26 November 2022

How difficult it has been to get back to this space. Things are so disconnected and busy and in movimento. I’m forgetting chronologies and episodes and even plans. It’s just one of those moments.

And so some fragments…

The Uffizi galleries close on Monday. Who cares if this particular Monday is a major public holiday, a day of dazzling blue skies and shoulder-to-shoulder tourists packing the streets of Florence? If it’s Monday, we close. Punto e basta.

On this particular holiday Monday I’m not complaining though: I’m with a handful of people who, extraordinarily, are being let in anyway. The guide showing us around has to fight back tears. “You simply can’t understand what it means to be in here with so few people,” she says. “I’ve worked here for years and I’ve never, ever, seen it like this.”

Walking the empty halls, standing nose-to-canvas with those works with no heaving mass of humanity between you and them; there were moments when I found it hard to breath.

One thing I (yes, I admit it) miss about lockdown are those moments when we – through luck and privilege – found ourselves essentially alone: in eerie Venice, in rattling Rome, and in Florence too which has now returned to anything but relaxing. Clawing back something similar was precious and truly special. But the uniqueness didn’t finish there.

Next step was a dusty, echoing, glorious stomp along the kilometre-long Vasari Corridor which links the Uffizi to the Palazzo Pitti, skirting then crossing the Arno, passing over the Ponte Vecchio, poking into the church of Santa Felicità. It’s a building site (which is why we were there: the day was organised for employees and friends by the company doing the restoration, Fratelli Navarra) but building sites are my favourite places and the grimy windows, and piles of tiles and bricks, and torn and well thumbed blueprints tacked to walls contributed as much to the satisfaction as having the place our ourselves.

Standing above the Ponte Vecchio, watching the crowds and the river flow below, I stopped being dazzled just long enough to wonder if there’s any way tourism can be spun so that you still get extraordinary thrills – without, of course, extending the creeping cancer out into even further-flung places which would do far better without it. Unfortunately I think the answer has to be: no.

And still on the topic of special places I’d love – but of course won’t be able – to keep for myself… what a spectacular discovery just across the valley in San Casciano dei Bagni. Twenty four amazing bronze statues, some from the second century BCE, pulled out of the stinky hot mud behind the Bagno Grande.

For as long as we’ve lived here, we’ve been going to these stone pools where everyone – from the old ladies of the town to the young people of the towns around – immerses themselves in the slightly oozy hot water and soaks in what feels like goodness. It’s great for catarrh and aches and pains and sciatica and infertility, or so the legends go. And though the Bagno Grande basins themselves could date from any time – and have obviously been reworked over the centuries – they have a decided feeling of antiquity about them.

The antiquity and – perhaps – the fertility thing were the catalysts for a long-overdue dig in the thermal swamp around. The thick giant reed beds surrounding the pools were removed and replaced by green plastic fencing. The lush vegetable gardens (the water’s obviously good for plants as well as people) tended by elderly people from the town on the hill above lost their aura of timeless calm.

A temple emerged, and a sacred pool and some curious coins. Local arts and culture societies enjoyed guided tours. It was all really quite low-key until this discovery shot San Casciano into the limelight. Now the eyes of the world are on that lovely rustic valley, and some way of displaying this wealth of riches will be have to be found. Naturally. And rightly. But I very much fear the late-evening wallows in those magical pools – scrambling, damp, back into freezing clothes in winter – will now be a thing of the past. All hail to archeological discoveries which change our perception of history. But I say that with more than a twinge of nostalgia.

Did I rave about Italy’s impressive government programme of financing for house refurbishments? Huge hand-outs for making houses earthquake resistant and hugely more eco-friendly? I did touch on it here I see, but I must also have whittered on about it somewhere else too, in connection with my grandiose plans for a complete makeover of our slightly collapsing chicken house out the back. But strangely I can’t find that.

I had drawn up beautiful plans for what was going to become a sweet little house at the state’s expense. I’d designed the kitchen. I’d planned the garden. In my head it was already a fait accompli. But the Superbonus turned out to be more complicated than it should have been, and the chaos it generated – especially for anyone working in the sector who was overwhelmed by soaring demand and soaring prices – meant that somehow my dreams evaporated, leaving a slightly bitter taste. But also a feeling of “so what now?”

The answer to which is: more property.

