‘The pine tree seems to listen, the fir tree to wait: and both without impatience: they give no thought to the little people beneath them devoured by their impatience and their curiosity.’ Friedrich Nietzsche
This week someone asked me what I would miss if I left Rome. Surprisingly, the first thing that I thought of had nothing to do with food or wine. ‘The umbrella pines!” I replied.
Pinus pinea, or stone pine, also known as umbrella pine, Italian stone pine and parasol pine, grows all over the city, in and around the ancient ruins from Ostia Antica to the Appian way.
The pines also give a welcome touch of green to our residential areas. On a Sunday morning walk around my neighbourhood of Garbatella, their trunks and branches add a curving, organic counterpoint to the slabs and angles of apartment blocks. The sap-green foliage complements the flaking orange plaster and the cobalt blue of the sky. They are a watercolourist’s dream, the sprays of needles blurred from afar, furred at the edges, crying out for a drop of pigment to stain and suffuse a piece of thick, damp paper.
They shelter birdlife, from the croaking hooded crow, to squawking parakeets, to the goldcrest I saw hopping among the branches outside my bedroom window when I woke today. Beware though, of a walk among the pines that line the Roman forum on a darkening autumn evening: a thousand starlings, noisily home to roost after their sunset murmuration, cover the pavement below, and any passer-by, with pungent droppings. Take an umbrella, at least.
But there is also something comical, anthropomorphic, about these trees, as if at any moment, they could uproot themselves and stalk off towards the horizon. A touch of Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps? ‘
“I have never known birds of different species to flock together. The very concept is unimaginable. Why, if that happened, we wouldn’t stand a chance! How could we possibly hope to fight them?”
Mrs. Bundy in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds
Things got a little Hitchcock here a few days ago when the rose-gold evening sky above our apartment block suddenly filled with a swirling monochrome cloud of crows and gulls. Drawn by the cacophony of screeches and caws, we watched the aerial spectacle from the shelter of our balcony, wondering what on earth had caused such agitation.
A few days previously, on my way to work, I had seen one of the local ‘eccentrics’ in the nearby piazza, throwing handfuls of food high above his head, and a flock of perhaps thirty yellow-legged gulls swooping down to catch the scraps mid-air. Of course, I’m all for good karma, and feeding the birds, but the net result of our friend’s activity is that the place is now knee-deep in rotting vegetables and guano. I tried running round there in the evening and it was like an ice rink. Looking at the birds flocking in the sky above our balcony, I wondered if perhaps Birdman had changed the location of his avian restaurant and was serving up dinner in the garden beneath our flat.
After about half an hour things settled down and then I noticed that all of the neighbourhood crows had gathered on the roof of one of the buildings opposite. They were staring us down in quite the threatening manner, as if they’d really taken the whole ‘murder of crows’ collective noun idea to heart. We decided it might be best to go inside and close the doors for the evening.
Whatever the hysterical flocking had been about, it seems that the gulls have won the turf wars for now. There has been an absence of crows, but the air has been thick with the wheezing, whinging calls of gull nestlings, hidden from view on the rooftops behind television aerials and satellite dishes. Until yesterday that is, when, as we were washing up after dinner, the whinging grew even louder and suddenly two young birds stuck their heads over the parapet of the house opposite.
The parents wheeled off to sit in a tree on the other side of the garden, apparently finally sick of the noise and constant demands, while their offspring hopped and flapped up and down and contemplated the fifty-foot drop to the ground below. Then, without any pomp or ceremony – one, two – the youngsters launched themselves from the roof and circled away to try out their newly-discovered wings.
‘Come, the croaking raven doth bellow for revenge.’ Shakespeare, Hamlet
‘A plague o’ both your houses!’ Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
In these lemon-yellow days of a Roman spring, exam season gets underway for my students. Once again, Year 9 have studied Romeo and Juliet, taking it ‘from page to stage’ and practising essays on Juliet’s emotional journey through the play. Once again, we have watched the baby-faced Leonardo Di Caprio and Clare Danes as star-crossed lovers in the film version that never fails to entertain. And once again, I have imparted the occult information that wherefore actually means why, causing my pupils to reassess their entire understanding of the balcony scene.
