Harvest

“God, I’m knackered,” I said as we slumped into the armchairs in the snug, easing our shoes off and picking leaves and twigs from our sweaters.
“I think I’m going to feel that in the morning,” said Mr Blue-Shirt, rubbing his back. “It’s not a very physically demanding job in itself, but when you do it for the whole weekend…”
Dusk was gathering and Mr Blue-Shirt and I had just completed this year’s olive harvest. We had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for some time, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding week or so one or other of us would come in and report that “Maurizio and Flavia have started.” Or “There were stacks of crates outside the place with the goats.” Or “They’ve got nets out next door to the baker’s on the hill.” With each new sighting, Mr Blue-Shirt retrieved another piece of our harvesting equipment from the workshop: first the bright green nylon floor nets, then the russet-coloured storage crates (ingeniously designed so that they can either stack on top of, or, if turned round the other way, slot inside each other), and finally the orange plastic rakes about the size of a child’s toy that can be fitted onto poles of varying lengths. And then, Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt, both chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the long-reach secateurs, the bolt-croppers, and the decorator’s ladder.

“It’s such a pity that we seem to have so little to show for all that effort, though.” said Mr Blue-Shirt, getting up again to put the kettle on the stove.
“So annoying. Especially as the trees had been absolutely laden,” I agreed. “There was so much fruit on those tall trees on the eastern side you could see it from our bedroom window. Hundreds and hundreds of little black beads shining in the sun like fairy lights made of jet.”
“I know. I had a look around after that first weekend of storms and although the winds had brought some down, I still thought we’d get a good crop, even without the trees damaged by ‘the east from the east’ back in February.” The kettle wailed into life. “Earl Grey or mint?”
“Earl Grey, please. The following weekend, though, was when there were all the storms that caused the flooding in Venice. It was absolutely howling even here. There was loads of debris on the road when I went to work on the Monday, so I suppose it’s not surprising that it brought our olives down too.”
“I hadn’t realised just how many had come down until I started to spread the nets out under the first couple of trees. The ground was absolutely carpeted with them. I could have cried.”
“So annoying,” I repeated, reaching out an olive-stained hand to take my mug of tea. “Mind you, we wouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near the amount we did just with our plastic rakes. They’re fine for the lower branches and if the fruit is quite dense as just a vigorous yank will bring the fruit raining down. And there is something almost romantic about the simplicity of using a technology that has hardly changed for centuries.” I took a sip of tea. “But if you really need to get right to the top of the tree and comb through every branch to make sure you’ve got them all…. ”
“Then you need a gadget!” declared Mr Blue-Shirt, raising his mug in a triumphant toast to technology.

I rolled my eyes in mock boredom as he had been banging on about – sorry: extolling the virtues of  – his latest gadget all weekend. But he was right: his abbacchiatoro elettrico (the birthday present he had been waiting to use since June) had saved the day. This car-battery-powered device consists of a telescopic pole on the end of which is a pair of lightly interlocking rakes that jiggle back and forth like a pair of rapidly clapping hands and tease the olives from the tree as you pass it along the branches.
“It certainly earned its keep,” I agreed. “There was fruit pinging everywhere! Even from trees that initially looked almost bare.”
“Yes, as well as the reach, it’s the speed that makes it so efficient. It would have taken twice as long to get the quantity we did otherwise.”
“Which would have been just too depressing.”

Even with the appliance of science we had only managed to fill four-and-a-bit crates: little over a hundred kilos. The previous year we’d got almost the same amount from just five or six of our thirty-eight trees using just our trusty orange plastic rakes.
“And we don’t know what the yield is going to be like yet either as there’s quite a high proportion of unripe, green fruit,” said Mr Blue-Shirt, reaching for the kindling to light the wood burner. “I’m going to the oleificio to get them pressed first thing tomorrow as I don’t want the fruit that we have got to deteriorate at all.”
“Are you going to the one that Enrico mentioned the other day?” Mr Blue-Shirt had asked for a recommendation from our neighbour while he was ploughing at the edge of our land. The previous year we had gone to an oleificio almost down in Civitanova Alta, but were sure there must be a closer one.
“Yes – as long as I can find it. Enrico’s directions were a bit vague.” He clanged the door of the wood burner shut and sat back to admire the flames now dancing merrily in the grate.

But he did find it: a small set-up in the corner of a sprawling but immaculately kept olive farm down a lane on the way to Macerata. “Rodolfo the owner was really friendly and really knowledgeable,” said Mr Blue-Shirt over dinner the next evening. “He confirmed that it had been a really bad year for everyone. I was lucky to catch him, in fact, as he said he had pretty well given up for the season.  I think ours must have been his last pressing.”
“Yes, Jo at work said today that her neighbours apparently hadn’t even bothered harvesting this year. And a friend of Pat’s claimed that they’ve got precisely five olives off their twenty-seven trees this year.”
“I suppose that’s some comfort.  And Rodolfo said that our fruit was really good quality, too. You know that all green fruit? He reckoned that was good enough to preserve as eating olives, which obviously have to be top notch.”
“Hmmm. Something to think about for next year. Did he say whether they would give a good yield, though?”
“No. He said it’s not really possible to tell in advance. We’ll only find out when we go to pick it up tomorrow afternoon.”

