A little balance

Yes, it is absolutely true. There is no question about it. The implementation of the EU vaccination programme has been very slow in getting going. Much slower than anyone would have wanted; much slower than anyone had planned. However, despite the hugely frustrating political and commercial wranglings that have dogged the programme’s roll-out, it has not been quite the ‘shambles’ or the ‘disaster’ that large sections of the UK press and media would have people believe.

Firstly, in an impressive gesture of solidarity, the twenty-seven EU member states unanimously agreed on a collective procurement policy in order to prevent a bidding war that might have seen see its smaller and weaker members losing out and/or its larger and stronger members potentially hoarding supplies. On the basis that ‘no one is safe until everyone is safe’, as practically every public health official given air time continues to point out, this collective approach is, I would contend, intrinsically sound, both morally and rationally, and stands in sharp contrast to some other countries’ grossly individualistic and ultimately self-defeating ‘vaccine nationalism’. And I would further contend that the unmitigated balls up that has admittedly been made of the external and, to a degree, the internal politics of the matter does not detract from the inherent worthiness of this overarching objective.

Secondly, the EU’s collective purchasing power also enabled it to secure more favourable prices for its members than many individual states, whether inside or outside the EU, would have (or in fact have) been able to achieve. For example, the UK is paying approximately £2.17 per dose for the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine and £15 per dose for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, while the EU is paying £1.56 and £10.60 respectively per dose (vs. £2.90 and £14.27 per dose in the US). And in view of the pressures the pandemic has placed on every country’s economy, this surely has to be seen as more than mere penny-pinching. The EU’s collective negotiating clout also resulted in higher standard of accountability for the vaccine manufacturers; the UK’s fast-track approach, by contrast, gives manufacturers complete immunity from legal liability in civil cases. But I would again contend that the balls up – to which one manufacturer itself has contributed significantly – that has also been made of the supply chain elements of the deals the EU has struck, does not detract from the essential rationality and worthiness of these objectives either.

The EU’s approach to product liability was also partly a strategic response aimed at alleviating vaccine hesitancy: the possible risks of negative side-effects being seen to be acknowledged and taken account of is intended to provide reassurance for those with concerns over the speed with which vaccines have been approved and rolled out. That same keenness to reassure people that their concerns are being taken seriously has also been behind the ubiquitous ‘abundance of caution’ currently being shown by various national governments in suspending use of the AstraZeneca vaccine for certain age groups. And with regulatory authorities even in the UK having paused trials of the vaccine in teenagers and recommending that 18-to-24-year-olds now have a different vaccine if it is available, the EU’s arguably more far-sighted approach to product liability may turn out not have been quite so misplaced as some of its critics have suggested.

As for things ‘on the ground’ within the EU, naturally I can only speak of Italy in any detail. Like all other member states, it orders its own supplies of its preferred vaccines direct from the manufacturers with whom the Commission has concluded EU-wide supply contracts. All member states consequently receive vaccines under the same conditions – at the same price, and on a pro-rata basis according to population size – with the option to make adjustments according to need. The Pfizer-BioNTech jab currently accounts for about 60% of Italy’s supplies, Astra-Zeneca for about 30% and the Moderna version for about 10% – although these proportions are set to change as new allocations become available and other manufacturers begin deliveries, for instance Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi-GSK. Incidentally, all this information is readily available from a number of different online sources which are updated at least daily and which can be interrogated in relation to a wide range of parameters.

When it comes to domestic distribution of the vaccine and actually getting it in people’s arms, this is a national responsibility, as is deciding precisely which groups to prioritize. Along with most other countries, Italy gave priority to the over-80s, of which we have a disproportionately large number: very nearly one million over-90s have so far had at least one jab. Then came health and social care staff, the most medically vulnerable, the armed forces and school and college staff, with younger age groups and lower levels of vulnerability to follow. For the record, we are due ours later in the summer.

The government website tells me that there are now well over 2000 formal vaccination points across the country (plus drive-throughs and pop-ups) although in certain circumstances it is also possible to arrange for vaccinations to be carried out at home. The site also indicates that supplies are doubling every 3-4 weeks,and that nationally over 80% of the doses delivered so far have currently been administered – a good third of which, incidentally, are already second doses.  With every region having received another consignment in the last couple of days, it will take a few days to return to its typical level of around 90%, with the rate varying a little from one region to another. For the record, Le Marche is currently is pretty well on the national average.

Much more significantly, however, actual numbers nationally are not that far behind what was projected by the EU at the start of the roll-out, with things still potentially on course for a daily rate of 500,000 injections per day within the next couple of weeks: yesterday, some 370,000 jabs were administered in Italy, while France and Germany both hit that half-million target. Which is far from shambolic and even further from disastrous.

Image: Matteo Bazzi/Reuters

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here we are, then: our second Easter in the time of Coronavirus. The shocking novelty of lockdown last year has congealed into weary resignation this year. The acute fear, anxiety and uncertainty of last Easter have ossified into a chronic ache this Easter. And this time last year, it was in the soothing words of This is the Time to be Slow by the Irish poet, author, philosopher and one-time priest John O’Donohue that I found solace: This is the time to be slow – Easter in the time of Coronavirus. So with another chance to pause, to reflect and recharge upon us, I once again turned to poetry in search of messages of hope and comfort and I eventually stumbled across a piece called For One Who is Exhausted – A Blessing which instantly resonated deeply with me. And wonderfully serendipitously, it also turned out to be written by that same philosopher-poet John O’Donohue. May you too find comfort in his gift for the tired soul.

For One Who is Exhausted – A Blessing

When the rhythm of the heart becomes hectic,
Time takes on the strain until it breaks;
Then all the unattended stress falls in
On the mind like an endless, increasing weight.

