Saturday, 30 August 2014

Productivity in the face of adversity (or 'thanks for nothing Obi')

Considering that two power tools broke on us today, and we had a wasted trip into town, the day turned out to be pretty productive in the end!

I hauled myself out of bed at the slightly later-than-usual time of 7.40am, but still feeling like I would much rather turn over and go back to sleep. After feeding the cats, I ventured outside for a rather grumpy and unmotivated exercise session - although it got better once I got into the swing of things. Once I'd finished that, I decided that, while I was already hot and sweaty, I would be proactive and tick off one of the jobs on this weekend's to-do list and mow the lawn.

I got the lawn mower out, plugged it in, managed to get the apartment lawns nice and neat and tidy, and managed a single stripe all the way across the main lawn before the mower coughed and gave up. At this point, Stuart was just settling himself down on the patio with his morning glass of grapefruit juice and his tablet PC, but on hearing the mechanical/electrical fail, he came to have a look. The grass had been slightly wet with dew, and it looked like the blade had got clogged up with wet grass. Once we'd cleaned off the blade, we tried the mower again, but it was dead as a dodo. Clearly the motor had given up. Brilliant. So, instead of getting ahead of things and getting a job ticked off the to-do list, I had both failed to complete the job AND created a new job: going to buy a new lawn mower.

I stomped inside to go and have a shower.

We then had breakfast and coffees on the patio in the beautiful morning sunshine, Stuart put in a call to his mum, while I pottered about for a bit, then we decided it was time to head into town. On the list for this morning were: posting a parcel to my nephew and nieces, collecting our pictures from the framing shop, visiting the hardware shop where we thought we might be able to get a new lawnmower, and getting some prices for chicken wire.

As we were driving down the hill, I suggested we stop at the post office in Pietrabuona to do our posting - to save us having to queue up in the big post office in town. We duly did that, and managed to get the parcel posted off for the grand total of €19. Time will tell how long it takes to reach its destination - hopefully before the girls' birthday in the middle of September!!

Next, we drove into Pescia, parked in the car park opposite the old flower market, and walked up to the framing shop. It was closed. There was a handwritten note on the door saying 'back at 15.30' (it was about 11am at this point).

So we trudged back to the car empty handed and headed for the hardware shop just outside of town. We'd visited this shop on a couple of occasions previously and knew that the owner is very friendly, but that he not only speaks no English, but he also speaks Italian very quickly!! He saw us perusing his stock and came to ask if he could help.

First, we asked how much he was charging for the two different types of chicken wire we were after - simple question, simple answer. We then started asking about lawn mowers. We had been a little disappointed to see only two models on show in his shop, but after asking us whether we wanted a petrol powered one or an electric one (we said electric), he quickly raced to his computer, called up his lawnmowers page and beckoned us behind his counter to have a look. He was only showing us the EXACT same make and model as was currently sitting abandoned in the middle of our lawn at home!!

We explained that we had already bought one of those, a couple of months ago, but that today it was broken. He asked us where we had bought it. When we said 'Obi', he rolled his eyes and gave us a look as if to say 'well, what do you expect?!'. We all had a bit of a laugh at that and we said 'never again' (or what we hoped were words to that effect), and asked if he had anything that was a better make and model.

He quickly leafed through his printed catalogue and found a couple of options that he assured us were a much better brand (with a slightly more expensive price tag, which is what we were expecting). There followed lots of gabbling in Italian and hand gestures, of which we only understood snippets, but next we were all racing back out to the front of the shop to have a look at the two models that were on display out there. These were both petrol powered, but he explained that a petrol powered mower would be stronger and would cope a lot better with long grass (and, presumably with slightly dewy grass...). The petrol-powered model in his shop was only €8 more expensive than the electric one he was showing us in his catalogue, so we decided that it was probably worth the extra and decided to take the plunge. Fully expecting him to unchain the mower from outside the shop, put it in the back of our car and take some money from us, he surprised us by saying that he couldn't let us have it until it had been checked over and filled up - which would be Wednesday. It seemed that buying a lawn mower was going to be surprisingly like buying a car! We agreed that we would come back in the week, and resigned ourselves to the fact that the mowing-the-lawn task would not be one we would be able to tick off our to-do list this weekend.

From the hardware shop, we turned up a back street in order to get back onto the main road, but as we followed the back street around, we became intrigued as to where the road led. So we followed it.

It turned out that the road went up the hill on the west side of Pescia, to the tiny village/hamlet of Monte a Pescia. There were some beautiful views from the road - on which were also several restaurants (with lovely views) that we hadn't heard of or seen before.


View across Pescia (looking to the east).

Looking towards the plains.

After gawping at the view for a while, we retraced our route to get back down into Pescia. Our next stop was the agraria in Santa Lucia that we had found closed last Saturday afternoon - we wanted to see how much they were selling chicken wire for, to compare prices.

We must have arrived just before they were about to close, as the clock in the car read 12.30pm, but the gates were still open so we went in. We managed to find out that their rolls of chicken wire were slightly dearer than those at the hardware shop, so we stored that useful piece of information and just bought a pair of ear defenders (so that we have a spare pair that Stuart can take out when he goes for a day's strimming work).

Before heading home, Stuart decided he'd like to try to get to Uzzano - a village perched just above Pescia that he had attempted to cycle to a few weeks ago, but hadn't quite found it on that occasion. We drove there and had a brief wander around. Another pretty village - perhaps not as beautiful as others we have seen recently, but that's only because we are getting spoiled. It was beautiful, with some stunning views!


Uzzano.

More Uzzano.

View across Pescia/the plains from the other side of the hill (looking west).

Piazza in Uzzano.

Church in Uzzano.

How about that for a view?


By the time we had finished wandering the cobbles of Uzzano, it was definitely lunchtime, so we got back in the car and sped back up the valley towards home and an al fresco lunch of bread, cheese and salami in the sunshine.

We were very sensible today (check us out!) and, despite it being the weekend, we didn't indulge in a small glass of wine or share a beer over lunch. We had work planned for the afternoon and, with the sun beating down, we needed to give ourselves the best chance of being as productive as possible!

Lunch cleared away, we both went to change into 'work clothes'. It being so warm, Stuart lent me a pair of his work shorts to wear - and then lent me his steel toe-capped boots to wear as well. We must have looked a right pair of loons in his-n-hers work shorts and boots. Well, you can see for yourself:


His...

...and hers (although really also his).

So once changed, doused in insect repellent and kitted out with gloves/goggles/ear defenders etc., we headed for Goose Island.

First, Stuart gave the bottom terrace a final going over with the strimmer - it was very nearly almost finished by the time I left it last night, but still in need of a final once over to get all the niggly bits of ivy and bramble up. 

While he was doing that, I made a start on raking up all the clippings that had been dumped on the drive over the course of the last few days. Of course, just as I was making a dent in that, Stuart finished strimming and raked a whole load more clippings over the side to me. 

Next, I decided that I would have a go at tidying up the edge of the bottom terrace, by attacking it (or as much as I could within my reach) with the hand-held hedge trimmers from the drive. I got the hedge trimmers out (which I had been using quite happily yesterday evening), got them started, and they coughed, spluttered, and stopped. Hmm. I tried topping up the fuel, as it was a little low, then started them again - once again, the motor sprung into life, but when I squeezed the trigger the thing coughed, spluttered, and stopped. The exact same behaviour that the hand-held strimmer is exhibiting, in fact.

So, the hedge trimmers made it out of the repair shop for an incredible two days before conking out.

To recap, we now have a broken strimmer... from Obi, a broken lawnmower.... from Obi, and a broken set of hedge trimmers... from Obi. The other common denominator, which I don't really like to draw too much attention to, is the fact that the same person (er... that'd be me) has been using each of said items when they decided to give up the ghost.

