Wednesday, 21 December 2011

“The snow above was too hard and cold to fall; if you could shake heaven tonight, it would rattle like a cradle toy.” (“Fludd” - Hilary Mantel)

The French have been telling tales out of school about the British in the last week.  It surprised me that this traditional anglo-french badinage did not include the well known fact that all the anglos ever talk about is the weather.  Surprising, because this has been much on my mind recently.  Live in Le Marche for a while and you will realise that the Brits do not have a monopoly over the weather.  I cannot recall any conversation with any Italian, or overheard any conversation, where the weather has not been mentioned.  From every stall holder in the market, to every barista , hairdresser, shopkeeper, farmer, dog walker, restaurant-goer, builder, candlestick-maker, the weather is a “topic”.  Whether it rains or shines, is windy or calm, is warm or cold, is threatening to snow or not, it is all of particular and peculiar interest; peculiar because nothing quite like this, all of it, has been known for twenty years or more.  Has the weather in Italy been hibernating for the last two decades?
Now here’s the rub... when Italians talk about the weather it is sensational, definitely “different” and definitely worthy of elaborate and “interesting” discussion.  Whereas the weather in Great Britain is boring, mundane, monotonous, un-noteworthy, quite unremarkable really.  Therefore any conversation about the weather in Great Britain is equally boring and all those other derogatory things.  Dare I offer some advice to my fellow countrymen - hold your head up high, talk about the weather with gusto, be proud of it, be amazed by it, rejoice in its Britishness.  Learn from the Italians - it’s not what you say;  it’s the way that you say it! 
This evening we went to have a pizza at an eatery called “Piccolo Ranch” in a little town further up the valley from our “ruin”.  The restaurant, though large, is unimposing.  The welcome is warm - the padrone dressed formally in black; the waitresses brisk; the tables covered in paper.  The atmosphere might have been something of  a roadside cafe trying harder, if it weren’t for the walls.  They were covered in trompe d’oeil murals of idyllic pastoral scenes viewed through painted portals of intricately carved stone.  The perspective a bit awry, the colours unconvincing, altogether a bit kitsch, but with a squint offered a promise of the palatial.
The pizzas, however, were perfect.  Promptly served, more than a generous size, with a thin and crispy base you could almost see through, and charred at the edges.  That kind of charring effect for which pyrotechnic children spend whole afternoons with a box of matches ageing paper from A4 blocks, attempting to emulate the effect of a pirate treasure map and succeeding in creating something close to convincing out of the tablecloth or the rug.
The customer turnover is faster here than I’ve seen for a while.  In the foyer on our way out the elderly padrone, now in shirtsleeves, with a large bright scarf draped flamboyantly over his shoulders exclaimed, “Oh, you are English!” (in English!) as if we’d just landed from Mars.  He had clearly been enjoying some of his own excellent house wine and he called all his friends (anyone else he could find in the foyer) to witness his “find”.  We stood, surrounded by the murals, graciously smiling at each other, each with our own perspective.
When we got outside, how do I put this... it had started to snow.  BUON NATALE A TUTTI !

Sunday, 11 December 2011

“On such snow as this, said he, ‘he won’t go far, for he is a fat bear. He will settle down before evening; or if not, I can overtake him on snowshoes.’ “ (from an autobiographical account of a bear hunt undertaken by the young Leo Tolstoy).

