12 April 2021

I was feeling quite smug about my decision to leave my tomato seedlings indoors on Wednesday night when temperatures sank to an April record low of -4°C… only to discover that disaster has struck on my wisteria pergola. Formerly promising flowerlets are now drooping like the tails of so many freshly drowned kittens. Not that I’ve ever seen a freshly drowned kitten I should add. But the two things cause me more or less equal amounts of despair.

Our rain-less two months have given way to miserable, relentless drizzle that barely registers on my super-dooper new weather station, even though the machine measures tiny fractions of millimetres. So far this evening, for example, we’re up to 0.79mm despite the fact that moisture has been thick in the air since early this morning. It’s horrible.

It was serendipitous, then, that we made another of our work-escapes just before the weather changed, motoring over towards Tuscany’s Maremma coast, to Saturnia. 

Saturnia played a big part in our early days in Italy: in the mid-1980s we’d drive up from Rome to the hot springs out in the countryside and immerse ourselves in the cascades before eating in a nearby restaurant which had a separate dining room for post-dip diners reeking of sulphur, then drive home again. In those days there were grottoes on the upper stretch of the steaming stream which functioned as natural saunas; they’ve fallen away now. And there was nothing in the way of organisation: you parked in the field, generally alongside a couple of bedraggled VW campers with weed-smoking occupants. Now there are carparks and bars and souvenir shops, though this week they were all closed under lockdown rules of course.

That wasn’t where we were headed anyway. Our destination was the Terme di Saturnia. The hotel’s PR was keen to host the kind of journalist who would almost certainly use any experience gleaned now in some future article. They were determined, she explained, to position themselves properly for when the tourism sector roared back to life.

The strange thing is, though, hotels like the Terme di Saturnia which are officially designated as medical facilities have, if anything, benefitted from the pandemic: with the competition hamstrung by travel bans (inter-regional travel is still not permitted in Italy; hotels remain, for the most part, shuttered), they’ve been doing just fine throughout. Get your doctor to prescribe essential sulphurous steam treatments; even simpler, write yourself a certificate stating that your organism can’t do without hot water baths and constant massages. And hey presto: you can brazen it out if stopped by the police en route, argue your trip is for medical reasons, and hole up in this five-star get-away completely legitimately, lockdown or no lockdown.

And people have. It was a little glimpse into a world where liquidity puts you outside the rules that the rest of us are bound by. There were guests who’d stayed there for weeks or even months, we were told – parents distance working, kids attending online school classes from their suites between dips in the hot pool. Well fed and pampered in this five-star nest (which at first I found cold but which grew on me over our two-day stay, mostly because of kindly, very professional staff) you can see why some people might be tempted.

It made me very uncomfortable however. It wasn’t so much my natural aversion to a sense of entitlement (we didn’t have contact with any guests to gauge this) as a feeling that we were likely among people who felt themselves justified in finding a work-around for Covid restrictions which are, in the long-run, designed to keep everyone as safe as possible – both the haves and the have-nots. Were these the kind of people we wanted to spend time among? (Is this self-righteous of me?)

Frankly, though: being in closed spaces (I’m thinking of the really rather good restaurant here) with unmasked strangers is weird and threatening enough; being in that situation with lockdown-dodgers is even more unnerving. Yes, we had a lovely break. But yes, we were very happy to return home… despite the mixed emotions of flourishing tomato seedlings and forlorn wisteria.

In my last post I wrote about losing important pieces of the local community. Another one has gone since, though not – as far as I know – because of Covid. Bruno Coppetta opened his restaurant well over 50 years ago and it has been a CdP mainstay ever since, now run by his son and daughter-in-law, Maurizio and Gianna. In recent years Bruno had been relegated to chief slicer of the great big haunch of ham that was wheeled around between tables. Then he gently faded out altogether, too doddery for the bustle of a packed trattoria.

But my musings over these last few days haven’t been so much about Bruno as Gigi whom I dwelled on last time. And not even directly about him. 

I had a phone call from a friend in the US with an apartment in CdP right opposite where Gigi lived with his sister. My friend was worried about this sister, who is tiny and frail and only seemed to cook for her brother. Sending flowers or chocolate would be a little too token. Could meals be delivered to her, so she would be tempted to eat? 

In an odd coincidence, the call came shortly after I’d listened to a BBC radio programme about the rise of food delivery apps which are, in my opinion, emblematic of so much that is wrong with modern society: huge conglomerations which ’employ’ people on atrocious terms, exploiting them and paying them a pittance but still incapable of making money, encouraging the spread of mind-boggling amounts of polluting packaging, dehumanising food and removing all the sociability that should spring from it, enveloping eating in a huge cloud of soulless loneliness… and yet despite all this, deemed an excellent investment when floated on the stock exchange. What kind of self-delusion is this? What on earth is wrong with us?

