July 7, 2007
So July has now arrived, and with it the gran caldo (great heat). Er… no. Along with the rest of Europe – and for all I know the rest of the world – the weather has been unpredictable at best, evil at worst. From Sky TV we see reports of large areas of northern England inundated by swollen rivers bursting their banks, unable to deal with the torrents of rain falling from the sky, while in Greece the temperatures soar into the high 40s.
Here it’s been mostly spring-like. Once or twice the temperature strayed into the low 30s but until the last few days it’s been some way below that, which is unusual for this time of year (so we’re told). On the other hand, during much of June the humidity was exceptionally high, bringing out biting insects during the day and waves of nearly invisible midges as dusk fell each evening. These result in a fresh outbreak of scratching every morning, though the effects seem to fade during the day just in time for the next onslaught.
Now we’re at the start of July things are now beginning to change to the more normal pattern of hot, dry weather; much more bearable than high humidity at any temperature. It’s still not as warm as normal for this time of year, but that’s no bad thing. And at night the skies are generally clear with a fine display of stars.
For two weeks last month the air rang to the merry sound of a concrete mixer chugging and workers swearing. We were having a new drive laid, having started to worry about someone – one of us or a visitor – slipping on the gravel and needing a trip to the hospital to have their injuries repaired.
The idea was to get a quote from a local builder then have the work done. Easier said than done. Back in March a local man called Fiorenzo came out, measured up and went away again. Days passed, then weeks, with no sign of an estimate. From time to time we’d pass Fiorenzo in the village and exchange cheery waves; on one occasion in late April I even stopped and asked him when we could expect our preventivo (estimate). “Next week”, came the reply, accompanied by an expression of utter sincerity.
But May arrived and passed, still with no sign of an estimate. Then, through one of our neighbours we met an Englishman called Daz, living in Seborga and working as a builder. He came round and estimated a rough cost, so we told him he could have the job whenever he liked, assuming Fiorenzo hadn’t previously started. Nothing happened for a couple of weeks, then towards the end of May Daz phoned to ask if he could start the drive in June. The deal was I would buy all the materials direct from the builder’s yard and pay Daz by the day until the job was finished. To save time and cost I agreed to be the builder’s mate (or “bitch” as some in the business would say), so early last month we got going, just the two of us. The weather duly provided a week of temperatures in the mid 20s but with very high humidity, so we worked five or six hours each day, he at the mixer and me barrowing the stuff down, bathed in sweat and constantly pestered by flies, mosquitos and wasps.
We laid the new drive directly onto the rough earth, rock and shingle of the old. To excavate first would have meant a significant extra cost; it’s much cheaper to buy a lorry-load of soil and build up to the new level, though I hope the necessary soil will in fact come from elsewhere around the garden. This will be a gradual process given the effort of digging in summer. You can also see the steel reinforcing, which should enable heavy vehicles such as the gas tanker to get down the first stretch at least. We call that part “the runway” since the new white concrete stands out at night; I plan to install a couple of rows of solar lamps to enhance the effect. And although the runway is unmistakably finished, Fiorenzo still waves cheerily every time we pass.
For 40 metres of three metre wide roadway the total cost came to about €2700 (around £1800), most of which was materials. I don’t know how that compares with costs elsewhere but it seems quite good value to me.
After working with Daz for a couple of weeks we got quite friendly. Of course it’s handy to be on good terms with anyone, more particularly with other English ex-pats. Daz and his wife Jeanette are unconventional but quite easy to get on with. I won’t go into details as that would be improper for a semi-public journal such as this, but he told me that it took only days following his arrival in Seborga for the locals to dub him cavallo pazzo (crazy horse). He turns his hand to most anything constructional but at heart he’s a frustrated artist and his paintings can be found dotted around his house and those of his friends. This picture was taken from the roof terrace of his house right at the top of Seborga, next to the church tower which emits conversation-stopping clangs from its bells at half-hour intervals round the clock. In the distance are the various ranges of mountains falling to the sea, invisible in the haze on the left. On a clear day you can see as far as Saint Tropez, and the view extends to Sanremo in the other direction.
Seborga is a curious place. It was left out – accidentally or otherwise – when Italy was unified in the 19th century, and still claims independent status. Never mind that it’s a single village on a hilltop about five kilometres inland from Bordighera, that the electricity comes from ENEL, the telephone lines from Telecom Italia and the roads – one in, one out – from Imperia. There’s a customs post – a small wooden shed by the side of the road – painted in the principality’s blue and white colours, but no barrier and no customs official. There’s the Seborgan currency, unusable anywhere else in the world (or most probably in any of the half-dozen shops in Seborga either). There’s the flag, in the same blue and white. And there’s the elected prince, who continues to be the prince because nobody else is daft enough to want the job. I believe he has to pay for his own pomp and circumstance; to my mind a fine arrangement.
