Friday 31 October 2014

Is it Friday or Wednesday?

Let me explain the title of the post before I ramble on, forget and leave everyone confused: We've had spectacular weather this week - while quite cool first thing in the morning (around 7C on average), it soon warms up and by midday it has been in the early twenties and almost cloudless all day long until we lose the sun just after 4pm. The next hour involves a rapid cooling down and gradual darkening, and it's dusk by 5.30pm. It has been a beautiful week for working outdoors, but all the while we've been keeping an eye on the forecast. As next week's weather has crept into view, there's one thing that seems certain: it's going to be wet.

It's hard to believe it's going to be wet next week after this is all we have seen for days on end.

When we realised this, Helen and I decided that we would spend a large chunk of the weekend working outdoors to make the most of the dry weather before it turns. When I told Noah this, his reply was 'yeah, I'd noticed the weather forecast and was going to offer to keep working through the weekend, then I'll take a couple of days off next week when it's raining instead' (he was then quick to retract his hand before I bit it off!). So, today is not the end of the week for us here, but more like a Wednesday. Is that all clear!?

So today, after breakfast, Noah and I headed up the driveway with the wheelbarrow full of tools to make a start on the furthest trench from the house. The logic was that, after doing the furthest one away, it would be much easier to follow it up with shorter walks to the second one - as well as not having to barrow concrete across the first one of the day.

After a furious hour of pick axe work, we had pretty much dug the first trench except for a large piece of stone that took a fair amount of pulverising with the sledge hammer. We went back to the parking area to start mixing the concrete and after one barrow load (uphill), I promptly fixed rope and a makeshift wooden handle onto the front of the barrow so that one could pull at the same time as the other pushed.

We had the our first drainage channel of the day done by coffee break! An excellent start to the day, and I was glad I had made the effort to go and buy the extra concrete last night. We had coffee and yet more of the rapidly diminishing stocks of Helen's ginger biscuits before heading back to get stuck into the final trench. It was bound to be a pig of a trench to dig after the first of the day having been so relatively easy, but within the hour we were dug out again (despite Noah's efforts to escape by slipping and disappearing into the bramble down the slope at the side of the drive!). I couldn't believe our luck - 12.30pm, and we were ready for the final five or six bags of concrete to go in. I offered Noah the option of an early lunch break, with the concreting to do after lunch, but he said he'd rather get it done there and then and out of the way - there's no holding this quiet 19-year-old back!

Six bags later, we were done - and HUNGRY! After digging out two trenches with a pick axe, and after barrowing nearly half a tonne of concrete uphill along the drive across a distance of about 100m, we both slumped into seats on the patio and almost drank our delicious home-made pumpkin soup straight from the bowl. Food tastes so good when well earned, and in the sun too!

After lunch, it was time for some more gentle work for the boys, while Helen started yet again on the endless pile of bramble and acacia cuttings, slowly but surely forcing it downhill before moving it across the drive to its resting place.

So, while Helen wrestled with that, Noah and I went to fashion an extra 'stall' under the tarpaulin for kindling storage. In need of materials, it was time to delve deeper into the rubbish shed that's hidden from view on the terrace below the house and full of... well, rubbish.

We found nothing of use inside it - a whole horrible pile of rubbish that will grace the pages of this blog in the not too distant future - but spilling out of it we found a few pieces of wood, some shelf-like stuff that we could use to make a pallet-sized panel. We moved it over to the wood pile and, using a metal frame that I found in the undergrowth last week, Noah made a 'wall' while I dragged out an old (possibly original) door from the rubble pile for the other 'wall', knocked in a couple more metal post,s and we tied the walls to the posts ready for kindling. No photos of that today, we'll save it for another day when it's full of lovely kindling.

It wasn't quite 3.30pm (Noah's clocking off time), but I stood him down anyway and I started on moving the aforementioned kindling - although I was rapidly running out of steam.

At about 4.15pm, I decided to head to Amanda's for yet more bread and wine before I lost the will to do it. Noah had asked for a lift into the village if I was going, so the pair of us hopped in and drove down to Pietrabuona where I dropped him off so that he could explore and have a walk around and I went to relieve Amanda of more of her stock before heading home. When I got home, Helen was complaining of a painful hand, so I suggested we both pack up and call it a day.

We gave the geese their nightly feed of lettuce (during which they hissed and honked their heads off!) before putting them to bed, and retiring indoors.

Over a glass of beer and some nuts, we assessed Helen's injury - excessive raking/pitch-forking of heavy clumps of bramble clippings seems to have given her some tendon damage or some sort of strain on her left thumb. Sounds minor, but she couldn't even pick anything up or chop garlic for dinner, and it was clearly swollen, so she's taken an anti-inflammatory and is hoping for a rapid improvement overnight. We then pored over pages of dogs and information on the internet for an hour or so, before lighting a fire and getting ready for dinner - a pea and mint risotto this evening, and maybe even some limoncello to follow, it is Friday after all... Or is it?!

Thursday 30 October 2014

The work changes, but not the weather

The weather this week has been an exact replay each day: very cool and fresh first thing in the morning (so Helen tells me), warming slowly to 20-22 degrees with bright blue skies and sunshine in the middle of the day, then cooling slowly until we lose the sun at around 4.10pm, at which point the temperature drops and we have another hour of cooler daylight working hours. Today was no different.

After breakfast, Helen went to the office for a morning's work, while Noah and I started by going back to Frateschi's for one more drainage channel and grill, some bags of pre-mixed bagged concrete, and a large bucket to mix in.

Before hitting the builder's merchant though, went out to the Metano station to fill up on fuel first as we had been getting rather low, but we were soon back at the builder's yard where it was all happening at the usual pace. Paulo told me to help myself to what I needed and pay afterwards, so Noah and I drove around filling the car up then went in to pay before heading home.

