Near the end of Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life there’s a Terry Gilliam animation featuring a lone tree in autumn colours. A single leaf falls, oscillating gently back and forth and emitting a faint wail of despair as it goes. A pause, then another does the same. A longer pause, then all the remaining leaves crash suddenly and simultaneously to the ground, accompanied by a massed scream.
I was reminded of this while riding back home from Dolceaqua on the scooter. Trees that seemed to be in full leaf just the other day are now relatively bare, and here and there the place is starting to look like winter as I remember it looking out from the window of the shuttle bus on its way from the airport to the ski resort on any of our various winter holidays in northern Italy. It all seems to be happening quite suddenly. My impression has always been that in England the leaves hang on tenaciously, resulting in the glorious displays of red and gold they were showing us on Anglia News a few evenings back, then when the winter gales arrive they get blown off to pile up in some poor sod’s drive. Or on the railway lines, where they bring the nation’s transport to a halt. Here they give up without a fight and lie quietly in heaps under the trees they fell from, but it’s an uneven process, with a fully loaded tree right next to one with hardly any leaves at all.
A week or two back we had a foray to the supermarket in Menton, over the border in France. It’s a very different shopping experience, much more like in England only with that unmistakable French character. Although to be fair the place is several times the size of the largest supermarket we’ve found here in Italy, there’s a lot more variety than can be found here (outside of the pasta aisle), though sadly not Cheddar cheese, for which we have yet to find a local substitute. But chainsaw oil is available, is a fraction the price of the same stuff in Italy. Our overall conclusion however, confirmed by others we’ve spoken to, was that most prices are higher in France and the quality is at times a little suspect. We foolishly bought eggs, which were no cheaper and had been around for rather too long. As in England they were probably shipped half-way across the country, whereas in Italy things like eggs are probably local.
While browsing the aisles I discovered waxed cardboard packets of ready made “Soupe de Poisson”, which seemed like a good idea for a quick meal. We bought one and stuck it in the pantry, then forgot about it until the other day when we rediscovered it, took it out and heated it up for lunch. It took quite some while to identify just what it most reminded us of; a kind of Brown Windsor Lite with a taste reminiscent of Shipman’s fish paste. Tinged with beef. Quite what denizen of the depths is responsible for that taste and for the medium brown colour we found difficult to imagine. In my last letter I referred to the sometimes surprising tastes that leap out of otherwise innocuous items; this was certainly one of them, though possibly not one we’ll be repeating.
Another outing on December 2, to the annual Ecumenical Festival, held in the Espace Fontvielle in Monaco, in the permanent tent that among other things houses the State Circus. This grand-sounding affair is in fact a very British jumble sale, though since this is the Riviera the catering was of a somewhat higher standard than in your average village hall and took up the entire centre of the arena, with the sale stalls ringed around the edge. But it all felt very familiar, tables groaning with cast-off clothing or paperback books and people diving in for bargains. A surprising number of English people; I never dreamt there could be that many of us in the area with a taste for jumble sales. In our willingness to pursue bargains we were closely followed by the French, then at a distance by the Italians, who are mostly too style-conscious to be into second-hand stuff. It may sound a bit odd, with the heliport right outside and a harbour full of million-pound gin palaces just along the way, to find something as down-market as a jumble sale, but inside it didn’t really feel that way, perhaps because of the international nature, the impressive venue or the classy catering.
We didn’t find any clothing to buy but I picked up some books so as not to go away empty-handed. Then we set off on foot along the harbourside past the expensive yachts. At some point I managed to drop and lose my street map of the city and had little idea where we were or how to get to the railway station for our return journey. After a short period of panic and a fruitless attempt to find a newsagent, we eventually asked a policeman, not being sure if this was a wise thing to do. After all, just over the border in France the police aren’t there to deal with stupid tourist problems; their job is to harrass motorists and beat up student rioters. But in Monaco things are different; the officer pointed us to a police station just along the road and said we’d get a map there for nothing. When we arrived outside the building a couple of minutes later he’d contrived by some means to get there before us and was already emerging from the entrance clutching a pack of maps, which he proceeded to hand out to us and some Italian visitors before wishing us a pleasant day.
Crisis over, we carried on and round to Port Hercule, where they hold the Grand Prix. Here much of the space on the promenade was devoted to a recreation of the Arctic, with igloos, huskies (real), polar bears (fake) and Father Christmas with Rudolf (absolutely genuine and I won’t hear a word otherwise). The swimming pool had become an ice rink and the sun completed the polar effect by disappearing behind banks of cloud. After stopping for lunch at one of the many cafes we continued around the harbour round to the tunnel (of Grand Prix fame), then up in the lift to the Casino. Unfortunately it was starting to rain so we cut short our tour and headed back to the station and a train to Ventimiglia, where we’d left the bike.
