Normal Christmas, everyone!

We are just coming up to the last of the three annual public holidays in Italy that do not exist in the UK. Although they all technically mark Christian festivals, they are all distinctly secular in flavour – and as the year has progressed and the last remaining Covid restrictions have lapsed, each seems to have been celebrated more enthusiastically than the last.

The first, which falls right at the start of the year but at the end of Christmas, is Epiphany on 6th January and 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 celebrates the arrival on the Eve of Epiphany (aka Twelfth Night) of La Befana whose roots are believed to be in Roman festivities that honour Strenia, the goddess of the new year, purification and well-being. This cheery-looking, hook-nosed hag, who in Italy is easily as popular among children as Babbo Natale (Father Christmas), rides on her broomstick from house to house, filling children’s stockings with toys, sweets and fruit and a chunk of black-coloured candy to represent the coal which traditionally was all that naughty children received. However, the arrival of the highly infectious new Omicron variant barely a month earlier ensured that this year’s festivities were still a little muted.

The second additional holiday, which falls in mid-summer, is the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15th August and was established in the 5th century AD. This represents one of many attempts by the early Catholic Church to hi-jack pre-existing pagan festivities since it was placed slap-bang in the middle of the long-established ‘feriae augusti’. This translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’ and was named after the pre-Christian Emperor who designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. Now known more widely just as Ferragosto, this very popular public holiday marks the height of summer and has broadly retained its Roman roots as it is typically celebrated with a huge and protracted picnic lunch with family and friends – even though the official reason for it being a public holiday is that it supposed to be the day on which the Virgin ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth. By this time there were no restrictions left on anything that would affect people’s enjoyment of the holiday season, but even so, it did rather feel as if people were still a little rusty, perhaps even cautious, when it came to unconstrained enjoyment.

The third additional holiday, the one we are just coming up to, is on 8th December, and is the feast day of the Virgin of the Immaculate Conception. Officially, the Immaculate Conception is one of Catholicism’s four Marian dogmas (ie it was divinely revealed) and celebrates the sinless (ie immaculate) conception of the Virgin Mary by St Anne, which is why the date chosen for the feast was exactly nine months before the date of Mary’s birth on 8th September. This all seems a tad convenient to me, though, as this feast was only created in 1854 by Pope Pius IX – just when some of the more commercial Christmas customs we know today were becoming established. So I can’t help thinking that this could well have been a latter-day attempt by the Catholic Church to muscle in on what they may have feared was becoming an increasingly secular celebration. While the feast does retain some of its sacred character, it is in practice the day that kicks off Christmas when people traditionally put their Christmas tree and decorations up and begin shopping and celebrating in earnest.

And this year, after two tense, joyless and not-very-festive seasons in lockdown, people do now seem to have fully got used to socialising again and so there seems to be a collective urge to celebrate Christmas properly once more. After all, two years ago practically everything was closed for much of the Christmas period, movement was tightly restricted, and there was such a strict night-time curfew that the Pope had to bring forward his ‘Midnight’ Mass by a couple of hours. Even last Christmas, by which time over three-quarters of the population had been vaccinated and the principal restrictions involved just the Green Pass and mask-wearing, many people nonetheless cancelled their celebrations at the last minute thanks to the anxiety arising from the arrival and rapid spread of the Omicron variant – and we were back to the same brave faces and forced jollity as the year before.

But with the pandemic now apparently behind us at last, the current mood – raging inflation and war in Ukraine notwithstanding – seems to be one of unfettered good cheer. Signs announcing Christmas markets and nativity scenes are popping up at every roadside, Christmas lights are going up in every village square, pyramids of panettone and mountains of chocolates, dried fruit and nuts are appearing in every supermarket, restaurants are getting booked up with large, festive get-togethers, and people are filling their trolleys with sparkly baubles, super-size trees and miles of fairy lights in preparation for some proper, long overdue merry-making.

For it is almost as if, even after several months of ever-increasing normality, it is only as Christmas approaches once more that people truly feel that they have finally stepped back through the looking glass. That they – we – have finally left behind the dystopian, back-to-front world of Covid that was characterised by fear, isolation and separation. And that we have at last returned to a world the right way round, where conviviality, sharing and togetherness can be fully enjoyed and celebrated once more – regardless of whether those celebrations are sacred or secular.

A Magical Mystery Tour

“I think I’d like to be with people,” I had said when Mr Blue-Shirt had asked me in late summer what I’d like to do for my 60th birthday in November. “And I think I’d quite like it to be a surprise.”

He nodded thoughtfully, and left it at that. Over the succeeding weeks, though, I was aware of hurried phone conversations that he took great pains to ensure I couldn’t overhear, and of lengthy periods he spent behind closed doors on his laptop: Mr Blue-Shirt was plotting. And, despite my preference for a surprise, I couldn’t help being curious. After all, that’s half the point of a surprise surely…

Small clues extracted
And a few red herrings too
Not enough to guess

By early October I had established that we were going to spend a week in the UK, and a couple of weeks later I had learnt that on my birthday itself we would be staying in the Cotswolds where, I learnt later still, some friends would be joining us for dinner. Beyond that, though, nothing. Well, nothing of any use. When I asked for some hints, just so I could start thinking about what to pack, that I wouldn’t need my swimming things or my ‘steelies’ (steel-toed boots), but might need something for parachuting, wasn’t quite what I had in mind…

Selecting outfits
Suitable for partying –
Or bungee-jumping..?

