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.