29 June 2021

How intelligent are plants? Quite aside from my own slightly loopy belief that most plant life is wildly smarter than the average human being, I have been observing my wisteria and wondering: has it been learning lessons? 

My summers are always one long battle to keep wisteria tendrils from reaching out from the pergola and across to the wall of the house. I presume the ultimate aim of the wisteria is to engulf the building, like Sleeping Beauty’s castle. But in the shorter term, it provides a superhighway for the ants which populate the greenery but which would much rather (because they’re evil and have it in for me) invade my home. I keep a pair of secateurs in the kitchen for the purpose, and snip away a few wandering fronds each evening. For the past few days, however, I’ve noticed a change: the tentacles heading housewards are no longer leaf-bearing. They all end in droopy, full-of-promise buds which open out as they come into contact with the wall. 

Now, snipping off leaf branches is simple. But sacrificing flowers – especially after this spring’s icy disaster – is quite another matter: who has the heart to do that? I’ve never had this dilemma before. I’ve never had flowers heading for the wall. Have they, in some strange way, wised up to the fact that they can get away with anything if they sprout some blooms on their tips? I can’t think of any other explanation.

The other day I swung my car into the driveway of a local hotel-restaurant which has been closed for years but will soon reopen. I was there to hand out some plant-tending and replacing advice. The place is right opposite the gate of our prime minister’s house, and as I stepped out of the car I peered across to the gate, and mused (as I do every time I’m in the vicinity) about the utter misery of sitting in a Carabinieri patrol vehicle in relentless sun hour after hour outside a closed gate with nothing more to look at than a not-particularly-busy road where the most exciting thing that ever passes is a couple of perambulating old ladies taking their evening constitutional.

I often wonder whether the choice of car denotes whether Mario Draghi is in residence or not. Sometimes there’s a smart SUV; others there’s a down-at-heel Fiat which really doesn’t give the impression that it would come out on top in a struggle against determined marauders. On this particular afternoon, the car fell pretty much into this second category, though I knew (because everyone knows everything in CdP) that Draghi was home.

He’s not a man who likes showiness, our Mario. The story in town – which may or may not be true – is that despite the less-than-impressive nature of his gate-side protection, there are bodyguards all over the place and for a while they were being boarded and lodged in the Hotel Vannucci, the town’s priciest and smartest accommodation option (though of course my Pieve Suites beats it hands down for style). That was – the story goes – until Draghi (who has, incidentally, waived his prime ministerial salary) found out how much it was costing the public purse and shifted the lot into a far cheaper motel down in the valley.

But that’s by-the-by. I had been dispensing advice for 20 minutes or so when a car screeched through the gate. Two young men hopped out and asked to talk to the owner. The owner had made himself momentarily unfindable.

“We’re Carabinieri,” they announced. I actually thought the were joking. “We are Carabinieri,” they insisted: obviously my skepticism showed. And so I asked if I could help instead.

“Who does that black car belong to?” It was mine (and full marks for spotting the black beneath the filth and dust). 

“And who are you?” 

I explained. I swore it was mine. I tried my hardest to look very unlike a sniper. 

The hyper-thermic guards at Draghi’s gate had watched me pull in, noticed me peering in their direction, and called the local police station for back-up. To protect the premier from me. I’d like to think I have a vaguely dangerous air. But I suspect it was boredom and perhaps just a smidgeon of a desire to take some revenge on those colleagues who were enjoying a quiet afternoon in the civilian world. It’s good, though, to know that they’re looking out for the PM.

Useful Marco turned up yesterday with his tractor and began the weary job of cutting the grass in our bottom field. He inevitably does this on the hottest days of the year, sitting atop his heat-belching old tractor: no cabin nor anything apart from a backwards-facing baseball cap to protect him from the sun, chuntering about the parched field in a cloud of choking dust.

It’s sad to think that he’s munching up all the marvellous orchids which I’ve been trying to learn to identify this year. 

I’ve been snapping photos and lining them up with sitings on this fascinating site but frankly, I’m not sure whether I’ve spotted a couple of varieties or far far more: the thing that I merrily call a lady orchid (Orchis purpurea, of which we have many: my grass-mowing weaves and dodges around the ones that spring up in inconvenient spots in the garden) could be any number of these lovely specimens but I like the name. Down in the bottom field, there were scores of what I have airily dubbed Anacamptis pyramidalis (but which could have been many other things). All their dainty heads will have been lopped off now, which is sad.

But it’s also, I presume, what makes them grow. When our field was 100% unkempt, there wasn’t much of interest down there: it really was very scrappy. Now that we have it mowed once a year, it gets more wondrously packed with beautiful blooms each season. 

