Going down a storm

As usual, the opening line of a song that we sang in the acapella choir I used to belong to provides the mental background music to this time of year. Made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Rain, rain, rain, rain!” celebrates the long-awaited arrival of the rainy season to restore life to the arid, sun-scorched African savannah after months of torrid heat that turns the soil to dust.

“Oh, come, never come,” laments the song. And for day after roasting day we long for the introductory sound and lighting effects that herald the arrival of a crashing thunderstorm which will allow the weather magically to reset itself after days of steadily rising temperatures. Endless days during which endless sunshine beats down from a merciless white-hot orb so brilliant it seems to bake the sky into a solid dome of glossy blue. The heat is fierce and relentless, with temperatures stuck in the upper thirties for days at a time and never lower than the upper twenties during the sultry, sticky nights. Even the thinnest duvet is out of the question. We sleep, or try to, beneath an empty duvet cover and the gentle down-draught from the ceiling fan that does its best to stir the thick, heavy air into some semblance of a breeze to cool our clammy limbs. Meanwhile, we live in a state of perpetual gloom, keeping windows and shutters closed and curtains drawn throughout the day in an effort to keep the heat at bay and maintain at least an impression of ‘less hot’ if not exactly ‘cool’. But as each sweltering day passes, the heat gradually soaks through the brick and stone and starts to trickle down the walls, gathering in steamy puddles about the house, and over time reduces the gap between outside and inside temperatures to just a few precious degrees.

“Oh, come to me, beautiful rain,” pleads the song. Every day we scan the shimmering horizon for signs of cloud gathering over the Sibillini Mountains where lies the bubbling cauldron of thermals that cast great, pearlescent towers of cumulonimbus cloud up into the brilliant blue: the surest sign in these parts that a downpour is on its way. But nothing. Just a milky blanket of heat haze fraying the sky’s furthest edges. And so the mercury remains stubbornly close to forty degrees for another day, and there are reports on the news about the exceptional weather, and features on how to cope with its effects – for it is not just we pasty, cool-blooded Anglo-Saxons who are suffering; everyone is feeling the heat.

Finally, it comes, though. Usually it is in the afternoon, by which time the air is so clogged with heat that every movement becomes a sweat-inducing effort. Over the Sibillini’s more northerly peaks the clouds at last begin to bubble up. Then to gather into great churning clumps, then to coalesce into a roiling mass of grimy grey that soon snuffs out the blazing sun. The immediately fresher air carries the scent of rain and we both scurry around the house, flinging the windows open, ready to usher the longed-for cool into every steamy corner of the house. An angry breeze starts to yank at the tops of the trees, drives the cat-flap into a frenzy and sets the shutters rattling. Within minutes big, fat, juicy rain drops begin to splat with an almost audible sizzle onto the sun-baked terrace. At last!

In no time the drops turn into heavy curtains of rain, billowing in the raging wind. Through the un-shuttered windows in the garden doors we watch the rain drops bouncing off the rain-slicked tiles. Down the valley, sea and sky merge into what looks like a vast and impenetrable wall of steel and within minutes the village is lost within the swirling cloud. Thunder roars and the demons of the Sibillini hurl down spears of lightning that flash silver-white against the now charcoal sky. For a while the end of the world seems nigh.

But within an hour it is over. The demons fall silent, gather their weapons and retreat to their mountain lair. The rain abates and the slackening wind flushes the grey away, revealing a sky of purest pastel blue. Across it are strewn bold streaks of lavender, pink and purple edged with gold. And as they slowly drift towards the horizon, the sun tentatively emerges once more. The storm has done its job, though: the temperature has almost halved and you can almost taste the freshness in the air. So at last we fling open the doors and windows and shutters, let the evening sunshine spill into every room and let the playful breeze blow away the drifts of stale heat that had accumulated in every corner. Normal service has been resumed; the re-set is complete. And “when the sun says good night to the mountain….the birds on the trees are singing sweet for the night”.

 

Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing ‘Rain, rain, rain, rain!’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUH7PM0-cpI

Logging off

I’ve always been quite a keen cook. In fact, I won first prize for my Victoria sponge cake in the baking competition at my older sister’s school fête when I was eleven years old. I’m guessing the organisers had expected an adult to win, though, as I was awarded a Pyrex casserole dish for my efforts. I’ve still got it, too. I took it with me when I went away to university, I took it with me when as newly-weds we moved into our first military quarter, and has been with me ever since. It bears a chip or two now, and the glass has grown cloudy through use, but I remain quite ridiculously attached to it.

I’ve no idea where my interest came from as my mother was anything but a keen cook. Pretty much ever since those early cake-making days, however, cooking for me has been an expression of creativity, an expression of welcome and of friendship, a way of celebrating and a way of offering comfort. I also find great therapeutic value in peeling, slicing and chopping ingredients with my favourite knife, the one I’ve had for more than thirty years and whose broad, curved handle fits into my hand so comfortably. There is an excitement in the sizzle as I sweep those neatly chopped little heaps from my deeply scarred chopping block into a spitting-hot pan, and breathe in the cloud of aromatic steam that rises from the bubbling mixture as I swirl it round and round and wait for the alchemy to work. For me, there is something deeply satisfying in adjusting the thickness of a sauce, stirring a pan to free up all the tasty bits stuck to the bottom, tasting a batch of ragù to check if the seasoning is right, prodding a roast to confirm if it is done, and finally making it all look appetising on the plate.

I know not everyone’s like me, though. I know there are plenty of people for whom food is mere fuel and for whom cooking offers no more enjoyment than doing the ironing or vacuuming the stairs; for whom it is simply a unappealing means to an necessary end. Yes, they probably know how to stick something in pan until it goes soft, or stuff something in the oven until it goes brown, but that’s as far as it goes; they don’t have the patience, they don’t have the confidence. It’s just not their thing. They don’t share my fascination for experimenting with new ingredients or discovering new flavour combinations. They don’t share my curiosity for trying out new recipes or learning new techniques. And they certainly don’t feel, as I do, that no matter how long a day it’s been, cooking dinner is never a chore.