The light in the mind becomes dim.
Things you could take in your stride before
Now become laboursome events of will.

Weariness invades your spirit.
Gravity begins falling inside you,
Dragging down every bone.

The tide you never valued has gone out.
And you are marooned on unsure ground.
Something within you has closed down;
And you cannot push yourself back to life.

You have been forced to enter empty time.
The desire that drove you has relinquished.
There is nothing else to do now but rest
And patiently learn to receive the self
You have forsaken in the race of days.

At first your thinking will darken
And sadness take over like listless weather.
The flow of unwept tears will frighten you.

You have travelled too fast over false ground;
Now your soul has come to take you back.

Take refuge in your senses, open up
To all the small miracles you rushed through.

Become inclined to watch the way of rain
When it falls slow and free.

Imitate the habit of twilight,
Taking time to open the well of colour
That fostered the brightness of day.

Draw alongside the silence of stone
Until its calmness can claim you.
Be excessively gentle with yourself.

Stay clear of those vexed in spirit.
Learn to linger around someone of ease
Who feels they have all the time in the world.

Gradually, you will return to yourself,
Having learned a new respect for your heart
And the joy that dwells far within slow time.

From ‘Benedictus – A Book of Blessings’, John O’Donohue.
Bantam Press (2007)

When the Saints Go Marching In

It was St. Augusta’s day here yesterday. She was a 1st century Christian martyr from modern-day Veneto whose staunchly pagan father had her imprisoned, tortured and beheaded in an effort to make her renounce her faith. The day before was St Teodoro’s day. This particular St. Teodoro was martyred in Libya in the 3rd century, but there are apparently a further eleven whose feast days are scattered about the year. And earlier this week we also had the feast day of St. Lea of Rome (who as a young widow joined one of the first female Christian communities of which she later became mother superior and where she lived a life of extreme humility and piety until her death in 384AD), St. Turibio di Mogrovejo (a 16th century Spanish bishop who undertook missionary work in Peru where he founded South America’s first seminary), and St. Romolo (who was a victim of the persecutions of Christians carried out by Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century).

Then next week we’ve got the feast days of St. Amedeo (born a Savoy Duke in 1435, he gathered armies at the Pope’s request to defend Christianity against the Turkish threat in the Peloponnese and lived a life of great austerity and humility coupled with great generosity to the poor), and St. Beniamino (a 5th century Persian deacon who, having refused to stop preaching the word of God, suffered martyrdom by having his body pierced with pins).

But St Alexander of Sicily, St Francis of Paola and St Isidoro of Seville are all going to have to take a back seat this year as their feast days are effectively trumped by Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday respectively. Once Easter is over, though, we go back to a saint a day – literally: every day of the church year has a corresponding saint, and every saint has his or her own day in the church calendar. However, since there are very many more saints in Italy than days, a lot of days have more than one saint. For instance, while 17th March is recognised throughout the Christian world as St Patrick’s Day, the patron saint of Ireland actually shares his feast day here with another seven saints and three beati (‘blesseds’). Mind you, 17th March is actually quite a quiet day, saint-wise: if today weren’t Palm Sunday, no fewer than thirteen saints and eight beati would normally be celebrating their feast day on 28th March.

As a kind of side-effect of the abundance of saints in Italy is that every town can claim to have had a saint who was born there, who died there, who studied there, or who even just visited the place, and that saint will then be adopted as the town’s patron saint. On his or her feast day an icon of the saint will often be carried in a procession to or from the parish church where a special Mass will be held, and there will also be other more secular festivities, typically involving eating, drinking and making merry. In many places the day is declared a public holiday so shops and schools will even be closed for the occasion. But only in that town of course: the day won’t be a holiday anywhere else since it won’t be their patron saint’s day. Thus Montelupone more or less closes on 11th March for the feast of San Firmano who founded a Benedictine abbey here in the 10th century and went on to perform a range of miracles. Meanwhile it is on 4th May that Ancona has a public holiday to celebrate the feast of San Ciriaco, an early bishop of Ancona who is believed to have assisted Empress Helena in her search for the True Cross, and who died (or was killed) on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in about the 4th century. Macerata, on the other hand, comes to a halt on 31st August when the sky is lit up with fireworks to mark the feast of San Giuliano, who in penance for killing his wife in a fit of jealous rage became a pilgrim. He also gave assistance to other pilgrims, helping them across the Potenza river just outside Macerata. One of those he helped was a leper who was revealed to be an angel sent to confirm that his penance had been completed and that he would be reunited with his wife in heaven.

Such celebrations are not limited to smaller, more rural communities either. Cities as large, sophisticated and otherwise secular as Milan also set great store by their patron saints. Indeed, even this economic powerhouse closes for business every 7th December to celebrate the feast of its patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio. A skilled and eloquent politician and academic as well as an ascetic and pious cleric, he did much to strengthen Christianity and the Catholic church in the post-Roman era and was elected bishop of Milan in the 4th century.  On his feast day, which also marks the unofficial start of Christmas, a special Mass is held in the basilica he himself commissioned, and in the piazza that surrounds it there is a sprawling street market selling food, drink, toys, crafts and antiques. It is also the day that traditionally marks the opening night of the season at the world famous La Scala opera house.

The other main way in which a given saint’s feast day is celebrated is through the custom of the onomastico, or name day. That is to say, if you are named after a saint – and nearly everyone is, even if it’s just their middle name – then that saint’s feast day is your onomastico. For the record, mine, it turns out, is on 9th March and Mr Blue-Shirt’s on 26th January. On this day, you may receive cards, small gifts and a special cake, almost like a second birthday; indeed, in parts of the south, your name day is considered more important than your birthday. 