“Twenty-five litres?!” I exclaimed as Mr-Blue-Shirt and Rodolfo lifted our gleaming stainless steel flagon onto the scales whose electric-blue digits had just flickered round to 25:08 kg. “Wow, that’s miles better than I expected!”
É buono,” said Rodolfo, nodding appreciatively.
“And actually a better yield than last year,” observed Mr Blue-Shirt.
After a bit more olive chit-chat, we swung the satisfyingly heavy flagon into the boot, handed Rodolfo his €25.00 pressing fee, bade him farewell until next year – “Ci vediamo l’anno prossimo!” – and trundled back up the hill towards home.

Down in the musty gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the flagon, which we had carefully placed back on its stand, and shone a torch in through its wide neck. As the beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that half-filled the flagon it occurred to us: this really was our oil. For anything under about two hundred and fifty kilos of fruit, it’s not normally possible to get a ‘single estate’ pressing. Smaller amounts are usually pooled and you get a pro-rata quantity of the resulting oil.  But because Rodolfo had been just about to shut up shop and had effectively pressed our meagre one hundred kilos on its own as a favour, this modest haul of liquid gold was our very first, pure Casa Girasole oil!

Which suddenly made it very much worth all that effort after all.

Italy’s Prettiest Towns

Poppi, a charming medieval town in eastern Tuscany, was the first one we came across in 2007. Complete with picture-book castle, cobbled streets, graceful colonnades and shady piazze, the fortified old town is balanced on the top of a hill, with the modern town spreading out down the surrounding slopes like a multi-coloured skirt. It is also where we have always stayed when taking part in the blacksmithing bienniale run by the comune of Stia, a town that lies a few kilometres further up the Arno valley. Since then, we have passed through, eaten lunch in, wandered around and stayed overnight in several more. And when we came to view the house that has become our home some ten years after our first visit to Poppi, we discovered that the village where it is located is also one: a member of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’: Montelupone is officially one of ‘Italy’s prettiest villages’.

The dictionary definition of ‘borgo’ (plural: borghi) is ‘village’, but this doesn’t really tell the full story, as technically, a borgo is a settlement that typically dates back to Renaissance, if not the Middle Ages, that is usually centred around a castle or palace, and is often encircled by defensive walls. However, simply having a historical fortified castle is not of itself enough for a village to qualify for membership of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’, the association that was founded in 2001 by l’Associazione Nazionale Comuni Italiani (the National Association of Italian Municipalities) to promote the historical, cultural and artistic heritage of small Italian towns.  Rule number one is that historical buildings must predominate, and in addition to this, they must form a harmonious whole: a jumble of crumbling palazzi dotted about among post-war blocks of flats plus a few metres of weed-choked fortifications next to the supermarket will not cut it. It is moreover not enough for member villages simply to look pretty; they must also have a strong cultural heritage and be living, breathing communities with an active village life, which will regularly be celebrated with events, exhibitions and festivals involving local residents and community groups. Kitsch, Disneyfied versions of traditional village life, awash with trendy bars and pricey boutiques but no butcher’s, baker’s or post office need not apply.

On this basis, it is not difficult to see why Montelupone, with its sweeping views over the turquoise Adriatic and the forest-clad Conero peninsular, qualified for membership. Overlooking the central square stands the 14th century Palazzetto dei Priori and civic clock tower, next to which stands the Palazzo Comunale that houses the exquisite little Teatro Nicola degli Angeli. Then rubbing shoulders with these gems are a handful of other grand palazzi and three magnificent churches dripping with sacred art treasures, all of which are all held in the protective embrace of over a kilometre of defensive walls that ring the entire historical centre, access to which is gained through four imposing town gates. By the way, there is also a thriving primary school in the heart of the village, something that considered crucial for the survival of smaller communities.  And as I have reported in several other posts, Montelupone does very much more than simply ‘survive’: it is most certainly a living, breathing community that will enthusiastically celebrate its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage at every available opportunity. Nor is Montelupone a one-off in our neck of the woods: several fellow members of the association are within about an hour of us. In the mountainous uplands, for instance are Visso, Sarnano – the gateway to the Sibillini – and San Ginesio, which, thanks to its commanding views of the mountains, is known locally as ‘il balcone dei Sibillini’. Along the coastal strip, by contrast, lie Torre di Palme, Grottammare and Offagna, all with spectacular views along the coast. And in the undulating lowlands between the two, Montefiore dell’Aso, Montecassiano, and Montecosaro are perched – as their names suggest – on their very own hilltops.

