Signs and Symbols of Summer

It’s something that we still haven’t quite got use to: the speed with which summer advances here. And that is even after a solid month of low-slung leaden skies, ceaseless rain and temperatures way below the norm: on one day in May it was colder than it had been on Christmas Day. Someone somewhere had, it seemed, put summer on hold. Rainwater stood for days in the sludgy furrows of fields where seedlings struggled to keep their heads above water, and vicious thunderstorms raked blossom from the trees in damp, clinging swirls, like confetti at a winter wedding. But on the first day of the new month, that same someone somewhere simply flicked a switch, turned the summer back on, and normal service was resumed. From one day to the next the slate grey sky was replaced with pure, dazzling blue, temperatures doubled, and the puddles began to recede. The birds resumed their morning song and the crickets and fireflies resumed their nightly son e lumière. The crops shook themselves off, lifted their faces to the oh-so-welcome sun and got back to the serious business of growing.

It is late afternoon a few days after the summer solstice. The shadows are lengthening and the sultry heat is just beginning to ease, so I’m sitting outside at the small folding table that stands in the dappled shade of the olive trees down in the south-easternmost corner of our land. The line of trees that forms our southern boundary rises up behind me towards the road, and the line that forms the eastern, seaward-facing boundary stretches away to my left. Their branches mingle with those of the line of fruit trees and sections of tall hedge that form our inner boundary, creating a corridor of cool green. The land falls away here, and shielded by a couple of sturdy conifers in the garden-proper, I am completely invisible from the house.  I feel as if I am perched at the end of a grassy peninsula that extends out into a lake of shining wheat that surrounds the house on three sides. It rustles and ripples in the breeze that ruffles its spiky-haired tips. Only in the last week or two it has ripened, first from green to bronze, and now to burnished blonde.

In the next couple of days, I am certain, one of the local fleet of growling yellow leviathans will take to these wheaty waters, churning up a golden wake of straw as it labours up and down and back and forth, and pours its precious catch of grain into its dusty depths. But for the time being, in just a couple of paces I could plunge in thigh-deep and wallow in its dry, fragrant heat. As it is, though, the cats are the only ones who choose to dive in. The wheat is home to countless tiny rodents and so provides them with a rich hunting ground, although it is only Matilda, the female, who actually catches anything. While her eye is keen, her paws and jaws are gentle, and we can usually rescue whatever prey she brings us and release it back into the field.  Stanley, her softer, slower brother, is in there now, and a clump of vigorously twitching stalks to my left reveals his position. With a cross but muffled ‘miaow’ he tells me that he can’t find his way out – again. I smile and leave him to it: he’ll work it out for himself; he always does, eventually. My gaze wanders up the valley to the right. Golden drums of tightly wound hay lie like giant cotton reels scattered  across recently mown fields  where new growth is already re-covering the hillside in a fresh carpet of lush green. Vineyards that only a few weeks ago still showed broad stripes of buff-coloured soil between narrow stripes of green now bear only thin lines of buff between thick, bushy tracts of vivid green. The maize that for so long was barely taller than the wheat now stands almost as tall as me in dense, deep green swathes, the glossy plume-like leaves dancing in the breeze. But absolutely best of all, the bright green sunflower fields are now heavily stippled with yellow: these glorious symbols of a Mediterranean summer are just beginning to open their great fist-sized buds and break into enormous, beaming yellow smiles. I am still as captivated today by the breath-taking sight of thousands upon thousands of these proud, strong, bold beauties as I was the first time I saw them on our first camping holiday together over thirty years ago. But their utterly life-affirming presence is more welcome and meaningful than ever this year and symbolic of so much more than summer. For with their upturned heads and defiantly cheerful expressions they are a much-needed and well-timed reminder of the truth of Helen Keller’s famous saying that is my mantra: ‘Turn your face to the sun and all shadows fall behind you. It’s what the sunflowers do.’

Catharsis

La porcellaia. Lo studio. Il box. The pigsty. The workshop. Our nemesis. Or so it feels, at least. It is the approximately 60 square metre single storey outbuilding that stands a few metres behind the house in the slightly elevated north-west corner of the plot. It was also one of the many features that originally attracted us to the property as it also came with planning permission for conversion to a living space, and having a pretty little holiday let to contribute to our income had always been part of The Plan.

