The agony of choice

So after more than a year of ultimately fruitless exploring, browsing, asking and searching for a workshop to use as a forge, Mr Blue-Shirt suddenly has two apparently viable options to consider. While both of them would, on paper, give him practically everything he needs, neither, on paper, seem quite what Mr Blue-Shirt originally had in mind. But he is doing his best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good while trying to work out which, if either, might turn out to be good enough.

Option one – chronologically anyway – is about twelve miles away (already a minus) in a former furniture factory that has been empty for about three years. The site, which is down at the coast just outside Porto Potenza Picena, has recently been taken over by Mr Blue-Shirt’s chum Antonio who runs the shipping company that transported Mr-Blue-Shirt’s container over from Lincolnshire and in whose goods yard it has stood since its arrival in April last year. Having inspected the entire site, which consists of three or four spacious sheds, an office building and several large areas of hardstanding, they have decided that the best area to set up a forge is a corner of the seven-hundred and fifty square metre warehouse in the far corner of the site. Once cleared of three years of detritus and pigeon droppings, this would offer Mr Blue-Shirt more than enough space for all his forging equipment while still leaving a huge area for an industrial tenant to use – always supposing any such potential tenant would be prepared to share the space with a blacksmith, of course. And since his space could at best only be screened off from the rest of warehouse, he would also have to make sure that his shinier tools weren’t at risk of going walkabout. That said, he could use his shipping container for lockable storage since the full height sliding double doors to his end of the warehouse would allow it to be craned into the space, which offers a flat concrete floor, mains power (although possibly only single phase), high ceilings and lots of natural light as well as a generous area of covered of hardstanding outside. Moreover, with a broad, deep ditch to the rear, two-metre high link fencing around the rest of the site and an imposing pair of gates providing access from the main coast road, Mr Blue-Shirt has few concerns regarding security – something that remains high on his list of priorities having had every single one of his tools stolen the first time we were burgled a couple of years ago.

Option two, meanwhile, is one of two unoccupied workshops at the premises of Giovanni, the chap who owns the firm doing our solar energy installation, and (a big plus) is only about six miles away in Trodica, a largely commercial suburb just off the dual carriageway that runs between Umbria and the Adriatic coast. The larger of the two spaces is at the rear of the site and has all the essentials, including the all-important three-phase power supply essential for running his power hammer, welder and hydraulic press. However, one wall of the simple, square building has a large and vigorous bush growing through it, the small extension containing a washroom seems to be parting company from the main building, and, strangely, has a suspended ceiling of the type found in large office buildings. It is also currently chock-full of what looks like several tonnes of redundant heating and air-conditioning equipment from Giovanni’s business. But then again, it is a good, square shape, is completely self-contained and easy to secure. The smaller of the two, on the other hand, is in much better condition, is already completely empty and also has all the necessary facilities (but minus the three-phase power supply). However, it is a rather strange L-shape and is located right next door to Giovanni’s showroom and directly beneath an apartment, so in Mr Blue-Shirt’s view noise could be a bit of a stumbling block, even though Giovanni has already dismissed these concerns. The site is surrounded one three sides by other commercial and residential premises and the heavy, sliding gate opens onto a well-lit, reasonably busy road, so Mr Blue-Shirt’s security concerns are minimal.

