And there it was gone…

Although Mr Blue-Shirt had sent me twice-daily photo updates on his progress while I was in the UK and given me and blow by blow accounts over the phone, they still hadn’t truly prepared me for the reality that greeted me when I returned home. I stood at the back door, my suitcase still in the middle of the kitchen floor and the cats weaving about my legs, and looked out towards where the decrepit and toxic pigsty had once stood on the slight rise to the rear of the house. When I left, all the makeshift cladding had long since been ripped off, Mr Blue-Shirt had carefully taken down one and a half outside walls and all the internal dividing walls brick by brick, salvaging all the materials for use elsewhere. He had removed the large curved coppi roof tiles from half the roof and stacked them on a pallet, and many of the timber uprights and beams had been removed and then stowed in the legnaia (woodstore) for chopping into firewood. It was still recognisably the loathsome pigsty, however, albeit a mortally wounded version of its former self. But now – at last – it had gone. Completely gone. Disappeared. Not a single brick or beam or roof tile remained. Nothing. Just a bare patch of roughly levelled soil in front of the previously almost invisible pair of tall olive trees up by the front fence, and beyond it a newly revealed view of the uphill section of the field that surrounds the house. I could now see on to the trees that line the lane running down the valley, then over the road that runs up into the village to the tops of our neighbours’ olive trees and finally round to the western sky from where the late afternoon sun cast its slanting rays through the line of olive trees along our northern border that I had never seen from this angle.

I really don’t know how Mr Blue-Shirt had managed it. I’m lost in admiration for his unswerving determination in razing this blight on our lives to the ground in a matter of days. And in mid-August at the absolute height of this hotter than usual summer. Doing an early and a late shift certainly helped. After a quick coffee just after 5am, he’d start work in the cool, milky dawn, the throaty splutter of the ageing digger he had hired for this part of the job breaking the stillness of the morning air. He’d stop for breakfast at about 9am, then get straight back to the slow, repetitive, strength-sapping cycle of labour that made up his days. After some minutes of pushing and heaving with the digger would come the dull crash and cloud of thick buff-coloured dust as the section he’d been wrestling with gave up the unequal struggle. Mr Blue-Shirt would then jump down from the cab to retrieve any re-usable bricks from the latest pile of debris and stack them on the pallets behind the well. After a brief pause to drink the first of many pints of water with which he held dehydration at bay, he would then climb back into the cab to scoop the remaining rubble up into the steel-fanged digger bucket, hopping out again to top it up by hand (and gulp down more water), and finally trundle round the eastern end of the house to tip the contents into the back of the fifteen-tonne truck parked on the drive. Then it was an about turn (or a ‘neutral turn’, as it is known in the track vehicle trade: when one track rotates forward and the other rotates backwards causing the vehicle to rotate on the spot) to return to the pigsty for the next round of push, heave, retrieve, (gulp,) stack, fill, (gulp,) carry, tip. And the next, and the next. He’d keep at it until about midday by which time the temperature was well into the thirties and any last patch of shade had long since vanished. And then: stop.

Boots and socks abandoned at the back door, increasingly disreputable straw hat tossed on the work surface and the dust and grime shaken from his sweat-drenched T-shirt, Mr Blue-Shirt would down yet more water before padding across the cool kitchen tiles and into the inviting gloom of the tightly shuttered sitting room. Siesta time. He’d flop onto the sofa, not caring that he was sprawled across the cats’ throw, and within seconds fall into the deep sleep that comes with hard physical labour. A sleep so deep, in fact, that on a couple of occasions he was completely oblivious to the arrival of Alessandro the building contractor. Every other day or so, Alessandro would rumble through the gate in an empty fifteen-tonne truck to swap with the full one crouched low on the drive that he would then drive down to the quarry for its load to be crushed into building-grade hardcore.

After a couple of hours’ sleep Mr Blue-Shirt would pull on a fresh T-shirt, rustle up a hearty, labourer’s lunch for himself and potter around doing gentle indoor jobs while he waited for the sun to move round from south to west. Then late in the afternoon when the shade had begun to creep across the ruins of the pigsty and the temperature had eased back a couple of degrees, Mr Blue-Shirt would venture back out for the late shift and several more rounds of push, heave, retrieve, (gulp,) stack, fill, (gulp,) carry, tip. On and on, back and forth until the golden light turned to bronze, to purple, then back to milky grey.  With dusk gathering, the digger would finally fall silent, giving way to the song of the crickets, and Mr Blue-Shirt would clamber down from the cab, his work done for another day.