Without fanfare, Italy has passed a new law.  It decrees that all vehicles must carry snow chains when traveling on designated roads.  Failure to do so carries a fine.  These roads have blue signs depicting a tyre covered by a snow chain: pretty clear.  Some, but not all,  of these signs give the the months when this requirement is effective:  novembre - aprile.  Peter has, by chance, got chains in the Land Rover, but, currently, I am driving around illegally in the Honda.
Snow chains we are told, “cannot be had for love nor money”; one of the more publishable phrases we have heard describing this “crisis”.  There has been a run on snow chains!  Italians have been stocking up on snow chains!  We have visited any number of outlets likely to sell chains.  Some salespeople dismiss our request almost before it is uttered; some sympathise; others philosophise; some take our telephone number promising to ‘phone if a delivery arrives before Christmas.  Then there are those equally frustrated customers, each with his own sorrowful (and lengthy) tale, including the obliging gentleman who discreetly followed us out to our car to advise us to request a written attestation of the total unavailability of snow chains signed by the “gommista” (tyre fitter) so that when we are stopped by the carabinieri, we can prove we tried to buy chains.  All of this had the same effect on us - helplessness.
Last night, whilst out for cocktails with Paolo, Peter took the opportunity to talk, as one does, about snow chains.  Yes, Paolo had bought himself a set that very day!  But where?   When he tells us, we realise it is the Agip station we have already tried, and they didn’t have the right size for our tyres.  (Although at this stage that hardly seems an important criteria, if it ever was).  I asked Paolo how many times in his life had he used snow chains.  “Mai” (never), this in his most matter of fact tone.  What a relief!  The thought of trying to fit snow chains to my car has the same effect on me as that of me trying to change a tyre - helplessness (sorry, girls).  Now, where around here do you think they might sell snow shoes?
Oh, the cocktails were to celebrate the Commune’s decision to approve the plans for our “project” in its entirety.  We will be signing the final contract (Atto) before the year end.  After that there’s no going back.
I should add that, towards the end of his life, Tolstoy greatly regretted ever having hunted that bear.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

“But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time when it has come around - apart from the veneration due to its origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that - as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” (Scrooge’s nephew from “A Christmas Carol” Dickens).

I was reading some Dickens with my english pupil (more of that another time).  Dickens is good, sometimes he’s better, but never does he dodge an issue.
We have a roof!  Well, sort of.  A start has been made on putting up the massive oak beams that will support all the ceilings of the house .  They hope to finish the whole of the roof by Christmas - anything’s possible.  Alessandro hops, skips and jumps across the narrow cross beams.  His only tools an electric chainsaw, his hands, and his eyes.  One fellow props up a beam, Alessandro puts it in place, then saws off the ends to fit - all done by eye.  I have to say, looking at them, they all seem accurately placed and of equal length, I think. (Oh, ye of little faith). 

Paulo arranged an appointment for us with the owner of a builder’s yard where we were to choose the colour of the wood stain for the beams.  After having spent half a day trying to find the place, we were cordially greeted and proudly presented with a special display from which to make our choice.  First, there was the well worn colour chart, but only 4 of those colours were displayed on actual wood samples and, of those 4, two were no longer available (since when, I wondered pointlessly).  This chap was making good use of the knowledge that less choice helps the customer choose.  We took our time, looking at the samples in different lights and from different angles, extolling the virtues of each colour: its depth and shade and suitability for our type of house and our particular taste (we didn’t want the chap to feel we didn’t appreciate the effort he had gone to on our account).  We chose no. 15.  How do I describe it?  It’s kind of - brown.   A roof by Christmas, our present wrapped: a hop, skip and jump of faith.
One day last week we were walking the dogs along our usual stretch of road (“strada bianca”, as they call the unmade roads here), when we came across two farmers loading sacks of seed into a hopper at the back of their tractor.  The older of the two men took the opportunity to stop work and chat, allowing the younger to continue lifting and emptying the heavy sacks.  Pete and the farmer chatted (I nodded and smiled at what I hoped were appropriate moments) about the weather - 2 days of rain in the last 3 months, no rain at all by the coast since June; the benefits of sowing corn (as opposed to ?) this season; the price of tractor fuel.  The older man complained about the quality of the soil, the difficulty of farming this hilly terrain, the lack of rain, the scanty yield, the market price for the crop; farmer’s talk the world over, time for a nod and a smile.  Pete said, “We like it here”, the farmer replied with a smile, “This is land cursed by God”.  There was a harvest of innuendo in that smile, I can imagine Dickens’ Jack Hawkins (the artful dodger) smiling just like that, except the farmer’s hat sat firmly on his head.
That same evening we had one of those sunsets that says “Italy” to me.  A bank of cloud formed over Monte Catria on the distant horizon; a promise of rain that never came. Shards of light broke through intermittent breaks in the cloud;  beatific.  Someone else was smiling.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

