Feeling like Alice

Lockdown, social distancing, R-value. Mask, hand-sanitiser, curfew. Tier, zone, furlough, Zoom. Coronavirus, Covid-19. Twelve terms that twelve months ago were almost entirely absent from our vocabulary. But now they are daily currency of practically every exchange and scarcely a day goes by without hearing, reading or using nearly all of them. So embedded are they in our lexicon, so ingrained in our psyche, so crucial to our mood and activities, our hopes and worries that it has become hard to imagine a time or a life without them.

But it really was only a year ago – just 365 normal earth-days, not a light year, not in another universe – that some began to hear the faint chime of an alarm bell from somewhere deep in China where a new ’flu-like virus that had something to do with bats had started to take hold. It was just another minor foreign news story back then, though, along with a train crash in one distant country or a freak snowstorm in another; all very unfortunate for those involved, of course, and we all shook our heads, sighed and tutted. But ultimately it seemed like just more inconsequential grist churning through the mill of 24-hour global news. We turned the page, we scrolled on by.

And in any event, we all had far more pressing matters on our minds. For us it was, the timescale for constructing our long-awaited terrace, our plans for a much-needed holiday in Croatia when my teaching year finished, and where to take the two sets of friends who had already booked in for spring-time visits. And as for the news, it was the pain of Brexit, the loss of our precious EU citizenship and our disgust with the UK’s contemptuous and contemptible government that troubled us more. That and the onward march of the far-right in Italian politics, along with the growth of the corresponding ‘Sardines against Salvini’ movement whose members had crammed themselves into Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore in peaceful protest against the far-right leader’s ugly rhetoric. It was really beginning to gather pace, in fact, but suddenly ‘politics as usual’ screeched to a halt.

For the virus was here. Here in Europe, here in Italy. No one knew how, no one knew when. But it was here. No longer in faraway China, but in Lombardy, the country’s richest, most efficient – and most populous region. But no one knew what to do, not even when it started to spread, not even when people started to die. In fact, with that first outbreak occurring in the almost teutonically hardworking and orderly north – the engine room of the economy – the country’s first response was little more than an echo of the UK’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan of World War II. Indeed, Bergamo, effectively the epidemic’s Ground Zero, even briefly adopted the hashtag bergamononsiferma (Bergamo doesn’t stop), complete with promotional video, in order to show that the economic engine wasn’t going to stop just because of some pesky virus. But that early stoicism and defiance were soon unmasked as complacency and unpreparedness, by which time, of course, it was too late. The virus hadn’t stopped either.

Exactly a year ago schools in Le Marche closed. A week later they closed across the whole country. And a week after that, with new infections and fatalities rising exponentially, Italy entered total lockdown, imprisoning its people in their own homes and closing its borders for almost three months. The first country in Europe to do so. A pariah state. A death state. In the heart of Europe. In the 21st century. It felt unreal.

Just as the virus overwhelmed its victims, so unreality overwhelmed reality, which soon became a dystopian version of Through the Looking Glass: you could still recognise your own reflection, tense and drawn though it had become, but everything else was now back to front. Like a latter-day Alice stepping through the mirror, we had entered an alternative world where soldiers shifting truckloads of coffins, spectral figures in hazmat suits, and deserted town centres were in while hugs and handshakes, going to work, school or, indeed, anywhere were out. The unimaginable became normal; normal became nostalgia. Habit became history; fear became fact.

And so here we are, one year on, still in this grim alternative reality as another winter softens into another spring – just as it did last year, when the world turned back to front. So could it be, as the time of rebirth and regrowth comes round once more, as the advent of not one but several vaccines brings signs of recovery and renewal, and as the wheel of life comes full circle, that we will at last have the chance to step back through the mirror, gradually delete those ghastly twelve terms from our vocabulary and once more experience the world the right way round…?

Image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org – illustration by John Tenniel

Lessons from the loo

You’d really think we’d know better by now, wouldn’t you? With three and a half years of upgrades, modifications, corrections and repairs as well as a good few rip-it-out-and-start-agains under our belts, many of them as a preliminary to the job we originally set out to do, we really ought to have realised that a bit of a facelift to the downstairs loo was not – not ever, never in a million years – going to be a straightforward job.

After all there had been the guttering downpipes to nowhere that on one side of the house just spewed their contents into the only dip in the lawn and on the other, all over the front step, under the front door and into the hall. Then there had been the hard-standing to the front and the rear of the house that all usefully sloped inwards, and the three external doors that fitted so badly you could see daylight through the gaps between door and frame. And then there was the metre’s depth of sodden mud packed up against several metres of completely un-tanked, north-facing outside wall. Not forgetting the bathroom floor that sloped away from the drain, and the disastrous combination of an unsupported shower tray set in a chipboard surround, as well as the never-ending list of things that were not level, square, true or flat – and then propped up or wedged in place with tightly folded pieces of sandpaper.

But somehow, when it came to zhooshing up the very dreary and shabby downstairs loo, what came to mind was the kind of simple DIY job they feature in those half-hour home improvement shows that they stretch out to include even the initial trip to Homebase, as well as the obligatory bit of jeopardy when the homeowners find they’ve got the wrong fittings or something, followed by the inevitable happy ending consisting of interviews with the DIY-ers proudly admiring their handiwork, as well as a long sequence of before and after shots.  I mean, to quote Mr Blue-Shirt, how difficult could it be? After all, the job only involved sloshing a bit of white emulsion around, replacing the washbasin, tap and vanity unit, adding a tiled splashback and pointing the brickwork floor tiles: a week’s work at the most. And we’d already got off to a cracking start having found both the perfect tiles (with a stack of extras left over from a box that had split thrown in for free) and the perfect washbasin, tap and vanity unit (complete with a 50% discount as everything was an end of line) on a single trip to pretty well the only DIY store lockdown restrictions allowed us to get to.