And so it went on, day after day until not a trace of the pigsty remained and the by now exhausted Mr Blue-Shirt could bid farewell to his steel-fanged friend. Between them they had made some 210 trips from pigsty to truck and back, and shifted 105 tonnes of rubble. Mr Blue-Shirt had also salvaged and stacked some 1200 roof tiles and 1800 bricks. Job done. Pigsty gone. The healing continues.

Number 65, your time is up

It lasted fourteen months in the end. Which is probably longer than anyone expected Italy’s most recent government – its 65th – to last.  This coalition between the anti-establishment, populist Five Star Movement (Movimento Cinque Stelle) and the far-right, populist La Lega (aka the secessionist Northern League) was at best no more than a marriage of convenience right from the start, and in August, following weeks of bickering and in-fighting, Matteo Salvini, the leader of La Lega and hard-line Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior filed for divorce. Suddenly it was not just the UK that was in the midst of a political crisis.

The coalition formed in June 2018 was the result of eighty-eight days of horse-trading and arm-twisting following the inconclusive general election in March – the longest ever period the country has had to wait for a government to be formed. The Five Star Movement (aka M5S) won the largest number of seats both in the Chamber of Deputies and in the Senate, and nearly twice as many as La Lega, who came second and who also led the largest parliamentary coalition. However, in Italy’s strictly proportional system that is deliberately designed to prevent any one party or individual party to hold too much power, this was not sufficient for either party to govern on its own. And while both predictably ruled out an alliance with any of the traditional, mainstream parties, there was little common ground in terms of policy between them. Indeed, all they agreed on, it seemed, was their opposition to The Establishment and their rejection of the old Left/Right politics. Nonetheless, M5S’s manifesto, with its emphasis on inter alia the environment, a citizen’s income and direct democracy was seen as broadly left-leaning, while La Lega, with its nationalistic, anti-immigration and low tax stance was distinctly right-wing in flavour. Hence the three months of paralysis while a mutually agreeable policy programme and distribution of roles was slowly and painfully thrashed out and the two parties eventually got themselves balanced on a tiny island of common ground that consisted largely of tax and pension reform, stricter controls on illegal immigration and resistance to the EU in respect of border and budgetary controls.

Although M5S was technically the senior partner in the coalition with M5S nominee Giuseppe Conte as Prime Minister, it was quickly undermined by its own its lack of practical political experience: in line with M5S’s anti-establishment credentials, most of its ministers came into parliament – and now into government – from outside politics. Conte himself, for instance, was (and apparently still is) a professor of private law at the University of Florence. The politically astute and media savvy firebrand Matteo Salvini quickly exploited this inexperience and soon muscled in to become the de facto leader of the government, prioritising La Lega’s hard-line agenda at the expense of M5S’s more liberal policy ambitions. A raft of draconian anti-foreigner ‘security’ laws was quickly passed, resulting in a rapid and highly visible clamp down on asylum-seekers, an increase in repatriation centres, and, most controversially, the closure of Italian ports to NGO boats carrying refugees rescued from the Mediterranean. As a personal aside, we consequently find it rather ironic that it is Salvini’s signature on the official documents that grant us residency here.

But I digress. While these policies caused much acrimony and argument within the coalition, they have actually been well received within the country, especially in the south, where nearly all migrants arrive, but which, with its already high unemployment rates and more limited infrastructure, is ill-equipped to deal with all the new arrivals. And, significantly, where La Lega had historically enjoyed little support thanks to its traditionally northern focus. This no doubt helped La Lega’s relentless rise in the polls: by summer its popularity had doubled since the 2018 election, while M5S’s popularity had practically halved – hence Salvini’s increasing dominance of the fractious and faltering alliance, and M5S’s increasing resistance to it. So he finally walked away from the coalition in the hope if not the expectation that this would force the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, to call for new elections that would allow Salvini to capitalise on his popularity and go on to form a government, either on his own or in coalition with other parties of the right including Fratelli d’Italia, and even Berlusconi’s (yes, he’s still around) centre-right Forza Italia.

