Monday 30 June 2014

An honest day's work!?

So that's what 7 hours of strimming feels like! (I can only imagine it will feel worse in the morning!) It was good to flex my muscles today though, and find out exactly how much strimming is possible - but I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

We retired to bed early last night, having had a very late night on Saturday - we both expected to sleep like the dead, and I think we probably did until about 11:30pm when we were both rudely awakened by an enormous crash outside the bedroom window, or was it above the roof? It sounded as if two mountains had collided into each other - they hadn't, of course, it was simply thunder of epic proportions - never has our position perched on a hillside been so obvious as when the thunder was clapping directly above us - and echoing back from across the other side of the valley. I'm so glad we have a lighting rod now!!

The thunder crashed and rumbled on for about an hour, along with a rain storm of almost biblical proportions. I almost got up to go and join Florence on the sofa in our bedroom to watch through the window, but was sure Lucca would be sleeping on one of the rugs and didn't want to tread on him - we didn't hear a peep from either of them during the whole stormy night.

When dawn broke and the alarms went off, the sound of rain had stopped, so Helen went out to do a quick session on the turbo trainer and I slowly dragged myself out of bed, opting not to get on my bike today as I had a day's strimming ahead of me and wasn't convinced I was up to both.

On venturing outside the front door there was a definite feeling of the-morning-after-the-night-before, as mist and fog hung heavily in the air and much of the vegetation looked as if it had been through the spin cycle in a washing machine. Our sage and thyme plants were virtually flattened, and even one of the olive trees in the garden looked decidedly battered.

The morning after the storm.

Note the somewhat windswept/battered looking olive tree at the bottom centre of the picture!

As I padded around inside making my breakfast and preparing for my day, Helen waved at me through the front door, beckoning me outside. She had been joined in the garden by what as far as we could tell was either a red squirrel or a pine marten. It scampered along the grass, ran up an olive tree, then scampered back down and again and shot up the walnut tree. 

We managed to get some photographs, but without a telephoto lens they aren't brilliant. However, we think we have decided to agree on it having been a pine marten.

This photograph actually makes it look rather like a tiny brown koala bear, but we KNOW it wasn't one of those...

Pine marten?

At 8:15am, I headed out, feeling a bit like it was my first day at school - sandwiches packed, three litres of water, sun cream, insect repellent and a bag full of strimming paraphernalia.

I felt sad to be leaving Helen behind for the first time since we arrived - which wasn't made any easier by the fact that we have no phone at the moment, but I felt consoled by the fact that I had been told that mobile signal was to be expected up in Lanciole, where I was heading. I have no idea how Lanciole has mobile signal when it is so much further up the valley than us, but I did indeed have signal. I had arranged to call Gary (the guy I was working for) when I arrived in the village, who would meet me and take me to the house as he warned me that I would never find it from directions (as often seems to be the way in these mountains).

As I entered the village, I noticed a Citroen Berlingo parked in a layby with a guy sitting inside it. Coincidence? I stopped the car shortly after passing him, deciding he didn't look particularly Italian - and, sure enough, my instincts had been right as I could see in my rear view mirror that he was waving at me: it was Gary.

I followed Gary out of the village and down a track for about a kilometre, where we turned into the parking area of the house. The house is owned by a British couple who live and work out in the Middle East and use it about once a year for a few weeks' holiday. There is a whole back story to the sale of this house, with illegal building work having happened prior to the sale, and ongoing court wranglings, but I won't go into the details - suffice to say the situation is complicated! The owners are due out here in a couple of weeks, so the whole place needs strimming, some walls painting and some fences staining. First on the agenda: strimming!

The weather wasn't too hot, thankfully, and so off I set with our strimmer. It had all been done a couple of months ago, but by now it had grown to about twelve inches! While the grass was long, it was easy work compared to what I've become used to at our house! Before I knew it, lunchtime rolled around, and then it was back to strimming. A nice steady pace worked wonders, and it was already around five o'clock by the time I started to clock watch. By this stage, though, my wrist we're really stiff, and a good set of calluses were developing across the palms of my hands, with bright pink skin. I'd definitely had enough for one day, and it didn't take me long to be in the car and on my way home as soon as Gary gave me the 'call it a day' signal. He seemed happy enough to want me back again tomorrow, and probably a couple of days next week (when there is a delivery of 1,000 plants expected - and they all need planting!).

Helen had a fairly standard day in the office, albeit a lonely one, not even the cats bothered to keep her company (I think their disturbed night's sleep had caught up with them and they must have been flat out in our bedroom all day).

We received a couple of emails of note today - one from the geometra who (i think) was asking us to go to his office in order to sort out the phone bills.

The second was from our first paying guest of the season, asking for information about the area, travel and bike rental. (Lorenzo, if you're reading this, we'll reply to your email tomorrow!) He also gave us some very useful feedback on our website, and overall his email made us really look forward to welcoming him and his family to our house. We feel even more determined to make sure everything is spick and span for their arrival, and we really hope they will have a good time here - from his emails, he seems like a really decent guy and someone we've really warmed to. Let's hope the feeling is mutual when our guests arrive! 

So somehow it's got to 9pm. Dinner is being cooked, but I haven't yet washed all the grass off my forearms or out of my hair, so I will draw this blog post to a close so that I can shower, eat and get as much rest and recuperation as possible before another 7-hour day of strimming...

P.S. no photos from my efforts today - my phone has taken to misbehaving and not saving any of the photos I take. Helen might let me take the camera out with me tomorrow.

Sunday 29 June 2014

President plays tambourine at Glastonbury

We left you last night just as we were about to be picked up by Richard to go to Goraiolo - a lovely little village in an absolutely beautiful setting, a couple of miles north of Vellano - for the 'bongos' night.

Richard arrived bang on time, and we drove up (and up...) to Goraiolo. We were slightly delayed en route by a baby deer standing at the side of the road that seemed to have lost its mum and kept running in and out of the road, unsure as to what to do with itself - eventually it skipped off into the trees though, and we were able to continue our journey. Michelle was already waiting for us at her friend's cafe/bar/pizzeria (SeraDi café), so we ordered drinks and took them up to the garden.

We found ourselves a table in a covered area (thinking ahead to when the night air would turn chilly) and sat drinking and chatting.

Before long, the band took up their place and played a few different bongo tracks (although, to be honest, once you've heard one bongo rendition, you've kind of heard them all...). It all seemed very Glastonbury-esque, with tie dye and dreadlocks in abundance - thankfully without the mud though.

Smiley bongos players.

We were soon delivered some tomato bruschetta to accompany our drinks, followed by several plates of tasty thin crust pizza straight from the oven. Absolutely delicious.

We were joined by another of Richard's friends, Anna, who is a German lady who has lived in the area for 15 years and who runs yoga classes. I haven't yet found out how much she charges for her classes, but I've taken her business card and her home number, and it's certainly something I'll considering investigating further. She also said she would give us the details of the person in Montecatini who taught her Italian when she first moved over. Now that could be very useful indeed!

