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.