Thursday 30 July 2015

Haven't we been here before?

As I sit down to write this update, Stuart is outside scratching his head pondering how and where to re-house piles and piles of items that were (originally) happily housed in the man cave. Haven't we been here before? Well, yes we have.

Today started out straightforward enough: I got up to do some exercise, Stuart also got up early, so that he would be ready to be picked up by David at 7.45am in order to go and do some strimming work on some land in Sorana.

I showered, had breakfast and settled down to check emails at my computer. When I got up from my desk to take my cereal bowl through to the kitchen, it was with horror that I realised that Reggie was playing with (chewing) a packet of sterilising tablets. Yes, the ones that say "do not ingest", "keep away from children", "harmful if swallowed", and so on. I snatched the packet from under his paws and stuck my fingers into his mouth to make sure he didn't have anything in there. I was relieved to find that he hadn't (YET) penetrated the foil packaging, although it seemed that he had been making serious inroads! The bewildered look on his face said "Arghh, why did you take that away? I was just getting to the good bit!", but I stood my ground and placed the packet of tablets firmly in a secure drawer safely out of the reach of little paws.

I guessed that poor Reggie was bored, and as he hadn't had a walk yesterday, I decided I would take him on a short walk before getting properly stuck into my work. The pair of us therefore headed up the road, but we hadn't got far before a vehicle pulled over and the man got out to introduce himself as our neighbour - the guy who lives in the house directly above us on the hill. Stuart had sent him an email a couple of days ago to make contact, and when he spotted Reggie and me on the road, the very friendly chap pulled over for a quick chat (Reggie barking at him and trying desperately to get away, of course). It was all in Italian of course, and I can't say that I was very eloquent, but I did at least understand him, and I think (hope) I managed to utter some vaguely suitable responses. Paolo went on his way with the promise to come and visit us soon (or was it for us to go and visit him soon? arghh, I need to crack this language thing!).

After that, I decided it was time to head home, so Reggie and I went back down the hill and I sat down at my desk for the second time that morning. However, it wasn't long after that that I heard the crunching of tyres on gravel and a car door slamming. Not expecting any visitors, I wondered if Stuart and David's day had been significantly shorter than planned, so went out to investigate.

It wasn't Stuart and David, but Andrea, who had popped in on his way up to Vellano to let "us" know (clearly he wanted to speak to Stuart, but since Stuart was out, he had to put up with me instead) that the architect from the superintendent's office in Florence would be visiting next Wednesday morning. It's not the best of timing, but at least we now have an appointment in the diary, which will hopefully mean that things can move on after that. Andrea explained (yet again) that the canopy above the apartment door, the satellite dish and the goose house (or at least the walls of it) will need to be taken down before the visit. Yes, yes, we know all of that. He then scratched his chin and asked (all in Italian again, of course), if we could take down the old shed with the corrugated iron roof that sits at the edge of our lawn.

Er... pardon?

The shed in question is a pretty old barn-like construction (decades old, if not older) and houses all of the overflow items that didn't fit into my office-come-toolshed when the man cave was dismantled. The shed was full to the rafters.

I told him I wasn't sure that dismantling it would be possible - at which he scratched his chin again and said that it might be ok if we could just take the roof off it... but it would be best if the whole thing could come down.

What a bombshell! Until now, Andrea has never indicated that this shed could be an issue, but at this point I think he is trying to cover all possible bases. He told me that he'd recently had a customer who had built themselves a little pizza oven in their garden - and the superintendent had even taken exception to that, so I think he's very nervous. He also seems to have some doubts about the beautiful wooden fencing that Stuart built with help from our NZ HelpXers Nick and Tess. Andrea said he hopes that the fencing will be OK... I hope so too!!

So anyway, next Wednesday morning will see us visited for an inspection by Andrea, along with an architect from the comune in Pescia and the architect from the superintendent's office in Florence. As Stuart is not due to be here on Wednesday morning, it could be an interesting morning for me, coping with three Italians and a dog who's unlikely to give them a second's peace. Poor Andrea was treated to a volley of barking that literally didn't stop from the second he got out of his car until the second he got back into his car 10 minutes or so later. It wouldn't be quite so bad if the barking wasn't quite so earth shatteringly loud - it's hard enough concentrating to understand the language without the added difficulty of not being able to hear it!! (Actually, I think that Reggie knows that Andrea usually only turns up with news that will make our lives more difficult, and that's why he doesn't like him, or at least why he tries to make it impossible for him to speak!)

Feeling somewhat shell shocked, I finally got to sit down at my desk and make a proper start on my work. I sent a text message to Stuart to forewarn him of the news and got on with my conference papers.

Stuart and David returned just before lunchtime, so I sat and had a chat with them while they sipped a well earned beer. David had kindly offered to spent some time helping us out with some manpower this afternoon, and after this morning's news, it was clear what that help would consist of!

After lunch, I headed back to the office and Stuart made a start on sorting through all the items in the shed. David returned not long afterwards, and the pair of them traipsed up and down the garden, making a pile of rubbish to be taken to the bins and a couple of piles of items to be kept - which will now need to find new homes.

After a trip to the bins, David and Stuart sat down for a chat and a beer, after which David left for home.

Stuart wasn't done yet though. Just as I clocked off from my work, he was starting to measure out a new (enlarged) space behind the house, with plans to pile everything up there and cover it all with some new tarpaulins.

So there you have it. We have been here before, and quite frankly it's getting a bit tedious! How many more times will we have to move piles of tools and paraphernalia around? And how many more hoops will we be made to jump through before we can get our permission to build our wood shed and pergola, and erect a poly tunnel and solar panels? (I don't even like to think about the possibility of the fencing being a problem!)

The contents of the shed start to come out. Good job we don't have guests at the moment - oh, hold on, yes we do. Good job they've had a day out in Florence...

This is just a fraction of the stuff that needs a new home.

Reggie tried to help with the new storage area.

Tuesday 28 July 2015

Not exactly cardigan weather

The weekend was taken up with supermarket trips (three, no less), socials and preparations for our next set of apartment guests.

As mentioned in our last post, Saturday started out damp and slightly cooler. And what a blissful change that made! Not that we want it to rain all the time (thank you very much), but after 5 parched weeks it was something of a novelty to hear the sound of the patter of rain and smell the freshness of the air.

