Enough to make my hair curl

Sono al posto giusto?” I asked apprehensively, raising my voice over the breathy howl of a trio of hairdryers. “Cerco Karina – I’m looking for Karina.” I was standing in an achingly trendy hair salon one street back from the sea front in the centre of Civitanova Marche and felt a long way outside my comfort zone. I was unsure whether this was actually the place Rachel had recommended to me, and so to check that I was in the right salon, I had asked if they used to have an English client by that name who had just moved away. It was from Rachel that we had bought the house and she had kindly left us a long list of useful names and numbers for the plumber, the electrician, the builder, the water company, the gas man, the council – and, very perceptively, I thought – her hairdresser. But rather than leaving the name of the salon, she had just given a first name – Karina – and a phone number. I had googled the number, which had come up as that for the salon I was now standing in, which made sense as Rachel and her partner had lived in Civitanova for several years before moving out to Montelupone, so I was fairly confident I was on the right track.   “Si! Si! Rachele! Sta bene? – How is she?” asked the petite woman with long, artfully tousled locks and almost comically huge horn-rimmed glasses.  “Io sono Karina. Come posso aiutarLa? – I’m Karina. How can I help you?”

I felt a tingle of relief: I’d overcome the first hurdle. “Si, sta bene. Senti… Yes, she’s fine. Anyway…” I took a deep breath and launched into my little pre-prepared explanation of my presence and my wishes. On reflection, I suppose it was really quite ridiculous to feel this nervous about going to the hairdresser after all the much more important and complex administrative labyrinths we had been attempting to negotiate over the preceding weeks. But this was going to be quite a leap for me. Not only was it my first trip to an Italian hairdresser, which would involve another raft of ‘newness’ to get used to as well as a whole new chapter in my expanding Italian vocabulary, it was the first time I had changed salon at all in getting on for fifteen years.

The salon in the UK that I had gone to for all those years was tucked down a side street on the edge of the small and sleepy market town about three miles from our forge in deepest Lincolnshire, and as such was the very antithesis of trendy. Run by two very blokey Yorkshiremen, the décor was as plain and functional as the service, which ran to a stack of dog-eared gardening and motoring magazines to read over a giant mug of builder’s tea, or instant coffee if they were feeling adventurous. And there was none of the usual sing-songy “going anywhere nice on your holidays?” chat either – I’m pleased to say. The one who did my hair for the first few years would talk to me at length about his son’s autism, and his difficulties in getting proper support for him. With the one I went to for the next few years, it was cars: we would chat at similar length about the aged soft-top MG sports cars that we each owned, comparing notes on their respective rattles, squeaks and judders, and exchanging recommendations for paintshops and mechanics. And they were both extremely efficient ‘does-what-it-says-on-the-tin’ hairdressers too: colour, wash, trim and blow-dry all done and dusted in just over an hour. From standing in Karina’s salon for just a few minutes, it was clear that it was going to be a rather different experience here.

First there was the décor: bang on-trend shades of beige, grey and off-white, with distressed, shabby-chic furniture, glitzy show-girl lights around the generous mirrors in front of which stood a row of smart chrome-trimmed chairs, and a chi-chi little table in the middle that was covered in a selection of pretty glass jars and dishes filled with dainty pastries, biscuits and chocolates. Then there were the staff: a couple improbably slim young women both dressed in matching black T-shirts and super-skinny jeans bustled around the place, folding fluffy black towels and scooping up glossy magazines while three more identically dressed and equally slim young women dried, brushed, teased and snipped the hair of the three black-gowned customers sitting in front of them. Karina kept breaking off from our conversation to issue instructions to her crew: “Irene, could you rinse Emanuela’s colour off, please. Veronica, can you start off Chiara’s blow-dry, please. Keti, Maria is ready to pay….” It was another world, and one which I found faintly intimidating.