After a few bongos tracks, the band moved on to guitars and singing, and started playing some more familiar songs (even taking requests from the audience - our table in particular, it seemed) and, as the wine/beer kept coming and the evening drew on, the music became altogether more all-inclusive, with audience participation very much encouraged.

At some point during the evening, one of the band members did a double-take when he saw Stuart - and then, all of a sudden, they were ALL at it - laughing and smiling and wanting to have their photograph taken with him. What's all the fuss about?? I wondered, and thought that maybe they'd just never seen a real-life Brummie before. Michelle soon cottoned on though, and explained that they all thought he looked like Matteo Renzi - the Italian President!! (Seriously, Google for images of Renzi and see what you think - they have a point!)

Separated at birth?! We MUST be able to use this to our advantage somehow...

Richard poses with Matteo.

Of course, you can imagine that with several beers inside him, Stuart took this very well indeed, and happily posed for photographs with different people all night.

High on the feeling of adoration from his new found fans, he even went as far as DANCING (a once in a blue moon occurrence), and then took it upon himself to join the band as their new (presidential) tambourine player.

Looking like he's been part of the band for years (needs to work on his dreadlocks though).

Richard also joined in on the bongos for a while, with Michelle supervising - the musicians took it all in their stride and in very good humour:

Needless to say, the evening was one full of hilarity, music, food, dancing, alcohol, chatting, laughing, broken Italian, exchanging of phone numbers (Stuart can't remember why one of the band members took his number down - I'm hoping it might be for some paid look-a-like work...), and we were the last people standing - even the owners of the bar had locked up and left before we all tumbled into the car. Richard drove us back down the road (at which point the excitement of being Mr President finally got too much, and Stuart spent most of the journey asleep, with his head lolling out of the window - which I have to say was slightly alarming to watch from the back seat!). Richard eventually delivered us home just after 2am.

The whole evening was certainly a huge change from the rest of the rather quiet evenings have had since we arrived!

And so it was that we woke up this morning feeling somewhat bleary eyed and lacking in energy.

We had a late breakfast, whiled away what was left of the morning on the computer, then had lunch on the patio.

We talked about visiting the gardens (and butterfly house) of Villa Garzoni in Collodi, just over the hill from Pescia, but in the end, the nagging list of Things-That-Must-Be-Done got the better of us, and we opted to do some weeding in the guest herb garden, get the dehumidifier started in the apartment (which gave a reading of 82% humidity in the apartment when first switched on!), and go on a shopping trip for some garden furniture for the apartment.

We headed out towards Montecatini Terme to visit Obi, where we hoped we would be able to get everything we needed (also on the shopping list was another curtain - matching the ones across the wardrobe - to go across the apartment doors). We managed to find the curtain, and we also picked up a handful of spare fly swats and a 20 litre container for filling with water. It's very common to see people pull up in their cars at little water fountains/taps in the street, and get out with 12 or so empty bottles, which they then fill from the tap. We didn't understand why they were doing it at first (most people avoid drinking the tap water here, unless it's boiled, let alone drinking from a fountain in the street), but then we worked out that it must be an economical way to get water for the garden/allotment etc. We are on a water meter here, so the less we can use the better - but with scorching hot days, watering the garden is essential. We finally twigged that we could get free water from one of these public fountains - hence the 20 litre container.

Unfortunately, the one thing Obi failed to come up with was a suitable garden furniture set for the guest patio. There was only one thing for it - head for Mercatone Uno. We duly got back in the car and headed in the direction of Altopascio. By the time we arrived our energies were really starting to flag - we went to the garden furniture section and must have spent 20 minutes in there looking at different tables, sitting on different chairs, and being completely unable to make a sensible decision. There was nothing in there that really grabbed us. Either the tables were too tiny, or they were too large - there didn't seem to be anything that was a happy medium, other than a couple of extremely ugly plastic monstrosities. In the end, we admitted defeat and left empty handed - feeling frustrated at having failed to accomplish what we set out to do.

We drove home, stopping on the way at the water fountain on our main road. It must have taken at least 10 minutes to fill the 20 litre container with water from the tap!

When we got home, Stuart hopped on the computer to try to top up his mobile phone as he'll be needing it for his work tomorrow, and I headed back into the garden to strim the path/lower tier that I had cleared yesterday. It wasn't too long before the flies got on my nerves though, so I came in for a shower.

We're both feeling the effects of a late night - rather jaded - so hopefully we'll be able to get to bed at a reasonable time tonight to recharge our batteries for the start of a busy week ahead. Tomorrow, Stuart and the strimmer head out for a day's work, leaving me home alone (and without transport!) for the first time.

Saturday 28 June 2014

Sabato, sofa?

We got up this morning knowing that we were tied to the house for the morning as Mercatone Uno were due to deliver the new sofa bed for the apartment - although we had waning faith in their ability to do anything, so if they hadn't arrived by half past one, I think we would just have gone out regardless.

However, it turned out that there was no need to worry after all (and a bit of our faith was restored) - they arrived just before 9am. I hadn't yet had time to make space in the apartment for the sofa, so asked them to leave it outside, paid the cash, got my receipt and moved the car to enable them to do a six-point manoeuvre to turn around in their large Luton van (although I don't think they call them that over here).

After making some space, Helen helped me carry the sofa into the apartment, where we unwrapped it and I built the legs onto it before taking a couple of photos for the website. I have to say that wasn't before having a moment where I completely rescinded my restored faith when I couldn't find either of the two short rear legs or the pack of screws and bolts! That was until I noticed a small zip in the back of the sofa which, when opened revealed a pocket full of goodies the legs and screw pack. Fool! Why didn't I think to look inside the sofa?!

That's almost half of the living room sorted.

While I was in the apartment cursing Mercatone Uno, Helen was once again busy with the trimmers. This time, she decided to attack the path/bottom tier that is at patio level, and went around the other side of the olive grove (the side we have barely touched yet). This path leads into the woods and eventually to a small quarry - which is probably where the stone for the house came from. I ventured as far as the quarry a few weeks back, but a few weeks on the path is impassable now. The last time I went around that way I saw a snake hiding in the grass, so didn't stick around very long. We are hoping that once all this grass and undergrowth is cut back, they will feel less inclined to be so near to the house - which can only be a good thing for when we release the cats next weekend.

After finishing in the apartment and having had a quick tidy in the man cave, (it was getting a bit chaotic in there), I went to see how I could help Helen - she showed me an enormous snake skin that she had found - the third we've seen here, and by far the biggest. It must have been about 1.3 metres in length and with a body 5-6 centimetres thick.

ENORMOUS snakeskin.