By way of contrast, what did we do? I filled my absent friend in on which CdP eateries are doing takeaway through the lockdown (several, though not including Coppetta). We discussed who might best handle a sensitive case of this nature and which type of food might interest someone of such a tiny appetite. Then she called the Bistrot del Duca and explained the situation and decided on a menu to be delivered over the following few days to Gigi’s sister. 

When the Bistrot’s owner-manager-cook Christian phoned to inform the old lady, she was incredulous. “You mean, I have to eat every day?” she said. I suspect that having a kindly young man turn up on her doorstep with food he has prepared just for her (and transported up the road himself in compostable packaging) will do her far more good than the food itself. In this neck of the woods, eating is still companionship, delivery has a soul and there’s a straight, tangible, personal line from producer to consumer.

A propos of absolutely nothing, I was fascinated by this data which appeared on my Twitter feed (@gardensinitaly – or was it @veniceexpert or @pievesuites? I do confuse myself with my split personality.) Scroll down to the bottom of this report, and take a look at Table 1. Agriculture accounted for 40% of all jobs in Italy in 1955 and 32.8% in 1960. Today, that figure stands at 3.6% three percent. And then I wonder (and I often do) why so much of the territory around here has rewilded itself so efficiently. There’s simply no one looking out for it.

And another passing thought, summoned up by a stray photo: the Segheria Ferri woodyard down by the railway tracks in Fabro Scalo is a place that I love. It’s so woody. The scent of freshly cut logs is divine. Those short planks there are bits of chestnut, for repairing the collapsing steps linking the terraces on our land. They don’t come from the huge trunk sharing a trolley with them: that’s poplar wood which would rot away in no time outdoors. But the whole yard is stacked high with trunks of every description. It’s wonderfully raw.

8 March 2021

We’ve been travelling, which is a very strange thing to write. 

The journey to Berlin was virtual: L is an accredited journalist at the Berlin Film Festival so our screening room became a Berlinale venue a tutti gli effetti. L spent oodles more time there than me of course: he had films to review, just like the real thing. Except without moving, and with coffee/tea/good wine (delete as time-applicable) during screenings. The film-journo cameraderie was via Whatsapp. The line-up wasn’t bad but the best film prize was a let-down. 

Our other journey was to Venice, and it was real. Slightly surreal too, but definitely real. 

We were in that strange grey area of journalistic license. I had an article about the city that I had to write for The Telegraph. Did I really really really need to go? No. Will the end result be better for my having gone? I reckon. As I felt I should go – and I’d been offered rather splendid accommodation in extremely fine hotels – L too pitched a Venice story and had an article commissioned. 

For the whole of this weird stay-at-home year we’ve balked at the idea of playing the ‘have press card, will travel’ get-out-of-jail-free card. It makes any trips even tenuously work-connected legally possible – at which point (in our case at least) conscience kicks in and your home feels comfortably safe and you light the wood-burning stove and stay home. Similarly, I can travel for my garden-making work but I wriggled out of a January meeting in Rome with the client whose terrace I planted last November. And I have stood up another would-be client – again in Rome – who by this time must presume I’ve succumbed to something awful because I haven’t contacted her for many weeks. 

But Venice? Venice? Since the very beginning of all this, we’ve been longing to see the pandemic-paused city – desperate in its emptiness, glorious in its emptiness. 

As soon as we arrived we made our ritual trip to Dal Mas for coffee and cakes. It was bizarre, walking from piazzale Roma (we drove, to avoid scary ‘other people’ on trains), past the station, feeling loud and conspicuous because of our rattling wheely bags. We were the only people with them, in an area usually defined by them. 

The vaporetto trip to the hotel was moving, but also slightly chilling. There was our boat, and there was another moving in the opposite direction at one point. That was it: two vessels, mid-afternoon, on a Venice work day. Later, from our Grand Canal-facing window at the Gritti Palace, a gondola would occasionally slide into view, its oarsman taking passengers for a leisurely float up the empty canal – something unthinkable when the waterway is chaotic and the moto ondoso (wave swell) nausea-inducing.

When we were there at the end of February, the Veneto region was yellow. (It has since bounced back to orange, so our timing was good.) Yellow is a softly softly stage, where you can sit down and consume in restaurants and bars, though as they have to close at 6pm this means lunch, and anything up to distressingly early aperitivi. It’s a stage where residents feel they’ve earned the right to bustle about a little more, and that’s what Venetians were doing. 