It is still quite a select club, however: the association currently has just two hundred and eighty-one members, distributed up and down the country throughout every one of Italy’s twenty regions. It is perhaps easy to imagine that the long-established cultural hotspots of Tuscany and Umbria might dominate the list – and indeed, they have twenty-three and twenty-eight members respectively. However, the association is all about small towns and ‘the delights of hidden Italy’ (il fascino dell’Italia nascosta), so it enables lesser-known regions such as Le Marche, which has no fewer than twenty-seven members (and a population that is a third of Tuscany’s), to level the cultural playing field a little.  So while there may be no Marchigian equivalent of Florence, Assisi, Rome or Venice (or the attendant tourist buses, souvenir shops and over-priced coffee) Le Marche is neither a poor relation nor a cultural backwater. Mind you, we’ve known that for years. In fact, it is one of the main reasons we have made our home in this corner of ‘real Italy’ – and, as it turned out, in ‘one of Italy’s prettiest villages’.

 

Source: http://borghipiubelliditalia.it/club/

Adding Fuel to the Fire

Autumn. That time of year when Helios, the god of the sun, gives way to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The season ‘of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. And in our case, also of fires and fragrant woodsmoke. For although Mr Blue-Shirt has a well-developed regime which allows him to indulge his pyromaniac tendencies all year round, autumn is the season in which his lifelong fascination with fire really comes to the fore. Some might think that this fascination derives from some deep-seated association with early man’s need to provide (in the form of food and light) and protect (from cold and predators). And while I think there may well be some truth in this, I suspect that there is probably also a less esoteric explanation, namely Mr Blue-Shirt’s scouting background. It was as a nine-year old cub scout in deepest Dorking that he was first introduced to the magic of firecraft and to the art of cooking sausages on whittled-down sticks and baking campfire breadsticks over the crown of glowing embers that he himself had created. These skills, which he honed further as a boy scout, then as a venture scout and finally as a soldier, have given him an unfailing ability to start a fire from almost anything that happens to be lying around, even if this is little more than a discarded shopping list and a couple of soggy twigs. Needless to say, modern firelighters – those small white crumbly cubes doused in chemical accelerant – are anathema to him. He sees them as tantamount to an admission of defeat, and for use only in extremis (and even then, preferably under cover of darkness).

No, for a purist such as Mr Blue-Shirt, it is all about wood, and so he is always on the lookout for sources of fire wood (or legna da ardere, as it is called here), whether it can be found on our own land – in the form of last year’s olive tree prunings, for example – or donated from someone else’s. While we were based in Lincolnshire, Mr Blue-Shirt only had to hear a chainsaw roaring into life somewhere in the village and he would be off with the 4×4 and trailer, offering to take any unwanted wood off our neighbour’s hands, thereby saving him or her the cost and faff of disposal. By this and other similar means, in fifteen winters at the forge we spent a grand total of £20 on firewood: a couple of tenners slipped to a contractor felling trees where road widening works were about to start in return for a trailer full of wood.

Of course, once Mr Blue-Shirt has sourced the wood, he then has the perfect opportunity to deploy his vast armoury of tools and equipment for felling, cutting and chopping it. This consists, among other things, of a full-size chainsaw for felling trees and cutting their trunks into shorter lengths, a smaller arborist’s chainsaw (that can be used one-handed) for lopping off branches, a long-handled axe and log-splitter for chopping the drums of tree trunk into logs, a short-handled axe (hand-forged for him by a former employee) for chopping kindling, as well as a couple of different hand saws and an old machete. Then there are the second-tier tools and equipment: a chain sharpener and tensioner, a sharpening stone, bolt-croppers, a bill hook, and sundry secateurs, as well as ear defenders, a hard-hat-and-visor combo, and even a pair of Kevlar-filled safety trousers – the arborist’s attire of choice that stop you cutting your leg off if you drop your chainsaw while using it up a tree.

Then having sourced, felled, cut and chopped the wood, it needs to be stored. Naturally, just stacking the logs up against a sheltered outside wall, or even erecting a simple shed is nowhere near enough fun for Mr Blue-Shirt.  No, he has elevated wood storage to another level by designing and now building a bespoke five-metre-long, galvanised steel woodstore. Complete with a traditional Italian tiled roof, it features mesh shelves down both sides, with separate sections for large and small logs as well as for green and seasoned wood, and has the additional function of hiding from view the above-ground workings of our eco-friendly waste-treatment system. To some all this effort may seem excessive, but it’s not at all in light of the array of all the different types of fire we have to feed. As they hark back to those early scouting experiences, I think the outdoor ones are closest to Mr Blue-Shirt’s heart: the chimenea for extra warmth on crisp spring evenings, the barbecue that between May and September is probably in action at least three times a week, and his current favourite, the clockwork rotisserie whose brass workings are housed in a pretty cast iron casing and for which he has built a small neat hearth from old bricks.  Then inside the house there is the open fire in the sitting room. Slightly raised and set across the corner of the room, it very much looks the part, but last winter provided a lot by way of smoke while offering little by way of warmth, despite burning through wood at a ferocious rate. So in late summer Mr Blue-Shirt carried out an upgrade by installing a fire insert – essentially the innards of a woodburning stove that fit into the pre-existing fireplace and flue – that has already proved to be far more effective and far more economical. And last but not least, there is the tall, barrel-like wood-burning stove that Mr Blue-Shirt has now installed at the end of our long thin dining room that right from the warm late spring day on which we moved in we designated as ‘the snug’.