I wake early every day, and the dawn chorus that filters in through the shutters puts me in mind of those ‘two houses, both alike in dignity’, the ‘enemies to peace’ with their ‘ancient grudge’. On one side, the croaks and caws of the hooded crows that populate the pines around us; from the rooftops instead come the cackling belly-laughs of yellow-legged gulls, who have recently moved into the neighbourhood.
There are various theories as to why the number of yellow-legged gulls (Larus michahellis) is rising in Rome, from the closure of an enormous rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city in 2013, to the overall increase in seabird population in Europe with a consequent need for more nesting sites, to the fact that temperatures in the capital are higher than surrounding coastal areas. Gulls are also attracted by the easy pickings – rubbish bins that are left to overflow in the road, the detritus left behind once the street market has packed up for the day. Outside our apartment block, a well-meaning neighbour leaves food out for the local stray cats. As soon as she turns her back to leave, the gulls muscle in, strutting along the wall and eyeballing the bowls of Kitty-Kat until the wretched felines slink off in the knowledge that they are no match for that slashing blade of a beak.
The hooded crow (Corvus cornix) is also a relatively recent arrival in the city, with colonies moving in along the Tiber river in 1996. Like the gulls, they are omnivores – carrion feeders as well as nest robbers and therefore the only natural threat the gulls have in the city. In the umbrella pines (Pinus pinea) that flourish in the gardens around our apartment block, the crows make their nests and then spend their days loudly protecting them. As the gulls are also partial to a freshly laid egg or a plump nestling, this has resulted in some spectacular aerial battles between these two enemies, played out in front of our balcony while I drink my morning coffee. Who needs the Capulets and the Montagues, when you have the crows and the gulls?
(According to the journal Wanted in Rome, there are several measures Romans should take to discourage these birds from invading terraces and balconies, including not leaving left-overs or rubbish outside, never offering the birds food and, disturbingly, not leaving small pets outdoors on their own. You have been warned!)
I made a mistake. I really should have paid more attention to detail, and in particular size, when it came to choosing which plants to grow on my mini-balcony this year. I blame the bees.
I discovered this lovely company www.realseeds.co.uk which sells heritage and heirloom vegetable seeds. Of course, I bought a selection, including bicolour sweetcorn, physalis, yellow podded mange-tout, cherry vine tomatoes and borage, forgetting for the time it took me to order that I do not possess acres of land around a country house, or even a substantial allotment, but rather a balcony that measures 1 metre by 2.5 metres. Ah well.
Still a week or so later, my package arrived and I commenced the process of planting seeds (lacking proper seed trays, I found plastic egg boxes make a good substitute) and soon our bedroom (the only sunny room in the apartment) was full of sprouting shoots and tiny leaves. The peas and the sweetcorn were the first to get going, unfurling and growing as fast as a time-lapse video. The tomatoes followed suit, and the borage and finally, after a delay of two weeks, even the physalis started to show.
That was a couple of months ago. Since then, the sweetcorn has grown man-sized, although whether we will actually get any cobs remains to be seen. Still, its foliage is beautiful, waving in the Roman sun like translucent green ribbons trailed by a rhythmic gymnast. The mange-tout didn’t make it, victim of a minor heatwave when I was away for a few days. The tomatoes are just starting to fruit and the physalis are very slowly growing a new leaf every week or so. But the borage…
I had read about borage and it sounded interesting firstly because it is a salad flower, so I thought it might be entertaining to pretty up our side dishes with some edible blooms. Secondly, it is known for attracting bees – one of its common names is bee-bread – and considering the current plight of our melliferous friends, I thought supplying them with dinner if they happened to be in the area would be the decent thing to do.
