26 February 2022

Picture the scene: I’m at my doctor’s to ask her opinion on odd headaches I’ve been experiencing since two rather stupid falls in which I hit my head quite violently. My generally (outwardly) calm doctor is in a state. Her brand new printer will only print A5 sheets: there’s no way she can force A4 sheets in. At the end of a long day, it’s driving her crazy.

So, she says, clearly focussing on the printer more than on me. When did these falls happen? 

Er… last…um, July?

That grabs her attention. July?! she says in an “are you out of your mind, woman?” way. So I deflect by shifting into printer-mending mode.

A short aside is called for here, in praise of our local health service over the past two weird and immensely exhausting years. From the UK we read and hear tales of people unable to see a GP since February 2020, of surgeries which are barricaded and patients struggling even to obtain online consultations. Ours, on the other hand, have never done anything less than in-person, and have never wavered. 

Of course there were none of the usual appointment-less crowds milling about outside surgeries in endless waits for a glimpse of the doctor. Then again, having to book a slot seems like progress to me. In the darkest locked-down days an elderly lady I often visit was feeling terrible. I texted the doctor (we share the same one) and an hour later the indefatigable medic was ringing her doorbell. She really never stopped.

As she lectures me on the need to stop neglecting myself, and insists on CAT scans and tests and various other check-ups (all of which will eventually come back negative), it’s clear that the doctor doubts I’m the printer expert she needs. Maybe, she says, we should alert the tech guy. In the interim, she summons the slightly clueless secretary girl who pokes about at the printer as I google the make and model and try to make sense of diagrams which look nothing at all like the machine in front of us. 

Hang on, says the clueless girl, there’s a manual in this cupboard. Her face falls when she sees it’s in several languages, none of which is Italian. I take over, and more by trial and error than by studying, the solution suddenly becomes incredibly obvious. Jubilation, female empowerment – no need for the tech guy. It’s one of those oh-so-human moments of total connection that we’ve been missing over the past 24 months. 

The crumbling facade of Palazzo della Corgna is now under wraps and receiving a facelift which is surely necessary, but I so so so hope it won’t be polished up too neatly. Frescoed, fiddly and charmingly délabré, mid-16th-century Palazzo della Corgna is a place of wonders. 

The end of mezzadria (sharecropping) in the 1960s left the owners – the Mazzuoli family – with many debts, a whopping tax bill and little income, hence the palazzo passed to the municipality. It’s a huge pile, right opposite the cathedral – the kind of place that’s a poisoned chalice for any small town administration which struggles to find a use for it and can barely scrape together the funds to keep it standing. 

But stand it does, and inside is our library, our adorable natural history museum, some remarkable frescoed halls for weddings, seminars and exhibitions, spaces under the eaves for the classes of our hyper-active Libera Università and a terrace on the first floor with the most spectacular view you could ever imagine over the roofs of CdP and the Val di Chiana beyond. 

In typical pievese fashion, the scaffolding hadn’t even been unloaded from the truck before the bickering began. Will the horrendous Fascist-era balcony be removed? (There was, at a certain point in history, a fashion for adding the kind of excrescences that il Duce might have enjoyed delivering a rant from.) What Fascist-era balcony?! Haven’t you seen the stone struts holding that up? Are you kidding? That balcony has been there since at least the 17th century! 

We’re nothing if not wedded to historical consistency around here.

Unfortunately there was no chance at all of saving another local monument which has been removed and uprooted with unseemly haste. The spectacular holm oak (Quercus ilex) in the little square at the top of via Borgo di Giano is no more. 

I stood and watched one morning, ready to cry, as men with chainsaws dismantled it limb by gracious limb. I pass by this green giant most days en route to Pieve Suites, observing canoodling teenagers and talking (mad cat-lady-like) to the local felines who liked to sit around its roots in the shade. As I watched, everyone who passed stopped to tell me about the games they played in that green cool when they were children. But depressingly, everyone seemed resigned to its demise.

I wasn’t. I observed closedly as they reached the bottom of the trunk, ready to do completely otiose battle against a feckless town council were it to prove less than rotten. But rotten it was, except for a tiny healthy section of the otherwise perishing trunk. 

I discussed this loss at length with my friend Giuseppe who is not only the best earth-mover but also the most Taliban of tree obsessives. 