So it really did take some getting used to. For a start, there was the language issue to deal with, then there were the differences in hairdressing techniques and products – the combined effect of which resulted in one or two minor disasters early on.  And then there was also what Mr Blue-Shirt and I, in our all too Anglo-Saxon way, refer to as ‘faffing’. This is when any job appears to be accompanied by quite a bit of (to us) unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing, a fair amount of apparently idle chit-chat, and a general absence of any sense of urgency which together seem to make so many things take so much longer than they need to, and which saw the time required for my very standard colour, wash, trim and blow-dry nearly double to just shy of two hours.

At first, all this would make trips to the hairdresser really quite nerve-wracking, but once I had got to grips with the vocabulary and could accurately explain exactly what I wanted, I relaxed, learnt to stop being so Anglo-Saxon, and to go with the flow. Indeed, I now positively embrace this slower pace – which is not ‘faffing’, as it turns out, but just better customer service. And as well as enjoying a couple of hours of what now feels like proper pampering, chatting with Irene, Veronica, Keti and Karina also allows me a solid couple of hours of Italian practice. Oh, and best of all, it’s cheaper than going to my two blokey Yorkshiremen.


Photo credit: Karina Love Hair, Viale Vittoria Veneto, 25, Civitanova Marche.

In vino veritas

Of course, there’s not much to see at this time of year. In the vineyards currently stand row upon row of what look like muscular brown forearms thrusting up from the winter soil. Each is topped with a gnarled, chunky fist that still holds last year’s long, thin branches in its grasp. Now leafless and lifeless, they cling to the rows of horizontal wires among which they wove last season; like musical notation on a stave from which the notes have been plucked, the song of summer now just an echo.

Something is stirring, though. With this unusually mild winter already on the wane, preparations for the coming season are getting underway. Scattered across the vineyards, groups of hunched figures slowly work their way up and down the rows, laboriously snipping away the dead branches that bore last year’s crop. They let each fist hold onto just one, maybe two strong slim branches, the torchbearers for this season’s growth. For in just a few weeks, a delicate frill of zingy green will sprout from those slim branches, the fragile young leaves shivering in the chill of early spring. Within a few more weeks, whole new branches will burst forth and race along the wires, and the tender frills will thicken into bright green jagged-edged bunting fluttering in the breeze. And as spring progresses, that bunting will grow into extravagant garlands that loop in and out among the now invisible supporting wires, creating palisades of rich green within which will nestle the flower clusters that will later develop into fruit.

Even though practically any and every view of the region’s undulating patchwork of fields will include at least one large vine-striped oblong, Le Marche is not one of Italy’s primary wine-growing regions. That honour goes to the likes of Tuscany (and its world-famous Chianti), Piedmont (and its aristocratic Barolo) and Veneto (with its all-conquering Prosecco). But like the other seventeen ‘also-rans,’ Le Marche nonetheless has its own vigorous wine industry made up of myriad small-scale wine co-operatives and family-run vineyards that between them produce a range of wines that are unique to the region and that reflect the local terroir, climate and cuisine, with only a small proportion of their output destined for sale beyond the region, and an even smaller proportion destined for export. That is not to say, mind you, that the wines from these lesser-known regions are automatically of poorer quality. After all, Italy has been producing wine since pre-Roman times and in 2018 was the world’s largest wine producer (beating both France and Spain by a considerable margin) so it seems safe to conclude that they have got the hang of it.

So while you are unlikely to find Le Marche wines on the shelves at Tesco or on restaurant wine lists, the region, which the New York Times has coined ‘the new Tuscany’, still has plenty to offer the more curious wine-lover. The three best-known are Rosso Piceno, Rosso Conero, and Verdicchio. The first is made predominantly from the Sangiovese grape that is cultivated on the slopes around Ascoli Piceno in the south of the region. The second is made predominantly with the Montepulciano grape which is cultivated on the westward facing slopes of the Conero promontory near Ancona. And the third, a pale and citrussy white (and a personal favourite) is produced in two principal areas around Jesi and Matelica, and is the region’s rising star and trailblazer: it is this now prize-winning wine from the centre of the region that you are most likely to come across in the UK.