I was frustrated at this point. Stuart offered to trim the bank using the back-pack trimmers while I went and did some weeding, but I had really wanted to do the tidying. He suggested I gave the back-pack trimmers a go - after all, I am now quite happily using the back-pack strimmer without any difficulty, so I might find I get on with the trimmers OK as well. So I strapped on the backpack and headed off. The difference between the strimmer and the hedge trimmer attachment, though, is that the strimmer is on a pole that is not quite as long - plus, of course, most of the time while strimming you are holding the thing in a downward position. With the trimmers, on their very long, heavy, pole, the idea is to reach up to get vegetation that is otherwise out of reach, and thus you wave the pole around in the air - hopefully with some strength and control so that you actually cut the bits you are interested in cutting. Turns out that I still don't have the required strength to operate the trimmers with enough precision and purpose, and after a few minutes of flailing around waving the pole vaguely in the air while my pathetic arm and shoulder muscles screamed at me, I conceded defeat and handed the job over to Stuart. Not only would he do a much better and more efficient job of things, but he was also far less likely to a. break the trimmers and b. slip down the bank and trim something that really oughtn't be trimmed.

So while he attacked the bank, I continued to rake and dispose of the clippings. He made pretty short work of the job and left the bank looking very tidy indeed. 

Once I'd finished raking yet more clippings away, the whole area looked fantastic. We're pretty proud of what we've achieved between us in a few weeks, especially the now very tidy bottom terrace - for a long time neither of us thought we would ever be able to see solid ground underneath all the ivy and brambles there, but now it is all neatly clipped and tidy.


Goose Island.

Goose Island.

Neatly trimmed bank from the drive (so the geese will have an uninterrupted view!).


The next jobs on Goose Island will be: putting the remaining fence posts in (about 6 more to go), putting up the chicken wire, building a gate into the area, building a goose house... and GETTING some geese to live in it.

We were both feeling pretty weary by the time 5.45pm rolled around, as well as feeling pretty good about what we'd achieved in the three to four hours we'd been working, so we downed tools and retired to the patio for a well earned glass of beer in the still very warm sunshine. These days, the sun is disappearing behind the hill opposite us at about 7pm (about 20 minutes earlier than a couple of weeks ago), which is the point at which I feel the need to reach for a jumper, as the intense heat disappears fairly rapidly once the sun dips behind the hill. So we had a very enjoyable hour or so in the evening sunshine before we lost the sun for the day.

After doing the usual rounds of watering all the plants, we retired indoors to do washing up, cooking, blogging and showering. And after all of that we can look forward to relaxing on the sofa with a glass of wine and some dinner.





Friday, 29 August 2014

It's Friday and the sun is shining!

Our attempt at an early night last night went fairly well - as well as it's ever going to go, and we were in bed reading by 10.30pm, what a novelty that was!

This morning brought a bright sunny start for Helen's exercise, and I arose as usual when she came back in.

Helen went straight to the office to check emails and social media over her breakfast, while I went outside to the driveway after mine. Following Helen's valiant effort to clear the goose terraces yesterday evening in the hot sun, we're running out of excuses to tackle the worst bit, and having ticked off a few other little jobs yesterday, I felt more inclined to dedicate time to it today - so I decided that I should make a start on tidying up the edges of the bottom terrace from below, on the driveway. It's hard to know which is best: whether to tackle it from the driveway, reaching up on ladders, or whether to approach it from the first terrace and risk putting your foot on fresh air thinly disguised as brambles, and ending up on the driveway regardless.

The driveway-plus-ladders approach won the toss, so I spent the morning trimming and moving piles of trimmings across the drive to disappear onto the next terrace down, I'd made reasonable progress by the time lunch rolled around, although you'd have to look hard to see the difference - it's such slow work when ivy is mixed in with bramble and acacia.

My head was starting to thump in the midday heat despite drinking gallons of water, so I decided that after lunch I would sit out the worst (or best, depending on how you look at) of the day's heat and do some admin, start the blog and prep dinner so that I could then resume work around mid-afternoon when it had cooled down a few degrees - it must have been getting close to 30°C again today.

When Helen came out for lunch, she announced that she'd just finished the last of the conference papers - a huge relief for her, as it's this job that doubles her workload during the summer months and which has meant she's had to sit indoors all day Monday to Friday. She still has a fair amount of work to do towards the conference, but now that the papers have all been edited, she should be able to work slightly fewer hours at the computer and get back to working the land - which she's been missing so much.


Papers virtually all ticked off.


Thanks to a combination of the intense heat of the day, the relief of having come to the end of a particular workload and the fact that it's Friday, we managed to enjoy a slightly more laid back lunch break than normal - during which we spotted some (two) mammalian invaders in the walnut tree again. They don't turn up too often, but we saw them yesterday and they were back again today. The last time we saw them (prior to yesterday), it had been such a brief visit that our hastily snapped photo had led us to believe they were martens (either pine martens or beech martens). However, today's visitors stayed for a good half hour and were not shy! While their fur was very dark (almost black), they were very clearly squirrel-shaped, and we could discern red glimmers on their shoulders with an off-white belly - so they must be red squirrels! With a usual range of around 5-6 hectares, we now know why they don't grace us with their presence too often. We just hope they leave a few walnuts on the tree for us to enjoy!

After we'd finished lunch, Helen disappeared into the garden to have her weekly phone catch-up with Allison from the office - she always looks forward to it, and it sets her up well for the weekend. While that was happening, I was looking through yet another Telecom Italia bill!! I went to check the post box this morning, as we hadn't done it for a couple of days, and the only thing in there was another flippin' letter from Telecom Italia. This time it was a bill for €171 - although at least this time it was for a period during which we have actually lived in the house and used the phone (even though the bill is still in the previous owner's name).

These bills are really complicated - language barrier aside, they charge for two months at a time, but some of the services have been charged for June and July, and others for September and October. After unpicking it all and making some sense of it, I think we need to put and end to it and maybe start from fresh with a new number, but with just a basic, no-frills landline (so that we can make emergency calls if the woods catch fire), and the rest we can do with a Skype subscription, saving us a fair amount of money.

Phone bill unpicked, sun still beating down in the mid-afternoon sky, I decided it was a good time to do my "ice bucket challenge" while it was still nice and hot. For the very few people who haven't seen this plastered all over Facebook, this involves throwing a bucked of cold water over oneself, making a donation to charity, and nominating three or more other people to do the same. I received my nomination from Paul Smith a couple of days ago. While the whole phenomenon started off raising money for and awareness of the condition ALS, I decided to buck the trend and make my donation to WaterAid - hmmm, thanks Granville for getting me into this!!


Thinking of who to nominate.

Feeling refreshed!


So after a VERY long lunch break, I finally got to the hedge trimming again, and managed an hour or so before a little Toyota appeared on the driveway below me. It was about 5.45pm, and Helen had just joined the workforce, but I now had to down tools to go and talk to Sergio.

I had a very enjoyable hour or so talking to Sergio about solar (and other) heating systems. His excellent grasp of English and my rudimentary knowledge of plumbing meant we could have a good in-depth conversation about the pluses and minuses of different heating systems. He wants us to go and look at two different solar water systems he's installed locally before we go any further with things, as we first need to decide between a pressurised and a gravity-fed system. After that, we will need to consider new stove types, whether we want central heating, and if we do, whether we want warm air or water heating! Sergio seems very knowledgeable, and I feel as if we're in safe hands. He's also advised us on different wood types for burning (saying that acacia is by far the best), confirmed our choice of carpenter as a good one, as well as telling us that he thinks the enormous pine trees in front of the house should be cut down for safety reasons (that's a conversation we need to have with our geometra next week, as we require permission in order to cut down fir trees).

