Monday, 20 June 2011

Most People Can't Count Above Fourteen

Max thought his favourite book, "Things To Be S**t Scared of in Umbria" had reached the limits of its usefulness and was idly wondering whether to archive it in the circular file, when a dignified shriek from one of his house guests in his eyrie in the lush uplands of the Upper Tiber stayed his hand. The lady, une dame d'un certain âge, a statuesque former Hartnell model and a great beauty still, had risen from her bed, completed her (somewhat complex) toilet and dressed (to annihilate) when, moving some clothes from her bed, she spotted a large many-legged creature emerging from beneath her summer duvet, all but stretching and yawning as after a good night's sleep. By the time Max reached his guest, she had recovered her customary stately deportment and composure, though an ashen tinge to her complexion belied her apparent sang-froid. A glass of prosecco did what all the powders and perfumes of Arabia (and Byzantine unguents besides) had failed to achieve, and restored her (surprisingly) maidenly glow. This left the problem of the unwelcome carnivorous leggy intruder. The creature, I mean. Max went to investigate, his legendary courage permitting him only a copy of the monograph in question, two hand-grenades, and a napalm flamethrower. It might pay to be cautious: “ a long thing, with lots of legs” could be a misguided Japanese tour group waiting for the Ladies, but Max already suspected that his quarry was that most ubiquitous, beneficial (and prolifically leg-bearing) of (originally) Mediterranean (but now European, Asian, American, Eastern Australian and South African) household crawlers, the House Centipede, Scutigera coleoptrata.              

Scutigera coleoptrata - the House Centipede

To be accurate, “crawler” doesn’t do this little yellowish (up to 50mm or 2 inches) striped darling justice: handily for an insectivore, it can reach speeds of 0.4 meters (1.3 feet) per second across floors, up walls and over ceilings on its 15 pairs of surprisingly long legs; this is amazingly fast. They have cleverly developed long rear legs which mimic their antennae, making it difficult, at rest, to tell which end is which. Gaining access to our houses mainly via drains, they live a mainly nocturnal life for up to seven years killing (by envenomation through modified legs - they have legs to spare, after all) and eating a range of household pests including ants, spiders, cockroaches, termites and silverfish. Though capable of stinging humans (Max notes that, since the venom comes from its legs, it cannot correctly be called a bite) such stings are vanishingly rare and associated with minor pain and swelling which disappears in a few hours, except for the very unlucky (and very few) who are allergic to the venom. Their hunting technique is sophisticated and they are well equipped to deal with their prey: they have efficient, faceted eyes, their antennae detect smells and touch, they use their jaws and legs for holding several small prey at a time and can jump onto, or use their long legs to lasso, their prey. They are easily squashed if you can catch them, but please don’t: they even cuddle their babies.

In ancient Egypt, since centipedes prey on the small animals associated with decomposition of the body after death, they were seen as protectors of the dead (though since they were always present at the scene, Max has to wonder….) and were revered as an aspect of Osiris, Lord of the Dead, known in this aspect as Sepa (or Sep), which means, well, centipede, and depicted as a bicornate mummy (parent who purchases ice cream?) or (imaginatively) as a centipede or (did they do a lot of drugs in Heliopolis?) as a donkey-headed man. Tenuously, since centipedes are venomous, Sepa was invoked to protect against snake and scorpion envenomation. Also, because they are found in soil, centipedes (and therefore Sepa) are associated with soil fertility, which in turn is connected to donkey dung (now do you see?).

Centipedes also feature in Japanese mythology, for example:

In the mountains near Lake Biwa, lived the Centipede, a monstrous, outsized creature that preyed upon the people who lived there. The Dragon King of Lake Biwa called upon Hidesato, a legendary hero in Japanese myth, to slay the Centipede. Hidesato killed the creature using an arrow coated with his own saliva, fired into the Centipede's brain. For this mighty feat, the Dragon King rewarded him with a ricebag that would never run empty. 

Apparently Hidesato was myopic and thought his Centipede Conquering Manual said “dip the arrow in SPIT”. It is also clear that Dragon Kings are a bit uncreative on the reward front; they need to think outside the bag.

So I was armed with a superior foreknowledge and prepared for the most undemanding of encounters, anticipating the quick capture and removal of our little friend with a bold laugh and a merry quip. When I reached the boudoir, with its scent of powder and L’Air du Temps, I started a systematic grid-search of the room, giving no quarter to Louis Vuitton or his hatboxes, but found no Scutigera. In disappointment and, indeed, anti-climax, I sat on the four-poster among the day's piles of rejected wardrobe items. Just then, I saw a movement in my peripheral vision, at where the wainscot would be if I didn’t (preposterously) insist on living in a fourteenth century watchtower. Closer, but not too much closer, inspection revealed the naïvete, the baseless optimism, the triumph of hope over fact, of my presumptive identification of the perpetrator of our noble guest’s displeasure. There in the angle formed by the junction of the stone wall with the tiled floor was the BIG cousin of our faithful and familiar friend; we are talking the Megarian Banded Centipede, Scolopendra cingulata
Scolopendra cingulata
 the Megarian Banded Centipede

Found throughout southern Europe in mountainous regions of the Mediterranean, it grows up to 15cm (6 inches) long, is fast and aggressive, and mainly nocturnal. An adult Scolopendra will eat almost any creature smaller than itself (e.g. spiders, beetles, crickets, woodlice) and sometimes those larger than itself (e.g. small lizards). With a lifespan of up to seven years, this centipede is known to sting humans (and even policemen) using its specialised claws (maxillipedes) when trapped or injudiciously touched up. Rather unreassuringly, J.G.E. Lewis, in his book The Biology of Centipedes (he should get out more), writes that the haemolytic (causing red blood cell breakdown) action of the venom is comparable to that of cobra venom (Lévy, 1923). That said, the sting is painful and causes redness and swelling reported to be comparable to a bee sting. Only those (rarae aves) who are allergic to the venom may be in any danger - they should seek immediate medical attention. For the non-allergic, MedlinePlus suggests washing the affected area with soap and water, then repeatedly applying an ice pack 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. They should then seek immediate social limelight.                                 

Pliny the Elder claimed that a certain remedy for Scolopendra bite is to touch the top of the victim’s head with a drop of his own urine: “when his wound is at once healed”. Max supposes that, given the laughter such a suggestion may provoke, urine would not be in short supply.

The genus Scolopendra includes many (all much larger) centipedes with very venomous stings which may contain acetylcholine, histamine, serotonin (5-hydroxytryptamine), hemolytic phospholipase A and a cardiotoxic protein. They sometimes turn up in unexpected places:

Giant centipede found in the UK
An example of the world's largest species of centipede has been been found crawling up a living room wall in Islington. The giant centipede, Scolopendra gigantea, is a highly venomous centipede native to Central and South America. The specimen found is over 23cm long and 2cm wide (without legs). Its discovery in the UK is very unusual and in fact this is the first live specimen of this species that the Museum has ever been asked to identify.

