Italy’s Prettiest Towns

Poppi, a charming medieval town in eastern Tuscany, was the first one we came across in 2007. Complete with picture-book castle, cobbled streets, graceful colonnades and shady piazze, the fortified old town is balanced on the top of a hill, with the modern town spreading out down the surrounding slopes like a multi-coloured skirt. It is also where we have always stayed when taking part in the blacksmithing bienniale run by the comune of Stia, a town that lies a few kilometres further up the Arno valley. Since then, we have passed through, eaten lunch in, wandered around and stayed overnight in several more. And when we came to view the house that has become our home some ten years after our first visit to Poppi, we discovered that the village where it is located is also one: a member of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’: Montelupone is officially one of ‘Italy’s prettiest villages’.

The dictionary definition of ‘borgo’ (plural: borghi) is ‘village’, but this doesn’t really tell the full story, as technically, a borgo is a settlement that typically dates back to Renaissance, if not the Middle Ages, that is usually centred around a castle or palace, and is often encircled by defensive walls. However, simply having a historical fortified castle is not of itself enough for a village to qualify for membership of the ‘Borghi più belli d’Italia’, the association that was founded in 2001 by l’Associazione Nazionale Comuni Italiani (the National Association of Italian Municipalities) to promote the historical, cultural and artistic heritage of small Italian towns.  Rule number one is that historical buildings must predominate, and in addition to this, they must form a harmonious whole: a jumble of crumbling palazzi dotted about among post-war blocks of flats plus a few metres of weed-choked fortifications next to the supermarket will not cut it. It is moreover not enough for member villages simply to look pretty; they must also have a strong cultural heritage and be living, breathing communities with an active village life, which will regularly be celebrated with events, exhibitions and festivals involving local residents and community groups. Kitsch, Disneyfied versions of traditional village life, awash with trendy bars and pricey boutiques but no butcher’s, baker’s or post office need not apply.

On this basis, it is not difficult to see why Montelupone, with its sweeping views over the turquoise Adriatic and the forest-clad Conero peninsular, qualified for membership. Overlooking the central square stands the 14th century Palazzetto dei Priori and civic clock tower, next to which stands the Palazzo Comunale that houses the exquisite little Teatro Nicola degli Angeli. Then rubbing shoulders with these gems are a handful of other grand palazzi and three magnificent churches dripping with sacred art treasures, all of which are all held in the protective embrace of over a kilometre of defensive walls that ring the entire historical centre, access to which is gained through four imposing town gates. By the way, there is also a thriving primary school in the heart of the village, something that considered crucial for the survival of smaller communities.  And as I have reported in several other posts, Montelupone does very much more than simply ‘survive’: it is most certainly a living, breathing community that will enthusiastically celebrate its rich cultural and gastronomic heritage at every available opportunity. Nor is Montelupone a one-off in our neck of the woods: several fellow members of the association are within about an hour of us. In the mountainous uplands, for instance are Visso, Sarnano – the gateway to the Sibillini – and San Ginesio, which, thanks to its commanding views of the mountains, is known locally as ‘il balcone dei Sibillini’. Along the coastal strip, by contrast, lie Torre di Palme, Grottammare and Offagna, all with spectacular views along the coast. And in the undulating lowlands between the two, Montefiore dell’Aso, Montecassiano, and Montecosaro are perched – as their names suggest – on their very own hilltops.

It is still quite a select club, however: the association currently has just two hundred and eighty-one members, distributed up and down the country throughout every one of Italy’s twenty regions. It is perhaps easy to imagine that the long-established cultural hotspots of Tuscany and Umbria might dominate the list – and indeed, they have twenty-three and twenty-eight members respectively. However, the association is all about small towns and ‘the delights of hidden Italy’ (il fascino dell’Italia nascosta), so it enables lesser-known regions such as Le Marche, which has no fewer than twenty-seven members (and a population that is a third of Tuscany’s), to level the cultural playing field a little.  So while there may be no Marchigian equivalent of Florence, Assisi, Rome or Venice (or the attendant tourist buses, souvenir shops and over-priced coffee) Le Marche is neither a poor relation nor a cultural backwater. Mind you, we’ve known that for years. In fact, it is one of the main reasons we have made our home in this corner of ‘real Italy’ – and, as it turned out, in ‘one of Italy’s prettiest villages’.



Adding Fuel to the Fire

Autumn. That time of year when Helios, the god of the sun, gives way to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth. The season ‘of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. And in our case, also of fires and fragrant woodsmoke. For although Mr Blue-Shirt has a well-developed regime which allows him to indulge his pyromaniac tendencies all year round, autumn is the season in which his lifelong fascination with fire really comes to the fore. Some might think that this fascination derives from some deep-seated association with early man’s need to provide (in the form of food and light) and protect (from cold and predators). And while I think there may well be some truth in this, I suspect that there is probably also a less esoteric explanation, namely Mr Blue-Shirt’s scouting background. It was as a nine-year old cub scout in deepest Dorking that he was first introduced to the magic of firecraft and to the art of cooking sausages on whittled-down sticks and baking campfire breadsticks over the crown of glowing embers that he himself had created. These skills, which he honed further as a boy scout, then as a venture scout and finally as a soldier, have given him an unfailing ability to start a fire from almost anything that happens to be lying around, even if this is little more than a discarded shopping list and a couple of soggy twigs. Needless to say, modern firelighters – those small white crumbly cubes doused in chemical accelerant – are anathema to him. He sees them as tantamount to an admission of defeat, and for use only in extremis (and even then, preferably under cover of darkness).

No, for a purist such as Mr Blue-Shirt, it is all about wood, and so he is always on the lookout for sources of fire wood (or legna da ardere, as it is called here), whether it can be found on our own land – in the form of last year’s olive tree prunings, for example – or donated from someone else’s. While we were based in Lincolnshire, Mr Blue-Shirt only had to hear a chainsaw roaring into life somewhere in the village and he would be off with the 4×4 and trailer, offering to take any unwanted wood off our neighbour’s hands, thereby saving him or her the cost and faff of disposal. By this and other similar means, in fifteen winters at the forge we spent a grand total of £20 on firewood: a couple of tenners slipped to a contractor felling trees where road widening works were about to start in return for a trailer full of wood.