It had to go, he admitted. But it didn’t have to go like that. It should have been a learning moment for new generations on how not to treat our trees: infant and junior school pupils should have been brought to say goodbye to this monument, encouraged to identify seeds to take home and plant and nurture for the rest of their lives, watching their progress from trifle to trophy, instilling instinctive resistance to the multi-decade cycle of brutal, unwarranted intervention andfatal neglect which had reduced the oak to its pitiful state. 

From 1 March Italy will do away with testing for all vaccinated or recently recovered visitors to this country. The news, I suspect, has fallen on oh-so-weary ears. I haven’t noticed any huge leaps in viewings of my Pieve Suites site by non-EU visitors dying for the bel paese

(They don’t know what they’re missing, of course, these people who are showing no interest: I have pruned my grapevines beautifully and installed incredibly stylish plastic-combatting soap dispensers produced by Ecomenities… and before anyone objects that I’m hardly being environmentally sound bringing dispensers from Australia, I should explain that Ecomenities is… my sister.)

In Venice earlier this week, we were taken aback by the crowds but that was, at least in part, because the empty eeriness of our February 2021 visit is so firmly etched in our minds. And because our rural existence has given us an ever greater aversion to pack-’em-in experiences.

We stayed at the Londra Palace, on the heaving, tack-filled riva degli Schiavoni. (The hotel, I should stress, was neither heaving nor tack-filled but calm and gracious in a slightly old-fashioned-but-good way.) Photo-snappers swarmed around masked-and-wigged Carnevale poseurs many of whom – we noticed to our surprise – were French and no spring chickens either: clearly dusting off the costumes to strut about Venice is considered a Thing To Do in some sections of French society. On the rare occasions when our Venice visits coincide with Carnevale, I find myself wondering: why are the costumes always so straight out of the packet and predictable-flouncy? Where are the creative souls coming up with something more striking? Clearly not in Venice.

Though elbowing our way through the daytime throng was trying, the city returned to its customary quiet at dinner time, with few people venturing out as the evening drew on. Were all these Carnevale visitors just daytrippers?

We know Venice too well to feel any particular need to sightsee. We usually take in any interesting exhibits, then walk walk walk. This time we decided to return to old favourites, and visited Palazzo Grimani and the Museo Querini Stampalia – two marvellous institutions. How very enlightened (at the first) to return so much of the original antiquities collection to that magnificent high-domed display room with Ganymede hovering. And the details in the frescoes: the birds, the insects, the plants… just the kinds of things you need to take your mind off Russian troops invading Ukraine.

25 October 2021

We’ve been in Venice. I wouldn’t say the tourist situation was back to normal, numbers-wise. But it was a very far cry from our extraordinary, magical, empty-Venice experience of last February.

There were visitors a-plenty in the most obvious spots. But still the city had a crowded-not-crowded feel. One possible pointer as to what/who was missing occurred to me as we made our way back to the station at the end of our short stay.

Right by the Ferrovia vaporetto stops I spotted a lone selfie-stick seller, forlornly waving his fluorescent yellow utensil around. He was practically invisible. And it struck me: Venice, which in another, pre-Covid age was a bristling forest of threats to eyes and sanity was now selfie-stick-free. This was the first one I’d seen. Many demographics – mostly European, with a larger-than-usual percentage of Italians – have swarmed back to this unique place… where authorities, I suspect, have made very little use of Covid-enforced down time to reconsider over-crowding problems, and seem to be resigned to a return to the bad old days, give or take a shiny tourist spy centre of dubious use for anything other than to monitor the downwards trajectory.

I began asking myself: do selfie sticks define a certain (still missing) kind of tourism? Do they define particular vacationing nationalities which will need to return before La Serenissima returns to her full frantic chaos?

Covid restrictions mean: no Chinese, no Indians, no Middle Easterns – the entrance to the Grand Canal by the Giardinetti in particular, in my mind, is associated with beautiful, colourful Middle Eastern families snapping radiant groups with cellphones mounted on unfeasibly long protruberances. Now: no selfie sticks. Or perhaps it’s nothing to do with nationality, and they’ve simply gone out of fashion. Boh.

We were in Venice for the presentation of a new hotel. And we used the opportunity to catch this year’s architecture Biennale. I had read so many “meh” reviews of this year’s event that I was surprised by quite how much there was of interest: not a superlative year but I enjoyed it for one long afternoon and another long morning. That said, just ambling around the glorious spaces of the Arsenale and the Giardini doll-house pavilions brings me such joy that what’s inside is always slightly secondary.

