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.

15 February 2021

So finally we’ve had some proper winter, with real snow and real sub-zero temperatures. Today the snow is thawing fast – and just as well say I, because though very pretty it’s overrated in my opinion. Cold and then slippery as the compacted stuff is refrozen overnight and turns into sheets of ice. 

I’m liking this cracklingly sharp blue weather that’s accompanying the thaw though. And I love the way that the brilliance changes colours: ochre-yellow in particular stands out buttery and fresh against its new, shiny background.

Just as well we’ve had that to distract us because all around, things are spiralling out of control and off the charts. We’ve got variants. A bit of British. A bit of Brazilian. The net result: our tally in little CdP currently stands at 90+ which is more cases than we’ve ever had – crazy, and there’s no sign of it slowing down. Shockingly, two pievesi have died this week.

The whole of Perugia province is now a mini-red zone, as is Chiusi just across the border into Tuscany. Interestingly, schools are finally being identified as hotspots. When the regional council ordered even elementary schools and nurseries to shut down (the others were doing distance learning already) parents’ groups fought and won out against the closure in the courts. But the court’s decision is being ignored and littlies were confined to barracks anyway. Today a higher court came down on the side of the region. Case numbers in under-tens are growing apace.

It’s mounting up, and it all feels rather unfair, with a pandemic 12-month anniversary coming around fast. 

It has been a busy few days for CdP on quite another front too, since Mario Draghi was tapped to form a new Italian government. I think I’m about the only pievese left who hasn’t aired her Draghi-views for the national media. Someone from Corriere della Sera made the mistake of calling L on one of the rare occasions recently when he had managed to get out on his bike: the journalist was given short shrift. You have to have priorities.

Don Aldo, our long-retired parish priest and loquacious wannabe-bard has had no such qualms and has appeared – at length – on just about every radio and television news and current affairs programme that exists. Each time I tune in to Italian radio, there he is. He is quite the expert at talking endlessly and saying absolutely nothing. A skill he perfected in the pulpit perhaps?

Dottor Draghi has a home a couple of ridges across from us. After he left the European Central Bank, it was almost as if he had retired here. But no one was really fooled: Draghi has always been in the wings, Italy’s trump card. That he has finally been played means that Italy was in – or could easily have slipped into – a dangerous position. Enter the Draghi. There’s a lot of EU recovery money coming down the pipes which needs to be spent appropriately for long-term benefit. A job – ça va sans dire – for dottor Draghi. Italian politics, however, is a shark pool of unrivalled ferocity. Could it possibly prove to be the one job he can’t pull off? We shall see.

I haven’t been interviewed but I do have my thoughts. I used, after all, to be rather an expert. In a former life, when I worked for Bloomberg, Draghi’s Bank of Italy was part of my beat and speedily by-passing the guff to locate the crux of any speech by the bank governor – generally in the penultimate paragraph but occasionally the third last of the pre-distributed press copy – was a speciality I was famed for. 

On a number of occasions in that period I would round a tall bookshelf in some dusty book shop in central Rome and find Draghi there, peering quietly at volumes. We would smile at each other and wish each other good morning or good afternoon. He was unfailingly polite, and my impression was always of a real person, a serious person.

My most recent confirmation of this came some years ago here in CdP when Draghi was sitting outside a café, and was approached by a man – probably Senegalese – selling trinkets and novelty cigarette lighters. Quietly and unostentatiously Draghi kept him there chatting for several minutes. I heard him ask about where this man came from, and about what it took for him to make a living. There was nothing condescending or facile about the conversation. Draghi’s interest seemed genuine.

Will all this press attention help us to spring back into action, better than ever, once we’re allowed to? Will Città della Pieve enjoy its own Draghi-driven renaissance. Who knows? It should be said, for one reason or another, we’re quite often in the limelight anyway. 

I posted my latest opus for the Telegraph (there’s a copy at the end) on a town FB page and once again got the kind of attention that warms the heart. 

“That’s a photo of my twins!” wrote a doting father of the two leggy girls in the accompanying photo. 

“That’s my grapevine!” said a friend who lives down that way. 

“That’s by my neighbour!” said our neighbour. 

If this summer proves – as I expect it will – to be another very slow, hesitant season for travel, with predominantly Italian visitors predominantly in Italy’s beautiful small towns then yes, I’m sure that the Draghi effect will help. Already in the days when he was called on to form a government, and when the make-up of that government was announced, I enjoyed what I’m calling a Draghi-bounce in visits to my Pieve Suites website.

I noticed some research on 2020 Italian travel trends saying that wary holidaymakers had shifted heavily in favour of doing their booking directly with the accommodation provider, rather than going through booking platforms and the like. I have to say I really didn’t notice that: I had never had so many booking.com reservations as last August. 

Being homebound with plenty of time on your hands (though if truth be told I can never find time to do anything much…) leaves you plenty of opportunity for skating blithely about the info-sphere – I confess, in my case, mostly looking for confirmation of my own ideas and pre-conceptions.

I liked, for example, this article in The Guardian where, way down the bottom, it mentions the rapid rate of natural re-wilding, listing France, Romania and Italy as those European countries returning most rapidly to forest. To which my reaction was, naturally: duh.

It’s a conversation I find myself having from time to time with starry-eyed enthusiasts who believe that re-wilding is something you do rather than something that just happens. I’m sure there are many who would make a good go of proving me wrong but I can’t help suspecting that man’s interfering hand is just as likely to do harm as good, however noble the intentions are.

Yes, yes I know that leaving things to go back to nature can involve that ugly pioneer plant stage but in the end nature seems pretty good at looking after herself. I mean, on the whole she’s held her own remarkably against the havoc that mankind has wreaked. 

We’ve been wandering through the delightful snowy woodlands down in the valley over the past couple of days, the woodlands that fifty years ago were carefully cultivated fields running along our little stream. All it took to get that back to nature was… fifty years.

The other thing that that Guardian article makes me think is: hey, population is falling to the point where wolves are roaming through ghost towns? I have a solution for that! I know lots of people who are looking desperately for homes, people who even through these last few stormy sub-zero days have been prepared to set out in rickety boats or risk savage police beatings along zealously guarded icy borders, people whose lives in their own homes had become so utterly untenable that they’d risk everything to get themselves and their children to ‘safety’, people who would give anything and would work until they dropped for a cherished home of their own in an emptying-out town. 

It’s so odd that no one else has thought of that…

Another of my firmly held beliefs which is currently being repeatedly confirmed is that seasonal ills have vanished. Colds? Flu? Where have they gone? No one gets insignificantly ill any more… dire diseases only these days. In the US, in Italy, everywhere – if you can avoid Covid, you’re laughing. Unless of course you contract something even scarier. It’s nice not to sniffle through the winter though.