We were visited late morning by the Phillips boys - Chris, Henry and Erik. They were on their way up to Sorana to finish preparing a house they look after for the arrival of some holiday makers, but had stopped in on their way to collect some printing we'd said we would do for them. Henry and Erik's printing was straightforward enough: a book list each for the next school year, but Chris's was a little more involved. Chris had bravely (or crazily) put himself up to the challenge of walking from Viareggio to Pescia on Sunday in a bid to raise some money for Breast Cancer Care and to raise awareness of Pescia Rugby Club. Google had calculated that it was a roughly 28-mile distance, and he'd decided to do it bang in the middle of summer, in extreme heat - the next day, in fact. We were slightly alarmed to find that the day before he set out, he hadn't done much preparation beyond asking us to print out some directions from Google Maps along with a couple of grainy Google maps (our laser printer is not top quality). Not only this, but he and Sue had invited us round for dinner that evening - and, given our usual pattern of socialising with them (prosecco, wine and a late night), this didn't seem like the optimum way to prepare! Anyway, more on that later.

We did our usual weekend supermarket shop at lunchtime on Saturday and found both Lidl and Esselunga pleasingly quiet. We are now right in high tourist season, and it is noticeable that the demographic of supermarket shoppers has changed. It's a good distraction from the mundane task of grocery shopping to play spot-the-tourist and guess-the-nationality. You can spot the tourists a mile off. I have to put my hands up here, and say that I'm sure we look equally touristy, shopping as we do in our shorts and flip flops, while the real Italians float around the shop gracefully in their long trousers/dresses, full make-up and posh hair dos, and while we are now pretty familiar with the supermarkets (I even know where to find the lemon juice now), I can't say that our grasp of the language is much better than that of the summer visitors. But anyway, back to the tourists. The biggest giveaway, of course, is if you get close enough to overhear some of their conversations, but generally, spotting a couple of teenagers looking bored to tears is a dead giveaway that they are being dragged around the supermarket by their hassled parents when all they really want to do is to get back to the pool and their iPods (while all the parents probably want to do is to sink a bottle or two of wine). Other signs of tourists are people in shorts with pasty-looking legs (and/or extreme sunburn) and people who are covered in mosquito bites. I think there is something in the theory that the longer you spend here the more immune you become to the mozzies, and while we are still battling them, we don't feel as badly affected as we were last year, and we rarely see an Italian with bites. The supermarket car parks are also now dotted with Dutch, German and French cars, and the number of English voices we hear has probably more than quadrupled.

Anyway, shopping done, we went back to the house to unpack, had a rare Saturday afternoon break to watch a bit of TV, before heading down to the vegetable beds to do some more tidying. We spent about 2 hours weeding, cutting, tying up rogue tomato plants and trying to stop the acacia from taking over.

Just before 7, we quickly showered and changed, gave Reggie a juicy bone to entertain himself, while making sure Lucca and Florence were safely in the 'cat zone' upstairs, and headed down into Pescia to the Phillips house.

We had a lovely evening with Chris and Sue - Henry and Erik were busy in town helping out at some sort of festa, so it was just the four of us and we sat on the patio enjoying the lovely evening air. It was a perfect temperature - warm, but (for a change) not too hot, with a lovely gentle breeze - and we sat and chatted, ate delicious food that Sue had prepared, listened to the church bells from the town, and of course had some Prosecco and some wine. Much of the conversation revolved around Chris's mammoth walk the next day, as we probed him about how much preparation he'd done, what vital supplies he would be taking with him and his plan of action. We were remarkably restrained in comparison with other occasions on which the four of us have socialised, even to the point of leaving at midnight - not because we'd had enough I hasten to point out, but because Chris had an early start in the morning and we had a dog to get home to.

When we got up on Sunday, it was already warm. Still slightly cooler than of late, but without any of the wet stuff, it was warmer than Saturday, and even by 10am we were both shuddering at the mere thought of walking further than along the road, never mind the 28 miles Chris was in for. Nevertheless, Chris did indeed stick to his word, and was walking by 11am on Sunday morning. Sue had dropped him off in Viareggio and she posted periodic updates on his progress throughout the day via Facebook. After 5 hours he was on the outskirts of Lucca, and a gruelling 11 hours after setting out, he was completing his 36-mile walk (yes, 8 miles longer than planned!) in 30+ degree heat. Brilliant or crazy, or a bit of both, he'd certainly achieved what he'd set out to do (which was this) and definitely earned our respect for one!

Our own Sunday was a lot more relaxed than Chris's. After a slow-paced start to the day our first task was our third supermarket trip of the weekend. We have recently (largely thanks to the suggestion and tips from Sue, although we had considered something vaguely similar) started to offer a 'welcome pack upgrade' for our apartment guests - basically a week's grocery shopping to save them the bother of spending their precious holiday time traipsing round a supermarket. We were excited that our next set of guests had booked the package (or rather, their parents had), so for the first time we went supermarket shopping to fill our trolley with goodies for someone else:

By the time we got home it was definitely time for lunch, and for a change, we decided on a lunch of tomato bruschette with mozzarella. It made for a delicious summery lunch, which of course we ate on the patio.

After lunch, it was all about the grocery package. First, we spent a couple of hours in the office, working out recipes that could be cooked with the ingredients in the package and putting together a mini-recipe book to leave with the package, and once that was done, we headed to the apartment to set about working out how best to present the package, putting the rice, pasta and other dried ingredients into jars, wrapping the cheeses and trying to work out how to cram it all into the fridge! We just hoped our guests would be hungry!

That took us until gone 6pm, at which point we retreated to our house, had a relaxing drink on the patio before tackling washing up, dinner and pickled cucumbers. We'd started the process of pickling cucumbers (slicing them up along with some onions, salting them and leaving them under a heavy weight) earlier in the morning, so Stuart finished off the process, resulting in three jars of sweet pickled cucumber! Delia (whose recipe it was) recommends leaving them for a month before eating, so we will wait and see how they turn out! We only used two cucumbers, so we're looking around for other recipes to try.

So that was the end to a very pleasant weekend.

Yesterday was back to work for me, and Stuart spent the afternoon cleaning and tidying in the apartment, ready for the arrival of our guests in the evening. His morning was a little more varied though - he had gone into town to try and sort out our registration for refuse tax, and ended up buying a new pair of safety boots and meeting up with Angelo, the Albanian builder who he met in Lidl a while ago and who we've asked to quote for repairing the end of our driveway. Stuart and Angelo ended up visiting a geometra (one of Angelo's, not ours) to ask about the process for repairing the drive. Our geometra, Andrea, had told Stuart that we need to go to the comune to ask for permission, but it actually turns out that it's Andrea who needs to apply for permission on our behalf. They also discussed the best way to repair it - the most cost effective way would be to use block work, but replacing like for like (concrete) is likely to be easier to get permission for... so that saga rumbles on and until we can get the comune to give us the necessary permission, we will continue to tackle the entrance to our drive like some sort of cross-country rally drive.

