The fight back begins

It’s that time of year again. The vivid yellow rape blossom has long since turned to seed, the wheat is tinged with gold, the corn, while not quite as high as an elephant’s eye, is lush and leafy, the sunflowers are stretching their necks ever higher towards the blazing sun, and the season of sagre and feste is upon us.  These are the literally thousands of local festivals that take place up and down the country during the summer months. They typically revolve around food, normally a locally grown speciality, such as artichokes in Montelupone’s case, or around live music and entertainment. In practice, though, most are a happy fusion of both. And we love them.

So it was last week that we resolved to put our fears of leaving the house unattended to one side for a few hours and spend an evening in Montecassiano for its annual festival of street art, food and live music that takes place in among the winding lanes of the historical town centre. Montecassiano is another one of ‘Italy’s prettiest towns’ (I Borghi più Belli d’Italia that lies some 20km north-west of us, set high on a ridge with commanding views over the fertile Potenza Valley to the south, and to the north towards the Cònero Peninsular, the forest-clad promontory that rears up over the sea like a giant, deep green whale plunging into the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. Although we had only ever been to the place once or twice for a coffee, we knew its events enjoyed a very good reputation hereabouts, but what really clinched it for us,  and what finally made us listen to those more rational voices telling us that we cannot become prisoners in our own home was the chance to see Funk Off again.

No, not a mispronounced expletive from one of my students, but the name of a fifteen-strong jazz-funk street band. We had stumbled across them – almost literally – some four years earlier when holidaying with our dear pals Nick and Elaine. We were keen to show them some of the wider area and Mr Blue-Shirt had booked us all into a country house hotel near Lake Trasimeno in Umbria as the finale of our mini-tour, with a stop-off in Perugia en route. The capital of modern-day Umbria, and formerly one of the twelve settlements that made up the pre-Roman Etruscan League, this handsome university city has in recent years become infamous on both sides of the Atlantic for the curiously sordid murder in 2007 of British student, Meredith Kercher, for which American student Amanda Knox was convicted in 2009 and subsequently exonerated in 2015. It has been known much longer, however, for chocolate – especially its baci (dark chocolate and hazelnut ganache ‘kisses’) – and also as the home of Umbria Jazz, the ten-day long world-class international jazz festival that has been held there every July since 1973. A fact of which we were completely ignorant until we popped out into Piazza Italia, having made our way up from the car park to the historical centre through the city’s network of Etruscan tunnels which now house the public escalator system, and found ourselves practically face to face with a dozen or so guys in identical jeans, trainers and red T-shirts, and equipped with an assortment of trumpets trombones, saxophones, drums, and a sousaphone on which they were giving an infectiously toe-tapping rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown. The four of us were instantly captivated by their energy, their style and the sheer ‘feel good’ vibe of their music, and despite the near 40-degree heat, we kept pace with them as they boogied their way along Corso Vannucci to the grand Piazza IV Novembre where we watched them perform a non-stop programme of high-energy, tightly choreographed numbers that within seconds drew a mass of enthusiastic fans. This was a masterclass in making the highly polished and meticulously rehearsed look spontaneous and casual, and they were seriously good musicians too. No itinerant buskers, these. They were a class act.

And four years on, the sheer joie de vivre of their performance on a balmy, jasmine-scented summer’s evening in Montecassiano was just as infectious. They formed up in the far corner of the central square, barely noticed by the crowds of people grazing from the various food and drink stands around the perimeter. Having tuned their instruments and exchanged high-fives to get themselves in the groove they simply set off through the town, dipping and bobbing to their own beat. But like a band of funky pied pipers, they quickly gathered a stream of followers – including us – as they wove back and forth through the narrow lanes. Their crunchy jazz harmonies echoing among the tall palazzi and tightly-packed townhouses, they paused occasionally in a square for a bit of fancy footwork, or on a street corner for a solo saxophone riff, and, by now trailing a hundred or so people behind them, finally bopped back down into the central square and up onto the stage for what was billed as their ‘static’ set, but which was in fact anything but.  And once again we were treated to an hour-long life-affirming, spirit-lifting tour de force. Hand-clapping, finger-clicking, head-bobbing, foot-tapping, thigh-slapping – and that was just the audience, that had now grown to several hundred people, every single one of us (yes, even Mr Blue-Shirt) boogying along to the irresistible beat.

Best of all, though, for the entire duration of their performance we did not once think of intruders, security, or break-ins. For the first time in weeks, we were simply lost in the moment, utterly liberated from our fears. And were now armed with an empowering new battle cry for those who have sought to crush us: FUNK OFF!

My cup ranneth over

I heard the crash from our bedroom where I had been wrestling the duvet into its cover: the unmistakable sound of china smashing onto the kitchen floor tiles. “What was that?” I called anxiously, and galloped downstairs to make sure Mr Blue-Shirt hadn’t hurt himself. “It was a mug,” came his slightly muffled answer from inside the pantry where he was already gingerly picking up the fragments of shattered pottery. “Which one?” I asked. Like most people, I suspect, we have gathered a large, rag-tag collection mugs over time, nearly all of them with memories attached. There are the Glühwein mugs from the Christmas market in Osnabrück where we spent much of the ‘90s, a couple to mark the South East Asian Games from our three years in Brunei, one (there had been two) bought from the gift shop at the foot of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a couple (one chipped, one cracked) from a tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, a series from successive Chelsea Flower Shows where our ironwork had regularly featured in a particular designer’s medal-winning show gardens, and a clutch of random, anonymous supermarket mugs for use when the dishwasher is full. I just hoped it was one of those.