By the time we got home it was almost time for our mid-morning coffee break, so we had an early coffee before getting stuck into digging. We filled the wheel barrow full of tools, dropped the concrete channels along the drive in the car, and left the car 'roadside' of the first channel so that we wouldn't have to drive over it and damage the setting concrete.

I've mentioned before that the name of our nearest village, 'Pietrabuona', translates into 'good stone', I can now tell you that the person who named it such had obviously never tried digging into the soil! We dug most of the channel out quite easily, but one end was full of very hard stone - and it took us about an hour to break it up and remove it using a pick axe and a sledgehammer.

Once we were happy that the three lengths of channel sat happily in the gulley we had dug, allowing room for concrete all around, it was onto mixing and barrowing duties. Fortunately, I had decided that we should do the nearest one to the house first, so it wasn't too long a walk. Each time, we mixed a 25kg bag of concrete, put the bucket in the barrow and pushed it up hill to the 'site'. It took six bags of concrete to bed in three channels - more than I had hoped, but I didn't want to scrimp on this and have to re-do the job later, so I'm hoping this will be enough now.

By the time we'd cleaned up and packed away after having set the one channel, it was time for Noah to clock out. Having seen that Helen was up on the terraces raking more piles of tree waste down towards the drive, I decided to grab the old strimmer and give it a test drive by giving the newly uncovered terraces their first going over with a metal blade before switching to cord.

An hour later, daylight was fading fast and I needed to get some more concrete before the morning if we were to have any chance of putting in two further drainage channels tomorrow - wet weather is forecast from Monday onwards, so time is critical now.

I left Helen raking in the dimming light and headed off down to Frateschi's, only to realise that I'd left my wallet at home! A quick about turn and a reverse down two thirds of the drive later, I ran into the house, grabbed my wallet and went back out. Fratsechi's was nice and quiet now, so I loaded up and paid without delay before making a quick stop at Amanda's for yet more bread, some parmesan and a salami.

I decided to reverse down the drive again to make the unloading of the ten bags of concrete easier in the morning - but this time it was dark and the only illumination was that of the reversing light! It was a bit of a slow process, and the clutch was less than happy about getting up the bumpy entrance to the drive with all the extra weight in the rear, but I got there in the end.

As I walked towards the house, I saw Helen approaching the geese with a bag of lettuce, so I quickly joined her for the daily herd. They almost went in of their own accord this evening, but when Helen made to shut the door they shot out again, all the while with the gander having a good old hiss at us.
I got involved with my usual herding poles and we quickly got them in. This time, even the goose (female) helped by giving the naughty gander a peck on the back to nudge him inside, much to Helen's amusement.

Time now to light another little fire and to heat some home-made ragu for pasta this evening - we'd promised Noah some meat would appear in some form at some point, so it's time to make good on our promise!

Another productive day at the office and another great day of weather!

It was a groggy start today, although my cold is definitely giving in quickly now. Noah admitted that he's not much of a morning person either, so breakfast was quiet, especially without the fireworks of peanut butter jars smashing.

We were soon out in the fresh morning air under a cloudless sky, leaving Helen to her computer. I set Noah up with the chop saw to cut up the larger pieces of wood from the terraces while I went back up for a second pass over the piles of debris we'd discarded yesterday to make sure we hadn't missed anything decent... we had!! I think it was more a case of the stuff we left behind having looked useless next to the bigger stuff we collected yesterday, but with fresh eyes and nothing bigger to compare it with, there seemed to be endless piles of kindling still on the terraces so I set about it with a bill hook to the sound of the chop saw whirring angrily below.

By coffee time, Noah had made a rather nice pile of wood and I'd done similar up on the terraces.
After a very enjoyable and well earned coffee along with some more of Helen's ginger biscuits, we went to the wood pile area - we needed to make space for all of the wood we were collecting.

It was clear that the ancient mechanical cultivator was in the way, so after rocking it to check its weight might be moveable, we decided to try and remove it, flat tyres and all.

We collected up all of the old bottles that had been left in the back of the little trailer - which smelled somewhat boozy - moved all the stones from around it, and with much straining and sweating, managed to 'walk' it out onto the path and then push it onto the rubble pile. 

For once, these aren't OUR empties!

The cultivator finds its new home/resting place.

A tidy wood pile!

We now had a lovely empty wood storage area that we could use to start getting ready for the fast-approaching winter. We stacked the small bits that Noah had cut into the left-hand side, then went back to trimming stuff on the terraces.

At lunch time, Noah and I make a quick trip to see Amanda for some more cheese and bread while Helen (who had surfaced from her chilly cave) heated through soup number 2: her home-made pumpkin soup, the pumpkin having come courtesy of Alex and Donatella. Both Noah and I had worked up quite an appetite today and tucked in heartily to soup, fresh bread, fettunta, three types of cheese and salami, all under the hot autumn sun. The soup was delicious! I've always been happy enough eating soups but without being a huge fan - I wouldn't miss them if they vanished - but this one was truly lovely. I'm sure the worker's appetite and the sunshine helped, but it's definitely one I'll be returning to again throughout the autumn and winter.

After lunch it was back to endless trimming of kindling again, and before we knew it 3.30pm chimed and it was time to stand Noah down. By now though, Helen had clocked off from the desk job to come and play on the terraces and was attempting to make a dent in Allison's collection of rakings from last week.

No wonder Helen and Allison ended up looking like they had been scrapping with tigers!

Look at that lovely neat pile of kindling.

We both worked away solidly until about 6pm and then put the geese to bed before we lost the light. The geese are becoming quite comical and seem to be really settling in - there was a noticeable increase in honking today, along with some other strange squeaks. The best is when the gander hisses at us when we arrive with lettuce at lock-in time. I'm not sure if it's a normal hiss, as I'm not well versed in goose hisses, but it makes me laugh each and every time because he wants us to go away but wants his lettuce - I can only imagine the internal turmoil going on in little Mr Goose's head!

