Sunday 27 September 2015

An unusual weekend

Saturday morning started (after Helen had exercised and I had snoozed) with a coffee at our local
bar in our village. The 'Da Nerone' coffee bar is attached to a very nice little restaurant/pizzeria that until quite recently we'd never tried - opting instead to try offers further afield knowing we could try the local at any time - a silly mistake that goes against our 'keep it local' mentality (not that we were going very far afield, but without this restaurant, the builders' merchant and Amanda's grocery store, Pietrabuona would be a very different place).

It was with this in mind that after a couple of cappucini we asked to book a table for dinner at the restaurant on Sunday - something of a momentous occasion for us as this will be the first time we've had dinner out together, just the two of us, since last May, well over a year ago!!

Sunday would also be the date of our 'original' anniversary when we first met in New Orleans, so a very appropriate time to choose to have dinner out, and if any extra reason were needed, Helen is off to Prague tomorrow morning for the annual Virus Bulletin conference, leaving me home alone (with the dog and cats) for almost a week - something I know she's more worried about than I am.

With coffee dispatched and a table booked we headed a little further down the hill towards Pescia to walk Reggie behind the San Lorenzo hotel.

With the walk done, we headed home to drop Reggie off so that we could go back out to do a little shopping - but not the usual sort that would grace our Saturday list of events. With Helen heading off to Prague tomorrow, I said I'd do the supermarket shopping on Monday after dropping her off at Florence airport, so instead of heading for the supermarkets, we were heading Montecatini-bound.

After our walk last Sunday with Carlo and his dog Riegel, we had decided to try and find 'Pet Mania' - another pet shop that we'd been told was cheaper than the other two we have been using. Not only did we need some basic supplies, but we wanted to upgrade Reggie from what is now a too-small crate in the boot of the car to some bars, giving him the whole boot to stretch out in.

We found the place without too much difficulty (for a change!) and parked in a less salubrious car park than we would have done at either Arcaplanet or Isola di Tesori, but that's not what we were there for, it was the products inside. We wandered around for a little while not finding the bars we were after, and ended up having to ask the guy working there who took us to a small spot on the shelves reserved for a small selection of bars. We were soon approaching the till laden with a set of universal bars for the car, a net muzzle (more for show than for actual use as apparently it's a requirement for walking along the river in Pescia), a couple of bones and some cat food, and after filling out a form for a loyalty card we loaded the car and headed homeward bound.

Once unloaded we sat outside on the patio to eat lunch. It was not the usual relaxed Saturday affair though as we knew we still needed to head up to our neighbour's house to meet him at 2.30pm, after which we had to head back into town - without a washing machine, we had clothes and a heap of bed linen and towels to clean!

Come 2:30pm, we pulled up outside our immediate neighbour's house and were soon joined by two other vehicles, containing Paolo and his daughter Martina. They opened the electric gates and in our three vehicles we climbed  in convoy up their enormously long drive - it must be easily three times the length of ours!

On reaching the property, we all piled out of our respective vehicles and greeted each other properly, before Paolo and Martina showed us around their property. They don't live here, but instead rent it out as holiday accommodation and had been asking us for some help with marketing it to Brits - as well as wanting some help for Martina with polishing up her English, in exchange for her speaking Italian to us!

After a tour of the four separate apartments and a lot of very fast Italian speaking (by them, not us!), we left believing that we have agreed to help market the property and that we will also arrange to meet up with Martina once a week for an exchange of Italian and English languages/cultures!

After all that concentrating and trying to understand what was going on, we were in need of some light relief, so it was with eagerness that we headed into Pescia to do our laundry! Just like last weekend, we arrived in Piazza Mazzini while the rest of Pescia were waking up from their siesta, so were able to park right outside the laundry and head indoors with two enormous piles of washing.

After ramming full the only two working washing machines with laundry and coins we walked up to Franco's bar for a glass of wine while our laundry was done. Just like last time, our wine arrived along with a complimentary plate of snacks, and as we sat and relaxed, the locals began arriving one by one in their cars to open up their shops, use the ATM or come for a coffee.

Once we'd lazily finished the glass of wine and snacks we unloaded the washing and headed for the train station - our friends David and Sarah had used the very same launderette during the week to clean their duvets, but had been advised by a local that the dryers in this place were terrible and that they should use the ones by the train station instead. So it was with this sound advice in mind that we headed for the train station - except, on driving past, we could see no launderette! Having been through the one-way system that passes the station at slow speed twice, we gave up and headed home to load the washing onto the washing line in the sunshine and into the winter drying room, giving the dehumidifier a taste of things to come.

With all of our chores for the day done, we changed into working clothes and set about trying to reclaim our vegetable garden from the ravages of the surrounding greenery that had been given way too much time to go about its own business while we fixed soil pipes and adapted the fencing to version 3 to keep Reggie from escaping. It really seems it's one step forward, two steps back sometimes here, and you can't afford to stand still for a moment!

The weeding had some rather unexpected results by way of a nice little harvest of potatoes we had no idea were still down there amongst other things. With the exception of the tomatoes - which continue to proliferate - though that is the end of our summer veg for the year.

Pumpkins, cucumbers, potatoes, courgette and sunflower seeds - the last of the summer crop bar the tomatoes.

Sunday started with another coffee at the local bar before heading back up the Forfora valley (we learned this afternoon, while shopping for shampoo, that 'Forfora' translates into 'dandruff', meaning the valley is literally called the 'valley of dandruff', a legacy of the very old paper industry maybe??). We drove a little way beyond Sorana to walk Reggie along a route we hadn't done for many months.

After a lengthy section of quiet road, we finally got into woods where we could let Reggie off lead for a good run around - and run around he did, none more so than when he found puddle that was hanging on to dear life in the track of a tyre. Reggie took enormous delight in charging through this puddle, turning on his heels, then charging back through it, time after time after time.

With one very filthy dog loaded back into the car, we headed home for lunch before making small and unavoidable foray into Esselunga as tomorrow's traveller needed toothpaste and shampoo.

The day was warming up by the time we got home, and we decided we should yet again change into farming attire and hit the terraces with hedge trimmers and strimmer and complete the reclamation of our veg garden. We did this in good time - such good time, in fact, that we then ventured around and behind the house and up the terraces to extend the scope of works until 5pm sounded on the church bells in the village across the valley at which point we sat down in the last of the direct sunlight with a chilled glass of wine before retiring indoors for showers in readiness for dinner this evening.


Saturday 26 September 2015

The arrival of autumn

This week has been another busy one - for me, it's been a week at the computer helping tie up the loose ends in preparation for next week's Virus Bulletin conference in Prague, while Stuart has put in some hard graft working with David in Sorana as well as back home both on the computer and in the garden, finally finishing the anti-Reggie-climb fencing.

