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.

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.