Present for the hotel presentation were old friends from our Rome days, friends we hadn’t seen for a ridiculous number of years. Picking up where you left off with people – if the occasion feels pretty seamless, and this one did – is always satisfying. She immediately mentioned the odd serendipity that her Canadian sister-in-law’s sister had just bought a house in CdP. Photos were produced – slightly unfocussed snaps presented to a slightly unfocussed me, who took a while to realise: I was looking at my own street, by which I mean Borgo di Giano where my Pieve Suites is located.

Back home, I mentioned this to the beautician with a shop two doors down from me, expressing my surprise because I hadn’t even realised that that house – owned by someone I know – was for sale. She looked at me incredulously.

“Haven’t you heard?” she said. It’s the talk of the street. Where has my gossip radar gone? I’m always on top of things. But this time, everyone seemed to know except me. “It was bought on line by some crazy foreigner who never even came to look at it!” 

I related this tale to a pievese friend whose daughter works for a big estate agent, one that deals to a large degree with in-coming wealthy foreigners. The numbers of north Americans buying in this area has sky-rocketed, it seems. The technology for waltzing prospective buyers around possible purchases has been refined (another one of those Covid advances?) to the point where there’s little difference between viewing from your Canadian living room and visiting the place in person. Or so the argument goes…

I have to say that before I made such a major investment I’d want to experience the place first hand. But that’s just me.

As it becomes easier for Americans travel to EU countries, Italy included, the momentum is slowly building. Even my little Pieve Suites will host a couple of house-hunting Californians in November. 

Two years of hankering for Europe from across the Atlantic is obviously having a salutory effect on the Italian real estate market, with bel paese-loving hordes seeking to stake a claim here, just in case things go pear-shaped again. 

We’ve had a bit of rain – not enough to compensate for our summer of drought – and some cold drear days and there really is no way I can go on trying to kid myself that summer is still here. There’s no rhyme or reason to autumn colours in this neck of the woods. In town, the golden foliage of horse chestnuts and lime trees is falling already. Up by our gates the mulberry trees – usually the first to turn startling yellow and detach themselves – are mostly still green and clinging on.

It’s a confusing time of a confusing year. One day early last week I started – rather reluctantly and under familial pressure, granted – to give a blast of heating in the house morning and evening. The temperature in the bedroom had, after all, hit 15°C. Today, with the overkill heating firmly off again, and after days of tepid temps and drizzle, it’s nearer 20° in there, quite inexplicably. I don’t understand how that happened.

There are days of needle-sharp sunlight where the wind knocks you off your feet, and days of grey soul-sapping drizzle where it’s so muggily warm that any rain gear turns into a perambulating sauna. Then again – perhaps that’s just what our autumns are like these days: more capricious than spring.

Down at my laundry in Chiusi Scalo, Pino who keeps my Pieve Suites sheets and towels clean asked me slightly hesitantly the other evening “does this laundry perfume your suites?” A moment’s hesitation (I didn’t want to hurt his feelings) and I answered “yes – perhaps even too much.”

Is it just an Italian thing, this idea that traditional precedents have to be followed, even in the most banal sectors, and if you step out of line then you’re really very odd? Or is being fanatical stick-in-the-muds a global thing? In Italy, clean washing is highly perfumed. That’s it. There is no alternative. You can’t just go into any supermarket and find unperfumed washing liquid. Washing is perfumed – basta. (I have the same problem with unperfumed deodorant: every now and then some company brings one out but it collects dust on shelves for a few months, bought only by me, then is discontinued.)

But… in for a penny, in for a pound, I thought. 

Look, I told Pino, I might be odd (to which, funnily enough, he replied with a very serious “yes”) but I have real problems with artificial, industrial perfumes: some make me quite nauseous. I really don’t understand why things need to smell to prove that they’re clean.

“People are saying that to me more and more,” he admitted. “I’d never really thought of it before.”

So great, I said, let’s experiment. We agreed that the really smelly stuff isn’t going into the washing machine next time. My towels may be a fraction less soft, I’ve been warned. It’s a small price to pay. It’s interesting to see, though, that a change and a concept which until incredibly recently would not even be up for discussion with someone who was so heavily invested in maintaining the smelly washing status quo is now something to be debated – even experimented around. Next thing you know, I’ll be able to persuade him to stop swathing my clean laundry in copious single-use plastic wrapping, and actually get him to use the dedicated carrier bags which I’ve tried time and again, unsuccessfully, to foist on him.

Change will, I’m sure, come… piano piano.