Thursday 30 April 2015

Much more like it!

Today was forecast to be nice weather wise, and that was how it started, so after breakfast we left Helen at her desk in the office and headed into town. I dropped Mom and (auntie)Helen into Pescia, while John and I went on to Chiesina to look at the tractor I've been considering buying - John has plenty of experience with this kind of machinery so he offered to look it over for us. We arrived at the showroom, found Norberto, who grabbed the keys, and we played with the tractor for half an hour or so while picking Norberto's brains. It was good fun and the seal of approval from the knowledgeable uncle was given, so it looks like we might be the owners of a little red tractor soon.

After that, we popped into the wood yard to ask for a price for the life line system that Andrea has told us needs fitting to our roof. I took the email address of the guy in charge and promised to send him a plan so that he could look it over and give me a price, then we headed into the piazza to find Mom and Helen - which didn't take long as they were hanging over the wall from the clock tower waving at us as we crossed the river.

We met up and had coffee, ice cream and pieces of torta della nonna before heading to Amanda's to buy some lunch in the form of rosemary roasted potatoes, lasagna and escalopes in tomato and caper sauce. When we got home, Helen was just finishing a 2-hour-long conference call, after which she joined us on the patio for lunch.

After lunch, the holiday makers and I changed into warmer weather clothes and headed to Lucca for the afternoon, while Helen headed back to her desk.

I dragged everyone around the usual spots: the church of San Michele on the site of the old Roman forum; through one of the old medieval gates to see the medieval moat that runs around the city; Piazza Napoleon where they hold the summer music festival (where this year we'll be seeing Paolo Nutini); Piazza Amfiteatro, the old Roman amphitheatre that now has shops and houses built into the old arched walls; and a stroll around half of the wall before heading home. Of course we stopped a couple of times for liquid refreshments as well - it would have been rude not to.

By the time we got home at 6pm, Helen had finished work for the day and mowed the lawns so while the holiday makers rested their weary legs and lit the fire pit, Helen and I took Reggie out for a walk.

We had a lovely walk from the village of Sorana out towards the abandoned village of Lignana in a very pleasant, sunny warm evening before turning back and heading home to join the others on the patio for a glass of wine.

As the time headed towards 8pm I decided to start preparing dinner. John, who was intrigued by the prospect of artichokes on the menu, came up to help so that he could watch how to prepare them. I was very happy to pass on the knowledge given to me by my good friend Dave, and between us, John and I cooked the now famous artichoke & goats cheese gnocchi (thanks again to Dave) and ate it sitting on the guest patio thanks to the warmth of the very successful fire.

It wasn't long though before we all went our separate ways and retired to bed after what had been (for me and the holiday makers at least) a thoroughly enjoyable day. The plan for tomorrow was to be much less holiday-like, with strimming and car cleaning on the agenda.

Wednesday 29 April 2015

Two-day catch up

Monday was a bit of a washout. After all the lovely summery weather we've had here over the last few weeks, this week has turned a little cooler and damper - great for the plants, but not so good for the holiday makers. However, they all made the best of it by reading, watching movies and in the evening making a trip in to town where Helen and I left the three holiday makers to get into the holiday spirit in Bar Pulter while we got thoroughly drenched walking Reggie in the pouring rain before going to see Andrea to clarify the final points of the new plans before submission to the Comune and to Florence's superintendent. 

We joined the others in the bar for a pre-dinner drink before going home for a seafood festival, courtesy of uncle John who took charge in the kitchen. We started with a huge bowl of prawns cooked in loads of garlic. With paper towel and a finger bowl at the ready, the two Helens, Mom and I enthusiastically tucked in while John finished off cooking a seafood risotto with plenty more garlic - it was delicious and a real treat for us as we haven't eaten anything from the water for many months.

After washing it all down with a couple of glasses of wine we retired to bed hoping for improved weather the following day. 

Yesterday was indeed a brighter and drier to start the day and after breakfast we left Helen in the office and went walking around the land - mainly along the two donkey tracks and finally around to the old quarry before climbing the terraces. We followed all that with a cup of tea on the patio, much more like it!

By the time we'd drunk our tea it had already past 11am, so we all hopped into the car to head into Pescia. Helen and I needed to withdraw a heap of money in order to pay another bill to the comune - a second part to the fine that we thought we'd already paid and seen the back of. Once we'd finished in the bank, we met up with all the others for coffee in Franco's bar before heading home for lunch.

After lunch, John and I went to work down on the lower terraces for a couple of hours, and while John took a spade and a fork to only bed that is as yet unworked, I started planting out as much of the stuff from the cold frames as space allowed: runner bean, borlotti beans, some cucumbers, sunflowers and nasturtiums, then I thinned out the tomatoes, lettuce and carrot before calling it a day at 3pm.