While reading about borage I noted that you could do fun things like this with the flowers…
…as well as add them to salads. The flowers are so small and delicate I assumed the plant they grew on would also be of a reasonably diminutive scale. I happily planted out my many seedlings in and around my existing plants: under the bougainvillea, around the hibiscus, in between the rosemary and the marigolds. And they grew.
Noticing the rapidly diminishing space in my pots, I tried a recipe for young borage leaves, which you can fry up in a pan with some oil and a little garlic. The taste is delicious, but even the young leaves have a hairy surface which doesn’t entirely disintegrate with cooking. Appealing as the flavour was, I couldn’t get rid of the sensation that I was eating fried fibre-glass. So I let the plants continue to grow.
As the stalks grew taller and the leaves grew wider, and we started to lose the light in our once sunny bedroom, I thought I had better thin a few of the plants out, but not too many – I was doing this for the bees, remember. Still no flowers appeared. The large, bristly leaves started to scratch at the windows at night in a most disconcerting way but I let them continue to grow. Remember the bees! Finally, as the vegetation began to reach prehistoric stature, and all available space in my vases and containers had been consumed, a spray of those tiny, fragile flowers uncurled and opened up at the top of each stem, utterly out of proportion with the rest of the plant. And finally today, I saw bees.
There can’t be many bees in my immediate neighbourhood of traffic-heavy roads and densely constructed, eight-storey apartment blocks, but there are some. And for the next few weeks at least, they are welcome to have their meals on my balcony.
A stroll down the Appia Antica on a very warm (t-shirt weather) end-of-October day in search of some autumn colour. What I found wasn’t quite what I had in mind, but colourful none the less.
Monk Parakeets (Myiopsitta monachus) are a common sight in Rome’s parks. They are called an invasive species, but that’s a rather negative viewpoint to take, I think. They are very noisy, approachable, love hanging out in big groups, race at breakneck speed from place to place – in fact, very similar to many of my neighbours. They are a perfect Roman bird.
Back in England for a few days and, despite the drizzle and gloom, the garden was turning into a mosaic of bonfire tones. The flame at the heart of it was the robin eyeing me from the fence. He’s very territorial, curious – although he keeps his distance, but you can rely on him to be around when you need some company doing the weeding. Certainly more the English country gent.
To catch, as in to capture on film – of course. To put one of these neon blue light-lasers in a cage would be like trying to own the beauty of a butterfly by pinning it to a board.
25 kilometres outside of Rome, by the coastal town of Ostia, lies a small nature reserve. Run by LIPU, the Italian equivalent of the RSPB, it contains a small lagoon and a few trails with three hides for observing the variety of aquatic birds and passeriformes that either nest in or visit the area.
As per usual, it’s a spur of the moment thing and we pick a day right in-between what are generally considered the right seasons to go birding here. The bee-eaters have already left and it’s still too early for the flocks of migrating birds resting on their way to Africa, or for those species that choose to overwinter in this temperate zone. Still, we pack the binoculars and the camera and head along the trail.
We pick the hut nearest the water, creak open the wooden door and enter into the gloom. There are three other figures already inside, lined up along the observation hatch. Their photographic equipment is very impressive and for the first time I understand why Cannon cameras chose the brand name: they are weapons waiting to fire – enormous expanded cylinders poised at the ready. Quietly my husband unpacks our camera. Until now I’d thought we could acquit ourselves quite competitively in the lens department, but his just doesn’t compare, poor guy! We manage to refrain from laughing at the scenario (this is a serious pursuit), and get down to the business of trying to spot some birds.
Immediately there’s a flash of preternatural colour, electric turquoise and vivid orange, and a kingfisher lands on a branch right outside the hide. Shutter sounds fill the hut with whirrs and clicks. The kingfisher pipes his reedy song once, twice and darts away.
‘Did you get it?’ I mouth. He checks the screen and then looks at me guiltily.
‘I hadn’t set it up. The exposure’s all wrong,’ he whispers back.