So should you happen to be called Carné, Eumelio, Castore, Gontanno, Conone, Ilarione, Cirillo, Giuseppe Sebastiano, Prisco, Malco, Alessandro, Proterio or Stefano (unlikely, I realise), then Buon Onomastico!

To find your name day or details of your daily saint:
http://www.santiebeati.it/
https://www.santodelgiorno.it/

Image: http://www.geni.com

A road less travelled

“Physical activity and individual exercise are permitted within the immediate vicinity of one’s place of residence.” It was probably the rule that we were keenest to check as Le Marche went back into the zona rossa (red zone) last week following a worrying surge in Covid-19 cases, since being allowed to spend at least some time out in the spring sunshine remains an absolute lifesaver now we have another ban on almost all movement other than for proven work, health or other needs. That said, the current restrictions still rule out Mr Blue-Shirt’s up-hill-down-dale cycle routes around the comune as well as my runs up into the village and back that orange zone rules permitted, never mind his lung-busting round trips to the coast and my lovely long, flat runs along the seafront in Civitanova Marche when we were in the yellow zone.

So in order to keep ourselves within the red zone rules, we have developed a walking and running route consisting of a couple of there-and-back spurs off a main path, none of which takes us much more than about 500m from home, but which together take a good hour to complete. While the bitty-ness of the route doesn’t make for particularly enjoyable cycling, its hilly-ness still sets the muscles tingling and the heart pumping whether walking or running. And possibly most importantly at the moment, its glorious springtime prettiness lifts our spirits and brightens our mood.

The other plus is that our ‘red zone route’ has – almost literally – given us a new perspective on our surroundings. The house and the sloping plot on which it sits are both orientated towards the east and the south, so it is the magnificent view of the broad green valley that sweeps down to the glittering triangle of Adriatic at the bottom that inevitably gets all the attention. Meanwhile, because the house sits just below the crest of the ridge that passes behind the house, the view to the north and west gets forgotten about as soon we come through the gate. And it is this equally magnificent landscape that our new route has enabled us to enjoy most afternoons as the shadows just begin to lengthen.

Having turned right out of the gate, we cross the too-quiet road, turn sharp left immediately before the towering oak tree that fills the view from the window of our back door and head up the gravelled track that zig-zags back past the house and then swings right, past a cluster of single-storey houses where Cecilia from the village café lives with Federico, their son Nico and Numa, their striking Abruzzo shepherd dog who often gallops out to greet us. If any of them are about, we wave and call out a cheery “Ciao!”, eager for a little human contact. After another hundred metres or so we reach the brow of the hill from where the view to the west is revealed in all its splendour. A patchwork of vivid green fields, olive groves and vineyards drops away in front of us, and then rises up again to where the honey-coloured towers and domes of Macerata stand silhouetted against the receding hills, the city’s outline so remote and enigmatic in these days of confinement that it might just as well be Xanadu.

Then as the dusty white track curves round to the left we suddenly get a full-on, straight-between-the-eyes view of the mighty Sibillini Mountains that stand out like roughly hewn white marble against the blue-pink sky, the low sun edging their jagged peaks with gold. And every time, we just stop and stare, marvelling at their majesty and their mystery. Having given ourselves a couple of moments to take in their grandeur, we continue down the hill, occasionally skidding on the loose gravel, past the part-built, salmon-pink rendered house where all the local tractors seem to congregate and on to our first there-and-back spur. After an even steeper descent, the gravel track flattens out and leads on past a picturesque, tightly-shuttered brick-built villa with a lovingly-tended garden and then dips further into the valley and all but disappears into a field of rough grass before finishing at a ruined farmhouse that is almost hidden from view by a tangle of long-neglected olive trees, its roof caved in and gaping cracks in its wonky walls. From what remains of its bramble-and-ivy-choked terrace we scan the fields around us, pointing out to one another the latest tinges of green spreading over the chequerboard of beige and brown to the left and among the distant clumps of trees along the sky line to the right before toiling back up the hill.

After the steep climb, we are grateful for the short flat stretch on the main path, but our breathing has returned to normal by the time we reach the turn-off for next spur which is marked by the half-finished building that for some months Mr Blue-Shirt had his eye on as a potential forge. The large amount of land that came with it as well as the large amount of conversion work it would have needed eventually made it a non-starter, but every time we pass it, I sense his inward sigh at what might have been. The tall bay hedge surrounding the plot permanently casts the track in deep shadow and we zip our fleeces more tightly as we squelch through the muddier terrain and down past the grand, cream-coloured villa with the ornate gates and paved garden – a holiday home, we assume. We follow the winding path down the gentle slope until it comes to an abrupt halt at a pair of modest but securely chained and padlocked electric gates across a long grassed-over driveway that leads across the slope and then disappears into an impenetrable thicket of tall conifers among which presumably stands – or perhaps stood – a house of some kind. After briefly speculating about who once lived there and why and when they left, we head back up the track and onto the main path once more.

We crunch along the track in the dappled shade of trees whose slender brown limbs are gradually disappearing behind a mass of tender young leaves and breathe in the smoky-sweet scent of the clouds of yellow blossom spilling from the hedgerows. Then, having passed the row of brightly covered beehives and the abandoned pale pink villa with the green shutters, we begin the steep descent towards the substantial house at the bottom of the hill that marks the end of our route. The column of woodsmoke rising from the chimney draws our gaze up towards the mountains whose snow-capped peaks are now flushed with pink in the fading rays of the late afternoon sun: it’s time to return home.

So we turn away from the mountains and begin the long trudge all the way back up past the pink villa and coloured hives, past the forge that wasn’t and the tractors parked outside the part-built house to the cluster of single-storey houses at the top. As we pass, Numa often gallops out again, and having reconfirmed we are friend not foe, trots back up the drive, her guard dog duties done once more.