Once again, Helen and I needed to go into town to visit Andrea this afternoon to sign the finished plans (for the pergola, poly tunnel, solar panels and new woodshed) and to give him the receipt from the bill we had just paid (with the money we withdrew from the bank in the morning), which he tells us is the 'final' bill from the Comune. Over these last couple of meetings, we seem all of a sudden to be getting an idea of what all this planning, administration and bureaucracy is going to have cost us - so far we've been travelling down this little part of the journey completely blind with no idea what the costs were going to be: Andrea's, the geologist's, the architect's, the various council taxes/costs (of which there were four), and we now also know that, by law, we need to have a larger roof window fitted. The window must be large enough for a person to fit comfortably through (75x70cm minimum) and we have to have a life line system installed for the solar panel fitter/maintenance. The news that we would have to enlarge the window was a bit of a blow, but as it leaks quite badly in the rain and is not fixed into the roof well, if at all, I had half been expecting to replace it anyway - although not for one that needs a bigger hole in the roof! The life line system was a complete bombshell, but understandable, and I'm sure the cost of it will be much less than having the house scaffolded for access and maintenance.

After leaving Andrea, Helen and I gave Reggie a quick walk up and down the river before dropping Helen into the square to meet Sue so that they could walk to Rita's for their Italian lesson while I went home to drop off Reggie and collect Mom, Helen and John to head back into town for 6.30pm where we'd all planned to converge in Bar Pulter, with Helen and Sue joining us from their Italian lesson and Chris and the boys also coming along. Fortunately it was quiet when we arrived so we grabbed the largest table and the nine of us squeezed around it and had a lovely couple of hours over some drinks while eating plate after plate of the free nibbles that Alessandra foisted upon us: pizza bites, ham sandwiches, crisps, stuffed peppers and salted flat bread with dips.

Before we knew it we'd talked Italian life and tractors until almost nine o'clock so we parted company and left the Phillips family walking home in the rain while we drove up the valley for a late dinner.

This time, Mom took charge of the meal, rustling up a Chinese-style chicken curry with rice and chips. It's been a very long time indeed since Helen and I have eaten Chinese food (a number of years I would guess), and it was very enjoyable.

The late dinner meant it was quickly past 11pm, so we all headed off to bed hoping for an even better day of weather. As I write I can see signs of sunshine coming in through the door so I think Lucca beckons today.

Monday 27 April 2015

Montecarlo of course!

We woke to a dry and mild morning yesterday, which meant breakfast on the patio for the second time this year - we're looking forward to much more of that as the year goes into the warmer months.

After a leisurely breakfast all round, we all got in the car and headed up through Vellano and beyond to the quarry track for a stretch of the legs. We made it a bit further than we normally would and crested looking onto unfamiliar hills. The haziness didn't help us when trying to get our bearings but we think we were looking south eastwards in the direction of Montecatini (not that we could see it, it was hidden behind densely wooded hills). That seemed like a good point to turn back and so we headed back down the track.

It wasn't long before Reggie, who was bounding along a little way ahead of the rest of us came to an abrupt stop and starting barking. We couldn't see around the corner, but guessed that he must have been barking at a person. We soon caught him up just as he came running back past us chasing another small dog, the small dog that belongs to Franco, the nephew of Antonio who sold us the Stihl equipment, and who we first met almost a year ago at the drumming evening in Macchino. It's a very small world around here sometimes! Franco was in the process of grinding his was up the track on his mountain bike and hopped off to say hello.

After a brief chat (in which I quickly exhausted my small talk Italian), we parted company and went back to the car to drop Reggie home for a spell in his crate with a juicy ham bone while we went to show John and Helen the small, but perfectly formed Montecarlo.

After parking on the best slope we could find (in case the car decided not to start later), we ambled slowly into the village and along the main street until we got to the small square where we admired the views westwards before making a beeline for La Terrazza. We're slowly becoming as close to regulars in this restaurant as we're likely to be anywhere - Matteo, who does the serving, certainly knows us now and is always happy to see us.

So, while Reggie gnawed his way through a large prosciutto bone at home, we sat down to a lovely lunch of mixed antipasti followed by pizzas for the girls and amazing pork chops with white beans for the boys. John claimed it was the best pork chop he'd ever eaten, and I can't remember the last time I ate one as good either (it was so good the bone demanded to be picked up with fingers for some gnawing of our own).

After a strong coffee each to try and counter the effects of the wine/beer, we headed out for a stroll around the village in the sun before clambering back into the car to head home.

