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.