'GO AWAY, no I want the lettuce, no GO AWAY, no I want the lettuce...!'

Once darkness fell, we retired indoors. Helen spent some time browsing the internet looking at different dog breeds, while I tried fixing Sue's laptop, but to no avail - I tested both RAM chips, the battery and the power supply but it still keeps freezing. While I went for a shower, Helen made a start on dinner and then, while I attempted to light a small fire to lift the room temperature a couple of degrees, I chatted on the phone to Mom and also Ben - my now 5ft 11in son, who was staying with his Nan for the night.

Noah arrived mid-call and amused himself with a beer and my book on wood fires until dinner was ready. Tonight's dinner was a lentil and mushroom ragu, which was actually very tasty. We've promised Noah there will be some animal protein on offer at some point soon, but he seemed unfazed by the lack of it and said that everything we (er... Helen) has cooked so far has been delicious, I have to agree!

After dinner, I persuaded everyone sit down in front of the first episode of Brian Cox's new TV series - which seems to be some kind of anthropological work. It was as enjoyable and informative an offering as ever, which we all enjoyed. Once it had finished, we enlightened Noah on the workings of the British (and Italian, come to think of it) TV licence - which actually seemed to amaze to him far more than anything Brian Cox had to say!

It was soon bed time though, and we all retired for the evening with another sunny day of work ahead. Tomorrow, Noah and I plan to put our efforts into digging drainage channels in the drive.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Many hands make... quicker work!

Noah arrived upstairs for breakfast with us just after 8am today. All was going well until I opened the kitchen cupboard and a jar of peanut butter jumped to its certain death on the tiled floor - a quiet breakfast quickly turned into chaos as cats were chased out of the way and Henry hoover went to work sucking up all the shards of broken glass. I really wasn't in the mood for that kind of start today (finding the sound of hoovers particularly offensive within the first 30 minutes of consciousness), but I got over it, and soon enough Noah and I were heading outside to start our first day on the terraces.

Job number one on the list was to turn the vast piles of acacia cuttings made by Helen and Allison last week into cleaned up small pieces of kindling. So, with bill hooks in our heavily gloved hands, we set about stripping the branches and stems of leaves as the sun rose up behind us into a clear blue sky.

Until this point, I had only done a tiny amount of this task - just enough to practise really - but two hours vanished. It seems that swinging around a very sharp bill hook focuses the mind, which in turn speeds up the passage of time - it proved to be very therapeutic and enjoyable!

Men at work.

Check out the blue sky!

Noah and I stopped for a coffee on the patio around 10.45am, and then went back to work until Alex and Donatella arrived at 11.30am. When they arrived, I left Noah to the branch stripping and joined them and Helen (who had been busy at her computer all morning) on the patio for a coffee and catch up.

It was great to catch up with them again and have a proper chat - while we drank coffee and ate Helen's home-made ginger biscuits, we discussed chickens, geese, cats, dogs, rabbits and planning regulations, until Alex and I eventually went to look at the wood pile (it's a guy thing), which then led to looking at my new chainsaw, which in turn led to looking at my new axe in the man cave, and that led to bicycle talk as Alex is considering a purchase of one for the first time since he was 15. I'm hoping I can help Alex make the right decision about what sort of bike to buy so that he can get out and enjoy our valley on two wheels in the not too distant future - it's such a fantastic way to get out and see the beautiful scenery and the feeling of riding along the quiet roads is second to none.

Before I realised it, the time had marched on to gone 1pm, so I went to tell Noah to down tools for lunch as he had been busily processing the wood all this time. With sweat dripping from his nose, he seemed more than a little relieved to be able to stop for a break and joined us on the terrace as Alex and Donatella made to leave.

Shortly afterwards, Helen, Noah and I were sitting down to a lunch of celery and celeriac soup (made by Helen while I was out with Lee and Rob on Sunday) some cheese and salami (courtesy of Allison and Q) and some bread.

After lunch, we all had a walk around, trying to work out a solution or a suitable location for the geese to move to. In front of the house seems like non-starter, while the far side of the terraces would definitely be out of view, but a huge effort. Noah suggested trying to cut further up into the terraces to make a clearing behind some of the vegetation - but that also seems like a monumental effort. His idea may work to the left of the current goose area though, so we've decided to make a start clearing some space in the next few days to see how feasible it is.

After that, Helen went back to the office and Noah and I went back to wood prep. Having cleaned up all but the smaller bits, we made a start on cutting the clean stuff into fire-length pieces. It was surprising how much we'd cleaned this morning, as the pile never seemed to get any smaller no matter how much we cut, but after an hour and a half we had made a fair dent and a sizeable pile of kindling. When the Pietrabuona church clock chimed 3.30pm, it was time to stop work (for Noah at least - we are asking him to do six hours of work per day).


Gotta love those bill hooks.

I planned to head down to Frateschi's, the builders' merchant, to try and acquire some drainage channels for the driveway and Noah said he'd like to go with me - keen to see and hear some real Italian as prior to arriving here, he'd only spent a few days in Rome, where everything was done in English.

Noah's wish was granted as I managed to acquire the channels while at the same time introducing myself to Flo in the yard and explaining to him where I lived. I also talked about the weather with Paolo, had an explanation of different axes from Paolo (one of which I bought) and then talked about the composition of pre-bagged concrete, all of which took us over half an hour. Noah picked up the main jist of what was going on and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the language immersion - and I suddenly realised how much better my Italian had got since arriving. To clarify, parts of these conversations were unclear to me, and the flow of it all was by no means of a fluent nature, but I I did manage to bumble through it without too much difficulty and felt like I understood most of what was being said.

With the car loaded up with drainage channels and other assorted bits and pieces we headed back to the house for a quick turnaround - Helen was due to go into Pescia for her first 'real' Italian lesson at 5.30pm, so we needed to head back out again. Noah seemed interested in coming along for the ride and having a quick look at the town, so we all piled into the car and dropped a slightly nervous/apprehensive Helen off at Rita's apartment block.