While John headed straight for the sofa in the apartment for an Italian-style power nap, the rest of us sat on the patio with a tea before all going to amuse ourselves in various ways. I messed with the electric fence, fitting new clamps to join the ropes in the hope that this was the cause of the low voltage we've been getting from it; Helen soiled up the potatoes and weeded amongst the veg while being followed around by Lucca (which wound Reggie up no end, watching his mum from the other side of the fence play with a cat); Mom and (auntie)Helen busied themselves back at the house mopping floors, sweeping the patio and weeding; and before long, John  joined me to work on the fence. It wasn't long before rain stopped play though, so we all made a dash back to the house.

Fortunately it was only a short, sharp shower, and I soon found myself helping John who was now tinkering with the old generator and cultivator to see if he could get either to run while Helen weeded around the apartment and Mom and Helen (aunt - these posts could get confusing) chatted with tea and watched us fiddled with machinery. We gave up with the generator - John, who is something of an expert at machines and engineering, said it will definitely get going but probably needs a diesel mechanic to strip and clean a bit of the engine to remove the old diesel (which must be going on for seven years old).

We then turned our attention to playing around with the cultivator for a good hour, by the end of which we had started the old Vickers engine a number of times, but it wouldn't run for very long as there seems to be some problem with the fuel not being sucked through from the tank, so once the fuel we put into the plug port had burned off the engine stopped. It's great to find that the engine works though, and it seems we could soon have a working cultivator for ferrying wood up and down the driveway, which would be great!

After washing the diesel and oil from our hands we joined Mom and the two Helens and on the guest patio with a bottle of prosecco. As the temperature started to cool, I brought the fire pit down and got a good fire started which kept us all comfortably warm into the evening. In fact, we were so settled and comfortable outside that we cancelled the dinner we'd planned to cook and instead brought down some cheese, meat, bread and bean dip and snacked our way through towards dark when the rain made enough of a return to send us indoors for an hour before retiring to bed. A thoroughly enjoyable Sunday!

Sunday 26 April 2015

More guests

The arrival of another set of guests has once again put a spanner in the works with the blogging schedule - sorry about that!

We spent most of Friday working in the office and in the apartment - Stuart getting the plasterboarding and shelving in the apartment to such a state that it now only needs a couple of coats of paint. While it clearly looks unfinished at the moment, you can tell that it is going to look really, really smart when it it all finished - and should hopefully sort out the damp wall problem once and for all (at least for a good while).

Stuart also took a trip out to Chiesina to talk tractors with his contact Nicola, and came back armed with much more detailed information about the second-hand tractor he has seen on sale there, and he joined me in the office in the afternoon sorting through piles of paperwork.

At the end of the day we decided at the last minute to ditch our plans of going supermarket shopping in favour of spending an hour relaxing in the sunshine on the patio. We knew it was going to be a busy week ahead so decided to savour the sunshine and put off the chores until the morning.

We duly both got up at 7am yesterday and, after seeing to the animals, we were on the road by 7.45 and in Esselunga by 8am. In a new record, we were heading back out of town by 8.40am! This was inevitably helped by the fact that we couldn't do 'the double' yesterday as Lidl was closed. Yesterday (25th April) was Liberation Day in Italy - the anniversary of the end of Nazi occupation - which is a national holiday. Unlike in the UK, where our bank holidays are always shifted to the closest Monday possible (with the exception of Easter Friday and Christmas/Boxing day), in Italy the holidays fall on the date, no matter what day of the week it is (which kind of makes more sense, although it's a bit rubbish if it falls on a Sunday!). Anyway, we'd checked the night before to make sure that Esselunga would be open, so after our dash around the shop, we left with the car laden with enough shopping for five people for the week.

We decided to make a quick stop at San Lorenzo to give Reggie a mini-walk. He'd missed out on a walk again yesterday and we knew he wouldn't be able to have a proper walk until the afternoon as we had airport pick-up duties in the middle of the day.

The three of us therefore did part of what we have now coined the 'reverse San Lorenzo' walk - heading away from the hotel and up the quiet road that climbs the hillside above Pietrabuona.

We came across a group of cats sitting around - about 5 of them when we first approached. Reggie, of course, wanted to run over to them and chase them, but he was utterly baffled by the fact that these cats simply sat where they were and stared at him. They didn't take fright and run off. This seemed to unnerve Reggie and his hackles went up and he gave them a good bark, pulling on his lead in desperation to go and make them scatter. They simply stood (or sat) their ground though.

After a short walk we continued on up the valley to the house where we had a bowl of cereal for breakfast on the patio before beginning the mammoth clean-a-thon. Stuart took the apartment while I took the house and between us we spent until lunchtime cleaning.