Of course, once Mr Blue-Shirt has sourced the wood, he then has the perfect opportunity to deploy his vast armoury of tools and equipment for felling, cutting and chopping it. This consists, among other things, of a full-size chainsaw for felling trees and cutting their trunks into shorter lengths, a smaller arborist’s chainsaw (that can be used one-handed) for lopping off branches, a long-handled axe and log-splitter for chopping the drums of tree trunk into logs, a short-handled axe (hand-forged for him by a former employee) for chopping kindling, as well as a couple of different hand saws and an old machete. Then there are the second-tier tools and equipment: a chain sharpener and tensioner, a sharpening stone, bolt-croppers, a bill hook, and sundry secateurs, as well as ear defenders, a hard-hat-and-visor combo, and even a pair of Kevlar-filled safety trousers – the arborist’s attire of choice that stop you cutting your leg off if you drop your chainsaw while using it up a tree.

Then having sourced, felled, cut and chopped the wood, it needs to be stored. Naturally, just stacking the logs up against a sheltered outside wall, or even erecting a simple shed is nowhere near enough fun for Mr Blue-Shirt.  No, he has elevated wood storage to another level by designing and now building a bespoke five-metre-long, galvanised steel woodstore. Complete with a traditional Italian tiled roof, it features mesh shelves down both sides, with separate sections for large and small logs as well as for green and seasoned wood, and has the additional function of hiding from view the above-ground workings of our eco-friendly waste-treatment system. To some all this effort may seem excessive, but it’s not at all in light of the array of all the different types of fire we have to feed. As they hark back to those early scouting experiences, I think the outdoor ones are closest to Mr Blue-Shirt’s heart: the chimenea for extra warmth on crisp spring evenings, the barbecue that between May and September is probably in action at least three times a week, and his current favourite, the clockwork rotisserie whose brass workings are housed in a pretty cast iron casing and for which he has built a small neat hearth from old bricks.  Then inside the house there is the open fire in the sitting room. Slightly raised and set across the corner of the room, it very much looks the part, but last winter provided a lot by way of smoke while offering little by way of warmth, despite burning through wood at a ferocious rate. So in late summer Mr Blue-Shirt carried out an upgrade by installing a fire insert – essentially the innards of a woodburning stove that fit into the pre-existing fireplace and flue – that has already proved to be far more effective and far more economical. And last but not least, there is the tall, barrel-like wood-burning stove that Mr Blue-Shirt has now installed at the end of our long thin dining room that right from the warm late spring day on which we moved in we designated as ‘the snug’.

So, with every possible preparation complete, and as the sunlight softens to the mellow bronze of autumn, the morning mist clings to the trees in moist swathes and the purple dusk creeps in earlier by the day, the time has come to close the shutters, draw the curtains, and satisfy our primal need to cast out the darkness and ward off the cold according to Mr Blue-Shirt’s life-long ritual. Kneeling in front of the hearth, he piles balls of screwed up paper into a pyramid and lights them with a single match, and surrounds them with a wigwam of ‘licky’ sticks (a term coined by our eldest nephew when he was a toddler and couldn’t quite get his tongue round ‘little’). Then as the flames take hold, he adds a lattice of bigger sticks. Lastly, once a crackling blaze is fully underway, he selects a couple of  neatly chopped logs from the basket, and carefully places them on the top. And finally, we snuggle into the sofa and, losing ourselves in fire’s timeless mystery, we watch the flames dancing and flickering in the grate and give silent thanks to Hestia.

Still Remembering Mimi

Dr Crotti shaved a neat square of dense white fur from Mimi’s side, applied the tiny electrodes to her heaving rib cage and passed the gel-smeared sensor over the bald patch, the sight of her exposed pink skin only serving to highlight her vulnerability. We peered at the grainy images on the screen behind the blue plastic treatment table on which Mimi was lying, her nose wedged in the crook of my elbow for comfort as I held her front paws and Mr Blue-Shirt held her back ones. Our touch, I think, gave her some reassurance and something familiar to focus on amid all the strange and frightening sounds, smells and sensations in the cardiologist’s surgery. We could make little sense of what we saw on the screen, other than the jagged blue line zig-zagging across the bottom, and the startling speed at which Mimi’s heart was beating: no wonder she was panting. Dr Crotti shifted the sensor and suddenly we could see her heart in cross-section. He zoomed in on an uneven circular shape with a floppy kink in its perimeter: her aorta was collapsing too. Then Dr Crotti drew our attention to what looked like wisps of smoke but which was actually an excess of platelets – and the cause of her anaemia. The three of us made feeble jokes about having to feed her Guinness or (Dr. Crotti’s preference) good Le Marche red wine to boost her iron levels. Our smiles were strained and brief, though.

He moved the sensor again and this time we could see her whole heart, surrounded by a deep ring of dark grey which Dr Crotti explained was fluid that was both impairing her heart’s ability to pump and also compressing her lungs, thus compromising her breathing even further. We could barely take it in. She was in such a bad way, the poor wee thing, and the guilt crashed over us in icy waves. How could we have missed something as serious as this? Why hadn’t we taken her to the vet sooner? Perhaps we should have kept giving her the medicine after all. We tried to blink back tears, but Dr Crotti started reeling off a cocktail of drugs that he wanted to prescribe: diuretics to reduce the fluid, beta-blockers to control her heart rate, and something else to reduce the platelet count, all of which he assured us we could get from the veterinary pharmacy just a few doors up. And for a while his confident tone made it sound as if it was all going to be all right.

Only it wasn’t. Poor little Mimi just could not tolerate the drugs, which Dr Crotti had warned us did taste absolutely foul, and which made her retch and choke with such violence she could not stand up. Forcing her to take them caused her so much distress we feared the very act of administering them would bring about her death. With her chest still heaving and her next dose of drugs looming, we took Mimi back to Dr Crotti the following afternoon as we felt there was only so much being cruel to be kind she – or we – could bear and we no longer knew what to do for the best. Would the act of giving her the drugs kill her? Would not giving her the drugs kill her? If we did manage to give her the drugs, would she recover? This was the clincher for us, and I shall be forever grateful to Dr Crotti for his frankness. “No,” he said without a hint of equivocation. “They are just giving her a little more time.” Next question: “Is she in pain?” She didn’t seem to be, but we needed to be sure for we felt we had reached the point at which we had to confront the ghastly prospect of having Mimi put down. “No, she’s not in pain,” he assured us. “A little discomfort maybe because of the breathlessness, but if she remains quiet and still…” We both noticed that he had said nothing about putting her down. We looked at each other for a moment and nodded in silent agreement. Neither of us subscribes to the ‘keep the patient alive at absolutely any cost’ school of medical ethics (either for animals or humans), so providing she was not in pain, having her put down was off the agenda – but we would stop giving her the revolting medicine too.  Instead we would simply take her home, keep her warm and fed, comfortable and cuddled, and allow her to enjoy in peace however much time she had left.