She had also found yet another pile of building detritus in amongst the undergrowth, so with the wheel barrow I made a start moving the wall tiles, sink pedestal, bricks, thermalite blocks and what I think was an old window shutter. We're dumping all of this building detritus onto the area of ground where the old lean-to was (and where the new extension will be). It's not only right next to the car parking area, but at some point it will be dug out for the new footings to be put down, so it's the best place to leave it for now.

After a solid few hours trimming Helen had made a huge dent in the pathway - in fact, looking at the before and after photos, it's hard to believe it's the same bit of land, just that little olive tree giving it away.

Before (L) and after (R)!

After lunch (yes on the patio again), we had decided to go out and procure a deumidificatore (easy for you to say!). I'm  sure I don't need to translate that one for you - the rear wall of the apartment is built against earth, which makes it lovely and cool in there all of the time (so cool, in fact, I think Helen would need a cardigan to spend any amount of time in there!). It was just as cool in there when we had a heatwave and temperatures above 35°C a couple of weeks ago - which means a good night's sleep for whoever sleeps there. However, the down side is that when the thunder rolls and the rain pours, some of that moisture runs down the hill and permeates into the bedroom. The living room has had a false wall built, which makes the room smaller, but it acts as a cavity and solves the problem. However, if made any smaller, the bedroom would not have space for both a bed and the bathroom. It's not a big issue, but we felt that a deumidificatore would keep a lid on it, and hopefully cut down on any mould and mildew - so off we headed again to Mercatone.

€120 later, we left with what we wanted then headed around the corner to Brico (another DIY shop). We hadn't been to Brico before, despite having driven past it every time we came to Mercatone - it was only this time that Helen noticed the sign and translated it (the language must be sinking in slowly!), so we went in to investigate and hopefully acquire more strimmer cord as we had ran out yesterday.

It was a bit of a tardis of a place- much bigger inside than the exterior lets on. The store was shabby compared to OBI's shiny offering, but they had a large variety of stuff on offer and even offer a wood cutting service - so this pace will definitely be getting another visit!

We left with 60m of strimmer cord and a pitch fork - I was in desperate need of one of these earlier in the week when I had to move the car-sized mound of cuttings, and with about twice as much to do again over the coming weeks, we felt it would be a worthwhile investment. I am not adverse to hard work, but I am adverse to working harder than need to simply because I don't have the right tools.

On our way back from Altopascio, we made a stop at Esselunga for our weekly shop. It was around 4pm, and I think this might be the magic time to shop on a Saturday, as the shop was a lot quieter than it has been of late.

Driving back through Pescia, we saw lots of folk busy setting up for 'Nottambula' - a festival that we learnt is in its second or third year, and in which all the shops stay open all night, with all the squares having a schedule of things going on - largely live bands playing, free food and drinks, but also the odd display and demonstration. Had we not arranged to go to Goraiolo tonight for this bongo evening we would definitely have been going to Nottambula - one for the diary next year, I think.

When we got home and after we'd unpacked the shopping, we sat on the patio with a beer and crisps, which is where I type these words now. There's a bit of a breeze, but it's hot - beautiful under the umbrella. I could happily sit here until the sun goes down, but Richard has just called to say he'll pick us up in half hour, so we'd better wash and brush up and get ready to be sociable!

Have a great Saturday evening all.

Friday 27 June 2014

Right on our doorstep

Much of today has been fairly unremarkable. I got up at 7am (too tired to get up with the alarm at 6.30am, thanks to another night's sleep being disturbed by feeling excessively hot), fed the cats, then went for my usual morning's outdoor workout. When I got in from my workout, Stuart was already up and checking his emails. After a shower and breakfast, I headed for the office, while Stuart - who seemed tired already (not a good start to the day) - headed outside for some strimming.

The morning passed with nothing much more exciting than a telephone call from Vodafone. I answered it, but failed spectacularly to communicate with the person on the other end, and had to rush outside to bring Stuart in from his olive tier to take the call. Turns out that our Vodafone contract (starting with our 10-day free trial) will begin on 11th July - until that point we are still 'with' Telecom Italia (who have cut us off for non-payment of bills we haven't received). Fortunately, we are still able to take incoming calls.

After strimming until there was no more cord left in the strimmer, Stuart went down to the apartment to start making some room for the sofa bed to be delivered tomorrow, and to attempt to fit a new lock to the door (which should hopefully mean that one is able to access the apartment without having to virtually kick the doors in each time).

At lunchtime, I was pleasantly surprised to find such a lovely day outside - it's often hard to tell from within the confines of the dark office just what sort of day it is outside: whether it's cloudy and windy, or sunny and baking hot, it's anybody's guess unless you actually venture out the front door! We ate lunch on the patio as usual, in the warm sunshine. We were both a little subdued - Stuart because he was feeling so tired and wiped out, and me because, unbeknownst to Stuart (until he eventually spotted the plasters), I had just accidentally rammed an exceedingly sharp knife into my hand, which had cut pretty deep and was feeling pretty darned painful. I didn't dare mention it to Stuart as I knew he was already not in the best of moods, and just hoped things would sort themselves out without my thumb actually dropping off. (Thankfully, after about an hour of throbbing, the pain eased off and it all seemed much less dramatic.)

After lunch, we both headed for the office. Despite the fact that Stuart was feeling particularly tired today, he refused point blank to take it easy and sit and relax for the afternoon, so instead opted to work on our website (with his headphones on).

My own work was very pleasantly interrupted by a phone call from Allison - it's always lovely to hear from Allison and to pass the time of day with her, and my spirits feel lifted for having had a good old natter. We could easily while away the entire afternoon on the phone, but sadly work gets in the way!

After the call, I headed back to my work for another hour or so, before deciding that enough was enough and my week of work was DONE.

I announced to Stuart that I was clocking off, and between us we decided that what we should do was to go and visit Pietrabuona. This was partly because Pietrabuona is our closest village, yet it's one of the dieci castelli we haven't visited since we arrived here, but also because I was curious to go somewhere where we would have a view back towards our house to be able to see exactly how much progress we had made on clearing our terraces. I was hoping that we would be pleasantly surprised!

As we left the house, I took a picture of our terraces - with my hedge trimming efforts of last night, combined with Stuart's efforts with the strimmer this morning, the terraces behind the house are looking pretty neat:

Really starting to feel quite pleased with our efforts!

We also have a very neatly strimmed section of land on the hairpin bend in the road, thanks to some guys (paid by the council??) who came by a few days ago strimming all of the roadside verges. This really odd sized/shaped parcel of land on the hairpin bend belongs to us, although what on earth we could do with it is anyone's guess. Maybe offer it as a site for campers to pitch a tent?!

The trees are ours too, although strimming man didn't stretch to pruning the trees. 

Anyway, we headed down the road to Pietrabuona, parked up at the bottom of the village and started walking upwards. The cobbled path into Pietrabuona is possibly the steepest we have ever come across in all of our experiences with Italian hilltop towns. It took quite some effort to slog our way to the top, but it was well worth it once we got there.

