Rain, rain, rain, rain! Beautiful rain!

It is the opening line of a song that we sang in the choir I used to belong to. Made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, it 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 turn the soil to dust. And it had been playing on a continuous loop inside my head for the previous week or more.

“Oh, come, never come,” laments the song. We had seen barely drop since the beginning of June, bar a couple of half-hearted showers whose introductory sound and lighting effects promised way more than they delivered. Typically, though, it is the arrival of a crashing thunderstorm that allows the weather magically to reset itself after days of steadily rising temperatures. Instead we have had endless weeks of endless sunshine beating down from a merciless white-hot orb suspended in a sky of dazzlingsolid blue. The heat has been fierce and relentless, with temperatures stuck in the high thirties for several weeks now – exceptionally hot even for August, never mind June or July – and never lower than the upper-twenties during the sultry, sticky nights. Even the thinnest duvet has been out of the question. We have slept, or tried to, beneath an empty duvet cover and the gentle down-draught from the ceiling fan that tried to stir the thick, heavy air into some semblance of a breeze to cool our clammy limbs. For weeks we have lived in a state of perpetual gloom, keeping shutters closed and curtains drawn throughout the day to keep the sun’s insistent rays at bay and maintain at least an impression of ‘less hot’ if not exactly ‘fresh’. But over those weeks, the heat soaked through the brick and stone and started to trickle down the walls, gathering in steamy puddles about the house, and reducing 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 scanned the shimmering horizon for signs of cloud gathering over the Sibillini Mountains where lies the bubbling cauldron of thermals which cast billowing 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 remained stubbornly close to forty degrees for another day, and there were more reports in the local newspapers about the exceptional weather, and more programmes on the radio about how to cope with its effects – for it is not just we pasty, cool-blooded Anglo-Saxons who have been suffering; everyone has been feeling the heat.

Finally, it came, though. It was late in the afternoon, when the air was so clogged with heat every movement was an effort. But over the Sibillini’s more northerly peaks the clouds had begun to bubble up. Then to gather into great churning clumps, then to thicken into a boiling mass of grimy grey that soon snuffed out the blazing sun. The immediately cooler air carried the scent of rain, an angry breeze yanked at the tops of the trees, and within minutes big, fat, juicy rain drops began to splat with an almost audible sizzle onto the sun-baked pavements. At last!

But the cloud continued to swirl and swell and darken. Great curtains of rain now flapped wildly in the raging wind, while giant hailstones hammered down on rooves and windows, and sent people scurrying for safety. The thunder roared and the demons of the Sibillini hurled down spears of lightning that flashed blinding white against the now charcoal sky. Day turned to night. We held our breath and awaited the arrival of the four horsemen…

Within an hour it was over, though, and we breathed once more. The wind slackened and the rain abated, flushing the darkness from the pallid sky. The demons fell silent, gathered their weapons and retreated to their mountain lair, leaving havoc in their wake. Power lines were down, café tables upturned, awnings torn and drooping. Roof tiles and plant pots lay shattered on pavements where hailstones had collected in shallow mounds.  Trees were felled, branches ripped off and flung across squares now coated in a sodden mulch of shredded leaves and blossom. Roads turned to rivers, crops were flattened and my beloved sunflowers lolled and flopped like lanky drunks.

For once, luck was on our side, though. Apart from a couple of power cuts and our heavy picnic table being blown halfway down the garden, we suffered no harm.  Others fared less well and the next day’s papers were filled with images of shattered windscreens, broken walls, mangled parasols and mud-slicked terraces. But a surprisingly efficient clearing up operation immediately got under way and barely a day later, fallen trees had been removed, debris swept away, garden furniture righted and repairs effected.  The storm had done the trick, though: the temperature had dropped by more than ten degrees. And at last we flung open the doors and windows and shutters and let the playful breeze blow away the drifts of stale heat that had accumulated in every corner. Normal service had been resumed; the re-set was complete. And even my precious sunflowers stood to attention once more, their beaming faces turned to the cheery sun that now shone amiably from a freshly-laundered cornflower sky.

