11 August 2022

Dawn – a time of day I rarely witness

The other evening we found a viper (Vipera aspis) in the kitchen. We were at the table outside eating dinner with friends. I came in to fetch something or other and something moved over in the corner by the containers where we keep garlic and ginger and cooking implements. At first I thought it was a lizard. But the tail was too long and too grey-ish, and it was just moving in the wrong way. Then I saw the head wending up towards the knives on their magnetic strip.

I don’t like snakes: in fact it’s fair to say they terrify me, though I do try to retain a little bit of composure when I come across them. But the horror of life-threatening fauna instilled in me during my early childhood in Australia doesn’t go away, and I don’t have any of the grown-up coping mechanisms which – I presume – are taught later on.

Most of our snaky friends around here are of the harmless grass snake type which – though still repulsive – are at least not venomous. In general I draw comfort from that thought; grit my teeth and try to convince myself that snakes, too, are part of Mother Nature’s marvellous plan; and cross my fingers that they stay well away from wherever I am. So finding one – and a venomous one at that – curled around the kitchen knives didn’t exactly bring me unbounded joy.

So what did I do? I quietly summoned L.

I called him, naturally, with the idea that he would grab one of those kitchen knives and slice the beast into several quickly-dead pieces. But L – being kinder than me – had other ideas. He was going to liberate the snake.

I could hear murmurs of disbelief from our guests as they realised what was up – not at there being a snake but at anyone wanting to be the snake’s saviour. I was torn between lunging at it herpetocidally and not wanting to let L down. I opted, very reluctantly, for the latter and offered moral support and monitoring services from some distance while L wielded a big palette knife and tried to urge the increasingly disorientated animal into a bucket.

Snakes’ ability to spring themselves out of tricky situations is (and I’m really struggling to be objective here) quite remarkable and (ugh) admirable. At one stage L managed to flip the beast – which was no longer than 40cm and pencil thin – into the bottom of a very deep bucket at which point it projected itself straight back out and whizzed behind the spice rack with a coiled-ring torpedo strike. Nothing lid-less was going to hold it.

On the second successful bucket-flip we were ready with a lid… but hadn’t calculated the bucket’s spout. In a split second the animal was trying to manoeuvre itself through the tiny open chink. Thank heaven for wine bottles with corks! L grapped one that was lying on the work surface, filled the gap and then liberated his slithery friend way along on to the slope at the south end of the house. Bleugh. Good riddance. And may you never darken our doors again.

A couple of post-snake considerations.

We have no photographic record of this incident which perhaps – however techno-forward we like to consider ourselves – marks us out as part of a generation where dealing with situations takes absolute precedence over filming ourselves dealing with situations. Does that mean we’re old?

As snaky wiggled away I consoled myself with the thought that this was the first time in our whole Umbrian life that we’ve had a snake inside the house. This didn’t, of course, stop me checking carefully under my pillow and under (redback spider style) the loo seat for the following 24 hours. If a snake-incursion happens once every 20-odd years I thought, it is kind of manageable. I voiced this small crumb of comfort to a group of friends, one of whom swiftly kicked my last prop out from under me: “it’s the first one you’ve noticed,” he said. “Who knows how many there have been really?” For which thought: many thanks.

I don’t know why I started my recent episode of – completely haphazard – research on local fruit varieties. Could it have been because clients in the Valle del Niccone want to plant a huge orchard? For whatever reason it was, my searchings were completely derailed by this lovely document (in Italian, sorry) on the history of fruit growing in Umbria and the autochthonous varieties found here over centuries of studies.

My one small gripe would be that it’s clearly done by researchers who have looked eastwards rather than westwards in their work, and who rather gloss over the area around Città della Pieve, save for one pretty pear from Monteleone which is the next town along from here on the crest of the hill.

