Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Jonnie Falafel

The questions started out all very innocent, 'Are you a Catholic?' I clicked the 'No' option. I didn't even know why they were appearing. Vanity compelled me on. 'Do you believe in God?' There was no 'well er...' option, so again I clicked 'No'. I liked this game. Much better than the Bubble Witch Saga. I understood this one and, there were no wrong answers. The display of thumbnail pictures to right changed a little. Questions came thick and fast. And with each answer the thumbnails changed. A light went on at question thirty, “Would you have sex on a first date?” There were no options for 'I'm a bloke you numpty, it's self-evident', or 'I'd wait until later rather than cause a fuss in the restaurant.' Apparently I've joined a dating App. The Galaxy is trying to organise my love life. When I first switched it on it began talking behind my back and swiping information from any Samsung device in range. It's siphoned my Facebook profile and is putting it about Arezzo. Every answer ruled out one market and opened up another. I know because Cinzia, Elena, Daniella and half a dozen ladies of a certain age have seen my profile and are barking up the wrong tree! That's what happened. Honestly your honour.

Anyhow, here's some post-modern self-referential bloggery. A peek into my mailbox.

Is Jonnie Falafel your real name? What's this? The Spanish Inquisition? My real name is Alfonso Maria Torquemada. That had to go? Pestered night and day with a name like that! It's what happens when your sailor dad gets extended shore leave in Santiago. Dark eyebrows and salsa dancing skills? Those genes didn't emanate from Wolverhampton.

Why Italy? Classic mid-life crisis. Too many programmes of the 'No Going Back' ilk. (Actually, they've mostly all gone back!) Over-indulgence in 'memoirs' like Annie Hawes Extra Virgin about Liguria or that ex-Genesis drummer guy who wrote Driving Over lemons about Andalusia. Mind you even the guy who wrote TheDark Heart of Italy still lives in Bologna after twenty years and sings the praises of the Italian caffè.

Do you miss England? Depends which England. The rolling hills of the Yorkshire Dales. Riverside walks. Lively market towns. A good pub. The eco-socialist republic of Hebden Bridge. The ease with which things get done. Transparency of social situations. Complex conversations. People. I miss all those things. You can keep the coalition government, cutbacks, TV and the dull uniformity of towns and cities.

Have you thought about writing a book? Appeals to the ego! An alternative living would come in handy too! Alas nobody wants to pay anyone to write any more. The print market seems to have dwindled to a handful of gazillion selling authors and Amazon has depressed the price of books so much there's not much back-wash to authors. I know hand held devices are the in thing, but I haven't looked into electronic publishing beyond reading a few articles about it. Writing isn't going to remedy anyone's economic straits.

What does 'slow food vegan who knows you can't get an ought from an is' mean? Slow Food principles say food should be Good, Clean & Fair. Good, in the sense of good quality and healthy. Clean in the sense of grown with minimal or no use of pesticides & herbicides. Fair in that it should pay the producers and distributors a living. Carlo Petrini founded the movement to counter corporate food culture obscuring the connections between food production and consumption.
Slow Food

More than a decade after reading Slow Food, my thinking is more complicated. To begin with I mistook it for the 'Italian Way'. This isn't so. Whilst traditions of production are stronger here, especially in Tuscany and Umbria, the general trend is towards the same methods and bland-out of Northern Europe. The problem of earning a living that small producers face in say, Yorkshire, exists here too. And I tut-tut at folks shopping baskets almost – but not quite - as much as I did there! I can't claim the moral high ground. I love my Turkish tahini, Dutch peanut butter and Argentinian avocados! Generally speaking, the influence of the movement is exaggerated.

Some elements of it are deeply conservative; about keeping a 'closed shop' on certain products or methods (although I do understand that DOC classifications are one way producers can maintain a living). I admire the the Genuino Clandestino – groups of young farmers and producers whose guarantee of quality comes from the fact they they are local enough to know and that you can visit and check them out when you want to. Most simply cannot afford to buy into the organic or DOC closed shops.

