Prior to joining Mark on 4am starts, I loved to begin my working day in bed with a cup of tea and a book. It felt like a stolen moment; half an hour of ‘me’ time to collect myself before I had to face the daily scramble of dashing around the country to earn a living, variously selling blood banks, laser particle counters and high performance liquid chromatography systems.
Since we gave up work, morning is one of our favourite times. Having left behind the world of targets, deadlines and stress, it feels so luxurious to wake up naturally and ease ourselves into the day without rushing.
Locked down in a deserted Italian ski resort, we start by throwing open our wooden shutters and sitting in bed with a coffee. The apartment is not overlooked, so with utter disdain for the demands of built-in bedside tables and headboard, which dictate which direction we should face, we moved our divan on to the wall opposite the French doors.
This grants us a magnificent view of the mountains; an aspect that the architect scorned in favour of an integrated, faux-pine wardrobe, crafted from MDF to match the built-in accoutrements on the other side of the room. Luckily, the faux-wood panelling that surrounds the French doors is a continuation of the wardrobe, so we get the best of both worlds. A fabulous mountain view, framed by the interior design ecstasy of MDF.
As we chat, read or admire the outlook, warm, sleepy puppies snuggle in for a cuddle. Experts differ on the merits of allowing your fur babies to sleep with you. Some behaviourists say it’s bad, because it dents your kudos as pack leader. Some medical professionals say it’s good, because it has mental health benefits and boosts your immune system. And some friends say, “But what about Mummy and Daddy’s special moment?”
We say, “Mind your own business!” and maintain that dogs on the bed makes the whole pack happy, while adding a colossal cuteness factor to the pack leader’s lives. (And, with regard to the other matter, we manage!)
The day unfolds with Lani inverting for a tummy tickle the second she senses one of us is conscious. Kai is not a morning person. Wearing a perplexed look, he shoots bolt upright as soon as anyone stirs, before finally coming to terms with the sensation of wakefulness by settling straight back into slumber. Often, his furry, little face will nuzzle into your neck, which never fails to make your heart melt.
Ruby is straight up to wag her tail and look pleased with herself as she parades stiff-legged across the duvet to initiate her yoga stretches: down dog; up dog; followed by an adorable, suppressed yawn in which her lips curl back just enough to show tiny, white incisors. Try to get up before she’s ready and our demanding little princess will have her paws on your shoulders to push you down, so that she can cosy up for a hug. Occasionally, Rosie might summon enough patience to rest between your legs, although mostly, she keeps a vigil from the foot of the bed; glued to the windows to make sure that she doesn’t miss a thing.
Recently, distant enough to treat us to a gentle clarion call, a soft medley of cow bells has added to the Alpine ambience.
Once we have come around in our own time, we take a stroll in clean air, cocooned in our bowl of stunning peaks. We pass the Oagre Chapel and wade through a meadow, which takes us to the ski lifts and the dystopian TV screen. Throughout lockdown, it has played adverts continuously to the deserted village. Recently, it made a spooky transition to its summer video loop, even though there is still no-one here to appreciate it.
On particularly nice mornings, we cross the piste, now green, and carry on along the pretty path through the woods that line the steep valley side. Snow has been replaced by wild flowers, while tiny streams of melt water twinkle and chatter through a garden of rocks. With or without the woodland extension, we return for breakfast through the village centre, accompanied by the rushing of the River Lys. Our slow start is the epitome of relaxation, peace and tranquility.
It came as a shock, therefore, to be awoken at 7am by a JCB picking up boulders just outside our window, using its perforated bucket to shake them free of soil, then allowing them to crash from a height into the back of a lorry. Since we gave up work, the time of day known as 7am is dead to us, unless we have a ferry to catch or a vital appointment that couldn’t be arranged for the afternoon.
The restful clang, clatter and accompanying roar of engines is amplified as it reverberates off the walls the hotel and three apartment blocks. Then, it echoes back from the craggy, three-thousand-foot face of Telcio, the mountain next door. By then, it has achieved a level that might register on the Richter scale.
Finally, it seems, The Management has got around to removing the giant heaps of rubble in the garden. These were generated by a curious project to add windows into the underground garage. A costly and prolonged program of works (the same piles of rubble were here last year), it is also one whose purpose we have struggled to comprehend.
Part of the underground parking area does share the same outlook as our apartment, although the rest overlooks the back of the hotel. The new windows are boarded up, so we’re not convinced that any of this was done for the view. We remain at a loss as to why you might go to the trouble and expense of digging out a bank to expose the buried concrete, garage walls, into which you cut holes to retro-fit windows, board them up, and then re-landscape almost the entire grounds to make good the mess caused by the works. All for the seemingly pointless exercise of bringing the outside in to an underground garage, which already had electric lights on a motion sensor.
