Tuesday 31 January 2017

Handy in the house

After the busy weekend in the utility room I was straight back in there on Monday morning, aiming to finish off as soon as possible so that we could recommission the all-important washing machine as the dirties were staring to pile up.

My first job was to apply a 10mm coat of render to the wall around the door to bring the wall level flush with the new door lining I'd fitted some months back, and in doing so to bury the cable the electricians had surface-mounted around the wall for the electric gate control panel.

With that done and drying it was getting on for lunch time, but not before Reggie got to burn off some energy in the woods - one of two planned walks today as we were hoping an extra session of exercise would help with the visit to the vets this afternoon... (who were we kidding!?).

After lunch it was back out into the woods for another half loop before loading Reggie straight into the car before for the drive into Pescia.

We arrived a few minutes early and decided to leave Reggie in the car with Helen as company while I waited indoors so that we could get him out of the car and whisk him into the room in one swift manoeuvre... or so we thought. We'd barely reached the door when we came came to an abrupt halt as Reggie applied the breaks, rooted his feet firmly to the ground and tried to engage reverse gear, almost reversing out of his collar as he did so.

That left me no option but to pick him up and carry him straight into the room where our lovely vet Alessandra works.

He soon found a hiding place in the corner and refused to go near Alessandra. In an attempt to calm him she left the room, gave us some treats for him and asked us to try and calm him for five minutes.

Needless to say he had no appetite and nervously sniffed around the room, sniffing every surface of every object while Helen and I sat on the floor down at his level.

When Alessandra returned to find he was not complying with her plan it was time to do it the hard way, which resulted in Reggie ramming himself between my back and the wall that I was leaning against. This seemed to be the best we were going to get and sufficed for an inspection by stethoscope, part one done!

Next, the all-important jab which was a bit more of a challenge but with his head buried in my gut and the rest of him under the desk the shot was administered... what a drama! And we now have a follow-up jab in four weeks time... I thought dogs were supposed to be easier than cats when it comes to vets trips... seems we've been dealt a dud!

It was getting on for four o'clock when we finally got home and keen to crack on with the utility room I mixed up a bucket of finish plaster and set to work skimming both the utility and the wardrobe in our bedroom - it was Monday and I was on a roll!

...except I was still plastering at half ten at night owing to the fact that lime finish plaster on plasterboard is in absolutely ZERO hurry to dry, unlike the very same plaster on the walls in the utility room which I'd finished sponging up some hours before.

After a late finish it was an early start on Tuesday morning as I headed off up the valley to meet Dave in Vellano for a bit of garden tidying, leaving Helen to man the fort and walk Reggie in the woods before I got home.

It was a late lunch as after work that morning I'd gone back to Vellano to inspect some left-over wooden flooring in the loft of the place where David and Sarah are living. The house is recently up for sale and as a result various bits and pieces have been shipped back to England or else need to find new Italian homes. Knowing we were working on the utility room, when David saw this flooring he paired it up with us, so assuming there was enough of it, it was ours to re-home.

Once we had loaded the flooring into the car I headed off for a late lunch, after which I jumped straight to laying the new flooring having measured it and discovered there would be only half a plank left over!

As darkness approached it was time to shower and walk down the drive to wait for David and Sarah who had kindly offered to pick us up on their way past as we were all Pescia bound. More specifically, we were bound for the wine bar which after having closed down last year is now open again under new management.

Paul and Kathy were outside waiting as we approached on foot, and Donatella arrived shortly after us, and we jollied the night away with a mixture of ales from Faversham (yeah... English ale, turns out the new guy has a thing for out good old British ale) and wine, of course accompanied by plates of cured meats and cheeses which, as we didn't leave until gone midnight(!), constituted dinner for us all.

A thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by all and we decided it was something we should aim to repeat regularly!

On Wednesday morning we headed up the valley to Vellano for our weekly group Italian lesson with Johnny - possibly the last we will have in this house as David and Sarah are soon to be moving to a new home.

After lunch I hopped into the car and headed south to run a few errands - little of interest, but fuel was getting low, we needed more items from Frateschi, and I wanted to try and catch the glass guy in Pescia to see if I could get some mirror cut to size for the frame I'd made a couple of weeks ago using the old floor beams we recovered when replacing the office floor/apartment ceiling last April.