Mr Blue-Shirt winced. “Your Radley mug.” And sure enough, I could make out sections of its trademark ‘Westie’ motifs on the jagged chunks strewn across the pantry floor. “Oh, no! It was one of my favourites!” Mr Blue-Shirt sighed. “I know, I know. I’m so sorry. It just slipped out of my hand.” It had been a jokey present from Mr Blue-Shirt a few Christmases ago (a gentle dig at my well-established Radley handbag habit) when by chance my jokey gift to him had also been a mug, one featuring a cat just like Mimi, and since when we had  always considered them a pair: a silly, everyday symbol of life lived on the same wavelength. Now, like so much else we had treasured, it was gone. And the floodgates opened. Great gulping sobs caught in my throat and hot tears coursed down my cheeks. I buried my face in Mr Blue-Shirt’s chest and he stroked my back, soothing my sobs into sniffles. “I know I’m over-reacting,” I mumbled into his damp shirtfront. “It’s just a mug, for God’s sake.” I was trying to be reasonable. “But it was that mug. You gave it to me.” A fresh wave of tears spilled down my face. “It was special. I used it all the time.” Another blow. Another loss. Another cherished memory gone.

It was as if the jagged shards of pottery had pierced the gauze-thin carapace of normality and healing and exposed the stinging rawness that remained just beneath the surface. Still very much there were the grief and pain from the burglary; the sense of loss still undiminished, for what has been taken from us is more – so much more – than mere possessions. Each item had a meaning, each one had a story, and together they traced the course of our two tightly interwoven lifetimes; the priceless (to us) tokens of togetherness, of shared adventures, achievements, landmarks, and celebrations. But also a record for those who might care to remember us when we are gone of what and where and who we once were. A few mementos for family posterity to go with those left by parents and grandparents already gone, and of which I felt we were mere custodians: my father’s World War II medals (along with Mr Blue-Shirt’s own service medals) my great-grandmother’s silver pocket watch, my mother’s assortment of modest trinkets, lovingly collected with ‘legacy’ very much in mind. All now replaced with guilt and self-recrimination, sharply magnified through the powerful lens of hindsight. Should have done… Could have done… Wish we had… Why didn’t we…? A lens through which I can see only failure; a sense that I have let our nieces and nephews down by breaking a precious connection with their forebears. Our new great-nephew will now never experience the weight of those wartime medals in his small hands, and through them learn of his great-grandfather’s valour. He will now never pop open the back of that silver pocket watch, which as a child I used to do, and read, engraved in copperplate, the name of his great-great-great-grandmother, which for me gave ‘Phoebe Mitchell’ both form and meaning. And my poor mother would be inconsolable.

Still there too were the fears and doubts whose seeds had been sown the instant I had seen the twisted, gaping safe, and which, like bindweed, had now taken hold, its insistent, probing tendrils strangling our hopes and dreams, crushing our confidence and certainties. Would they come back? Were they still watching? Who could we trust? And worse still, had we got it all terribly wrong? Had this whole Italian adventure been a ghastly mistake? Was this the punishment for our foolishness? Or for some other gross misdeed of which we still remain entirely ignorant? What have we done? When? Where? And why did we need to be punished like this? Above all, why?? In God’s name, WHY??

For weeks the nightly presence of these shapeshifting monsters has denied me the blissful release of sleep, even though my daytime self keeps telling my nighttime self she is being irrational and foolish: you’ve done nothing wrong, it’s not your fault, she reasons, you were just unlucky. My nighttime self, though, just shakes her head and waves her trump card: ‘yes, but that is how it FEELS,’ she shrieks, and my daytime self for now can only shrug.  Yet as I turn from side to side and back again, trying to escape my nightly monsters, every now and then I think I catch a tantalising glimpse of something bright and good and whole. It’s as tiny and elusive and ephemeral as the evening fireflies that dance among the olive trees at this time of year, and as difficult to catch hold of. But it just might be something; it might even be a start. Please let it be a start.


Photo courtesy of

Perfect timing

Lower than a Tory politician’s poll ratings; lower than the UK’s entry in the Eurovision Song Contest; lower than a snake’s belly. That’s pretty much where our spirits have been since the burglary, and what with the uncharacteristically cool, wet and windy weather of late, gloom has reigned. So when someone finally switched the summer on, a run down at the beach was just the tonic I needed. However, what really put a smile back on my face was not the irresistible combination of dazzling sunshine and sparkling sea. It was bumping into this year’s Festa del Cinquino – the Fiat 500 Owners’ Club’s annual get-together – just as the fifty or more exhibitors moved off from the main square for their parade lap of the town centre, sea front and port. A tour that effectively brought the place to a halt as practically the whole town stopped to watch, wave, cheer, toot and take photos. So here is a reminder from last October of why this sight did so much to lift my mood…

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 Mr Blue-Shirt’s 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 our many touring holidays in Italy that have involved many a long day pounding along picturesque autostrade, winding up and down precipitous mountain roads, bumping over miles of dusty tracks 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. 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 quickly won 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 Cinquecento 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. 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. In fact, we now 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 at a time when life has had a distinctly bitter taste, coming across some fifty of these cheery little symbols of La Dolce Vita all in their highly-polished Sunday best has – for the time being, at least – made life once more taste… well, SWEET!

Fai da te

The sound of a rake being dragged through gravel is carried on the breeze up through my open window, the rhythmic rasps providing a percussion accompaniment to the morning birdsong. It is barely 8am and Mr Blue-Shirt has already been hard at work for over an hour and he is keen to finish before the sun gets too hot. His task today is evenly spreading across the drive the six tonnes of coarse pinkish-grey gravel that the previous evening had been tipped in neat conical mounds onto the sixteen tonnes of tightly compressed hardcore he had laid the week before. A simple enough task in the grand scheme of things. But getting things this far has been quite a logistical puzzle for Mr Blue-Shirt.