After our day's work, we decided to call in at the Phillips house on our way into town to collect our guests from the station, so we spent a lovely hour there, catching up with the highlights of The Big Walk, before heading to the station to collect Charlie and Becky, our guests from the UK. After bringing them back to the house, we offered them a drink and the opportunity to meet Reggie (or rather the chance for Reggie to get to know that they are friends, not foes), so the four of us sat on the patio with a glass of wine and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours chatting and finding out about each other - yet again, we seem to have landed ourselves a great set of guests.

The rest of the week looks set to be filled with work for both of us. I am battling conference papers day in, day out at the moment, and Stuart has a week of jobs around the valley lined up. At least we have some more manageable temperatures for the next few days - it had dropped to a positively chilly 26C in our bedroom last night, and our daytime temperatures look set to hover between 31C and 33C over the next few days - not exactly cardigan weather but, believe it or not, it feels quite cool in comparison with the weather we've had of late. So now it's just a case of roll on the weekend for us both!

Saturday 25 July 2015

It's raining, it's pouring (a bit)...

What is this cool, wet stuff falling from the sky? And who finally worked out how to turn on the valley's air conditioning? Yes, this morning we have woken up to rain (actually the thunder woke us during the night too). We calculate that it has been a little short of 5 weeks since we had even the merest drop of rain. I was disappointed to find, when I first went outside at 7.15am this morning, that it still felt very warm - just warm and humid. However, I'd only managed 10 minutes on the turbo trainer before I was forced to pack it away and hurry indoors as the rain started up again - and this time, it brought with it some blissful freshness and a slight drop in temperature. The temperature is still forecast to reach 30C today, so not exactly fresh, but in comparison with the temperatures we've been subjected to over the last 5 weeks that will feel positively cool!

So, what have we been up to this week?

Well, on Monday evening I made it to the airport without incident (driving in convoy with David and Sarah, who were going there to collect Sarah's sister and her husband), and after a bit of hanging around in a very busy arrivals hall, Stuart's flight eventually landed (50 minutes late) and he came walking through the doors looking as you would expect someone to look after they'd been on a 2-day stag do: tired and dishevelled, but happy to be home. I was just thrilled to have him back!

If anything, despite a lie-in, Stuart looked (and sounded) in a worse state on Tuesday morning, but thankfully he had planned ahead and made sure he hadn't committed to doing anything strenuous that day and was able to take it easy all day as part of his recovery process. We had a visit from the lovely Donatella on Tuesday - in fact, she came for lunch. It was the first time Donatella had visited us here in about 6 weeks and we weren't sure how Reggie was going to react (would he be as excited to see her as he always has been before?), but he certainly hadn't forgotten her, and started wagging his tail excitedly when he realised who it was that had drawn up in a car outside. He adores Donatella, I think she must be his favourite person in the world, and in fact I'm pretty sure that he would trade both Stuart and me in if he thought he could go and live with her instead! Luckily for us, he can't.

Donatella had her dog, Ray, with her in the car when she came, and before she left we decided we would attempt another 'meet and greet' between Ray and Reggie with the fence in between them for safety. We'd tried introducing them once before, at the training classes we went to in Pistoia. It would be so great if the pair of them would get on - it would mean we could go for dog walks together, we could take Reggie with us when we visit Donatella, and she could bring Ray here (and get him out of the car) when she visits us. Alas, just like last time, Reggie just proved too intense for Ray. There is a glimmer of hope though, in that Ray showed some interest and didn't dismiss Reggie straight off, but as Reggie stood there on his hind legs barking (and jumping) at the fence, it seems he's still too much for him at the moment and Ray was only too happy to retreat to the car and get away from the silly barky youngster. It's possible that when Reggie comes out of his adolescence he might be a better friend match for Ray - we hope so!!

While we're on the subject of Reggie, he was a very naughty boy on Wednesday morning. I was outside doing my usual exercise session and feeling chuffed that this was one of the rare mornings on which Reggie seemed happy to entertain himself quietly and I didn't have to keep rushing after him to shush him so as not to disturb Stuart's sleep. When I finished my exercise and took my things back indoors though, the reason for his quietness became abundantly clear: there was a tea towel on the floor, the one that Sarah had used to wrap up the sourdough loaf they'd brought over for me. He must have pulled it off the work top. It was as I bent down to pick it up that I glanced over at the sofa and realised that it was not just the tea towel he had stolen off the worktop but also the entire loaf of bread and there he was hungrily getting stuck in on the sofa. We'd already eaten about a third of the loaf ourselves, but Reggie made damn sure we weren't going to have any more of it (that will teach us not to put the bread in the bread bin)! He even growled at me when I went to try and take it away from him. That boy does love his bread!

ALL mine.

Is he hiding because he knows he did something naughty? Or has he got a bread hangover? Or is he just too darned hot?

Wednesday was yet another punishing hot day, but Stuart went up to Lanciole and spent six hours strimming there - I've no idea how he managed it as I could hardly bare to venture outside the house. I'm not sure that six hours of strimming in the intense heat was altogether helpful with his stag-do-recovery plan though!

On Thursday we finally became fully insured to drive our car - the first time we'd been insured since mid-January, thanks to the flaky car dealer. After some failed attempts at finding reasonably priced insurance online, Stuart went into Pescia to try a couple of local places and ended up coming back, fully insured, very pleased with himself for having managed to get it for the bargain price of €1300. That may sound like a lot of money, but car insurance is very expensive here, and we are onto a loser because of the fact that this is our very first Italian insurance, so it's like taking out your first insurance as an 18-year-old again. When you consider that other quotes we had were for €2000 (Direct Line Italia) and €1800 (from a couple of different places locally), the €1300 really is a bargain price - and it includes roadside recovery to boot.

It was a huge relief to finally have the car insurance in place, not least because on Wednesday evening, as we drove down the road into Pescia to take Reggie for a walk by the river, we passed a police car that was pulling people over to check documents. I can't tell you how nervous I was when we drove back up the road a little over an hour later, and I held my breath as we turned the corner where we'd spotted the police car earlier. Thankfully it had moved on, but it felt like a close call!