Still, the document is completely charming. It’s wonderful to think of botanists and naturalists and pomaceous fruit specialists through the ages poking about in our Umbrian orchards. It’s wonderful too to think of Umbria being an important pome-growing area. It’s not famously so any more, though there are growers here and there. I’m wondering though whether Umbria is simply getting too hot for apples and pears. Perhaps it’s a question I should put the this region’s indefatigable hunter-out of long-lost varieties Isabella dalla Ragione whose collection of ancient varieties on her property near Città di Castello is pure joy.

In the mean time I – from a long line of Irish apple growers – continue to be incapable of producing much in the way of fruit at all. My apples are pathetic, my pears are non-existent (one dead tree, one moribund) and I can’t remember the last time I produced a peach.

Once again this year the Plum Mystery occurred. This used to happen with the sad, twisted specimen that looked so wretched in the middle of my old vegetable garden, which produced insignificant blobs which I called damsons: raw they were foul; made into jam they were the fruit of the gods.

That tree – just like my big scosciamonaca plum tree this year – would be laden down with fruit which would disappear overnight. Poooof! Gone. What I’d picked I’d picked, what I hadn’t vanished. It wasn’t that strong winds had knocked the fruit off or that it had suddenly and inexplicably fallen. I don’t even think it was great flocks of dawn-raiding birds picking them all off. There were no rotting remains or scattered stones on the ground beneath. The fruit just evaporated. I used to think someone was stealing it in the dead of night. Now I just put it down as one of the mysteries of the countryside.

A brief aside on the scosciamonaca aka cosciamonaca and coscia di monaca, all of which monikers boil down to “nun’s thighs” which, I think, harks back to the important part that convent/monastery gardens played historically in fruit cultivation around here… and to a certain lack of respect towards the good sisters. It’s a very common variety in central Italy: it’s a Damascus/Syrian plum of the Prunus domestica spp insititia type – long and firm and very very delicious. So the fact that my whole crop vanished overnight last week is particularly galling. I didn’t even get a chance to make jam. Damn.

It occurred to me, after publishing my last post, that there was a small irony in my endless moaning about never-ending drought that had completely passed me by. In fact, on paper, July was the first month since last December in which the total rainfall actually surpassed my own personal July average (which only goes back to 2013, admittedly). Only problem: of the month’s 48.3mm (1.9″) total, 43.4mm fell in one dramatic 30-odd minute dump. The surface run-off must have been phenomenal.

If I wasn’t functionally innumerate I could probably study this information on run-off curves and work out more or less how much benefit we reaped from that sudden downpour. But that’s beyond me. Suffice it to say: not a huge amount because my “grass” is now a figment of my imagination and when I went out for a bit of quick weeding in the days immediately after only the immediate topsoil was very slightly damp.

August so far is equally bleak, rain-wise, though the heat now feels far less extreme, for which I thank the angle of the sun as we move away from the solstice. Occasionally the forecast promises storm-cataclysms. Thunder crashes all around. Some places have had more rain than they can cope with. But not us. We’ve barely had a sprinkling here on our side of the hill.

7 & 10 July 2022

With no rain to speak of since the first half of April, we were expecting fireworks when it finally came. There was no hail, for which my ripening tomatoes thank the weather gods. In the end we had over 43mm. It came down hard and in a remarkably short time, accompanied by lightning flashes and rumbling round the valleys. And it took out our electricity line somewhere impervious where the repair men are clearly struggling to reach it. So I shall sit here in the gathering gloom until the battery on my computer runs out. And then I shall go to bed.

I’m hoping that this dousing will cool our roof. Our roof is well insulated of course but in the last couple of years I’ve been wondering quite how well. Does insulation become depleted? Or are our summers hotter and/or is our personal heat resistance waning? I don’t know what I’m saying ‘we’. Yes, I wouldn’t mind if it were a couple of degrees cooler up on the first floor but it’s certainly not giving me sleepless nights (what does?) Not so for poor L though who feels he’s being baked alive and is clamouring for air-con.

