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.

12 December 2021

As Christmas bears down on us there’s a sense of things condensing, overlapping and getting completely out of hand. 

We’ve already had our first respectable dump of snow (snow? in November?!) The splendid leaves of this magnificent autumn are clinging on gamely: it was disorientating seeing snow blanketing russets and ochres rather than balancing along the bare branches of our predominantly deciduous natives. Driving along the Pievaiola towards Perugia on that snowy Monday morning, white powder fell from great amber oaks forming an arch across the road. So very beautiful.

Even unseasonable snow and the endless dripping damp of November (we were only not-quite-back to our monthly rain average finally, but it felt like a veritable deluge after so many dry months) were preferable to the quick trip to the UK which we inserted mid-month. My last trip there was in December 2018. I can’t say I was missing it. Neither am I in a rush to return… ever.

Autumn shades were lingering prettily in Chichester too – and here ends my positive take on the country. 

A shift back in the general direction of caution has been ordered from the top now, apparently, but when we were there – in West Sussex, with one of the country’s worst daily case rates – the whole town was a heaving mass of unmasked people piling, coughing, into shops and public spaces of all kinds. 

There seemed to be no awareness – or no desire to give any thought to – the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away, nor any kind of consideration for general well-being. How I longed for the taken-for-granted common sense of my Umbrian town! I spent a week with my FFP3 mask firmly on; but even this didn’t quell my mounting terror that I might catch something and not be allowed on the plane home. My negative pre-flight test result was sheer elation.

Apart from the general lack of any care for the commonweal, other English oddnesses struck me – the disengaged, infrequent visitor and not-so-objective observer. 

The food shops, to begin with. We paid an initial visit to a huge supermarket on the edge of town, which was recognisable and relatable to, as a place to go to buy stuff for the preparation of meals. Yes – as reported in the press – there really were big gaps on the fresh food shelves during our late-afternoon shop: plenty of onions and carrots and those veg which could, possibly, be grown in the UK but a distinct lack of many more ‘exotic’ greens. 

In the city-centre supermarkets, on the other hand, what was on the shelves was as baffling as it was uninviting. There was a distinct lack of ingredients – plenty of “food”, little raw material. The quantity of ultra-processed, oven-ready everything was shocking. 

I’ve mused on this before (“eat proper food” being my favourite mantra). 

The chart I reproduced in that post is from a 2018 report. It lamented the fact that ultra-processed food had climbed above 50 percent of everything consumed in the UK. Take a look around any smallish city-centre store in that neck of the woods and you might wonder what they use to produce the almost 50 percent of non-processed food: there’s not a lot of the genuine thing.  

Next up: business models. I went into Boots to buy some foundation. “It’s three items for the price of two,” says the very kind, very over-made-up girl serving me. Why not? I select a couple of lipsticks but as I’m examining the colours she creeps up on me and shoves a ‘£10 off’ voucher into my hand. “Use this too,” she says, encouragingly. Great.

So I have one item that I really wanted which cost (I’m ad-libbing here: I can’t remember the prices) £10 and another two which I kind-of wanted which also each cost £10. All of which together cost… £10. Brilliant. But what am I to think? That the ‘real’ prices are simply a rip-off? That everything should be reduced by two-thirds so that they can save on the cost of printing ‘3 for the price of 2’ posters and ‘£10 off!’ leaflets? Or do they want me to feel in their debt somehow, eternally coming back to enjoy their largesse while actually giving them quite a bit of my money? I just don’t get it.

I feel safer with my simpler, less generous but more straightforward Italian retail arrangement. I remember being… disturbed? amused? by the relationship between vendors and purchasers when we first moved to Rome in the early 1980s. The power still lay firmly in the hands of the shopkeeper. You had the distinct feeling that the days when the grocer agreeing – or not – to a credit arrangement meant the difference between the family eating or starving were not nearly long enough ago for comfort. The shopkeeper called the shots; you kept your head down and accepted the conditions.

It has changed of course. Chains have replaced the individual corner shop, and competition between them gives the purchaser the upper hand. In that, Italy is no different from the rest of the developed world. But with variations. Italy is so (mercifully) atrocious at international-impersonal. Little supermarkets in small towns like ours tend to be family-run franchises of major national labels, managed by locals. Even at the Lidl down in the valley, shoppers greet the people on the cash desks by name. Fresh foods and the lower end of processing (pasta, coffee, bottled pulses) are everywhere; ready meals are banished to dark corners.

Other UK oddities? It struck me that the same kind of people who will stare resolutely at their shoes, ignoring your existence as they walk through town parks will greet you openly as they stride past you on a country footpath. Why? 