We thanked Dr Crotti for his honesty and advice, eased Mimi into her travel box once more and headed home. And for a couple of hours we were confident we had made the right call. She went for a little wander around the house, checking out all her usual spots: the chair in the corner of the dining room, the pile of cushions by the fire wood, the corner of the wardrobe on top of my running kit, the doormat by the patio doors. Once satisfied that everything was as it should be, she had a thorough wash, a bite to eat and then tea-cosied up in her favourite corner of the kitchen, watching us pottering about cooking supper and sorting laundry. If this was how she would end her days, then it wouldn’t be so bad after all.

“Come and give Mimi a cuddle, will you? Mr Blue-Shirt called, a trace of panic in his voice. “I’m in the middle of doing dinner.” I hurried down from the linen cupboard to find Mimi sprawled on the kitchen floor, breathing noisily, her sweet little pink-padded paws clenching against the all too obvious spasms of pain that wracked her body. “What’s happened?” I tried to keep the fear from my voice: there was more than enough for both of us burning in Mimi’s big blue eyes. “I think she’s having a heart attack,” said Mr Blue-Shirt. “She tried to stand up, but only managed a few steps before she collapsed again, panting like mad and making a hideous wailing noise.” I knelt down on the tiles beside her and stroked her heaving flanks as gently as I could, trying to close my ears to her heart-rending howls of pain. Mr Blue-Shirt stuffed dinner in the oven and joined me next to Mimi who we carefully rolled onto a blanket, anxious to keep her warm and cosy. The utter helplessness we felt was heart-wrenching, but it was only too clear that all we could do for her now was be there with her and try to soothe her pain. So there we stayed for goodness knows how long, comforting Mimi as best we could and comforting each other as we waited for her poor swollen and damaged heart to come to its inevitable, agonising halt.

It wasn’t gentle. It wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t quick. But we continued to stroke and shush her through our tears and little by little the howls subsided to soft moans, her paws relaxed and all that was left was the rasping breath and glassy blue stare. Then silence. We stroked and shushed a little longer until we were sure. But it was over: she had gone.

Only she hasn’t. She’s with us still, at rest beneath a vigorous young pear tree in a sunny corner of the olive grove, with a perfect view straight down the valley to the sea. The sea that sparkles in the same shade of sapphire blue as our beloved Mimi’s eyes once did.

Remembering Mimi

Something wasn’t right. She was sitting perfectly still in her trademark tea-cosy pose, with her tail and all four paws neatly tucked beneath her. But her pure white flanks were heaving up and down as if she had just raced in from the furthest reaches of the olive grove. She hadn’t though. For the previous hour or so she had simply been dozing in the warmth of the autumn sun that was shining in through the sitting room window.

On reflection, she had been a little out of sorts for a few days, with little interest in food. Normally she would crunch her way through her daily allowance of turkey biscuits with an eagerness that sometimes bordered on greed. And even if she wasn’t hungry at a given moment, she still needed to know that food was there. Faced with an empty bowl, however, there was none of that undignified rubbing up against our legs nonsense. No, she would simply sit by her bowl and fix us with an icy, unblinking stare for as long as it would take for one of us to bend to her will and top up her turkey biscuits – and then calmly walk away with a slightly imperious flick of her tail without taking a bite. Rather like the way she would flop down onto her back to have her tummy stroked, but always just beyond the reach of her chosen stroker, thus obliging them to stand up and go to her – which, of course, was the primary object of the exercise.

Other than this loss of appetite, there was nothing we could put a finger on; just a certain listlessness and apathy that those who didn’t know her well probably would not have detected as she was such a placid, gentle creature. Self-contained and independent, she didn’t sit on laps and wasn’t keen on being held, but would regularly sleep at the foot of our bed, would often seek out our company and given the opportunity would happily spend all day being scratched behind the ears or under the chin.  Now, though, our sweet-natured companion and confidante whose calming presence eased our loneliness when one or other of us was on our own for any length of time seemed indifferent to our touch.

She had been so contented here too: ever since she had arrived home with Mr Blue-Shirt just before Christmas she had loved the place. Within little more than a couple of days’ tentative exploration of all the nooks and crannies, she had decided her new home passed muster and tea-cosied up on a dining chair that gave her a view of the whole of the ground floor and from which she could keep a watchful eye on all our comings and goings. After a couple of weeks’ being confined to quarters, she made it known that she was ready to go outside and see what else her new surroundings had to offer. Mr Blue-Shirt and I were quite ridiculously nervous as we opened the back door and watched her trot off down the garden and disappear into the undergrowth, with – thankfully – the occasional flash of white among the greenery to indicate her whereabouts. For we could not have been more nervous had we been waving our child off at the gate on their first day at school.

But from that point on there was no looking back. She took to being outside with joy and enthusiasm, spending hours exploring beneath bushes, hunting bugs in the grass, chewing twigs, catching feathers and climbing trees, which was something that we had never once seen her even try to do in the UK. Back in Lincolnshire, in fact, she seldom went outside at all, and even when she did, just sat and watched the world go by.  The heavy snow of late February wasn’t quite her thing, though: I have a wonderful photo of an almost perfect circle of paw prints in the snow taken when she had pestered and pestered to go out. When I had finally opened the door, she had cautiously tip-toed out into the crisp deep snow – and almost immediately executed a neat U-turn, deciding that curling up in front of the fire was much the better option after all. But as soon as spring had arrived, she was back outside from dawn to dusk, striding among the olive trees to confirm all was well on ‘her patch’. With the tip of her tail twitching, she would be out there chasing butterflies, catching leaves and sniffing daisies; the very embodiment of ‘bright-eyed and bushy-tailed’. Come summer her favourite pastimes alternated between batting seed pods and lounging in the shade of our huge deep green bay tree; sneaking off for a snooze under a lavender bush and chasing the bright green lizards darting hither and thither, her blue eyes sparkling as brightly as the distant Adriatic Sea.

