31 July 2022

Friends here have abandoned their top floor. When the mercury hit 41° inside, they simply moved downstairs, trading in hot beds for cooler sofas in the living room. We’re still hanging on upstairs but the heat is relentless. The occasional rain dotted on the forecast quietly evaporates well before its scheduled time of arrival. We see angry black clouds laden with violent heat-rain pass over. But there’s no guarantee that they’ll release their load anywhere, and they certainly haven’t done so on us for quite a while. Yes, in the past few days temperatures have dropped… but that means to just below 35°C (95°F) rather than above.

This time last year

I was musing on C&B’s wedding, a year ago this week. At 2pm when we sat down to lunch it was 32°C (89.5°F)… alleviated just a little by the fact that the sun had moved round and the house was casting a shadow over the table. This year on 23 July at that time it was 37.2°C (99°F) and the heat radiating off walls assaulted by sun each day since May was ferocious. We would have had to shift the whole thing back until the blessed relief of after dark. There is no way anyone could have eaten outside in that.

And so I sit here in our dark shuttered house through the day, waiting for the release of (relative) cool in evening, and muse angrily on my favourite theme: “what’s so difficult to understand about ‘the world’s burning up and it’s our fault and we’re doing very little to stop it’?” The busy way we’re searching for non-Russian sources of hydrocarbons; the dusting off of decommissioned coal-fired power stations; the mad grab for any available air-con unit… the ostrich-manoeuvre hopelessness of it all. There’s so much to be ashamed and afraid of at this point in time.

Actually, it’s a complete lie that all my days are spent in our cool-cave. Much of my recent time has been spent burning assiduously through fossil fuel as I shuttle between one garden project and another, and all the other various things which require my being behind the wheel of the car to keep them running. Up at Pieve Suites rapturous guests wax lyrical about the air conditioning. I am, of course, as hypocritical as the rest.

Yesterday morning – early, before the real heat set in – I combed our field for signs of gory animal combat. There’s a family of boar who trot out there every evening now: the heavyweights plus their teenage offspring who grunt and head-butt and rock around the field in their hobby-horse way. There are hares and deer and I saw one big badger beetling across in a very determined fashion. I suspect the magic portal into his sett is where the stump of the big dead apple tree has moulded away gradually.

Very late the night before last there was such an ear-splitting screeching of fauna getting vicious. It was impossible to tell what kind of animals were involved but something was angry and something was suffering, and the din made your blood run slightly cold.

By the time we located a powerful torch, the noise had died down. From way down the field, two eyes glittered back towards us. They stayed there for some time, unmoved by our prying.

I was thinking, naturally, of the early-morning wolf attack in our neighbours’ olive grove last month and fearing for the lives of those baby boar, though all the time wondering whether even a very determined wolf would attack a piglet with parents of such monstrous size as the ones that roam our land.

In the event I found nothing – just one stray pigeon feather which I don’t think had anything to do with the altercation. There was no blood, no gore, no signs of kill being dragged off into the woods. Maybe the monster-pigs did get the better or whatever wanted their offspring for dinner. Or maybe I’m just reading too much into a bit of screechy squealing.

What I did get to marvel at as I roamed the property is the miracle of the endless water than flows from the spring up in the corner of our land. The bed that we’ve cleared out for the trickle is doing its job. It’s lined with stones now, thanks to L’s tireless clearing of the rocks which constantly and inexplicably appear in the fields: lying in wait, ready to break the teeth of the mowing machine we get to come in once a year. All around us people’s deep wells are drying up, mighty Lake Trasimeno is becoming a muddy ditch, watering limits are imposed and fishing water from local waterways is banned. But that tiny trickle just keeps on going. It’s a different cool green world down there.

And talking of water, we had a visit from Renato the rabdomante (water diviner) the other day. I’ve written about Renato here and here . Yes yes, I know: water divining is bunkum. Except it works, so what can I say?

Renato had called earlier to say he wanted to bring us lots of stuff from his orto. Gosh Renato I said, how kind… but I’ve got so much stuff in my own that I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But about the only thing Renato still hears these days seems to be water running underground so he came anyway, with his great big bucket of tomatoes and beans and lettuce and courgettes and there was really no way I could tell him no.

A propos of nothing… our beautiful theatre

He’s tiny – getting tinier I think – and I’ve never seen him without his pork pie hat. When I went up to the top carpark to meet him he was busy working his water-divining fob watch above the well. It was swinging vigorously. This isn’t because of the water he found for us all those years ago which – touch wood – is still running strongly. Once a vein has been ‘stroncato‘ (broken into) the spell is broken.