It was as I was relaying the good news about our insurance to Donatella (who has helped us a lot with the whole sorry car documents saga) that she mentioned that the must-have documents that the police will check for also includes the revisione (which is like an MOT) certificate and the ACI tax. Er... the what?! We had the revisione document, but couldn't find anything resembling ACI tax - another stitch-up by the car dealer! Donatella told us we would need to go and get it from the ACI office in Pescia, so that was a job for Stuart on Friday morning, which he duly went and did... and so NOW the car is fully legal (we think).

On Thursday evening we decided to have a go at the jungle on the lower terraces - it had become almost impossible to find the potato and courgette plants in amongst acacia and as for the lowermost veg bed, we hadn't even been able to reach it for weeks. We therefore donned work clothes and Stuart went in armed with the strimmer while I went armed with the hedge trimmers to tackle the acacia that was already taller than me. We worked away for a little over an hour - despite it being after 6pm, the heat was still intense and the sweat ran off us in rivers. By the time we called it a day, we'd made a big improvement, and we can at least now find all of the veg beds, but there's still more work to do.

Also by the time we'd called it a day I had created a brand new water feature. Just call me Charlie Dimmock. Yes, despite thinking I was being ultra careful to avoid the irrigation pipes which were entangled deeply amongst bracken, bramble, acacia and other vegetation, I managed to slice into one of the pipes and cause water to come gushing out on the bank of the terrace. Genius. Thankfully, it was something that could easily be fixed with a couple of connectors, so I wasn't in the deep trouble that I thought I might be. It still wasn't my finest hour though.

Chick peas! Yes, that's what they look like when they grow.

Looking better!

Friday was a day of work punctuated with visits. While Stuart went out on a trek into town to sort out the ACI tax for the car, attempt to register us for refuse tax (but failed due to the long queue he was faced with), collect the spare car key we had ordered (which wasn't ready yet), and go and buy some more irrigation bits and pieces (including connectors to fix my water feature), I settled down to work in the office. First to visit was Donatella, who popped in briefly to see Reggie (who once again was very excited to see her). We'd noticed that he'd started to limp a couple of days ago and I had been a bit concerned. In fact, by yesterday morning the limp was a little less noticeable, and Donatella and I agreed that the best course of action was probably to rest him and wait and see how he is by Monday. A while after Donatella had left, Sue came round with Henry and Erik and we spent an enjoyable couple of hours catching up over coffee - what with their having been away on holiday and us no longer needing weekly supermarket shopping assistance, it had been a while (too long!) since we had a good girlie catch-up, so it was good to see Sue, and I was touched that the boys had wanted to come along as well.

After going back to work in the afternoon (me in the office and Stuart baking on the terraces while he sorted out the irrigation pipes), it was time for us to be the ones doing the visiting. We headed up the valley to Vellano first to pick up David and Sarah (who we found in the garage of Vellano's Lambretta enthusiast Mario) before driving down to the house belonging to Paul and Veronica, an ex-pat couple for whom Stuart and David had been doing some work recently. Paul and Veronica had come over from the UK for a short break with their friends Julie and Andrew (in fact, they'd come over for the Robbie Williams concert in Lucca this week), so David and Sarah were going to introduce us to them. Donatella was also there, and the nine of us sat on Paul and Veronica's veranda in a lovely gentle breeze chatting, sipping cold drinks and admiring the view. Paul and Veronica's house is in a beautiful spot and very much has a relaxing, holiday feel to it (at least it did when we visited yesterday) - whereas our house says "working farmhouse" (i.e. a bit dirty, covered in dog and cat hair, and could do with a bit of TLC), their house has a lovely vibe with luxurious furnishings, tidy outdoor area and beautiful veranda. We enjoyed meeting Paul and Veronica and their friends and it felt like a nice chilled out way to end to the week.

Mario's amazing collection!


As I write this, the rain has dried up, but the thunder is still rumbling around the valley, so we shall wait and see whether the soil will get any more of a soaking. Next week's temperatures are due to rise back up to 35C again, so we will be making the most of this brief respite!

Monday 20 July 2015

Home Alone

This weekend has been a weekend of Firsts: the first time Stuart has been back to the UK since moving here, the first time I have driven on the autostrada, and the first time I have been 'home alone' here.

I've known for a long time that this time would come, as Stuart was duty bound to go to his close friend Dodge's stag do (Stuart is his best man, after all). I tried not to think about it too much though, tried not to worry about all the things that could go wrong (water dramas, car problems, power cuts, internet outages...) and definitely tried not to fret about the drive to and from Pisa airport that I knew I'd have to do on my own.

Come Friday night, though, all my attempts at not thinking about these things broke down and I spent a sleepless night worrying about everything, so it was with bleary, slightly teary eyes that I got up on Saturday and at 7am reluctantly climbed into the driver's seat of the car while Stuart took the passenger seat. Since I'd never driven on the autostrada before, and would have to 'go solo' on the way back, I'd reluctantly agreed that it would be a good idea for me to do the outward journey as well, to get used to it. Up until this point, the furthest I've really driven over here on my own is into Pescia and back. I've done some slightly longer journeys, such as the trips to Europcar in Montecatini, but those have either been with Stuart or else following him. I kept telling myself that there was really nothing to worry about - it's not as if I can't drive, it's not as if  I've never driven on a motorway before... but somehow doing it over here seemed like a big deal to me.

So we set off, Stuart pointing out the places to look out for in order to help me navigate my way on the return journey, me gripping the wheel with white knuckles. Much to my surprise, it was a fairly easy journey, and before I knew it we were arriving at the airport - for the next dreaded step, saying goodbye. After a tearful hug, I left Stuart in the departures hall and ran back to the car, trying to fight back the tears so that I would actually be able to see my way out of the car park.

Surprisingly, I found the return journey easier than the outbound journey - once I'd successfully managed to get myself on the right part of the motorway I knew it was a matter of sitting tight until I got to the Chiesina turnoff, at which point I knew I would be on familiar ground. And so it was that I was pulling into the drive at 9am, just two hours after having left - having managed not to crash the car and not to get lost. I counted that as a huge success.

After letting myself into the house and having a bowl of cereal, I gave Sarah a quick call and arranged to meet her and David at the cava as they kindly agreed to accompany me on a walk with Reggie. So, after spending half an hour re-potting the basil plants that we'd bought last week, I got Reggie harnessed up and into the car. Once again, he stubbornly refused to get in on his own - although it was still only 10am, the heat of the day was already building and I'm sure that sitting in the back of a hot car was not top of his agenda for the day. This meant I had to lift the lump up and post him into his crate - he made sure he was as uncooperative as possible, reminding me of a toddler that doesn't want to be put into his car seat, but I did eventually get him in, and off we went.

