18 May 2021

For the past couple of weeks there has been a slight parallel-universe feel to news from the top. Powers-that-be in Rome have been ordering regions to open vaccinations up to over-40s. And over-30s. And why not over-20s too while you’re at it. Here in Umbria, 60s and above are wondering whether perhaps everyone has forgotten them.

In a gloriously offhand comment to local press last week one regional councillor explained why Umbria’s vaccination drive was still stuck on its Very Old People. “We have far more old people here because they live better and longer. We’ve had to go the extra mile to take care of our over-80s.” 

So is Umbria older? Well… yes, it seems. But not oldest. I’m drawing blanks looking for regional over-80s tables. But Umbria’s concentration of over-65s (25.8% of the population according to Statista’s 2020 figures) places it third among Italian regions behind Liguria and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

I’m wondering though whether Umbria’s interpretation of ‘caregiver’ – who are also entitled to vaccination alongside the recipients of their caring – might not be rather looser than elsewhere. Because although anyone born between 1952 and 1961 has been palmed off with – as of yesterday morning – the chance to ‘pre-book’ (which basically means putting your name on a list then waiting to be called up when they get round to it), Umbria ranks second in Italy for vaccinating over-30s, third for over-40s and fourth for over-20s – or so says this local rag quoting Il Sole-24 Ore. So we’re stealing a march on the rest of the country? At this stage of the proceedings, it’s a bit of a flimsy record.

In the mean time, the country opens up… despite large unvaccinated swathes. I find it quite angst-provoking. I hope this thing doesn’t backfire.

Things I will miss when we get over this: 

  • masks. I’m so fond of my mask – as a winter nose-warmer; as the thing which keeps other people’s germs away from me; because when infuriating bugs do all in their power to get up my nose while I’m digging in the garden there’s generally a mask handy that I can grab to foil them; because when we’re all wearing them I can pretend not to recognise people I don’t particularly want to talk to.
  • the curfew. We’re opening up but – at least for a few more days – we all have to be tucked up in our own homes by 10pm. We’re now at the that delicious stage where you can invite up to four people into your home for dinner. But at a comfortably early time of evening – how comfortable is determined by the length of their trip home – guests are getting their coats, and you’re planning the rest of the evening’s viewing and/or reading.
  • people bringing us stuff. Already the sweet boys who deliver delicious bread of a Sunday morning have intimated that if we’d like to go and pick it up in distant Paciano, they’d be relieved to be spared the trip. Will Beppe keep bringing us his amazing ricotta? Will we be able to summon meals from Domenico at Il Poderaccio?
  • having a perfectly valid excuse to be a hermit.
  • having to share wonderful places with other people. We’ve experienced empty Venice. Next week we’ll find out what Florence looks like without the hordes. Last week, on the other hand, we had the Trevi fountain to ourselves… give or take an eastern European model and a very red dress.

I was in the city to work on a garden. L engineered a stay at The Hoxton Rome – newly opened and raring for reviews. The hotel was fun, which is I think the way they’d like it to be seen: I described it as a grown-up Generator but perhaps that was reductive. Its rooms are stylish, and really want to be your kind of thing. Public spaces are striving to be the place to be – your external office/meeting area/hangout. For many people, I’m sure they will be.

But being in that hotel – or even a hotel – wasn’t the special thing about being in the city. The special thing was the unique privilege of savouring the city itself at this time in history.

We decided to walk from the hotel’s Salario-zone location to the Capitoline – a brisk 40-minute walk through the northern inner suburbs, then through the northern part of the centro storico. The pattern was: mediumly bustling life in that outer zone (just as I had found the previous day in Monteverde Vecchio where my garden work took me); then, the more centrale, the more devoid of people it became – the entirely glorious opposite of ‘normal’ Rome. 

‘Normal’ Rome is pushy and ill-tempered. It’s beautiful of course – breathtakingly so. But it makes you feel hot and/or flustered, even when you can’t blame the weather. It smells unhealthy. You feel like the city makes you aggressive. You feel like over-wrought Romans would push you under a passing bus to get by.

In pandemic Rome the Romans that aren’t WFH in the sticks look almost relaxed at café tables. (Café tables? Romans gulp their caffè at the counter! With that habit banned under Covid rules, they’re learning new, calmer skills.) When you’re not in a pressure cooker, there’s more time to look about, to take in the superb emptiness of it all. There’s time, too, to wish that it could always be much more like that.

At the Campidoglio, we saw the Torlonia Marbles exhibition. It is extraordinary. The Torlonia family has had that collection of ancient marble statues (plus one magnificent bronze) gathering dust in their Tiber-side cellar in Rome’s Trastevere district for many many generations while branches of the family have squabbled over who owns what, and – perhaps – sold off bits and pieces of it and smuggled them out of the country to settle outstanding debts. (We both had a brief glimpse into the Torlonia world at Villa Albani a couple of years ago; L, on the other hand, recently visited the Trastevere deposit which is also described in a recent BBC report).

The exhibition is an incredible promenade through ancient Rome, displayed publicly for – I think – the first time. The show was in doubt until the last minute as a couple of T-principi fell out over who should be pulling which strings. As it was, the well-spaced visitors (numbers are, of course, very limited) were mainly Roman, and quite a lot of them more than old enough to have been thorougly vaccinated some time ago – elderly Romans making the very best of their remarkably gentler city.

