3 February 2023

My giorni della merla were very cold and very movimentati: the former means that spring should arrive early; I’m not quite sure what the latter might usher in.

January 29-31 are the days when Persephone sent her blackbird-messenger – a female bird, hence merla – out from her home in Hades to see if the time was right for a visit to her agriculture-goddess mother Demeter. If the temperature was too warm the blackbird disappeared back to the underworld to tell the icy daughter to postpone her trip. If it was cold on the other hand that was the kind of climate that drew Persephone out and Demeter could take the opportunity to get spring could get under way.

Confusing? If you don’t follow, (many) other myths and backstories are available.

The snow which fell early last week was the heaviest since the famous winter of 2012. We had a full 15cm, quite unexpectedly. I mean, snow was forecast. Just not that much snow. Oddly, if you started down the hill out of town the thick white stuff only continued for a couple of kilometres. At around 500m, CdP was high enough to get the full whack. Fifty metres lower and there was absolutely nothing.

It was the kind of snow I like. Very pretty and all that. Snap some photos. Take a brief winter wonderland walk. Then two days later the only signs were grubby mounds here and there by the side of the road. That’s quite enough snow for me. But the cold continued. One morning as I set out to a project in the Val Niccone the thermometer showed -4.3°. I had thrown a tarp over the windscreen the night before but by the time I reached the top of the lane, ice had formed in a fairly uniform sheet anyway, despite windscreen wipers going full tilt and the car heating cranking into operation.

Extreme cold couldn’t stand in my way though, with so much to do. Our November-December-January rain (157, 153 and 111cm respectively) wasn’t record-breaking but boy was it wet though. The projects I’m working on – or not, given the conditions – were marshy and bleak. (I note that, despite everything, Lake Trasimeno still isn’t filling up. They reckon it’ll take three more rainy years to get the level back to where it should be.) Rain and snow over, the weather shifted to dry and crisp – just what I’d been waiting for. I’ve been having fun earth-moving.

One day driving back from town absent mindedly, I kept seeing odd yellow things lying in our lane. Had my brain been switched on at all I might have wondered what tardy tree was still dropping such bright leaves. But honestly, I clocked them but failed to process them. Until, that is, I got to Mario’s house (which, of course, has been Fabio’s for many years now but the name sticks) and it dawned on me what I’d been not-focussing on.

In the parking area was a pickup with a trailer attached. On the trailer were Mario’s lemon trees. My heart fell as I realised: these magnificent, magical specimens were being taken away.

Mario/Fabio’s house has been in vendita forever. Mario put it on the market when he was old and infirm and completely unable to keep the property in the shipshape state he would have liked. I should say that this only ever applied to certain bits: his olive trees, his vines, his fruit trees. He paid little attention to aesthetics, and the returning-to-nature piles of junk we found around our property after we bought that section from him were widespread and gargantuan.

To call Mario’s sale effort half-hearted would be a wild exaggeration: under pressure from the family he put it on the market – but at a vastly inflated price. He had shut the interferers up, but he had no intention whatsoever of leaving the place.

Now Fabio is making another push – he may even have found a buyer – but he’s running into the contrarian spirit of long-departed uncle Mario at every turn. The reality of the house doesn’t match the cadastral records so building alterations have been necessary. The lake down in the valley – now almost inaccessible – doesn’t exist at all, by which I mean it’s there all right, and it’s full of water, but the stream was clearly damned for irrigation purposes in the 1970s or ’80s when building regs were mainly ignored, and anyone with a digger and a need for water could and did make themselves a reservoir. In the intervening decades no one thought to declare this one to the powers that be. In our more stringently regulated times, there’s no way you can sell a property with a non-existent lake; and making it suddenly ‘real’ is an expensive business.

The irony is – I discovered when I told this story to a builder I know – that it may not even have been Mario who had the bright idea of damming. On the far shore of the pond, on the neighbours’ land, was an orchard which we only ever scrambled down to once or twice, when we first purchased our property two decades ago. The reservoir was almost certainly made to irrigate these trees. In my mind’s eye it has become a place of wonders: long long rows of beautifully espaliered trees of many varieties along the bank of the little lake – in decay by the time we glimpsed them but redolent of the most careful cultivation. I might have been spinning fables to myself all these years.