I’m not sure what I think of Monaco. It’s impressive, to be sure, and arguably one of the safest cities in the world as well as one of the smallest. But because the Principality is such a small place they’ve had to take what everywhere else is suburban sprawl and cram it into the city itself, as endless high-rise blocks of doubtful aesthetic value. This has all happened in the last 25 years or so, as any old-timer will tell you, and the effect is not particularly attractive from any distance. Close up you tend not to notice it, though, as the eye tends to be drawn to things close at hand. The road system is truly three-dimensional and apparently inspired by a love of tunnelling; flyovers spring out of one cliff face and dive into the next with little regard for what’s around them. Houses are built right alongside, in a few cases with their immaculately-tended gardens right underneath the concrete leaving insufficient headroom to even stand up.
The other day we had thistles for dinner. Just as a starter, you understand. To be more accurate these were globe artichokes; big green spiky relatives of the humble thistle. They’re in all the shops but we’ve never had the courage to buy them up till now. Having got them home we were at a bit of a loss as to how to prepare them for eating; any suggestions will be welcome. Following some rather vague instructions in a cookbook, we boiled them and found the base of the leaves and the heart to be quite tasty; is this all there is to it?
This week the BBC Radio 4 PM programme invited listeners to take a picture just as the programme came on air on Tuesday, and send it in. Of course it’s dark at 5pm almost anywhere in Europe (except western Cornwall, apparently) so that meant using artificial light. I decided to go for it, and hunted around for something that would register on the camera. There was a full moon out there but the results were disappointing; half an hour earlier the mountain would have been clearly visible in the dusk. After some experimentation I took this view out of our kitchen window, but the garden only shows on the right-hand side. What you see on the left is the reflection of the inside of the house. Although you can’t see it in this reduced copy there’s also a line of lights across the middle from Perinaldo on the hilltop opposite. OK, it’s a tricksy picture, but it genuinely is what we could see as PM came on the air. Including the wine glass inadvertently left on top of the stove that I’d just lit.
By the end of the programme PM had received several thousand images, so it’ll be interesting to see what they make of the exercise. If anyone reading this also sent in a picture, please do send it to me. But please keep the file size down to less than 500k bytes as we don’t yet have broadband and large images can tie up the line for half an hour or more.
Hmmm. Broadband. Of distant and increasingly fond memory. I hadn’t realized how much I’d miss it. For example, I wanted some information on current Panda models, so I called up the Fiat site, then waited half an hour while the page downloaded a picture of the car that you can rotate by clicking. Big deal; I can see the bloody things all over the place every time I go out. What I wanted was the price and the technical specs. The Peugeot site had no price information whatsoever, and on the Daewoo site – or was it Kia, they’re all as bad – I spent an hour downloading a PDF “fact sheet” only to find it was a series of photos of leggy models getting in and out of the car or opening the boot, with only the briefest mention of technical stuff like whether it comes with an engine.
So as you can imagine I’m starting to chew my fingernails to the elbows waiting for Telecom Italia or whoever to get of their backsides and bring broadband to the village. There’s not a tweet about the supposed plan to bring the Internet by radio from Monte Bignone. Time to go to the council office again and see if there’s any news.
But not for a day or two. Last weekend Britain had some foul weather; not cold, I understand, but very wet and windy. The tail end of it arrived here on Tuesday night and we were woken up during the night by various clankings from above us. While we were staying in the guest flat we often heard occasional night-time noises, probably small animals running across the roof tiles or cinghiale uprooting our favourite plants, but down here it’s normally completely quiet at night behind the double-glazing. This was the first windy night since we arrived, and since the noises were intermittent we merely turned over and went back to sleep. In the morning we went up for an inspection and discovered two of the elastic straps holding down the sunshade over the terrace had snapped, allowing the canvas to flap about. No other damage had been done so we did what we should probably have done a couple of months ago and took down the sunshade. It’s only needed in the summer months anyway.
The day continued cloudy and wet, and apart from a lull at lunchtime, windy. According to the weather forecast this is the Scirocco, the warm humid south-east wind from Africa. It certainly was warm so I was able to continue pruning and felling olives in between the showers. I’m starting to get the hang of these chainsaw things, and I’ve noticed they’re quite expensive to run. They get through prodigious amounts of chain oil, so it’s just as well the stuff is cheap over in France. They also use quite a bit of fuel, but I suppose it’s not really surprising given there’s a 50cc engine thrashing away. By comparison, an engine this size will power a motorino at up to 30mph, and it’s also the size of the motor driving an Ape.