Noah and I then went to the power tools shop - but after standing waiting in the queue for 10 minutes, I decided to leave it, so we wandered around town, poked our noses into the San Michele church, had a look at the palazzo at the top of the main square, then ducked into a bar for a small beer each - which turned into two.

Running a little late, we headed back to the car and rushed back to wait outside Rita's apartment block for Helen to come out. We waited. And waited. In the end, I decided enough was enough and went to ring on Rita's door to see what had happened to Helen. She came out looking apologetic - without a watch on or a clock visible, she hadn't realised the time (although had had an inkling that things were running late). Somewhat alarmingly, she got in the car and announced that Italian is far more difficult and complicated than she had realised and starting trying to tell us about the existence of the indicative, subjunctive, conditional and imperative forms of words. Woah! Just as I was beginning to think I was getting somewhere with the language!!

Despite having discovered that Italian grammar is way more complicated than she thought, and feeling very daunted by that prospect, Helen had enjoyed her lesson with Rita and picked up a few useful bits and pieces and I think she is looking forward to more lessons.

As soon as we got home, Helen started preparations for a mushroom risotto while I attempted to light the fire in the living room - the temperature by this time had plummeted and it felt decidedly chilly in the house. Noah came up to join us about half an hour later, and the three of us enjoyed a delicious mushroom risotto, a bottle of wine good conversation.

Day 1 of HelpXer help had been a resounding success - let's hope for more of the same going forward! 

Monday 27 October 2014

Another week upon us and another change in guests

After the wine last night, it was a slower start for everyone this morning except for Helen, who got up at 6.20am to exercise only to find that her back was in too much pain to do so - she thinks the moving of piles of acacia yesterday afternoon with the pitchfork must have worsened an already slightly sore back, so she had no other choice but to let the geese out then make an early start to work today.

I went down to the apartment at 9am to find the boys still in bed. Rob was awake reading the news while Lee was only semi-conscious. My brief visit was enough to rouse them both though, and after showers they joined me on the patio for breakfast in the gradually warming morning sun.

Al fresco breakfast at THIS time of year!?

After breakfast, the boys decided to get off and get the last 350km of their journey to Rome done, ready to start rigging for the event later this afternoon, so after a quick five-point turn in the van, they set off south for what should have been a four-hour drive. It had been a very brief visit indeed, but there is talk of them returning in the spring on a working visit in exchange for board and lodgings - which would be great, so we'll make sure we remind them of that closer to the time and look forward to seeing them both for a longer visit.

Plenty of room for a five-point turn.

Pointing Rome-wards now.

After the boys had departed I made a start on a very late blog post from the previous day, only to be interrupted about 15 minutes later by a knock at the door. Helen and I looked at each other and assumed Rob and Lee must have forgotten something - but when I got up and looked through the glass in the door it wasn't their faces I saw but Andrea the geometra with his assistant! This took me aback,  as we hadn't been expecting them, but it wasn't a problem - they had come to measure the house in order to make a precise calculation of 20% of its footprint so that he can draw and submit plans for the small extension we're hoping to build next year.

While they toured around the house measuring, I did the turnaround in the apartment - today we were expecting the arrival of Noah, our first 'HelpXer', who will be spending the next 12 days in the apartment. Fortunately, it was really only a linen swap that was needed, as very little mess had been made by Lee and Rob's brief visit.

As I finished in the apartment and shut the door, Andrea was finishing his measurements and wanted to talk to me. He said that he would draw up the plans soon and email them to us, and then once we were happy, he would submit them immediately to the authorities in Florence. After that, we could go to see Andrea to talk over the smaller details like door and window positions.

He then said that at some point a man from Florence would need to visit to see the house with the plans, but that before that there were three important things that needed addressing beforehand so that Mr Florence wouldn't see them. First was the new canopy that I have put up over the door to the apartment to protect both the door and the apartment floor from excessive rainwater - which would need to be taken down. Andrea said that after Mr Florence had been, I could put it back up again but it mustn't be here for his visit (Andrea will call to let me know exactly when the visit will be so that I can remove it). It seems a little silly for small plastic canopy, but this is Italy and another taste of the country's famous bureaucracy - besides, it's only four bolts and will take no time at all.

The second thing that needs addressing is a little less straightforward: the man cave and attached wood shed 'aren't regulation'. I wasn't quite clear what that meant initially, but I definitely understood that they MUST be dismantled for the visit - but that they too could be re-constructed after the visit. Andrea apologized, but I knew it wasn't his fault. It seems that what we had been told by the previous owners was not true - we had been told that the man cave/wood shed were allowed to be here, but that they were just a little bigger than they were meant to be - seems that that was a bit more than sugar coating it! This came as quite a blow, but it didn't faze me too much - the re-building of these structures was already on our to-do list anyway (to make the storage more secure), so I just saw it as a bringing the job forward and changing priorities. The job won't be pleasant to live through, as most of the contents of the two storage sheds will have to live inside the house until they can be reconstructed (which might be some time after they've been taken down). If there is a silver lining to cloud number two, it's that we found this out now and not after building a new man cave and wood shed - that would have been VERY hard to swallow.

Cloud number 3, the hardest to swallow by some way, was that the goose house needed planning permission too!! So it also CANNOT be there for the visit from Mr Florence. It seems ridiculous that on a farm you cannot have a structure that is effectively a small shed without planning permission. Anyway, there was no point arguing - Andrea is most definitely on our side, and we feel that if there was a fight to win he'd do it on our behalf, so it seems that we have no choice but to move the goose house. This has several ramifications: the only suitable place to 'hide' it is further around the terraces amongst the olive trees where it can't be seen from the house. This will mean a lot more terrace clearing, the dismantling and re-building of the house, erecting of yet more fencing and the moving of the geese (and once they are around at that side of the house they will no longer have visibility of comings and goings, so their guard-geese potential will be wasted - if they ever learn to honk, that is). At least we have the option I suppose, as I'm not sure what the alternative would be - not build the extension?