Having blithely (and necessarily) erased the orchids, Marco was much more excited about the lupins. I’d never given much thought to lupins, though I have at times wondered about the many kinds of Fabaceae running riot through fields and hedges – another wild plant family about which I know next to nothing. He’s right, it seems: central Italy is full of them. I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled to stand up his claims that we have Lupinus albus, the kind that produce the orange pods you find lurking in murky brine on market stalls, waiting to be spooned into cone-shaped paper twists, de-hulled and consumed. 

I’ve never really understood lupini: they’re hard work to get at, and taste like salty wax. Italian as I’m trying to be, it’s a part of the culture that I haven’t yet made mine.

I expect it’s to do with childhood (compare and contrast my vegemite dependence). 

Last week a friendly courier came bowling down the lane and after he’d handed over a package said to me “you’re English aren’t you?” It was easier to nod ‘yes’ than to go into details. “Can you explain something to me? This morning I had to deliver a package to another English signora from The English Food Company.” His pronunciation was charming.

“But I don’t understand. Why would anyone order Engish food? Isn’t all Italian food so much better?”

I told him it was probably something attached to childhood memories, something to sate nostalgia more than hunger. But he had a very good point. I’m not sure how sincere my response was. 

In two of the jobs I worked on during the lockdown, agapanthus featured. Agapanthus frequently feature in my work. Where they are appropriate, they bring not only architectural structure but also – in my opinion – sheer joy. 

One project was a Rome terrace with a superb view over the dome of St Peter’s. The client was male, southern Italian, in the legal world and with a propensity to pay in large denomination bills which would have been funny had it not been… let’s say less than 100% legal.

He wanted nothing obscuring his view over the cupolone. Fine. The plants that went into the planters around the walls of the terrace were mostly low and/or trailing. Higher plants went around the sides. But in a couple of those Vatican-side planters, I did stick one or two Agapanthus africanus. For height variety, I explained, and – when the marvellous blooms emerged – to frame the dome.

I thought he’d understood. I thought he’d agreed. Then a couple of weeks ago I received a video message saying that those stalks (flowerless at the time) were too high, they were going to disturb his view, and that they had to be lopped off at the same height as the parapet, no higher. I was, quite literally, speechless.

When I recovered I called the architect friend who had passed the job on to me. Just ignore it, he said. Hopefully he’ll forget.

Then some days later I learnt that the heart-broken gardener had indeed been forced by my client to lop the tops off the offending plants… I didn’t dare to ask whether he took them off from the bottom or left the tragically mutilated parapet-high stalks as initially requested. I rather hoped the latter. It seemed fitting.

The same morning the agapanthus bloomed in the second garden where I had placed a strip at the head of the lovely pool. ” I just love the agapanthus,” wrote that very different client. “They are like an elegant troupe of dancers all escaping their shrouds at different angles and with different shapes. One of them, amazingly, has coiled the stalk like a French horn — a complete round near the base of the plant. You are giving me daily joy watching them!”

Some clients are definitely more satisfying than others…

18 May 2021

For the past couple of weeks there has been a slight parallel-universe feel to news from the top. Powers-that-be in Rome have been ordering regions to open vaccinations up to over-40s. And over-30s. And why not over-20s too while you’re at it. Here in Umbria, 60s and above are wondering whether perhaps everyone has forgotten them.

In a gloriously offhand comment to local press last week one regional councillor explained why Umbria’s vaccination drive was still stuck on its Very Old People. “We have far more old people here because they live better and longer. We’ve had to go the extra mile to take care of our over-80s.” 

So is Umbria older? Well… yes, it seems. But not oldest. I’m drawing blanks looking for regional over-80s tables. But Umbria’s concentration of over-65s (25.8% of the population according to Statista’s 2020 figures) places it third among Italian regions behind Liguria and Friuli-Venezia Giulia.

I’m wondering though whether Umbria’s interpretation of ‘caregiver’ – who are also entitled to vaccination alongside the recipients of their caring – might not be rather looser than elsewhere. Because although anyone born between 1952 and 1961 has been palmed off with – as of yesterday morning – the chance to ‘pre-book’ (which basically means putting your name on a list then waiting to be called up when they get round to it), Umbria ranks second in Italy for vaccinating over-30s, third for over-40s and fourth for over-20s – or so says this local rag quoting Il Sole-24 Ore. So we’re stealing a march on the rest of the country? At this stage of the proceedings, it’s a bit of a flimsy record.

In the mean time, the country opens up… despite large unvaccinated swathes. I find it quite angst-provoking. I hope this thing doesn’t backfire.