We'd visited Pietrabuona last year when we came looking at properties, but we had quite forgotten how beautiful it was:

Pietrabuona appears to be one of the few (the only??) of the dieci castelli still to have surviving remains of a castle.

When we rounded the side of the hill that faces our house and looked out, we were stunned to see views of our house that REALLY showed how much work we'd achieved on the terraces - not only on the lower ones that have been strimmed to within an inch of their lives, but also the upper ones that so far have only been roughly trimmed and still await their buzz cuts. It gave us an enormous sense of satisfaction to see that our hard work was so very visible from afar!

Our house, and the cleared terraces behind it, are on the RH side, roughly halfway down the photo.

Our house & terraces visible on the RH side. 

Close up showing our house (hiding behind oak trees, white garden umbrella just visible to the right of it) and all the cleared terraces behind it!

We really enjoyed walking around Pietrabuona, and decided it was far more picturesque and interesting that we'd remembered it from our previous visit last year - which made us feel even happier about living so close to this pretty little village.

Once we'd got back to the bottom, we walked along the road a couple of hundred yards to the bar we'd had a coffee in yesterday (opposite Frateschi's builders yard) and sat with a beer and a packet of crisps enjoying taking in the view, watching the goings on (lots of people pulling up in the builder's yard either to meet people, or to pick some materials up, or just to pop into the bar for a quick drink), and supporting our local establishment.

After finishing our drinks, we made a quick stop at Amanda's alimentari for some more bottled water and a quick catch up. She was friendly as ever, so I hope we will frequent her shop as often as we can. It's clearly a little dearer than shopping at the supermarket, but for the odd thing or two it's well worth popping in for a friendly chat with someone who knows both Italian and English and who can hopefully help teach us a little of the language each time we visit!!

We eventually headed home to enjoy the last half hour or so of sunshine on our patio. The wonderful thing about it being Friday is that we don't feel the pressure to rush indoors sooner than we would ideally like in order to get dinner on, the blog written and so on - we know that we can afford to have a small lie-in tomorrow, so there is less of a mad panic to make sure we are in bed before the witching hour!

Tomorrow, we should be taking delivery of a sofa bed for the apartment in the morning, and in the evening, the plan is to head up to Goraiolo, the village above Vellano, for this evening of African music (bongos night). Watch this space!!

Thursday 26 June 2014

Tough love

I suggested last night that we both go for a bike ride in the morning, which was met with a look of  'er.. no thanks', so I was tentative when bringing it up again at half past six this morning. The suggestion was met with a stony silence, not an 'ok' by any stretch, but not a 'no' either, so I decided to push a bit harder. I know that deep down Helen wants to be out riding the roads, but the problem is that after having our mountain bikes stolen last year, and replaced with new, faster, lighter road bikes, we've probably only been on them 3-4 times (thanks to my lazy thyroid problem having kicked in at roughly the same time, and only just having seemed to sort out the right dosage of medication). Despite Helen's extensive experience on a mountain bike (heck, she used to ride everywhere on it), the road bikes take some getting used to - the ride position is much lower and further forward for a start, and the steering on a road bike is much more twitchy and sensitive, so overall they are harder to ride until you get used to them.

I think my years on a road bike as a young teen must have stood me in good stead, and while I'm still having to consciously think about the gears and be careful on corners when descending, I'm happy on my bike. For Helen, this is completely new and it would have been great for her to have had more time in the saddle on more familiar (and flatter!) roads before we got here, all my (thyroid's) fault.

Anyway, I knew the fear was building up in her head the longer we left it (and she must have done too, otherwise she would have told me to 'bog off' last night when I mentioned it). She had been asking how busy the roads were after my rides last week, so I knew part of her was keen to get out, she just needed a nudge.

So Team Smith headed out on our first Italian ride this morning (Helen under extreme duress - she did not look happy at the prospect). We slowly dropped down the hill until we reached the turning back up the valley heading for the four-mile climb to San Quirico. It was nice and quiet really, just a few cars heading into town or beyond to work. After her comment in last week's post about 'not knowing how [I] did it' in reference to my climb up the valley to Vellano, I wasn't fully prepared to be left behind on the climb!! I just couldn't keep up with her - three times she had to stop for me to catch up. I had reassured her that she had it in her legs to do these hills, but I hadn't expected such a discrepancy in our fitness levels. I need to work on my fitness more!

Off she went, if there was a sunset she'd have been heading for it.

We had a great climb to San Quirico, and were afforded stunning views down the valley towards Pescia and far beyond, with a blue sky and patches of early morning mist still hanging over parts of the valley. And then it was time for the descent. This is the nervy bit - at speed, hitting a bump is where it can all go wrong. I offered to head off and meet Helen at the bottom so that she didn't feel pressured into keeping up with me, but in the end we opted to cruise down together. I have to admit you see more going a bit slower, but we still nearly hit 20mph by the bottom, after which there was one final short, sharp uphill slog back to our house. A GREAT RIDE with my wife. I hope the next one isn't too far off.

After breakfast, I decided to stay sweaty and went for the strimmer while Helen hit the shower and then the office. The temperature for outdoor work is so much better in the morning, so it's a routine I'm going to try and embrace as often as my schedule allows.

After clearing another terrace and moving a pile of cuttings and brambles the size of our car to a more suitable place, I was about to head inside for a much need drink of water when I saw a couple of guys walking down the drive and towards the front of the house. I didn't recognize them, and they were both smartly dressed, one with a courier bag over his shoulder. I took off my face mask, ear defenders and goggles, shouted 'Buongiono!' to them, and headed down the terraces to meet them. The younger of the two asked me if I spoke Italian, and introduced himself as Marco. As he did so, he thrust a small leaflet into my hand and told me it was an invite to a convention in Florence and pointed to the dates. I was busy listening to what he was saying so could only pick out one word on the leaflet as he talked: Geova. Any guesses? Yup, in England we spell it 'Jehovah'. I couldn't quite believe it! They soon left once I made it clear I had understood where and when the meeting was. I don't think we'll be going.

A little earlier, I had taken a call from the courier who would be delivering our new Vodafone landline contract this morning - he wanted directions to the house. I managed to tell him we were near Pietrabuona, on the road to Vellano on the right-hand side. He seemed happy with my directions and said he'd be here between 11:30 and midday. It was now 11:45, so I went inside to wait and get back to my office work. 12:30 came and went, 12:40 came and went. Finally, at 12:45 I had another call from the courier. I couldn't quite make out what he was saying at first, but he definitely wanted to meet somewhere - I guess he was either worried about trying to find the house or running late and needed to make up time (the latter definitely applied).

He asked if I knew Frateschi's builders merchant in Pietrabuona, which of course I did, so we arranged to meet there in 20 minutes.