For we – and Mr Blue-Shirt in particular – have come to the conclusion that DIY in the British sense is not really ‘a thing’ here. Yes, ‘fai da te’ exists, but even the fact that there is no corresponding, universally known ‘FDT’ acronym is perhaps quite telling: Italians just don’t embrace the notion in the same way. True, there are plenty of ‘fai da te’ stores.  Indeed, one of the most popular, OBI, at first glance is practically a clone of B&Q, right down to its orange and black corporate colour scheme. And, just like B&Q, its rows of hooks and banks of mini drawers are filled all the widgets, nuts, springs and washers required for various repair jobs or simple home improvements like hanging a shelf, replacing a tap or fitting a spotlight, along with the necessary tools to carry out these jobs. But over the last couple of years, I’ve lost count of the number of times Mr Blue-Shirt has returned from a trip to OBI, chuntering like an idling tractor about the unavailability of this, that or the other part, tool or material. Admittedly, though, most of Mr Blue-Shirt’s projects are of a different order of magnitude to hanging shelves or installing a tap. Before he got on to re-surfacing the drive, for instance, he rebuilt the front step and added the first phase of the terracotta-tiled terrace that will eventually encircle the house.  Then while he was at it, he dug the foundations for the next, much bigger phase, and as part of this he also installed proper drainage so that rainwater from the roof is now carried away underground to soak harmlessly into the garden rather than just spewing straight from the downpipe out onto the ground right by the front door.

It’s not as if Italians’ indifference to DIY can be explained by respective rates of home ownership: I had thought that a culture of renting was perhaps not very conducive to a culture of DIY on the basis that tenants would have less of a vested interest in the place where they lived, or perhaps because restrictions in the lease might restrict tenants’ rights to spruce up their homes. And when landlords want to carry out improvements to their properties, they are more likely to employ professional tradespeople rather than do it themselves, surely. Sounds plausible, right? Except it turns out that home ownership rates are in fact higher in Italy (71.5%*) than they are in UK (62.5%*).  So while I have yet to find the true explanation for this particular cultural difference, the fact remains it can be maddeningly difficult for a private individual to hire building equipment. Which brings me back to Mr Blue-Shirt’s logistical puzzle. For even when he does manage to sniff out a hire place, his request to rent whichever piece of kit he’s after this time is typically greeted with a counter-request for his ‘partita IVA’ – his VAT registration number and hence proof that he is a registered business, which, of course, he isn’t. Then there’s the fact that the equipment he generally needs to hire is not typical of the average DIY-er either. This latest project has at various points involved a digger, a tracked, self-filling wheelbarrow-cum-spreader, and a petrol-driven flattening plate. All of which through sheer persistence and by persuading the staff he really does know what he’s doing he’s been able to hire from the one and only proper builder’s merchants that is happy simply with his Codice Fiscale (roughly equivalent to one’s National Insurance number). We’re not sure how they manage to get away with this lack of bureaucratic rigour – but it’s probably best not to ask.

We are grateful for their pragmatism, though. It has meant that the expanse of coarse rubble made up of discarded building materials left over from when the house underwent its initial conversion matted together by a slowly encroaching carpet of rough grass and weeds that together passed for our driveway has now gone. In its place, the neatly spread contents of two trucks full of hardcore and gravel. That’s another thing, incidentally, that makes DIY such a challenge: it is seldom possible to source of the elements of a given job from the same supplier. Early on we wanted to erect a few metres of the ubiquitous orange net fencing for a reason I no longer recall. But the place that sold the plastic netting did not supply the steel rods to go with it that you hammer into the ground and thread the netting onto, and the ferramenta (ironmonger) that sold the steel rods didn’t stock the orange net they are designed to hold up. And so it was with this job: the quarry that supplied the hardcore and gravel sells to the public, but it doesn’t deliver. So unless, like Mr Blue-Shirt, you are lucky enough to have a van which your aggregate of choice can be shovelled straight into, or, as in this case, the load is too big for that van, it is down to the customer to sort out delivery. And since this is likely to involve a tipper truck, this means enlisting the services of a tame builder to do the job for you. And where was Mr Blue-Shirt to find this tame builder? Well, at least the quarry was able to suggest someone nearby who might be able to help: a building company a few kilometres further along the Potenza valley. Only it wasn’t where the GPS said it would be, so back Mr Blue-Shirt went to the quarry to ask for better directions. Only it had closed by this time and the chap who works there was just leaving. But he did offer to show Mr Blue-Shirt the way to the building company – and they ended up down a track off a lane a good kilometre and a half from where the GPS had originally taken him. No matter: he had found his tame builder, and better still, Alessandro could pick up our load from the quarry and deliver it the next day. OK, he eventually turned up a good three hours later than actually agreed, but when he did finally get here it was with the right amount of the right product. And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, it was the same story with the second load. So it isn’t birdsong I can hear along with the raking. It is Mr Blue-Shirt whistling: he’s cracked his latest DIY puzzle – which has made shifting six tonnes of gravel by hand seem like the easy part.



It’s the word Emanuela used to describe Stanley and Matilda when we picked them up from at the end of their first stay with her while we were away for a few days: “Sono diavoli, i gattini!” Slightly alarmed, I looked up from trying to wrestle them into their respective travel boxes. Oh God! Had they broken one of Emanuela’s many ornaments? Scratched one of her grandchildren? Eaten one of the several dozen chicks she was hand-rearing? They had been in a cardboard box in the over-furnished but spotless living room where she let her ‘guests’ run about from time to time. But her ruddy, high cheek-boned face had creased into a broad grin, her deep-set blue eyes were sparkling with amusement, and laughter had set her enormous shelf-like bosom aquiver. “Well, we did warn you they were lively!” I countered, mightily relieved to find that our two young tabby cats had not let us down after all.

