Sunday 24 April 2016

Tick tock

Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock... that's the sound of the time counting down until our next apartment guests arrive - 20 days to be precise. It's nice to know that in 20 days' time the apartment will be pristine and looking more beautiful than ever before. In those 20 days, however, we have something of a mountain to climb.

The to-do list for the apartment alone now reads something like this:

  • Fill and point in the beams
  • Put kitchen cupboards back up
  • Block up and plaster the tops of the walls
  • Plasterboard, fill and sand the lower parts of the walls
  • Re-point the section of stonework that will be exposed
  • Clad a steel beam
  • Fit new lights
  • Re-make the shelves/repair damaged shelves
  • Finish concreting in the gaps around the edge of the utility room 
  • Put some sound-absorbent material down in the office to cut down noise from above
  • Paint everywhere in the apartment
  • Launder all soft furnishings
  • Clean
On top of that we are trying to juggle getting our seedlings out into the veg beds before they all outgrow their pots in the polytunnel, sorting out the irrigation for the veg beds to keep the seedlings we've planted alive, trying to get the rain water collection system up and running before another dry summer, fighting the mile-a-minute grass to keep the terraces tidy, sorting out the roof of the tractor park before the something gets damaged by the weight of the rain pooling on top... and what seems like a million and one other pressing jobs. We seem very adept at adding tasks to our to-do list - for example, over the next 24 hours we need to build a new set of steps from the drive up to the section of terracing adjacent to the chicken enclosure. More on that later though.

The main theme of this week has been electrics. That and a lot of help from friends.

On Wednesday evening the state of our electrics was, well, a picture speaks a thousand words:

And this explains why we spent 27 hours from Wednesday evening through to Thursday without any electricity.

Stuart had originally decided to re-wire the somewhat crazy lighting system in the apartment (to give you some idea of how confusing it was, we have had some guests who, at the end of their week-long stay, have told us that they never managed to find the switch for the main light in the bedroom). This proved to be a little more tricky than he had at first envisaged, and while he was to-ing and fro-ing with circuit diagrams and scratching his head, he decided he might as well put in a new consumer unit as well, putting in separate units for the apartment and our part of the house. This makes a lot of sense as until now, the consumer unit for the whole building has been in our house, so if something tripped in the apartment, it had to be reset up here: not good if guests trip something when we’re not in! So, from deciding to put a new consumer unit in to realising that this was actually an even more complicated job than it seemed (which was already complicated enough) is how we ended up in the state shown in the picture above.

What do you do when you don't know a huge amount about electrics and you're in a fix? You call on the help of your electrician friend Paul, of course! Unfortunately, not only does Paul live in a different country, but this week he was also out of that country - working at an event in the Netherlands, in fact. Well, thank Crunchie for telephones and the internet (and in particular for being able to use data to access the internet on your mobile when your regular internet connection is down because you have no electricity). Through the magic of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, Paul and Stuart were able to exchange messages, and on receiving the SOS, Paul guided Stuart via countless messages through the whole process - enabling him to accomplish what he had set out to achieve and enabling us to restore electricity supply to the house. We owe you BIG TIME, Paul - there's a bottle of Prosecco or two with your name on them when you visit!

It's like Lego for grown-ups. Only with a greater element of danger.
Shiny and new. And connected.

There was also help from much geographically closer friends this week: as a group, David, Sarah, Donatella, Stuart and I have decided to start up our 'community days' again. Stuart and I were lucky enough to be first on the rota for a day's labour, so at 9am on Thursday morning it was all hands on deck. A few days previously, Stuart and I had perused our ever-growing, every-nagging, ever-stress-inducing to-do list and decided that the task we would ask for help with was clearing the area at the end of the driveway in preparation for the imminent arrival of 30+ bee hives.

As a team, therefore, the five of us spent 5 hours chopping, strimming, raking and burning, and by lunch time the two areas designated for bees - the 'dead deer head' clearing on one side of the drive and the flat area on the opposite side of the drive next to the gates - were looking beautifully clean and clear. We were really pleased with what we'd all achieved - it's definitely true that many hands make light work.

Donatella's dog, Ray, with the evidence of why we call it the 'dead deer head' clearing.