And yet…. Well, they just don’t make Mr Blue-Shirt’s blacksmithing heart sing. Our two-hundred-year old circular forge with its twin conical rooves was designed by John Nash and oozed charm and character from every smoke-stained brick; a hollow had been worn in the floor between the hearth and the anvil where successive smiths had worked hot metal, while their callused hands had worn shiny the handles of the tongs hanging on the racks that still lined the curved walls. Our office had spent the first century and a half of its life as an open-fronted shoeing shed, and Jim from next door would still lean over the stable door to reminisce about pumping the bellows when he was a lad and earning a penny or two from ‘Old Tom’. So I suspect he simply finds these brutally utilitarian spaces rather sterile and uninspiring. In his mind’s eye he had envisaged something cosier and much more bucolic; something, perhaps, with far-reaching views across the rolling Marchigian hills to the soaring Sibillini mountains that he could contemplate while waiting for his metal to come up to forging temperature; somewhere he could even offer tourists and visitors hands-on forging sessions. But although he has reluctantly concluded that such a place, should it exist at all, is either already occupied, not for sale, or for sale only at a price that exceeds his budget by at least a factor of five, he is not finding it easy to relinquish his vision. And after more than thirty years together, I know all too well that if Mr Blue-Shirt has set his heart on something, then…

Like waiting for a bus

We’ve had several meetings with Giovanni. On each occasion he and Mr Blue-Shirt have sat poring over drawings, tables and catalogues, spent ages poking about in the boiler room and repeatedly plodded up and down stairs, pondering fuse boxes, cable conduits and central heating manifolds. It’s all part of Mr Blue-Shirt’s latest project: to take advantage of the fifty to sixty percent discounts on green energy installations currently being offered by the government as part of their post-lockdown economic stimulus package. Mr Blue-Shirt had always hoped we might be able to install a few solar hot water panels on our south facing roof to supplement our traditional energy sources, but these aggressive discounts have suddenly brought something a lot more comprehensive within our reach.

Over the course of these meetings, which have involved Giovanni explaining how different permutations of the different systems available worked, and how the discount scheme applied to each, he became aware of Mr Blue-Shirt’s engineering knowledge, and having seen some of the work that Mr Blue-Shirt had done on the house, increasingly impressed by his practical capabilities.
“So what was your job in England?” he asked during an early meeting after Mr Blue-shirt had shown him some ‘before and after’ photos of the house. “Were you a builder?”
“No, I’m a blacksmith.”
“Ah, interesting. Not many of those left now… Anyway, these slimline PV panels each weigh about…” and the conversation returned to air-source heat pumps, inverters, batteries and cables.

The next time Giovanni came over it was to talk us through his quote, which once again involved wandering around the house, discussing where to put the various pieces of equipment. Keen to be involved as possible in the project, Mr Blue-Shirt would interject every now and then to point out that he would be able to drill the holes for this or that cable, box in a control unit or make support brackets for the battery, most of which Giovanni responded to with jokey comments about hitting things with a hammer, making everything from metal or covering it with metal grilles. All very well-meaning, but slightly wearisome nonetheless, so when they had returned to the table on the terrace to run through their findings, Mr Blue-Shirt took his phone from his pocket, tapped on his photo gallery and showed Giovanni images of some of the pieces of work he and our team had produced while we were running the forge. He scrolled through the pieces of funky public art, (‘Che bello!’) the stainless steel military memorials mounted on marble, (‘Wow!‘) the classical balustrades and staircases for posh London townhouses(‘Fantastico!’), the matching pairs of driveway gates with wildlife scenes for a former hunting lodge (‘Mamma mia!’) and the huge, angular planters and pergola for a gold-medal winning show garden at Chelsea Flower Show ‘(Incredibile!’). Whatever Giovanni had imagined Mr Blue-Shirt made, it clearly wasn’t this.

A couple of weeks later, Giovanni asked if he could pop round again as he wanted to make some changes to his proposal. It turned out that the government had added further options to their incentive programme and had made it easier to access the discount scheme which seemed most suited to our type of house (old and not terribly well insulated). He had also decided to propose a different battery system which was more efficient, but which was a different shape and size from the one he had originally proposed. So this time he and Mr-Bule-Shirt spent ages in the hall, assessing which would be the best place to mount the battery and investigating different cabling and ducting options. Having final decided on the most practical yet least conspicuous position (hidden in the cupboard next to the front door), we were just agreeing a time for him to come back with his revised quote when he casually asked if Mr Blue-Shirt was planning to continue his blacksmithing here.
“Yes, definitely. But for the last eighteen months I’ve had all my forging equipment in a container in Porto Potenza Picena: I’m still looking for a workshop – although I’ve got the offer of one near where the container is stored which I’m still thinking about.”
Giovanni just cocked an eyebrow and nodded. “Ciao, ciao,” he said, bumping elbows with each of us. “Ci vediamo la settimana prossima.”