It was as I turned right out of the drive that I realised I'd never actually driven up the valley before either - not that it's a difficult drive, but it was another first for me. When we arrived at the cava, David and Sarah were sitting on the wall waiting for us. Reggie gave them a good barking at even before he'd got out of the car, but once he was out of his crate and realised he was going on one of his favourite walks, he soon accepted that David and Sarah were Good People and trotted along happily with us. Once he got off his lead, he happily ran back and forth between us and before long he even started to show signs of true friendship towards both Sarah and David. Thankfully, neither of them minded that Reggie's sign of true friendship is a big slobbery lick. I had a lovely walk, really enjoying chatting with David and Sarah as we went, and Reggie had a proper run around, tearing into the woods and back out again. I was so grateful for the company - I don't think Reggie would have got a proper, off-lead walk all weekend if I'd been left to my own devices. There's nothing particularly scary or dangerous about the cava, but I wasn't ready to do that walk on my own. That will have to be a first for another occasion!

After leaving David and Sarah, Reggie and I drove back down the hill to our house. The rest of the day was pretty uneventful - I was determined to make the most of the time and crack on with some office work, and spent the next 6 hours with my head down, working. In fact, I didn't even finish work until nearly 7.30pm, by which time there was a list of chores building up: feed the cats, feed Reggie, water the plants, get the washing in, do the washing up, check the veg beds and make some dinner. I rattled through the jobs before sitting down to my own dinner. At which point, I suddenly felt very alone and isolated, making me realise that, even more than a year since arriving here, and even with some really, really good friends close by, I still have some 'settling in' to do yet. I think that a very large part of that comes down to language and confidence, with the two things being inextricably linked. Unfortunately there's no quick fix for that, but it is certainly something that we are working on trying to address.

(I should mention that Donatella, David and Sarah had all invited me to go to an event in Vellano with them on Saturday evening, but I had declined, both because I wanted to crack on with some work and because I didn't want to leave the house in the evening - so feeling lonely was partly my own fault for not having accepted their invitation!)

After a terrible night's sleep, I got up at 7am on Sunday and got Reggie ready for a walk. This time, we just walked from the house up and down the road to Vellano. It was lovely and fresh at this time of the morning, and nice and quiet. Well, it was quiet until the return leg of the journey. Every year there is a rally in Vellano for old scooters, motorbikes and sidecars, and even at 7.30am in the morning, the participants were already starting to make their way up there. As we've mentioned on the blog before, Reggie has 'issues' with two-wheeled vehicles, so to see Lambrettas and Vespas pass us one after another was quite a trauma for both of us! Thankfully we were already on the home straight before the rate of traffic started to pick up, and it wasn't long after we got home that I could tell both from the noise on the road and from catching the odd glimpse of traffic below us that we'd got back just in time, as streams and streams of vintage bikes made their way up the valley.

Once again, I got stuck into some office work for most of the day, but come 2.45pm there was the sound of a car drawing up and the Phillips family piling out of it! It was lovely to see them all - they always manage to make me laugh and smile and it was a great tonic to see them. After a while, Chris took Henry and Erik off for a swim in the river near Sorana, while Sue and I had a proper girlie chat.

Not long after that, David and Sarah arrived, bearing the gift of a freshly baked loaf of delicious sourdough bread! I introduced them to Sue, and a little later to Chris, Henry and Erik when they returned from their refreshing swim to collect Sue and head home to get Henry ready for a night out. David and Sarah stayed on for a while longer, and the three of us sat chatting on the patio. What a difference a day makes - whereas on Saturday night I'd felt isolated, on Sunday afternoon I felt surrounded by loveliness and so very fortunate to have such an incredible set of friends. Whether it's the individuals or whether it's the situation we're all living in, it feels like the friendships we have made over here have been made very quickly and very firmly. It's strange to think that we have not know even our "oldest" set of friends here, the Phillipses, longer than a year, Donatella a little less than that, and David and Sarah even less - yet they all feel like very close, very special friends.

It was a much happier evening for me on Sunday - maybe because I'd already got the first night alone under my belt, maybe because I'd spent all afternoon with friends, maybe because I'd managed to speak to Stuart on the phone (albeit a slightly drunk Stuart), maybe because I knew Stuart was due back the next day, or quite possibly a combination of all of those things. Anyway, after a mammoth veg harvesting session, during which I had a phone call from Stuart and Dodge (why do drunk people always think it's a good idea to pass the phone over to their drunk friends as well?!), I settled down to some dinner and TV before heading to bed for what I hoped would be a better night's sleep.

I did indeed sleep better on Sunday night, but that didn't stop me waking up with a banging headache today. I considered turning over and going back to sleep, but Lucca was insistent that it was time for me to get up and feed him and his sister, and once I'd done that I knew that Reggie was also awake so I pulled on some clothes and headed out with Reggie for another early morning walk up the road. Thankfully this time there were no scooters or motorbikes, just the usual few cars heading (mainly) down the hill from the villages into town for the start of the working week.

The rest of the day will mainly be taken up with more office work for me - it is Monday, after all - and later on the return trip to the airport to collect Stuart. This time, however, I shall be driving in convoy - Sarah realised yesterday that Stuart is on the same flight as her sister and brother-in-law, who are coming over to visit, so I will meet with David & Sarah and follow them to the airport. At least that way I shouldn't get lost or take the wrong turning off the autostrada!

Friday 17 July 2015

Hot damn! / Damned hot!

It's been another week of punishing hot temperatures here. We are learning to adapt: 1. If we know we need to be outside to do physical work, the best way to tackle it is to start as early as possible, when the weather is cooler, and allow ourselves to warm up with the day - that way, the searing heat is a little easier to deal with. 2. If possible, avoid being outside between around 2pm and 4pm. We often assume that the hottest part of the day is midday, when the sun is at its highest, but in fact it really seems to knock the heat up a notch or two (or five) in the middle of the afternoon. 3. Avoid sitting in the sun, walking in the sun, doing anything in the sun - basically the complete opposite of the way our British brains have been trained over the years (i.e. making the most of every tiny glimpse of the sun). 4. Use fans. We have a fan going in the bedroom at night time, and I have a fan on my desk in the office which gets switched on shortly after lunchtime when the sun gets around to that side of the building and the room heats up. 5. Put the bottled water in the fridge. We only recently started doing this, and it's proving a challenge for us both to remember to replace the bottles in the fridge when we empty one! 6. Drink lots of water. 7. Stop worrying about being sweaty. Everyone is sweaty (well, almost everyone, I've still spotted uber-glamorous Italian women walking around looking effortlessly beautiful with not a hair out of place while I am feeling the sweat trickle down my legs and peeling the damp hair off my face).