On seeing Michelangelo at work in St. Peter's, Rome in the mid 1500's, one French traveller recorded: "It has to be seen to be believed. He went at it with such fury and impetuosity that I thought the whole work would be knocked to pieces. He struck off with one blow chips three or four inches thick so close to the mark that, if he had gone just a fraction beyond, he would have ruined the entire work." (publ. "Rome", Christopher Hibbert)

The sun is shining today in a clear blue sky, same as yesterday.  In the sun it is warm, but in the shadows there is the first morning frost.  Last week it did rain for a day or two, sufficient to soak the pale, cloying clay of the soil here.  It is ploughed with heavy machinery and turns over in solid boulders which have to be worked again and again - like kneading dough - the kind I make.  We visited our "site" where the mud adhered to our boots and took hold, piling on with each step like concrete (in another story death by drowning would be guaranteed).  There is no way of getting the mud off.  We tried scraping, stamping, swearing, nothing worked.  This is the stuff from which they make building bricks around here.
The walls of our ruin were, however, originally made of stone.  Each of which is being individually cleaned and, where necessary, replaced and re-fashioned by Alessandro, the stonemason.  He is a master of his craft.  Peter has nicknamed him Michelangelo.  An exaggeration perhaps?  Alessandro is different - less temperamental for a start.  Italy today is still a land of master artisans.  It seeps through all trades.  Everyone (there are exceptions, of course!) seems to take pride in their work, even in the service industries.  All aspiring entrepreneurs would do well to apprentice here.  Here are some photos of men at work, no hard hats in sight.

Today we went to Serra de Conti for the Cicerchia Festival.  Cicerchia are like chick peas, once a peasants staple, now revived as a gourmet delicacy for those in the know.  The streets with their steep, paved stairwells and cluttered piazzas are thronged with visitors for the festival.  All doorways open to makeshift restaurants serving a variety of dishes all containing Cicerchia and all tables fully booked.  On every corner of every little piazza an untended, open log fire blazes ineffectually in the chill of the shadows.  The fires have no guards, people old and young brush by the flames regardless.
The little town of Serra de Conti is famous throughout Italy for this festival.  it may be Sunday but all the shops are open, many selling locally crafted jewellery, pottery and macramé.  Generous samples of local wines, cheeses (and onions!) are on offer and their stalls signposted by cheerful, if disorderly, queues.  The Town Hall has graciously opened its doors to all, with an art and poetry exhibition and, in one little room almost obscured from view, a sole exhibit of a massive, old, cumbersome cinema projector (though not as old as the one used in "Il Nuovo Cinema Paradiso", the iconic, must see film set in 1950's Sicily).  In the main square young children in makeshift costumes were preparing to stage a dramatic performance, ignoring the one little donkey standing forlornly close by.  Donkey and owner were presumably, though not obviously, awaiting takers for a four legged tour of the town;  presumably, but not necessarily, on a route avoiding all the vertiginous stairwells.

Lack of foresight, no doubt fuelled by our ignorance of the allure of Cicerchia, meant we hadn't booked a table anywhere in town and consequently didn't get to taste it (the Cicerchia, that is).  But reasons for not buying a packet of the dried out pulse, at what looked like Festival prices, from one of the eager bancarellisti (lovely word!) lining the ever narrowing passageways, elude me.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

"But when the slates came off extravagant Sky entered and held surprise wide open". (from "Glenmore Revisited" Seamus Heaney)

Days after celebrating 150 years of the unification of their country, the Italians are again flying their flags for the final fall (they hope) of Berlusconi; perhaps like Garibaldi, they'll name a biscuit after him too - fruitier, but less tasty.

We have finally got wi-fi installed in the apartment and here are some photos showing the progress on our house. No front wall and no roof! Although a new interior wall has been built to the first floor and, importantly, within it an original wooden beam has been carefully replaced; it does not look out of place, it's a little lopsided.