The excitement of these early victories, however, made us lose sight of that old adage about those failing to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat them, which in our case turns out to apply just as much to home improvements as it does to world affairs. For no sooner had we lifted the basin out and dismantled the homemade cupboard beneath it than the latest set of bodges started to rear their ugly heads. First there was the mix of UK and EU pipe unions on the water supply to the washbasin that are not actually compatible and so were held together with huge, chewing-gum-like blobs of epoxy-metal to stop the otherwise inevitable leaks. With this having set alarm bells ringing, Mr Blue-Shirt thought it prudent to check the unions to the radiator, and sure enough, he found the same leak-waiting-to-happen there too. So that had just doubled that part of the plumbing work. Sigh…

The next problem to come to light was that the reason why the loo itself had been located several centimetres further away from the wall and from the cistern than ideal – and had always looked extra-ugly as a result – was that the outlet pipe from the basin, which runs behind the loo and out to the drain, had not been recessed fully and so had been crudely boxed in (we had always wondered what the strange, low-level platform behind the loo was). So to get the loo to fit properly, Mr Blue-Shirt had to rip out the massively over-engineered boxing-in, chisel a channel into the concrete floor to fully recess the outlet pipe, and then move the soil pipe back, having first lifted the surrounding brick slip floor tiles – which was when Mr Blue-Shirt also discovered that there was only builder’s foam instead of proper screed under a sizeable section of the tiles, thereby adding yet another job to the list. Sigh…

But at least this made it easier to centre the soil pipe and the loo between the wall and the washbasin; why it had been shoved up so close to the far wall had long been a mystery. At that point, as it was already going to take so much work just to get the existing and extremely basic loo to fit properly, we decided we might as well treat ourselves to new loo too. Although that also proved way more difficult than anticipated– all to do with U-bend shapes, apparently – and even once we had found the right combination of what we needed and what we liked (a surprisingly elusive pairing), it took three attempts (and an additional two weeks) to get an unbroken loo delivered to us. Sigh…

So now, already over a month into the job, we ‘just’ need to complete the new pipework, make good all the holes and channels from the old pipework, re-concrete and re-tile part of the floor and instal the new loo…and then we might just be ready to begin the job we originally set out to do.

It’s just as well we won’t be able to have friends over for lunch any time soon…

Enter the Dragon

The story so far: in the middle of January, Matteo Renzi pulled his tiny party, Italia Viva, out of the country’s fragile but functioning centre-left coalition because he couldn’t get his own way over how best to make use of its €200bn-plus in post-Covid EU stimulus funding. The result of his walk-out was to deprive Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of his wafer-thin majority and risk bringing down the whole government in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century and the worst economic crisis since World War II, even though Conte and his cabinet were widely felt to be doing a reasonably good job.

The thing is, no one had the slightest idea what Renzi was seeking to gain from this bizarre political tantrum – other than get his photo in the papers and top the bill on a few TV talk shows for couple of weeks. Indeed, he was quickly reduced to a mere bit-player in the unwanted drama that he had unleashed as the grown-ups in the room effectively banished him to the naughty step while they got on with trying to sort out the mess he had left behind.

The first step was a parliamentary vote of confidence, which Prime Minister Conte won comfortably in the Chamber of Deputies, but (thanks to Italia Viva who, still in a sulk, refused to play nicely and abstained in both chambers) fell short of the crucial absolute majority in the Senate. After a week of inconclusive arm-twisting, Conte still didn’t have enough Senators on board for an absolute majority, so rather than try and run a minority government, he submitted his resignation to President Sergio Matarella in the hope of receiving a mandate to form a new coalition. This was a bit of a gamble on Conte’s part as there was a possibility, albeit a remote one, that Matarella might call a snap election which would risk the centre-left losing its slim parliamentary majority to the right-wing alliance headed by the left’s arch enemy, Matteo Salvini, the firebrand leader of the far-right La Lega. Conte’s bet was a pretty safe one, though: the President is known as a cautious pragmatist, and when Salvini himself walked out of the previous Conte-led coalition in an attempt to force an election and capitalise on his popularity in the polls, Matarella preferred to give party leaders every possible opportunity to see if a new coalition could be formed first. And with the stakes so much higher this time around, it was no great surprise that he once again adopted this cautious approach, having in any event received only half-hearted demands for an election from Salvini, who even expressed support for the idea of a government of national unity.

So Conte, along with the ruling Partito Democratico (PD) and the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five Star Movement), set about trying to form a new centre-left coalition – without Renzi, though, whom (surprise, surprise) neither party was prepared to work with again. On this occasion, though, negotiations failed. But Matarella still shied away from calling a destabilising election that could easily shake market confidence and give the EU a severe case of the jitters in view of the huge sum of money they had recently granted Italy from the EU recovery fund – especially since an election may well be won by Salvini’s hard-right and distinctly Eurosceptic alliance. This left him with no alternative but to find a safe pair of hands with which to entrust the job of putting together a technocratic government suited to navigating the country through the choppiest waters it has experienced in a generation.