The Heath Robinson cardboard window blinds really don't seem to have made the slightest difference; our bedroom is still routinely 27-28C - but then, talking to other people around here, they aren't convinced that the shutting the blinds during the day trick has much effect either. We've now taken to leaving some of the windows closed, but opening others just so that we can catch a through draft should one happen to blow in. When they do, they're always warm though!

The forecast for the next 10 days is more of the same, although there is a chance of rain (still 33C though) in 10 days from now. Perhaps that will be a break in the weather, who knows?!

It's been a busy week, with lots of office work for me, as we're fully into conference paper season now, and I am routinely spending 6-8 hours at my desk each day. Not fun! I found it especially hard to go back to it this week after having taken a day off office work on Monday to go to Donatella's and help with clearing the terraces. It was such a satisfying day, such a sense of achievement and so good to be working with really great people, and to hopefully be helping Donatella out, that it was a huge come-down for me to plonk myself in front of my computer again on Tuesday morning. Nevertheless, there are bills to be paid, so office work remains a necessary evil.

Stuart, meanwhile, has had a much more active week, although quite possibly would have happily swapped to spend time in the slightly cooler office. On Tuesday, he spent a lot of the day trying to fit a new valve to our water pipe so that, should we ever have a problem with an air lock again, it will be a little easier to find and fix; on Wednesday, he and David were back at Donatella's trying to find a stop cock (which involved more scrambling through woods and looking under fallen trees) so that the plumber could fix the problem she was having with a loss of pressure, and they followed that up with cutting some trees for one of Donatella's neighbours; yesterday, you will be thrilled to hear that not only did Stuart COLLECT OUR CAR OWNERSHIP DOCUMENTS (yes, Really), but he also managed to find another tractor to buy. Well, actually not a tractor, but a dumper, which actually works out slightly less expensive, but more on that another time.

This morning, we both got up at a little before 7am. When I realised that my bike had a flat back tyre, I needed no further encouragement to switch my usual exercise routine to one that was more productive (or maybe destructive?), and instead changed into work clothes and joined Stuart to go and tackle the upper terraces.

After spending the day working on Donatella's terraces on Monday, we had both been itching to get back to our own terraces, which had really started to look ragged and, frankly, wild. We decided to start with the upper terraces (the lower ones will have to wait for another day), so I headed to the top ones to tackle the forest of acacia trees with the hedge trimmers while Stuart started strimming from the bottom.

I was SO disheartened to find that the uppermost terraces that we had uncovered had completely disappeared. Once up there, I didn't even recognise the terraces and couldn't orient myself as to which terrace I was on. The acacias were anywhere between 4-6 ft high - these really are triffid trees. I got stuck in with my hedge cutters though, and after about an hour, I was pleased to find that I could recognise some of the topology of the terraces, and they began to look a bit more familiar. I managed an hour and a half before reluctantly heading indoors to start my office work day. Stuart, meanwhile, ploughed on with his strimmer until lunchtime, even managing to make a start on some of the lower terraces. I have to say that the terraces he got around to doing look fantastic. There is still a lot of work to be done though - I need to get back up to the top terraces to cut more acacias, we need to rake all of the acacia clippings up so that those terraces can be strimmed, and we need to tackle the lower terraces before the bramble engulfs everything again (whereas on the top terraces the main problem is acacia, on the lower terraces the bramble just about outweighs the acacia). It really is terrifying (not to mention disheartening) just how quickly nature takes hold and undoes all the good work you've done - you really can't afford to stand still for a moment in a place like this!

Beautifully strimmed terraces (with pumpkin tumbling down the bank on the left) - just don't look at the topmost ones which are an acacia forest!

Nature is fighting back on the lowest terraces and around all the sides!

There's even a tiny acacia trying to take hold in the lawn.

We had two social 'events' this week. On Tuesday, we were invited to David and Sarah's house, along with Donatella and her Mum for dinner. David and Sarah live in the middle of Vellano in the most beautiful house, which they rent from another couple of ex-pats. I 'ooh'ed and 'ahh'ed as Sarah showed me around their beautifully appointed rooms, the two stylish bathrooms, and then gasped at the views when she opened the shuttered windows. It felt like being in the lap of luxury for an evening with such lovely surroundings, and that feeling continued with the most incredible spread of food (we have officially been out-cheffed), and really wonderful company. By the time we staggered out of the door (complete with tupperware boxes of leftovers for the next day's lunch), we felt warm with the glow of burgeoning friendships (not to mention the heat).

It was slightly more established friendships that we celebrated yesterday when the entire Phillips clan came round in the afternoon for coffee and a catch-up. Although we'd seen them after they got back from their holiday, they'd been up to a lot since then, so it was good to catch up. All six of us, plus Reggie, opted to sit in the living room rather than adopting our usual habit of socialising in the outdoors, purely because it was too darned hot to sit outside. We had a lovely couple of hours catching up, but it still didn't seem like enough! However, they were heading off to a house they look after in Sorana, and we indeed had work and other chores to get on with, so we had to break up the party. Amazingly, we didn't consume a drop of wine/beer/prosecco on this occasion - could this be a Phillips/Smith/Martin record?

Stuart has also managed to meet two more of our neighbours this week - the people who live in the pink house by the bridge, which is also the house behind which we have to drive in order to access our water meter (it was while he was to-ing and fro-ing from the meter that they met), and the man who lives in the while house below us with an amazing, beautifully flat, beautifully trimmed (and beautifully green, at the moment) lawn and an outside kitchen that we always covet every time we drive past! By all accounts both neighbours were very friendly, and the people from the pink house might even come up to see us next weekend.

I think that pretty much covers our week (in brief, at least), so I'll leave you with pictures of our bountiful harvest (we have given produce away, sold some to Amanda, and Stuart even sold some to someone who was in Amanda's shop the other day. but still we are overwhelmed!)

Cucumber harvest.

21 green cucumbers sitting on a worktop, 21 green cucumbers sitting on a worktop, but if one green cucumber were accidentally to be eaten... There'd be 20 green cucumbers sitting on the worktop... etc.

No, that's not a marrow, it's a courgette. How do they get like that so quickly?!

