6 January 2020

I have been known, I know, to crow about how you can more or less forget garden exertions in winter. But since a couple of days before Christmas when the drear damp that had plagued us for weeks gave way to pale crispy blue, I have found myself resenting every moment I’m not raking up the soggy half-decayed leaves that are damaging my so-called lawns or grappling with the crouch grass that ran rampant across my garden beds all through autumn inundations. It feels like a liberation.

We’ve been walking too – not much I admit but in speedy mediumly ambitious spurts very locally. I love walks that don’t involve cars. Striding straight out the front door is so satisfying. As L contemplates the little illustrated walking guide to the Amalfi Coast he’s going to write for guests at Le Sirenuse, I’m thinking: perhaps I should do the same (in a slightly humbler fashion) for my guests at Pieve Suites. I’ll see what I can come up with.

Market chats with strangers: I love them.

There was hardly anyone at my favourite vegetable stall as I rushed by last Saturday morning, so I stopped to avoid coming back later at a more convenient time for me only to find myself waiting endlessly in the usual scrum. The vegetable boys are kindly, but fast-talking and sardonic. For the past 20+ years they have worked their land down near Lake Bolsena all week (they also have an agriturismo which I’m told is lovely) and brought their produce to Città della Pieve on Saturday morning.

“What are you doing with all that bedding?” said Roberto nodding towards the big white bed cover I had in my arms. I explained that I had just washed it and was taking it back to Pieve Suites. Then I explained what Pieve Suites was, as I’d never told him about it before.

“So you rent to Germans?” he asked.
“Why on earth Germans?!” I said, knowing what was coming.
“Aren’t you German?”
“Of course not! You’ve known me for years Roberto: you should know that! In fact… I’m Italian.”
“Hah! What kind of Italian do you think you are? You’ve got to be joking!”
“I have an Italian passport (actually I don’t, but I could) and I’m very very proud of it,” I told him.

A huge snort from Roberto.

“You see?” piped up the only other person at the stall. “She’s proud. Are we proud? Not at all.”
And off he went on a long elucidation of Italy’s glories. “And do we appreciate all this? No, all we do is criticise and complain. We don’t know how lucky we are!”
“But I, on the other hand, chose it,” I pointed out (as I always do: I’m a bit of a broken record on this theme). “I knew what I was letting myself in for and I chose it, not like you people who just happened to be born here. And now I have every right to be proud of it.”
“That’s how we should be!” said the other vegetable purchaser enthusiastically. But Roberto just snorted and looked at us pityingly.
Poveri voi!” he said. Pathetic, both of you.

His vegetables are wonderful.

We did our main Christmas meal on the evening of December 24th this year. C and her partner had to rush off to his parents straight after lunch on Christmas day so it seemed logical. I was in the midst of my usual organised chaos in the kitchen at about 7.10pm when the phone rang. On the other end was a man from Telecom Italia.

Our phone line has been driving us up the wall since mid November. It, like me, doesn’t like winter. It doesn’t like wind or rain. For weeks it had been intermittent, our adsl connection had been grindingly slow, our land line dropping in and out. Infuriating.

I had reported problems over and over again. Technicians had popped down to the house and fiddled with wires; men with chainsaws had cut away vegetation beneath the poles. Still it came and went. Then we lost it completely, a week before Christmas, dead as a dodo. Miraculously, on 23 December, a whole swarm of Telecom boys had appeared in the valley and removed a tree that had fallen on the line and brought it down. Merry Christmas! But even newly patched up, the connection continued hopeless.

And now, at 7.15pm on Christmas eve, I found myself on the phone to a slow-speaking man with an air of resigned despair, the weight of the telecommunications world on his shoulders, who was determined to talk me through all the possible convolutions of what could be wrong with the way our phones and modems and routers and boosters are plugged into our system. Picture me with the phone lodged between shoulder and ear as I chop and peel and mix, trying to be as patient as I could because he seemed to be so quietly determined to solve all my problems that I really didn’t feel I could let him down.

On and on he droned, for about quarter of an hour, sounding mildly disappointed – like a parent who doesn’t want to let on her child see how catastrophic its exam results are – at those points where I told him that no, right then I really couldn’t go upstairs and unplug everything and plug it in again. I felt I was letting him down terribly.

But there just came a point when I couldn’t take any more. My neck was aching and I had burnt my hand on the oven doing complicated baking manoeuvres with a phone threatening to slip into the heat from its position under my chin.

“Sorry,” I interrupted him, “but aren’t you planning to have any Christmas dinner?” Italians tend to celebrate on the evening of 24th. He sounded a little crestfallen – though also perhaps secretly proud.

“No, no, I don’t have any plans to. Someone has to be here to handle emergencies,” which hardly describes a phone line which at that point had been failing on and off for six weeks. “Anyway, Christmas really isn’t my thing,” he added wistfully.

I was almost tempted to invite him to join us. Truly, Telecom Italia moves in mysterious ways.

***Shortly after posting this piece I bumped into Nuvola the donkey and her owner Ettore (pictured at the top) trudging down our lane. Both looked disgruntled.

“She was meant to accompany the three wise men on their procession through town,” said Ettore. Yesterday was Epiphany, 6 January, when the three wise men (or kings, depending on the version you choose) dropped by to see the newborn baby Jesus in Bethlehem. “But she just put the brakes on and refused to take a single step. She made me look terrible!”

Poor Nuvola. She has been subjected to all kinds of indignities over the past few days, being mauled about by kids (and nuns) in the local kindergarten and officiating at various costumed yuletide events. Maybe she’d just had enough.

Or maybe she knows her Christmas folk tales too well. Who ever heard of a wise man (or a king for that matter) on a tiny donkey? They needed imperious camels or perhaps elephants to carry them to the stable, not a delicate donkey fed up with festive brouhaha.