After a couple of days’ speculation about whose hands he would choose, Matarella concluded that those of Mario Draghi were probably just about the safest available. So he invited this former Governor of the Bank of Italy and former President of the European Central Bank, who earned the nickname ‘Super Mario’ after successfully rescuing the Euro in the midst of the 2012 European debt crisis, to pick up the baton that Renzi had so recklessly yanked out of Conte’s hands a fortnight earlier.

Mind you, despite Draghi’s formidable reputation as a skilled political operator and his impressive credentials as an academic economist and central banker, his appointment was not greeted with unalloyed delight. Indeed, it was dissatisfaction with Italy’s most recent period of technocratic government led by Mario Monti (ironically during the very debt crisis through which Draghi successfully steered the Euro to safety) that fuelled the rise of both the anti-elite five Star Movement and the anti-EU La Lega whose subsequent political jostlings are arguably at the root of the current crisis. Consequently, Draghi was always going to have an uphill struggle to garner sufficient cross-party support to form an administration.

It seems that Super Mario has not lost his touch, though: despite their initial suspicion of him, Draghi has indeed managed to secure the support of the two main anti-establishment parties, M5S and La Lega, along with that of the Partito Democratico and Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s old party). And most other minor parties of the right and of the left soon followed suit, including even Italia Viva and Renzi – who now has the bare-faced cheek to claim that appointing Draghi had been his idea all along.

All of them have stated their willingness to do their bit in their country’s hour of need amid a veritable chorus of declarations of readiness to put past differences to one side and to act in the national interest. Impassioned declarations of support and solidarity are one thing, though. Actually getting representatives of the various parties around a table, getting them to put their respective policy agendas aside and agree a common way forward for the new government, and then getting them to decide who’s going to hold which cabinet position might require quite a lot more of Super Mario’s legendary negotiation skills and powers of persuasion.

At the height of the European debt crisis, Draghi famously stated that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the Euro. So now the country is watching to see if Super Mario can show the same ruthless determination to resolve the current crisis and continue to live up to his nickname.

Image courtesy of http://www.ft.com

Spring colours

There are three thousand, five hundred and ninety inhabitants – two of whom are Mr Blue-Shirt and me – officially resident in the municipality (comune) of Montelupone. And it is a number that has afforded us a precious degree of freedom during the latest period of lockdown that began last autumn.

That was when the decree that introduced Italy’s system of yellow, orange and red zones came into force. And as with the first lockdown last spring, the rules on movement from one place to another within and between the different zones were based on municipal, provincial and regional boundaries, along with a few rules that applied nationwide, such as the curfew from 10pm to 5am, restrictions on visitors, and the continued closures of schools, theatres, cinemas, gyms and swimming pools. So if your region was in a red zone, for example, movement beyond your home municipality was banned (with a limited range of exceptions) and practically everything was closed apart from essential services. By contrast, if you were lucky enough to live in a region in the yellow zone – as we were initially – shops could open, but shopping centres had to close at weekends, bars and restaurants were allowed to offer table service until 6pm, and you were also permitted to move freely both within the whole of the region and also even between yellow zone regions. Although that only lasted until the post-Christmas, ‘strengthened’ yellow zone rules came into force and inter-regional movement was halted again. A deeper shade of yellow, if you like.

The rules for regions in the orange zone, which after Christmas meant most of the country and by then included Le Marche, unsurprisingly fell somewhere between these two extremes. The rules for shops were the same as in the zona gialla rafforzata (strengthened yellow zone), while bars and restaurants were permitted to offer only takeaway or home delivery services, and still only until 6pm, and, other than for work and health reasons, people were confined to their comune of residence. However, there was a new and crucial exception: those resident in a comune with fewer than five thousand inhabitants were permitted to travel up to 30 kilometres beyond their comune boundaries, and not only for work or health reasons, although travelling to provincial capitals, no matter how close to your home comune, remained forbidden. So a slightly paler shade of orange, if you like.

I suspect that when regional presidents were given a greater role in coronavirus-related decision-making last autumn, metropolitan, Rome-based ministers were reminded that despite technically all having the same role in the administrative hierarchy, there is a huge disparity in the size and population of the country’s 8000 or so comuni so the local impact of rules governing them was bound to vary hugely – and lead to significant inequality. Rome, with a population in excess of 2.5 million squashed into about 1300 square kilometres, is Italy’s largest comune, while Morterone, tucked in an Alpine valley 50 kilometres north-east of Milan, is the smallest with a population of just 32 scattered across an area of slightly over 13 square kilometres. So under the old rules that applied to all comuni equally, the Monteronesi might have had access to just about enough services to keep body and soul together, while the Romani would have had access to everything from focaccia to a Ferrari, from vino to Versace. And we Monteluponesi would have been able to put food on the table, do a few jobs in the garden, buy a newspaper, get a haircut and get a takeaway coffee, but that would have been more or less it.