Should I stay or should I go ?

“If you’re at a loose end on Sunday, do you fancy coming to Lago di Cingoli with us for a swim and a bite to eat?” Normally I would have accepted Jackie’s invitation in a heartbeat. A lazy summer Sunday with new friends in a new place: what’s not to like? But these are still not normal times. Sunday: is that too obvious a day to go out? Lunch, swim, the drive each way: is that too long to stay out? How much will we need to put away and lock up? Are they still watching us? Are they just waiting for an opportunity?

I tried to summon my rational, sensible self to calm and convince my panicky, fearful self that the invitation was just the kind of push we needed to stop us taking the easy way out and simply battening down the hatches; to reassure her that all would be well. After all, since the break-in we’ve been out together four times now and everything has been fine. And we can’t completely avoid leaving the house unattended; that’s just not practical. Or healthy. Or normal.

I know it’s not normal, replies my panicky self. But being burgled is not normal. Feeling scared and suspicious is not normal. None of it is normal; but it is our reality at the moment.

Yes, but you can’t normalise the abnormal. You’ll become a paranoid recluse with no friends and no life, and that is not why you moved to Italy; that is hardly la dolce vita. You’ve got to create a new normal; a normal that lets you feel safe and that lets you go out with friends.

Well, I haven’t found that new normal yet. It’s a lovely idea and it would be great to spend the day with Jackie and Max…. normally. But I’m still on permanent high alert: even if we went, I’d only worry all day. Which means I’d probably be lousy company too.

Look, you and I are never going to agree, my rational self sighs. Let’s see what Mr Blue-Shirt thinks.

“Say yes!” he said without a moment’s hesitation. “It will be good to have a concrete reason to go out.” I frowned, still unconvinced. “Look, we’d be moping about the place all day otherwise, thinking how we should be going out, that we should be seeing friends, but then the bastards have won. So let’s go. It’ll do us good.”  It’s one of his characteristics I admire the most, that clarity of thought and lack of equivocation. I swallowed hard and absent-mindedly bent to run my hand over Stanley’s tiger-striped back as he wandered through the kitchen towards his food bowl. “Yes. You’re right. I’ll message Jackie straight back before I change my mind.”

So we went. And it was everything a summer Sunday should be. The Lago di Cingoli is only about 40km to the north-west of us, and having crossed a couple of steep ridges that took us from one river valley to the next, we meandered across a small plain full of peach and kiwi orchards, maize and sunflowers before ascending to Cingoli.  This is another of the region’s ‘borghi più belli d’Italia’ which is also known as ‘the balcony of Le Marche’ thanks to its position 650 metres above sea level on the edge of a craggy ridge that suddenly drops away giving a spectacular view over the rolling fertile lowlands that extends to the sea, and, on a very clear day, over to the mountains of Croatia. We zig-zagged up towards the town’s imposing ramparts, marvelling at the chequerboard panorama that shimmered in the heat as with each successive bend it switched from one side of the car to the other. Then we skirted the northern edge of the town before sweeping down the densely wooded western slopes and on towards the lake.

Although its limpid aquamarine waters look as if they have been there since the dawn of time, the lake was created in the 1980s when the river Musone was dammed to provide a source of drinking water and now covers an area of 2.4 square kilometres. While every beach along the Adriatic coast is packed with both locals and holidaymakers at this time of year, we were surprised to find only a handful of cars parked at the beach bar where we had agreed to meet our pals. The grassy bank that sloped down to the water’s edge was dotted with couples dozing on sun loungers in the shade of sun-bleached orange parasols, while a few children splashed about in the shallows, and a small sailing dinghy tugged lazily at its mooring on the short pontoon that extended a few metres into the almost mirror-still water. From the open-fronted timber-built beach bar the hum of conversation and the hiss of a coffee machine floated out across the lake.

