7 June 2022

There are days when you keep on learning surprising things. For example, a Ukrainian journalist asked to comment for the BBC World Service on her country’s football defeat at the hands of Wales noted that the beleaguered city of Donetsk was founded by the Welsh. That brought me up short as I chopped onions for dinner.

It’s not technically true, my research showed me. There was some kind of settlement quite a long time before John Hughes set up his coal mines and steel plant there in 1869. But this Welshman clearly made his mark because the place was rechristened Hughesovka (or Yuzovka, a Russian version thereof), a name that stuck until Soviet times.

That discovery followed hard on the heels of poison courgettes/zucchini. In an update on her micro vegetable production on her Athens terrace, C asked whether courgette plants which appeared spontaneously might be poisonous. I had no idea what she was talking about. At which point I discovered that the internet is full of people being amazed at the news that this very bland – but very versatile – veggie stalwart is far less dull than I thought.

It is possible, apparently, for very high levels of toxic cucurbitacin to accumulate in any member of the gourd family (courgettes but also cucumbers, melons, pumpkins etc) which has been accidentally cross-bred with a non-edible squash, and perhaps also in plants grown in severe-stress conditions. This toxin is thought to deter grazing animals from nibbling: it’s horribly bitter apparently, which is the sign to look out for if you’re starting to worry about what potential threats you may be raising in your vegetable garden beds.

Tales of ‘toxic squash syndrome’ abound: violent nausea, hair falling out, gastric upheavals, dizziness. There are rumours of fatalities, but I failed to find any hard and fast cases.

As for my poor zucchini seedlings for this year, they languished in my greenhouse, their little roots winding round and round and round the bottom of their tiny pots, for far longer than any plant deserves. Now that they’re in the ground, I creep up to the orto each evening to splosh extra water on them in a desperate attempt to assuage my guilt. As the season drags on I will no doubt find myself wondering why on earth they’re looking so lacklustre and producing such paltry fruit. Deep down, I know perfectly well.

With work building up in a very satisfying (but very time-consuming) fashion, I’m barely able to keep on top of my vegetable production, never mind the rest of my garden. My peas – planted too late – were such a disaster that I ripped them out, though the mangetouts are doing minimally better and so have been given a reprieve. In their fancy new growing medium the tomatoes are going crazy: if I don’t remove their laterals at least every second day, I have trouble making out which is the main vine and which offshoots are just going to mess up my neat rows.

At the risk of being very tedious indeed, I’m going to moan once again about the lack of rain. May: 7.6mm against my 2013-2021 average of 94mm. And yet and yet… when Giuseppe came round with his digger to tidy up the far end of the stream, and cut the grass on the banks, and fill in a large hole in the field (the result of his earlier work in which he dug a ditch, chucked unwanted vegetable matter in it and covered it over… knowing of course that as the biomass composted a depression would appear) and what have you, he too couldn’t quite reconcile the lack of rain with the unusually immense height of the grass in the fields. Giuseppe is the fount of all rural knowledge, so to see him nonplussed like this came as a shock.

Besides being dry, it is also hot. Like, very hot. When it doesn’t sail beyond 30° it hovers very little below it in the hottest hours of the day. In the first seven days of June 2021, daily maximum temps went from 24.3° to 28.5°; so far this June, on the other hand, we’ve ranged from 29.8° to 33.8°. And we – remember – are at just less than 500m above sea level: this is a nice cool area. It is truly worrying.

If I have to pinpoint a good thing about such heat so early in the season, it’s that we enjoy summer days but nights continue cool and the house really hasn’t heated up inside yet. The bad things – I mean, apart from the thought of the planet burning up – are manifold but one nags away at me particularly distressingly each time a darkish cloud moves across the sky. It’s difficult to imagine this hot&dry breaking in any way other than a cataclysmic storm, probably with hailstones the size of golf balls. In which case the rampant tomatoes and the swelling apricots would be mulched into the ground. When I’m not simply enjoying the glorious weather, I live in a state of dread.

We’re all out and all about and this return to things we always did naturally makes you notice things which before you took for granted. The mass academic-year-end shifting of school pupils of all ages and levels as they attend events and presentations and prize givings and whatnot in locations around town: I’m presuming that always went on though I can’t say I ever paid much attention before.