After dropping his ever increasing bombshells, Andrea and his assistant left us to our day. Helen and I had our lunch outside and talked things over. After lunch, we walked up the terraces to try to come up with a plan. The visit of Mr Florence could be as soon as December, so it looks like our ever-changing list of priorities has changed once again. We need to put some more thought into this little problem: do we leave the geese there permanently once moved, or move them (and their house) back again? If we leave them, do we get a dog to act as a guard dog instead? How big an area do we fence off? Big enough for chickens too, or do we put the chickens where the geese currently are? We might be due a delivery of our first chickens in the next few weeks! If we have chickens amongst the olive trees it will be impossible to cover the 'roof' of the area because of the olive trees, meaning an easier dinner for Mr Fox. Do we attempt free range poultry during the day and do away with the fencing? (Probably not based on how hard it is to get the geese in the house as it stands, never mind chickens!)

Time to ponder quickly ran out, as I needed to go and collect Noah from the station at 2.30pm so I hopped in the car, leaving Helen to do a little more office work. When I arrived at the station, I saw a tall young lad standing looking at his watch but no one else around. I thought I vaguely recognised him from his HelpX profile photo, but if it was him, he was early - I wound the window down and called him and the reply came with an American accent, it was indeed young Noah!

We put his bags into the car and drove home, where Helen introduced herself and the three of us sat and had coffee and some of Helen's home-made ginger biscuits. We chatted for an hour or so, telling Noah a bit more about us and our set-up here, and finding out a bit more about him, then had a walk up the terraces, discussed working arrangements and left him to relax in the apartment for a few hours before dinner. He seems very happy with the apartment - it must certainly be a step up from the hostel dorm he's been sharing with 9 other travellers in Rome for the last five days.

Noah seems a genuinely nice and polite guy and, having come from Colorado, spent a lot of time in the Seattle area and Alaska, has a love of mountains and the outdoors, so we think he'll settle straight in. I must say we're relieved as we've never invited a complete stranger into our home to stay before and with an agreed 12-day stay it's important to get along! He seems genuinely thrilled to be in Italy, it's his first time outside of the US and is keen to learn and experience new things before going back to college and his engineering degree.

We hope he'll enjoy his time here on our hillside, and that it'll be a productive couple of weeks for us all!


A slight stutter in blog posts this weekend - it's been somewhat frantic, so apologies if you've not been able to get your daily fix in your usual place at the usual time.

The clocks changing couldn't have come at a better time after the late night on Saturday - I think we all got to bed by 2a.m. after a good couple of hours catching up. Of course, geese and cats don't get on board with the whole clocks-going-back-an-hour thing, so Helen was up at 6.45am to feed the cats and release the geese. In fact, we were all awake before 9am, so we all gathered on the patio after the boys had had a good look around and climbed up the terraces, and we soaked up the warm morning sunshine with plenty of coffee, croissants and cereal while Lee and Rob enjoyed the view. When the boys arrived late last night, they could see little more than the orange street lights of the village below us and the faint outline of the ridge way above it, so we were pleased that this morning they were greeted with a clear blue sky and the view from our house in its full splendour.

After breakfast, I decided that I should make the short trip into Lucca with Lee and Rob to give them a little taster of the city before coming home to sit on the patio in the sun for a while. Helen, on the other hand, had decided to stay at home and cook up some soups and biscuits in readiness for the coming week.

The three of us all enjoyed a sunny ride down the Lucca road with the car windows fully wound down while I fielded questions from Rob and Lee as to what was what, what was where, and what was that. It was all was going well until we came to a blockade in the road: a barrier and a couple of people directing traffic, sending us north towards the mountains. No big problem, I decided I would just make the next left turn and head west towards Lucca again. That didn't work though, as we soon came up against another barrier. After turning around and trying another road further up, we met yet another barrier and this time a load of runners and a sign for the Lucca Marathon! No matter how we tried we couldn't manage to make a turn westwards, so I decided to head to the Autostrada and get into Lucca that way. We went through two or three more diversions while attempting to do so, and were eventually dumped back onto the main road to Lucca again. We were now the right side of the closed roads though, and heading the right way - result! Or so we thought... Within half a kilometre, we were in a stationary queue of traffic again, and the cars driving the opposite way (effectively back towards Pescia) were all beeping their horns and flashing their headlights, clearly trying to warn us of something. After about 5 minutes of not moving, we finally decided to give up on trying to get into Lucca - after all, the city itself (if we ever got there) would in all likelihood be hosting the finish of the race, and therefore not only hard to get into but also too busy to enjoy.

Two-way traffic sharing one-and-a-bit lanes while runners used the rest.

Hmmmm, balloons, a fun run?

After managing an about turn, I decided to turn off the road and head for Montecarlo so that at least the boys could see a bit of something.

When we arrived at the pretty hilltop village the car parks were FULL - I'd never seen it so busy. It seemed as if something was happening here too, and for I while it looked rather like we were going to have to abandon this visit as well! I drove right through the village, out the other side and down the hill back towards Pescia - everywhere there were cars parked along the road sides. I eventually spotted somewhere we could abandon the bus though, so a short uphill walk later, we were entering the town through the Porta Fiorentina. The dialogue at that point went something like "WOW!" and "Oh wow!". It's safe to say that Lee and Rob were both stunned by the beautiful little town, and rightly so!

We wandered the streets of Montecarlo, and took in the views from the different sides of the town. We realised that there was something happening in the church - we decided it must have been a funeral (hence the busy car parks), and it seemed that the church was so full that a couple of dozen of people were having to watch proceedings from outside on the steps. The little town was buzzing today, and everything was open - whenever Helen and I have visited before, there has always seemed to be a good proportion of the shops closed, but today nothing was closed. We decided that we should probably have a drink and a snack of some type on the terrace of the pizzeria, as it was the only place in the sunshine, so we parked ourselves at a table for a very enjoyable spot of lunch: a starter each and a pizza between the three of us sufficed, washed down with cold beer and wine.

