Hero to Zero

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

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Renzi became Italy’s youngest ever Prime Minister, with grand ambitions of reinventing the country’s outdated political and administrative machine.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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Roberto Monaldo/LaPresse

Pet therapy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

La Befana vien di notte

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Can we have half a point for…?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Year’s Resolutions
None – as always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it’s your turn…

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

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

Ring out, wild bells

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

In memoriam (Ring out, wild bells)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The final piece of the jigsaw

Even as we had all but turned cartwheels across the Piazza del Comune, we had known that it was a hollow victory. We had just come bowling down the echo-ey marble staircase of the town hall, giddy with delight and relief at having just picked up the certificates of registration confirming that we had at last been granted residency. It had taken weeks of shuttling back and forth between various drab municipal offices, repeatedly providing the same information, and repeatedly being given either conflicting, insufficient or inaccurate information, but we had finally got there and the sense of achievement was immense.  However, this was back in July 2018 when ‘Brexit means Brexit’ was in full swing so we already knew that this would not be the end of the road. We had been granted residency by virtue of our citizenship of a European Union member state, meaning that once Brexit had been completed, our continued residency would become dependent on an entirely different set of rules. The only thing was, no one had any idea what they would be or how they would work. In practice, therefore, we had really only moved from one state of limbo to another.

And it was a state of limbo that was to persist for a further two years while the Withdrawal Agreement was thrashed out and ‘British in Europe’, an EU-wide group of expat campaigners living in the remaining 27 member states, lobbied ministers in London, in Brussels and in their respective national capitals in a monumental effort to preserve as many pre-Brexit rights as possible for Brits living and working in EU countries. ‘Brexit Day’ came and went with no significant progress, and even as the months ticked by in the year-long transition period and (for me) the constant background hum of anxiety grew louder by the day, it still remained unclear exactly what our rights would be and what we would need to do to secure them. In fact, it was with barely one hundred days left until UK citizens would lose their EU citizenship and all the benefits it bestowed that things became somewhat clearer for most Brits in Italy. Thankfully, the Italian government had decided to adopt a declaratory procedure when it came to updating the residency status of Brits living in Italy. This was fantastically good news as what it meant in practice was that we would not need to go through the whole convoluted application process from scratch again: effectively, the eligibility standard applied to Brits as EU citizens would continue to be applied to us as non-EU citizens. As a result, all we would need to do to secure our post-Brexit residency was to provide proof of our pre-Brexit residency (ie take our identity cards along to the registry) and we would be provided with new certificates of registration that would now be issued on the basis of the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and no longer on the basis our citizenship of an EU member state. We wouldn’t even need to get new identity cards.

That was the good news. The less good news, however, was that this decision was reached so late in the day that disseminating the new rules in double-quick time to every comune in the country where Brits were resident was never going happen. Nor was there any great optimism that the new rules would be applied correctly and that Brits still would not be required (wrongly) to jump through a range of bureaucratic hoops. And indeed, ‘British in Italy’, the national advocacy group who had lobbied hard for this declaratory procedure, was soon flooded with accounts of comuni all over the country that were essentially going ‘off piste’ and requiring their British residents to provide all sorts of paperwork and register with this that or the other local authority – all in complete contravention of the rules, even though most such contraventions were probably a result of misunderstanding or misinformation.

Fortunately, by the time we had mustered the courage to join battle at our town hall, the Ministry of the Interior had produced a one-page summary of the relevant legislation, and the Association of Italian Comuni, in collaboration with the Ministry of the Interior and the British Embassy, had put together what amounted to a set of instructions for comuni, setting out exactly what they had to ask for, what they were permitted to ask for and, crucially, what they were not permitted to ask for, as well as providing a sample of the document they needed to issue, complete with the wording they were to use.

So it was with at least a degree of optimism that in mid-November we climbed the marble stairs to the registry office with its beamed ceiling, terracotta floor tiles and tall shuttered windows that looked across to the Sibillini Mountains. It soon became clear that our optimism had been misplaced, for judging by the apprehension etched on the face of the clerk as we explained what we wanted and showed her the documents to guide her through the process, we concluded that the new rules had not got as far as Montelupone with just its two British residents. She scanned the papers hastily, sucked her teeth and shook her head.
“You’ll have to make another appointment; I need to check with the Immigration Authority,” she announced with a haughtiness that did little to disguise her own nervousness.
“But these are the rules,” I countered.
“That may well be the case, but I still need to hear it from the authorities. Come back next week.”

