Monday 25 July 2016

Car problems, strimmer problems and internet problems – pretty standard fare

It's been something of a strange week this week, finishing up somewhat better than it started out - which at least is the right way around, so we're thankful for that!

For me, Monday to Friday were spent with my head down in the office. It has come to that time of year when my workload has pretty much doubled from what is usual for the rest of the year, and I am currently averaging around 7 hours a day in front of the computer. Not where I would like to be for that many hours a day, especially when the grass is growing and the vegetables need tending, but it does indeed help to pay the bills. Add into the equation a 2-hour Italian lesson on Thursday, and by the end of the week my head felt fit to explode, or implode, with the amount of  information my brain was attempting to process.

It was with relief that I finally shut the computer down on Friday evening and went for a lovely walk in the woods with Stuart and Reggie - the first time I'd even left the house and seen the outside world in five days!

Meanwhile, the week has been peppered with car problems, internet problems and strimmer problems, and while I felt stir crazy and desperate to get out and see the outside world, Stuart was feeling the opposite and desperate just to stay at home to get some jobs done and not have to go out! Monday saw him making another trip to the strimmer mechanic - after having changed the oil in the strimmer the previous week, it had showed worrying signs of not being entirely healthy - plumes of black smoke and a spluttering engine, for example. He'd already taken it to the workshop and had been told that it was fine and most likely just that a bit of oil had made its way into somewhere where it shouldn't have been, which was fairly normal and not a problem. At the weekend, however, the strimmer had done the same trick, with a puff of black smoke, a cough, and then stopped, simply refusing to start again. So on Monday Stuart returned it to the workshop - and came back empty handed, having left the strimmer with the mechanic.

On Tuesday, Stuart left the house shortly before lunchtime in order to "pop" into town to renew our car insurance. He didn’t make it home until nearly 6pm. Without the car. Yes, the car has been up to its old tricks once again. After Stuart had finished in the car insurance office, he went back to the car and it wouldn’t start. He waited, went back, still wouldn’t start, and kept doing the same all afternoon – since it was parked in a space, there was no means of pushing it or towing it to bump start it, so no point in even asking anyone to help. Eventually, on hearing about Stuart's plight via Sue, via me, the lovely Chris went and found him in Pescia, picked him up and drove him home. Needless to say, the mood was not a cheery one that evening after such a disastrous day.

The next morning, having had to pull out of our usual group Italian lesson in Vellano thanks to the car situation, Stuart got straight on his bicycle and cycled into to town to find the car. Of course, it started the first time. After putting the bicycle in the back, the first thing he did was to drive to a garage Chris had pointed out to him where they have a diagnostic machine - we'd worked out that hooking it up to such a machine must be the only way of attempting to determine this frustrating intermittent fault. On arrival at the garage, they told Stuart that the machine was out elsewhere that day, but that if he went back the next morning they would hook it up and take a look.

So thankfully the day improved, the Stuart came home with the car, Reggie got to go and have a walk, and Stuart was able to get stuck into a few jobs around the house, including blocking up the wall between the spare bedroom and the bathroom, which previously had been covered with just a piece of board following the removal of the old electric water heater.

Stuart and the car duly returned to the garage the next morning, only to find that the diagnostic machine was not sufficiently specific to work on our car, and was advised to take it to a Fiat specialist. He duly did that, where the car was hooked up to the machine and... wait for it... the diagnostic code determined that there was a non-specific starting error. Hmm, no kidding!!!! The garage told him that there were a number of possible causes, and told him for a couple of things to look out for the next time it plays up so that they can narrow the problem down a bit - so we are no further forward, although we do feel marginally better informed, and the next time it happens we should have a little more information to pass on and help get to the bottom of things. 

The tail end of the week was busy for Stuart with going out and about to run errands, walking Reggie, doing a morning's work in Vellano and, much to my relief, going to collect the strimmer ready for a weekend of whipping our terraces back into shape. The strimmer is so much a part of both of our lives these days that it almost felt like having an arm missing not having it to hand! 