On one occasion I stepped off the pavement on corso Vannucci to make way for a long crocodile file of neatly-coiffed elementary school children, all in freshly pressed grembiuli (pinnies), all of them masked but clearly in festive mood nonetheless (yes: the two things are not mutually exclusive, even for 5/6/7 year olds). At the front of their line was a bright-eyed, dark-haired young teacher, urging on her charges with a smile while waving and greeting just about everyone who passed along the busy street.

Ma, come mai tutti la conoscono?” (How come everybody knows her?) gasped one little boy to his friend, clearly amazed that teachers have lives beyond the classroom. There was definitely a note of admiration in his voice.

A proposito di absolutely nothing, the third surprising thing I learnt in quick succession was the origin of the saying “living in cloud cuckoo land”. Am I the last mediumly well educated person in the world to discover that it comes from Aristophanes’ play The Birds? Νεφελοκοκκυγία – somehow that even looks cloud-cuckoo-like in Greek. Now I’ll have to read the crazy bird-brained play.

When the garden became a cinema…

11 August 2020


Finally I know what beast has been chucking my compost out of its box. Such large quantities of stuff (nice fine almost-ready dirt but also the very un-ready sticks and stones and lumps of all sorts that go into my very indiscriminate composting) regularly end up on the grass or behind the box by the hedge. So I was envisaging something sizeable: a cat, or perhaps a marten.

Once again last week I found most of the contents of the well advanced left-to-rot section strewn on the grass. When my annoyance had died down I found myself kind-of thanking the culprit: it had sorted and sifted and broken up the compost nicely, and deposited it in a place which made it easy to shovel into the sieve and thence to the ripe-for-use section.

A couple of days later I returned with a barrow full of biomass and something moved in the empty section: a blackbird, giving me a look which said clearly that it was as irked by me as I had been by it. It sat there for a moment, then ducked through a hole in the back of the box. It didn’t seem to be in any hurry: it departed in a very “go on, take it all away from me, see if I care” way. They’re determined little things, blackbirds.

Turdus merula, the common blackbird or true thrush. It eats a diet of insects, earthworms, berries and fruits, all of which are abundant in my compost box. What’s more it’s damp-ish and – at night – probably relatively cool in there. Perfect territory for happy blackbirds. Unless I come along to ruin the fun.


Yesterday morning I took some sheets from Pieve Suites down to the laundry in Chiusi Scalo where I have them washed and ironed. The shop also hires out linen to hotels and renters. Pino the manager was looking frazzled. Since lockdown he has groaned whenever I ask how business is going: a dire summer after a dire spring. Yesterday, things had changed. He said that for the first time in his whole laundering career he was worried that he might run out of sheets and towels. Everyone had arrived at once. Everything had taken off.

“Hotels?” I asked. “Or villas?”

It was villas of course. Anything for rent around here has been snapped up – anything, that is, that gives the feeling that you and your family are far away from the germy crowd. Tourism, suddenly, is booming.

You can see it up in town, where you have to book well ahead if you want to eat out, and where the streets are packed… sometimes to uncomfortable levels. “Any good coronavirus stories for us?” someone at The Telegraph asked me the other day. “Hardships after lockdown? Businesses forced to close?”

Er… frankly: no. I dust off my usual proviso: CdP’s a strange place that goes against trends. Firstly the brand new suspended walkway (pictured below) that gives pedestrians a spectacular view of the Valdichiana as it skirts the church of San Pietro and avoids a traffic bottleneck was inaugurated.

Then in one bumper Saturday we celebrated openings of one new organic veg shop, one revamped and under-new-management bar and one extravagant and inexplicably over-sized (over-ambitious?) chic new restaurant and winebar in a restored olive press. Admittedly, that doesn’t happen every Saturday, but the area feels boomy – though with the now inevitable slight dread of what awaits us just round the corner.


Some British guests who arrived at Pieve Suites ten days ago seemed surprised at all the activity. “It looks like everyone’s out enjoying themselves exactly as normal,” they commented. And they were right: the town was humming. Of course there are those who are taking risks, and forgetting rules of behaviour in these odd pandemic times. But on the whole, those people out there enjoying themselves of a summer evening are conforming. You just need to look closely to see it.

