23 October 2022

The other day I came home to find L in the garden talking to an elderly man whom I see frequently up in town – not anyone I know, but someone who often stands chatting in huddles of other elderly men, some of whom I am acquainted with. And so I greet and smile at them all indiscriminately. It’s a CdP thing.

The man’s called Sergio. He’s in his Sunday best and he’s looking quite emotional. He was born in this house, he says, and coming back is very moving. I find myself wondering – you live in town: why haven’t you come down before? And also: another person born in this house? What was it? A maternity ward? But I brush these thoughts away because he’s recounting his childhood here.

Sergio is the nephew of Gigi. Gigi was the jovial spirit who would appear occasionally when we were restoring, and after we moved in, to check on progress and tell us tales. He’s 97 now and still in the land of the living, but confined to bed.

There were eight (more or less) inhabitants of this house when Sergio lived here, generations squashed together in three bedrooms plus a smoky kitchen, above the animals on the ground floor. There was Sergio’s disabled grandfather and his wife, the grandmother. There were uncle Gigi and his siblings including Sergio’s father who must have been considerably older than Gigi. And there were various children. Sergio’s a bit dodgy on the numbers, and on dates. But he gets the idea across.

That inexplicable door high up on the wall of the chicken house which faces our house? There used to be external stairs going up there. Most people would have used that space to stored fodder for their animals, but this family didn’t: they kept it in what is now our projection room. So much more practical, being right by the animals. What did he call it? The erberaio perhaps: something that didn’t sound quite right. He confirmed that the space beneath the big oven (now a bathroom) was where the rabbits lived. There were two cows in each of the other downstairs spaces he said. On the valley side, where my study is, there was barely room to squeeze around the house without tumbling down the precipitous bank.

When we showed him a photo of the four brick columns which used to stand, crooked and crumbling, up by the top carpark, Sergio said that was the chicken coop they built; Mario (whom we bought the house from), on the other hand, used to call it the aia – the threshing floor. Maybe its function changed through the years. Sergio lived here from his birth in 1938 to the sale of the property in 1963 or 1964. Mario remained until he had built his ugly dream house up the lane, and left this property to decay until we bought it in 2001.

Sergio was exempted from military service because he was a farmhand but also because he was a war orphan – not that his father was dead but his mother was. And here a story emerged which I’d never heard during all my years of collecting war reminiscences from old people in the area. Over there, he said, pointing towards the carpark. She had been to get water from the vaschetta below and she took a direct hit – a grenade, in the chest. He was struggling to catch his breath with the emotion.

It was 19 June 1944 – the feast of CdP’s patron saints Gervasio and Protasio and the day the German occupiers were driven out of the town by British and Allied troops. About 70 people died in the final battle, including Sergio’s mother. While he lingers on the details of a death spread over several days which have been haunting him since he was six, I’m wondering, uneasily: whose grenade?  

The property was put up for sale as sharecropping was dismantled and outlawed. Sergio talks warmly about the owners of this property, whose name I have failed miserably to remember. I want to say it sounded like ‘pertosse’ but that means whooping cough so I don’t think that’s very likely. (I went into my office just now, 100% certain I could put my hand on the 1960s sales deed, but all I came up with among old papers found in the house was a dusty deed for the purchase of some other house, up in town, with names which I’ve never seen connected with anyone who lived here.)

They were good padroni: thoughtful and caring, he said, though I wonder whether the older generations would have agreed. Gigi’s tales of glassless windows, of insects crawling up the walls from the cowsheds below, of no running water, of a power line being brought down here only after the accident which left Gigi’s father disabled all sprung to mind… though I should add that each of these items in the litany of extreme deprivation was mentioned by Gigi to prove how you could still be happy even when you had so little.

It was an extraordinary thing, mezzadria (sharecropping) and even more extraordinary that it continued, in all its medieval unfairness, until so recently. The system was not only feudal, it was quintessentially patriarchal. A landowner entered into a contract with a capofamiglia (family head) who committed not only himself (and it was, naturally, always himself) but his whole household to handing over half of anything produced to the landowner. For this the mezzadro and his family got to live in a (generally) crumbling, utility-less, isolated rural farmhouse and work a surrounding portion of land.

Landowners’ obbligations were few. In our case they provided a feeble 110v electricity line to a family of eight, but only because the capofamiglia was bedridden. Water was funnelled down a channel from the spring to the south of house. There were no bathrooms – indeed there were no bathrooms or running water even when we bought the house and that was in 2001… years after mezzadria was abolished.