Hmmm. Islington. Isn’t that where Tony Blair used to live? Has anyone seen him recently…….?

Accidental envenomation of those perverse enough to keep centipedes as pets is relatively common and needless to say, given examples quoted in other posts in the DaysinArcadia blog, hapless centipedes are sometimes employed as offensive weapons. The Sun newspaper (Oh, Worthy Organ!) reported in October 2008 as follows: 

War of the Worms erupts 

A row between feuding neighbours opened a whole can of worms. The men in Malaysia had such an angry exchange, one unleashed centipedes in his opponent's bed, reports say. And now a court has charged the man over the alleged creepy crawly offence. The 21-year-old defendant, named in reports as R Prabakaran, pleaded not guilty in the court in Johor Baru city. He was charged with attempting to cause harm with a dangerous weapon in the bed of his neighbour, K Rajama, 30, last Friday. It was not clear what species the centipedes were. Some can be poisonous. If found guilty, Prabakaran faces up to three years prison and a caning. 

(The caning is not absolutely necessary, (or guaranteed, for DaysinArcadia’s more recherché readers) but fulfills certain personal needs of some Malaysian officials and apparently memorably teaches the perpetrator that naughtiness gives you a very sore bottom). 

Readers will doubtless be glad to hear that Max survived his encounter with the Megarian Banded Centipede unscathed, but was slightly hurt by a thoughtless remark made about the cut of his suit.

“Some men come by the name of genius in the same way as an insect comes by the name of centipede - not because it has a hundred feet, but because most people can't count above fourteen”.
[Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (German physicist 1742 - 1799)].

Big head.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Left Shoe Lost

During a dreamy hot spell in the early part of last summer, in the spirit of public-mindedness, I rinsed my Nubuck trainers to keep them fresh. I put them out on the terrace to dry in the sun and forgot all about them until the following morning. When I went out to collect them, one was missing (the left, since you ask). I looked about the terrace, sure that a freak wind had blown it away from its twin. No sign. I looked over the wall in case it had been carried over the low wall into the garden by a small freak tornado. Nope. I checked in the house and made sure that I hadn’t imagined putting the entire pair, both shoes, parts one and two, out to dry. Zilch. Alarm bells began to ring in my head: clearly, I was the victim of a sneak thief (presumably deficient to the tune of one in the right lower limb department and therefore left-footed and possibly Catholic, with exquisite taste in shoes); or someone (with the usual complement of limbs but a very bad back) unable to lift more than one shoe at a time; perhaps a fetishist, or a fashion victim protesting against the pointless convention of symmetricality in footwear. I supposed it would turn up. I was wrong. I have never seen it again. Ever. I forgot the whole thing. Well, that’s not entirely true, I did find myself taking a more than passing interest in peoples’ feet while out in the street in town, or in restaurants, or shops or the petrol station. Okay, I became obsessed. Sue me. Well, actually, someone did: well, it looked like my trainer. But eventually, the shoe clean slipped my mind and I was able to lead a more or less normal life. With regular group sessions. And medication. And psychotherapy. 

Thus, it wasn’t until a month or so later, when I was driving into town to pick up guests from the airport, in an unhurried low-carbon-footprint sort of a way, that the subject indirectly arose again; so indirectly, in fact, that I didn’t even know it had arisen (I blame the Prozac). As I rounded a mountain bend, I had to brake hard because the road was covered in what appeared to be black and white striped straws. I stopped to look. Had a truck on its way to a themed party shed part of its load? Sadly, not. There, tucked to one side of the road, half in the drainage ditch, was the corpse of a porcupine, about the size of a small dog, broken and bloody. The “straws” were its spines which were scattered over ten metres or so of the road. I couldn’t guess how many there were, presumably they had all been dislodged by the force of the collision(s). I had known and, somehow forgotten, that porcupines live in Italy and are quite numerous in Umbria. I wondered briefly about the magnificence of nature, then I wondered briefly about the risk of tyre puncture from the spines (yes, they can), but time was a-wasting and I had to get to the airport, so I climbed in and drove on. I told my guests about the porcupine and was astonished as I rounded the same bend on the return journey to discover: nothing. Not a quill, no corpse, no blood, nothing. Not a salsicce. I made a mental note to mention this to my psychotherapist as another example of IDO (inexplicably disappearing object), while trying to reassure my guests that they were not being driven by a hallucinogen-crazed Umbrian mountain redneck. On reaching the house, I put this, too, temporarily out of my mind as I poured prosecco and toted cases upstairs. It was some weeks later that it started to bother me again.

Hystrix cristata - African crested porcupine
The Italian porcupine is very interesting and in Max's view, misunderstood, not least because it is usually known as the African crested porcupine, Hystrix cristata, hence the Italian: istrice. In Europe it is only found in the Italian peninsular and Sicily (it may have become extinct in the Balkans as late as 1992), but it occurs in several parts of Africa: Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya, Egypt and in parts of sub-Saharan Africa: Tanzania, northern Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and a corner of Kenya. Although some have claimed that the creature was introduced to Italy by the Romans as a game animal, fossil records date them back to the Upper Pleistocene, which ended about ten thousand years ago, rather before the Romans got up for breakfast. It is a highly adaptable animal which lives in forests, rocky areas, farmlands and sand deserts; it shelters in crevices, caves, other animals’ burrows, or burrows it digs for itself which can be large and used for years. It is, on average, between 60 to 83 cm long (excluding the short tail) and weighs between 13 and 27 Kg. The body is covered in dark, black or brown, bristles and a crest of erectile quills runs along its head, neck and back. There are some sturdier, defensive, loosely attached quills, about 35 cm long, marked with light and dark bands, on the sides and rear half of the body. The short tail has shorter quills which widen near their ends; their walls are thin and when they are shaken, they produce a hissing rattle; there is no mechanism for projecting the quills (despite what drunks tell you in bars) and there may be up to thirty thousand quills in all. It has flat, padded feet with four toes on the front paws and five on the back. They can swim and can, but rarely do, climb trees. They mate for life and live in family groups, huddling together for warmth at night (when not foraging) and in winter when they may be confined to their burrows. The female produces only one litter per year and, yes, is able to flatten her spines to allow mating; one or two young are born in a nest burrow after four months gestation.