Friends from Rome were staying in my Pieve Suites. “Who were those people looking out the front windows?” he asked me. Alarms bells rang.

My little B&B occupies a strange space. All the very ancient terraced houses along that vicolo run long and narrow, from street right out to the medieval town walls. But I don’t have the whole long narrow house: I have a corridor from the front door which takes me to my half of the house – the half which looks out over the walls and the countryside. The house was divided cross-wise many years ago by two sisters who used the same front door (mine) and had connecting doors elsewhere (now closed). Since I bought my half, the darker, slightly smaller street-facing part has been empty.

Just a few days before – out of curiosity – I’d been to look around the house next door, which was going to be put on sale. The visit had tugged on my heart strings a little: there was no getting around the fact that these units were meant to be one, and not two like mine. Everything just seemed to go together better, the spaces made more sense. So I’d been thinking of my house, and its missing half, and how nice it would be to put it back together again. But who has money for that, eh?

Well, the answer to that question soon became “me” when it dawned on me that my missing part was on the market and people who weren’t me might end up occupying it. No no no no no. The final atto has yet to be signed but the deposit has been paid and hands have been shaken. Despite the expense, I feel like I’ve righted a wrong.

I’m walking down a street in Chichester, West Sussex, wondering why that old lady is being carried across the road. Then I realise that she’s being carried by my husband. He’s heading for a bus shelter, right in front of Chichester’s glorious cathedral. It’s pelting down and the lady is barely conscious.

And so begins the British ambulance-calling saga.

I explain that an elderly lady collapsed in the street and she has been carried to shelter on West St which runs along the side of Chichester cathedral.

Can I have a precise address? – Er, no.

Can you tell me the nearest house number? – No, all there is is a massive cathedral.

Can you give me the postcode? – Of course I can’t give you the postcode, I’m standing on West Street by the cathedral in the bus shelter. Isn’t that enough?

What town is that please? – Oh for god’s sake.

And on and on it goes.

Is the lady responding? – Barely.

Sorry I need a yes or a no. – Yes, barely.

Has she eaten in the last 24 hours? – But we just picked her up off the pavement. How on earth should I know?

Does she have rashes anywhere on her body? – Would you like me to remove all her clothes here in the bus shelter to check?

Perhaps it’s mean of me to complain. In fact, once the woman on the phone had finished her eternal, abysmal, pen-pushing, box-ticking litany the ambulance turned up after ‘only’ 20 minutes or so, staffed by two exhausted-looking young women (it was only mid-morning) who treated our old lady very kindly.

But the determination with which the woman answering emergency calls stuck to whatever was pinned to her clipboard was just so infuriatingly mindless, whatever her official rules of engagement might stipulate. It’s what has taken the place of efficiency in the health service in that post-developed dystopia.

The ambulance episode was all of a piece with our Health Service travails of late. Since September we’ve run the gamut from state-of-the-art intensive care to ramshackle local hospital where we had the impression that the whole truth was being studiously withheld in order to free up the badly needed bed being occupied by L’s stepfather. Obfuscation, plus lack of communication.

In his first meeting at the charmingly named discharge office, a lady informed L in no uncertain terms that stepfather was bedridden and doubly incontinent and needed round the clock nursing. But I’ve just bumped into him walking down a corridor chatting to people. Ah. More scrabbling about on the computer and yes, perhaps it’s more regular + Alzheimer’s residential care he needs.

Fine. Can you get him out asap? I’m doing my best.

L locates a friendly-looking home which sends the manager along to assess stepfather. Blood-out-of-stone style, she establishes that he has two MRSA superbug infections raging, which no one is doing anything about. Would the hospital really have been ok with releasing him in that state, to infect a whole nursing home? It seems so. What’s more, the small fall L had been told about was in fact one of four, which should be a red alert in a patient who has suffered major brain trauma. Has a CT scan been done? No.

It’s that heavy feeling of swimming though molasses, trying to establish which people do and don’t want you know which facts, for what end. Very distressing indeed.

So just as well there’s Chichester harbour to blow the confusion out of your brain. Each inlet is gorgeous in its own way, each coast-hugging path a treasure. Lazy herons and pecking egrets and the sound of lapping – unless you happen to get there at low tide for a scenario of endless mud. And thank goodness too for the stupendous yews of Kingley Vale, some of which are 2000 years old, making them some of the oldest living creatures in the UK. The walk though the wood there, en route to the top of the Downs beyond, sends shivers down my spine.