I looked at animals, domestic & farmed (I mean farmed too! 'Farm animals' is a euphemism). They have central nervous systems and an anatomy and physiology quite like mine. It didn't seem rational that they couldn't feel or suffer in similar ways. A sort of suffocating panic came over me when I thought of the industrial scale of the suffering and the slaughter. We are lucky enough live in a time and place of plenty where, as an omnivorous species, we have the luxury to choose what we eat. The penny dropped nearly thirty four years ago. You don't have to participate.

Is vegan what you are or what you do? The dietary practice of eschewing products of animal origin? Or something more? Veganism is just one response to the industrial scale suffering of animals. One manifestation of the urge towards compassion. Anyone doing anything to tip the balance in favour of compassion should be applauded and encouraged. Indeed, in utilitarian terms it's perfectly possible for a meat eater to do more to alleviate animal suffering than a dietary vegan.

I'm not the perfect vegan. If someone slaps a lump of butter in the middle of my risotto I eat it. Vegan not possible - default to vegetarian. Take the Paris Exemption. Animal rights philosopher Peter Singer does. Jeffrey Masson does. A lot of vegans do.

There's a general confusion about matters of fact and matters of value. For example, it's argued that because we have canine teeth we are designed to eat meat. Others counter that because we have a long digestive tract we are natural herbivores. But even if we were designed to eat meat, it doesn't automatically follow that we should or ought to eat meat. We might equally conclude that we should suppress our nature in order to alleviate animal suffering or for some other moral reason. Vice versa for t the long tract persuaded. The ought doesn't logically follow from the is.

And sometimes a reader writes for advice.....

I'm thinking of moving to Italy.... Come and stay for a few months. Maybe try out some different settings, learn a bit about the culture and language, look at work options. Then retreat to a safe distance and make a rational decision.

And it's not all flattery...

Your tone is very cynical. I would admit to being sceptical. I enjoy irony. I'm the same person I was in England and I didn't Pollyanna around in a beatific haze saying all was rosy in the garden there either.

Your views about Italy are ignorant and bad mannered. When I write about iniquities I can be ill-tempered and bad mannered. Foreigners have different perspectives. For example, Bill Brysons travelogues of Britain are entertaining because he's an outsider. Insiders sometimes don't see the wood for the trees. The lake of my ignorance is much deeper and wider than the puddle of my knowledge. This isn't modesty, but the human condition. I prefer it when someone makes this kind of criticism if they would tell me on which points I am mistaken. A real exchange of views is preferable and I might even be persuaded. Everyone is free to comment on the blog. I moderate the comments but all views are welcome. I remove commercial content if it's not relevant.

Monday, 18 March 2013


There's a lot of activity in the hills around Tenuta Savorgnano at the moment as new efforts to make the countryside more accessible  for walkers and cyclists. We've added guided walks to our repertoire this year. 

View from Col di Paiolo
Just down the road from us the hills diminish and open out into a vista where you can see beyond Umbria to the snow-capped curtain of the Appenines at the Western edge of Marche. The ancient settlement of Ponte Alla Piera with it's 13th century bridge clusters on steps of land northwards; the dwellings thinning out the higher you look, finishing with stripes of south facing stone terraces. Olives are planted here now but I wonder if, in the past, it was chestnuts. Over to the East at this point looking down towards the Sovara River the trees are bare enough at this time of the year to see the trails and paths snaking through the hills in all directions. Look at the background of the Mona Lisa and you see a scene not unlike this.

Col di Paiolo: Picnic in the pines
For about a year now down here new chestnut fences have been erected, paths have been re-established, lay-bys on the main road reasserted, forests thinned out and old stone reinforcements of the river bank (ancient flood defences) have been rehabilitated. More recently rustic looking notice boards have appeared and brilliant directional signs. Looks like a renaissance is under way to open up this beautiful landscape once again for walkers and cyclists. Interestingly, the Communità Montana have renovated a great square stone farmhouse and a couple of weeks ago when we were out walking we noticed a sign there proclaiming “Visitors Centre”. We got excited!

