It’s a small world

It is almost a cliché these days to say, thanks to our globalised economy, globalised communications, globalised logistics and globalised travel, that our world has shrunk. And now, thanks to a global pandemic, it has shrunk much more literally than most would have anticipated and anyone would have wished. Our world certainly shrunk a little further last week.

For barely a week, Le Marche had been one of the ten regions in the country in the newly created yellow zone, with few restrictions in addition to those put in place nationally at the start of the month as part of the latest regime of measures to combat the second, tsunami-like wave of Covid 19 infections spreading across the country. Although bars and restaurants had to close at 6pm, all leisure and entertainment venues were shut, secondary schools and universities had to go back online, and a night-time curfew had been introduced, life did otherwise seem to continue largely as normal – or what had been re-defined as normal since the first lockdown was lifted in early June. People still went to work, ran errands, did the shopping, took the kids to school (if they were primary school age, at least), went to Mass, went out for lunch and visited family. True, the daily number of new cases was much higher than during the first wave, but according to the other twenty criteria used by the government to decide which regions should be in which zone, Le Marche was still considered – within context – at low risk.

All that changed at the end of last week – on Friday 13th, in fact – when it was announced not only that Campania and Tuscany would move into the red zone, but that, along with neighbouring Emilia-Romagna and Friuli-Venezia Giulia in the far north-east, Le Marche would move into the orange zone. The catalyst for this was, in part, the relentless rise in new cases across our relatively sparsely populated and largely city-less region. These days, the virus feels much closer and more insidious, and there can be few people left who don’t know someone who has had to quarantine or who has tested positive. Alarming though that rise was becoming, however, it was the proportion of those new cases that were also symptomatic and the corresponding pressure that this risked putting on intensive care capacity that was of greater concern to the authorities. So for the Marchigiani this unwelcome ‘upgrade’ from yellow to orange would mean a total, 24/7, 7/7 closure of all bars and restaurants (takeaway and delivery services excepted) and a ban on movement not only from one region to another, but from one comune to another, except for proven work, study or health reasons and other needs. And of course, the word ‘proven’ means that the self-declaration document would be back (albeit a much more straightforward version of the form we were required to use for every outing the first time around) along with the accompanying document checks by the Carabinieri and increased fines for infractions.

The new restrictions came into force two days later, on a dank and chilly Sunday when, as if to underline the newly narrowed confines of our world, both the mountains and the sea were lost behind a thick curtain of drizzle-laden mist that left even the village hidden from view.  It also happened to be my birthday. Having seen the direction in which things were moving – and how fast – Mr Blue-Shirt had already cancelled the dinner, bed and breakfast birthday treat in Umbria he had arranged some weeks earlier. But now even the hastily substituted birthday breakfast in the village and a short trip up to the Cònero peninsular for a long walk along the beach and a slap-up fish lunch in Numana were off, so our own kitchen and dining room were swiftly pressed into service as the best restaurant in town. We used Saturday to dash around supermarkets in Trodica, Sambucheto and Civitanova Marche for ingredients for a birthday meal – all of which Mr Blue-Shirt naturally insisted on cooking – I dusted off the china and glassware we normally only use for Christmas and we agreed we would still dress up as if going out for dinner. Despite the busy-ness and bustle, however, it was hard not to feel slightly miserable and a little hard-done-by. But within the dense November gloom, I did my best to find some perspective and remember how many hundreds of thousands of other people will have spent their birthdays, anniversaries or engagements in lockdown too. And thanks to phone calls, video calls, messages and greetings from family and friends across two continents, I realised that our world had not shrunk quite so much after all. My birthday dinner was delicious too.

Liquid summer

As usual, we had been um-ing and ah-ing about when to start for a good couple of weeks, keeping an eye on what our neighbours were doing as a signal for when would be the right time. Over the preceding few days one of us would come in and report that “Maurizio and Flavia have started.” Or “There were stacks of crates outside the place with the goats.” Or “They’ve got their nets out next door to the bakery on the way to the village.”

