“As of tomorrow, anyone returning from Croatia will be required to undergo a Covid-19 test within forty-eight hours of their return to Italy, and to inform the Ministry of Health of their trip…” I picked up the news driving home from the hairdressers, barely twenty-four hours before we were to leave for the holiday we never thought would happen – to Croatia.  After a brief but blind panic and a couple of hours’ frantic searching online and a hasty exchange of messages with our GP, I had confirmed what the rules were, found out how the procedure would work, bookmarked the relevant webpage, and knew exactly how, where and when to book our tests.

So in between exploring pretty medieval towns, visiting secluded beaches, and taking a tiny motorboat out to the mini-archipelago of small islands along the craggy, unspoiled coast of the island of Korčula, I contacted our local health authority as advised a few days before we were due to return home. All it took was a brief message to a dedicated email address with our names, date of birth, municipality of residence, contact phone number and codice fiscale (the key to every bureaucratic door in Italy) along with where and when we were returning to Italy.

The next morning, I got a call from the health authority, inviting us to attend a test centre about ten kilometres from home in Macerata – the day before we arrived back in Italy. But at least I knew we were successfully in the system and the onus was now on the health authority to find us a suitable date. A day later, the same kindly-sounding woman called back with two new appointments at the same testing centre, this time the day after our return, with strict instructions to self-isolate at home until then. We were in. The chattering rats’ nest of gloomy ‘what-ifs’ that had been gnawing away at my peace of mind finally dispersed and left me in peace for the rest of the holiday.

We spent most of the last day of our trip aboard a small ferry that had threaded its way up through the southern end of the Dalmatian archipelago before arriving in the bustling port of Split in time for us to catch the night crossing back to Italy. We were instantly thrust into the hurly-burly of hundreds of vehicles trying to find the right queue for the right ferry, but by sheer chance, we had rolled off the island-hopper ferry right next to where we needed to check in for the ferry to Ancona. Along with boarding passes, we were each issued with a pre-printed copy of a self-declaration form (the English version of the one I had downloaded before our departure, in fact) that we were to complete before boarding and then hand in at the purser’s desk. It was effectively a written commitment to undergo a Covid-19 test within forty-eight hours of our return, and an acknowledgement that we would accept the legal consequences of not doing so – together with all our usual personal details for contact tracing purposes.

While queuing for passport control in Ancona the next morning, we were once again reminded of the regulations with a bi-lingual flyer that neatly summarised the rules for various categories of passengers: those resident in Italy and going home, those just passing through, those entering for other purposes, and for truck drivers in transit. It all seemed very thorough, very joined-up.

We had stopped to buy a few supplies to see us through our brief period of self-isolation on our way across Korčula to catch the ferry up to Split, so we headed straight home to wait for our tests the next day. During the afternoon, I got another call from the kindly-sounding woman to tell me our test location had changed, and we were now booked in at a drive-through centre at an outpatients clinic in Civitanova Marche. Then there was a brief hiccup when I got a further call – this time from a kindly-sounding man – who wanted to check my codice fiscale as they couldn’t find me on the system, and also to query the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt and I both had the same surname but obviously couldn’t be father and daughter or mother and son (shortly after World War II most married women in Italy stopped taking their husband’s name once it ceased to be obligatory). Once I had dictated the long, alpha-numeric code a couple more times and filled the chap in on British social norms, he was satisfied that all was well and so he re-confirmed the appointments given to us by the kindly-sounding woman. The thoroughness was as reassuring as it was impressive.

At 8.15 sharp the next morning we joined the short queue of vehicles forming outside the collection of gazebos that had been erected behind the outpatients clinic while anonymous figures in hazmat suits, visors, masks and gloves moved back and forth between the gazebos and the cars, test kits in their gloved hands. When we reached the front of the queue – at exactly the appointed time – we showed our codice fiscale cards through the car window to a figure with a clipboard who ticked our names off the list and seconds later two more figures holding pre-labelled test kits appeared – one of whom turned out to be the kindly-sounding woman who had called me to make the appointment. To say it was painful would not be true. But having nasal and throat swabs taken was certainly one of the more uncomfortable medical procedures I’ve experienced for a very long time. I repeatedly retched against the throat swab (which felt about the size of a tennis ball) and the nasal swab made my eyes stream furiously as time and again I had to suppress an almost irresistible urge to sneeze.

