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.

10 January 2021

Città della Pieve

Since Christmas we’ve had just three days without rain. That’s after a final month of 2020 which, with 213.5mm in the rain gauge, broke my – admittedly not hugely long-running – record. (The next-closest was 121.5mm in December 2017.) As well as wet, it has been pitilessly grey, with each tiny sunburst a moment of quivering joy. Otherwise, it has been hard to take.

Our local weather sage – a man of few words who plays his cards close to his chest – is giving increased odds of snow*** over the next few days which if nothing else will be a change. But the change I really want is blue skies and infinite vistas, not this lowering threatening soul-crushing murk. 

I have to say though: if nothing else, it goes with the zeitgeist.

My new year’s resolution to get a grip on my doom-scrolling habit crumbled immediately thanks to the absurdities across the Atlantic. Though ultimately the rabble entering the Capitol was entirely predictable, it had a mesmeric pull which was 9/11-like in its intensity. I had a little twinge of pride when I noticed something that I’d retweeted – Don Jr’s vile vid of what appeared to be a Trump family riot-watching party – had been made unavailable. I suspect that’s slightly pathetic on my part. (Newsweek argues here that it was nothing of the sort; but why, then, was the video taken down?) 

The other day a friend here asked what a British friend of hers would have to do to take up residence in Italy now, post-Brexit. The short answer to that was ‘I really don’t know’ – though obviously I found FB groups and websites dealing with that kind of thing to share. The query, though, brought a rush of memories – and yet another wave of disbelief that the UK could be so short-sighted as to deprive itself of something so exceptional.

When we arrived in Italy in 1984, the UK had belonged to the EEC/EU for 11 years, but the Maastricht treaty with all its wonderful ideals of European citizenship and real freedom of movement wouldn’t appear until 1992. So we could be here, but there were so so so many hoops to jump through, hoops made tighter and higher by a country where bureaucracy was still deliberately crafted to drive you crazy.

God knows how many times we rushed to the Questura (police HQ) at dawn to grab a number to plead for documents at the ufficio stranieri; or how many hours we sat in the dank corridors of police stations to pick up essential papers, only to find that we were in the wrong station, or the wrong corridor, or clutching the wrong data for the paper we needed.

There was the permesso di lavoro (work permit), a document that no one ever understood. To get one, you had to have a job. But to get a job, you had to have one. It was a balancing act. I got one: I came across it in an old file the other day. But I don’t think I ever used it: there’s no employer data written on it – just my name and address.

If I remember rightly, there were years when our permesso di soggiorno (permit to stay) had to be renewed annually. Then it was every five years. When I got an indefinite one – we were in the police station on the Celio in Rome – I remember wanting to cry. Finally there were no extra hoops, specially designed to make non-Italians feel other. Suddenly, it was like we belonged.

Of course today’s British exiles (we used to tell people – only partly in jest – that we were refugees from Thatcher’s Britain) will find a system which is remarkably streamlined in comparison. They’ll never have the experience of getting to know multiple police stations and each extraordinary bit of Fascist-era detailing in Rome’s anagrafe (records office).

Now we’re Italian, so all of this has no bearing on us. But I feel that we were part of the struggle to grasp a very special set of rights and privileges: to belong fully to a union which – however flawed – pulls together so many, allowing them to be united despite their manifold differences. It feels criminal that this has all now been thrown away for some cock-eyed, half-baked idea of taking back control. 

For each resident in CdP, there’s €21.5k deposited in the town’s banks, according to this article in the local press. In the whole of Umbria, only Orvieto and Perugia have more squirreled away per capita. 

It’s a bit of a broad-brush number of course, but I’ve been trying to draw conclusions. Are we all quietly affluent, the monied elite of the region? Or are we terribly tight-fisted? Is this money all ours, or are there outsiders exploiting our friendly banks to stash their ill-gotten gains? Do we sensibly keep a financial life-jacket close at hand or are we utterly without imagination about how to invest, opting for the simplest solution for our excess cash? (Which leads me to wonder what a quick check on pievesi mattresses might yield.) If I had to plump for one answer, I think it would be the last… mattresses included.

I’ve been accused by one of my regular readers of being tautological in my boar/hunter musings. Don’t like the boar. Don’t like hunters. 

Tautological, moi? I don’t think so. I prefer ‘nuanced’. 

I have nothing against boars per se: they are more than welcome to snuffle about in the fields and the woods if they want to. I love the sight of great multi-generational clans of them grazing and frolicking down there on summer evenings.

Of course there are boar actions which infuriate me. I’d thank them not to create crevasses in the field, chucking out huge stones which will eventually break expensive teeth on the grass-cutting tractor as they seek tasty roots. I’d have appreciated it if they’d gone on taking their mud baths down in the soggy valley rather than reshaping (unshaping?) my freshly styled rill during the Great Clean Up of last spring along the border of the field. I wasn’t all that thrilled when what sounded like hundreds of them scared me out of my skin when they crashed away through undergrowth near enough to reach out and touch as I took my regular stomp around the fields just the other day. But that’s just boar-y behaviour I’m afraid… and at least they were running away.

Hunters qua hunters, on the other hand, I can say I unreservedly loath (though see the proviso below) – because they deck themselves in Rambo kit and invade, gung-ho, anywhere that takes their fancy, smug in their conviction that no one can stop them; because they’re senselessly indiscriminate in their testosterone-fueled blasting; because for months of the year a smallish percentage of the 750K old men (the vast majority are between 65 and 78 according to Wikipedia) who have hunting licenses hold the whole country hostage, stopping the rest of us from going for walks even in our own fields without fearing for our lives on five days out of every seven (the rest of us get Tuesday and Friday, hurrah!). I could go on (and frequently do). 

The proviso to this is, of course, that quite a lot of these hunters are people who (when they’re not being hunters) I know, work with… even like. And I should also say that I do realise that there’s a probability that boar could take over were their numbers not controlled in some way or other. But that means well-organised occasional hunts overseen by the Forestry Police, aimed at removing a scientifically determined number of animals from circulation. Basta.

It’s good to get that out of my system every now and then.

***Shortly after writing that the snow started falling. Great soft flakes. Little of it has lain… so far.