Just as popular locally, though, are the ancient Passerina, and Pecorino (my preferred accompaniment to fritto misto and a simple green salad eaten at a beachfront restaurant), which has enjoyed a huge resurgence in popularity in recent years. When it comes to reds, other local favourites include Lacrima di Morro d’Alba and Vernaccia Nera, which is also the grape used in the ancient and idiosyncratic sparkling red wine, Vernaccia di Serrapetrona, which features in Dante’s epic ‘Divine Comedy’. Another regional oddity is vino cotto, which literally translates as ‘cooked wine’. This intense, ruby-coloured, port-like sweet wine dates back to the pre-Christian era and is made from boiled down and fermented grape must.  For many years it was regarded as a clandestine local hooch, but is now officially recognised – and celebrated – as a traditional Italian local food product. Indeed, the present-day centre of production is Loro Piceno (the village near Macerata where we once thought we might live, incidentally) which holds an annual Sagra del Vino Cotto.

So, in fact there is much to see at this time of year. For those muscular forearms with their chunky fists poised ready for the start of spring are the continuation of the same cycle of cultivation that has been repeated for generations and that has sustained local culture and community for more than two thousand years.


The winner takes it all?

Loss. It is something I have had reason to write about far too often recently. All the many bereavements, the two burglaries, even the loss of two cherished pets. And now the enormous sense of loss Mr Blue-Shirt and I both felt at midnight on 31st January, which, although very different, felt just as momentous and just as life-changing. We feel utterly bereft, bewildered and betrayed.

We are bereft at the withdrawal of our almost life-long EU citizenship and the myriad rights and benefits it bestows – sorry, bestowed – upon us, our families and our friends. We feel utterly bewildered by the reckless abandonment of half a century’s solidarity and brotherhood in favour of isolation and petty nationalism; we feel equally bewildered by the wilful self-infliction of economic, social, political and cultural impoverishment on the country of our birth and its consequences for future generations.

And we feel betrayed by a hubristic and disdainful government that, in their own interests rather than the nation’s, sought to stoke division and discord, and turned the whole sorry affair into a winner-takes-all, zero-sum game in which those who, for perfectly legitimate reasons, held fast to the worthy principles of European unity and cooperation were not just ignored but mocked, taunted and vilified and ordered to ‘get over it.’

I refuse to succumb to bitterness, though. Because when I went to bed on Friday night, I was European, and when I woke on Saturday morning, I was European. I was still European this morning, and will be tomorrow, the day after that, and the day after that. For being European is as much part of me as being left-handed and long-sighted. It is what I am and who I am, and no one – least of all the power-hungry, self-serving chancers currently in Westminster – can take that from me.

I could continue my despairing rant ad nauseum, but I have had my fill of reflecting on loss and no longer wish to participate in the crude, divisive discourse of ‘we won, you lost’, as we are surely all losers now.

Instead, I will keep this short and give the last word to that icon of British patriotism, William Shakespeare. For across the centuries his peerless poetry seems – both inevitably and ironically – to hit the mark precisely:

England, bound in with the triumphant sea,
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots, and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

— Richard II (II.i)

With thanks to Shreya Sen Handley (https://shreyasenhandley.com) for the quotation.

January Blues

God, I loathe January. Yes, I know it’s a bit of a cliché; the media would have us believe that loathing January has effectively become compulsory these days. You know the shtick: the sparkle and euphoria of Christmas have faded, the only Quality Street left in the tub are the sickly soft centres, and all you can find in the freezer is yet more leftover turkey. The credit card bills have landed, the poinsettia is shedding more leaves by the day, and the new year’s resolutions have long since been exposed as a work of fiction – again.