Well, that’s how I am with technology. It holds little inherent interest for me, it arouses no real curiosity, no desire to experiment, and as a result I have limited patience and even less confidence. Just like those reluctant cooks, for me it is simply a largely unappealing means to a necessary end. It’s just not my thing. So successfully getting to grips with not one but two online teaching platforms in a matter of days, and then spending twenty-two weeks in a virtual classroom has been rather like putting one of those reluctant cooks in the kitchen of a busy restaurant for five months. It has been at times frustrating, daunting, stressful, often overwhelming – and (at risk of slipping into cringe-worthy Oscar acceptance territory here) has only been made survivable thanks to the generosity and good humour of my marvellous colleagues, and the love and support of the endlessly forbearing Mr Blue-Shirt.

But as my current stint at the pass finally draws to a close, I have to confess that mixed with the exhaustion and the relief that I can finally  hang up my apron for a while at least, there is a strong sense of achievement and a realisation that I have done something that I would never have believed myself capable of five months ago. Along the way, I have expanded and re-defined my creativity and acquired a host of new skills and techniques. I have unearthed a rich but abandoned seam of resilience and determination. And from the confines of my desk, I have been on a long journey of growth and discovery.

But given the choice, I’d still rather bake some bread than fiddle with an app any day of the week.

Back to normal….ish

It’s about ten weeks since the corona virus quarantine restrictions imposed in early March started to lift. Ten weeks during which we’ve very, very gradually gone from almost total lockdown with the whole country effectively closed to practically everything now being open and functioning more or less normally again. I say ‘more or less’ because, of course, no one here wants to see the currently manageable numbers of new corona virus cases start to rise again and risk a return to lockdown. Which means that no one any longer thinks twice about wearing a mask in enclosed spaces where social distancing is not possible, using the hand sanitiser provided at the entrance to every shop, bank, office and café, and speaking to every shop assistant, receptionist, bank clerk and barista through a plexiglass screen. So those really rather meagre encroachments on our ‘liberty’ aside, you’d be forgiven for thinking everyone was enjoying a summer like every other. Apart from one thing. This year’s summer programme of sagre and feste, concerts and shows, pageants, exhibitions and markets has all but disappeared without trace. And that really is a huge blow to the cultural life of the country, believe me.

The sheer number of these local events that take normally place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Siena or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – typically holds a series of three- or four-day long events between June and September, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. May’s highlight is normally the annual artichoke festival, while in July it is the annual pizza festival that usually takes centre stage; in safer times it would have been this weekend, in fact. Then there is the annual medieval weekend and a celebration of apiculture, and over the weekends in between, more than a dozen family-orientated live music, dancing or sports events normally take place. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: a typical July issue of Corriere Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region produces every month, contains about a hundred and fifty closely printed pages listing more than seven hundred events in eight different categories. This year, by the way, the July issue is little more than a flimsy pamphlet.

More remarkable still is that a vast number of these events will have been organised, promoted and run by the local ‘Pro Loco’, sometimes with a degree of financial or logistical support from the Comune (town council). Roughly translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy. And the principal purpose of all this activity is not to attract tourists, as one might suppose, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties.

The Pro Loco movement is effectively an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which has its origins in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile.  This highly developed sense of local allegiance was crucial in pre-unification Italy when the country was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between neighbouring regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. So loyalty to the local was often a matter of survival. Consequently, even today, if you ask a random Italian where they are from, they will probably give you the name of their particular town or village rather than a city close by that you are more likely to have heard of, never mind the name of the region it is located in.

In view of these roots, it might be easy to imagine that the activities of the Pro Loco are nothing more than an outmoded expression of insularity, division and mistrust of the different.  In our experience, however, nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s campanilismo is much more akin to the very millennial concept of ‘localism’: support for the production and consumption of local goods, the promotion of local culture and identity, and lots of local accountability. It is therefore a celebration of local difference, of the produce that supports the local economy – artichokes in Montelupone’s case – and since this varies from community to community, they are also an expression of a community’s individuality, as well as civic pride and solidarity.  Moreover, because they revolve around eating and drinking, processions and games, music and dancing, and lots of making merry, there is something for everyone to enjoy, from black-clad nonna to tattooed teenager to chubby-cheeked toddler. And enjoy them they do (normally) – in vast numbers, too.

The thing is, the holding of these events is currently not technically forbidden; there are, however, very stringent rules governing how they may be run, who can attend, and under what circumstances. Added to which, having got through the worst of the corona virus storm, people remain mindful of the ongoing risk of further outbreaks and of the continued need for caution. And although the virus seems to be largely under control (but not defeated), no one has any wish to waste the supreme effort and sacrifice that everyone, individually and collectively, has made over the last five months to help confine the spread of this vile disease. So in many cases, local communities have made the decision themselves, reluctantly no doubt, to cancel their Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna, their Horror Festival over in Monte Urano, their Palio down in Servigliano, their Beer Circus in Pedaso, or our own Sagra del Carciofo and Festa della Pizza.  Which in these most delicate of times is, on reflection, perhaps as true to the aims of the Pro Loco  and as much an expression of civic pride, solidarity and pulling together for the benefit of the community as any amount of merry-making at those mothballed events would ever have been.

Pam – Part 2

My thoughts snapped back to the present as I pulled into Stefano’s yard, right by where we had turned off the road to Falerone eleven years earlier. For much of the forty-kilometre trip over from our place I had been thinking about that day, the day we had first met Pam, our dear friend and effectively the catalyst for our finally taking the plunge and moving to Italy. Stefano is the carpenter who made and installed the shutters missing from several of our windows and who is now in the process of refurbishing all the windows themselves, and I had gone there to pick up the latest pair he had just finished and to drop off the next pair for him to work on. His workshop and yard are just a few metres from where, on that first trip to Pam’s, we turned off that same road to Falerone and headed down the hill towards Pam’s house for the very first time. And once Stefano and I had swapped windows, I was going to trundle down the lane whose every bump and bend we know so well once more.