They are strictly nocturnal and almost entirely herbivorous but do occasionally eat carrion and small animals, such as cows (only kidding). They are known to chew on bones to obtain minerals and sharpen their incisor teeth. They really like iris rhizomes, bark, vegetable tubers, fruit and roots, and are very unpopular with farmers and vegetable growers; they have been protected in Italy since 1974, but they are nevertheless killed as agricultural pests and are poached for food (they taste really delicious, er, I am told); this last fact may account for the mysterious disappearance of the roadkill corpse. Famous (well, fairly) Italian chef Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577), who cooked for six Popes (Paul III, Julius III, Marcellus II, Paul IV, Pius IV and Pius V) and seven cardinals, was good enough to leave some recipe hints in his famous (well, fairly) six-volume cookbook, “Opera di Bartolomeo Scappi, mastro dell'arte del cucinare, divisa in sei libri” :

"Various ways to cook porcupine flesh.
Get a porcupine in August because at that time, owing to its feeding, it is very fat, even though its flesh has a less bad odour between October and January. After the animal has been killed let the flesh hang, in winter for four days and in summer for a day and a half. When it is skinned, divide it crosswise and sprinkle the hind half, without blanching it, with the same condiments [pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg], with salt, as were sprinkled on the goat’s leg in Recipe 84. Stud it with some cloves of garlic and whole cloves and and rosemary tips to take away its bad smell. Then set it to roast on a spit, catching the drippings. When it is done serve it up hot, dressed with a garnish of must syrup, rose vinegar, pepper, cinnamon, cloves, and the dripping. You can also roast the animal whole, or do it braised in an oven, if it is stuffed in the way the goat kid is stuffed in recipe 77. With the forequarters you can make a larded broth the way it is done with a goat in recipe 85. Moreover, after those forequarters are boiled and cut up into pieces you can sauté them in melted rendered fat and beaten onions. You can serve that with verjuice, pepper and cinnamon over top. None of its viscera, except for the liver, can be prepared for eating; when the liver is fresh it can be done like the goat’s in Recipe 86." 
The porcupine is entirely non-aggressive, but if threatened, by a dog for example, will respond by erecting its quills, shaking its tail-rattle and stamping its feet. It will reverse into an assailant and the quills with their backward-pointing barbs can pierce the skin and be shed; the tail can be also used as a spiked swat. If not removed immediately, the embedded quills can migrate deep into tissues far from their original site of entry, they also expand slightly in warm flesh. There may be no clear history of porcupine encounter and problems may arise weeks later. There have been instances where the quills have pierced the heart, lungs and even entered the brain, though these are very rare. Quills should be removed immediately, whole, ideally by a vet (or a doctor if the quillee is human) using pliers for large or deeply-embedded quills. The wound(s) should be thoroughly cleaned and puncture-wound prophylaxis initiated as necessary (though the quills are coated in a fatty substance which has mild natural antibiotic properties, possibly to protect their owner from injury by its own quills). Given these characteristics, I suppose it was only a matter of time before someone saw their potential for use as a weapon, though a (BBC) reported case in New Zealand of a porcupine being thrown as a weapon was grossly exaggerated. It was hedgehog.
'Police said William Singalargh, 27, had hurled the hedgehog about 5m at a 15-year-old boy. "It hit the victim in the leg, causing a large welt and several puncture marks," said Senior Sgt. Bruce Jenkins. It was unclear whether the hedgehog was still alive when it was thrown, though it was dead when collected as evidence. The police spokesman said the suspect was arrested "for assault with a weapon, namely the hedgehog".'
For the i-dotters and t-crossers among you, Max and the BBC appreciate that porcupines are rodents and hedgehogs are insectivores, so don’t write in.

There is also some evidence that the preferred diet of the porcupine may vary somewhat according to availability; for example, in 2000, in the United States, where a different species of (tree-climbing) porcupine (Erithizon dorsatum) lives, the Catskill News Network carried the following item:

'Pickup Eaten by Porcupine
Scott Taylor, of Eagle Mountain House, reports that his 1997 Ford pickup has been eaten by a porcupine...the undercoating had been almost entirely stripped from beneath the truck. Tooth and scratch marks were clearly visible on the expanse of exposed sheet metal and frame rails. Preliminary estimates of the damage are in excess of one thousand dollars. “You can imagine,” said Taylor, “I was pretty well numbstruck.  I lived in Maine for about sixteen years, and you’d hear stories about porkies gnawing on tires and brake lines and the like … But I never heard of anything like this.” He consulted with Patricia Rudge, the warden and conservation officer whose territory includes Eagle Mountain. Ms. Rudge suggested several tactics intended to either repel or distract the killer rodent. “I can appreciate where she’s coming from,” Mr. Taylor said, “but I don’t know that scattering mothballs around my truck will keep the varmints away any better than they keep the woodchucks out of the rose bed”. In the vain hope that the Ford Motor Company might help cover the cost of the repairs, Mr. Taylor called the manufacturer’s customer relations office. “The young lady was sympathetic enough,” Taylor said, “but she wasn’t able to find any reference to porcupines in her customer service database. She put me on hold for a minute.  I don’t know if she was checking with a supervisor or just checking to make sure she had porcupine spelled right. Anyway, when she came back, she allowed as how Ford wasn’t going to be able to help me out.” '
Oh, and one other thing. They LOVE salt. Salt as in sweat. Sweat as in feet. Feet as in trainers. Trainers as in gone. Psychotherapist as in fired.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Tremble Through Fear

Last autumn, as I drove home from our nearest town through the sleepy, flat, arable valley farmlands about ten minutes’ drive from the house, there was a great agitazione on the road. Five cars and about fifteen people were gathered around something, or someone, by the road; further investigation was clearly required and, torn between squeamishness and morbid curiosity, I made further enquiry: there had been an incidente but nobody was injured. The story (as related by the witnesses and others competing for this welcome, if unlooked-for, limelight) evolved randomly. Baseless assertion, hysterical hypothesis and deafening conjecture competed Olympically for the high ground, but the unornamented facts gradually emerged: it seems seventy-three year old Gianni Biscotti had been driving along the comparatively straight stretch of road in bright, clear, cold conditions when three dogs had run across the road in front of his Fiat Panda, about four hundred metres from a local restaurant. He braked hard and skidded, but was unable to avoid one of the animals, a male, which had been killed instantly; its cohorts had run into the roadside scrub and disappeared. What made this incident interesting was that, on closer investigation, the knot of agitated people centered on the corpse of a lupo, a grey wolf. Now, we are not in the Apennine heartlands, but the nearby countryside is mountainous and wooded; there are farmed sheep and plenty of red deer and wild boar in the area, but the appearance of the wolves in this valley surprised everybody, despite recent unseasonably cold weather, which, it is generally agreed, tends to encourage wolves into areas of potentially greater food density.