Happily tired from our exertions and soothed by our meanderings amid the serenity and the timelessness of the landscape, we swing left and amble back down the track. With the stillness of the approaching dusk settling about us, Montelupone rises up behind the house, now illuminated in the coppery glow of the setting sun, the day’s final reminder that ‘this too shall pass’. We cross the road and slide the gate open. We are home.

Dorothy

Every day for the last few weeks I have gone to check on Dorothy, anxious to make sure she’s made it through winter unscathed. And I’m relieved to report that she is fine – as vigorous as ever, in fact. Her slender limbs look strong and healthy, and in between her deceptively sharp thorns are dozens of tiny leaf-buds: confirmation of life returning. One by one they are unfurling into the characteristic, five-leafed sprigs. Initially more pink than green and tightly crimped into perfect shiny pleats, they tremble in the brisk spring breeze but soon turn deep green as they open their little oval faces to the sun’s pale rays.

In case you hadn’t guessed, Dorothy is a rose bush. She is the latest incarnation of the elderly grande dame that once grew where the main terrace now wraps around the eastern end of the house. When Mr Blue-Shirt first started work on the foundations we carefully relocated her to her new home in the dappled shade of the large willow tree in the front garden: we found ourselves unable simply to rip out this battle-scarred survivor of whom we had grown so fond – largely because she so vividly embodies the irrepressible spirit of my wonderful aunt, after whom we named her. Despite the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ she has endured down the years, her tenacity, resilience, defiance and sheer zest for life consistently shine through as brightly as her namesake’s highly-perfumed, vivid pink blossoms.

The real Dorothy (affectionately known to all the family as Dodo) is my late mother’s younger sister: a cheerful, fair-haired, apple-cheeked child with a ready smile set below gentle grey eyes whose humorous twinkle has always been enhanced and never hidden by her trademark glasses. As a young girl she was evacuated from the family’s home in London’s East End to avoid the Blitz and later trained as a nurse and midwife – an early reflection of the compassion, warmth and common sense that characterised a career path which subsequently included teaching, foster care, hospitality and finally care of the elderly. It was also a nomadic career path that, having started in London, then took her to several places around the Home Counties and eventually to several more first in North and then South Devon – sometimes by choice, but sometimes by force of circumstance. Repeatedly overcoming one challenge before moving on to embrace the next, Dodo has moved house more than anyone I know (and that includes all our friends from Mr Blue-Shirt’s army years): getting on for twenty, she reckons, but tends to lose count these days as there have been so many.  

As a result, I saw very little of her as a child, which gave her a slightly mystical quality: an apparently free spirit, always seeming ready to plough her own furrow and live life facing forwards. In adulthood, however, I got to know her much better, to understand some of the difficulties she had faced, and also grew to delight in the perfect blend of wisdom and daftness, of determination and sensitivity that helped guide her – and others – through life. For as sister, aunt, great-aunt and even great-great-aunt, she has been a mentor, confidante, champion and friend now to four generations.

Having lost her second husband when she was in her late sixties, some in the family naively thought that Dodo might finally slow down a little and enjoy her retirement; with a life time of caring for others behind her, she had surely earned it, after all. But no. Just at the point when most of her contemporaries were preparing to put their feet up, Dodo flew off to Australia and New Zealand with a girl-friend for a few weeks, and on her return moved house again, this time buying herself a ‘project’ that she single-handedly did up from top to bottom. With undiminished energy she set about wallpapering, painting and even tiling, and when my father cast (misplaced) doubt upon her DIY skills, her typically feisty response was the immortal “You don’t need a willy to hold a paintbrush!”

And with an undiminished desire to grab life with both hands, she also joined a Singles Club and threw herself into South Devon’s dating scene. In no time she found herself a ‘boyfriend’, a similarly fun-loving and convivial septuagenarian divorcee with whom she soon built an active social life consisting (among many other things) of jazz clubs, book groups, fancy-dress parties, travel and eating out: goat curry at the local Nepali restaurant is their favourite, by the way. After a few months’ dating, they moved in together, but continued to pursue their own individual interests in between all their shared activities. For him it was bridge, golf and snooker; for her it was University of the Third Age and voluntary work at the local museum – as well as running two choirs and writing and starring in several W.I. pantomimes.

Then in the autumn of their second or third year living together, when asked by her partner what she would like for Christmas she replied with absolute conviction “A wedding ring!” And so on New Year’s Eve that year they married: she a radiant, elegant and stylish bride; he a beaming, proud and debonair groom – who as man and wife walked down the aisle to The Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”, the fact that they were both a good decade out by then neither here nor there.

They have slowed down a bit since then, I suppose, but really very little. In fact, it is lockdown that has acted as far more of a brake on their activities of late than health or mobility or any other limitations of old age: with all their fun curtailed and confined to their cosy flat with just TV, email, Skype and Zoom, their main problems have been cabin fever and boredom.

Consequently, Dodo and her husband – ‘Dot ‘n’ Den’ in family parlance – have long been our role models for when we reach our later years: while there is life still to be lived, then live it to the full. So hardly surprisingly, Dodo was hugely disappointed and frustrated that it was with just a big family Zoom call that she could celebrate her 90th birthday the other week.  True to form, however, she is already planning a proper party for later in the year…

The name of the rose

We don’t really have a garden. Well, not in the English sense, anyway. No carefully weeded flower beds, no stripey, billiard-table lawn, no tidy, seedling-filled greenhouse. We do have quite a decent sized chunk of land, though – about half an acre, I think. It is rectangular and almost entirely covered by rough grass. Like a giant green picnic rug, it rolls down the gentle slope of the valley from the long side of the plot, along which runs the road into Montelupone. A single field planted either with wheat or with sunflowers hugs the other three sides and the grassy rug is pegged in place by a single line of thirty-eight olive trees that mark the outer perimeter, while a line of tall broadleaf evergreen hedge (Italian alder, we think) forms an inner perimeter, creating a three- or four-metre-wide shady grove around which are dotted a dozen or so different fruit trees.