Indeed, the screen shows mostly black with the hint of a bird-like shape in the centre.
I say nothing.
After that, we try and try but it’s impossible to catch them in the viewfinder, to anticipate their flight patterns or keep up with their speed. I can almost hear the camera’s auto-focus laughing at me for being fool enough to even consider it feasible.
In the end we just take to watching these fantastic creatures through the binoculars. They flash and dash, skimming the water, or diving from branches to grab a silvery fish with needlepoint accuracy, tiny jewelled jet crafts captivating us with their capacity for aerial manoeuvres and precision plunges. We capture their activity only in our mind’s eye. But that’s enough, and as I drift into sleep later that night, they continue to dance into my dreams.
No sooner had I started this blog than it was time to go to England to catch up with family and friends. My folks live in Winchester which, when viewed with the long lens of living abroad, seems to be the epitome of Englishness (albeit a certain kind of Enid Blyton, lashings of ginger beer Englishness). It makes a lovely break and this time the glorious weather meant much time spent in the garden.
Details from the garden
I always look forward to waking up in Winchester. In summer, the dawn light fades in gradually behind the curtains and the backdrop is silence. Then the chuckle and the footballer’s rattle of the resident magpie family greeting each other after the night, their claws clicking and hopping across the roof. As the light grows stronger the repetitive, triangular call of a woodpigeon echoes out from the apple tree, hushed by the whisper of a passing shower of soft rain. Only much later do the human inhabitants of the street start to add their own chorus to the soundscape.
This morning, waking after a late flight home, there was no doubt I was back in Rome. One needle of light pierces the darkness through the tightly pulled shutters. A hammering begins followed by the teeth-gritting whine of a circular saw. It’s 7 am. Down in the street Franco is unlocking his taxi and enjoying a thunderous conversation with the man up on the sixth floor who has shuffled out onto his balcony to smoke his first cigarette of the day. Metal blinds rumble like trains as they are rolled up from the ground in front of bars and shop windows. Traffic is already humming past on the main road while a car horn is pressed once, twice, eight times, victim of double parking and late for work. As the hour progresses there are car alarms, building alarms and moped after moped buzzing away or circling the street like angry hornets disturbed from the nest.
And yet, underneath all of this human cacophony, I smile when I hear the brisk, urgent calls of the gang of sparrows who swoop down on my balcony for a moment to quarrel amongst the hibiscus. A plumped up pigeon coos vainly from the window ledge while a hooded crow shouts him down from the rooftop forest of aerials and antennas. The sad arias of caged canaries grow in strength with the sun as it reaches across the building, warming their trapped bodies and reminding them of a world they have never known.
My balcony, tiny though it might be, brings me many moments of calm and pleasure. Now it’s the holidays, I have time to appreciate it during the day too. Three or four Small White (Pieris rapae) butterflies flutter by on an hourly basis, attracted to the vibrant flowers of the Lantana Camara – rich red turning to orange, mixed with other varieties in pink, cream and yellow. The chili plant is weighed down anew with its daggers of fiery fruit. I love the way they change from black to green to scarlet. In the UK I remember having to pollinate my chili plants by hand using a tiny paint brush; here an army of tiny hoverflies does the job for me. Now that school lunches are finally off the menu for a couple of months, I can pick and eat the herbs I’ve grown: thyme and lemon thyme in salad; basil scattered over sweet baby tomatoes; rosemary on roast potatoes; sage for ravioli in butter; and mint with chili mixed into grated courgettes with lemon and oil. A friend has sent me a beautiful book entitled The Edible Balcony. Next year I will be growing the vegetables too. My favourite moment on my balcony is watering the plants. Barefoot in the Roman heat, I savour the cool water in-between my toes as it overflows from the soil and containers or I (deliberately) miss my target. Very often I spy the large gecko who usually hides behind the empty flower pots but occasionally creeps out to sit among the foliage; he scuttles away as soon as a drop of water falls on him.