With barely a week to go, I managed to prise out of Mr Blue-Shirt the fact that we would also be spending the first part of the week at his sister’s house near Exeter, from which I concluded that his plans involved those family members who live in the area. But as to the precise details, he remained resolutely tight-lipped …

What? and where? and who?
Tantalising surprises
Yet to be revealed

This still left a couple of days unaccounted for, though, especially as Mr Blue-Shirt had disclosed that there were not just two but three occasions (if not four) for which I would want to pack something nice to wear. So when even Mr Blue-Shirt started checking that certain shirts (in his signature colour, obviously) were washed and ironed, I pressed him further. It transpired that we were staying somewhere else again on the first night – a cosy pub somewhere in Berkshire perhaps, simply to break the long and often very slow journey from Stansted to Devon? But when I put my theory to Mr Blue-Shirt, he just shrugged.

Excitement fizzing
As my birthday drew near, like
Bubbles in champagne

He came clean only once we were airborne: we were spending the night not in Berkshire but in Essex, and not in a cosy pub but with some lifelong family friends who were also treating us to dinner at a very swanky local restaurant. And this wonderful stay with my ‘nearly-cousin’ (our fathers had been best friends, each other’s Best Man and Godfather to each other’s children) was just the first in a succession of meticulously planned surprises that unfolded as the week went on…

Only the next day came a visit to a blacksmithing friend in Surrey who stocks a range of distinctive artisan jewellery in her ironwork gallery where I was invited to choose whichever piece caught my fancy as my birthday gift from Mr Blue-Shirt himself. Since you ask, a delicate silver necklace set with blue and white topaz, which happens to be my birthstone.

The day after that was a lunch at a lovely pub on the coast a few miles from Exeter where we have enjoyed many family occasions over the years. Put like that, it may not sound that special, but Mr Blue-Shirt ensured that for me it was more special than I could ever have imagined. Travelling not, as I had anticipated, just from Exeter, but also from Southampton, Bristol, Torquay and even St Ives in deepest Cornwall, every single member of my family (as well as their partners, children and dogs) was present, from my three-year-old great nephew to my ninety-one-year-old aunt – as well as my sister-in-law and nephew whom I hadn’t seen for nearly ten years and whose arrival reduced me to a delighted, blubbering wreck. To say that ‘my cup ranneth over’ would be an understatement.

Sunday was spent ‘at leisure’, but on Monday it was on to the Cotswolds and what Mr Blue-Shirt finally revealed would be a two-night stay in a favourite pub/hotel in Burford that we have been going to for over thirty years. And while I was sure I could guess which friends were probably joining us for my birthday dinner the following evening, still the surprises kept on coming. First was an upgrade to the hotel’s only and very luxurious suite (which came as a surprise even to Mr Blue-Shirt), then, when we went down for drinks before heading into the town for what I had been led to believe would be a casual meal on our own, sitting in the bar with a glass of fizz already on the table for me were Ginny and Pete, dear friends since the early ‘90s when we all lived in Germany. Since they are still enjoying the novelty of early retirement, they had decided to come for two nights, so the four of us had a wonderful ‘bonus’ evening together and by the time we called it a night it was technically already my birthday.

Sixty! How on earth..?               
Way too young to reach this age
Inside still a girl

Mr Blue-Shirt still hadn’t finished, though. After a late start and a leisurely day opening gifts and pottering around Burford’s pretty shops, I was getting really excited about my birthday dinner that evening, which I was sure I had got all worked out. In addition to Ginny and Pete, I was confident we would be joined by Diane and James (more very old army pals from our Brunei days) and two sets of dear friends from our time in Lincolnshire, Nick and Elaine (who I used to sing with) and David and Samantha (who we used to drink with!) I had in fact got this bit spot on, but what Mr Blue-Shirt had kept up his sleeve was that, as well as dinner, he had also reserved part of the lounge for the afternoon so that everyone could gather there first for tea and birthday cake… and maybe a glass or two of champagne…

Dinner was everything I had hoped for and more: first-class food and wine served in beautiful surroundings and accompanied by animated conversation and raucous laughter, and all of it enjoyed in the wonderful company of treasured friends. Once again, my cup truly ranneth over.

I was rather thrown by how little things seemed to have changed when we got home barely 36 hours later. While some of the plants in the garden did look slightly more dishevelled, the peaks of the Sibillini remained dusted with snow, autumn colours still glowed in the trees, and even though the warmth of our protracted Indian summer had perhaps faded a tad, there was still no sign of proper, wintry cold. Then again, we had only been away for a week. But I had somehow expected everything to look or feel different after such a fantastically joyful, treat-filled, surprise-packed and completely overwhelming week.

Ever the engineer, Mr Blue-Shirt had taken my wish literally, and then delivered it in spades. He had created for me the most marvellous and memorable Magical Mystery Tour that was…

Planned with care and style,
Military precision,                                                   
And, of course, with love

And for which I shall forever remain thankful.