By the time Sergio left it was around 6.30pm and Helen was ready for the Friday night 'bar' to open, as was I! Helen brought the tools down from the terrace - which is looking ever increasingly respectable and goose-friendly - and we had a very pleasant hour or so watching the sun go down with a beer on the patio while I relayed all of Sergio's advice and information, before the cool air chased us indoors to finish this blog, shower and consider dinner.

As always, we're looking forward to the weekend!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

A quiet but sunny day

I think that hammering chestnut fence posts into the ground yesterday afternoon must have taken it out of me - I don't even remember the sensation of sleeping. I remember turning the lights out, and I remember Helen coming back in from exercising, but absolutely nothing in between and I still didn't wake up properly until 9.30am!

I realised yesterday that I wasn't enjoying working on the goose enclosure any more. I couldn't work out why - sure, it's hard work, but I'm no stranger to hard work and we're so close to the enjoyable bit now that I should need no motivating at all. Despite that, however, I just couldn't get into the idea of working on it today... and then I realised what was bugging me: it was all the countless other jobs piling up and niggling at me that I was becoming unable to ignore as they were each slowly but surely crawling towards their own crisis point. All the time while I was trying to concentrate on Goose Island, I found myself resenting it (and more to the point, the amount of time I was having to invest in it) because of all the other tasks niggling at me. So I came to the conclusion that Goose Island would have to be put on hold for a short period while I addressed the most important of the pressing matters.

I skipped breakfast today, as by the time I had made it downstairs it was already 10am and only a couple of hours before lunch, and joined Helen in the office. My first job was make another significant dent in the VB PowerPoint work - it's a little over three weeks until we leave for the conference now, so I needed to get this under control.

A few solid hours of computer work later, I had ticked off the first of the two parts of the job (having made a good start at it the other day). Now, only the creative opening video remains for me to produce, which I will be able to focus on with a clear head and a clear desk - having also dealt with the pile of receipts next to my keyboard.

Feeling better already, we stopped for lunch on the patio in glorious sunshine. It was hard to drag ourselves away from it, and even more so for having been indoors all morning (now I understand how Helen feels!).

After lunch, Helen went back to her VB work while I started trawling the internet to locate one of the gas heaters we had decided on for the apartment. While pricier than the standard variety of portable gas fire, we felt the aesthetics were more than worth the extra cost, so it was time to see what the cost of shipping was going to be.

Sure enough I couldn't find a Calor stockist in Italy, so it was going to have to come from the UK. I had found a few stockists online and found two that would give prices for delivery as part of the ordering process, so went through the process on both. The first site wanted £100 for shipping to Italy - a bit higher than we were hoping for, but an amount we decided we could swallow. The second site was selling the fire itself for £20 more, but when I got to the delivery section they only wanted £31 to send it by ParcelForce Europe. Seems like a bargain for that amount of weight and a bit too good to be true, but as they were offering free delivery to anywhere in the UK, we reasoned the charges seemed to make sense and clicked the 'order' button.

For those of you who have been paying attention to previous posts, you'll know we  may have set ourselves up for a fall with ordering a large item for delivery, but needs must on this occasion (and if nothing else it will make for an entertaining post in a couple of weeks).

Gas fire ordered, it was time make an enquiry to the local company that sells an insulating, breathable plaster system that I want to give a try in the apartment to see if it will fix the problem of the damp wall in the bedroom. I wanted to find out what they thought about its suitability for our situation - options after this involve either more money or less space in the bedroom (or both), so fingers crossed for this (though if this company is anything like the dozens of others I've tried emailing since we arrived here, I won't expect a reply any time soon).

Next, I decided it was time to call Sergio. Sergio came and introduced himself to us weeks ago, shortly after we arrived. He was the guy who had been responsible for re-roofing the house, sand blasting the inside and rendering the exterior. He seems like a genuinely nice guy who loves to practise his English, which is very good indeed (better than our Italian that's for sure).

We've been told that Sergio built his own 'eco' house in Veneri just the other side of Pescia, and when we quizzed him on a solar hot water system during his initial visit he said he has the exact same system on his house as we're looking for here, so it's definitely worth pursuing this line of enquiry. Armed with what we've since learned from Chris and Sue, we feel as prepared as we can be to start this ball rolling - the sooner the better now, as although the electric water heaters work well, they are expensive to run and less convenient. Sergio said he would call round tomorrow to talk to us.

I was clearly on a roll today, so my next call was to the currency exchange company we use for transferring sterling into euros - it seems to be a very good service, and with far better rates than banks offer. Transfer arranged, it was time to put a call in to the previous owners to try to get to the bottom of when we might see the money we are owed for the bills we have paid and (and for the car removal).

I got through first time and listened for a while to complaints about troubles with getting a BT account set up. I was clearly the wrong person for a sympathetic ear - I felt like saying 'try it when you don't speak the same language, have someone else's unpaid bills to settle before they'll even talk to you, and you keep getting cut off for not having paid the other people's bills that you've never even received,' but I didn't, I played nicely. Later in the conversation I was assured that €1000 has been left in the local bank for unpaid bills and that if they emailed me a note, I could take said note into the bank in order to have access to the funds. Hmm, not likely! I've suggested that they send a letter to Richard, who they know well, and that he try to withdraw the funds from the bank - his face is well known in the bank, at least, so there's half a chance they might do it for him. On the plus side, it seems our predecessors have enough common decency to be intending to pay, but it does seem like it's going be a ridiculously painful process!

The day was fast disappearing and at 5.30pm, Helen headed out to Goose Island for an hour and a half of clearing and raking. The area is tantalisingly close to being ready now - it just needs a final going over with a strimmer to tidy up the loose ends.

While Helen was busy working up a sweat I decided to prep dinner, wash up and start the blog to give us an early night - who am I trying to kid, it's now 8.20pm and I'm only just finishing the blog to send it to the editing department!

Friday tomorrow - yippee!

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Wednesday 1 - Smiths 1

That's more like it, the game is swinging back in our favour! An improved day over yesterday, and progress made, albeit slow and not without frustrations.

I wasn't aware of Helen going out to exercise this morning, I could hear rain drumming on the skylight, so I think that sub-consciously I hadn't expected her to go out in the rain... but she had. Turned out that she had slept pretty well, and although still not 100%, felt in a better frame of mind today.

Helen's damp view on going out to exercise this morning.

She disturbed me sometime after 8am and I got up and grabbed my breakfast without delay - I had places to get to this morning after all!

So at about 9.30am, after catching up with some social media and emails, I headed out to Porcari, leaving Helen in front of her computer. I was hoping to collect our fixed hedge trimmer and strimmer - both of our 'economy' purchases from Obi that were in for repair. I say 'economy', but they still cost a little over €200 each - however, it seems this only gets you entry-level gear, and as a consequence, they were both broken after only 2-3 months of sporadic light-to-medium work.

I went into a quiet warehouse and was handed both items. I was somewhat surprised at this - the hedge trimmers I had expected, but I had only dropped the strimmer in last Thursday. Nevertheless, the guy gave them both to me and started waffling on in Italian. This guy didn't have the tiniest bit of English, or even seem to have any idea that slowing down would be helpful. I managed to make him back up once, and grasped that he was talking about the guarantee for the strimmer. I showed him my receipt, at which point he nodded and told me I was free to go. Excellent! Two repaired tools and not a penny paid!

