Tuscan Tales Chapter 22 – Fire!

Right now it is as dry as dry can be. There’s been no rain since I cannot remember when. The earth and our two tiny streams stretch out their arms to a merciless god. ‘When will the rains come?’ is a question on everyone’s lips. Old Enzio shrugs, ‘The moon’s too full,’ he tells me, ‘the rain will come with the new moon.’
‘Two weeks?’ I gasp, ‘Can the garden wait?’

Conscious that our borehole dried up last summer, we water plants selectively. The favoured and the fittest cling on, the weaker do not survive. The ‘favoured’ include geraniums – for what is Tuscany without geraniums? And equally so, what is Tuscany without olives? Despite the searing heat and the temperature soaring towards the forties Pasquale is working the olive groves around us. Up and down the steep lines he goes, working our neighbours’ olives as well his own. He seems to take enormous risks on the steep hillsides, and I often fear for him.

For Pasquale has macular degeneration. He has about 25% vision left in one eye, nothing in the other. Fortunately the noise of his tractor, an ancient Lamborghini, is completely overshadowed by its squeak. As long as I can hear a soft steady hum accompanied by a shrill rusty squeak, I know that he is safe.

... an ancient Lamborghini ...
… an ancient Lamborghini …

Sometimes our hills prove too steep, even for Pasquale’s abject lack of judgement, and then he has to strim the grasses down by hand. All this is in preparation for the olive harvest next month, when huge nets need to be placed below the trees. But the strimming is also to prevent fire, as right now the grass is crackly dry and as brown as a Highveld winter.

One morning I walked up our hill to meet my friend Jazz, who was coming over from Castellina-in-Chianti for lunch. I’d seen Pasquale strimming the olive grove of Sebastiano, although from any distance he wouldn’t really be able to see me. After lunch we’d planned to fetch Jazz’s daughter Giovanna from school.

It’s unusual for anyone to be out and about at this time unless they have to – it’s far too hot, and it is siesta time. But once we got to the fork of our small track, it seemed that siesta time had been forgotten. Just above the road Pasquale was halfway up Sebastiano’s grove, fire all around him and spreading rapidly as the dry grasses caught alight. Jazz and I looked in horror, for instead of beating at the top of the ring of fire, Pasquale was banging away at the bottom. And with an upturned fork.

From the top terrace of the house old Cosimo had seen him and with all good intentions had grabbed his stick and hobbled up the road to help. Well in his eighties and with a pacemaker, the uphill hobble had proved too much for him, and he had collapsed on a nearby rock. ‘Aiuta, aiuta! Subito!’ he said to us. ‘Fetch help! Quickly!’

... old Cosimo on his rock ...
… old Cosimo on his rock …

Now in our valley on a boiling midsummer’s day between two and four, that is simply not possible. Leaving old Cosimo on his rock and Pasquale beating against alarming odds with his fork, we tried the easiest first – Liam. With good South African roots and born on the Highveld he’d know what to do. What’s more he wasn’t sleeping. He was reading. ‘Right.’ he said, and taking two sturdy spades, he set up off up the hill.

Then Jazz and I rushed from door to door. Forgetting the obligatory polite greeting of the big old house, we abandoned the ‘permesso’ part. ‘Sebastiano!’ we yelled, thumping on his front door, ‘Come quickly your olives are on fire!’ No answer. More banging brought his wife Mirella to the window. ‘He’s fast asleep,’ she called, ‘but I’ll try!’ Next on to Matteo – with the same results. Do Italian men sleep while their women watch? Next on – old Enzio. ‘Oh forget him,’ I said to Jazz, ‘Leila’s out and he’s stone deaf, we’d have to tip the bed over to raise him.’

Making our way back we saw Liam, Matteo still in his vest, and Sebastiano, all firefighting on the hill. Each had a spade and a workable system had been set up – Pasquale being placed where he could do the least harm. ‘You see if old Cosimo is ok,’ Jazz said, ‘I’ll go and see if I can help, although they seem to be getting the flames under control now.’

... firefighting on the hill ...
… firefighting on the hill …

But old Cosimo was far from under control. Bent over his rock, hatless and in the blazing sun, he had both his hands clasped to his chest and was gasping for breath in an alarming manner. His face, normally a sort of unhealthy chianti-wine colour, had turned purple, and his eyes were afraid.

