21 May 2020

0521FWe had lunch at the Café degli Artisti on Tuesday. I was less than enthusiastic, but L was keen, and helping the owners of a place we like to get back on their feet was a big enticement. The tables were widely spaced; the staff were kitted out in masks and gloves. Was I comfortable? No. And was this popular place humming with people keen for a taste of normality? No. It was almost empty.

We see pictures in the media of close-packed aperitivo-sipping crowds in urban nightlife hotspots, or shoppers piling back into retail meccas and think “is this really happening?” Actually, I have to say in my skeptical ex-hack way that I have very serious doubts about it indeed. Those piling-in photos could so easily be the result of well chosen positions and angles.

My attempts to find nationwide whole-crisis statistics on the number of people fined for infractions of anti-Covid regulations have come to naught. But the interior ministry gives a day-by-day summary. On May 20, for example, of the 125,582 people stopped by police just 460 were fined and of those only three were breaking quarantine rules – even fewer than I would have expected given my suspicions about the stupidity of people in general.

But as we know, “People Being Good” is never going to be an attention-grabbing headline, and “well behaved populace out and about minding its own business” doesn’t make a great photo caption. In their own portrayal of national behaviour, Italians don’t do much to dispel the undisciplined Mediterranean stereotypes.

Was it lockdown-cramp that needed a good old stretch – a grand gesture to ease the numbness? Or was it realising guiltily that our long period of forced (relative) inactivity could have been put to better use? Whatever made us do it, we finally got around last week to finding out what lurked in the jungle in the south-west corner of our field.

Is everyone’s life packed full of things which you’re always, always, always meaning to do but which somehow never get done? That corner down there has been a dense expanse of giant reed (Arundo donax), brambles and Old Man’s Beard (Clematis vitalba) ever since we bought the place in 2001. Occasionally a brave man on a field-cutting tractor would chip away at the very edges of the mass to stymy its inexorable growth when it threatened to engulf more of the field.

Where collapsing terraces disappeared into the greenery on the western side, we could see the tops of a few walnut trees; each year the trunks became more invisible beneath their twining cover. And further down the field, it was a struggle between the climbers and the waving grey-green tops of a few willows – we couldn’t tell how many – to see which would beat the other to grab the most sunlight.

Now the climbers have gone and the willows are liberated. The water from the spring slightly further up (it’s on the neighbour’s land, not ours: I tried and tried to buy that strip but wily old Mario, who’s no longer with us, knew better than to abandon such a precious thing as a private water source) is now neatly channeled into a gently winding… well, I’d like to call it a stream but muddy ditch is perhaps more accurate.

The climbers were munched up and spat out; the wasted lower branches of the trees which had been denied any light at all for decades were stripped off and buried deep beneath what has now been remodelled into an extraordinarily graceful sweep of… again, I was about to get ahead of myself and call it meadow whereas in fact it’s mud after the bit of rain of the past couple of days. But in my over-enthusiastic (utterly unrealistic?) garden designer‘s mind’s eye, I’m well on my way to an 18th-century English landscape masterpiece.

The more down-to-earth me thinks: finally… a far finer prospect than before. (The downright banal me thinks: how on earth are we going to stop the brambles from taking over again?)

Once again it was my colleague Giuseppe Ciampani – he who reshaped the levels around the old concimaia for me last year and has worked on various of my professional projects – who interpreted my rather fluid and opaque requests/instructions into exactly what I wanted. He’s an artist with a digger.

I think if I could, I’d dedicate much of my professional life to reshaping. Of course I love greening and colouring and shaping gardens into spaces that make their owners/users feel like they’ve come home. But there’s something incredibly special about taking areas that have been ravaged – by violent vegetation, or neglect, or construction – and remodelling them, to turn them back into something that works… practically and on the eye. It’s extraordinarily satisfying.

