31 July 2022

Friends here have abandoned their top floor. When the mercury hit 41° inside, they simply moved downstairs, trading in hot beds for cooler sofas in the living room. We’re still hanging on upstairs but the heat is relentless. The occasional rain dotted on the forecast quietly evaporates well before its scheduled time of arrival. We see angry black clouds laden with violent heat-rain pass over. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll release their load anywhere, and they certainly haven’t done so on us for quite a while. Yes, in the past few days temperatures have dropped… but that means to just below 35°C (95°F) rather than above.

This time last year

I was musing on C&B’s wedding, a year ago this week. At 2pm when we sat down to lunch it was 32°C (89.5°F)… alleviated just a little by the fact that the sun had moved round and the house was casting a shadow over the table. This year on 23 July at that time it was 37.2°C (99°F) and the heat radiating off walls assaulted by sun each day since May was ferocious. We would have had to shift the whole thing back until the blessed relief of after dark. There is no way anyone could have eaten outside in that.

And so I sit here in our dark shuttered house through the day, waiting for the release of (relative) cool in evening, and muse angrily on my favourite theme: “what’s so difficult to understand about ‘the world’s burning up and it’s our fault and we’re doing very little to stop it’?” The busy way we’re searching for non-Russian sources of hydrocarbons; the dusting off of decommissioned coal-fired power stations; the mad grab for any available air-con unit… the ostrich-manoeuvre hopelessness of it all. There’s so much to be ashamed and afraid of at this point in time.

Actually, it’s a complete lie that all my days are spent in our cool-cave. Much of my recent time has been spent burning assiduously through fossil fuel as I shuttle between one garden project and another, and all the other various things which require my being behind the wheel of the car to keep them running. Up at Pieve Suites rapturous guests wax lyrical about the air conditioning. I am, of course, as hypocritical as the rest.

Yesterday morning – early, before the real heat set in – I combed our field for signs of gory animal combat. There’s a family of boar who trot out there every evening now: the heavyweights plus their teenage offspring who grunt and head-butt and rock around the field in their hobby-horse way. There are hares and deer and I saw one big badger beetling across in a very determined fashion. I suspect the magic portal into his sett is where the stump of the big dead apple tree has moulded away gradually.

Very late the night before last there was such an ear-splitting screeching of fauna getting vicious. It was impossible to tell what kind of animals were involved but something was angry and something was suffering, and the din made your blood run slightly cold.

By the time we located a powerful torch, the noise had died down. From way down the field, two eyes glittered back towards us. They stayed there for some time, unmoved by our prying.

I was thinking, naturally, of the early-morning wolf attack in our neighbours’ olive grove last month and fearing for the lives of those baby boar, though all the time wondering whether even a very determined wolf would attack a piglet with parents of such monstrous size as the ones that roam our land.

In the event I found nothing – just one stray pigeon feather which I don’t think had anything to do with the altercation. There was no blood, no gore, no signs of kill being dragged off into the woods. Maybe the monster-pigs did get the better or whatever wanted their offspring for dinner. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into a bit of screechy squealing.

What I did get to marvel at as I roamed the property is the miracle of the endless water than flows from the spring up in the corner of our land. The bed that we’ve cleared out for the trickle is doing its job. It’s lined with stones now, thanks to L’s tireless clearing of the rocks which constantly and inexplicably appear in the fields: lying in wait, ready to break the teeth of the mowing machine we get to come in once a year. All around us people’s deep wells are drying up, mighty Lake Trasimeno is becoming a muddy ditch, watering limits are imposed and fishing water from local waterways is banned. But that tiny trickle just keeps on going. It’s a different cool green world down there.

And talking of water, we had a visit from Renato the rabdomante (water diviner) the other day. I’ve written about Renato here and here . Yes yes, I know: water divining is bunkum. Except it works, so what can I say?

Renato had called earlier to say he wanted to bring us lots of stuff from his orto. Gosh Renato I said, how kind… but I’ve got so much stuff in my own that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But about the only thing Renato still hears these days seems to be water running underground so he came anyway, with his great big bucket of tomatoes and beans and lettuce and courgettes and there was really no way I could tell him no.

