The Greening of Casa Girasole – Part 2

The first time we went out for a meal with Giovanni was last October in a brief ‘yellow’ phase between lockdowns. He took us for lunch at his favourite fish restaurant towards the northern end of the seafront at Civitanova Marche after we had signed the contract with him for the supply of our solar energy installation following a lengthy period of to-ing and fro-ing that had begun back in summer. We’re going out for another meal with him next weekend, this time to celebrate a much bigger landmark: the completion – at last – of the project, the management of which has been Mr Blue-Shirt’s main pre-occupation for much of the last year.

Even though it was carried out in the depths of winter, the easy part was the mounting on our south-facing roof of the set of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic panels that form the heart of the system, together with the installation of the electronic brains of the system and the stack of batteries that hunch in the hall cupboard like a softly humming dalek. These were all wired in, connected up and actually producing solar energy by the end of January. But they were only the start of the all-singing-all-dancing system that the government’s programme of fifty to sixty percent discounts on domestic renewable energy installations had enabled us to include in the specification.

In order to minimise our use of gas as well as fossil-fuel-based electricity, this also consisted of an air-source heat pump (ASHP) to provide hot water and heating, along with a new, super-efficient boiler as a back-up-cum-top-up, a clever gizmo that allows the system to switch between the two, and three new combined heating/cooling (fan coil) units for our bedroom, the guest bedroom and the sitting room, as well as several hundred metres of tubing, ducting, cables and conduits to knit the whole lot together. Oh, and for good measure we also threw in a bit of future-proofing in the form of an electric car charging point in the carport, ‘just in case’.

The much more complicated and protracted part was getting this huge, hi-tech box of tricks up and running in a converted 19th century farmhouse; a task that tested the skills and patience of Giovanni’s team of tradesmen to the full. Giacly the cheery plumber, his shaven head and thick beard combo giving him the curious appearance (to me, at least) of someone with his head on upside down, Gianni the Rolling Stones-loving, drama queen electrician and Paul the totally unflappable, softly-spoken technology wizard spent much of the spring either crouched in the upstairs porch with the ASHP, or squidged in between the boiler and the switching system in the tiny, cramped boiler room, or with their heads buried in the hall cupboard making adjustments to the software that runs everything, or going from room to room to check whether this, that or the other bit of kit was working properly or not.  Needless to say, very often it was not – mostly thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the house, its 60cm-thick walls and the way it had been plumbed and wired by our predecessors, but also because in some instances Giovanni hadn’t got the spec. quite right (like ordering fan coil units that looked as if they belonged in a factory and which we insisted he replace with something more suitable for a domestic setting), and all-too frequently, just because, well that’s just how tech is, all of which slowed progress considerably.

Things were slowed down even further by ENEL, which as well as being the mains electricity supplier also manages the distribution infrastructure. It took Giovanni weeks of nudging and nagging to get their engineer to come and upgrade our meter so it could cope with the increase of our supply from 3kw to 6kw in line with the system requirements for a house the size of ours. It took even longer, however, and even more nudging and nagging, as well as a flurry of form-filling, actually to achieve that increase in supply – even though this, as far as I could see, surely amounted to little more than the equivalent of turning a knob or opening a tap. This delay caused a real bottleneck, though, as until someone bothered to flick the relevant switch, we only had half a system as it meant that the ASHP couldn’t be commissioned and so we had to continue to rely on gas for hot water and heating.

Mind you, it was while we were waiting for ENEL to get its act together that, after extensive research and several test-drives, we also took the plunge and used some more of Mr Blue-Shirt’s inheritance to replace our aged diesel Renault with a brand new fully electric Nissan Leaf. In the end, it wasn’t that difficult a decision, largely because of the government subsidies, the manufacturer’s discounts and the dealer’s special offers, which brought the price down by more than a third. But our purchase quickly revealed a glitch in the system set-up, which meant that Paul the gizmologist had to come and configure the car charging point (wallbox) so that it appeared on the system app, thus giving us the means to maximise the use of our own solar energy when charging the car depending on how much power we are actually generating, how full the house batteries are and how fast we need to charge the car; all very clever. And no sooner had we got this glitch resolved than another became apparent when ENEL were doing some maintenance work nearby and knocked the power out. This revealed that the back-up that is supposed to allow us to use energy stored in the battery to maintain certain key functions in the case of a power cut was not connected, so this time Gianni the drama queen had to come back to do some additional wiring work, cursing as long and loud as ever as he flounced back and forth between boiler room, battery cupboard and fuse box until he was satisfied he’d got it working correctly.

ENEL eventually got round to upgrading our mains supply in late May, which was fortuitous as it meant that the ASHP came on stream just in time for the sudden and early arrival of summer and so allowed us to take advantage of the fan coils’ cooling function; cooling that is as deliciously ironic as it is guilt-free, incidentally, as it effectively runs on pure sunshine. And with the upgraded supply, the final piece of the jigsaw dropped into place: the switching of our mains supplier from ENEL to SENEC, the company that supplied the batteries but that is also a power distributor, and one which uses exclusively renewable energy, meaning that even on the rare occasion that we require top-up from the mains, it will still be completely fossil-fuel-free. Better still, this switch also enables us to feed back into the grid any surplus power that we generate, which we have already found easily compensates for any we take out, thus meaning that the latter is almost free.

So after a year in which Giovanni has spent so much time with us explaining this, chasing up that and sorting out the other that we’ve become quite good pals, we’re finally there. Not only is the whole system now properly connected and configured and we are at last officially driving, heating, cooling, lighting and bathing on sunshine, we are also now saving several hundred kilos of CO2 emissions every week. All of which sounds like a pretty good cause for celebration to me.

Image shows:
Solar panels generating 5kw
House battery at 100% so not charging
House consuming 0.6kw
Wallbox not in use as car fully charged
4.4kw (ie 5kw-0.6kw) going to the grid


What a time it was..

I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. This is normally the weekend of Montelupone’s  annual Festa della Pizza. Mind you, even though this is our fourth July in the village, we’ve only been the once, the first year we were here – and it was terrific: a glorious celebration of practically everything we love about life in Italy concentrated into one fantastic evening. The following year, though, it was only a few weeks after our second burglary and we were still wary of leaving the house unattended, while last year Covid-19 restrictions meant that all such summer events were banned. And this year, although festivals and fairs are permitted now we are in the white zone’ (subject to an array of public health measures, of course), there was, presumably, insufficient time available to put together an event of this scale. But how I wished we might have had the opportunity to repeat the experience this year. Sitting on the terrace after dinner and holding the glass of grappa Mr Blue-Shirt had just poured me, I looked up towards the village, its crown of lights making its honeyed walls and stand out against the inky sky, and, as I leant my head on Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder and took a sip of grappa, my thoughts drifted back to that very special evening …

We plodded the final few metres up the hill into Montelupone’s main square, the Piazza del Comune, more than ready for a cool drink after our 4km walk from home. We had come into town for the Festa della Pizza and had assumed that the four-day event would be held here in the centre of the village, as this is where all village festivals tend to take place. But although the square was buzzing with life, it was just the Caffé del Teatro and the Pizzeria del Borgo doing their normal roaring trade on a warm summer’s evening. Slightly puzzled, we looked around for some evidence of the festa and soon noticed a series of hand-written signs bearing the words ‘stands gastronomici’ with large arrows drawn below them. These guided us out of the square and up the narrow street behind the town hall and eventually led us to the imposing pair of forged metal gates at the end of the high moss-clad wall that runs along the back of a small quiet square where the village war memorial is located. They look as if they are the gates to the courtyard of one of the tall slim houses facing onto the square, and for most of the year, it seems, they remain chained shut. But now they were flung wide in welcome, and stepping through them we discovered that they are in fact the entrance to what looked like a secret little park: a large grassy area about the size of half a football pitch surrounded on three sides by high stone walls with the fourth looking straight down over the sea, and a magnificent cedar tree bang in the middle, its ancient limbs fanned out in a giant parasol of gracefully arching green.