So, with every possible preparation complete, and as the sunlight softens to the mellow bronze of autumn, the morning mist clings to the trees in moist swathes and the purple dusk creeps in earlier by the day, the time has come to close the shutters, draw the curtains, and satisfy our primal need to cast out the darkness and ward off the cold according to Mr Blue-Shirt’s life-long ritual. Kneeling in front of the hearth, he piles balls of screwed up paper into a pyramid and lights them with a single match, and surrounds them with a wigwam of ‘licky’ sticks (a term coined by our eldest nephew when he was a toddler and couldn’t quite get his tongue round ‘little’). Then as the flames take hold, he adds a lattice of bigger sticks. Lastly, once a crackling blaze is fully underway, he selects a couple of  neatly chopped logs from the basket, and carefully places them on the top. And finally, we snuggle into the sofa and, losing ourselves in fire’s timeless mystery, we watch the flames dancing and flickering in the grate and give silent thanks to Hestia.

Still Remembering Mimi

Dr Crotti shaved a neat square of dense white fur from Mimi’s side, applied the tiny electrodes to her heaving rib cage and passed the gel-smeared sensor over the bald patch, the sight of her exposed pink skin only serving to highlight her vulnerability. We peered at the grainy images on the screen behind the blue plastic treatment table on which Mimi was lying, her nose wedged in the crook of my elbow for comfort as I held her front paws and Mr Blue-Shirt held her back ones. Our touch, I think, gave her some reassurance and something familiar to focus on amid all the strange and frightening sounds, smells and sensations in the cardiologist’s surgery. We could make little sense of what we saw on the screen, other than the jagged blue line zig-zagging across the bottom, and the startling speed at which Mimi’s heart was beating: no wonder she was panting. Dr Crotti shifted the sensor and suddenly we could see her heart in cross-section. He zoomed in on an uneven circular shape with a floppy kink in its perimeter: her aorta was collapsing too. Then Dr Crotti drew our attention to what looked like wisps of smoke but which was actually an excess of platelets – and the cause of her anaemia. The three of us made feeble jokes about having to feed her Guinness or (Dr. Crotti’s preference) good Le Marche red wine to boost her iron levels. Our smiles were strained and brief, though.

He moved the sensor again and this time we could see her whole heart, surrounded by a deep ring of dark grey which Dr Crotti explained was fluid that was both impairing her heart’s ability to pump and also compressing her lungs, thus compromising her breathing even further. We could barely take it in. She was in such a bad way, the poor wee thing, and the guilt crashed over us in icy waves. How could we have missed something as serious as this? Why hadn’t we taken her to the vet sooner? Perhaps we should have kept giving her the medicine after all. We tried to blink back tears, but Dr Crotti started reeling off a cocktail of drugs that he wanted to prescribe: diuretics to reduce the fluid, beta-blockers to control her heart rate, and something else to reduce the platelet count, all of which he assured us we could get from the veterinary pharmacy just a few doors up. And for a while his confident tone made it sound as if it was all going to be all right.

Only it wasn’t. Poor little Mimi just could not tolerate the drugs, which Dr Crotti had warned us did taste absolutely foul, and which made her retch and choke with such violence she could not stand up. Forcing her to take them caused her so much distress we feared the very act of administering them would bring about her death. With her chest still heaving and her next dose of drugs looming, we took Mimi back to Dr Crotti the following afternoon as we felt there was only so much being cruel to be kind she – or we – could bear and we no longer knew what to do for the best. Would the act of giving her the drugs kill her? Would not giving her the drugs kill her? If we did manage to give her the drugs, would she recover? This was the clincher for us, and I shall be forever grateful to Dr Crotti for his frankness. “No,” he said without a hint of equivocation. “They are just giving her a little more time.” Next question: “Is she in pain?” She didn’t seem to be, but we needed to be sure for we felt we had reached the point at which we had to confront the ghastly prospect of having Mimi put down. “No, she’s not in pain,” he assured us. “A little discomfort maybe because of the breathlessness, but if she remains quiet and still…” We both noticed that he had said nothing about putting her down. We looked at each other for a moment and nodded in silent agreement. Neither of us subscribes to the ‘keep the patient alive at absolutely any cost’ school of medical ethics (either for animals or humans), so providing she was not in pain, having her put down was off the agenda – but we would stop giving her the revolting medicine too.  Instead we would simply take her home, keep her warm and fed, comfortable and cuddled, and allow her to enjoy in peace however much time she had left.