Salvini ended up shooting himself in the foot, though, for rather than acceding to his ever more strident demands for an election, the cautious and pragmatic Mattarella preferred to give party leaders the opportunity to see if a new coalition could be formed first – as in fact required by the constitution. Salvini was banking on M5S refusing to enter into coalition with the next largest party in parliament, the centre-left Democratic Party (Partito Democratico – PD) because this was the very party resistance to which had provided M5S with its raison d’être. But he massively under-estimated M5S’s determination to avoid an election at practically any cost given their miserable position in the polls, as well as their resulting willingness to form a coalition with their hitherto bitterest foes, who were naturally also keen to grasp the opportunity both to enter government and simultaneously neutralise La Lega. ‘My enemy’s enemy is my friend’, as they say.

Indeed, neutralising La Lega could well have provided the foundation for the M5S-PD alliance that was formed in little more than a fortnight after several rounds of ‘swapsies’ along the lines of ‘We’ll only give you Finance if you give us Agriculture and Transport’ as ministerial positions were handed out. A few days later, M5S’s members gave the deal their overwhelming support, Conte was re-appointed Prime Minister, and Salvini was banished to the opposition benches. He had been completely outflanked: in addition to under-estimating the strength of M5S’s desire to hold on to power he had also badly under-estimated just how quickly these political ingénues had grasped the dark arts of politics – ironically, as a direct result of having to try and work with Salvini, it seems to me.

But. And it is a big ‘but’. In light of their previous enmity, coupled with the numerous challenges the country faces, many commentators doubt government number 66 will last long. And, of course, Salvini is not going to go quietly. Indeed, he is already whipping up fierce opposition to the fledgling coalition among his supporters, and although his ratings have been dented over summer, La Lega still tops every opinion poll: “It won’t last long,” he tweeted recently. “Opposition in parliament, in town halls and in the squares, then finally we will vote and win.” So while some feel that the prospect of elections against the backdrop of La Lega’s continued popularity in the polls will be sufficient to keep the coalition together, many others are merely waiting for Act II of this latest political drama to play out. And some can already spy the fat lady warming up in the wings…

 

The headline in the photograph roughly translates as “Faith in the government? For now, just about”.

Keeping it local

Controesodo. It’s one of those ‘Lego words’, made up of two or more other words cleverly clicked together to describe a particular idea that would otherwise require a full sentence. Like most Lego words ‘controesodo’ doesn’t appear in the dictionary. But its component parts do: ‘contro’ means ‘against’ or ‘counter’ and ‘esodo’ means ‘exodus’. And so ‘counter-exodus’ is the word Italians use to express ‘the time at the end of August when everyone returns to work or school following their summer holidays’. See what I mean?

During the counter-exodus, therefore, the roads are clogged with sun-tanned families heading back from the seaside, businesses and factories gradually hum and clatter into life once more and ‘back to school’ ranges fill the shops. Coastal resorts breathe a sigh of relief and begin folding up the sun loungers and parasols; tourist attractions fall quiet and start offering off-season discounts. And up and down the country, countless towns and villages pack up their collections of trestle tables, benches, banners, pergolas and PA systems, congratulating themselves on having successfully completed another season jam-packed with sagre and feste, concerts and shows, pageants, exhibitions and markets.

The sheer number of these local events that take place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Siena or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – has held a series of three- or four-day long events between June and August, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. We have had the annual artichoke festival, the annual pizza festival, a medieval weekend and a celebration of apiculture, and over the weekends in between, there have been over a dozen live music, dancing or sports events. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: the August issue of Corriere Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region produces every month, contained about a hundred and fifty closely printed pages listing more than seven hundred events in eight different categories. A Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna, anyone? Or a Horror Festival over in Monte Urano? How about the Palio down in Servigliano? Or the one up in San Ginesio? And what about the Beer Circus in Pedaso? Or the Sagra del Vino Cotto over in Loro Piceno?  Or…? Or, or, or…

More remarkable still is that the fact that a vast number of these events will have been organised, promoted and run by the local ‘Pro Loco’, sometimes with a degree of financial or logistical support from the Comune (town council). Roughly translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy. Interestingly, the principal purpose of all this activity is not, in the first instance, to attract tourists, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties. Our local Pro Loco certainly fulfils this purpose if the huge number of residents who enthusiastically participate in the events they lay on is anything to go by.

