mimosaNow the days are getting longer there are some definite signs of spring. Trees and shrubs are starting to develop buds, the weeds are growing strongly and the birds are singing. But most noticeable is the mimosa, which in this part of the world is a cash crop, and dotted about the hillsides are brilliant yellow patches of varying sizes from single trees to small plantations. This is the one in our garden, on the terrace above the guest flat. Mimosas should be just starting to flower but the winter has been so mild that most of them have been out for several weeks, with the risk that they’ll miss the main market in early March.

The mild days and nights confused many plants, just as they did in other parts of Europe. A number of delicate specimens ventured out in January, having given up on a proper winter, only to be hit by a couple of frosts at the start of February. The month has been mainly cloudy; today has been really cold and heavily overcast, just like England, but we’ve also had the occasional day of brilliant sunshine and temperatures reaching the 20s. The nights are still chilly but we’re hoping there’ll be no more frosts now, though this is our first spring here so everything’s new.

Our first visitors have been and gone, enabling us to assess the guest flat. The first surprise was how quiet they were. With a concrete floor we’d been expecting herds of elephants tramping about but there was barely a sound. The central heating and stove seem to cope well, though neither will be needed as much beyond the end of February. These guests are keen walkers and have proved that Perinaldo and back is quite achievable in a day, at least at this time of year. Most of the route is heavily wooded, so perhaps even in summer it might not be too bad. The sign at the start of the path says it should take an hour and a half each way, and this turned out to be fairly realistic. I’m hoping for a brief report of the week and maybe a few photos, so I can start a new section on visitors’ comments.

permessoAfter a three-month wait we now each have a Permesso di Soggiorno – permission to stay in Italy – one of the major bureaucratic hurdles for people coming to live in the country. Although any EU citizen is entitled to live anywhere they like in the EU, there are advantages in being properly recognized by the system, whose rules vary from country to country. Here in Italy, without your permesso you can buy a house but not a car (or at least not without considerable difficulty) and can only get emergency medical treament. With the magic document other doors open; electricity bills and local taxes are lower and you can register with the health service, to have the same rights to treatment as an Italian citizen.

The process of getting the permesso is typically bureaucratic, requiring numerous photographs, copies of passports and health insurance cards and some proof of financial status, the latter being to demonstrate that you’re not coming to Italy simply to live off the state. Basically you need either a paid job or some other income of at least 7500 euros a year. Anyway, we passed the test and can now get residency certificates and Italian ID cards, which will finally allow us to leave our passports at home. In most countries outside the UK it’s compulsory to carry some proof of identity, and taking your passport everywhere with you is risky since it’s a right royal pain to replace if lost.

gastankAnother bureaucratic rigmarole surrounds the provision of propane gas for our heating and hot water. The gas tank was installed buried in the garden, and over the years developed a tasteful screen of vegetation, but during that time the rules changed and it now requires a six-foot fence to surround it and protect against… well I don’t know. Wild pigs addicted to propane, maybe. None of this would matter if the house hadn’t changed ownership, but doing so is a signal for every utility company to gleefully charge an indecent fee to assign the paperwork to the new owner. With gas, this means the vigili del fuoco – the fire service – have to renew their safety certificates, and without the aforementioned fence that won’t happen. Leaving us maybe without gas; I don’t know. It’s not worth finding out; just get on and build the fence.

Which wouldn’t have been a problem had I not designed the garden around – and started work on – a somewhat smaller enclosure than was eventually specified. My fault, of course; I should have paid attention more closely. I’d routed a path past one assumed edge of the fence and built a terrace wall along another, and with the increased size both had to go. So I’ve spent nearly a week dismantling the wall pictured that I built little over a month ago, carrying rocks about, moving tons of soil and building new walls. The picture was taken before the work started; I’ll take another when it’s all finished. My waistline is diminishing visibly and I now have not one pair of trousers that fit; not even the ones I bought less than three months ago. Still, on the upside I can eat and drink as much as I like and no longer suffer from aches and pains after modest amounts of work, so on the whole it’s a regime I would recommend.

The wait for broadband wireless internet continues. The latest news is that all the equipment is in place and that tenders were due by the middle of February from ISPs wishing to provide the service. But since then, nothing. Perhaps something is happening, but information is difficult to gain. One could hope for a regular update on the village website, but there’s not a mention of something a good proportion of us residents regard as a key issue.

castleThe local announcement system does work in other areas, however. All last week was the spring festival, centered around St Valentine’s day. Various events have been laid on, mostly comprising readings and other fairly highbrow stuff we have no hope of understanding given our small knowledge of the language. Saturday night’s event was billed as an “itinerant spectacle in the dungeons and rooms of the castle”. The theme was flowers; flowers as food, drink and the inspiration for songs and stories, with the programme naming ten or so people as performers. So we went along to see what it was all about. It started outside the castle, where artificial blooms were handed out and a couple of ladies ran a kind of quiz, asking the three or four dozen or so gathered around to name the flowers that signify good news, fidelity or a range of other themes. All in Italian, naturally, but everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves thoroughly, competing to name a flower or what it denoted. After that we trooped into the dungeons, through a succession of small arched rooms we’d never visited before, each featuring some subject relating to flowers. The first one (shown) we didn’t follow – it was a short Romeo and Juliet-ish play about flowers and love. In the second we were harangued from a balcony by a witch who attempted to cast a spell using flowers that bloom at night (that’s about as far as I could follow). When it didn’t work she blamed the audience and shooed us on to the next room. All great fun.

castle2In another room was a table behind which a performer dressed as chef or wine waiter talked about flowers as flavours for liqueurs and other food, handed out crystallized flowers and paper cups of a slightly strange-tasting floral brew, while repeatedly calling for a toast – a brindisi – for something or other. And in the final room a young woman performer dressed in a black jumper, net tights and a skimpy mini-skirt talked about something or other (I was concentrating on the skirt and even forgot to take a photo). Ah yes, it was about beauty products using such things as oil of dog-rose (woof!) She was a spellbinding performer, leaping around the room and gurning to demonstrate the need to stretch facial skin and muscles.

Because of the small size of some of the rooms the visitors were taken through in groups of twenty or so, and the whole thing was organized and timed so that as one group went through the dungeons the next was being warmed up by the quiz ladies outside. There were probably three groups in all but the whole thing went flawlessly, with no hanging about, which suggested a very professional and practised team. And it was all free. This seems to be the way things are done here, the assumption being that if you lay something on people will turn up and that the cost should naturally be borne by the community.

And finally, this is now the Chinese Year of the Pig. It seems the Asian influence is getting stronger; textile imports and avian flu to name but two. I mention this because we’ve been having nocturnal visitors of the porcine variety, though they might not actually be Chinese. But whatever nationality they do a powerful job of rotovating the garden. As well as dismantling terrace walls, digging up plants and generally leaving the place looking like a hyperactive drunk was left in charge of all the garden machinery. The hunting season is now over so I’m tempted to buy a shotgun and sit out for a couple of nights waiting for the buggers to turn up. The alternative – much more expensive – is to fence everything of value, which is probably what I’ll do, if for no other reason than to avoid shooting off my own foot or getting charged by half a ton of angry bacon.

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