Like most Italian villages Seborga likes to put on a bit of a do from time to time. Given the climate these are inevitably outdoor events, and we turned up at one of them. The village has a largish square that’s normally the main car park, and a couple of smaller piazzas such as the one pictured. The whole village gets taken over for these events, and dotted about the place are large polystyrene figures that look as though they were once part of carnival floats. Also distributed here and there are small outdoor cooking establishments, each devoted to one or two specific dishes.
The organisers of this event thought it would be a jolly idea to require punters to buy food tickets then go looking for the food. A system of signs attached to walls guide you in the right direction and take you past each of the stalls in turn, where you surrender part of the ticket in return for food or drink. However, though the plan sound good it suffers from some fatal flaws (take note if you were thinking of trying something similar yourself). For example, although an adequate number of tables and benches had been laid out in the main square, at most of the locations supplying the food there was nowhere comfortable to sit. You had to perch on a kerb or the steps to someone’s house. Then we discovered too late that the first location was the one that supplied all the drink; first an aperitif then a plastic beaker of wine. So you needed to juggle two beakers plus a plate of food, or swill down the drink quick before heading off to the next venue. You might have reasonably assumed there would be drinks available at subsequent locations. Wrong. But by the time you find out, who wants to trek back against the tide to the first one again? Then although the ticket had eleven sections there was no way of judging the sizes of the courses. It turned out they were all pretty generous and the largest ones were way down at position seven or eight, by which time we were far too stuffed to do more than nibble at them. But the worst of it all was you spend so much time and effort working out how the system works and where to go next that socialising becomes almost impossible. Which rather spoils the whole idea of an Italian al fresco meal.
Each of the three piazzas had a group of musicians, varying from mildly naff to downright terrible, so in addition to seeking the courses of this extended meal there was also the fun of looking for the least awful music.
It turns out that Seborga has something of a reputation for slightly cocking-up such events. It lends a rather charming daftness to the whole place, as if inspired by Passport to Pimlico. Having said that, it’s a very pretty village, though I gather it gets a bit over-run by tourists on summer weekends.
It’s time to report on progress around the garden. First, I have to say the strawberry tubes are a success. (For those who managed to avoid my previous diary on the subject, there is no escape. Basically, I’m growing strawberries in old plastic drainpipes with slots cut in them then heated with a blowtorch and bent into pockets. So you’re now fully up to speed.) The plants in the tubes are producing much more fruit than those on the ground, and their fruit is bigger with far fewer blemishes. So tell all your friends and start a growing revolution.
After completing the drive Daz spent a day attending to the roof over our front door, which was sagging badly. It had originally been designed to be supported by a series of Spanish arches but planning permission was never given and the arches had to come down, leaving the roof supported only at the inboard end. Twenty years on and it was on the point of collapse. Daz suggested a series of angled beams fixed in the wall and supporting the roof beams at their outer ends, so turned up one day with the necessary materials. First I had to take down some stainless steel bars that ran from the roof (more weight on those poor beams) over our sitting area, to be covered every summer by cane matting, but discovered that the wooden posts at the other end had rotted and immediately came crashing down together with the climbing roses that were also using them for support. Ain’t it always the case; you make one small change and the effects propagate like dominoes falling. So we went out to the local hardware store and bought a three metre square umbrella; one of the kind with the supporting post on one side so there’s no obstruction under the umbrella itself. A winding handle makes it simple to put up and take down. At less than a hundred euros these are amazing value; naturally they come from China.
We may live in a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, but that doesn’t mean nothing ever happens. Last week saw the annual ceremony of the purification of the Virgin Mary. Not being Catholics this lacks for us any deep significance, but the locals obviously take it very seriously. Everyone turns up for Mass at the little chapel, then the statue of the the Virgin is carried up the road on a bier, preceded by a small band.
I couldn’t help thinking of the opening scene from the old Bond film Live and Let Die, and half expected the band to suddenly break into jazz or a voodoo witch doctor to leap out carrying a large snake. I’m probably just being disrespectful. After the procession the food and drink appear, as is the way here, then most people drift away leaving just a select few to head off to a local house to party for the next couple of hours.