After a quick bite to eat for lunch, Stuart dashed off to the airport while I carried on finishing off the cleaning. When I'd done that, I decided to give the terraces a quick strim. Nothing by Stuart's standards, but just enough to get the long grass down on the path leading to goose island.

Not long after that, Reggie and I heard a car draw up, heralding the arrival of our guests: Stuart's Mum (Sheila), aunt (Helen) and uncle (John). Reggie gave them his usual barky welcome reception, but seemed to calm down quite quickly. We wondered whether the fact that they arrived with Stuart made him feel more at ease with their presence. Who knows, but we were glad that he seemed to accept them relatively easily.

First job for our guests then: to sit on the patio and drink tea/beer/wine, nibble on bread, cheese and meat and have a good catch up while looking at our beautiful view!

We sat on the patio for an hour or two before all going off to change shoes and take Reggie out for his promised walk. We decided to drive up to Stiappa where we did the walk to the little old mill and back.

Reggie, of course, had a lovely time. The poor boy got a thorn in his paw at one point, but while I held him still, Stuart was able to pull it out and he ran off without so much as a thank you! On the return leg of the walk Reggie found a new game - hurtling through mud at the speed of light, then turning and hurtling back through it the other way. He seemed to think it was brilliant fun and must have thought it hilarious that in the process he managed to splash mud over all of our shoes and trousers. He was quick literally a mucky pup by the end of it:

After the walk, we headed into Pescia to show Helen and John our little town and reacquaint Sheila with Bar Poulter and Aperol spritz! We sat outside Bar Poulter for a quick round of drinks before heading back to the house to cook up some dinner, open some wine and spend an enjoyable evening eating, drinking and catching up.

Thursday 23 April 2015

A much better day!

After something of a disaster yesterday, this morning I woke full of aches but with a plan. My plan was to dust off the mountain bike, head up to Alex and Donatella's to retrieve my phone (which I'd accidentally left in their car when Alex kindly rescued me and dropped me off last night), then head over to the car dealer to throw the keys at them and give them the address of where they needed to collect the car from, then cycle to Chiesina to see Nicola who is selling a used tractor that we're very interested in, then grab some pancetta from Esselunga and cycle home to do what little work I could in the apartment before the day was out...EASY.

It was a daunting challenge ahead of me, but nevertheless I was quite looking forward to a day out on my bike so after breakfast I changed into some suitable attire (baggy shorts, wicking t-shirt and merrel shoes) and was gathering my stuff together (list of car-related words in Italian, list of questions for Nicola and other detritus) when Helen appeared to say that Sue was on the phone. She wasn't on the phone of course but calling via Skype on the tablet PC, as the land line is still not working, the Skype phone is in a box having been returned to us by DHL before it had even left the country never mind got to Hong Kong, and the mobile phone was a couple of miles up the road.

Anyway, Sue thought I was mad for considering doing all of that by bike after two days strimming work and insisted she come up and ferry me around for the morning. As I stood there shouting into the tablet PC with its satellite delay, I could feel my limbs aching so I put up nothing even vaguely resembling a fight and 20 minutes later Reggie's barking heralded the arrival of Sue.

After a cup of tea on the patio and a discussion about what to do, I was quite rightly persuaded not to take the 'throw the keys at the car dealer and let them sort it out' option and instead to first try the car so that if it started (which we all expected it would), I could take it to them rather than wait for them to leave it stranded up in Lanciole for weeks first.

Sue and I therefore left Helen at her desk and headed off first to retrieve my phone from Alex and Donatella - once again thanking them for sparing me a night in the car yesterday - then we wound our way up the valley to Lanciole and the car - which of course started first time of asking.

I decided we should head back to the house to talk to Helen about what we should do about it now, and after another cup of tea we decided that before doing anything else I should email the dealer to list the faults, demand our ownership documents and ask for a car on loan while they fix ours. I was glad I did that, as a reply came straight back to me saying that nobody was available to look at it until next Wednesday (despite telling me last week that this week was OK to go see them! - they may yet get keys thrown at them!

So we decided to stick with the car for now and limp through until next Wednesday, making sure we always try and park on slopes in the meantime to allow a bump start if necessary. So, instead of the rest of the visits I had planned, I emailed Nicola about the tractor and then got to work in the apartment.

It wasn't long before lunch - for which we had a luxurious whole goose egg EACH today as we'd amassed three now. Mrs Goose, having slowed right up with her laying, has caught us out this week by still laying the odd egg, so we were able to treat ourselves to a whole egg each with the remainder of yesterday's Ligurian style potato salad.

