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Mal di Primavera

Valerie Schneider

Brilliantly sunny days have been alternating with overcast rainy ones, announcing the arrival of spring as surely as the crimson fields full of delicate poppies. The itchy eyes and blustery sneezes I have been experiencing are the other indubitable harbingers of this season. The newly-watered plants and trees are disgorging their venom-like allergens. Mal di primavera, literally the bad of spring, is how they refer to hay fever allergies and I think it’s a pretty apt description.

White Poplar

The greatest perpetrator is the pioppi, or poplars (see picture to the right), which produce fine, light-as-air fluffs that float and flutter on the breeze and look remarkably like snowfall. It became so insidious that in some parts of town the flurries have accumulated into drifts. The pioppi snow induces nasty symptoms, not unlike the cottonwoods of New Mexico that made me so miserable. I only recently discovered that cottonwood is a variety of poplar, and like the town of Corrales which had the offending trees in abundance along the Rio Grande, my new city has them lining the two rivers that enfold Ascoli Piceno by their protective, watery ravines. Lucky me.

Spring, I must say, has never been my favorite season. Not just because of the miseria of the pollens, but because spring in New Mexico would always be marked by winds. Not gentle breezes, mind you, but blasts of sand-laden air that pelt your face. Wretched daily winds that are normally about 20 to 30 miles per hour but can get very gusty, up to 60 miles per hour. The kind of wind that blows across the expanses, seemingly picking up half of Arizona’s top layer and depositing it onto New Mexico, hammering you so that you find sand particles in your eyes and ears and hair. It would blow forcefully into the house beneath doors and windows regardless of how well sealed they are. Worse, after the meager sprinkles of rain that mark the supposed spring showers in the desert, the blowing dirt would become mottled on the rain-splotched windows creating little sculptured globs of mottled muck that would then harden in the sun and require a good deal of effort to clean.

Bike Flowers

Bike Flowers

Which brings me to the other reason I am not so fond of the vernal season: spring cleaning. Sweeping up sand, washing windows, clearing away mountains of tumbleweeds, and gathering up the cottonwood crud was never my idea of fun. I’ve found that this aversion has not improved with change of geography. I’m sweeping up pioppi…or rather, trying unsuccessfully to sweep up pioppi. Unlike the weightier cottony balls of New Mexico, the little suckers are so fluffy and light, they go airborne at the slightest touch of the broom, flit around and settle on the floor, only to repeat it all over again when I make another attempt. Only by cornering the beasts and attacking them with the flat edge of the bristles can I impale them on the broom long enough to stick it out the window and shake them away.

But cleaning in Italy is even worse than its counterpart activity in America because there is an unexplainable phenomenon here whereby dust accumulates faster than the speed of sound, or at least faster than the normal rate of accumulation in every other corner of the globe, thus leaving the floors in need of sweeping on an all-too-regular basis. While leaving the windows open is common and would explain some input of dust, it does not account for the supersonic buildup in the house. No matter how frequently I sweep, I gather together a large pile of matter including large, clumpy dust bunnies which seem to multiply faster than…well, rabbits. Fortunately, everything here is tiled; if there were carpets I’d be worrying about the accumulating dirt getting trapped within its fibers and how icky that would be.

Thanks to the advice of my smart sister I procured for myself a Swiffer, that little broom-like contraption that boasts a flat bottom onto which you attach a disposable cloth-like thingy that somehow magnetically or magically grabs the dust and holds on to it. Well, sort of hold on to it, because these dust bunnies are heavy-weights in their class. The cloth becomes caked full rather quickly and it’s not uncommon to whip through three or four to give the floors of my small apartment a decent once-over.

It never ceases to amaze me just how much crap the Swiffer picks up and how gross it is. I cringe, wrinkle my nose and exclaim in surprise every time I use it. I have a sort of absurd fascination with it, lifting the cleaning head to gaze at the crud, often shoving it in Bryan’s face saying, “Will you look at this gross stuff? Look! Ick!” to which he inevitably begs, “Why must you show it to me?” I dunno. Maybe because I think that dust disgust, like misery, is an emotion that loves company?

The bunnies are constant companions. Because of the Rapid Rate of Dust Accumulation Factor, I end up sweeping the floor so much that it looks like I’m training for the Winter Olympics Curling Event. Unfortunately, the Swiffer is no more effective on the pioppi fluffs than the broom is, so the interior snowfall continues to annoy and affect me.

Cleaning in Italy is also compounded by the fact that it requires a great deal more effort to accomplish. Mops of the variety that I was accustomed to do not seem to exist here. Instead, the normal implement is a long-handled, short-bristled brush that gets placed on a rag. Mopping action requires an inordinate amount of muscle and the exercise always results in back-bending, ache-inducing futility because the rag deposits as much dirt onto baseboards as it picks up off the tile. After two years, I have still not adequately mastered this technique.

I found this affair to be entirely too much work and so I invested in a steam cleaner, the likes of which I used happily at home. Unfortunately, I chose poorly and this one lacks the raw cleaning power of my previous steamer, which now resides with a friend who has dubbed it Stanley and adores it as much as any of her beloved dogs. The new one also has no lock-and-load action, thus requiring that I keep my finger on the nozzle at all times, ensuring that I get a cramped-up index finger to go along with the aches caused by mopping furiously to try to get up the dirt. Need to get me a new, more powerful steamer.

All this is frustrating not so much because it is different from what I’m used to, as much as I look around and see that every house I enter is extremely clean. I mean, we’re talking brilliantly, sparklingly, astonishingly clean. How the heck do they do it? How do they keep the dust bunnies from taking over the world? How do they keep the windows so clear? How do they use those back-breaking mops and actually get them to pick up the dirt? These are my whiny lamentations every time I commence cleaning.

My whining subsides a bit when I consider that I am really not investing the better part of my day in cleaning, but am instead usually found moseying around town, enjoying delicious cappuccinos, writing to my heart’s content, studying (when I feel like it), and meeting some wonderful people when they come to see my city. I console myself that while my house is not spotless, it’s fine…even if “fine” requires four crud-filled cloths from the Swiffer to achieve. I have lovely poppies to behold, friends to converse with, and-perhaps best of all-no sand-blasted gusts of wind to bombard me.

Still, I’ll be glad when spring turns to the dry season of summer, when the pioppi snows stop falling, the windows will not be rain-blotched, and the mal di primavera will come to an end. The abiding constant will be the fact that I’ll still have the bunnies under the bed to keep me company. Given their rate of accumulation and my dislike of spring cleaning, they’re not going anywhere anytime soon.

Village of Castelluccio

Valerie in Castelluccio


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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