It only took a couple of stays in her holiday cottage, aka the Little House, that is attached to the sprawling farmhouse she had restored several years earlier to realise that Pam is not one to suffer fools gladly. But once she is satisfied that you are neither a fool nor a crook, then she is a loyal and generous friend. We clicked with her almost immediately, and by about our third visit we had started talking in terms of ‘going to stay with Pam’ rather than ‘going on holiday to Italy’. Such a practical and capable person herself, she warmed, I think, to our broadly can-do, get-stuck-in attitude, and to our absolute seriousness about moving to Italy: she had almost certainly lost count of the number of guests at The Little House who, over their second bottle of wine, would get all misty-eyed about buying a charming holiday hideaway tucked among the rolling hills of Le Marche, but who, in the grip of a raging hangover, realised the next morning that it was never going to happen,

Indeed, having recognised how serious our intentions were, Pam came and viewed a succession of ruins with us and gave us her characteristically blunt assessment of their feasibility (or otherwise, more often than not) as a restoration project. But she didn’t stop there: as a capable and easy-going hostess who without turning a hair could rustle up a three-course lunch for twelve in her cluttered kitchen, she always made us feel welcome among her wide circle of both Italian and expat friends. And as a born net-worker and connection-maker, she enthusiastically set about introducing us to a whole cast of characters who might be able to help us achieve our dream. Through Pam we met estate agents, architects, surveyors, builders, a translator, a notary and a lawyer – as well as a highly-skilled carpenter, for even Stefano was one of her many recommendations. And once we had finally found the house we now call home, she guided us through the whole purchase process, dispensing wine and wisdom as required and in equally generous measure.

But it was with a heavy heart that I pulled off Stefano’s drive and turned down the hill, for I was effectively going there to say goodbye. Pam no longer lives in the sprawling farmhouse and extensive gardens she so lovingly restored and filed with life in her own unique style. She sold up about three years ago when, in her mid-seventies and with a recently diagnosed heart condition, she came to the unwelcome conclusion that looking after a three-bedroom, three-storey house with attached holiday cottage, plus two acres of land, a couple of dozen olive trees, an artist’s studio and a plunge pool had simply become too much for her. But Pam being Pam, she didn’t take the easy option of moving back to a purpose-built retirement apartment in the UK as many people in her position might have done. Instead she decided she still had one last project in her, so bought the small, derelict property practically next door (that none of her friends saw any potential in at all) and in just a few months converted it into two cosy, one-bedroom apartments, one for her and one to rent out. Naturally, the place didn’t have quite the same presence or flair as The Big House, as she came to call it, but she still managed to imprint her bold and colourful personality onto the two modest spaces – and even create a pretty courtyard garden too.

And there she stayed for just over a year, very happily living her life with her beloved and extremely elderly feline companion Kato, very much as she always had – just on a simpler and smaller scale. But then what might otherwise have been put down to her well-known eccentricity and light-hearted contrarianism was in fact diagnosed as dementia. Within just a few short months she was unable to cope on her own and after much soul-searching, her family reluctantly decided to take her back to the UK where she now lives in a care home close to two of her children. Her dream of living out her days with Kato in their cosy little apartment in the secluded corner of Le Marche she had made her own was over.

I almost wished I hadn’t gone. Pam’s once colourful and abundant garden was choked with chest-high weeds, and as I peered through the cobweb-curtained window, I could see Pam’s few remaining possessions, still waiting to be boxed up and shipped back to the UK, now covered in a heavy blanket of dust. The silence and stillness of Pam’s utter absence hung like a cloud in the brilliant summer sky, casting over me a deep shadow of sadness. And in that moment I knew that we would never see our dear friend, guide, mentor and inspiration again.

Addio, Pam.

Pam

It occurred to me the other day on the way to Falerone where I was taking a couple of windows over to be refurbished by Stefano the carpenter. It is almost exactly eleven years since we first met her. Eleven years since we turned off that same road to Falerone barely an hour after setting off south-west from Ancona airport and, following her very precise directions, wound our way down a series of lanes and tracks, each one bumpier and narrower than the last, until we finally trundled down what we were relieved to find was her steep, oleander-lined, gravel drive. Eleven years since we drew to a halt in front of a sprawling converted farmhouse, with its honey-coloured brick, terracotta-tiled roof, tall shuttered windows and wisteria scrambling up the walls; eleven years since from beneath the shade of a dense curtain of passiflora hanging from the wrought iron balcony above appeared Pam.

As brown as a berry and dressed in sun-bleached shorts and faded T-shirt, she threw her arms open in welcome as we clambered from the dust-caked car. “I’m Pam,” she announced in her distinctive, high-pitched squeaky voice that always sounded as if she was recovering from laryngitis, and gave Mr Blue-Shirt a firm handshake and me an equally firm kiss on the cheek.
“You found it all right, then? Not many do, you know!” she continued.
“No problem at all,” I confirmed. “Your directions were perfect.”
There was something in her expression that made us feel as if we had just passed some kind of test. And what we had found was Pam’s delightful, quirky home within spitting distance of the Sibillini Mountains, and, attached to it, the modest but cosy holiday cottage in which we were about to spend our third holiday in Le Marche, about forty kilometres from where we now live.