We had little choice but to do as we were told, but in the meantime sought and secured confirmation that the information we had given to the clerk was indeed correct, and that all she was suppposed to do was check our identity cards and print new certificates with the updated wording. Thus armed, we returned to the registry, as instructed, a week later.
“Right, before I can issue new certificates, I need to see proof of your health insurance.”
“But that’s not what the rules say,” we protested, pointing to the sentence in the guidance notes from the Association of Italian Comuni that expressly forbade such requirements.
“That’s just an opinion,” said the clerk with a finality that indicated she was not prepared to discuss the matter further.
“But…..,” I began, but Mr Blue-Shirt dug me sharply in the ribs.
“It’s not worth it,” he hissed. “If that’s all they want, then let’s just run with it. Let’s get our certificates first, then take it up with the chap at British in Italy later.”
“I suppose so,” I mumbled, fishing my health insurance card from my purse.
“I will need to see proof of payment too,” declared the clerk. As I drew breath to point out in no uncertain terms her that this was beyond ridiculous since we would not have been issued with our cards had we not made the relevant payment, Mr Blue-Shirt dug me in the ribs again.
“We have the stamped and dated receipts on file, so we can email them to you as soon as we get home,” said Mr Blue-Shirt smoothly while looking daggers at me. “Is there anything else?”
“Yes, I will also need proof that you are solvent, and then you need to fill in this form,” she replied, sliding two sheets of paper under the glass screen and across the worn Formica counter top.
I was nearly exploding with frustration by this stage, but Mr Blue-Shirt continued with his charm offensive.
“So you just need to see our bank balance, then?”
“Yes,” confirmed the clerk.
“Will this do?” he asked, showing her our balance on the banking app on his phone.
She peered through the glass and nodded, her haughtiness slightly ebbing away.
“And this is the wording you need for the form,” she said, posting another piece of paper under the glass screen. “Then all I’ll need is those receipts for your health cover and I’ll be able to issue your new certificates.”

By now having the sense to keep my mouth shut, I dutifully filled in the form with all the usual information, ticked the boxes to confirm that we had provided appropriate proof of identity, that we had adequate health cover and that we had sufficient resources not to be a burden on the state, carefully copying the exact wording the clerk had given us.
“So if we email you those receipts straight away, how long will it take for our certificates to come through?” I asked as airily as I could manage: by now it was the end of November, so what with a public holiday, Covid-19 closures, and Christmas fast approaching, there were precious few working days left until the transition period expired and we would be in no-man’s land.
“Just a few days.”
“But before Christmas, yes?”
“Oh yes,” the clerk confirmed. “Definitely.”
We’ll see, I thought…

To our utter amazement, however, the by now almost friendly clerk actually called Mr Blue-Shirt the following Saturday morning to tell us our certificates were ready for collection. So at nine o’clock sharp on Monday morning we walked through the imposing studded doors one last time, sanitised our hands in the dark and draughty foyer, climbed the grand marble staircase and filled in our self-declaration forms before winding our way through to the registry where the clerk was already waiting for us with our certificates. Once we had confirmed that all the details were correct, she signed and stamped them with a theatrical flourish and slid them under the glass screen into our trembling hands. “Grazie mille,” we said slightly breathlessly. “Arrivederci. E buone feste.”

We had barely closed the door behind us before I broke into a full-blown jig in the middle of the dreary grey corridor, while Mr Blue-Shirt contented himself with a couple of restrained air-punches. We had done it; we were on solid ground at last and the huge, two-year-old cloud of uncertainty finally lifted. We were properly resident at last.

Colours, Curfews and Christmas shopping

There are three religious public holidays in Italy that do not exist in Protestant countries such as the UK. One is Epiphany on 6th January, another is the Feast of the Assumption on 15th August, and the third is the feast day of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception on 8th December. Officially, the Immaculate Conception is one of Catholicism’s four Marian dogmas (ie it was divinely revealed) and states that Mary was born free of original sin by virtue of her role as the Mother of God.  Semi-officially, however, her feast day is also the day in Italy that signals the start of Christmas and so it is the day on which people traditionally dig out their Santa hats, untangle their fairy lights and put up their Christmas trees. And in a year when celebrations and festivities have been so very thin on the ground, the date seemed to have taken on an air of dogged hopefulness, with people defiantly filling their trolleys with extra-sparkly baubles, angels and stars, extra-abundant wreaths and garlands and supersize trees: we will enjoy some Christmas cheer somehow, however few people we can share it with, whatever the restrictions still in place.