After lunch it was back to the apartment for me, where I managed to get all of the remaining plasterboard on, the shelves cut and in place, and new sockets fitted in the wall. It still leaves me a lot to do to finish the job, but I'm much further ahead than I thought would be when I woke up this morning, so I was very pleased with progress and the effect it's had on the room. Tomorrow will be a day of filling and sanding the board joints and staining the last two shelves to match the ones Holly did for us last month.

By 4pm, Helen had appeared with Reggie and was ready to head out for a walk so I quickly locked up in the apartment and we headed out to the Vellano quarry track for a good walk.

After walking Reggie for an hour so that he could thoroughly burn up some energy, we headed out to Obi, if I had any chance of getting close to finished in the apartment (I'm kidding myself of course) I wanted to have the missing materials 'on site' rather than have to shop for them in the morning, so the three of us drove over to Montecatini. This also gave me the chance to buy some legs for our new outside fire pit.

After a quick trip around Obi, Helen and I hopped back into the car... which didn't start! We heard Reggie take a deep breath in and then exhale as if thoroughly exasperated, which pretty much summed things up for all of us and made us laugh before we both sunk back into despair, wondering how and when we would get home. I tried one more turn of the key before either of us uttered a word, and much to our enormous relief it sprang into life - now it was our turn to exhale deeply but with relief! This car will be a real test over the next few days but, in a way, I hope the problem persists more regularly so that the mechanic gets to see it, which can only help.

When we got home we sat on the patio in a cool and partly cloudy evening with a beer and some toasted pumpkin seeds. I couldn't help but get to work on putting the legs onto the washing machine drum fire pit, and five minutes later it was done and just begging to be tested. After another five minutes, we had a small (for the capacity of the drum) but toasty fire going - much warmer than I'd imagined it would be and I'm very pleased with it too, especially for the grand sum of around €20 for the legs and bolts.

The veg wouldn't wait any longer though and when the fire started to burn down it was time to head off down the terraces for watering duties. Having missed out on my daily visit to the veg only yesterday, I was amazed to see the tomatoes making an appearance as well as some of the squash, a couple more artichokes and the zucchini, as well as the nasturtiums having doubled in size along with the sunflowers - a real buzz of excitement, I can't imagine how it will feel to see this all in fruit!

Wednesday 22 April 2015

Grateful for friends

Today has been about feeling grateful for the friends we have made since moving here almost a year ago. And about that bl**dy car.

After breakfast this morning, Stuart set off on his way to Lanciole for his second day of strimming work in a row - having not managed to go up there last week, he needed to put in two days there this week to make up for it. I'd really rather he didn't have to go, especially as he was already tired from a full-on day up there yesterday, but the small amount of cash he earns helps towards all of our outgoings and since he'd missed last week, well, I didn't argue.

I settled down to my desk for an hour's work until Sue arrived for a coffee. We'd originally arranged to meet up yesterday afternoon, but she'd had to cancel so it was lovely to see her this morning. The two of us sat in the glorious sunshine, taking in the stunning view and having a really good catch up and putting the world to rights. While I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to make the move here and live in such a beautiful place, with the person (and animals) I love, and work gradually towards the self-sufficient life we hope for, life here isn't always 'paradise' and it can be very hard and isolating at times - living in a new country without a decent grasp of the language and without the comfort of daily contact with friends and acquaintances sometimes leaves me feeling very vulnerable and while it's always lovely to hear from friends and family back in the UK and to feel their support, you can't beat a face-to-face heart-to-heart. I therefore feel incredibly grateful for the friends we have made here, and the couple of hours I spent catching up with Sue this morning felt like balm for the soul. A good old natter left me feeling refreshed, revitalised and content.

Not a bad view for a morning coffee.

That feeling lasted until mid-afternoon, when Stuart called me from the mobile (via Skype on my tablet PC as neither landline nor Skype phone currently work - what was that I was saying about sometimes feeling isolated?) to say that he couldn't start the car. Great. He'd already been trying for an hour and a quarter when I spoke to him and, while the car will bump start easily when it's behaving this way (which has become increasingly frequent recently), it was parked in front of those 7ft gates up at Lanciole (the very same gates that he had to scale yesterday - and again today), with nowhere to go to.

The knowledge that Stuart was stuck, tired and fed up with a non-functioning car, was a worry. The increasing tension I felt wasn't helped by the fact that, today, Reggie seems to have had the wind up him, so to speak. He spent the whole of the afternoon (and evening) barking at the top of his voice - up at the terraces, down on the lawn, back up at the garden steps... A lack of having had a proper walk for a few days was, I'm sure, a contributing factor to this, but every time I tried to settle back to my computer, Reggie would wander in, sit down, and then all of a sudden jump up with the loudest bark he could muster. Not good for my concentration!!