Within minutes we were drawn in by the laid-back vibe. Our tension eased, our shoulders dropped and we could already feel the fear and anxiety evaporating like cloud beneath a blazing sun.
“Coffee?” enquired Jackie. “Or shall we move straight to wine?”
“Errmm… Whatever you’re having,” I replied unhelpfully. The languid mood was catching.
“I’ll bag a table in the shade for lunch,” said Max, staking our claim with their two sun hats and our two beach towels. Coffee and then wine drifted seamlessly into an unhurried and simple lunch, and the conversation flowed just as smoothly. We laughed and chatted, swapped anecdotes and shared tales, exchanged opinions and silly banter. Just normal human interaction among like-minded people. Yet, after weeks of introspection and introversion, normal felt novel and even faintly elicit. But it also felt real and positive and healthy. What’s more, as I swam back to the pontoon at the end of my token dip, it occurred to me that I hadn’t once thought of intruders and security. Mr Blue-Shirt had made the right call: a day out with friends had indeed done us good.

Better still, when we stopped at a supermarket on the way home to pick up some charcoal for our evening barbecue, the headline in the local paper in the rack by the entrance caught my eye. “Band of thieves arrested following spate of break-ins,” it read. I grabbed a copy and scanned the front page… Car chase… Several arrests… Five thefts in one evening… Victims attending local festa… Thieves suspected of other burglaries in area… Local police forces sharing information… Further arrests likely…

Signs and Symbols of Summer

It’s something that we still haven’t quite got use to: the speed with which summer advances here. And that is even after a solid month of low-slung leaden skies, ceaseless rain and temperatures way below the norm: on one day in May it was colder than it had been on Christmas Day. Someone somewhere had, it seemed, put summer on hold. Rainwater stood for days in the sludgy furrows of fields where seedlings struggled to keep their heads above water, and vicious thunderstorms raked blossom from the trees in damp, clinging swirls, like confetti at a winter wedding. But on the first day of the new month, that same someone somewhere simply flicked a switch, turned the summer back on, and normal service was resumed. From one day to the next the slate grey sky was replaced with pure, dazzling blue, temperatures doubled, and the puddles began to recede. The birds resumed their morning song and the crickets and fireflies resumed their nightly son e lumière. The crops shook themselves off, lifted their faces to the oh-so-welcome sun and got back to the serious business of growing.

It is late afternoon a few days after the summer solstice. The shadows are lengthening and the sultry heat is just beginning to ease, so I’m sitting outside at the small folding table that stands in the dappled shade of the olive trees down in the south-easternmost corner of our land. The line of trees that forms our southern boundary rises up behind me towards the road, and the line that forms the eastern, seaward-facing boundary stretches away to my left. Their branches mingle with those of the line of fruit trees and sections of tall hedge that form our inner boundary, creating a corridor of cool green. The land falls away here, and shielded by a couple of sturdy conifers in the garden-proper, I am completely invisible from the house.  I feel as if I am perched at the end of a grassy peninsula that extends out into a lake of shining wheat that surrounds the house on three sides. It rustles and ripples in the breeze that ruffles its spiky-haired tips. Only in the last week or two it has ripened, first from green to bronze, and now to burnished blonde.