From the visitors centre looking East down the valley Il Conventino  sits like a brooding solid stone block on a tongue-shaped promontory. Of uncertain origins, but possibly dating as far back as the mid-ninth century, it was a hide out for maverick monks and turbulent priests. Sold to the Count at nearby Montauto Castle, passed to the abbey at Camaldolí, supressed by Pope Pius II in 1459, receiving official recognition only in 1567, destroyed by earthquake and rebuilt twice in the 18th century and finally relinquishing the religious life in 1786. Today it's occupied by an British couple.

The topography changes suddenly here as the valley narrows and the verdant hills give way to a gorge. Jagged steep verdigris cliffs loom up. The low winter sun doesn't penetrate to the floor of the gorge giving rise to frosts here even on the mildest winter days. Looking up
spindly pines rise vertical as plumb-lines as if they were suspended from above; the base barely resting on jagged outcrops of blue-grey rock. At certain times of the year, clouds like cotton-candy Anacondas snake through the valley and the gorge clinging to the forest canopy for dear life.

Bear Ghrylls
Rock of Ages
This is Monti Rognosi which roughly translates as 'Scabby Mountains'. I kid you not. Mountains of igneous rock, these were forged in the savage heat and and pressures near the molten core of the planet. They arise where the Earth's viscous mantle extrudes through the crust at the boundaries of tectonic plates. Indeed, these formations are key evidence in plate tectonic theory. The glossy rocks are packed with minerals. The turquoise appearance suggests a lot of copper. It seems hard to swallow, but millennia since according to geologists, this colossal mass was extruded from the ocean bed.

The high mineral content and scant topsoil has made this inhospitable terrain for habitation – of any kind. The story goes that the 'scabby' part of the name referred to the people here. Since the soil was poor and the people malnourished they were prone to skin complaints! I'm not sure how likely that is, but when we were out walking I did notice that one of the two varieties of pine that thrive here has a scaly bark that peels easily and which brought to mind psoriasis! One thing the poor conditions has done is select for some very rare plant species here. Indeed, according to the information boards only 12% of the plant life here is native. Incredibly, the pine forests were cultivated!

Plumb-line Pines
Thaw and freeze, freeze and thaw. Meteorological extremes and seismic shifts have carved out this landscape. Water seeps into clefts and fissures expanding as it freezes until eventually rocks sheer and fracture. Boulders big has cars have been known to plummet into the road below. Until late spring cataracts cascade down where streams converge eventually finding the river Sovara runing between rocky cliffs on the floor of the gorge. It's a foaming force at this time of the year a great rush: the hiss and spit always there in the background. Summer heat saps it's energy and it trickles lazily seeping between pebbles and boulders. 

Il Conventino
Today Monti Rognosi is an area for leisure. Picnicking, walking and cycling have all been renewed by recent forestry management. Can't wait to take my sarnies and a bottle of prosecco up to the Col di Piaolo to experience the cool shade of the dense pines at the height of summer. The paths now are clear, safe and well sign-posted and at points afford stupendous views out over the Tiber valley and Sansepolcro. I indulged in 'archaeology' of leisure seekers of the more recent past exploring the wreck of an old theatre in the trees with a ramshackle stage complete with shrubs growing through. There were old green hand-blown glass wine bottles knocking around – left by litter louts from the last century no doubt. I could imagine this as the setting for a pine-scented production of Midsummer Nights Dream during the long light evenings of July.

Dumb Britain

Is a regular feature in Private Eye detailing dumb answers on British quiz shows. How's about this. We were out walking in Monti Rognosi the other day. We parked in Il Coventino lay-by where our car was spotted by other Brits.

Is this the right road for (looks at information) Choosy La Verna? (forgiveable mistake: it's Chiusi La Verna, pronounced Kee-oo-sey)

You're on the right road. First right ahead. Continue on through Caprese Michelangelo and pick up signs there for the monastery.... I assume that's where you're heading. By the way the famous Caprese Michelangelo is worth a visit too. There's a museum.”

Really, what's it famous for?”

Er the clue is in the name.”

Puzzled looks and then a light went on. “Oh, the salad with Mozzarella & Basil?”

Yeah right.

Monday, 11 March 2013

The Sanest Days Are Mad

The circus came to town when Italy went to the polls. Once again the body politic can't decide if it's in Debenhams or Lewis's. Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right. An election dominated by a comedian.... and the Postie hates us!