Second time lucky, I caught him in the workshop cutting a small piece of glass for an older chap so waited my turn and presented him with the knackered old wooden frame - made from pieces of wood that I realised pre-date both world wars and the unification of Italy!! For me it's amazing to think of that, for him I think he was wondering why I was wrapping firewood around a mirror... each to their own!

On Thursday morning the push continued and I got the paint roller out and painted the wardrobe so that I could then clean the floor and take all of the tools out of the bedroom, before starting work on fitting shelves in the utility room, using the panels of chipboard that had until recently been wardrobes in the bedroom.

After lunch it was our weekly lesson with Samantha for which I had failed to do my homework for for the first time in months. In the vain hope that she wouldn't reprimand me too much I showed her the beautiful new room we had been making rather than completing homework - it seemed to do the trick and we then spent most of the lesson covering 'ci' some more, based around a very interesting lesson we'd had with Johnny on Wednesday morning. For two little letters 'ci' can cause an awful lot of confusion and mean a whole heap of different things.

After the lesson I turned my attention back to a website I was putting together for our lovely friend and recent visitor Marie for her new business venture in the field of special educational needs. For anyone interested in either her work or the website I've done for her, you'll be able to see the finished version here: www.mariesmithsend.co.uk.

On Friday morning I picked up where I left off and joined Helen in the office, the warmest room in the house these days, and tinkered some more with the website. We each tapped away at our computers until lunchtime arrived, shortly after which we headed into Pescia to hit the 2 o'clock sweet spot at the supermarkets to acquire the weekly supplies.

Once home and unpacked, I left Helen to walk Reggie and I headed out to stock up on wine from the local bulk seller in town (he's closed between 12:30 and 16:00, as is most of Pescia, so we can't ever do the food shop and buy wine in the same trip)

Saturday was another lovely day, quite warm and clear, and so after a walk in the woods and a trip out to collect fresh bread and homework from Samantha, we headed home for a bit of lunch - eaten out under the pergola in the warm January sunshine - before deciding to pushing on with the veg garden for the afternoon.

To recap, we had six large beds in use last year, but in order to up our production and at the same time make it more efficient we are making changes to the layout and standardising the size of all the beds, hopefully ending up with 25 beds, which is the most we can fit into the space we have, although as time ticks by I think we may have to settle for 20 this year and be happy at that, putting the final 5 into action this coming autumn.

It's quite slow work and the ground is full of bramble root but the soil at least is easy to work and so it was at the point when we retired to light the fire we had almost another two beds created, a total of almost 6 now and with fine weather and extra pairs of hands forecast for Sunday we could hope to have the second terrace finished and a total of eight beds if all went well.

First things first on Sunday, after taking Reggie for a run around the woods, we headed up the road towards Vellano to go and meet David and Sarah at the house just outside the village that is shortly to become their new home here, after they had been given the keys yesterday. They were keen to show us the house and we were chomping at the bit to have a look around it.

We spent about an hour looking around the house and land - a beautiful, cosy little house, a small amount of land, a stunning view and a large, sunny terrace to enjoy it from. It really does seem like a lovely place and we are so pleased that they have finally found the home that will become the start of the next chapter of their lives here - they have been waiting a long time and suffered many disappointments along the way, so to see them happy and settled will be a great joy for us, and this really seems like the right place.

After checking out the new pad, we each returned to our respective houses (David and Sarah plan take a week or so to move their belongings into the new house so for the time being are still in the town house in Vellano) for a quick bite to eat before they came down to ours for an afternoon working in the warm sunshine on our veg terraces.

With the extra manpower we managed to forge ahead and finish the day with 8 completed beds in total, one of which involved the labour-intensive process of digging out a section of hillside in order to fit the whole 10m length of the bed in. The hillside turned out to mainly consist of large stones - it seems someone must have dumped a huge pile of stones here at some time in the past, and we ended up with enough to make several rockeries!

After a hard afternoon's work we retired indoors to light the fire and Helen, Sarah and David joined forces to cook up another curry from our Spicery box subscription - every time we make one we decide it's the best one yet... until the next time!

We finally all said our goodnights just after 11.30pm after a lovely evening, a delicious meal and a satisfying and pleasingly productive day.

Sunday 22 January 2017

Thwarted by the weather - again

This week, our productivity was once again stymied by the weather, but this time it was fierce winds that put paid to any work outdoors.