Helen didn't take much convincing to come out and try the local coffee bar which is next door to Frateschi's, so off we went for a coffee to wait for the courier. Shortly after sitting down outside with our latte and cappuccino, he pulled up in the car park opposite so I went across and signed the paperwork and then headed back to finish my coffee before heading home after our brief but welcome change of scenery.

Frateschi's in all its glory. Our house is just around the corner of that hill.

Heading back to finish my coffee, contract in hand.

It was beyond lunchtime by the time we got home, so we had lunch straight away, with the garden umbrella up - not for shade this time, but to avoid a little light drizzle.

After lunch, I went inside to plug in the new phone that had been delivered with the contract - a corded one that came with a SIM card and had an aerial with it. I have absolutely no idea what that is all about - it didn't even appear in the user manual that I can see, so I can only assume it connects to the mobile network (which we don't have) and offers other services. Maybe it's a way of Vodafone sending you messages or marketing - who knows, but it's a moot point really as, like I said, we have no mobile signal. We can receive calls (I tested it by dialling the number through Skype), but we're still connected to Telecom Italia (or rather disconnected from them - while we can receive calls, we can't make any outgoing ones) for the moment, and I guess that won't change until Vodafone have received their contract back.

In all my excitement in yesterday's post, I forgot to mention that when I finally got around to opening my parcel from the post office (my new access panel), it wasn't an access panel at all, it was this:

An air vent - won't get much access through those little slats!

An air vent is of no use to me. I had already waited 20 days for it, so I emailed the seller to tell him he'd sent the wrong thing. I was expecting an argument of some sort, and all sorts of complications, but he apologised straight away, and said he'd send the correct item. I wonder if it will take another 20 days for the next package to arrive.

We both spent the afternoon in the office - me working away at my residency research, and Helen working away at, well, work.

This was today's office helper.

By the time I had finally completed my definitive list of residency requirements (I can almost hear your sighs of relief that you won't have to read about it all anymore), and emailed the accountants to ask them to set us up with everything we need to work and pay taxes (booo), it was half past five. Helen hit the hedge trimmer, and I started the blog, hoping to get more than 40 minutes on the sofa before bed tonight!

I'm off to see what Helen has been up to now, I'm getting quite excited by the progress we make on these terraces each day!

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Sunshine on a rainy day

Woke up this morning to hear quite possibly the heaviest rain of my life, so heavy that I could barely see 5 metres out of the bedroom window and so violent that I was surprised to see any leaves left on the trees!

Helen had somehow managed to go and fit in a workout between downpours, but her efforts were eventually cut short by the thunderstorm that was coming ever closer (plus, if she hadn't given up when she did, she would have had to swim uphill with 16kg of kettle bells in tow).

Helen's early morning view between downpours. Even covered in cloud, the view is beautiful.

We both set to work in the darker than normal office until about 10:30am when the clouds started to part and the sun tried to make an appearance. I took the opportunity to make a dash for the bins with a bag of stinky cat litter (amongst other things), and then to find our mysterious hidden post office before it shut again.

With the rubbish disposed of, I parked up outside the alimentari and bumped into Amanda again. Quick 'ciao's and smiles were exchanged, and I headed for the partially rolled up shutters of number 201. Sure enough, there was a tiny post office inside: 2 cashier desks wide, and deep enough on the customer side for four people to stand in. I handed over the note that had been stuffed into our letter box and quickly got my packet, brilliant!

Once home, I noticed the package had a 'MyHermes' label on it. I had been waiting for a parcel from Amazon that had been sent by this method (MyHermes tracking said it had been delivered last Thursday!), and it was the right size and shape: flat and square. Now that I've sorted out the ceiling in the apartment and fixed the ceiling boards properly, I have no access into the void (previously they just lifted the plasterboard and moved a piece, hence the poor state of the ceiling and the bad joint repairs one on top of another), so I had ordered a small plasterboard access panel that can be fitted inconspicuously into the ceiling above the wardrobe, a nice tidy solution and should we ever get invaded by little squeakers up there, I can easily pop a (humane) trap in, catch it and release it into the wilds of the garden. What happens to it once the cats are roaming free is none of my business (unless of course they bring it into the house again).

Happy that my parcel had arrived, and relieved I wouldn't have to keep chasing and tracking it, I sat back at the computer for more swimming through treacle. I can see why the guy in the commune office down in town was so grumpy if this is what he has to deal with on a day-to-day basis!

Each time I felt I was making sense of a particular chunk of it, I would open up another can of worms that then needed sifting through so that I could sort the wheat from the chaff, and by the time lunchtime arrived I felt like I was further back than when I had started this morning! My head was awash with so much information that I couldn't think straight and was a little on the grumpy side myself.

Helen had some 'help' with her work this morning. Florence was better company than the grumpy husband at the other desk.

I think Helen detected my state of mind and went to make lunch today - not sure if it was in an attempt to make me feel better, or just to get away from my huffing, puffing and other noises of exasperation.

By now the sun had come out and dried up all the rain, so after a quiet lunch on the patio (I just couldn't stop my brain whirring) we went back to the office. Not long afterwards, we thought we heard voices - weird, as our nearest neighbour is quite some way away. Perhaps it was Richard talking to his dog? Nope, there was definitely a child's voice too. I went out through the man cave to head them off at the pass before we got into cat-airlock complications, and as soon as I saw the pair coming towards me, I could tell from the log book in hand it was Chris, Sue's husband, and their youngest son, Erik.

Somehow, Chris and Sue had tried to help with the disposal of the car for the previous owners, but had been unable to get the scrapyard to take it. Thus, they had managed to retrieve the logbook and the keys to the car, and Chris was here to hand them over to us.

Yay! Now, IF all goes according to plan, Michelle's husband Mimmo will put us in touch with a mechanic who will take the car away!

We had a good chat with Chris and Erik for quarter of an hour, and said we should catch up soon over a wine or two to chew the cud (or whatever the Italian version is). Chris seemed nice, and once again, it was good to talk to someone who'd been through a similar experience to ours (although they've been here now for around 9(?) years). They're taking a couple of weeks out for a holiday soon, now that the schools have broken up for 3 months (yes, 3 months), so we probably won't be seeing them too soon, but they have an olive farm down on the edge of Pescia, run a couple of holiday lets, and grow their own veg - sound familiar?!

After waving goodbye to Chris and Erik, I went back to the treacle. I think the short break did me good and Helen had to put up with far fewer sighs. I got into a bit of a groove and am also now well into our tax affairs - the whole lot is wrapped up together: tax, residency and healthcare. It's impossible to do one without the other and we need our accountants to register us for IVA (VAT) and INPS (national insurance) very soon, but we want to make sure we're registering in the most efficient way - their lengthy letter of advice had a number of options and considerations for us to think about, so it was time think this all through and pin a tail on the donkey.