Monday 13 July 2015

Team work

Today was all about team work and helping out a friend. Donatella had mentioned recently that she really wanted to clear a couple of terraces below her house - when she and Alex first moved to the house, the brambles had even got as far as encroaching on the house itself. Between them, they had cleared them all, and the couple of terraces beneath the house had been Alex's 'forest garden' - with apple, pear, plum, hazel, raspberries and all sorts of other fruits growing there. Recently, however, the brambles had started to show signs of making a return and Donatella was anxious to get on top of things before all of Alex's good work was undone. We had therefore decided that this was a job for team Smellis and the Strimming Women. A.K.A Stuart (Smith) + David (Ellis) (= Smellis), Helen, Sarah and Donatella (=the Strimming Women).

We'd agreed to convene at Donatella's at 8am this morning, so when the alarm went off at 6.30am, I tumbled out of bed, fed the cats, did a quick round of watering the pots before harnessing Reggie up and setting off for a short walk up the road. We managed about half an hour's walk before heading back to the house to make sure Stuart was awake. He was just getting out of bed as we got in, so together we loaded the car with tools before having a quick bowl of cereal and then saying our goodbyes to Reggie, telling him to be good while we were out, and before heading up the hill to Vellano.

At Donatella's we were greeted by Donatella herself, her Mum, David and Sarah. We had a quick cup of coffee before deciding on a plan of action and hitting the power tools. I dug straight in with the hedge trimmers (of course), while David and Stuart followed with their bladed strimmers. Sarah focused on clearing the terraces of wood, moving piles and piles of branches and logs (which Alex had cut from the fallen trees in the storms back in March) from the terraces up to the house, while Donatella set off with her own strimmer.

Team equipment ready to go.
That's pretty much how the morning went - a lot of petrol-powered motor noise, enough combined sweat to fill an entire swimming pool, a good dosage of horse fly bites for every person, and plenty of dust, dirt and flying vegetation debris.

By 12.30, we had made brilliant progress, but not quite finished the job. Nevertheless, Donatella insisted we stop for lunch, and at this point none of the rest of us had the energy to put up any arguments. We therefore all took a welcome seat under the pergola and were served a wonderful lunch by Donatella's Mum, starting with a pesto lasagne (an absolute revelation, totally delicious), followed by melanzane parmigiana (sliced aubergine cooked with tomatoes and cheese) and breaded slices of beef topped with tomato and garlic, followed by a moist chocolate chip and apple cake. An absolute feast of a meal that was just what the doctor ordered after a hard morning's work.

Team Hot and Sweaty.
After a quick coffee, Stuart and I jumped into the car and sped back to our house to reassure Reggie that we hadn't abandoned him. We let him out for a toilet visit in the garden, kicked a ball around for him for 5 minutes, spotted the most enormous caterpillar in the world ever (see photo), before giving Reggie a bone and heading back up the hill back to Donatella's.

By the time we got back, David, Sarah and Donatella had already got stuck back into the work and there was a little less left to do in the afternoon than there had been in the morning, and once David had given the last bit of terrace a final going over with the strimmer, Donatella called time on the day's work. That didn't stop Stuart going off to strim one of Donatella's overgrown olive terraces though, while the rest of us sought refuge from the beating sunshine under Donatella's pergola.

When we finally all downed tools, we sat for a while sipping cold drinks under the pergola and reflecting on our day's work before packing up the cars and wending our way home again, this time heading straight for much needed showers!

Tonight we feast on a salad made with our own home grown potatoes, along with rocket and mizuna from David & Sarah's vegetable garden. I think we might sleep quite well too!

Sunday 12 July 2015

Feathers and water

Friday saw me rise before Helen (albeit only by about 10 minutes) for the second day in a row so that I could pack the car for a morning's work in Vellano. It was a rush to get the car loaded, breakfast eaten and drive up to Vellano before 7am, but I was just getting ready to head for the car when I heard Reggie kicking off in the way he normally does when Helen goes to see the geese and he's not been allowed to go with her.

Sure enough, Helen had been up at the goose enclosure, but as I walked out of the house she met me with a solemn face and the news: 'At least one of the geese is dead but I haven't been able to get close enough to check the other, it's very quiet though, and there are a lot of feathers.' My heart sank and immediately I felt guilty for having constantly delayed fitting barbed wire to the top of their fencing while leaving them out over night.

Sure enough, when I got into the enclosure while Helen kept Reggie quiet, I found two dead geese and one missing egg. I felt sick and could have really kicked myself for allowing this to happen and yet more guilt for the fact they had met such a gruesome end (I'll spare you the photographs, but both heads and necks were absent along with any chance of possibly seeing a gosling...) what have we done?!

By now I was running late for work so I headed off, telling Helen I'd deal with them later - but by the time I'd arrived in Vellano I'd realised that we should at least be attempting to salvage something from this situation so asked Helen to bag them up and put them in the utility room until I got home, which she gamely did.

The early part of my morning was spent with David, Darren and Malcolm moving gravel that had been washed to the bottom of a long gravel drive (courtesy of a heavy downpour a month or so ago) back to the top, then raking it all flat. We weren't sure how long this arduous task was going take as there must have been a cubic metre or more to move back up hill, so we were pleasantly surprised to be finished by 8.30am!

After saying goodbyes to Darren and Malcolm, I went with David to say hello to Sarah who was working in their vegetable garden a few terraces up on the same piece of land. En route, David mentioned that as we had finished early he was going to go along with Sarah to help Donatella try to find a leak in her water pipe - this was no easy task as the distance of the pipe from the house to the meter must be almost a kilometre, but it urgently needed to be found as poor Donatella had just received a letter from the water company to say that her water usage was huge (meaning she must have a leak) and that she now owed them almost €1,000! The water company were offering to reduce the payment if she could find and fix the leak. It was clear this needed sorting out quickly, so I offered to lend a hand as well.

David, Sarah and I met Donatella and starting clambering through the woods, following and digging up the plastic pipe - giving me flashbacks to when Helen and I did the same, starting at 5.45am and taking all day when we'd had our own water pipe drama not so long ago. It wasn't long before the pipe disappeared under a tree that had fallen in the storm back in March so we changed tack and went to the stop cock (which is about halfway along the pipeline) and worked from there backwards. After almost an hour battling with bamboo that had since grown over the pipe, its roots making it very slow going, we managed to get clear and made some relatively speedy progress, so while David and I carried on, Donatella and Sarah went up to the village to find the meter.

It turned out that the meter was lost under yet more undergrowth - but fortunately a neighbour had appeared who knew exactly where it was and helped them hack their way to it.