My objections to air-con are manifold. They’re ecological and financial and most of all they’re personal because I hate that worked-over air which dries my insides up and makes my head feel hollowed out. Also, I loath being cold.

As we debate the issue (over and over) I think of the winter – the hauling wood and the piling on sweaters – and I want the summer to go on for ever. Just as L is finding hot increasingly difficult, I’m struggling to cope with cold. Funny how extreme your rapport with climate can become.

We fled for three days, to Lake Como. For L it was work; for me it was escapism. (Would I be ungracious if I admitted that when I saw that expanse of water I instinctively wished it was the sea?)

Reason number one for the visit was an out-of-the-blue invitation to attend the 150th anniversary party for the Villa d’Este in Cernobbio – an honour extended to only a handful of journalists. There were hundreds of glamorous guests. There were strutting entertainers in fantastical and ever-changing costumes performing a role in the proceedings which was sometimes difficult to grasp. There was enough champagne to fill the hotel’s gratingly blue pool many times. There was lobster, and there were very young table companions with achingly expensive noses and pouty lips. And there were truly magnificent fireworks over the lake, illuminating an evening when forecast downpours happily never materialised.

I was excited to see the hotel’s famous garden and gosh, does it have fine bone structure. The double rills running down the axis from the temple of Hercules to the massive ‘mosaic house’ at the bottom are gloriously elegant, and the plane trees are just plain magnificent: you hug them as hard as you can and your arms are still only a quarter way round their massive trunks. But oh oh oh… the vast beds of red begonias. I’m writing that without even being certain that that is what was planted: I’ve kind of canceled it from my memory. But it’s definitely the spirit of the thing – a gardeners’ garden, planted with the kind of annual bedding plants which can be replaced several times a season but never ever evoke anything (in me) except mild despair.

It was all of a piece, mind you, with the hotel’s plush interior – an old world (not necessarily in a good way) extravaganza of thick-piled blue and gold patterned carpet and rococo reception rooms. All ultra-luxurious of course: just very very uninspired.

In Como town (elegant if a little cold, in the style of small northern towns) and in Verona, we stayed in new hotels of the Vista group: chic, classic-contemporary, very tasteful but – to return to my air-con dislike – painfully chilly. These places were lovely – don’t get me wrong – and tasteful in the extreme, with spas and restaurants and 24 hour reception staff. But they did leave me wondering: “has the *****L label become a little devalued?” Of course I’m aware that star ratings for Italian hotels are just a matter of box-ticking: rack up sufficient points (bathrobes, tick; uniformed staff, tick) and your stars accumulate accordingly. But it would be nice if the ‘luxe’ addition really meant something truly extraordinary. And these, though extremely pleasant, had nothing (except air-con) to make you gasp.

And then there was Villa Passalacqua in Montrasio where we didn’t stay but one day will, and where the garden was just sublime: an 18th-century design, carefully restored, running from villa on high right down to the lake waters along an intertwining double staircase. Each of the lateral levels has been adapted to something hotel-y to a greater or lesser degree: the orchard with cute fluffly hens in their decorative coop, the vegetable garden, the lovely rose garden with hydrangeas beneath immense magnolias, the pool terrace and the tennis courts. There’s some planting which I wouldn’t have done, though nothing at all offensive. There are some over-jolly fabrics which I might have avoided. But the overall impression is of immense attention to really eye-catching design with a purpose: the opposite, in fact, of Villa d’Este.

A (completely gratuitous) funny-face
spider eating a bee

(The advantage of sitting by the open window in the living room, typing in the dark, is the front-row view over a magnificent lightning show on the horizon. It’s flashing across the sky in the same bright orange which until half an hour ago was also tinging the piles of cloud over there.)

In Verona a client joined me by train and we headed into the wilderness of small and medium industry – Italy’s productive backbone – between there and Vicenza to look at stone. Margraf is a giant among stone wholesalers. And it’s where the marble for my client’s kitchen tops was (we hoped) lurking.

