Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Raindrops on roses & whiskers on kittens

Ciao blog-watchers! Greetings from the Merkelreich: Sorry it's been a while but this post has gone through so many incarnations I've kind of lost the thread of what inspired it in the first place. I'll do some shorter posts soon to fill in the gaps and maybe a meditation on tourism which was originally a part of this post. Thanks for the messages about the earthquake yesterday. Alas and allora, I'm not posting from beneath the rubble. Dongles barely work here - even above ground!
Crete south of Siena

Lots of mysterious requests for blog syndication recently. People wanna publish my stuff! Promote my blog! Flattery would normally get you everywhere with me. They just never seem to be able to say why my blog in particular, when I'm emailing back fishing for compliments. So, I looked at a few syndicated blogs on matters Tuscan – there were some interesting trends. I was struck by the preponderance of what I'll call 'Pollyanna narratives'. You know, the number of people who swapped stressful jobs “in the city”, in search of a buccolic idyll - to raise alpacas/goats/olives (delete as appropriate) in the Tuscan hills. Now I used to work in a city, but I think the phrase is meant to signify seriously rich and/or important/powerful and the city not mentioned is a small area of London. One concerned a 'retired' banker. Bored of the city, he left for the hills at 34. 34! It's not a typo. I'd keep quiet about that if I were you mate – down here among the proletariat such views aren't so popular any more.

'Media-types' cropped up too. TV producers, presenters and executives turned olive farmers. Call me sceptical, but I think they mean hobby farmers. There are loads of olive groves on the market here. Almost nobody makes a living in olives. We looked at a plantation with a turnover of only €9,000 a year on 450 trees – that's turnover not profit. 'Former big-wig hauls olives down to the co-op' makes good press, but even at a tenner a litre, it doesn't make a living. The stories are usually promoting the real source of money – it might be tourism, it might be publishing. Could be cash at the bank that props it up. One bloke calls himself an olive farmer because he turns up for a week at harvest to watch the hired help. The olives are only a back-drop – signifier of a lifestyle. Cypresses too.

Count the number of times olives, olive oil, grapes, vines, wine, lemons, the Tuscan sun, or Cypress trees occur in blog titles. Or some variation: one blog “Under the Tuscan Gun” - manages to suggest both the film/book 'Under the Tuscan Sun' and the dying tradition of hunting. (Of course I can't elide the fact that the title of this blog is a play on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'). Slightly twee oxymorons abound. Combinations that marry a signifier with something unlikely, for example, 'Olives and Blackcurrant Wine'. From someone claiming to raise olives and make blackcurrant wine but actually selling 'luxury' (a loaded word in itself that tells you something about some ex-pats here) holiday appartments.

Boulevards of Cypress Trees

Media savvy bloggers also pad their postings with celebrity mentions. It's good for the google rankings and hence sales. The trick it seems is to mention someone or something prominently featured in the news. Dead poets, Stephen Fry or Melvin Bragg won't do, but Sienna Miller or Jude Law might pass muster. A popular TV show like Downton Abbey with such luminaries as Dame Maggie Smith is a great example especially since there has been unfounded media speculation that she might be leaving the show at the end of the third series. (like you're interested!) Connections can be tenuous. For example you can claim to have almost hired an interior designer that didn't have time to do up your place because she was working on Colin Firths at the time. Just stick Mr. Firth in the post title and the tags and a vague suggestion that you somehow know Colin Firth. Can you see what I'm doing here? Get my drift?

Working class lads from the Black Country are grossly under-represented (what a shock)! Stranger still,  are the lack of flies in the ointment. Has no-one ever dealt with Telecom Italia? The Agenzia della Entrate? I tell a lie. Sometimes there is a faint whiff of trouble, it's only the faintest odour, routinely expressed with a sort of faux bonhomie, 'Oh those whacky Italians. Paid €112 for a TV licence because there's no exemption for not having a TV! Can you believe it?' You better. Airbrushing of problems is partly down to the fact that they get in the way of promotion or else because money insulates from the dread realities. You can skip through the summer corn like the Cadbury's flake girl without a blemish or a worry if you have enough money. Not many ordinary Tuscan folk are doing that just now.


It stands for the region, but it's not widely known that the Cypress tree is not a Tuscan native. Or that it connotes mourning. It's how Italians spot shrines and cemeteries. There's a clutch of tall Cypresses at the top of our lane next to a walled cemetery. (To say 'walled cemetery' to an Italian is a tautology – they are always walled of course). Did you think those Chiantishire boulevards of Cypress trees or bordered drives that the tourist guides are so fond of, were natural features? They were planted for their 'tuscan-ness'. The ubiquitous Maritime Pine ought to be mighty pissed off; some interloper stealing it's thunder. Indeed, the region is a patchwork of different landscapes from the arid, bleak, sun bleached desert-like almost bare clay hills of Crete south of Siena to the lush wooded high hills of the Casentino and (sound of fingernails down a blackboard!) knots of motorway bringing the bored hoards to the out-of-town designer outlets. Yeah modern life is rubbish and it's here too! Yet that tiny area of manufactured tuscan-ness known as Chianti has come to represent the entire region in the minds of most people. Akin to expecting England to be like the Cotswolds.

Tuscany's on British telly again: there's Tony Blair or David Cameron walking over a hillock into shot like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. There will be Cypress trees and a gentrified vineyard back-drop. Strictly casual, slacks, collar undone. They will be staying somewhere near Stings pad (which drifts around Tuscany according to who you talk to). Cypress trees and vineyards symbols of wealth, power and luxury. It fuels odd expectations too. Do we have a pool misting system? 'Scuse me; a what? It cools you down in the heat and it's replaced pool-side showers as the must have accessory. It put me in mind of Dario Castagno's book “Too Much Tuscan Sun”. He's an Italian tour guide with some hilarious tales of how expectations get skewed by the images of Tuscany people are fed.. There were the tourists who complained that the hill-towns had too may steep streets. Duh, they're hill-towns! Why can't the ancient towers of San Gimignano have lifts? Why to we have to walk around the medieval centres – couldn't they use golf buggies!? Er... because it's not Disney World my love?

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