In the end, I gave in and I did the washing up, made a start on preparing dinner, went and watered all of the veg and closed the cold frames, all the while keeping an ear out for the sound of tyres crunching on gravel, thinking 'he must be coming home soon'.

When it got to 6.30pm, and Stuart has been stuck with a car that wouldn't start for three hours, I was at my wits end, worrying whether he would have to spend the night in the car. It was at that point that another of our amazing friends came to our rescue. Having seen a message I'd posted on Facebook, Donatella asked whether Stuart needed picking up. Yes PLEASE! Between Dontella and me, the two of us orchestrated for Alex (who was out and about in their car at the time) to drive to Lanciole and rescue Stuart and his strimmer. I can't tell you what a relief it was to know that Stuart was being rescued and brought home, and once again, I felt incredibly grateful for the kindness, generosity and friendship we have been privileged to have bestowed on us since moving here.

Stuart eventually arrive home, delivered by Alex, a little before 8pm - roughly four hours later than planned. He looked shattered, fed up and in need of a beer. Thankfully, I was able to supply beer, food and - having switched the water heater on in anticipation - a warm shower (I'd say 'hot shower' but that doesn't really happen in our house). While I put the geese away and finished cooking dinner, he sank into the sofa looking pleased to be home, but with all the complications of the next few days weighing on his mind. The car is still stranded at Lanciole. Stuart's plan is to cycle to the car dealer in the morning, throw the keys at them (I suspect he wants to do that quite literally) and tell them to go and pick it up...

With lots to do over the next couple of days and guests arriving (and needing collecting) on Saturday, the end of our week will be nothing if not er... interesting (well, that's a polite way of putting it).

We remain eternally grateful for our friends, both here and in the UK.

Tuesday 21 April 2015

Strimming and a new washing machine (sort of)

Today, I headed of to Lanciole with the strimmer,leaving Helen working away in the office with Reggie for company. It is now fully into strimming season and the grass waits for no man, so with a full jerry can and strimmer I arrived at the house to find it locked up despite the key holder having told me that the guys laying the new parquet in the bedroom had the key. I was sure they did, but they weren't here yet - what to do? Wait until they arrive? Go home? Or climb the gates? Climb the gates it was! I found a place low enough on the fencing to drop my gear over and then scaled the 7ft gates finding my youth again!

7ft of gates to scale. I've still got it!

After the initial excitement it was strimming all day long - six hours of it and something of a shock to the system. The back pack straps chafed, my clothes were soaked with sweat, and I fell over twice. On the plus side, Helen's gaiters, which I'd borrowed, were a revelation: not a single blade of grass reached the inside of my boots today - they are definitely a keeper (if she'll let me!). I also enjoyed my not-quite-Heinz-but-it'll-do baked beans for my lunch.

Baked beans and a beautiful view.

On the way home, I spotted an old washing machine that had been abandoned at the bins near to Alex and Donatella's house. I'd spotted it on the drive up, but once absorbed in my strimming I'd completely forgotten about it. On passing it on the way back though, I just about had the presence of mind left to make a quick stop to investigate. I tried to remove the drum using the odd selection of tools at my disposal but couldn't, so there was nothing else for it but to remove one of the heavy in-built blocks of concrete and then throw the whole machine in the boot.

When I arrived home, Helen had just finished office work for the day and was heading out with the hedge trimmers. At the sight if the washing machine, she could muster no words but just pointed, open mouthed. I think that she was worried I'd lost my mind and started bringing rubbish to the house instead of disposing of it! I reminded her of my plan to use a washing machine drum as an outdoor fire pit, after which she headed off to do a little work while I fetched more tools. Half an hour later, I had the drum out - who'd be a white goods repair man!? Honestly!

Clapped out old washing machine?

No, it's a fire pit in the making...

With what was left of the washing machine loaded back into the car for the return trip to the bins in the morning, it was time to retire to the patio with a beer. The next step in the fire pit project (putting legs on the drum) will have to wait for another day. Shortly afterwards, I was joined by Helen, who had cut away an unsightly lump of greenery from near the guest patio that my strimmer wouldn't touch yesterday - it's all looking rather tidy down there now!

We've decided we've fallen into British mode all of a sudden now that spring is in full flow and the weather in the 20's, meaning that we are reluctant to go indoors of an evening while the sky is clear and the sun still warm, thinking that it might not return again for weeks. It will, of course, but old habits and mindsets are proving hard to shake. Needless to say, it was 7pm before we started watering the veg and plants and almost 7.30pm before we came indoors to start the blog and dinner. If last year is anything to go by and we continue to sit outside (especially if we have the additional warmth of a fire pit), the TV won't get much of a look in now until October!