The house stands roughly in the middle of the plot, end-on to the road, with all but the narrow strip of land containing the carport and the tall, domed well behind it while the remainder spreads out around the other three sides. The section on the short north side of the plot is where the old pigsty once stood so is still recovering from the demolition works Mr Blue-Shirt undertook two summers ago and is awaiting its next incarnation (as yet unknown). His massive woodstore along with a couple of small sheds cluster around the hedge-line in the far corner of the section on the long eastern side. This looks out over the olive trees straight down the valley to the tantalising triangle of sapphire blue sea at the bottom. In order not to obscure this heart-stopping view from the generous terrace that Mr Blue-Shirt built during lockdown and that extends right across that end of the house, it is now planted just with a cherry tree, a pomegranate tree and an extremely vigorous bay tree.

There once stood a large rose bush there too, though. A gnarled, prickly and unkempt old thing that had stood within a couple of metres of the doors at the eastern end of the house that open from the sitting room into the garden. Our predecessors had proclaimed it indestructible since it had withstood being trampled, squashed, hacked back and all but ripped out while they erected the two-storey extension to that end of the original house and so the place where it stood was never less than a muddy building site. But apparently no matter what indignity or injury it suffered at the hands of the builders and their equipment, back it would come, time and again throwing out vigorous new shoots from its arm-thick trunk. It was well over a metre tall and, despite its straggly-ness, had the girth of a small barrel when we first moved in. We soon became well acquainted with it as the only flat and level spot we could find to enjoy The View from our garden table and chairs was right alongside it. So for three summers we dined every evening watching the lights twinkling across the valley and breathing in the intoxicating scent of its flamboyant, vivid pink blossoms that perfumed the warm, still air. And we soon grew rather fond that elegant old lady who may have seen better days but who still knew how to put on the style. So we kept the weeds and bugs at bay, we kept her fed, and kept her looking neat and tidy. In fact, during those three summers we somehow came to admire the tenacity and resilience of that elderly grande dame: regardless of what hardships life threw at her, she remained bright, bold and utterly indomitable, and we found ourselves strangely uplifted by her defiant presence.

There was a problem, though. Her sturdy roots were firmly planted right in the middle of where we knew we wanted to build the terrace we had dreamed of since we had first viewed the house. We tried every which way to find a solution that would allow her to stay put, but after a string of compromised attempts to incorporate her into our designs, we finally accepted what we had probably known all along: there was simply no place for our vibrant, cheery friend in the new terrace.  The thing is, after all that she had survived and all that we admired in her, we couldn’t bear just to tear her out and feed her muscular limbs through the wood chipper. We would have to rescue her somehow, and that’s all there was to it. So when the time came to dig out the foundations for the terrace, we started by cutting her thorny limbs back to manageable proportions before carefully loosening the heavy clay soil compacted around her stout ankles. Then, alternating between the strength of the digger and the delicacy of a garden fork, we gradually managed to ease our precious friend from her long-term home without causing undue damage to her powerful roots which we wrapped in lots of damp sacking before tenderly laying her down in the cool shade on the northern side of the house while Mr Blue-Shirt got on with the terrace, and while we decided where her new home would be…

So that just leaves the south section of our plot. In English terms it would probably be called the front garden: it is here that the heavy sliding gate opens from the road onto a broad gravel driveway, and it is from here that the main entrance to the house is reached. Beyond the driveway stands a stately collection of mature conifers, a small rotund laurel bush, a neat little hibiscus tree, and a huge graceful willow tree that dominates the view from my study window. And sheltered by her proud guardians now grows a single rose bush, currently so modest that, unless she were pointed out, would probably go unnoticed. But that delicate little rose with its familiar bright pink blossoms is in fact the daughter of our gorgeous elderly grande dame – and she is quite ridiculously close to our hearts. So we have named her after the person whose spirit she so vividly embodies, and who is even closer to our hearts: my wonderful aunt Dorothy…

Feeling like Alice

Lockdown, social distancing, R-value. Mask, hand-sanitiser, curfew. Tier, zone, furlough, Zoom. Coronavirus, Covid-19. Twelve terms that twelve months ago were almost entirely absent from our vocabulary. But now they are daily currency of practically every exchange and scarcely a day goes by without hearing, reading or using nearly all of them. So embedded are they in our lexicon, so ingrained in our psyche, so crucial to our mood and activities, our hopes and worries that it has become hard to imagine a time or a life without them.

But it really was only a year ago – just 365 normal earth-days, not a light year, not in another universe – that some began to hear the faint chime of an alarm bell from somewhere deep in China where a new ’flu-like virus that had something to do with bats had started to take hold. It was just another minor foreign news story back then, though, along with a train crash in one distant country or a freak snowstorm in another; all very unfortunate for those involved, of course, and we all shook our heads, sighed and tutted. But ultimately it seemed like just more inconsequential grist churning through the mill of 24-hour global news. We turned the page, we scrolled on by.

And in any event, we all had far more pressing matters on our minds. For us it was, the timescale for constructing our long-awaited terrace, our plans for a much-needed holiday in Croatia when my teaching year finished, and where to take the two sets of friends who had already booked in for spring-time visits. And as for the news, it was the pain of Brexit, the loss of our precious EU citizenship and our disgust with the UK’s contemptuous and contemptible government that troubled us more. That and the onward march of the far-right in Italian politics, along with the growth of the corresponding ‘Sardines against Salvini’ movement whose members had crammed themselves into Bologna’s Piazza Maggiore in peaceful protest against the far-right leader’s ugly rhetoric. It was really beginning to gather pace, in fact, but suddenly ‘politics as usual’ screeched to a halt.