Pam was in her late sixties back then, with an athletic build, poker-straight blonde hair that was almost permanently tied up in her trade mark top-knot, and piercing blue eyes that twinkled with humour – but also held a glint of steel. Divorced for far longer than she had ever been married and with three grown-up children scattered about the UK, it had been shortly after she had retired about eight years earlier that she had sold up and moved to Italy. She had bought and project-managed the restoration of her house completely on her own and at that time without a word of Italian, then built the adjoining holiday cottage, and later established a thriving property management and maintenance business mainly serving the small local expat community. She had single-handedly done up a succession of houses in the UK  long before moving to Italy  so was already hugely knowledgeable about all aspects of building work and all the associated trades – and certainly wasn’t afraid of getting her own hands dirty too.

Indeed, while we were making ourselves at home in the cool and shady one-up-one-down cottage, we could hear Pam squeaking instructions in her fluent but broken Italian to Cristiano, the young Romanian whom she employed to help out with the heavier building jobs. From our bedroom window we could see that between them they were trying, in vain, to shove back into position one of the massive sections of railway sleeper from which she had built a large pond, but that been pushed out of alignment by the weight of the water.

“Need any help?” Mr Blue-Shirt enquired. Pam peered up at the window, seemingly sizing him up: was he one of those fools we could already sense that she didn’t suffer at all gladly?
“Well, another pair of hands won’t go amiss, I suppose” she eventually said, apparently prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt at this stage. With that, Mr Blue-Shirt abandoned his unpacking, went downstairs and out round to the back of Pam’s house to the lily pad-covered pond. After a brief assessment of the problem he quickly decided that even if all four of us helped, we wouldn’t be able to shift the huge slab of timber.
“Have you got a wheel jack in your car?” he asked. “And a crowbar too, if possible?”
Barely a second’s pause this time, just a faint, quizzical frown.
“Yes, the jack’s in the boot and there’s a crowbar on a hook by the garage door.”
If this was another test, then Mr Blue-Shirt seemed to be doing pretty well so far. A few seconds later he returned with the tools he had requested.
“OK, then, Mr Clever-Clogs. Show us how it’s done!” said Pam, winking theatrically at Cristiano: this was definitely a test. Completely unfazed by the gauntlet she had just tossed at his feet, Mr Blue-Shirt calmly positioned the jack at an angle under the offending section of wood, wound the handle until it was supporting the weight of the sleeper and then used the crowbar to ease the whole thing back into alignment before slowly releasing the jack and letting the sleeper drop neatly into its proper place.
“Hmph,” was all Pam said – but with a small nod of approval.

As evening fell and we were just deciding whether to go out for a meal or to cook dinner from the provisions we had picked up on the way from the airport there was a cheery knock at the door.
“It’s only me,” came Pam’s sing-song voice.
“Come in, it’s open!” I called, thinking there were probably some house rules she had forgotten to tell us.
“I’m just about to have a little aperitivo and I was wondering if you’d like to join me. I take it you drink G&T?”
“Err…Yes, we do. That would be lovely!” I replied. “Thank you very much!”
We followed her in through the kitchen that had once been a stable, climbed the fantastic brass spiral staircase that wound all the way up to her bedroom under the steep pitched roof, crossed the artwork-filed first floor sitting room and went out onto the generous balcony with its views over the Marchigian hills behind which the copper-coloured sun had nearly set.
“Lemon or lime?” asked Pam as she sloshed huge shots of gin into the three heavy tumblers lined up on the low glass table illuminated by a string of fairy lights that bobbed overhead in the warm breeze.
“Lime, please. And lots of tonic,” I added hastily.
“The same for me, please. With lots of ice.”
Along with the gin, tonic, ice, lemon and lime, Pam had also set out an array of tasty little titbits: fat, juicy olives, cubes of salty Pecorino cheese, ribbons of melt-in-the-mouth-tender Parma ham, intensely flavoured sun-dried tomatoes, plates of crackers and chunks of fresh crusty bread.
“Don’t stand there making the place look untidy. Help yourself to something to eat and take a seat,” she said, gesturing towards the collection of slightly wonky wickerwork armchairs gathered around the table. “Then I want to hear all about your journey and what you plan to do while you’re here.” If there had been a test, it seemed we had passed it.

And so there we stayed for the rest of the evening, nattering away over the rasping of the cicadas as if we had known each for years as the sky faded from lavender to purple and finally to a velvety black studded with stars. We never got as far as dinner, and I’ve no idea what time it was when we eventually tottered back down the spiral staircase and up to bed in what we now knew was called The Little House – and where we were to end up spending practically every trip to Italy for the next seven years, in the company of who was soon to become our dear friend, mentor and inspiration, and effectively the catalyst for our finally taking the plunge and moving to Italy.

My thoughts snapped back to the present as I pulled into Stefano’s yard, right by where we had turned off the road to Falerone eleven years earlier.

Beating the Bounds

I think it was in somewhere towards the end of March that we started. Lockdown was beginning to bite hard and we were very much feeling the effects of being prohibited from going anywhere other than to the supermarket in the village for our weekly shop, and even then, not together.

But while the mood was sombre and fearful, all around us spring was bursting into cheery, vigorous life in the warm sun that smiled down from a powder-blue sky, beckoning us to come out to play. And so Mr Blue-Shirt and I began what soon became a daily ritual that was not dissimilar to a stripped down version of the ancient ceremony of beating the bounds: a full perambulation of our boundaries, not with birch or willow boughs, or with clergy and church choirs in order to reaffirm the limits of our land, but a slow and deliberate stroll around the garden, simply to take advantage of the only opportunity we had to be outside the house together and to drink in the sound of birdsong and the scent of new flowers, the sight of buds bursting and leaves unfurling, and to feel the sensation of the sun on our skin and the breeze in our hair.

