Sunday 31 January 2016


After our burst of productivity on Friday afternoon, the weekend proved to be disappointingly damp and dreary. We'll save you the details of our mundane tasks and simply note that the highlights were: a short burst of log splitting for me on Saturday afternoon in a brief dry spell, just to finish splitting the logs that Stuart had cut on Friday; a very wet but enjoyable dog walk with Donatella (and Reggie - Donatella's dog, Ray, stayed at home as Reggie has blotted his copy book with Ray once too often) on Sunday morning; and the discovery that flapjacks made with honey in place of golden syrup are pretty darned good!

In contrast to the weekend's washout, the forecast is for it to be 18C and partly cloudy here tomorrow!

Saturday 30 January 2016

Blink and it's gone

When Friday morning came around it felt as if this week, even more than all others recently, had vanished in the blink of an eye - and with it the frosty mornings as the temperatures had risen a few degrees as the wet weather moved in mid-week.


Monday morning was a slight departure from the norm in that we had to head into town to pay the first of the plumber's bills to cover the cost of the 300 litre boiler tank that is now sitting in our shed.

We managed to find a spot to park in the square - not always so easy on a Monday morning, but today was OK fortunately as we had Reggie in the boot ready for his walk.

After negotiating the usual glass cylinder air lock and finger print recognition entrance to the bank we soon seen by Gianguido, the nice smiley chap with a good English vocabulary, which was something of a relief as we needed to pay this bill in a particular way.

As the new water heating system is partly solar-powered, meaning that we are significantly improving the energy efficiency of the house, the Italian government will allow us to deduct the entire cost of the work from Helen's income tax over the next ten years. However, in order to qualify for the deduction we need to make all the payments via a particular kind of bank transfer - unfortunately we didn't realise this when we had all the windows and doors replaced (which would also have qualified for tax deduction), so we wanted to make sure we did everything properly this time. So, armed with a few choice words on a scrap of paper, we told Gianguido that we wanted to pay the amount Anton the plumber had scribbled down for us on another scrap of paper to the account number he had also scribbled.

It was soon clear that, without an actual invoice displaying Helen's tax code, we wouldn't be able to pay in the correct way to get the right paperwork for the tax deduction, so we left the bank having failed. Not wanting to feel as if the journey had been entirely wasted, we trudged across the square for a coffee in Franco's - in our opinion the best coffee in town.

After ordering coffee we went to sit down and realised that we we'd sat down at a table right next to Carolyn from San Quirico and her husband Gerry, who we had not yet met. We had a good chat and catch-up with Carolyn and Gerry over coffee for half an hour or so before finally leaving to go and walk Reggie.

Having lost a large part of the morning, we settled for a little walk along the river in town so that we could get back home to get some work done.

By the time we got home it was approaching midday, so we decided to have an early lunch before getting stuck into anything meaningful, and seeing how well our winter wood reserves seem to be lasting us, we decided to light the fire so that we could eat in the warmth - real luxury.

After lunch Helen settled in her office while I went outside to work on the tractor park. Having concreted the final four posts in on Sunday, I was ready to start constructing the roof, so I spent a while with lengths of chestnut and an 18v impact driver creating something that reminded me a little of the kind of wood structures that early US settlers would have made, albeit on a much grander scale and without the help of an 18v lithium powered screw driver.

After finally deciding on how best proceed to proceed, I soon had the structure built ready for the new banner material roof to go on but decided to leave that until the morning, instead turning my attentions to some new steps at the rear of the house, in the process making somewhere to unload the gravel sitting in the back of the tractor.

It wasn't long before it was dark, but I felt I'd made an encouraging start and was quite pleased with my day's efforts. The 'curb appeal' of the approach to the house is starting to shape up - there is still a huge way to go, but we can now see tangible improvements.


On Tuesday morning it was straight out to work as wet weather was due to arrive in the afternoon. I really wanted to get the tractor under cover before the rain started and the wet spell that was forecast was due to stick around for a few days, so time was of the essence.

A 6m by 3m roof of heavy banner material (the sort they use for the curtain sides of trucks) is deceptively heavy, so I was glad I'd decided to put four beams across the roof from front to back for strength, as this gave me something to drape the banner over as I spread it from one end to the other and I soon had it roughly in the right place.

The next job was to thread some 8mm elastic cord through the reinforced eyelets around the edge so that I could lash the banner to the frame beneath. The elasticity will, I hope, provide some form of gale force wind suspension, but time will tell on that front - when it does decide to get up, the wind can be viscous, so we cross our fingers that this machinery shelter won't need rebuilding in the near future.

By late morning I had the roof on and the tractor safely in the dry. Feeling very pleased with myself, I turned my attention back to the steps I had started yesterday until lunchtime, shortly after which Samantha arrived. In a break from the norm, Helen's lesson started with my homework being checked by Samantha. Yes, you heard right, I had homework too this week. Fortunately it was much easier than Helen's, although I still found it hard as it was only the second time I'd done anything on the passato prossimo (recent past) - it sometime feels as if I will never get the hang of this language.

Shortly after having my homework corrected and leaving Helen and Samantha to their lesson, Anton the plumber arrived with an invoice for us so that we could go back to the bank and have another attempt at making the payment. He was soon on his was way, as was Samantha leaving us to finish up our day with a little more office work for Helen and more work on the steps for me.


Wednesday started, as usual, in Vellano with our group Italian lesson. Although things went very slowly, we all felt as if some pennies (or should i say cents) were starting to drop as things slowly clicked into place.

After getting home we once again had an early lunch so that I could head off to the doctors surgery so that I could request a routine thyroid test and get a repeat prescription.

On arriving at the doctors I found an empty waiting room and a note in the window saying that the surgery wouldn't be until 3.30pm today - an hour later than normal. As my usual tactic is to arrive an hour before the doctor so that I can be first or second in the queue, I went back home to kill an hour before returning at 2.30pm, only to find another five people in front of me! Clearly this random change in surgery hours had thrown a spanner in the works and the waiting room soon filled with people, followed by the doctor at half past three, as promised on the note.

It was another 35-40 minutes before I got my turn, and I was in and out in five minutes getting another gold star for my blood pressure reading and heading home to do a little work.


Thursday morning was a repeat of Monday, with us heading into town to the bank - except this time, armed with an invoice, we were able to pay the bill without incident. We left the bank feeling relieved as this payment had been floating around unpaid for nearly two weeks, and we were unlikely to see much movement on the plumbing project until we'd paid for the materials we'd already taken possession of. We then did a little more shopping in the square - nothing exciting though, unless you consider finding the best (in my opinion) bread in town in a panificio that we had not yet frequented. Their standard kilo of salted bread was amazing - the closest thing I've yet found to rustic English white bread with a very chewy and tasty crust. I'll definitely be a regular here now when time allows.

After a dog walk along the river we again headed home for lunch before starting work for the day.