A propos of nothing… our beautiful theatre

He’s tiny – getting tinier I think – and I’ve never seen him without his pork pie hat. When I went up to the top carpark to meet him he was busy working his water-divining fob watch above the well. It was swinging vigorously. This isn’t because of the water he found for us all those years ago which – touch wood – is still running strongly. Once a vein has been ‘stroncato‘ (broken into) the spell is broken.

“There’s another vein immediately beneath yours,” he said, “at 92 metres.” Ours is at 86m. “It’s not as strong,” he said when he finished counting off the 92 pulls on his chain. “But it’s not bad.”

“Fantastic,” I said, “if we ever need it we can dig down deeper.” He looked at me like I was being completely stupid and come to think of it, I was.

“No,” he said in a ‘how can you not see how that couldn’t work?’ kind of way. “How would you attach more tubing below the tubing you already have? There’s no way you could get it down there.”

So. Great. We have lots more utterly unreachable water hardly any distance below the lots of water we already have. Thank you Renato for that invaluable advice.

A visit from Renato is never just about water, or vegetables. It’s really about Renato finally having a captive audience for his endless rural-philosophising which he does in a just-audible monotone. It’s very difficult (and kind of pointless given his deafness) to break into and even more difficult to steer towards an end.

“So,” he said, “what do you think we should do about Draghi?” This was just days before our ‘tecnico‘ prime minister finally threw in the towel and left Italy’s fractious politicians to clean up their own mess. Renato, it should be said, also found Draghi’s water for him and has located a vein for a second well. It’s a bit close to the cemetery, he said, but because Draghi’s Draghi, they might give him a special waiver… which to me sounded like a very undesirable perk of Draghi’s esteemed status, given the kind of potential run-off there might be.

We made some dismissive comments about what the immediate political future might hold but this was of no interest whatsoever to Renato. What he wanted to do was tell us about the minivan taking him and his fellow workers (he used to be a builder) to some building site many decades ago in which there was one character who insisted on smoking Gauloises as they drove along. Other times.

Renato takes immense pleasure in telling stories about what a thug he was when he was young. Given that he’s tiny even by Umbrian contadino standards this is quite difficult to imagine. He sorted the Gauloises smoker out, he said, by getting his neck in an armlock and choking him until he had to be resuscitated when the rest of the crew pulled Renato off him.

In some difficult-to-fathom Renato-esque way this story was related to the question of what Draghi should do next. I had a fleeting mental image of SuperMario, one foot on Matteo Salvini’s neck as Giuseppe Conte’s face, emerging from beneath his armpit, gradually turned deep purple as the result of a protracted armlock. But no. Unlikely.

In the end Draghi handed the hot political potato back to the people stacking coals on the political fire, and I accepted Renato’s veg with as much grace as I could muster then gave them to someone in town who needed them more than I did.


Scouring the horizon for rain that never comes…

On the radio on one of my endless fuel-guzzling jaunts, Italian pundits were musing on the Conservative party election to replace the foully feckless Boris Johnson. It was early days in the competition. What most struck these Italian commentators?

There are ten candidates, someone pointed out, and seven of them are from ethnic minorities. (Silence.) And… this is not even news.

There was criticism galore for Britain and its politicians, who were being compared most unfavourably to (at the time) Italy’s immensely grown-up looking government (though that screeched to a halt very soon thereafter). But there was also unbounded wonder at the fact that a country could – at some level – be so utterly integrated that a right-wing party can field seven out of ten ethnic minority candidates and no one bats an eyelid.

Such a pity, then, that ethnic origin has become so totally divorced from consideration for would-be immigrants. Such a pity that knee-jerk racism remains such a part of the fabric of other areas of society. Such a pity too that a Brexit campaign can be victorious to a large extent on the back of massive, totally contrived, anti-immigrant and xenophobic scaremongering. It’s a weird and very contradictory country. I’m so very over it.

7 & 10 July 2022

With no rain to speak of since the first half of April, we were expecting fireworks when it finally came. There was no hail, for which my ripening tomatoes thank the weather gods. In the end we had over 43mm. It came down hard and in a remarkably short time, accompanied by lightning flashes and rumbling round the valleys. And it took out our electricity line somewhere impervious where the repair men are clearly struggling to reach it. So I shall sit here in the gathering gloom until the battery on my computer runs out. And then I shall go to bed.