The next afternoon, following little over twenty-four hours in the limbo of self-isolation I got a call from the local health authority. I was surprised to find how nervous I felt as a different kindly-sounding woman checked our details before telling me that my test had come back negative – and breathe – but that Mr Blue-Shirt’s was ‘indeterminato’: inconclusive. Somebody else would call with an appointment for him to come for a second test, and in the meantime we would need to isolate ourselves from one another at home as, in the absence of the negative result, he could theoretically be positive.

Before we had even had a chance to process what ‘indeterminato’ actually meant, the next call came. Mr Blue-Shirt’s second test would be early the next morning at another testing station in Macerata, and the results should be back within twenty-four hours, even though it was the weekend. So at least we would have only thirty-six hours of uncertainty and anxiety – and ‘domiciliary self-isolation’ to deal with. While feeling vaguely shell-shocked, we reasoned that there must have been something wrong with the test, which we decided was analogous to a pregnancy test in that you can’t be ‘borderline’ pregnant: either you are or you aren’t, so any uncertainty must relate to the test, not the person being tested. We further concluded that the chances of one of us being positive and the other negative were infinitesimally small: throughout our holiday, we had spent no longer than about fifteen minutes a day apart when Mr Blue-Shirt went to buy bread for breakfast, and we had been very conscientious about masks, hands and space. Added to which, we had travelled in our own car and had stayed in a self-catering apartment. All of a sudden, however, a massive ‘what-if’ was now roaring inside both our heads, not just mine: what if he’s positive?

On Saturday morning, Mr Blue-Shirt found the test centre without difficulty – an airless container in the car park of a small hospital in Macerata – and as before, the test-kit was ready and waiting, already labelled with his name and codice fiscale. To his huge relief, the nurse performing the test confirmed that there had been something wrong with the first one – and as if to prove the point, conducted this one with such vigour that poor Mr Blue-Shirt feared the throat swab would come up dipped in the coffee he had drunk for breakfast and that the nasal swab would dislodge his glasses, it was inserted so far up his nasal cavity.

There followed an unsettling and nerve-wracking thirty-six hours which we spent watching TV from separate sofas, having dinner at opposite ends of our eight-seater dining table, using separate bathrooms, sleeping in separate bedrooms – and suddenly hyper-aware of how many things we normally both handled, even just in the course of making a pot of coffee or unloading the dishwasher.

It was late on Sunday afternoon when my phone jangled into life and flashed up the now all-too-familiar number of the health authority. We leapt from our respective sofas, suddenly dry-mouthed and sweaty-palmed. Another kindly-sounding woman calmly ran through the identity checks again (sending our heart rates through the roof) before uttering the magic word: negativo.

To the wire

So for the first time in well over a decade, we had booked a proper summer holiday – with the emphasis heavily on the ‘proper’. For us this primarily meant a holiday with no other purpose than exploring somewhere completely new like we used to do when we had our beloved camper: a holiday where at least half the enjoyment is the unfamiliarity of the place, of the culture, of the language, of the food. But on this occasion, ‘proper’ also meant actually booking every last bit of it right back in late January, at a time when we normally scoff at all the holiday ads on TV. Are there really people, we always ask each other, whose year is already so mapped out that they are able to book their holiday six or seven months in advance? Are there really people whose life is that perfectly organised they don’t feel the need to allow for the unforeseeable?

I think it had quite a lot to do with running our own business for all those years. For a start we never felt able to take more than a week away from the forge, and in any case we would never know more than a month in advance what our commitments were going to be, what projects we would have underway that we simply weren’t going to be able to walk away from for a whole week. But this year, with Mr Blue-Shirt much more his own boss now than he ever was when he was self-employed, and the school where I work closed for pretty well all of August, we could see no reason not to put our stake in the ground for once. So within a couple of weeks of choosing destination and dates, we had finalised our itinerary, selected and booked our accommodation and, to secure the best price, paid for everything in advance. It was going to be just like old times. And we had all those months to look forward to our twelve days exploring Croatia’s southern Dalmatian coast and islands. But how naïve our certainty soon seemed, how misplaced our confidence, for little more than a fortnight later with Coronavirus spreading fast, all borders closed, all travel ceased and, shortly followed by most of the rest of Europe, Italy went into total lockdown for the foreseeable future.