Stanley and Matilda (aka Tilly) are brother and sister, and by turns partners in crime, bed-fellows, sworn enemies, play-mates, sparring partners – and completely inseparable. They came into our lives at the end of January when we decided that the pain of losing Mimi the previous October had subsided enough for us to countenance ending our state of unintended catlessness. We got them from a blacksmithing acquaintance over in Treia who permanently suffers from a surfeit of kittens and had offered us the pair of our choice – we were quite clear that we wanted two – from his latest brood. Brought up from birth among a furry tangle of cousins, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles, even at four months old, they were savvy, feisty, hardy, bold and perfectly prepared to fight off every member of their extended feline family for any scrap of food on offer. In short, a handful. But when they first arrived, they were transformed into a pair of textbook scaredy-cats: bewildered and jittery, they spent the first few days with us in a perpetual state of wide-eyed terror. Mistrustful and cautious of all the unfamiliarity and newness, they remained cuddled up together on one of the dining chairs, only occasionally hopping down for a quick turkey biscuit or two before returning to their refuge, still reluctant to explore their new surroundings. Gradually, though, they would  gingerly accept the odd scritch and on occasions even found the purr button, but still remained to be convinced that all would be well here in their new home at Casa Girasole.

In the end, however, it took only a few weeks for their confidence – along with their feistiness, playfulness and greediness – to return, and for them to make themselves at home. It didn’t take them long, either, to get used to indoor living: they soon got the hang of tea-cosying up on an armchair in front of the wood burner in the snug, or curling up together on the sofa, entwined in a tabby puzzle of legs, tails, ears and paws – a kind of furry ‘octo-puss’. But as they had been entirely outdoor cats up to this point, it also meant that no surface, object or foodstuff was off limits: placid lap cats they were not. And we swiftly had to re-locate ornaments and breakables from shelves to cupboards, and soon learnt – the hard way – never to leave anything edible even remotely accessible to their raspy tongues and needle-sharp teeth. One morning early on, I left my packed lunch on the kitchen worksurface only for as long as it took to nip to the loo and run upstairs for my laptop bag before heading off for a day’s teaching, but came back down to find my cheese and onion relish sandwich on the floor, a hole gnawed through the two layers of the plastic bag it had been wrapped in, a row of neat, crescent-shaped bites chomped from the crust, and all the cheese (and onion relish) missing – along with any sign of the guilty parties.

Little by little, though, they have abandoned their semi-feral ways and are now really quite well-mannered. That is not to say, mind you, that they are not boisterous, mischievous and sometimes a downright nuisance – especially at 5.30am when they start the day by thundering up and down the stairs in a game of high-speed tag, or conducting a no-holds-barred kick-boxing match on, under and over our bed. But claws are now cleaned on doormats rather than curtains, the worksurface and dining table are now largely free of paw prints and meals (of cat- not human-food) are eaten on the floor from bowls. The penny has dropped that they are on to a pretty good thing with us and that life is no longer a permanent exercise in survival of the fittest. Over time they have relaxed and lowered their guard: rather than shying from our touch they are now trusting and affectionate, and actively seek out our company, ever ready to have their tummies tickled, paws outstretched, legs akimbo and purring like a pair of clockwork toys.  

And in the days following the break-in, when shock and anger have hung heavy in the air, they have been a truly healing presence: somehow picking up on our pain and sorrow they have offered reassurance, company, comfort and affection worthy of the dearest of human friends. So while they may not quite be angels, they are very far from devils – and we would not be without them.

Déjà vu

A jumble of images and thoughts and feelings lie forlornly scattered around my sleep-hungry brain. It remains incapable of tidying them into neat piles of sense and logic. Instead it just keeps shoving them back and forth in the vain hope that meaning and order will somehow magically appear.

“No……!” Mr Blue-Shirt’s strangled roar. The broken window. The ransacked kitchen. The crow-barred stairs. The crow-barred door. A break-in – again. The ransacked study. The ransacked bedroom. The wonky pictures and out-of-position cupboards. The mangled and empty safe and our most treasured possessions gone. Disbelief and shock – again. Howls of rage at the intrusion; tears of pain at the loss – again. This time not tools, but a shared lifetime of birthday, anniversary and Christmas gifts lovingly chosen and given, and joyfully received and worn. The precious mementos of my late parents, too, among which his wartime medals, her grandmother’s pocket watch.  Carabinieri, statements, theories and evidence – again. Lists of stolen items, insurance policy checked, meeting with our agent, loss assessor booked – again. Why? When? Did anyone see them? How long had they been watching? Wasn’t once enough? Bastards.

Sorting, cleaning and laundry: reclaiming and erasing. Repairs, stronger hinges, bigger locks, and more: they will not beat us. Attempts at defiance, resistance and resolve. Yet in the heavy silence of the endless night, doubt and suspicion hold sleep at bay. Irrational – or is it rational? – fear creeps in. Fear that they are still watching. Fear that they might come back. Fear – for now – of even going out together.