In the next couple of days, I am certain, one of the local fleet of growling yellow leviathans will take to these wheaty waters, churning up a golden wake of straw as it labours up and down and back and forth, and pours its precious catch of grain into its dusty depths. But for the time being, in just a couple of paces I could plunge in thigh-deep and wallow in its dry, fragrant heat. As it is, though, the cats are the only ones who choose to dive in. The wheat is home to countless tiny rodents and so provides them with a rich hunting ground, although it is only Matilda, the female, who actually catches anything. While her eye is keen, her paws and jaws are gentle, and we can usually rescue whatever prey she brings us and release it back into the field.  Stanley, her softer, slower brother, is in there now, and a clump of vigorously twitching stalks to my left reveals his position. With a cross but muffled ‘miaow’ he tells me that he can’t find his way out – again. I smile and leave him to it: he’ll work it out for himself; he always does, eventually. My gaze wanders up the valley to the right. Golden drums of tightly wound hay lie like giant cotton reels scattered  across recently mown fields  where new growth is already re-covering the hillside in a fresh carpet of lush green. Vineyards that only a few weeks ago still showed broad stripes of buff-coloured soil between narrow stripes of green now bear only thin lines of buff between thick, bushy tracts of vivid green. The maize that for so long was barely taller than the wheat now stands almost as tall as me in dense, deep green swathes, the glossy plume-like leaves dancing in the breeze. But absolutely best of all, the bright green sunflower fields are now heavily stippled with yellow: these glorious symbols of a Mediterranean summer are just beginning to open their great fist-sized buds and break into enormous, beaming yellow smiles. I am still as captivated today by the breath-taking sight of thousands upon thousands of these proud, strong, bold beauties as I was the first time I saw them on our first camping holiday together over thirty years ago. But their utterly life-affirming presence is more welcome and meaningful than ever this year and symbolic of so much more than summer. For with their upturned heads and defiantly cheerful expressions they are a much-needed and well-timed reminder of the truth of Helen Keller’s famous saying that is my mantra: ‘Turn your face to the sun and all shadows fall behind you. It’s what the sunflowers do.’

Catharsis

La porcellaia. Lo studio. Il box. The pigsty. The workshop. Our nemesis. Or so it feels, at least. It is the approximately 60 square metre single storey outbuilding that stands a few metres behind the house in the slightly elevated north-west corner of the plot. It was also one of the many features that originally attracted us to the property as it also came with planning permission for conversion to a living space, and having a pretty little holiday let to contribute to our income had always been part of The Plan.

As living space for pigs, though, it has never been a thing of beauty. Beneath a sagging pitch roof stand four brick pig pens along the far side, each with a gnarled wooden door sporting a heavy rusty bolt and latch. The side facing the house was originally enclosed only with chunky metal mesh, with the tiled roof supported on heavy timber uprights, all now riddled with woodworm holes and alive with ants. Since being semi-converted into a workshop by our predecessors, though, this half has been closed in with a haphazard collection of redundant plasterboard panels, sheets of rain-warped plywood and a jumble of abandoned sun-bleached doors, with a plastic and chicken wire covered heavy metal gate serving as its door. Low-ceilinged and windowless, it can be hotter than hell in there, but despite the steamy gloom, it has provided a surprisingly practical workspace. Indeed, it was from here that our predecessor, a skilled carpenter by training but who could turn his hand to anything, built a staircase, created a kitchen, and fashioned shelves and doors and cupboards. And Mr Blue-Shirt has continued the tradition. Having an extensive list of jobs to start on the moment we moved in, he very quickly fitted the workshop out with an impressive range of tools and equipment to cover carpentry, electrics, plumbing, painting and decorating, and general building work. While some were bought especially for the particular needs of the house, most had been acquired over twenty-two years as an engineer, a further fifteen years as a blacksmith, and a lifetime as a hands-on doer and maker. From this airless, dingey space Mr Blue-Shirt has, among many other things, mended, moved and fitted lights, sockets and switches, mended, moved and replaced sinks, lavatories, taps, shower heads, pipes and drains, designed, built and installed pan drawers, kitchen doors, shelving units and created an entire walk-in pantry. There has been barely a day when the workshop hasn’t been buzzing and whirring with activity, its door flung wide from dawn until dusk, and Mr Blue-Shirt purposefully bustling back and forth, as happy as a pig in muck.

Even when we had workmen here for a couple of weeks to re-render the entire house, almost the only job that we have needed external tradesmen to do, it was business as usual for Mr Blue-Shirt, who interrupted his own work on the inside of the house only to show them whereabouts in the workshop they could help themselves to a  socket if they needed to plug something in, or the tap when they needed to mix the next bucket of goo. So it remains our steadfast conviction that one or more of these workmen had something to do with the subsequent theft of every single item from the workshop when it was broken into barely a week after the workmen had finished. The Carabinieri agreed that it was almost certainly no coincidence, as did our insurers and, grudgingly, as did even the building contractor who they had worked for.