We started the weekend on Saturday morning with a leisurely cappuccino and pastry at the Da Sandrino cafe near Sorana. The cafe here only opens in the summertime, but it's a great spot for us as it's quiet enough for us to be able to sit outdoors with Reggie while we sip our coffees without having to worry about him being frightened by crowds of people.

After we'd had our breakfast we continued along the road to re-walk a path we'd found once before that heads up towards Castelvecchio - or at least that's what we thought. The last time we walked the path, we ended up coming to a dead end, bit it didn't really matter as it was a nice little walk. This time, however, we spotted a turn-off we hadn't spotted last time, complete with the familiar red and white footpath markers. The path was a little overgrown, but Stuart has taken to going for walks armed with a pair of secateurs for just this reason, and we were able to slowly make our way through the encroaching brambles and onto a lovely footpath - it was nice to know that we were unlikely to come across cyclists or walkers given how overgrown the path had been. It still wasn't the footpath we were expecting it to be, but we were pleased with our find and had a lovely walk.

After our lovely walk, we knuckled down to an afternoon of high productivity. While I took the strimmer to the terraces, Stuart put the finishing touches on our rainwater collection system (ready for the approximately 3 spots of rain that fell that evening), built some shelves at the top of our stairs, moved some wood and pallets from the car park area to the 'dead deer head' enclosure at the end of the drive, and gave the chickens a new climbing frame.

All hooked up and ready for the rain.

A beautiful new set of shelves and a new home for the old gate-leg table.
Putting the tractor to good use tidying the drive.

A new climbing frame for the chickens.
Saturday evening saw us paying a visit to our friends Mara and Franco across on the opposite hillside. Mara and Franco have recently adopted two 'nano' sheep, and we were keen to go and meet their new additions. The sheep are a French breed called Ouessant, and will grow to a maximum size of around 25 kg (a little smaller than Reggie). Penelope and Cesare are currently smaller than that though, as they are only 5-6 months old, but these pint-sized little creatures are certainly full of spirit and in the first six days of living in their new home have led Mara and Franco a merry dance. Every night since their arrival, Mara and Franco had been woken in the night by their dog, Snoopy, barking at the door, and looked out to find Penelope and Cesare standing at the door, having jumped the electric fence in their field and trotted up to the house, eating Mara's flowers and vegetables along the way. Poor Mara and Franco were run ragged, but had spent Saturday changing the electric fence from two electrified lines to four, in the hopes that the extra lines would do the trick. It certainly looked as if it would be difficult for them to jump, but Mara and Franco weren't counting any chickens!

Once again we had a lovely evening with Mara and Franco. It was so warm that we sat outside on their terrace to eat dinner and long into the evening. Once again, we spent the evening conversing mainly in Italian, with a little help from Mara when we struggled, but it was pleasing to find that we were comfortable with using Italian the majority of the time, and we covered all manner of subject, having long discussions about different types of trees and their various merits, the production of honey, the history of the valley and a range of other diverse topics. 

We eventually left Mara and Franco to what would hopefully be their first undisturbed night's sleep in a week at around 11pm after a thoroughly enjoyable evening. We feel very lucky and privileged to have found such welcoming and patient friends.

Sunday was something of a re-run of Saturday: a coffee at Sandrino's cafe, followed by a walk with Reggie, and some work in the afternoon (more strimming for me and more tidying up of the wood pile and the driveway for Stuart). The heat was pretty exhausting - there has been rain and thunder threatened for a few days now, but so far, apart from a short shower on Saturday night, not much has materialised, the air feels saturated and the humidity is energy sapping - espccially when you are trying to do physical work.

Looking to the week ahead, we have plenty more Italian practice to come: on Monday evening we have Claudia and Massimo (who we met through Mara & Franco) coming round for the evening as we've been promising to show them our house and projects for a long time; on Tuesday evening we are booked into a fund-raising dinner for Pietrabuona church along with all the locals of the village; and on Wednesday it's pizza in Vellano. A busy week ahead then. A presto!


Monday 18 July 2016

Something a little different

On Wednesday this week, possibly for the first time in our lives, we woke up and were genuinely thrilled - not to mention relieved - to see a blanket of cloud covering the sky. Together with a strong breeze, the temperature was knocked down to a deliciously comfortable mid-20s - which felt like a tonic after the days and days of intense heat we'd had.