For me, though, January is not just a collection of media tropes and the blindingly obvious. For me, it is truly the season of sorrows. It is the month in which we repeatedly pounded up and down the slush-slicked motorways between our home in Lincolnshire and my family’s in Devon, initially sick with dread and later numb with grief. It is the month in which barely forty-eight hours into the new year, I buried my father. It is the month in which, just two years later, I spent endless, agonising days at the side of my sister’s bed in the hospice, watching cancer steal her life from her. And exactly two years after that in the hospital right next door, it was the month in which I spent almost identical endless, agonising days at the side of my mother’s almost identical hospital bed, watching cancer steal her life too.

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

In the UK, the crushing weight of that immense sorrow was almost unbearable. For then it was accompanied and intensified by January’s ceaseless, dank and frigid gloom. Although technically the days were lengthening, the increase in daylight was imperceptible. Darkness reigned: we went to work in the dark; we came home in the dark; the lights were always on. It was a world drained of life; a world drained of colour, with black, naked trees and lifeless, sepia-coloured fields over which hung leaden skies that the watery winter sun was seldom able to penetrate. Then there was the exhausting misery of the damp, bone-chilling cold that seeped into the very core of my being and that turned every day into an unwinnable battle to keep its effects at bay. Without fail, my mood would darken, and without fail, in a matter of days I would find myself tumbling into a gaping chasm of wretchedness from which I could only manage to haul myself when spring at last beckoned.

But here in Le Marche, a thousand miles to the south, the contrast could hardly be greater – this January at least. Since well before Christmas we have been blessed with benign temperatures, often in double figures. For weeks on end a honeyed sun has shone from a baby-blue sky. And on the days when its gentle rays have been filtered through a veil of fine mist, the land has been bathed in a soft golden light that has given everything an ethereal, dreamlike quality. It is a world full of colour, with hilltop villages flushed pink in the soft-focus sunlight and spring crops already carpeting the fields in vivid green. Tiny white and blue flowers now dot the hedgerows, while splashes of brilliant yellow mimosa blossom are starting to appear, and many of the trees – including all the olives, of course – always remain as green as they were in full summer. On occasion, the breeze even carries the soft murmur of birdsong.

Despite the renewal and growth and life that are evident everywhere, January remains the season of sorrows, mind – as I suspect it always will do; the multiples layers of loss simply run too deep. But the warmth and colour of a Mediterranean winter at least make the weight of that lasting sorrow bearable, and the brightness of a southern sky helps dim the shadows it continues to cast over me. They lift and sustain me and their reassuring embrace keeps me from falling into that annual chasm of wretchedness. They have, in part at least, redefined the January Blues.

Found in Ancona…

So, if the likes of Rome and Florence, awash with jaw-dropping architectural and artistic treasures, are akin to a swanky antiques shop, then I would say that Ancona is probably more akin to a collectables emporium. The antiques shop is filled with artfully displayed period furniture, glass-fronted cabinets full of delicate porcelain and crystal, and artworks with ostentatious gilt frames hang from the tastefully painted walls. Every which way you look, your eye falls upon one period gem after another, but after a while your eyes glaze over and you succumb to antiquity overload. The collectables emporium, by contrast, is probably crammed to the roof with every conceivable variety of knick-knack and bric-a-brac with little thought for logic or aesthetics. Stacks of second-hand books lean lazily on dusty shelves, floral table lamps with wonky shades prop up one-eyed dolls, and you have to negotiate a forest of mis-matched dining chairs to reach that interesting-looking glassware in the corner. And yet, for all its clutter, the place somehow draws you in; there is a warmth to all the jumble, a human story behind every battered piece, and you soon find yourself happily poking around among the chaos. Then suddenly you stumble across a real treasure, and it stops you in your tracks. And in that instant, as you turn your precious find in your dusty hands, you just know there must be more. And you are hooked…

So here, then, are our best finds so far in Ancona’s Emporium of Collectables:

  • The Romanesque Cathedral of San Ciriaco is built from white stone quarried from nearby Monte Conero and named after Ancona’s patron saint. With sweeping views over the bay, it stands on the site of the city’s ancient Greek acropolis atop Monte Guasco, and dates back to the 10th century, although it was changed and added to numerous times throughout the Middle Ages. In more recent times, it was bombed in World War I, then rebuilt and rededicated, only to be bombed again in World War II. It was rebuilt and rededicated again in the 1950s, but the earthquakes of 1972 caused yet more damage. And even today, huge timber buttresses support one transept that was damaged in the earthquakes of 2016.
  • Across the bay on the summit of Monte Astagno stands The Citadel. This mighty fortress was commissioned by Pope Clement VII as a display of papal wealth and power. Designed by Antonio da Sangallo younger, who Clement VII commissioned to build similar fortresses in Perugia and Florence, it was completed in 1538 and includes five imposing bastions. It played a crucial role in the defence of the city in succeeding centuries, but fell into disrepair following the earthquake of 1972. It has since undergone substantial restoration work and is once again one of the city’s most significant monuments.
  • Down in the harbour, meanwhile, nestles another papal commission – Clement XII this time. Here you find the striking, pentagonal Lazzaretto, which is also known as the Mole Vanvitelliana. Built in the 18th century on an artificial island, it was originally a quarantine station and leprosarium for the city and as such had no physical link to the quay, but was later connected by three bridges. In the 19th century it became a military fort, and is now home to the ground-breaking Tactile Museum that seeks to promote a multi-sensory enjoyment of art.
  • Further round the harbour, stands in splendid isolation on the edge of the north quay one of the city’s oldest and most iconic monuments. The Roman Senate ordered the construction of the triumphal in AD115 Trajan Arch, which is built from Turkish marble and stands over eighteen metres high. It was conceived as a gesture of gratitude to Emperor Trajan who substantially expanded both the city and the port at his own expense. These improvements subsequently assisted him in his defeat of the Dacians across the Adriatic, thereby expanding the Roman Empire to its furthest extent.
  • At the base of the steep, pine-clad cliffs on the eastern flank of the promontory of Monte Guasco lies Ancona’s only town beach, Il Passetto. Although seemingly well-hidden and accessed via several flights of narrow stone steps, this narrow strip of shingle that plunges straight into the sparkling sapphire sea is hugely popular with the Anconetani. Apart from its restaurants serving the local speciality, brodetto all’anconetana (a mixed fish stew) it is best known for the small grottoes carved into the cliff-face in which previous generations of fishermen stored their boats. Now used as beach huts, they are jealously guarded by their owners who hand them down from one generation to the next.
  • Away from the waterfront in the heart of what remains of medieval Ancona is the Piazza del Plebiscito, complete with its 13th century city gate, the Arco di Garola. Made up of a pleasing mix of different 15th century palazzi, this grand square is dominated by the baroque church of San Domenico, and is filled with cafés and restaurants whose terraces spill across its cobbled pavements. In the maze of narrow streets that surround the piazza are lots of tiny artisan jewellery workshops, each with just a couple of craftsmen or women hunched over their work-worn benches.
  • Running inland from the waterfront are Ancona’s main shopping streets, the elegant Corso Giuseppe Mazzini and parallel to it, the equally elegant Corso Giuseppe Garibaldi. Just off the former, hiding down an unpromising-looking side street is the once-lovely fin de siècle covered market, the paint now peeling from its delicate cast and wrought iron, but the stone fronted stalls down one side, still filled with today’s catch and those down the other filled with today’s crop from the family orto (market garden). Towards the waterfront end of the latter you will find one of the city’s most famous bars, the tiny Bar Torino. Barely any bigger than the average sitting room, it retains its stylish 1960s décor and has been in the same family for several generations. It is famous for its vast range of cocktails and down the years it has attracted many a celebrity whose signed photos now proudly hang behind the bar.

