COMPETITION: LITERALLY LOST 80

This excerpt has been taken from a work of travel literature. Readers are invited to tell us: a) where is the action taking place? b) who is the author? Blackwell's Bookshops will award pounds 30-worth of book tokens to the first correct answer out of the hat. Answers on a postcard to: Literally Lost, Independent on Sunday, 1 Canada Square, London E14 5DL. Usual competition rules apply. Entries to arrive by this Thursday. Literally lost 79: The book was 'A Year in Provence' by Peter Mayle. The action took place in Provence. The winner is Gene McDowell from Gloucestershire.

ark never turns black-dark. The stars exert their most powerful kilowatts. Also the moon, glassy in old windows, wavering and rising from bottom pane to middle to top is a pleasure for the insomniac to watch. The one nightingale, who must live in the ilex above the house, pierces the quiet with insistent notes. Dawn is the sweetest time on earth. In the last moments of dark, the birds' chorale begins. One of us wakes the other. Listen, they're starting to sing now. So many, a rising cloud of birdsong, a lift, an ushering-in. Then the sky - no rosy finger of dawn but a suffusion of rose out of indigo, the quietest light on the hills and the rushing songs of the birds still rising over the absolute world unto itself. Moles, voles, porcupines, snakes, foxes, boar, all the creatures burrowed for the night return to day with this music, as we do. The deep freshness of the earth returns to those who sing, to the fusion of colors. As the sun brightens, colors sharpen and separate from each other. But where is the cuckoo at this hour?

Our friends wake to the sound of the bird who sings, "Wheat, wheat." Ed listens every day for the bird he says sings, "When you're a Jet you're a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette...." from West Side Story. We take them on a wildflower walk around the land. All spring, I've photographed each flower as I found it. Most amazing have been the wild white and purple orchids. My book with the medieval wildflower cover, bought in Asolo, now bulges with poppies against stone walls, ragged robin, purple lupin, cotton lavender, wild carnations, lilies, dog roses, still unidentified spiky blue flowers. The many yellows are hardest to identify with the wildflower book in hand. There simply are too many that look similar.

Susan and I cut off rose leaves with black spots and some with the dreaded rust. These go in a bag to be destroyed. She shows me how to take cuttings from my favorite pink roses in front of the house, which survived thirty years of neglect and still bloom with a clean, violet fragrance especially strong early in the mornings. We spend hours in the garden and on the terraces picking wildflowers, then down to the orto to fill a basket with lettuces for lunch.

At home in California we are so busy we have 8am phone conversations two or three times a week, shorthand exchanges of vital information about our daughters, both of whom are in graduate school, about her bookstore business, and what we're managing to read. A few days to walk, go to a museum, cook dinner, and sit out under the benign lights of fireflies and the Milky Way, reconnects our friendship. "Why don't we have more time at home?" we ask each other, but we don't have an answer.

Like the birdsong, like the droves of butterflies and bees, the volunteer flowers in profusion delight me because they come purely as gifts of the land. Just as I'm waxing about the pleasures of rural life to Susan and Cole, an English friend calls and says they've arrived to find two drowned baby boars in their well and they've fished out the rotting, bloated carcasses with a hoe.

At dinner Cole speculates on why we've taken this place so much to heart. "Is it because it's a return to a simpler time? You get to erase the urban blight from your minds for a few months each year?"

Relaxed and enjoying the evening, with lanterns along the wall, lasagna, and the Vino Nobile they have brought, we agree. By dessert, I retract. "That's not really it. It's the end of the ugly century here, too." I flash on the prostitutes along the Piero della Francesca trail. Trucks on the autostrada polluting like mad. Frustrating strikes, which are so frequent there's a space in the newspaper announcing when public services will not be operating.

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