Given how pleased we were with the results of community day, it came as a blow when we realised on Friday that, with the way things look likely to pan out next week, we won't actually be able to use these two spots for the bee hives, and we need to find an alternative location. Unfortunately two things have come to fruition at the same time: the arrival of the bees (carefully planned to coincide with the blossoming of the acacia trees) and the long awaited start of much needed repair work on our drive. Angelo, the builder, has an excavator booked to arrive on Tuesday evening, with digging due to commence on Wednesday, followed by laying of new concrete, after which the drive must be a traffic-free zone for two days while the concrete dries. Clearly, the workmen don't want to be spending their day working up close to 30+ bee hives, so putting the bees in situ before the work starts is not an option. The problem with waiting until after the work has been done is that the acacia trees are already beginning to come into blossom, and a delay of another week is too long (the whole point of having the bees sited here is specifically so that they can collect acacia pollen).

Thankfully, it didn't take us too long to find another suitable spot for the bee hives: the area of terracing adjacent to the chicken enclosure, which we cleared in the autumn. The area is perfect for the hives, the only problem being access: there is none, other than scrambling up the bank, which clearly isn't going to be viable for installing 30+ bee hives. We explained the situation to Alain, who came to visit us on Saturday to assess the suitability of the new spot and approved. The problem now is that we need to create a set of steps from the drive to the terraces - and we need to do it in the next 24 hours as Alain needs to bring the bees either tomorrow or Tuesday as after that the drive will be out of action until the weekend!

Plan B for the bees.

As gutted as we are by the fact that we all spent so much time and effort clearing the area at the end of the drive, we can only look on the bright side and say that it wasn't for nothing. For a while we have been trying to find a suitable location for another wood storage area, so that we can stockpile and store wood a year ahead of needing it, and the newly cleared and cleaned up areas at the end of the drive will be perfect for this. So, while it's frustrating to feel as if we squandered all of our help from community day on a task that hadn't yet even made it to the bottom of our priority list (especially when we have so many other pressing tasks) and it's frustrating that we've also added a task to our urgent to-do list, all is not entirely lost.

Over the weekend, we have pushed hard on the jobs in the apartment, with Stuart tying up the electrics and starting to build up the walls, me staining the new beams, and in-filling the gaps between the beams and the ceiling with bits of broken tile and mortar (I had to question myself going to the rubble pile and bringing bits of rubble back into the apartment, but at that point I realised how fortunate it was that we had a ready-made pile of pieces of cotto to use for infill).

We've been flat out pretty much all weekend - with a short break for a visit from our friends Mara and Franco this afternoon for a quick catchup and a tour of our projects.

With 20 days to go and counting, we expect to be flat our for the foreseeable future. No matter how busy we are though, we can never fail to appreciate our beautiful surroundings, even when it's been raining and thundering for most of the day:

Sunshine, rain, clouds, mist, thunder.

Monday 18 April 2016

Relaxation.. swiftly followed by frustration and anxiety! (What were we thinking?!)

This week started out with some relaxation in celebration of Stuart's birthday, but that was swiftly followed by frustration and anxiety about the tremendous amount of work there is to do and the number of urgent jobs on our to-do list. It comes as something of a disappointment that, almost two years in, we are still fire-fighting (in the figurative sense), with urgent jobs jostling up and down on our to-do list vying for our immediate attention! We also recognise the importance of allowing ourselves some down-time, time to rest, to enjoy our surroundings and look after ourselves - but that does become difficult when there's a nagging long list of chores on our mind.

We are hopeful (ha!) that by this time next year things will be more straightforward. The major complication and additional stress at the moment is the renovation of the apartment ceiling - a huge undertaking that shouldn't need to be done again for a very long time, and we don't think there can be (m)any more nasty surprises lurking around the place to try and trip us up. We have a deadline for the completion of the apartment ceiling as we have guests coming in just under 4 weeks' time. The idea of the apartment ever looking pristine and beautiful again is a fair stretch of the imagination at the moment, but we know that it will and that in fact it will be far more beautiful than ever before, with the traditional chestnut beams and cotto tiles exposed in the bedroom and even an exposed section of the original stone wall (which will have been repointed). Progress on the apartment has stalled a little this week though - it's frustrating how easily these things can be sent off-course - partly because we took Monday off to celebrate Stuart's birthday, partly because Stuart has recommenced some of his gardening work this week. Throw in a couple of Italian lessons and a tricky problem with trying to decipher and understand lighting circuit diagrams (we are now at the point where Stuart needs to sort out the electrics and lighting in the walls/ceiling of the apartment before we can move forward with any more of the restoration) and we have a week without progress! 