Strong winds are not entirely uncommon here, but these were of an altogether different level and the strongest we have experienced since the big storm of March 2015, when apocalyptic winds flattened whole sections of woodland and wreaked devastation around the valley. Thankfully the wind was somewhat less powerful this time but still hovered around 50kmph, and I’m sure some of the gusts way exceeded that. What was also different about the wind this time around was its duration – we can usually expect a storm to last a whole night (as it did back in 2015), but for three days the wind tore around the valley, and it wasn’t until Thursday that things calmed down appreciably.

Here at numero 182 we were extremely fortunate to be sheltered by our hill – the winds were north easterly and it seems we were perfectly positioned to miss the worst of their wrath, and despite being able to hear the roar of the wind in the valley, things at the house were relatively calm(er).

Our friends around the valley were not so lucky and spent sleepless nights on both Monday and Tuesday nights listening to the wind whip and roar and feeling their houses shake and shudder with each gust – it was hard to admit to them that we’d actually slept relatively well and had barely been disturbed by the noise.

As well as the wind being strong enough to put paid to working outdoors, Reggie even went for a day without a walk as I wasn’t keen on the idea of Stuart and Reggie walking around in the woods with the trees waving around crazily in the wind - I had visions of the pair of them being pinned beneath a fallen tree, so put a temporary ban on tramping around the woods. The wind also made things feel bitterly cold, both outdoors and inside, and indeed on Monday evening we had our first snowflakes of the year here at our house and by 11pm there was a very (very) light dusting – most of it was blown away by the wind though, so not much could settle.

On Monday night we wrapped up warm and went to our neighbours’ house – Valerio and Rossana live just below us on the main road and are the pair we spent a lovely couple of hours with on Christmas Eve and who’d sent us home with copious gifts and bunches of holly. Valerio had telephoned Stuart out of the blue at about 10pm on Sunday night to invite us round for necci (chestnut flour pancakes) on Monday - and who are we to turn down the opportunity to be fed deliciously hearty traditional Tuscan food whilst getting to know our friendly neighbours better?!

We had a lovely evening, although I confess that our level of understanding dropped to somewhere around 50% because, as utterly charming and unfalteringly friendly, welcoming and generous these lovely people are, both Valerio and Rossana do have a tendency to speak at a million miles an hour! Perhaps they give us more credit than we are due for our language skills, or perhaps our fumbling and misunderstanding really doesn’t bother them, but either way they couldn’t have made us feel more welcome.

By the time we left their house at around 11pm, we could barely move from being SO full! We started the evening with farinata di cavolo nero, a traditional ‘peasant food’ dish made from polenta, beans, cavolo nero, sage, garlic and pancetta – warm, filling and delicious. We then moved on to the main event of the night: piles and piles of necci (which are slightly sweet both from the sweetness of the chestnut flour they are made with, and a small amount of sugar that is added to the pancake batter). We ate the necci with prosciutto, salami, ricotta, and ricotta & chocolate sauce, and by the time Stuart had single-handedly made it to the bottom of the enormous stack of pancakes (what is it with people forcing extra helpings on my husband – and more to the point his feeling duty bound to eat until everything has gone, no matter how full he feels?!), we both felt stuffed to the gills. But we weren’t yet finished. Next, came out two types of cheese, and then came out bowls of fresh fruit and nuts, and then generous slices of panettone were thrust upon us, then vin santo, coffee, and finally we managed to politely refuse a round of chocolates!! Phew, what a feast! We felt as if we wouldn’t need to eat again for at least another week.

We ended the evening with Valerio showing us some clips from a motion-sensitive video camera he recently bought on ebay and on which he had recorded two foxes coming to eat from a bowl of food they had left for them outside the house. It was lovely to feel so welcomed and embraced by these neighbours, despite our clear and frustrating deficiency in the language department, and as we wobbled our way to bed that night we felt warm and fuzzy inside despite the howling gale outside.

So with the high winds at play for most of the week, there is little to report on outdoor progress. Inside the house, Stuart decided it was time to tackle the utility room. After first emptying the entire contents of the little room into the office (so that I am now once again working alongside the washing machine and the contents of the larder), he made a start on attacking the walls.