This ministerial burst of pragmatism and fairness, however, made a huge difference to our quality of life as the 30-kilometre rule put the bright lights of Civitanova Marche within our reach and allowed us to move a little closer to normality. Our dining choices were extended beyond simply the ‘take it or leave it’ options available in the village supermarket, Mr Blue-Shirt was able to get hold of everything he needed to start work on completely revamping the downstairs loo, and we were even able to do deliciously mundane things like get a new watch battery and a pair of shoes re-heeled. But just as important was the ability simply to have a change of view, to go and to be somewhere else, to be (masked and socially-distanced, of course) among people: to see other faces (well, their eyes, at least) and hear other voices. More valuable still, though, was the ability to take a walk from one end to the other of the almost deserted, driftwood-strewn and wave-sculpted beach, to crunch through the deep drifts of shingle, all the way from the stadium and the shooting range at the southern end, past all the dormant beachfront restaurants, and on to the fishing port and the sailing club at the northern end; to enjoy the warmth of the sun on our backs and the tang of salt in the crisp, clean air; to take in the view of the distant, forested bulk of the Cònero peninsula, and look out across the sparkling, teal-blue sea towards the laser-sharp horizon – and the big wide world beyond…

Then as we walked down the promenade back towards the stadium the other Friday afternoon, we became aware of the first stirrings of life in several of those hibernating restaurants: people sweeping terraces and mopping floors, smoothing out fresh white tablecloths and polishing wine glasses and cutlery. Were the rumours and conjecture true, then? For the previous week, the local press had been speculating that with all our metrics heading steadily and unequivocally in the right direction, Le Marche, along with most other regions, would be back in the yellow zone that weekend – a good two weeks earlier than originally anticipated. Did these restaurateurs know something that we didn’t? Surely they wouldn’t be going to all this effort just for everything to gather dust for another fortnight at least? We returned home with a gentle spring in our step and a flutter of hope in our hearts.

Sure enough, in that evening’s news the rumours were confirmed: at midnight on Sunday, we would be shifting back from pale orange to deep yellow. And from Monday morning that small but significant change of shade really did seem to make the world a slightly brighter place. On our next walk along the promenade, restaurant doors stood open, menus proudly displayed on pavement stands, and the aromas of garlic, fresh bread and grilled fish wafted from kitchen windows. The lights glowed, soft music played and a hum of conversation could be heard above the muffled clatter of dishes and sizzle of hot pans as teams of waiters in neat black trousers and matching masks placed plates of steaming-hot food in front of smiling diners with what looked like an almost celebratory flourish. As far as this absolutely fundamental facet of Italian cultural life was concerned, something approaching normal service had been resumed.

Now we just needed to decide where to book a table that weekend…

Image courtesy of Pinterest

The season of sorrows

God, I loathe January. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; every year the media would have us believe that loathing January – any January – has effectively become compulsory. You know the usual shtick: the sparkle and cheer of Christmas have faded, the only Quality Street left rattling round at the bottom of the tin are the sickly soft centres, and all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey and you’ve already made curry three times. The credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia has turned to twigs, and your new year’s resolutions have long since been exposed as a work of fiction – again. But of course this year, thanks to the ever-present spectre of Covid-19 that continues to torment and imprison us, there was very little by way of sparkle and cheer in the first place, with family gatherings downgraded to overly-jolly Zoom calls, Christmas parties scaled back and then cancelled, and the much-anticipated enormous Christmas turkey for twelve replaced with a pitiful regular roast chicken for four.

For me, though, January is not just a collection of media tropes and, this year at least, another month spent in lockdown. For me, January is in a very personal sense always the ‘season of sorrows’. It is the month in which barely forty-eight hours into the new year, I buried my father. It is the month in which, just two years later, Mr Blue-Shirt and I repeatedly pounded up and down the slush-slicked motorways between our home in Lincolnshire and my family’s in Devon, initially sick with dread and later numb with grief, to spend the agonising final days of my sister’s life at the side of her hospice bed, watching cancer steal her life from her. It is the month, exactly two years after that and in the hospital right next door, in which I spent the almost identical, agonising final days of my mother’s life at the side of her almost identical hospital bed, watching cancer steal her life too.

January is the month in which I became an only child. January is the month in which I became an orphan.

This year the anniversaries of these life-changing personal losses are marked within the context of the two million lives lost globally to Covid-19; of the two million people still taken to soon, whatever their age, the two million people who spent their final days and hours in pain, in fear and in distress, but who, unlike my father, my sister and my mother, died alone and separated from their loved ones, making their passing infinitely more awful. And so in recalling my and my family’s sorrow at our loved ones’ deaths, my sorrow extends to those two million grieving families, those two million heartbroken circles of friends, those two million sets of shocked colleagues, all of them denied the chance to hold a trembling hand or stroke a tear-streaked cheek, to say farewell, to draw comfort from togetherness, or to perform the burial rites so fundamental to the process of bereavement; tens of millions of people caught in the ripples of grief and suffering expanding across the world and crashing as waves of pain on every shore around the globe.

But from within the sorrow-infused bleakness of this January that never ends, a barely perceptible chink of light is beginning to flicker into life at the end of the longest and darkest of tunnels: a vaccine, and not just one in one country, but more and more around the globe with every passing week, each of them sowing the seeds of hope and healing, and nurturing the promise of normality.  And then here in Le Marche, it is already possible to see other, more familiar symbols of hope and healing in the early hints that spring could be just around the corner. Tiny white and blue flowers are beginning to fleck the hedgerows, while flashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom are starting to appear among the still leafless trees, spring crops are already carpeting the fields in fresh, vivid green. For days at a time a honeyed sun shines from a baby-blue sky and on occasion the breeze even carries the first, tentative murmur of birdsong. The sight and sound of these unfailing emblems of rebirth, and recovery have seldom been more welcome, glimpsed within the timeless Marchigian landscape whose features have barely altered for generations. These hills and valleys, vineyards, fields and olive groves have borne witness to drought and deluge, fire and famine, earthquake, war and occupation – and have withstood the lot. It is a landscape that has endured and recovered, that has provided food and sustained communities for centuries, that has continued to shift from past to present in an infinite cycle of renewal and regrowth – and so continues to remind me every day, just as it has for the last eleven months, that ‘this too shall pass’. It lifts and sustain me and its reassuring embrace helps keep me from falling, even in this most difficult of years, into that annual pit of wretchedness. And it helps ease the enduring pain of the season of sorrows.