Not anymore. It seemed as if a light had gone out. And with her little rib-cage rising and falling so alarmingly, taking her to the vet seemed the only option. We had always known she had a heart murmur, and every day for some months not long after we had got her Mr Blue-Shirt had attempted to squirt down her throat the medicine that had been prescribed for her condition while she thrashed and kicked and tried to wriggle from his grasp. Some 80% of cats apparently have a heart murmur, though, and since far more than 20% of the cats we have known have lived a long and happy life without any medication, we soon decided to stop subjecting her to this daily ordeal. Leading a happy and stress-free, but possibly shortened life, we reasoned, was surely preferable to leading a longer one, but one where every day was filled with anxiety and distress. We suddenly feared that this decision might be coming back to haunt us.

A bear of a man with a bushy beard, a warm smile and enormous hands, Dr Barbucci probed Mimi’s sides with remarkable tenderness. Our conversation was an odd mix of Italian and English: our Italian vocabulary does not extend to veterinary terminology, and his English vocabulary consisted only of veterinary terminology. But we got there somehow: an X-ray revealed an enlarged heart, but not the cause, and the murmur was still present. Added to which, blood tests indicated that she was also anaemic. Dr Barbucci’s smile had gone and concern was now written all over his face. “She is many sick” he said in his heavily accented English, gently tickling Mimi’s neck with a single huge finger. Before we had a chance to ask what he could do, he explained that in order to prescribe a course of treatment, he needed to establish why her heart was enlarged and to get to the bottom of the murmur and so recommended that we take her for an ECG at a veterinary cardiologist’s in Civitanova Marche. We struggled to take this all in, shocked and dismayed by the obvious seriousness of her condition, but it was a no-brainer: of course we’d take her to the cardiologist – a Dr Crotti. I asked for his details, saying I would call the next morning. But Dr Barbucci shook his head and immediately called Dr Crotti’s surgery to get an appointment that same afternoon. “He can see you now,” he said as he hung up. “His surgery is here.” He scrawled a quick map and gently lifted Mimi back into her travel box. Mr Blue-Shirt and I exchanged fear-filled looks and following a hurried “Grazie mille,” we climbed back into the car and in heavy silence drove down the hill towards the coast, dreading what the next hour might bring…

Bureaucracy – again

Regular or even occasional readers of this blog will be aware of our experiences with Italy’s famously byzantine and impenetrable bureaucracy as we endeavoured to secure our residency and national health service cover. It is something I can only describe as like trying to swim blindfold through a maze filled with quicksand: exhausting, disorientating, depressing, tortuous, frustrating, and often ultimately pointless. But we got there, and to prove it now have our identity cards and our tessere sanitarie (national health cards): the credit card-sized equivalent of the Holy Grail.

Only in practice they  turn out to be much more like a key. A key that opens the door to a whole new set of mazes to navigate. The latest of these has resulted from my being offered a new job at a bigger and more ‘corporate’ language school, which means that I shall have a proper employment contract, which in turn means that as a resident I needed to register with the Centro per l’Impiego (Employment Office).  Yes, I realise that registering with the Employment Office when I already had a job seems a bit back to front. But Emiliano, the HR manager of my new school explained in his enviably fluent English that I needed to do this so simply that they could issue me with a document called a Scheda Professionale, which he described as an ‘ugly’ version of my CV that the school’s HR consultant insists upon – even though my CV is already in the standardised Europass format employers here require. Seeing the look of dismay on my face, Emiliano gave an apologetic shrug. “I know, I know. It’s crazy,” he said before the inevitable “Why???” had a chance to pass my lips. “But it’s the rules. That’s Italian bureaucracy for you.” And that’s the thing: even Italians acknowledge that their bureaucracy is a nightmare, and are invariably sympathetic when we recount our latest battles with red tape. “It’s bad enough for us Italians” they typically say, “so I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be for foreigners!”

So armed with the list of detailed instructions Emiliano had sent me by email I trudged off to the Employment Office in Civitanova Marche, which had been the eventual scene of our health insurance triumph. A strong sense of déjà vu soon set in: as usual the first hurdle was finding the right office in the warren of anonymous offices, then it was the all too familiar deli ticket roll on a wobbly stand, followed by the customary glance at the display to see how far down the queue I was, and then the all too familiar interminable wait in a drab grey corridor furnished with rows of uncomfortable plastic chairs until my number flashed up.

Seventy-five minutes later, a friendly-looking woman in incongruously glittery trainers and fuchsia-pink glasses strode into the corridor, called my number and ushered me into her booth with a cheerful “Come posso aiutarLa?” – How can I help you? Her can-do manner lifted my spirits, and my explanation of what I needed and why elicited encouraging nods so when I handed her my identity card so she could enter my details on the system, I was feeling pretty confident. She peered closely at it to check the spelling of my name, flipped it over so she could enter my address onto the system, and tossed it straight back onto the desk with a brusque “No.” I was taken aback by her sudden change of tone.

‘What do you mean, no?’ I asked.

‘You live in Montelupone.’

‘Yes. And?’

‘Montelupone isn’t in our area.’

I swallowed hard, suppressing the urge to scream. I had specifically gone to this office in the – to me – not unreasonable belief that since Montelupone was in this town’s catchment area for health insurance purposes, it would be the same for employment purposes. Nope: too Anglo-Saxon.

‘Which office do I need to go to then? I asked with all the calm I could muster.


I nearly exploded. This was where we had originally gone to sort out our health insurance, only to be told that our village wasn’t in Macerata’s area. Now, I appreciate that Montelupone lies roughly equidistant between the two towns, but you really would think that someone might have thought it sensible to put Montelupone in one town’s catchment area or the other for all administrative matters – wouldn’t you?? Rather than waste my breath pointing this out, though, I made do with a curt “Grazie. Arrivederci”, and left.

A couple of days later, I arrived at the Employment Office in Macerata at three o’clock on the dot, exactly the time the website had indicated it opened, loins girded and teeth gritted for round two – only to find a queue of people already trailing out of the packed waiting room and down the stairs.  I tugged my deli ticket from its roll on its wobbly stand: 57, and glanced up at the display: 17. My heart sank. How come the queue was so long when the office had barely opened? I found the answer as I took up my place in the queue squidged up against the office door, stuck to which was a notice stating the opening hours: it turned out that the office had actually opened at 2.30pm. “Bloody Italians,” I thought (to my immediate shame).