Monday 20 April 2015

Everything is GROWING!

It's a game of catch-up at the moment and I feel like we're in second place, although not by a huge distance.

The warm weather and occasional splash of rain has meant that everything green has gone into overdrive over the last couple of weeks - the terraces that I strimmed just over two weeks ago now look like they've never been cut, and all around the previously beautifully clear lower terraces, little sprouting bramble bushes and bracken fronds are starting to reappear - not only that, but it's all starting to clamber up and onto the electric fence, threatening to render it useless by shorting it out. Helen spent an hour or so yesterday afternoon going around the edges of the fenced-off area, cutting down the immediate offenders, but today the day has come for me to get reacquainted with the backpack strimmer for a full day's strimming.

It was a late start today though, as we both had something of a rough night. Helen had needed headache relief at some point during the night and she also had to attend to a 5am call from Reggie who had needed an urgent toilet visit.

So while Helen skipped the 'gym' and instead went straight to work, I slept an hour longer and then had breakfast before heading outside with the strimmer. I spent the morning with the strimmer on my back, firstly clearing the parking area, then working my way down onto the lower terraces until I ran out of fuel at noon. At that point, we decided an early lunch was in order to help our already flagging energy levels so we sat down on the patio with bread, anchovies, grilled vegetables and cheese and enjoyed a crystal clear day under a cloudless sky with a gentle breeze.

After lunch it was back to our posts, and while Helen brought some of her editing out onto the patio, I went back to finish the strimming for the day, deciding that one more tank of fuel would be enough for me for one day, before turning my attention to the veg plants.

The fuel ran out around 3pm, so I headed down to the lower terraces to inspect the progress of growth - the difference here being that the growth is of the best kind, and a kind that won't need strimming, just eating.

The peas and broad beans are making great strides, so much so that I decided it was time to plant them out. That kept me busy for an hour as I needed to collect my pre-prepared pea sticks (courtesy of my mother and father-in-law when they visited last month) and work out exactly how to install them. It didn't turn out to be difficult though, and they went in and look rather splendid! I can almost visualise them dripping with fat pea pods and can't wait to taste the first batch.

With the peas in, I planted a row of broad beans behind them before watering them all in and turning my attention to thinning out the radish and beetroots, both of which are tiny but prolific. It was while thinning the radish that I noticed the carrots have just started to appear behind them. How exciting these little green seedlings are! I can't help but view them all with a mixture of excitement and disbelief - are we really actually growing our food!? It would appear so, and as long as the local wildlife doesn't have its way with it all (I'm including Reggie in that category), then we should be eating well this summer.

As well as the above, we think we have the beginnings of runner beans and chick peas and definitely sunflowers, Brussels sprouts, marigolds and nasturtiums all growing too.

After watering everything and closing the cold frames we sat on the patio with a beer and a bowl of toasted, salted squash seeds and enjoyed an evening so warm that, had we been in England, we would definitely have been smelling the familiar fragrance of sausages charring on a BBQ.

After retrieving the washing from the line and heading indoors we made a start on dinner: a quinoa salad - eating salads as an evening meal seems like a true sign that we're heading into summer, already winter is starting to feel like a long time ago.


Radishes and peas.

Peas and broad beans.


Brussels sprouts (I think).

Sprouts again.


It's a beetroot.

Maybe a chick pea.

Maybe a tiny asparagus spear.


Loads of onions.


Sunday 19 April 2015

Wellies and a willow basket

It's another overdue post today - there wasn't much to report on Friday, and yesterday, well, we'd had such a lovely afternoon at the local agricultural school that by the time we got home we were too tired (and too lazy) to write.

So, Friday was pretty uneventful. The weather had turned overnight, which meant that Stuart's plan of going up to Lanciole for a day's gardening work went out of the window and instead he spent the day in the apartment, continuing his work of plaster boarding around the bottom of the wall in the bedroom in readiness for plastering and painting next week. I, meanwhile, put in a solid day's work in front of the computer, and at the end of it all we took Reggie out for a soggy walk along the riverbank in Pescia before paying our weekly visits to the two supermarkets.

Saturday also started out damp and drizzly - after doing the rounds of the animals and the cold frames, I spent 40 minutes or so flinging kettlebells around in the damp before giving in and joining Stuart for a bowl of porridge for breakfast. The morning did bring a surprise of a more positive kind though: over the last week, we had come to the conclusion that Mrs Goose had stopped laying - but much to my amazement, when I half-heartedly opened up the nest-end of the goose house to have a cursory glance at what I knew would be an empty pile of straw, there, buried deep beneath the straw, was another egg, six days since she last laid!

