Good Help Nowadays

I start this story not at my own desk in the Palazzo Mocenigo, but in a hammock suspended between two graceful pine trees in a place called Oliveto, up in the Sabine Hills, an hour's drive from Rome. The settlement of a dozen houses is dominated by the Villa Parisi, a medieval casale set in a large hillside garden, which some friends from London have taken for a week's stay. The nearest big town, with a population of 45,830 according to the 44esima edizione della Guida Michelin found in the rented car, is Rieti, but I did not come here to fret about sightseeing in Northern Lazio. I came here to make jokes, play cards, sleep, drink, and talk about the servants. In England, there is a name for this kind of summer divertissement, which is supposed to take place somewhere beyond the confines of the former Empire, usually in Greece, Spain, or Italy. It is called a villa holiday.

Of course, the arrangements have been made through a London agency, which knows as much about Italy as the Moscow correspondent of the New York Times knows about Russia, and—if such a monster can be imagined—is even more defensively verbose. Accordingly, once the promised luxuries have been paid for in advance, the tenants receive a descriptive folder of several hundred pages, complete with slightly inaccurate maps and wholly imaginary menus, that boils down to something like this: "Just bring your own bloody...

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