I’m hoping that this dousing will cool our roof. Our roof is well insulated of course but in the last couple of years I’ve been wondering quite how well. Does insulation become depleted? Or are our summers hotter and/or is our personal heat resistance waning? I don’t know what I’m saying ‘we’. Yes, I wouldn’t mind if it were a couple of degrees cooler up on the first floor but it’s certainly not giving me sleepless nights (what does?) Not so for poor L though who feels he’s being baked alive and is clamouring for air-con.

My objections to air-con are manifold. They’re ecological and financial and most of all they’re personal because I hate that worked-over air which dries my insides up and makes my head feel hollowed out. Also, I loath being cold.

As we debate the issue (over and over) I think of the winter – the hauling wood and the piling on sweaters – and I want the summer to go on for ever. Just as L is finding hot increasingly difficult, I’m struggling to cope with cold. Funny how extreme your rapport with climate can become.

We fled for three days, to Lake Como. For L it was work; for me it was escapism. (Would I be ungracious if I admitted that when I saw that expanse of water I instinctively wished it was the sea?)

Reason number one for the visit was an out-of-the-blue invitation to attend the 150th anniversary party for the Villa d’Este in Cernobbio – an honour extended to only a handful of journalists. There were hundreds of glamorous guests. There were strutting entertainers in fantastical and ever-changing costumes performing a role in the proceedings which was sometimes difficult to grasp. There was enough champagne to fill the hotel’s gratingly blue pool many times. There was lobster, and there were very young table companions with achingly expensive noses and pouty lips. And there were truly magnificent fireworks over the lake, illuminating an evening when forecast downpours happily never materialised.

I was excited to see the hotel’s famous garden and gosh, does it have fine bone structure. The double rills running down the axis from the temple of Hercules to the massive ‘mosaic house’ at the bottom are gloriously elegant, and the plane trees are just plain magnificent: you hug them as hard as you can and your arms are still only a quarter way round their massive trunks. But oh oh oh… the vast beds of red begonias. I’m writing that without even being certain that that is what was planted: I’ve kind of canceled it from my memory. But it’s definitely the spirit of the thing – a gardeners’ garden, planted with the kind of annual bedding plants which can be replaced several times a season but never ever evoke anything (in me) except mild despair.

It was all of a piece, mind you, with the hotel’s plush interior – an old world (not necessarily in a good way) extravaganza of thick-piled blue and gold patterned carpet and rococo reception rooms. All ultra-luxurious of course: just very very uninspired.

In Como town (elegant if a little cold, in the style of small northern towns) and in Verona, we stayed in new hotels of the Vista group: chic, classic-contemporary, very tasteful but – to return to my air-con dislike – painfully chilly. These places were lovely – don’t get me wrong – and tasteful in the extreme, with spas and restaurants and 24 hour reception staff. But they did leave me wondering: “has the *****L label become a little devalued?” Of course I’m aware that star ratings for Italian hotels are just a matter of box-ticking: rack up sufficient points (bathrobes, tick; uniformed staff, tick) and your stars accumulate accordingly. But it would be nice if the ‘luxe’ addition really meant something truly extraordinary. And these, though extremely pleasant, had nothing (except air-con) to make you gasp.

And then there was Villa Passalacqua in Montrasio where we didn’t stay but one day will, and where the garden was just sublime: an 18th-century design, carefully restored, running from villa on high right down to the lake waters along an intertwining double staircase. Each of the lateral levels has been adapted to something hotel-y to a greater or lesser degree: the orchard with cute fluffly hens in their decorative coop, the vegetable garden, the lovely rose garden with hydrangeas beneath immense magnolias, the pool terrace and the tennis courts. There’s some planting which I wouldn’t have done, though nothing at all offensive. There are some over-jolly fabrics which I might have avoided. But the overall impression is of immense attention to really eye-catching design with a purpose: the opposite, in fact, of Villa d’Este.

A (completely gratuitous) funny-face
spider eating a bee

(The advantage of sitting by the open window in the living room, typing in the dark, is the front-row view over a magnificent lightning show on the horizon. It’s flashing across the sky in the same bright orange which until half an hour ago was also tinging the piles of cloud over there.)