Canis lupus italicus
The Italian wolf (possibly Canis lupus italicus), also called the Apennine wolf, found in Italy, France and Switzerland may be a separate sub-species of the Eurasian wolf, Canis lupus lupus (also called the European, Forest or Common wolf), and the appearance of the dead animal on the road was typical: greyish-brown coat with darker stripes on its forelegs; rangier than, but not unlike, a German Shepherd in size and build. Officially, they are 110-150cm long (excluding the tail), 50-70 cm high at the shoulder, and typically weigh 25-35 Kg (occasionally up to 45 Kg); their Russian and Scandinavian cousins are rather larger and heavier (in the Ukraine up to 90 Kg, but this is exceptional). The population in Italy is estimated at a maximum of eight hundred animals; well, seven hundred and ninety-nine, now, obviously. They are protected by law (Italy is a signatory of the Bern Convention) that is to say, largely unprotected, since most unlawful killing is undetected and goes unpunished; up to twenty per cent of the wolf population is poisoned or shot each year. Most detected deaths are roadkill, so, however they die, the main threat to their survival is man. In spite of their protected status, the population is apparently increasing slowly, from an estimated one hundred animals thirty years ago. Since compensation is paid to owners of wolf-predated livestock, the wolf is blamed for many livestock deaths, including that caused by other predators such as domestic and feral dogs. Dogs are also a threat to the bloodline of the Italian wolf as the species interbreed; cross-breeds can have hind dew-claws (a characteristic of domestic dogs) and the black coat of about twenty-five percent of Italy’s wolves results from such interbreeding. 

There is intense political pressure by European farmers to permit culling and all manner of shenanigans are employed in advancing this cause. In France, the Italian wolf re-colonised the southeastern maritime Alps nearly twenty years ago (it has since spread north and west) and, in a six month period in 2008, in the Maurienne region, seventeen sheepdogs died of poison, probably intended for wolves (favoured poisons are strychnine and the slug-repellent chemical, metaldehyde). There were then between eighty and a hundred wolves in France which can have caused only a few deaths compared with those due to dogs, disease and avalanches. Switzerland, the home (obviously) of the Bern convention, contests the accord on wolf culling and many wolves are inappropriately killed using a “considerable damage” craven let-out clause in the agreement. In Norway, in 2001, authorities ordered a cull of a pack of ten wolves following complaints from farmers: hunters used helicopters and snowmobiles and managed to kill nine animals, the tenth sought political asylum across the border in Sweden. The whole cull cost about two hundred and seventy thousand euros, resulting in a cost to the taxpayer of approximately thirty thousand euros per animal culled. In France, that same year, there were an estimated thirty wolves with occasional cross-(Italian) border incursions; the French government had spent about eight hundred thousand euros in wolf-attack compensation to farmers over six years (during which time the wolf population had very slowly been increasing from zero), about twenty-five thousand euros for each wolf. That’s a lot of sheep. Rather too many sheep.

In everyone’s mind, no matter how bona fide their green credentials, there is a fear of wolf attacks on humans. This would have been a rational concern in pre-twentieth century Europe, when many wolves were infected with rabies; about a dozen people per year were killed in France between 1580 and 1830, just under half the deaths were caused by rabid animals. More recent, and therefore noteworthy, were the attacks on humans between 1944 and 1954 in the Kirov Oblast in the former USSR after all the local hunters were conscripted into the Red Army; these attacks led to the deaths of twenty-two children between the ages of three and seventeen years, an average of about two per year (they must be more nutritious than French sheep). As for Italy, according to a study published in 1996, four hundred and forty people were killed by wolves during the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries in the central Po valley, on the plain of Padana, which included part of what is now Switzerland - just over two per year on average (there are no reliable records for what happened from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries). Despite these impressive statistics, I can find only one account of a wolf attacking a human (well, a French shepherd) in Europe this millennium. He suffered a cut head, requiring emergency Elastoplast and a kiss better, and created a great deal of anti-lupine publicity (I couldn’t possibly comment on any conflict of interest). All other documented human/wolf encounters have not involved aggression (on the part of the wolves, at least). Fear of attack is, nowadays, irrational.

Italy and the wolf are further inextricably associated by the fact that the wolf is the national emblem of Italy. Wolves were sacred to Mars, the god of War, who in ancient Rome was second in importance only to Jupiter himself. The planet Mars is named after the god; its moons, Phobos and Deimos, though bearing Greek names, are his traditional companions: Fear and Flight (ah, now it makes sense). The month of March and the Italian for Tuesday, martedì, are also named after him. He is so macho that the astrological sigil of the planet Mars (♂) is widely used as a symbol of the male. Mars’s twin sons Romulus and Remus are the traditional founders of the Eternal City and were reputedly raised by a she-wolf and a woodpecker (one supposes that Italians chose their emblem cautiously).

Closer to home (my home, that is), in the far northeastern part of the province of Perugia, in Umbria, lies the ancient city of Gubbio. It was a Guelph stronghold which supported the papacy, though the gift shops have long-since exchanged popery for pot-pourri. It is here that St. Francis of Assisi (Giovanni Francesco di Bernadone, 1181-1226), founder of the Franciscan order, on whom Max models his own humble attitude to wolves, famously encountered one. A big, fierce, one. With a really bad attitude. It had graduated from attacks on livestock to direct assaults on humans, and found them to its liking - I like to imagine it dabbing the corners of its maw with a gingham napkin. No weapon prevailed and any who tried to kill it were devoured. In an (almost certainly uncharacteristic) access of pusillanimity vis à vis wolves which may have prefigured today’s pejorative attitude, the population broke into a sweat at the sight of the animal and refused to go outside the walls for any reason.

St. Francis confronted the wolf at its lair and calmed it with the sign of the Cross, saying:
 “Brother wolf, thou hast done much evil in this land, destroying and killing the creatures of God without his permission; yea, not animals only hast thou destroyed, but thou hast even dared to devour men, made after the image of God; for which thing thou art worthy of being hanged like a robber and a murderer. All men cry out against thee, the dogs pursue thee, and all the inhabitants of this city are thy enemies; but I will make peace between them and thee, O brother wolf, if so be thou no more offend them, and they shall forgive thee all thy past offences, and neither men nor dogs shall pursue thee any more."

The wolf bowed its head and submitted to Francis, who then said:
“As thou art willing to make this peace, I promise thee that thou shalt be fed every day by the inhabitants of this land so long as thou shalt live among them; thou shalt no longer suffer hunger, as it is hunger which has made thee do so much evil; but if I obtain all this for thee, thou must promise, on thy side, never again to attack any animal or any human being; dost thou make this promise?”

It is not clear how, or if, the wolf indicated assent; perhaps it must just be assumed. Francis then spoke these seminal words:
"How much we ought to dread the jaws of hell, if the jaws of so small an animal as a wolf can make a whole city tremble through fear?"