Hero to Zero

Matteo Renzi, according to recent opinion polls, is currently the country’s most unpopular politician. And this being Italy, we can safely assume there is a pretty long list to choose from. That said, there is no suggestion that he’s responsible for caging immigrant children, no evidence that he has voiced support for white supremacists, no indication that he has recommended drinking bleach as a sure-fire cure for Covid-19, and no accusation of promoting demonstrably baseless conspiracy theories involving long dead Venezuelan dictators in an attempt to overthrow a free and fair election. Which I suppose is something. No, in Renzi’s case, it is a much more common or garden type of political recklessness, laced, it seems, with a heavy dose of ego-driven grandstanding. Last week he pulled his tiny (and otherwise inconsequential) Italia Viva party out of the country’s fragile but reasonably competent coalition, thereby depriving it of its wafer-thin majority and so threatening to bring down the whole government – in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century and the worst economic crisis since World War II. Well-played, Matteo.

How things have changed for the charismatic former leader of the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Demcratico – PD). In 2014 the then thirty-nine-year-old Renzi became Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister, with grand ambitions of reinventing the country’s outdated political and administrative machine. And to be fair, his centrist government, which for the first (and only) time briefly included equal numbers of male and female ministers, did succeed in enacting a programme of wide-ranging reforms that, inter alia, freed up the labour market, sought to streamline public administration and simplify civil trials, abolished a raft of sundry taxes and achieved recognition of same-sex civil unions. The radical policies of his youthful government (with an average age of just forty-seven years) seemed to mark the a real ‘changing of the guard’ at the Chigi Palace, and at the start of his two years in the political sunshine the cherub-faced Renzi was far and away Italy’s most popular politician.

His nemesis, however, was his flagship constitutional reform aimed at restricting the powers (and the inherently conservative bias) of Italy’s upper chamber, the Senate. This was coupled with an overhaul of the country’s strictly proportional voting system, the purpose of which was at least to slow the revolving door that saw Italian governments coming and going on an almost yearly basis by giving a stabilising super-majority to the winning party and so preventing minor parties from holding the balance of power. Although both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate voted in favour of Renzi’s proposals, they did not achieve the two-thirds majority required for constitutional reforms, triggering a national referendum and giving the electorate the final say on the matter. As an early example of his hubristic tendencies, Renzi confidently declared that if he lost the referendum on 4th December 2016, he would resign as PM and leave politics – only for the Italian electorate, who turned out in far greater numbers than any previous constitutional referendum, to reject his proposals by sixty to forty percent. Renzi had no choice but to tender his resignation just days after the vote.

He didn’t leave politics, though. Indeed, in 2017 he was re-elected as secretary of the PD, but resigned again in March 2018, following his party’s miserable showing in that year’s inconclusive general election that left it in third place and in opposition to the fractious coalition cobbled together between the right-wing La Lega and left-leaning Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle – M5S). But when this collapsed in September 2019, Renzi saw an opportunity to return to government and persuaded his party under its hugely popular new leader Nicola Zingaretti to enter into coalition with its hitherto bitterest foe, the M5S – and neutralise La Lega in the process. Then, only days after the new government was sworn in, Renzi announced his intention to leave the PD and form a new centrist party called Italia Viva (taking with him a handful of Deputies and Senators as well as two Ministers) in what was widely condemned as little more than an act of political narcissism.

Although he initially confirmed his support for the coalition, Renzi soon became a noisy and persistent thorn in the side of Prime Minister Conte over his administration’s handling of the pandemic and the ensuing economic turmoil. He repeatedly threatened to pull his party out of the fragile coalition if he didn’t get his own way over spending plans for the €220 billion in post-Covid stimulus funding from the EU and insisting that the country should also sign up for the EU’s bailout fund, even though the ruling M5S had repeatedly rejected this over fears it would risk subjecting the country to the EU’s strict austerity rules. And thus shamelessly indulged in precisely the type of de-stabilising brinkmanship his very own failed constitutional reforms had been intended to avoid.

Even though the Cabinet did eventually accommodate his spending proposals, Renzi’s other demands remained unmet, so he lobbed his toys out of the pram and his party out of government in another fit of characteristically hubristic pique. For what Renzi had failed to consider was that a) his own party enjoys only a meagre 3% support, b) over 70% of Italians believe he is simply pursuing his own political interests, and are opposed to political upheaval in such a critical period, and c) Conte still enjoys solid support in the polls. He also failed to appreciate that d) Conte also still enjoys the support the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, winning the votes of confidence in both houses his resignation triggered. And e) that his latest piece of grandstanding would consequently leave him out in the political cold since, despite magnanimously indicating he might be prepared to return to the coalition fold if his demands were met, M5S and the PD have both refused to work with him again, preferring instead to carry on as a minority government.

What’s that they say about those who do not learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat them?