The little park wasn’t much of a secret tonight, however, for it was thronged with easily half the village’s 3000 population, music blaring and strings of lights dancing on the breeze and the evening air rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. To our left along the front wall was a stage with microphone stands and drum kit set up ready for that evening’s live band, and in front of this was a raised dance floor across which small children were charging and sliding, squealing with excitement. Around the right-hand edge of the space stood a couple of small open-fronted marquees housing banks of cash desks, in front of which queued groups of people chatting animatedly. Along the far wall stood another much larger open-fronted marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching their pizzas. These were appearing in a steady stream from a bigger marquee still that, together with the bar, ran along the fourth side.

Once we had got our bearings, we worked out that we needed to order and pay for our food and drinks at the cash desks first before collecting our order from the relevant marquee.  “Una pizza diavola e una pizza verdure,…” Mr. Blue-Shirt bellowed above the Euro-pop pounding away in the background when we finally reached the front of the queue, “…una birra grande e un vino bianco”. Having handed over our €20, we received two receipts, one for our drinks order, the other for our pizza order, which crucially also included our order number: F180. We eased ourselves away from the crush around the tills and while Mr. Blue-Shirt joined the queue for the bar, I headed for the pizza marquee. In front of the entrance stood a long bench behind which stood a chap in shorts and a bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirt and clutching a microphone. “Effe cento quaranta cinque!”  he called over the crackly PA system, as he plucked a ticket from where it was tucked under the flap of the uppermost pizza box in the stack that had just been deposited on the bench. Someone in the gaggle of people gathered in front of the table yelled “Si, io! – Yes, me!” and waved their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before finally handing over the stack of pizza boxes to the hungry customer. If order number F145 had only just been served, we were in for quite a bit more pizza bingo until they got to F180, then. Fortunately, Mr. Blue-Shirt re-appeared beside me at that point, clutching a large plastic beaker of beer, a smaller plastic beaker of white wine and, balanced between the two, a portion of deep-fried artichoke slices, so at least we would have something to keep us going until our order was called.

As we enjoyed our aperitivi, we watched the incredibly slick pizza-making operation in full swing in the marquee. This was swarming with a huge team of volunteers in their bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a long row of trestle tables, each of which formed a different pizza-making station. “Effe cento cinquanta cinque!” blasted over the PA.  At one stood a team of people forming dough into soft plump balls, at the next, amid clouds of flour, stood the dough-rolling, -spinning and -tossing team, and at a third a team of volunteers was ladling rich, chunky tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs and garlic, onto the paper-thin bases. “Effe cento sessanta quattro!” Then came the topping-adding team, with their battery of plastic tubs overflowing with different ingredients, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. “Effe cento settanta due!” Here, the finished pizzas were lined up, ready for the pizza chefs, their faces glowing red in the blazing heat, to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the two huge wood burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. “Effe cento settanta otto!” After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza-boxing, -slicing and -stacking crew who finally dispatched each completed order to the front of the marquee. “Effe cento ottanta!” “Si, io!” I cried, waving my receipt in the approved manner.

Mr. Blue-Shirt dabbed the final smears of garlicky tomato sauce from his lips. “That was top-notch”, he shouted over the band who were now in full swing just across from the trestle table where we had managed to squidge ourselves into a couple of spare seats. With my mouth still full of the final delicious oozy, smoky forkful, I could only nod vigorously in agreement. “The sausage on mine was properly spicy”, he continued. “As good as anything we’ve had from a proper pizzeria.” “Absolutely!” I was able to say at last. “My vegetable topping was really generous and the crispy base was yummy”.  Replete, we swivelled on our bench to watch the band. They were clearly going down well as the dance floor was now full of couples of all ages performing the practised steps and twirls of traditional dances taught by one generation to the next.

We could still hear the band as we headed back down the hill, but as we descended into the cool night air, the rhythmic thump of the bass finally gave way to the gentle rasping of the crickets. Walking hand in hand beneath the velvety sky we reflected on a wonderful evening that had effectively been some kind of vindication of our decision to move to Italy.

I lifted my head from Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulder, drained my glass and sighed deeply. It had been wonderful not only in its own right, but also as a powerful affirmation of community and the bonds that maintain it. And as I remarked here a couple of weeks ago, it was such a cruel irony, therefore, that just when those bonds and the need to celebrate them seem more important than ever, we have had to be denied a much-missed means of doing so.

Mind you, I’m betting that next year’s pizza festival will be an absolute corker…

Title taken from ‘Bookends’ – Simon & Garfunkel

Into the Lions’ Den

Antonio’s mask may have concealed the grin spreading across his round, suntanned face, but it did nothing to hide the playful twinkle in his large brown eyes.
“All very simple and relaxed again” he assured Mr Blue-Shirt. “A bite to eat and a couple of drinks down at the bike club while we watch the match…”

Mr Blue-Shirt has become quite good pals with Antonio, proud owner of a classic Triumph motor cycle and leading light in the Porto Potenza Picena bike club. His day job is running the shipping company, together with his Canadian-born wife Lori, that transported Mr Blue-Shirt’s storage container over from UK. He has kindly let us store it in his yard free of charge ever since in return for Mr Blue-Shirt doing a series of maintenance and repair jobs around the place.

A couple of weeks earlier he’d invited us to a similar get-together at their ‘clubhouse’ just along the coast from Porto Potenza Picena. This turned out to be a huge customised classic caravan permanently pitched in the corner of a generous patch of grassy land enclosed within a tall hedge of crimson oleander trees. I imagine the club rents the plot from the huge pizzeria next door which throughout the evening supplied us with a steady procession of dustbin-lid-sized pizzas straight from their enormous wood-burning oven. Coming shortly after Le Marche went into the white zone when nearly all restrictions on eating, drinking and making merry were lifted, it was a very welcome evening of conviviality enjoyed around picnic tables assembled at the base of a magnificent sycamore tree strung with lights and filled with cicadas and crickets whose noisy rasping accompanied our conversation.