Of Mice and Men

Mr Blue-Shirt’s phone rang as we started pulling the nets from the base of the olive tree whose ripe, glossy fruit we had just harvested along to the next one. I straightened out the expanses of green plastic mesh beneath the tree’s fruit-laden branches while he took the call.
Ciao, Francesco! Come stai? – Hi Francesco! How are you?”
Francesco is our farmer pal who owns the barn where Mr Blue-Shirt’s workshop is taking shape. I imagined that, as usual, he wanted help with some agricultural machinery that had broken down.
“Yes, we started this morning. We’ve only done about five trees so far, though.”
This puzzled me slightly, but with the nets in place, I picked up my orange plastic hand rake and began combing it through the tree’s lower branches, the shiny black and purple beads pattering onto the net like big fat rain drops.
“Well, there are some that aren’t perfect, but it’s always like that. Why do you ask?”
I continued combing, but tuned in more to what Mr Blue-Shirt was saying.
“What, all of them? Oh no, that’s terrible! I’m so sorry.”
I stopped and caught Mr Blue-Shirt’s eye, a ‘what’s up?’ expression on my face. He pointed to the russet-coloured crate of fruit we had already gathered, then, in the universal gesture for ‘stop’, made a sawing action in front of his throat. I frowned at him in exaggerated bafflement and mouthed ‘Wot??’
“Yes, that would be great. Thanks,” he said. “A presto. Ciao. – See you shortly. Bye.” Mr Blue-Shirt rang off, stuffed his phone back into his pocket and sighed.
“Well? I said. “Why is Francesco so interested in our olives?”
“He and his dad have just started harvesting theirs, but the whole crop is ruined, he said.”
“No! How come?”
“They’re full of worms, apparently – so he wanted to know what ours are like.”
“We always find a few worms, but it’s never been a problem before.  In fact, last year Rodolfo made a point of saying how good our fruit was when we took it to him for pressing.”
“I know! But as Francesco’s trees aren’t very far from ours, he thinks ours might have a problem too. He’s on his way round to have a look.

Rovinate – come le nostre,” said Francesco, “Ruined – like ours.” He tossed the handful of olives he had been inspecting back into the crate and smiled ruefully. It had only taken him a few seconds to reach his diagnosis: the brown-edged puncture marks told him all he needed to know. To prove his point, he slit one open with his olive-stained thumbnail and pressed the juicy, pale green flesh away from the stone to reveal a tiny, biscuit-coloured worm wriggling about in the narrow tunnel it had burrowed into the fruit.
“See?” he said.
“But they’re not all like that,” said the incurably optimistic Mr Blue-Shirt.
“No, not all of them – but enough to mean your oil won’t be any good. Personally, I don’t think it’s worth harvesting the rest. Look…” Francesco stood up from the crate we were crouching around and walked over to the tree I’d spread the nets under and among whose silver-green leaves hung hundreds of sun-ripened olives that in the autumn sun looked like fairy lights made of jet. He gave the trunk a brief shake and a shower of fruit rained down onto the net.
“But I thought that just means the fruit is ripe,” I said.
Francesco shook his head. “Healthy fruit shouldn’t fall off that easily.”
We trailed behind him as he shook a couple more of the trees on our northern boundary and then a few along the eastern edge – and each time with the same result. By the time we had reached the far south-eastern corner even Mr Blue-Shirt was looking glum. There was no need to test the trees on the southern side: we’d got the message, so we trudged back across the garden to Francesco’s battered white jeep on the drive.
“Trust me,” he said, running a grubby hand through his wild mop of hair. “It’s not worth the effort.”
“We do; it’s just that…,” Mr Blue-Shirt tailed off with a dejected shrug.
“Yeah, I know. We feel the same about ours. Look, why don’t you take the ones you’ve picked down to Rodolfo this afternoon and see what he says. You never know, he might pay you something for them.”

Mr Blue-Shirt’s laboured footfall on the stairs up to my study told me it wasn’t good news.
“Well?” I said as he slumped into the armchair under the window.
He responded by tossing a couple of bank notes onto my desk.
“Thirty Euros? But we had over fifty kilos of fruit, didn’t we?”
“Yes, but because of the worms, he can only use it for the low-grade oil he sells at a discount. To be honest, after what Francesco said, I’m surprised he gave us anything at all.”
“Yeah, and I suppose thirty Euros is better than nothing – although it confirms what Francesco said about harvesting the rest: too much effort for too little return.”
“Yup! And pretty much what Rodolfo said too.”
“Did you ask him what we should do with the rest of the crop, though? Surely we won’t get rid of the worms if we don’t get rid of the fruit.”
“He said just leave it and let it fall off.”
“Really? What about eggs and larvae and so on?”
“He reckons they’ll all die off over winter, but we’ll need to spray the trees next July.”
“That makes sense: after they’ve bloomed and just as the fruit sets. What with though?”
“He didn’t say exactly. We can get it from him next summer, though. But that’s it for this year,” he said with a sigh.
“I know,” I said. “So disappointing, isn’t it.”
“Yes, very. And not just because of the oil.”
“Hardly! We’ve still got most of last year’s down in the cellar. But I know what you mean. It’s that connection with the culture and doing something that is so much part of the community.”
“Exactly,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “It’s as if we’re missing out on something.”

As we reluctantly gathered up all the olive harvesting stuff in the fading light, I felt another pang of disappointment. Further down the mist-filled valley I heard the unmistakable chatter of a battery-powered rake just like the one we have that Mr Blue-Shirt was carrying back to the shed almost unused. He was right: it felt as if we’d got some kind of injury that meant we couldn’t take part in the match but only watch from the side-lines. And that is no fun at all.

Family Snapshots

They were our tenth and final set of visitors this year, which alone made their stay feel quite momentous. In addition, though, this was the first time my eldest niece and her husband had ever come to stay with us, which in turn meant that we have now had all three of my late sister’s grown-up children come to stay this year. It was these visitors’ first time in Italy too, which, for a couple who find travel more challenging than most, also made their visit something of a personal achievement. Consequently, with so many new experiences to enjoy, so much lost time to be made up for, and so many things to say and see and do, putting pen to paper dropped way down my list of priorities. So after a few days’ pause for reflection, here are some snapshots of a very special visit expressed in haiku.