This afternoon I'd decided I should plaster the shed-side of the now blocked up kitchen doorway before the plumber arrived wanting to fix pipes and solar 'kit' to it. I mixed up a bag of premixed render and trowelled on the scratch coat ready to put the top coat on Friday morning - this would be another of my 5 'urgent' jobs ticked off in one week, the first being to get the tractor under cover and the others being to repair the leaking roof window, get the inherited 3000 litre water tank cleaned out, placed up on the terraces and plumbed into the system so that we always have a reserve of 3000 litres of water to cover any outages in future, and to finish putting the inspection caps onto the waste pipes (a job that stalled the other week after finding one of the pipe runs stuck under a three-inch silver fir root, meaning I couldn't move or disconnect it to fit the aforementioned inspection caps).


My first job on Friday was to top-coat the blocked up doorway with render, and after a quick run into town for my thyroid blood test, that was exactly what I turned my attention to. Sue arrived for coffee around 9:35, so I joined her and Helen for a chat for half an hour before leaving them to catch up properly while I turned my attention to my plastering.

As lunch arrived and Sue left for home I had all but finished the plastering - it was on the wall and half rubbed up to a finish I just needed to wait for the bottom half to dry enough to finish the job so went indoors for lunch as it did its thing.

After lunch I pottered around in the driveway while Helen retreated into the office to knock out a few hours work in the hope that she could come and do some wood splitting in the afternoon when Dave and Sarah were coming over to give us a helping hand, knowing how much I'd been struggling with anti-depressant withdrawals earlier in the week.

I got the chainsaw out so that I could busy myself with logging some more of the acacia lying on the driveway ready for Helen to split later. Two tanks of fuel later we had a rather beautiful pile of logs waiting for an introduction to Mr Axe later on.

It wasn't long before Helen joined me with safety gear and said Mr. Axe, and set to work on the logs while I went back to finish the plastering work.

At around 3pm Dave and Sarah arrived in work clothing (thankfully, as within minutes Sarah was covered in muddy dog footprints courtesy of Reggie's enthusiastic greeting) and after a quick coffee we all went to work on the driveway. Sarah opted to grab hold of our second splitting axe and join Helen in wood splitting, while I set Dave up with a bucket of mortar and a trowel and let him loose on building up the rear of the wall behind the rain water tanks, the wall being the last remnant of the old chestnut drying building that was attached to the main farmhouse until a few years ago.

I had re-pointed the face of this wall and built it up some months back, but as yet hadn't finished the building part of the job so that I can set some tiles on the top to keep the rain water out, so Dave turned his hand to this while I did a little more organising in the shed before turning my attentions once again to the new flight of steps - a non-urgent job really, but I'm finding myself hooked on improving the parking area and side of the house in time for the holiday season.

We all worked until dusk fell, the rain staying away... just, at which point the girls had split almost the entire pile of logs I had cut earlier - a mammoth effort - and Dave had finished building up the wall, which is now only a couple of dozen roof tiles away from being finished, inching us ever closer to a presentable driveway and parking area. I found an old picture of parts of the car parking area on my phone this week and was quite shocked by the difference we have now made.

With darkness coming in quickly, we all put tools away and headed indoors to light the fire and have a quick glass of wine. The quick glass of wine turned into another glass, which turned into a lovely impromptu evening talking about life, the universe and everything until around 10pm when David and Sarah headed home to Vellano. We were sorry we couldn't offer them dinner in return for their efforts this afternoon, but as tomorrow is shopping day the cupboards were bare, we owe you one guys!!

Sunday 24 January 2016

We 'wood' welcome more weekends like this...

On Saturday morning we once again decided to rest Reggie and his healing leg, so after breakfast we left him in the house with a juicy ham bone and headed out into the cold morning to do a little bit of shopping.

After filling the car with methane we headed west towards Altopascio - a place that featured heavily in the early months of our Italian adventure as we regularly frequented the Mercatone Uno furniture store there, but which we hadn't had need to visit for many months. We also wistfully remembered the time we drove to Altopascio to meet the animal couriers who were bringing Florence and Lucca to us all the way from England - a happy time indeed. Anyway, today's trip was for a visit to the Brico DIY shop in Altopascio to attempt to acquire some blackboard paint.

Both Helen and I are list-makers and we would be lost without them. The thing here is that we have so much going on, and so many different lists floating around, that we struggle to stay organised and/or to stay on track - so Helen came up with the idea of having a blackboard somewhere, on which we could write all the jobs that need doing as and when we think of them (and rub them out when they have been completed). I thought this was a splendid idea - and it's something my friend Dodge had done in his house back in Abingdon, which served him and his family well.

After a little research on the internet we found that Brico had some blackboard paint for sale - there are Brico stores in both Altopascio and Montecatini, but for a change of scenery we decided to head west this time.

It was busy in the car park today and I had to resort to a very Italian style of parking, just abandoning the car and making our own parking space where none had existed a moment before!

We went and scoured the shelves for the paint we'd seen on the web but couldn't find it anywhere so in the end I resorted to asking a member of staff - who told us they had nothing like that in store. This had happened before - having seen an item for sale on the Obi website, but the staff claiming that nothing like it existed in the shop - so, feeling deflated, we returned to the car (which by now looked even more abandoned, 'Italian-style', than it had done ten minutes previously as the cars that had been parked next to it had now disappeared, leaving our car acting as a sort of traffic island near the exit of the car park - which I found quite amusing, yet another sign we're settling in?).

Having our hearts set on having a blackboard, we decided that we would take our chances and head to Montecatini to see whether the Brico shop there had any different stock.

Once again, we browsed the paint shelves with an ominous feeling - the range of stock looked identical to that in the Altopascio shop, and once again I had to resort to asking staff. This time, however, the guy turned to ask his colleague, who directed us towards the area of the store which contained all types of craft and art supplies.

After a quick scan we spotted a tiny bottle of blackboard paint! Not the 500ml can we'd seen on the web for €12 but a 80ml tube for €5, so less economic, but at least we'd found some and we walked away with three tubes.

With that done we headed to Pescia to get the food shopping done for the week before heading home for a bit of lunch in front of a fire - we were spoiling ourselves today, clearly! Talking of all things clear, the cloud cover that had made the morning so incredibly chilly had finally given way to clear skies during lunch, so we abandoned plans to do some cosy indoor jobs and instead changed into work clothes to go and tackle some of the acacia sitting in a heap in the car park.

I grabbed the chainsaw and Helen grabbed the axe, and together we set to work on the wood pile. After an hour I had cut enough logs ready for splitting to keep Helen - who was in a solid steady swing now - going while I went to the four post holes I'd dug yesterday to set the first four posts into concrete. It wasn't a difficult job, as the crude chestnut posts were 'au natural' (and by that I mean far from perfectly straight), so I just adjusted the posts to my eye, a spirit level would have been useless. The job would have been much quicker had I still had the use of my plaster and mortar mixer, but since that is still hanging up sadly in the shed in the hopes that I can find someone to take a look at it and fix it some time, it was a case of mixing in a large bucket with a shovel.