Which means that despite the promise we made ourselves this time last year, we simply cannot bring ourselves to go to one of the village’s biggest events of the year, the Sagra del Carciofo, its annual artichoke-fest. So, based on our experience a year ago, this is almost certainly what we shall be missing …

Much as the 57th annual festival did last year, this year’s sagra will doubtless involve a full weekend of solid partying that will take over the entire historical centre. That is, after all, the nature of the beast. Sagra is one of those annoying words that is so particular to the culture that it defies accurate translation. Even the lexicographers who compiled my breeze-block-sized Italian dictionary realise that translating it as ‘festival, feast’ doesn’t do the term full justice, so they helpfully go on to explain that “A sagra is a rural festival held in the open air with folk music, dancing and games. Many are based around one or more culinary specialities, which can usually be sampled in the various booths. These festivals normally take place during the summer months.” (Collins) Which is true enough as far as it goes – except for the fact that this description sucks every last drop of joie de vivre out of the thing.  For these sagre (and there over 5000 of them up and down the country) are not worthy-but-dull events run by local do-gooders in a fruitless attempt to cling to a bygone golden age. Nor are they a cynical ploy to attract gullible tourists and hoodwink them into spending lots of money on ‘traditional’ wares. They are, rather, a celebration of the produce that supports the local economy – many of the fields hereabouts are once again covered with neat rows of the prickly deep green mounds from which the prized thistle-like edible blossoms appear in spring – and since this varies from community to community, they are also an expression of a community’s individuality, and also of civic pride and solidarity.  Moreover, because they revolve around eating and drinking, processions and games, music and dancing, and lots of making merry, there is something for everyone to enjoy, from black-clad nonna to tattooed teenager to curly-haired toddler. And enjoy them they do – in vast numbers, too.

So, were we going, Mr Blue-Shirt and I would be walking the 4km into the village, as the place is bound to be absolutely heaving with life, with every last parking space long since bagged. The narrow, cobbled streets will be crammed with stands selling piles of freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, and with stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and with stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino (the typical accompaniment to artichokes), offering tastings of all the different vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced artisan foods from hams to honey – all of them doing a brisk trade. It will of course be the stands selling hot food where the real action will happen, though, with a permanent queue of people waiting to take their pick from whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork with artichoke, artichoke salad, artichoke and pecorino frittata (omelette), deep-fried artichoke hearts, and olives stuffed with artichokes. Not to be outdone by these pop-up stalls, the pizzeria in the main square will be churning out artichoke pizzas at a furious pace, and the other two restaurants in the village will also have made the artichoke the star of their menus for the weekend. To be honest, though, some of the dishes on offer are still likely to be downright odd. Last year, Mr Blue-Shirt managed to secure one of the last tables in the long-established family-run restaurant on the main street, and to round off each of their specially created four-course artichoke-based menu, the dessert was artichoke strudel, and we later found that the gelateria was even serving homemade artichoke ice cream. Which I still think sounds like last-ditch contributions to a late-night culinary brainstorming session.

Having eaten our fill of artichoke dishes (minus the strudel and ice cream) we would make our way through the crowded streets up to the even more crowded main square where a five-piece band would probably be twanging their way through a selection of country and western favourites. The concert stage, huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show would still look slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall. But we would no longer be surprised to see the ancient square so buzzing with life and energy and fun as having now been to several such festivals, we know how much our fellow Monteluponesi love to party.

The following afternoon will naturally bring yet more artichoke-themed celebrations, the most bizarre of which will remain the procession of specially made floats that each form a different artichoke-themed tableau. One after the other, they will be towed by a flag-bedecked tractor onto the main square where homage will be paid to the precious artichoke in the form of a brief playlet performed in front of the jam-packed square. We would probably be no less baffled than last year by all this, but would find it no less enjoyable for that. More eating and drinking will doubtless follow, and late in the evening proceedings will reach a climax with another live band pounding out a programme of popular rock ballads that will be carried in through our bedroom window on the soft night air as we search for sleep once more. And curse the thieving bastards whom we shall not – shall not – allow to steal our dreams as well as our memories.

Building Bridges

Fare il ponte” they call it here. They use the same term in several other countries in mainland Europe too. But not in the UK, where ‘making the bridge’ doesn’t exist as an expression – because it doesn’t exist as a ‘thing’. And the ‘thing’ in question is the practice of taking an extra day off between a public holiday and the weekend. That is to say, if a holiday falls on a Tuesday or a Thursday, it is common for people to ‘make the bridge’ and take respectively the Monday or the Friday off too – which necessarily cannot happen in the UK where public holidays are always on a Monday, regardless of which day of the week the festival it celebrates actually falls on.

Before anyone resorts to tired clichés about ‘idle continentals’, however, bear in mind that the counterpart to this is that there is no extra day off when a public holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday. Then again, while England and Wales have just eight public holidays this year, Italy does have to squeeze twelve in. As well as Christmas and New Year, Easter and May Day, there are the four additional religious holidays: Epiphany, the Feast of the Assumption, All Saints’ Day and the Immaculate Conception – but minus Good Friday, which isn’t actually a holiday here. And then there are there are the two secular holidays, Republic Day – La Festa Della Republicca – on 2nd June, and before that, Liberation Day – La Festa della Liberazione – on 25th April.

This is a national holiday in Italy because it was the day  in 1945 on which the key cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from the forces of fascism. A resistance-led uprising and general strike designed to prepare the way for the Allies’ advance from the south paralysed industry in several northern cities and forced the Nazis into retreat. The initiative marked the end of Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship and five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation as well as a civil war that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.

Other cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice were liberated before and after this date. However, thanks to Milan and Turin’s strategic significance, and since it was also the date on which the death sentence was proclaimed for Mussolini and his generals, it was 25th April that became recognised as the national Liberation Day. The festival was initially created by decree in 1946 “per celebrare la totale liberazione del territorio italiano”, and was enacted into law as a permanent annual national holiday in 1949. Since then, many towns up and down the country have named a street via XXV Aprile in commemoration of this critical date in the history of the Republic.

The day, which is also known as La Festa della Resistenza, has always been a day of mixed emotions: of celebration and commemoration, of liberation and loss.  As such, it is rather like a combination of D-Day partying and Remembrance Day solemnity that consists of formal ceremonies at war memorials throughout the country, coupled with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry, all aimed at honouring the memory of the resistance movement – in which, incidentally, 35,000 women also participated.