When we awoke to the same on Thursday, it was less of a novelty, and a little less welcome, and when Friday morning also started out cool, well, really, enough already! It's just not right to need a cardigan here in July! We also had ferocious winds overnight on Thursday, so although the temperature in the bedroom had dropped enough to let us sleep more comfortably, we were kept awake by the roaring of the wind in the trees and worries as to whether one of them might come flying through the window at any minute (or at least I was - Stuart heard one gust of wind and slept through the rest!).

Anyway, back to our week - which proved to be social-themed. 

We had a lovely impromptu social evening on Wednesday - after having walked Reggie at the cava track, we popped over to Paul & Kathy's in Castelvecchio to return an extension lead that Paul had kindly lent Stuart (so that, by chaining extension lead with extension lead, with extension lead, he could get power to the middle of the driveway and use his angle grinder to 'modify' one of the concrete pozzetti (inspection units) that was standing somewhat perilously proud of the drive and threatening to do serious mischief to the undercarriage of someone's car at any point). 

How many extension leads does it take..?

As dog lovers themselves, and with an entirely fenced-in garden, Paul and Kathy welcomed both us and Reggie into the house and garden and were happy to let Reggie explore around the place - and explore he certainly did! While we caught up with Paul, Kathy, and Kathy's Mum, Reggie charged around the place in a state of sheer excitement, soon acting as if it was his own house and garden and barking at the new noises, smells and sounds coming from the other side of the fence. It wasn't long before Paul & Kathy had talked us into staying for a bite to eat (it really didn't take too much to twist our arms - the smell coming from the kitchen was mouth watering), and while we tucked into a delicious chicken curry, Reggie continued to charge around the garden at a million miles an hour, clambering up the banks, snuffling through the bushes, rolling on the grass, and really making himself at home. We decided to call it a night as dusk fell though - it's one thing having Reggie running around in the daylight, but we didn't want him getting the scent of a deer or a wild boar or a porcupine and scaling the fence, besides which, Paul and Kathy's garden had probably had more than enough of Reggie's own unique 'watering' by then!

We had an impromptu soirée of our own on Thursday night, when we welcomed David, Sarah and Donatella to our patio for a couple of drinks and some snacks under the pergola - it had been a while since we'd seen them all, with David and Sarah having been in the UK for a while, so it was lovely to have a long overdue catch up. The evening air was fresh, but the washing machine drum fire pit worked wonders and kept us all toasty until long after dark.

On Friday evening, we socialised in Italian: we'd invited Mara and Franco to join us to go to a beer and grilled meat festa in the little village of Panicagliora up in the hills above us. If the previous evening had felt a tad chilly, it had nothing on this one - it felt more like October or March than July, and we each huddled into our respective layers of clothing while we ate our food at the outdoor dining tables. Stuart managed to scoff down a plate of antipasti, followed by a mixed grill of pork chop, sausage and ribs, and for pudding, both he and Franco had half a rotisserie chicken each! I'm pretty sure he doubled his year's intake of meat in one sitting, but I guess that explains why he astounded all the locals by looking comfortable dressed in shorts and a t-shirt while everyone else shivered under their coats.

By the time the food was dispatched, we were all ready for a little more warmth in our lives, so rather than staying at the festa (perhaps a lucky escape: we left before the dancing began), we piled into the car and headed back down the hill, but only as far as Macchino, where we stopped to have a drink and a chat with Michelle in the warmth of Trattoria Lina. Mara and Franco hadn't yet been to Michelle's restaurant and seemed impressed with the changes she has made to the place - we all enjoyed a warming drink and a catch up with Michelle before heading off promising to come back with empty stomachs the next time!

Anyone for spritz?!

Saturday saw a return to much more normal Tuscan summery weather - there wasn't a cloud in the sky for most of the day, and the sun shone with the intense heat that we've become accustomed to. While it made working outdoors rather more laborious, I for one was pleased to have it back!