All of which goes to prove that even a CdP ass is better informed than many right-wing Italian MPs – the kind who invoke (their) religious beliefs as some kind of gold standard –  who fell by the wayside when asked where Jesus was born (in Italian only, sorry). And then they moan that we’ve lost the true meaning of Christmas.

28 December 2018

1228MDecember disappeared. (Just like much of 2018 really.)

Quite early on I attended one of those ceremonies: the quick dash and tricolor sash. In the public records bit of the CdP town council building, with dear friends T&A giggling in the background and L snapping away to immortalise the moment, I swiftly swore to respect the Italian Constitution and signed various very large bits of paper and hey presto, I was Italian. Good.

A jaunt mid-month to the UK – a ruse to avoid spending Christmas there – honed my desire to have nothing to do with that country or the self-harm it’s inflicting on itself. There’s no other topic being dealt with – on TV, on the radio, on the streets and in every home. It’s hashed and rehashed and debated endlessly, yet in alienating fashion. There’s really nothing to say that hasn’t already been said, ad infinitum and definitely ad nauseam. Each solution (other than that of saying ‘ooops, took a wrong turning, how silly, we’d better stay’) is one more unfeasible than another. Positions are consistently fuzzy. On the evening news intrepid reporters step out to hear the voice of a people which seems even less well informed and – in glassy-eyed fashion – less engaged than ever (something which perhaps bodes badly for those urging a second referendum). It all has a surreal feel to it, utterly disengaged from planet Earth. 

How refreshing, then, to jet back to a world where the main reaction to Brexit is “what? haven’t they gone yet?”

Prior to that disturbing UK turn, we had another of our luxe experiences in Rome, this time at the hotel recently opened at the Fondazione Alda Fendi HQ overlooking the arch of Janus behind the Capitoline. I say hotel but actually The Rooms of Rome comes on more as a ‘residence’, its suites equipped with kitchens and dining tables and more square metres than the average Roman apartment. Jean Nouvel did the décor which I found I warmed to despite myself: Nouvel is not an architectural name which generally fills me with admiration.

At first glance there’s something a tiny bit old hat about the design of the 25 suites: with its distressed walls and ‘60s-type tiles it sails close to tired. The huge stainless steel boxes (they contain wardrobes and what have you) breaking up the spaces verge on the cold. And the white white bathrooms (some are blocks of other colours or tones, but all are monochrome) fashioned out of Corian has a kitschy space-age-‘80s air. But somehow the various elements hang together, working well with the shadowy corners and hugely high ceilings, and oodles of space for stalking about. 

Far be it from me to compare my own little suites with these entirely-on-another-level ones, but there’s a similar lack of clutter here: clean lines and empty space predominate. He has stuck (unaware, of course) close to my mantra of comfortable-minimal. I enjoyed it. (And I felt I’d climbed into my very own comfortably feathered nest in the red Gaetano Pesce chair.)

The Fendi Foundation (aka, for reasons best known to the fondazione, Rhinoceros) is also a rather good restaurant, a roof terrace with a view over Rome to make you weep for joy and a gallery with a handy deal with the Hermitage. It had been inaugurated some days before with a show of sketches by Michelangelo. As we poked about in dark corridors and on empty landings late at night, there they were: Michelangelo drawings just for us. You could put your nose right up to the glass cases and inhale the wonder. It was all rather special.

December also saw me embarking on the long-planned concimaia makeover though after a brief spurt of extraordinary progress, this has ground to a halt. I have little to blame but myself: the weather has been gorgeous and the season is right for the shrub-shifting, earth-moving tasks needed to complete the whole thing. I haven’t even been particularly busy. I simply haven’t pushed myself to get around to it.

I have one thin line of defence, in that the contractors who will – I hope – do the rest of the work have been otherwise engaged and not at all loath to put the whole thing off until the new year. 

So since that mid-month flurry of activity, I find myself looking over in that direction occasionally, and am startled by incongruous new walls I had almost forgotten about, not to mention great piles of earth waiting to find some place useful to be stuck back.

This corner is another example of (the many) things I see so clearly in their finished state in my mind’s eye that getting around to actually carrying my ideas through becomes almost academic. But there are moments – especially when my roses are ragged and my grass is a brown and leaf-covered mess like right now – that I look beyond these neglected bits to even worse, long-term dereliction and wonder how on earth I can call myself a garden designer if I don’t pull my finger out and create beautiful elements – liveable rooms, focal points, things of elegance and calm – for myself. It’s all a bit of a hopeless wilderness.

Now days are getting longer again, or at least they are in theory. In fact this year I thought I was detecting signs of hope even before the solstice, though that was probably a mixture of wishful thinking and some utterly glorious cloud-free days that brought extra light into our winter-bound home. I’ve done those year-end indulgences such as tidying my seed box and slavering over the Organic Catalogue and drawing up my wishlist for next year’s perfect orto. I’ve even planned that perfect expanse of intensive veggie production, bed by rotating bed.

But that’s about the full extent of my gardening activity: all on paper (or rather, on screen). At times I love to revel in the fact that there’s really nothing much that has to be done outside when it’s cold. And I slink about the place without achieving very much. But in the end I realise I’m wasting precious time.

The garlic needs to go in the ground now, otherwise the cloves will not divide properly. This sounds like an old wives’ tale, but some pretty trustworthy sources maintain that without a month or two of single-digit or even sub-zero temps you risk finding yourself with heads of just a couple of huge cloves. My aglione (a giant garlic, seeing a revival here in the Val di Chiana) this year was a case in point: many of the onion-sized heads emerged from the ground as a single clove. I planted quite late in the spring. Of course now I don’t know what to do about replanting: deciding what goes into the ground and what goes into the pot is tough when there’s not much to go around.1228L