I had a couple of busy days at Pieve Suites recently which felt stimulating in parts and panicky in others. It seems so long since I’ve had guests! The odd requests have begun again too. One character wanted the whole place for three months; then wanted one suite for six weeks; and then fled – very graciously and apologetically – when I quoted him a very discounted price for one suite for one month. Had he not checked the tariffe page of my website? The same question goes for the man who was very keen on having a “very discreet and private” suite for one night: he would arrive that same evening and his lady friend would turn up the following day at 11am after which they’d need the room until about 6pm. Ummm, I explained: check-out is by noon. So how much is two nights? No apology here, just stunned silence: clearly his lady friend the “dottoressa” wasn’t worth the price of a two-night stay. Does my website emanate an air of maison de passe? I don’t think so.

Look carefully: there are dozens of boar of many sizes down there

26 April 2021

In a normal year, this would be a moment of glory for my lawn-not-lawn. Even my surprising biodiversity (for which read: weeds) generally looks green and lush at this point in the spring. This year? It’s baked hard underfoot and the thin green around the bald patches has a decidedly mid-August air to it.

April so far has brought us 26mm of rain (av. 73mm*), after March’s record-low 9.5mm (av. 89mm*). After some blue days of pure joy, greyness stretches away into the foreseeable forecast-future now – but what we’re promised is drizzle, not rain. Which really isn’t all that useful. It’s amazing, all things considered, how beautiful everything (except my grass) looks.

How it should be
How it is

All right, while I’m complaining… my wisteria. Oh, my wisteria! That one early-April night of -4°C, whisked in on a northerly gale, must have turned the metal pergola outside the kitchen into a deep-freezer element. My flowers are fried. I’ve read in several places that I shouldn’t touch them, that the plant will expel them and heal in its own time. But it’s painful each time I open the door and see the bedraggled things. Maybe I’ll be rewarded with a bumper summer reflowering. 

And now on to spring positivity. At the end of the very same day I heard my first cuckoo, we fell asleep to the first nightingale-melody. How I love that sound! The lilac has been splendid; the irises stop me dead in my tracks each time I go through the front door. The asparagus are finally going beserk, though really only since I attached the timers and got my watering system going for regular dousing. 

Down in the woods – where we, and especially L, have been spending much time on our path-clearing projects – the flora is spectacular. What a superbly magical world it is down there, with a quiet which is unlike any other, alive with rustling and birdsong that sound like they’re coming from somewhere else. 

We’ve snipped and hacked our way through the brambles and other undergrowth in that valley (dark green on the photo below) across from our house which was wooded even in this 1954 photo (there’s nothing but dense scrubby vegetation now). It’s a very special place. Next up: the rather shorter (pale green) route to the house on the facing hill – one of the very few constructions we can see from our own house and, coincidentally, home to friends. This as-yet-uncleared path was obviously once a farm track wide enough to travel with your horse and cart: you can see this from the trees lined up neatly along what used to be the track-edges. Now it’s well-nigh impenetrable. But one big push and we’ll be through. It’s so satisfying breaking out into the clear.

L has also been pursuing his other mission in these end-of-lockdown (hopefully) days: tree sculpting. The few trees protruding from our field are being made shapely. The old apple tree, liberated and refashioned last autumn, has been heavy with blossom and is looking splendid. Last weekend’s challenge on the other hand were the waving willows which are now so elegant that I shall henceforth describe them as a ‘stand’ rather than a ‘clump’. It sounds more fitting somehow. 

All this as re-opening fever grips the country. Or at least so I’m told, though personally I won’t be rushing out to take advantage of our new (as of today) freedom to cross regional borders. Driving south for a work appointment this morning, L said the roads were packed, like he hadn’t seen them for months. In fact for over a year. But as people who needed to cross borders for work (or medical reasons etc) were never barred from doing so, I’m kind of wondering where all these extra travellers are going. I’m also thinking that it’s a while since L drove south early on a Monday morning, and I’m suspecting that perhaps it has been like that all along – we just haven’t been sharing the road with them and so we haven’t noticed.

As of today we can resume consuming in cafés and bars, though only seated at tables (ie no counter service in bars) and only, for the time being, in the open air. I had an appointment to celebrate this with lunch in town but the date fell through and really (though it would of course have been nice to see those friends) it’s not something I’ve been hankering after so much that I felt the need to dine out at the first opportunity to make up for lost time. I say that slightly guiltily, in that I know that this is a godsend for purveyors of food and beverages who have suffered through some hellish times over the past year.

Pieve Suites

For them – but also for myself – I’m hoping that not everyone shares my lack of enthusiasm for escape from captivity. It’s a challenge, trying to guess how hospitality in all its forms will pan out in the months to come. On the eating- and drinking-out front, there’s no doubt that local hostelries will be heaving. Accommodation is a little harder to predict. Brits seem to be confined to quarters for the foreseeable future with the £5K fine for frivolous border-crossing still in place. But today the EU is muttering about the possibility of allowing vaccinated Americans to visit (also this from The Guardian) once again. (We are still waiting for our jabs, though the campaign has picked up speed remarkably. For the time being we’re keeping a low profile but rather enjoying telling people “us? no! we’re far too young!”) And, like last year, Italians will be dying to flee their cities for some country cocooning. 

So I’m trying to do a little sprucing up at Pieve Suites, painting rusty old iron railings and generally getting the place ready for a season which will probably happen and may burst upon me sooner than I expect. At least, I keep my fingers crossed.

*averages based on my rainfall measurements, over the period from 2013-2020