After the obligatory morning cappuccino and pastry followed by dog walk, we spent the afternoon chopping up tree stumps, logging and splitting and starting to move the wood from the lower terraces up towards the wood pile. We also harvested our potatoes and had our first meal of the year that was almost entirely home-produced (only the olives being shop-bought).

An entirely home grown salad (apart from the olives): lettuce, nasturtium leaves, French beans and potatoes from our orto, and eggs from our chickens. Dressed with hand picked olive oil.

Here come the aubergines... come the peppers...
... here come the melons
Potatoes harvested (who knows how many there would have been had Mr Porcupine/Badger not taken his share).
And so starts the traditional annual glut of courgettes.

Cutting the acacia stumps.
Re-purposed electric fan - an excellent windmill for the garden.

The beginnings of steps down to the orto, making the steep slope that bit less perilous.
Saturday night saw us going a little further afield for a social engagement - this time, we went to Lanciole, at the very top end of the valley, to meet up with Steve and Rachael - owners of the property at which Stuart does some gardening - and their children, Rebecca and Sam. We last met them about a year ago, at the circolo in Lanciole, where we went for the circolo's regular Saturday night pizza night - which is exactly what we did again this year. Just like last year, we had an absolutely lovely, fun packed evening, full of laughter, wine, pizza and more wine. Steve and Rachael are great company, and all the locals in Lanciole are overwhelmingly warm, friendly and welcoming - so much so that we almost decided there and then to up sticks and move! For a tiny village in the most remote part of the valley, there is a heck of a lot of life and a party atmosphere to go with it. We've visited a number of circolos in and around the valley, and the one in Lanciole has to be the busiest and liveliest we've come across. Everybody in the village seems to get involved - whether with the cooking, the order-taking or the serving, and it seems as if people come from miles around to partake in this fun-filled evening. Just like last year, they were expecting over 100 covers, and from the looks of it, they got them all!

When we finally dragged ourselves away from all the fun, we promised ourselves that we will go back again soon - with such a lovely crowd of locals it would be a shame not to.

We treated ourselves to a mini-lie-in on Sunday, and after a rare walk along the river in Pescia with Reggie (these days we try to avoid anywhere where we might encounter people, dogs, cyclists, joggers, which pretty much confines us to walks in the woods, but since it was lunchtime, we decided to risk it), we decided to go out and do some sightseeing.

We headed up the valley and in the direction of Abetone. We really wanted to pick up some footpath maps of our valley that we'd originally found (getting on for two years ago) in an information booth just outside the town of Cutigliano. For some reason, we only picked up one of the useful little maps at the time, and since then we haven't been able to find the same map anywhere else... and said map has now gone missing! Sadly, the information booth was closed so we didn't even get to find out whether the map still exists. Since we'd gone all that way already, though, we decided we would try and find Doganaccia, a small ski resort up on the hill above Cutigliano.

While there is a ski lift up to Doganaccia, we decided we would drive - which we realised may have been something of a mistake as the narrow road wound up and up and up, and a stream of vehicles came down the hill, forcing us to keep pulling over. We eventually made it though, and while the settlement itself is not attractive (being made up entirely of winter chalets - soulless and locked up at this time of year), the scenery is stunning. With barely a cloud in the sky, the views stretched for miles and miles into the distance. It was also noticeably cooler up there - easy to see why Italians would want to come up to the mountains to escape the intense heat in the plains.

After our jaunt in the mountains, we decided to look around the small town of Piteglio en route back to more familiar territory. Piteglio is a pretty little hilltop town, like many others in the area, just over the top of the hills at the end of our valley, but unlike other small towns in the area, Piteglio has the honour of having its own Comune, and the villages of Lanciole, Crespole and others all fall under Piteglio Comune. The little town seemed steeped in history and surrounded by stunning views - which is no different from anywhere else in the area, I guess, but it was a new one to us and we enjoyed exploring its streets and taking in the views.

We finally wended our way back down into our own valley and all the way home - feeling somewhat drained after a long drive on top of several nights of socialising! After a quiet drink on the patio we retired for an early night, ready to gear ourselves up for the week ahead.