We had a day of rain this week (well, a morning of very heavy rain), and the weather has definitely taken a decidedly autumnal turn. This week saw the first day in perhaps 5 months that I have felt compelled to dress in jeans, woolly socks and a jumper rather than shorts, t-shirt and flip-flops. We've even considered lighting the fire, but haven't caved into that just yet. Having said that, when the sun comes out during the day it can still be scorching - this is definitely a time of year to be dressing in layers to accommodate all extremes!

Autumn sunshine.
We finally received news on the whereabouts of our new washing machine this week - it turns out that it was damaged when it arrived with the courier, so they waited to see what we wanted to do about it... but without asking'/telling us. After chasing it up with the shop and finding out where it was and why it had been delayed, we were offered the chance to re-order a new one (with another 6-9 day wait for delivery), to cancel the order completely and have a full refund, or to accept the damaged one (it has a couple of scratches) along with a €30 voucher in compensation. Not being fussy about what my washing machine looks like (I'm more concerned that it does the job of cleaning clothes), we've opted for having the damaged washing machine in the hopes that we might actually take delivery of it before next week is out...

Thursday this week saw us saying a very fond farewell to our New Zealander guests Chris, Craig, Robyn and Roger. They are lovely people and we've really enjoyed their company and having them around. We even finally got Roger close enough to Reggie to take a look at the inside of his ear and give us his professional (vet's) opinion on a small, slightly inflamed sore that he's had inside his ear for many weeks. Saying that, the only way Roger could advance on Reggie was for Stuart to pin him down (Reggie, that is) on the lawn while I tried to calm him down. It seems that making friends with a vet was one step too far for Reggie in the space of just 6 days. Maybe given another 3 weeks he might have had a breakthrough...

We were somewhat mortified that, as we were saying our final goodbyes to our Kiwi friends, Reggie over excitedly jumped up at Robyn and planted his paws on her - leaving huge muddy paw prints on her pristine white top! Thankfully, the very kind and patient Robyn took it in her stride and laughed it off - I'm not sure I would have been so forgiving!

Thursday afternoon saw our next 'community day' with David, Sarah and Donatella. This time, we were focusing on work for David and Sarah, and instead of starting work in the morning and finishing up with a lunch, it was decided we would start in the afternoon (mainly for my benefit as I still had work to do in the office) and finish up with dinner. David and Sarah don't have any land of their own as such, as they live in a village house in Vellano, but they do 'borrow' land from another ex-pat couple, Paul and Veronica, for a vegetable plot (orto), and Paul and Veronica - who don't live here full-time but who visit several times a year - had also told them that they were welcome to take some firewood from their land in exchange for tidying up some of the fallen/felled trees and leaving enough processed firewood ready for them to use when they come to the house for a visit in November. Thursday, therefore, was Operation Firewood.

While Stuart and David went off with their chainsaws to start cutting up a couple of fruit trees that had come down a while ago, Donatella and I set up chopping blocks and got to work with our splitting axes, while Sarah, who is currently somewhat incapacitated with an excruciatingly painful shoulder injury, started the process of stacking the wood.

Synchronised wood splitting - could this be a new Olympic sport?

We all worked away at our various stations for a good solid couple of hours until we finally called time on the day's work with a respectable pile of wood to show for our efforts. Unfortunately even this much will barely last a week to ten days, so there's still a lot more work to be done here, but it's a good start!

One afternoon's efforts.
We headed straight from Paul & Veronica's land to David and Sarah's house, where we revelled in the relative warmth (the wind had turned remarkably chilly) and the comfort of a beautiful home and Sarah fed us tasty snacks followed by a delicious dinner of vegetable lasagne (made with vegetables from their orto), salad, and fig and rosemary cake. The food, which was already amazing, tasted all the better for knowing we'd earned it, and we had a lovely evening happily eating, drinking and laughing until it was time to head home and rescue the animals.

Our newly invented 'Community Days' seem to have a double benefit for us - in fact more than double, multiple benefits. Not only do we get a huge amount of work done when it's our turn to host the work, but we also find that when we work at someone else's place, we come back to our own house & land feeling more inspired and more motivated to get on with things here. Other benefits include the camaraderie and social aspects of the day, as well as getting to eat amazing food at other people's houses!

Friday actually saw us both somewhat on the tired side, but after I'd finished my office work and we'd taken Reggie for a walk at the cava, we decided we would turn our attention to our own orto - which once again has started to resemble an acacia/bramble/nettle jungle. We spent a good couple of hours cutting down the beans and cucumbers, which have now (finally!!) finished, weeding the beds, cutting back some of the acacias and putting straw over the weeded beds. We still have plenty more to do (more jobs for the weekend), but it was a good start.

Happy weekend!

Tuesday 22 September 2015

New friends and good times

After a thoroughly enjoyable evening at Manero's restaurant in Vellano with Donatella, David and Sarah on Friday night, Saturday morning started out somewhat bleary eyed for us, but we soon kicked that into touch with a pot of coffee in the fresh morning air - which we shared with our latest set of guests, the New Zealanders Christine, Craig, Robyn and Roger.

It was no surprise to find that the four Kiwis are all really great, friendly people whose company we really enjoy - Chris and Craig are the parents of Nick, one of our HelpX helpers who stayed with us for a fortnight last November (along with Tess), so we already felt as if we were halfway to knowing them, and their friends Robyn and Roger are just as friendly and engaging.

After a leisurely coffee or two and lots of chatting, we decided to do something a little more productive with the day - our guests are only here for a limited time, after all, and had yet to see anything of our area - so the six of us headed, together with Reggie, into Pescia for a walk along the river. After a very pleasant stroll along the banks of the river, Stuart and I left our guests in town, pointing them in the direction of the weekly Saturday market in the main piazza, while we headed home to put our mind to more mundane tasks.

After a quick bite to eat, we headed back into town to do the weekly supermarket chore, then straight back home to unpack before heading up the road to our neighbour's house. Our neighbour, another Paolo, had chatted with Stuart a little while ago and apparently wanted to meet with us to show us around his property and to talk to us about helping him market his holiday rentals to English-speaking folk. Stuart told me we were due to meet at 2.30, so we duly drove up the road, parked the car and waited. And waited. After 25 minutes of waiting, we decided he probably wasn't going to show up, so returned home - at which point Stuart re-checked the message from Paolo and rather sheepishly told me that, actually, the arrangement might have been for next Saturday...!

After finding ourselves with some unexpected spare time in the afternoon, we decided to continue on the theme of crossing chores off our to-do list, and head into town to the laundrette. Despite having ordered a new washing machine two weeks ago, which had been promised for delivery within 5-9 working days, we haven't heard a thing from the company from which we ordered it. Riding high on the success of having restored our bathroom to full working order (after rebuilding the soil stack), which seemingly had fixed the odour problem in the apartment, and having our oven and hob fixed, the arrival of the new washing machine seemed one thing too many to hope for within the same week, so we'd allowed it to slip to the back of the list - which meant we had reached the weekend with another pile of washing and no means to clean it.