An hour and three quarters later – during which time I had noticed that only three of the six cubicles were actually staffed – 57 finally flashed up on the display. “I live in Montelupone…” I began. The woman behind the desk nodded and I relaxed slightly, so I continued with the same explanation as before and finished with my request for a Scheda Professionale.

‘No’, she said.

‘What do you mean, no?’ I asked, feeling the deadening pull of the quicksand beneath me.

‘You don’t need a Scheda Professionale. It’s for interns and apprentices. You have been offered a proper employment contract.’

‘Well, my employer has told me this is the document I need. Can’t you just issue me one anyway?’

‘No, it’s only for interns and apprentices.’

‘But that doesn’t matter to my employer. They just want the form.’

‘It’s not possible. It’s only for interns and apprentices.’

‘Then please call my HR manager on this number and explain this to him’ I said firmly, handing her the fluorescent pink Post-it note I had had the foresight to jot Emiliano’s phone number on. Their exchange was lively but brief as the clerk remained adamant: she would not and could not issue me with a Scheda Professionale. But at least Emiliano had managed to persuade her to issue me with a document explaining her position that he could then pass to his employment consultant. So just over two hours after I had arrived, all I had to show for my efforts was a single sheet of paper bearing a couple of sentences scrawled in almost illegible handwriting and finished off with a completely illegible signature and a slightly smudged official stamp.

The next day, I handed Emiliano the document with a wry smile. He sighed, shook his head and returned my smile. “Bloody Italians,” he said.


We suffer from a syndrome, Mr. Blue-Shirt and I. It started years ago, although back then the symptoms were almost imperceptible.  In fact, it was only in retrospect that we realised what was happening. In the last few years, though, it has got a lot worse and seems ever less responsive to treatment. Indeed, we now fear we might never get better. The syndrome we suffer from is a rare condition that we know as Automotive Tourette’s.

There are several causes, I think. One is that Mr Blue-Shirt has had a lifelong passion for cars. Family legend has it that as little more than a toddler he could identify different makes and models simply by their hubcaps, and among his first words were, allegedly, ‘dwive da car’. So it was no great surprise to anyone that his first career was as an automotive engineer. The other is that our many holidays in Italy have always been of the touring variety, so we have spent many a long day pounding along picturesque autostrade, winding up and down precipitous mountain roads, bumping over miles of dusty tracks (aka strade bianche – white roads, i.e. un-tarmac-ed) and rumbling around the cobbled streets in the centro storico of countless traffic-clogged medieval towns and cities. Which, over the years, has given us plentiful opportunities for getting up close and personal with Italian drivers and Italian cars.

To entertain ourselves on our longer treks we soon took to looking out for those world-famous superstars of Italian motoring – the macho Ferraris, the sexy Lamborghinis, and Mr Blue-Shirt’s personal favourite, the cool, understated Maseratis. We weren’t elitist, mind, so also kept an eye out for distinctly less glamourous yet still faintly exotic Lancias and undeniably handsome Alfa Romeos, which I tend to favour, especially early examples of the Spider. But the car for which we both always reserved our most enthusiastic oohs and ahhs by miles was in fact the modest little Fiat 500 – the original one, that is; the one that is practically synonymous with La Dolce Vita, and is as indisputably Italian as pasta, prosciutto and prosecco.

Introduced in 1957, the Fiat 500 in effect motorised Italy, and in so doing provided a means of both literal and metaphorical escape from war-time deprivation, austerity and joylessness. It was very much conceived as a ‘people’s car’ by its designer, Dante Giacosa, who made sure it was suited to navigating narrow city streets and fitting into the tightest of parking spaces: it was barely 3m long, originally had only two seats, and a tiny 479cc engine. Initially it also had rear-hinged ‘suicide doors’, but for safety reasons these were replaced with front-hinged ones in 1965 – much to the disappointment of Italian men, apparently, as they could no longer enjoy looking at girls’ legs as they got in and out of the car! Crucially, as well as being practical, the Cinquecento, as it has always been known, was also chic, charming and cheap – the equivalent of about £240 when it was first launched – so it took no time at all for it to win the hearts of Italian drivers. Very nearly four million of these smiley-faced little things had rolled off the assembly line in Turin by the time production ceased in 1975, and in 2007, when it was nominated as La Macchina Più Amanti degli Italiani (Italy’s most beloved car), it was estimated that there were still some 600,00 on the road.  And the national affection for the Cinqucento has never waned. It is quite common to see pedestrians smile and wave as one passes and motorists will often toot and give a vigorous thumbs-up to the lucky owner.  In fact, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some folk even them blew kisses.

It must be something to do with the affinity we seem to have for all things Italian as we have just as much of a soft spot as any Italian for this pocket-sized icon, even though we’ve never so much as sat in one.  They’re just so… Well, sweet. And that’s how it all started. Every time one of us saw one on our travels, we would point wildly and squeal ‘Sweet!’ with childlike delight. It didn’t take long for this to acquire a competitive element, too: the first person to spot a Cinquecento – and now positively yell ‘SWEET!” – won a point, with a tally being kept for the day/ week/ duration of the trip. Arguments over who saw which one first, and which ones did or didn’t count were frequent and lively.

Once we knew that we were going to make Italy our home, though, we thought the novelty of seeing these cute little vehicles would wear off and that we would lose interest in Cinquecento-spotting. It didn’t. In fact, in some respects it got worse. We continued to play even if there were other people in the car, only managing to preserve a semblance of dignity by playing a silent version of the game that consisted of nudging or even pinching each other whenever we saw one and manically jerking our heads in its direction instead of squawking ‘Sweet!’ But when we moved here we decided that enough really was enough and so agreed to give up Cinquecento-spotting for good. Which lasted about as long as the average New Year’s resolution. In fact, not only did we fail to give up, I actually developed a variation on the game that took account of the fact that Mr Blue-Shirt wasn’t here full time for the first few months and started sending him photographs of sightings – and claiming the points, obviously.

Lately, however, things have really started to get out of hand. So irresistible has the Cinquecento-spotting impulse become that we have started to play this remote version of the game even if one of has just nipped out to the supermarket and caught a sighting. “I got two!” one of us will exclaim breathlessly on returning home and brandish a wonky mobile phone snap at the other. “Look! There was one at the lights in Trodica” – swipe – “… and another one in the car park at Iper!”  And there are quality assessments too now. “The one in Trodica was gorgeous: classic buff colour and in terrific condition. But the one at Iper had really been messed about with: horrid metallic paint and tinted windows. Tinted windows! Ghastly!”

