Sunday 29 May 2016

Business as usual

It was back to business as usual this week - that is, the business of new, frustrating problems presenting themselves in amongst trying to fit in the daily routine of work, dog walking, Italian lessons, the upkeep of the vegetable garden, chickens and bees, and all the jobs on the never-ending to-do list.

We are fighting an ongoing battle with the septic tank, which seems to be struggling to work properly (although I should respectfully point out that it has been Stuart who has done all of the (very)dirty work so far) - and scratching our heads as to exactly how the system was fitted (other than the obvious: badly). After a long chat with Paolo, the owner of Frateschi, the builders' merchant (and who likely supplied the parts for the system to be fitted in the first place, 7-8 years ago), Stuart is fairly confident that he can fix the issue without us having to fork out thousands of euros for a whole new system (a worrying prospect that has been on the cards) - but you can imagine that the fix will be laborious and considerably, well, unpleasant work.

It’s clear that the drain-off pipe from the tank isn’t functioning properly, and it’s possible that even the soil in the leach field has failed because it’s become so clogged up after years of use and abuse of the system without the tank having been regularly pumped. Paolo’s suggestion is to fit a new drain-off pipe and run it off in a different direction, which should resolve that issue. However, another contributing factor to the problems is concerned with the fact that our system has two tanks – a degreaser and the tank itself. It’s only the toilets that are meant to drain directly into the tank itself. All other drains (sinks, washing machines, showers) are meant to go first into the degreaser to remove soaps, grease etc. before continuing on to the septic tank, as the soaps etc. can kill the good bacteria in the tank. Well, it turns out that only our kitchen sink and dishwasher go into the degreaser – the washing machine, shower, bathroom sink, apartment shower and apartment bathroom sink all go directly into the tank. (As it happens, we have no idea where the apartment kitchen sink goes, but don’t think it goes anywhere near the septic tank!) So another part of the job will be to re-route those waste pipes into the degreaser rather than running directly into the tank – a job easier said than done with the pipes of the apartment bathroom all being buried beneath tiled/concreted floor...

Tank issues aside, there have been computer issues: my computer – a vital part of my work and my means of earning a living – has been so unstable recently (even after reinstalling Windows, I have been battling against an average of 5 crashes before the thing even starts up, as well as random crashes sometimes as frequently as every hour) that in desperation (and fearful in case one day it just wouldn't start up) we went out on Wednesday and bought a new one from Euronics in the iperCoop complex in Montecatini. The excursion to Euronics served as a sharp reminder of how far we are from being fully fluent in Italian (heaven forbid that we should start to feel as if we were making progress on that front!): after telling the sales assistant which computer we wanted to buy, and successfully getting across our request to have an invoice with my tax code on it (so that I can reclaim part of the purchase price against my tax payments), the assistant came back to tell us that they didn't have any of the model we wanted in stock, but could get one in for Friday. We were happy to wait until Friday, so continued with the paperwork – the sales assistant mumbled some other things which we didn't quite understand, but since we thought we'd got the gist of things, we went to the cashier, paid for the purchases and took our receipts ready to return with to collect the goods on Friday. About halfway home, the phone rang: it was Euronics wondering where we were... After doing an about turn and returning to the shop we realised that the sales assistant had offered us (and had boxed up for us) the display model, which we could take away with us there and then. In our defence, he had spoken very quickly and mumbled quite a lot, nevertheless it was with a mixture of humiliation and relief that we set off for home a second time, this time with our purchase on board. Of course, the new computer will need to be set up properly with all the things I need for work, and so far we haven’t had the time to do it, so I’m still working on the old one, which strangely now seems to be behaving itself (perhaps it knows its days are numbered)!

Naturally, no list of our problems would be complete without a car issue, and as I write this, we are stranded with the car refusing to start, again. Deja vu. The problem we were having almost exactly a year ago (which has, in fact, existed intermittently ever since we bought the car) seems to have returned, and both yesterday evening and this morning the car has simply refused to budge. This meant that poor Reggie had to forego his usual charge around in the woods and had to make do with a trot up our donkey track last night, while this morning the three of us had a very wet walk in the pouring rain along the road into the village with Reggie on the lead.

Amongst all the issues, however, we have managed to get a fair bit of strimming maintenance done on the terraces, have planted out tomatoes, celery, peppers and more courgettes in the veg garden, we've both done some work (me managing to get back to the office properly this week, albeit with an unstable computer, and Stuart back up in Vellano doing gardening work), and on Thursday we spent a wonderful evening with lots of friends, delicious snacks and wine at Trattoria Lina, a new restaurant recently opened by our friends Michelle and Mimmo in the pretty hamlet of Macchino. We've had a real taste of summer this week as well, with some balmy evenings and a couple of days where daytime temperatures hit 30C. In contrast, we have been treated to torrential rain and the rumbles of thunder today - but at least that saves us having to water the vegetables!