My next stop was the car dealer. We had arranged to meet this morning so that Andrea (the guy from the dealership) could accompany me to their mechanic so that he could look at this flashing engine management light. However, when I arrived, only our English-speaking friend was there. He called Andrea, and then called the mechanic, and told me to head to directly to mechanic, Pelligrini, further down in the same road. So off I went.

After a little while, I was sure I must somehow have missed it but then spotted a Renault garage with the name 'Pelligrini' so made an emergency stop and a sharp turn into the forecourt.

When the mechanic came out, he took the keys and started the car. He saw the light and said that it was an electronic problem. I desperately wanted to say something sarcastic, but even if my Italian had been up to it, I wouldn't have done - I needed him more than he needed me at this point!

The mechanic explained that he had only just re-opened (today) after his holidays, and asked if I could come back next Monday or Tuesday. I plumped for Monday, and asked  how long he thought he would need the car for, to which he replied 'it depends' - so it looks like I will have to go back with my bike in the car in case he wants to keep it (which of course he will). It's only an 18km ride to/from the garage, which will be nice as long as the weather plays ball, but not conducive to work in any way, shape or form.

I was back in Pescia by 11ish, so I decided to do the supermarket shopping. We had avoided it for as long as we could and had run down all of store cupboard items, so now seemed like a good time to do it. Shopping done (after a quick call to Helen to ask her to read me the shopping list over the phone), I returned home at about 12.30pm and made lunch. By this time the sun had made an appearance and the clouds were receding, so yes, you've guessed it, we had lunch on the patio.

After lunch I wrangled with some more emails (technical ones the details of which I shan't bore you with, but suffice to say it involved registering our new SIM card and trying to acquire a manual in English for the car starter pack). Once that was done I could finally head outside to start knocking in some fence posts. Somehow, it seems impossible here to get a full day's work done focusing on any one thing - it was now gone 2pm and only now was I ready to make a start on what is our No. 1 job.

By this time all the clouds had disappeared and sun was beating down all afternoon (if I hadn't changed out of my black t-shirt before starting work this afternoon I would have frazzled!). Three and a half hours of hammering, 16 fence posts, two renewed callouses, two new blisters, four pints of water and one thumping headache later, we could finally see Goose Island starting to take shape.


Goose Island starting to take shape.


Towards the end of my shift, Helen came out in her manual-work attire, carrying a rake, and made a start at thoroughly clearing the area from the top downwards. There is so much debris on the ground now after all the initial clearing that it's like a think mulch, and if left it would allow little to grow, so we need to clear it all away to (hopefully) make way for some fresh grass and clover - perfect goose food!

So the area is coming along now. We still have to finish clearing the bottom little terrace, which is going to be a real pain - for some reason it's in a much worse and more knotted state than any of the rest was, and I think we've both been avoiding it, but soon enough there will be nothing other than that to do. Once that bit is done we will be able to get onto the more exciting part - fitting the wire fencing and building a house for the geese.

So while Helen spent a little over an hour raking, I rehydrated under the shade of the umbrella and wrote the blog.

Let's hope tomorrow swings back fully in our favour and we can push on to get Goose Island completely cleared so that next week can be all about the fencing (once we've found somewhere to buy some from, that is).

Tuesday 1 - Helen 0

Today was always going to be a bit of an anticlimax after yesterday, but Helen found the day unbearable, not sure why but a general irritability, inability to concentrate and lack of patience ruled her day, not helped by a particularly long and tedious paper she was wrangling with today.

I spent the morning on the internet doing a whole load of surfing (work-related I hasten to add), as well as composing that epic blog post (which long-suffering Helen then had to attempt to bash into some sort of shape), and before I knew it lunch time was upon us.

After a later than normal lunch, I headed out and left poor Helen - who I know would have loved to switch the computer off and come out shopping with me - to trudge back into the office for the afternoon.

I won't bore you with too much detail on my running around Northern Tuscany, but I procured 25 chestnut fence posts for a knocked down €4.40 each because they were less than straight, then spent the rest of the afternoon trying to locate a gas heater for the apartment, a plunger for the blocked downstairs bathroom sink, and a post driver for aforementioned posts.

I had downloaded a picture of a post driver onto my phone in order to help with my search and explanations - everyone I showed it to seemed to understand what it was, but had no idea where I could buy one. I was offered various alternatives, and in the end opted for the device that looks like a giant corkscrew to drill holes into the ground with, as I already had a sledge hammer but don't really want to smash the posts into splinters with it. Time will tell how that will go.

I found a Plan B gas fire, but it's not really what we were after, so we'll allow ourselves a little more looking before we plump for that option.

I bought the sink plunger in the same hardware store as the post corkscrew thingy came from. This place has to win an award for most eclectic stock in the area - it's no wonder we struggle to work out who sells what when, in the same shop, you can buy a large screw device for making holes in the ground for fence posts, alongside car spray paint, cat food and flea treatment, and shower gels and shampoos (for people)!

When I finally made it home from my half-successful trip, it was coming up to 7.15pm and I found Helen working on the driveway at clearing the debris from the lower part of Goose Island. She admitted herself that even the change in work hadn't improved her enthusiasm and she needed no persuading to down tools and retire to the patio with me.

As the sun went down we were treated to a beautiful cloud display in which some of the edges of the clouds took on some of the colours of the rainbow - we've never seen it before and attempted a photo, but it doesn't do it justice.



Zoomed in - you can just see the pastel pinks and greens, although the photo still doesn't do it justice.


We made a quick trip to check the post before it got too dark. Amongst the dull stuff there were two items of post that put a big smile on Helen's face:




After the light faded and we'd done the usual routine of watering the plants, emptying the dehumidifier etc., we went indoors for dinner which Helen had already prepared. Weeks after deciding we'd like to give it a try, and after about four days of putting it off for one reason or another, we were finally going to eat panzanella - a Tuscan bread and tomato salad. Very tasty it was too!


Panzanella!

We then vegged out on the sofa for an hour, accompanied by a very snuggly Florence, before bed called, hoping that Helen wakes feeling better tomorrow.



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Epic...

Apologies to anyone who was looking forward to our blog post yesterday - but better late than never, as they say. As the title suggests, this is going to be one of epic length.

After a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, we woke on Monday morning to face our appointment at the anagrafe (the immigration office). On our first attempt to enquire about acquiring residency many (many) weeks ago, we were given very short shrift by the grumpiest of fast-talking Italians we had yet met, but we did manage to acquire a list of requirements that we would need to have in place in order to acquire our residency.

The list covered an A4 page, and there subsequently followed hours and HOURS of translating with Google, as well as internet searches and trawling through expat forums before we finally compiled a comprehensive list of what we understood was required for us to get our residency. The more we looked into it, the more vague the comune's list seemed to become (we eventually realised that the list is, after all, a catch-all for all nationalities). For instance, it didn't mention that, as British citizens with fully paid up-to-date National Insurance contributions, we are entitled (with an 'S1' form) to full health care in Italy. We therefore concluded that we didn't, in fact, need a private medical insurance policy covering us each for a minimum of €30,000 (which was one of the requirements on the comune's list). However, this still left a very wide gap for any grumpy pedant in the comune office to cause us all sorts of issues if he/she insisted that we followed the list to the letter.

Several weeks ago we spent €30 mailing a set of signed forms back to the UK while Helen's parents went to the effort and expense of ordering a new copy of her birth certificate in Bristol, and then sending the certificate, with the forms, off to be legally verified ('apostilled'). The process was completed surprisingly quickly, but was not without expense, and still delayed us by a week or so. I then spent a good few hours translating Helen's birth certificate, my birth certificate and Helen's freelance contract (with the help of the internet) into Italian and printing out copies of all of them.