I think that with after another half day at it tomorrow, I should have the lot sorted and be an expert on the whole process - just as with the electricity bill a couple of weeks ago, I've never understood as much on the subject as I do now, but now that I'm getting to grips with it, I'm happy that I do.

Helen clocked off at half past five and went out to do some strimming in the sunshine- she came back in an hour and half later having been bitten again, but this time by ants in an olive tree! She managed to get another half terrace strimmed - there's now one more to do behind the house, and then we can work on the 3-4 at the very top before starting on the other side of the hill!!

I checked my email before clocking off and found three emails of interest for a change: first, there was a short reply from Michelle asking (on Mimmo's behalf) if the old car will drive (I had emailed her straight after Chris left, to let her know we'd got the log book). I replied to say that it almost certainly won't, so we'll see where that leaves us - we might be buying a new battery for it if the old one doesn't charge. Secondly, we had an enquiry for a week's stay in the apartment in early September. I replied to that as well, so fingers crossed!! The third email was from a guy called Gary, husband of Sharon. While Richard was here yesterday, he asked if I was any good at gardening, and explained that some people he knows (Sharon and Gary), who live near Siena, run a landscape garden/property management business and are looking after a villa a little further up our valley, for which they are looking for a gardener. Sounded interesting! Sharon had put a post on the AngloInfo web forum advertising the position - but when I got around to looking at the ad, it was a full-time position as a head gardener managing a team of gardeners at a boutique rental villa. They wanted previous experience of a similar role, references and a bit of Italian spoken - all of which was way beyond my remit, and besides which, I don't have time for a full-time job as there's too much to do here. (2-3 days paid work a week would be about the sensible amount for me if we don't want to neglect our place.)

Anyway, I'd decided to email Sharon regardless, just to put myself forward for any lesser work at the villa should they be short of labour at any time. I sold my case as best I could and didn't mention Richard (if I got any work I wanted it to be on my own merits). I wasn't expecting much, but as that old saying goes, if you don't ask, you don't get.

So I was surprised to see an email in my inbox from Gary, Sharon's husband. He explained that he runs most of the work at this particular property, and that he needs some help next Monday and Tuesday! He asked me to give him a call!!

After Helen and I had sat and chatted on the patio with a bowl of nuts for half hour, I went inside to call him. I picked up the phone and was greeted by a recorded message - in Italian of course, but I grasped enough words to understand that it was talking about a bill, and asking me to call them. It seems that Telecom Italia has finally had enough waiting, and has cut us off. We have no way of paying yet, as we don't have a bill from them, and the geometra is still sorting things. With no mobile signal up here either, we're in trouble if we have a forest fire!! I was disappointed I couldn't call Gary, but then it occurred to me to try Skype. With headphones in my ears and my mouth near the microphone on my PC, we managed a clear conversation, the upshot of which is that I'm taking our strimmer and going to work on Monday! Woo hoo!

Right, I'm off to see how Helen is doing cooking our first melanzane and second batch of zucchini, all this excitement is making me hungry.

Second harvest! (The tiny aubergine is a miniature variety).

All ready for the pan. A home-grown dinner tonight!

Tuesday 24 June 2014

New discoveries and a visitor

Woke up this morning... da da da da da! (musical joke)

Seriously, we woke up this morning at about half past six. The cats seem to be settling into something resembling a routine and half past six is pretty good for us - it means we can get out and do a bit of exercise and still be starting whatever work we have lined up for the day at a very respectable time. (I should note that Helen has been doing the getting up at 6.30am routine pretty much since we got here.)

I managed to get out on my bike again and climb the four miles to San Quirico while Helen hit the kettle bells. It was another beautifully fresh but mild start to the day. I'm really enjoying the riding over here, in this weather at least, not so sure about doing it in the midday sun, but that'll come some time.

Nice quiet lanes in the valley again.

Destination San Quirico.

Grapes in the foreground (of course) and our house somewhere down the bottom on the left ridge.

Anyway, after cycling past a handful of guys strimming at 7am this morning, I was inspired to get our strimmer out as soon as I got back to make the most of the cooler air in the morning. I think that's the way it needs to be - strimming through the hottest part of the day is murder and really does take its toll on us the following day.

So I did an hour and a half of strimming until the strimmer's fuel tank was empty - I make that about €0.80 of fuel, another terrace cleared and starting to see progress we can latch onto now.

Neatly trimmed terraces 2 & 3.

If only they all looked like this!

After a shower, I joined Helen in the office to dive headlong back into my swim through treacle - that's what collating and sorting all the information on residency feels like. I now have a rather expansive spreadsheet full of information, so really just need to sort it out so that it makes some sense. I feel like I understand 80-90% of the process now, with the remaining amount something we'll find out as soon as we get into it, so I'm feeling much happier about having a firmer grasp on this next hurdle.

We had our usual lunch of tomato bruschette outside (I wonder how much longer before we have had our fill of tomatoes - hopefully it won't be for a while yet, as we have plenty still growing and yet to ripen). It was another very warm day, the mercury thermometer we had left lying on the table in direct sunlight all morning was registering 49 degrees - it  wasn't anywhere near that hot, but still toasty.

After lunch we headed out for a very short trip to the post office in Pietrabuona. We didn't even know we had a post office in Pietrabuona until the postman phoned again today to tell me there was a 'pacchettino' for me at the post office there. This time, he'd at least scribbled a note and shoved it into the post box, but we still didn't know where the post office was. Pietrabuona is a small place, and with all the driving up and down the road we've done, we'd never spotted a post office. Google told me it was actually somewhere on our road between our house and the next village north (Vellano), and with the building number listed as 201 (and our house 182), that kind of made sense to us, although we couldn't imagine where on earth it could be. We headed out of our drive and drove northwards, but before we knew it we were in Vellano, with not a post office in sight. It was then that we noticed the house numbers on the opposite side of the road (the odd numbers) were way higher than on our side, so worked out that it MUST be in Pietrabuona village after all!

We did a u-turn and took a slow pass through the village, checking the building numbers carefully as we went. We spotted number 201 - a building with its shutters down. It didn't look like much of a post office, although it did have a post box outside it. Either way, it was closed, so we parked outside the small alimentari next door to get the cats some still mineral water - not their normal tipple, I hasten to add, but they have both had upset constitutions today, and as they haven't left the house, it's either the wet food, the dry food or the water (which locals don't drink unless boiled), so the first step is to try them on clean water. Lucca in particular usually prefers drinking from puddles, so it seemed fairly unlikely that their tummies would be sensitive to the tap water, but then maybe the water here is that bad after all?! Time will tell.