In an attempt to galvanise our efforts we have started both getting up a little earlier, and continuing to work outdoors until later in the evening so that we can attempt to fit more into the day. I have taken on the responsibility for strimming the terraces while Stuart concentrates on other tasks - at the moment the grass and everything else in between seems to grow before our very eyes, and strimming seems a little like painting the Forth Bridge. We're also becoming painfully aware that the more terraces we clear... the more strimming and maintenance there is to do. The terraces that we cleared over autumn/winter are already starting to be reclaimed by nature (bramble, bracken), so we need to take action quickly to put a stop to that!

Of course our seedlings have been thriving in the warmth of the polytunnel, to the point of some of them (mainly the beans and zucchini) almost outgrowing their pots, so we decided to dedicate the latter part of Saturday (after a morning dog walk, supermarket trip, trip to the garden centre, then a few hours strimming and puzzling over the electrics in the apartment) to digging some new beds for climbing beans and preparing some of the old beds for more things to be planted out. Once again we were frustrated by our slow progress - we knuckled down and spent the day grafting, yet by the end of the day we felt we had only underlined how much more work there is to do!

We were lucky enough to be given a car load (literally!) of plants this week: raspberries, a raspberry and blackberry hybrid, a grapevine, irises, sage, peonies, camellia, and several redcurrants. We were contacted by Claudia, our neighbour Mara's friend, who we had met last weekend when we went to see Mara and Franco and their bees. Claudia (a charming friendly German lady who has lived in Italy for over 20 years and lives just outside Pescia with her Italian husband and three delightful young girls) has a passion for plants and growing, but is slightly limited with space and wanted to pass some plants on to us in the hopes that we will be able to accommodate and nurture them. We were expecting to come away with a couple of raspberry plants and maybe one or two others but we literally came home with an entire car-ful of greenery. We had a bit of a panic over where to put everything (not having planned to fit all these things in) but eventually managed to get almost everything safely in the ground - so now we just hope that it all survives the transfer of homes and ownership.

We had a brief visit from our almost-next-door neighbours on Friday afternoon. We have met Valerio before, but this time he was accompanied by his wife - they had decided to take a stroll together and decided to come and visit. Of course Reggie did his best to try and drown out any conversation with barking, but our generous neighbours didn't seem to mind too much as they wandered round the garden admiring our view and plants.

It must have been the week for visitors as Stuart also met an old chap on our driveway. On asking if he could help him, the man shrugged and said no thanks... it seems he was on a hunt for mushrooms. However, Stuart engaged him in conversation and found out that he had grown up in the village - Stuart asked him if our house and land had always been as it is now, to which the man replied 'no!', telling him that it used to be a vineyard... Which is a bit of a turn-up for the books. Of course, this is only the story from one man and the conversation took place in stilted Italian, so we can't be 100% certain, but it's certainly very possible given that we have found vines growing on several of the terraces that we have cleared (both above and below the house) and that we have found a couple of large iron barrel hoops in the undergrowth - the sort that would have gone around large wine barrels.

We ended the week with a visit to the local agricultural school for its annual agricultural fete, 'Naturalitas'. We went to the same event last year with our friends the Phillipses and had a lovely time wandering around all the stalls, tasting the wine and buying plants (and willow baskets and soaps). This year, it seemed as if everyone we know in Italy was going to be at the fete and had asked us if we were going. We arranged to meet up with our neighbours, Mara and Franco, at the fete, and told everyone else that we would see them there - and indeed we did! We spent most of the time with Mara and Franco, but also ran into Claudia, Massimo and their girls, as well as Mara's friends Sylvia and Fabio who we'd met back in January and our 'actual' neighbours Valerio and Roseanna. We also spent some time with our friends Paul and Kathy from Castelvecchio, and David, Sarah and Donatella. To almost complete the set, we bumped into Sue and her friend just as we were leaving the fete. What a difference a year makes - when we went last year we had a lovely time wandering around with Chris and Sue (and we bumped into Donatella, Alex, David and Sarah, who we didn't know then quite as well as we do now) and marvelled at how many people they seemed to know and were awed by how many people they spoke to in Italian. This year, we once again came away with a warm fuzzy feeling, this time happy to know so many friendly faces and thrilled to have spent a large part of the afternoon conversing in Italian. Far from perfect Italian, of course, but it's an incredible feeling be able to laugh and share jokes with our neighbours and their friends in another language. They are, of course, very patient and forgiving of our mistakes, and it's only because we feel comfortable and relaxed in their company that we are able to do this (put me in front of the surly man in the post office and I will clam up, unable to recall a single word of Italian). We are hoping that Mara and Franco will be able to spare the time to come over to our house very soon so that we can show them some of what we are doing here and start to repay some of their kind hospitality. 