After breakfast, we loaded Reggie and his lead into the car and headed out. Our first stop was Montecatini. Picking up a fresh tank of methane on the way, we arrived at the ipercoop shopping centre and headed straight to the cafĂ© for a quick cup of coffee - my long anticipated cappuccino ginseng, which, yes, was worth the wait! We then headed to Decathlon. Over the last couple of months, my lovely, pretty pair of wellies (a Christmas/birthday gift from my sister a few years back, which feature in the photographs above) have rather rapidly started to spring leaks. At first, I blamed the poor dog, thinking he had been chewing them, but then I realised that was a little unfair (if not inconceivable) as I realised how much walking around in long brambles I had been doing in them - those dastardly brambles!!! In fact, I think it was probably a combination of the brambles and simple old age and over-use (they were very rarely used in the UK, but since arriving here have barely been off my feet). Anyway, over the last few days the leaks in the boots have reached the point at which I have started to get wet feet - not an ideal situation. Therefore we were going to see what Decathlon had to offer in the wellington boot department.

After trying 5 or 6 pairs of wellies, ranging in price from €20 to €60, I finally decided on a pair and we left the shop with the wellies and two new pairs of summer shorts. The wellies are functional - which I admit is what you really need in a wellington boot - but I will miss pulling on my pretty flowery ones every time I traipse out into the wet garden.

By the time we'd finished all of our shopping, time was ticking on - it was 12.30pm and Reggie hadn't yet had his walk. We therefore decided to leave Obi for another day (there were a few bits and pieces Stuart needed for his work in the apartment) and instead headed back through Pescia and up the valley to the refuge track.

We had a nice walk along the refuge track - the rain had pretty much dried up by this time - but with our stomachs rumbling, we didn't hang about. By the time we got home it was nearing 2pm, so we sat down to lunch straight away.

Just after we had finished lunching, we had a call from Sue - we had been planning to meet up with Sue, Chris and the boys at 'Naturalitas', a fete/exhibition/fair at the local agricultural school in Pescia, and Sue was calling to make arrangements. After putting the phone down, we got ourselves ready, gave Reggie a bone to keep him occupied for the afternoon, and headed back into Pescia.

We parked the car at the end of Chris and Sue's road and walked to the school from there. By this time, not only had the rain dried up but it was also starting to feel quite warm (and I was beginning to wish I hadn't brought a coat and a jumper!).

The school - which the Phillips's eldest son, Henry, attends - is effectively what would be known as an upper school in the UK, taking children from the age of 14, but it specialises in teaching agriculture. The school occupies a very grand building set on the hillside on the outskirts of Pescia with the most stunning vistas. We marvelled at what is must be like to go to school every day (indeed it's 6 days a week here in Italy) somewhere so beautiful, but we're fairly sure that, as teenagers (and teenagers used to living with views like this all around them, at that), the kids probably don't appreciate it as much as we oldies do!

By the time we started wandering around, the sun had broken through at it turned out to be a really warm afternoon - never mind wishing I hadn't brought a coat, we wished we'd put shorts on! It wasn't long before we found the Phillipses and spent a lovely afternoon wandering slowly around looking at plants, chickens, hand-made soaps, wine produced from the grapes grown at the school (needless to say, we sampled a few glasses of that), bee hives, agricultural machinery, and so on.

We bumped into Donatella, Alex, David and Sarah on several occasions, who were also doing the rounds of the show, and Sue and I bumped into our Italian teacher, Rita, Stuart had a chat with his friend from the agricultural machinery shop in Chiesina, and everywhere there were happy, smiling faces. It was a lovely atmosphere, very relaxed and laid back and with lots of things for us to look at.

We stayed there until 7.30pm, winding the day up with a lovely hour sitting on the school steps with Chris and Sue doing what the four of us do best: sipping wine, chatting, enjoying each other's company and enjoying our surroundings.

When Stuart and I finally left to walk back to the car, it was with: a hand-woven willow and olive basket, two bottles of wine made by the school, three bars of hand-made soap, a hand-made spoon rest, a caper plant, and a couple of enormous lemons given to us by two of the school's charming older students (aged 17-18), who had overheard us talking and wanted to practise their English and tell us about their hopes to travel to England and experience agricultural work in Britain.

We hurried back home to reassure Reggie that we hadn't abandoned him forever, to put the geese away, feed all the animals, close the cold frames (no need to water today after the morning's rain) and cook a simple dinner of half a soft-boiled goose egg plus a soft boiled chicken egg each (the Pepsi challenge!). After an hour of watching TV, we retired to bed at the end of a lovely day.