And the following week, Giovanni duly returned to go through his revised quotation and all the discounts, and to make one last tour of the house in order to finalise the location of all the necessary components.  After all the weeks of to-ing and fro-ing it seemed that we were at last there: the number and type of panels (18, PV), all the tubing and cabling, the inverter (in the boiler room), air source heat pump (in the upstairs porch), battery (in the cupboard in the hall), two cooling/heating units (in the guest room and our bedroom), and car charging point (in the carport). And he’d even got the green light for the project from the planning office in the village. The only thing left was to see some of these pieces of equipment – the more visible ones in particular – in the flesh. So Giovanni invited us to visit his showroom that weekend, and – sensing that the deal was by now all but done – invited us out to lunch at his favourite fish restaurant on the seafront in Civitanova Marche.
“OK, I’ll book a table at ‘Il Gabbiano’ then, and we can go on there once we’ve finished at the showroom. And while we’re there, I could show you a couple of empty workshops I’ve got that you could use for your forge – if you’re interested, that is….”

So after more than a year of ultimately fruitless exploring, browsing, asking and searching, Mr Blue-Shirt suddenly had two apparently viable options to consider. While both of them would (on paper) give him practically everything he needs, neither (on paper) seem quite what Mr Blue-Shirt originally had in mind. So for the second time in barely a month, Mr Blue-Shirt is doing his best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good…

Wanted: one forge

“I’m a blacksmith.” It’s still Mr Blue-Shirt’s answer to the ‘what do you do?” question he gets asked a lot. He spends his waking hours in steel toe-capped boots, a paint-daubed T-shirt and multi-pocketed canvas work trousers, hangs out at the trade counters of various building supplies shops and drives around in a large white van, so people tend to assume he is a jobbing tradesman of some kind. Which he is, in many respects, although we – the house and I – are his sole customers. And it is only a sabbatical; doing all the work to get the house exactly as we want has only ever been an interim phase. He remains at heart a blacksmith. Even though it is three years since he last struck hot metal over an anvil, setting up his own forge remains his ultimate objective. Admittedly, we have ended up needing to do and wanting to do far more work than we had originally envisaged, and lockdown naturally slowed progress further, but one day, other than routine maintenance, it will all be finished. And as Mr Blue-Shirt often points out, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life chopping wood and cutting the grass.” No, making things in metal is a deep-seated, life-long passion that precedes even his passion for things mechanical, which was the fuel that fired his military career. In fact, not long after we got married, I remember asking him what he would have done had he not joined the army as an automotive engineer in the REME (Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) and without a second’s hesitation he answered “I’d have been a blacksmith”. And more than thirty years later, he still needs to scratch that particular creative itch.

So for the time being he still has a forge in a box. Well, in a twenty-foot shipping container in a goods yard down at Porto Potenza Picena to be precise: twelve tonnes of tightly packed forging equipment patiently waiting for the right workshop to come along so it can be re-commissioned and teased back into service. And there’s the rub: finding a workshop. His search for a forge has been a variation on our early property searches here when holidays were spent bouncing down white gravel roads and clambering over ivy-choked ruins. On practically every trip to the builders’ merchants over in Villa Potenza, or to the quarry down in San Firmano, to the vet in Piediripa, or even to the supermarket in Trodica – and certainly while out on his Sunday cycles down to the coast – he will detour off along this, that or another track in search of a potential forge. Even I join in, keeping my eyes peeled for ‘Vendesi’ (for sale) signs on the way to or from teaching jobs in Recanati or Castelfidardo, in Filottrano or Appignano.