Nervous travellers
Craving our reassurance,
Fearful of ‘what-ifs’

Relief, then delight.
Seeing our smiles of welcome,
Angst melts into hugs

Aunt, niece, late at night
Exchanging confidences,
Laughter and gossip

Tension recedes as
Le Marche works its magic.
Newness is embraced

Conversations that
Illuminate our shared past,
Finding common ground

Sights, sounds and flavours,
Traditions, language, culture
Turn from foe to friend

In her daughter’s face
I sense my sister’s presence
And her wistful smile

Strengthening the bonds,
The golden threads of kinship
That miles cannot fray

Three precious visits:
Future blooming from the past.
Niece, niece, nephew, aunt…

‘To every thing there is a season…’

Summer seems especially reluctant to hand over the baton to autumn this year. While the days grow ever shorter, they remain deliciously warm, with a honeyed sun smiling down from cloudless skies, whose blue is softened by the finest veil of haze. And following sunsets of smouldering copper and crimson, the correspondingly longer nights are still mild enough to be filled with the gentle chirruping of the crickets, and then give way to hushed dawns that are the very essence of Keats’ “mists and mellow fruitfulness”.

It’s true it is now cool enough not to have to take refuge from the heat on the shady northern terrace , but this means we now spend more time on the main east- and south-facing sections where we continue to make the most of the golden warmth, admittedly no longer in shorts and T-shirts, but certainly not yet in pullovers. And as we look out over the sun-filled valley, the hints of bronze and amber slowly spreading across it are almost the only evidence of autumn’s arrival.

The strongest evidence of autumn’s arrival is, in fact, in the supermarket where the passage of the seasons is always clearly visible. For seasonal produce is a given here, a way of life. It isn’t a trend or a fad or part of the latest celebrity diet; it isn’t considered ‘cool’ or even especially ‘green’. It is simply an integral part of the food culture that is central to Italian identity, and whose century-old traditions are still adhered to. Essentially, if a particular fruit or vegetable (or meat or fish, come to that) isn’t in season in Italy, it isn’t automatically imported from some faraway place where it is in season; it just isn’t available, except perhaps in the largest and poshest supermarkets, but it’s not guaranteed. Take artichokes, a highly-prized local speciality: for a couple of weeks back in May there were great mounds of them in the shops and people were buying dozens of them at a time, but just a few weeks later there was not a single one to be found. The thing is, though, there was clearly no expectation either from consumers or from shops that people’s voracious appetite for the greeny-purple thistle-like vegetable could (and even less should) be satisfied by extending the season with imports flown in at great cost from half way round the globe. The season was over, as simple as that.  And it had been exactly the same with the asparagus, which is a vegetable that both Mr Blue-Shirt and I adore and will happily eat every day of the season given the chance, but which had disappeared from the shelves before we had had a chance to get through our list of favourite asparagus dishes. And we couldn’t have continued working our way through our list using asparagus flown in from Peru (even if we had wanted to) because there wasn’t any: the season was finished. Consequently, peaches, nectarines, apricots and water melons have – naturally – now given way to squash, pomegranates, figs and grapes, and the pop-up shops selling nothing but Sicilian citrus fruits have just re-opened for their customary four-month season.

We have no sense of ‘making do’ with whatever is available, though, as if there is some lack or shortage. In addition to that vast and ever-changing cornucopia of seasonal produce in the peak of condition and packed with flavour, there is always a huge array of exclusively Italian-grown year-round staples like tomatoes (of course), courgettes, aubergines, peppers, apples and pears thanks to Italy’s remarkably varied climate and terrain which extends from the Alps to just short of Africa. Consequently, there is always something new to look forward to – and, therefore, nothing to get bored with either, like those insipid, pallid strawberries found in the UK all year round that are not so much cultivated as manufactured, and whose very ubiquity ceases to make them special. The strawberry season here, by contrast, lasts only a couple of months, but in the few weeks that strawberries are available, they are divine and we devour them by the kilo, relishing their intense flavour and deep colour. And because such seasonal delights are by definition transitory, each succeeding fruit or vegetable feels precious: it is something to be celebrated, often with a food festival, or sagra, and respected, with simple, unfussy cooking. 

So even if we are still in shirt-sleeves and sandals, it must be autumn because our neighbouring village has just held its annual mushroom and chestnut festival.

Title taken from Pete Seeger’s song ‘Turn, turn, turn’, whose lyrics were taken from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 and which was recorded by The Byrds in 1965.

Getting back into the swing

For the last few years, we have rather lost our way with holidays, Mr Blue-Shirt and I. Historically, a holiday always meant visiting unfamiliar places in foreign countries, preferably where the traffic is terrifying, where shopping is conducted through a combination of mime and guesswork, where ordering a meal often means a gastronomic leap in the dark, and where you actually have to read the banknotes and coins to understand how much money you’re handing over. These criteria gradually became diluted, though, as from about 2007 we repeatedly found ourselves gravitating to Italy, albeit to different areas, and eventually the idea of actually moving here took root. Then once we had committed to living in Italy permanently, our holiday destination became defined by our latest house-search area, which grew smaller every year, and by about 2010 our entire trip would end up consisting almost exclusively of bumping down white roads somewhere in central Le Marche in order to poke around yet another ivy-and-bramble-choked ruin in the hope that it would be The One, the wreck that we could turn into the home where we could enjoy La Dolce Vita.

