26 April 2021

In a normal year, this would be a moment of glory for my lawn-not-lawn. Even my surprising biodiversity (for which read: weeds) generally looks green and lush at this point in the spring. This year? It’s baked hard underfoot and the thin green around the bald patches has a decidedly mid-August air to it.

April so far has brought us 26mm of rain (av. 73mm*), after March’s record-low 9.5mm (av. 89mm*). After some blue days of pure joy, greyness stretches away into the foreseeable forecast-future now – but what we’re promised is drizzle, not rain. Which really isn’t all that useful. It’s amazing, all things considered, how beautiful everything (except my grass) looks.

How it should be
How it is

All right, while I’m complaining… my wisteria. Oh, my wisteria! That one early-April night of -4°C, whisked in on a northerly gale, must have turned the metal pergola outside the kitchen into a deep-freezer element. My flowers are fried. I’ve read in several places that I shouldn’t touch them, that the plant will expel them and heal in its own time. But it’s painful each time I open the door and see the bedraggled things. Maybe I’ll be rewarded with a bumper summer reflowering. 

And now on to spring positivity. At the end of the very same day I heard my first cuckoo, we fell asleep to the first nightingale-melody. How I love that sound! The lilac has been splendid; the irises stop me dead in my tracks each time I go through the front door. The asparagus are finally going beserk, though really only since I attached the timers and got my watering system going for regular dousing. 

Down in the woods – where we, and especially L, have been spending much time on our path-clearing projects – the flora is spectacular. What a superbly magical world it is down there, with a quiet which is unlike any other, alive with rustling and birdsong that sound like they’re coming from somewhere else. 

We’ve snipped and hacked our way through the brambles and other undergrowth in that valley (dark green on the photo below) across from our house which was wooded even in this 1954 photo (there’s nothing but dense scrubby vegetation now). It’s a very special place. Next up: the rather shorter (pale green) route to the house on the facing hill – one of the very few constructions we can see from our own house and, coincidentally, home to friends. This as-yet-uncleared path was obviously once a farm track wide enough to travel with your horse and cart: you can see this from the trees lined up neatly along what used to be the track-edges. Now it’s well-nigh impenetrable. But one big push and we’ll be through. It’s so satisfying breaking out into the clear.

L has also been pursuing his other mission in these end-of-lockdown (hopefully) days: tree sculpting. The few trees protruding from our field are being made shapely. The old apple tree, liberated and refashioned last autumn, has been heavy with blossom and is looking splendid. Last weekend’s challenge on the other hand were the waving willows which are now so elegant that I shall henceforth describe them as a ‘stand’ rather than a ‘clump’. It sounds more fitting somehow. 

All this as re-opening fever grips the country. Or at least so I’m told, though personally I won’t be rushing out to take advantage of our new (as of today) freedom to cross regional borders. Driving south for a work appointment this morning, L said the roads were packed, like he hadn’t seen them for months. In fact for over a year. But as people who needed to cross borders for work (or medical reasons etc) were never barred from doing so, I’m kind of wondering where all these extra travellers are going. I’m also thinking that it’s a while since L drove south early on a Monday morning, and I’m suspecting that perhaps it has been like that all along – we just haven’t been sharing the road with them and so we haven’t noticed.

As of today we can resume consuming in cafés and bars, though only seated at tables (ie no counter service in bars) and only, for the time being, in the open air. I had an appointment to celebrate this with lunch in town but the date fell through and really (though it would of course have been nice to see those friends) it’s not something I’ve been hankering after so much that I felt the need to dine out at the first opportunity to make up for lost time. I say that slightly guiltily, in that I know that this is a godsend for purveyors of food and beverages who have suffered through some hellish times over the past year.

Pieve Suites

For them – but also for myself – I’m hoping that not everyone shares my lack of enthusiasm for escape from captivity. It’s a challenge, trying to guess how hospitality in all its forms will pan out in the months to come. On the eating- and drinking-out front, there’s no doubt that local hostelries will be heaving. Accommodation is a little harder to predict. Brits seem to be confined to quarters for the foreseeable future with the £5K fine for frivolous border-crossing still in place. But today the EU is muttering about the possibility of allowing vaccinated Americans to visit (also this from The Guardian) once again. (We are still waiting for our jabs, though the campaign has picked up speed remarkably. For the time being we’re keeping a low profile but rather enjoying telling people “us? no! we’re far too young!”) And, like last year, Italians will be dying to flee their cities for some country cocooning. 