True to form, I was instantly overcome by Eeyore-ish gloom and was convinced that our holiday was lost. Mr Blue-Shirt on the other hand did his best to maintain his Tigger-ish outlook and be hopeful that we would still get our holiday: it was still nearly six months way, for heavens’ sake. Surely everything would be more or less back to normal by then…? But the fear and anxiety and the misery of lockdown soon started to bite. And along with millions of others around the globe, keeping body, mind and spirit together and merely finding our way through the maelstrom became our principal preoccupation: our ‘proper’ holiday became the least of our concerns. It’s not that we consciously gave up hope; we simply lacked the ‘head space’ to think about it. And for as long as we continued living from one day to the next, our time frame no longer extended that far into the future.

By mid-May restrictions had started to ease, but at this stage they seemed little more than a tentative toe in the water and even the normally irrepressibly optimistic Mr Blue-Shirt was reluctant to resume his research and planning: the guidebook remained tightly closed, the map tightly folded. Apart from anything, at a time of so much pain and loss and suffering, planning a holiday felt insensitive and frivolous; almost vulgar. And even when lockdown was finally lifted a month later, we still remained wary of daring to hope that we would get away. We were keenly aware of the tens of thousands of families who had already lost their longed-for holidays. Indeed, in addition to friends who had had to cancel their plans to visit us, our eighteen-year-old niece was inconsolable when she lost her precious post-exam, rite-of-passage trip with her school pals, and our great friends Diane and James were heart-broken when they lost their meticulously planned holiday of a lifetime to mark early retirement. So who were we to think that our plans might be spared?

By the time we got to July, my sole focus was getting myself and all of my classes to the end of the month and the end school year safe and sane: I hadn’t given our holiday a single thought for weeks – even though I now needed one more than ever. With numbers of new infections apparently under control in Italy and reassuringly low in Croatia, however, Mr Blue-Shirt had cautiously started to rekindle the embers of hope. The guide and map had reappeared and he had started looking at restaurants and online review sites again, travel insurance was arranged and Tilly was booked into the cattery.   

With a week to go, and despite a cluster of cases near Venice reportedly originating in Croatia, we received emails from our accommodation re-confirming our reservations and the ferry company still hadn’t cancelled. Was it actually going to happen after all?

With just a couple of days to go, I dared to dust off our suitcases and dig out our passports, then with just twenty-four hours to go I even got a last-minute a hair appointment. And as I sat in the salon, masked and wrapped in a disposable gown, I finally made a start on my packing list, only now believing that we really were going.

“As of tomorrow, anyone returning from Croatia, Greece, Spain and Malta will be obliged to undergo a Covid-19 test within forty-eight hours of their return to Italy, and to inform the Ministry of Health of their trip…” Driving home from the hairdressers, the portentous-sounding voice on the car radio interrupted my happy musings on which dresses and shoes to pack – and instantly flung me headlong into a self-made vortex of worst case scenarios. What if I couldn’t find out exactly what we needed to do? What if I couldn’t manage book us a test? What if they tightened restrictions further while we were away? What about work if we had to self-isolate? What if they cancelled the ferries and we couldn’t get back?  What if our tests came back positive…? But as ever, it was calm and rational Mr Blue-Shirt who talked me down and helped me get things into perspective. After a couple of hours’ frantic searching online and a hasty exchange of messages with our GP, I had confirmed what the rules were, had found out how the procedure would work, had bookmarked the relevant web page, and knew exactly how, where and when to book our tests.