29 August 2022

I’ve written many times about how our year is marked by ineluctable rituals: one is the endlessly disappointing cambio di stagione (ie swapping out one season’s packed away clothes for another, wondering why on earth you even bothered because most of what’s up at the top of the wardrobe should really have been thrown away); calling the chimney sweep the moment L heads for the Venice film fest in September (L thinks yearly is ridiculously over-cautious) is another.

But there’s also the moment when you realise that your elaborate light/heat control rituals flip themselves – the moment when you’re no longer desperately working to keep heat out and start cajoling it to come right in.

This summer we swung into cool cavern mode much earlier and for much longer than ever before. This is something that people from northern climes just can’t get their heads around. When it’s hot hot hot there’s no point whatsoever in opening windows wide. That just sends the external furnace swirling through your house. The only way to keep the heat out is to shut windows and shutters and hunker down in the daytime dark. Until after dark when you can throw all the windows open and welcome in the cool night air. In normal times this lasts a month or little more. This year, it went on for the best part of three months.

Not being an early-morning person, for me the worst downside of this is interrupted sleep. As the sun crept over the horizon and its light fell upon our east-facing bedrooms, I’d be wrenched out of my blissful oblivion. Morning after morning, I was subjected to utterly spectacular sunrises, each of which I loathed, deeply. Shutters closed, I’d crawl back to bed until a sensible waking time. It was all very discombobulating.

Parading the BVM on August 15. Assumption/gelateria overlap

It was only last week that it dawned on me that everything had changed, without my even thinking about it. I’m closing most of the upstairs windows and shutters at night now so I no longer need to do my unthinkably early round of the house. Moreover, sunrise is no longer something-after-five… though the something-after-six closing of the shutter in our bedroom – the only one I continue to leave open – is really not a huge improvement, hour-wise. Still, it’s only that one.

Also good about this tail-end-of-August: rain. We’ve had over 86mm so far this month, much of it in massive storms, some of which literally shook the house. (One thunder crack yesterday afternoon went off like a bomb down in the valley on the north side of the house.) There’s so much electricity bubbling away up there.

One night the week before last the lightning storm came with no rain at all. At first L insisted it was a firework display: “lightning doesn’t look like that,” he said. But as we emerged from the tree canopy of the track we were driving along when we noticed the flashing, it was clear that to achieve that effect every single house, outbuilding, factory and town in the whole of Umbria would have to be setting off a massive barrage. Majestic and utterly terrifying, it felt like a glimpse of the apocalypse.

Flour fight

Yet another good late-August thing – a return to how things were: our Palio extravaganza was back, with a vengeance. The 2021 and 2020 editions were cancelled, for obvious reasons. The 2019 event came to a bedraggled end when the culminating Caccia del Toro archery competition between the three town districts was washed out, with a scaled-down run the following weekend. So this year’s Palio had a lot of frantic making-up-for-lost-time energy about it.

It was enlightening to see it through the eyes of people who’d never lived the experience – people who have become part of the CdP flora and fauna over the past couple of years or people (like the enthusiastic family who rented my Pieve Suites for the whole week) who’d been waiting for the world to get back into gear. With time, you can become jaded about the antics and the confusion and the pratical jokes and the inter-terziere tiffs. You can find yourself feeling thankful that you live well out of the centre and don’t have to put up with never-ending drumming and marching and the two weeks of all-night carousing.

But in fact you’ve got to hand it to them: the amount of work that goes into the thing is quite breath-taking. The costumes are superb. The lead-up side events are beautifully choreographed. Each terziere‘s pop-up taverna restaurant – with local adults and cooking and local kids serving – is a vast eating factory adding to the party atmosphere. And the corteo storico on the final Sunday is just amazing: 800+ costumed people processing through the crowded streets of town with their drummers and their flame-eaters (health & safety be damned) and their carts pulled by magnificent chianina cattle and their prancing horses and their floats and their siege engines and their… the list goes on. I mean, we’re a tiny town of not even 8000 souls. And we do it all ourselves. Well – they do it because I certainly don’t contribute though I did happily take a more or less direct hit in the flour battle that takes place immediately before the Caccia del Toro.