Once the posts were in, I went back to log cutting as Helen was starting to get low on logs, having worked her way through a huge pile already. And that was how we ended the afternoon, cutting and splitting, and when we finally went indoors to light the fire we felt like we'd earned a large glass of wine each, having made a noticeable dent in the mass of wood lying out there.

This crate had been standing in a bucket... which had filled with rainwater... which had frozen. This was the result!

End of play Saturday!

While I wrote up the epic blog for the week just gone, Helen put the first coat of blackboard paint on the wall between the kitchen and the office and we got the fire nice and toasty to combat the evening's falling temperatures.

Plain wall.

A blackboard!

Sunday is officially lie-in day, so we didn't surface until around 9am, and after dressing we headed out into a crisp and frosty morning beneath clear blue skies with Reggie in the back of the car. He was one extremely excited dog, about to go for his first walk since Tuesday, and he whined for the entire journey, the only reprieve being when we stopped in the village for coffee and pastries.

While we're on the subject of coffee and pastries, we often seems to come across articles about coffee etiquette in Italy, the 'do's and 'don't's, and a seemingly odd obsession with ex-pats about following these rules so that you don't stand out as a foreigner - completely overlooking the fact that the second a foreigner opens their mouth to order a coffee, they have given up their identity as a non-national regardless of whether they order a cappuccino after lunch or not! We don't care much about these rules ourselves - we're clearly foreigners and if we feel like a cappuccino after lunch then that's what we have (although strangely we increasingly seem to be moving towards the more Italian way of reserving milky coffees for the morning and sticking with the hard black stuff later on).

Anyway, despite all this advice on coffee we are yet to see a single word of advice on how to eat the accompanying icing-sugar-dusted pastry without wearing half of the sugar across your face and clothes and dropping the rest of it in an incriminating pile of sugary crumbs! Anyway, back to the story: we left the coffee bar, with me having much whiter trousers than when I went went in...

We parked up at our usual spot to do the chicken run walk and were greeted with bright sun and frosty river banks. It made for lovely morning walk, and Reggie was in his element after having missed out on a walk for several days prior.

Happy pup in the morning sunshine.

After our walk we headed home, stopping for what is now our traditional Sunday lunch from Amanda's. There's nothing traditional about the food stuffs involved, just the fact that we buy our lunch from her, so it depends entirely on what she has cooked that morning. Today we opted for pork escalopes in a tomato and caper sauce with the obligatory (for us!) rosemary roasted potatoes and a heap of peas cooked with pancetta. Unusually, we took a bag of dessert too: 'castagnolo col crema', which we'd been given to try when we walked in - basically small, doughnut-type affairs filled with a vanilla cream and dusted in icing sugar. Need we say more?

We then headed home for an early lunch so that we could once again get out in the sunshine to work on the wood pile for the afternoon.

After finishing the delicious lunch and eating a couple of the castagnolo with coffee, we tooled up and went back to work on the acacia pile.

We spent the entire afternoon in the sunshine. Helen barely took her hands off the axe for four hours, swinging and splitting like a pro and making an ever bigger pile of split wood for next winter, while I interspersed cutting logs for her with a bit of hole digging in readiness for another four posts to go in tomorrow so that I can then finally rebuild the machinery shelter with enough space for the tractor to have a nice new and most importantly dry home!

As the church bell tower in Pietrabuona struck 5pm, I sat and watched Helen split the last the lumps of wood, feeling extremely proud of her and her efforts - in the three afternoons that she has been out swinging the axe, she has single-handedly split almost as much wood as we have burnt so far this winter.

Once she'd finished, and with the sun setting, we both went indoors feeling hugely pleased with ourselves and the work we've done this weekend, nurturing an immensely satisfying feeling of accomplishment, yet again having earned a large glass of wine and possibly a little more to end the weekend - the sort of weekend we could happily take more of in the future!

Saturday 23 January 2016

Cold & icy

The overriding themes for this week have been the bone-penetrating cold and the lack of water - but we've also worked on getting ahead with our wood pile for next winter, which feels great!

Monday - the water men arrive!

After a whole weekend with no water in the house, and having sent an online fault report to the water company on Sunday evening, as well as Donatella having managed to call them from her house and speak to someone who actually knew our house and water meter, we were hopeful of seeing some progress on the water front, even if not actual water coming out of our taps.

We were preparing ourselves for another day or two without water - a prospect that in this weather was hard to bear (it's hard to decide whether it's worse being without water when it's freezing cold outside and the idea of plunging your hands into a bowl of ice-cold rainwater to rinse in is decidedly unpleasant, or whether it's worse in the middle of a heatwave when everyone gets hot and sweaty from even the merest exertion - we've now experienced both, and still can't decide). This led me to thinking about where Maslow would place 'water' if he had a hierarchy of household requirements - surely the primary function of a house is to keep the weather out, so number one must be walls and a sound roof. When it comes to the second most important requirement for a house, I couldn't decide between a water supply and a means of heating, but after talking it through with Helen we agreed that water, as a basic necessity of life, must come second - and warmth, by way of wood to burn, and to heat said water, would be easier to come by... we then laughed at the absurdity of a life in which we were fooled into thinking that having soft-close drawers was a basic necessity for a kitchen... a life that we left behind not so long ago.

Anyway, at around 9.15am on Monday morning, an engineer from Acque Spa. (the water company) arrived. I couldn't quite believe it, but boy was I pleased! This was far from the usual kind of time keeping we've slowly been getting used to from the laid-back Italians.

We had a brief chat and he told me that he'd already been to our meter (which is at the bottom of our hill and accessed from a track off the main road) and had found that the pipes were iced up. He wanted me to go down in the car with him to see for myself.

Sure enough, he disconnected the pipe from their side of the meter (it works the same here as in the UK, in that everything after the meter is our responsibility, and everything before it is theirs) and it was with relief that I saw that the pipe leading to the meter (i.e. their pipe) was frozen solid.

He told me that he suspected the pipe was frozen down into the ground too and some way along the mains, and also pointed out a one-metre section of our own pipe, which he said would also almost certainly be frozen.

He told me that he planned to go back to the office to speak to his boss with a view to starting work today - he wanted to bring back an excavator to dig out the earth and piping below it, and from what I could gather, put some sort of box or tank in the ground and re-do the pipework within it. This all seemed way too easy, but he whisked me back up the hill in his Fiat Panda and left me on the driveway wondering if I was still asleep and dreaming all of it!

By this time, Helen had disappeared in the car into Pescia for a coffee and catch-up with Sue, so I set to work on a new project for the week: re-building the area that was acting as a machinery storage area. The recent high winds finally put paid to the rather tatty-looking tarpaulin that was strung between the posts to protect the lawn mower, old generator and old cultivator, and not only was I keen to tidy the place up but I wanted to make somewhere for our new tractor to live out of the worst of the weather.