For here in Italy, the second wave of Covid-19 infections has only just started to recede following the introduction in November of a national system of different coloured zones, each with its own set of restrictions, designed to slow, if not halt, the spread of the virus. Throughout the year, Le Marche has remained ‘mid-table’, with lower infection and fatality rates than many regions. And so it was with the second wave, meaning that we started off in the yellow zone, with few additional restrictions beyond those such as the night-time curfew and the closure of all entertainment and leisure facilities that are in place nationally. Within barely a fortnight, however, Le Marche was moved (up? down?) into the orange zone because, among other things, pressure the region’s intensive care capacity was considered to have reached a critical level. We had barely thirty-six hours’ grace before movement from one comune to another (except for proven work, study, health or other needs) was outlawed, the self-declaration document and corresponding checks were re-introduced, and all bars, restaurants and cafés were completely closed. So Mr Blue-Shirt and I were effectively back to little more than a single trip out per week to go to the supermarket – although I have to confess that we did always go the long way round just to see a bit more of the outside world and did also usually visit a couple of additional shops to make purchases of admittedly questionable necessity.

But with all the metrics beginning to go in the right direction, we were hopeful that the emergency decree due at the end of November would return us to the yellow zone. Quite apart from allowing us a degree of day-to-day normality once more, it would also be the only way we would be able to buy a tree, never mind do any Christmas shopping, for confined to our comune, we have access only to a small supermarket, a couple of bakers, a greengrocer and a pharmacy; to find any bigger shops we need to travel to Ancona, Civitanova Marche or Macerata. The regional press was full of predictions that we would indeed return to yellow, local social media pages were just as confident, and Simeone, the owner of the café in the village even started to wash down its outdoor tables in readiness for re-opening. But in the end, despite the promising numbers, the long-anticipated decree made no mention of zone changes from red to orange, nor from orange to yellow. No gesture of seasonal goodwill, no Christmas lights at the end of the tunnel. Just a complex set of further restrictions and regulations applicable to yellow as well as orange and red zones, and to cover the entire Christmas period. No movement at all from one region to another between 21st December and 6th January, no movement at all from one comune to another on Christmas Day, Boxing Day or New Year’s Day, no relaxation of the 10pm curfew – not even to allow for Midnight Mass or seeing in the New Year – but in fact an extension from 5am to 7am. Plus a long list of do’s and don’ts – but mainly don’ts – covering family get-togethers, visits to friends, overseas travel and skiing trips. It was looking as if we were set not for a white Christmas, but for an orange one.  And a fairly deep shade of orange at that.

Exactly a week later, however, all those locally whose confident predictions had seemingly turned to dust (orange dust) were finally vindicated. After several days’ heated haggling between central government and the regions, our regional president finally succeeded in securing zona gialla (yellow zone) status for Le Marche – but which he felt obliged to accompany with impassioned exhortations to be sensible, to remain vigilant, and …..well, not to put too fine a point on it, not to ‘kick the arse out of it’. The upshot of which is that we can now enjoy a coffee in the village (even though we may have to drink it outside), we can go out for Christmas drinks or even a meal (providing they are at lunchtime), we can go Christmas shopping (providing we avoid shopping centres at weekends), and since Umbria is among the handful of other regions that have also turned from orange back to yellow, we can even nip over to Spello if we want (up to 21st December, at least). Indeed, some are suggesting that it is the government’s hope (if not actual intention) that every region, even those currently in the red zone, will be in the yellow zone by mid-December.

And so it was that Mr Blue-Shirt and I were among those down in Civitanova Marche defiantly filling their trolleys with extra-sparkly baubles, angels and stars, extra-abundant wreaths and garlands and supersize trees, sharing their hopeful resolve to enjoy some Christmas cheer , and like everyone else, determined to focus on what we could do rather than what we couldn’t. We even managed to do it in time for the feast of the Immaculate Conception as tradition dictates.

When you’re in a hole….

We would count to three as we ushered first-time visitors across the hall. Then it would usually happen just before we opened the door into the main living area:
“Ooh! That looks interesting! What’s down there?”
What they had invariably noticed was the low-level brick arch at the base of a tall, narrow section of honey-coloured brick wall opposite the front door, with a flight of broad, deep stairs descending into the darkness below.
“It looks intriguing. Is it some kind of cellar?”
“Yes, kind of,” one of us would respond. “Let’s take your things up to your room, then we can show you around if you want.”