However, even though it is now five years since we found The One, our holiday mojo has been slow to return. While we made several trips back and forth across Europe in the summer we moved in, they were in no sense holidays as their sole purpose was to transport all our worldly goods from Lincolnshire to Le Marche as quickly and cheaply as possible in our noisy, hot and extremely uncomfortable MB van.

It was a similar story the following year: another overland trip to England, but this time to loosen some of our last administrative ties with the UK. And what made it even less of a holiday – in the sense of rest and recuperation – was the excruciating trapped nerve in my neck caused by all the driving that eventually required medical intervention, and then arriving home to find that we had had a break-in and that Mr Blue-Shirt had had every one of his tools stolen from the pigsty that he used as a workshop.

The year after that, we were simply too scared to go away until we had got a security system installed, having experienced a second and more serious burglary in the spring. The best we could do was three days away at a favourite blacksmithing event in Tuscany, but only once the system was up and running.

In 2020, and almost paradoxically as we squeezed it in between the first and second waves of the pandemic, we did manage something that came pretty close to what we consider a Proper Holiday when we took the ferry over to the Adriatic and spent ten days in Croatia. The trip certainly gave us some of the holiday vibe we craved – exploring unfamiliar places, trying unfamiliar foods and experiencing unfamiliar cultures. But our whole stay was spent in the ominous shadow of Covid, from which at that stage – several months before vaccines became available – there was little protection other than masks and social distancing. So it was very difficult to relax and enjoy ourselves fully, especially as we had to keep a constant ear out for changes to travel rules, paperwork requirements and testing regimes.

By summer 2021, Covid-induced inertia had set in. Although most restrictions had been eased if not lifted in most of the places we might otherwise have wanted to visit, we had simply become too weighed down by apathy to organise a Proper Holiday for ourselves. All that we managed was a 3-day stay in Arezzo tagged onto our customary trip to the blacksmithing event that we’ve been going to since 2007: hardly our most imaginative or adventurous trip – even if Arezzo was a complete revelation.

This year we finally cracked it, though, and sorted out a Proper Holiday. What’s more, as well as meeting our traditional criteria, it also met a couple of new ones we decided we wanted to introduce when we moved here, namely visiting parts of Italy that we had never been to before, and travelling overland to places that it would have been much harder to reach by car from the UK. Thus, having spent several wet Sunday afternoons in spring poring over maps, guidebooks and countless Booking.com and Airbnb entries, we put together a trip that involved taking the overnight ferry from Rome (ie Civitavecchia) to Sardinia for four days in Alghero on the north-west coast, then taking the day-time ferry right across the Mediterranean to Barcelona and five days taking in as much Gaudì as our senses could bear – something that had been on our ‘to do’ list for years – followed by a leisurely drive back along the Côte d’Azur, around the Gulf of Genoa and then home via Tuscany and Umbria.

And I have to say, we got it spot on. Sardinia was unlike anywhere else we have ever been in Italy, with its dramatic, spaghetti-western-style landscape, rugged coastline, pearly-white beaches, Bronze Age settlements and, on the Costa Smeralda, glamourous marinas packed with eye-wateringly expensive yachts. Gorgeous though Sardinia was, however, it did effectively turn out to be just an appetiser for the main event: Barcelona.

Barcelona was everything we had hoped it would be, only on a much grander, louder, more flamboyant scale. Having lived in semi-rural locations for the last twenty-plus years, we find any large city pretty full-on, but nothing could have prepared us for the all-out assault on our senses that Barcelona treated us to, especially since we made the architecture of Antoni Gaudì the focus of our visit. The city has long been the epicentre of Modernisme (the Catalan version of Art Nouveau), stunning examples of which we stumbled across everywhere we went. However, Gaudì’s curvaceous, colourful and utterly surreal creations pushed this late 19th century school of design to its limits and beyond. Gaudì’s masterpiece – and unquestionably the highlight of our trip – is, of course, La Sagrada Familia, the mighty (and still unfinished) cathedral with its multiple bell towers and highly decorated façades that totally dominates the cityscape. And it is no exaggeration to say that it is the most remarkable building either Mr Blue-Shirt or I have ever seen; we were both practically overwhelmed by both its sheer scale as well as its other-worldly magnificence and spent nearly the whole day there marvelling at its splendour. Indeed, I was almost moved to tears by this most extraordinary manifestation of human endeavour, vision and creativity.

After such a spectacular, rich and spicy main course (that naturally included quite a lot of yummy tapas as well as all the Gaudì delights), our overland return trip made the perfect light, fluffy dessert: a lovely, gentle bimble from Barcelona, into France, and then, after an overnight just outside Nîmes, right along the Côte d’Azur. Muscular, forested hills rising up to the left, sparkling Mediterranean Sea to the right, the autoroute followed its sinuous course along the sun-drenched coast, taking us past or through all those places that have long epitomised glitz and glamour: St Tropez, Fréjus, Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Monte Carlo. Then it was back over the border into Italy and an overnight stop in the grand, elegant resort of San Remo that is now best known for its hugely popular annual Music Festival.