We thanked Dr Crotti for his honesty and advice, eased Mimi into her travel box once more and headed home. And for a couple of hours we were confident we had made the right call. She went for a little wander around the house, checking out all her usual spots: the chair in the corner of the dining room, the pile of cushions by the fire wood, the corner of the wardrobe on top of my running kit, the doormat by the patio doors. Once satisfied that everything was as it should be, she had a thorough wash, a bite to eat and then tea-cosied up in her favourite corner of the kitchen, watching us pottering about cooking supper and sorting laundry. If this was how she would end her days, then it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Come and give Mimi a cuddle, will you? Mr Blue-Shirt called, a trace of panic in his voice. “I’m in the middle of doing dinner.” I hurried down from the linen cupboard to find Mimi sprawled on the kitchen floor, breathing noisily, her sweet little pink-padded paws clenching against the all too obvious spasms of pain that wracked her body. “What’s happened?” I tried to keep the fear from my voice: there was more than enough for both of us burning in Mimi’s big blue eyes. “I think she’s having a heart attack,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “She tried to stand up, but only managed a few steps before she collapsed again, panting like mad and making a hideous wailing noise.” I knelt down on the tiles beside her and stroked her heaving flanks as gently as I could, trying to close my ears to her heart-rending howls of pain. Mr Blue-Shirt stuffed dinner in the oven and joined me next to Mimi who we carefully rolled onto a blanket, anxious to keep her warm and cosy. The utter helplessness we felt was heart-wrenching, but it was only too clear that all we could do for her now was be there with her and try to soothe her pain. So there we stayed for goodness knows how long, comforting Mimi as best we could and comforting each other as we waited for her poor swollen and damaged heart to come to its inevitable, agonising halt.

It wasn’t gentle. It wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t quick. But we continued to stroke and shush her through our tears and little by little the howls subsided to soft moans, her paws relaxed and all that was left was the rasping breath and glassy blue stare. Then silence. We stroked and shushed a little longer until we were sure. But it was over: she had gone.

Only she hasn’t. She’s with us still, at rest beneath a vigorous young pear tree in a sunny corner of the olive grove, with a perfect view straight down the valley to the sea. The sea that sparkles in the same shade of sapphire blue as our beloved Mimi’s eyes once did.

Remembering Mimi

Something wasn’t right. She was sitting perfectly still in her trademark tea-cosy pose, with her tail and all four paws neatly tucked beneath her. But her pure white flanks were heaving up and down as if she had just raced in from the furthest reaches of the olive grove. She hadn’t though. For the previous hour or so she had simply been dozing in the warmth of the autumn sun that was shining in through the sitting room window.

On reflection, she had been a little out of sorts for a few days, with little interest in food. Normally she would crunch her way through her daily allowance of turkey biscuits with an eagerness that sometimes bordered on greed. And even if she wasn’t hungry at a given moment, she still needed to know that food was there. Faced with an empty bowl, however, there was none of that undignified rubbing up against our legs nonsense. No, she would simply sit by her bowl and fix us with an icy, unblinking stare for as long as it would take for one of us to bend to her will and top up her turkey biscuits – and then calmly walk away with a slightly imperious flick of her tail without taking a bite. Rather like the way she would flop down onto her back to have her tummy stroked, but always just beyond the reach of her chosen stroker, thus obliging them to stand up and go to her – which, of course, was the primary object of the exercise.

Other than this loss of appetite, there was nothing we could put a finger on; just a certain listlessness and apathy that those who didn’t know her well probably would not have detected as she was such a placid, gentle creature. Self-contained and independent, she didn’t sit on laps and wasn’t keen on being held, but would regularly sleep at the foot of our bed, would often seek out our company and given the opportunity would happily spend all day being scratched behind the ears or under the chin.  Now, though, our sweet-natured companion and confidante whose calming presence eased our loneliness when one or other of us was on our own for any length of time seemed indifferent to our touch.

She had been so contented here too: ever since she had arrived home with Mr Blue-Shirt just before Christmas she had loved the place. Within little more than a couple of days’ tentative exploration of all the nooks and crannies, she had decided her new home passed muster and tea-cosied up on a dining chair that gave her a view of the whole of the ground floor and from which she could keep a watchful eye on all our comings and goings. After a couple of weeks’ being confined to quarters, she made it known that she was ready to go outside and see what else her new surroundings had to offer. Mr Blue-Shirt and I were quite ridiculously nervous as we opened the back door and watched her trot off down the garden and disappear into the undergrowth, with – thankfully – the occasional flash of white among the greenery to indicate her whereabouts. For we could not have been more nervous had we been waving our child off at the gate on their first day at school.