This little room was once a downstairs bathroom and before we could make it into a permanent and fully efficient utility room, various pipes needed to be moved, holes in the walls patched up, the walls plastered, flooring put down, permanent shelving put up… and so on. One part of the conversation with our neighbours we did manage to grasp on Monday evening was a discussion about what we were planning to do in the utility room. Valerio had suggested that, rather than replastering all four walls of the room, we might consider simply removing the plaster and repointing the two outside walls of the room – giving the walls more of a chance to breathe than if we re-covered them in plaster. We thought this was a good idea, so after Stuart took the opportunity on Friday morning to start chiselling off the plaster on the end wall while I was out in Pescia having a long overdue catch-up and coffee with Sue, we dedicated both of our energies for the weekend to working on the walls of the utlitity.


Saturday was mainly spent chiselling off plaster and chiselling out old mortar from the stone beneath the plaster – a very dusty day. Those who know me well know how much I despise living in a house that is covered in layer(s) of masonry dust, but one of the many things I’ve learned since moving here is that if I can play a part in the work… I hate it very slightly less. So while Stuart chiselled the plaster away with the drill, I carted bucketloads of rubble outside to clear the room before turning my attention to chiselling the mortar by hand. By the end of the day we had both aged by about 15 years, with grey hair and grey faces (as had almost every surface in the downstairs of the house), but the walls were all prepped and ready to be repointed.

Sunday, therefore, was dedicated to repointing – a skill I learned (I won’t go as far as to say “mastered”) last year when we were frantically working on getting the apartment back into shape. After a morning of procrastinating with a late breakfast, a dog walk, a check of the chickens and an early lunch, we couldn’t put it off any longer and spent the whole afternoon in the cold little utility room applying fresh mortar. By the end of the day we’d finished refreshing the two stone walls.



Part-way done.

Almost done.

We are hoping for an altogether calmer week this week, although the utility room will take precedence over outdoor work for the next few days regardless, as it's a job we are keen to get completed and checked off the list. Once the walls of the utility room have been finished, we hope to put some permanent shelving in for storage of food, and once everything is organised a bit better we plan to house both the washing machine and a chest freezer in what should by then really be a 'useful' room.

Monday 16 January 2017

Cold and a cold, and no water

The general theme of this week has been cold, and a cold, and just to add a little more misery, a 30-hour period with no water coming into the house (but this time not because of the cold)! Nevertheless, we have ended the week on a high, water supply restored, and our own productivity somewhat restored.

With Stuart still suffering from the cold that started at Christmas as well as extreme tiredness, and days that started with sub-zero temperatures and struggled to get much above 7C at their mildest, neither of us felt inclined to venture outdoors for anything more long-winded than a brisk dog walk around the woods or a dash to the woodpile to grab another crate of wood to feed the fires.

Our efforts this week were therefore concentrated on indoor office work, as well as Stuart moving the wardrobe project forward by a huge step – with the inside of the wardrobe walls plastered and painted, our clothes are now happily housed in the spacious closet, and the flimsy hand-me-down chip board monstrosities that we inherited have been dismantled and removed from the bedroom. All that remains now is for the outside of the wardrobe to be plastered and painted – jobs that had to be put on hold at the end of the week due to the by then very wet and windy weather making it impossible (or undesirable) to mix plaster outside.

Practically a walk-in wardrobe.
After a run of very cold, bright, dry days, Friday was wet, windy and generally pretty foul weather-wise. The forecast had suggested it would warm up to 11C, but it certainly didn’t feel that mild, and indeed when we drove into town to do our supermarket shopping at lunchtime, the temperature displayed outside the factory on the way into town declared it to be just 4C. By the time we had run around Esselunga and begun making our way back out of town up the valley, the hills of the valley had turned a dusty white colour – indeed, our friends David & Sarah reported snow falling in Vellano. For us on our hill it remained cold, cold rain and we hunkered down in front of the fire.

Shortly after lunch, I headed to the office to continue some office work while Stuart busied himself with washing some pans. Or at least he tried. When, from my desk, I heard ‘Oh.’ from the direction of the kitchen, I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. As has happened far too many times before, Stuart had turned on the tap to be rewarded with a sweet fat nothing for his efforts. Now, despite the inclement weather, it certainly wasn’t below freezing at this point on Friday, so the loss of water couldn’t be attributed to frozen pipes this time.

When we drove past on our way back from the supermarket, we were somewhat relieved to see a couple of guys in high-vis gear and their Acque (the water company) van rooting around the area where our water meter is located. We assumed that our loss of water was either due to them having turned it off while they did something, or else they were there at our meter trying to fix a problem that they had been alerted to. We felt somewhat relieved. That is until darkness fell and we still had no water. By this point the workers would surely have gone home and had left us without any water. In fact we had some water pressure according to the pressure gauge that Stuart had fitted close to the house last year, just not enough pressure for the water to reach the house.