So I’m trying to do a little sprucing up at Pieve Suites, painting rusty old iron railings and generally getting the place ready for a season which will probably happen and may burst upon me sooner than I expect. At least, I keep my fingers crossed.

*averages based on my rainfall measurements, over the period from 2013-2020

Notes from a lock-down III

0330A

The scent of broad (fava) beans always takes me by surprise. I never expect such a syrupy, cinnamon-y perfume from a plant which is really quite banal. I mean, I have nothing against broad beans but the plant itself is fairly unprepossessing. You wouldn’t even necessarily notice the flowers were it not for the scent.

I’m wondering whether in this slowed-down time where nothing seems particularly real we are growing more sensitive to things around us. We have so much time to stop and stare and inhale and crouch down to get a closer look. Or is it just me, on my unhurried ambling around my garden which is getting more attention than usual – though perhaps not as much as I thought it might when we were first ordered to shun the outside world.

As I tidied the weedy paths in my vegetable garden the weekend before last, then moved into the top bit of orchard, digging out weeds from places which long ago returned to wild countryside, I found myself thinking “oh my god, what if I finish everything? What will I do then?”

Cue slight panic because for me, ‘being in the garden’ is not the floppy hat and the deckchair that normal people might yearn for. I can’t sit down in the garden. I can’t read books there. I need to be constantly on the move, weeding or pruning or tidying in one way or another. It’s not a sense of duty or a maniacal striving for perfection (haha). It’s just what being outside does to me. It’s how I live it and how I love it. It’s my meditation spot and I can only meditate in motion.

0330E

So this momentary image of myself with our lock-down going on until there are no more weeds to pull caused split-momentary anguish, then hilarity. No, lock-down may in some ways present me with fresh opportunities for being blown away by the glories of the season. But it isn’t going to teach me serenity and relaxation; it isn’t going to change my approach to the world outside. Because it’s the weirdest spring ever, but it’s still spring: weedy leaves push themselves up in beds painstakingly cleared of unwanted vegetation just days before. Spring gardening is a fine antidote to possible isolation inactivity.

The oddness of the season comes not only from our virus-shunning isolation. Just when you think life can get no more surreal than it already is, our 20°C (68°F) days were suddenly replaced by snow, ice, gales and the kind of sub-zero temperatures that simply didn’t happen all last winter. There’s more cold, and perhaps a little snow, forecast for later this week. April’s a bit late for that kind of thing.

0330F

We Italians have suddenly mutated from viral voice in the wilderness to pandemic agony aunt. Things move so slowly, but they also race so fast. Was it just ten days ago we were yelling “no! stop! don’t you get it? can’t you see what you’re racing heedlessly towards?” to a world that we knew wasn’t taking us seriously, that thought we were being our usual over-dramatic selves, that failed to see the harm in ‘just’ a meal out here or a visit to an elderly relation there.

Now we’re the go-to counsellors for nouveaux-isolators, a deep well of survival knowledge. Can you really buy a whole week’s supplies in just one shop? Well yes, to my surprise, I find you can, as long as the fruit and vegetables in your store are really very fresh and you eat the more perishable ones sooner. Do you find yourself having homicidal thoughts after a week stuck in the same house with the same person? Again to my surprise, no – though (to be serious) I count my blessings that I am in the relationship I’m in, because I’ve read that the incidence of domestic abuse is sky-rocketing.

This article by Italian novelist Francesca Melandri is her answer to all those questions which we’ve been fielding in our Skype dinner parties and aperitivi. We could all write our own version. Mine would share some points and differ wildly on others. I haven’t taken La Peste or A Journal of the Plague Year off the bookshelf though I admit the thought did cross my mind; I’ve joined no on-line time-filling groups though I’m overjoyed that my Pilates teacher has been keeping we faithful followers limber through IGTV; I’ve called close friends with uncharacteristic regularity and I’ve communicated with people I’d almost forgotten about but her idea that you might make supermarket queue appointments in order to catch a glimpse of friends simply never occurred to me.