I stuffed an enormous Ikea bag full of clothes and towels and we headed into Pescia for our first experience of an Italian laundrette. After the morning's market, Piazza Mazzini was more or less the quietest we'd ever seen it, and we were able to park right outside the laundrette. After fathoming the instructions, we selected the machine with the largest drum - into which we were able to pile all of our washing (with room for more, if we'd had it) - put our coins in, set the machine going, and headed to Franco's bar just a couple of doors down for a drink to while away 40 minutes while we waited for our washing. We ordered a glass of wine each - and, as seems to be the way here, were brought our glasses of wine plus a plate (for which there was no charge) piled full of tiny squares of pizza, olives, slices of meat, pieces of bread and other items to soak up the alcohol. We decided that living without a washing machine might not be such a hardship after all!

Doing laundry has never been so enjoyable.

Once the time was up on our washing, we piled the Ikea bag full of damp clothes and headed off. We'd decided to take a print-out of our order to the shop (Trony) from which we'd ordered (online) our new washing machine to see if they could help us with chasing it up. Unfortunately, they looked at the paperwork and simply told us we'd have to email or call the number on the order as the online Trony is a separate entity from the physical shop. Well, at least we'd tried!

We therefore headed home to hang the washing out to dry before settling down for a relaxing evening. It wasn't long before our Kiwi friends returned from a trip around some of the villages in the valley, and of course we ended up chatting with them again, and then all sharing some drinks, this time on the guest patio downstairs. While we chatted, Reggie ran around cautiously sniffing our new friends and gradually seeming to relax. The influx of four new people seemed a little too much for him at first, and we were treated to a lengthy round of barking - but it wasn't long before he was relaxing around almost everyone, reserving a large dose of suspicion and fear for just one person: Roger. Roger happens to be a vet, which left us all wondering whether Reggie can tell that this is a person who might just stick needles in him and who'd recommend having him neutered!

As time marched on and darkness fell, our guests decided that they would like to go out for dinner and asked for our recommendations for a local restaurant. Before we knew it, they had invited us along to dinner with them, in return for Stuart doing the driving - it was a very generous offer indeed, and of course one we couldn't (and didn't) refuse!

We headed initially for our closest restaurant, Da Nerone in Pietrabuona, but found it fully booked, so we swung Plan B into action and headed instead to Sorana to Da Carla. Da Carla was the busiest we have ever seen it, but they managed to find room for the six of us, and we had another thoroughly enjoyable meal with great company. To top the evening off, we managed to "find" (purely by chance) three red deer standing on the verge at the side of the road on the way home - a local wildlife spotting opportunity for our Kiwi friends!

After our second night out in a row, Sunday morning was another bleary-eyed affair for the pair of us, but we had to be up at a reasonable time as we (and, more to the point, Reggie) had a date to keep. Once we were up, we decided to head out for a coffee to try to wake ourselves up a bit, so after we'd loaded Reggie into the back of the car, we trundled down as far as Da Nerone in Pietrabuona, where we had a much needed cappuccino and a breakfast pastry each. The morning air was fresh, but we started to warm up as we sat in the sunshine outside the café.

Coffee cups drained, we continued on down the hill into Pescia, parked up in the car park next to Lidl and as we parked we spotted our "date" - our Italian dog-walking friend Carlo and his dog Riegel. Reggie seemed pleased to see Riegel and the five of us set off along the river.

As we'd discovered last weekend, walking with Carlo and Riegel has multiple benefits - Reggie gets more exercise than usual because he runs around playing with Riegel, while Stuart and I get an Italian lesson from Carlo. Carlo does speak English, having spent a while working in Bangladesh when he was younger, but he only uses it to communicate with us as a last resort - preferring instead to speak in Italian and help us to learn. Two particular words we learned today were riccio - hedgehog (and also the word for curly) and istrice - porcupine.

As we walked along and chatted (I should point out that Stuart and I only understand a small proportion of what Carlo says, but it seems to be enough to carry us along), we soon reached the small footbridge that Reggie refuses to walk over because of the metal grid under foot. Even with his friend Riegel on the other side, he ran back and forth with no intention of putting a single paw on the bridge. In the end, Stuart scooped him up (all 26+kg of him) and carried him over the bridge, after which he carried on happily as if  nothing had happened.

Thanks to Reggie's refusal to cross the foot bridge, we'd never walked along this stretch of the river before, and found it to be beautiful, with some really lovely views. We walked, and we walked, until eventually I suggested that maybe we should turn back - by this point the day had really turned up the heat and I for one was starting to flag, never mind our 70-year-old friend and the two panting dogs. At least the dogs could run in and out of the river to keep cool!

Reggie and Reigel.

On the return leg of the journey we ran into another dog-walker, Luca, and his dog Giotto, who we'd also met last week, and they walked with us for a while until they reached the point at which they turned off the path to head home.

By the time we finally reached our cars back at Lidl again, we had been walking for 3 hours - easily Reggie's longest walk! We said our goodbyes to Carlo and Riegel and got into the car exhausted - 3 hours of concentrating on listening and trying to understand another language takes it out of you, as does a long, slow walk in rising temperatures!

Reggie was well and truly pooped after his long morning of excitement!

It was time for lunch when we got home, so we made some sandwiches and refuelled ourselves. Stuart and I both felt exhausted and almost went for the option of having a Sunday afternoon siesta - but instead we made the decision to carry on with Reggie's anti-climb fencing in the garden. This was a job that needed doing, and it wasn't too physically (or mentally) demanding, so it seemed just about achievable to our tired brains & bodies! Somehow, in the process of doing the fencing we both perked up considerably (maybe it was the fuel of our lunch working its way into our system) and before long we were motoring along - at least we were until we ran out of materials!

Fortunately the running out of materials coincided with the time at which we were planning to call it a day anyway - we were due at the Phillips's at 5.15pm, so we headed indoors to get ready.

The reason for the visit to the Phillips's was that our guests had expressed a desire to watch the New Zealand v Argentina rugby world cup match. Knowing that the whole Phillips family, and Chris in particular, are big rugby fans, we'd asked Chris whether he knew of anywhere locally that our guests would be able to go to watch the rugby - and as is typical of our lovely friends, they had simply invited the whole lot of us around to watch the match with them at their house.

So come 5pm, we and our guests headed into Pescia in convoy and descended on the Phillips household. Not being the world's biggest fan of ball-based team sports, I wasn't all that bothered about watching the game - so Sue joined me and the pair of us sat on their terrace enjoying a chat and a glass of wine while the rest of the crew (4 New Zealanders and 4 British ex-pats) watched the match.

Everyone had a great time - it was so kind of Chris and Sue to open up their house to four strangers, but they all seemed to get on very well and come 8pm we had to drag ourselves and our Kiwi friends away - after all it was a school night for the boys, and we had yet to feed ourselves!

On getting back to the house, we said goodnight to our guests and retired to our respective abodes to cook dinner. I don't know about them, but for us it was time for a much needed early night in preparation for the week ahead. It had been a wonderful weekend with new friendships and lots of good times.