So we have finally admitted defeat. A hopeless case with no known cure, it seems.  And as if this wasn’t bad enough, we now suspect the syndrome could well be infectious. Over the last few months we have had several sets of friends to stay, with whom we have been quite open about our condition. I think we had a vague idea that acknowledging we had a problem would be our first step on the way to being cured. But I fear this openness may have been an error, for we have noticed several occasions when one of our visitors, on making a sighting, has been heard to utter a slightly self-conscious but barely-suppressed ‘Sweet!’

Friends, you have been warned…

The road to recovery

È una compressione dei nervi cervicali” pronounced Dott. Paolotti having probed my neck and left shoulder, and to my huge relief then wrote out a prescription for a powerful cocktail of muscle relaxants and anti-inflammatories along with an X-ray referral.  I was not surprised in the slightest by his diagnosis: the constant searing pain shooting down my left arm like a never-ending bolt of lightning and two completely numb fingers that I had had for a good couple of weeks made it fairly obvious that the problem was a trapped nerve. It was on our trans-Europe ‘grand tour’ to the UK that an insistent knot of pain had set in by the time we had got as far as Calais, and by the time we returned home in mid-August having driven three-thousand miles and slept in eleven different beds along the way, that single knot had multiplied into a throbbing mass of nagging pain, so it was hardly surprising that a nerve had got trapped in the process.

Christina, the American chiropractor a friend had found for me and then chivvied me into seeing, had reached the same conclusion too. I had already spent several eye-watering sessions on the all-singing, all-dancing treatment couch at her practice in Macerata having my neck crunched and my spine pummelled as she set about releasing the knots, but it had soon become clear there was going to be no quick fix.  So while I was reluctant simply to knock back ever stronger doses of painkillers, the cumulative effects of too many nights without sleep coupled with my near inability to perform a long list of everyday tasks that included things like fastening buttons, putting my earrings on and my contact lenses in, drying my hair, driving and, as I’m a mancina – left-handed, chopping vegetables, ironing, writing and even twizzling spaghetti round my fork meant that I was prepared to do pretty well anything –  including having Mr Blue-Shirt saw my left arm off with a rusty bread knife- to stop the near unbearable pain.

By the time my X-ray appointment in Osimo came round a couple of weeks later, though, there were clear signs of improvement: I was sleeping through, I could sit at my desk for longer than ten minutes and my arm no longer felt as if it was someone else’s, with little connection between what I was telling it to do and what it would actually do. So when Dott. Paolotti opened the CD on which my X-rays were stored that I had picked up from the hospital the day before (X-rays belong to the patient here) I did slightly feel that they were only likely to be of curiosity value. Which turned out to be more or less the case. Leaning over his shoulder to look at the computer screen on his cramped desk in the village surgery, even my untrained eye could see that the disc between my sixth and seventh vertebrae was not as thick as its neighbours and that it was thinner still on the left side than on the right. All simply the effects of anno domini, apparently, which was fairly depressing: my first age-related health issue. Oh joy. And it did explain why a bog-standard knotted back – something that I have had many times before – had developed into something so debilitating. On another level, however, it was quite reassuring – after all, beyond a bit of wear and tear I had no real medical condition, or even a specific injury. And what with the improvement my arm and shoulder had at last made, it meant that Dott. P. and subsequently Christine were both happy for me to start running again. This was terrific news as I hadn’t even had my trainers on since mid-July and the lack of movement was really beginning to get to me.

I only came to running about eight years ago as therapy during a prolonged period of depression, but since then it has become a non-negotiable part of my life; part of who I am, even. These days, if I don’t run for any length of time, I start to feel both lethargic and restless at the same time, but it is the effects running has on my mental well-being that I miss even more. First of all, there is the head space that simply focussing on putting one foot in front of the other creates: essential for an Olympic standard worrier like me.  Then there are the natural endorphins that running famously releases – and that before I started running I had always thought were a myth: they’re not. And when it comes to running beneath a cloudless blue sky in the staggeringly beautiful countryside that surrounds our home, the endorphin count easily doubles.

And so it did this morning as I ventured out into the late summer landscape that was bathed in golden sunlight and ruffled by a playful breeze. I followed doctor’s orders and took it easy, walking quite a bit as well as running, and keeping to a speed that meant I could keep my shoulders low and loose. I felt desperately unfit, though, with my breath rasping in my chest and my legs screaming for mercy on the hills. But it was wonderful to be moving again, to feel ‘me’ again, and at last to feel properly on the road to recovery.


Casa Girasole, the converted farmhouse that has become our home, has had quite a hard life, I think. And probably like most of the no-nonsense farmers’ wives who lived here over the years, it has had little truck with frippery and finery and has remained throughout its life plain, unfussy and unadorned. It has also suffered an emergency amputation (in the form of the sudden collapse of a poorly built post-war two-storey extension at one end of the house), followed by extensive reconstructive surgery (in the form of the erection of a properly built two-storey at the other end of the house that was put up by our immediate predecessors). As well as this, it has also undergone an awful lot of work on its innards. On top (literally) of creating an entrance hall, kitchen, dining room and sitting room from a jumble of stalls, stables and storerooms on the ground floor, our predecessors also created four bedrooms and two bathrooms that open off two spacious landings from a pokey two-bedroom apartment – no part of which had been touched, as far as we can work out, for the preceding forty years or so.

Although the surgery was successful and the building has taken well to its new role as what we now know is our forever-home, it still looked more than a little dowdy and down-at-heel from the outside. So having spent our first year working through a long list of modification, completion and repair work on its interior, our main focus since the start of summer has been its exterior. In fact, it was back in spring that Mr Blue-Shirt fitted the new part-glazed front and back doors in solid oak that finally allowed daylight to penetrate the previously rather gloomy hall and kitchen. Then together with our helpful chum Nick, who, luckily for us, prefers to spend his holidays doing jobs rather than lolling about in the garden with a book, Mr Blue-Shirt fitted a set of oak-framed patio doors to the sitting room. Opening onto the garden (and what will eventually become a paved terrace) they finally allowed us to enjoy fully the view up the hill to the village and down the valley to the sea when sitting on the sofa. The windows in the ones they replaced were set at a height that meant that, even for the tallest of people, the view from the sofa was restricted to just the sky and the uppermost branches of our tallest and most unkempt olive trees. So I only got to see the sky.