Kneeling down on the rough grass in front of him I looked into his eyes. Frightened, with his heart rate probably soaring, he clearly needed air badly, but with his hands in a vice-like grip over his chest, and bent double, he was unlikely to get any. ‘Look at me!’ I said, ‘Keep looking straight into my eyes.’ And taking his hands gently in mine, I tried to raise them up, away from his chest. No luck.

Now here’s where I need more Italian lessons … or is it the pronunciation? ‘Pieno, pieno,’ I said in my best speaking voice.

Piano, piano!’ came from the hillside above me.

What on earth was Jazz on about? And still Cosimo would not part his hands from his chest. ‘Pieno, pieno, Cosimo,’ I said, ‘Trust me. Look into my eyes.’

PIANO! PIANO!’ Came the echo back from the hillside. That was enough.

‘All very well for you,’ I yelled back up the hill, ‘having a good time fire fighting with the boys while I battle away here between life and death. And what on earth are you wittering on about anyway?!’

‘Trust me, trust me!’ mocked Jazz from her lofty perch. ‘He’s never going to trust you, he hasn’t a bloody clue what you are saying!’ And roaring with laughter she delivered her master blow – ‘You’re telling him ‘Full, full’ instead of ‘Slowly, slowly.’ ‘And he’s full of fear anyway, so he probably thinks you’re a right idiot.’

Chastened, I turned to look at him, but by this time, what with all the backchat and the laughter, old Cosimo had calmed down.

And so too, had the fire.


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 21 – High Hopes

Pasquale has a problem. The simplest of souls, there are two tasks he cannot resist. Firstly he enjoys nothing better than setting himself a simply enormous project, and then starting it – the end of which in all the years we have been here, I have never seen. Then again he seems fascinated by taking things apart, but the getting it back together bit, why that seldom happens. Rusty tools, electrical wires, old beds, broken farm implements … Tracey Emin of the unmade bed fame need have looked no further. It all lies here. A photograph or two and she would have immediately shot to fame.

It all lies here
It all lies here.

Close to Pasquale and Manuela’s section of the house is a verdant piece of land, stretching from the white gravel road downhill towards his borehole. It flattens out a bit as it goes and this summer Pasquale decided to enclose this huge area for a vegetable garden – an ‘orto’. First he would fell some trees, and then sink the poles deep into the ground, possibly with cement. Then he would twine wire between the poles thus keeping the porcupines at bay. And finally he would plough and plant.

… perilously close to the road …

We arrived down our hill a quarter of the way through the pole stage. Wooden poles lay entwined with spades, rolls of wire and a pick-axe or two. The cement mixer waited expectantly in the background. As he had started at the hillside end of his project he was standing on the road to greet us. The holes he had dug for the first two poles were perilously close to the road, and the soil was already starting to shift off down the hill. ‘Buongiorno!’ he said, ‘Bienvenuto – welcome back.’

The soil was starting to shift downhill
the soil was already starting to shift off down the hill …

Buongiorno,’ said Liam, ‘I do hope these holes are not going to erode the road away?’

‘Never!’ said Pasquale. ‘I am going to make a new little muro by packing stones up to form a small wall.’ As he had hectares on his side, we could not quite see the point of all this extra woe. The poles could simply have been set two metres further down the hill. ‘Well, it is all going to be lovely.’ we said, our hearts dropping.

... the deer will stay out ...
… the deer will stay out …

‘Yes.’ he said. ‘Not only the porcupine, but the deer will stay out and I will bring you tomatoes and beans.’

We left Fontana after a fortnight, and once more drove past the poles, wire, spades and a pick-axe or two. The cement mixer remained at the ready. But by then he had tired somewhat and in the centre of the land small rows of tomato plants were springing up, surrounded by a much simpler protection of canes and wire. How far do you think he will have got in a month’s time when we are back? I asked Liam. ‘I am afraid the task is greater than the man.’ Liam answered sombrely.

And sure enough, when we returned a few weeks later there it all lay – the spades, the axe the whole lot. ‘I wonder where he can be?’ I asked. ‘Oo Oo, just look!’ said Liam as we drove past Manuela’s washing. And there on the narrow road lay heaps of scaffolding.