But from that point on there was no looking back. She took to being outside with joy and enthusiasm, spending hours exploring beneath bushes, hunting bugs in the grass, chewing twigs, catching feathers and climbing trees, which was something that we had never once seen her even try to do in the UK. Back in Lincolnshire, in fact, she seldom went outside at all, and even when she did, just sat and watched the world go by.  The heavy snow of late February wasn’t quite her thing, though: I have a wonderful photo of an almost perfect circle of paw prints in the snow taken when she had pestered and pestered to go out. When I had finally opened the door, she had cautiously tip-toed out into the crisp deep snow – and almost immediately executed a neat U-turn, deciding that curling up in front of the fire was much the better option after all. But as soon as spring had arrived, she was back outside from dawn to dusk, striding among the olive trees to confirm all was well on ‘her patch’. With the tip of her tail twitching, she would be out there chasing butterflies, catching leaves and sniffing daisies; the very embodiment of ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’. Come summer her favourite pastimes alternated between batting seed pods and lounging in the shade of our huge deep green bay tree; sneaking off for a snooze under a lavender bush and chasing the bright green lizards darting hither and thither, her blue eyes sparkling as brightly as the distant Adriatic Sea.

Not anymore. It seemed as if a light had gone out. And with her little rib-cage rising and falling so alarmingly, taking her to the vet seemed the only option. We had always known she had a heart murmur, and every day for some months not long after we had got her Mr Blue-Shirt had attempted to squirt down her throat the medicine that had been prescribed for her condition while she thrashed and kicked and tried to wriggle from his grasp. Some 80% of cats apparently have a heart murmur, though, and since far more than 20% of the cats we have known have lived a long and happy life without any medication, we soon decided to stop subjecting her to this daily ordeal. Leading a happy and stress-free, but possibly shortened life, we reasoned, was surely preferable to leading a longer one, but one where every day was filled with anxiety and distress. We suddenly feared that this decision might be coming back to haunt us.

A bear of a man with a bushy beard, a warm smile and enormous hands, Dr Barbucci probed Mimi’s sides with remarkable tenderness. Our conversation was an odd mix of Italian and English: our Italian vocabulary does not extend to veterinary terminology, and his English vocabulary consisted only of veterinary terminology. But we got there somehow: an X-ray revealed an enlarged heart, but not the cause, and the murmur was still present. Added to which, blood tests indicated that she was also anaemic. Dr Barbucci’s smile had gone and concern was now written all over his face. “She is many sick” he said in his heavily accented English, gently tickling Mimi’s neck with a single huge finger. Before we had a chance to ask what he could do, he explained that in order to prescribe a course of treatment, he needed to establish why her heart was enlarged and to get to the bottom of the murmur and so recommended that we take her for an ECG at a veterinary cardiologist’s in Civitanova Marche. We struggled to take this all in, shocked and dismayed by the obvious seriousness of her condition, but it was a no-brainer: of course we’d take her to the cardiologist – a Dr Crotti. I asked for his details, saying I would call the next morning. But Dr Barbucci shook his head and immediately called Dr Crotti’s surgery to get an appointment that same afternoon. “He can see you now,” he said as he hung up. “His surgery is here.” He scrawled a quick map and gently lifted Mimi back into her travel box. Mr Blue-Shirt and I exchanged fear-filled looks and following a hurried “Grazie mille,” we climbed back into the car and in heavy silence drove down the hill towards the coast, dreading what the next hour might bring…

Bureaucracy – again

Regular or even occasional readers of this blog will be aware of our experiences with Italy’s famously byzantine and impenetrable bureaucracy as we endeavoured to secure our residency and national health service cover. It is something I can only describe as like trying to swim blindfold through a maze filled with quicksand: exhausting, disorientating, depressing, tortuous, frustrating, and often ultimately pointless. But we got there, and to prove it now have our identity cards and our tessere sanitarie (national health cards): the credit card-sized equivalent of the Holy Grail.

Only in practice they  turn out to be much more like a key. A key that opens the door to a whole new set of mazes to navigate. The latest of these has resulted from my being offered a new job at a bigger and more ‘corporate’ language school, which means that I shall have a proper employment contract, which in turn means that as a resident I needed to register with the Centro per l’Impiego (Employment Office).  Yes, I realise that registering with the Employment Office when I already had a job seems a bit back to front. But Emiliano, the HR manager of my new school explained in his enviably fluent English that I needed to do this so simply that they could issue me with a document called a Scheda Professionale, which he described as an ‘ugly’ version of my CV that the school’s HR consultant insists upon – even though my CV is already in the standardised Europass format employers here require. Seeing the look of dismay on my face, Emiliano gave an apologetic shrug. “I know, I know. It’s crazy,” he said before the inevitable “Why???” had a chance to pass my lips. “But it’s the rules. That’s Italian bureaucracy for you.” And that’s the thing: even Italians acknowledge that their bureaucracy is a nightmare, and are invariably sympathetic when we recount our latest battles with red tape. “It’s bad enough for us Italians” they typically say, “so I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be for foreigners!”