But diggers at dawn has not been the only shock to our calm, forenoon routine. Our morning pee poo circuit with the dogs has become a bit of an ordeal.
Previously, the only hazard was the Red Dog and the Terrible Terrier. We always say, “You get the face you deserve,” and the Red Dog is no exception. He resembles a small, fox-coloured Akita, whose permanent frown gives a clue to his nature. Unfenced and unrestrained, he patrols around the Villa della Regina, with his snappy, yappy, grey-white sidekick. Our path passes about six feet below their lawn before rising to the same level. This initially gives the Terrible Two the advantage of the high ground.
The offensive starts with intimidating growling around head height, but thankfully out of reach. “Jackie, you walk on with the dogs while I block,” is D.D.1 – Doggie Drill No 1: Bypassing Canine Attack. It works well, since, with humans at least, the pair are all mouth and no trousers. We know this because we sometimes knock on the door to collect our order of freshly-laid eggs and home-produced Toma cheese, supplied by the Adler’s Nest mountain hut, high in the hills at Gabiet.
While an incursion cannot be ruled out, The Terrible Two tend not to wage war beyond the bounds of their own lawn. However, any pooches who approach too closely are treated to a snarling lunge with teeth bared. Sadly, even experience has not yet taught Rosie to believe us on this. Ever the optimist, she occasionally sneaks back, following a successful D.D.1, convinced that an international alliance is still both possible and desirable.
With the warmer weather, the adder has come into play. Now, he is there most mornings, sunning himself somewhere near his hidey hole in the wall. This necessitates D.D.2: Serpent Avoidance. I hold everyone in ‘wait’ mode, while Mark goes ahead to confirm the snake’s presence and exact location. On the all clear, we wave the pups past and physically prevent curious people like Nosy Rosie from further investigations of that twig thing that smells so interesting and doesn’t move (most of the time.) We make sure never to leave any prospect of opening negotiations in a canine-viper alliance to Rosie’s own diplomatic judgement.
Spring has returned to the mountains, and along with it, livestock. The beautiful, chestnut-and-white Valdostane cows are released to munch on a different part of the village each day. Their rich milk is the foundation for delicious, local cheeses, such as the Toma and Fontina that we so enjoy. Sometimes the herd is visible; sometimes we can hear their bells, but not always. So, now route-planning for our morning walk begins with a bovine guessing game; ‘Where might The Toma Team be today?’
The cows pose two hazards. The first is that Lani loves cows. To her, quadrupeds fall into two categories; ‘big dogs’ and ‘things to chase’. Cows are basically big dogs, so why wouldn’t you bound up, introduce yourself and ask if anyone wants to play? On the other hand, we’re fairly sure that Valdostane cows are fully aware that Lani is not one of their kind. They are horned and renowned for fighting, albeit mostly among themselves to sort out the pecking order. In more normal times, ‘The Battle of the Queens’ is a springtime spectator sport in the Aosta Valley.
More worrying than the large and well-armed bovine beasties is the accompanying pack of half-a-dozen hairy hounds. Selectively bred for their size, protective instincts and ability to take on packs of wolves and win, they are all mouth and full trouser and are not to be tangled with under any circumstances. The weather-beaten farmers who sit with the herd always give us a friendly wave, but use restraining methods to maintain an appropriate social distance between our Cavapoos and their canine Colossi.
As the herds and flocks return to the higher pastures, we suspect the risk of run-ins with shepherd dogs might curtail our Alpine walking career for the season.
The final peril is the bees. All over the valley, including our morning meadow, bee hives have cropped up to convert the psychedelic bounty of crazily coloured flowers into delicious, Alpine honey. Rosie does not yet believe us on this one either. I do admire her vision of world peace and inter-species accord, but I suspect she might come around to our way of thinking one day soon. It will happen when our backs are turned and she takes it upon herself to prove to us that underneath it all, like every other living creature on the planet, bees are friendly and like dogs.
This is the face of our new normal. As spring gets a grip in the valley and Italy returns to work, our morning routine is disrupted. Our relaxed ambience has been replaced with alarm calls at an ungodly hour from a boulder-rattling JCB and we are forced to run the gauntlet of a venomous snake; bees; horned, fighting cattle; fearsome guard dogs and The Terrible Two.
When can I move back to Lambeth*?
*Lambeth is the less-than-salubrious part of central London where I lived when I took up my first ‘proper’ job as a researcher in St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School. Home was the 19th floor of a tower block, which looked down on the Thames, Battersea Power Station and planes flying into Heathrow. It was so high, it sometimes swayed noticeably in the wind. Both lifts smelled of pee – and always broke down on shopping day.