So the next evening it was almost with disbelief that Mr Blue-Shirt and I found ourselves leaning over the rail of the aft deck of the night ferry to Split, a celebratory glass of Prosecco in our hands. With the skyline of Ancona receding into the evening sun, we clinked glasses. We were actually on our way…

…..of mice and men

“How long do you reckon it is since we’ve had a proper holiday?” Mr Blue-Shirt’s intonation underlined the word ‘proper’.
“You mean one that hasn’t involved house-hunting, house-buying or house-restoration?” I responded, only half joking.
“Well, partly that…” He put his mug down on the coffee table and drew his laptop towards him.
“In that case it must be five or six years ago when Nick and Elaine came with us to Pam’s, and the year before that when we drove down with Diane and James.”
“Good god! Was that five years ago??”
“Yup! ‘Fraid so!” I counted off on my fingers the trips and milestones in the intervening years to show it really was that long. “And before that, it was the week we spent at your folks’ timeshare in the Algarve just after my mum had died and we desperately needed somewhere ‘easy’ to flop after all those trips back and forth to Devon.”
“Well, that clinches it then. But what I meant was, how long is it since we had a proper holiday with no other purpose than exploring somewhere completely new – the kind of holiday we used to have when we had the camper.” His laptop whirred into life as I sipped my tea.

I knew exactly what Mr Blue-Shirt meant: a holiday where at least half the fun is the unfamiliarity of the place, of the culture, of the language, of the food; where the traffic is terrifying, where shopping is conducted through a combination of mime and guesswork, where ordering a meal often means a gastronomic leap in the dark, and where you actually have to read the banknotes and coins to understand how much money you’re handing over. Peering through the window into the gathering Sunday afternoon dusk I continued mentally scrolling back through the ‘twenteens’ and then into the ‘noughties’.
“I think it must have been when we went to Russia with Diane and James. And I’m pretty sure that was in 2007.” Mr Blue-Shirt raised a sceptical eyebrow at me, and this time we both counted back through the years, and yes, that memorably freezing week we spent in Moscow and St Petersburg with our great friends from Brunei really had been in early 2007. Then it was later that year we had made our first trip to Le Marche – and the holiday die was cast.

“Why do you ask, anyway?”
“Because I think that after the last few months, we deserve a decent holiday this year. And I think we should go somewhere completely new so it feels even more like a holiday.”
I wasn’t about to disagree. It was early January and we had just spent a very quiet Christmas and New Year, hunkered down at home, still recovering from Mr Blue-Shirt losing both of his parents the previous autumn, just seven weeks apart, and the series of gruelling trips to the UK, first to make their funeral arrangements and then attend their cremations. And before that, of course, there had been the burglary in spring which had left us almost too anxious to go out, even less go away, until we had beefed up security. So yes, it had been one hell of a year.

“Gets my vote! Where were you thinking of?”
Mr Blue-Shirt tapped at his laptop, opening a row of web pages he’d bookmarked.
“How do you fancy Croatia?”
“Croatia? Are you sure?”
He had done three six-month tours of duty in the Balkans during the wars of the 1990s and I knew that not all his memories of that part of the world were good.
“I spent most of my time up in Bosnia, remember – and I certainly don’t have any desire to go back there.”
“Too many ghosts?”
“Probably…” He stared absently into the fire for a moment as I uncurled myself from the sofa to put another log in the wood-burner.
“But you travelled through Croatia too, I seem to recall.”
“Only down to the coast for twenty-four hours of ‘decompression’ in Troghir before flying home to Germany for R&R and at the end of each tour. It was just along from the airbase in Split.”
“Gosh, yes! I remember now. Troghir! I haven’t heard that name in a good twenty years.”
“Getting on for twenty-two: I finished my last tour in late ninety-eight….”
“…and then we left for Brunei in spring ninety-nine. Before we went, do you remember us getting all suited and booted for that meeting up in London at the Bruneian Embassy, and we…?”
“Let’s save that trip down Memory Lane for another time. Back to Croatia…”
“Sorry, yes. Well, if you’re sure it’s not going to give you bad dreams or anything, then it sounds great. It’s even longer since I went there. In fact, it was still Yugoslavia when I rode through it on that motorcycle tour I did when I was at uni. We came in from Venice, travelled down the coast to Split, then on to Dubrovnik for a couple of days. A spectacular fortified town with ramparts plunging straight into the sea. You’d love it! From there we had to get a ferry round to Greece as Albania was completely closed off back then, and…”
“Anyway, Croatia!”
“Yes, sorry! Which part did you have in mind?”
“Well, that strip you just mentioned: Split to Dubrovnik and maybe a couple of the islands along the way. What do you reckon?”
“Sounds fabulous! I remember that coast being absolutely stunning – although it’s probably changed quite a bit since I saw it last.”