So armed with the list of detailed instructions Emiliano had sent me by email I trudged off to the Employment Office in Civitanova Marche, which had been the eventual scene of our health insurance triumph. A strong sense of déjà vu soon set in: as usual the first hurdle was finding the right office in the warren of anonymous offices, then it was the all too familiar deli ticket roll on a wobbly stand, followed by the customary glance at the display to see how far down the queue I was, and then the all too familiar interminable wait in a drab grey corridor furnished with rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs until my number flashed up.

Seventy-five minutes later, a friendly-looking woman in incongruously glittery trainers and fuchsia-pink glasses strode into the corridor, called my number and ushered me into her booth with a cheerful “Come posso aiutarLa?” – How can I help you? Her can-do manner lifted my spirits, and my explanation of what I needed and why elicited encouraging nods so when I handed her my identity card so she could enter my details on the system, I was feeling pretty confident. She peered closely at it to check the spelling of my name, flipped it over so she could enter my address onto the system, and tossed it straight back onto the desk with a brusque “No.” I was taken aback by her sudden change of tone.

‘What do you mean, no?’ I asked.

‘You live in Montelupone.’

‘Yes. And?’

‘Montelupone isn’t in our area.’

I swallowed hard, suppressing the urge to scream. I had specifically gone to this office in the – to me – not unreasonable belief that since Montelupone was in this town’s catchment area for health insurance purposes, it would be the same for employment purposes. Nope: too Anglo-Saxon.

‘Which office do I need to go to then? I asked with all the calm I could muster.

‘Macerata.’

I nearly exploded. This was where we had originally gone to sort out our health insurance, only to be told that our village wasn’t in Macerata’s area. Now, I appreciate that Montelupone lies roughly equidistant between the two towns, but you really would think that someone might have thought it sensible to put Montelupone in one town’s catchment area or the other for all administrative matters – wouldn’t you?? Rather than waste my breath pointing this out, though, I made do with a curt “Grazie. Arrivederci”, and left.

A couple of days later, I arrived at the Employment Office in Macerata at three o’clock on the dot, exactly the time the website had indicated it opened, loins girded and teeth gritted for round two – only to find a queue of people already trailing out of the packed waiting room and down the stairs.  I tugged my deli ticket from its roll on its wobbly stand: 57, and glanced up at the display: 17. My heart sank. How come the queue was so long when the office had barely opened? I found the answer as I took up my place in the queue squidged up against the office door, stuck to which was a notice stating the opening hours: it turned out that the office had actually opened at 2.30pm. “Bloody Italians,” I thought (to my immediate shame).

An hour and three quarters later – during which time I had noticed that only three of the six cubicles were actually staffed – 57 finally flashed up on the display. “I live in Montelupone…” I began. The woman behind the desk nodded and I relaxed slightly, so I continued with the same explanation as before and finished with my request for a Scheda Professionale.

‘No’, she said.

‘What do you mean, no?’ I asked, feeling the deadening pull of the quicksand beneath me.

‘You don’t need a Scheda Professionale. It’s for interns and apprentices. You have been offered a proper employment contract.’

‘Well, my employer has told me this is the document I need. Can’t you just issue me one anyway?’

‘No, it’s only for interns and apprentices.’

‘But that doesn’t matter to my employer. They just want the form.’

‘It’s not possible. It’s only for interns and apprentices.’

‘Then please call my HR manager on this number and explain this to him’ I said firmly, handing her the fluorescent pink Post-it note I had had the foresight to jot Emiliano’s phone number on. Their exchange was lively but brief as the clerk remained adamant: she would not and could not issue me with a Scheda Professionale. But at least Emiliano had managed to persuade her to issue me with a document explaining her position that he could then pass to his employment consultant. So just over two hours after I had arrived, all I had to show for my efforts was a single sheet of paper bearing a couple of sentences scrawled in almost illegible handwriting and finished off with a completely illegible signature and a slightly smudged official stamp.

The next day, I handed Emiliano the document with a wry smile. He sighed, shook his head and returned my smile. “Bloody Italians,” he said.

Sweet!

We suffer from a syndrome, Mr. Blue-Shirt and I. It started years ago, although back then the symptoms were almost imperceptible.  In fact, it was only in retrospect that we realised what was happening. In the last few years, though, it has got a lot worse and seems ever less responsive to treatment. Indeed, we now fear we might never get better. The syndrome we suffer from is a rare condition that we know as Automotive Tourette’s.