Photo credit: Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse

Pet therapy

It is almost exactly two years since Tilly and her brother Stanley first came into our lives as four- or five-month-old kittens; two years since they used to cuddle up side by side in a succession of refuges like a pair of tabby slippers, peering out at us from two sets of golden, suspicion-filled eyes, trying to ease their own and each other’s fears and anxieties at all the unfamiliarity. With the approaching spring, though, they gradually grew not to fear us, then to accept us, then to trust us, and finally to feel properly at home in their new surroundings – but always as a pair, each always the other’s wingman, playmate and fall guy.

It was the same once spring had blossomed into summer and they were able to go outside and discover a whole new world of adventure. From time to time we’d catch sight of them both galloping across the grass, rolling around on the drive or chasing each other up olive trees. When they had run out of steam, they would snuggle up together for an afternoon nap in an eight-pawed, two-tailed tangle of tabby fur, before trotting off together into the gathering dusk for an evening alternating between moth-chasing, lizard-catching and tiny rodent-hunting, and coming over to enjoy a gentle ear-scritch, a vigorous tummy-tickle, or simply loll about at our feet while we dined on the terrace and watched the lights twinkling in the valley.

By the end of that summer, though, Stanley was gone. It was on a Saturday morning in late September that Mr Blue-Shirt found his small, lifeless body on the road just outside the gate, his thick brindled fur with its ginger-tinged highlights already stiff and cold to the touch. There were no gaping wounds, no oddly-angled limbs; he was lying on his side, legs outstretched, with just a slight flattening of his head the only sign of the fatal blow from a passing car that had killed him. We were saddened beyond measure to lose our gentle, playful, loyal Stanley and through our tears we could barely see what we were doing as later that morning we gently wrapped him in an old pillow case, dug his grave and tenderly laid him to rest beneath the small pear tree in the far corner of the garden that looks across the fields to the village and down to the sea. It was only once we had rolled into place a couple of large rocks to mark the spot and keep it safe from foxes and porcupines that our thoughts turned to poor Tilly.

I thought I had glimpsed her dark tabby form among the olive trees while we were still kneeling at the gate stroking Stanley’s inert form, and I fleetingly wondered whether she had somehow sensed that something terrible had happened. Not having seen her since, I wondered whether she was still searching for her brother in all their usual haunts, and by late afternoon we were worried sick. But as night closed in, she finally re-appeared, looking bewildered, stricken and utterly lost. Our hearts nearly broke for the poor wee creature and we smothered her in cuddles and did our inadequate, human best to comfort her. She wouldn’t rest, though, and a pattern soon emerged: searching out in the fields by day and then patrolling the house by night, when we would hear her soft paws padding back and forth across the wooden floors, her mournful calls amplified by the stillness and the dark.

For weeks Tilly continued her search for her absent brother, never giving up hope that they might one day be reunited. She did seem to draw some comfort from all the extra attention and reassurance, however, and to ease her loneliness she gradually began to seek out our company more often and then to play with us a little, and even, on occasion, to cuddle up on the sofa with us. Then as the year drew to a close, she seemed properly to turn a corner. It was as if she had finally understood that poor Stanley was never coming back and that she was on her own; and that while we might be pretty second-rate playmates (rubbish at tree-climbing, even worse at butterfly-chasing, and as for mousing…), she could do an awful lot worse than us.

The daytime searching stopped and the night time padding ceased; the charging up and down trees restarted, the hunting came back, and the brightness in her eyes returned. Over the next few weeks, she became talkative and sociable, always calling out a greeting as she came in through the cat-flap before coming to find each of us for a quick cuddle and a game. Although she still spent hours at a time outside, now she was playing and exploring and hunting – and bringing us an endless succession of live, small furry ‘gifts’ for us to play with (ie try and catch and release back into the garden before they sought refuge under the fridge or behind the stove). Come evening, she developed the uncanny habit of returning home for a bowl of turkey biscuits just as we were sitting down for our own dinner. She soon started to join us in the sitting room too, either draped along the back of one of the sofas or curled up, in true cat fashion, in front of the fire. And when we headed up to bed, it became her custom to trot up the stairs behind us, jump up onto the bed and nestle down between us, only hopping back down again shortly before dawn to do what a cat has to do. Yes, she definitely didn’t seem to feel that badly off with us, even without her much-missed brother.

Then, with coronavirus spreading unimpeded across the country and we started to go into what would become twelve weeks of total lockdown, our roles were somehow suddenly reversed.  Very quickly death and disease became the only topics of conversation, everyone’s primary pre-occupations were whether they could avoid the virus and whether they could keep their jobs; fear and uncertainty became the constant background music to week after week spent doing our best to carry on as normal in a world that was now anything but normal, and it was we who now felt bewildered and lost. But our dear, sweet Tilly remained utterly indifferent to the crisis unfolding around us. No matter how alarming the daily statistics, her self-possession never crumbled; no matter how difficult and frustrating it became for Mr Blue-Shirt to get hold of the materials he needed to carry on building the terrace, her nonchalance never wavered; no matter how stressful and restrictive I found the virtual classroom, her serenity never faltered. We both found her sheer imperturbability immensely comforting and reassuring, so as the storm raged around us, just a few minutes’ playing with her, stroking her, or even just watching the gentle rise and fall of her stripey flanks as she slept would have a surprisingly calming effect, ease our troubled minds and soothe our weary spirits. In short, she became – and remains – the tabby embodiment of the Persian adage ‘this too shall pass’. So whatever we gave her when she was in distress, she has given back in spades.