For a start, physical contact – handshakes, kissing – between people who aren’t clearly of the same family group occasions sharp intakes of breath. This from people who are famously physical. Sitting (well spaced out) outside a café with friends on Saturday morning, I watched in horror as a CdP returnee-from-abroad walked up to one of my group and planted kisses on both his cheeks. He was as shell-shocked as I was, and clearly couldn’t quite believe he hadn’t had sufficient wits about him to parry the attack. His son-in-law, also at our table, muttered about putting him straight into isolation the moment they returned home.

Then there’s the distancing. We instinctively calculate. At the weekend openings, L was proud of how he’d positioned himself to one side and upwind of a friend who is one of those people for whom chatting necessarily involves sidling up and whispering in your ear. The way we arrange our chairs at café tables, the way we fan out across the street to chat, the way we wait for people to emerge from narrow shop aisles before moving into them… a wide berth is the default mode now. (Looking back, I see that fanning out was adopted quickly: on March 14 I noted odd strolling formations.)

On top of that, we do sanitizer (there’s a jar at the door of every venue open to the public) and masks.

A British couple with a house here were amazed that they’d been asked to leave the little town supermarket when they went in without face coverings. But we just don’t. As in, it’s against the law, and has been since early March. I was there yesterday, standing on the steps between ground and first floors, when L called me. I answered the phone and in a moment of absent-mindedness slipped my mask off to talk to him, completely unaware of what I had done. I carried on our conversation wondering all the while why the man weighing his vegetables just below was staring at me. At first – presumptuous as I am – I thought it was admiration. Then I realised he was glaring, with growing hostility. And rightly so. In his position I would have said something to me. When it dawned on me what I’d done, I felt pretty bad. I still do.

As a rule, most people will remove their masks out on the street. It’s pretty hot here still, though this year’s surprisingly few dog days broke last week with a brief but very loud thunderstorm-plus-hail which minced my lettuces but spared (thankfully) my tomatoes. Mask-wearing in full sun, though, is a hot business. You can see why people might want to remove them. imageBut when news broke of three new cases (a mother and children, recently returned from that dangerous place ‘abroad’ and already self-isolating when diagnosed) in Chiusi just across the border into Tuscany the reaction was immediate: from one day to the next the heat didn’t matter any more. The next morning just about everyone I passed in the street was fully covered.

The upshot of all this caution? Well, it allowed the Corriere della Sera to run a map of European contagion rates under the headline “we’re surrounded!” the other day. Italy is quietly proud of its record. And elsewhere, the success of its efforts is being recognised.

The New York Times lauded the country last week and said that the US could take a leaf out of our book. Which is an understatement if ever there was one. The LA Times ran a good piece. The British press has cast many approving glances in our direction.

0811FIt’s a novelty for Italy to be held up as an example, but I’m going to repeat the old trope I always pull out: “in an emergency, call an Italian”. It just seems that this time, the effects of the good work done in the crisis – that, plus a beleaguered-but-strong public health service and a national obsession with hygiene – has carried over into the lull. Will it last? Sanitized fingers crossed.

Here in Umbria, as I write, we’re not doing badly. The fact that there are 18 positives in the Franciscan monastery in Assisi has been duly noted… with all the expected jocularity and snide remarks from the non-believer camp (myself included).

Word of Umbria’s good record has spread. My phone has been ringing constantly. Booking.com has been working hard on my behalf. For a brief patch over the August 15 holiday I am actually full, with a couple of very quick turnarounds of the kind that always happen when there’s no way my cleaning lady can get away from her other jobs. Hey ho.


A British friend arrived at her house up in town and messaged me: “where are the bats and swifts from our balcony? Why have they all disappeared?”

What could I tell her? No idea.

All kinds of things are missing here too. My tomatoes are splendid and weirdly intact – not riddled with damage wrought by shield bugs which are generally the bane of my life in August. Cabbages are growing happily in the veggie garden with none of the usual larva-lacework. I haven’t had to cover my mini-lily pond outside the kitchen because there are no swarms of thirsty wasps descending on it from their nests beneath each roof tile. Consequently the bats that perform graceful arabesques above the roof all summer, gobbling up wasps on the wing, are absent too. (I should point out that the wasps appear to have migrated town-wards: it’s almost impossible to sit at a pavement table and have a drink without the risk of swallowing one of the things – something I’ve never experienced here before.)

Some of these things are welcome, of course. But all of them are eery. And all the more so in this anomalous year when it’s easy to feel that everything’s pointing to something.