With the harvests in and the yield divvied up, mezzadria contracts came up for renewal each year on the feast of St Martin (11 November). Sharecroppers who failed to live up to the landowner’s expectations could be unceremoniously turfed out of one property on the estate and moved to another, or given their marching orders. Nothing was fixed. Sharecroppers were only as safe as the yield they produced. There are places in Italy where fare San Martino (doing a St Martin) still means moving house or job.

Mezzadria contracts were made less profitable for landowners by a 1964 law which gave sitting farm workers some rights; new mezzadria contracts were not banned outright until 1974; existing mezzadria contracts were not dissolved until 1982 – just two years before we arrived in Italy. Many landowners saw the writing on the wall well before, however, and began dismantling their vast estates. A wave of cooperative bank financing helped sitting tenants buy their farms.

Sergio’s family was, he said, offered this property in 1964 for six million lire – an unthinkable figure for them, with or without low-interest loans. And so, after generations on this plot, the family packed their bags and did a San Martino. Just months later those owners – so kindly and generous – sold it to Mario’s family for a knock-down three million lire. The very real resentment clearly still rankled.

I keep thinking of Sergio’s mamma, and of artillery raining down on our peaceful home. It’s difficult to imagine. But then again I shouldn’t think Sergio and his family ever expected such horrors to descend on them. And neither did the peaceful country-dwellers (or anyone else for that matter) in Ukraine over the past eight months. Nothing is fixed.

Did I mention that last month, with 220mm, was the wettest September since my records began (2013)… though as an awful lot of that came in two biblical downpours it didn’t feel all that wet really. Since then we’ve had nights where temperatures rarely venture below 10°C (when I went to bed after midnight last night it was 17°C: a temperature fit for summer evenings); and days which are in general beautifully (though rather alarmingly) blue and balmy.

We used a couple of these to head for our first taste of sea after a land-locked summer. Early October can go very badly or very well indeed, and this was utterly splendid. We were glamping, our luxe tent ‘pitched’ (‘constructed’ might be more accurate) about 20m from the shoreline in Chiarone, on the southern Tuscan coast.

The tented resort was closing when we arrived: they kept it open an extra night for us which meant that we had it totally – and the beach mostly – to ourselves. L swam; the water wasn’t quite warm enough for me to wet anything above my knees. We rode bikes along the coast through the WWF reserve, spotting flamingos. We basked in glorious sunsets.

We also spent a less-than-idyllic day at Orbetello hospital – the latest in our collection of ‘Italian emergency rooms we know’. This was not a cycling accident, which is the usual reason for our A&E visits. But it was bike-connected in that something in L’s back had reacted badly to being shaken along dirt roads in the Eroica the previous weekend. The pain was along the left side of his chest, shooting down his left arm. Leaving nothing to chance, I insisted that a doctor look at it to be sure it was back- and not heart-related.

I was envisaging a shot of Voltaren. What we got was the full coronary protocol.

The procedure started out most impressively: within a very few minutes L had had a TC scan, an MRI and countless bloodtests. For a while I was perversely enjoying the sub-di-Chirico-esque hospitalscape. L was fine: nothing was irregular… except one blood test value which came back with an asterisk by it. And so began the saga.

More blood was drawn. Lee was placed in a corner of the emergency room, treated to a front-seat viewing of A&E practice which didn’t seem to include providing privacy for anyone at all. I lingered in the carpark, collaring every doctor, nurse and orderly who emerged from the emergency room entrance, all of whom assured me that L would be discharged any minute. Lunch time came. Still no L. Should I head back to the beach and return when he called? No no no, he would be no time at all.

Inside, L’s second blood sample was stuck. The testing equipment had broken down, the technicians had gone to lunch, the results were unclear and the test had to be repeated, the results were lost somewhere in the building. As this particular value had little bearing on the state of L’s heart, I can only think that the woman doctor who was keeping him prisoner was doing so because she enjoyed his company. After five hours he talked his way out of the place: she promised to text results when they came and he promised to take appropriate action if necessary. Her all-clear text arrived as we strolled on the beach, full of smiley faces and exclamation marks. It was only then that it dawned on us: the unshakeable coronary protocol had been followed so totally to the letter that no one had told L what was wrong with his back.

It’s a pretty accurate snapshot of central Italy’s health services: areas of immense efficiency and efficacy mixed with a little human bumbling and some blinkered box-ticking. Then again, thanks to unresolved back pain we’re now pretty sure that L’s heart is in very good shape.

For the first time in several years, we’ve picked our olives. Well, when I say “we” I mean “someone”. Each year the olive harvest gets earlier, each year we get lazier and/or busier. September’s rain – after our long hot summer and before late-summery weather returned – made the olives explode: from looking few and shriveled, suddenly they were dragging the branches down.