The first job was to clear the area so that I would have room to measure out and dig holes for new posts. This meant that I needed to move the old three-wheeled cultivator we'd inherited, so it was time to test out our tractor's pulling power for the first time. With a strong cord lashed to both the tractor and the cultivator, I slowly towed the old heap of metal along the driveway to a new, temporary home next to the wood pile - a job I couldn't have done without the tractor, so I was already feeling vindicated having spent the not inconsiderable sum of money on it!

Next it was manual labour with a shovel, digging out four new post holes for the rear posts, all the time dealing with lumps of local sandstone. Our local village (Pietrabuona) got its name ('good stone') for a reason, and don't I know it! Every time you want to dig a hole you can guarantee that you'll hit a lot of stone, and you just have to hope you don't hit anything immoveable. It's for this reason that I've started to favour steel fence posts - T-shaped in profile and no bigger that an inch across, it is much easier to drive them into the ground without hitting anything, and often if you do with enough 'wellie' you can even drive the posts through pieces of sandstone so long as they aren't too large. However, for this job the metal posts were not going to cut it - on previous, failed constructions these posts have bent either because of the wind catching the roof material or because of a build-up of water on the roof, so it was back to sinking a few posts into concrete again.

At around 11.30am, Helen messaged to tell me she was on her way home. Twenty minutes later there was no sign of her, and then another text message arrived, saying she was in a traffic jam! These have pretty much become a thing of the past for us since moving here, that combined with the fact that it was a short three-mile drive between Pescia and our village was puzzling.

Another half-hour later, she messaged again to say that she had managed to u-turn in order to head back to Sue's to wait it out - it had been 40 minutes of stationary queuing before she got the opportunity to make an about turn.

When she finally made it back home after watching the traffic clear from Sue's patio, it seemed that there might have been a gas leak, possibly due to the roadworks going along the road installing fibreoptic cable. We had until this point been blaming the very same roadworks for our lack of water, but as the water engineer explained our water now comes from a cistern way above San Lorenzo, so our supply line goes nowhere near the main road. This makes sense, of course, as to send water up from the town would involve some big pumps, whereas a cistern way above us allows gravity to do the work.

With Helen finally home we sat down to lunch before she headed into the office to do a few hours' paid work while I went back outside to continue digging holes and then loading the car to dump yet more rubbish at the bins as well as collect 20 litres of water from the roadside fountain so that we could at least wash dishes this evening.

While loading the car the guy from Acque called and told me he'd be back at around 14:15 to start work. After my trip to the bins, the water fountain and then Frateschi's to buy some materials I got home and took another phone call - this time it was Romeo, a guy who I'd first met when he came to our house to give me his opinion on whether a tractor or a mini-dumper would be suitable for our terrain and who I'd recently bumped into again at the restaurant in the village. I'd asked him to come and look at a clump of acacia trees I wanted taking down but was too worried about doing myself due to their proximity to the power lines. He was calling to say that he was in the village and would be here soon - I was starting to feel like a site manager, all this time on the phone dealing with workers and getting little done myself!

Romeo arrived shortly afterwards and instantly took an interest in the tractor ,so we chatted briefly about it but were soon interrupted by the Acque guy and his colleague arriving.

Mr Acque once again explained what he was about to start doing, but also told me that later I would need to pour boiling hot water down the pipes from somewhere near the house in order to melt any ice in the pipes further down. The Acque me then headed off to start digging - oh, for an excavator!

Romeo and I then climbed down the terraces to take a closer look at the trees and after much discussion and weighing up of the trees and which way they might fall, he said that most would not be a problem for him to cut, aided by his large tractor and winch, and that once the majority were out of the way we would be able to see more clearly the task involved in taking down the two or three amongst the electric cables.

After more tractor chat, he left saying that he would aim to come back on Thursday but would call me and keep an eye on the weather in the meantime.

It wasn't long before finishing digging my paltry four fence post holes that darkness began to fall so I put my tools away and went indoors to light the fire for the evening, feeling pretty satisfied with the day overall: despite not personally having done very much, a lot was happing on our behalf. Not only that, but the water had returned to the house just before 5pm! Showers all round!!

After lighting the fire I decided to dash down the hill to tell the guys that we'd got our water back, but all I could find were the trucks parked, and when I got to the meter I could just see the guys in their high viz clothing far into the woods across the river. As I turned back, I bumped into the neighbour whose house we have to drive behind in order to access our water meter. I'd met the son, Guliano, briefly in the summer (the last time we were having water issues), but now I was talking to his dad, Umberto, who lives in the same house.

Umberto turns out to be a lovely old guy, although he made no concession for my poor Italian despite me asking him to slow down! Nonetheless, we chatted for about 20 minutes, I say "chatted", but it was mainly one-way although I did manage to get a few questions in, and I grasped enough to glean that the factory at the very bottom of our hill (and behind his house) is now just a storage facility but previously used to manufacture metal fencing, and before that plastic plant vases.

I also learned that the small stone quarries on our land were in operation in a period as recent as shortly after the second world war, when apparently a stone mason lived and worked at our house.

While we were on the subject of the war, he told that as the Germans retreated up our valley towards the Gothic Line at the top of the valley, they destroyed the bridge in front of his house with explosives which damaged his house at the same time - he said that he has a photo of the damage that he would copy for us. As Bob Hoskins once said 'it's good to talk'!

Tuesday - water gone again/back again

On Tuesday I headed out first thing before breakfast to take Reggie for a walk as he'd missed out yesterday with all the site management and traffic issues, so we headed out to the chicken run for a good leg stretch.

When I got back I found there was no water in the house again, but I had seen on my travels that the guys from Acque were back and parked up at the meter again, so we guessed that they had probably just switched it off again while they worked.

I then headed out while Helen worked away in front of her computer. I needed to buy a pile of wooden posts with which to make the new machinery shelter. I had decided that crude chestnut posts would be a little more aesthetically pleasing (not to mention cheaper) than regularised, pressure and chemically treated posts. Not having seen any chestnut posts like this at the usual shops, I decided to try a new agraria that I had not yet used - Sorini at Chiesina, a place that I had passed numerous times on the way to the autostrada with piles of the very fence posts I was after.

I parked up and started to nose around but was soon pounced on by the owner (Mr Sorini maybe?). I told him I needed ten 3-metre posts and eight 2.5-metre posts and he went to load them into the car, examining each one and sorting through them as he did, trying to find the better posts - even finding a 'bello' one, beautiful!

I followed him into the shop and we chatted for a while about where Helen and I live and why we'd decided to come here, and he told me about his daughter who is going to England in February to learn English. A very nice guy and I'll be going back to his shop again soon, not least because my wellies have sprung a leak and he seemed to have large selection of them in the shop!

After lunch, Samantha arrived for Helen's weekly Italian lesson. While the girls talked Italian indoors I took the tractor down the driveway to collect some of the gravel that we've had piled up next to the gate for the last 12 months as I needed to put some into the post holes as drainage.