La Befana vien di notte

If Christmas in Italy traditionally starts on 8th December with the public holiday that marks feast of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception, it equally traditionally ends on 6th January with the feast of Epiphany that commemorates the visit of the Magi to the new-born Holy Infant, and thus the revelation of god made flesh as Jesus Christ. That’s the official, Church position, at least. More popularly, however, this public holiday also celebrates the arrival on the Eve of Epiphany – aka Twelfth Night – of La Befana.

On the night before Epiphany this cheery-looking, hook-nosed hag, who in Italy is easily as popular among children as Babbo Natale (Santa Claus), rides on her broomstick from house to house, filling children’s stockings with toys, sweets and fruits – if they have been good; if the have been bad, they may receive just coal, onions or garlic. That said, since no child can be good all the time, every stocking nowadays normally also contains a chunk of coal in the form of black-coloured candy. Good or bad, though, if children try to catch a glimpse of La Befana when she arrives, she may give them a whack with her broomstick – although this may just be a parental ruse to try and keep over-excited children in bed.  La Befana is usually depicted wearing a black shawl and covered in soot since she enters children’s houses via the chimney. As a gesture of welcome and thanks, families usually leave her a glass of wine and a plate of tasty titbits or Christmas treats such as panettone to restore her for her onward journey. She is a well-mannered visitor and traditionally sweeps the floor with her broom before she leaves, which to some has come to symbolise sweeping away the problems of the old year.

While it was not until the twentieth century that the traditions of La Befana cameto be practised throughout Italy, her roots are thought to be in Roman festivities honouring both Strenia, the goddess of the new year, purification and well-being, and Janus, the god of beginnings, endings and transitions who is usually pictured facing both backwards and forwards. These were held at the start of the year – ‘January’ is widely thought to derive from ‘Janus’ – and involved the exchange of gifts. Like many rites and customs of pagan worship, La Befana was subsequently adopted by the early Church and her origins woven into the Christian narrative relating to the birth of the Christ Child. The only thing is, the Church has never been able to settle on a single, definitive version of the legend. That said, most versions typically tell of the Magi asking La Befana for help in their search for the new born Son of God, and her regret that she does not accompany them on her journey because she has her housework to do. Wracked with guilt, La Befana later tries either to join the Magi in their search or to find the baby Jesus herself, and according to one telling, takes food and gifts for the infant Christ with her along with her trusty broom with which to help Mary keep the stable clean. Her good intentions go unrewarded, however, and so more than two thousand years later she still visits the home of every child in her continued search for the new-born Messiah. In the absence of the Son of God himself, she leaves gifts for all good children, taking comfort from the belief that the Christ Child is present in all children.

Another variation depicts La Befana as a grieving mother, who, on hearing of the birth of Jesus, sets out to find him, believing him to be her dead child. In this version, however, her search is successful and she is able to present the Christ Child with her gifts, and the gift he gives her in return is to be the mother of every child in Italy.

Although La Befana is an integral part of Epiphany celebrations everywhere, she is held in especially high regard in the post-unification regions that historically formed part of the Papal States, in particular Lazio (which includes Rome), Umbria and Le Marche. Indeed, La Befana’s official home is in Urbania, a small town about one hundred and thirty kilometres north-west of us, where the four-day Festa della Befana is held annually. These protracted festivities normally involve every conceivable variety of Befana-based activity, attracting over fifty thousand visitors every year and rising. Children can visit La Befana in her house (a permanent site within the town hall), listen to her stories, watch her knitting stockings and scarves, and leave her letters expressing their good intentions for the coming year at the Befana Post Office. The town is lavishly decorated for the occasion with Befana-themed adornments including four thousand knitted stockings, and its winding, medieval streets are filled with stands offering craft demonstrations and traditional games, handmade toys and local food and drink. There are fire jugglers, street performers, dance and music as well as dressing-up competitions and gaggles of Befanas swooping among the bell towers.

Thanks to the ongoing Covid-19 emergency, this year’s festivities in Urbania were all virtual, and smaller events across the country were all cancelled. We must therefore hope that La Befana lived up to her reputation as a super-efficient housekeeper and used an extra big broom to sweep away the problems of 2020 so that at some point in 2021 may we once again sing, dance, eat, drink and make merry together.


Image: painting by James Lewicki from “The Golden Book of Christmas Tales”, 1956

Can we have half a point for…?

Tiramisù appears on the dessert menu of practically every Italian restaurant in the UK, but what does the word tiramisù mean?” It was our opening salvo in the opening battle of a good-natured war that was to rage throughout much of 2020: a general knowledge Zoom quiz involving five or six couples, all in the UK except us. It was surely just one of tens of thousands almost identical quizzes raging across the country that helped punctuate the monotony of lockdown, but that was no less entertaining or valuable to us for all that.

Our great friends James and Diane from our Brunei days initiated it, inviting us to take part along with two other couples, whom we also know from numerous raucous and boozy New Years seen in  at their home in Hampshire, as well as one or both of their grown-up sons and their partners. Since nearly all of the participants continued to work in some form or another throughout lockdown, the quiz soon became fortnightly rather than weekly to give everyone enough time to research sufficiently fiendish questions, put together increasingly elaborate picture rounds, and eventually to plunder the myriad quizzing sites we all over time became familiar with (and increasingly reliant on). It also soon moved from Saturday to Friday evening: while everyone’s weekends were, of course, depressingly free of social commitments, Fridays felt a much better day to ‘celebrate’ another week of lockdown survived and ticked off.