To – I think – the great annoyance both of the kitchen cabinet maker and of the marmista who will cut the worktops to fit, we insisted on going ourselves to select pieces of marble, despite the fact that neither of them could accompany us, to keep an eye on us and make sure we didn’t do under-the-counter deals and somehow leave them out of any business concluded. We had no intention of course of doing any such thing, but the whole trip had a slightly naughty schoolgirl feel to it nonetheless.

At Margraf they were dumbfounded: I’m not sure how often they find themselves with two strange women pounding about between the vast slabs. They trailed us around as we studied the marbles and granites and creamy gorgeous onyxes, clearly unsure quite how to handle us… until we optioned the four slabs which we’d already seen on line, had thought would be the ones for the project, and had seen right at the start of our warehouse visit. By the time we left they seemed to have rather warmed to us.

10 July

Time passes. The computer battery died. I made my way to bed with my head torch on… then woke up some time not long after midnight with all the lights in the house glaring at me. Well done Enel (electricity company) I thought, working through the night as is their wont to restore power to blacked-out residents.

(Just as well I was planning for long-term light loss and forced myself not to open the fridge door once: the downstairs circuit failed to turn itself back on. But the food in the freezer seems to come through unscathed.)

Our neighbour Ettore, whose house is nearest the fallen line, was less thrilled with Enel when I talked to him yesterday. I hadn’t realised that there was no way the line could be repaired after the storm: for the time being we’re limping along with a huge and – I’m told – very noisy generator which is keeping the neighbourhood alight. And the generator was plonked, without so much as a by-your-leave, on Ettore’s property, not far at all from Ettore’s house.

He is – understandably – livid. But there’s absolutely nothing he can do.

It’s a feature of every contract for the sale/purchase of properties with land attached that utilities companies – electricity, water, gas – enjoy a “servitù“, ie the right to plough across your fields and woods with whichever equipment they need to work on any infrastructure they see fit – to mend existing kit or install any other. Property owners have no right whatsoever to protest.

It’s a fine example of the good of the commonweal taking precedence over the rights of the individual and can even seem quite reasonable… until you find a noisy generator throbbing outside your living room window. In June 2003, two years after we bought this house, the Green Party backed a referendum on removing this servitù but nothing doing: insufficient people were interested in the topic and the referendum fell by the wayside because a quorum wasn’t reached. Now Ettore and his wife are experiencing the fallout first hand.

We’re all living with another result of no-quorum referendum burn-out: hunters. In 1990 and 1997 Italian voters were asked to stop hunters tramping across any property that took their fancy. They preferred, instead, to go to the beach (the referendums were held in June) and desert the ballot boxes. And so we live with the consequences through the winter. Perhaps we’re ready for another attempt.

There was more back-to-normal activity at the end of June when our Infiorata was finally up and running again. And normality too in the awarding of the ‘floweriest street in town’ plaque to Borgo di Giano, where my Pieve Suites is located. It took me a while to stick my head above the parapet and ask whether we had won: I was (and indeed am) less than pleased with my own attempt to make my front door particularly floral. Why is this? I mean… making beautiful outside spaces is – er – what I do. And I (modestly) think that Pieve Suites’ private garden out back above the walls is rather lovely. But somehow I have never turned my attention to what happens outside the front door.

By next year’s competition, my front door will be glorious, I promise. And I won’t have to worry that it might have been me who dashed the street’s chances. Though actually I have nothing to fear really. The wonderful ladies who keep the vicolo looking splendid are indefatigable despite me, and we have won every single time. It should really just be called the Borgo di Giano prize.

For no particular reason, I’m including this screenshot from our vital and hyper-active local FB group which is so beautifully pievese in its elegant mixture of official complaint, veiled threat and sheer seething fury that someone could do something so abject as steal a child’s bike. It slides in a rapid crescendo from elegant subjunctives to a grand finale of crude invective in a way that’s pure, unpunctuated, free-form CdP poetry. I just love it.