According to my informant – who was sent to harvest the fruit in his youth – the orchard supplied a local supermarket, mostly with apples… immense quantities of apples that no one quite knew what to do with nor had room to store. They were sold, with much fanfare, as “untreated” though in fact, he told me, the owners threw every synthetic chemical they could get their hands on at these poor trees. But they did so, he said, in such a disorganised fashion and at quite the wrong times of year so the fruit was full of worms anyway. The “natural” label was a perfect cover for the worms and blemishes.

And the lemons? They were Mario’s babies: more enormous spreading bushes than trees as a result of careful pruning over many many years, and always bending with the weight of their fruit at the end of each winter when he got his tractor and dragged their wheeled platforms out of the almost totally dark shed where he kept them through the cold months and back into the sunlight. Why hadn’t I thought to ask Fabio what he was planning to do with them if and when he sold the house? Why hadn’t I put in a bid for at least one or two of them?

One of the smaller ones had been set aside by the two jolly types who were carting the trees away. Could I buy it? It had already been promised to someone else. If he didn’t turn up Fabio would let me know. I’ve heard nothing back. I presuming I’ve lost that one too. I’m a little bit heart broken. They really were unique.

Immediately after new year I received one of those odd messages through AirBnB which prompts AirBnB to ask me “is everything all right with this enquiry?” It was for the whole of Pieve Suites, for four days, for purposes which were not fully explained but which seemed somewhat nefarious.

Soon after, I received a similar message directly through my site. It gave a little more info (we want to use Pieve Suites for a photoshoot) and suggested I call the company’s head office if I wanted to check. It still looked very dubious to me.

Is there any truth in the online rental legends about places being hired and turned into pop-up brothels, or of them showing up as background in grisly porn movies? The stories of houses being ripped apart when used as venues for wild parties are certainly genuine. Week after week I get oddities, some repeating again and again: the cricket team seeking a quote for  accommodation, the corporate HR department wanting the price of full board (full board? I don’t even do breakfast) for 20 staff members on a team building experience, the odd messages which are too jolly or too obsequious or so imperfectly perfect that you just know they’re machine-produced.

My first instinct was just to ignore the request. But there was a company – Piumini Danesi – mentioned in the email, and it was one I knew. I called the number.

The gruff character who answered – the photographer he claimed – was most affronted when I told him I thought his messages were a scam. He bristled and bridled but sought quite hard to convince me otherwise. I talked to the CEO of the company. They put rental money in my bank account immediately. They asked me – and perhaps this was the clincher – if I could find them a local lady to spend three days ironing the quilts and luxury bedlinen that they’d be photographing in my suites.

But I still had my doubts as they rolled up with their van load of duvets and their alternative bedheads. I needn’t have had. For four days the photographer and his assistants turned Pieve Suites upside down, transforming it to the image they wanted to convey in their catalogue. And then they (mostly) put if back to how it was. I’ve still seen only glimpses of the results: they said it would be a while before the catalogue was ready. It’ll be interesting to see what they made of it.

Since when it has been very quiet on the Pieve Suites front… except for one dramatic development. The deal has been done, the atto has been signed. As of 1 February I own both halves of my slice of via Borgo di Giano. What on earth I’ll do with it is anybody’s guess. I’ve spent all my (or rather our) money buying it, so fixing it up will have to wait. But it did very much feel not like a new purchase but a completion of a process begun in 2016.

It’s smaller than ‘my’ half and the ground floor is a garage rather than habitable space. (L, naturally, is already planning an influx of lycra-clad guests now that there’s somewhere for cyclists to store and tinker with their bikes.) The two floors above are far less run-down than my original section was but they’re still in need of pretty serious work. Piano piano. I’ll get there. And in the mean time I’m just happy in the knowledge that I’ve returned the property to its original state – made it whole again.

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.