Once they had got a clear view of the meter, we turned the stop cock off, and they reported back that the dial on the meter had stopped spinning - this was excellent news as it meant that the leak must in the lower half of the pipe (below the stop cock), half of which we had by now uncovered. An hour later, we had also uncovered the other half of the lower part of the pipe, yet we could find no leaks. After some head scratching, we realised that the only place the leak could now be was between the stop cock and the point at which we'd started tracing the pipe from the top - a length of about 5m, 3m of which ran under an old lady's driveway. We started digging at the stop cock and immediately saw a patch of wet soil. Another shovel or two later it was clear we'd found the leak, so we cleared the way and re-plumbed a new section of pipe to the stop cock before heading to Donatella's for a celebratory lunch.

Donatella's Mum had clearly been busy cooking all morning as after a very quick glass of beer we were presented with a huge pan of pasta, which was followed by roast pork and roast potatoes and finished off with huge wedges of watermelon. I told Donatella that if this was the payment for helping her with problems she was welcome to have more.

As much as I could have lingered, the day was wearing on and I needed to get home to Helen, who I knew would be disappointed to have missed out on helping us all.

When I got home I set up a table behind the house out of the sun and set to work attempting to butcher what remained of the geese. It was a strange thing handling our geese this way, but I somehow felt oddly detached from the experience. I think the amount of concentrating that was needed helped as it was not an easy task. An hour later I'd managed to bag up and freeze 4 breasts and four legs with the rest of the carcases ready for disposal in a huge sack, I'd like to think the geese would happy knowing that they didn't die in vain but I'm sure they don't strive to this end and therefore don't think like that, either way I felt much happier, even though Helen was worried about the fact they'd been sitting around all morning before I got around to attempting my butchering skills, and I'm not sure I'll be able to convince her to eat any of it!

With that done, and Helen having finally finished a long day's work in the warm office, we sat down to a glass of cold beer and dinner on the patio.

Our first task on Saturday morning was to take Reggie for a walk before it got unbearably hot - we took him up to the cava track, where most of the walk was in the shade and he had a good run around. After that, it was the usual Saturday task of getting the supermarket shopping done, and in the afternoon, instead of sweating it out on the terraces, we opted to go and do some more shopping - this time, we headed for Montecatini to buy more cans of spray paint for the water tanks, some work t-shirts from Decathlon for me, some doggie chews (and while we were there we picked up another pack of tennis balls for Reggie) and a few plants from the garden centre there (basil, a lanturna and an agapanthus).

MY tennis balls.

All mine...

By the time we got home, it was nearing 5pm, so we whiled away an hour doing admin tasks before sitting down on the patio with a chilled glass of white wine to await our guests, Helen and John, who we'd invited up for a glass of wine on the last night of their stay with us. We had a lovely evening chatting with them again, and it was great to find out how they'd found their time here. We chatted and sipped wine with them until quite late, but with such good company, lovely cool outside temperatures (relatively speaking) and the last of the year's fireflies flitting around, it was hard to call time on the evening - but all good things must come to and end and with their departure the next morning, they had some final packing they wanted to do so left us to it.

Sunday started at a civilised 8 to 8:30, and as we were having breakfast on the patio Helen and John came to say goodbye - yet another sad farewell and yet more guests we really genuinely hope will come back sometime. We really enjoy having people to stay in the apartment and feel that meeting so many new people enriches our lives more than we could have imagined, so long may the good guests continue!

After breakfast we coerced Reggie into the car to take him for a walk. I say "coerced", but Helen had to resort to picking up all 25kg of the non-compliant lump and posting him into his crate. He's not at all keen to get into the car in these temperatures, and I can't say I blame him - by the time we went out at 9.30am it was already on its way to 30 degrees. Unfortunately for him (and the rest of us), the 10-day forecast still doesn't predict any change in the weather with 35+C for the foreseeable future - temperatures that hugely slow down progress outside.

We headed up to the top of the valley just beyond Pontito, the northernmost of the ten castella and parked about a kilometre away from Croce a Veglia so that we could have more of a walk around the area and maybe even make it up to the saddle of La Pracchia before Reggie went on strike.

The views from La Pracchia were stunning - not only can you see all of the 10 castella at once from up here but you can also see into all of the neighbouring valley. It was beautiful and had made its way to being one of our favourite place to go for a little walk, but we did have to cut it a little short of the saddle itself as we stumbled across the free range cattle that graze up here and knowing that dogs and cows are not a good mix, we headed back downhill to the car.

The morning now mostly gone we decided, rather spontaneously, to head out for lunch in Montecarlo. How times have changed! We had something of a dining-out habit back in Abingdon - not a huge vice, and not always anything fancy (often just a sandwich and chips in the local pub), but it was our go-to thing when we had some free time to ourselves. Here, however, Helen and I have not been out for a meal as a couple (just the two of us) since last May - more than a year has gone by! That's not to say we haven't eaten out of course (if you've been following the blog you'll know that we've sampled a good number of the restaurants around here), but it's always been with friends and family, so today we were both really looking forward to lunch together.

We were a little disappointed to find that our usual haunt in Montecarlo was closed for lunch today, so that forced us into going somewhere different. We decided to try an Osteria that had opened a few months back under new management. For those not in the know, an Osteria is a grade above a Trattoria, Trattorias are the mainstay around here, serving simple but delicious home cooked food, so were we in for a treat? OF COURSE WE WERE!

A tasting plate of pecorino cheeses with local sunflower honey and a plate of superb quality cured meats, were followed by some roast pork with a fennel and celery salsa for me with beans cooked with sage and a delicious chicken salad for Helen. Of course it was all accompanied by some house wine which I have no doubt comes from the Montecarlo area. I'm afraid we can't comment on the standard of the home cooked sweets as we were both stuffed after the main course and only I opted for a coffee before heading home to the dog.

Er.. an Italian London black cab!

Once home a stressful hour or so followed in which we couldn't find Lucca. He has become a creature of habit lately and tends not to eat much breakfast first thing, instead opting to go out, only to come back in mid to late morning for a snack and a sleep, and the latest he tends to stay out is lunch time. Today, however, there was no sign of him when we went out and no sign of him on our return. We both walked around calling for him, but there was no response. I think that after the recent fox attack it was hard not to jump to a horrible conclusion, and we sat worried for a while before Helen went back out to try again, only to eventually find the little tyke nonchalantly walking towards the house. It's safe to say he's in the dog house for the evening, but that didn't stop him gobbling down a meaty chew stick before collapsing on the rug in the bedroom.

So as the sun drops in the sky and the temperature reluctantly drops with we plan to settle down to a glass of chilled wine on the patio before maybe catching up on the Tour de France this evening having missed the first four stages.