One evening last week we were invited to Paolo's house for a celebratory tasting of this year's newly pressed olive oil. Fifteen or so guests seated around a linen covered banqueting table with a wood fire blazing, "help" in the kitchen, and all the courses,starting with polenta and porcini, basked in olive oil. This virgin olive oil is unlike anything Peter and I have ever tasted before. In the bottle it is pale green and cloudy, like grape flesh. Its taste is not at all oily, subtle and slightly bitter. It is treated at table with the reverence afforded a vintage wine.

After the the meal Paolo gave us a proud tour of his house. He not only built it himself, he also precisely chose everything in it from floor tiles to doors to furniture to bath taps, each detail savouring the "rustic" flavour of the original building and of the traditions of the region. He repeats: Of course you can choose anything you like for your house", but this is just rhetoric, we know that, in his view, nothing will be right unless it replicates his vision of the "rustic". His house is a sound premise for his point.

The next day we went back to our man with the red rimmed spectacles, Ricardo (no really, you can't make up alliteration like that). We have to pay the bill for the wi-fi installation. We are invited again to sample "The best coffee in all of Italy" which today comes with a lecture on the production and appreciation of olive oil. Whilst Paolo may be his good friend, Ricardo is not shy of hinting at criticism of his olive oil making methods, nor of its resulting quality, not to mention the consistency of its shelf life. We quickly realise that there is a chauvinism amongst olive oil producers second only to that of "viticoltori" of DOC labelled wines.

As one guest at Paolo's table said: The three most important things to Italians are family, food and fashion (the fourth is women), not always in that order. Flying the flag, it seems, lags way behind in the order of priorities.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

"The House of the Little Fountain" - the name of one of the few remaining treasures in Pompeii.

Our Geometra, Paulo, is an inspiration. On Italian news we see floods in many parts of Italy (and the rest of the world), but not in Le Marche. We hear of Italy's financial and political crises, but one meeting with Paulo distances all these concerns and dissolves any lingering hypochondriacal homesickness.

Tuesday morning Paulo called us over to his office in the basement of his house to agree another final draft of our plans. They are so imaginatively and painstakingly produced, we can't find a detail he hasn't agonised over, including a little fountain he wants to put in an alcove by the front door. How did he know of my dream to have a fountain one day? He talks so quickly and energetically, it's almost impossible to take everything in, but his enthusiasm is infectious. He's like an expectant father pacing a maternity ward. It is invigorating, we all feel young again. His talk of building this house gives his pokey office a palatial dimension, we are at the centre of a new galaxy - at the birth of creation - the future is full of hope and it's all in our hands. The sense of awe, of insatiable anticipation is electric. All of that (and the verbosity...) remains with us long after we have left the office.

Back to the mundane... Sorting our internet connection is a pain in the rural parts (of Le Marche!). Thankfully the decision has been put aside 'til "domani", while we await the visit of a "technico" to perform a site inspection...hold the front page! By chance next to the local supermarket there's an unimposing IT shop. As usual, you never know quite what you're going to find once you walk into even the most unlikely looking shop. We are looking for a USB stick for the Mac only to be informed that it wouldn't work for our weak telephone signal, but: "Wait a minute, have a chat with the boss". The boss turns out to be an expert in installing internet connections and within less than half an hour he has explained how he can solve all our problems; he's a most unlikely seeming saviour, with his ultra fashionable spectacle frames, a ready and quirky sense of humour - "It'll only cost you two thousand euros, oops, forgive me got that wrong, I'm a bit sick" (to which Peter replies that he too is feeling a bit sick now!) and his offer of a cup of coffee which we are not allowed to refuse because it's: "The best coffee in the world". He also (like almost everyone else we've come across), knows Paulo, and just happens to be going out for a pizza with him that evening. Meanwhile, we are still minus an internet connection so we're off to Senigallia to top up on phone bites for the iPad.