Mr Blue-Shirt turned his laptop towards me. “I’m glad you said that. I’ve been doing a bit of research….” He tapped on the touchpad and up popped websites for ferries and airlines, hotels and holiday flats, restaurants and events “…and a map and a guidebook arrived the other day.”
“You’ve been planning, haven’t you!” I teased. After making things and cooking, planning trips is probably one of Mr Blue-Shirt’s favourite activities.
“Just doing some groundwork,” he said a little defensively as he shifted our mugs and spread out the crisp, new map that he had produced from under his laptop. Maps! I love them! Just looking at one gives me itchy feet and has me reaching for my suitcase. I was already sold.

 “OK, so tell me about your ‘groundwork’ then,” I said, knowing full well he would already have sketched out a full itinerary.
“Right, so I thought taking the night ferry between Ancona and Split would be the most efficient way to travel, and then we could…..” As he clicked back and forth from site to site, he ran through his preferred route, the places he favoured stopping in, and the number of nights in each one; the possible hotels and apartments and their locations, prices and facilities; and even the restaurants we might book for our first night in each new place. In no time, I was eagerly poring over the map and leafing through the guidebook, rapidly trying to bring myself up to speed with all the different places, their geography and history – and totally onside with Mr Blue-Shirt’s plan. In a nutshell this consisted of taking the overnight ferry to Split, driving down to Dubrovnik for a three-night stay, then a brief ferry ride over to the island of Korčula, where we would stay for a week, before returning to Split in time to catch the overnight ferry back to Ancona. Perfect.

Within a couple of weeks, we had finalised our itinerary, selected and booked our accommodation and, to secure the best price, paid for everything in advance. We couldn’t wait. It was going to be just like old times.

But barely a fortnight later and with Coronavirus spreading fast, all borders closed, all travel ceased and, quickly followed by most of the rest of Europe, Italy went into complete and indeterminate lockdown. The best laid plans…

The home strait

“Ready?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, looking me square in the eye.
I returned his gaze, tightened my grip and nodded.
“Right! Let’s do it…”
The moment had arrived, and my palms were sweating inside my grippy lifting gloves. Nearly four months after I had discovered a long-term leak in the floor of our shower that had caused extensive irreparable damage and following weeks and weeks of refurbishment work, we were finally ready to lift into position the first of the three gorgeous (but extremely large, extremely heavy and extremely fragile) jewel-coloured volcanic stone panels that would cover the short wall of the shower cubicle and form the centre-piece of our glamourous new en suite shower room .

We were standing poised on either side of the trestles on the landing to where we had moved the panels from the guest room. Along with the washbasin and the smaller matching panels to go around it, they had lain on the bed, patiently waiting for their cue while Mr Blue-Shirt completed the rest of the tiling. We had collected them from the studio where they were made a couple of weeks earlier so that we could make an end-of-term treat for me (including an overnight stay in picturesque Spello) out of the trip over to Deruta, the small town in central Umbria with a centuries-old reputation for ceramics whose many pottery shops we had visited a number of times. We had stumbled across the studio on our first trip there and had instantly fallen hopelessly in love with the bold colours, patterns and textures in these dramatic slabs of basalt. We were therefore powerless to resist when, in the depths of the coronavirus crisis, Mr Blue-Shirt discovered that the studio was offering fifty percent discount on all orders placed during lockdown. It was, we had told ourselves, one of those ‘can’t afford not to’ opportunities. And here we were, just about to grasp that opportunity – literally.

All we had to do now was carry the first 69cm by 99cm by 1cm panel into the shower room, lower it to floor level, slide and press it into position, and check that it was straight. Job done. Well, as far as one of us was concerned, anyway: for the eternally risk-tolerant Mr Blue-Shirt it had naturally only ever been a matter of ‘all we had to do now’, while for incurably risk-averse me such apparently straightforward undertakings are always fraught with danger, and in this case likely to conclude with our precious panels crashing onto the spanking new shower tray and splintering into a jagged mound of jewel-coloured rubble.