For the virus was here. Here in Europe, here in Italy. No one knew how, no one knew when. But it was here. No longer in faraway China, but in Lombardy, the country’s richest, most efficient – and most populous region. But no one knew what to do, not even when it started to spread, not even when people started to die. In fact, with that first outbreak occurring in the almost teutonically hardworking and orderly north – the engine room of the economy – the country’s first response was little more than an echo of the UK’s ‘keep calm and carry on’ slogan of World War II. Indeed, Bergamo, effectively the epidemic’s Ground Zero, even briefly adopted the hashtag bergamononsiferma (Bergamo doesn’t stop), complete with promotional video, in order to show that the economic engine wasn’t going to stop just because of some pesky virus. But that early stoicism and defiance were soon unmasked as complacency and unpreparedness, by which time, of course, it was too late. The virus hadn’t stopped either.

Exactly a year ago schools in Le Marche closed. A week later they closed across the whole country. And a week after that, with new infections and fatalities rising exponentially, Italy entered total lockdown, imprisoning its people in their own homes and closing its borders for almost three months. The first country in Europe to do so. A pariah state. A death state. In the heart of Europe. In the 21st century. It felt unreal.

Just as the virus overwhelmed its victims, so unreality overwhelmed reality, which soon became a dystopian version of Through the Looking Glass: you could still recognise your own reflection, tense and drawn though it had become, but everything else was now back to front. Like a latter-day Alice stepping through the mirror, we had entered an alternative world where soldiers shifting truckloads of coffins, spectral figures in hazmat suits, and deserted town centres were in while hugs and handshakes, going to work, school or, indeed, anywhere were out. The unimaginable became normal; normal became nostalgia. Habit became history; fear became fact.

And so here we are, one year on, still in this grim alternative reality as another winter softens into another spring – just as it did last year, when the world turned back to front. So could it be, as the time of rebirth and regrowth comes round once more, as the advent of not one but several vaccines brings signs of recovery and renewal, and as the wheel of life comes full circle, that we will at last have the chance to step back through the mirror, gradually delete those ghastly twelve terms from our vocabulary and once more experience the world the right way round…?

Image courtesy of http://www.wikipedia.org – illustration by John Tenniel

Lessons from the loo

You’d really think we’d know better by now, wouldn’t you? With three and a half years of upgrades, modifications, corrections and repairs as well as a good few rip-it-out-and-start-agains under our belts, many of them as a preliminary to the job we originally set out to do, we really ought to have realised that a bit of a facelift to the downstairs loo was not – not ever, never in a million years – going to be a straightforward job.

After all there had been the guttering downpipes to nowhere that on one side of the house just spewed their contents into the only dip in the lawn and on the other, all over the front step, under the front door and into the hall. Then there had been the hard-standing to the front and the rear of the house that all usefully sloped inwards, and the three external doors that fitted so badly you could see daylight through the gaps between door and frame. And then there was the metre’s depth of sodden mud packed up against several metres of completely un-tanked, north-facing outside wall. Not forgetting the bathroom floor that sloped away from the drain, and the disastrous combination of an unsupported shower tray set in a chipboard surround, as well as the never-ending list of things that were not level, square, true or flat – and then propped up or wedged in place with tightly folded pieces of sandpaper.

But somehow, when it came to zhooshing up the very dreary and shabby downstairs loo, what came to mind was the kind of simple DIY job they feature in those half-hour home improvement shows that they stretch out to include even the initial trip to Homebase, as well as the obligatory bit of jeopardy when the homeowners find they’ve got the wrong fittings or something, followed by the inevitable happy ending consisting of interviews with the DIY-ers proudly admiring their handiwork, as well as a long sequence of before and after shots.  I mean, to quote Mr Blue-Shirt, how difficult could it be? After all, the job only involved sloshing a bit of white emulsion around, replacing the washbasin, tap and vanity unit, adding a tiled splashback and pointing the brickwork floor tiles: a week’s work at the most. And we’d already got off to a cracking start having found both the perfect tiles (with a stack of extras left over from a box that had split thrown in for free) and the perfect washbasin, tap and vanity unit (complete with a 50% discount as everything was an end of line) on a single trip to pretty well the only DIY store lockdown restrictions allowed us to get to.

The excitement of these early victories, however, made us lose sight of that old adage about those failing to learn the lessons of history being condemned to repeat them, which in our case turns out to apply just as much to home improvements as it does to world affairs. For no sooner had we lifted the basin out and dismantled the homemade cupboard beneath it than the latest set of bodges started to rear their ugly heads. First there was the mix of UK and EU pipe unions on the water supply to the washbasin that are not actually compatible and so were held together with huge, chewing-gum-like blobs of epoxy-metal to stop the otherwise inevitable leaks. With this having set alarm bells ringing, Mr Blue-Shirt thought it prudent to check the unions to the radiator, and sure enough, he found the same leak-waiting-to-happen there too. So that had just doubled that part of the plumbing work. Sigh…

The next problem to come to light was that the reason why the loo itself had been located several centimetres further away from the wall and from the cistern than ideal – and had always looked extra-ugly as a result – was that the outlet pipe from the basin, which runs behind the loo and out to the drain, had not been recessed fully and so had been crudely boxed in (we had always wondered what the strange, low-level platform behind the loo was). So to get the loo to fit properly, Mr Blue-Shirt had to rip out the massively over-engineered boxing-in, chisel a channel into the concrete floor to fully recess the outlet pipe, and then move the soil pipe back, having first lifted the surrounding brick slip floor tiles – which was when Mr Blue-Shirt also discovered that there was only builder’s foam instead of proper screed under a sizeable section of the tiles, thereby adding yet another job to the list. Sigh…