At about 2.30 one afternoon our neighbours called to say the van from the olive press was picking up the last of their crop at 4.30. Had we picked our olives? They’d take ours too and put them together with theirs.

Had we picked our olives? Of course we hadn’t. Nor did we have any intention of doing so. So I asked, half joking, if they wanted to send their team of pickers down to deal with our trees too (we only have five big old trees after all). They arrived, they spread their nets, they whizzed down the terraces with their quivering battery-powered fruit-dislodging machine, they took four overflowing plastic crates away. Our olives yielded about seven litres which will come to us eventually (it needs time for the impurities to settle) mixed with oil from the neighbours’ trees in our 25-litre drum. This morning they brought us a tiny bottle of cloudy green liquid, a foretaste of what would be coming our way. It’s grassy and tangy and peppery enough to make you catch your breath ever so slightly. Where olive oil is concerned, we’re ridiculously spoilt.

29 August 2022

I’ve written many times about how our year is marked by ineluctable rituals: one is the endlessly disappointing cambio di stagione (ie swapping out one season’s packed away clothes for another, wondering why on earth you even bothered because most of what’s up at the top of the wardrobe should really have been thrown away); calling the chimney sweep the moment L heads for the Venice film fest in September (L thinks yearly is ridiculously over-cautious) is another.

But there’s also the moment when you realise that your elaborate light/heat control rituals flip themselves – the moment when you’re no longer desperately working to keep heat out and start cajoling it to come right in.

This summer we swung into cool cavern mode much earlier and for much longer than ever before. This is something that people from northern climes just can’t get their heads around. When it’s hot hot hot there’s no point whatsoever in opening windows wide. That just sends the external furnace swirling through your house. The only way to keep the heat out is to shut windows and shutters and hunker down in the daytime dark. Until after dark when you can throw all the windows open and welcome in the cool night air. In normal times this lasts a month or little more. This year, it went on for the best part of three months.

Not being an early-morning person, for me the worst downside of this is interrupted sleep. As the sun crept over the horizon and its light fell upon our east-facing bedrooms, I’d be wrenched out of my blissful oblivion. Morning after morning, I was subjected to utterly spectacular sunrises, each of which I loathed, deeply. Shutters closed, I’d crawl back to bed until a sensible waking time. It was all very discombobulating.

Parading the BVM on August 15. Assumption/gelateria overlap

It was only last week that it dawned on me that everything had changed, without my even thinking about it. I’m closing most of the upstairs windows and shutters at night now so I no longer need to do my unthinkably early round of the house. Moreover, sunrise is no longer something-after-five… though the something-after-six closing of the shutter in our bedroom – the only one I continue to leave open – is really not a huge improvement, hour-wise. Still, it’s only that one.

Also good about this tail-end-of-August: rain. We’ve had over 86mm so far this month, much of it in massive storms, some of which literally shook the house. (One thunder crack yesterday afternoon went off like a bomb down in the valley on the north side of the house.) There’s so much electricity bubbling away up there.

One night the week before last the lightning storm came with no rain at all. At first L insisted it was a firework display: “lightning doesn’t look like that,” he said. But as we emerged from the tree canopy of the track we were driving along when we noticed the flashing, it was clear that to achieve that effect every single house, outbuilding, factory and town in the whole of Umbria would have to be setting off a massive barrage. Majestic and utterly terrifying, it felt like a glimpse of the apocalypse.

Flour fight

Yet another good late-August thing – a return to how things were: our Palio extravaganza was back, with a vengeance. The 2021 and 2020 editions were cancelled, for obvious reasons. The 2019 event came to a bedraggled end when the culminating Caccia del Toro archery competition between the three town districts was washed out, with a scaled-down run the following weekend. So this year’s Palio had a lot of frantic making-up-for-lost-time energy about it.

It was enlightening to see it through the eyes of people who’d never lived the experience – people who have become part of the CdP flora and fauna over the past couple of years or people (like the enthusiastic family who rented my Pieve Suites for the whole week) who’d been waiting for the world to get back into gear. With time, you can become jaded about the antics and the confusion and the pratical jokes and the inter-terziere tiffs. You can find yourself feeling thankful that you live well out of the centre and don’t have to put up with never-ending drumming and marching and the two weeks of all-night carousing.

But in fact you’ve got to hand it to them: the amount of work that goes into the thing is quite breath-taking. The costumes are superb. The lead-up side events are beautifully choreographed. Each terziere‘s pop-up taverna restaurant – with local adults and cooking and local kids serving – is a vast eating factory adding to the party atmosphere. And the corteo storico on the final Sunday is just amazing: 800+ costumed people processing through the crowded streets of town with their drummers and their flame-eaters (health & safety be damned) and their carts pulled by magnificent chianina cattle and their prancing horses and their floats and their siege engines and their… the list goes on. I mean, we’re a tiny town of not even 8000 souls. And we do it all ourselves. Well – they do it because I certainly don’t contribute though I did happily take a more or less direct hit in the flour battle that takes place immediately before the Caccia del Toro.