In Verona a client joined me by train and we headed into the wilderness of small and medium industry – Italy’s productive backbone – between there and Vicenza to look at stone. Margraf is a giant among stone wholesalers. And it’s where the marble for my client’s kitchen tops was (we hoped) lurking.

To – I think – the great annoyance both of the kitchen cabinet maker and of the marmista who will cut the worktops to fit, we insisted on going ourselves to select pieces of marble, despite the fact that neither of them could accompany us, to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t do under-the-counter deals and somehow leave them out of any business concluded. We had no intention of course of doing any such thing, but the whole trip had a slightly naughty schoolgirl feel to it nonetheless.

At Margraf they were dumbfounded: I’m not sure how often they find themselves with two strange women pounding about between the vast slabs. They trailed us around as we studied the marbles and granites and creamy gorgeous onyxes, clearly unsure quite how to handle us… until we optioned the four slabs which we’d already seen on line, had thought would be the ones for the project, and had seen right at the start of our warehouse visit. By the time we left they seemed to have rather warmed to us.


10 July

Time passes. The computer battery died. I made my way to bed with my head torch on… then woke up some time not long after midnight with all the lights in the house glaring at me. Well done Enel (electricity company) I thought, working through the night as is their wont to restore power to blacked-out residents.

(Just as well I was planning for long-term light loss and forced myself not to open the fridge door once: the downstairs circuit failed to turn itself back on. But the food in the freezer seems to come through unscathed.)

Our neighbour Ettore, whose house is nearest the fallen line, was less thrilled with Enel when I talked to him yesterday. I hadn’t realised that there was no way the line could be repaired after the storm: for the time being we’re limping along with a huge and – I’m told – very noisy generator which is keeping the neighbourhood alight. And the generator was plonked, without so much as a by-your-leave, on Ettore’s property, not far at all from Ettore’s house.

He is – understandably – livid. But there’s absolutely nothing he can do.

It’s a feature of every contract for the sale/purchase of properties with land attached that utilities companies – electricity, water, gas – enjoy a “servitù“, ie the right to plough across your fields and woods with whichever equipment they need to work on any infrastructure they see fit – to mend existing kit or install any other. Property owners have no right whatsoever to protest.

It’s a fine example of the good of the commonweal taking precedence over the rights of the individual and can even seem quite reasonable… until you find a noisy generator throbbing outside your living room window. In June 2003, two years after we bought this house, the Green Party backed a referendum on removing this servitù but nothing doing: insufficient people were interested in the topic and the referendum fell by the wayside because a quorum wasn’t reached. Now Ettore and his wife are experiencing the fallout first hand.

We’re all living with another result of no-quorum referendum burn-out: hunters. In 1990 and 1997 Italian voters were asked to stop hunters tramping across any property that took their fancy. They preferred, instead, to go to the beach (the referendums were held in June) and desert the ballot boxes. And so we live with the consequences through the winter. Perhaps we’re ready for another attempt.

There was more back-to-normal activity at the end of June when our Infiorata was finally up and running again. And normality too in the awarding of the ‘floweriest street in town’ plaque to Borgo di Giano, where my Pieve Suites is located. It took me a while to stick my head above the parapet and ask whether we had won: I was (and indeed am) less than pleased with my own attempt to make my front door particularly floral. Why is this? I mean… making beautiful outside spaces is – er – what I do. And I (modestly) think that Pieve Suites’ private garden out back above the walls is rather lovely. But somehow I have never turned my attention to what happens outside the front door.

By next year’s competition, my front door will be glorious, I promise. And I won’t have to worry that it might have been me who dashed the street’s chances. Though actually I have nothing to fear really. The wonderful ladies who keep the vicolo looking splendid are indefatigable despite me, and we have won every single time. It should really just be called the Borgo di Giano prize.


For no particular reason, I’m including this screenshot from our vital and hyper-active local FB group which is so beautifully pievese in its elegant mixture of official complaint, veiled threat and sheer seething fury that someone could do something so abject as steal a child’s bike. It slides in a rapid crescendo from elegant subjunctives to a grand finale of crude invective in a way that’s pure, unpunctuated, free-form CdP poetry. I just love it.