Our olive crop had been steadily ripening beneath the mellow sun of our long and langourous Indian summer as it slowly faded into autumn. The plump bright green fruit had gradually softened to a murky violet, then darkened to purple, and now to glossy black: thousands of little black beads shining in the sun like fairy lights made of jet. The trees that Mr Blue-Shirt had given a vigorous pruning back in January hadn’t fruited this year, of course, but there was so much fruit on the rest that from the house we could see it twinkling among the branches. So we were cautiously confident we’d have another good crop, especially as we hadn’t suffered any of the bad storms that typically mark the shift from summer to autumn and that can easily strip most of the fruit from the trees. But as ever, exactly when to harvest these little black jewels was a matter of judgement, and as ever, we had decided to take our lead from what other people were doing – hence the daily reports on what our neighbours were up to.

So it was the next available weekend that Mr Blue-Shirt retrieved the bright green nets, orange rakes and maroon crates from the shed  – and also (Mr Blue-Shirt being Mr Blue-Shirt) two chainsaws, the leaf-blower, the battery-powered secateurs, the pole shears, the bolt-croppers, the long-reach ladder, and the star of the show, his beloved abbacchiatoro elettrico. This car-battery-powered device consists of a telescopic pole on the end of which is a pair of lightly interlocking rakes that jiggle back and forth like a pair of rapidly clapping hands and tease the olives from the tree as you pass them along the branches. What these go-to gadgets lack in romance they more than make up for in efficiency, and the sound of their mechanical chatter drifting across the olive groves forms autumn’s background music.

Our confidence had been justified: at the end of three days’ non-stop raking, jiggling, snipping, sawing and gathering, five and a bit crates brimming with shiny black and purple fruit stood in neat rows on the floor of the van. Mr Blue-Shirt wiped his olive-stained hands on his muddy trousers and picked a few stray twigs from his fleece.
“Job’s a good-un,” he declared and stretched contentedly.
“It’s about twenty-five kilos per crate, isn’t?” I asked, rolling my work-stiffened neck and shoulders back and forth.
“Yep, so we must have a good hundred and twenty-five kilos there. Let’s get down to Rodolfo’s and weigh them in.”
We slammed the van doors shut, clambered into the cab and trundled off through the gathering dusk, down the hill to the oleificio we use to get our olives pressed. This is a small yet impressive set-up in the corner of a sprawling and immaculately kept olive farm down a lane on the way to Macerata. We had found it two years earlier by following the recommendation of our neighbour Enrico and the signs off the main road to Morrovalle, the next village from us.

“Spot on! A hundred and twenty-five point two kilos” confirmed Mr Blue-Shirt, reading the display on the industrial scales by the door to the pressing shed.
“We don’t know what the yield will be like, though,” I cautioned “At the end of the day, it’s all about how much oil we get. And after such a dry summer, we may not get such a good yield as last year”.
“Well, all will be revealed tomorrow: the chap who weighed our crop just said they’re really busy, so they won’t be able to press our fruit today. But let’s take a quick look in the shed. You didn’t get to see the whole pressing process last year, did you?”  

Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt has never lost his fascination for all things mechanical and is still drawn to practically any kind of machinery like a moth to a flame, so last year he had eagerly accepted Rodolfo’s invitation to go and watch the entire process from weighing the fruit in to picking up our flagon of oil.  As we stood in the doorway of the shed that was little larger than a domestic double garage, but that was teeming with activity, he talked me through the same process that a couple of leathery-faced old codgers had explained to him the year before.