Funnily enough (we weren’t laughing), it was almost exactly a year ago that exactly the same thing had happened.

We were somewhat heartened to find a notice from the water company shared by the mayor of Pescia on Facebook, that stated that due to unforeseen problems with the water supply in the area, properties in Calamari would be experiencing interruptions to their water supply on Friday afternoon. While we are not in Calamari, it is a small community very close to us, just down the road, so it was reasonable to assume that we were part of the same set of works. Somewhat less encouragingly, the notice stated that the repair works would be completed by 6pm on Friday evening. Come 8pm on Friday evening our taps were still dry as a bone.

When you have no water you really really appreciate the value and the privilege of having an uninterrupted supply of freely flowing water. The obvious obstacles you face when your water disappears like this are that you can’t wash/shower, you can’t wash your hands after using the toilet and indeed you can’t flush the toilet (thankfully we still had the large 25 litre container of water we’d filled up last week at Amanda’s shop so were able to “flush” the toilet, of a fashion, and wash our hands in cold water at least). You then realise that making a cup of tea or coffee depends on you having some bottled water available (thankfully we had two bottles of still water left – we didn’t have to resort to boiling fizzy water for hot drinks), as does brushing your teeth, and cooking options start to become limited. Should we have pasta for dinner? Well, without enough clean water to boil the pasta in, that wasn’t going to be an option. Likewise for anything rice-based. Besides which, the idea of the washing up piling up even more than it was already was pretty unappealing. In the end we opted for take-out pizza from our local restaurant Nerone. The second time in three days – admittedly not a hardship, but certainly an unplanned expense and not really what we’d had in mind for dinner.

By Saturday morning, there was still no water and overnight the temperature had tumbled and everything the rain had touched was frozen hard – if we’d had any water in our pipes it might well have been frozen. Even the car doors were frozen closed, and the ground was hard and frosty. We hoped that the work on the water supply had merely been put on hold overnight and would be recommencing in the morning, although scouring the water company’s online notice pages didn’t turn up anything to suggest that customers in our area might still be experiencing outages.

After a very chilly walk around our woods with Reggie, we ventured out as far as Amanda’s shop in the village to collect our weekly bread order as well as our homework and something for lunch that wouldn’t require us to use water or wash up!

We told Samantha our sorry tale about our lack of water. It was last Saturday that we had a day without water due to frozen pipes – it feels as if it’s becoming a weekly habit! Samantha very kindly offered to ask Mario, her partner, who works for the water company, whether he knew of any ongoing issues with the water after she got home. We thanked her and made our way back up the hill.

While at Amanda’s shop we also ran into our friend Paul, who was waiting outside the post office where Kathy was paying their water bill (ironically enough). They very generously offered us the opportunity to go to their house that evening for hot showers and dinner as well – an offer we couldn’t refuse!

With the promise of showers that evening, we felt more inclined to throw ourselves into an afternoon’s work on the terraces, safe in the knowledge that even if we had no water ourselves, we would be able to get ourselves clean at the end of the day. We therefore spent the afternoon on the lower terraces clearing up all the piles of wood and branches from the hazel trees that Stuart had cut down some weeks before Christmas.

Samantha telephoned in the early afternoon to let us know that Acque were indeed still working on a problem with the water supply in the area and that they were giving out free water to people in the piazza in Calamari. While, from what she said, it sounded doubtful as to whether we would get our water back that day (they couldn’t say for sure and said that everyone would get theirs back at different times), it was a relief to know that there was an ongoing problem that was known about and being worked on – at least we felt a little less as if we’d just been abandoned and forgotten about!

By the time we’d put in a few hours of work on the terraces, the taps were still dry, so come 6pm we packed our towels and clean clothes, gathered up a surprised-looking Reggie from the sofa (who had just finished his dinner and was about to settle down for a power nap), and headed off in the car towards Castelvecchio.

Once at Paul & Kathy’s we availed ourselves of their facilities, enjoying lovely hot showers, then spent a great evening with our friends, eating a delicious Thai curry and chatting and laughing the night away. Reggie becomes calmer and seems more at home every time we visit Paul & Kathy’s house, and while he still spent a considerable part of the evening going outside to bark at the local wildlife (which is what he would do at home anyway), he spent most of the evening chilling out next to the dinner table and even picking out logs of firewood from the basket to chew.