The thing is, over the years, we have learnt that our sharply divergent attitudes to risk can in fact be complementary rather than contradictory, meaning we are usually able to establish a course of action that can accommodate ‘both…and’ rather than be restricted to ‘either… or’. Since I can always instantly conjure up a lurid and extravagant smorgasbord of doomsday outcomes, I usually set proceedings in motion. My customary opening gambit in the form of ‘what if x happens?’ is invariably parried with a confident ‘it won’t’ from Mr Blue-Shirt. So my obvious counter-attack always has to be ‘how do you know?’, which results in Mr Blue-Shirt giving a detailed explanation of all the measures he has taken to avoid whatever worst case scenario I might have presented him with.  And it is in going through this cycle of challenge and defence several times that we arrive at way forward that we both feel comfortable with.  Mostly Mr Blue-Shirt’s answers provide me with the evidence and reassurance I need to have faith that his plan will work, while my probing usually identifies a handful of genuine difficulties and obstacles that any amount of bare-faced confidence won’t overcome, and the plan is altered accordingly.

So in order to deal with my principal ‘what-ifs’ (namely what if we drop it? and what if it falls off?), I had already ensured that the path to the shower room from the trestles on the landing where the panels were lined up was free of obstacles and had spread fresh dust sheets over the pristine white shower tray to protect it from the splodges of excess cement that always ooze out around the edges of any freshly positioned tile. Mr Blue-Shirt had made up a set of extra bracing pieces using the holes that had been pre-drilled for mounting the shower cubicle, and had got his trademark tile spacers in position to ensure the right size gaps for grouting. I had placed the spirit level and rubber mallet within easy reach and Mr Blue-Shirt had made up an extra-strong mix of heavy-duty tile cement before applying a generous but even layer to the lowest third of the wall. He had also demonstrated with an ordinary tile (and a crowbar, in the end) how a vacuum forms when a tile is pressed into place, and that it would be this vacuum as much as the tile cement that would actually prevent our precious panels from simply falling off the wall. We had even rehearsed the journey from trestle to shower cubicle wall, having established that the process would be lift, rotate, carry, turn, lower, slide, press, check, tamp, check, brace, release – and then repeat with the two remaining panels. So there was no more waiting, no more ‘what-ifs’.

“One… two… three…” intoned Mr Blue-Shirt. I took a deep breath, and we were off. As agreed, we first lifted and rotated the 30kg panel from horizontal to vertical and then adjusted our grip. When we were both comfortable, Mr Blue-Shirt set off backwards while I went forwards, steering our safe passage from the landing to the bedroom.
“To your left a bit,” I directed as he veered too close to a bookcase.
“Straighten up or you’ll bash the door frame,” I instructed as we shuffled towards the bedroom door. From the bedroom, we carefully turned through ninety degrees while keeping the panel upright, and edged into the shower room. When we reached the back of the room, we slowly swung round again, Mr Blue-Shirt following the line of the wall and me heading into the far corner.
“And rest,” said Mr Blue-Shirt.
We exchanged relieved glances and in turn each re-adjusted our grip so we could lower the panel to floor level, then, on the count of three, squatted down on our haunches and pressed then slid the panel into position. With me holding the panel in place with as much force as I could muster (I had forgotten the bit about the vacuum at this point), Mr Blue-Shirt wiped away excess cement, checked with the spirit level in every plane, firmly tamped each corner with the mallet, checked the spirit level once more, tamped again and checked again. Once he was satisfied that everything was square, flat, even and parallel, he screwed in the bracing piece, and I finally I could let go. It was in!

Job done!

Turning the corner

“The delivery time is six weeks,” said Mariam, the amiable and knowledgeable saleswoman at the swanky ceramics place just outside Deruta, the small town in central Umbria with a centuries-old reputation for pottery. We had just chosen the colours and pattern and formally placed the order for the glazed volcanic stone panels that will cover the short wall of the new shower cubicle in our en suite bathroom. This was a post-lockdown treat we had awarded ourselves that, only thanks to their fifty percent coronavirus discount, had become just about affordable (if we whispered the figure really fast and kept one eye tight shut). Then, in the face of such a never-to-be-repeated offer, we had naturally talked ourselves into a new washbasin too – the old one was cracked after all, and so needed replacing anyway… didn’t it… And then, of course, we persuaded ourselves it made perfect sense to include smaller panels in the same pattern and colours to go round the washbasin as we’d always intended to tile this area too… hadn’t we … Which was all very lovely and exciting, but it had also made the refurbishment of our shower room an even bigger (and costlier) job than it already was.