Consequently, we happily accepted this latest invitation – albeit with just a smidgen of apprehension. For the match Antonio had mentioned was the final of the Euros 2020* between Italy and England. Now, if there is one thing that anyone knows about Italians it is that football is practically the country’s second religion. And if we add to the mix that Gli Azzuri  -The Blues, as the national team is affectionately known – were still smarting from having failed even to qualify for the last World Cup in 2018 (practically a national disaster) it is no exaggeration to say that, with a good chance of laying that particular demon to rest at last, excitement in the run-up to the match was at fever pitch. The ever-affable Antonio convinced us, however, that he had no hidden agenda in inviting a pair of English people to come and watch a match in which everyone else present would be desperate to see Italy triumph. They were a bike club, after all; the football was just a good reason for a get together…

Ragazzi e ragazze – Guys and girls,” boomed Antonio almost as soon as we walked through the gate. Twenty or so people looked up from setting out tables and chairs, filling paper plates with portions of cheese, cured meats and porchetta, or rigging up the large-screen television, amplifier and aerial.
“Some of you met them a couple of weeks ago,” he continued with his arm draped across Mr Blue-Shirt’s shoulders. “But for those who didn’t, I’d like you all to meet these two friends of ours, an ENGLISH couple who I think you will agree are being very BRAVE in joining us this evening to watch THE BLUES WIN tonight’s final!!”
Bastardo!” muttered Mr Blue-Shirt under his breath as Antonio winked mischievously at him and the assembled company broke into whoops, catcalls and applause.
“Let me introduce everyone,” he said, thrusting a cold beer into Mr-Blue-Shirt’s hand and a glass of chilled local white wine into mine.
“Are you here on holiday from England, then?” asked someone called Laura who good-naturedly looked us up and down as if searching for signs of union flags or ‘three lions’ emblems.
“No, we live in Montelupone; we’re officially Monteluponesi.”
“See? We’re all practically neighbours!” exclaimed Lori supportively.
That we were ‘locals’ certainly helped prove our pro-Italian credentials, but it was Laura’s husband Marco who asked the question that was still on everyone’s lips:
“Ah, but who are you supporting this evening?”

We knew we were bound to be asked, but also knew that as an answer, ‘it’s complicated’ wouldn’t quite cut it. For a start, neither of us actually likes football and only knew how the England team had been progressing as a result of the blanket coverage the UK media had given all their matches. In addition, we had been absolutely appalled by the way that sundry racists, xenophobes and jingoists (in government as well as on the terraces and on social media) appeared to have hijacked the tournament to further their own dubious political agendas. However, despite our love of Italy, we still couldn’t quite bring ourselves to abandon completely what is still ultimately our home nation. But then again, we didn’t want to antagonise our friendly hosts either. Like I said: it’s complicated.
“What do you think?” I responded evasively. “Look what colour we’re both wearing!”
“Blue! So it’s blue for The Blues!”
“Well, there you are then!” I declared, hoping this would be sufficiently ambiguous to let us off the hook. There was a brief pause, and then our interrogators raised their glasses in an impromptu toast to “Gli Azzuri!”
“Well done!” hissed Mr Blue-Shirt in my ear. “That was genius.”

So with everyone at least reasonably satisfied (if not totally convinced) of our loyalties, we sat down with Lori and Antonio to enjoy our apericena and watch the match.  But we were soon lost in conversation about the relative merits of Nortons versus Triumphs so only realised that England had scored two minutes into the game when twenty pairs of Italian eyes turned towards us, eager to see how we would react to this apparent catastrophe. Thankfully, as this implausibly good start for England had passed us by, our slight bafflement at the sudden excitement was, happily, interpreted as indifference and any remaining doubts as to our allegiance were assuaged.

Throughout the rest of the match, we paid as much attention to the reactions of our fellow diners as we did to what was happening on the pitch. When Italy were in the ascendant, it was all shouts of “Forza Italia!” and “Bravissimi!”, while it switched to wails of “Madonna!”, and “Porca miseria!” whenever England looked dangerous. But when Italy drew level early in the second half, had there been any roof on the place, it would have been blown off by the deafening collective roar of “G-o-o-a-a-l-l!!!” Then as the clock ticked down and the more likely extra time became, the further the volume fell, leaving just the cicadas cheering the players on by the time the final whistle blew.  Those around us quickly concluded that a penalty shoot-out would inevitably provide the climax to the tournament, so used the ensuing ‘phoney war’ to settle their nerves, clear the tables and refill their glasses in preparation for the final few minutes of exquisite agony. Then as the fuchsia-pink-clad referee signalled the start of the shoot-out and both teams went into their respective huddles on the pitch, so we all rose from our tables and huddled around the television screen.

With each penalty kick, our mini-crowd burst into a succession of whoops of joy, howls of dismay or cheers of glee depending on whose shot had gone in, been saved or had missed completely. But with one kick remaining, and the last chance for England to level the score at three-all, silence fell. Then as that final young Englishman, with the weight of his nation’s hopes on his shoulders, had his shot saved by the Italian goalkeeper, the warm night air was rent with roars of delight and a mass of fireworks – in red, white and green – exploded across the inky sky to chants of “Abbiamo vintooooo!! – We’ve wooon!!”

Even as our hearts went out to those poor young Englishmen whose penalties had not gone in, it was easy for us to be magnanimous in defeat. And not so much because of our relative lack of investment in the outcome as for our companions’ graciousness in victory. We exchanged congratulations and commiserations, fist-bumps and back-slaps with our euphoric companions, whose delight at winning contained not a single taunt or shred of Schadenfreude. While the podium was erected on the pitch for the presentation ceremony, Antonio distributed glasses of sparkling wine (which he had clearly put on ice ’just in case’) and as the huge trophy draped in green, white and red ribbons was presented to the Italian captain, we all as one raised our glasses of fizz and toasted the new UEFA Champions, ‘Gli Azzurri’.

If the evening had been a test, I think we had passed it.

* The UEFA European Football Championship postponed from the previous year.

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

Not Quite Back to Normal

The holiday season is upon us. The beaches are open, the sun-loungers are full, the sea is warm, restaurants are doing a roaring trade and business and factories will soon be falling quiet as they shut up shop for their summer break.  So far so normal. The whole country is, after all, now in the zona bianca (white zone). That said, wearing masks remains obligatory indoors, social distancing is still in place and venues still face capacity restrictions. In addition, access to many events is restricted to those with a ‘Covid Green Pass’, ie those who can prove either that they are full vaccinated, that they have tested negative for Covid-19 in the previous 48 hours, or that they have officially recovered from Covid-19. These sensible measures aside, though, nearly all other restrictions have been either eased greatly or lifted completely. The curfew has gone, we can move freely from one region to another, we can welcome an unlimited number of visitors into our homes, many of the rules governing weddings, christenings and funerals have disappeared, and museums and galleries, theatres and cinemas, gyms, pools and spas have all re-opened. 