“Right, so once it’s been weighed, the olives get tipped into that,” bellowed Mr Blue-Shirt above all the clanking and whirring, and pointed to the large steel hopper behind me. “They drop down through a stream of air that blows away all the twigs and leaves and so on.”
“We got rid of lots of leaves and twigs, though.”
“We picked out what we could, but there’s still loads of debris in there that you don’t want to end up in the oil.”
“So where do they go next then?” I asked, peering into the shed where three or four workers wheeled, shoved and carried different pieces of equipment back and forth.
“Well, they land in another hopper – See? Down there? –  which feeds them onto that belt.” He pointed towards a small conveyor belt that disappeared into the shed where it dropped the fruit into a large round tray.
“Look! This bit is great. They still use these huge rotating stone wheels to crush the whole olives into a sludgey paste. All this modern technology everywhere…” He gestured expansively around the shed … “…but it’s effectively the same technique they’ve used for centuries. I love it!”
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, I suppose.”
“Exactly. And that bit’s just a modern take on ancient technology, too.” This time he indicated the large Archimedes screw that was feeding the black-ish goo up to the next machine. A precision-engineered, stainless steel one, admittedly, but an Archimedes screw all the same. Then, once the black paste had wound its way up through the screw, it was fed through the slot-shaped nozzle of the next machine which spread a generous layer of paste onto a circular mat made of stainless-steel mesh.

“OK, you can see that when the mat is fully covered, one of those blokes lifts it off, puts on a fresh one, and threads the full one over that pole mounted on a trolley.” I watched the fluid and practised movements of the young man who was obviously Rodolfo’s son. “They keep adding mats until they have a stack about 1.5 metres high.”
“I’m pretty sure the mats date back centuries too. Carol Drinkwater mentions them in her books about the history of olives. Only they were made of straw or something originally, I think. Anyway, what happens next?”
“Right, then they wheel the trolleys into the press on the left there, which slowly pushes down on top of the stack of mats.”
“I’m a bit disappointed it’s not one of those old things with a great big comedy wing-nut on top you sometimes see in farmyards”
“No, proper hi-tech this time: hydraulic. Four hundred kilos of pressure per centimetre squared,” he declared in full nerd-mode. I rolled my eyes.
“Only you would know something like that!”
“Last year one of the old codgers showed me the pressure gauge,” he grinned. “Apparently, it takes a good half hour to press all the oil out. It just trickles down the sides into that big steel tank down there in the floor.”
I peered down into what looked like a vat of used motor oil.
“Yuk! It looks revolting!”
“Yes, there are still quite a lot of crushed up solids in there– pulp, skin, bits of pip and so on. From that tank the oil is pumped into a centrifuge – that big cylinder there in the corner – to separate all the gunk from the oil. I think the chap said it spins at something like seven thousand revolutions per minute.”
“And so that’s the finished oil coming out of the centrifuge from that spout?” I asked, pointing at the glossy, yellow-green stream pouring into the flagon that had been positioned below the spout.
“Yup! And that’s it, done!”
“It must have been so satisfying to see our oil pouring into our flagon last year!”
“It was! I was dying to taste it, but you can see it’s still a bit cloudy, so it needs to settle for a couple of days.”

“So go on, tell me: how much have we got, then?” I asked as Mr Blue-Shirt heaved our freshly-filled flagon from the back of the car and down into the cantina.
“Twenty-five litres!” said Mr Blue-Shirt smiling broadly.
“Wow! That’s much more than I expected! I’m sure we had closer to two hundred kilos of fruit last year and only got a few more litres than that.”
“Yeah, thirty litres, I think. But I reckon we picked a week or so later this year, so the fruit was probably a bit riper. Rodolfo certainly thinks it’s a good yield. And he says the quality is high too: apparently, all those weeks of hot, dry sunny weather will give the oil a richer and more intense flavour. ”
 “So quality as well as quantity this year! Can we have a look?”