Monday 21 September 2015

An UP to balance the DOWN?

With our bathroom still out of action, Monday started with a mercy dash to the coffee shop in the village for a coffee and use of the facilities - I'm sure I was finishing the same yawn I started when I got in the car as we parked the car at Nerone's! We'd had torrential rain overnight and when we stepped out into the morning air were shocked by the warmth and humidity - it felt like walking into a steam room.

Atmospheric views for coffee after the rain.
Early morning cappuccini.
Despite the mad dash for the loos, it was a nice way to start the day - a couple of cappuccinos and a breakfast pastry followed by heading a little further down the road to walk Reggie at San Lorenzo, before heading home for Helen to start her office work and for me to tackle the major issue of the week: getting our bathroom reconnected to the septic tank, but this time including a vent on the soil stack which I hoped would remedy the problem of the unpleasant smells in the apartment.

All soil stack removed, now to re-build it.
After another look over the problem to double-check my shopping list in an attempt to minimise the number of shopping trips the job would involve, I headed to see Paolo at Frateschi's builders yard in the village. I had a good rummage around the yard in the pipe section where Paolo seemed to have every possible diameter of pipe in 10mm increments - except for the one I needed (110mm).

This threw me, and I started to question whether I'd measured the pipe correctly, so I went back home to double (make that triple) check it. So if we call that shopping trip number one, which I had returned from empty handed, I was already beginning to regret having answered Helen's question of whether we would have a working bathroom again by the end of the day with a 'YES'!

After checking them over, I confirmed that the pipes were indeed 110mm... but what I hadn't noticed was a reducer amongst all the connections - meaning that halfway down, the pipe changes to 100mm. Don't ask me why, but maybe that's the size of pipe the septic tank needs.

Anyway, pleased that I had checked the pipes again, I rewrote my shopping list and headed to a shop in Pescia that had been recommended to me by Chris. When I arrived, I decided to start the process off by warning the unsuspecting guy behind the counter that my Italian wasn't very good. At this point his his eyes took on a mild look of panic as he seemed to be trying to access his high-school English memory banks. As it happened though, I got through the list without trouble. Well, without language trouble at least - it turned out that the shop sold everything except pipe in 100mm diameter - was this some kind of arrangement that he had with Paolo?! I'm sure there's a good reason for this, but what was clear was that after buying all my 110mm pieces from here, I'd need to stop off and buy a 100mm 45 degree bend from Paolo to complete my list!

By the time I got home from my shopping trips it was almost lunchtime, so decided not to get my hands dirty until after I'd eaten. We ate as usual on the patio, but it was a quick affair, Helen now being at full speed with her conference work and me really hoping to get our bathroom working before the end of the day.

And so the afternoon saw me playing with stinky pipes of various diameters, re-fitting pipe clamps that had been poorly located and shortening some of the downpipes so that there was actually a little fall on them.

I reached a point mid afternoon where I realised I needed just three extra pieces to complete the job, so I went out on shopping trip number three of the day to pick up three small extensions. When I got home I eventually, with the help of the water tanks and my new long ladders, managed to complete the job before heading indoors for a MUCH needed shower.

I knew there was a reason I hadn't thrown the old wooden door away yet!

Soil stack completed with an extra metre above the roof and a vent on top.
Time would now tell whether the new vent in the system would solve the smell issue - so for the time being we were crossing everything we could (except our legs - it was an enormous relief to know we had a fully functioning toilet at our disposal day and night) as otherwise it would likely mean having to wait for what would undoubtedly be an expensive emergency plumber to come and take a look.

On Tuesday morning I had one thing on my mind: our guests downstairs - but as I was up earlier than them I headed out to do a few chores. These included selling 6kg of our tomatoes to Amanda, which I swapped for a nice chilled bottle of Prosecco to serve as an apology gift for our guests, along with a refund of one nights stay for the first night when they had been unable to sleep!

When I got home I headed down to the apartment with the money and the Prosecco, hoping that there would be nothing but fresh smells in the apartment.

I was greeted with smiles - a great start - and the smiles got even wider when I presented them with the Prosecco. There was not a sign of any ill-smelling nastiness in the air, which meant I could breathe a huge sigh of relief before leaving our guests to their day. One of the three BIG ticks we were hoping for this week (sorting out the plumbing problems/getting our oven fixed/taking delivery of our new washing machine) had been achieved - although we'd have to wait a few more days yet before we could be sure the problem was fixed.

After lunch, I turned my hands to the anti-Reggie-climb fencing, version 3!

It took a while to get the method sorted and involved a few steps back, but once I had a section done nicely I was off and running and soon back down to Frateschi's for yet more netting and heavy gauge wire before continuing for the rest of the day. By the end of the day I'd finished seven or so sections of fence, and although I'd rather it wasn't there, it doesn't actually look too imposing and much less like a P.O.W. camp than I'd imagined. It will look even better once we've grown some plants up into it - maybe some jasmine or clematis for plenty of summer colour and fragrance.

Is version 3 Reggie proof? He had better hope so!
Guests now safe from him, can't do much about the barking though.
For whatever reason I had a tough night's sleep on Tuesday night - it was the first night without heavy rain for a while but I'd slept worse than normal so it wasn't until 9.30am that I appeared downstairs for breakfast and to switch my phone on.

When the phone booted I received a text telling me I'd missed a call five minutes ago from Paolo - no, not that Paolo but the oven repair guy who was asking if he could come over straight away as he was only in Pescia! Could this be the BIG TICK number two?

With Reggie safely out of the way in the car, Paolo pulled up and set to work dismantling the oven to fit the long-awaited thermocouple. An hour an a half later he was testing it, but still without success - it still wouldn't stay alight. Cursing, he went out to his van, reappeared with some other part, and ten minutes later we had a WORKING OVEN for the first time in nearly 16 months! A working oven was one of many things that we took for granted back in England but which we have had to fight for here and oh how happy we are to have it. Within minutes of Paolo leaving we'd already decided to spend the evening slow roasting our basket of cherry tomatoes (a plan that we later ditched because it was too warm to contemplate turning the oven on for any length of time!).

Once the excitement and lunch was over I spent the rest of the day in the office next to Helen, both of us doing work for the Virus Bulletin - with the conference now being in less than two weeks, deadlines are fast approaching for both of us!

Thursday passed in much the same way as Wednesday, with both Helen and I working away at our computers in the office, Reggie sloping in every now and then to sit down and let out an enormous sigh as if to say "I'm so bored!!!". We eventually took pity on him and went up to the cava track above Vellano to give him a good run around.

On our way back down the hill we decided to pop in to see David and Sarah for a quick chat. The evening was already cooling down, so we left Reggie in his crate in the boot with the car windows open. We hadn't long said hello to David and Sarah when we heard distant barking. Helen and I froze and listened - and decided that there was a possibility that it was poor Reggie. I hurried straight back to the car to check on him - only to find that he had somehow managed to get out of his crate and was sitting in the boot of the car barking his little head off at a couple of Italian children who were pulling faces at him through the window!