There are several causes, I think. One is that Mr Blue-Shirt has had a lifelong passion for cars. Family legend has it that as little more than a toddler he could identify different makes and models simply by their hubcaps, and among his first words were, allegedly, ‘dwive da car’. So it was no great surprise to anyone that his first career was as an automotive engineer. The other is that our many holidays in Italy have always been of the touring variety, so we have spent many a long day pounding along picturesque autostrade, winding up and down precipitous mountain roads, bumping over miles of dusty tracks (aka strade bianche – white roads, i.e. un-tarmac-ed) and rumbling around the cobbled streets in the centro storico of countless traffic-clogged medieval towns and cities. Which, over the years, has given us plentiful opportunities for getting up close and personal with Italian drivers and Italian cars.

To entertain ourselves on our longer treks we soon took to looking out for those world-famous superstars of Italian motoring – the macho Ferraris, the sexy Lamborghinis, and Mr Blue-Shirt’s personal favourite, the cool, understated Maseratis. We weren’t elitist, mind, so also kept an eye out for distinctly less glamourous yet still faintly exotic Lancias and undeniably handsome Alfa Romeos, which I tend to favour, especially early examples of the Spider. But the car for which we both always reserved our most enthusiastic oohs and ahhs by miles was in fact the modest little Fiat 500 – the original one, that is; the one that is practically synonymous with La Dolce Vita, and is as indisputably Italian as pasta, prosciutto and prosecco.

Introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 in effect motorised Italy, and in so doing provided a means of both literal and metaphorical escape from war-time deprivation, austerity and joylessness. It was very much conceived as a ‘people’s car’ by its designer, Dante Giacosa, who made sure it was suited to navigating narrow city streets and fitting into the tightest of parking spaces: it was barely 3m long, originally had only two seats, and a tiny 479cc engine. Initially it also had rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’, but for safety reasons these were replaced with front-hinged ones in 1965 – much to the disappointment of Italian men, apparently, as they could no longer enjoy looking at girls’ legs as they got in and out of the car! Crucially, as well as being practical, the Cinquecento, as it has always been known, was also chic, charming and cheap – the equivalent of about £240 when it was first launched – so it took no time at all for it to win the hearts of Italian drivers. Very nearly four million of these smiley-faced little things had rolled off the assembly line in Turin by the time production ceased in 1975, and in 2007, when it was nominated as La Macchina Più Amanti degli Italiani (Italy’s most beloved car), it was estimated that there were still some 600,00 on the road.  And the national affection for the Cinqucento has never waned. It is quite common to see pedestrians smile and wave as one passes and motorists will often toot and give a vigorous thumbs-up to the lucky owner.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some folk even them blew kisses.

It must be something to do with the affinity we seem to have for all things Italian as we have just as much of a soft spot as any Italian for this pocket-sized icon, even though we’ve never so much as sat in one.  They’re just so… Well, sweet. And that’s how it all started. Every time one of us saw one on our travels, we would point wildly and squeal ‘Sweet!’ with childlike delight. It didn’t take long for this to acquire a competitive element, too: the first person to spot a Cinquecento – and now positively yell ‘SWEET!” – won a point, with a tally being kept for the day/ week/ duration of the trip. Arguments over who saw which one first, and which ones did or didn’t count were frequent and lively.

Once we knew that we were going to make Italy our home, though, we thought the novelty of seeing these cute little vehicles would wear off and that we would lose interest in Cinquecento-spotting. It didn’t. In fact, in some respects it got worse. We continued to play even if there were other people in the car, only managing to preserve a semblance of dignity by playing a silent version of the game that consisted of nudging or even pinching each other whenever we saw one and manically jerking our heads in its direction instead of squawking ‘Sweet!’ But when we moved here we decided that enough really was enough and so agreed to give up Cinquecento-spotting for good. Which lasted about as long as the average New Year’s resolution. In fact, not only did we fail to give up, I actually developed a variation on the game that took account of the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt wasn’t here full time for the first few months and started sending him photographs of sightings – and claiming the points, obviously.

Lately, however, things have really started to get out of hand. So irresistible has the Cinquecento-spotting impulse become that we have started to play this remote version of the game even if one of has just nipped out to the supermarket and caught a sighting. “I got two!” one of us will exclaim breathlessly on returning home and brandish a wonky mobile phone snap at the other. “Look! There was one at the lights in Trodica” – swipe – “… and another one in the car park at Iper!”  And there are quality assessments too now. “The one in Trodica was gorgeous: classic buff colour and in terrific condition. But the one at Iper had really been messed about with: horrid metallic paint and tinted windows. Tinted windows! Ghastly!”

So we have finally admitted defeat. A hopeless case with no known cure, it seems.  And as if this wasn’t bad enough, we now suspect the syndrome could well be infectious. Over the last few months we have had several sets of friends to stay, with whom we have been quite open about our condition. I think we had a vague idea that acknowledging we had a problem would be our first step on the way to being cured. But I fear this openness may have been an error, for we have noticed several occasions when one of our visitors, on making a sighting, has been heard to utter a slightly self-conscious but barely-suppressed ‘Sweet!’

Friends, you have been warned…