Only it still isn’t Italy in summer quite as we know it. For a while I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It wasn’t just the more Anglo-Saxon approach to queuing in bars and gelaterie. It wasn’t even the almost total absence of hugs and handshakes among friends greeting each other at the beach. And it certainly wasn’t the weather, which has been as hot and sunny as mid-August since early June. It finally struck me the other day on my run into the village. I was toiling up Via Santa Catarina (aka Heart Attack Hill) in the shade of the steep grassy bank that rises up to the small complex of flats just outside the historical centre. The bank that at this time of year is usually bristling with rough timber posts that bear colourful placards advertising some sagra, festa, concert, pageant, exhibition or market taking place in any of half a dozen nearby villages. The bank that for the second year running remains conspicuously bare, the customary placards substituted with a scattering of self-sown sunflowers and garlands of bindweed blossom. For the recent national ripartenza (re-opening) came too late for the vast majority of these otherwise annual events to be able to go ahead and so they have had to be put on hold once again.

And for the second year running that is leaving a pretty big hole in the cultural life of the country, as the sheer number of these local events that normally take place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Florence or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – typically holds a series of 3- or 4-day-long events between May and August, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. Normally we would have had the annual artichoke festival back in May, the annual pizza festival in July, the medieval weekend, the celebration of apiculture and the Ferragosto fireworks in August, and over the weekends in between, there would have been well over a dozen live music, dancing and sports events, many of them especially for children. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: the July and August issues of Corriere e Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region normally produces every month, typically contain around a hundred and fifty closely printed pages listing literally hundreds of events in several different categories. Usually on any weekend over summer we could choose between, say, A Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna or a Horror Festival over in Monte Urano, the Palio down in Servigliano or maybe the Street Food Festival in Pedaso. This summer they haven’t even published Corriere e Proposte; it simply isn’t worth it for the meagre number of events that are happening across the region. In Montelupone, for instance, the programme has been reduced to a handful of low-key musical events in the main square, a classic car rally, and the apiculture fair, with access still only available to those with a Covid Green Pass.

One thing that has not changed, however, is that most of these events have, as usual, been organised, promoted and run entirely by the local ‘Pro Loco’, often with a degree of financial or logistical support from local sponsors as well as the Comune (town council). Literally 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. As such, the Pro Loco movement is in many ways an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which is rooted 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 in turn derived from 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 adjoining regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. Loyalty to the local was consequently often a matter of survival.

So it is a sad irony that in a period when people from one end of the country have been under sustained attack from a shared enemy in the form of an invisible virus and notions of the common good and reciprocity have seldom been more important, their communities have also had to be denied one of the very means of publicly reaffirming that crucial sense of solidarity and togetherness. We can only hope, therefore, that normal service will soon be resumed and that Pro Loco groups everywhere still be dusting off their collections of trestle tables, benches, banners, pergolas and PA systems and (providing we are able to remain in the zona bianca, of course) gearing up for an autumn of celebrations for the grape harvest, the truffle season, the hunting season, the olive harvest and even Advent. And for having got as far as we have through this crisis in the only way possible: together.  

Walking in the Footsteps of the Righteous

Heroes crop up in the most unlikely places. And we certainly had not been expecting to come across one as part of a Sunday morning hike in the gently rolling hills between Tolentino and San Ginesio just to the north of the Sibillini Mountains and about thirty kilometres south-west of our place.

These hikes normally take us to some of Le Marche’s more remote and rugged corners, up where the wind is brisk and the air is cool. And on this particular Sunday, when the whole country was tightly swaddled within a steamy blanket of suffocating heat, we could certainly have done with a few hours in one of those fresher corners. But on this occasion, starting from just outside the tiny village of Camporotondo at a pretty agriturismo (whose owner, Luca, was our guide for the day), our hike took us along well-used gravel tracks and even tarmac-ed roads, past fields of wheat and sunflowers and through groves of olive, fig and cherry trees, seldom climbing higher than 300m above sea level. There was method in the untimely choice of routes, however. On this particular hike, one of the organisers, Franco, had invited along members of a local cultural group in which he is also a leading light. This group has a particular interest in the Marchigian poet, Tullio Colsalvatico, who was born at his family’s farm in the nearby hamlet of Colvenale in 1901. Since Colsalvatico had drawn much of his inspiration for his poems from the local landscape, the idea was to intersperse the walk with readings from his works, with the intention that landscape and poetry should illuminate and enrich each other.

At this point I should mention that neither Mr Blue-Shirt nor I had heard of Tullio Colsalvatico, our limited knowledge of Italian poets not really extending beyond Dante, Primo Levi and Giacomo Leopardi (and we only know anything about him because he was born just across the valley from us in Recanati). Added to which, our Italian language skills are not yet at a level that enabled us to appreciate fully the finer points of Colsalvatico’s poetry. But the brief readings nonetheless provided us with moments of stillness and repose in which to contemplate the splendour of the surrounding countryside (as well as find a patch of shade and take a few swigs of water) as we let the beautiful music and richness of the language wash over us.

The final reading – for which the longest poem had been selected – was conducted at the highest point of the walk on a grassy ridge that to the south gave over the Tenna valley – and on to a wall of solid heat haze behind which lurked the northern crags of the Sibillini, and to the north over the Chienti valley – and a matching wall of heat haze that concealed the distinctive forest-clad mound of the Cònero Peninsular. Beneath the hot, colourless sky in which the sun appeared as no more than a pale blur, we eased our rucksacks from our sweat-drenched backs and drained the last tepid drops from our water bottles as we strained to catch the words of the poem before they were scattered on the sultry breeze. After a polite round of applause at the end of the reading, few of us were able to conceal our relief when Franco announced that it was lunchtime.

We descended to a dense copse of oak trees in whose welcome shade we gratefully plonked down and enjoyed a leisurely (socially-distanced) picnic lunch. This had been ferried up to us by Franco’s wife Silvana and Luca’s son Tobias, and consisted of local organic meats and cheeses, artisan bread and locally grown fruit, all washed down with young white wine from Luca’s organic vineyard. As we finished our picnic, Franco, an enthusiastic and loquacious Colsalvatico expert, filled us in on the poet’s life-story.

Now, I have to confess that Mr Blue-Shirt and I were a tad ‘Tullio-ed out’ by this stage. In all honesty, we would probably have preferred to spend the break getting to know our fellow walkers a little better, or even having a brief post-lunch snooze before winding our way back down to the agriturismo. So we did rather zone out, keeping just half an ear on proceedings while picking at the remains of our hearty lunch and conducting our exchanges sotto voce as Franco held forth.
“… father sent him to agricultural college in Fabriano… love of books and literature…”
“Pass me just one more bit of that yummy prosciutto, will you?”
“…deeply religious… abiding love of the land and those who work it…”
“Do you want any more of Luca’s wine? It’s rather good, isn’t it.”
“… published his first collection of poems when he was just eighteen…”
“Ow! Something’s just bitten me…”
“… interested in left-wing politics… moved to Rome but often returned to Colvenale…”
“I must ask Silvana where that fantastic bread came from.”
“…journalism and short stories as well as poetry…”
“Look! I think Primo has nodded off…”
“…always a passionate champion of Le Marche… role in setting up what became the Monti Sibillini National Park…”
“Stelvio has too, by the look of it… ”
“…a vocal critic of Mussolini… became involved in the resistance….helped organise shelter and safe passage for partisans in these very hills…”
I perked up a little at that.
“Oh, that’s interesting. I’d love to know more about the partigiani in Le Marche…”
“But it wasn’t only partigiani that he helped shelter…”