The Pro Loco movement is effectively an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which has its origins in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile.  This highly developed sense of local allegiance is then reinforced by the fact that until little over a hundred and fifty years ago Italy was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between neighbouring regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. So loyalty to the local was often a matter of survival. Consequently, even today, if you ask a random Italian where they are from, they will probably give you the name of their particular town or village rather than a city close by that you are more likely to have heard of, never mind the name of the region it is in.

My increasingly dog-eared breeze block of an Italian dictionary translates campanilismo as ‘parochialism’. To me, though, this smacks of insularity, narrow-mindedness and mistrust of the different. And in view of its roots, it is easy to imagine that this is what it might have become in the modern era, with the activities of the Pro Loco conceivably a manifestation of little more than some kind of tub-thumping tribalism and collective one-upmanship. In our still relatively limited experience, however, today’s campanilismo seems much more benign, and much more akin to the modern concept of ‘localism’: support for the production and consumption of local goods, the promotion of local culture and identity, and lots of local accountability. It is therefore a celebration of local difference, which in this unified, more peaceful age is seen as enriching rather than threatening. Which is just as well, really for while the controesodo and with it the summer may officially be over, the work of the Pro Loco is not yet finished after all. As the days begin to shorten and the heat to fade, there are the celebrations for the grape harvest, the truffle season, the hunting season, the olive harvest, Advent and who knows what else for them still to organise before the year is out…

Renewing friendships

I bade farewell to blacksmithing when I drove away from the forge for the last time almost exactly two years ago. Even though it had provided both of us with a living and a home for nearly fifteen years, blacksmithing and I had always had an uneasy relationship: it was much more Blue-Shirt’s passion than mine, although I tried my very best and did eventually carve out a place within it that worked for me. For there were elements of the blacksmithing scene that I enjoyed very much: its creativity, its slightly ‘alternative’ character, but most of all its fantastic camaraderie coupled with its avowedly international outlook. Which is why I have retained a soft spot for the event that has long been the darling of the blacksmithing circuit, the Biennale Europea d’Arte Fabbrile (the European Artistic Blacksmithing Biennial) which for over forty years has been held in Stia, a small and dignified medieval town nestled in the forest-clad hills of Tuscany about sixty kilometres east of Florence. For over a decade it not only provided a good excuse for an extra trip to Italy, but also brought all my favourite bits of blacksmithing together in one four-day-long blacksmithing extravaganza. And two years since our last visit, when it formed the crossing point to our new life in Italy, we have just been back.

You know how it is: you’ve arranged to meet up with an old pal you haven’t seen for ages. As soon as you catch sight of each other at the appointed place you both exclaim “How lovely to see you! You look so well! You haven’t changed a bit!” and you throw your arms around one another in a tangle of hugs and kisses. You are delighted to find your old friend still has the same mannerisms, the same voice, the same dodgy jokes and the even dodgier dress sense. But behind the smiles and whoops there is a tiny knot of doubt. Will we have grown apart? Will we still even get on any more? After all, our lives have taken such a different course over the last two years. So for the last few days we have been seeking the answers to these questions while catching up with this dear old friend.

After checking in at our customary cosy little hotel a few kilometres down the road in the pretty town of Poppi (yet another of the Borghi più Belli d’Italia), we started our visit with a leisurely tour of the town to see how much (or how little) our old friend had changed.  The forging area in town’s central square, Piazza Mazzini, with its line of glowing hearths was swarming with the usual mêlée of grubby-faced blacksmiths hammering furiously at their anvils to produce their entry for the competition that is the beating heart of the event. Using just the range of steel stock provided, competing teams and individuals are required to produce a piece of work in response to a set theme within just three hours. The competition is judged by a panel of six eminent blacksmiths from all over the world, and at the formal prize-giving ceremony hosted by the mayor and other local and regional dignitaries that brings the event to a close, the winner is crowned World Forging Champion. While Italian smiths predominate among the 130 or so participants, the competition is a real melting pot of nationalities with smiths from most other European nations, including a strong British contingent, as well as from nations as varied as the USA, Russia, Australia, Chile and Israel.  And I was pleased to see that this year was no different: our old friend was in rude health.