A birthday barbeque.

Pepper, courgette and grilled cheese bruschette.

Birthday beer.

Birthday boy.

This is how sweet chestnut trees begin their journey! Self seeding on our driveway.

Literally a car-ful of plants!

The camellia in its new home.

We hope to train the grape over the archway of the gate.

If you live in the UK... this was the day you had snow this week. Sorry.

20C already at 10am.

Spring is in full swing. Mid to high 20sC and terraces to strim.

The potatoes are thriving on the home-produced compost.

Beans planted out!

We never tire of this view.

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Time runs away

We had all good intentions of bringing you a blog over the weekend, but time ran away with us - largely thanks to a lovely social day spent with our Italian "neighbours" Mara and Franco across the valley from us, who invited us to go over on Sunday afternoon to observe their weekly inspection of their 30 bee hives. We did exactly that, then followed that with a glass of Prosecco with them and another lovely set of their friends (well, it would have been rude to refuse, wouldn't it?), and after a quick time-out to dash home to feed Reggie and Florence, we went back to their house for a pizza and a thoroughly enjoyable evening chatting with Mara and Franco. It was a fantastic day and possibly the best excuse yet for not having got around to writing the blog - as well as being great fun, it felt like a whole afternoon and evening's worth of Italian lesson with friendly, like-minded people, which you really can't put a price on!

Anyway, we plan to bring you more details about the bees and what we learned about them in the near future, but for now, since we know there will be some of you wondering where we've got to... here are a selection of photos from the last week.

The dominant theme of the week was the deconstruction/reconstruction of the office floor/apartment ceiling - which again is something we plan to write about in more depth in future. Stuart's back started to suffer rather badly at the start of the week, which meant that I really got stuck in with a lot of the chiselling, all of the concrete mixing (around 900kg of it), and a large part of the emptying of the apartment of rubble (with some very welcome help from the ever generous and ready-to-get-stuck-in David).

Half the office done, with the half nearest the window remaining to do.

The next quarter taken up, new beams being laid.

New tiles going down

Concrete laid.

Final quarter being taken up.

Sate-of-the-art air con.

This was the mess in the apartment down below.

Looking up!
There is still a fair amount of work to do on the apartment ceiling before it's finished, but we do at least feel as if we've finally broken the back of the most labour-intensive and messiest part of the job.

Meanwhile, down in the poly tunnel, seedlings have been growing apace:

And on Friday, we took delivery of a new batch of tiger worms to re-start our worm composting. Our friends Paul and Kathy, from Castelvecchio, had kindly ferried them over all the way from the UK for us in their car, and they all arrived safe and sound and full of wiggle! We've already set them to work on eating their way through some of our food scraps and eagerly await the compost.

Last week was another week of lovely spring weather. As a point of interest, in Italian there are no words to differentiate between varying levels of heat. A searingly hot 38C day in the height of summer is described as 'calda', and exactly the same word is used to describe a gently warm spring day of around 18C - 'calda'. You can say "e una temperatura gradevole" - "it's a pleasant temperature" - but there are no words to differentiate between 'warm' and 'hot'.

When we last visited our friends Mara and Franco it was the middle of winter (January) and it was dark, so we didn't have the opportunity to look back at the view from their side of the valley (the hillside that we spend so much of our time looking out onto from our terrace), so it was an interesting drive to their house, taking in the view of the valley from a different perspective - and admiring our neat-looking terraces from afar!

Spot our house.

The village from a different angle.

The view from Franco and Mara's terrace.
So, that's all for now, but there will be more on our bee-keeping lesson to follow in the near future. Watch this space!