Straight after breakfast, we would leave the house through the back door, climb the three deep steps to the knoll where the pigsty had once stood, and then turn left up towards the ivy-clad well at the back of the house. Here we would duck beneath the branches of our two largest olive trees and turn right along the western boundary that runs parallel to the road which at that time was still eerily deserted. Here we would crane our necks over the chain-link fence to catch a glimpse of Macerata silhouetted against the distant Sibillini Mountains, from whose upper slopes the snow of winter was receding further by the day. At the corner, we would turn eastward to follow the line of the northern boundary with our neighbour’s field, which back then was still just warming itself back into life in the gentle spring sunlight. We would stroll along the line of olive trees, taking in the clusters of tiny bead-like buds that were forming among the branches and past Mr-Blue Shirt’s enormous wood store until we reached the far corner where our dear cats Mimi and Stanley lie buried beneath a small cairn at the base of a young pear tree from whose slender branches sprouted a mass of shiny leaves.

Here we would pause again to look out over the artichoke fields where the plants, like spiky green cushions, were growing plumper by the day, and on to the vineyards where the swags of fresh, jagged-edged leaves fluttered in the breeze like bright green bunting. Finally, we would cast our eyes up to the village standing on its hill top and illuminated by the glow of the early morning sun. Back in those days of strict confinement it seemed so inaccessible and enigmatic it might just as well have been Xanadu. Then it was right again, and on through the olive grove on the long eastern boundary. Over the weeks we almost wore a path beneath the branches of the silver-green olive trees on the seaward side, and on the landward side, the fruit trees whose sturdy brown limbs were gradually disappearing behind a mass of tender young shoots, vivid green leaves and tightly folded buds. We would scan the fields on one side of the valley and point out to one another the tinges of green spreading over the patchwork of beige and brown, and among the distant clumps of trees along the sky line on the other side.

No matter how grim the statistics or how low our spirits, that soothing Marchigian landscape would always bring a sense of calm and a sense of perspective. For it is such a timeless landscape whose features have altered little for generations. Those hills and valleys, vineyards, fields and olive groves have borne witness to drought and deluge, fire and famine, earthquake, war and occupation – and have withstood them all. It is a landscape that has endured and recovered, that has provided food and sustained communities for centuries, that has continued to shift from past to present in an infinite circle of renewal. And every morning we would hold on to that thought as we performed our own daily circle of inner renewal.

On we would stroll on past the small table and two chairs in the far south-eastern corner which in the height of summer is the best place to catch a cooling breeze, before turning right again and back up the hill along the southern boundary towards the still silent road, our feet swishing through the dew-drenched grass where clover and daisies were beginning to bloom once more  Finally, on reaching the heavy sliding gate across the drive that would remain closed for days on end, we would cross the gravel drive and check the growth on the lemon trees now that we had removed their protective winter fleece, then peer hopefully at the young bougainvillea plants and the climbing rose we had only planted the previous autumn, celebrating every new leaf and shoot we spotted, before crossing the terrace and stepping back inside.

In reality, the whole circuit probably took no more than five minutes, even if we dawdled or played with Tilly on the way round as she scampered up and down trees. But those five minutes always felt as if they had set us up for the coming day, for another day in lockdown when the significance of those almost clichéd symbols of rebirth, regrowth, and recovery had seldom seemed greater than in those fear-filled times of disease and death, an oh-so-welcome daily reminder that ‘this too shall pass’.

And, to a large degree at least, the worst of it does now indeed seem to have passed. Over the last few weeks, we have eased ourselves out of lockdown, the country has come back to life again, we are becoming accustomed to the new normality of masks and social distancing. Most important of all, though, the coronavirus statistics grow more encouraging by the week. So it is as if in celebration of that recovery and renewal that we still make our daily circuit, for no matter which stretch of our boundaries we look out from now, there is colour, growth, abundance and vigour as far as the eye can see. Where once there were just shoots and buds, now there are lush green leaves and abundant fruit: the cherries have been and gone, the olives, walnuts and pomegranates are now forming, the apples, pears and figs are fattening up nicely, and the plums are already ripening. Meanwhile, geraniums, oleander, plumbago, bougainvillea, lavender and roses spill their vivid colours across the terraces and around the drive. Best of all, though, all around us in an exuberant riot of yellow and gold stands a vast phalanx of broadly smiling sunflowers whose sheer life force never fails to lift my spirits and cheer my day. And which inevitably bring to mind the adage that has long been my mantra: “Turn your face to the sun and the shadows fall behind you.”

In the last few months, never have I needed to cling to those words more tightly.

Some things were just meant to be

It wasn’t only rain that stopped play while Mr Blue-Shirt was tiling our newly-built thirty-eight square metre terrace. After a few days on his hands and knees he realised he was going to need a little light relief every now and then from the tedium and repetitiveness of the mammoth task he had set himself if it wasn’t going to drive him to complete distraction. So when he just could not bear to see one more thirty-centimetre-square terracotta tile for a while, he came back indoors, and spent the odd day pushing things forward with the unplanned refurbishment of the shower room, approximately half of which now stood stripped back to its bare bones.

This impromptu re-fit had become necessary after we had discovered just how much damage had been caused by a series of long-term leaks that had meant a simple patching up operation was out of the question. But we also knew that this re-fit was going to have to last a good twenty years, so, short-cuts and quick fixes were out too: from our experience with previous renovation projects in the UK, we knew just how much truth there is in the maxim ‘buy cheap, buy twice’. Added to which, after four anxiety-ridden months of complete lockdown during which (along with the rest of the country, I know; I make no special pleading here) we had seen no one, gone nowhere and done nothing other than work, we decided we simply wanted to treat ourselves to something a little bit special.

As it turned out, this decision more or less coincided with the gradual lifting of travel restrictions, so ‘something a little bit special’ actually came to include being able to go to different places to source the various elements of our new-look shower room. Even while travel only within our region was permitted, I would never have imagined how pleasurable the sheer normality of hopping into the car on a Saturday morning could be, and tootling down the hill to the trading estates in the valley to browse around bathroom shops for shower enclosures and trays – even if masks, distancing and hand sanitiser were de rigeur.