As usual, the bank of bleachers opposite the forging area was packed with spectators avidly watching every bend and twist and hammer blow, while an improbable mix of tattoo-ed and dreadlocked smiths, black-clad grannies, ice-cream coated toddlers and self-consciously trendy teenagers mingled in the remainder of the shady square, just taking in all the comings and goings. For while in many respects the biennale might be thought a somewhat niche event, it remains very much a local, community event too and always attracts a huge number of ‘lay’ visitors from the surrounding area. Indeed, as many visitors as participants always peer curiously at the growing number of incredibly diverse pieces that emerge from the fires at the end of each forging session and are laid out on the zig-zagging lines of display benches that run along one edge of the square.

Our daily routine remained the same: having lingered at the forging area for an hour or so and then checked out the latest items on display, we would amble down the hill from Piazza Mazzini and past (and often into) the quirky bar by the bridge over the Arno that provides the best Aperol Spritz as well as the best people-watching spot in town. Our progress on to Piazza Tanucci in the heart of the old town, however, was always slow as every day we would catch sight of another batch of familiar faces en route: a hurried greeting here, an exchange of pleasantries there, and a stream of promises to catch up later.  But finally we would reach this long and graceful square whose tall and elegant palazzi looked down onto the customary stage with full sound and lighting rig for the evening entertainment and then take another look at this year’s selection of dramatically lit large sculptural pieces lined up along one side of the piazza. As usual these formed a metal guard of honour that guided us on up the hill towards the narrow alleyway that leads back towards the river and round to the lanificio. This semi-restored woollen mill  whose huge, light and airy contemporary gallery space houses one of the event’s other key elements, a professionally curated and incredibly varied exhibition of  forged ironwork produced by highly skilled craftsmen (and sadly, I think it was once again only men) from across Italy and beyond. I was gratified to find that there was once again a dazzling variety of styles, techniques and concepts. As has long been the case, though, the works that drew my attention were those whose makers had decided that less is more and focused on the bare essentials, not letting the technical ‘how’ obscure the aesthetic ‘what’. It was those pieces that with a small number of carefully judged curves, angles and shapes managed to convey so effectively abstract qualities such as energy, control, movement, tension, grace or power which once again captured my imagination and stopped me in my tracks. We still had much in common after all, my old friend and I.

Another comfortingly familiar element was the display in a neighbouring gallery space in the woollen mill of previous years’ competition pieces, which proved easily as popular as the main exhibition, which constantly teemed with visitors . Not only was it a pleasure to have the chance to enjoy these pieces afresh, it was also gratifying to know that the event organisers didn’t simply fling the efforts of all those blacksmiths’ hopes and labours onto the scrap heap as soon as the event was over. Most satisfying of all, however, was finding one of Mr Blue-Shirt’s competition pieces among the one hundred or so on display: our old friend, it seemed, had not forgotten us either.

Still there too, and as popular as ever, were the children’s forging activities, along with the trade stands offering an array of tools, equipment and other blacksmithing gadgetry, and also the drawing and design competition that celebrates the journey of an idea from head to hand to hammer. And still there too was the gelateria in the corner of Piazza Mazzini that probably does more business over the course of the event than over the whole of the rest of the year, along with the cheerily decorated and permanently packed pizzeria run by the fierce but tiny Nina that serves piping hot pizza by the slice to ravenous, soot-caked blacksmiths until late into the night.

Indeed, it was all still there, and it all felt just as we had hoped. So despite my misgivings, we had not grown apart and we definitely still got on. But my relationship with blacksmithing has perhaps shifted and is now one those arm’s length yet enduring friendships where contact is infrequent, but which you can pick up exactly where you left it last time. So, my dear friend Stia, ci vediamo in 2021.