But at least this made it easier to centre the soil pipe and the loo between the wall and the washbasin; why it had been shoved up so close to the far wall had long been a mystery. At that point, as it was already going to take so much work just to get the existing and extremely basic loo to fit properly, we decided we might as well treat ourselves to new loo too. Although that also proved way more difficult than anticipated– all to do with U-bend shapes, apparently – and even once we had found the right combination of what we needed and what we liked (a surprisingly elusive pairing), it took three attempts (and an additional two weeks) to get an unbroken loo delivered to us. Sigh…

So now, already over a month into the job, we ‘just’ need to complete the new pipework, make good all the holes and channels from the old pipework, re-concrete and re-tile part of the floor and instal the new loo…and then we might just be ready to begin the job we originally set out to do.

It’s just as well we won’t be able to have friends over for lunch any time soon…

Enter the Dragon

The story so far: in the middle of January, Matteo Renzi pulled his tiny party, Italia Viva, out of the country’s fragile but functioning centre-left coalition because he couldn’t get his own way over how best to make use of its €200bn-plus in post-Covid EU stimulus funding. The result of his walk-out was to deprive Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte of his wafer-thin majority and risk bringing down the whole government in the midst of the worst global pandemic in a century and the worst economic crisis since World War II, even though Conte and his cabinet were widely felt to be doing a reasonably good job.

The thing is, no one had the slightest idea what Renzi was seeking to gain from this bizarre political tantrum – other than get his photo in the papers and top the bill on a few TV talk shows for couple of weeks. Indeed, he was quickly reduced to a mere bit-player in the unwanted drama that he had unleashed as the grown-ups in the room effectively banished him to the naughty step while they got on with trying to sort out the mess he had left behind.

The first step was a parliamentary vote of confidence, which Prime Minister Conte won comfortably in the Chamber of Deputies, but (thanks to Italia Viva who, still in a sulk, refused to play nicely and abstained in both chambers) fell short of the crucial absolute majority in the Senate. After a week of inconclusive arm-twisting, Conte still didn’t have enough Senators on board for an absolute majority, so rather than try and run a minority government, he submitted his resignation to President Sergio Matarella in the hope of receiving a mandate to form a new coalition. This was a bit of a gamble on Conte’s part as there was a possibility, albeit a remote one, that Matarella might call a snap election which would risk the centre-left losing its slim parliamentary majority to the right-wing alliance headed by the left’s arch enemy, Matteo Salvini, the firebrand leader of the far-right La Lega. Conte’s bet was a pretty safe one, though: the President is known as a cautious pragmatist, and when Salvini himself walked out of the previous Conte-led coalition in an attempt to force an election and capitalise on his popularity in the polls, Matarella preferred to give party leaders every possible opportunity to see if a new coalition could be formed first. And with the stakes so much higher this time around, it was no great surprise that he once again adopted this cautious approach, having in any event received only half-hearted demands for an election from Salvini, who even expressed support for the idea of a government of national unity.

So Conte, along with the ruling Partito Democratico (PD) and the Movimento Cinque Stelle (M5S – Five Star Movement), set about trying to form a new centre-left coalition – without Renzi, though, whom (surprise, surprise) neither party was prepared to work with again. On this occasion, though, negotiations failed. But Matarella still shied away from calling a destabilising election that could easily shake market confidence and give the EU a severe case of the jitters in view of the huge sum of money they had recently granted Italy from the EU recovery fund – especially since an election may well be won by Salvini’s hard-right and distinctly Eurosceptic alliance. This left him with no alternative but to find a safe pair of hands with which to entrust the job of putting together a technocratic government suited to navigating the country through the choppiest waters it has experienced in a generation.

After a couple of days’ speculation about whose hands he would choose, Matarella concluded that those of Mario Draghi were probably just about the safest available. So he invited this former Governor of the Bank of Italy and former President of the European Central Bank, who earned the nickname ‘Super Mario’ after successfully rescuing the Euro in the midst of the 2012 European debt crisis, to pick up the baton that Renzi had so recklessly yanked out of Conte’s hands a fortnight earlier.

Mind you, despite Draghi’s formidable reputation as a skilled political operator and his impressive credentials as an academic economist and central banker, his appointment was not greeted with unalloyed delight. Indeed, it was dissatisfaction with Italy’s most recent period of technocratic government led by Mario Monti (ironically during the very debt crisis through which Draghi successfully steered the Euro to safety) that fuelled the rise of both the anti-elite five Star Movement and the anti-EU La Lega whose subsequent political jostlings are arguably at the root of the current crisis. Consequently, Draghi was always going to have an uphill struggle to garner sufficient cross-party support to form an administration.

It seems that Super Mario has not lost his touch, though: despite their initial suspicion of him, Draghi has indeed managed to secure the support of the two main anti-establishment parties, M5S and La Lega, along with that of the Partito Democratico and Forza Italia (Berlusconi’s old party). And most other minor parties of the right and of the left soon followed suit, including even Italia Viva and Renzi – who now has the bare-faced cheek to claim that appointing Draghi had been his idea all along.

All of them have stated their willingness to do their bit in their country’s hour of need amid a veritable chorus of declarations of readiness to put past differences to one side and to act in the national interest. Impassioned declarations of support and solidarity are one thing, though. Actually getting representatives of the various parties around a table, getting them to put their respective policy agendas aside and agree a common way forward for the new government, and then getting them to decide who’s going to hold which cabinet position might require quite a lot more of Super Mario’s legendary negotiation skills and powers of persuasion.