From that day onward, the workshop was never the same again. It was tainted. There was, we felt, something malign about it. I could barely bring myself to set foot in the place, but Mr Blue-Shirt, driven by sheer bloody-mindedness, I think, managed to find the strength to go back in, first to make good all the damage the thieves had done, and then little by little to turn it back into a functioning workspace, albeit on a much diminished scale. And sure enough, in the months that followed, he has crossed a further succession of repairs, improvements and modifications off the never-ending job list. But by this time, the workshop was living on borrowed time. Not just because of the break-in and not just because it was getting ever more decrepit. The heavy-duty plastic that covered the worst holes in the roof had finally given way, the old cracks in the coarse render had widened alarmingly while the web of new cracks was expanding by the day, and the internal walls had started part company from one another leaving gaps between them you could put a fist through.  No, its time was also running out because the revised planning permission for the holiday annexe had finally come through, and with it the green light for the workshop’s demolition.

Within weeks, though, came the second break-in. The big one. The one that was personal. The one when those who had stolen all Mr Blue-Shirt’s tools and robbed us of our innocence came back again to finish the job and this time robbed us of our confidence and trust along with all our remaining valuables. And in trying to adjust to the shadows that now play across our dreams, the need to rid ourselves of this decaying, poisoned hulk has become our driving force and an essential part of our healing. So it is going. Panel by rotting panel, brick by grubby brick, Mr Blue-Shirt has begun dismantling this blight on our lives that has become as corrosive as it has corroded. Somehow, he has so far resisted the urge simply to smash a sledgehammer through its crumbling walls. Instead he has been almost surgical, first levering off and then burning the sections of makeshift front wall, and then removing, pressure-washing and neatly stacking the heavy terracotta tiles from the first quarter of the roof. And most recently removing the first couple of metres of internal wall, chiselling the flat, slim bricks out one by one, pressure-washing off the Marche mud that had held them together, and stacking them together with the tiles. For, once purged of their painful associations, they will all be re-used, re-cycled, and somehow even rehabilitated as we are determined they will all be reincarnated into something new and whole and good. Many are destined to become the low curving wall that will frame the driveway, others will provide the foundations for the terrace that will soon surround the house, and others will find new purpose in whatever finally stands on that knoll in the protective shade of two tall olive trees and looks over to the pink-hued village and down through the fruit grove to the glittering sea below.

The fight back begins

It’s that time of year again. The vivid yellow rape blossom has long since turned to seed, the wheat is tinged with gold, the corn, while not quite as high as an elephant’s eye, is lush and leafy, the sunflowers are stretching their necks ever higher towards the blazing sun, and the season of sagre and feste is upon us.  These are the literally thousands of local festivals that take place up and down the country during the summer months. They typically revolve around food, normally a locally grown speciality, such as artichokes in Montelupone’s case, or around live music and entertainment. In practice, though, most are a happy fusion of both. And we love them.

So it was last week that we resolved to put our fears of leaving the house unattended to one side for a few hours and spend an evening in Montecassiano for its annual festival of street art, food and live music that takes place in among the winding lanes of the historical town centre. Montecassiano is another one of ‘Italy’s prettiest towns’ (I Borghi più Belli d’Italiahttps://wordpress.com/post/lemarche.life/141) that lies some 20km north-west of us, set high on a ridge with commanding views over the fertile Potenza Valley to the south, and to the north towards the Cònero Peninsular, the forest-clad promontory that rears up over the sea like a giant, deep green whale plunging into the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. Although we had only ever been to the place once or twice for a coffee, we knew its events enjoyed a very good reputation hereabouts, but what really clinched it for us,  and what finally made us listen to those more rational voices telling us that we cannot become prisoners in our own home was the chance to see Funk Off again.