I released him from the car, put his leash on and took him up to David and Sarah's house, where he sat with us very patiently while we had a chat and a glass of wine.

Friday was a busy day: we were expecting a visit from a new acquaintance for coffee in the morning, we had one set of guests checking out and another set of guests checking in, we'd told David and Sarah to pop in to see us on their way back from shopping in the afternoon, and we were due to go out for dinner in the evening!

First up, we had a visit from Carolyn, an Australian lady who along with her family has moved into one of the houses that we looked at when we were searching for property in the valley 2 years ago. It's a beautiful house and really tugged at our heart strings, but the amount of work that was needed was enough to scare us away. We were really pleased to notice a few months ago (from across the other side of the valley) that it had been bought and was being lived in! After tracking Carolyn down, we introduced ourselves and invited her to pop round for coffee. We spent a very enjoyable couple of hours telling our respective stories and exchanging experiences, relating challenges and disasters. After showing her around, Carolyn left to go and collect her son from school, but we will hopefully meet up again soon when time allows - we really enjoyed meeting her and we're dying to see how she and her family are getting on with the house!

After Carolyn had left it was all hands to the pumps for the turnaround of the apartment. Thankfully it was still perfectly sweet smelling and our last set of guests had left it in an almost spotless condition, so the cleaning process was straightforward. By about 3pm we were just finishing up in the apartment and were ready to receive our next visitors: David and Sarah on their way back up to Vellano after doing their weekly shop. We had a drink and another nice catchup with David and Sarah before they continued on home to unpack their shopping and we awaited the arrival of our next set of guests.

Our guests finally made it to us a little before 7pm. We'd been looking forward to welcoming this crowd: four New Zelanders (two couples) including the parents of our HelpX-er Nick who'd stayed with us along with Tess back in November last year! Knowing how much we enjoyed Nick and Tess's company, we were expecting to find these guys and their friends similarly easy to get on with, and we almost felt as if we already knew them, so were really pleased when they successfully found their way here!

There wasn't much time for chit chat though as we were due to go out for dinner, so we introduced ourselves, showed them around the apartment, had a quick chat and then dashed indoors to get ready to go out.

Friday is fish day at Manero's restaurant in Vellano and for a long time we'd planned to go there with Donatella, David and Sarah. Fish and seafood are not very common in these parts and it's rare to find restaurants serving much in the way of fish, so we were looking forward to a fishy night! We had a great time, feasting on marinated anchovies, spaghetti with mussels, clams and prawns, followed by fried seafood with fried potatoes, and even a panna cotta to round things off. Of course it was also a really fun evening with great company, and the time flew by - we finally said our goodnights to our friends and rolled into our house ('rolled' being an appropriate word after the amount we'd eaten) at gone midnight - truly a late night for us!

Sunday 13 September 2015

What a week!

Apologies for the lack of blog updating, it's been something of an eventful week AND weekend, but all the events have been crammed into the latter part of the week - such is the way of crumbling cookies.

The start of the week saw us hopeful that the oven repair man would be returning (having told us the previous Wednesday that the spare part he needed would take 3 days to arrive). That hope was promptly dashed on Tuesday morning when he informed me that the part (a new thermocouple) had not yet arrived, but that he expected it to arrive in a week. In theory, this should mean that we will definitely have a working oven and hob this coming week - a huge step forwards, and although we've rarely missed the oven it will be great to have it as it will make many more recipes available to us, and as the temperature starts to drop over here and thoughts turn back to log fires over the coming months, we can't help but feel a little excited at the prospect of the odd stew or a roasted pumpkin dish. Of course whether the oven repair man meant a standard calendar week or an Italian week, we're not certain... so watch this space.

The outdoor kitchen isn't so bad!

By midweek, I was ready to pick up the tools in earnest - and not just any tools, but my old faithful plastering tools. These tools felt almost like extensions of my arms in England, but have barely seen any use since getting here.

The overall drive this week was to try and get the three water tanks that had been painted by Kerys and Ben, and which were still currently scattered across the parking area, into their permanent home place before our next set of guests arrived on Friday afternoon. However, before the tanks could be put in place I needed to render the area of outside wall adjacent to where they were going to go - a job that would be impossible once the tanks were in place.

I had hoped to get away with rendering this section of wall in one go, with one coat, but my optimism was quashed before I'd even finished the first bucket of plaster - the combination of the low suction of the stone and the low stickiness of the sand-based render meant that only a thin coat could be applied without it slumping back off the wall. I needed more than a thin coat on these stone walls, so I had to settle for a thin 'scratch coat', which had to be left to dry overnight before applying the top coat. So with the scratch coat done before lunch I turned my attentions to pouring some concrete pads for the the water tanks to sit on.

I used a leftover plank that had been part of the floor of the old woodshed to make two frames into which I could pour concrete and set about digging out the ground so that I could place the frames in the ground nice and level before filling them with concrete to leave overnight.

Hello old friend!
Scratch coat done...where are you DODGE!?
Top coat done, rubbed up and cut off at the bottom to allow some rising moisture to escape
Water tank bearing pads one and two coming up!

Pads one and two poured, 75kg of conrete in each.
On Thursday morning I was up and straight outside after breakfast feeling much more like my 40-year-old self again after several weeks of feeling under par. Having removed the wooden frames from the first two concrete pads - which were now set solid - and set the frames ready for the next two (of 8), I had them poured before mid morning, which meant there would be enough time for these two to set and for me to pour a further two before the day was out, leaving me two last ones to do on Friday morning before we could finally move all the tanks into place.

Pads one and two set solid!
Pads three and four poured.
With pads 3 and 4 setting and a coffee despatched, I headed out on a shopping mission of unknown destinations - unknown because Reggie has now become proficient at climbing the lovely fence we (thanks again Nick and Tess!) built for him. I needed to find some way to adapt the fence that would prevent any further successful attempts at escapology (and, more to the point, prevent any successful attempts at chasing the cats and/or pestering guests), and since Donatella had banned me from fitting either an electric fence or anti-climb spikes to the top of it, I had no other choice but to find some 135-degree brackets to fit to each fence post that I could net - it's a little hard to explain the intended end result, but think POW camp and wait for the photos...

I had no idea where to find these items - they were easy enough to find on the internet... but here? Would it be a builders' merchant? a hardware store? a pet shop? an agricultural yard? I braced myself for a long day's searching based on past experiences.

It would have be churlish to pass by Frateschi, it being in the local village, so armed with a photo on my phone and a sentence from Google Translate, I made it my first stop and soon had Paolo thumbing through his vast catalogues before finally conceding defeat. However, Paolo did suggest that I could buy some 'black steel' from one of his sheds, which I could then cut, bend and drill into what I wanted, so I wandered off across to the yard to look around the storage huts before finding racks of 6-metre lengths of this 'black steel'. I found an off-cut of something that I guessed might be perfect, and Paolo was happy for me to take it away and give it a try - could it really be this easy? I was hoping that it could be, but I wouldn't know until after lunch.