We said our goodbyes at around 11pm and headed cautiously down the very sparkly frosty roads towards home. On arriving home, without hope or expectation, I turned the kitchen tap – only to find water spurting out! Having not had any water when we left the house, in the dark, at 6pm, we had no expectation of the water having come back over the hours that we had been away from the house, so were surprised and thrilled at the discovery!

We slept a sounder sleep knowing we had our most precious of resources restored and in the morning it felt like true luxury to get up, run the water to brush our teeth and flush the toilet. I even went as far as doing the washing up before breakfast, such was the joy of having running water.

With our water supply restored, Sunday felt a whole lot more relaxed – gone was the nagging worry that there was a bigger problem than we realised or that we had been forgotten about by the water company. In celebration, we spent the day working outdoors – chipping the branches of hazel we’d brought up the hill from the lower terraces and moving yet more wood down from the upper terraces to the drive. A good, productive day’s work, and one that was rewarded at the end of the day with a blissful hot shower, this time in our own home.

Time to get the chipper going.

A wall of wood.

Next year's woodpile is growing!

As we come to the end of the weekend, the days ahead are forecast to be cold and fiercely windy – time to batten down the hatches.

Monday 9 January 2017

Back to the coal face

Monday was the first rainy day we’d had in a long while, although the rain we did get was far from heavy - more of a British drizzle. It was still excuse enough for me to divert my energy (a resource sorely lacking since picking up a dose of man flu over Christmas) back in the direction of the new built-in wardrobe.

The first job was to wire in a light and switch to illuminate what would otherwise be a dark spot in the corner of the bedroom. If left in the dark it would make, for me at least, the grabbing of the correct clothes difficult as I live in less than a quarter of the clothes I brought with me from England - somewhat strangely, living on a farm, and having a dog on that farm, isn't a life that lends itself at all well to trousers and shirts, not even the casual variety.

I’m reminded of the time our four New Zealand guests left us, having showered, dressed, loaded their car and come to say goodbye. They were soon unloading some luggage and heading back into the apartment for a change of clothes as Reggie had decided it wise to put large muddy paw prints all over this particular lady's pristine white cotton top!

As such, my ‘normal’ clothes only tend to get an outing when we frequent a restaurant, which is not that often.

So, with the nice sparkly LED light fitted I could put more plaster board onto the studwork so that I could fit the all important corner beads before the next step of applying a coat of joint filler the following day. 

After lunch I followed Helen into the office to spend some of the afternoon working on the veg garden plan for the year.

Not wanting to have an easy year, we have decided we now need to make a real effort to get serious with our vegetable production if we’re ever going to supplement our modest income from the land we have around us.

Having benefited from the help of our friend Allison back in October in clearing a new area alongside the existing veg garden, we know we have enough extra space to increase the growing area from the current 6 beds, which give us somewhere near 60 square metres of growing space, to 25 beds, which will give us nearly 190 square metres. The clearing was always going to be the hardest part of this extension and were it not in the state it is now at this time of year there would be no extension, but we do still have a lot to do before April when the first of the young veg plants will be ready for transplanting.

Later in the afternoon we headed to Pisa airport to go and collect our friends David and Sarah who were returning from a trip back to England for Christmas. After dropping them back to Pescia to collect their car we parted company all with the same thing on our minds: getting home to heat up our houses (even more so for David & Sarah, whose house had been empty and unheated for over a week)! We've had a fairly sustained cold spell this winter, the closest thing to a winter we’ve had since being here (although so far, the first without any snow in the valley), and the forecast for this week promised to lower the mercury in the thermometers even further, with the coldest day of winter so far expected towards the end of the week. Monday was already cold and the wood pile was starting to show it. Of course one of the downsides of having a wood burner to heat your house is that you can't sustain the heat unless you are there to keep feeding it, and if you go out for longer than about an hour, the fire starts to burn out.

Tuesday was officially ‘back to work’ day as we had decided to observe the English bank holiday on Monday, so with both wood burners alight, Helen fired up the computer to check email and I went back to the wardrobe to apply the joint filler to the inside so that I could then plaster the solid walls, paint, fit new rails, move all our clothes inside and dismantle the old ugly inherited wardrobes, finally leaving me space to then finish the exterior of the wardrobe… not all in one day though you understand, today was just the joint filler.