Zucchini on its way!

Pipe inspection.

Yes, peanut.

A lovely start to the weekend on Friday night...

...and breakfast the next morning!

Breakfast view.

Love in the mist.

A cool spot for a hot dog.

Strimming work to be done.

Ready for our next guests.

A sit-down protest on the drive after not being able to go on his usual run around in the woods.

... Not sure the washing is going to dry.

At least the plants will enjoy it.

Monday 23 May 2016

Busy bees

Last week was busy here at Numero 182 for a different kind of reason than of late: we played host to our good friend Sarah and her little boy Ollie, who we hadn't seen for over a year. It was absolutely great to see them both, and we enjoyed a busy week seeing our surroundings through the eyes of a three-year-old as well as having a long overdue and lovely catch-up with Sarah.

Sarah and Ollie were treated to the full Numero 182 experience: sunshine, wind, rain, hail, thunder, lightning, a power cut, lots of dog walking, gardening, egg collecting, a ride on a tractor, an evening in front of the fire pit, lunch at our friend Michelle's restaurant, a trip to a bee-keeping (apicoltura) shop, a ride on a funicular, ice cream and an afternoon in a play park!

The reason for the visit to the bee-keeping shop was that, on Thursday, we took delivery of our first ever swarm of bees. Our friend Mara had called the week before: a neighbour had found a swarm on the window of his house and had asked if she would take it. Since Mara and her bees are organically certified, she wasn't able to take the swarm for herself (as its origin was uncertain), but she offered to collect it and give it to us. We were thrilled at the opportunity, having written off the idea of having bees for this year, thinking we would likely have to wait until next spring to get our hive set up. Mara therefore arrived at 8am on a very wet and windy Thursday morning (apparently the perfect weather for moving bees) with the bees in a portable (polystyrene) hive. We placed the hive on the terraces to the left of the chicken enclosure, placed a brick on top of the lid to keep it secure, and left the bees to it.

Having taken delivery of the bees we decided we needed to make getting some proper equipment a priority, so Sarah, Ollie, Stuart and I bundled into the car for a wet drive over the hills into the next valley to find our local 'bee shop'. The shop was fascinating and a wonderful smell of beeswax permeated the air. Not only do they offer candles, honey, pollen and various honey-flavoured liqueurs for sale, but also the more practical items for which we had made the trip: smokers, gloves, protective hats and jackets, sheets of wax for the frames in the hive, wire for the frames, levers for getting the frames in and out of the hive, as well as a multitude of other items that, for now, are beyond our needs.

From next week, we will gradually introduce, one by one, frames from our hive into the temporary hive, and once the bees have made their cells and populated our frames, we will be able to transfer them into our hive. Mara has offered to come over next week to check the hive with us and give us a much needed lesson!

We saw Mara again on Saturday night as she and Franco had invited us to a party at their house in celebration of Franco's birthday, the birthday of their neighbour Sylvia, and Franco & Mara's wedding anniversary. It was a 'bring a snack' party, so we made humus and a satay dip, and went along at 5pm feeling somewhat apprehensive at the thought of a whole party in Italian! Needless to say, we had a really lovely time: Mara and Franco and all of their friends without exception are kind, warm, welcoming and - importantly - patient people, and they put up with our stilted Italian and made us feel truly part of the gathering. They even had us country dancing. Yes, us. Dancing.

We left Mara and Franco's, along with all the other guests, at around 10.45pm - utterly exhausted (it's hard work for the brain trying to concentrate to keep up and make oneself understood!), but happy to have enjoyed such a fun and friendly evening and met such lovely people.

We took a mini "holiday" on Sunday morning - having had a taste of different scenery while driving to the bee shop during the week, we decided to explore some previously unchartered (by us) territory. We drove to Collodi and then all the way along the valley in which it sits, as far as Bagni di Lucca. It was a gloriously sunny day, and for a couple of hours we really did almost feel as if we could have been on holiday - enjoying the sunshine and seeing new scenery for the first time.

Of course it was back down to earth once we got home: strimming, hedge cutting, weeding, watering, planting, and we made the discovery that, in a re-run of last year, something has stolen our potatoes again - something of a crushing disappointment.