So, after lunch, and after much messing around with an angle grinder, a corded drill and a bench vice for bending, I'd fashioned what I hoped was the perfect anti-climb fence bracket attachment thingy (although of course it is still untested by Reggie). I was so excited by this that headed straight back to Paolo to buy another 30 metres of the stuff without a thought as to how I was going to load 6-metre lengths into the car.

Luckily, just as I was ordering this from Paolo, my Albanian builder friend Angelo arrived in search of plant food (yup, it seems that over here, builders merchants also stock plant food - so you can see the difficulty we have in locating stuff over here!). It was while I was listening to a half-hour conversation between Paolo and Angelo in Italian, which I could barely follow but seemed to revolve around how complicated things are in Italy (nice to know we're not the only ones!), that I realised that I had no way of cutting these enormous lengths of steel - cue Angelo, who took his grinder out of his car and came and cut the steel for me into manageable 3m lengths!

By the time I got home it was 6pm already and I'd yet to pour the next couple of concrete pads, so after a quick glass of beer, I got back to work, and as the light faded, Helen cooked dinner in our outdoor kitchen and I poured pads 5 and 6 by the light of the LED security lights before heading indoors for a well deserved plate of pasta.

Friday was 'Community Day'. Between five of us: Helen and me, Donatella, Sarah and David, we have decided that, whenever time and other work allows, we should try to dedicate half a day a week to helping each other out on each other's land - with some lunch thrown in. This week we had decided to start at ours, and the gang were due to arrive at 8.30am. Having procured the anti-climb fence materials we were going to focus largely on that, with a few other little jobs thrown in.

After coffee in the early morning sun, we all set to work. Helen and Sarah set about finishing cleaning the apartment in preparation for the arrival of another set of guests this afternoons - this included dealing with a less than pleasant smell in the apartment that had just started... but more on that later... while Donatella turned her attention to the mowing of the lawn and the removing of the old (and now ineffective) anti-climb measures from the fence, and David helped me with the manufacturing of 46 new anti-climb brackets. Donatella and Sarah later turned their attention to the picking of tomatoes and trimming of tomato plants while Helen prepared lunch - and all of this was with visit from Angelo (the builder) and a plumber thrown in, to give us a quote for our almost approved solar water heating system.

Donatella mowing the lawn for us!
David putting his grinding skills into action, not those of the dancing variety, the roofing variety... or so he tells me.
A nice pile of almost machine precision anti-Reggie-climb brackets.
The tomato dream team of Sarah and Donatella, picking and trimming.
The resultant tomatoes.
It was an amazing buzz of busy-ness all morning and one that gave us a warm fuzzy feeling that friends would willingly give up their valuable time to help toil with us. It was a thoroughly enjoyable morning (for me at least, I can't speak for everyone) in which we achieved a huge amount - an amount that would have taken me a week to do on my own.

Lunch, which included tomatoes picked just half an hour earlier, finished just before mid-afternoon, at which point Donatella went to walk poor Ray who had been stuck in the back of her car all morning with the exception of a short walk before lunch and an unplanned walk with Reggie before we started. The earlier walk was unplanned because we'd decided to take Reggie out to the car park on his leash to have a sniff around - he'd clearly picked up that Ray was around (he could hear him barking), and seemed agitated, so we thought that if we took him out on the leash and let him have a sniff around, he might settle down. Having done so, we took Reggie back into the garden (through a different gate) so that Donatella could get Ray out for a little stretch of his legs - at which point Reggie ran straight around the other gate that we'd completely forgotten we'd left open, and charged straight out to "introduce" himself to Ray. This was something of a disaster as Ray has no time for playful adolescents and Donatella had to resort to one-handedly picking up all 25kg of Ray to get him out of Reggie's way - who by the time I ran to the scene (by way of a rare sprint) was jumping up and trying to nip poor Ray.

With Reggie safely back on leash, Donatella suggested we try and turn the affair into a more positive experience so together we walked the two dogs along the driveway, Reggie being kept at a respectful distance from Ray and being treated to a very intimidating snarl from Ray when he got too close.

It was nice to have our first dog walk together, but a real shame it was under such stressful circumstances! It's clear that we still have some way to go before a full and proper friendship is achieved between these two.

But I digress. As the gang left after lunch (Sarah bearing a load of dirty washing for us, after having offered a laundry service while our machine is out of action and we await the arrival of our new one) we got back to work ourselves, which included pouring the last of the concrete water tank pads and having a good tidy up ready for the guests to arrive between 4pm and 8pm that afternoon.

Concrete pads 7 and 8 eight poured and water tanks 1 and 2 stacked.

Now, back to the odd smell while we wait for them to arrive: over the last couple of days, on the odd occasion (and only when we sat on the sofa in our living room) we had noticed a faint, but mildly unpleasant smell. As seems to be human nature, we did no more than say "that's odd", give it a little thought, but then forget about it as it was so intermittent we parked the problem to deal with later, thinking that Reggie was to blame (probably having lost something down the back of the sofa).

It was only when the apartment cleaning was started on Thursday that we realised the same smell was beneath the sofa - down in the apartment, only stronger! Why did we not think to look downstairs earlier? Well, I'm blaming the fact that as it isn't part of our living space we forget it's there when nobody is occupying it - in fact we often forget it's there when people are occupying it.

So, the smell was stronger -  not so strong that it was a cause for concern just yet, but enough to know that when we next had a gap between visitors we would have to sort it out. Having given a bit thought to the issue, I realised that the septic tank system that had been installed by our predecessors had been installed without any vents whatsoever - and even my rudimentary knowledge of plumbing meant that this had the whiff of a cowboy job about it... as well as other whiffs.

Come Friday morning, with three other noses to pass comment, everyone agreed that it must be a plumbing and septic tank issue - we decided to "feed" the septic tank with more enzymes to see if it would help and as the day wore on, the smell dissipated and with much relief we thought the problem had been solved.

Come 6pm on Friday, we finally called an end to the week and in turn we each headed for a shower in readiness for going out that evening - little did we know that they would be our last showers for a few days!

8pm came and went and our guests still hadn't turned up. The evening out we had planned was an 'end of summer' bash at the Bistrot in Vellano with Donatella, Sarah and David. This was due to start at 8pm and as we knew that it was fully booked we didn't want to be too late or risk being seated somewhere on the huge communal table for 50 in a less than optimal place, i.e. not with friends!

Having failed to contact our guests we had no choice but leave to leave a note on the door for our guests and head up the valley with Reggie onboard - we decided it would both be an unfair welcome to our guests to have a dog barking his head off above them all evening, and unfair to Reggie to have to worry about having heard bangs and bumps below.

We parked up and headed into the Bistrot, which was jam packed to bursting point - and it was just as we walked into the crowded room that my mobile phone rang: our guests were lost, their Sat Nav having told them our address didn't exist. By the time I'd established where they were and had finished directing them to our house it seemed there were no more places at the table, so we decided to head back home to sort our guests out - much to Reggie's relief!

