LETTER FROM ITALY: `Insect' is my latest buzzword

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The war is only a 15-minute jet ride across the Adriatic and at night I hear what might be B-52s high in the sky. But I am scared of insects. They are much closer to home. I live in the Appennine village of Predappio, 40 miles south of Bologna and 25 miles west of Rimini, where the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was born and is buried like a saint. Predappio is the Fascist Bethlehem and I am here to write a biography of Mussolini.

My house is perched in vineyards on the side of a little mountain 14 hair-pin bends up above the village. It may sound like paradise. But it is not. Autumn with its wild wind which tore down trees and blew open my locked front door has gone. So, too, has winter with its days of dense fog, torrential rain, deep snow and deathly silence. The spring has brought blossom and birdsong. But it has also brought insects - many of which bite and sting.

The hotter it gets the worse these insects get. There are many types of wasp, hornet and bee. The worst one I have to deal with on a regular basis is a giant wasp, known locally as a "bomb" - una bomba - which is two inches long. I killed one recently inside my house with a hardback book called Il Duce's Other Woman. The wasp must have come down the chimney. The killing required nerve and skill. Naturally, I felt guilty.

But these giant wasps, whose sound in flight is like that of a high-voltage electricity cable, are vicious things. God knows what would happen if I got stung by one. Most insects sleep at night, but not these giant wasps. They are even more active at night. They hang against my windows attracted by the light, desperate to get into my house; they buzz about the lamp outside my front door. Getting to and from the car is tricky. They chase me. I have had at least two nightmares involving them.

I was scanning the local newspaper the other day and having waded through the daily dose of pictures of Kosovo refugees, the face of Clinton, and Nato jets, my eyes alighted on drawings of various types of insect. The headline read: "The killer pappataci are coming". Until then, I was not especially troubled by this pappatacio - which I translate as the pope's tax collector. It is a type of midge which infests my neck of the woods in droves. It floats down like a tiny tuft of wool, settles on your arm and bites. It can bite through clothing as well. It seems to be on a suicide mission as, unlike a mosquito, it lingers long after the bite and is easy to kill with the slap of a hand. I have been bitten many times by them.

I had thought the pappatacio was just another small price paid for being in this Appennine paradise. But now this newspaper tells me this tiny midge can give you something called in Italian leishmaniosi - a word that is not in my Italian-English vocabulary - a type of blood poisoning which can lead to death. Worse, the preferred victims of the pappatacio, adds the newspaper, are adult men who eat a lot of vegetables and who use floral base after-shave and smoke. I am not sure what base the aftershave I occasionally wear is but I smoke like a Turk, as the Italians say, and do eat the odd vegetable. I am beginning to think it is time to get the hell out of paradise.

That night I was in the bar next to the derelict castle four hair-pin bends above my house on top of the mountain. The castle used to be Mussolini's summer residence and had a light-house on top which sent out a beam of light 30 miles into the Italian countryside in the colours of the Italian flag. But like nearly all buildings with Mussolini connections in Italy the castle has been locked up since the war for political reasons. The tourism of fascism is not encouraged. Anyway, in walked my friend Giorgio, who is 34. Giorgio is the capo gruppo of the post-communists who run the council in Predappio and, indeed, the current Italian government. Giorgio is also a geologist who specialises in earthquake risk. "Unless you spend pounds 50,000 on the foundations it's bound to fall down if there's a quake," he warns people.

Most people I meet in Predappio, apart from Giorgio, are fascists. Often they give the Roman salute to each other when they meet. They carry photographs of the Duce in their wallets, like Christians carry pictures of Our Lord, with his sayings printed on the reverse such as "Better to live one day as a lion than one hundred years as a sheep".

So it puzzles me that Giorgio and his post-communists are in charge. Perhaps the fascists just drink more. That is why I meet them. I drink the local Sangiovese rosso which the fascists call nero and the castle bar has on tap at 50p a half pint. More likely, the fascists vote communist - or post-communist - these days. Fascism and communism have much more in common than history is willing to allow them. Mussolini, after all, was a socialist before he founded fascism and always insisted he was a socialist to the bitter end. But to anyone on the left the word fascism - so badly misunderstood - is the big hate word.

"Any bombing today?" Giorgio, the post-communist, asked me wearily, "I haven't had a chance to see the news."

"Yes," I replied. But I had insects not bombs on my mind and so mentioned the article on the killer pappatacio. Giorgio, too, it transpired, thinks about insects a lot.

"Not only the pappatacio, there is also the zecca," he said ominously.

"The zecca?" I asked.

"The sheep tick. It gives you a disease like malaria, but worse. I got bitten three times. Twice on my head. Once here," he said pointing to his groin with a chuckle and a flash of the eyes at the ravishing barmaid who was listening. "Bad. Very bad. The only solution is to pour alcohol on the zecca immediately and pull it out with tweezers quickly."

I asked him to draw me a zecca so that I could be prepared to spot this latest enemy in my midst. Looking at his drawing I was none the wiser. Giorgio likes to draw to illustrate a point. But he is very bad at drawing.

The local word for making love is trombare, as in did you trumpet her? "Whatever you do, Nicola, do not trumpet in the fields of Predappio this summer," Giorgio warned with a chuckle, eyes right, of course, to the barmaid.

There are bound to be zecca - sheep ticks - where I am. The other morning I was awoken by the sound of tinkling bells and bleating. I looked out of the window and saw sheep flowing around my house. I went out. The shepherd asked: "Do you mind if my sheep graze here?"

"No," I replied. "They say there are wolves here. Is it true?"

The shepherd was silent while his eyes studied the village below and the mountains beyond. Then he spoke: "Maybe." Now I am more scared of his sheep and their ticks than wolves. There is one insect, however, which I am looking forward to as the heat intensifies: the firefly. Fireflies arrive in May and hover and float about in the night with their lights winking on and off. They do not bite, sting, chase you, or give you diseases worse than malaria. They just make you happy to be alive. The Italian word for firefly is lucciola - which also means prostitute.

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