Franco had got my full attention now.
“By late summer 1943, with conditions for Jews becoming harsher by the day and the bombing of Rome growing every more likely, a certain Cesare Di Tivoli had decided it was becoming too dangerous for him, his wife Ester and their three children Fiorella, Emma and David to remain in Rome’s ancient ghetto. He chose a village near Tolentino to evacuate everyone to, not only because it was in faraway Le Marche, but also because a Jewish woman they knew had been transferred there by the authorities and given the status of ‘free inmate’.”
“That was good timing – it must have been just before Italy surrendered, surely…? ”
“Dunno,” shrugged Mr Blue-Shirt.
“As soon as the Nazis’ occupied Rome after the surrender that September…”
“…thought so…”
“… other members of Di Tivoli’s family decided to join Cesare and Ester in Le Marche. But to the Di Tivolis’ dismay, only a few weeks later, the local Comandante of the Caribinieri received orders to arrest all the Jews in the area. Colsalvatico knew the Di Tivoli family and understood the danger they were in so advised them all to flee, but promised that he would help them. Over the following days he organised high quality false identity papers for all twenty-four of Cesare’s family and also arranged shelter for them with families in several different villages around Tolentino and Camporotondo.”

And there they all stayed for the rest of the war, effectively hiding in plain sight, partly thanks to the convincing new identities their forged papers enabled them to create, and partly by becoming regular church-goers and participating in local Christian rites and festivals. Colsalvatico, meanwhile, continued to oversee their welfare and to protect them from the reach of the authorities. On one occasion he saved Cesare’s then seven-year-old daughter Fiorella from certain capture by swiftly moving her to another village when German forces entered the village where she had been staying.

Only when the Di Tivoli family returned to Rome at the end of the war did they realise how fortunate they had been to have had the help of such a courageous friend as Colsalvatico. With the clearing of the ghetto in late 1943, their homes had been wrecked and plundered and two thousand of their neighbours had been deported, most of them to perish in Auschwitz, while the remaining six thousand of Rome’s Jewish population continued to live in hiding and under constant threat of discovery until the liberation of the city in June 1944.

“The thing is,” said Franco, “the story of Colsalvatico’s rescue of the Di Tivoli family only came to light in 2006.”
Everyone sat up. “Did he say 2006??” we all asked one another.
“Yes,” confirmed Franco. “Remember Fiorella, the seven-year-old daughter who had to flee when the Germans arrived? Well, she and her family emigrated to Israel at some point. But even though she was now in her eighties, she had never forgotten her wartime experience in the hills of Le Marche, or the poet who had saved her and the other twenty-three members of her family, and she wanted to have his bravery recognised.”

So after three years of rigorous and meticulous research, the details of Fiorella’s story were confirmed. And on 30th March 2009, and twenty-nine years after his death, Yad Vashem in Jerusalem officially recognised Tullio Colsalvatico as Righteous Among the Nations.


Photo courtesy of http://www.colsalvatico.it

Note:
The Righteous Among Nations are defined by Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, as non-Jews who during the Holocaust put themselves at risk to save the lives of Jews without any personal benefit to themselves. They currently number 27,712 individuals from 51 different nations. Italy has the 7th largest number of Righteous Among Nations, with 734 of its citizens having been awarded this title since the programme started in 1963. For more information, please visit https://www.yadvashem.org/righteous.html

Turning up the Heat

It normally comes in late July, The Heat. But it is already here, a good month early. Normally at this stage of summer, days are hot yet bearable, evenings are warm yet comfortable and nights are cool yet pleasant. With the wheat harvest barely started and the sunflowers only just opening their faces to the sun, though, the temperature here for well over a week now has kept nudging ever further into the upper 30s centigrade and only dropping back to the mid-20s during the sultry nights; in the south, meanwhile, it’s been in the low 40s easing back to the high 30s. And so for the first time ever in June, the opening line of a song that we sang in the acapella choir I used to belong to is already providing the mental background music to all our activities. Made famous by Ladysmith Black Mambazo, “Rain, rain, rain, rain!” celebrates the long-awaited arrival of the rainy season to restore life to the arid, sun-scorched African savannah after months of torrid heat that turns the soil to dust.

“Oh, come, never come,” laments the song. And with each passing day we yearn for the precursory sound and lighting effects that herald the arrival of a crashing thunderstorm which will allow the weather magically to reset itself after days of steadily rising temperatures and ever-increasing humidity. Endless days during which the steamy heat is fierce and relentless, trapped beneath a stifling veil of high cloud that dulls only the sun’s glare but not its strength. In an effort to keep the heat at bay and maintain at least an impression of ‘less hot’ if not exactly ‘cool’, we live in a state of perpetual gloom, keeping windows and shutters closed and curtains drawn throughout the day. But as each sweltering day passes, the heat gradually seeps through the brick and stone and starts to trickle down the walls, gathering in steamy puddles about the house, and over time reduces the gap between outside and inside temperatures to just a few precious degrees. Night time brings at least some respite: now that our swanky new solar-powered air-con unit has supplanted the ceiling fan that in previous years barely managed to stir the thick heavy air into some semblance of a breeze to cool our clammy limbs, our bedroom provides an oasis of blessed, restorative cool. As soon as we rise, though, we are back to wading through those steamy puddles of heat, which seem to be getting deeper and thicker by the day.

“Oh, come to me, beautiful rain,” the song implores. Every day we scan the shimmering horizon for signs of cloud gathering over the Sibillini Mountains where lies the bubbling cauldron of thermals that cast great, pearlescent towers of cumulonimbus cloud up into the baking sky: the surest sign in these parts that a downpour is on its way. But nothing. Just a strangely colourless blanket of heat haze fraying the sky’s furthest edges. And so the mercury remains uncomfortably close to forty degrees for another day, and there are reports on the news about the heatwave and features on how to cope with its effects – for everyone is feeling the heat, not just we pasty, cool-blooded Anglo-Saxons.

It will come eventually, though; it always does. Usually it is in the early evening, by which time the air is so clogged with heat that every movement becomes a sweat-inducing effort. Over the Sibillini’s more northerly peaks the clouds will at last begin to bubble up. Then to gather into great churning clumps, then to coalesce into a roiling mass of grimy grey that quickly extinguishes the sun’s heat. The immediately fresher air will carry the scent of rain and we will both scurry around the house, flinging the windows open, ready to usher the longed-for cool into every muggy corner of the house. A bad-tempered breeze will start to tug at the tops of the trees, drive the cat-flap into a frenzy and set the shutters rattling. And within minutes big, fat, juicy rain drops will begin to splat with an almost audible sizzle onto the sun-baked terrace. Yess!

The drops will rapidly merge into heavy curtains of driving rain that billow and flap in the raging wind. Through the un-shuttered windows in the garden doors we will watch the rain drops bouncing off the rain-slicked tiles. Down the valley, sea and sky will merge into a vast and impenetrable wall of steel grey and within minutes the village will be lost within a swirling cloak of cloud. Thunder will roar as the demons of the Sibillini hurl down spears of lightning that flash silver-white against the now charcoal sky. And for a while it will seem as if the arrival of the four horsemen of the apocalypse is nigh.