We got home to find they had just arrived so we showed the to their quarters before leaving them in peace to relax. It turned out that they had already been in Italy for a few days - during which their luggage had been stolen in Milan while they were sightseeing, and they had had to cope with a flat tyre - not a great start to their holiday, and after getting lost in the dark trying to find us they seemed frazzled and ready to collapse after a long day.

With the guests happily accommodated I headed down to the restaurant (Da Nerone) in Pietrabuona for takeaway pizza. Having psyched myself up for an Italian buffet, an emergency plate of pasta with pesto was not going to cut it for me and I think Helen could tell as much as she gave in straight away to my request for pizza. 20 minutes later, after a beer at the bar while I waited for our pizzas to be cooked in the wood-fired oven, I was back home with dinner which was devoured in double quick time, it being almost ten o'clock already.

When, the next morning, I went down to say hello to our guests properly and asked how they slept, I was more than taken aback when they said the hadn't slept a wink! My first thought was that maybe Reggie had been making some noise all night long, his bedroom being above theirs, but I knew that Helen wouldn't have slept through that. When I asked why they hadn't slept, they told me that there was such a bad smell in the apartment they simply couldn't sleep through it... Clearly the smell that we thought had been got rid of, had not only returned but intensified.

I felt sick with disappointment for them - instead of a happy start to their already faltering holiday we had inadvertently added to their woes (or should I say the previous cowboys had).

I apologised profusely and told them that we would do our very best to remedy it during the course of the day but that if we couldn't, we would refund them fully and help them to find alternative accommodation elsewhere.

Being very reasonable people, they headed out to do some shopping, leaving Helen and me to start digging out the pipes and dismantling the politely named "soil stack" in the hopes that the lack of vent was the problem and that by dismantling the soil stack from our own part of the house, it would provide immediate relief to the problem. This did mean that our own bathroom (and kitchen) was no longer connected to the septic tank and therefore no longer usable... but needs must, and when the guests returned a few hours later and ventured into the apartment, they reappeared with a smile saying that it was 70% better already- so it was with a huge sigh of relief that we told them to open the doors and windows to air the place properly.

Feeling confident that we had resolved the problem, we headed out after lunch towards Montecatini Terme to try and find the appropriate parts to rebuild our soil stack, but this time including a vent above the roof.

Our first stop was Obi - which let us down completely, having a very poor offering in plumbing supplies. Our next stop was Obi's competitor, Brico, who were closed until 3pm (15 long minutes away) so we headed off, now clutching at straws in search of 'Big Mat', a proper builders' merchant. I was fully expecting them to be closed on a Saturday afternoon, but at this point we were willing to try anything to delay the disappointment and huge inconvenience (excuse the pun) of not having a bathroom for as long as possible.

Sure enough, at Big Mat the gates we're closed - cue sinking hearts, but not for long! According to the sign, they were just closed for lunch and would actually be open again at 4pm!! Not only that, but tantalisingly, we could see a huge selection of large diameter pipes and connectors in a cage - we virtually punched the air with excitement - in an hour's time, we  would be sorted, all we had to do was kill an hour.

We drove around unfamiliar roads for a while trying to find somewhere for a drink to kill time, but ironically, we found that most bars were closed... for lunch! We went around in circles for a while until we made a spontaneous turn into a little retail area we'd not yet frequented. Part of the reason we've never ventured into this area before is that it hosts a very large advertisement for a 24-hour 'sexy shop' - not giving it the impression of being the most salubrious area! As it turned out, there was a small bar that, while unassuming from the front proved to be a lovely modern affair and we settled in for a couple of enjoyable drinks, very pleased with our find.

It's not so bad killing time!
As the time ticked on to almost 4pm, we paid the bill and headed off for Big Mat with a shopping list of plumbing items. We parked up, and with list in hand, we pushed through a gate to find a couple of women coming out of a dark store. They asked us what we wanted, I spent sometime establishing what it was we needed, only to be told that the shop was closed and only the showroom was open on a Saturday afternoon!! They also told us that, in fact, they didn't even stock the items we needed in any case, so not only would we have to wait until Monday, but we'd also have to find somewhere else to source the parts from!

Feeling deflated, we finally returned home empty handed. On the bright side of things, we found our guests appearing from the apartment having had a very peaceful and smell-free siesta, which had them viewing the world through a much happier lens. Keen to meet Reggie, we invited them up to our patio for a glass of wine and a very enjoyable hour or so's chatting before they headed off to Montecarlo, on our recommendation of course, for some dinner.

Pleased that we had at least finally got our guests' holiday off on the right footing, we went indoors happy and settled down to a bottle of wine and a movie, feeling tired both from the day's physical exertion and from stress!

Being without a functioning bathroom, you won't be surprised to hear that we were up and out very promptly on Sunday morning - almost too quickly for Reggie to finish his breakfast before being harnessed ready for a walk!

We stopped at Da Nerone in Pietrabuona for coffee and pastries - and (most importantly) use of their facilities - before heading into Pescia under very grey skies to walk Reggie along the river.

As we walked along the river, it wasn't long before I recognised a dog heading towards us. It was Riegel, a dog Reggie and I had met before, along with her owner Carlo. The last time we met, Reggie and Reigel had got on so well that I stood chatting for ten minutes or so with Carlo, a lovely man of 70 years with a smattering of English, before we parted company. This time started in a similar vein, with Reggie and Reigel having a great time running around, playing with each other. After a lengthy stationary chat, we decided to finish our walk together. Before long, we came across another guy with his dog, Giotto - who Reggie seemed rather fearful of. It turned out that the dog's owner, another very friendly guy, runs the car dealer AutoPippi in Pescia - the place we should have bought our car from rather than CartoCar...

Anyway, another ten or fifteen minute chat followed while the three dogs played before we headed off again, walking with Carlo and his dog until we reached our usual point of about turn, and headed back to our respective cars. We waved goodbye to Carlo and Reigel, arranging to meet again next Sunday for a walk.

When we got home I went to see our guests - with my breath held, I asked if they had had a better night... Their answer was that they has slept like babies and were very happy indeed! PHEW!!

Feeling relieved, we left Reggie at home and headed to Vellano to collect our washing from David and Sarah. Of course we stayed for a coffee and a good catch up with them, and would have loved to have stayed for longer were it not for the looming task of supermarket shopping that dragged us away.

Having checked in on Reggie at the house, we headed out in the now POURING rain to do the shopping. On the plus side, we were pleased to find Esselunga almost empty, and were in and out and on our way in no time. This meant we had plenty of time for another social stop: more coffee, this time at the Phillips house. We had a great catch-up and chat with Chris and Sue while the boys headed out with their roller blades and skate boards to make the most of a break in the rain.