And we can’t help thinking we are still just scratching the surface…

Ancona: books and covers

“OK, you’re familiar with the ‘boot’ of Italy, yes? With its toe looking as if it’s kicking Sicily? So, now think of the slight bulge of the calf of the boot. Well, it’s at the outermost point of that bulge.” It’s my tried and tested means of locating Ancona for first-time visitors who will in all likelihood being flying into its modest airport that lies at the north-western edge of the city.
“Our place is about forty minutes to the south-west,” I typically continue, and round off my brief orientation with “Don’t bother about detouring via Ancona itself; it’s really not much to write home about.” Well, until recently I did, anyway. For over the last few months I have discovered that I had been doing the city a great disservice and owe it an apology: it is a surprisingly beguiling place that Mr Blue-Shirt and I are becoming really rather fond of.

Admittedly, the messy sprawl of post-war concrete that forms an arc around the city is not immediately encouraging: faceless trading estates, criss-crossed by a tangle of flyovers and underpasses, mingle with clumps of low-rise cream and ochre apartment blocks. It is this undeniably ugly first impression that for years put us off visiting the place properly, and consequently, discovering its long history that turns out to be as fascinating as it is turbulent. And that helps put the ugliness in context.  I now realise, for instance, that in World War I the Navy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, on whom Italy had declared war only the day before, subjected the city to sustained naval bombardment that inflicted heavy damage on the port and surrounding areas. Then in World War II, it endured extensive bombing during its liberation from Nazi occupation by Allied Forces (in the form of the Polish 2nd Corps) who, as part of their advance north, needed a seaport closer to the front line. And fewer than thirty years later, it suffered a series of earthquakes in 1972 and then a landslide in 1982. All of which makes it much easier to forgive the apparent disregard for conservation principles and the seemingly insensitive urban development: the city’s beleaguered and exhausted residents needed housing and jobs – and fast.

And once you look beyond its concrete exterior, you will be warmly greeted by a vibrant, gritty, and proud maritime city with two thousand years of tempestuous history as a strategically important seaport on the Adriatic coast. It was founded by the Greeks in the 4th century BC to facilitate the expansion of trade from the Greek peninsular. Indeed, it was the Greeks who gave the city its name. Ancona derives from the Greek word ‘ankon’ which means ‘elbow’ and refers to the way the harbour is cradled in the crook of the protective arm formed by Monte Astagno to the north and Monte Guasco to the south. These are the twin extremities of the distinctive Conero Promontory whose forested bulk rears up behind the city.

Three centuries later came the Romans, and shortly after he crossed the Rubicon, Julius Caesar took possession of the city because of its harbour’s proximity to the Roman province of Dalmatia on the other side of the Adriatic. Emperor Trajan subsequently enlarged the harbour, in gratitude for which the Senate erected a triumphal arch in his honour in AD115 – and the Arch of Trajan still stands in splendid isolation on the north quay today.

In succeeding centuries, it was attacked by Goths, Lombards and Saracens, who sacked and burned the city in the 7th and 8th centuries. A couple of hundred years later it became a semi-autonomous maritime republic, during which time it built its cathedral on the summit of Monte Guasco, sent ships to the crusades, and was devastated by fire and by the black death. Two centuries after that, it became part of the Papal States, and the main architectural  legacy of this period is the imposing citadel that still keeps watch over the city from its position high on Monte Astagno.

By virtue of its position as the gateway to the eastern Mediterranean, the city has long been a melting pot of creeds and cultures: towards the end of the Renaissance it was home to a large community of important Greek merchants, and also to a substantial Jewish community that had been established in Roman times. In fact, Ancona was the only city within the Papal States that tolerated Jews, thanks to the wealth they brought to the city via their banking and trading activities, and even welcomed Jews escaping persecution elsewhere in Europe. The city still has two synagogues, and the 16th century Monte Cardeto cemetery, one of two in the city, is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in Europe.