Much like everyone else’s quizzes, I suspect, the subjects ranged from clever to obscure, from nostalgic to daft, from inventive to desperate (a round called ‘cheese or motorway service station?’ was a great leveller if nothing else), and the arguments over questions, answers and scores – all about as serious as a children’s pillow fight – grew ever less disciplined. And who won or lost grew ever less relevant. Over the weeks and months, those Friday evenings simply became a way to enjoy the company of others, to laugh, to bicker, to tease, to gripe, to let off steam, and for a couple of hours to forget about fatality rates, R-values and travel restrictions (not to mention the parallel horrors of Brexit and Trump).

With little need for discussion, we drew Season One to a close as soon as we were finally released from lockdown and for those few halcyon weeks of summer we could briefly move beyond our immediate neighbourhoods, if not actually do much once we got anywhere. But once tiers one, two and three and zona gialla, arancione and rossa confined us to our homes and screens once more, Season Two soon got underway with renewed vigour, creativity and competitiveness. Like all the best entertainment series it concluded with a Christmas special, complete with questionable festive knitwear and Santa hats as well as rounds on every conceivable aspect of Christmas, from ‘guess the celebrity Santa’ to ‘name that Christmas hit’ (played as a medley on the trumpet) and all points in between. But as with so many Christmas specials, it did slightly feel as if we were limping over the line, our energy spent and our well of ideas run dry.  So when Diane tentatively suggested getting together on New Year’s Eve as we were moving our cursors to the red ‘leave meeting’ button, there was little clamour for a New-Year-themed quiz, but little imagination for a suitable alternative. Over the next few days, however, messages were exchanged and ideas batted back and forth and alongside a desire for some outright silliness, a desire for something just a tad more reflective slowly seemed to emerge; an unspoken desire, perhaps even a need, to identify and celebrate the positives and cast out the negatives as 2020 finally passed into history.

So here, then, are the questions we settled upon and my answers to them.

Three good things from 2020 from a personal perspective
Our idyllic holiday in Croatia that for so long we feared would never happen, securing our post-Brexit residency, and, in fact, the sheer release of those Friday night quizzes.

Three plans for 2021
Writing more, running more, and starting work on bringing the interior of the house up to the same standard as the outside.

New Year’s Resolutions
None – as always.

Best Christmas cracker joke
Q: Which illness can you catch from Christmas decorations?
A: Tinselitis.

Favourite film, book or TV programme from 2020
‘The Great British Bake Off’ for its kindly, cosy and comforting escapism.

Greatest achievement from lockdown
Turning twenty-plus years of classroom teaching experience on its head and becoming an online teacher at barely a week’s notice – and completing a qualification in online teaching in between lessons too.

Most embarrassing moment of 2020
This was a tie between scoring full marks in a quiz round based on our knowledge of Ikea products and losing a whole group of students in cyberspace in an early attempt at creating breakout groups on Zoom while experiencing connectivity problems. I never did find out where they ended up…

Best and worst purchases of 2020
Mr Blue-Shirt and I both chose as our best purchase the slouchy, L-shaped sofa for the newly-built patio, lounging on which we listened to the rasping of the cicadas and watched the fireflies dancing in the olive grove almost every evening of summer.
No worst purchase having made too few during the year for anything to qualify.

Best and worst new things tried in 2020
Podcasts were my best new thing tried: as a life-long fan of speech radio they were the perfect refuge when the relentless horrors of Covid, Brexit and Trump, reported on and dissected ad nauseum in radio news and current affairs programmes, became unbearable.
Since podcasts were effectively the only new thing I tried, nothing qualified as the worst new thing.

Favourite song and most treasured possession you would choose if invited onto Desert Island Discs
Sisi Wa Mbali Mbali’, a Swahili ‘party song’ of pure, unadulterated joy (‘People come from far away to be together in music’) that brings back precious memories of my singing days in Lincolnshire, and my satisfyingly heavy and beautifully engineered Montegrappa pencil together with my new, excitingly empty, gold and turquoise embossed A4 notebook – both gifts from Mr Blue-Shirt.

Now it’s your turn…

By the way, tiramisù means ‘pick me up’ – which I think we could all do with after 2020.

And finally, Happy New Year! In 2021 may we once again sing, dance, eat, drink and make merry together.

Ring out, wild bells

It’s inevitable, really, at this time of year – any year, in fact: that urge to look back and take stock. As 2020 staggers to its exhausted close, however, that need to review and reflect on the most tumultuous year for probably a generation, to weigh up the highs and the lows and prepare to turn the page feels stronger than ever. A greater need, perhaps to find some positives, or perhaps to find some understanding; or more simply just to be thankful that it is almost over. But now weary in mind and spirit, I find myself unable to unravel the tangled mess of words and thoughts and feelings that still churn round inside my head and that refuse to coalesce into orderly sentences and paragraphs. So I leave you with the words of Alfred, Lord Tennyson that I think hit the mark exactly.

In memoriam (Ring out, wild bells)

Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
   The flying cloud, the frosty light:
   The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
   Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
   The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind
   For those that here we see no more;
   Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
   And ancient forms of party strife;
   Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
   The faithless coldness of the times;
   Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
   The civic slander and the spite;
   Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
   Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
   Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
   The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
   Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ* that is to be.

* As a non-believer, I would prefer the word ‘year’ here, but leave it in place out of respect to Tennyson’s mighty words and the broader sentiment that they express so powerfully.

The image is of Montelupone’s 14th century Palazzetto del Podestà and Torre Civica complete with its impressive cast bronze bell. It was taken 36 minutes into 2020 before the tumult fell upon the world…