So, with all of this done, and photocopies of everything - work contracts, passports, driving licences, car documents, codice fiscali, Helen's work invoices, registrations for Italian income tax and social security, marriage certificate (the list goes on...), we felt sufficiently well prepared to give the process a go and see what happened.

We booked our appointment a few weeks ago - shortly after sending off our application for our S1 forms - and I had emailed Richard immediately after making the appointment to ask if he would be able to come along with us to act as a translator. We knew we would be way out of our depth as far as our Italian went, and if we were unlucky enough to have the grumpy guy deal with us we would likely be dead in the water before we'd even opened our groaning foolscap folder.

As yesterday dawned, we still had no S1 forms from the UK, but we met Richard for coffee in the square at 9am, then headed over to the anagrafe at 9.30. I had butterflies in the pit of my stomach - it's the first thing that has caused me real concern since getting here. We have put so much time and effort into sorting this out, and so much depends on it (access to medical care, much cheaper utility bills, having car insurance and being able to legally own the car to mention a few) that if this were to go horribly wrong in the next hour it would leave in its wake days and days of stress and paperwork, not to mention more expense.

It was empty in the comune office again, and the only guy behind the glass screen was Mr Grumpy from our first experience here. My heart sank, but when he saw Richard and seemed to recognise him, he almost managed something resembling a smile After acknowledging our appointment, he spent the next 10 or 15 minutes ignoring us while doing an excellent impression of someone rushed off his feet - answering phones, ignoring phones, using the photocopier, his PC and generally giving the impression of being an Italian Basil Fawlty.

We were eventually called through into the offices behind the glass screen for our appointment with a lady by the name of Gioia, not Mr Grumpy at all! This seemed like a good start - we didn't know this lady at all, but she would have be pretty unpleasant to be worse than Mr Grumpy.

We sat down and got straight into it. It was all a bit chaotic, with Richard and Gioia talking back and forth and Richard asking us occasionally for bits and pieces of paperwork. Helen understood much more of what was being said than me, as is the way. I felt like a bit of a rabbit in the headlights for a few minutes, but my ears pricked up when I heard the mention of €30,000: that could only mean that she was asking for the private medical insurance policy that we hadn't got (and believed we didn't need).

A lot more discussion ensued, and the issue of the medical policy seemed to be parked for now, while I was asked to produce our marriage certificate. Gioia seemed very pleased to see that the marriage certificate was a bona fide Italian certificate, issued in Siena. This seemed to stand us in good stead and I'm sure it improved her mood a little. Things continued like this for about half an hour, with me slowly emptying my folder of documents and photocopies onto her desk at her request. She spread them haphazardly around and mixed them up, took copies of bits, returned bits, misplaced bits, punched at her computer, shuffled everything and intermittently talked at us. Then it seemed she needed the contract from the purchase of our house. There had been absolutely no mention of this on the list of requirements, and of course we still haven't received it from the geometra - who is on holiday until next week. This was our first stumbling block, but we knew that we should be able to fix it soon - we would go and see Andrea next week and ask him for the contract - so while it meant we wouldn't be able to leave today with our application receipt, we could come back next week. We then heard the compremesso being mentioned - the contract we signed in January when we paid the deposit for the house - Gioia said that would be fine instead of the full contract. Of course, that was virtually the only piece of paperwork left in our filing cabinet at home that we hadn't taken out to bring with us to the meeting, but would could at least go and get it and bring it to her sooner than we would be able to produce the full contract. Next, she turned her attention to Helen's bank statement from Banca di Pescia, which was from the end of June (the most recent one we had). She said she would need a more up-to-date one to prove that there was a certain amount of money in the bank to cover us. With the bank only five doors away from the comune office, though, it would be a simple and quick fix for us to pop in and ask for a printout that we could then bring back.

Gioia then turned back to the issue of the private medical policy. The chat went back and forth a bit until Richard asked if we had our EHIC cards (formerly the E111 forms), which are provided in the UK for people travelling to Europe to cover British citizens in case of emergency. (If you present this card, the local authorities can effectively send a bill back to the UK government for any emergency medical costs incurred.) However, these cards live in a document wallet at the house. They were another of the few pieces of documentation that I hadn't brought with me. All my internet research had suggested that these cards are for emergency cover only, and that what we needed for general healthcare were our S1 forms, which we hadn't received yet, so I had seen no point in bringing the EHIC cards. Anyway, despite knowing exactly where these cards were, I desperately rifled through my wallet - only to find that I had mine with me! It was like some magic trick where someone had put something into my pocket without me knowing! (I later realised that I had put it in my wallet a few weeks ago when I had gone out on my hunt for Thyroxine tablets).

I handed the card to Gioia and she said 'PERFETTO' (she didn't shout, of course, but it sounded as if it was in capitals to me)!! We didn't have Helen's card with us - that one really was back at the house - but we could pick it up together with the compromesso, so it was no big deal. In that instant, it seemed we had got around this complicated and potentially costly healthcare obstacle, as well as avoided being turned away for not having our S1 forms to show. Gioia spun back around to her computer for more keyboard bashing. Richard gave us a look as if to stay 'that was too easy but it seems we've sorted it'.

A few minutes later, Gioia retrieved some pages from the printer, which formed a declaration for Helen to sign that said Helen was head of the household (tell me something I didn't know), and that should anything happen I was her responsibility and not the state's. Basically, there are two ways of registering as a resident: you can register as an employed person, for which you need to show proof of employment or proof of being registered for tax and national insurance, or you can register as someone who is not working, in which case you have to register as unemployed with the job centre (l'impiego) and be available for work and interviews etc. Since Helen could show her work contract, as well as her tax and national insurance registrations, she was all set to be registered as an employed person. And since she was thus able to demonstrate an income of more that €5,800 per annum, and we had the required amount of money in the bank to prove we wouldn't immediately be a burden on the state, she was able to sign the form meaning that the Italian state didn't need to worry about me...

Declaration signed, Gioia gave us a scribbled note saying that all she needed was the compromesso, Helen's EHIC card and an up-to-date bank statement, and that once she had those she would approve our application! We could hardly believe it, we were only a short step from having our application approved. I think we both felt quite giddy.

We went for another coffee with Richard before parting company. We then dashed into the bank, got a printout of Helen's bank statement and sped home - we wanted to get everything back to Gioia before she had time to change her mind or realise she had forgotten something. Once home, we pulled out the documents and did an about turn straight back into town. So, compremesso, bank statement and EHIC card in hand, we went back to the anagrafe. We waited in a small queue to speak to Mr. Grumpy and asked him if we could speak to Gioia. I don't know whether his icy exterior had cracked because I made a plausible effort at Italian, or whether it was because he knew we knew Richard, or whether he was just having a good day, but either way, he cracked a small joke at our English expense and managed a small smile, then waved us through to the offices.

Gioia took copies of the EHIC card and bank statement, and thumbed through the compremesso trying to identify which parcel of land we had bought and on what land registry map it was, before smiling and telling us that was it! She handed us our receipt to say that our application was in process and it would take a maximum of 45 days! The next part of the process will be a visit at our house from the police (roughly in the next 15 days) to ensure that we live where we said we live, then the police will notify the comune that all is in order, the comune will post us a letter, and once we have received that letter, we can go back to the anagrafe (with three passport photos each) to collect our ID cards! I couldn't quite believe that it had gone so smoothly, and the butterflies and knot in my stomach knot instantly disappeared,. To Helen's horror though, rather than get up to leave, I started to ask Gioia if she wanted to see our birth certificates - I was quite put out that she hadn't asked to see them after all the effort on Helen's parents' part in acquiring hers, not to mention the cost and delay in waiting for it and the hours I'd spent translating the flippin' things. So she looked expectantly at the folder while I clumsily thumbed through the papers. When I couldn't instantly find them I looked up at her and she had already got bored and told me not to bother and waved us out.