I shovelled a heap of gravel into the bucket on the back of the tractor before trundling slowly back down the driveway (hoping not to meet Samantha coming the other way!). As I parked the tractor up again, I marvelled at how much time and effort that one trip along the driveway had saved us - those who have walked the long walk down the 250 metres of driveway with a loaded wheel barrow (Jill & Mike, Louise, Noah, Nick & Tess...) will know that it's no easy task, and in just one trip I must have transported about 8 barrow loads. I figured the trusty tractor would be saving us a day and half or even two of labour, so it's starting to pay its way already and hasn't even seen a piece of wood yet!

Wednesday - soil pipes

On Wednesday morning it was the usual dash up to the hill to Vellano for our group Italian lesson, this week going over what I missed last week when I stayed at home with our visiting friend Dave: the passato prossimo (recent past). It was something of a slow lesson, but pennies did drop for all of us in certain places so it was another satisfying and as ever enjoyable lesson, and we were soon heading back home for an early lunch.

As it was another cold day, we lit the fire at lunchtime so that we could eat in comfort before both heading to work.

Frosty morning.

Normally, I might have headed out with Reggie at this point, but his charge along the river yesterday seemed to have aggravated a swelling on his left front ankle (wrist?), which we think he picked up after charging through the woods in pursuit of a deer last week. Although not noticeably bothering him or slowing him down, the swelling was quite significant so we decided that a couple of days of rest was in order - he just can't seem to do gentle walking, it's either charging around like a mad thing, or nothing!

So instead of dog walking I had the joy of 'playing' with our soil pipes - a job I had put off for way too long, for one reason or another, and one that was making me increasingly nervous as what happened in the apartment before Christmas is not something anyone should have to deal with more than once in their lives (if ever). As seems to be the way here though, there are always numerous tasks vying for attention and shuffling their way up and down the priority list, so it was only now that I got to have a look at improving the waste situation.

My plan was to completely replace the two 8-metre runs of 100mm pipe from the house to the drop down the first terrace (to the septic tank) but to add a fall to them in the hope of permanently fixing the problem. It wasn't until I'd spent an hour digging around the pipes and disconnecting a lot of it that I realised my plan wasn't going to work - the toilet waste that exits from the apartment is as high as the pipe can go, so I can't raise the pipes to add a fall. All I could now do was to add in a load of inspection/rodding access points at all elbows in the piping and commit to regular checks from here on in. A least with the new access points we would be able to clear any future blockages easily and without dismantling the pipes, so off I went on a shopping trip to Frateschi to buy all the bits and pieces needed.

As the light faded my enthusiasm went with it - it was freezing cold, the mains water had come back on after a third day of works down at the meter, and I had managed to reconfigure the pipework and fitted some of the new inspection caps, so I called it a day and went indoors for a much needed shower.

Thursday - timber!!

Thursday morning, as promised, Romeo called me around 10am to say he was on his way, and he soon rolled up in his 100 horse power diesel monster tractor, ready for business.

This monster makes our tractor look like a toy!
We were soon down amongst the acacia trees and Romeo quickly went to work dropping all the easy ones that were leaning away from the electric supply cables. Within half an hour there were about eight large trees all lying around the terraces and it was back to the top to use his tractor's winch to yank another two or three in the right direction while we cut them with a chainsaw. It's amazing how much easier things are with the right tools!

After winching a couple of large trunks up onto the driveway Romeo packed up and went for lunch at the local restaurant, leaving Helen and me to spend the afternoon trimming up the remaining felled trees and lugging all the large pieces we could manage by hand up to the driveway until it got dark and cold.

Friday - preparing for next winter

Romeo returned promptly on Friday morning, and he spent the morning dragging his winch cable down to trees on the terraces below, climbing back up to operate the winch, and then back down to repeat the process over and over until we had what he estimated to be around 60kg of wood on the driveway - maybe a whole winter's worth if we're lucky - we just just need to cut, split and store it all now, no small task!

After a brief chat in which Romeo apologised for not being able to tackle the last two or three trees that are entwined in power cables (his tractor is too large to get in front of the house in order to use the winch effectively) but suggested that the electricity company, ENEL, should come out and cut them for us because of how dangerous they are (cue a difficult call to ENEL in the near future), he disappeared once again the direction of the local restaurant for much needed sustenance.

After lunch, and with Reggie still on a walk ban as his ankle/wrist remained swollen, Helen and I spent the rest of the afternoon with axe and chainsaw tidying up the epic mess on the driveway, starting a fire along the way to burn the small branches as we tidied. We eventually ended up with a nice tidy pile of trunks on the driveway as darkness fell, and even managed to burn the old desks from the office, thus doing a little more tidying around the back of the house at the same time.

Helen's workstation for the afternoon - beats an office.
Tidying the car park.
The results of just a couple of hours' work.

Burn, baby burn.

When it got dark, we headed back indoors to get some heat into the house, shower, and settle down for the weekend ahead.

Sunday 17 January 2016

Highs and lows

The week just gone has been one filled with heartache: after 4 days at the veterinary clinic in Monsummano Terme, we lost our gorgeous little Lucca, aka Little Bear. He was taken from us way too soon and will leave an enormous hole in our lives.

Sleep tight our gorgeous, funny Little Bear. 

So, after a week that left us feeling wrung out and devastated, we were looking forward to a peaceful, quiet weekend in the winter sunshine, turning our attentions back to outside work. More fool us for having set our sights on a relaxing weekend - you'd have thought that after living here for a year and a half now we'd have learned that life is never quite that simple!

Saturday - ending on a high

I got up on Saturday morning, went to brush my teeth, turned the tap... and nothing came out. 'Here we go again,' I thought. We'd noticed over the previous couple of days that the water pressure seemed to be low, and now it seemed it had dropped right off altogether. Sure enough, the toilet cistern didn't fill, nothing came out the kitchen tap and only a very slow dribble came out of the taps in the apartment - most likely due to the pipes emptying rather than there being any flow of water from the main pipe. The previous evening the pressure in the pipes had dropped significantly, so it didn't come as a great surprise, although the lack of surprise really didn't help soften the blow.

Not wanting to get hot and sweaty without the prospect of a shower at the end of it, I shelved my morning's exercise and instead waited for Stuart to get up so that we could head out with Reggie. Of course we stopped at our local coffee bar Nerone for a cappuccino and a breakfast pastry each before heading further on to the river to the 'chicken run' walk. It was noticeably colder this morning than it has been in several weeks, and we bundled ourselves up against the cold to walk along the river bank.

Walk done, it was back to the house to scratch our heads over the lack of water. The last time this happened (just a couple of weeks ago), Stuart had been on the brink of fitting pressure gauges in the water pipe when the service resumed, so he hadn't ended up fitting them. This was now the perfect time to get those gauges in though, so while Stuart drove off down the hill to fit one of them at the water meter, I went to check on the chickens, fill up their food and water bowls, clean their 'poop deck' beneath their roost and collect the day's eggs.