Some time later, nursing a mug of coffee or glass of wine (depending on their arrival time) our visitors would complete their brief tour of the house by following us back to the hall and down the steep brick-edged stairs into the musty gloom of the cellar. Or grotto. Or cantina. Or dungeon. For some reason, we’ve never decided what to call it this surprisingly generous, cruciform space that actually gives the impression of a tiny, subterranean chapel. I suspect we are unsure what to call it because we have never been able to use it properly, despite its modern, concrete floor and high, vaulted ceilings. For like all the best dungeons, I suppose, it leaks like a sieve, with moisture continually trickling and dripping from almost every mortar line and forming tiny glistening beads on the lattice of cobwebs that permanently garland the damp brickwork. And while all this might add to the distinctly gothic aesthetic, it renders the chilly space almost useless except for storing things made of plastic, glass or stainless steel. So it is really only a collection buckets and plant pots that lives down there along with our big olive oil flagon, a few beer crates and a couple of wine racks – although patches of grey-white mildew soon leave the labels unreadable if any bottles are left down there for longer than three or four weeks.

But all that is about to change. For Mr Blue-Shirt has recently got his next project, the restoration and repair (ie waterproofing) of the cellar, well underway. However, this has to be done from outside rather than inside because the whole structure extends north beyond the footprint of the house, and the moisture is in fact coming in through the tons of soil that are sitting on top of it. It has long puzzled us why anyone would have built a cellar in this way, since it seems obvious that, in the absence of modern tanking materials, it would be bound to leak. Giovanni, the chap who is handling our solar energy installation, solved the puzzle for us, though: since the house almost certainly dates from the late nineteenth century, the cellar will have been built not as a store, but as an ice house; it will have been filled with blocks of ice and used as a rudimentary refrigerator, with the thick layer of compacted soil on top of it helping keep the temperature down, and the almost inevitable moisture ingress a complete irrelevance. In the early twenty-first century, however, that moisture ingress is very definitely of relevance. Firstly, its effects deprive us of some much-needed storage space, and secondly, they are now spreading to the body of the house-proper.

To be fair, this cannot be blamed on the cellar itself, or even its original builders. No, the immediate source of the problem is the much more recent landscaping works carried out when the building was converted to a two-storey residential dwelling.  As far as we can gather from the drawings and plans we inherited when we bought the place, the land to the rear of the building must originally have sloped right down to the house. But as part of the conversion works, much of this was excavated down to the interior floor level in order to create the three-metre wide strip of flat space along the house’s north-eastern side that Mr Blue-Shirt has since turned into a proper terrace. The trouble was (and is), the cellar is not completely below ground: the four arms of its arched roof protrude some sixty centimetres above floor level at the north-western end of the building. So after the soil had been removed to allow for the impressively solid anti-seismic concrete bracing to be installed, the whole area was filled back in, covered with a further twenty centimetres of soil and topped with a layer of concrete to create an elevated flat area on top of the cellar. But crucially, no tanking works were carried out at all, meaning that a mass of heavy clay soil a metre deep was packed directly up against the outside wall of the house. And then to make matters worse, the poor-quality concrete surface on this elevated area was not that flat after all, but sloped towards the house. This all too efficiently funnelled ever more moisture into that compacted clay – and eventually through the sixty-centimetre-thick outside wall and into the house, leaving the inside surface permanently mottled with khaki-coloured mould.

So the upshot of all this is that the rough concrete outer surface has had to be scraped away and the tonnes of soggy soil dug out – but at least this has given Mr Blue-Shirt the opportunity to hire his beloved digger again. Clouds and silver linings, and all that. The only thing is, the complicated outline of the cellar and the depth to which it is necessary to dig have meant that he has had to do a depressing proportion of the work by hand, with pick axe, mattock, shovel, wheelbarrow – and a very great deal of sheer brute force. And thanks to the density and weight of what is actually more wet mud than soil, Mr Blue-Shirt has had to apply his trademark engineering ingenuity to rig up a makeshift mini-crane, electric winch and sling to lift the full barrows out of the alarmingly deep crater that has appeared around the hump-backed brick structure of the cellar. All of which gives the area more the look of an archaeological dig than a building site.

Of course, this is only phase one of the project. Once Mr Blue-Shirt has reached floor level of the cellar, he can then set about adding some foundations and cladding everything in a layer of reinforced concrete before wrapping it all in a waterproof membrane. And while he is doing all this, we can think about how best to re-landscape the whole area given that, while the cellar will need to be re-buried, we will want to minimise the amount of soil that will still need to be in contact with the outer wall of the house – even with the necessary tanking in place this time. And that will just leave re-pointing all the brickwork, waterproofing the floor and sorting out all the electrics and plumbing for the washing machine and a second freezer.

Well, it’s one way to get through lockdown.