After almost a month of lock-down, seeing others by arrangement – other than of the electronic kind – barely feels like part of my life. Even unexpected meetings are unnerving. When a neighbour, out for a stroll, knocked on our front door to wave at us through the glass the other day it took an effort to overcome the shock. I smile and chat with walkers who appear down our quiet lane but I find myself edging further and further away from them as we talk.

Supermarkets, in fact, are beginning to scare me. No, that’s not true: once I’m there it’s mostly fine, though I do find myself wondering who has coughed over which produce, and doing complicated calculations of what I should touch with plastic gloves on and what would be best to use bare hands for in order to curtail possible contagion.

No, it’s going out the door – leaving my safe haven – to do the shopping that fills me with dread. And then returning to that haven armed with items and bags which could be carrying the virus. This way paranoia lies.

0330B

One point I’d dearly love to agree with Melandri on is that when all of this is over, the world won’t be the same. I so want that to be true. I want people to grow up, think of things other than themselves, reshuffle priorities, understand what is important, understand what desperately needs to be changed, take it upon themselves to ensure that the lessons of these weeks and months – and it will surely be many many months because it’s difficult to understand how we’re going to draw a line under this rolling pandemic – will serve to improve. But I’m not convinced this will happen.

It’s true, as my old colleague Rob Cox says in this article, that a pandemic sorts real leaders from the self-serving, short-sighted ones. It’s true too, as Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote in the NYT, that we have made immense shifts in our ways of working in no time at all and with little in the way of harmful effects – though only, I’d like to add, for we privileged, wordy few. It’s true, as Jonathan Portes argues here, that we have arbitrarily given ourselves ways of ‘reading’ the economy which simply ignore the fact that it doesn’t always go that way; we could, if we chose, just write off this corona-freefall and set off on an alternative path. (Apologies to all these writers for picking out single points rather than dealing with complete arguments.)

But we’re so hard-wired to keep on keeping on, always preferring the devil we know to the possible angel hidden round the corner. Will we emerge from this with the scales fallen from our eyes, ready to do battle against those elite powerful forces for whom the status quo guarantees riches and success measured on a pre-pandemic scale? Or will we say “yeah yeah, whatever” in our exhausted state, just happy to slip back into anything that isn’t this dystopia?

I hope we’ll do the former, and fear we’ll do the latter. I sincerely hope I’m wrong.

0330D

It’s becoming hugely difficult to keep up with our Covid-19 sufferers here in CdP where the 3.30pm bulletin from the town hall continues to beget hope or despair. We’ve gone days now without another case. Yesterday came the good news that two of our positives had been negativizzati – which naturally has gone straight on to my list of favourite words. Passing from positive to negative, being cured. I love Italian bureaucratese.

Do we have a total of 16 cases? Perhaps. As I say, it’s complicated.

On a national level there are little glimmers of hope: fewer new cases, more negativizzati, a timid feeling that perhaps we’ve pulled together and beaten it. But no one’s holding their breaths. It may be a sign of returning hope, though, that after so many weeks in which the figures and the disease were the story, little snippets of sub-stories are sneaking out.

Is it true that mafiosi in Italy’s prisons are getting disgruntled because they’re not getting their pocket money – usually taken from a kitty of cash-only protection funds, paid by owners who are no longer allowed to open their shops and so aren’t in place to pay up? Is it true that burglars are having the worst time of their lives because occupiers never leave the houses they’d usually be ransacking? Is it true that ‘Ndrangheta delivery boys are too scare of catching (the virus) or being caught (by virus-control police) to carry on peddling their high-grade cocaine?

Whatever.

L created our own personal secondary narrative by slicing a large piece of his left index finger off the other evening. Having to go to the hospital was almost as agonizing as the wound itself: it’s not the place you want to spend time during a pandemic. But once he’d managed to get through the door – which is firmly locked, with a bell to ring and wary masked emergency room staff only letting you through if you swear you haven’t so much as sneezed for days – L was dealt with in record time by jolly medics who were as keen on getting him out of there as he was to exit.

It’s wonderful, our little hospital.

0330C