This year, thanks to Easter falling almost as late as it ever can, many people are apparently preparing for their celebrations by making an extended bridge between Easter Monday and Liberation Day (which falls on Thursday). And, presumably to recover from those celebrations, some are turning it into a double bridge by taking the Friday off as well. Then, with May Day coming up next week, it is said that there are even some canny souls who are going in for some extreme bridge building, and bagging themselves sixteen days off work at the cost of only seven days’ leave.  Well, 1st May is La Festa dei Lavoratori after all: the day on which workers across the world commemorate the struggle for the legal recognition of labour rights…

Looking for Goldilocks

So: Mr Blue-Shirt’s forge. Ever since we viewed Casa Girasole he’s been on the lookout for a suitable building within the immediate vicinity where he can resume his career as a blacksmith. Although we have the space at the house, we both agreed very early on that we didn’t want to have the forge here. Having lived ‘over the shop’ in Lincolnshire for some fifteen years we are only too familiar with how running a business from home can over time muscle in on every aspect of life. No, this magical place that had captured our hearts pretty well the moment we saw it was above all going to be our home-with-a-capital-H.  Casa Girasole, we promised one another, would be a place of relaxation and renewal, of comfort and calm; a place to feed the soul and ease the mind, to live, to laugh to love; a shared expression of more than three decades of ‘us-ness’.

We had realised that for the whole of our married life, where we had lived had been entirely defined by Mr Blue-Shirt’s job, with the result that it could never be left at the door. During his time in the forces, we had always lived in married quarters, either on a base, surrounded by khaki-clad comings and goings, or on a purpose-built military housing estate where every occupant had the same job and every house was identical to the next, with no possibility for alteration or personalisation. Then, when he finished his forces career and Mr Blue-Shirt re-trained as a blacksmith, we moved straight into The Forge. Well, naturally we actually moved into the cottage that was attached to the forge, but in retrospect the name of the place was very revealing: once again, the job defined our living space. And when it comes to blackmithing, which involves nothing that is small or clean or quiet, it is a job that was very well placed to muscle in on our life there more effectively than most. So we were adamant: we were not prepared to risk ending up living at a forge with a house attached again.

His search for a forge has in effect been a variation on our early property searches here when holidays were spent bouncing down white gravel roads and clambering over ivy-choked ruins. On practically every trip to the builders’ merchants over in Villa Potenza, or to the quarry down in San Firmano, to the vet in Piediripa, or even to the supermarket in Trodica – and certainly while out on his Sunday cycles down to the coast – he will detour off along this, that or another track in search of a potential forge. Even I join in, keeping my eyes peeled for ‘Vendesi’ (for sale) signs on the way to or from teaching jobs in Recanati or Castelfidardo, in Ancona or Macerata.

He’s not asking for much: a free-standing building, preferably with a footprint of about 60 square metres, running water, mains power and a bit of outside space; a place where he can hang up his collection of blacksmith’s hand tools, set up his anvil, hearth and power hammer, and install a work bench, welder and spray bay. But just as with our initial property search, Mr Blue-Shirt’s hopes have been repeatedly raised and then swiftly dashed when a place that looks ideal from the outside or on paper turns out to be a non-starter as soon as he sets foot inside. Too big or too small; too far down a white road or too close to housing; too much land or no outside space at all; too much restoration work or too much finishing off.

Thinking more laterally, he even considered a small plot of land on which he could erect a small pre-fabricated workshop and went to the local planning office to find out whether this might be a feasible option: it wasn’t. The piece of land Mr Blue-Shirt had earmarked as a potential location for a forge – a small parcel of land adjacent to that of our neighbour’s about six hundred metres along the road – was designated as agricultural land and as such could not be built on. But in conversation with the helpful and chatty planning officer, Mr Blue-Shirt learnt that until recently Montelupone had in fact had two working forges. One had closed because the aged smith had died, and the other had closed because the not quite so aged smith had retired. But their premises were still there even though their hearths had grown cold. Not one but two forges in the village where we live? Was this some kind of omen..?

With the map marked with two red crosses that the planning officer had printed off for him clasped in his hand, and his heart beating fast, Mr Blue-Shirt set off to investigate. The forge that had belonged to the smith who had retired was sandwiched between two modern-ish three-storey apartment buildings on the southern side of the village. An anonymous cube-shaped building with roll-down shutters and a shallow pitched roof. And decorated with a web of alarming cracks running up the buff-coloured walls – yet another a victim of the earthquakes that shook the region in 2016. So that was another one crossed off the list; there was no point even looking inside. The bureaucracy, time and money involved in repairing any earthquake-damaged property made it a complete non-starter, no matter how suitable it might otherwise have been. One down, one to go.

The second forge was a little further from the village centre, down the hill heading towards our place; we had both driven, walked, cycled and run past it on countless occasions but would never have imagined that behind the folding zinc doors there might be a forge. Tucked in among a couple of light industrial units and attached to a modest 1950s apartment building, it looked very promising.  There was an area of hard-standing big enough to store Mr Blue Shirt’s shipping container and to park his van on: tick. It had plenty of height and natural light, three-phase power and water still connected: tick. A washroom and a cubby-hole that could serve as an office: tick. And even the remains of a hearth that it might be possible to coax back into life: very big tick. Plus a stiff-hipped widow, delighted at the thought of selling her late husband’s forge to a blacksmith. But… it was simply way too big for Mr Blue-Shirt’s needs and consequently came with a price tag that was way too big for his budget. So that was that one reluctantly crossed off too.

The search for Mr Blue-Shirt’s Goldilocks Forge goes on…

How difficult can it be?