The Greening of Casa Girasole

To leave the house via our front door we currently have to pick our way through a jumble of large, odd-shaped cardboard boxes that almost fill our otherwise spacious hall. While Christmas might be barely a month away, they have nothing to do with the fast-approaching festive season, however.  No, these are the key building blocks in Mr Blue-Shirt’s most transformative and technically ambitious project to date: the installation of a comprehensive renewable energy system that will enable us to generate enough of our own solar power to make us almost completely independent of the mains electricity supply.

The project has, in effect, come about as a direct consequence of Covid-19. During the summer the government launched a wide-ranging programme of initiatives aimed at kick-starting Italy’s lockdown-weakened economy, and as part of this it started offering fifty to sixty percent discounts on domestic renewable energy installations. Mr Blue-Shirt had always hoped we might be able to install a few solar hot water panels on our south-facing roof to supplement our traditional energy sources, but these aggressive discounts have suddenly brought something a lot more comprehensive within our reach. And working on the principle that, faced with the challenges of a changing climate, whatever we can do, we surely should do, he also feels that the investment represents a responsible use of his inheritance from his parents.  

As soon as the scheme was announced, he set about contacting three or four local suppliers for information and prices, but soon settled on a small, well-established business down in Trodica run by the slightly chaotic yet extremely knowledgeable Giovanni with whom he immediately hit it off. During the summer, he and Mr Blue-Shirt exchanged countless emails and drawings and Giovanni made so many visits to the house to measure this, inspect that or check the other that he soon gave up announcing his arrival at the front door with the customary “permesso?” but, while Mr Blue-Shirt trotted upstairs to scoop up all his own paperwork from his desk, simply gave me a wave and made his way round to the terrace where he spread out his paperwork on the table.

And there he and Mr Blue-Shirt would sit beneath the shade of a large parasol, poring over drawings, tables and catalogues before heading off to poke about in the boiler room and plod up and down stairs, discussing fixing points, fuse boxes, cable conduits and central heating manifolds in a surprisingly effective mixture of Giovanni’s very rusty, secondary school English and Mr Blue-Shirt’s vastly improved, evening class Italian. Over the weeks a specification evolved that both Giovanni and Mr Blue-Shirt were happy with and a detailed quotation soon followed. But before we had had a chance to go through the twenty-page document in any detail, Giovanni asked if he could pop round again as he wanted to make some changes to his proposal.

It turned out that the government had added further options to their incentive programme and, better still, had made it possible to claim the available discounts at the point of purchase rather than having to pay in full in the first instance and then claim the discounts through the tax system – a huge plus, given its famously labyrinthine and sclerotic workings. Giovanni had also decided to propose a different battery system that was even more efficient, but that was also a different shape and size from the one he had originally proposed. So this time he and Mr Blue-Shirt also spent ages in the hall deciding which would be the most practical yet least conspicuous place to mount the batteries – which turned out to be hidden in the large cupboard next to the front door – and working out all the corresponding cabling and ducting requirements.

A week later, Giovanni returned to go through his revised quotation including the updated discounts, to make one last tour of the house in order to finalise the location of each of the elements – and to announce that we now needed a new boiler too. Since our existing boiler was barely two years old, we both winced at this unanticipated addition to the specification. But Giovanni hastily reassured us that this would not affect the price at all as it was covered by the funding scheme, and also pointed out that it would ensure the boiler’s compatibility with other elements of the new system.  The boiler aside, however, we were at last there; he’d even been to the planning office in the village to obtain the relevant piece of paper, all signed and stamped, that formally gave the project the green light.

So at the heart of our all-singing, all-dancing solar energy installation is, naturally, a set of eighteen slimline photo-voltaic panels that will be mounted on the south elevation of the roof. These will charge the stack of lithium batteries housed in the cupboard in the hall that will be connected the power supply via the main fuse box. An air source heat pump installed in the upstairs porch will take heat from the outside air and feed it into the heating system by means of a mono-block inverter heat pump (No, I don’t know either; in fact, neither does Mr Blue-Shirt). This mysterious box of tricks will be installed in the boiler room together with the new boiler that will act as a back-up-cum-top-up, and is what will actually provide our hot water, heating, and also cooling thanks to three new cooling units, one installed in the guest room, one in our bedroom and one in the sitting room. Finally, there will be a bit of future-proofing in the form a car charging point in the carport, and the whole lot will be stitched together with several hundred metres of tubing, ducting, cables and conduits.

All we need now is Giovanni’s team of assorted fitters to come and install everything. But as if we needed any reminder of the catalyst for this project, one or two of them are still working on jobs delayed by the virus, and another couple are waiting for their quarantine periods to end. So much like everything else this year, we find ourselves once again in the lap of the Covid-19 gods…

It’s a small world

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

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

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

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