No, not a mispronounced expletive from one of my students, but the name of a fifteen-strong jazz-funk street band. We had stumbled across them – almost literally – some four years earlier when holidaying with our dear pals Nick and Elaine. We were keen to show them some of the wider area and Mr Blue-Shirt had booked us all into a country house hotel near Lake Trasimeno in Umbria as the finale of our mini-tour, with a stop-off in Perugia en route. The capital of modern-day Umbria, and formerly one of the twelve settlements that made up the pre-Roman Etruscan League, this handsome university city has in recent years become infamous on both sides of the Atlantic for the curiously sordid murder in 2007 of British student, Meredith Kercher, for which American student Amanda Knox was convicted in 2009 and subsequently exonerated in 2015. It has been known much longer, however, for chocolate – especially its baci (dark chocolate and hazelnut ganache ‘kisses’) – and also as the home of Umbria Jazz, the ten-day long world-class international jazz festival that has been held there every July since 1973. A fact of which we were completely ignorant until we popped out into Piazza Italia, having made our way up from the car park to the historical centre through the city’s network of Etruscan tunnels which now house the public escalator system, and found ourselves practically face to face with a dozen or so guys in identical jeans, trainers and red T-shirts, and equipped with an assortment of trumpets trombones, saxophones, drums, and a sousaphone on which they were giving an infectiously toe-tapping rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown. The four of us were instantly captivated by their energy, their style and the sheer ‘feel good’ vibe of their music, and despite the near 40-degree heat, we kept pace with them as they boogied their way along Corso Vannucci to the grand Piazza IV Novembre where we watched them perform a non-stop programme of high-energy, tightly choreographed numbers that within seconds drew a mass of enthusiastic fans. This was a masterclass in making the highly polished and meticulously rehearsed look spontaneous and casual, and they were seriously good musicians too. No itinerant buskers, these. They were a class act.

And four years on, the sheer joie de vivre of their performance on a balmy, jasmine-scented summer’s evening in Montecassiano was just as infectious. They formed up in the far corner of the central square, barely noticed by the crowds of people grazing from the various food and drink stands around the perimeter. Having tuned their instruments and exchanged high-fives to get themselves in the groove they simply set off through the town, dipping and bobbing to their own beat. But like a band of funky pied pipers, they quickly gathered a stream of followers – including us – as they wove back and forth through the narrow lanes. Their crunchy jazz harmonies echoing among the tall palazzi and tightly-packed townhouses, they paused occasionally in a square for a bit of fancy footwork, or on a street corner for a solo saxophone riff, and, by now trailing a hundred or so people behind them, finally bopped back down into the central square and up onto the stage for what was billed as their ‘static’ set, but which was in fact anything but.  And once again we were treated to an hour-long life-affirming, spirit-lifting tour de force. Hand-clapping, finger-clicking, head-bobbing, foot-tapping, thigh-slapping – and that was just the audience, that had now grown to several hundred people, every single one of us (yes, even Mr Blue-Shirt) boogying along to the irresistible beat.

Best of all, though, for the entire duration of their performance we did not once think of intruders, security, or break-ins. For the first time in weeks, we were simply lost in the moment, utterly liberated from our fears. And were now armed with an empowering new battle cry for those who have sought to crush us: FUNK OFF!

 

www.funkoff.it
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cd9O2aYyfsg
www.svicolandofestival.it

My cup ranneth over

I heard the crash from our bedroom where I had been wrestling the duvet into its cover: the unmistakable sound of china smashing onto the kitchen floor tiles. “What was that?” I called anxiously, and galloped downstairs to make sure Mr Blue-Shirt hadn’t hurt himself. “It was a mug,” came his slightly muffled answer from inside the pantry where he was already gingerly picking up the fragments of shattered pottery. “Which one?” I asked. Like most people, I suspect, we have gathered a large, rag-tag collection mugs over time, nearly all of them with memories attached. There are the Glühwein mugs from the Christmas market in Osnabrück where we spent much of the ‘90s, a couple to mark the South East Asian Games from our three years in Brunei, one (there had been two) bought from the gift shop at the foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a couple (one chipped, one cracked) from a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, a series from successive Chelsea Flower Shows where our ironwork had regularly featured in a particular designer’s medal-winning show gardens, and a clutch of random, anonymous supermarket mugs for use when the dishwasher is full. I just hoped it was one of those.