As living space for pigs, though, it has never been a thing of beauty. Beneath a sagging pitch roof stand four brick pig pens along the far side, each with a gnarled wooden door sporting a heavy rusty bolt and latch. The side facing the house was originally enclosed only with chunky metal mesh, with the tiled roof supported on heavy timber uprights, all now riddled with woodworm holes and alive with ants. Since being semi-converted into a workshop by our predecessors, though, this half has been closed in with a haphazard collection of redundant plasterboard panels, sheets of rain-warped plywood and a jumble of abandoned sun-bleached doors, with a plastic and chicken wire covered heavy metal gate serving as its door. Low-ceilinged and windowless, it can be hotter than hell in there, but despite the steamy gloom, it has provided a surprisingly practical workspace. Indeed, it was from here that our predecessor, a skilled carpenter by training but who could turn his hand to anything, built a staircase, created a kitchen, and fashioned shelves and doors and cupboards. And Mr Blue-Shirt has continued the tradition. Having an extensive list of jobs to start on the moment we moved in, he very quickly fitted the workshop out with an impressive range of tools and equipment to cover carpentry, electrics, plumbing, painting and decorating, and general building work. While some were bought especially for the particular needs of the house, most had been acquired over twenty-two years as an engineer, a further fifteen years as a blacksmith, and a lifetime as a hands-on doer and maker. From this airless, dingey space Mr Blue-Shirt has, among many other things, mended, moved and fitted lights, sockets and switches, mended, moved and replaced sinks, lavatories, taps, shower heads, pipes and drains, designed, built and installed pan drawers, kitchen doors, shelving units and created an entire walk-in pantry. There has been barely a day when the workshop hasn’t been buzzing and whirring with activity, its door flung wide from dawn until dusk, and Mr Blue-Shirt purposefully bustling back and forth, as happy as a pig in muck.

Even when we had workmen here for a couple of weeks to re-render the entire house, almost the only job that we have needed external tradesmen to do, it was business as usual for Mr Blue-Shirt, who interrupted his own work on the inside of the house only to show them whereabouts in the workshop they could help themselves to a  socket if they needed to plug something in, or the tap when they needed to mix the next bucket of goo. So it remains our steadfast conviction that one or more of these workmen had something to do with the subsequent theft of every single item from the workshop when it was broken into barely a week after the workmen had finished. The Carabinieri agreed that it was almost certainly no coincidence, as did our insurers and, grudgingly, as did even the building contractor who they had worked for.

From that day onward, the workshop was never the same again. It was tainted. There was, we felt, something malign about it. I could barely bring myself to set foot in the place, but Mr Blue-Shirt, driven by sheer bloody-mindedness, I think, managed to find the strength to go back in, first to make good all the damage the thieves had done, and then little by little to turn it back into a functioning workspace, albeit on a much diminished scale. And sure enough, in the months that followed, he has crossed a further succession of repairs, improvements and modifications off the never-ending job list. But by this time, the workshop was living on borrowed time. Not just because of the break-in and not just because it was getting ever more decrepit. The heavy-duty plastic that covered the worst holes in the roof had finally given way, the old cracks in the coarse render had widened alarmingly while the web of new cracks was expanding by the day, and the internal walls had started part company from one another leaving gaps between them you could put a fist through.  No, its time was also running out because the revised planning permission for the holiday annexe had finally come through, and with it the green light for the workshop’s demolition.

Within weeks, though, came the second break-in. The big one. The one that was personal. The one when those who had stolen all Mr Blue-Shirt’s tools and robbed us of our innocence came back again to finish the job and this time robbed us of our confidence and trust along with all our remaining valuables. And in trying to adjust to the shadows that now play across our dreams, the need to rid ourselves of this decaying, poisoned hulk has become our driving force and an essential part of our healing. So it is going. Panel by rotting panel, brick by grubby brick, Mr Blue-Shirt has begun dismantling this blight on our lives that has become as corrosive as it has corroded. Somehow, he has so far resisted the urge simply to smash a sledgehammer through its crumbling walls. Instead he has been almost surgical, first levering off and then burning the sections of makeshift front wall, and then removing, pressure-washing and neatly stacking the heavy terracotta tiles from the first quarter of the roof. And most recently removing the first couple of metres of internal wall, chiselling the flat, slim bricks out one by one, pressure-washing off the Marche mud that had held them together, and stacking them together with the tiles. For, once purged of their painful associations, they will all be re-used, re-cycled, and somehow even rehabilitated as we are determined they will all be reincarnated into something new and whole and good. Many are destined to become the low curving wall that will frame the driveway, others will provide the foundations for the terrace that will soon surround the house, and others will find new purpose in whatever finally stands on that knoll in the protective shade of two tall olive trees and looks over to the pink-hued village and down through the fruit grove to the glittering sea below.

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’Italiahttps://wordpress.com/post/lemarche.life/141) 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!

 

www.funkoff.it
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cd9O2aYyfsg
www.svicolandofestival.it

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 http://www.gumtree.com

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.

* www.tradingeconomics.com

Devils!

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.