A couple of weeks later when we were at last permitted to travel from one region to another, we decided to celebrate our newly restored freedom and make a full day out of going to the Umbrian town of Deruta to look at some ‘statement’ tiles for the short wall of our rectangular shower cubicle. Deruta is one of Italy’s Borghi più belli d’Italia and for well over six hundred years has been famed for the quality of its ceramics (thanks to the characteristics of the local clay) and in particular for its highly decorative majolica ware that is still hand-painted today in tiny workshops dotted around the fortified old town. We had visited it a couple of times before, once simply because it sounded an interesting place to explore (it was), and once to buy some large pots for the garden from one of the dozens of factory shops around the outer edge of the historical town centre.

It was on our way out of town with our bulky purchases tightly wedged in the boot that we stumbled across one that stood out from all the others we had passed. Rather than sprawling displays of terracotta pots of every conceivable shape and size or row upon row of traditional ceramics (the skill in whose complicated patterns we can admire but don’t particularly like), this outlet was more like a gallery, with what looked like pieces of richly coloured abstract art filling its spacious, modern showroom.

The slabs of bold colour we had seen from the road were in fact just samples of their unique take on the town’s centuries-old craft that involves the use of the volcanic rock – basalt – which they combine with specialised glazes, jewel-like pigments and dramatic, organic patterns to create a vast array of items from drinks coasters and tiles through to table tops and work surfaces and even swimming pool floors. We spent goodness knows how long wandering around the place, marvelling at the stunning colours and textures and the striking shapes and design. And gulping at the prices. Totally smitten, however, we promised ourselves that one day we would treat ourselves to a little of this gorgeous pietra volcanica.

That day arrived back in the days of full lockdown when spirits were low and Mr Blue-Shirt was scrolling through tile suppliers online and the name of that maker in Deruta suddenly popped up. More out of curiosity than with any real intention of buying, he sent off the measurements and asked for an indicative price: well, there was no harm in asking, was there? A couple of days later their quotation plopped into his inbox. As a special coronavirus promotion, they were offering a fifty percent discount on any orders placed during lockdown. What would have been way over-budget had suddenly become just about affordable.  Sod it, we thought. Let’s do it. So we did. We just needed to decide on colours and patterns.

Friends in the UK had laughed at us the evening before when we said that we were marking the lifting of travel restrictions by going to look at bathroom tiles, envisaging, I suspect, a mind-numbing trudge around some faceless out-of-town retail park just off the ring road. We knew better, however. For not only were we going to buy something that we had fallen in love with but had never thought we would be able to afford, the trip would involve a drive through the wooded lower slopes of the Sibillini Mountains, out of Le Marche (for the first time since December, we calculated), and then down through the olive groves of the broad Umbrian Plain. We would even be able to stop for lunch (Lunch! In a proper restaurant!) in one of our favourite places, the achingly pretty town of Spello, with its distant views of Assisi and the vast honey-coloured Basilica of St Francis. It felt like an adventure; it felt like Christmas; it felt like a birthday treat; it felt like a holiday. What it didn’t feel like was shopping trip to buy bathroom tiles. No, it felt like coming up for air.

The Home Strait

We got there the weekend before we went into complete lockdown. Two days later, I was confined to teaching from a virtual classroom in my study, and Mr Blue-Shirt was confined to doing what he could on the house with the tools and materials he already had, or which he could manage to get online. But at least we had a terrace. To be more precise, the generous section of terrace to the eastern side of the house that would link the sections on the northern and southern sides; the section of terrace that would finally give us a proper, grown-up outdoor seating and dining area, the section of terrace from which we could enjoy the picture-postcard view up to the village and down the valley to the tantalising triangle of sparkling turquoise sea at the bottom; the section of terrace we had been dreaming of since we had first viewed the house on a murky November afternoon more than three years earlier. It was on that last working day before lockdown after a few hours’ intensive training that I suddenly became an online English language teacher, and that the cement truck from the local quarry disgorged its six-cubic-metre load of pre-mixed semi-liquid terrace into the rubble-filled and steel-mesh-topped brick-built framework. All in all, it felt like a momentous day.

But then came the waiting. For signs that the lockdown was slowing the rate of coronavirus infections, primarily. And also for our concrete lake to set, first so that we could simply walk on it, then put a table and chairs on it, and finally for it to be hard enough for Mr Blue-Shirt to begin the mammoth task of tiling the entire thirty-eight square-metre surface. He filled the intervening weeks with building a few metres more of the wall around the drive (and checking the concrete and the corona data), stripping out a bit more of our shower room (and checking the concrete and the corona data), locating an online supplier of tile cement and grout (and checking the concrete and the corona data) and, at last, shifting batches of tiles from the pallet in the car port behind the house round to the still pale grey terrace. Then, as the advance of the virus steadily slowed, deciding that the concrete was finally hard enough for the first of the four hundred and thirty tiles to be laid.

Mr Blue-Shirt started with the stepped section that links the southern part to the new eastern part, its dimensions deliberately chosen to ensure that he would need to work only with whole tiles. With five stacks of eight tiles all ready and waiting, he carefully mixed his first batch of tile cement to exactly the right consistency, knelt down on the black foam pad that still bore the imprint of his knees from earlier tiling sessions, and then slowly began the cycle that he would repeat over and over and over again in the coming weeks: slop, spread, position, tamp, adjust, tamp, check, tamp, measure, clip in place; slop, spread, position tamp… After a few cycles, he got into his rhythm, his trowel, float, rubber mallet, spirit level, measuring tape, bucket and sponge all back in their familiar positions around him so he could reach for whichever tool he needed without even looking. Slop, spread, position, tamp, adjust, tamp, check, tamp, measure, clip in place.

He completed that first section in a couple of days – but that was just a fraction of what remained. So on and on he went for almost a month: in time with the steadily improving corona data, the broad expanse of pale grey slowly turned to terracotta, as row by laborious row, Mr Blue-Shirt worked his way across the terrace. Day after day he was hunkered down on all fours, rising to his feet only to mix up another batch of cement, to flex his knees and stretch his back, and to lift his gaze to the blue horizon and remind himself there was still a world beyond those endless thirty-centimetre squares of terracotta.