During the Napoleonic era, the city briefly fell to the French, became the Anconine Republic, and was incorporated into the short-lived Roman Republic following Rome’s invasion by one of Napoleon’s generals. After a couple years’ to-ing and fro-ing, however, Ancona returned to the Papal States which were restored in 1799. But only sixty years later, the Papal States were defeated once and for all in the Battle of Castelfidardo (which lies just 20km to the south of Ancona), this time by the forces of the Risorgimento that brought about the unified Kingdom of Italy in 1861.

There followed a brief period of peace and prosperity, during which the railway came to the city, linking it to Bologna to the north and Pescara to the south, a tram service started operating, the southern quay was built, and the population grew to just shy of sixty thousand. But within barely fifty years, the continent was at war again and those Austro-Hungarian battleships out in the bay had the city in their sights…


Tallying up

Old habits die hard. Having managed all the finances of the business Mr Blue-Shirt and I ran for fifteen years, I still find myself doing an annual profit and loss account at the year’s end. Only these days, the debits and credits are no longer measured in pounds and pence, but in terms of quality rather than quantity, of the intangible rather than tangible.

So how does our triumphs and tragedies account for 2019 shape up? Well, the debit column is, understandably, dominated by three devastating and genuinely life-changing events: the burglary in spring, the death of Mr Blue-Shirt’s mother in autumn, and just seven weeks later, the death of his father. All three cast long, deep shadows across the year, plunging us into months of fear, anger, pain and loss; shadows whose sorrowful darkness has yet to recede. And all three rendered every other frustration and niggle, glitch and hiccup mere small change; just a handful of coins lost down the back of the sofa of life. Indeed, I am struggling to itemise other debits that any sensible accountant wouldn’t write off for being within an acceptable margin of error. The bureaucratic annoyances of importing first the car and later the van? Well, that’s just par for the course, so neither debit nor credit. The repeated wild goose chases involved in hiring construction equipment, then? Same thing: zero impact on the final balance. OK, so what about a horribly and uncharacteristically cold and wet May? Pfft! Not even worth a line on the spreadsheet. The frighteningly vicious storms that tore through the region in July and ended a blistering heatwave, then?  No damage suffered, so no entry necessary.  In fact, the only other debit that has affected the final balance to any degree was the sudden and desperately premature death of Stanley, one of the two lovable young cats we had acquired in January and who immediately captured our hearts.

The credit column at first glance appears much more mundane, with no obvious show-stopping gains to cancel out those huge losses. Our application for planning permission was granted, we successfully got ourselves as Brexit-proof as possible, Mr Blue-Shirt razed the despised pigsty to the ground, constructed new terraces and built a pergola. We enjoyed mini-breaks in Matera, Gibraltar and Tuscany, and welcomed six sets of visitors to Casa Girasole. My job remained stimulating and satisfying, I met my new great-nephew and I maintained my running and writing habits. We spent summer Sundays at the beach, dined outside from June to September, made new friends, had a good olive harvest, and continue to enjoy the affectionate presence of Stanley’s sister, Tilly. And the  most valuable assets of all: we have survived everything that life has thrown at us this year in the home that comforts and sustains us; the place that is our refuge, our place of healing; the place that  fits our needs more precisely, and where we have felt more truly ‘at home’ than anywhere else we have ever lived. A home that is located in the most magical spot whose ravishing beauty makes our hearts sing and whose reassuring constancy nourishes and grounds us each and every day.

So where does that leave us? What is the final tally when multiple small triumphs and pleasures are weighed against a few enormous losses? Was it, in crude terms, a good year or a bad year? Well, I am gratified – and not a little surprised – to find that the credits do amount to much more than I first anticipated.  The sheer scale of those losses, however, has cost us dear and our reserves are undeniably at low ebb. So the result, on balance, is a deficit – albeit a far smaller one than I had first feared, and one that we can surely be hopeful of reversing in 2020.

Maybe I should carry on doing the accounts after all.