Sunday, 30 January 2011

Timor Vespis

The first time that I came to Umbria, my family and I rented a house near Città della Pieve. It was high summer and the garden was full of insects when I stopped to admire a large (its body was about 2cm long), black, bee-like insect with beautiful violet-blue iridescent wings. I pointed it out to my brother who had been in earnest conversation with the Italian giardiniere. “That”, he said confidently,”is an ospedale”. I graciously bowed to his superior knowledge in the matter, especially since I spoke no Italian; well, actually, I went to look for a book on the subject. Regrettably, at this time, that most estimable monograph “Things To Be S**t Scared Of In Umbria” (I was particularly interested in chapter VI, “Timor vespis conturbat me”) was out of print and, there being no other work of reference in the house, I laboured for some years under the impression that the insect was, indeed, so called. Fifteen years later, an Assisi earthquake older and wiser, and with a few words of Italian under my linguistic belt, (at least, able to tell my etymology from my entomology) I returned to Umbria. Seeing one of these beautiful bees again reminded me of its unlikely name. Some investigation, and a fact-finding-brainstorming-session-with-my brother later, we established the truth.

In common with many people, the gardener had mistaken the bee for a hornet. Had it been a hornet (which it wasn’t) and had someone been stung by it (which they hadn’t) he had advised that they should immediately be taken to hospital (ospedale) as the sting requires immediate medical attention (which it doesn’t). This is my cue for a few brief words about two of Umbria’s Most Maligned Insects.

Xylocopa violacea
Carpenter Bee
The beautiful violet-blue bee is Xylocopa violacea, the Carpenter Bee. Up to 23mm long, the name Xylocopa is derived from the Ancient Greek for “wood-cutter”, so called for the habit (of the female) of this large, solitary bee species of burrowing into dead wood to make a nest in which to lay its dozen or so eggs. Common in central and southern Europe, they are non-aggressive nectar-gatherers, than which there can surely be no less aggressive pastime, and efficient pollinators. Males, which have orange tips to their antennae, cannot sting - in common with all other wasps and bees (the sting is a modified egg-laying organ, the ovipositor) - though they do clumsily and noisily chase other males (bees, obviously) in competition, and females (ditto) for (ahem) procreative congress. The female will usually only sting in self-defence (if deliberately caught, accidentally trapped or otherwise inexpertly courted).

The insect that the gardener was presumably referring to when he repeatedly used the word “ospedale”, is the European hornet, Vespa crabro, which has a reputation in these valleys for aggression and medical mischief which is (almost) entirely undeserved. In Abruzzo, when spoken of at all, and in hushed tones, it is respectfully called the testaferrata, "iron head". In Tuscany, they call it the ammazzacavalli, "horse-killer", in Lazio the ammazzasomari, "donkey-slayer" (presumably the hornets in Lazio lack virility), but in the remote upland valleys of the higher reaches of the Tiber, where men are men, it is simply called the calabrone "big Calabrian" (don’t ask), but you have only to mention the name, even to seasoned hunters, to detect the edginess, the twitching lip, the stifled intake of breath and the flash of facial pallor as they reach for their carabine.

It’s a big noisy wasp. Get over it.

True, the queen (a single queen dominates the hive or grist, made by the drones from chewed wood) can be up to 5cm long (trust me, I have seen one) and flies like an overladen B52 with fuel-supply problems (it missed me by a few centimeters); true, also, that even the ordinary hornet may be be 2.5 cm long and fly up to 80km in a day, at speeds of up to 35 km per hour, thanks to an extremely unusual phenomenon: the adult drones (sterile females) cannot assimilate protein foods but nevertheless hunt insects (including mantises and dragonflies, if pushed) to produce a protein-rich food pulp for the larva; in nature’s most adorable quid pro quo, the larva produce a stimulant chemical for the drones, which explains their extraordinary stamina. The (sting-less) males are few, as with many social insects, and, serving only to fertilize the queen, die after mating. The hive (usually in our garden in a hole in a tree) is active for only one season. Only the young queens hibernate and reproduce elsewhere the following season. There is thus no truth in the maxim: “old queens never die, they just lose their grist”. It is mildly interesting that European settlers thoughtfully introduced hornets to North America in the mid-nineteenth century.

European hornet: Vespa crabro
Big? Yes. Noisy? Ever so. Scary? Agreed. Nonetheless, (James Schuyler “there is a hornet in the room and one of us will have to go” notwithstanding) these insects are not usually aggressive and, when they are, their aggression is triggered by largely avoidable behaviours. Do not flap your arms about as they are sensitive to air movement; it is how they detect and catch insect prey. Several sources recommend avoiding breathing on the nest as they can detect the chemicals on your breath, but, in my considered opinion, you are already muuuuuuuch too close by then; they are inclined to turn forgiveably nasty if you get too close to, disturb or touch their nest (stay at least a meter away). If you kill a hornet close to the nest it releases a chemical alarm (a type of pheromone) which can precipitate a mass defence (or attack, depending on your viewpoint), so don’t. They also hate the perfume Giorgio, as does Max; this indicates a superior sensitivity.

Outside the hive, hornets sometimes indicate when they are displeased by bumping into you repeatedly, before delivering a sting en passant; they fly past, curl their sting beneath their abdomen and inject a dose (about 10-15mg of a total reservoir of 50mg) of venom (endearingly, they can sting and bite at the same time, and sting more than once, unlike bees). The venom is similar to that of a wasp and two to fifteen times less toxic than that of a bee, (depending on the particular hornet and the particular bee). It may be slightly more painful than a wasp’s sting as it contains about five per cent acetlycholine, a neurotransmitter (chemical involved in nerve signals). Some people are allergic to wasp stings and this hypersensitivity crosses the species barrier; that is to say that if you are allergic to a wasp sting, you will probably be (approximately equally) allergic to a hornet sting, with the obvious health implications. Moreover, some people do have more profound reactions than can be easily explained to any sting, but this is no more true of hornets than any other wasp. There are many first-aid treatments (Max cannot vouch for, indeed he doubts, their efficacy) for hornet stings, mainly based on the principle that the sting is alkaline and therefore applying mildly acidic substances (e.g. lemon juice, vinegar, aspirin) to the sting might be expected to help. For the non-allergic person, the most benefit is probably to be had from cleaning the sting site and applying ice, and taking painkillers, anti-inflammatories and/or antihistamines as necessary; good advice is to be found here. Max counsels against the advice found on one website which suggests washing with soup....