Within an hour it will be over, though. The demons will fall silent, gather their weapons and retreat to their mountain lair. The rain will abate and the slackening wind will flush the grey away, revealing a sky of purest pastel blue. Across it will be strewn bold streaks of lavender, pink and purple edged with gold. And as they slowly melt into the horizon, the sun will tentatively emerge once more. The storm will have done its job, though: the temperature will have almost halved and you will be able to almost taste the freshness in the air. So at last we will fling open the doors and windows and shutters, let the evening sunshine spill into every room and invite the playful breeze to blow away the drifts of stale heat that had accumulated in every corner. The re-set will be complete and normal service will be resumed.

But not yet. I stand up from my desk, open the shutters to my study window a chink and peer hopefully at the sky to the west: nothing; just featureless milky blue-grey. I sigh, return to my seat and turn up my desk fan another notch. “Oh, come to me, beautiful rain,” I plead.

Ladysmith Black Mambazo singing ‘Rain, rain, rain, rain!’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUH7PM0-cpI

Crunching the Numbers

It has been my nightly ritual for over a year now. Every evening, with dinner in the oven and probably with a glass of chilled rosé in my hand, I reach for the iPad and bring up the daily Covid-19 data on the website of Corriere della Sera.  For a long period they made dismal reading, with daily fatalities towards the end of the year nudging 1000 and back where they had been in the height of the first wave, and daily infection rates more than twice as high as back then; on one particularly grim day in November they even hit 40,000.

After the strict Christmas lockdown that followed this horrifying peak, we watched the daily numbers, both new cases and fatalities, fall steadily through January and February. And with this improvement in the numbers, we moved from the red zone to orange and finally to yellow – albeit with the higher thresholds to meet before each transition as well as the night-time curfew that had been put in place by the new Draghi regime. But no sooner had the second wave seemed to have passed than by the end of February, the alpha variant (or ‘variante inglese’ as it was called here at the time) had arrived and very soon I could barely bring myself to look at the daily stats each evening as the curve started to climb rapidly back up again. And sure enough, just as rapidly the country went from yellow back to orange and finally back to red over Easter, shortly before which daily cases had rebounded to 26,000, although the death rate, thankfully, had remained largely stable. 

This time, however, lockdowns, travel restrictions and curfews were no longer the only weapons in the country’s armoury. Despite its agonisingly slow start, the vaccine programme had been steadily building up steam and by April it was clear that it had begun to gain traction. As we moved back from red to orange once more my nightly pre-dinner ritual started to include a check of the daily vaccination numbers on the Health Ministry’s website too: by the end of the month, the injection rate was not far off the government’s objective of half a million jabs a day and the daily infection rate had halved. The third wave, it seemed, had at least been contained if not avoided completely.

It was with considerable national relief, therefore, that restrictions were eased again at the start of May leaving only a handful of regions still in orange and the rest, including Le Marche, back in yellow. The curfew was soon put back from 10pm to 11pm (and subsequently to midnight), bars and restaurants re-opened for outside dining, and for the first time in months we could move freely between regions of the same colour, although for any movement between regions of different colours, you either had to demonstrate a ‘need’ for travel or provide proof you had been vaccinated, had recovered from Covid-19, or had tested negative within the last 48 hours. Moreover, the once almost mythical white zones, ie those with lowest numbers and hence the fewest restrictions, now featured prominently in the latest roadmap for summer. Better still, despite this really quite significant loosening of restrictions, the infection rate continued its steady decline, falling over the course of the month from nearly 13,000 to about 3,000 cases per day, with the daily vaccination rate eventually meeting – and often exceeding – the target of half a million jabs a day. And at the very end of the month, Mr Blue-Shirt and I both received our first dose, several weeks earlier than we had originally anticipated.  My daily pre-dinner stats check had at last became a cause for cheer rather than gloom.

The encouraging data across the country enabled a small number of regions to move from yellow to white at the start of June, meaning a complete lifting of the curfew and the re-opening of almost all cultural, leisure and entertainment facilities, but leaving the requirement for masks, social distancing and capacity restrictions in place. Incidentally and slightly paradoxically, this actually meant a tightening of restrictions on movement for us. While Le Marche and our closest neighbour Umbria were both in yellow, we were able to travel freely over to Spello (because it’s one of our favourite places), Deruta (for some more terracotta planters) and Gubbio (just because). But when Umbria, but not Le Marche, moved into white a couple of weeks ago, we were once again bound by the rules regarding movement between regions of different colours and so would have had to demonstrate a ‘need’ for travel or provide proof of Covid-free status if we had wanted to nip over to Spello for lunch. But as jab rates have continued to climb (on occasion exceeding 700,000 in one day) and infection rates to fall (last week dipping below 1,000 for the first time since last September), more regions have ‘turned white’ each week, with Le Marche due to join them tomorrow, and the whole country set to be in white by the end of the month.

Naturally, the delta variant is something of a spectre at the feast, with the government keeping a very close eye on its worrying spread in the UK and keeping in place the ban on entry from India for the foreseeable future. Consequently, every step forward is circumscribed with caveats, making it clear that this forward motion cannot be considered a one-way street, even though there are currently very few cases of the delta variant nationally and none so far in Le Marche.

This notwithstanding, and with our second vaccine doses just a fortnight away, we are daring to hope that we may soon be able to enjoy La Dolce Vita very much as we have always known it. And almost as an indication of our optimism, we have just finished refurbishing the guest bathroom and guest bedroom (complete with new bed and solar-powered air con). So now all we need are some guests…

Looking Back and Looking Forward

I mentally ran through the list while I was up and down the ladder washing the walls. It’s the dull but necessary part of decorating that I always want to get out of the way as soon as possible so I can crack on with the much more satisfying task of painting. So I was passing the time by trying to remember exactly who had come to stay with us in the two-and-a-half years between my moving in to our place in September 2017 and the start of lockdown in March 2020.

Diane, a dear friend of over twenty years whom we had met in Brunei was first. She travelled over for a weekend visit with Mr Blue-Shirt in those first few weeks when he was still based in the UK until the sale of the forge had gone through, even though we couldn’t offer guests much by way of creature comforts at that point. As I ran a fresh bucket of hot water, I remembered how she didn’t turn a hair at our rudimentary hospitality, and with her customary no-nonsense, get-stuck-in attitude had set about pruning a couple of overgrown trees that were blocking The View.

Then came Nick and Elaine, singing friends from the amazing acapella choir I sang with for over ten years. Their first visit, I worked out as I worked my way over the roughly-plastered and whitewashed wall, was early in the spring after Mr Blue-Shirt had moved in permanently as they had lent a hand with installing the patio doors he had brought over with him. And shortly after that, I calculated, as they will have come at half-term, it must have been David and Jackie’s first visit. Fellow members of the informal Friday night ‘Sundowners Club’ at our local pub in Lincolnshire, both of them are primary school teachers, so they can only come in the school holidays. And when they do, they just need to switch off and relax for a few days.