Well, we’ve got the four corners in place. Residency, health cover, Italian driving licences and getting the car registered are all done. And we’ve got most of the edges in place too: getting the house and teaching work sorted out; indeed, they are starting to fill in much of the overall picture too. But there is still one large gap at the heart of the giant jigsaw of creating our life in Italy: a forge for Mr Blue-Shirt to resume his career as a blacksmith.

For over a year his forging tools and equipment (along with the contents of the garden shed, and sundry other bits and pieces that were too big and/or heavy to come over in the van) have remained tightly packed in a shipping container in the corner of a Lincolnshire goods yard. But for the past couple of weeks, this has at last been trundling south, just another another anonymous brick-coloured metal box on the back of a mile-long goods train snaking down through Europe. And what a slog is has been to find someone who could deliver Mr Blue-Shirt’s ‘forge in a box’ to Italy. Not that outlandish a proposal, one would have thought in light of the tens of thousands of identical such containers that on a daily basis are shuffled back and forth across the continent like a giant game of draughts. For goodness’ sake, twenty years ago, just such a container holding most of our worldly goods made it safely from the UK, via the mega-port of Singapore, to our tiny tin-roofed bungalow at the edge of the jungle on the northern coast of Borneo without a hitch (although it did take eight weeks to get there). So how difficult could it be? – to coin one of the favourite phrases of the eternally optimistic, never-to-be-thwarted Mr Blue-Shirt. Well, the answer turned out be ‘a damned sight more difficult than you’d imagine’.

A long list of big ‘we ship anything anywhere’ shipping companies were rejected once it turned out that this only applied if the said ‘anything’ was packed in one of their swanky containers, and even then, only upon payment of an eye-watering sum of money. Several hours of intensive Googling in search of smaller shipping companies that regularly transport good between the UK and Italy resulted in another list for Mr Blue-Shirt to plod through, this time of companies in Romania, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic as well as in Italy and the UK. And the responses – such as they were: several companies didn’t even bother to reply to his comprehensive enquiry – were enough to dent even Mr Blue-Shirt’s resolutely positive outlook. There were those that simply weren’t interested in a one-off private job; there were those whose quotes suggested that they were deliberately pricing themselves out of the job, and then there were those that quoted an ostensibly attractive, or at least reasonable price, but then added a catalogue of ‘extras’ – for instance, £750 just to lift the container onto a truck. Things were complicated further by the fact that while a couple of companies would normally have been happy to quote, they just didn’t have capacity to handle the job at the moment. The inexorable ticking down of the Brexit clock had meant that they were not only all overflowing with containers full of emergency supplies of essential goods in readiness for the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, but were also tearing their hair out, trying to fathom what paperwork, checks and other rules they would suddenly need to deal with should this disaster actually come to pass.

Against this background, it was not hard to appreciate why Mr Blue-Shirt’s optimism was wearing thin. Never one to be beaten, however – ‘failure is not an option’ is another of his favourite sayings – he decided to see this impasse as a challenge rather than a problem and so set in place a campaign of direct action. This involved sniffing out goods yards and haulage companies while out and about on various missions, eyeing up what vehicles and equipment they had, and then if things looked promising, visiting them in person, armed with photos, dimensions, serial numbers, weights and packing lists – and a determined look in his steely blue eyes. Having met only apologetic shrugs in a couple of places, he eventually tried his luck at a yard down by Porto Recanati, right next to the toll booths where we join the autostrada that runs along the coast from Rimini to Bari. While such things are simply not on my radar, Mr Blue-Shirt had clocked that they had cranes and forklifts aplenty as well as a fleet of trucks and a designated storage area stacked with containers awaiting delivery. Storage is a critical to Mr Blue-Shirt’s requirements, incidentally: in the absence for the time being of a permanent home for the container (ie his new forge, when he finds it), it can’t be stored at the house. Despite having enough space and even a suitable spot for it in the south-west corner of the olive grove up against the boundary hedge and largely hidden behind a large conifer, the location of power lines combined with the laws of physics and geometry conspire to make it impossible for a crane to lift the fully laden container from a truck, swing it over the 2.5m-high hedge and lower it into position.

Feeling confident, Mr Blue-Shirt ran through his now well-rehearsed pitch with Federico the very business-like owner. Yes, he shipped goods between Italy and the UK; yes he’d be happy to do a one-off private job; yes, he could do it for somewhere close budget. By this stage, Mr Blue-Shirt could happily have leant across the paper-strewn desk and planted a kiss on Federico’s deeply tanned cheek. But then the killer blow: he just didn’t have the storage capacity. Mr Blue-Shirt inhaled, closed his eyes and tried to organise his face into a smile before thanking Federico and taking his leave. “But you can try my friend Antonio in Porto Potenza Picena. He regularly ships stuff between the UK and Italy, and I don’t think his yard is full.” Clutching Antonio’s business card in one hand, he waved Federico a grateful farewell with the other as he clambered back into the van. “Mi hai salvato la vita!” he called as he crunched it into gear and sped off to Antonio’s yard.

Bingo! Antonio could do the lot; he even had a shipping agent in the UK who could organise that end of the journey. But the clincher was that he could also store the container at a very modest monthly rent, and so they shook hands on the deal there and then. Mr Blue-Shirt’s relief was palpable when over dinner that evening he told me how helpful Antonio had been, and how reassured he had been by Antonio’s genial manner as well as his forces background: something which always creates an instant bond and a sense of trust. Over the following days, Antonio proved to be as good as his word and all the necessary documents were provided and information exchanged; the crane was hired, the truck booked, the container shifted and finally placed onto a goods train at a railhead somewhere in the depths of Leicestershire. From there it has doubtless been lifted and lowered, cross-loaded, stacked and shunted about countless times as part of that giant continental game of container draughts, for its trans-European trek, which will end at the railhead in Pescara, some 100km south of us, will have taken over two weeks by the time it is driven back up to Antonio’s yard in the next day or so. And Mr Blue-Shirt will finally be re-united with his much-missed forging tools. Now he just needs that forge to put them in. How difficult can it be…?