Our feast of experiences concluded with a satisfying digestivo. Like a sharp swig of Grappa, this started with the dramatic drive around the Golfo di Genova (Gulf of Genoa) along the autostrada that, with its many tunnels and vertigo-inducing bridges, threads its way through the Maritime Alps, high above the glittering waters of the Mediterranean. It then mellowed to a gentle afterglow as we turned inland near Pisa, then drove across Tuscany, past Florence before finishing in Arezzo for our last overnight stop together with the very dear friends who would be spending a few days with us as soon as we got home. Which we did the next day, feeling contentedly replete.

I think it is safe to say our appetite for holidays has returned with a vengeance.

Image: selfie of us in Alghero, sharing a ride on an e-scooter.

This is what we joined for

Well, it’s been quite a hectic couple of months, during which we have enjoyed visits from four different sets of wonderful friends. A couple of very dear pals who we know from my singing days in Lincolnshire arrived, just over a week after we bade farewell to my nephew and his partner, for their second trip of the year. Less than a fortnight later they were followed by a former teaching colleague and her partner, who also house-sat for us while we ourselves went away for a couple of weeks. They left the morning after our return, leaving us just a few hours to turn the guest room around in time for the arrival of our very old friends with whom we shared our time in Brunei at the turn of the millennium and who broke off their touring holiday to spend a few days with us. Then after a weekend-long pause, our even older friends whom we have known since the early 1990s when we all lived in Germany, also included a few days with us in their touring itinerary. ‘Old(er) friends’, by the way, refers to the length of the friendship; we ourselves, of course, all remain as young as ever…

And what an absolute delight it has been to welcome every one of them and to have the house filled with their voices and their laughter and to eat, drink and make merry with them – all of it exactly what we dreamt of when we moved to Casa Girasole, our own version of ‘La Dolce Vita‘.

Consequently, with so much catching up to be done, so many sights to see, and so many places to go (as well as quite a lot of bed linen to launder!) there was little time for putting pen to paper. So after a few days’ pause for reflection, here are some snapshots of a very special and memorable couple of months expressed in haiku.

A kaleidoscope
A summer of sensations
Bright-hued beads of joy

Sights, sounds, smells and tastes
Shared with friends both old and new
Making memories

Cathartic rants and
Belly-laughs and heart-to-hearts
That nourish the soul

Aperitivi:
Chilled drinks and dainty morsels
Served as dusk draws near

Churches, palaces
Lakes and sea and mountain views
Castles, galleries

Smoky aromas
From chargrilled swordfish steaks that
Sizzle over coals

Caves and operas
Picnics, pizzas on the square
Thunderstorms and hikes

Old jokes and nicknames
And ‘do-you-remember-whens’
Strengthening the bonds

And as summer fades
The warmth of those friendships will
Keep the cold at bay…

As with twists and turns
Of my new kaleidoscope
Summer is re-played

The Music of the Mediterranean

“A downside of life in rural Italy in summer: mosquitos the size of B52 bombers with the thirst of Dracula. I shall spare the world the sight of my bite-spattered limbs and offer instead an image of the arsenal of defensive, offensive and curative weapons I have gathered in my personal war against the little bastards.” So went a social media post of mine from around July 2017, along with a photograph of an array of anti-mosquito sprays, coils, candles and plug-ins, as well as various bite creams, bite zappers and fly swats.

This was a few weeks after we had completed the purchase of our house and in the middle of that first summer, during which we kept shuttling back and forth between Lincolnshire and Montelupone with van-loads of our worldly goods, only staying in the house for a week or so at a time at best. So with the place remaining empty for fairly lengthy periods, the local bug population – which includes many more species than just mosquitos, by the way – had ample opportunity to make itself at home completely unchecked. It was very much the same story with the large area of rough grass surrounding the house that we seldom found the time to try and tame as we were so focused on getting the house ready for me to move into come September while Mr Blue-Shirt returned to the UK to conclude the sale of the forge. Just swishing through the knee-high grass as far as the compost bin caused clouds of bugs to swirl up into the sun-baked air in preparation for an attack, but of course for as long as we didn’t mow their homes down on a regular basis, they just continued to proliferate. And back then, we had no terraces either, so all that rough grass came right up to the house, which meant that we had swarms of bugs for company every time we set foot outside, but above all, every citronella-scented evening over dinner since the only area of the garden flat enough to put our outdoor dining table and chairs was immediately in front of the patio doors from the sitting room.

Happily, those days are long gone. Our near-permanent presence has driven almost all bugs and creepy-crawlies from the house, the grass is well under control, and the terrace that now wraps all the way round the house helps keep whatever bitey-bastards remain at a relatively safe distance. Over time there has been a corresponding process of disarmament, with my arsenal now reduced to the odd, seldom-used coil, one anti-mozzy spray and a single tube of bite cream. And so these days, languid afternoons and leisurely evenings on the terrace are much more peaceful affairs, no longer punctuated by frantic bouts of flapping, slapping, swatting, cursing and scratching.

One bug that never seemed to bear us any ill-will, though and whose presence we continue to enjoy is the humble cricket. I fell in love with this harmless insect’s nocturnal chirruping when Mr Blue-Shirt and I spent our first holiday together in the south of France. Ever since, their sibilant song has for me been the quintessential sound of the Mediterranean: of sun-soaked days and balmy evenings, of bougainvillea and umbrella pines, of glossy black olives and aniseed liqueurs. It is a song whose vaguely hypnotic tune I feel I have somehow always known and which I like to think confirms that in this northern body has always dwelt a southern soul.