Time for another DIY haircut I think!

Not a bad view from the terrace of the pizzeria.

The indoor area of the pizzeria had the same view, but without the sunshine.

Chilled and VERY refreshing!

Once the bill had been paid, we walked back up to La Buca - the little establishment we had sat in with Allison and Q last week. The boys wanted to buy some wine and maybe some ham or salami, and I knew this would be the perfect place. The shop is tiny inside, and the three of us pretty much filled the place. When I went in, the owner (who I now know to be Alessandro) recognised me from last week - we had a brief 'how are you?' exchange while Lee and Rob started fumbling around in the fridge full of cheese and meat. Mara (who I assume is Alessandro's wife, as the carrier bag we left with bore their names in such a way as to suggest a relationship that was more than just business) then arrived and asked if we wanted to try some of the produce and started slicing meat before we really had time to reply. We sampled the cured peppered pork fillet first, followed by the bresaolini (beef cured in red wine), then the 24-month-old prosciutto, followed by the 48-month-old prosciutto, oh and then the 26-month-old parmesan! It was a feeding frenzy, and by now they were both slicing away at things and we could barely eat it all quickly enough! It was all very tasty though, and of the highest quality - the difference between this and the stuff you get in the supermarkets is staggering. The boys, Rob in particular, were getting increasingly nervous as this seemingly overly generous tasting session progressed, and wanted to buy something quickly so as to stop the tasting process feeling like the more we tasted the more they felt they had to spend. I'm fairly certain that there is some element of marketing/blackmail in the generosity of their offerings, but nowhere near as much as us Brits would think - last week, after all, Alessandro seemed to give us meat and bread to accompany our wine free of charge. Anyway, the tasting came to a natural conclusion after the cheese, and then while Mara and Alesandro quized me about where I lived and what work both Helen and I do, the guys went back to the fridge to choose some cheese. Pecorino with truffle won through in the end, and they also bought 100g of the peppered pork, bresaolini AND the 24-month-old ham, plus 4 bottles of wine!

They must be married, surely?

After a thoroughly enjoyable trip, we headed back to the house to get the last couple of hours of sun on the patio, with the clocks changing we are now losing it behind the hill opposite at about 4.40pm. We got home to find that Helen had cooked a batch of ginger biscuits, a celery and celeriac soup for the freezer, and a batch of pumpkin soup was on the go. While the boys and I set ourselves up at the table on the guest patio, Helen traipsed up the terraces to try to do a bit of tidying - this time the back breaking and horribly frustrating job of raking down the piles and piles of cut acacia. We've decided that before we go any further with the lopping and chopping and pushing on up the hill, we need to bring all of the clippings, branches, trunks and so on down to the bottom in order to keep some level of tidiness and control. Moving a mountain of cut acacia trees from one terrace to another is easier said than done though - either the pitch fork slides through the branches and picks up nothing at all or it picks up the entire pile, which is all tangled up and impossible to lift. Throw in some brambles and vines and once you think you have a manageable 'forkful' and pull it away to throw down on the next terrace, you realise it's firmly attached (via the vine/bramble) to the entire rest of the pile. After an hour and a half of it, Helen had added several more cuts and scratches to her collection and given her back and arms a thorough (and probably not entirely healthy - certainly where the back is concerned) workout.

Meanwhile, the boys and I sat and chatted some more, then Lee and Rob decided to watch the Manchester United vs Chelsea game on Lee's laptop while we all started on the wine they had bought. Needless to say, one bottle turned into two or three or more, and when we went indoors to escape the chilly evening air, we started on the meats and cheese they had bought too. The idea of going out for a restaurant meal was now out of the window so I cut some fresh bread to accompany the protein and we ended up watching three hours of stand-up comedy with many belly laughs. Helen dropped out after Michael McIntyre though, as Frankie Boyle isn't her cup of tea at all. She went to bed and attempted to get to sleep to the sounds of Frankie Boyle and our belly laughs shaking the house.

After Frankie had finished his last gag, we went outside for a quick look through the telescope which was waiting for us but as the moon had now set and no planets were in view it didn't last long and we all retired to bed before midnight, having had a little too much wine but a thoroughly good time.

Sunday 26 October 2014

Pushing on up the hill

Last night's meal at Da Sandrino in Sorana was lovely. Thankfully, the hard of hearing old lady Stuart had spoken to on the phone did seem to have made sense of his coldy Italian, and there was a table ready and waiting for us when we arrived. We were almost the only people in the restaurant when we walked in - at 7.50pm. We thought that a little odd, but put it down to Friday night maybe not being the same big night out over here as it is in the UK. Not more than 20 minutes later, though, the place was buzzing! We were glad we had called ahead to reserve a table.

We shared a big platter of antipasti to start with, then branched out into different main courses: Allison had steak with mushrooms, Stuart had pork, I had duck, and Q had wild boar. All the food was cooked to perfection and absolutely delicious. Of course, we had to try the desserts - ricotta and pear tart for Stuart, while Allison and I each had a mascarpone and pine nut tart. Of course, we had to follow that with coffee. And, of course, we had to follow that with limoncello. We left the restaurant feeling very satisfied - such a lovely treat, thank you Allison and Q!

We drove home, then had a couple more limoncellos to finish the night off. What a lovely evening.

This morning, I got up at 7.30am to go and let the geese out, feed the cats and do some washing up. It was another hour or so before I head Stuart stirring upstairs - the poor thing didn't sound good though, and all I could hear was coughing and spluttering and nose blowing. This cold seems to have knocked him about a bit.