So that's it! Over all bar the shouting, Helen won't count her chickens until we have the ID cards, but I know the rest is a formality.

It was now nearly noon, so we went home for lunch and I decided it was an altogether appropriate action to open a bottle of prosecco to celebrate, so we had a pleasant hour on the patio sitting in the sun - with the morning's oppression long behind us we could look ahead to more exciting tasks.




First of which of course, is geese!

So after coffee, we cleared up and headed out to (any guesses?) Montecatini Terme. While we were waiting to be seen at the comune office, we had mentioned our plan for geese to Richard, who had suggested a place where we could buy cheap, unmachined chestnut fence posts. We headed there, and found the place straight away but it was closed (of course!). There was a sign on the door saying 'back soon', so I decided in the meantime to try and find a car spares shop not far away. 

The chances of us finding said car spares shop were stacked against us - I had only seen its location on Google Maps, was working from memory and... it was in Montecatini Terme, which is a location we don't have the best of records with when it comes to finding places! I was thrilled, therefore to find the shop, AND it was open. It was a real Aladdin's cave for the car enthusiast, and were soon greeted by the owner, Erico, who has now taken the medal for the friendliest and smiliest Italian we have met.

I wanted to buy the whole shop from him, he was brilliant. However, we started with a roof rack. While we have acres and acres of boot space in the no. 182 bus, we are wasting a whole load of useful space on the roof - not that we have needed it yet, but I'm sure a time will come when we do. I dragged Erico out to see the car and he offered us two options. I then asked him for some form of emergency starting device - like the one we had in the boot that belongs to Chris and Sue. I figured that with only one vehicle and being alone on our hill, if the battery issue caused a problem again, we could at least get the the car started and make it to a mechanic.

He offered me a smaller battery pack type that you keep charged that also has an air compressor for inflating tyres, perfect!

Waiting for Erico to finish fitting the roof bars.


Erico then spent the next 15 minutes fitting the roof rack for us - during which time I found a couple more items to buy, including snow chains (which are a legal requirement around here between mid-November and mid-April). We (I say 'we', but I think enjoyed it much more than Helen) had a thoroughly enjoyable half hour engaging with Erico, and I left in a great mood feeling like the day just couldn't get any better.

We then returned to the wood yard to find the gates open, and spent five minutes with the owner's son trying to decide how many fence posts of what size we needed. The fence posts were 2.5m long, and we needed 25 of them - he tried to fit one into the car, but it was too much even for the 182 bus to cope with. He looked at the roof rack and asked if we could put them on there, but I explained I had nothing to tie them on with (hoping he would offer some rope, but none was forthcoming), so we left saying that I would return tomorrow with straps.

Wood yard.


By this time it was just after 4pm, and Helen had arranged to go for coffee with Sue at half past. I'd planned to deliver Helen to Sue and Chris's, and return their car starter at the same time, then head home to do some jobs until Helen phoned to say when she needed collecting. We arrived at Chris and Sue's, I trundled the car starter up the hill to their house, went in to greet everyone... and then got chatting to Chris.

The girls soon left for town, so Chris and I had a coffee on their patio and talked solar power, chainsaws, strimmers, wood cutting, UV water purifiers, geese, chickens and bees, amongst other stuff. Before we knew it, it was 7pm and the girls were walking back up the path! It wasn't long before coffee cups were swapped for glasses of wine, and the four of us sat on the patio as the light faded.

What a perfect day! We would have loved to have stayed longer, but as darkness was falling we decided we ought to go home to get the cats safely inside. We couldn't quite believe that when we walked in the house was after 9pm. We cooked up a quick plate of pasta with pesto, and rather than start what was going to be this EPIC blog post, we slumped in front of the TV to watch an episode of Inspector Montalbano and work on our Italian.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Mystery Monday

Why a mystery? Because we're afraid that, in order to find out the full story of today's efforts, you'll have to wait a little while longer - it's just about 9:20pm and we've only just got home, we've been Phillipsed (that's a good thing in case you were wondering).

This morning was taken up at the comune for the dreaded Round 1 of the residency wranglings. How did it go? Well we drank Prosecco on the patio at lunch time, so make your own minds up.

We had a busy but fun afternoon afterwards, but more on that tomorrow. For now we have an appointment with a plate of pasta and an episode of Inspector Montalbano.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Feeling thankful

Today really has been a day of two halves - when we were driving home this afternoon we could barely believe that it was the same day as we had cycled into town this morning. I won't say that it has been a fun-filled day, as that seems inappropriate (as will become clear), but it has certainly been a very jam-packed and satisfying one.

We started with a lie-in! Lucca did attempt to get his breakfast served at 5.15am this morning (it's getting earlier!) but, much to our amazement, simply closing the bedroom door (which won't even shut properly - there was still a paw-sized gap) gave us another two hours of uninterrupted sleep! I did give in and go and feed the cats at 7.15am (at which point Lucca was starting to try to open the door by sticking his paw through the gap) as I figured that they had already waited longer than they would on a weekday, but they then allowed us to doze for another hour or so uninterrupted.

Once we were up, and after we had done some washing and got it on the line to start drying, it was time to get the 'pub' bikes out for their inaugural run into town. With mountain bikes we can even cycle along the stony, uneven drive, so it was a steep ride uphill to start us off, followed by the downhill-all-the-way run into Pescia. It felt great to be out on our bikes in the sunshine and I felt happy to be on a mountain bike.

When we reached the main square in Pescia we realised that, as it was the fourth Sunday of the month, the bric-a-brac market was on.

Bric-a-brac!
The piazza looking colourful with all the Rioni flags.



The bric-a-brac market turns out to be a rather more interesting affair than the regular Saturday market. We were incredulous at what some of the stalls were attempting to sell (old pairs of shoes, used linens, crockery - to be honest it made us think that we could have emptied the contents of the house when we first moved in and simply put it on a stall at the bric-a-brac market! - although of course we don't know how much of it actually sells). There were also some very dodgy-looking paintings, but also some stalls with some genuinely interesting-looking antiques - old cameras, old radios, old telephones, old tools and kitchen equipment, and even a guy who was selling large pieces of wooden furniture, amongst which was a really beautiful old solid wood work bench, complete with wooden vices. It made us think that it would certainly be worth a browse every now and then to see if anything really interesting ever comes up.

After a walk up and down the market, we set up camp at a table outside Bar Poulter with two cappucinos and two slices of the most delicious torta crema and sat back to watch the world go by.


Oh my. What a breakfast!


We each had a further coffee after that, before deciding it was time to head back up the hill. Before we left we sprung ourselves upon a group of English-speaking guys we'd overheard at the table next to us - they had all arrived wheeling bikes and fully kitted out in Lycra. We were interested to find out what had brought them to this area on what was clearly a cycling holiday and it turned out that one of the group was born and bred here in the local area (his brother has a house in Vellano, while his sister lives near Montecatini), but now lives in Sheffield and runs a business organising cycling holidays in Tuscany. The other three in the group were Irishmen from the same cycling club. We spent a few minutes talking to them, and took a business card from the guy who runs the tours, then went on our way.

On our way back, we decided that rather than go all of the way along the road, we would attempt the rough road/path/lane that runs along the other side of the river as far as San Lorenzo. So we cycled over the river, along past the hospital, along past Chris and Sue's house, until we found the track. It was interesting seeing everything from a new perspective on the other side of the river, and discovering little nooks and crannies that we hadn't encountered before.