We had been meaning to investigate our local shop for days, but have always been too busy charging around up or down the road, so it was good to peek inside today. We grabbed some water and I helped myself to an ice lolly - I can't remember how long it's been since I last had one of those (before grey hair I should imagine). When the lady behind the counter had finished her chat with the only other customer, she asked if it was just the 3 bottles of water and lolly - in English. She had a bit of an accent, but not much of one. I complemented her on her mastery of the language, and she explained that her mother is English. We got into a nice conversation with her, telling her we we living just around the corner on the hill. She told us that she'd moved from Altopascio, 9km away near the autostrada, to a house in Vellano with her husband, and she loves it there. She now runs the small, but well stocked shop in our village - which carries all of the basic essentials (wine, pasta, water, cat food, ice lollies...). We parted company after checking her opening hours (and finding out from her that Pietrabuona post office is open Mon-Sat, mornings only) and promised to go back in again soon to support her and our little local shop - use it or lose it!!

After another couple of hours at our computers, Helen clocked off at around half past five to start a round of strimming while I continued to wrestle with my with Excel spreadsheet. It wasn't long after she went out that I heard her come back in, talking to someone, a man... from Yorkshire. Richard had popped in to see us, having been to the Comune office earlier to talk through the requirements with the less than helpful chap behind the glass screen. He confirmed what I already thought I understood, but also said that we probably need to register for VAT, national insurance etc. before they will let us register (as we will both be self-employed). So first job tomorrow is to contact the accountants to get that started.

Richard accepted the offer of a glass of wine while we talked this through, and before we knew it, we'd spent three very pleasant hours as the sun went down having had a very nice chat and catch up about the goings on in the valley. We also picked his brains on a strange bill we collected from our postbox today - it was addressed to the previous occupant, but was clearly something Italian and official of some sort, so we opened it to check. Yes, it was a bill, for around €23, but we couldn't make head or tail of what it was for. We even tried translating the words on the bill - which left us no clearer - and visited the website of the organisation that had issued the bill, which, again was no help. The only part we'd recognised was 'Padule di Fucecchio' - which we knew were 'the marshes of Fucecchio' - one of the largest wetland areas in Europe at 2,000 hectares, much (or all?) of which is nature reserve with rich natural history and strategic importance over the centuries. Of course, the idea of having a bill referring to the marshes confused us even more - the marshes are more than 30km south of us.

Anyway, it turns out that there is an organisation that occupies itself with keeping all of the waterways that feed into the marshes clear, to protect the marshes. And everyone in the relevant area (us included) pays a small fee towards the work they do. That is what the bill was for! Mystery solved!

We are planning to go to an African music evening (a.k.a. bongo night) at a cafe in the village above Vellano on Saturday (run by a friend of Michelle's) Richard has offered to pick us up on his way past, so that should be interesting. It'll be nice to see Michelle again too, but suspect her husband Mimmo will be tied to his porchetta truck as it's Saturday night.

Tomorrow we should be getting the keys and the log book for the Astra that's welded to our drive - they should be being delivered to us by Chris, husband of Sue who came to see us a couple of weeks ago (we'll explain more tomorrow). Fingers crossed, that will mean we can finally get rid of it, as Mimmo knows a mechanic who will take it for us!!!

Monday 23 June 2014

Is it bedtime yet?

Bedtime can't come quickly enough today - yesterday's exertions took more of a toll on us than we expected, and despite the cats giving us a good night's sleep until 6:30am, we both woke up feeling frazzled.

Helen still crawled out of bed to exercise while I, on the other hand, went straight back to sleep, the cats having been fed and downstairs leaving me in peace. Before I knew it, Helen was coming back in after her early morning spin on the turbo trainer so it was my turn to drag myself out of bed.

After breakfast, we both headed into the office - Helen for more wordsmith-ing, and me to try to get my head around this residency issue. I don't like being at the mercy of other people, and if the language barrier is going to remain an obstacle, then I wanted to make sure that not having the correct documents is not going to be another one. I can easily see this process taking months, if allowed, and that's something we really want to avoid if at all possible. We therefore want to be as prepared as possible so that we at least know we've done all we can and haven't given any bureaucrats any excuses to drag their heels more than they already might do - we have deadlines to work to now, and if we miss them, it will cost us money.

So, after nearly three hours of going round and round in circles on the internet, translating pages of information into English and trying to weed out the rubbish and make a definitive list of what it is we need, I was ready for lunch. Needless to say, I've only made a small dent in the problem after all of that, but I do at least feel that I have some sort of handle on it, and have started making a list of what we need, where we need to present it and in what order. We would have looked into this in more depth before coming over here except for the fact that until you scratch some way beyond the surface, it all seems fairly straightforward - and with 1001 other things to consider, we didn't feel the need to scratch any further. The whole process is made all the more complicated by the fact that it all has implications on registering for healthcare and being able to work legally.

Anyway, we ate lunch under a hazy but scorching sky, then promptly hopped into the car to head in the direction of the post office - we needed to send a signed form to Bristol so that it could be combined with a newly ordered copy of Helen's birth certificate (courtesy of Mother and Father-in-law) so that the birth certificate could then be sent off to be 'apostilled', or legalized, before making its way to us in Italy again (as one of the documents we understand we are required to present as part of the residency process).

At the post office, we pressed the usual button to get our ticket, and were immediately called to the counter, upon which we tried to post the aforementioned document. 'Do you want it sent normally or registered?' we were asked, to which we replied 'fast', and the man countered  'expensive', to which we said 'that's fine'. And then began the seemingly incredibly complicated process of sending mail to the UK the fast way (although they still said it would take three days). The process involved taking photocopies of Helen's passport and fiscal code card, all of which were stuck into plastic bags that were then stuck to the envelope, as well as writing Helen's fiscal code and address and telephone number on the back of the envelope, and adding Mike and Jill's telephone number underneath their address on the front of the envelope! It must all have taken at least 10 minutes for the chap to get the process finished (along with the help of a colleague), at the end of which he thanked us for our pazienza (patience) - new word of the day.

So, €30 lighter for our troubles (we had been expecting maybe something more in the €10-€15 range!), we headed to the other, hidden away post office in town to see if we could find my mysterious parcel that the postman had told me he would leave at the post office. We found the post office itself down a small side street having identified it by the post office vehicles parked outside. As we walked in, the lady was giggling, so was clearly in a good mood - a good sign, so I hit her with 'il postino mi chiamato di Giovedi, lui dire lasciare a l'ufficio postale, e qui?' Not perfect, but good enough for her not to squint throughout my delivery, and she asked for our address and my name (which I opted to write down rather than spell out - it seems the names Stuart and Smith cause a little confusion here, whereas Helen is less of a jump from Italian names, anyway, I digress).

The lady disappeared and came back with... a parcel! VICTORY was ours!

While she was away though, the chap struck up a conversation with us, which definitely involved saying something about our letter box being too small for parcels, but other than that we couldn't figure out what he was telling us. The lady also joined in when she returned, but with neither of them having a word of English, and our Italian comprehension limited to recognising the word 'postman' and 'post box', they quickly gave up and waved us cheerily on our way.