As Allison had requested another morning on the terraces today, and Q was going to go out for another cycle ride, I decided to make a start. I had planned to get the strimmer out this morning and have a go at the terraces we'd started to clear yesterday. I traipsed up to the top terrace with the backpack strimmer, started it up, and started attacking the terraces. After a few minutes I started to get frustrated - my hands were aching from holding it, my visor kept steaming up every time I breathed, and I seemed to be making very little impact on the state of the terrace.

Allison soon joined me, which was enough excuse to turn the strimmer off to say good morning to her, and at that point I decided to throw the strimmer towel in and join Allison with more acacia lopping instead.

Once Q had sorted the bike out and set off on his way, Stuart came out to join Allison and me on the terraces and took over where I had left off with the strimmer, while Allison and I continued with the lopping and sawing of branches and trees, the piling up of the cut bits, and the collecting of our own cuts and scratches.

A couple of solid hours' work later, it was lunchtime. Since we needed to buy supplies for the coming week, Stuart headed off to Esselunga to take advantage of the lunchtime lull in the shop, while I threw together some leftovers for lunch for Allison, Q (who had just arrived back from his cycle ride - having had two punctures and not having been able to complete the double loop he had planned) and me.

When we'd finished our lunch, Allison and I headed back up the terraces, while Q headed off to look at the suspect tyre that had punctured, before heading out again for another attempt, this time hopefully puncture free!

Allison and I managed to get as far as the 10th terrace above the house today - previously unchartered territory! It's exciting to be pushing the bramble and acacia back further and further up the hill and uncovering more and more terrace. The problem with cutting acacia though (other than the vicious scratches, cuts and puncture wounds) is that the enormous volume of branches that you produce makes the terraces look very messy and, from a distance, it's hard to see just how much of an impact you've had. Once we've cleared the piles of tree and branches and given the newly uncovered terraces a strim it will look fantastic, though.

Terrace no. 10 still in sunshine at the end of the day - maybe we need to put a table and chairs up there for summer evenings!

Stuart made it home just after 3pm, so I helped him unpack the shopping then did a bit of tidying. Allison had also downed her terrace-clearing tools, to divert her attention to packing suitcases and preparing for departure.

Come 4pm, we had a lovely visit from Sue and Erik. Allison had been keen to meet Sue, and although the rest of the week had been too busy, we managed to fit in a quick visit for a coffee this afternoon. Erik helped Stuart refill the geese's pool, while Allison, Sue and I had a good chat.

All too soon, it was time for Sue and Erik to leave, and for Allison and Q to finish their packing and tidying. We seem to have been blessed with perfect guests on every occasion so far, and Allison and Q were no exception, leaving the apartment spotless.

As it neared 6pm, Stuart and I decided it was time to put the geese to bed so that we could set off for the airport at 6.15pm. The geese, however, were not having any of it and led us a merry dance. They had played hard to get last night as well, and we suspect that they don't approve of their lovely new sawdust floor covering - perhaps they don't like the smell of woodshavings.

First, they were on the top terrace, so needed shepherding down to the 'goose house terrace'. We managed, eventually, to get them down, but they refused point blank to use the lovely ramp that Stuart had lovingly made for them, and instead slipped, flapped, slid and stumbled their way down the bank. Once safely on the right level, we shepherded them closer to their house. As they neared the open door though, they turned, and fled back up to their top terrace again. This pattern repeated itself over, and over and over, until we started to worry that Allison and Q might actually miss their flight. Both cats came up to watch the shenanigans, miaowing at us from the perimeter fence as if giving us direction, and Florence even jumped over the fence to join in. She certainly seemed interested enough in getting into the goose house (perhaps she was trying to show them what was required), but that wasn't the plan! I scooped her up just before she made it fully into the sawdusted area and turned my attentions back to the geese. We were one attempt away from throwing the towel in and leaving the geese to fend for themselves for the night, when finally they stumbled their way (very reluctantly) into the house. Hallelujah!!

Geese secured, we quickly got the cats indoors and all piled into the car to set off for the airport only slightly later than originally planned. The traffic was pretty clear though, and we made it to Pisa in under an hour. We said our farewells to Allison and Q - we have thoroughly enjoyed having them here with us this week, they are great company and have put in some truly hard graft as well. We were sad to see them leave and look forward to having them back again.

After the hour's drive back home, it was time to get ready for our next set of guests - by the time we reach mid-November, we will have had people staying in the apartment for a month non-stop!

Our guests for the next two nights are Stuart's brother Lee and his colleague Rob who are en route to Rome where they will be working next week. Instead of doing the long drive from Birmingham to Rome over a couple of days, they decided to cram 1000+ miles of driving into one day and get as far as ours today, then have tomorrow off, and continue on to Rome on Monday.

We put new bed linens on in the apartment, then headed back upstairs to cook some dinner then relax with a glass of wine and some TV to await Lee and Rob's arrival. They finally made it here very shortly after 11pm - having been up and at it since 5am this morning. Hats off to them for coping with that mammoth drive. Not only that, but they came bearing gifts for us - Christmas gifts from the family, plus bottles and bottles of Robinsons squash. That'll should me through for another couple of months!

After a quick tour of the house, the boys settled down with some very well deserved wine and some bread, cheese and meats. As I write this, at quarter to one in the morning, they seem remarkably awake for people who have spent the entire day driving - nevertheless, I imagine they will sleep well tonight!

Friday 24 October 2014

We blinked and the week disappeared...AGAIN!

We woke up to another fresh morning with clear skies today, and to the end of another week - time really does fly up here on our hill (altitude related maybe?).

After a fantastic evening last night, today was the last full day of Allison and Q's holiday with us - they told us they would like to spend it cycling (Q's request) and battling with the terraces (Allison's request, having had so much fun yesterday), so who were we to deny them their wishes on their last day?!