“There’s another vein immediately beneath yours,” he said, “at 92 metres.” Ours is at 86m. “It’s not as strong,” he said when he finished counting off the 92 pulls on his chain. “But it’s not bad.”

“Fantastic,” I said, “if we ever need it we can dig down deeper.” He looked at me like I was being completely stupid and come to think of it, I was.

“No,” he said in a ‘how can you not see how that couldn’t work?’ kind of way. “How would you attach more tubing below the tubing you already have? There’s no way you could get it down there.”

So. Great. We have lots more utterly unreachable water hardly any distance below the lots of water we already have. Thank you Renato for that invaluable advice.

A visit from Renato is never just about water, or vegetables. It’s really about Renato finally having a captive audience for his endless rural-philosophising which he does in a just-audible monotone. It’s very difficult (and kind of pointless given his deafness) to break into and even more difficult to steer towards an end.

“So,” he said, “what do you think we should do about Draghi?” This was just days before our ‘tecnico‘ prime minister finally threw in the towel and left Italy’s fractious politicians to clean up their own mess. Renato, it should be said, also found Draghi’s water for him and has located a vein for a second well. It’s a bit close to the cemetery, he said, but because Draghi’s Draghi, they might give him a special waiver… which to me sounded like a very undesirable perk of Draghi’s esteemed status, given the kind of potential run-off there might be.

We made some dismissive comments about what the immediate political future might hold but this was of no interest whatsoever to Renato. What he wanted to do was tell us about the minivan taking him and his fellow workers (he used to be a builder) to some building site many decades ago in which there was one character who insisted on smoking Gauloises as they drove along. Other times.

Renato takes immense pleasure in telling stories about what a thug he was when he was young. Given that he’s tiny even by Umbrian contadino standards this is quite difficult to imagine. He sorted the Gauloises smoker out, he said, by getting his neck in an armlock and choking him until he had to be resuscitated when the rest of the crew pulled Renato off him.

In some difficult-to-fathom Renato-esque way this story was related to the question of what Draghi should do next. I had a fleeting mental image of SuperMario, one foot on Matteo Salvini’s neck as Giuseppe Conte’s face, emerging from beneath his armpit, gradually turned deep purple as the result of a protracted armlock. But no. Unlikely.

In the end Draghi handed the hot political potato back to the people stacking coals on the political fire, and I accepted Renato’s veg with as much grace as I could muster then gave them to someone in town who needed them more than I did.

Scouring the horizon for rain that never comes…

On the radio on one of my endless fuel-guzzling jaunts, Italian pundits were musing on the Conservative party election to replace the foully feckless Boris Johnson. It was early days in the competition. What most struck these Italian commentators?

There are ten candidates, someone pointed out, and seven of them are from ethnic minorities. (Silence.) And… this is not even news.

There was criticism galore for Britain and its politicians, who were being compared most unfavourably to (at the time) Italy’s immensely grown-up looking government (though that screeched to a halt very soon thereafter). But there was also unbounded wonder at the fact that a country could – at some level – be so utterly integrated that a right-wing party can field seven out of ten ethnic minority candidates and no one bats an eyelid.

Such a pity, then, that ethnic origin has become so totally divorced from consideration for would-be immigrants. Such a pity that knee-jerk racism remains such a part of the fabric of other areas of society. Such a pity too that a Brexit campaign can be victorious to a large extent on the back of massive, totally contrived, anti-immigrant and xenophobic scaremongering. It’s a weird and very contradictory country. I’m so very over it.

21 January 2018

One evening last week there was the most extraordinary sunset, which passed through dramatic shades of apricot with strange whispy white fronds dropping from dense rolls of cloud, to the kind of intense bruise colours backlit with burnished bronze that you might, if you’re lucky, find over the sea (Positano does a nice line in them for example) but not in our landlocked neck of the woods.

I was down in the valley, rushing to get too many things done in some rare outbreaks of local unsightliness, snapping with my inadequate old phone camera, quite transfixed each time I stepped out of the car and gaped at the sunset’s progression. When the spectacle reached its climax, I was in the carpark of our local Lidl. There I stood, marvelling. (Not a sentence you can often write about Lidl or its carpark.)

The woman climbing back into the car next door was impressed in quite a different way: “I don’t like it,” she said to her husband. “It’s scary. Something bad’s going to happen: an earthquake or something. It’s just not natural.”