With Stefano the carpenter having installed the seven pairs of wooden shutters that he had crafted for us in his hobbit-hole of a workshop back in June, it was now time for The Big One: re-rendering nearly the whole of the house, a job which for which even the endlessly capable Mr Blue-Shirt did not have the relevant skills. So through the good offices of our architect, Silvio, we took the plunge and got the experts in.  Apart from the new extension (which had been rendered but never painted) the rest of the house – a simple rectangular shape punctuated with modest timber-framed windows and topped with a pitched roof of coppi (traditional interleaving terracotta tiles) – was covered with a coarse sludge-coloured render that, as Mr Blue-Shirt observed, looked as if it had been applied with Wallace and Gromit’s porridge gun. Over time, though, great chunks had crumbled away, leaving gaping wounds that had been inexpertly patched with careless smears of cement: ugly dun-coloured scabs that would never heal or fade. But even when we first viewed the place on a dull November afternoon, we didn’t find it hard to see beyond the place’s sad and neglected appearance. Rather as if confronted by one of those frumpy old farmers’ wives from long before, we were still drawn in by her warmth and serenity and the twinkle in her eye, and could tell straight away that we’d be friends for life.

So, now well into retirement, it was high time to give this stoical and weather-beaten old girl a long overdue and well-deserved makeover. Once the (worryingly rickety) scaffolding had been erected, the first job was the building equivalent of exfoliation: two or three days of pressure washing to remove all the loose debris and dust that, I have to admit, left the place looking scoured, raw and sorrier for itself than ever. But then came the wrinkle-filler and scar concealer, aka render: bucket-loads of fine off-white powder mixed with water into a thick goo that a duo of chatty Albanian workmen spread with speed and skill bordering on artistry over every square centimetre of the surface, creating a finish almost as smooth and flawless as a film star’s forehead.

Only the far side of the house had been completed when we headed off to the UK for a couple of weeks, leaving ‘the goo-masters’ to work their magic on the front of the house, all under the supervision of the ever-conscientious Silvio.  Having not been there to see each day’s progress, we were curious to see just how different the place would look when we returned home. And the transformation really was remarkable when, after three days on the road, we finally pulled onto the drive. Gone were the ugly scabs of cement  the lumpy, crumbling surface, and the dreary utilitarian beige. In its place were great expanses of perfectly uniform, near-white render. And in the honeyed evening sun the house almost seemed to blush with pleasure in response to our joint delighted ‘Wow!’.

Gone too, of course, was every single one of Mr Blue-Shirt’s tools, gathered over a lifetime of working with his hands, and stolen from the workshop behind the house while we were away, as we discovered once we had completed our inspection of the house…

But that’s a story for another day, since that evening evening of such mixed emotions we have been determined would not taint our dream nor break the special bond that we have formed with this deeply comforting place. And so painting the entire house from end to end became a kind of therapy for Mr Blue-Shirt: making the first reluctant purchases in the long and heart-breaking process of replacing his tools one by one, then building trestles, assembling scaffolding towers, rigging up safety harnesses and sorting out brushes and rollers and buckets. Then finally immersing himself in simple physical toil, spending days at a time in the blazing sun as this dear old girl patiently let him lovingly complete her makeover. And helped him begin to heal himself.

2nd person singular

That is to say, the person I am speaking to, i.e. ‘you’. Prince or pauper, president or peasant, priest or penitent, and regardless of the relationship between the two of us, we English just say ‘you’. Age, familiarity, class or courtesy are immaterial: simply ‘you’.  Which makes modern English quite unlike other a whole host of other languages which continue to draw this kind of distinction between the participants in a conversation.  And all three of the languages in which I can claim varying degrees of competence – French, German and now Italian – certainly do this. French has informal ‘tu’ and formal ‘vous’, while German has ‘du’ and ‘Sie’, and Italian has ‘tu’ and ‘Lei’.  Incidentally, I also have a passing acquaintanceship with Malay, having done a six-week course in the language some twenty years ago at the start of our three-year tour of duty in Borneo. Although I can now remember little more than a few stock phrases, I can at least confirm that Malay also has formal and informal versions of ‘you’. But I digress…

The consequence of this distinction is that in every conversation the speaker holds in one of these languages, a judgement call is required: formal or informal? ‘Tu’ or ‘Lei’? For native speakers this judgement is, of course, made without conscious recourse to any rules. They just know. But for non-native speakers deciding which to use can be an absolute minefield. Yes, dictionaries and grammar books make a stab at explaining what the rules are. In French, we are told, ‘tu’ is used when speaking to children, family, friends and colleagues you know well, whereas ‘vous’ is used when speaking to older people, strangers, customers, and in business situations. It doesn’t take long to realise, though, that there are some pretty big grey areas here. What exactly is ‘a colleague you know well’?  And what about when you are speaking to this colleague ‘in a business situation? And who on earth are ‘older people’? The whole year I was in Strasbourg, I lived in constant fear of insulting one person by being too chummy, or snubbing another by being too distant. In German it is even worse. The rules are broadly similar in theory (with hierarchy as an added factor) but in practice they are interpreted much more conservatively, with a very dim view being taken of any over-familiarity. In the late 1980s when Mr Blue-Shirt was posted to Minden in northern Germany, I taught English at a small language school run jointly by the owner and his right-hand woman. They had worked together – in the same office, even – for well over twenty years, but they still addressed each other with the formal ‘Sie’ – and with Herr this and Frau that, not first names. Similarly, when the Army posted Mr Blue-Shirt to Paderborn some years later, I did a lot of teaching in a large automotive components company and got to know a particular fairly senior manager and his long-serving secretary pretty well. He addressed her with ‘du’, but she addressed him with ‘Sie’. And again, no first names. All of which gives the impression that many more relationships are conducted ‘at arm’s length’, and – to my sensibilities at least – that there always seems to be a sense of being either ‘in’ or ‘out’, and more usually the latter. Nevertheless, throughout our eleven years in Germany, I always erred on the side of caution and kept things formal, but disliked the distance I always felt I was creating.