Helen made her exercise relatively short today as she knew what was in store for the rest of the day (and was already aching from yesterday's efforts on the terraces!), and I went down to where we've started accumulating firewood to make a start on rigging up a tarpaulin to keep the wood dry and to allow it to air-dry nice and quickly. We made some temporary arrangements last week with Helen's Mum and Dad's help - which has already gone a long way to drying what had been very wet wood when we we collected it last week - but as of next week, we should be making a proper start on cutting and splitting the wood to make it fire-ready, so we needed a more suitable space to store all of the wood in its various forms - seasoned, unseasoned, and split, ready for burning.

After rigging a line between the firs to take the rear of the tarpaulin, I hammered in the first of the steel fence posts to support the front. It was soon clear that two (one on each corner) would not be sufficient to hold the tarpaulin in a strong wind, so a shopping trip was in order.

Allison appeared from the apartment bright and early, and after a brief chat she went up to see Helen and make a start on the terraces while I made sure Q was happy with his itinerary for the day. After talking a look at a map of the valley, he decided he would cycle up to the top of the valley and then back around in a loop. I left him to make navigation notes, and set off in the car to do my shopping,

It was not a very exciting trip really: I filled the car with methane ready for the airport run tomorrow, went into Obi yet again to buy a couple more steel fence posts and a mouse-proof  bin in which to store the goose feed, then went to the wood yard in Pescia to attempt to buy some wood shavings or sawdust that we could use as litter in the goose house. The geese have very cleverly learned not to use their hay bedding as a toilet, and instead use the other half of the house (which currently is bare wooden flooring). However, it was becoming all too evident that if we didn't use some form of protection, the floor would start to rot and need replacing - I had been advised via my chicken/geese forum that sawdust makes a good, absorbent litter.

I had stored the word for sawdust 'segatura' on my phone, and successfully asked for a bag. I was taken over to the large pile of bagged sawdust and talked at in Italian. I had no idea what possible questions I could be asked when buying a bag of sawdust - surely sawdust is sawdust, is sawdust. Apparently not! I gathered the guy was asking me what I wanted it for, so I told him it was for animals. He nodded, and then again wanted to know something. I apologised for my poor Italian, he smiled and said not to worry, he repeated it, and all I could make out was that he was saying something about chestnut sawdust being good outside and in the rain. I told him it was for indoor use, for our geese, but I didn't know the word for litter so I had to resort to saying that it was for inside the goose house on the bathroom floor and mimed something that caused much hilarity when I later repeated the mime and recounted the story to Helen and Allison over lunch. Regardless, I got my point across, and got my two large sacks of wood dust for €3 each.

On the way home, I filled up the jerry cans as Helen had gone through a fair bit of fuel while fighting with the brambles and I had nothing left for the strimmer. That done, and after a quick stop in Amanda's alimentari for a couple of basics (I say 'basics': bread, milk and limoncello), I headed for home.

When I got home it was getting on for lunch time - a whole morning had gone just like that. The girls had been very industrious while I had been away though, and created another enormous pile of bramble and acacia while uncovering yet more terracing. It's very exciting to see the shape of the old olive grove slowly revealing itself to us, and it can actually be quite addictive work - especially in weather like today's, clear blue skies, 21-22 degrees and a gentle breeze.

I went indoors to make a quinoa salad for lunch - a nice change to salami and cheese. It was a slight variation on a staple meal of ours and enjoyed so much by our guests that they said we should put the recipe on the blog, so here it is:

For 4 people
400-500g of Quinoa
6-8 tomatoes
bunch of parsley
two small tins or one large of beans (red, borlotti or canellini)
Pumpkin seeds
Ricotta salad cheese or feta 300-400g
Extra virgin olive oil (of course) and salt and pepper, all to taste

  • Rinse the quinoa then add it to a pan with twice the volume of cold water (800-1000ml) and bring to the boil.
  • Simmer gently until all the water has been absorbed and put into a large bowl to cool and mix in the olive oil.
  • Wash and dice the tomatoes and add to the quinoa.
  • Dry fry/toast the pumpkin seeds in a frying pan until popping and golden and add these too.
  • Wash, chop and add the parsley.
  • Rinse and add the canned beans.
  • Dice and add the cheese.
  • Then season to taste and add more oil if needed.

We ate it accompanied with slices of fresh Tuscan bread (cooked in a wood fired oven), drizzled with oil and sprinkled with sea salt as well as some gorgonzola and mortadella from Allison's fridge downstairs.

Q returned from his bike ride just as we were starting lunch, having cycled 18.6 miles and climbed a total of 2,246 feet in the process. He seemed to enjoy it more than yesterday's ride and plans to do the same loop twice tomorrow morning! It will be a while before I'm capable of that kind of riding, but I won't be happy until I can.

After a leisurely lunch, it was back to work. Helen suggested that maybe Allison and Q would like to do something 'fun' or 'relaxing' instead this afternoon, but Allison was having none of it, so while Helen and Allison climbed up to terrace numbers 7 and 8 (yes, 8) to continue lopping down the acacia (and accumulating more scratches for their collections in the process), Q and I put our energies into cleaning out the goose house and putting the sawdust down, then finished erecting the tarpaulin covering over the wood pile before moving the logs around underneath it. I hope it will stand up to the winds we get around here, but until the firs have been cut down I don't want to erect anything more permanent, so it only needs to get us through a winter.

By this time it was four o'clock - the time we had all agreed to call it a day, but when I looked up the terraces I could still see acacia trees being felled and thrown around into piles. I went up to admire the views from our newly exposed terraces and take some snaps for posterity, then we all headed down to call it a day, shower, clean up, write a blog post, and Helen had to do a little work.

We had arranged to meet a little later for a pre-dinner drink as we are to be taken out for dinner tonight by our guests to Da Sandrino near Sorana - or at least that is the plan. I called the restaurant earlier to book a table and spoke to a very old lady who seemed slightly hard of hearing, and what with that, combined with my head being bunged up with cold and my sketchy Italian, who knows where we'll end up - we'll find out later!