That same urban recalcitrance seemed to have gripped the man in a Chichester market stall selling a range of fat olives from big vats. He grunted when I stopped at his stall to examine the goods, and was clearly not about to offer any assistance. Can I mix them? I asked, switching to Italian. No surprise, no inquisitiveness – but the bolshy uncommunicativeness gave way to all the description I needed in some kind of southern Italian accent, the perfect clipped but informative Italian shopkeeper. 

There are various household items which have never worked for us – destined to fail from the word go. Salt was long a problem: every grinder we had swiftly rusted; every salt cellar silted up irrevocably. Now we’ve resorted to a big, canteen-style tin one. It seems ­– fingers crossed – to work.

Dishwashers, on the other hand, are a never-ending saga which shows no sign of ending. I’ve lost count of how many dishwashers we’ve had since we moved in here: five? six? Boh. It might be because they seize up due to under-use: more often than not, when there are just two of us (and there usually are), we wash up by hand. 

But all this is immaterial. What I really wanted to say was: when did repair men lose touch with spanners? In my most recent attempt to rescue the dishwasher, which was groaning to a halt about a quarter through the cycle, two men of few words turned up, pulled the machine out of its nook into the middle of the kitchen floor and stood looking at it. I described what it did and didn’t do. They shuffled about, one of them poking it a little.

They suggested pouring a barrage of toxic chemicals through it, at intervals. They had the chemicals in their van: they were expensive but they might do the trick. But that will destroy the delicate equilibrium in my perfectly balanced septic tank, right? I asked them. Yes, they agreed. Then no, I said. What now?

They wiggled assorted pipes in lacksadaisical fashion and advised running it empty a few times. Great. And that will be €50 please. Fine. They left and I began running the dishwater. A long slow snake of water made its way across the floor from beneath. Out of the frying pan. 

Thinking about the €50 tecnici it occurred to me: no tool bags, no tools. Clearly no intention of actually getting their hands dirty repairing the machine. 

There are fields where I revel in Italy’s wealth of craftsmen standing by to resolve any problem: the smiths and plumbers and artisan builders who’ll stick things back together for you at the drop of a hat. The moment anything approaching hi-tech is involved, forget it. My pre-call-out detaching of pipes and blowing down them was far more technical than anything those men did.

There’s nothing technical about a tecnico any more: he’ll sell you stuff; sometimes (but not this time) he’ll try to connect the machine’s motherboard to HQ for diagnosis which works solely on a cellphone signal which of course we don’t have in our secluded valley; or he’ll make wild theoretical stabs at things which might do something… anything. But he won’t, ever, unscrew bits and try to see what’s wrong.

Discarding and replacing is so massively taken for granted in our modern lives, it drives me to distraction. I’m going to start waving my flag for the Right to Repair movement. Fancy actually having to fight for the right not to have to chuck your electrical or electronic goods the moment they’re a trifle ropey. The EU is planning to put an end to built-in-obsolescence on its statute books some time next year. But will a generation of tecnici with spanners come to our aid?

This morning I had my third Covid jab. The latest omicron variant is pushing numbers up in Italy… though even as this country bursts through the 20K new cases a day barrier we can still smugly observe the UK with its almost-60K burden. (Fingers crossed that I don’t have to eat my words any time soon.)

The rules have been tightened slightly: interiors of bars and restaurants are only open to those who have been jabbed – repeat testing is no longer good enough. At the Caffè Matucci the other morning a woman ordering at the counter was complaining loudly about not being able to sit inside. “She does it every day,” the girl behind the bar told me. “She just wants to make a point. Then she sits outside.”

At some point, though, someone’s going to have to redefine ‘outside’. I mean, the thigh-height Corten planters defining the Matucci’s  ‘dehors‘ now have head-height perspex screens extending upwards. Huge white umbrellas cover the whole area and patio burners keep everything warm. For the latest in comfort, I see they’ve soldered a door to the planters on either side of the entry-gap. With icy winds and temps rarely going into double figures, it makes the outside more amenable to those unable or unwilling to go inside. But at what point does it stop being ‘outside’?

And moreover, how serious is this winter wave going to be? I asked myself this question as I gaily dismissed yet another request for a Pieve Suites New Year booking this afternoon. I’m completely full from 30th to 5th: it feels like old times. But… will regions be closed down if the situation gets out of hand? Will the bevvy of children who form part of the second party of guests fall prey to the contagion which is ripping through the youngest demographics? Will this bounce-back turn out to be a damp squib? We don’t plan these days, we dream.