Senigallia is a major town on the coast nearby. It has that other world, other time, aura about it where you feel as though you're on the set of a period drama, but the dress code wasn't printed on your invitation. The trademark sign, over one of those exclusive looking shops you never feel worthy enough to enter (and invariably regret it when you do) reads "Marcheshire". The cheek of it! Yet it's kind of like home from home - almost.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

"There's a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone else's work in the morning; it's as if stillness experiences pain in being broken". ( "Freedom" Jonathan Franzen)

There are little orange signs dotted intermittently along the roadside in this part of Italy. They read: Divieto di Caccia. There's one by the gate where we're staying, it means: No Hunting. I'm not sure how far the boundary of this restriction extends, but it must surely be beyond the source of the gunfire I hear at dawn every morning, including Sunday (in Italy ?!). What these hunters are aiming at is unknown to me; whether for fun or for food, or both. I have seen hares and small deer known as "daino", no pheasants, but the occasional, gravity-defying bird of prey.

It is rumoured that these hunters have special licences which exempt them from the "Divieto" signs. They park their dusty old cars along the roadside, sometimes right outside the house. You never see them, but by 10 am the cars and the sounds of gunshot are gone and all that remains of the dawn chorus is the slow chug of a distant tractor. Our day has begun.

We visit "Il Gelso" whose crumbling walls are now fortified by scaffolding. The roof has been removed, and Paulo's ace team of two is in the process of knocking down all the internal walls to the top floor, prior, they explain, to removing some of the external walls which are all wonky. Paulo has stipulated that anything that looks original and can be salvaged and reused is to be saved. There are piles of misshapen old stones, old "coppi" roof tiles, and of seemingly worm eaten bits of wood lying all over the site. We stand on the top floor of our roofless house and look up at the clear blue sky. "Tomorrow it will rain" they say with smiling anticipation. That means they will not work, but it won't keep the hunters at bay.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Mad hatter: “Have some tea.” Alice: “I don’t see any tea.” Mad Hatter: “There isn’t any.” ( “Alice in Wonderland”, Lewis Carroll)

The bank manager is super efficient. He’s wearing trainers, jeans and a sweatshirt, but he is startlingly close shaven and bright eyed. It is 8.45 am Monday morning, the exact time of our appointment, Paulo is already here with his son as counter signatory. On the bank manager’s vast desk lie the morning papers unopened, and the paperwork relating to our new account neatly arranged in front of the computer. I found him a most unusual bank manager.

We warmed up the proceedings by talking weather and the conversation turned to the benefits and workings of our “stufa” (a type of wood burning stove fueled by pellets, a by-product of the furniture industry). The discussion became more and more animated, I could but won’t say that the men warmed to their subject. The reason for our being there seemed forgotten or perhaps had become irrelevant. I sat there in the picture whilst not quite in it , but no-one seemed to mind, everyone was relaxed. We were passing the time and time was passing. At around 9.30 we got around to opening the bank account and received instructions on how to fill in an Italian cheque. By 9.40 we were on the road to the Notaio.

It all happened again at the Notaio’s. Paulo, now with both his sons, confidently strides straight through to the office, bypassing the receptionists who suppress a “Please wait, I’ll see if he’s available”. The Notaio is wearing sunglasses; he went sailing on Sunday and his eyes are sore from sun and sea. The conversation turns to sailing, then to something else, then to something else. Time passes. The Notaio is sharply dressed, with a full head of grey hair and a ‘tache to match. He is important, a representative of the State, and we need to know it. He is also a first cousin to Paulo. He’s mislaid his notes, but he’s not worried, they must be where he left them on our last visit, if only he could remember where. He covers himself with a sense of humour which reveals itself in the twinkling of his eyes, evident even through the sunglasses.

We eventually get down to business - the composing and signing of the “compromesso” (which probably translates as “initial contract”, but which I translate as “compromised”). The Notaio puts his reading glasses on over his sunglasses; he should look ridiculous, but he’s a canny old Italian and he retains his “bella figura”. The signing of the contract and the handing over of the cheque for the deposit takes less than half an hour. Two hours after entering the office Paulo, his sons, Peter and I head off for the nearest bar for non-alcoholic cocktails and a conversation about the benefits or otherwise of driving methane fueled cars. Why not talk about methane gas when you’ve just bought and sold a house?