At the height of the European debt crisis, Draghi famously stated that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to save the Euro. So now the country is watching to see if Super Mario can show the same ruthless determination to resolve the current crisis and continue to live up to his nickname.

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

Spring colours

There are three thousand, five hundred and ninety inhabitants – two of whom are Mr Blue-Shirt and me – officially resident in the municipality (comune) of Montelupone. And it is a number that has afforded us a precious degree of freedom during the latest period of lockdown that began last autumn.

That was when the decree that introduced Italy’s system of yellow, orange and red zones came into force. And as with the first lockdown last spring, the rules on movement from one place to another within and between the different zones were based on municipal, provincial and regional boundaries, along with a few rules that applied nationwide, such as the curfew from 10pm to 5am, restrictions on visitors, and the continued closures of schools, theatres, cinemas, gyms and swimming pools. So if your region was in a red zone, for example, movement beyond your home municipality was banned (with a limited range of exceptions) and practically everything was closed apart from essential services. By contrast, if you were lucky enough to live in a region in the yellow zone – as we were initially – shops could open, but shopping centres had to close at weekends, bars and restaurants were allowed to offer table service until 6pm, and you were also permitted to move freely both within the whole of the region and also even between yellow zone regions. Although that only lasted until the post-Christmas, ‘strengthened’ yellow zone rules came into force and inter-regional movement was halted again. A deeper shade of yellow, if you like.

The rules for regions in the orange zone, which after Christmas meant most of the country and by then included Le Marche, unsurprisingly fell somewhere between these two extremes. The rules for shops were the same as in the zona gialla rafforzata (strengthened yellow zone), while bars and restaurants were permitted to offer only takeaway or home delivery services, and still only until 6pm, and, other than for work and health reasons, people were confined to their comune of residence. However, there was a new and crucial exception: those resident in a comune with fewer than five thousand inhabitants were permitted to travel up to 30 kilometres beyond their comune boundaries, and not only for work or health reasons, although travelling to provincial capitals, no matter how close to your home comune, remained forbidden. So a slightly paler shade of orange, if you like.

I suspect that when regional presidents were given a greater role in coronavirus-related decision-making last autumn, metropolitan, Rome-based ministers were reminded that despite technically all having the same role in the administrative hierarchy, there is a huge disparity in the size and population of the country’s 8000 or so comuni so the local impact of rules governing them was bound to vary hugely – and lead to significant inequality. Rome, with a population in excess of 2.5 million squashed into about 1300 square kilometres, is Italy’s largest comune, while Morterone, tucked in an Alpine valley 50 kilometres north-east of Milan, is the smallest with a population of just 32 scattered across an area of slightly over 13 square kilometres. So under the old rules that applied to all comuni equally, the Monteronesi might have had access to just about enough services to keep body and soul together, while the Romani would have had access to everything from focaccia to a Ferrari, from vino to Versace. And we Monteluponesi would have been able to put food on the table, do a few jobs in the garden, buy a newspaper, get a haircut and get a takeaway coffee, but that would have been more or less it.

This ministerial burst of pragmatism and fairness, however, made a huge difference to our quality of life as the 30-kilometre rule put the bright lights of Civitanova Marche within our reach and allowed us to move a little closer to normality. Our dining choices were extended beyond simply the ‘take it or leave it’ options available in the village supermarket, Mr Blue-Shirt was able to get hold of everything he needed to start work on completely revamping the downstairs loo, and we were even able to do deliciously mundane things like get a new watch battery and a pair of shoes re-heeled. But just as important was the ability simply to have a change of view, to go and to be somewhere else, to be (masked and socially-distanced, of course) among people: to see other faces (well, their eyes, at least) and hear other voices. More valuable still, though, was the ability to take a walk from one end to the other of the almost deserted, driftwood-strewn and wave-sculpted beach, to crunch through the deep drifts of shingle, all the way from the stadium and the shooting range at the southern end, past all the dormant beachfront restaurants, and on to the fishing port and the sailing club at the northern end; to enjoy the warmth of the sun on our backs and the tang of salt in the crisp, clean air; to take in the view of the distant, forested bulk of the Cònero peninsula, and look out across the sparkling, teal-blue sea towards the laser-sharp horizon – and the big wide world beyond…

Then as we walked down the promenade back towards the stadium the other Friday afternoon, we became aware of the first stirrings of life in several of those hibernating restaurants: people sweeping terraces and mopping floors, smoothing out fresh white tablecloths and polishing wine glasses and cutlery. Were the rumours and conjecture true, then? For the previous week, the local press had been speculating that with all our metrics heading steadily and unequivocally in the right direction, Le Marche, along with most other regions, would be back in the yellow zone that weekend – a good two weeks earlier than originally anticipated. Did these restaurateurs know something that we didn’t? Surely they wouldn’t be going to all this effort just for everything to gather dust for another fortnight at least? We returned home with a gentle spring in our step and a flutter of hope in our hearts.

Sure enough, in that evening’s news the rumours were confirmed: at midnight on Sunday, we would be shifting back from pale orange to deep yellow. And from Monday morning that small but significant change of shade really did seem to make the world a slightly brighter place. On our next walk along the promenade, restaurant doors stood open, menus proudly displayed on pavement stands, and the aromas of garlic, fresh bread and grilled fish wafted from kitchen windows. The lights glowed, soft music played and a hum of conversation could be heard above the muffled clatter of dishes and sizzle of hot pans as teams of waiters in neat black trousers and matching masks placed plates of steaming-hot food in front of smiling diners with what looked like an almost celebratory flourish. As far as this absolutely fundamental facet of Italian cultural life was concerned, something approaching normal service had been resumed.

Now we just needed to decide where to book a table that weekend…

Image courtesy of Pinterest