My finding a couple of floor tiles that squelched underfoot was what set a row of hefty dominoes tumbling, creating a succession of tasks that included (deep breath) chiselling off most of the wall tiles, removing the shuttering on a section of stud wall, taking out the shower tray and demolishing the walls that formed the shower cubicle. And on top of that, we had now decided to rip out the wash basin and along with it, the very tired-looking vanity unit it rested on. On the plus side, however, we had at least reached the point where everything that needed to come out was out (or very soon would be) and – an important, morale-boosting stage in any refurbishment project – we could finally start to put new stuff back in.

So while our hearts had sunk slightly as the six-week wait for our swanky new tiles, it wasn’t as if Mr Blue-Shirt was going to be left twiddling his thumbs until we could finally christen our glamourous new shower room. It was just a pity that so many of the jobs on the still growing to-do list would be very much ‘behind the scenes’. The pipework to the shower had to be extended and moved to allow an access panel to be fitted, the stud wall needed to be re-shuttered and once the drainage from the shower had been sorted out the concrete base for the new shower tray could be poured, and after a few days’ wait for the concrete to dry, the base and walls could then be tanked with a kind of waterproof plaster. All of which brought us to another milestone: the point at which Mr Blue-Shirt could at last start doing jobs that would be visible. As soon as the tanking was dry, we could lower the surprisingly heavy solid resin shower tray into position and re-connect the drain, after which the missing floor tiles around the base could be replaced and the long wall of the shower cubicle could be re-tiled. Fortunately, we still had a good stock of tiles left behind by the previous owners, although working out the right permutation of large, medium and small tiles to ensure a seamless transition from old to new meant that there was little room for breakages. So within a few days the place was at least starting to look more like a shower room in the making than a building site with a dust-sheet-draped loo in one corner – even though this left the swanky new tiles, the shower cubicle, the basin and the vanity unit for it to sit on all still to go.

Ah yes: the vanity unit. In a reckless moment we had asked the tile supplier to quote for the one that had rather caught our eye in the showroom. But when they came back with a price that even including the fifty percent coronavirus discount was significantly more than what we had paid for the pair of large comfy three-seater sofas in our sitting room, we knew that our brief and uncharacteristic ‘what the hell’ phase had run its course. So Mr Blue-Shirt simply decided to design and build a lookalike version of the vanity unit we had taken a shine to himself – as if he needed to another job to his never-shrinking list. This would come to involve lengthy periods spent sawing, routing, gluing, hammering, sanding and varnishing, but within a couple of sweaty and sawdust-coated days it had become far too hot to spend longer than a couple of hours at a time in the cramped and airless shed, so Mr Blue-Shirt had the best possible excuse to switch to indoor tasks. Which meant that it was at last time for The Big One: the job he had been itching to do since we had stumbled across that showroom in Deruta on our first post-lockdown trip outside the region. It was time to install our three gorgeous (but extremely large, extremely heavy and extremely fragile) jewel-coloured volcanic stone panels that we had taken another trip over to Deruta to pick up a week or so earlier.

Now, in most aspects of life, Mr Blue-Shirt and I happily live  together on largely common ground, but there is one key area where there is a huge gulf between us: our respective attitudes to risk. While Mr Blue-Shirt is always firmly in the ‘how-difficult-can-it-be?’ and ‘what-could-possibly-go-wrong?’ camp, I am equally firmly always in the camp that can answer both questions with a full-blown, Michelin-starred, seven-course tasting menu with matching wines of worst-case scenarios. So as he merrily bustled about, mixing buckets of heavy duty tile cement, spreading generous trowel-fulls on the waiting wall and no doubt picturing the gleaming new panels just dropping effortlessly into place, I nervously bustled about clearing away trip hazards, spreading out dust sheets, finding our grippy lifting gloves, and finding it impossible to shift from my mind the image of our precious panels crashing onto the spanking new shower tray and splintering into a jagged mound of jewel-coloured rubble.