By lunchtime, Stuart had pressure gauges fitted both at the meter and at the house, so we headed indoors to fuel ourselves and to crunch some numbers so that we could work out what was going on with the water pressure.

Down at the water meter, we had a reading of 4.7 bar; at the house, which is 44m higher than the meter (measured by GPS), the reading was just 0.25 bar. After some number crunching, we concluded that, in order to get 1 bar at the house, we would need 5.3 bar at the meter - so we were clearly low on pressure at the meter. Since there didn't seem to be anything we could do ourselves to rectify the problem, we did our best to turn our attention to other projects.

Low pressure at the meter.

Low pressure at the house.

Frustratingly, without the relative safety net of a shower at the end of the day, several jobs were ruled out. We were due to go for dinner with some new Italian friends in the evening (a somewhat daunting prospect), and didn't want to turn up looking and smelling like complete riffs, so both heavy manual labour (sweaty work) and bonfires (smoky work) were off the cards. While Stuart played around with the water pipes some more - taking the opportunity to re-route one of them, moving it from across the guest path/extension area to neatly along the side of the house, I went down to the vegetable beds and spent a couple of hours making a start on some much needed weeding.

As soon as the sun dipped behind the ridge opposite us, the temperature plummeted, so I headed inside to light the fire, while Stuart finished up arranging pipes until the plumber arrived with a delivery for us. Sadly this wasn't a plumber coming to fix our water supply (it doesn't really work like that here anyway), but the plumber who is going to make a start in a week or so's time on installing our new hot water system. The plumber had come to deliver the bulky shiny new hot water tank, which will live in one section of the shed along the side of the house, and which will hold enough hot water to feed the whole house. Exciting stuff - although, to be honest, even stone cold water coming out of the taps would be more exciting at this point in time...

By the time the delivery had been made (and Reggie had done his best to bark himself hoarse), we were heading towards needing to get ready for our night out and desperately wishing we could jump into a hot shower to prepare ourselves for the evening. Who needs fairy godmothers when you have great friends who can answer your wishes? As we sat contemplating the evening ahead, a message came through from David and Sarah who, aware of our plight, were offering the use of their facilities. No sooner had we accepted their generous offer than we were hopping in the car with our towels and wash bags and heading uphill towards Vellano.

We availed ourselves of the luxurious facilities at David and Sarah's house - a warm room, running water and a hot shower seemed like the height of luxury to us - and once clean and changed, we spent a lovely half hour or so chatting with our friends and sipping wine. Come 7.40pm, though, we could put things off no longer and, feeling apprehensive (or that might just have been me), we left David and Sarah's and headed off into the night to face the music: an evening surrounded by 8 Italians, only two of whom we barely knew! We had been thrilled to have received the invite, and we knew that it could only be a good thing, but the prospect of potentially having an entire evening speaking Italian was daunting to say the least (even though we knew that Mara speaks very good English).

We first met Mara and Franco, our hosts for the evening, in June 2014, at the bongo evening we went to at the pizzeria/bar in Goraiolo with Michelle and Richard. Since then we have bumped into both Franco (who, it turns out is the nephew of Antonio, the guy who we bought our chainsaw and hedge trimmers from) and Mara on a couple of other occasions, but never really had more than a brief chat with them. We found out several months ago that they had bought and moved into a house on the hill opposite us, above Pietrabuona, and on one of the occasions we'd bumped into her, Mara had promised to invite us over. We knew that we were not their only guests this evening, and had no idea who the other guests would be and how the language situation would pan out!

Although Mara and Franco live almost directly above Frateschi's builders yard in Pietrabuona, reaching their house by car involves taking the road towards Medicina before peeling off along a long track for almost a kilometre. Mara had instructed us to stop short of their house and park the car at a spot from where she would come and pick us up - and as we bounced down the steep, uneven track in her little Fiat Panda, we began to understand why!

On arriving at the house and stepping through the front door we were confronted with 7 broadly smiling faces (plus Mara, who had come in with us). I knew I'd never remember all of their names as I went around shaking all of their hands, but without exception every one of them gave us a warm, friendly welcome and seemed genuinely pleased to meet us. It turned out that both Mara and one of her friends speak exceptionally good English, which was a relief, but the rest of the party were more or less Italian-speaking only (with a bit of French thrown in, which I think was meant to be helpful when I told one of the non-English speakers that I knew some French, and he did too, but it had my head spinning in confusion - although I was pleased to find that my natural reaction appeared to be to respond to the French dialogue in Italian - that has to be some form of progress, right?!). Despite the language barrier, they were all very kind and patient and very keen to speak to us. We were pleased to find that we understood the majority of the conversation and with our shaky Italian, helped along every now and then by the English speakers in the party, we all got along famously. We had a truly wonderful evening - I felt as if I'd spent the entire night smiling and laughing. Not only was the company lovely, but we also found out that Mara and Franco are very much on the same wavelength as us. They moved into their old Tuscan farmhouse last May, they already keep bees and produce their own honey, and are working towards getting chickens, planting an orto (vegetable garden) using permaculture methods, clearing their overgrown land and basically living a simple, natural, self sustainable life.

I felt as if I'd never eaten as much in my entire life (although if truth be told it was more likely that I hadn't eaten as much since Friday morning when our chef friend Dave had cooked us brunch). We were treated to a delicious pasta dish with squash, followed by an evening of necci - chestnut pancakes. Franco busied himself with making the necci in the kitchen, which we ate with cold cured meats, with hot sausage, with ricotta cheese, and of course with Nutella. Just when I felt like popping, Franco came out of the kitchen for round two of the necci - the evening's main cultural event.

This time Franco tried making the necci in the traditional way: using flat stones that have been super-heated in the fire. Once the stones have been heated, they are piled up ready for action. The first is laid at the bottom of a metal frame, then damp chestnut leaves are placed on the stone, followed by a ladle of the pancake batter (literally just chestnut flour and water), followed by more damp chestnut leaves, followed by the next hot stone. The layers continue until all the batter/all the stones have been used up. The smell of the wet chestnut leaves heating up between the stones was incredible.

Franco layers batter onto chestnut leaves.

When enough time was judged to have passed, Franco began unloading the stones and we all held our breath as the first chestnut leaf sandwich was peeled open to unveil a perfectly cooked, beautiful pancake complete with pretty leaf imprint. Granted the texture of these was a little firmer than those cooked by the modern method, but we really liked the crispy bits and the flavour of these was noticeably more chestnutty than the modern ones. Everyone agreed that Franco's traditional-style necci were a great success!

After this, there was yet more for our ever expanding waistlines - coffee with panettone, crema, pineapple slices and grappa to follow! It was a delicious meal, but for us the real thrill of the evening was encountering the warmth, friendliness and generosity of such a lovely group of people and the prospect of two of them becoming real friends.

By the time Franco ferried us back up the rocky track to our car, it was gone 1am, the stars were bright and frost was glittering on the car. We hurried home to our cold house, gave Reggie a quick cuddle on the sofa before heading to bed - it had been the perfect end to what had started out as a largely stressful and frustrating day.