He’s not asking for much: sixty to eighty square metres of space, running water, mains power and a bit of outside space; a place where he can hang up his collection of blacksmith’s hand tools, set up his anvil, hearth and power hammer, and install a work bench, welder and spray bay. But just as with our initial property search, Mr Blue-Shirt’s hopes have been repeatedly raised and then swiftly dashed when a place that looks ideal from the outside or on paper turns out to be a non-starter as soon as he sets foot inside. Too big or too small; too far down a white road or too close to housing; too much land or no outside space at all; too much restoration work or too much conversion work.

He even considered a small plot of land on which he could erect a small pre-fabricated workshop and went to the local planning office to find out whether this might be a feasible option: it wasn’t. The piece of land Mr Blue-Shirt had earmarked as a potential location for a forge was designated as agricultural land and so could not be built on. But from the helpful and chatty planning officer, Mr Blue-Shirt learnt that until recently Montelupone had in fact had two working forges, and although their hearths had long since grown cold, their premises were still there. So clasping the map on which the planning officer had marked two red crosses Mr Blue-Shirt had set off to investigate.

The first was on the southern side of the village: an anonymous cube-shaped building with roll-down shutters and a shallow pitched roof. And decorated with a web of alarming cracks running up the buff-coloured walls, a victim of the earthquakes that shook the region in 2016. So he crossed that one off the list without even looking inside. The bureaucracy, time and money involved in repairing any earthquake-damaged property made it a complete non-starter.

The second forge was on the hill heading towards our place. We had both driven, walked, cycled and run past it on countless occasions but would never have imagined that behind the folding zinc doors there might be a forge. It looked very promising; it fulfilled all his criteria and even included the remains of a hearth. But it was simply way too big and consequently way too expensive. So that was that one reluctantly crossed off too.

Since then he’s ferreted out several other possibilities, and during lockdown a few more came up on the trading sites Mr Blue-Shirt subscribes to, but on closer inspection they have all turned out to be too…. something. He’s even enlisted the help of the people at the builders’ yard, the chap at the quarry, the owner of the agricultural supplies place, and the mechanic who services our car, asking them all to let him know if they hear of anyone wanting to sell a small workshop. He asked his chum Antonio too. Antonio runs the shipping company that transported Mr-Blue-Shirt’s container over from Lincolnshire and owns the good yard in which it has stood since its arrival in April last year. He’s an amiable and helpful fellow who loves to do deals – especially those that don’t involve the exchange of hard cash. So although he was originally going to charge a nominal rent for storing the container, as soon as he saw Mr Blue-Shirt’s sit-on mower, the rent was swiftly commuted to mowing the weed-strewn, two-football-pitch sized goods yard every few weeks.

These mowing sessions invariably include a coffee and a natter with Antonio, and during one such natter, it transpired that the lease on the goods yard was about to expire. Mr Blue-Shirt’s dismay soon turned to curiosity, however, as Antonio went on to explain that the new place he’d already got lined up, just a stone’s throw from his existing premises, included a warehouse with more than enough space for Mr Blue-Shirt to set up his workshop, and he was sure they could come to some arrangement…

A few weeks later, Antonio took possession of the site, a former furniture factory that had been empty for about three years, and immediately enlisted Blue-Shirt’s help in craning all the containers (including his own) from the old yard to the new one. Since then he and Mr Blue-Shirt have been like a pair of overgrown schoolboys planning their den, deciding what each bit of space could be used for, which pieces of abandoned equipment could be coaxed back into life, what repair work would be needed – and which would be the best area to set up a forge. This turns out to be a corner of a seven-hundred and fifty square metre warehouse which, in theory, would give him practically everything he needs and more: space, power, natural light, high ceilings, a concrete floor, and sliding double doors giving access to plenty of hard standing. But it’s not quite what Mr Blue-Shirt originally had in mind and is not without its drawbacks. And Antonio has yet to set out the precise nature of the ‘arrangement’ he has in mind. So in the meantime, Mr Blue-Shirt is doing his best not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good…