One final word of caution to, um, enhanced female readers is implicit in this recent article from the China Post:

“Dr. Tseng Ting-chang said a 31-year-old woman who received breast implants three years ago visited his clinic early this week complaining that one of her breasts had deflated after a hornet sting two days before. The woman said the incident took place while she was riding a scooter in the countryside, wearing a low-cut dress. She took the sting in stride at first, but later was astonished to find that one of her breasts had shrunk a couple of days later. Dr. Tseng said he found saline from the woman’s breast implant had leaked, apparently due to the hornet’s sting. He said the woman had to undergo surgery to reconstruct her breast. Noting that the woman is quite thin and has little fat tissue under her skin, the doctor said it is possible the hornet’s sting could have pierced the saline-filled sack, which is touted as being able to withstand pressure of up to 200 kilograms per square centimeter”. 
Yes, dear.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Be Angry, and Dispatch

While pruning some Viburnum in our Umbrian garden last May, I noticed that the branch I had just cut and laid at my feet had, in part, a curiously helical form. Examining it more closely, I was disturbed, in a pant-wetting sort of way, to discover that what I had thought was a coiled branch was, in fact, a brownish black-marked snake with a triangular head and an upturned snout which, at the time I actually cut the short branch, can have been only a few centimetres from my ungloved hand. As I watched in frozen fascination, it uncoiled itself and lazily moved across the path and, silently, disappeared into the nearby undergrowth. In the thirty seconds or so this took to complete, I had a good, lidless, look at the snake, and he at me. When my limbs recovered movement and the tears that had run down my trouser-legs were nearly dry, I ran to the house to consult my favourite work of reference, “Things To Be S**t Scared Of In Umbria”; what I had just seen was, it turned out, top of the S**t-list.

There are three (main) types of venomous snake in Italy, though the horned sand viper, Vipera ammodytes, is said to be limited to the northeast of the country. Vipera berus is the brown and black zigzagged adder familiar to most residents of Great Britain, and the little fellow I had just encountered was unmistakably Vipera aspis, the asp; it likes warm areas with structured vegetation and is often found in low mountains or hills and is the cause of ninety per cent of reported snake bites in Italy, of which probably less than two per cent are fatal. The venom principally affects coagulation but there are also variable amounts of a nerve toxin component. In any event, if bitten, don’t stop for a panini. Immobilise the limb (use the pressure immobilisation technique here noting the coincidental link suffix) and go straight to il pronto soccorso. Say the prayer of St John en route (below) and, If they send you home (most bites contain little or no venom, but those that do can be very nasty), then have a panini.
Prayer of St John: ‘My God, and Father and Son and Holy Spirit, to whom all things are subject, on whom every creature depends and to whom every power is subject, and whom [each] fears and dreads, and [by whom] the serpent is stilled and the dragon flees, the viper [made] silent, and that toad, which is called Rubita, becomes numb with sleep, the scorpion is destroyed, and the regulus (venomous serpent) is conquered, the spalagius (poisonous insect) works no harm, and all venomous and hitherto creeping ferocious creatures and noxious animals are made dark and all roots adverse to human health are dried up. You, Lord, destroy this venomous poison, destroy its deadly operation and void the powers that are in it; and give to all those whom you have created in your sight, eyes that they may see, ears that they may hear, a heart that they may understand your greatness.’
This is a blog about life in Italy, but say, or write, the word “asp” and someone is going to say “Cleopatra”, so let’s get it out of our system. Cleopatra VII Philopator, ancient Greek queen and last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt, committed suicide by causing herself to be bitten by venomous snakes. These were probably the Egyptian asp or cobra (Naja haje), related to the Indian cobra and capable of inflating its “hood”; the symbolic power of the cobra as an emblem of pharaonic divinity was certainly not lost on her. The more outre among you will cry “Philoctetes!”, remembering that this erstwhile suitor of Helen of Troy was said to have been bitten by a snake on the foot and suffered a malodorous festering wound which led to his self-imposed exile on the Aegean island of Lemnos. Those of a Euterpean bent might remind us melodically that the oak-nymph Eurydice died and bought a return ticket to the Underworld by stepping on a venomous snake. The seadogs in our midst will suck air through their salty teeth and say, “What about Mopsus?”; we will nod respectfully and remember the Argonaut seer, son of Ampyx and the nymph Chloris, who died from the bite of a viper. Seeing the name of this blog, who could resist a vote for Orestes, son of Agamemnon and brother of Electra, said to have died of a snake bite in Arcadia? While we all know the facts, it was widely believed in Shakepeare’s Denmark, that Hamlet’s father, whose name was, well, Hamlet, had been poisoned by a snake (if the cap fits, Claudius....). Finally, St Paul’s escape from death at the teeth of a viper in Malta may have been miraculous, but did not render him any less annoying.

“Yes”, you say, “All very well, but that’s all ancient history; and it’s not Italian”. Alright then, coming up. It’s a bit tenuous, but, hey, give this poor blogger a break:

King Boris III of Bulgaria (yes, I know that’s not in Italy, wait for it!) lukewarm Nazi ally in World War II, may have been killed by snake venom; he certainly died under suspicious circumstances and the finding of evidence of a heart attack when he was disinterred does not exclude the possibility. Well, anyway, before this (obviously) he married Giovanna of Italy, third daughter and fourth child of Victor Emmanuel (those who remember “Open All Hours” with any clarity will always think of him as Gladys Emmanuel) III of Italy, of the House of Savoy, Casa Savoia, in Assisi, in Umbria, in Italy. The wedding was attended by one Benito Mussolini. So there.

There was trouble to come: Giovanna, daughter of a Roman Catholic father and a cradle Orthodox mother was married in a second, Eastern Orthodox, ceremony in Sofia, Bulgaria. This cheesed off the Roman Catholics, but Giovanna knew the Archbishop Apostolic Visitor to Bulgaria, Angelo Roncalli, who was, handily, to become Pope John XXIII; he put in a good word. Giovanna and Boris had two children, Marie-Louise and the future King Simeon II of Bulgaria. In a pleasing quirk of Cleopatran serendipity, Giovanna and Simeon fled to Egypt (to join Vittorio Emmanuele III) after being ousted by the Communists in 1946. Giovanna is buried in Assisi. In Umbria. In Italy.

The House of Savoy has some colourful recent history: on 29th May 2004 The Guardian newspaper reported as follows:
“ Leaving a dinner given by King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia on the evening of their son's nuptials, the heir to the Italian throne, Prince Vittorio Emanuele, was said to have hit his cousin and rival, Duke Amedeo, on the steps of the Spanish royal residence. One report said the Duke was twice punched in the mouth and would have fallen to the ground had he not been caught by deposed Queen Anne-Marie of Greece".

The daily, La Repubblica, said Duke Amedeo was then helped inside the Zarzuela palace, where an unidentified Arab potentate applied an ice pack to his bruised lips. On learning of the affray, King Juan Carlos was said to have stormed "Nunca más" (Never again) - apparently in reference to the Italian's chances of a further invitation.

Duke Amedeo did not deny the attack. The newspaper La Stampa quoted him as saying it was "an unpleasant business that does not deserve further comment". The incident was the latest scandal in the life of Prince Vittorio Emanuele, who returned to Italy last year after 57 years in exile. In 1991, he was acquitted of manslaughter by a French court for an incident 13 years earlier in which he fired a rifle from his yacht off Corsica, fatally wounding a German tourist.