Happiness is a mountain bike...

Lovely day for a bike ride!


Once at San Lorenzo, we re-joined the main road and cycled towards Pietrabuona. So far, so good. We made a quick stop at Amanda's alimentari - both to buy a loaf of bread and to pay the €3.40 that we owed from yesterday's shopping when neither we nor Lara (who was serving at the time) had change for a €20 note.

Bread safely in the rucksack, we mounted our bikes for the final section of the journey home, knowing that this would be the hardest bit. Well, all I can say is that it felt like we burnt ALL of the calories of the torta crema just cycling the final 500m back to the house. The road is very steep, and with knobbly tyres, even the lowest gear doesn't help all that much. My approach to such things it to attack it as hard as I can in order to try and get it over and done with as quickly as possible, while Stuart prefers the slow burn approach. And so it was that I reached our driveway first, but on reaching the gates had to dismount and double over in an attempt to catch my breath! It wasn't until Stuart made it to the drive that I was starting to breath more normally again, but was still sweating by the bucketload. I think we were both a bit shocked at how hard we had found the final short, sharp ascent - but pledged that we will do it more often in order to make it start to seem easier!

All in all it had been a wonderful and thoroughly enjoyable morning.

We had decided over coffee that we would have a very quick lunch and then set out on a sightseeing trip slightly further afield this afternoon.

Over the past week or so, we have somehow ended up watching lots of war documentaries. We'd watched three excellent BBC dramas about WWI based on the accounts of real soldiers, as well as the programme we watched yesterday about the WWII soldier who had been interred as a PoW in Auschwitz. We've both held something of a fascination for WWII, and had been attempting to learn a bit more about Italy's involvement, and in particular about the Gothic Line - the Germans' last line of defence, which crossed Italy very close indeed to our valley.

By chance, I'd spotted a link on Twitter a few days ago to a page about the village of Sant Anna di Stazzema - the site of a horrendous Nazi massacre in 1944 and now part of a National Park of Peace. We decided that that was where we would head this afternoon.

Sant Anna di Stazzema is a good way further west of us, in the Appuane mountains pretty close to the sea. We headed towards the Autostrade and in the direction of Viareggio, then peeled off and headed into the mountains.

The 10km drive up to village is incredibly long and winding, with perilous-looking drops down the side of the mountains and the road surface very bumpy and potholed in places. Nevertheless, we kept following signs for 'Sant Anna' and eventually found ourselves in a large car park.



On the early morning of 12th August 1944, SS troupes approached the village from four different directions and systematically killed virtually all of its inhabitants - mainly elderly people, women and children - in an act of retaliation and intimidation against the civilians who had joined the significant partisan movement in the area. 560 people were massacred within the space of three hours in this tiny, quiet little isolated village in the mountains. Ironically, many of the people in the village at the time were people who had fled the larger towns and gone to this remote, seemingly inconspicuous place to seek refuge. 

The first thing we saw on getting out of the car was a memorial to the youngest victim of the massacre. Tragically, a 20-day-old baby girl by the name of Anna Pardini. 


Plaque commemorating actions that are simply incomprehensible.


We made our way into the tiny village, which quite literally consists of a few houses and the church. The church and the piazza in front of it was the epicentre of the massacre, with the German soldiers using the pews from the church to light fires to burn the victims.

Such a tiny, peaceful little place. Hard to imagine what went on 70 years ago.


There were memorials all around, but it still seemed incomprehensible that this peaceful little place had been the scene of such atrocity. 


A peaceful mountain village.


We then set out on a walk through the woods which leads to the large monument to the victims, standing high up on the hilltop.

Along the way we stopped to admire the simply stunning view - all the way down to the sea.


This gives you some idea of how far up in the mountains this remote little village is.

The monument itself was imposing, sombre and serene all at the same time. The monument was erected as soon as four years after the massacre, in 1948. The remains of the victims, which had been buried in a mass grave in front of the church, were exhumed and brought to the monument as their final resting place:





The monument lists the names of many of the victims, although - despite covering two sides of an enormous plaque - many victims remained unidentified as they had been too badly burned. The plaque listed the ages of the victims as well as the names of those identified - it was so heartbreaking to see so many little children listed (2 months, 3 months, 3 years, 5 years, 7 years and so on), and so many large families all massacred together:




We then walked back down to the village and paid a visit to the museum. The museum had a couple of exhibits with English labels, but the vast majority was in Italian. Even with our smattering of Italian, it wasn't hard to translate the meaning though, and many of the photographs and exhibits on display in the museum gave us a much more vivid picture of the events that unfolded that terrible morning. We also stood and watched a film for a good 10 minutes, in which some of the survivors spoke (entirely in Italian) about their memories of the day. Although we couldn't understand most of what they were saying, the horror and sadness they were conveying was crystal clear, and we couldn't drag ourselves away until it had finished. 

We eventually left the village feeling very moved and humbled and incredibly thankful for having been born into an age (and geographic region) of relative peace, stability and security.

Our drive back down the winding 10km of road afforded us some more stunning views:


Just stunning.


By the time we were approaching Pescia, it was nearing 6pm - we really couldn't quite believe that it was still the same day as we had been cycling down the road into town for coffee and cake!

When we got in, we hit the terrace with a glass of beer to soak up the last of the evening's sunshine before heading in when the sun dipped behind the hill and the air turned a bit chilly. What a day! 

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Where does the time go?

I just love it when the weekend rolls around - that sense of release knowing that, as it's the weekend, you're allowed to sleep a bit longer, stay up a bit later, spend time doing things that aren't entirely work or chore focused, and generally take life at an easier pace.

Of course Lucca started clawing at the mattress to put his breakfast order in at a ridiculous time of the morning (I think I caved it at around 5.40am this morning), but after that he let us sleep on and I didn't actually get out of bed until about 7.45am. I still went to do my morning's exercise, but it was altogether easier with an extra hour's sleep under my belt AND the knowledge that once I'd finished, the day was our own, rather than being tied to a computer screen.

After I'd showered, changed and we'd both had breakfast, we decided it was time to go out and complete a whole list of errands, not least of which would be paying the Telecom Italia bill. We almost put the trip off until the afternoon as the heavens opened while we were getting ready, but we decided we would risk getting rained on.

Our first stop was Pescia - since Saturday is market day, we parked in a car park opposite the old flower market. All of the shops we wanted to visit were on that street in any case.

We noticed as we walked through town that the rioni flags have gone up. The rioni are the four quarters of the town (Rione Santa Maria in the south east part of town, Rione San Michele in the south west, Rione San Francesco in the north east and Rione Ferraia in the north west). Rather like Siena, Pescia has a palio. This one doesn't involve horses, but it does involve competitive flag throwing between the four quarters of the town. The palio is on next weekend - and we are hoping to get down and experience some of it - and it looks like the town is already preparing for it.


The flags of Rione San Michele.


Our first and most pressing errand was to pay the previous owners' outstanding telephone bill, so we went straight into a tabaccheria and paid the bill. (When we last checked the telephone still wasn't working, but we might need to fax them the receipt to prove that we've paid the bill, which is a job for tomorrow/Monday.)

Next, we went into the tiny toy shop that we first visited several weeks ago in search of a couple of keyrings for the apartment keys. On that occasion, the owner had asked if we were on holiday and when we explained that we were living in the area he had produced a loyalty card - the type where you collect a stamp each time you buy something, and when you've filled the card you get a discount, or a free something (to be honest I'm not entirely sure what!). Anyway, at that time, I thought how nice it was that he'd done that, but that we were pretty unlikely to go into his shop again to collect any more stamps. How wrong could I be? Both Kerys and Ben made purchases in the shop when they were staying, and today we collected another three stamps as I bought small gifts for my nephew and nieces. I reckon that by the time we've done a bit of Christmas shopping we'll have filled the entire card!