 

For more information on the event, please take a look at https://www.biennaleartefabbrile.it/Biennale

Chiuso per ferie

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

Along with much of southern Europe, August is the holiday month, and while closing for the whole of August is no longer realistic in a global economy, very many companies will still shut down completely for a couple of weeks, and even the smallest of businesses will take a week or so off. However long the break, though, it will almost certainly include 15th August: the national public holiday known as Ferragosto that marks the height of summer.

In common with many traditions in Italy, the origins of this festival are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the Emperor who in the 18th century BC designated August as period of rest to allow people to recover from the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. During this period, working animals were also relieved of their loads and horse races were held as part of the celebrations.  Indeed, this is the origin of the world-famous palio that is still held every year in Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times.

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

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

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

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

And us? Well, I suppose we followed tradition, albeit more by accident than design. Although there were no horse races or fireworks, we went away briefly, we visited some cultural sights and we dined all’aperto – admittedly on the terrace of a restaurant rather than by a lake. For Ferragosto happened to coincide with our micro-holiday in Spello that featured in last week’s post. We can only hope that its timing coupled with our observance of pagan, sacred and secular customs are a good omen for us…

Information on Ferragosto courtesy of:
www.italymagazine.com
www.thelocal.it
www.studentville.it
www.wikipedia.org
www.timeanddate.com

Forward motion

So far we have just been taking baby steps. For several weeks following the burglary, we went to almost any length possible to avoid both of us being out of the house at the same time. Then, once this became as impractical as it was miserable, we carefully negotiated our respective job lists to keep periods when the house had to remain empty to a minimum. Slowly we graduated to Going Out – that is to say, making trips for enjoyment rather than necessity. First came breakfast in the village, then a friends’ place for lunch. Next was an evening at a village festa, and finally a whole day out with friends. Each one a clammy-palmed act of faith; each one a nerve-jangling hurdle crossed on the long and tortuous journey towards restoring our confidence. Little by little our security checks on leaving the house have progressed from a hyper-conscious list-ticking exercise to soothing routine. Trip by trip, the anxious voices asking the whole time we are out ‘Have I remembered to…?’, ‘Did we…?’, ‘Was anyone watching…?’, ‘What if…?’ have stilled to a whisper.  And the close-up, slow-motion flashbacks to the horror that greeted us as we came through the door on That Day are gradually receding, while the pleasure and comfort we always used to feel on arriving home are slowly returning.

Which meant that sooner or later we would need to face the Big One and move on from mere Going Out to proper Going Away. For a whole night. Initially just the one, you understand, but still leaving the house empty for a heart-pounding twenty-four hours. It was Mr Blue-Shirt’s idea: after a solid ten days’ demolition work ridding us of the detested pigsty once and for all, he needed a change of scene.  More importantly, though, he needed to mark this important milestone and to draw a line; we both did.
“How do you feel about a trip to Spello?” he asked super-casually as he turned the sausages sizzling merrily on the barbecue.

This sweet little town, another of the Borghi più Belli d’Italia, is little more than an hour west of us and about twenty kilometres over the border into Umbria. We’ve stopped there briefly on several occasions on our way to the much bigger and better-known towns of Assisi or Perugia. These two Umbrian superstars rather overshadow modest little Spello on one level, but their proximity also enable many more people to discover Spello’s attractions than might otherwise be the case, which means that it is always humming with activity. Strolling around its pretty, higgledy-piggledy centre while deciding on the best place for a coffee we’d often said it would be nice to explore the place properly. As well as gorgeous views across the Umbrian plain to distant olive-clad hills, it has some interesting arty shops that I’d always fancied poking around in, and lots of restaurants offering Umbria’s most famous specialities, black truffles and all sorts of different salami.