Which is odd because you can’t get much more natural than a technicolor country sunset. But in this case it was just a little too out of the ordinary: rather than accepting nature’s surprises as a marvellous gift, there’s a very arcane tendency in country parts to see them as an evil omen.

In a garden project just outside CdP I’m working with a friend – an engineer of many years’ experience with whom I agree about most things but not about rabdomanti (water diviners): he doesn’t trust mine, and mine doesn’t trust his. When you think about it, it’s a very odd thing for intelligent, rational people (I’m referring to him, of course… I do my best) to disagree about.

Mine (Renato) took his fob watch for a walk around the property a couple of months ago and laid sticks down on the ground, way below the house, on the level beneath the swimming pool. More than 70 metres deep, he said.

“He never fails to get things wrong,” was my engineer-friend’s disdainful response. I sprang to Renato’s defence: since he found the (touch wood) unquenchable source on our property he has done the same for several of my clients.

But some weeks later, the engineer’s diviner, Giancarlo, had his say too. I wasn’t there to witness the spectacle. He knocked his picket into the middle of what must have once been a football pitch or a tennis court: there are high chain-wire fences on two sides, and vague plans on the owner’s part to created some kind of labyrinth in there. Not an ideal spot.

And so, we took the only path that could possibly occur to intelligent, rational people: we got a third rabdomante – Marco – in.

Now, as I’ve probably said before, I don’t particularly want to believe in anything as medieval and hocus-pocusy as water divining. There’s always a part of me that clings to the kind of arguments posited in this recent article in the Guardian. But bunk or not, I’ve seen water surge up from the very spot and the very depth that rabdomanti have pinpointed. What can I say? They are, I suppose, just lucky guesses. And long may they continue.

The third diviner was not told what his two colleagues had found. Nor does he know them: if the two diviners in our small town are at daggers drawn, they’re unlikely to look favourably on some upstart-interloper from the other side of Lake Trasimeno. Marco began his to-ing and fro-ing, back and forth along the terraces of olive trees.

“There’s a strong vein coming down here,” he said at one point. “Some of it veers off over there near those pomegranates, but most comes down here.” He stuck a stick in the ground where he stood, and indicated that the vein continued down towards the terrace below the pool. Then he set off, head down, back up the slope. “I’m intrigued,” he said. “I want to find where this vein comes from.”

With his whole attention on his bit of bent rebar, he started off up the hill, back towards the house and the garden where we’re working. He hadn’t been there before. He knew nothing about the works going on. He had his head down, not looking more than a step or two in front of him. I followed him as he scrambled, up until the moment when he almost tripped over the old well which is now being turned into a water tank.

“What’s this?” he said.
“A well,” I said. “But it has no water in it.”

If it doesn’t, he reckoned, it was only because the water level had sunk. But the water definitely hadn’t gone away. It was right there – just deeper down that it had once been. For some reason, the fact that his rebar had led him to that very spot filled me with joy.

To be fair to the second water diviner, I insisted that Marco sweep the property from the other side too. I had removed the stake from the middle of the tennis court, but left a mark in the dirt that only I would have been able to identify among the many other scuffs. With the heel of his shoe, diviner N°3 drew a line across the court to show where he could feel water flowing: it went straight through the point where Giancarlo had put his stake, and continued down the hill, right to a spot below the pool where it intersected with the first vein – precisely where my rabdomante had said right from the start. And that, eventually, is where the well will be sunk and – if all goes to plan – a ‘lucky guess’ will put another dent in my skepticism.

A couple of nights ago, C told us, her refugee-boat-spotting team on Lesvos had called to say that a dinghy had been sighted heading across from Turkey, but so rough was the sea that the search and rescue boat wasn’t given permission to put out. With two colleagues, she hopped in a car and drove along in the coast in the direction the boat seemed to be heading.

Their valiant rescue efforts ground to an ignominious halt when they got the car stuck on a sandy beach. But while they were trying to dig/push the vehicle out, the dinghy washed up right there beside them with 30-odd people on board. Food and emergency blankets were distributed from the marooned car. Then rather than behave like everybody’s idea of hapless refugees, one group of the new arrivals seemed more concerned with helping to extract the car than with their own predicament. They dug and pushed but nothing doing though: it was stuck fast.

“You seem very calm about this situation,” one jolly Iranian complimented C. At which she pointed out to him that for someone who had just risked his life crossing the Aegean in a leaky dinghy he seemed pretty calm too. He laughed long and loud, she said.