The moral is never to get punched in the mouth unless there is a deposed queen handy to catch you and an Arab potentate to apply ice to your bruised lips:

“Come, thou mortal wretch,
With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch.”

(Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare)

Sunday, 23 January 2011

A Most Noble Draught

When the Marquis de Sade and his accomplice and manservant Latour were sentenced to death (and executed, in effigy, at least) in Marseilles in 1772, they were indelibly historically associated with, amongst many others, the Ancient Greek judicial system, Livia (wife of Augustus Caesar), Catherine (the Florentine wife and mother of French kings and mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots), Henry IV of England, Louis XIV of France and Frances Howard, Countess of Essex. They are, perhaps surprisingly, linked by the beetle in the photograph, Lytta vesicatoria, snapped in our Umbrian herb garden in the summer.

The connection might be a little clearer if more is known of the linked parties: “Catherine” was Catherine de Medici, who married the duke of Orleans (who would become Henri II of France) and bore him three future kings of France. The marriage was arranged by her uncle, Pope Clement VII. Her eldest son, who would become François II, married Mary Stuart (later Mary, Queen of Scots) in 1558. Catherine was an unscrupulous, determined, superstitious and ruthless political manipulatrix - and a notorious poisoner.

The Marquis de Sade, sybarite and recherché sexual diarist, was convicted of, and sentenced to death for, sodomy and poisoning. Two Marseilles prostitutes nearly died as a result of taking his aphrodisiacal aniseed-flavoured pastilles. Henry IV of England and Louis XIV of France were willing and unwitting recipients, respectively, of aphrodisiac medication.

Frances Howard, Countess of Essex, sought annulment of her allegedly unconsummated 1606 marriage to Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, so that she might marry Robert Carr, a favourite, possibly even a lover, of the king, James I. One key opponent of the annulment was Thomas Overbury who, despite being imprisoned in the Tower of London following a fall from favour with the king, still wielded considerable political influence. He, and his manservant, died in the Tower, of poisoning, in 1615; Frances later confessed her guilt. An accomplice, James Franklin, admitted to supplying poisons, including “cantarides”.

Livia was the wife of Augustus Caesar; she was also the mother of Tiberius, grandmother of Claudius, great-grandmother of Caligula and great-great-grandmother of Nero, all of whom became emperors. She is rumoured to have poisoned her nephew, Marcellus, and her own husband. She also laced guests’ food with aphrodisiacs to encourage sexual indiscretion for the purpose of blackmail.

All of these relied on the effects of the dried crushed "blister beetle", also known as “Spanish Fly”, or “the beetle of Aphrodite”, whose medical use dates back to Hippocrates. Contact with the toxin, cantharadin, produced by the beetle to protect itself and its eggs from predators, causes irritation and blistering of the of the skin, mucous membranes and other areas of contact; taken internally it irritates the urethra and provokes priapism, sustained penile erection, accounting for its reputation as an aphrodisiac. It is still used to treat certain kinds of wart and has been used in the past to provoke abortion, as a stimulant and as a poison: in larger doses it provokes organ failure and causes death; thirty milligrams of cantharadin is lethal and was sometimes used for judicial capital punishment in place of hemlock in ancient Greece. Aqua Tofana, also known as aquetta di Napoli, was reputedly devised by a Sicilian countess, Giulia Tofana, who confessed under torture to having murdered more than five hundred people with her poison, which was probably a mixture of arsenic and cantharadin. It is said to have been the weapon of choice for Catherine de Medici in her political assassinations, though her poisons chest, (buried after her death, at Blois) contained over two hundred different toxins.

Wash your garden produce well.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Upupa epops

I first arrived in the house here in April. The optimism brought about by the move to Italy was intensified by the beauty of the Spring in the Upper Tiber Valley. Here were wild orchids by the roadside, wild mint and marjoram underfoot, and the low, liquid song of the oriole on the warm breeze. The sweet smell of distant woodsmoke still lingered over the hesitantly warming hills and deer barked in the twilit meadows.

There was much to be done; there was little furniture and, though entirely habitable, the house had not been lived in for some years. Alone for several weeks, my days evolved a languid structure determined only by the weather, the market days in local towns, and the pleasant indulgence of my moods. I fitted lights, bought beds, gradually unpacked such packing cases as there were and wandered around the garden, with its matchless views. My breast felt physically filled with joy and I gulped at the cool, thin mountain air to prevent my spirit from floating away.

Against this background, you can imagine how intrusive the sound of an electronic alarm would be. It was.

A muted, low note was repeated three times; after a variable interval it was repeated exactly, the same three note signal each time: “oo! oo! oo!”. At first, I looked for the source of the alarm by tracing the direction of the sound and identifying possible culprits. I started with the usual suspects: the timer on the cooker, the telephone, the entrance intercom. Nothing doing. By the third day, it was beginning to get to me. It is not until something like this happens to you that you appreciate quite how many electronic devices with their respective bleeps, tones and alarms we use. Despite, or perhaps because of, my general exhilaration, I became intensely methodical and made a list of likely causes, some of which were still in packing cases and had to be painstakingly located and checked. There were three problems: the variable interval between the triple sound, the brevity of the whole sequence (it probably lasted less than two seconds) and the difficulty in identifying the direction it came from; I could not even clearly decide whether it came from inside or outside the house. One curious feature was that I never heard it during the hours of darkness. I could listen to one device for a few minutes and hear nothing, turn to something else and hear the sound behind me, but by the time I had turned again, it had stopped.  It became personal. I accused and tried the car, the electronic remote car key, the device that operates the automatic toll barriers on motorways, my electric alarm clock, mobile phone and iPod; the remote controls for the gate, television and video, the television and video player themselves, the microwave, my laptop, printer and modem. There was insufficient evidence for a conviction. Perhaps in part due to my seclusion, my mind started playing tricks on me: I would hear the sound clearly in one room, but by the time I reached the presumed source, it would sound again in the room I had just left. I even began to wonder if it was triggered by some unknown motion sensor, an unexpected burglar alarm, perhaps. No joy.

By the fifth day, my puzzlement and frustration were beginning to spoil my idyll. The more I thought about it, the more possible sources I identified: there are two boilers and a water heater, there is a hot water pump and its two autoclavi (devices for maintaining steady water pressure). There are two well pumps, two more associated autoclavi, an irrigation computer and pump, two bomboloni (large tanks for liquid gas), a further pump in the underground water cistern, its associated galleggiante (float switch), the pool pump, pool filter and pool lighting system. One day, I sat next to my camera for four hours to try to catch it out; this was getting sad.