This summer, however, the softly-spoken crickets have faced unusually stiff competition from those most vocal of insects, the cicadas. Normally the two of them work in tandem: the crickets, who produce their song by scraping their textured fore-wings together, cover the night shift and fall silent as night fades, and then the diurnal cicadas take over the day shift with their incessant rhythmic sawing. The thing is, while they don’t typically start up their mini chainsaws until the temperature climbs above 30°C or so, they then tend to keep them running until the temperature drops back down below 30°C again. So, as we have had an unusually long and hot summer with temperatures reaching that critical threshold by breakfast time and then not falling back below it until late into the evening, those strident little chainsaws have been running non-stop for up to fifteen hours at a time almost every day since mid-June. And the racket they produce – by means of a pair of tiny vibrating membranes built in to their abdomen whose hollow structure amplifies the sound – really is unfeasibly loud at times: up to 120 decibels, apparently, which at close range is as loud as a passing aircraft or, indeed, a real chainsaw. All of which can become rather wearing, like the crackle of an untuned radio turned up to full volume, especially as we seem to have a sizeable flock of them living in the enormous oak tree about 20m from our back door. As a result, the poor unassuming crickets have barely been able to make themselves heard until finally the SODDING CICADAS SHUT THE $%&* UP!

As the earth’s tilt away from the sun increases by the day, however, even day-time temperatures now seldom exceed 30°C – and then, not by much and not for long – while the sultry night-time heat has at last been replaced with delicious, restorative cool. Which also means, of course, that the cicadas have – apart from a brief but vigorous sawing session around the middle of the day – largely fallen silent. So, as the heather and honey of dusk darken to inky blue, the soothing susurration of the crickets can once again be heard floating on the soft, evening breeze. And unlike that first summer, we can now even enjoy the music of the Mediterranean without getting bitten.

Image of cricket courtesy of http://www.italyhouse.wordpress.com

Not Quite “As The Romans Do”

On 15th August we and our latest visitors woke to grey skies and a mass of thickening cloud rolling in from the mountains. This left us with something of a dilemma, though, as it was Ferragosto, the national public holiday that marks the height of summer and that is typically celebrated with a protracted lunch all’aperto (in the open) with family and friends, preferably somewhere that offers some respite from the mid-summer heat. And we had been planning to observe this custom by heading up into the relative cool of the Sibillini Mountains for a picnic on the shores of the cobalt-blue Lago di Fiastra where Mr Blue-Shirt and I had marked the holiday with a refreshing dip as well as a picnic a year earlier.

We had risen later than usual that morning too, as we had been to see a dazzlingly bonkers performance of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Sferisterio in Macerata the night before and hadn’t gone to bed until well after 1am. So over a leisurely late breakfast– and as we scanned an increasingly gloomy sky – I told Nick and Elaine about the origins of this festival, which, like many traditions in Italy, are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the pre-Christian Emperor who designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. During this period, working animals were also relieved of their loads and horse races were held as part of the celebrations.  Indeed, this is the origin of the palio, the bare-back horse race that many towns still hold in their central squares, the most famous of which takes place in the Tuscan town of Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times.

In between bites of toast and distant rumbles of thunder, I ran through what I could remember of the holiday’s origins, with Nick checking details for me on his phone as I went. Well before the emperor’s intervention, August was already punctuated with festivals such as the three-day Nemoralia dedicated to Diana the Huntress, the Consualia to honour Consus, the god of the harvest, and the Vinalia Rustica to celebrate the forthcoming grape harvest. So by unifying all these pre-existing jollities into one continuous holiday period, Augustus’s apparent largesse was tempered by obvious efficiency considerations. Not that the masses would have objected, especially since, providing they wished their masters ‘buon ferragosto’, they would also receive a small gift of money or food from them with which to enjoy the holidays. This tradition became so entrenched that during the Renaissance, the Papal States (of which Le Marche then formed part) made it obligatory.

Having placed another batch of toast and a second pot of coffee on the table on the terrace I explained that along with many other festivals of Roman origin, the Catholic Church soon muscled in on things and sought to Christianise these pagan festivities as early as the 5th century AD when it established The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary bang in the middle of the feriae augusti.  Since then, 15th August has marked the day on which the Virgin is claimed to have ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth and so is officially the reason why it is a public holiday in Italy.

While we were still trying to decide whether or not to spend that public holiday as custom dictated, I added that during the first part of the twentieth century, Mussolini gave the festival a more secular and political flavour. Another quick google enabled Nick to fill in the sketchily-remembered details for me: Il Duce’s fascist regime began organising discounted trips for workers through its Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (National Recreational Club), which was conceived as a means of competing with the Socialists in terms of providing for workers’ welfare. The scheme, known as ‘the People’s Trains of Ferragosto’, ran from 1931 to 1939 and gave the working classes the opportunity to take short trips to the seaside, the mountains or cultural sites. This, I then recalled, is why present-day tourists are still able to visit museums, monuments and galleries on 15th August even though many other amenities are closed. And as this initiative was aimed chiefly at city dwellers and workers, it turned Ferragosto from an almost exclusively rural affair into a festival for all the labouring classes and as such was effectively a fore-runner of modern mass tourism. Since the People’s Train trips did not include meals, however, travellers had to bring their own food with them, so the picnic quickly came to be one of the defining features of the fascist era Ferragosto, and the tradition has stuck.