Working my way down the next section of wall from the apex of the roof and the heavy chestnut beams that run the length of the room, I tried to recall who came next. But it was easier said than done since by that first summer we were properly installed, we had established a rhythm of welcoming another set of visitors every six weeks or so, with some returning several times. Diane came back with James at some point; I think it was in autumn, but I couldn’t be sure. And Nick and Elaine have definitely been over in summer because we went to the beach in Porto San Giorgio with them and then on to the night market in Fermo.

Having reached floor level again, I shifted the ladder over another metre and climbed back up to the rafters to start on the next section of wall, by now just sticking with ‘who’ and no longer bothering with ‘when’. Blacksmithing friends and long-time Italophiles Bill and Melanie came for a few days after we’d been to a major international forging event in Tuscany. That must have been in September 2019, I worked out, as it’s a biennial event and we last went on my final overland trip over when I stayed put and Mr Blue-Shirt went back to finish packing up the house and workshop.   

Simon, the very old friend who actually introduced the two of us back in the ‘80s, and his partner Tania spent a good couple of weeks with us as some point. They’re based in the US and made quite a trip of it, taking in Florence and Lake Trasimeno in Umbria while they were with us too. That can’t have been in the height of summer, I decided, because even though it was still warm enough to dine outside in the evening, they relished the relative cool that was a welcome relief from the blistering heat of Arizona where they live.

It was in another May half-term that we had also welcomed Ginny and Pete, very old friends from our days in Germany. Pete had been Mr Blue-Shirt’s right-hand man and room-mate throughout two six-month tours in the Balkans, during which I spent a lot of time with Ginny and two of her teaching colleagues at the forces school where they all taught, who also became great pals. We hadn’t seen them for ages, so their stay was characterised by very long lunches and even longer dinners as we had so much catching up to do, but the weather had been untypically wet during their stay, only to revert to brilliant sunshine almost as soon as their flight back to the UK took off.

I’d got to floor level again, and as I shifted the ladder one last time and ran my final bucket of water, I struggled in vain to remember when Nick and Elaine had been over again: had it been once or twice more? I know they had helped with pruning the olive trees one time, and also with lopping the over-tall willow tree I can see from my study window, but was that the same trip? And then there’d been the time Nick had helped Mr Blue-Shirt erect the first section of pergolato along the south terrace; I had no idea which trip that had been. Nor could I recall exactly when David and Jackie had been over again, but I was reasonably sure it was autumn 2019.

I remembered exactly when our next visitors, Mr Blue-Shirt’s younger brother had come over with his wife and two teenage children, however. It was only two or three weeks after their mother’s death that October, but both brothers decided that they wanted the trip to go ahead as planned, and so almost certainly filled some unexpressed need for one another’s company at that painful time. Despite the underlying sadness, it was a wonderful few days together that were somehow made all the more precious when, tragically, barely a month later their father died too.

I rinsed out the bucket and sponge and flung open the windows to let the summer breeze dry the freshly washed wall more quickly. And as I went to fetch the paintbrushes, rollers and paint from the shed, it dawned on me that Mr Blue-Shirt’s family had in fact been our last visitors. By Christmas we had needed just to hunker down and be on our own together at home, but no sooner had our spirits started to lift and our energy to return than coronavirus began its deadly sprint around the globe. So with much of the world in and out of lockdown for the next fifteen months, David and Jackie had to cancel the flights for what had effectively become their regular spring half-term break, Nick and Elaine’s proposed visit for her birthday in May was reluctantly put on ice for the foreseeable future, and all the other visits that friends and family had been planning were one by one rescheduled for ‘when this is all over’. And so for twenty months our guest room has remained lifeless and empty and reduced to little more than a sanctuary for spiders.

But with infection rates now tumbling, vaccination rates surging and travel restrictions finally beginning to loosen (across Europe, at least), a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is just becoming visible. So we are daring to hope that it will not be long until friends and family can once again come to stay. And once I have finished that painting I’ve been looking forward to, we will have a freshly-decorated (and spider-free) bedroom to offer them.

All names have been changed for reasons of privacy.

Light at the End of the Tunnel?

The vaccinations update from the regional health authority popped up on my news feed late one Thursday evening in May. At 12.00 that Saturday morning bookings would be opening for those aged 50 to 59 – sooner than either Mr Blue-Shirt or I had thought they would get to our age-group, even though the vaccine programme had really been accelerating in recent weeks. Of course, simply being able to book our slots from Saturday was no indication of when those slots would actually be, but we both agreed it was still worth making our appointments as soon as we possibly could.

And sure enough, two days later at just before midday, Mr Blue-Shirt was sitting at his laptop with the Le Marche page of the Ministry of Health website on his screen and me peering over his left shoulder. The moment the clock in bottom right-hand corner of his screen slid from 11:59 to 12:00 he clicked on the big ‘book now’ button – and our hearts sank as a booking form immediately opened on a new tab. This being Italy, we assumed that we were about to be asked for every conceivable piece of personal information in order to secure our appointments, right down to pet’s maiden name and mother-in-law’s inside leg measurement. I pulled up a chair and sat down beside Mr Blue-Shirt: this could take some time.

As we started to scroll down to see what information was required, however, it quickly became clear that all we each needed to provide was name, date of birth, health service number, postcode and mobile phone number – and that was it! After a few seconds’ spooling – an indication of how many people were trying to do the same as us, we guessed – the screen changed to a calendar for our nearest vaccine centre, which happened to be about ten kilometres away on the trading estate just outside Macerata that Mr Blue-Shirt knows like the back of his hand. Even though it was barely five minutes since bookings had opened, the earliest available dates were already two weeks away. No matter: Mr Blue-Shirt immediately clicked on the earliest available slot, hit ‘next’ and instantly received a text message with a single-use verification code that he needed to enter on the ‘confirm booking’ screen that had already appeared. And as soon as he had entered the six-digit code, a confirmation message appeared on the screen (simultaneously accompanied by a text confirmation), along with a set of PDFs to download, including a booking confirmation, a consent form, a health questionnaire, medical information on the four different types of vaccine in use in Italy, and information on data protection.

“I think slots are going really fast, so let’s leave those for now and crack on with booking my appointment,” I said.
“Good idea. We can print everything once both appointments are confirmed,” said Mr Blue-Shirt as he clicked on the ‘book now’ button again. We quickly went through the same process with my details and within minutes, I had my appointment booked at the same time at the same vaccine centre, but 24 hours later than Mr Blue-Shirt’s: slots were definitely going fast. But we were in.