Local heroes

So, that selection of noteworthy Marchigiani I spoke of last week; those local heroes whose achievements have entitled them to the honour of having streets in towns and villages throughout the region named after them: I certainly hadn’t even heard of most of them before moving here, and I knew barely anything of the achievements of the few I had heard of. But more to the point, I am unlikely to have found out anything about them had I not had my curiosity piqued by seeing these names on a daily basis on my way to the post office, to the vet or to the pizzeria, to the beach, friends, or to work. So, who exactly are they?

Well, should you stroll down a Via Raffaello Sanzio – or indeed if you arrive in the region by air since Ancona’s airport also bears his name – I can now tell you that this is in honour of the painter better known simply as Raphael.  He was a famously prolific artist and many of his works can be found in the Vatican Palace, and together with Michelangelo and Da Vinci, was one of the artistic ‘holy trinity’ of the period. And his local connection? He was born in Urbino, a picturesque medieval town in the north of the region that in the fifteenth century became a microcosm of High Renaissance culture thanks to the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro, and that is now World Heritage Site.

Then again, if your route includes a Via Giacomo Leopardi, this is a nod to who I now know to be Italy’s greatest poet of the Romantic period; up there Shelley, Keats and Byron. His work is said to have found its greatest expression in L’Infinito, the centenary of which is being celebrated this year, especially in his home town of Recanati. This dignified and handsome town is spread along a high ridge just a few kilometres from us and forms our view to the north at the start of any trip into the village. Superficially, Leopardi’s masterpiece expresses the poet’s desire to escape the rigid discipline of life in deeply conservative Recanati, which at the time was still under papal rule, and to travel to the exotic-sounding places he knew of only from his studies. However, it is also understood to be a meditation on both the potential and the limits of human understanding and the attendant frustrations.

Another son of Recanti popular with town planners in these parts is Beniamino Gigli, a name that I confess was completely unknown to me.  It turns out, however, that the reason for his commemoration in local street names is that he was one of the country’s foremost operatic tenors from the 1920s to the 1940s who spent the early part of his career in the shadow of the mighty Caruso – which is probably why I had never heard of poor Benjamin. The various examples of Via Pergolesi, by contrast, commemorate someone who I had at least heard of.  I have now learnt though that his last name is in fact a demonym that indicates his forefathers’ origins in the town of Pergola, which lies some fifty kilometres to the west of Jesi where Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was born in 1710. A violinist and organist as well as a composer, his best-known sacred work is probably his Stabat Mater, which he completed only weeks before he died from tuberculosis aged just twenty-six, although he is also celebrated as one of Italy’s premier exponents of ‘opera buffa’ – comic opera.

Pergolesi is eclipsed only by Gioacchino Rossini as Le Marche’s pre-eminent musician (whom I had definitely heard of, having actually performed some of his music in my youth). Consequently, any tour of the region is bound to take you along a Via Rossini or two, especially if Montecosaro, Macerata or Corridonia feature in your trip. And certainly if it includes Pesaro, the region’s most northerly coastal city where he was born in 1792. Rossini wrote his first opera aged just eighteen and went on to write a further thirty-eight, best known among which are Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville), Gugliemo Tell (William Tell) and Semiramide.

Even though I had had no idea that Pergolesi and Rossini had hailed from Le Marche, at least I had a passing acquaintance with their achievements.  When it came to one of the region’s most celebrated scientists, however, I knew neither his name nor anything of the achievements that have earned him the accolade of having streets and schools named after him: Via Enrico Mattei is the street that forms the north-western boundary of Montelupone’s historical centre; it is also the name of a secondary school in Recanati (I have even taught there). And I am pleased to say that I now know that he was a chemist by training and came from Acqualanga in Pesaro e Urbino, the region’s most northerly province, and later became an industrialist. He became an active member of the anti-Fascist resistance shortly after Mussolini’s forced resignation in 1943, with responsibility for organising the supply of weapons to the local resistance cell in the mountains around Matelica (now better known for its white wine made from the Verdicchio grape). More significantly for street-naming purposes, however, was his role in transforming the Fascist-run national oil company (AGIP, a name which still exists today) into one of the country’s principal economic assets, and also for the development of Italy’s natural gas reserves, which helped drive the country’s post-war economic resurgence.

And finally, although immortalised in street, school and airport names less frequently than Pergolesi, Mattei, Raphael et al, if you pay a visit to Chiaravalle where she was born, to Ancona, to Jesi or to Castelfidardo, you may find yourself in Via Montessori, a small memorial to one of the few women (other than saints and martyrs) recognised in this time-honoured fashion. To my shame, I had completely failed to realise that this was in recognition of the early twentieth century physician and educator who developed the educational philosophy based on autonomy and self-motivation that is followed in the schools around the world that bear her name – Maria Montessori.

So, yet another fact about Italy that I probably would never have come across but for this peculiarly Italian street-naming tradition. For visitors and incomers alike, it is an insightful and serendipitous way of learning things about Italy that few guide books will include. Better still, though, by this simple celebration of the people and events that have shaped its history, it bestows even the tiniest, remotest village with a powerful sense of place in a way that boring old High Street, North Road or Oaktree Avenue can never do. So next time you wander along Via Somebody-or-other, or find yourself in Piazza Never-Heard-of-Him, just look them up. For you are sure to find a nugget of information every bit as tasty and quintessentially Italian as the pizza or the cappuccino or the aperitivi you are just about to tuck into…

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