0521E

Quite bizarrely, it seems that Italy will be seeking to get tourists back from 3 June. This week’s new rules say that travellers from the EU, Schengen area and the United Kingdom will be allowed to come with no quarantine restrictions as of that date. It’s a far cry from the autumn kick-off I predicted recently in The Telegraph. I’m hoping that my timescale doesn’t prove to be more sensible than the one that’s rapidly unfolding.

It feels like a huge leap. Greece, I see, has specifically banned UK travellers on the basis of the abysmal job the government there is doing of handling the pandemic. Spain, it seems, thinks Italy is making a big mistake. Italy is having no such qualms. On the same day that we can finally venture from Umbria to Tuscany (we’ve been confined to our own region until now) across a border that’s just down at the bottom of the hill, outsiders can in theory flock back. That’s two weeks before children are allowed into public playgrounds, and months before schools get going again. By and large I feel our government has done a good job handling this crisis. And the tourism industry – which generates 13 percent of Italian GDP – is understandably desperate to get going. Armchair criticism is so so simple, but there are contradictions in this particular bit of unlocking which somehow don’t seem right.

0521CI’m pondering my rentals at Pieve Suites, wondering how soon I should be disinfecting and bed-making and plumping up pillows. Will there be a suddenly exodus of exasperated Italian city-dwellers to our rural airiness? Will hordes of sun-seekers from northern climes descend on Perugia’s little airport? No season is easy to foresee but this one in particular is such a total blank page.

So far all I’ve done in the way of getting ready is ordered a temperature-taking pistol (anyone offering accommodation has been advised to check all arrivals) and ascertained that I can get large-ish bottles of hand sanitizer in a shop down in the valley. Oh, and I’ve agreed with my lovely cleaning lady who has finally returned to work that we’re going to start preparations next week. The important thing, I guess, is to be ready for anything.

0521H

8 May 2020

0508EThis is going to be dangerous. We’re opening up slightly, regaining our right to roam – if only within the confines of our own regional borders. But it’s not so much a possible return to infection I’m fearing now (and it should be pointed out that CdP’s last lingering positive turned negative yesterday) but drivers.

Quello al centro è il freno, vero? (the one in the middle is the brake, right?) is everybody’s favourite funny quip.

Italian vehicle use fell by over 70 percent over the past couple of months when people had nowhere they were allowed to go, according to data from Google maps. So what were all those locked-down motorists doing instead of sitting hunched over the steering wheel? I like to imagine them peering yearningly into the distance from the windows of city apartments summoning up imaginary green fields, or – for the lucky ones in rural or less built-up areas – (re)discovering the natural details that they simply by-passed in their busy pre-Covid lives. I like to think they were letting their minds wander, musing on the inconsequential, learning to un-focus, to ramble mentally. Am I kidding myself? Maybe.

But on drives over the past few days, several cars have glided over the white line towards me before being yanked to the correct side of the road. It took a long bleat of my horn to shock one dreamy-driver back to reality before he careered into me. They’re definitely looking elsewhere, which objectively speaking is rather heart-warming… though not when you’re in an on-coming vehicle.

As of Monday I’ve been allowed back out to work. Each Iva (VAT) number holder belongs to a category, and my code as a garden-maker means I can travel about for work purposes not only in my home region of Umbria, but in other regions too.

0508DMy first foray was yesterday, back to the property on the far side of Lake Trasimeno where I left off in early March. The past two months just vanished. I immediately picked up an interrupted conversation with the plumber and the builder and the man from the vivaio (nursery) and (electronically) with my clients. And yet, and yet…

There’s still a discomfort about not shaking hands – an uneasy Covid shuffle on meeting. And that healthy distance you automatically leave between yourself and your interlocutor is, for me, filled with something like regret. I don’t need to do that in my lovely home where I’ve been forcibly holed up for the past two months and where behaviour is far more normal and spontaneous that anywhere beyond my gate. Admittedly it’s a universe of two people, which can be slightly limiting. But for this reason and others – connected as much to the magic of where I live as to my tendency towards being a hermit anyway – this being ‘liberated’ thing doesn’t bring me all that much relief.