Chart says: "You are a hard piece of shit"
Yes folks Silvio Berlusconi – the Bernard Manning of Italian Politics – has bounced back. The crude tactic of sending millions of households a mock up claim form to get a refund of the IMU tax (council tax) introduced by technocrat Monti, worked a treat. (I should add that Berlusconi abolished the tax that Monti reinstated to get re-elected last time. It was called ICI then. Appropriately pronounced 'itchy' in English.) Italians voted with their pockets to keep their heads in the sand. Crisis? What crisis? La la la la la , I can't hear you! Do wake up and smell the Lavazza. Outside Italy they think this dirty, duplicitous, back-stabbing phony creep personifies the national character. Bunga bunga parties, cronyism, corruption, vile racism and coarse sexism are all we hear about. Ratzinger left the big top just in time. Good riddance!

Not everybody fell for it. A vaguely centre-left coalition forms the largest bloc just short of a majority. The relatively new Movimento Cinque Stelle (5 Stars Movement) holds the balance. It sounds like a hotel classification system. It's 'leader' (comically he denies it!) comedian – the genuine article – Beppe Grillo, is king-maker. In an ironic twist Grillo's conviction for manslaughter bars him from elected office. (It was 30 years ago, down to a car accident, so not like it was in the conservatory with the lead piping!). It would be like handing the keys to the kingdom to Mark Thomas. I almost wrote Ben Elton, but he's too establishment, and then I thought Billy Connolly, but he's gone all psychobabbly. Their physical similarity is remarkable though.

Beppe Grillo: Rude Italian Gesture
Criticism of 5 Star candidates centres on their political inexperience. This can make it seem Janus-like: Grillo, “We will exit the Euro”, a candidate commenting on TV, “Oh no we won't!” Pantomime. But as Grillo humorously said, “At least they don't know how to fiddle the books.” Cynics might add “yet”. This motley troop (housewives, students, the unemployed) might be exactly what's needed to shake up a decadent, jaded and corrupt political class. Grillo promises to “rip Italian politics open like a can of tuna”.... so that's where the smell is coming from! There's something rotten in the state of Italy.

The young who haven't voted with their feet and gone to Northern Europe or Brazil are flocking to the Mad Hatters Tea Party. Italian justice is a game. A back-log of five and a half million cases and a statute of limitations that times out faster than a dial-up connection allows Berlusconi to be dragged through the shit and come up smelling of roses. Not once but time and time again. Equal opportunity? You must be joking. Grillo wants to end the 'who you know' system that dominates access to jobs and office. Italian politics is a gravy train. The buffers are just ahead.

Madness of a Different Order
The phone rings. It's the Bartolini courier company. Bartolini is the equivalent of DHL or UPS in these parts, except the vans are generally more decrepit.

I have a parcel for you”
Can I leave it somewhere in Subbiano for you to collect?”
Don't you know someone I can leave it with?”

This might sound like a reasonable request but Subbiano is a good ten miles away.

What's the address on it?”
Località Savorgnano 5”
That's my address. Why can't you deliver it here?”
It's too far to come.”
Where are you?”
Falciano.” (A village five miles away en route to Subbiano)
I may have misunderstood. You have a parcel addressed to me here, but you want me to collect it? Hasn't the sender paid the correct amount for delivery?”
If you want me to bring it to you then you'll have to wait until next Thursday.”
Why? What's happening Thursday?”
Or if you come to Falciano within the next ten minutes I will give it to you.”
If that's your best offer I'll see you in ten.”

Then off we go to Falciano to collect the parcel from the curmudgeon who doesn't ask for I.D.

I was telling this tale to a neighbour who kindly took charge of our mailbox while we were away. Apparently the Postie doesn't like delivering mail from England because the Royal Mail insist it's delivered on the nearest delivery day to it's arrival at the local office. Smacks too much of efficiency perhaps? She has another gripe too. The English send Christmas cards of irregular sizes. Hang me now.

Send in the clowns, there ought to be clowns. Don't bother they're here. Apologies to Stephen Sondheim.