I am convinced that the Palio is one of the things which makes CdP so different – so much livelier and real than other places around here (the presence here of schools attended by kids from a huge catchment area is another). You can’t get a significant percentage of the populace working for months on a competitive jamboree like this – involving all ages and types, creating allegiances and teams, teaching skills, building up a collection of historic costumes (and on and on) – without fostering a feeling of investment in the place which will make even the most disaffected youth think twice about moving off to the Big City. Give people a reason to stay, and they will.

In all these years (coming up for 40…) in Italy, I haven’t had much to do with the police. Just two episodes really, but they were memorable.

A brief return to Rome

Before C was born – so we’re talking more than 32 years ago – our car was stolen from the spot where we’d parked it on the lungotevere in Rome. We always tried to avoid the lungotevere, especially the river side of the road that runs along the Tiber. That stretch near our Rome flat was very susceptible to car thefts: no one was keeping an eye on cars parked beneath overhanging plane trees.

We reported the theft to the Carabinieri on the Aventine. The policeman politely listened to my not-very-good Italian and more or less invented the statement for me, bashing his interpretation on to several sheets of paper-plus-carbon paper fed through a huge Olivetti typewriter so old and stiff that each successful strike was a triumph.

By this time (I think I’m getting the chronology correct) we had already abandoned our Amstrad wordprocessor and were preparing to upgrade yet again from whatever bulky desktop had come after that. I watched the policeman damaging his finger joints and said to him, only half-jokingly, “would you like a computer?”

I still remember the look of wonder on his face. It was like all the Christmases of his life rolled into one. A few days later (after finding our car, abandoned along a deserted road in a blasted urban periphery, with a long shopping list of parts neatly removed) a delegation from the police station came by to pick up what remains to this day the only piece of our cast-off technology which ever found a useful home. What they did with it, heaven knows. There was no printer attached or anything useful like that. They made a lovely little speech about how whenever we needed them, day or night, they’d be there like a shot, at our service. By the time we needed them, those particular people probably weren’t in that particular police station any more. We spent many uncomfortable weeks afterwards trying to remember if there was anything incriminating on the hard disk.

My next police contact was soon after C was born. L had a stalker. He was teaching in the English department of Rome University and a love-lorn student had been tailing him for a while. We joked about her, and called her Spot. But when I had a newborn infant and Spot had managed to get hold of our phone number – landline of course – to call me and whisper threats or simply breath heavily each time L went out the front door, I started to get worried. There were messages on the answering machine too, so one day I removed the mini-cassette and headed round to the police station, this time in Trastevere.

I sat for a while with my tiny baby in a very bare corridor and then was shown into a very bare, very cavernous room. I think there may have been one of those Olivetti typewriters in there too. I don’t remember there being much else. I explained what was happening and tendered the mini-cassette to the policeman who just laughed at me. We don’t even possess a regular tape recorder, he told me. Just imagine a mini-tape-player: you must be joking!

Eventually Spot must have tired of her vigil. Or maybe she was suddenly smitten by some other young language assistant. The calls stopped and she stopped hanging around. But no thanks to the police

It was with these incidents in mind that I called our local Carabinieri last week. Someone – a woman I presumed – had been calling me but hanging up before any words were exchanged. Then the messages started arriving – begging for help, saying she had to get away, that her life was in danger. With former police performances in mind, I really wasn’t holding my breath. Oh ye of little faith: the scenario that unfolded was pure TV cop drama.

Fifteen minutes later the Carabinieri called me back, with the name (and place and date of birth) of the person the phone number belonged to. Did I know her? No. Would I go into the station? Yes. By the time I got there all the paperwork was ready for geo-locating the phone. I made my statement. Off it went to the relevant authorities. Half an hour later the woman had been located, visited: she was safe (just). Measures would be taken.

Ok, so 30 years have elapsed and you’d hope for some improvement. But as I said we’re in town of fewer than 8000 souls, in a very rural part of Italy. Of course having our current prime minister living in town means that standards need to be maintained. (And very very grudgingly I have to say that I suspect some clout and perhaps some kit accrued to our local Carabinieri as a result of the dreadful TV series ‘Carabinieri’ which was filmed here for six execrable seasons from 2002 to 2007.) Whatever. The whole performance was seriously impressive. Well done to them all.