Old Cosimo, forever at the ready to offer news, called out from his swing seat … ‘Look at Pasquale – there he is! He’s putting up the scaffolding so that we can have a new roof. The section above their bedroom is leaky, it’s ‘rotto’. It needs to be fixed before the winter rains. ‘Which winter?’ muttered Liam under his breath.

But Pasquale stuck to his task. Day after day the searing heat shimmered down and up the scaffolding he went. He refused any help from anyone, and all day long he clambered down to mix more cement. The whirring of the little machine that pulled the bucket up for him became the noise of the summer. ‘Come down,’ we would call, ‘It is far too hot.’ ‘No, rimango qui! – I stay here!’ he would call.
‘Maybe he is in such a hurry as while they have no roof they have no bedroom of their own,’ smiled Leila, our neighbour on the other side. ‘We Italian families all live together, but sharing a room with your parents-in-law, even for Pasquale, is a bit too close for comfort …’

I stay here
No, rimango qui!

One particular day the heat seemed to go crazy. The temperature seared to forty, and all you wanted to do was stay inside the house, protected by the thick stone walls that those Tuscans of long ago so wisely built. Around about lunch time we heard a tremendous crash Then silence. We hurried outside. Pasquale had fallen off the top section of scaffolding and landed on the middle section. Up Liam shot, and, helping him up, said ‘Now you simply must come down.’ ‘Never! Not until it is finished’ said Pasquale, and with that he promptly climbed back up again.

‘What on earth can we do?’ asked Liam, turning to the small crowd of gathering neighbours. They glanced back up at Pasquale and then looked at Manuela. ‘Absolutely nothing’ said his long suffering wife. ‘I can only threaten him with hospital – he is simply terrified of that. He has only been admitted once in his life and vows never to go again.’

‘Oh, what happened? Did he have a bad experience? I asked.

‘Terrible!’ came a voice from up high. ‘You know how sometimes everyone likes a bit of a party? Well one night I had a good few glasses of red, and went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up with the most unbelievable thirst. My head was banging and I had to have water. So I leant over, and, in the pitch dark I felt for the bottle of water on the floor. To my relief I found it, and drunk the whole lot – in one gulp.’

‘Only trouble was it was floor cleaner.’

Unfinished fencing, half-finished roof, one eye and a floor-cleaner drinker. What ever could he do possibly do next??


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 20 – Campari

Beryl Fawcett. I’ll never forget her name. She’d come from Malaysia and I met her at a party in Cape Town. It was 1961 and I was about fifteen, just ready to leave school. ‘What do you do?’ I asked. ‘I’m a social worker.’ she answered. I’d never heard of one. ‘Tell me about it.’ I said. Beryl worked among the rubber plantations, tending to the desperately poor and needy. She seemed exotic and well heeled, but had a deep commitment to society. I was hooked.

Back home I faced my father in his study. ‘I want to go to the University of Cape Town next year.’ I said. ‘What on earth is this about? he said, ‘Your academic track record’s bad, and as far as I can see, you have spent most of the past two years on Clifton beach!’ My father was incredulous. Girl cousins in my family leave school, and very soon marry nice suitable husbands.

But, I knew my father valued education. I knew that eight years of war had caught him. He’d wanted to study engineering, but by the time the war was over he had my mother and me to support.

I also knew that he wanted me to study further, but he was also right. Up to now I had paid far more attention to parties, the beach and the razzmatazz crowd of the Cape than to any studies. I could see him mulling it over. ‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘This is the deal. I’ll give you one year at the University of Cape Town. Pass everything and I’ll give you a car. Fail even one subject and you’re out.’ ‘Deals on!’ I said happily and bounced out of the study.

I'll give you one year at UCT ...
I’ll give you one year at UCT …

The University of Cape Town’s results come out in December. They post them on boards outside the Administration Department and you have to go and look them up. In front of everyone. It’s nerve-racking. Searching, searching for your name you go … Social Anthropology? Yes! Political Philosophy? Yes! Social Work? Yes! Social Administration? Yes!