There are yet more urgent tasks to turn our attentions to for the coming week - a return to more solid office working hours for me, as well as strimming that urgently needs doing (with our next guests due to arrive on Sunday, it'll take the best part of the week to get our terraces looking neat again), a problem with the septic tank to get to the bottom of, a sound-proof flooring to source for the office and utility room, a pergola to start building (with 30-31C forecast for the end of the week, we are quickly realising that we are in need of some shade!), plants to water and tend to, bees to inspect, a dog to walk, other people's gardening work for Stuart to do, and much more besides. Business as usual then.

Sunday 15 May 2016

...And relax

Finally, after months of hard work, on Friday afternoon we completed the renovation of the apartment ceiling project. With two hours to spare before guests arrived. We still can't quite believe it's finished.

Over the past week we've had early morning starts and late night finishes, poor Reggie has missed out on walks (and even taken himself off on his own in protest on a couple of occasions, having worked out yet another escape route from the garden fencing), I've had to put my office work on hold, our diet has consisted almost entirely of pizza, and we've felt like the waking dead, but very gradually things have come together.

When Reggie takes himself off on his own and doesn't want to come back down the terraces, the only way to get him down is to carry him down. All 29kg of him...

Once again, we've had a tremendous amount of help from generous friends: on Wednesday, Paul and Kathy spent the entire day painting the freshly plastered walls in the apartment while we continued to do filling, sanding, boxing-in, grouting and other jobs that we'd hoped to have finished before painting day; on Thursday, David and Sarah put in a heroic effort cleaning everything: the living room/kitchen area hadn't been touched since the work started and not only was all the furniture piled up in there laden with half an inch of plaster/concrete/mortar dust, but the dust had worked its way into every nook and cranny imaginable. They cleaned like demons while we continued trying to tie up the last few niggling jobs, and they didn't leave until long after dark.

Friday morning saw us up early and bleary-eyed once again, and after a quick check over of things in the apartment, Stuart headed off to hit Obi in time for when it opened in order to buy the last few bits and pieces that we needed to finish things off (one more sheet of plasterboard, some LED light bulbs, a new curtain pole). While Stuart was out, I finished a little more painting and started the final clean-up of the areas that he wasn't going to be working in. 

We were almost tripped up at the final hurdle: after buying the necessary items from Obi, Stuart got back into the car to head home... only to find that it wouldn't start. After spending an hour in the Obi car park (like we had that to spare!), the car finally decided to play ball and Stuart was able to make it back to the house to rush through the last bits of work needed - under considerably more pressure than was planned!

Thankfully, we did finally get to a point where we couldn't do any more and while I dusted, vacuumed and swept my way out of the apartment, Stuart headed out for a tour of the valley's dustbin areas to dispose of the considerable amount of construction-related rubbish we'd piled up over the course of the last several weeks.

We finished at about 1.30pm, with guests due at 4pm, so after a quick lunch we made a dash to Esselunga, and before we'd even unpacked the shopping back at the house, the buzzer for our (now fully functioning) electric gates was ringing and our guests were arriving!

We greeted our guests as energetically as we could muster, complete in our paint-splattered work clothes that we hadn't yet had time to change out of. Thankfully, once again, we seem to have been blessed with a lovely set of people as guests - they were warm and friendly and seemed thrilled to be here. I think we were both in a bit of a state of shock at having finally finished the work, and certainly a tiredness-induced stupor, so goodness knows what they must have thought of us, but they seemed happy. 

I must admit that we were pretty pleased with the end result as well:

After settling our guests in, we gathered the energy to take Reggie for a long-awaited walk at the cava track above Vellano before finally collapsing on the sofa with a bottle of wine - too tired even to really know what to do with ourselves!

We had a blissfully long, undisturbed, stress-free night's sleep, a lie-in on Saturday morning, and spent the weekend taking things very easy. 

Saturday morning saw us taking Reggie for a good long run out in the woods between Vellano and Macchino, and in the afternoon, after paying a couple of overdue bills, we headed to Montecarlo for a quiet glass of wine, almost feeling as if we were there on holiday.

We invited our guests up for a drink on Saturday evening and spent a very enjoyable couple of hours getting to know them, while Reggie gradually worked up the courage to get close enough for a sniff or two. 

On Sunday morning we paid our first visit to our friend Michelle's new restaurant in Macchino for a quick cappuccino and catch-up with Michelle before taking Reggie for a walk, and then treated ourselves to lunch out in Montecarlo.

Reggie was pleased with the doggy bag we brought back from lunch!

It will be back to work as usual from now on, but the weekend has been blissfully free from paint/sawdust/concrete/mortar/plaster/wood stain and all the stresses of the last few weeks. All the hard work almost seems worthwhile just for the joy of having a weekend off where we don't feel obliged to do anything - something of a rarity for us.

So... coming soon will be a blog post on how to construct a Tuscan ceiling (step 1: don't do it - get someone else to do it for you...).