We eventually decided it was time to head home to make sure Reggie was OK, and while I sat down to write this rather long episode, Helen is attempting our second and hopefully more successful batch of passata (the first batch having ended in ominously hissing jars, which were soon disposed of) from the huge basket of tomatoes that Sarah and Donatella picked for us Friday.

Congratulations if you've made it to the end of this update with your eyes still open! Wish us luck for the coming week when we hope to have a fully functioning toilet and bathroom back in order, a new washing machine and a fixed oven. We live in hope, it's all we've got!

Passata...take two!

Monday 7 September 2015

Passata, prosecco and palio

As Friday saw me take a large couple of steps in a backwards direction with my thyroid-induced tiredness, I made the difficult decision to pull out of a trip to the Orrido di Botri gorge with Chris on Saturday, in which I had been meant to be playing the part of a "responsible adult" (smirk) on a team-building trip for the kids of Pescia Rugby Club. Fortunately, Chris managed to cajole another grown-up into gong along just in time - and come Saturday morning, there was relief all round that I had made the decision not to go, as Saturday proved to be even more of a struggle for me than Friday had been.

So instead of hopping across rocks and streams, it was the usual weekly trip to the supermarkets for me on Saturday morning, although we delayed it until lunchtime, partly because I hadn't managed to haul myself out of bed until late morning, but also because things are usually very, very much quieter in the shops at that time.

As it happened, Sue had run out of gas on Friday evening, and with Chris (and the car) at the gorge, she was stuck without being able to get a new bottle. Of course, we were only too happy to play the part of the cavalry and take her to the shop in town to swap the empty bottle for a new full one. Of course we followed that with a couple of cappuccinos - this time in a bar we'd not frequented before, in a quiet back street opposite the church of St Dorothy in the Ferraia district of Pescia. The change of coffee shop made a nice change, almost making us feel like we were on holiday as we admired the sunny view of a different part of Pescia. It's an odd thing here now that, because we have something of a routine and regular haunts, when we take even the smallest diversion from these - a different route somewhere or a different coffee shop - we instantly feel like we're on holiday and experiencing the place for the first time, it's quite magical!

After filling up on caffeine (something I was in dire need of again today), we dropped Sue home, reconnected the gas bottle then left her in peace so that we could head for the shops, it now being gone 1pm, the best time of day to deal with the supermarkets around here.

We were in and out of the nice quiet stores in no time at all, and heading home for a late lunch. By the time we sat down for our lunch it was almost 3pm and other than the shopping, we hadn't even started our to-do list yet for the day.

So, after lunch I tried to find the energy to tackle various jobs and failed miserably on all fronts with the exception of lying on the sofa while tackling the mind-numbing (not that my mind needed any more numbing at this point) task of comparing washing machines. While I lay on the sofa cursing at the screen and scratching my head, Helen made our first batch of passata using a heap of our latest crop of tomatoes. Having decided that our little freezer was now too full to take anything else, jarring was the only real option!

With three large jars of passata made, I joined Helen and we turned our attention to dinner. I lit the fire pit and candles and we enjoyed outdoor cooking on the camping stove on loan from Chris and Sue - it felt almost like having an outdoor kitchen, a glimpse of the future maybe? Seems like a long way off yet!

Outdoor cooking.
On Sunday I woke earlier than I had for the last couple of days, despite having gone to bed late - a good sign that my thyroid was playing ball? I hoped so, Helen deserved at least one good day from me this weekend.

After breakfast, we loaded Reggie into the car and headed to the cava so that he could have a good stretch of the legs. We made sure he had exactly that by tagging on an extra stretch to our normal walk. Reggie seemed to particularly enjoy this new stretch and spent most of the time charging off the track and in amongst the trees, absolutely in his element.

Once home, we tackled the task of ordering a new washing machine. We were unsuccessful on our first attempt - the only credit card we have between us is being rescinded by the helpful people at MasterCard in the next 30 days because they no longer honour cards registered outside the UK, and it seems that although the card isn't due to be cancelled for a few weeks yet, we are unable to make a purchase online with it. Next, we tried using a debit card, but this didn't work either. This left us a small thread of hope in the form of a button at the bottom of the payment page suggesting we pay by bank transfer "bonifico bancario", not an option we're used to for this kind of transaction, but we had no choice but to give it a go now.

Five minutes later, after filling in our address for the third time, we were presented with a receipt for our order and instructions on how to transfer the money to the vendor's bank account within the next 3 days. We duly did that by fumbling around with our internet banking, and it seemed that, after an hour of messing around, we had finally ordered a new washing machine - or at least we hope we have, the next week to nine days will tell! Needless to say, to use a farming metaphor, we're not counting our chickens.

We had hoped next to head up to Donatella's to say hello to her and her family at her birthday BBQ, but after the time it had taken us to mess about with ordering white goods, we had run out of time - we were due in Pescia for the Palio finale this afternoon, with the parade starting at 3pm and road closures due before that, which left too small a window to head up the valley. It was a huge disappointment, and even more so when Donatella later sent us photos of the amazing spread of food they were all enjoying!

Despite our disappointment at not being able to make the BBQ, we had a fantastic afternoon with Chris and Sue at the Palio.

The Palio was as loud and colourful as we remembered it from last year, and we followed the parade around the quarters of town for a couple of hours (stopping off at cafés for glasses of prosecco on the way) before eventually ending up at the main piazza where we were refused entry - well, not refused as such (despite the amount of prosecco consumed we weren't that rowdy), but this year the piazza had been fenced off and cashiers and security guards were stationed at every entry/exit point - something new to everyone. It turns out they were charging €3 to enter to watch the archery competition with which the Palio culminates each year. Not a lot of money, granted, and I'm sure it goes some way to paying for the tiered seating that is installed each year, and the brand new giant screen that had been erected to display the competition this year, but whether this happens again next year will remain to be seen - the Italians don't seem to take well to things being changed so if there is a subsequent onslaught of complaints I'm sure we will be back to the free entry of previous years.

Having seen plenty of the Palio already, and not wanting to pay to enter the packed main square, we decided to head back to the same quiet bar that we had coffee in yesterday for some wine and Prosecco until the event had finished. We had a lovely hour or so chatting until finally, darkness had fallen and all of a sudden there was a commotion - one of the members of the Ferraia rione came stomping back to the bar, shouting in disgust that they had been disqualified from the archery competition! Much shouting and gesticulating ensued until eventually everyone dissipated, us included, in our case to head back to Chris and Sue's for some dinner. We later learned that the Ferraia competitors had reportedly been bouncing on the grandstand (in celebration of their archer's excellent shot) when other archers were taking their shots... which led to accusations of cheating and even something of a punch up between archers with the Carabinieri getting involved to restrain them! One this is for sure: they do take this Palio very seriously, and I think we will be obliged to pay the entry fee if there is one next year to see the re-match!!

After some very welcome and delicious morsels of food cooked up by Sue, we eventually left for home a little before midnight to go and see if Reggie had destroyed the house in our lengthy absence (he hadn't) before all retiring to bed for a much needed sleep before the week commenced all too soon...