Mr Blue-Shirt winced. “Your Radley mug.” And sure enough, I could make out sections of its trademark ‘Westie’ motifs on the jagged chunks strewn across the pantry floor. “Oh, no! It was one of my favourites!” Mr Blue-Shirt sighed. “I know, I know. I’m so sorry. It just slipped out of my hand.” It had been a jokey present from Mr Blue-Shirt a few Christmases ago (a gentle dig at my well-established Radley handbag habit) when by chance my jokey gift to him had also been a mug, one featuring a cat just like Mimi, and since when we had  always considered them a pair: a silly, everyday symbol of life lived on the same wavelength. Now, like so much else we had treasured, it was gone. And the floodgates opened. Great gulping sobs caught in my throat and hot tears coursed down my cheeks. I buried my face in Mr Blue-Shirt’s chest and he stroked my back, soothing my sobs into sniffles. “I know I’m over-reacting,” I mumbled into his damp shirtfront. “It’s just a mug, for God’s sake.” I was trying to be reasonable. “But it was that mug. You gave it to me.” A fresh wave of tears spilled down my face. “It was special. I used it all the time.” Another blow. Another loss. Another cherished memory gone.

It was as if the jagged shards of pottery had pierced the gauze-thin carapace of normality and healing and exposed the stinging rawness that remained just beneath the surface. Still very much there were the grief and pain from the burglary; the sense of loss still undiminished, for what has been taken from us is more – so much more – than mere possessions. Each item had a meaning, each one had a story, and together they traced the course of our two tightly interwoven lifetimes; the priceless (to us) tokens of togetherness, of shared adventures, achievements, landmarks, and celebrations. But also a record for those who might care to remember us when we are gone of what and where and who we once were. A few mementos for family posterity to go with those left by parents and grandparents already gone, and of which I felt we were mere custodians: my father’s World War II medals (along with Mr Blue-Shirt’s own service medals) my great-grandmother’s silver pocket watch, my mother’s assortment of modest trinkets, lovingly collected with ‘legacy’ very much in mind. All now replaced with guilt and self-recrimination, sharply magnified through the powerful lens of hindsight. Should have done… Could have done… Wish we had… Why didn’t we…? A lens through which I can see only failure; a sense that I have let our nieces and nephews down by breaking a precious connection with their forebears. Our new great-nephew will now never experience the weight of those wartime medals in his small hands, and through them learn of his great-grandfather’s valour. He will now never pop open the back of that silver pocket watch, which as a child I used to do, and read, engraved in copperplate, the name of his great-great-great-grandmother, which for me gave ‘Phoebe Mitchell’ both form and meaning. And my poor mother would be inconsolable.

Still there too were the fears and doubts whose seeds had been sown the instant I had seen the twisted, gaping safe, and which, like bindweed, had now taken hold, its insistent, probing tendrils strangling our hopes and dreams, crushing our confidence and certainties. Would they come back? Were they still watching? Who could we trust? And worse still, had we got it all terribly wrong? Had this whole Italian adventure been a ghastly mistake? Was this the punishment for our foolishness? Or for some other gross misdeed of which we still remain entirely ignorant? What have we done? When? Where? And why did we need to be punished like this? Above all, why?? In God’s name, WHY??

For weeks the nightly presence of these shapeshifting monsters has denied me the blissful release of sleep, even though my daytime self keeps telling my nighttime self she is being irrational and foolish: you’ve done nothing wrong, it’s not your fault, she reasons, you were just unlucky. My nighttime self, though, just shakes her head and waves her trump card: ‘yes, but that is how it FEELS,’ she shrieks, and my daytime self for now can only shrug.  Yet as I turn from side to side and back again, trying to escape my nightly monsters, every now and then I think I catch a tantalising glimpse of something bright and good and whole. It’s as tiny and elusive and ephemeral as the evening fireflies that dance among the olive trees at this time of year, and as difficult to catch hold of. But it just might be something; it might even be a start. Please let it be a start.