With our respective preparations finished, we pulled on our gloves and each grasped one end of the first panel.
“Ready?” asked Mr Blue-Shirt, looking me square in the eye.
I returned his gaze, tightened my grip and nodded.
“Right! Let’s do it…”

Chiuso per ferie

Gates locked, blinds drawn and wonkily attached to the tightly closed shutters an A4-sized piece of fluorescent orange card on which are printed in heavy black capitals the words ‘chiuso per ferie’ – closed for holidays: it is one of August’s most common sights in town centres, shopping malls and trading estates throughout Italy.

Along with much of southern Europe, August is the holiday month, and while closing for the whole of August is no longer realistic in a global economy, very many companies will still shut down completely for a couple of weeks, and even the smallest of businesses will take a week or so off. And so deeply is the tradition entrenched in the national psyche that even after the lay-offs and furloughing of lockdown, little has changed this year. However long the break, though, it will almost certainly include 15th August: the national public holiday known as Ferragosto that marks the height of summer.

In common with many traditions in Italy, the origins of this festival are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the Emperor who in the 18th century BC designated August as period of rest to allow people to recover from the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. (Harvest takes place much earlier here than in the UK, incidentally, and we are still slightly disorientated to see combine harvesters working their way up and down the fields by mid-June.) During this period, working animals were also relieved of their loads and horse races were held as part of the celebrations.  Indeed, this is the origin of the world-famous palio that is still held in the Tuscan town of Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times, although this year it has had to be cancelled – for the first time since World War II – as its traditions and rituals would make social distancing impossible.

The month was already punctuated with festivals such as the three-day Nemoralia dedicated to Diana the Huntress, the Consualia to honour Consus, the god of the harvest, and the Vinalia Rustica to celebrate fertility and the forthcoming grape harvest. By unifying all these pre-existing jollities into one continuous holiday period, the Emperor’s gesture of largesse was consequently tempered with an element of practicality, not to mention a dash of politics by currying favour with the masses, who on wishing their masters ‘buon ferragosto’ would receive a small gift of money or food with which to enjoy the holidays. This tradition became so entrenched that during the Renaissance, the Papal States (of which Le Marche then formed part) made it obligatory.

Along with many other festivals of Roman origin, the Catholic Church soon muscled in on things and sought to Christianise these pagan festivities as early as the 5th century AD when it established The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary which falls – somewhat conveniently – on 15th August, bang in the middle of the feriae augusti. This marks the day on which the Virgin is believed to have ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth and is technically the reason why the day is a public holiday in Italy. In many towns and villages, a statue of the Virgin Mary carried aloft through the streets before being returned to the parish church for a service of benediction.

In the first part of the twentieth century, the festival took on a more political flavour when Mussolini’s fascist regime began organising discounted trips for workers through its Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (National Recreational Club), which was conceived as a means of competing with the Socialists in relation to workers’ welfare. The initiative, known as ‘the People’s Trains of Ferragosto’, ran from 1931 to 1939 and gave the working classes the opportunity to take a one-day or a three-day trip to visit the seaside, the mountains or cultural sites – which is why present-day tourists are still (normally) able to visit museums, monuments and galleries on 15th August even though many other amenities will be shut (irrespective of coronavirus). As it was aimed chiefly at city dwellers and workers, it turned Ferragosto from an almost exclusively agricultural and rural affair into a festival for all the labouring classes and as such was effectively a fore-runner of modern mass tourism.

While holidaymakers have long since abandoned the train in favour of the car, some tour operators apparently still offer discounts on Ferragosto packages. And another feature of the fascist era Ferragosto has also lingered: the picnic. As the People’s Train trips did not include meals, travellers had to bring their own food with them and this tradition has stuck. A protracted lunch all’aperto (in the open) with family and friends, preferably somewhere that offers some respite from the mid-summer heat, still forms an integral part of celebrations. These are often rounded off with bonfires and public firework displays, which are actually another remnant of the ancient festivities.

And us? Well, I suppose we followed tradition, albeit more by virtue of the circumstances than design. Although there were no horse races or fireworks, we had a very simple day at the coast and enjoyed a slap-up picnic as we sat in the cooling breeze blowing in from the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic. We therefore hope that our observance of Ferragosto’s secular and pagan if not sacred customs are a good omen for us…

Information on Ferragosto courtesy of:

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.