Time to sidestep for a bit of motoring history. Back in the 1940s Piaggio designed the Vespa, one of the most successful forms of personal transport ever and still going strong in various guises. Vespa is Italian for wasp, both for the shape of the machine and for the sound it emits. Later on, Piaggio identified a need for another utility vehicle, this time as a general workhorse, and the result is the Ape (pronounced “appy”), the tiny three-wheeled truck you see all over the mountainous areas of Italy. Ape is Italian for bee (ah yes, “apiary”), a very appropriate name for a working vehicle. Being derived from the Vespa it originally had handlebars inside the cab but modern versions have a regular steering wheel. Although the engine is tiny the abilities of this machine are remarkable. It can go pretty well anywhere a 4×4 can manage and then some, and being only five foot or so wide is the only wheeled vehicle that can get up the narrow carruggi that pass for streets in Liguria and other mountainous parts of Italy. I remember seeing them while on holiday in the 1960s and was initially amazed to discover how popular they are 40 years later, but the fact is you just can’t beat the combination of cheapness, agility and small size. I understand they’ll carry up to about 150kg. Burly farmers fill the rear part up with whatever needs to be moved today then squeeze themselves, the wife and the dog into the minuscule cab before tackling a 30 degree mule track covered in loose boulders. Here in Apricale a hairy local called Censin has his labelled portabagagli (that’s Italian for luggage carrier) and can frequently seen trundling up and down the carruggi and back and forward between the village and Dolceacqua, the cab full of beard and the back loaded with tourist luggage. In fact you can’t go far anywhere in this region without ending up in a queue behind one. 50cc and low gearing doesn’t give sparkling road performance.
Anyway, back to chainsaws. It seems to me the major cost of logs for firewood is that of cutting up the stuff. A proper woodyard will have an electric belt saw, but for anyone cutting their own home-grown wood there’s no alternative to the chainsaw. With a tank of chain oil and another of fuel lasting half an hour or so the running cost is considerable, and that’s before needing maintenance and replacement chains. On Wednesday I cut down what is probably the thickest trunk I’ll encounter, and took a couple of hours altogether to deal with all the main cutting-up. How much would it cost to have delivered that amount of wood, ready-cut? I think the going rate is about 14 euros a quintale (100kg). I couldn’t even begin to lift this ten foot log averaging 12 inches in diameter and would guess it to be a quarter of a ton or more, so maybe the cost of DIY isn’t that high after all. And it keeps me fit and out of mischief.
On Friday we went shopping at Ventimiglia; first the Coop then Lidl. Frances of course wore the obligatory brown paper bag over her head for the latter. I’ve never really understood her aversion to Lidl and Aldi, both successful German chains that stock what is usually quite good stuff at low prices. Lidl meat, fruit and veg are of excellent quality and far chaper than the Coop next door. She claims that only sad people go to Lidl, but hang on – that includes us. I don’t really care as long as I get what I need.
When I hear a French accent in the supermarkets I take a quick peek to see what they have in their trolleys. After all, they must be here because things are cheaper than at home (unless they’re all sad individuals lacking a Lidl over their side of the border). We’ll be making a list of all the things we can’t find here, like cut mixed peel or treacle, to see if they’re available at the French supermarket in Menton. But not the aforesaid items the French buy in Italy. Cunning plan, eh?
Friday was wet. Really wet. It rained on the journey to town, on the way back, then continued getting heavier through the afternoon and into the evening. In such conditions we get a couple of small leaks at the end of the lounge/kitchen, where the roof above the ceiling is a tiled lean-to extension. Some time we’ll have to take all the tiles off, lay a plastic sheet and replace the tiles, but not till the weather settles down. It’s not a major problem, just an inconvenience. The floors are all stone and there’s no woodwork such as skirting boards, so even a major flood wouldn’t do much damage, and this is only a few drips. But outside a small lake was forming. Although there’s no step from the garden to the floor level of the house, there’s a small slope up to the door which makes it almost impossible for water outside to flood in, and there’s a six-foot drop on one side of the patio to the next terrace. So we’re safe as houses, which following this week’s tornado in North London is a pretty daft statement.
Yesterday (Saturday) I had a couple of letters to post. The rain had stopped, the clouds had gone and the sun was shining brightly, so I went down on the scooter to the post office in Dolceacqua. In the space of five or so miles I counted three rock falls or collapsed terrace walls, and all along the way fissures in the rocks spurted streams of water that rushed down the road carrying mud and small stones to trip up small wheels. At Dolceacqua the river was in full flood and I started to appreciate the need for the deep levees you see in every village that has any kind of a stream passing through it. When rain falls in the mountains it all ends up in the rivers closer to the coast; rivers that in summer are virtually dry. Right now they’re unlikely to overflow their banks, which in most places are ten feet or more high, but this time we only had one day and night’s rain. When the snow melts in the spring I expect the results will be much more impressive.
