Thank God for the Italian spring. It reminds me that there is more to life than the Italians and the euro.
Yesterday I drove out of the provincial city of Forlì in the “red” mid-north in my long-axle Land Rover Defender versione anticomunista into the Apennine Mountains’ foothills to see if the bee-eaters were back.
The bee-eater is a spectacularly beautiful bird, a pastiche of electric blue, green, bronze, and yellow, which comes here from tropical Africa each year between late April and early May to nest in the tunnels it makes in the sandy earth amid the vineyards and olive groves.
Yes! They were back, just a 10-minute ride from my home. Dozens of them.
I watched the bee-eaters as they tumbled off the telegraph lines they perch on, down into the valley below pleasantly warbling in search of food. “Could have been worse, Nick,” I thought. “You could have ended up in Greece.”
The other great thing about the bee-eater is that it eats insects, loads of them; bees of course, but also hornets and wasps. It apparently removes the stinger by repeatedly beating the insect on a hard surface. What a bird.
If I ever managed to get my act together to buy that stone farmhouse, this is where I would buy it: Where the bee-eaters live. Yes, because even in paradise no doubt, there is always something that spoils the party. And while it may be true that there are fewer Italians in the Italian countryside the place positively teems with nasty insects.
The hotter it gets the worse these insects get. I should know because until a few years ago I lived in the countryside near here in a rented former pigsty which would heave and groan in a strong wind.
There are many types of stinging insects. The worst is the giant wasp known locally as il bombo, which is at least two inches long. This scary monster is an African import, they say, and is therefore yet another consequence of mass immigration as I suppose I am, too. I killed one once with a hardback copy of a book called Il Duce’s Other Woman. The killing process required nerve and skill because il bombo—whose sound in flight is like the hum of a high-voltage electricity cable—is a vicious thing. God knows how much poison it is armed with. Most insects sleep at night, but not this one. It is even more active at night and bangs against windows attracted by the light desperate to get inside. Getting to and from the house is tricky. It chases you.
Scanning the papers the other day after wading through the daily dose of headlines about the doomed euro and the latest businessman driven to suicide because he couldn’t pay his taxes, my eyes alighted on a drawing of a small flying insect.
The headline on the story read: “The killer sandflies are coming!” Known as pappataci, they are a type of midge even more common around here than (post) communists. It floats down like a tiny tuft of wool, settles on your arm or leg, and bites. It can bite through clothing. It seems to be on a suicide mission as, unlike a mosquito, it lingers long after the bite and is easy to kill with the slap of a hand.
I had thought that being harassed by sandflies was just another of the many small prices I pay for living in this Apennine paradise. But now I read this little pest can give you a potentially fatal illness called leishmaniasis for which there is no specific treatment. Worse, it is especially attracted, the article told me, to adult men who smoke. And I smoke like due turchi (two Turks), as the Italians say.
This winter we had 47 inches of snow in 10 days—the most since the Great Blizzard of 1928—followed by a month of subtropical torrential rain. Now, suddenly, it is hot. So we are all set for an insect summer of biblical proportions.
And that also means la zanzara (mosquito). In particular, it means la zanzara tigre (Asian tiger mosquito)—another illegal immigrant. The tigre is much faster and more aggressive than a normal mosquito. It does not take up position on a wall near your bed waiting for you to nod off at night; it makes a beeline straight for you in broad daylight. And it can carry a very nasty viral disease similar to dengue fever—chikungunya, which it gets from biting an infected person. In 2007, there was a chikungunya outbreak in Italy right here where I live in which about 200 Italians were infected. The cause was an infected Indian who had returned from holiday in India and then got bitten by a local zanzara tigre which then transferred the virus to the next person it bit and so on.
The bar I frequent, Le Petit Arquebuse in the center of town, is the favorite haunt of local champagne socialists. Giorgio, (ex) communist mayor of Predappio—the village 10 miles away where the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was born and is buried like a saint—uses it as his office.
All this bizarre weather has Comrade Giorgio worried about la zecca (the tick). A zecca bite, as even I know, can give you a range of dangerous illnesses including Lyme disease. I once had to extract dozens of them from my wife Carla’s Neapolitan Mastiff with tweezers and whisky.
If there is a biblical plague this year of zecche it could upset many of the mayor’s plans as he was only too keen to explain the other night at Le Petit. Though pint-sized and barrel-shaped he has what the Irish call “the roving eye.” And thus, not for my benefit but that of the beautiful barmaid Claudia, he announced ominously: “Whatever you do Nicola, non trombare your amante in the hills this summer.”
Trombare is the local word for “screw” and means literally “trumpet” as in, “Did you trumpet her?” So I said: “Tell us why not Giorgio, go on.” He replied: “The hills will be pullulating with zecche this year,” he replied, adding: “I made that mistake once and got bitten three times, twice on my head, and once…here.” And he touched his groin, as Italian men love doing, eyes flashing at Claudia.
It really is time to get moving and buy that farmhouse. OK, there are zecche in the hills where the bee-eaters are and unfortunately bee-eaters do not eat zecche. But there is another bird that does and in industrial quantities—the guinea fowl. Just two birds, they tell me, can clear two acres of zecche in a year. And roast guinea fowl is also delicious.
There is, however, one magical insect I cannot wait to see: the firefly. The Italian word for firefly is lucciola, which also means prostitute. The fireflies arrive any day now and last about two weeks. They hover and float about in the night with their lights winking on and off. They do not bite or sting, or chase you from your car to your house, or give you terrible diseases. They make you happy to be alive.
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