggling to cope with cold. Funny how extreme your rapport with climate can become.

We fled for three days, to Lake Como. For L it was work; for me it was escapism. (Would I be ungracious if I admitted that when I saw that expanse of water I instinctively wished it was the sea?)

Reason number one for the visit was an out-of-the-blue invitation to attend the 150th anniversary party for the Villa d’Este in Cernobbio – an honour extended to only a handful of journalists. There were hundreds of glamorous guests. There were strutting entertainers in fantastical and ever-changing costumes performing a role in the proceedings which was sometimes difficult to grasp. There was enough champagne to fill the hotel’s gratingly blue pool many times. There was lobster, and there were very young table companions with achingly expensive noses and pouty lips. And there were truly magnificent fireworks over the lake, illuminating an evening when forecast downpours happily never materialised.

I was excited to see the hotel’s famous garden and gosh, does it have fine bone structure. The double rills running down the axis from the temple of Hercules to the massive ‘mosaic house’ at the bottom are gloriously elegant, and the plane trees are just plain magnificent: you hug them as hard as you can and your arms are still only a quarter way round their massive trunks. But oh oh oh… the vast beds of red begonias. I’m writing that without even being certain that that is what was planted: I’ve kind of canceled it from my memory. But it’s definitely the spirit of the thing – a gardeners’ garden, planted with the kind of annual bedding plants which can be replaced several times a season but never ever evoke anything (in me) except mild despair.

It was all of a piece, mind you, with the hotel’s plush interior – an old world (not necessarily in a good way) extravaganza of thick-piled blue and gold patterned carpet and rococo reception rooms. All ultra-luxurious of course: just very very uninspired.

In Como town (elegant if a little cold, in the style of small northern towns) and in Verona, we stayed in new hotels of the Vista group: chic, classic-contemporary, very tasteful but – to return to my air-con dislike – painfully chilly. These places were lovely – don’t get me wrong – and tasteful in the extreme, with spas and restaurants and 24 hour reception staff. But they did leave me wondering: “has the *****L label become a little devalued?” Of course I’m aware that star ratings for Italian hotels are just a matter of box-ticking: rack up sufficient points (bathrobes, tick; uniformed staff, tick) and your stars accumulate accordingly. But it would be nice if the ‘luxe’ addition really meant something truly extraordinary. And these, though extremely pleasant, had nothing (except air-con) to make you gasp.

And then there was Villa Passalacqua in Montrasio where we didn’t stay but one day will, and where the garden was just sublime: an 18th-century design, carefully restored, running from villa on high right down to the lake waters along an intertwining double staircase. Each of the lateral levels has been adapted to something hotel-y to a greater or lesser degree: the orchard with cute fluffly hens in their decorative coop, the vegetable garden, the lovely rose garden with hydrangeas beneath immense magnolias, the pool terrace and the tennis courts. There’s some planting which I wouldn’t have done, though nothing at all offensive. There are some over-jolly fabrics which I might have avoided. But the overall impression is of immense attention to really eye-catching design with a purpose: the opposite, in fact, of Villa d’Este.

A (completely gratuitous) funny-face
spider eating a bee

(The advantage of sitting by the open window in the living room, typing in the dark, is the front-row view over a magnificent lightning show on the horizon. It’s flashing across the sky in the same bright orange which until half an hour ago was also tinging the piles of cloud over there.)

In Verona a client joined me by train and we headed into the wilderness of small and medium industry – Italy’s productive backbone – between there and Vicenza to look at stone. Margraf is a giant among stone wholesalers. And it’s where the marble for my client’s kitchen tops was (we hoped) lurking.

To – I think – the great annoyance both of the kitchen cabinet maker and of the marmista who will cut the worktops to fit, we insisted on going ourselves to select pieces of marble, despite the fact that neither of them could accompany us, to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t do under-the-counter deals and somehow leave them out of any business concluded. We had no intention of course of doing any such thing, but the whole trip had a slightly naughty schoolgirl feel to it nonetheless.

At Margraf they were dumbfounded: I’m not sure how often they find themselves with two strange women pounding about between the vast slabs. They trailed us around as we studied the marbles and granites and creamy gorgeous onyxes, clearly unsure quite how to handle us… until we optioned the four slabs which we’d already seen on line, had thought would be the ones for the project, and had seen right at the start of our warehouse visit. By the time we left they seemed to have rather warmed to us.

10 July

Time passes. The computer battery died. I made my way to bed with my head torch on… then woke up some time not long after midnight with all the lights in the house glaring at me. Well done Enel (electricity company) I thought, working through the night as is their wont to restore power to blacked-out residents.

(Just as well I was planning for long-term light loss and forced myself not to open the fridge door once: the downstairs circuit failed to turn itself back on. But the food in the freezer seems to come through unscathed.)

Our neighbour Ettore, whose house is nearest the fallen line, was less thrilled with Enel when I talked to him yesterday. I hadn’t realised that there was no way the line could be repaired after the storm: for the time being we’re limping along with a huge and – I’m told – very noisy generator which is keeping the neighbourhood alight. And the generator was plonked, without so much as a by-your-leave, on Ettore’s property, not far at all from Ettore’s house.

He is – understandably – livid. But there’s absolutely nothing he can do.

It’s a feature of every contract for the sale/purchase of properties with land attached that utilities companies – electricity, water, gas – enjoy a “servitù“, ie the right to plough across your fields and woods with whichever equipment they need to work on any infrastructure they see fit – to mend existing kit or install any other. Property owners have no right whatsoever to protest.

It’s a fine example of the good of the commonweal taking precedence over the rights of the individual and can even seem quite reasonable… until you find a noisy generator throbbing outside your living room window. In June 2003, two years after we bought this house, the Green Party backed a referendum on removing this servitù but nothing doing: insufficient people were interested in the topic and the referendum fell by the wayside because a quorum wasn’t reached. Now Ettore and his wife are experiencing the fallout first hand.

We’re all living with another result of no-quorum referendum burn-out: hunters. In 1990 and 1997 Italian voters were asked to stop hunters tramping across any property that took their fancy. They preferred, instead, to go to the beach (the referendums were held in June) and desert the ballot boxes. And so we live with the consequences through the winter. Perhaps we’re ready for another attempt.

There was more back-to-normal activity at the end of June when our Infiorata was finally up and running again. And normality too in the awarding of the ‘floweriest street in town’ plaque to Borgo di Giano, where my Pieve Suites is located. It took me a while to stick my head above the parapet and ask whether we had won: I was (and indeed am) less than pleased with my own attempt to make my front door particularly floral. Why is this? I mean… making beautiful outside spaces is – er – what I do. And I (modestly) think that Pieve Suites’ private garden out back above the walls is rather lovely. But somehow I have never turned my attention to what happens outside the front door.

By next year’s competition, my front door will be glorious, I promise. And I won’t have to worry that it might have been me who dashed the street’s chances. Though actually I have nothing to fear really. The wonderful ladies who keep the vicolo looking splendid are indefatigable despite me, and we have won every single time. It should really just be called the Borgo di Giano prize.

For no particular reason, I’m including this screenshot from our vital and hyper-active local FB group which is so beautifully pievese in its elegant mixture of official complaint, veiled threat and sheer seething fury that someone could do something so abject as steal a child’s bike. It slides in a rapid crescendo from elegant subjunctives to a grand finale of crude invective in a way that’s pure, unpunctuated, free-form CdP poetry. I just love it.

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.