Talking of nieces and nephews, today is my dear nephew Joseph's 10th birthday. HAPPY BIRTHDAY Joseph!!! I visited Joseph in hospital on the day he was born (not arriving until the evening, and not having long to get to know him on that day, but it was a day I'll never forget), and for most of his birthdays since then I've managed to get to see him, if not on the day itself then certainly at the weekend closest to it. So it felt strange today, knowing that all of my Bristol/Glocs family would be celebrating and I couldn't be there. I hope that he had a fantastic day.

Anyway, after the toy shop, we popped into a picture framing shop with a bag full of pictures we wanted to get framed. There was a lovely poster-style present from my sister that she gave me for my birthday, the beautiful watercolour that our first apartment guests had left for us, and a photograph of the rolling Tuscan hills that we had bought in San Gimignano on our honeymoon (two years ago!). The man in the shop had a smattering of English and between us we very easily chose the mounts and frames - he then told us they would be ready around mid-week next week, and bade us farewell (without taking our name, number, a deposit or anything!).

Three jobs ticked off the list, we headed back to the car. The next challenge was to attempt to find a shop that sells the Lycamobile SIM cards that Stuart had researched and worked out were a FAR more cost-effective and fair way of operating a pay-as-you-go mobile than our current Vodafone tariff. We'd used the Lycamobile website to search for retail outlets in our area and it had come up with several in Montecatini Terme, so we'd printed out a map and headed for our ritual weekend trip to Montecatini.

We're getting pretty good at this now, and managed to navigate to exactly where we wanted to be. We parked the car and did the rest of the journey on foot. Sure enough, we came to a tiny lotto-come-tabbacheria-come-off-licence shop with a Lycamobile sign in the window. We went in and asked to buy a SIM and the woman behind the counter didn't bat an eyelid, just asked for our documents (passport), which she photocopied, then handed us the SIM for the grand total cost of €5. Seemed way too easy!

We walked back to the car, and then headed off in the direction of the retail park - it's been a few weeks since we last paid a visit to Obi, so I'm sure we were both having withdrawal symptoms. However, it wasn't Obi we were heading for. Instead we paid our second visit to Decathlon, the Aladdin's cave of a sports shop. There's something about the rubbery smell of new trainers/swimming hats/tennis rackets/bikes that I find intoxicating and that shop has it in bucketloads! In my new life as a cash poor farmer/editor though, I had to stay focused ('do NOT look at the fitness equipment, do NOT look at the trainers, do NOT look at the pretty sports clothes....') - we were there for one reason only: bikes. I'd decided a couple of weeks ago that I would use the money that my family and friends had so generously given me for my birthday to buy us a pair of 'pub bikes' - relatively inexpensive mountain bikes that we can hop onto to cycle down the road to the local shops or a little further into town maybe to visit a bar or friends (hello Phillipses :-)). We'd had a couple of discussions over how much we should spend on said 'pub bikes' and in the end Stuart capitulated and the two bikes came in bang on budget. Whether I will live to regret not having put a bit of extra cash towards buying slightly higher spec bikes remains to be seen - I know for certain that I will never be able to utter a word of complaint about these bikes within earshot of my husband - but my reasoning is that we already have higher spec road bikes for longer days out on the bikes, and these are only meant for short trips into town and back...

Anyway, as we wheeled the two bikes out of the Decathlon shop to the car, I felt very excited - it felt like having an old friend back in my life. Bizarrely the difference between a mountain bike and a road bike really does make that much difference to me!

Oooh, pretty!


Stuart had brought some tools with him in case we needed to take the front wheels off the bikes, but our amazing 182 bus was plenty big enough to fit both bikes in, fully intact.


Two bikes? NO problem!


The final stop for the morning's run of tasks was to visit the Euronics shop in the same retail complex as Decathlon. I realised recently that when we go to the States next month for the VB conference, I won't have access to my emails and other important information, as I work with a desktop PC rather than a laptop. After giving it some thought we decided that buying a tablet PC would be a good solution - and, importantly, one that should be tax-deductible at that. We thus went into the Euronics shop, picked a mid-priced tablet and asked a chap in the shop if we could please buy it. The guy was wearing a badge with a union jack background and the words 'I speak English'. We still spoke Italian to him (who am I kidding Stuart still spoke Italian to him, while I wished I had the confidence to do so), but when we got a bit stuck he switched to English. Turned out he had spent 6 months in London working in a bar and a steakhouse in the Paddington area, and kept saying how much he loves London. We politely agreed with him, but we were both thinking we'd rather be here than in London any day!

All purchases safely loaded into the car, it was finally time to head home - by this time it was nearing 1.30pm and lunch was definitely overdue! It was wet again by the time we got home, so outdoor dining was off the menu. Instead, we had our spread of cured meats, cheese and bread on the sofa watching a documentary (thanks iPlayer) about a guy who had been held as a prisoner of war in Auschwitz. Pretty sobering stuff, and an incredible story.

After lunch, we felt the need (or I did, at least) to go and do something 'useful', so we headed out in the car to look for a place Stuart had found online that sells portable gas fires - we've decided that, while it would be lovely, putting a log burner into the apartment would be just too difficult (based on where the flue would have to be places) and expensive, but there are some quite attractive portable gas fires that we could just stick a gas bottle into for whenever the apartment is occupied in the cooler months. We also wanted to have a look in an agraria (agricultural shop/garden centre) to see if we could find some fence posts and chicken wire for constructing the fence for Goose Island.

First, we navigated our way to the road where the good old internet had said the gas fire shop was. Hmm. There was nothing even vaguely commercial on the street, just a lot of residential houses. Whether the shop has moved, or maybe even no longer exists, we're not sure, but we're sure it isn't on the road we thought it was on!

Next we headed for the large agraria near to Santa Lucia - we've driven past it several times, and it always looks very promising in terms of the range of items it sells... but it turns out that it's closed on Saturday afternoons. Hmm. We then decided to head for Borgo a Buggiano, where there was another agraria Sue had suggested might sell what we were looking for - but, yes, it too was closed on Saturday afternoon.

We headed home, tails between our legs. Although we had wasted time and fuel driving around, I reasoned that on the bright side, we had found out that the gas fire shop isn't where we thought it was and we had found all of the agricultural shops, so would know where to come when they are open...

By the time we got home it was getting on for 5.30pm. I have no idea where the time went today, and I look around the house and wonder when on earth I'm going to have a day when I say 'I know, I'll do a bit of cleaning today...' rather than the fire-fighting type of cleaning that happens at the moment!

Anxious to make some productive use of the day, I decided to head out with the power tools and rakes and clear some more of Goose Island, while Stuart opted to tinker with the new bikes, tweaking the gears, fitting mud guards and so on.

I strimmed and sawed and chopped and raked until the light started fading and there was a distinct autumnal smell in the air. I headed back to the house after deciding the light was no longer good enough to properly see what I was doing (especially with the visor on which kept steaming up). Stuart was just packing up his bike maintenance tools as well, and the cats were going potty in desperation for someone to give them their dinner. I was shocked to see that it was 8.25pm!!

So as Stuart finished tidying up outside, I went in for a shower then he started dinner while I started writing this blog. If I've timed it right, my mushroom and pancetta risotto should be just about ready just about now. It certainly smells delicious.

It'll be a late night tonight (not eating before 10.15pm!), but there will be no alarm clocks tomorrow morning and the chance to have a proper lie-in. Weather permitting we might cycle into town on our mountain bikes for a coffee. How civilised!