“That sounds good,” I replied bravely. “We could make a day of it and have a slap-up lunch to celebrate the demise of the pigsty.” I was starting to get much better at seeing reasons for saying yes to such suggestions rather than searching for reasons to say no. “And you could definitely do with a day out.”
Mr Blue-Shirt took a swig of beer. “I meant overnight,” he said carefully, leaving the word floating in the evening warmth: ‘overnight’… I watched the letters drift and curl into the smoke rising from the barbecue into the darkness. The velvety night stared back at me.
“Well?” it asked.
The usual internal argument broke out.
“Do it!” hissed my rational self.
“I can’t!” my emotional self hissed back.
“Yes, you can!”
“No, I can’t. Not yet.”
“Well, you can’t stay cooped up here for the rest of your life. You’re going to have to go away at some point.”
“I know. It feels too soon, though. I’m not ready.”
“How do you know you’re not unless you try?”
“I just know – OK?!”
As ever, my emotional self had run out of arguments.
“Look, I’m not saying it will be easy, but now seems as good a time as any,” my rational self continued less crossly. “You’ve got a really good, concrete reason for going, and you’ll only be a hundred kilometres up the road: if you get cold feet – which I won’t let you do, by the way – you could be home in an hour.”
My emotional self shrugged; she knew when she was beaten. The stars winked at me encouragingly.
“OK,” I said, this time out loud. “Let’s do it.” Mr Blue-Shirt smiled as we clinked glasses to seal the deal, and I tried to swallow the knot that had just formed in my throat.

So we went, and of course, it was fine. Delightful, in fact. Mr Blue-Shirt had found a cosy hotel bang in the centre that oozed charm and history, and after checking in we ambled around the town, doing all the things that people normally do.  We crept round echoey churches and peered into shady courtyards. We browsed in shops and ate ice-cream. We took photos of flower-filled alleys, and admired the sweeping views across the plain, with Assisi and the vast honey-coloured Basilica of St Francis in the distance. As the sky melted from cobalt to copper and then to crimson, we enjoyed some people-watching  in a bustling square over aperitivi. Then as crimson faded to purple and finally to inky-blue, we ate silky, truffle-spiked pasta and slow-cooked veal cheek seated on a terrace high above the twinkling carpet of lights that filled the broad valley below. And it was bliss: not just for the food, or for the weather, or for the surroundings, but for its total, fear- and anxiety-free ‘us-ness’. It was as if normal service had finally been restored.

I caught something on the radio the other day about how people recover from various types of trauma. The solution, as the presenter put it in summing the item up, was ‘to remember to forget’, which instantly struck me as both simplistic and illogical. Surely, as soon as you say to yourself ‘Ooh, I must remember to forget about…’, then Boom! Whatever it was you were trying to forget bursts straight into your head in all its vivid, stomach-churning glory. You can’t simply remove such recollections and throw them away, slicing them from your memory like an infected appendix. It just doesn’t work like that: as Aristotle pointed out, nature abhors a vacuum.  It seems to me, rather, that it is by doing things and going places, and above all by simply living life, that you can create a store of positive and pleasurable memories that will gradually replace the ugly, painful ones. As our memorable micro-holiday in Spello – and the giant leap forward it represents – perfectly illustrate. I think Aristotle would approve.

Driving change

As far as cars are concerned, we have long since ‘gone native’. We swapped our right-hand drive UK-registered one for a left-hand drive one almost exactly a year ago, and swapped our UK plates for Italian ones back in March once we had formally imported the car into Italy. And Mr Blue-Shirt’s big white van is currently going through the same process, with its Italian registration due in the next few weeks. As far as driving is concerned, however, I fear we remain incurably British in style and will long continue to find certain Italian driving habits anything from mildly irritating to utterly maddening. A recent trip to the UK threw these habits into sharp relief during the many hours I spent on the road travelling between friends and family across the south of the country.

Before I list some of the features of Italian road craft that have us rolling our eyes or gnashing our teeth, I should stress that driving in our part of the world is seldom less than a real pleasure. Le Marche is a land of blissfully empty roads that sweep through richly coloured countryside and wind through pretty historical villages, with views of mountains in one direction and views of the sea. Indeed, when we used to tour around the area on holiday, we sometimes thought there was a public holiday that we were unaware of, so empty were the roads.  And it’s not only the back roads; the dual carriageways that run from over the mountains to the sea and the sinuous ribbon of autostrada that follows the coastline from Rimini to Bari are largely traffic-free too.