From there, we went to Mercatone Uno again to ask (again) where our kitchen was. I felt mean pushing a tired Helen into the breach at customer services with the paperwork in hand, but it was for the best and she dealt with it admirably. The lady at the desk immediately punched away on her computer, and then spoke to someone on the phone, and from what we can gather, the kitchen is now at the warehouse, but the oven is still missing, meaning that the complete kitchen won't be at the store until the second week of July! It will then be up to three days after that that we will receive delivery - we think she either said that we should phone them, or that they will phone us to arrange delivery then. Nothing like a bit of pressure is there?! IF it does all happen according to that schedule, then that should leave me about a week to build the units, fit them, plumb in the sink and oven, and tile the splashback before our first guests arrive. Gulp. I can see some long days and nights ahead of me, but our guests arrive on the 26th so we'll have to pull out all the stops.

Once that was cleared up, we went to find out how long the lead time was for delivery of the sofa bed we had our eye on for the apartment - if it was going to be another 30-day window, we might need to rethink our plans.

The shop is all based on the IKEA model: flat-packed furniture, and a store you have to walk around in a certain direction viewing room displays, before you reach a 'market' at the end. It's like IKEA in every way except for the hordes of people. You have to be selective with what you buy from there though, as some of Mercatone's stuff is blatantly poorer in quality, and some much more expensive than IKEA - so price comparison is the name of the game. The sofa bed we liked the look of seemed not only well built and quite stylish, but was a much better price than anything the Swedes were offering, so we walked around the entire store trying to find a staff member to try our Italian on and see if we could find out how long to expect to wait for said sofa bed.

The place was deserted - just three other shoppers and us, and while retracing our steps around the store in reverse (the route in reverse, not us)  to try and find someone to ask, we spotted a selection of three other sofa beds that we hadn't seen before. We sat, we pondered, and we found a new favourite, so I took a picture of it on my phone to show to a sales assistant if we could ever find one.

That's the photo from the website, not the one I took on my phone.

It was now 3pm, and we were bemused at the lack of staff - on previous visits to the shop we've remarked on the fact that almost around every corner there has been a sales assistant who has given us a bright and cheery 'buongiorno/buona serra' (depending on what time of day we've visited) - but today, the place was so bereft of sales assistants that we even started to wonder if the shop was actually closed and we'd somehow come in on a viewing-but-no-buying afternoon. Anyway, just as we were about to give up, a guy appeared out of a staff door, looking like he'd just finished lunch. We duly accosted him, fed him some ropey Italian, and showed him the photo on my phone of the sofa. He dragged us (not literally, my Italian wasn't that bad) to his desk and, in Mercatone Uno style, punched his keys and picked up the phone. He then asked us if this Saturday would be OK for delivery as they had one left in the warehouse! Another victory in an otherwise rather flat day.

After paying a portion of the bill by way of deposit and agreeing to pay the delivery driver the balance in cash (can you believe it?) we headed home ... and back to the office.

Another three hours of the same frustrating research as this morning ensued, except this time I was distracted by the fact my email was refusing to send anything - no idea why, but then that's how it seems to go. I scratched my head a bit, messed with the settings until I was dizzy, and thankfully the phone rang. I guessed it would be Richard, so off I went to answer it.

It wasn't Richard. It was an Italian lady from Vodafone. Immediately, I assumed it was something to do with our new pay-as-you-go phones/contracts. I tried to remember back to when we has acquired the SIM cards as to whether, along with photocopies of our passports, fiscal codes and my inside trouser leg measurement, we'd also given them our landline number. I couldn't remember, and decided I should probably try to listen to what she was saying and work out what it was she wanted. She didn't stick around for long once she realised I was English, and instead went to find an English-speaking colleague - how helpful, I thought. It soon became clear as to why she was so keen to find someone to talk to me, although it still took about five minutes of discussion: the new Vodafone lady's English was as bad/good as my Italian, which put us on a level playing field.

My poor Italian let me down for the first time in a way that I hadn't anticipated - back in Blighty, in my native tongue, anyone trying to sell me something would have at best one sentence before I worked out they were trying to sell something, after which they'd get short shrift and the call would be ended. Here,  it took about fifteen minutes!! By then, I had missed that small window-closing opportunity by some distance, so had to see the discussion through to its conclusion.

I have to say it was great fun struggling to communicate, mainly because it was all so light hearted. Vodafone lady frequently broke out into fits of laughter, not only at my poor pronunciation, but also at her own pathetic attempts at English. During the half-hour phone call (yes, HALF HOUR!) I deduced they were offering landline packages for a fixed €20 a month, which included calls all over Europe and America, and since I had a Vodafone mobile, this would be reduced to €17. I remember that, weeks ago, we were looking at the cost of Telecom Italia's packages (which is who our landline is with currently), and we thought they were pretty pricey, so I felt fairly happy to go along with what she was proposing. and give the service the 10-day free trial she was offering. She also explained that after the first month of being with Telecom Italia there would be costs involved in leaving (since we have only just officially bought the house the Telecom Italia account is only now being transferred to our name) - who knows, but free calls to the UK seemed great at that fixed price (fixed forever, she said).

So once again, I had to give her my fiscal code, passport number, email address and bank account details. All of these were extremely lengthy, and all seemed to involve the half of the alphabet I'd forgotten how to pronounce in Italian. It was a comical half hour, but we got there in the end - all I had to do was to call 187 to ask Telecom Italia for our 'secret code'. I assume this is something like the PUK code that you need to move your mobile number to a different operator in the UK. You won't be surprised to hear that when I called Telecom Italia to ask, in broken Italian, for the secret code to leave, the lady was considerably less than helpful - she understood my question, but hit me with a short sharp question. Despite saying I didn't understand and asking her to repeat the question more slowly, she didn't - so I gave up, as this was clearly going nowhere.

When my new friend from Vodafone called back to get the code from me, she seemed surprised that I had failed to get it and asked why. I told her my Italian was too bad, and that nobody there spoke English (they probably did, but they were not about to make life easy for me). She asked if I knew a friend who could call. Simply to buy myself some time, I told her that my friend was in England until Friday and thus chalked my up my first lie in Italian - can't being too badly then, can I?

She subsequently said she would try and get the code herself and that a contract would be arriving at the end of the week by courier. If it's the kind of contract that needs signing on the spot then he could have a long wait while we try to decipher it, we might need to invite him in for a cup of tea!

So that was our day, a touch more varied than yesterday, and much less physical, so I'm looking forward to another solid sleep and feeling on better form tomorrow.

I'll leave you with a vegetable patch update:

Pomodori with 'Casserole Ted' (who has become a permanent fixture - for some reason Helen couldn't let me throw him out).



Zucchine - we've already harvested 4 of these.


Melanzane (miniature variety).