It was already late morning by the time we had finished our extended breakfast and our fact-checking, and by this time the weather over the Sibillini Mountains was looking even more threatening. So with a lakeside picnic now definitely looking ill-advised, we broke with tradition and opted to go for an ice cream in the village instead and then, despite the thunder eventually delivering much less than it had promised, to spend the rest of the afternoon with our respective books, sketch pads and podcasts before making our own pizzas for dinner. It might not have been the traditional way to mark Ferragosto, but I don’t think Emperor Augustus would have minded too much.

A Night At The Opera – Act II

It somehow felt rather like time travel. There we were, my nephew, his partner, Mr Blue-Shirt and I, sitting beneath a warm inky sky in a 3000-seater arena inspired by the Romans, built a couple of decades before the Risorgimento originally as a venue for a game created in the Renaissance, ready to watch an opera set during the Napoleonic Wars that was written at the very start of the 20th century: Tosca.

One of the best-known and best-loved works of the mainstream operatic repertoire – and a personal favourite of all four of us – Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca is a tragic story of love and betrayal, power and politics. In a nutshell, the action unfolds in Rome in June 1800 with the city under French occupation. Floria Tosca, a singer, is the lover of Mario Cavaradossi,a painter. Baron Scarpia, the corrupt Chief of Police who has long lusted after Tosca and who is willing to go to any lengths to have her, suspects Cavaradossi of assisting an escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti. Cavaradossi is soon arrested and tortured for helping Angelotti to flee, so Scarpia tells Tosca that she can end her lover’s suffering if she reveals Angelotti’s whereabouts. Unable to bear her lover’s screams of agony any longer, she eventually succumbs, to Cavaradossi’s later dismay. But Scarpia is still not satisfied as it is Tosca herself that he really wants. So he offers her a deal: if she gives herself to him, Cavaradossi can go free. She is revolted by the prospect but when she hears preparations being made for her lover’s execution, in despair she agrees to submit to him and Scarpia duly instructs his men to carry out a mock execution. As Scarpia forces himself on Tosca, however, she kills him. But her triumph soon turns to horror as Cavaradossi is later executed before her eyes and she realises that Scarpia had double-crossed her. She has no time to mourn her lover’s death, though, as Scarpia’s henchmen are on their way to arrest her for his murder and so she flees. They chase her up onto a parapet and with no means of escape now left to her, she flings herself to her death.

Surrounded by all the Neo-classical architectural splendour of Lo Sferisterio, we were all fully expecting the traditional bicorn hats and muskets, tight bodices and sweeping cloaks. But what the director of this production had in store for us was in fact another leg on our journey through time, for she (yes, she: Valentina Carrasco) had chosen a Hollywood film studio during the 1950s McCarthy era as the setting for her interpretation of the work. In Ms Carrasco’s telling of the story, Scarpia is now a McCarthyite film producer seeking to root out Hollywood ‘Commies’, which Scarpia suspects Angelotti of being, while Cavaradossi is depicted as a communist sympathiser and Tosca as an up-and-coming film actress. A film being made about the occupation of Rome by Napoleon’s forces provides the backdrop for the action between the three main protagonists, and this ‘film within an opera’ device is developed further by various characters using hand-held movie cameras to film key scenes and arias such as Cavaradossi’s torture and Tosca revealing Angelotti’s hiding place, with the images, mostly in close-up, projected in black and white onto the vast wall at the back of the stage.

Scarpia’s predatory advances to Tosca and her resistance to them are handled in the same way, and with the almost painfully tight close-ups of the powerful film producer preying on the vulnerable an desperate young actress, Ms Carrasco brings us another step forward in time by drawing clear parallels to the crimes of Harvey Weinstein and the origins of the ‘Me Too’ movement.  And the action takes another step closer to the present day at the deadly climax of the opera which even appears to take on echoes of the recent Alex Baldwin incident – although because this is so recent, it is possible that this may be ‘happy’ coincidence rather than yet more clever adaptation work.

I am pretty open to modern interpretations of classic dramatic works at the best of times as I am drawn to their ability to underscore the universality and timelessness of the themes their plots explore. But none I have seen has come anywhere close to the inventiveness and relevance of this particular re-telling. Locating the ‘film within an opera’ scenes at the sides of the mighty, 40-metre-wide stage while keeping the main action tightly in focus in the centre and then using the imposing back wall as an almost full-size cinema screen turned the practical difficulties of the physical setting into an artistic virtue; and then the McCarthy era setting along with all its more current film industry references transformed what some consider a slightly clichéd, late Victorian melodrama into a genuinely gripping, heart-wrenching and modern thriller, to which Ms Carrasco even managed to add a feminist edge. Who said that opera has to be all about mythical kingdoms, consumptive heroines, and swashbuckling heroes?

As the audience spilled back out onto the pavement at well past midnight, we caught snatches of their conversations on the mild night air, all of them along the same lines.
“Tosca’s voice was stunning…”
“Wasn’t the Scarpia-Weinstein reference clever…”
“The end of Act I gave me good-bumps…”
“Projecting Cavaradossi’s torture onto the back wall really added to the drama…”
“I was so impressed with that orchestra…”
“The whole McCarthy thing worked so well…”
“That baritone made Scarpia such a bastard…”
And there was not a single comment that any of us could disagree with. On the way back home and then over a late supper of cheese and biscuits we shared our favourite moments, googled McCarthy and Un-American Activities hearings, shared our opinions of the quality of the singing and wondered how on earth Valentina Carrasco had come up with such an inspired idea in the first place. And the four of us concluded that it had been by far the most adventurous and captivating production of this classic work that any of us had ever seen – and all in a two-hundred-year-old converted sports stadium in the provincial depths of Le Marche.

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