‘I’ve done it! I’ve done it!’ I yelled through the front door. Celebrations all round. The weeks passed, then the months, but no car. Then, six months into the new academic year, I came home to find a small bubble on four wheels standing outside our front door. What on earth was it? I walked around it curiously. I’m not tall, but I could see right over the top, and I could definitely see a sun roof. I opened the front door … nice little dash, gears. I opened the boot – crikey, that’s the engine. Puzzled, I glanced up, only to see my father’s amused face looking at me through his study window.

"Its a Fiat 500"
“Its a Fiat 500”

‘It’s yours,’ he said coming out the front door. ‘It’s a Fiat 500. ‘Now let me tell you about it. It’s Italian. They were launched about five years ago. It was a time when Italy was still suffering economic shock waves from the aftermath of war, and this little car was said to bring wheels to the masses. They’ve had wonderful write-ups in all the car magazines. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about the Italians. When you were born I was given special leave. But the very next day I was sent back to Italy. I stayed there long after armistice, as part of the mopping up operations.’

My father doesn’t talk about the war, I thought, so why’s he telling me this? ‘Well,’ he continued, ‘Every Italian family that we came across, whether in the country or the small towns, welcomed us. I’ve never experienced anything like it. The warmth and hospitality made a bloody awful job bearable. And what really impressed me was that they’ve got style – they can’t make a garden without a fountain, and they can’t build a bridge without an arch. So when I read about this little Fiat 500 I thought … That’s the car for my daughter. It’s got style, it’s got panache, and it is virtually indestructible. Now go and enjoy it.’

Enjoy it? From the very first drive around the block I was in love with it. This was the ultimate fun car of the sixties, and as students we were there to have fun. I have no idea how many friends I stuffed into my little Fiat, but it was akin to sardines lined up in a tin. The sun roof open, the tallest friend would stick her head out like a giraffe. ‘Left, left!’ she’d yell from her lofty perch, ‘Oops, no, right, right!’ The petrol lasted forever, and so I’m sure did the car. But there came a day when we had to part. Married and with a small baby, my beloved Fiat had to go. Safety and sobriety won the day.

It’s forty years later now, and no, I’m not old. I don’t feel as if I have adult children. I don’t feel as if I am about to become a grandmother in six months time. Rather, as I sit here in the peace of the Italian countryside, with the noise of the tractor running up the vineyards behind me, and the fountain playing on the terrace, I feel exactly the same as I did when I got home that day in Cape Town -the day that that tiny Fiat 500 stood outside the front door, with my father hiding behind his study window. For … I am waiting for my Fiat 500 to come driving down our bumpy track.

How did this come about?

It’s three years since we bought the wing of the old farmhouse in a beautiful Tuscan valley, and we love it. Living in London, up to now we have hired a car at Pisa airport. It’s easier, and my husband’s quite right – we have no worries of lifts to and fro from the airport, of batteries running flat, or dirty cars. And, yes, rental cars are the answer, but where’s the soul?

Last year I found a new friend. She lives in the village of Castellina nearby and she is a gardener. I met her in the nursery near Poggibonsi and very soon we were chatting plants. When we parted I followed her out to the car park. And there, in front of my eyes, was a little Fiat 500. A bright mustard colour Fiat 500 …  station wagon! I’d never seen that before. ‘Where did you get it?’ I gasped.

‘Oh, I’ve had it for ages,’ she said. ‘I love it. The station wagon version was built especially to take a 55 litre demijohn of wine in the back. Only in Italy! It’s my baby. Because of its colour I call it the Baked Bean.’

I call it the Baked Bean …
I call it the Baked Bean …

Well, I felt exactly as Toad of Toad Hall felt when he set sight of his first car. ‘Poop poop,’ he said, ‘Poop poop! Ratty, I must have this!’ From then on every time I saw Jazz I dreamed about the possibility of owning one. ‘I’ll have a look,’ she said. But Fiat 500’s are prized these days, the prices go up, and who is a reliable dealer? The months ticked by. Then came the phone call. ‘My sister’s got a Fiat 500 that she’s thinking of selling,’ my friend said. ‘They live in the UK and she feels that she’s just not over here enough to warrant keeping it. Are you interested? ‘Am I indeed!’ I say, ‘What’s the colour?’

‘It’s red, with a sun roof, and we all love it,’ she said. ‘It’s called Campari.’

It’s called Campari.
It’s called Campari.

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