Sunday - from low to zero

After our late night, we had a lie-in until gone 9am this morning. Both tiredness and the chilly temperature of the room prevented us from venturing out of bed any earlier. Of course, the water hadn't magically reappeared overnight, so we braced ourselves for another day of drought and chasing around after a problem we hadn't foreseen.

First things first, we thought we'd wrap up warm and take Reggie out for a walk - it was the first hard frost we'd had since November and even by mid-morning the air was still bitterly cold. As we headed down the hill, I suggested we stop by the water meter to check the reading just to see if there had been any change in pressure overnight. So, while Stuart waited in the car, I hurried up the bank to our meter - to find the gauge reading zero, zilch, niente. This was considerably worse than the situation had been yesterday and our half-hatched plan to botch things by buying a pump to help get water up to the house went straight out of the window as there was clearly no water in the system to pump!

A chilly zero pressure.


We carried on to the village for our regular pre-walk stop at Nerone's for coffee and a croissant before continuing into Pescia, where we walked along the river in the opposite direction from normal.

Next, we tackled the supermarket - we'd not managed to fit this particular chore in yesterday, but thankfully we managed to get in and out without too much hassle. Finally it was our regular Sunday stop at Amanda's to see Amanda, Samantha and their parents, to buy our lunch and of course to collect my homework from Samantha. After a good chat with them all, we headed home to heat our lunch of pork escalopes in mushroom sauce, breaded chicken in tomato sauce, a delicious mix of vegetables in garlic and of course some roast potatoes,

Once lunch was out of the way, it was time to try and work out what to do with the rest of the afternoon. Stuart attempted to phone Acque, the water company, to report the lack of water at our meter, but found that the '24-hour' free phone number ('free from a landline or a mobile') was indeed totally free - because it didn't work. Feeling frustrated, we went to find other things to occupy our time.

Before that, though, we heard a car draw up - it was Paul, who was passing on his way back from Pescia and had called in to say hello. We had a good chat and catch-up with Paul and learned that his wife, Kathy, will be coming out again soon, so we look forward to seeing them both before too long.

Finally, it was time to pick up our tools. With the temperature still decidedly on the chilly side (there was still frost in the shade), we chose to spend the afternoon working in the sunshine on the vegetable terraces, weeding, re-laying the ground cover fabric that had come loose in the wind, and starting the long process of preparing the beds for planting.

Once again, the temperature plummeted the minute the sun started to dip below the ridge of the hill opposite, so we came indoors to light a fire and warm up. Not long after we'd lit the fire, Donatella arrived - having heard about our water problems, she'd offered to help with contacting the water company. That was another offer we certainly weren't going to turn down. However, Donatella too found that the free-phone 24-hour number didn't work - so she helped us file an online report of the problem which we hope someone will find, look at and respond to!

So, we have now been without water for nearly 36 hours - the longest spell we've ever had with this particular problem. There are reasons to be thankful - it's a good job it's not roasting hot, it's a good job we don't have vegetables in the ground to water, it's a good job we don't have guests staying with us at the moment, and we are forever grateful to our generous friends - both those who have helped us out and those who have offered. Nevertheless, this particular 'challenge' is beginning to lose its novelty, so we wait to see what this week brings!

Sunday 10 January 2016

Dark skies for a dark week

This week's weather has been grey, damp and oppressive - weather that really befits our mood over recent days, which have seen us making 4 trips to the vets, lots of waiting in crowded, overheated waiting rooms, and receiving some very bad news about our beautiful little boy cat Lucca. As I write this, we still await further news, but the prognosis is not good for our poor poorly little bear.

We'd already written blogs for the first part of the week, so...

Monday saw a return to 'normal' life, whatever that means. For Helen it means a regular stint in front of the PC each day and today, with the 10 days of rain arriving as promised, I joined her in the office, but largely to do more tidying. By 'tidying' I mean throwing away lots of the stuff 'that might come in useful one day', as without a loft space for storing junk we have to think long and hard about what we keep in the house. Ruthless was the name of the game and the end result was another pile of rubbish out on the driveway awaiting a trip to the bins - but with round one of de-cluttering done, all of the tools now housed in the new shed and two new desks assembled, the office was really starting to look like a nice room. We have some way to go yet before it's finished, but the overall result was pleasing.

Later in the day we had to head into town as we had avoided the weekly food shop at the weekend, and with little else but leftover Christmas chocolate to eat, we begrudgingly decided to go and do it, and to take Reggie along for a walk afterwards.

Fortunately, very few others seemed to have had the same idea, the supermarkets were almost blissfully quiet and we were soon walking in the pouring rain along the river, Reggie making a show of his rain coat for this first time in maybe a year. Luckily it still fits (somehow), although the rain still put paid to his enjoyment and he often came and walked in between us, sheltering under the umbrella for a while.

It was then back to the office to continue the day as we'd started, so there's little of interest to tell you about for the rest of the first day back at the coal face.

On Tuesday it was raining again, so we both headed to the office once again, and while Helen worked at her day job, I continued to make small gains in the office tidying (Dave Brailsford would be proud of me).

After lunch we had the usual tidy up of the living room before Samantha arrived for Helen's Italian lesson. It's quite staggering how much mess one bored dog can make: the living room/kitchen floor was covered in muddy footprints from Reggie going outside to run around and bark on the lawn, the sofa was in a similar state, half of the kindling sticks had been removed from their basket and were laying chewed and strewn around the floor amidst three blankets that he had removed from his bed next door and dragged through to the other room to play with, not forgetting some cardboard boxes he'd taken out of the recycling bin and torn to shreds, and half a dozen toys littered around.

Poor Samantha yet again got her usual barky welcome but Reggie soon settles these days, very quickly going in close for a few sniffs before settling down for a snooze on the sofa (perhaps learning some Italian in his sleep), we'll get there eventually.

Once Samantha had left there wasn't much more daylight left in the grey day, so I rekindled the fire I'd lit earlier and we got settled in for the evening after doing another couple of hours in the office.

While at my computer I received a couple of emails from Amazon saying that their courier had attempted to deliver a couple of parcels around 1.30pm today but had been unable to deliver them - this was strange as we had been in all day, and the Amazon courier always now comes to the house. I punched the tracking number into the courier's website to find a status that said both packets had been delivered! 'Here we go again...' I thought.

Helen suggested I tried checking the post box at the gates. By this time it was pouring with rain and pitch black, so I lazily took the car keys so I could drive down to the gates. I ran to the car, swung open the door ... and almost sat on two parcels from Amazon! The courier had obviously been bibbing his horn, and since we hadn't heard him from the kitchen while eating lunch, he'd decided to put the parcels in our other 'postbox'. Full marks to the courier for ingenuity.

Relieved to not have to deal with yet another parcel drama, I went back indoors to find out what had been delivered: a new humane mouse trap, and our new wildlife camera - bought with money given to us for Christmas by Helen's Mum and Dad.

