18 May 2022

Last weekend I shifted two cubic metres of growing medium. About three tonnes. By hand. Well, I mean by wheelbarrow but it had to be shovelled off the heap and into the wheelbarrow by hand, so I guess that counts.

It was a key stage in one of those exploits that you begin optimistically and very soon – when it’s just too late to turn back – think “why?!”

The soil in my vegetable garden has been a problem from the start. On one side it’s fine: not great, but fine. There’s rather more clay than I’d like, which of course means it tends towards glue (wet) or concrete (dry) but my additions of compost and mulch and various other healthy improvers over the years has turned it into something more or less workable. On the other side, every attempt to make it feasible has failed miserably. The plants that grow there do so grudgingly; the vegetables they produce are decidedly unimpressive.

And so I had the brilliant idea of (1) removing 30-40cm in the strips where I plant then (2) bringing in some really good soil to start all over again. What could possibly go wrong? Hah!

I spent weeks trying to find someone willing to remove the heavy, stony, intractable soil. When I did – and when they realised what they’d let themselves in for – they made their misery very obvious. I was busy. I went out. By the time I came back and they had disappeared, I realised that they’d more or less followed my instructions as they started out, only to lose interest/energy/the will to live as they moved along the row, digging out ever-narrower trenches which certainly didn’t correspond to the irrigation pipes which mark the planting areas. (They also chucked the unwanted soil in a very inconvenient place, but that’s another story.) Also, inexplicably, they dug even deeper than the generous depth which I’d suggested to them.

L named the resulting holes the Shallow Graves, and he had a point. They were more sinister criminal burial ground than intriguing Etruscan tomb. He said until I filled them in, he’d be behaving himself and watching his step.

Until I filled them in. Again: hah! These spaces were far too big for stuff in plastic bags. And anyway, I don’t like plastic bags and I don’t trust that stuff, even when it’s clearly marked “100% organic”. I asked garden contractor contacts but no one had much of an idea. Were they protecting their sources or did they really not know where to go? And anyway, would I have believed that the soil was truly free of chemical additives?

In the greenhouse my tomato seedlings were bursting out of their little pots, and still the Shallow Graves yawned. I really hadn’t thought this through.

Next idea: ask Giuseppe. This digger-wizard and staunch defender of the countryside can fix just about any problem: he’ll do it absolutely organically but he’ll do it in the most roundabout way possible. Through several days of back-and-forth we debated what I needed, while he told dark tales of how almost every soil supplier in the world was part of a great conspiracy to pass off polluted earth as clean dirt.  We even schlepped far away up hills and into the woods to visit friends of mine with a biomass/biogas plant on their property but for Giuseppe, using the waste products of this was definitely not going to work.

It took a visit to Giuseppe’s house (ostensibly to try his home-made balsamic vinegar, which passes through a series of ever-smaller wooden kegs over many years until the concentrated syrup can be drawn off from the tiniest of barrels) for him to admit that actually, he had exactly what I needed sitting outside his back door: his own rich mix of pozzolana (volcanic soil) and sawdust and manure and composted wood chips and other secret ingredients. Would he sell me some? He named his price: horribly expensive, he said. I pointed out that buying dubious stuff in plastic would have cost me more than twice as much. Impossible to get it to me: his new truck is too big to pass under the overhanging branches down our bumpy track. I called a builder with a suitably sized pickup.

And so my two cubic metres of growing medium was dumped outside the orto gate – just as L boarded a train to take him away for two weeks. And so the solitary shovelling fell to me. It must have done something for my muscle tone. And hopefully it will do even more good to my tomatoes, which are now burying their eager roots into clay-less, stone-less, ideal dirt.

So far this year has been one of anomalies and oddnesses. Rain? What’s that? Following hard on our dry, dry winter came a dry, dry spring. Every single month so far has pushed my averages down. Things should, you’d think, be suffering – and I’m sure that at some level they are – but they’re looking magnificently lush all the same and the fruit… oh the fruit! After last year’s 100% fruitless disaster, this year is just full of tiny promise getting larger by the day. We even have scores of incipient apricots on the two new little trees over beyond the chicken house. Apricots have always eluded me: will these trees turn my fortunes around?

That same late-frost disaster that did for my fruit last year also took out my wisteria. This year made up for it though. Now, as the spent blossom detaches itself from overwhelming cascades, it looks like it has been snowing outside the kitchen.

I have just gathered what I’ve decided is going to be my last bunch of asparagus and turned it into soup, to draw out the pleasure: as I’m home by myself at the moment the potful should last several meals. I’m eating artichokes and what remains of last winter’s chard and beet, and I’m watching anxiously as my pea plants creep up their wiggly sticks and produce promising flowers.

But the peas that are really threatening to take over the vegetable garden are not comestible: they’re sweet. How long have I been trying to make sweet peas grow in my garden? It’s a flower I adore, perhaps because it smells of my mother, who loved them. It’s only now that I’ve completely abandoned the uneven struggle, that they’ve decided this is their perfect natural habitat. Up they come quite spontaneously and in delightful abundance, swamping chard and spilling over the narrow paths. You can smell them from way down the drive.

May 1 brought an end to all kinds of Covid restrictions… and brought Covid right to my door. Not the door of our house, but to Pieve Suites: first, to the female half of a charming American couple who quite inexplicably caught it from friends they were travelling with (not staying with me) and failed to pass it on to her husband (in her presence 24 hours a day); then to the female half of a lovely Dutch couple who were frequent pre-Covid visitors to CdP and whose post-Covid return to our town marked a small victory for us all.

In the former case I had other guests arriving on her scheduled departure so really couldn’t extend her stay and welcome newcomers to a leper-house: she, with her friends, found a villa outside of town to rent and holed up there in glorious rural isolation until they were declared fit to fly home. In the latter, a local pharmacist offered very sound advice (once she had ascertained they were driving home, alone, in their own vehicle): “I haven’t seen you,” she said, “and you haven’t done a test. Get in your car and drive, and don’t stop until you reach your destination.” Which is what they did the very next morning.

It’s funny – and probably telling – that I never had to deal with a Covid emergency all the way through two years of pandemic. Only now, as we edge towards some kind of normal, are things hotting up.

As requirements fall away, oldish habits haven’t really been dying in our little town: on the whole most people seem to have some kind of face covering somewhere about their person, if only hanging from their wrists. On shop windows there are still signs kindly asking clients to cover up, and a vast majority of them still do.

On a warm day when I hadn’t stopped for lunch and decided that ice cream was probably a sufficiently balanced substitute for real food I stopped off in our gelateria and queued behind a father with his son, who must have been about six or seven. Both were masked. At a certain point the girl behind the counter handed the little boy a wafer. Quite spontaneously he stepped outside the door (casting a withering look towards his anxious father who was yelling “come back in here, don’t go outside”), removed his mask, ate his wafer, replaced his mask and returned inside the shop.

The mask-averse might flag this up as a sign of the worst kind of brainwashing. I see it as an example of how even small children can be taught that simple gestures aimed at keeping the collettività safe really aren’t anything to get hot under the collar about – requirements or no requirements.

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.