Meanwhile, work on the house is proceeding, though the local authority has yet to approve the final plans (which we have yet to submit) and the final “Atto” (the second half of the Compromesso sale contract) has yet to be completed.

Sorry, I'm unable to upload any new photos as we're not on wifi as yet and the phone signal is quite weak here.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

"Oh, Brave New World" (Shakespeare, "The Tempest")

It takes seventeen minutes to drive through the Gotthard Tunnel. I'm sure it used to be called the Saint Gotthard Tunnel; has it been excommunicated, or is it simply not quite so saintly now? Either way, to me it was heaven sent. There are two things I love about Switzerland: it is a very small country, and it has a very fast road straight through it. The Tunnel marks the last lap, Italy before us, and don't you just know it!

As we emerged, the sun was setting, the sky looked as though Jackson Pollock had done his thing with a pot or two of psychedelic pink and orange paint on a canvas of deep turquoise, and the clock towers no longer troubled to keep the exact time.

Months of anticipation, three days on the road and if we ever had any doubts they are forgotten now. The drive was mostly quite tedious. The most stressful hour was spent negotiating the Milan "tangenziale" trying to follow Pete in the Land Rover whilst dodging articulated lorries which insisted on bullying their way into the indecently short gap I was fighting to maintain.

Today we're in Le Marche in the province of Perugia/Urbino. We've been here two days. So, it seems has the world's media, but that's someone else's story.

We were welcomed on our arrival by a neighbour who's taken it upon himself to water our friend's garden. He brings his family along to watch him do it. He didn't come yesterday nor today though goodness knows the grass needs the water, but then strangers and their dogs don't arrive every day of the week. Also welcomed to Italy by my mobile phone company and by my iPad (Pace Jobs, thank you!) which has suddenly, and not a little presumptuously, decided I am fluent in Italian. We have already visited our "pile of bricks" where work has begun and which looks convincingly like a building site now. Photos next post.

Meanwhile, I sit here in the unseasonal heat (30c) even for this part of the world, and watch the washing drying on the line... oops, watch the dry washing on the line.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

"A long coming we had of it" - T.S. Eliot 
(From "The Journey of The Magi", not "The Wasteland"!)

The 2nd of October 2011 will be our 30th wedding anniversary.  On that day Peter and I will be driving through Switzerland on our way to Le Marche in Italy to start the build of what will be our new home.

Our dogs, Elsie and Pip, travel with Peter in the landrover and I tag along behind in my little automatic Honda.  Apart from the 70 cu. mtrs. (!) of  stuff we still have in storage in the UK, these two cars also carry all the worldly goods we took from the farm when we sold it in January.

"Il Gelso" from the title of this blog, is the name of the pile of bricks, once a farmhouse, which we are buying in Le Marche.  A gelso is a mulberry tree.  At present this mulberry tree is firmly rooted in the foundations of the house and one of the first tasks in the rebuilding process will be to uproot and replant it.  Paolo has already warned us that it will need a lot of watering and tlc when it is replanted; its metaphorical significance is not lost on us.   Paolo is our geometra, which, as far as I understand, translates as builder, architect, and "what I say goes" man on site.  His name will no doubt feature often in these blogs - what do you think?

Paolo has already drawn up the plans for the build and estimates it will take about 12 months to complete.  However in our own minds we are thinking more along 12m to move into the main building and a hopeful 18m for completion of all works.  What do you estimate?

Our friends, Chris and Brenda, whom we stayed with on holiday this summer, have agreed to let us stay in their annexe for the duration.  Their house is a 20 mins drive from Il Gelso.  They introduced us to Paolo who rebuilt their "rustico" for them.  It is now a beautiful house and they are still on friendly terms with Paolo, which is encouraging, or rather, less worrying for us at this stage.

 See pictures of our little building project below.  Worries, what worries?

 Well, to begin with there is no internet connection at present where we are staying, but in true pioneering spirit and being sensitive to our priorities, we have every confidence we'll have it installed very soon and that's when I'll post our next blog.

 Wagons ho!