 

Photo courtesy of http://www.gumtree.com

Perfect timing

Lower than a Tory politician’s poll ratings; lower than the UK’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest; lower than a snake’s belly. That’s pretty much where our spirits have been since the burglary, and what with the uncharacteristically cool, wet and windy weather of late, gloom has reigned. So when someone finally switched the summer on, a run down at the beach was just the tonic I needed. However, what really put a smile back on my face was not the irresistible combination of dazzling sunshine and sparkling sea. It was bumping into this year’s Festa del Cinquino – the Fiat 500 Owners’ Club’s annual get-together – just as the fifty or more exhibitors moved off from the main square for their parade lap of the town centre, sea front and port. A tour that effectively brought the place to a halt as practically the whole town stopped to watch, wave, cheer, toot and take photos. So here is a reminder from last October of why this sight did so much to lift my mood…

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

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

To entertain ourselves on our longer treks we soon took to looking out for those world-famous superstars of Italian motoring – the macho Ferraris, the sexy Lamborghinis, and Mr Blue-Shirt’s personal favourite, the cool, understated Maseratis. But the car for which we both always reserved our most enthusiastic oohs and ahhs by miles was in fact the modest little Fiat 500 – the original one, that is; the one that is practically synonymous with La Dolce Vita, and is as indisputably Italian as pasta, prosciutto and prosecco.

Introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 in effect motorised Italy, and in so doing provided a means of both literal and metaphorical escape from war-time deprivation, austerity and joylessness. It was very much conceived as a ‘people’s car’ by its designer, Dante Giacosa, who made sure it was suited to navigating narrow city streets and fitting into the tightest of parking spaces: it was barely 3m long, originally had only two seats, and a tiny 479cc engine. Initially it also had rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’, but for safety reasons these were replaced with front-hinged ones in 1965 – much to the disappointment of Italian men, apparently, as they could no longer enjoy looking at girls’ legs as they got in and out of the car! Crucially, as well as being practical, the Cinquecento, as it has always been known, was also chic, charming and cheap – the equivalent of about £240 when it was first launched – so it quickly won the hearts of Italian drivers.

Very nearly four million of these smiley-faced little things had rolled off the assembly line in Turin by the time production ceased in 1975, and in 2007, when it was nominated as La Macchina Più Amanti degli Italiani (Italy’s most beloved car), it was estimated that there were still some 600,00 on the road.  And the national affection for the Cinquecento has never waned. It is quite common to see pedestrians smile and wave as one passes and motorists will often toot and give a vigorous thumbs-up to the lucky owner.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some folk even them blew kisses.

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

Once we knew that we were going to make Italy our home, though, we thought the novelty of seeing these cute little vehicles would wear off and that we would lose interest in Cinquecento-spotting. It didn’t. In fact, in some respects it got worse. We continued to play even if there were other people in the car, only managing to preserve a semblance of dignity by playing a silent version of the game that consisted of nudging or even pinching each other whenever we saw one and manically jerking our heads in its direction instead of squawking ‘Sweet!’ But when we moved here we decided that enough really was enough and so agreed to give up Cinquecento-spotting for good. Which lasted about as long as the average New Year’s resolution. Not only did we fail to give up, I actually developed a variation on the game that took account of the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt wasn’t here full time for the first few months and started sending him photographs of sightings – and claiming the points, obviously. In fact, we now play this remote version of the game even if one of has just nipped out to the supermarket and caught a sighting. “I got two!” one of us will exclaim breathlessly on returning home and brandish a wonky mobile phone snap at the other. “Look! There was one at the lights in Trodica” – swipe – “… and another one in the car park at Iper!”  And there are quality assessments too now. “The one in Trodica was gorgeous: classic buff colour and in terrific condition. But the one at Iper had really been messed about with: horrid metallic paint and tinted windows. Tinted windows! Ghastly!”

So at a time when life has had a distinctly bitter taste, coming across some fifty of these cheery little symbols of La Dolce Vita all in their highly-polished Sunday best has – for the time being, at least – made life once more taste… well, SWEET!