Of course Venetians are always there, bustling. It’s just that in former times it was only those with a trained eye who could make them out among the throngs of slow-moving sight-seers. Now, they’ve been liberated and Venice feels like a real town – or as real as this unique place can seem.

There were some holiday-makers: oddly, negative-Covid-tested foreigners can enter Venice with no problems, whereas Italians from any region other than the Veneto are banned because no matter what colour band you’re in, you’re restricted to your own region. So there were the odd handfuls of French and northern European travellers, and – in the few museums and galleries that were open – surprising numbers of visitors, many of them local. (I fled Palazzo Grassi where there were far too many people at a Henri Cartier-Bresson show.)

We puttered across the lagoon to Torcello and were the only visitors, save for one man who had set up an easel by the cathedral. Emptiness pulls you in new directions. I have endless photos of the Ponte del Diavolo but had I ever crossed to the other side before? I really don’t think so. We walked along dirt tracks, past fields ready for sowing, along canals where I’d never thought to go before. It was all so beautifully rural and somehow lived-in, though in fact there were few human beings to be seen.

We went to Murano and ate at a restaurant, sitting in the sun along a canal with a friend. “The greatest gift that this pandemic has given us,” she said, “is the water” – after which I started observing the water closely. Previously, she explained, even on the quiet canal by her home, there had always been some movement in the water. Even in the very early morning, when she gets up to have an hour or so to herself before the family awakes, the moto ondoso, kicked up by never-ending boat traffic in the city, never quite stopped. Now the water is oil-like in its calmness. Reflections are deeper and richer. Waves start then finish, rather than rippling from one to the next endlessly.

We had lunch at Adriatic Mar – one of our favourite Venice bacari – with another friend, and discussed the situation with its cordial owner. This tiny place has been open through thick and thin, except for the darkest of times when everything was forced to shut. Why? “We have a high percentage of Venetians among our regular clientele.” Being part of the genuine fabric makes all the difference.

The big-label international designer shops along calle larga XXII Marzo are still open because they can afford to be, but shop staff behind the plate glass are lonely-looking conspicuously under-employed. I don’t think I saw a single customer. Some tourist knicknack shops are open – presumably because their owners have nothing else to do. Many restaurants and cafés are shuttered. In campo Santa Maria del Giglio the old man who stations himself and his easel alongside the main tourist route to sell brightly coloured Venetian paintings (which I suspect may have been pre-prepared somewhere in the far east) continued to do so for the days we were there. For passing locals he might have been invisible. I’d guess it was months since he’d sold anything at all.

Both the Gritti and the St Regis – the other hotel where we stayed – had opened for the mid-February St Valentine’s weekend. That weekend, staff there said, occupancy was 50%, since when it had dropped to 20% or below – more than they expected, much of it absolutely last-minute which makes life complicated and logistics difficult for five-star hotels on the Grand Canal which are used to dealing with near-full occupancy most of the time with very high staffing levels to guarantee lots of excessive pampering. I’m presuming many smaller hotels are holding out for the summer – if they manage to keep their heads above water until then. 

The article L will write will ask what kind of Venice will emerge when all of this is over. The truth is, I fear, that things will, eventually, go back to the dreadful overcrowded scenario, so unrespectful of this special place, that counted for normal before. There’s little political will to do the things which might change this: no incentives to entice people to live here to keep Venice real, nothing to make property owners favour renting to residents rather than making a quick buck out of tourists. Moreover, over the years the infrastructure of a real town has been whittled away. Even if residents drift back to redress the tourism/reality balance, where will their children be educated if schools have been sold off and converted into hotels? 

The Venetians (and adopted Venetians) we talked to seemed pretty resigned to a return to the status quo ante, however much they wished there were some alternative. Like the Amalfi Coast hotelier musing on his Positano last June they know that what is best is not what is economically viable. There’ll be a breathing space though. The crowds won’t return this year. They may not even return next year. But suddenly travel-deprived people will be wanting to make up for lost time. Poor Venice.

On the evening of 8 March last year, we went out to dinner, with friends, in a restaurant. I remember it well, because we’d forgotten it was international women’s day and were surprised to find that our table was the only one with men on it in the whole of the very jolly restaurant. It feels like light years ago. Even if I could, I’d probably turn down the chance of sitting inside a restaurant with friends now. I look at photos on news sites of crowds in city centres and think: “but why would they want to be with all those people?”