As if to back up my day-dream theory, there was a car overturned in a field that shelves steeply down from a road just outside CdP as I made my way home from work. There were people milling, and no one looked particularly frantic so I left them to deal with it rather than adding my own vehicle to the jumble of parked cars of passers-by lending hands. On the front pages displayed outside the newsagent in town, there were tales of deaths in crashes on roads around the region.

As for the virus, who knows how that will go. In CdP, people are almost all masked as they make their way through town. Most of our restaurants are now open for takeaway. My favourite vegetable people from Bolsena are returning to our subdued, curtailed market tomorrow morning – something that brings me joy because that was one of the few things I really missed about lock-down.

But the papers are full of photos of crowds congregating outside bars in Milan’s trendy Navigli district (there’s no way I can verify that these were really taken since lock-down was lifted but…) when really, you’d think that in Milan they’d know better after all they’ve been through. And mayors have reverted to Facebook fulminations against groups of people enjoying themselves too much and too comunally in parks and gardens.

“We umbri will be all right,” said the rather bumbling plumber as we discussed the automatic watering system on my return to work. “We’re a pretty reserved lot. We don’t go in much for socialising. We’re not like those Tuscans and Milanese who always out making merry.”

I love the way that Umbrians wear their gruffness as a badge of pride. This strange situation has brought out Italian campanilismo – being firmly rooted around your own church spire – in all kinds of ways.

0805BThe reporting – in Italy and in the Anglo world – about Italy’s ‘phase 2’ has made me pleased and furious by turns, depending of course on the degree to which it mirrors what I feel/think. I’m nothing if not biased.

On the BBC World Service this morning there was an item on the 75th anniversary of VE day that got me thinking. Newsreel reports from 1945 of events and reactions were pure reporting: not a single vox pop. There was the news item itself, then descriptions of celebrations in various places. Basta.

Cut back to today, and Covid-19 restrictions being lifted in Hong Kong and Botswana and Italy and we’re subjected to endless ill-informed people-on-streets being given the same air time as experts and academics and journos. For most listeners the same air time translates into the same authority and importance and veracity.

You can find anyone ‘on the street’ with any opinion to back up any argument you wish to pedal. So those many articles I’ve seen on how Italians are all ready to march on parliament to demand that hairdressers be allowed to open before the set date of June 1 – articles pegged unassailably on one brief interview with Maria Concetta in Marghera and an off-hand remark from Leonardo in Campi Bisenzio – just don’t make sense. They’re irrrelevant. Why do we even accept this kind of banality? I could have provided the journalist with plenty of people who are loving their flowing locks and have no intention of ever visiting a barber again. Whereas in fact most people in my experience have resigned themselves to shagginess and pale roots and don’t give a damn.

Want to let us know about public opinion? Do an opinion poll. These appear to have gone slightly out of fashion recently. Do it scientifically – or as scientifically as possible. Ok, this won’t save us from biased writing because these too can be manipulated. But at least the media will have to work a bit on spinning that. Vox pop is too pathetically simple.

However Italians feel about the long slow road to something like normal life, if they took a brief look at the havoc wreaked in places where it really took hold, they’d think twice about throwing caution to the winds.

This report (in Italian only, sorry) from the national statistics bureau Istat and the Higher Health Institute (ISS) on mortality over the past three months is chilling. The excess mortality in 2020 as compared to the five-year average, is 94 percent in the north – a far far higher number of deaths even than the terrifying ‘official’ Covid-19 death toll.

0508C

In a fit of lock-down madness I have embarked on developing yet another bit of garden that has been bugging me for years – the north-facing arc beneath the big oak tree. Why am I doing this? I already have far more garden than I can possibly maintain. And by ‘developing’ I mean ‘taking a pick-axe to’ – an operation which left me with a thumping numbness across shoulders and back… but of course a great sense of self-satisfaction, nay smugness.

After half a day of forced labour I still haven’t quite finished the clearing, never mind the shaping.  Had I brought in someone with a little digger, it could all have been done in about half an hour. What is wrong with me?

0508A