Admittedly, driving is a little different when it comes to driving around towns and cities, but even then, things don’t conform to the classical stereotype from 1960s movies of some four-wheeled free-for-all, with traffic-clogged streets, blaring horns and enraged drivers gesturing madly at some petty affront. In our experience, people don’t drive the wrong way down one-way streets, ignore traffic lights, or race about at break-neck speed. But it is in the towns, of course, that we do experience a higher frequency of those habits that cause much tutting and sighing. So in no particular order, the following are among the most apparent and irritating that we come across practically daily:

Indicators
The use of indicators seems largely optional, especially when turning right – ie not crossing in front of oncoming traffic. Indeed, people will readily admit that they don’t see the point of indicating when turning right as it doesn’t really affect the flow of traffic – although this is not expressed as an ‘admission’ since there is no sense that perhaps they should indicate whenever turning, in whichever direction. On the other hand, when indicators have been used, they are often left blinking long after the corresponding move has been executed, as if the driver is enjoying the novelty of the experience, or perhaps simply doing some practice. Thus, any relief at seeing someone using their indicators should be tempered with caution, for that little orange flashing light may well bear little relation to the driver’s apparent intentions or their subsequent actions.

Roundabouts
In recent years, Italy has embraced the roundabout with the zeal of the convert and they have blossomed like giant tarmac flowers at junctions of all sizes up and down the country. Compared to the peremptory nature of traffic lights, I think the appeal of the roundabout lies in its relative permissiveness that allows drivers to negotiate junctions at their discretion. The thing is, this laissez-faire approach is taken a little too far in that little or no attention is paid to what we Brits would regard as ‘correct’ lane usage. This coupled with the indicator issue means that it is often anyone’s guess what the true intentions are of the other drivers joining, navigating and leaving the roundabout. On the other hand, it also means that most people tend to negotiate roundabouts somewhat sedately, if not downright warily.

Parking
We have decided that this is a bit of a creative art here. While regulations are precise and explicit, being set out in detail on signs attached to lamp posts, and drivers risk a fine if they fail to display a blue parking disc to indicate their arrival time in free short-stay spaces, people will still create spaces where none technically exist. Smart cars, which are very popular here, are often found parked nose-in rather than parallel to the pavement, although it is not uncommon to find much larger vehicles adopting the same approach. And at this time of year, any available patch of shade is considered fair game. The most hair-raising example we have come across, however, is people on parking around the outer edge of a busy roundabout in the centre of Macerata. Thankfully, this normally happens only on market day when many of the official spaces in the vicinity are occupied by market stalls and milling shoppers prevent the traffic from moving little faster than walking pace.

Keeping one’s distance
In these Mediterranean climes, folk are far less precious about their personal space than we frosty Anglo-Saxons are. This is something worth bearing in mind when you become aware of the car behind you apparently trying to climb into your boot. Disconcerting though it may be, they are not tailgating; they are not being aggressive. There will be no flashing of lights, no hooting of horns or impatient attempts to overtake in crazily unsuitable places. No, they will just sit there quite happily until such time as your respective routes take you in different directions – although you do need to keep a careful eye on your rear-view mirror and indicate well in advance should you be the first to turn off, or you may well end up with your new friend in the boot after all.

Mobile phones
Using a mobile phone while driving is actually forbidden, although you would never know this, judging by the number of drivers you see with their mobiles clamped to their ear with one hand, often while gesticulating wildly with the other, or steering with their elbows while typing a text message. Fines have been increased quite significantly recently, too, but this seems to have made little difference. What really puzzles me, though, is that even when a car is new or expensive enough to have factory-fitted blue tooth technology, the driver will still persist in using a hand-held phone. That said, there are some who are prepared to go hands-free. Some months ago I saw girl outside the supermarket getting on her moped while talking on the phone. She pulled on  and fastened her crash helmet one-handed (she had clearly spent some time perfecting the technique) and then, while still talking, stuffed her mobile up into her helmet, started her engine and roared away without pausing for breath.

Now, I realise that some will accuse me of making exaggerated generalisations. Well, in my defence, I would draw people’s attention to the sheer number of body shops (carrozzerie) that can be found in even the smallest of towns, along with the correspondingly high number of vehicles bearing sundry minor dents, dinks and scratches that keep them all in business. Which perhaps also explains our insurance agent’s bafflement when we were sorting out cover for our newly imported car: he found it difficult to believe that I really did have twelve years’ no-claims history. Not that I am expecting it to get much longer, of course…