I am convinced that the Palio is one of the things which makes CdP so different – so much livelier and real than other places around here (the presence here of schools attended by kids from a huge catchment area is another). You can’t get a significant percentage of the populace working for months on a competitive jamboree like this – involving all ages and types, creating allegiances and teams, teaching skills, building up a collection of historic costumes (and on and on) – without fostering a feeling of investment in the place which will make even the most disaffected youth think twice about moving off to the Big City. Give people a reason to stay, and they will.

In all these years (coming up for 40…) in Italy, I haven’t had much to do with the police. Just two episodes really, but they were memorable.

A brief return to Rome

Before C was born – so we’re talking more than 32 years ago – our car was stolen from the spot where we’d parked it on the lungotevere in Rome. We always tried to avoid the lungotevere, especially the river side of the road that runs along the Tiber. That stretch near our Rome flat was very susceptible to car thefts: no one was keeping an eye on cars parked beneath overhanging plane trees.

We reported the theft to the Carabinieri on the Aventine. The policeman politely listened to my not-very-good Italian and more or less invented the statement for me, bashing his interpretation on to several sheets of paper-plus-carbon paper fed through a huge Olivetti typewriter so old and stiff that each successful strike was a triumph.

By this time (I think I’m getting the chronology correct) we had already abandoned our Amstrad wordprocessor and were preparing to upgrade yet again from whatever bulky desktop had come after that. I watched the policeman damaging his finger joints and said to him, only half-jokingly, “would you like a computer?”

I still remember the look of wonder on his face. It was like all the Christmases of his life rolled into one. A few days later (after finding our car, abandoned along a deserted road in a blasted urban periphery, with a long shopping list of parts neatly removed) a delegation from the police station came by to pick up what remains to this day the only piece of our cast-off technology which ever found a useful home. What they did with it, heaven knows. There was no printer attached or anything useful like that. They made a lovely little speech about how whenever we needed them, day or night, they’d be there like a shot, at our service. By the time we needed them, those particular people probably weren’t in that particular police station any more. We spent many uncomfortable weeks afterwards trying to remember if there was anything incriminating on the hard disk.

My next police contact was soon after C was born. L had a stalker. He was teaching in the English department of Rome University and a love-lorn student had been tailing him for a while. We joked about her, and called her Spot. But when I had a newborn infant and Spot had managed to get hold of our phone number – landline of course – to call me and whisper threats or simply breath heavily each time L went out the front door, I started to get worried. There were messages on the answering machine too, so one day I removed the mini-cassette and headed round to the police station, this time in Trastevere.

I sat for a while with my tiny baby in a very bare corridor and then was shown into a very bare, very cavernous room. I think there may have been one of those Olivetti typewriters in there too. I don’t remember there being much else. I explained what was happening and tendered the mini-cassette to the policeman who just laughed at me. We don’t even possess a regular tape recorder, he told me. Just imagine a mini-tape-player: you must be joking!

Eventually Spot must have tired of her vigil. Or maybe she was suddenly smitten by some other young language assistant. The calls stopped and she stopped hanging around. But no thanks to the police

It was with these incidents in mind that I called our local Carabinieri last week. Someone – a woman I presumed – had been calling me but hanging up before any words were exchanged. Then the messages started arriving – begging for help, saying she had to get away, that her life was in danger. With former police performances in mind, I really wasn’t holding my breath. Oh ye of little faith: the scenario that unfolded was pure TV cop drama.

Fifteen minutes later the Carabinieri called me back, with the name (and place and date of birth) of the person the phone number belonged to. Did I know her? No. Would I go into the station? Yes. By the time I got there all the paperwork was ready for geo-locating the phone. I made my statement. Off it went to the relevant authorities. Half an hour later the woman had been located, visited: she was safe (just). Measures would be taken.

Ok, so 30 years have elapsed and you’d hope for some improvement. But as I said we’re in town of fewer than 8000 souls, in a very rural part of Italy. Of course having our current prime minister living in town means that standards need to be maintained. (And very very grudgingly I have to say that I suspect some clout and perhaps some kit accrued to our local Carabinieri as a result of the dreadful TV series ‘Carabinieri’ which was filmed here for six execrable seasons from 2002 to 2007.) Whatever. The whole performance was seriously impressive. Well done to them all.