Things I will miss when we get over this: 

  • masks. I’m so fond of my mask – as a winter nose-warmer; as the thing which keeps other people’s germs away from me; because when infuriating bugs do all in their power to get up my nose while I’m digging in the garden there’s generally a mask handy that I can grab to foil them; because when we’re all wearing them I can pretend not to recognise people I don’t particularly want to talk to.
  • the curfew. We’re opening up but – at least for a few more days – we all have to be tucked up in our own homes by 10pm. We’re now at the that delicious stage where you can invite up to four people into your home for dinner. But at a comfortably early time of evening – how comfortable is determined by the length of their trip home – guests are getting their coats, and you’re planning the rest of the evening’s viewing and/or reading.
  • people bringing us stuff. Already the sweet boys who deliver delicious bread of a Sunday morning have intimated that if we’d like to go and pick it up in distant Paciano, they’d be relieved to be spared the trip. Will Beppe keep bringing us his amazing ricotta? Will we be able to summon meals from Domenico at Il Poderaccio?
  • having a perfectly valid excuse to be a hermit.
  • having to share wonderful places with other people. We’ve experienced empty Venice. Next week we’ll find out what Florence looks like without the hordes. Last week, on the other hand, we had the Trevi fountain to ourselves… give or take an eastern European model and a very red dress.

I was in the city to work on a garden. L engineered a stay at The Hoxton Rome – newly opened and raring for reviews. The hotel was fun, which is I think the way they’d like it to be seen: I described it as a grown-up Generator but perhaps that was reductive. Its rooms are stylish, and really want to be your kind of thing. Public spaces are striving to be the place to be – your external office/meeting area/hangout. For many people, I’m sure they will be.

But being in that hotel – or even a hotel – wasn’t the special thing about being in the city. The special thing was the unique privilege of savouring the city itself at this time in history.

We decided to walk from the hotel’s Salario-zone location to the Capitoline – a brisk 40-minute walk through the northern inner suburbs, then through the northern part of the centro storico. The pattern was: mediumly bustling life in that outer zone (just as I had found the previous day in Monteverde Vecchio where my garden work took me); then, the more centrale, the more devoid of people it became – the entirely glorious opposite of ‘normal’ Rome. 

‘Normal’ Rome is pushy and ill-tempered. It’s beautiful of course – breathtakingly so. But it makes you feel hot and/or flustered, even when you can’t blame the weather. It smells unhealthy. You feel like the city makes you aggressive. You feel like over-wrought Romans would push you under a passing bus to get by.

In pandemic Rome the Romans that aren’t WFH in the sticks look almost relaxed at café tables. (Café tables? Romans gulp their caffè at the counter! With that habit banned under Covid rules, they’re learning new, calmer skills.) When you’re not in a pressure cooker, there’s more time to look about, to take in the superb emptiness of it all. There’s time, too, to wish that it could always be much more like that.

At the Campidoglio, we saw the Torlonia Marbles exhibition. It is extraordinary. The Torlonia family has had that collection of ancient marble statues (plus one magnificent bronze) gathering dust in their Tiber-side cellar in Rome’s Trastevere district for many many generations while branches of the family have squabbled over who owns what, and – perhaps – sold off bits and pieces of it and smuggled them out of the country to settle outstanding debts. (We both had a brief glimpse into the Torlonia world at Villa Albani a couple of years ago; L, on the other hand, recently visited the Trastevere deposit which is also described in a recent BBC report).

The exhibition is an incredible promenade through ancient Rome, displayed publicly for – I think – the first time. The show was in doubt until the last minute as a couple of T-principi fell out over who should be pulling which strings. As it was, the well-spaced visitors (numbers are, of course, very limited) were mainly Roman, and quite a lot of them more than old enough to have been thorougly vaccinated some time ago – elderly Romans making the very best of their remarkably gentler city.

I had a couple of busy days at Pieve Suites recently which felt stimulating in parts and panicky in others. It seems so long since I’ve had guests! The odd requests have begun again too. One character wanted the whole place for three months; then wanted one suite for six weeks; and then fled – very graciously and apologetically – when I quoted him a very discounted price for one suite for one month. Had he not checked the tariffe page of my website? The same question goes for the man who was very keen on having a “very discreet and private” suite for one night: he would arrive that same evening and his lady friend would turn up the following day at 11am after which they’d need the room until about 6pm. Ummm, I explained: check-out is by noon. So how much is two nights? No apology here, just stunned silence: clearly his lady friend the “dottoressa” wasn’t worth the price of a two-night stay. Does my website emanate an air of maison de passe? I don’t think so.

Look carefully: there are dozens of boar of many sizes down there