The main section had also been designed with whole tiles in mind – fourteen rows of twenty-five, to be exact – so the only variation in his slop, spread, position, tamp routine came when he needed to cut the coin-sized circles for the irrigation system tubes in a couple of tiles, the biscuit-sized holes for the floor lights in a handful more, and the narrow slots to accommodate the four steel support brackets for the uprights of the timber pergola that will eventually provide some protection from the fierce midday sun.

As Mr Blue-Shirt advanced (backwards) across the terrace, a daily ritual emerged. At the end of each day, the results of his efforts would bristle with the chunky orange clips and small white spacers that held the freshly laid tiles firmly in place – a useful ‘keep off’ signal, for the temptation to walk across the smooth terracotta surface was hard to resist. Then at the start of each day, he would remove the previous day’s clips and we would christen the new patch of terracotta with a few cautious steps. Next, with a pair of pliers he would pull out the plastic spacers from between the tiles from the day before that, thus designating that patch officially usable. This in turn gave me the green light to move chairs, tables and flower pots over from the un-tiled to the tiled area, and, using old sun loungers, to experiment with the layout of the patio furniture we had decided to treat ourselves to when the terrace was completely finished.

For that month we measured time in fractions: a sixth of the way there, a quarter, a third, half way (half way!). Then after rain stopped play for a few days, the size of the remaining area of grey cement seemed halve and halve again with each successive day until there was only the northern stepped section left. Barely a day after that, just one last cycle of slop, spread, position, tamp remained  – and Mr Blue-Shirt clipped into place the tile he had had been looking for, as my late dad would have put it: tile number four hundred and thirty.

So that just leaves the two hundred and eighty-five metres of pointing to do. But first it’s time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of Mr Blue Shirt’s labours…

If a job’s worth doing…

I gingerly opened the door to the shower room and was greeted by a cloud of cement dust heavily laced with the musty stench of rotten wood and mouldy cement. Having discovered that all was not well with the floor of the shower cubicle in our bathroom thanks to a suspicious squelching noise emanating from a couple of the tiles, Mr Blue-Shirt had immediately set about chiselling up all the offending tiles and stripping away most of the sealant round the shower tray. This had enabled us to establish at least the source, if not the extent of the problem: water was clearly getting in somewhere, and doubtless had been for quite some time. There was black mildew everywhere, and the timber holding the shower tray and surrounding tiles in place was little more than a spongey pulp. This was going to be no quick patching-up job.

Over the following days, Mr Blue-Shirt prised up more and more tiles, trying to find where the mould and damp ended and dry cement and timber started. All those around the shower tray soon went, then those at the base of the stud wall, through which ran the pipework for the shower, and then the shower tray itself.
“Well, I know now why I kept having to replace the sealant,” said Mr Blue-Shirt, surveying the remains of the sodden timber frame in which the shower tray had sat. “It was completely unsupported underneath, and it’s only plastic, so it flexed every time someone got in the shower. No wonder the sealant failed.”
“So you think it’s been leaking since before we moved in?” I asked.
“It will probably have been leaking within a few weeks of being installed. I’m amazed it’s lasted this long.”
“I’m amazed the ceiling in the sitting room hasn’t fallen in, then!”
“It was never going to get that far, to be fair. They had at least putting tanking under the screed,” he conceded. Mr Blue-Shirt, whose personal strap-line is ‘never knowingly under-engineered’, shook his head in dismay, jabbing his crowbar at the sodden, smelly cement floor.
“I just don’t get why people cut corners like this, especially as they’d taken the trouble to do the tanking. It would’ve cost buttons to sit the shower tray on a pad of cement to make sure it didn’t flex – and would’ve taken less time than assembling that thing,” he said, nodding towards the soggy tangle of distorted, discoloured wood.

Mr Blue-Shirt still hadn’t reached dry timber and cement, though, so he had no choice but to continue working upwards, prising and chiselling at the mix of large, medium and small, square and rectangular, apparently randomly arranged tiles. The next time I stuck my head round the shower room door, a couple more rows on the stud wall had gone, and, to my surprise, several rows from the outside wall, which formed the far wall of the cubicle.
“This bloody job is growing arms and legs,” chuntered Mr Blue-Shirt from behind his dust mask. He gestured towards the far wall with his chisel. “Most of that lot had to come off too because each time I chiselled one off, it chipped the one above or next to it, so that one had to come off too. And then that one got chipped too so the next one had to go…”
“Well, at least it looks as if it’s all dry on that wall,” I said, keen to find something positive.
“Yes. Thankfully they’d tanked that wall too.”
“So how come the tanking on the stud wall has failed?”
“Well, it hasn’t failed as such; water has tracked behind it, from the frame holding the shower tray to the stud wall and is now working its way upwards. God only knows how far it’s got…”
“…but there’s only one way to find out?”
“Yup.”