So a fortnight later we made two trips down to the trading estate – for Mr Blue-Shirt’s slot on Saturday and mine on Sunday – and followed the huge, bright yellow signs to the vaccine centre, which turned out to be a large vacant office building with lots of parking, arriving bang on time at 3.00pm. Comparing notes over the ice-cream Mr Blue-Shirt had promised me after I’d had my jab, it was clear that my experience had been almost identical to his…

Leaving Mr Blue-Shirt in the car with his book, I followed the arrows across the car park to the entrance, sanitised my hands, had my temperature read (35.9°C) and handed my paperwork to one of the team of Protezione Civile volunteers seated behind Perspex screens at the reception desk. The masked volunteer swiftly ticked my name off the list, gave me two more short forms to fill in and directed me through to a large, light-filled room about the size of a gymnasium to have my documents checked by one of the six or so doctors seated at Perspex-screen-topped desks lined up along one wall. There was little conversation to be heard other than the muffled exchanges between doctors and patients, but the mood was one of purposeful calm. I took the numbered ticket handed to me by another Protezione Civile volunteer, sat down on one of the few empty chairs that were set out in widely spaced rows facing the bank of doctors and filled in the new forms, which were no more than variations on the consent form I’d already filled in. By the time I had completed them, my ticket number had already appeared on the screen so I hastily bundled my papers together, went to the desk indicated and slid them under the Perspex screen to a young doctor with a tumble of black curls and heavy-framed glasses. He checked I’d signed everything in the right place and quickly went through my medical questionnaire, slowing down only to check my answers to the questions relating to allergies (none) and Covid-19 history (none). Satisfied with my responses, he scribbled ‘Pfizer’ in the relevant spaces on the forms, signed and stamped them, posted them back beneath the Perspex screen, directed me to the line of arrows across the floor that led out to a corridor and, as I stood up, called out the next number on the display screen – doubtless for the umpteenth time that day.

In the corridor, yet another Protezione Civile volunteer asked which jab I was having and then directed me to the queue for the relevant bank of temporary cubicles that had been erected down each side. Within no more than two minutes, I was shepherded into the first cubicle where a nurse invited me to take a seat and took my paperwork from me while another was already drawing up a syringe. It was all done with such practised ease that I barely had time to ask her to use my right arm as I’m left-handed. Once we had each turned right side to right side, I offered my arm, she inserted the needle, I felt a sharp ache as she pressed the plunger in, then the soothing cool of an antiseptic swab, and finally the childlike comfort of a gently-applied plaster. “A posto!” declared the nurse, tossing the used needle into the sharps bin. “That’s it!” Her colleague signed and returned my paperwork, ushered me out and instructed me to take a ticket from the dispenser at the end of the line of cubicles and wait to book an appointment for my second dose, reminding me not to leave for a full fifteen minutes in case I had an adverse reaction.

I sat down in the sunny waiting room where about five more Protezione Civile volunteers were handling the booking process. Even though there were about twenty people ahead of me, it was clear they were still getting through people very rapidly, and in the end, I only waited about five minutes until my number appeared on the screen. The volunteer scanned my health service card, took my 1st dose paperwork from me, swapped it for the paperwork for my 2nd dose, for which she gave me a date just over a month later, and finally printed out two QR code stickers, one with details my 1st dose, and one with details of my appointment for my 2nd. And by the time we were done – less than half an hour since I had entered the building – I still had five minutes to go before I could leave and head back to the café in the village for that ice-cream Mr Blue-Shirt had promised me.

That weekend, 1,076,928 jabs were administered in Italy. Mr Blue-Shirt and I were extremely pleased to be part of the fantastic national effort that meant that two of them were ours.

Getting to Know the Neighbours

We see them every time we pass along the ridge that forms the start to any trip from our place over into Umbria, down towards the coast or even to the supermarket, as well as when we go for a run or for a cycle. To the left is a wide-angle version of the view from our bedroom and sitting room windows – the broad, olive- and vine-striped valley sweeping down to the enticing triangle of turquoise sea below. To the right, meanwhile, a vast patchwork of tree-edged fields filled with wheat or maize or sunflowers extends across the Chienti valley to the west and then rises steeply up towards the mighty Sibillini Mountains whose roughly-hewn limestone peaks stand in stark relief against the cornflower blue sky. But no matter how familiar their arresting beauty has become, we have always found their majesty slightly intimidating and unapproachable.

Mysterious and moody, there are no two days they look the same. On occasion, they take on a ghostly aspect in the early morning haze when the only hint of their presence is the sun reflecting off their craggy flanks. And from time to time, they disappear completely, retreating into a pale shroud of mist, or hiding behind a swirling cloak of steel grey cloud – as sure a sign of a change in the weather as any barometer. But more often than not, they stand proud and aloof, basking in the golden sunlight, their upper slopes still clad with snow until well into spring.

This imposing collection of some twenty peaks that rise to almost three thousand metres is part of the Apennine chain, the rocky backbone of Italy. They have been a fully-fledged National Park since 1993 and offer hikers and cyclists miles of trails and dozens of rifugi providing comfy beds and hearty local food at the end of a day spent exploring the park’s abundant flora and fauna, waterfalls and gorges, abbeys and monasteries.  They are home to mountain goats and deer, wolves and wild cats, falcons and eagles, and, according to the Italian Tourist Board, are also a ‘realm of demons, necromancers and fairies’.

Indeed, for centuries they have been associated with magic and the occult thanks to the legend of Sibyl. It is claimed that this mystic prophetess and witch was enraged to find that not she but Mary would become the mother of God. Her rage provoked God to order her to dwell with devils until Judgement Day in a cave beneath one of the range’s highest peaks, which naturally came to be known as Mount Sibyl (Monte Sibilla). And when storms brew, it is not difficult to understand why dark forces were believed to reign there. The rumbling thunder and churning cloud could easily be Sibyl and her demons venting their displeasure as they hurl spears of lightning and sheets of beating rain onto the verdant lowland pastures.

Then, when the storm has passed, its anger spent, the Sibillini’s jagged peaks appear like islands floating on a milky sea of mist. More often, though, they re-emerge in all their splendour against a crystalline sky, serene yet stark. Flushed with rosy-pink at dawn, and clothed in a palette of greys and greens beneath the midday glare, they fade to heather-purple as the sun slowly sinks behind them, and finally darken to charcoal silhouettes as the dying embers of the day cast flares of crimson and scarlet across an orange sky.

It is a menacing beauty, however. For it is a matter of neither myth nor legend that deep below their forbidding slopes seismic forces periodically shift and stir. Directly beneath the range’s highest peak runs the infamous Monte Vettore fault, and when it last ruptured in 2016, it unleashed an earthquake that devastated communities throughout the mountains and affected towns across the region. And although many buildings retain the scars of the damage they suffered, and not everyone has returned to their homes, the Marchigiani are a stoical and resilient people and life in and around the mountains got back to near-normal remarkably quickly. So despite the menace lurking within, the Sibillini also somehow symbolise of the triumph of optimism over adversity.

And now that we have broken the ice a little with our hikes among their rugged peaks, we are finally coming to experience for ourselves that there is more to our imposing neighbours than meets they eye. In fact, we are even beginning to discover the mountains’ slightly softer side, with their shady woods filled with birdsong, limpid pools over which jewel-coloured dragonflies skim, and lush pastures that at this time of year are covered with a multi-coloured carpet of wild flowers among which butterflies bob and bees buzz.

So now when we head off to the shops or the beach, the Sibillini’s majesty feels much more benign and welcoming – although never to be taken for granted.