Down in the musty gloom of the cellar Mr Blue-Shirt unscrewed the lid of the flagon and shone a torch in through its wide neck. The beam illuminated the fragrant greeny-gold oil that nearly filled the flagon and I inhaled deeply, savouring the distinctive grassy, peppery aroma. I swear I could practically feel the sunshine and hear the crickets. It was not just oil; not just Casa Girasole oil. It was liquid summer…

As expected

Andrà tutto bene” – “All shall be well”. It was the national rallying cry that helped see the country through the earliest, darkest days of lockdown back in spring; those days when it was the unknown that everyone feared as much as the invisible viral enemy and its relentless march from one region to the next. It stiffened people’s resolve and lifted their spirits; it helped people pull together and reminded us all that this too shall pass. Invariably decorated with cheery rainbows, it was Scotch-taped to windows, pinned on doors and sprayed onto bedsheets that hung from balconies. Eight months on and the posters and bedsheets are still there, a little sagging and frayed and rather faded now, but still holding fast – just. And it is much the same with the Italian population as we enter Lockdown Version 2.

It came as no real surprise this week that following the continued almost exponential rise in new Covid infections, the regime of measures which was announced in late October that sought to balance economic, public health and social needs would swiftly be superseded by something much more robust. But Prime Minister Conte and his cabinet still shied away from imposing another total national lockdown like that in spring which confined everyone from the Alps to Etna in their home municipalities for almost three months. For this time round, with the people’s goodwill, resolve and savings long since exhausted, the mood of national solidarity and consensus is much more fragile. Added to which, the government has also been faced with twenty regional leaders who during the first lockdown were largely excluded from the decision-making process and left powerless to respond with local measures to local conditions and local needs. So this time it adopted a more consultative and collaborative approach, and after several days’ painstaking negotiations, the result is a much more nuanced response.

In addition to the measures announced the previous week that included the closure of all entertainment and leisure venues, the banning of amateur sports activities other than individual exercise, the closure of all restaurants, bars, cafés, patisseries and ice-cream parlours after 6.00pm, and a recommendation that at least seventy-five percent of secondary and tertiary teaching move back online, a month-long nationwide curfew from 10pm to 5am has also been put in place (other than for proven work, study or health reasons). Then a list of twenty-one criteria has been used to allocate each region to one of three zones: red, orange and yellow (green was abandoned at the last minute for fear of sending the wrong message). As well as the daily number of new infections, these criteria include the R-value, the percentage of intensive care beds occupied, the daily testing rate plus the percentage of positives, the time between symptoms and diagnosis, and the size and number of local ‘hot-spots’.

For the eleven regions in the yellow zone – of which Le Marche is one – the only further restrictions are online learning for one hundred percent of secondary and tertiary students, and the closure of all amusement arcades and betting facilities. For those in the orange zone (Puglia and Sicily) there is also a ban on movement (other than for proven work, study or health reasons) within and between regions and the complete closure of all bars and restaurants. Then for those in the red zone (Lombardy, Piemonte and Val d’Aosta in the far north and Calabria in the far south), there is a ban on movement (other than for proven work, study or health reasons) beyond one’s home municipality, all shops selling non-essential goods are closed, and another tier of schools has had to go online.  While these restrictions are undoubtedly severe, especially in the red zone, they are still not as severe as in the first lockdown, however, principally because in all three zones, factories and businesses can remain open, albeit with as much smart working from home as possible.

Then as for devolved powers, regional governments have been granted decision-making powers relating to their specific economic circumstances. Thus, inland regions can, for instance, issue rules relating to hunting licences, coastal regions can issue rules relating to fishing, and alpine regions can, presumably, issued rules relating to ski resorts. More importantly, however, regional governments have been given a voice in the corridors of power in Rome and so can more easily make their case for additional resources from central government to mitigate some of the economic impact of these new measures, and to help ensure that the civil unrest that is already a problem in some large cities can be avoided – and that the fragile yet vital national consensus can be preserved.  Time will tell whether Conte has got it right…

Carrots and Sticks

‘If we take these steps now, we will increase our chances of enjoying a peaceful Christmas together’. This was the way Prime Minister Conte chose at the start of this week to sell his government’s latest emergency decree to a weary and restive people, dismayed by the frighteningly rapid increase in the numbers of new Covid-19 cases. As recently as July and early August, numbers were in the low hundreds per day; only about sixty people were in intensive care nationally and daily fatalities were in the teens. Apart from the ubiquitous masks and hand sanitiser and the absence of hugs and handshakes, life felt almost normal. The sun shone, the sea was warm, the beaches full, restaurants busy, families and friends gathered. And as a nation, we lowered our guard.