Reaping the benefits

From the ruby red sofa on which I am curled I peer through the rain-streaked windows of the garden doors up towards where the village stands cloaked in a thick blanket of cloud. One of the September storms that mark the start of the shift from summer to autumn is raging outside, with gusts of wind rattling the shutters and curtains of rain billowing across the now completely finished terrace. It is almost the first time since May that we have really used the sitting room; for most of summer it has simply served as a corridor to the main terrace which, together with the sections that run along the northern and southern sides, has effectively almost doubled our living area.

The southern section came first, along with the works to turn the slowly encroaching carpet of rough grass and weeds into a proper, gravelled driveway. The narrow strip that runs from the front step to the under-stairs boiler room and on to the corner of the house soon became our favoured spot for enjoying the spring sunshine. Throughout lockdown we would take a mid-morning break there, relishing the warmth of the sun on our skin and drawing strength from the display of regrowth and renewal taking place among the trees and bushes on the far side of the drive.

Then came the northern section that replaced a jumble of roughly-built and long abandoned cold frames, a collection of wonky drain covers and a mass of ugly, crumbling concrete. Initially we had continued our predecessors’ custom of using it as a dumping ground, seeing few opportunities for enjoying this north-facing space with its commanding view of the near-derelict pigsty. But once the pigsty had gone, it revealed views across the garden to the row of olive trees on our northern boundary and up the hill to the sunflower-filled fields beyond, and even enabled us to catch a corner of the sunset, as if watching it from the wings. Suddenly it had become a place where we actually wanted to spend time, so at the start of the year the drain covers, concrete and cold frames were replaced with a broad section of proper, tiled terrace together with a small but abundant herb garden. Then as spring blossomed into summer and the heat drove us from the southern side, it became our favoured spot for breakfast and for lunch; a shady oasis, by now edged with pots of geraniums and begonias, that offered shelter from the blazing sun.

Finally came Mr Blue-Shirt’s magnum opus, the thirty-eight-square-metre eastern section that would finally give us a proper, grown-up outdoor seating and dining area, the section of terrace from which we could enjoy the picture-postcard view up to the village and down the valley to the tantalising triangle of turquoise sea at the bottom; the section of terrace we had been dreaming of since we had first viewed the house more than three years earlier. He completed all the preparatory brickwork and foundations in February, the six cubic metres of concrete that form the base were poured as the country entered lockdown, and as the spread of coronavirus gradually began to slow, the huge oblong of pale grey concrete gradually began to disappear beneath a grand total of four hundred and thirty terracotta tiles as row by laborious row, Mr Blue-Shirt worked his way – backwards and on his knees – across the terrace.

Then as if to mark the end of lockdown, in early June we shifted the dining table and chairs back from the northern terrace to their new position on the main terrace to the left of the garden doors, while to the right, we assembled the furniture for the new seating area, erected a generous sail shade canopy to shield us from the strengthening sun – and then more or less moved outside for the summer. When we haven’t been working or out of the house, we have been on that terrace: cooking and eating, writing and reading, Zooming and snoozing, making conversation and listening to the crickets. It really is no exaggeration to say the space has been transformative, and worth every single one of the hundreds of hours’ toil Mr Blue-Shirt has put in to creating it.

Now, however, the lavender and plumbago that edge the terrace bob and duck in the gusty wind, and rain beats down on the sodden furniture, bouncing off the tiles and gurgling in the gutters. I snuggle deeper into the sofa’s cosy embrace, reluctantly concluding that it is – probably – time to take the sail shade down, close up the barbecue, put away the seat cushions and to return to life indoors. But only ‘probably’…

Epilogue

“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:
www.italymagazine.com
www.thelocal.it
www.studentville.it
www.wikipedia.org
www.timeanddate.com