Yes, yes, I know that English had a familiar and a respectful ‘you’ up until the late 17th century, and that the ‘you’ of today is in fact derived from the formal version ‘ye’ or ‘thee’ (‘thou’ being the corresponding informal version). This notwithstanding, I find having a single ‘you’ much more unifying and non-judgemental. No ‘in’ or ‘out; no ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’. Just ‘you’.

So it was with some trepidation that I first engaged with Italian people, constantly keeping an ear out for when, where and how ‘tu’ or ‘Lei’ was used in every conversation I entered in to.  I knew from our several years of Italian evening classes that the rules were much the same as for French and German, but would practice match the theory? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that ‘tu’ is indeed generally used with children, family, friends and colleagues, and ‘Lei’ with strangers, customers, and in business or official situations. But no, in the sense that people tend to move from the formal to the informal more quickly than in French – and loads more quickly than in German. Thus, within a couple of weeks, all my adult students addressed me with ‘tu’ (and my first name), which gave me a real sense of collaboration between equals, rather than simply A.N. Other supplier delivering a service (OK, I may be over-thinking this somewhat).  And once Cecilia who works in the café in the village found that we were neighbours, she immediately moved from ‘Lei’ to ‘tu’. Similarly, having realised that we weren’t just tourists but actually lived here, the chubby clerk with thinning hair in the post office switched to ‘tu’. Karina, my frighteningly trendy hairdresser with the huge horn-rimmed spectacles did the same after about three appointments, and Silvio, our slightly intense and otherwise risk-averse architect even sooner. Our charming insurance agent, Marco, took a little longer, but then again, the first time we met him, we were struck by his old-world courtesy and impeccable manners. And last but not least, even our laid back doctor with the ancient BMW has now dropped the ‘Lei’ in favour of ‘tu’. Whether being a similar age is the common factor, or some vague notion of shared endeavour, I have no idea. Whatever it is, though, the result is the same – and something I confess that the English ‘you’ actually cannot achieve: a positive sense of inclusion and acceptance. And a confirmation that we are no longer strangers.

The party’s over… -ish

Controesodo. It’s what I call a ‘Lego word’: one made up of two or more other words cleverly clicked together to encapsulate a particular concept that would otherwise require a full sentence to explain.  Unlike their more formal cousins, compound words, Lego words tend not to appear in dictionaries. Indeed, ‘controesodo’ doesn’t. But it’s component parts do: ‘contro’ means ‘against’ or ‘counter’ and ‘esodo’ means ‘exodus’. And ‘counter-exodus’ is the word Italians use to express ‘the time at the end of August when everyone returns to work or school from their summer holidays’. See what I mean?

So during the counter-exodus, while the roads are clogged with sun-tanned families heading back from the seaside, businesses and factories gradually hum and clatter back into life and ‘back to school’ ranges fill the shops, coastal resorts breathe a sigh of relief and start folding up the sun loungers, tourist attractions fall quiet and start offering off-season discounts. And up and down the country, countless towns and villages pack up their collections of trestle tables, benches, banners, pergolas and PA systems, congratulating themselves on having successfully completed another season jam-packed with sagre and feste, concerts and shows, pageants, exhibitions and markets.

The sheer number of these local events that take place throughout Italy during the summer months is truly remarkable – and not just in tourist hot-spots such as Siena or Venice, the Lakes or the Amalfi Coast. Even in tourism-lite Le Marche, our village – with its population of barely 3000 souls – has held a series of 3- or 4-day long events between June and August, all of which are regular fixtures in the summer calendar. We have had the annual artichoke festival, the annual pizza festival, a medieval weekend and a celebration of apiculture, and over the weekends in between, there have have been no fewer than fourteen live music, dancing or sports events. Our village is far from unique in this respect, mind: the August issue of Corriere Proposte, the catalogue of events that the region produces every month, contained a hundred and forty-six closely printed pages listing more than seven hundred events in eight different categories. A Sagra della Polenta up in Penna San Giovanna, anyone? Or a Horror Festival over in Monte Urano? How about the Palio down in Servigliano? Or maybe the Beer Circus in Pedaso? Or…?  Or…? Or, or, or…

More remarkable still is that the fact that a vast number of these events will have been organised, promoted and run entirely by the local ‘Pro Loco’, sometimes with a degree of financial or logistical support from the Comune (town council). Roughly translated, Pro Loco means ‘in favour of the place’ and so the purpose of each of these entirely voluntary, not-for-profit associations (of which there are now some 6200 nationwide, the first having been founded in 1881), is the promotion of the town, its sites, its history, its traditions, its culture and – of course – its gastronomy. Interestingly, the principal purpose of all this activity is not, in the first instance, to attract tourists, but to improve the quality of life of the local residents by celebrating community identity and strengthening community ties. Our local Pro Loco certainly fulfils this purpose if the huge number of residents who enthusiastically participate in the events they lay on is anything to go by.

The Pro Loco movement, it seems to me, is an embodiment of the peculiarly Italian notion of ‘campanilismo’, which is rooted in the need in times past for communities to pull together to defend the parish bell tower – the campanile.  This highly developed sense of allegiance is in turn derived from the fact that until little over a hundred and fifty years ago Italy was made up of a patchwork of perpetually warring kingdoms and dukedoms, imperial territories and papal lands, where conflict between neighbouring regions, towns and even neighbourhoods was commonplace. So loyalty to the local was often a matter of survival. Consequently, even today, if you ask a random Italian where they are from, they will probably give you the name of their particular town or village rather than a city close by that you are more likely to have heard of, never mind the name of the region it is in.

My increasingly dog-eared breeze block of an Italian dictionary translates campanilismo as ‘parochialism’. To me, though, this smacks of insularity, narrow-mindedness and mistrust of the different. And in view of its roots, it is easy to imagine that this is what it might have become in the modern era, with the activities of the Pro Loco conceivably a manifestation of little more than some kind of tubthumping tribalism and collective one-upmanship. In my as yet limited experience, however, today’s campanilismo seems much more benign, and much more akin to the modern concept of ‘localism’: support for the production and consumption of local goods, the promotion of local culture and identity, and lots of local accountability. It is therefore a celebration of local difference, which in this unified, more peaceful age is seen as enriching rather than threatening. Which is just as well, really for while the controesodo and with it the summer may officially be over, the work of the Pro Loco is not yet finished after all. As the days begin to shorten and the heat to fade, there are the celebrations for the grape harvest, the truffle season, the hunting season, the olive harvest, Advent and who knows what else for them still to organise…

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