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

15 June 2020

0616F

Occasionally I read back over what I’ve written and wonder what planet I’m living on. The answer, of course, is planet CdP and every now and then it hits me just how far out in the solar system it is.

My arguing for national behavioural trends on the basis of our Saturday market is right up there with a friend who recently tried valiantly to convince me – on the basis of the youth she knows in a village so small it makes CdP look like a metropolis – that young Italians were all happily employed (in April unemployment among under-25s stood at 20.3 percent – a 6.2 percent drop on the previous month but only because so many had given up in desperation and stopped seeking jobs during the lockdown.)

I see they’ve had to park armoured police cars in central Perugia to enforce an aperitivo-hour curfew. And even here in CdP, there’s a definite snuggling-together feeling in bars. In a queue in Lidl in Castiglione del Lago the other evening I saw a bunch of excited kids who looked about 12 years old paying for large crates of beer. I’m presuming that the smart ones who don’t want to get caught are doing their distance-free social drinking in fields and abandoned buildings, of which there are many.

Though grabbing a mask as you head out the door is now something you do, it doesn’t come naturally – at least not to me who through the worst of the lockdown was mostly safely ensconced down our lane and rarely needed to don the troublesome thing. So it’s easy to slip, but I still feel a shudder when I realise I’m standing or breathing or confiding too close to someone. Hopefully that shudder will keep me in line. But I’m not holding my breath for a smooth return to normality. The sense of crisis, of urgency, of extraordinariness is fast fading. And this, I suspect, is a handy back door for a second wave.

Similarly, my fears of virus-ridden foreigners flooding into the country when it (technically) opened its borders on 3 June were also unwarranted. Out of interest, a couple of days before that date I tried to make a fake booking on some UK-Italy flights. €1100 to fly from Manchester to Rome in 7h20mins? Seventeen hours and five minutes to do London-Venice? Of course we weren’t going to be inundated: there’s simply no reasonable way of getting here.

The few people who have managed to sneak back in, heaving sighs of relief, have been greeted with leaden skies and frequent rain. The end-of-winter feel that May delivered in 2019 is coming in mid-June this year. As I pull out my stashed-away woollies it’s weird to think that in April we were basking in temperatures approaching 30°. Still, nature is grateful for the rain and the landscape remains beautifully green.

0615DUnlike cities and towns with wild animal invaders, I don’t think we can credit lockdown quiet for the mass return of warm-weather fauna. These odd months haven’t been appreciably quieter in our neck of the woods, give or take a missing plane or two overhead.

But we have a fox that noses its way around the field – though it’s fast disappearing from view as the grass reaches record heights. The grass snake that lives in the chicken house (which I’m still trying very hard, without much success, to love – or at least to accept that it has every right to be there…) has been sunbathing on the bricks outside the front door. A brilliant high-speed flash exploded across the field one day when we were having lunch outside: I’d never seen a golden oriole around here before but our bird book tells us that central Italy is part of its habitat.

The tiny frog that took up residence in my mini-lily bowl outside the kitchen last spring appears to have returned. Of course I can’t vouch for its being the self-same frog but it’s the same kind of frog, and clearly equally as silly because it’s the worse possible place for a frog to be, what with passing semi-feral cats using that dirty algae-filled water as their main drinking bowl through the summer and buzzards and owls doing frequent fly-bys – and occasionally perching on the pergola right beside the bowl. Not to mention me bumping the little galvanised tin container about when I mowed around it, plus0615G constant foot traffic.

Do frogs have homing instincts? And anyway, where do they hang out in the colder months? Ah, I see that they go semi-comatose, generally at the bottom of ponds. So maybe my froggy friend was there the whole time, lurking in the very shallow depths. Moreover, unless some hungry bird of prey has them for breakfast, they’re pretty long-lived: some frog/toad species live for 40 years. Who knew?

Then there are deer bopping about the field ever more frequently (dropping their horrid disease-vector ticks I presume) and of course the boar, who were clearly delighted at our artfully sculpted, immensely neat little gurgling brook newly created at the edge of the field – so much so that they’ve thrown themselves into it (quite literally) with gusto and turned our landscape art into a massive muddy wallow to their own tastes. Only to be expected. This too we accept with all the good grace we can muster as part of our rural lifestyle.

0615E

Since doing that oh-so-satisfying work in our fields during lockdown, I’ve spent quite some time perusing the Umbria region’s website map pages, where there are aerial photos dating back to 1954. In 1954 Umbria was still pretty Third World. In fact, it was pretty feudal. The land was in the hands of very few families; the land was worked by sharecroppers whose lot was cripplingly tough. And how it was worked! We tend to think of our valley as ancient woodland but it isn’t. The only bits left wooded in this 1954/5 photo (our house is in the red square) are unfeasibly, slippy-steep. All along the stream which is now an impenetrable jungle, all down any slope where there was a 50/50 chance of not dying under an overturned tractor: they grew crops on the lot for their land-owning masters. It’s stunning and shocking and completely fascinating (below, for comparison, is a Google Earth picture from 2020, with plenty of evidence of the brutal coppicing that has been done over the past two years).

0615H

Perhaps our final big (immediately post-) lockdown task was covering the horrible red corrugated iron on top of the chicken shed lean-to. The previous covering had finally disintegrated after many years of sterling service.

When we last camouflaged it, in June 2012, the reeds used were – I believe – from Lake Trasimeno. When I asked the guy in the reed-mat place down by the lake if their mats were still lake reeds, he told me of course: what else would they be?

“Ah,” I said, “because I’d heard you weren’t allowed to harvest them any more.”
The powers that be, I had read, had banned this ancient practise because the reed beds weren’t regenerating themselves as they should, putting the whole lake environment at risk.
“Well of course not,” he said, as if he was dealing with a complete idiot. “You can’t pick our reeds.”
“Er, but, I thought you said they were reeds from the lake?”
“Yes, of course they are,” he said, in a ‘duh’ kind of way. “A lake in Hungary.”
Fine.

0615C