Upupa epops - Hoopoe
I realised that I needed help; if it was coming from different directions, I didn’t stand a chance. The difficulty here was that I was alone and would be for two more weeks; could I stand it for that long without losing my reason? Had I already lost it? What is the Italian for “auditory hallucination”? I decided to do what I should have done in the first place: ignore it. This is easier said than done, of course, short of putting my fingers in my ears and singing nursery rhymes. Nonetheless, eventually, ignore it I did. The next day was beautifully sunny; I got up early, made coffee and took it into the garden. As I sat in perfect, tranquil harmony with the Italian countryside, a beautiful pinkish-brown bird with black and white wing-markings and a prominent black and apricot crest landed on the grass a few feet away. It pecked at the grass, turned towards me, eyed me mischievously, opened its long, curved beak (I swear it winked) and called: “oo! oo! oo!”.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A Virtue of Necessity

It would not be betraying a confidence to say that, over the years (and like Birmingham in recent weeks), Naples, enchanting though she is, has had her share of problems with rubbish disposal; it is, to a greater or lesser degree, in the argot of these benighted times, detritus-disadvantaged, trash-impaired, refuse-challenged and garbage-bestrewn. However this exquisite inconvenience should not discourage you from allowing her to welcome you in her peerless fashion; there is warmth, colour, character and passion; steam is rising within her raunchy gates; she will not be denied.

Newton’s law of universal gravitation states that every massive particle in the universe attracts every other; the force of the attraction is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. To put this into a tangible context, and, as it were, to put some flesh on the bones of this meagre little law, fat people are much more attractive to each other (and those less bulky) than might at first be supposed. Moreover, and somewhat counter-intuitively, the closer together they stand, the greater the attraction: if the distance between them is halved, the force of the attraction is quadrupled. The same principle, I believe, is true of Naples; we are drawn exponentially to this wanton, this unwashed, voluptuous, perfumed doxy. The closer we get, the stronger the pull; if we haven’t had it by the time we reach the tangenziale we know we soon will have; her skirts are lifted, and we are hers.

This, then, is by way of background to the recent visit of a friend to his relatives in Naples; he arrived in their desirable residential district to find, almost outside their house, and plum nel mezzo del cammin (it is not recorded whether Dante chose Florence for its superior sanitation arrangements) right in the middle of the road, a large pile of rubbish. The stench made his eyes water and senses reel as he left his car and went to greet his family. When their exuberant welcome allowed, he pointed at the pile of rubbish and remonstrated with them. He said that he knew Naples was noted for foul air and fun, but, well, really! His aunt replied that it was not that it couldn’t be collected, it was just that there was a big hole in the road there and it stopped people driving into it.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Watership Downer

This area of Italy is known for its beef cattle, in particular the beautiful blond Chianina breed. Cows have four stomachs: after food is processed and softened in the rumen, it is regurgitated as cud and chewed again. The chewed cud then passes to the other chambers of the stomach (the reticulum, omasum, and abomasum, as you will recall). By perennial close association between man and his kine, this almost reluctant, excursive digestion seems to have resulted in a curious bovine passivity in the face of adversity which is a characteristic of one or two of the local people; it is also manifest, in part, as a reluctance to part with information which may have some unascertained value; a sort of cud-chewing in colloquial discourse. For example, while being driven through a nearby valley recently, I saw a large, semi-industrial construction on the hillside. I asked the driver, who lived in the area, what it was; in loose translation, our conversation went like this: 

“Signore”, he said,”it is a very sad story”.
“Why sad?”, I asked.
“A man from Rome bought the land”, he replied.
“What for?” I asked, weary in the knowledge that I was being lured into another exercise in informational tooth-drawing.
“To live his dream”, he said.
“What was his dream, then?” I pressed.
He sighed sympathetically. 
“He wanted to live in the country and run a business”.
I had come this far, no point in backing out now: 
“What sort of business?”.
Conigli, rabbit, farming”, he said morosely.
He shifted in his seat and rubbed his eyes with his finger and thumb; this was slightly nerve-wracking as he was driving, smoking a cigarette and conversing desultorily with an undisclosed party on his mobile phone at the same time.
“So what happened?”, I persisted, the bit between my teeth now.
“He went bankrupt”, he said, with a sad shake of his head, “and lost everything” .
“Why didn’t it work?”, I asked.
He hesitated, and seemed to reflect on the harshness and injustice of man’s unequal and insurmountable struggle with nature before continuing.
“Well, signore, he couldn’t get the rabbits to breed”.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Kindness of Strangers

A. and I went into a local market town ½ hour away by car and, in the drowsy afternoon heat, wandered off the beaten (well, the only) track into a side street; we stopped to admire and try to translate a Latin inscription above an ancient doorway. At this, a head appeared at a first floor window, beating the bejasus out of an old curtain (or ballgown, or something). He hailed and addressed us in what I took to be Italian (we were, after all, in Italy), asking us if we would like to look inside the house which turned out to be the Palazzo Zucchini (or something like that; thank you Ministry of Blue Plaques). He bodily dragged us off the street, we negotiated vis à vis language and settled on French, which he spoke enthusiastically if approximately, then he showed us a room where those condemned to death by the nearby ecclesiastical court were held until their execution. I couldn't actually see fingernail marks in the stone, but I'll bet they were there. I believe the practice was discontinued last Friday.

Thence through the old porte cochère, now an entrance hall, to the other rooms, horribly refurbished (in our interlocutor's opinion, which, perhaps fortunately, as you will see, coincided with my own) as recently as the eighteenth century by the then Marquess. He took us to a library and showed us Palaeolithic remains, arrowheads, axeheads and other sharp oggetti with more than a suggestion of lethality about them.

Next stop was his bedroom, where he had a collection of German and Allied soldiers' helmets also all found in the Umbrian hills (there was much fighting in this area where members of the Italian resistance *names deleted to protect the guilty* caused nightly havoc for 4 years with some tins of weedkiller, some sugar and a box of matches). At this point, I felt impelled to mention that nobody else knew we were in this complete stranger's house, and started making “Oh, aren't we late for an appointment?” and “ Didn't you say you had some urgent knitting to do?” noises. Our host then produced a collection of actual, modern, sharp, axes (such as one might use to dismember an imprudent Englishman) from the end of his bed. Imagine, if you will, gentle Reader, my consternation, happily co-mingled with gratitude for a lesson learnt on my arrival in Italy (see "Met on Arrival") -  I had remembered to pop on those bicycle clips!

We escaped without serious injury and, in a curiously polite English way, declined his offer of a drink (what is the Italian for “Oh, no, I'm very sorry, but I never touch strychnine; it disagrees with me”?), and TOOK HIS TELEPHONE NUMBER IN CASE WE HAPPENED TO BE PASSING AGAIN. It transpired that he is the current Marquess di Zucchini and only distantly related to Lucretia Borgia.