Reminders that summer time is here, slightly ahead of schedule as usual


ROME LETTER: Misty Lazio mornings, kinks in the hose-pipe, snakes that slither out from the water-pump house, flowers for Corpus Domini, end-of-year school exams, trips to the airport for family visitors, suntans and female midriffs - summer time is here, slightly ahead of schedule as usual.

This has been a long dry winter into spring, in these parts. Little rain has fallen and the landscape is already beginning to look thirsty. In such far from perfect circumstances, the baroness (herself) has decided to recreate Versailles, or more specifically the gardens thereof.

This has meant a lot of digging, earth-moving, pipe-laying, cursing and, last but not least, watering. As the heat gathers, too, our little reptile friends descend from the oak woods above us in search of a drop with which to soften a parched fang.

Thus it was that Alessandro, the plumber engaged on herself's post-Versailles magnum opus, enthusiastically reported a snake sighting in the water-pump house. A sighting is one thing, of course, but the important thing to establish is which type of snake was sighted.

Basically, we have two in these parts - the biscia (grass snake) and the vipera (viper). The former can look Raiders of the Lost Ark impressive but is in fact relatively harmless, while the latter looks like an insignificant, tiddly little thing but can kill you.

Whenever a snake is sighted, the immediate reaction (and this applied to Alessandro) is to claim that it was a vipera. On further investigation, it nearly always turns out to be a biscia. Your fearless correspondent (Harrison Ford is the role model) has occasionally had to slay a mighty biscia that opted to make his home in our garden, yet I have only once had a good close-up view of a vipera which, given his bad press, understandably tends to be wary of humankind. (On the occasion I did see one, the vipera in question was so concentrated on an imminent hit job on a hapless frog that he ignored the nearby human.)

The return of the "biscia or vipera" question, however, like end-of-year school exams (next week) or the sudden and startling appearance of a hundred thousand, perfectly tanned shoulders and midriffs is a sure sign of this Italian time of year.

An equally sure indication, too, is the "road closed" sign that blocks off our village on the first Sunday in June as preparations are made for the Corpus Domini feast, celebrated with the laying of a carpet of flowers that form intricate patterns all the way round the village streets. Until a recent chat with Gilberto, I used to think that the laying of the flowers was basically the preserve of pious "auld ones". Not so.

At first glance, you would hardly imagine that Gilberto, who runs the lake's only taxi service, is big into flower patterns. He is a serious AC Milan supporter, chews a lot of gum, wears the odd chest medallion and drives according to the Schumacher school of Ferrari shunting.

Yet, during a recent early morning, madcap dash to the airport, Gilberto told me that he and his village cohorts (the Bracciano lot on the other side of the lake) were off to Siena for a flower spettacolo. In other words, Gilberto and cohorts have become so handy at the old flower patterns that they now occasionally travel the country to strut their stuff.

I am off on the "airport run" this morning to greet the first of the summer visitors (sister of the baroness). As I adjust my peak cap for the long hot summer, I can at least report some good news.

In response to vigorous lobbying from your correspondent, the Italian government has wisely enacted emergency legislation that envisages immediate repatriation not only for those Irish tourists who order a cappuccino after their lunch or dinner but also for house guests who threaten to talk, whisper, cough, comment or otherwise make themselves heard during live broadcasts of World Cup games. Have a good one.