While I read the instructions for the camera, Helen went to work making us a Thai red curry with the paste and coconut milk very kindly given to us by our new friends Paul and Kathy from their own precious stores.

We eventually sat down to a DELICIOUS home-grown pumpkin and cima di rapa Thai red curry. I hadn't quite realised how much I was missing a bit of spice! This meal certainly sated that craving, but not before I'd finished the leftover curry (pumpkins are quite large) on a sandwich (you can take the boy out of Birmingham...).

As is now custom, on Wednesday morning we headed up to Vellano for our weekly 'team' Italian lesson with David, Sarah and our teacher Johnny Ferrari (yes that really is his name).

But before that, at breakfast time Lucca had given us some cause for concern, he had seemed rather under the weather on Sunday: normally he wakes us up around half six for breakfast then wants to go out but on Sunday he'd showed no interest in either and seemed rather subdued, as well as having an odd-looking eye.

Later that day he started twisting his head to the extreme left when we went near him, it was as if he was in huge pain from some invisible force, which was hard to watch. This is how he remained on Monday until the evening, when he perked up a bit and seemed to be more like his usual self, and on Tuesday morning even more so - surely on the mend we hoped, and he seemed in much better spirits each time we checked in on him.

However, things took a nosedive on Wednesday morning when Helen went to feed the cats and Lucca, on simply trying to turn around, fell over having lost his balance completely.

On the drive up to Vellano we decided to get in touch with Alessandra, our new vet, to see when she could see little Lucca. Unfortunately, Alessandra was busy today with physiotherapy clients who were coming to see her all the way from Milan, but she arranged for us to see her colleague at midday instead.

After a prompt exit from our Italian lesson - which, as usual, was both immense fun and more than a little demanding - we dashed home to pick up Lucca and take him straight to the vet. It was only after leaving the vet that we realised how lucky we were to have found the surgery open today - the 6th January is both the feast of epiphany and 'Befana' day (a bank holiday in Italy). Befana, as I believe the story goes, is a benevolent witch who met the three kings as they were on their way to Bethlehem. They asked her to join them on their journey but she opted to stay behind and sweep her floors instead and has spent every night of the 5th of January ever since kicking herself for not going with them, and she now flies around the skies trying to find the kings, while doing so delivering sweets and cakes to well behaved children, and coal to those who are less well behaved.

An odd story, but I can't help wonder if it is coincidence that so many Italian women fastidiously sweep outside their houses and front doors!

Anyway, after an examination, during which the vet put Lucca on the floor to see if he'd walk and all he did was walk around in a tight circle to the right (something we'd not noticed before), it all started to look like really bad news. The vet suggested they keep him for the afternoon to take and test his blood for parasites as she suspected it to be a brain related issue so we did just that and waited for their call later in the day.

After lunch I took Reggie out for a walk, leaving Helen to do some work in the office, and while we were out the vet called to let me know that they already had the results of the blood tests. The good news was that the blood tests were all clear, the bad news was that the symptoms all pointed towards a neurological problem.

Helen and I spent the next two hours working in the office until it was almost five and time to go back into Pescia to collect poor Lucca.

This time we were greeted by a third lady vet, who took us in and in fairly slow Italian explained our options - not easy to follow at our level of Italian, but we managed to grasp that our choice at this stage was either to try him on a course of steroids and antibiotics to hopefully cure an inner ear infection (a possible cause of these symptoms) or to go straight to a specialist neurologist in Monsummano Terme, the far side of Monetcatini Terme. We decided try the drug treatment first, so the vet went to fetch two syringes and gave Lucca his first dose of both, as well as giving us tin of high calorie cat food, and then we held our breath while she wrote out a prescription for Lucca and then totalled up the bill.

We had been given an estimate earlier for the visit and the examination of €105, and since then we had a full blood work-up, two shots and a tin of food, all on a bank holiday, so we were more than pleasantly surprised when she asked for the same €105 and then rounded it down to €100 because we only had €120 and she didn't have change. I dread to think how much that little lot would have cost us back in the UK.

We then took little Lucca home where an hour or so later the steroids seemed to be working wonders and he was almost like his old self again, meowing a lot and eating plenty too.

Unfortunately, despite having seemed brighter and much more like his normal self all day on Thursday, eating heartily, moving around more normally, and even being playful, Lucca took a nosedive on Thursday evening. We didn't realise until we headed upstairs to bed that our poor little boy was hiding underneath the bed in considerable discomfort, panting. This was a clear sign of something being very wrong, so despite the hour, Helen shakily telephoned one of the two emergency vet services in the area - the one she called happens to be the same clinic in Monsummano Terme as our vet had talked about referring us to for a neurological assessment.

Having managed to get through and speak to a vet, who was happy for us to bring Lucca in, we grabbed coats and got into the car to drive the 35-minute journey through the dark and the rain to Monsummano Terme. Very helpfully, Donatella had sent us through a set of directions for finding the surgery after Helen had called her and asked for help. We definitely wouldn't have found the place without directions even if we'd been calm and collected and driving in daylight hours, so there would have been no hope whatsoever in the dark, in our tired and anxious state. We arrived at about 11.40pm, saw the on call vet, and were there for about an hour. After examining Lucca, the on call vet gave us the same diagnosis as the vet in Pescia had given us, and suggested that she keep him at the clinic so that one of their specialist neurologists could check him over in the morning. We finally left the clinic at about 12.30am, having left a hefty deposit on the estimated amount we would eventually owe them for the examination and tests, and drove home, arriving back at 1am to fall into bed for a fitful sleep.

Since then, we have made two more trips to the clinic in Monsummano Terme - one on Friday and one on Saturday. The incredibly kind and patient Donatella has given up hours of her time to accompany us to the clinic on both occasions, to help with the language, has telephoned the clinic on our behalf for updates in between visits, and has sat (or stood) with us in a chaotic, overcrowded, overheated waiting room waiting for well over an hour to be seen by the vet on each visit. The clinic at Monsummano Terme is famous for its neurological work, and people come from far and wide to visit the specialists here, but where its expertise and treatment facilities excel, the waiting area certainly leaves a lot to be desired - noise, chaos and disarray were our overriding impressions - not a helpful environment for anxious owners and certainly not a pleasant environment for poorly and frightened animals. We were thankful that, having arrived at close to midnight, Lucca was spared the chaos of the busy waiting room.

We dearly wish we had some positive news to report about our poor little boy, but we have been told that Lucca is in a very serious condition and that his prognosis is not good. He was given an MRI under anaesthetic on Saturday, which we were warned he may not come round from, and although he did come round, his condition remains critical. We await news on Monday to see whether he has responded at all to drug treatment - if he has shown any improvement there will be further investigations as to the cause of the significant intercranial swelling he is suffering from, but even then the prognosis remains poor. If he hasn't shown any improvement, we will of course have to do the kindest thing and let our poor 'Little Bear' go peacefully. We have spent the weekend feeling just like the weather - dark and grey, teary, and very, very sad.