And so it went on, with the cure for one problem only revealing another to be resolved, and that one leading to another on – and another one, and another one. Because the shower tray had flexed, it had pulled away from the narrow rim of tiles that surrounded it, and they had been needed because the cubicle wall was set too wide for the size of shower tray. So then the wall had to come down too because it wasn’t set quite wide enough to accommodate a shower tray the next size up, which was the main way to minimise the risk of the same thing happening again. Then all the tiles on the far wall had to come off to avoid an ugly join where the timber-framed wall to the cubicle had been because the way the tiles were arranged inside the cubicle didn’t line up with the way they were arranged outside the cubicle. And once one wall of the cubicle was down, the original design concept was lost, so the other timber-framed wall had to follow. But as this was actually built into the stud wall (rather than simply up to it), the entire adjacent vertical row of tiles, as well as the shuttering behind them, had to come off too. And Mr Blue-Shirt still had to keep working upwards as well, since even several rows up from shower tray level, he still hadn’t reached dry timber. By the time he did, there remained just one small square patch of tiles extending about half way across the now ex-shower cubicle from the top far corner of the stud wall and down to about waist height, leaving a broad L-shaped section that had been stripped right back to the battens and pipework.
“So should they stay or should they go?” he asked, echoing The Clash’s old hit.
I batted the question straight back to him.
“It’s surely not for me to decide. You’re the one doing all the work.”
“Yes, I get that, but what do you think?”
For all his know-how and ability, I’m always touched by Mr Blue-Shirt’s keenness to involve me in all decisions – even when he knows I’m not qualified to make them.
“You know I’m always reluctant to create extra work for you, but….”
“Yes…?”
“Well… if you leave that section of tiling and shuttering and replace what you’ve removed, that will leave a great big seam between the old and the new parts, won’t it?”
“Yes.”
“So how can we tank the whole wall properly? I’d have thought that with any join, there’s always going to be a risk of a leak.”
“So you think we should take the whole lot down?”
“I’m asking how confident you are we’d never have another leak.”
“I’m not.”
“There’s your answer, then.”

And with that, down came that final square of perfectly intact tiles, followed by the final section of bone-dry shuttering. I think they call it a blank canvas…

 

More Symbols and Celebrations

Last Tuesday – 2nd June – was a public holiday, this time to mark La Festa della Repubblica, which is effectively ‘first cousin’ to La Festa della Liberazione celebrated annually on 25th April. Back then we were in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, with fear and uncertainty running high and stringent quarantine restrictions still firmly in place, so this year’s Liberation Day celebrations were a muted and sombre affair, the poignant irony of the anniversary, which marks Italy’s liberation from the forces of fascism in 1945, all too apparent to a nation in tight lockdown [Irony and Inspiration].

Some six weeks later, with coronavirus apparently in retreat, the stripped-back, mask-clad celebrations to mark this year’s Republic Day seemed similarly loaded with symbolism as the country stood poised to return the following day to some kind of normal life, and to exercise once more those basic constitutional freedoms that for three months it had put on hold (as specifically provided for in the constitution, incidentally). For it was on June 2nd 1946 that in the first free national vote since 1924 – held, too, on the basis of universal suffrage and with an eighty-nine percent turnout – the people elected the Constituent Assembly whose primary function was to draft the constitution that came into force on 1st January 1948. The five hundred and fifty-six members of the Constituent Assembly came from all walks of life and held views that covered a broad political spectrum, but the one thing they all shared was their bitter hatred of fascism. Thus the core principles of democracy, popular sovereignty, peace, equality and freedom were declared the foundations on which the Republic would be established.

Ah, yes. The Republic: 2nd June is better known as Republic Day rather than Constitution Day because on that day in 1946 a national referendum was also held in which the electorate were invited to decide on the form of government they wanted, a monarchy or a republic. And by 54% to 46% the people voted to abolish Italy’s eighty-five-year-old monarchy in favour of a republic. This represented a complete volte-face on the part of the Italian people. Back in 1861, the first king of the newly united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele II, was hailed as a national hero in light of his central role in Italy’s unification. Indeed, together with the military and political heroes of the Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Benso Cavour and Giuseppe Mazzini, he shares the epithet ‘Fathers of the Fatherland’. And it was in gratitude for Vittorio Emanuele’s contribution to the creation of the modern-day Italian nation that the gargantuan Vittoriano, which is also known as the Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland), was built in the centre of Rome in 1885. So it is slightly ironic that it is at this monument to the united Italy’s first monarch that wreaths are laid, flags are raised, and march-pasts and fly-pasts conducted – all in commemoration of the day on which the country voted to oust his successors just two generations later.

The reason for the dramatic change in fortunes of the House of Savoy is quite simple: the monarchy had become fatally compromised by King Vittorio Emanuele III’s tolerance of Mussolini and his regime throughout the fascist era, not helped by his public refusal in 1943 to accept any responsibility for Italy’s catastrophic circumstances at the time in having appointed Mussolini prime minister in 1922. In the absence of any moral legitimacy and with the Allies and the Partisans driving the Nazis and the Fascists into retreat, it was clear that it would be impossible for Vittorio Emanuele to hold any meaningful role in post-war Italy, so he reluctantly gave in to pressure from the Allies and in 1944 transferred his powers (but not the title of King) to his son Umberto who became Regent. However, while Umberto was not as badly tainted by fascism as his father (largely because the King had not allowed his son to become involved in the exercise of power), he was personally, politically and militarily ill-equipped to rally meaningful support for the crown. The King made a last-ditch attempt to save the monarchy (and so keep the Communists at bay) by formally abdicating in favour of his son on 9th May 1946, even though he made it publicly known that he considered Umberto unfit to rule. Even though he enjoyed the support of the Catholic church (who preferred to frame the republic vs monarchy debate in terms of Communism vs Catholicism) and despite attempts to curry favour with all sides by granting pardons to criminals and agitators while handing out titles to regional notables, it all came as too little too late: preparations for the referendum were already well underway. In the end, Umberto II’s reign came to an end when the republic was declared, ending his reign after just thirty-four days, even though he disputed the outcome of the referendum, defiantly characterising it as a coup d’ètat. In a rare moment of insight and statesmanship, however, he rejected the suggestion that he should proclaim a rival government outside Rome, start a civil war in which the army would fight to save the Savoy crown: “My House united Italy. It will not divide it.”

It is to their shame, therefore, that neo-fascist protesters in Rome this weekend have not learned the lessons of history and so do not share the insight of that earlier Fascist sympathiser as they seek to destabilise their wounded nation at a time when not since 1946 has unity been more vital.

Image courtesy of Andreas Solaro/AFP – http://www.thelocal.it