I thought I’d pop down to the coast to see where the river meets the sea. Earlier in the year there was a shingle bar, presumably man-made, that preserved a freshwater lake right next to the beach. As I expected, this was gone, but what I didn’t expect was the beach itself. Instead of the usual shingle I was greeted by an expanse of timber of all sizes rolling biliously on the waves. I have the video to prove it – it’s all rather uncanny and something you don’t see every day. The picture barely does it justice; you have to imagine most of the darker part heaving up and down. I later heard that this region – the Riviera del Ponente – was the worst hit by the previous day’s storms, and that at least one village had had to be evacuated. Much of the timber in the photo is cut logs, so evidently a sizable wood pile or even a whole timber yard had been washed away down one of the rivers, to end up on the beach. The area affected was quite localized; about a quarter mile of beach in all. Something to do with the currents along the coast. This particular part is right next to the river Nervia, that goes through Dolceacqua and drains, among other places, our own piece of mountain. But nowhere along the road to the coast, which runs beside the river most of the way, showed any sign of the debris in the photo, so it must have come from some other river and by chance washed up next to ours.
The beach will no doubt remain in this state for quite some time. How do you remove hundreds of tons of lumber? I suppose the best plan would be to organize a Christmas party on the beach, get some diggers to drag the stuff up out of the water and burn it right there. Once the choicest bits have been removed by enterprising members of the public, that is.
Such an opportunity for free firewood comes rarely. I went back home, had lunch, then hitched the trailer up to the car, loaded up with wheelbarrow, tarpaulins, ropes and straps and headed back to Ventimiglia. I was expecting a queue of expectant opportunists like myself, but even though this was a Saturday the idea of physical work at lunchtime was probably too much for most Italians and I had the place mainly to myself. There were a couple of other people collecting logs and tying them to the roofs of their cars, but other than myself only a guy with an Ape was at all organized. I spent about two hours in bright sunshine ferrying the stuff back to the car; eight barrow-loads in all, by which time the car and trailer were both full and I’d had enough, dripping with sweat and regretting not having brought a bottle of water.
I estimate the results of today’s labours to be two or three weeks of free firewood. Bearing in mind that when we use the stove we don’t need the central heating at all that’s quite a result. As you can’t get too much of a good thing we returned this morning for another carload, and should now have enough wood to keep us going into February without any need to touch the much-delayed delivery due next week. Which is just as well, since winter has definitely arrived. Although up here at Tramontana the temperature was 5 degrees when we left this morning, down in the valley, still in pre-dawn shadow, it was right down at 2 degrees. While the sun is out – for us still over six hours a day – it’s comfortably warm, but once it disappears behind the hill the temperature drops like a stone again. We’re both very glad we didn’t buy the house in Isolabona we looked at in May; I’m sure it’s very nice down there in summer but in at this time of year the sun hardly peeks over the mountains on each side and it’s always several degrees colder than in Apricale.
Today was the start of a three-month exhibition at the castle museum here in Apricale of etchings and lithographs by Francis Bacon and David Hockney, plus sculptures from Marc Mueller, a pleasant Frenchman (well, French speaker anyway) who was there in person for the opening day. All the items on show appear to be for sale, generally with prices in the low thousands of euros. A steal, obviously. Though as one with no expertise in modern art I couldn’t pass any meaningful comment, only to say that David Hockney can obviously sketch and Francis Bacon has a love of colour. Apart from that I can only fall back on the usual platitude of “I know what I like (and this isn’t really it)”. I would judge Bacon to be a surrealist painter, though others may regard that as a ludicrous mis-classification. All the paintings are of the human form, and although the subjects are indeed recognisably human they tend to miss essential parts – like heads – and most feature a strong shadow that’s more like the subject bleeding onto a pool on the ground. No doubt I’m missing the point. The sculptures are fairly interesting; the material being sculpted is iron, ranging from thin strips bent into creative and no doubt meaningful shapes to big lumps of railway line welded together. One or two I wouldn’t mind having in my own house, though (potential burglars please note) I’m not in the habit of laying out 3000 euros for an art work.
Apricale castle is a pleasant place to hold an exhibition. It’s located in a dominant position right above the main piazza and has superb views from its own gardens, a series of pergola-covered walkways surrounded by a riot of vegetation, used frequently in summer for social events. The castle building holding the musem is fully restored and centrally heated, and apart from the main art gallery in the picture above also houses an eclectic collection of other items, including original documents laying out local laws and regulations back in the 13th century and still in remarkable condition. Most of the exhibits relate to local history but my knowledge of Italian language and culture aren’t yet good enough to piece together the significance of them. We arrived about half an hour after the exhibition opened and had the place to ourselves, though it started to get busier an hour or so later when we were heading off back home. A string quartet was due to give a concert this evening in the same main gallery, but the start was still a couple of hours away and the day too chilly to hang around after sundown, so we gave that one a miss. Besides, I had a diary to write and a large pile of driftwood to throw on the stove, making for an evening of unashamed luxury, keeping warm without regard to cost.