The small but steady rise in numbers that first became apparent in mid-August was put down to people returning from trips to countries with higher infection rates than Italy and so measures such as compulsory testing within forty-eight hours of arrival were swiftly put in place [https://wordpress.com/post/lemarche.life/533]. It was just a summer blip, we all told ourselves: as soon as the holiday season was over, numbers would fall again. After all, the comprehensive contact-tracing and quarantine regime was working well. Added to which, everyone was desperate to take the final and possibly most precarious step in the return to normality and get students back to school and university after six months out of the classroom. It had been just as much of a political hot potato in Italy as it had been in the UK and elsewhere, but a reasonably workable set of safety measures and protocols was finally thrashed out. So at the start of term, fleets of yellow school buses could once again be seen trundling about the lanes, picking up and dropping off gaggles of apprehensive yet excited youngsters, all delighted to be back together with their classmates at last.

The thing is, it wasn’t a blip; the numbers didn’t fall. In fact, they continued to grow, and then to grow more quickly. Within the course of a month, numbers were back in the thousands and getting ever closer to where they had been when the country went into the first and strictest lockdown in Europe. Surely it couldn’t happen again? Not another lockdown; we couldn’t go through that again. That same thought circled round the mind of the nation; it was voiced in conversations muffled by masks, which did little, however, to hide that same fear etched in people’s faces. The government shared the sentiment and recognised the mood: a national lockdown was repeatedly ruled out. They knew that neither the fragile economy nor the people, whose goodwill, resolve and savings had been all but exhausted, would be able to bear it. And shaken by victories for far-right parties in a recent series of regional elections, they also knew that the political stakes had seldom been higher. But the government could not do nothing, so little by little, as if testing the water, restrictions started to be tweaked a little tighter. The wearing of masks outside as well as inside became obligatory, and in the regions with the most alarming infection rates such as Campania and in Lombardia (where the virus had first taken hold) a range of non-essential businesses could open only with restricted hours – and in some cases, not at all – and night-time curfews were announced. In major cities from Turin to Palermo, bitter frustration erupted into violent demonstrations, while in other towns up and down the country opposition to the new restrictions was more muted, but no less heartfelt. Still the numbers rose, though, almost doubling by the week and by now far higher than they had been back in spring, with the much slower rise in intensive care admissions and in fatalities providing scant, albeit welcome comfort.

So it was against this backdrop that Prime Minister Conte once more addressed a tense and fearful nation and announced a month-long closure of all entertainment and leisure venues, the banning of amateur sports activities other than individual exercise, the closure of all restaurants, bars, cafés, patisseries and ice-cream parlours after 6.00pm, and a recommendation that at least seventy-five percent of secondary and tertiary teaching move back online. And in light of data indicating that intra-family transmissions account for up to three-quarters of all new infections, he finished with an impassioned plea to show restraint and responsibility when it came to that most culturally and socially significant of Italian activities, the large, family get-together for Sunday lunch.

That was at the start of the week; by the end of the week, however, the infection rate seemed to be spiralling out of control, with numbers now exceeding even those featuring in policymakers’ worst-case scenarios. So the nation is now bracing itself for a much bigger stick and a much longer wait for that promised carrot.

The agony of choice

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

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

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

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

Like waiting for a bus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wanted: one forge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reaping the benefits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To the wire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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