Every now and then you realise what you’ve metabolized over this weird year – what you now take for granted. In those early days of lockdown we were truly scared, especially here in Italy where Covid-19 struck early and hard. Not only were we terrified for ourselves, we were alarmed for everyone else: however much we tried to explain what was thundering down the track towards them, friends and acquaintances elsewhere seemed unable to take it in. The healthcare services were swept up in something they didn’t understand and didn’t have the wherewithal to cope with. It was a very bleak world indeed. 

When L sliced a piece of his finger off last March, taking him to the hospital was traumatic – not because of his accident (which was, of course, shocking) but because simply being at what felt like the epicentre of all-enveloping contagion shook me to the core. We were panic-stricken, petrified, gaping bleakly into the unknown. But what did we have here at that moment in time? Sixteen cases. Sixteen. Chicken feed.

Yesterday we did another dash – it’s becoming a regular March event – to our superb primo soccorso after L neatly removed the nail from his index finger. He did this with the circular bench saw, which I use with terror and trepidation. So all in all, paring off a fingernail was a lucky escape. He could, in an instant, have removed so much more. 

I was at the ricicleria when he called to suggest I come home immediately. The tip had been shut through a couple of weeks of rising case numbers; on this first weekend after its reopening, I had been sitting in a long long queue of junk-packed cars and had just one car in front of me. I swung out of the queue feeling quite disgruntled – though please don’t think me heartless: he hadn’t explained quite how much damage he’d done, or with what. 

As I was rushing home, CdP had 85 active cases – a number that, during that first wave, would have signified a tragedy of unthinkable dimensions. Nowadays, we’re just glad that CdP has climbed down from its high of… what was it? 121? Our movements are still curtailed: we’re not allowed beyond CdP city limits without good reason; we’re not meant to visit each other; bars and restaurants are still limited to takeaway. 

But all this feels perfectly normal now. Having to go to the hospital was an inconvenience, not a nightmare. We know what we’re up against; we know our chances; we know the precautions we need to take, and opting to take them or otherwise is a decision we make on the basis of ‘facts’ (though of course there’s a wide selection of fact and pseudo-fact available); we’re pretty sure that we’ll be taken care of adequately and we just cross our fingers and hope we don’t end up as a grim statistic. There are still people kicking hard against the situation but for the vast majority, a kind of acceptance and resignation has wormed its way into our lives and I really don’t think any vaccination (which, we are promised, will have been offered to all adults in Italy ‘by the end of summer’) or cure will rid us of it for a while.

In Australia (which reported just ten new cases in the whole country yesterday, a daily figure which we have on occasion beaten in CdP) the pandemic has slipped from dominating every news bulletin to being an item that pops up only if something really significant happens, my sister and brother-in-law have told me. People go out, unmasked. People have parties and eat in restaurants. It’s just like normal, they assure me. Except it isn’t. Do people shake hands or kiss when they bump into friends? Absolutely not. Can you travel around the country freely? Absolutely not. And all those desperate Australians still stuck far from home after a year who can’t get back into their own, shuttered-up country? And those people in Australia dying to get out? There are trappings of normality but really, it’s still very odd.

It occurred to me the other day: I haven’t seen a single robin this winter, which is extremely sad. Right at the beginning of the season there was a shy bird which fluttered between bushes when I was outside by the carpark and I thought it might be one of my robins. But now, it apears not (unless a passing cat ate it but birds are generally smarter than that). I’m not going to despair: it may just be yet another strange thing about this year. 

What I did see last week however, pecking away at the grass outside the south-side window in the living room, oblivious to my presence on the other side of the glass, was the most beautiful goldfinch. I have never knowingly seen one before. The bright gold bands along its wings made it easy enough to identify. Such a beautiful little thing. 

I’ve begun cleaning out winter debris from the vegetable garden, and planted a few nursery-bought lettuces in a bed. Above the ground, my garlic and aglione look like they’ve sailed through the extreme damp of December and January. Who knows what they look like below ground though. We’re eating a few broccoli calabresi and the cavolo nero is still producing. When did I pick my first asparagus last year? I can’t remember. I picked the vanguard spear today, before it went over. There are various tiny noses peaking through but I think it might take some rain before we get enough for a risotto. We’ve had no rain for three weeks. Today was meant to be the Big Soak but so far… nothing.

I’m dying for rain not only for the asparagus but because L bought me a natty weather station. It took forever to find a place on our steep tree-filled spot where I could place it with sufficiently few obstacles but near enough to the house for it to send its radio signal to the control centre inside. Of course now that I have it, it’s given up raining so I have no idea how accurate it is. Isn’t that typical…