After lunch I once again joined Helen in the office. Now in the groove with veg planning I wanted to keep the momentum going as the first thing we’ll need to consider is seed shopping, which will need to be done by the end of January so that a we can start seeding in the polytunnel in February, so it’s now starting to get quite important to have this planning bit done and that’s how the day ended, little consequence or real interest but progress at least.

On Wednesday it was back to the old routine with our group Italian lesson with Johnny, David and Sarah which was at our place this week, and as usual involved a fair amount of coffee and an enjoyable lesson translating bits of British news from our native tongue into Italian.

After the lesson Johnny headed up the valley to his next lesson and Dave and Sarah stuck around for half hour to chat before heading home just before lunch time.

After lunch Helen headed back into the toasty office - an office that, with today’s temperatures, would have been exceptionally miserable had we not got the wood burner working in there recently. Meanwhile, I headed back to the bedroom with a large bucket of lime finish plaster, trowel and hawk to re-skim the awful job done on the solid walls that make up some of the inside of the wardrobe.

I soon wished I hadn’t started. The bag of plaster we had kept under plastic over the autumn and winter from the recent round of apartment renovation had still managed to suck in a little ambient moisture, meaning that the bucket of plaster had a heap of hard lumps the size of gravel - less than ideal when you’re trying to apply a 5mm coat of smooth plaster to a wall. Needless to say, the air in that little wardrobe was soon as blue as the winter's sky outside and what should have taken me half an hour to lash on a skim coat instead took me almost two hours! The price you pay for not wanting to waste anything!

By mid afternoon the plaster was on the walls and drying… slowly. Back in the UK we use, and have used for decades, a system of gypsum-based plasters which dry pretty quickly - so quickly, in fact, you often don’t get much time without some tool in your hand. A wall would have two coats of skim plaster applied and a number of trowels after this to achieve the desired end result, and all would be done in two and a half hours, by which point the plaster would be solid. Not so with lime-based plasters: these air dry, and as such I was in the wardrobe with a sponge float at 11 at night rubbing the wall to a finish while Helen was in bed reading. Note to self: only apply finish plasters before lunch time.

The gap in the job did allow me some time to head outside and start pruning the olive trees. This is another job that needs doing before spring and as we have now added around another 20 olive trees to our collection with the recent clearing above the house, we now have over 60 olives to prune and tidy up after.

Not all trees take the same amount of time to prune but to give you an idea, one hour per tree might be a reasonable estimate, and then the huge volume of prunings that come from the trees need clearing - either burning or chipping, arguably a more demanding job than the pruning itself.

Before darkness set in I had all but pruned the three trees around the lawn leaving a heap of stuff for Reggie to either play with (or wee on) until I found time to move it from his playground.

Reggie's playground is now carpeted with olive prunings.

On Thursday after breakfast, while Helen tended both fires and her inbox, I went into Pescia to acquire a new spark plug for the strimmer and to pay the electricity bill which was now overdue (in fact it was a week overdue before it arrived, such is the Italian way).

When I got home late morning Paul and Kathy were at the house having popped in to say hi and to drop off a crate of delicious kiwi fruit harvested from their trees. We chatted for a while before they headed up the valley leaving us to grab a quick lunch before Samantha arrived for our second lesson of the week.

After having my homework pulled apart I left Helen and Samantha to it and opted for yet more veg planning, partly because it was a quiet activity I could get on with without disturbing Helen and Samantha, but also because the end of the planning was in sight and I was determined to have it finished this week.

This is the plan... All we need to do now is to make the beds!
Friday was a holiday here in Italy - the Epiphany bank holiday, which also brings with it the tradition of Befana. Befana is a benevolent witch who flies around on a broomstick (of course) on the eve of Epiphany and leaves sweets and other goodies for the good children and coal for the naughty ones. Legend has it that the three kings invited her to go along to see the baby Jesus with them but she told them she was too busy with her housework to go. After they had left her to it and gone on their way, she regretted her decision and has spent every night of the 5th Jan ever since flying around trying to find them… So if you are a kid in Italy you get gifts from Babo Natale (Father Christmas) on 24th December and then gifts from Befana on 5th Jan! Not bad, eh?

The mayor of Pescia is always a good sport!

It was a beautiful day for Epiphany, but the forecasters certainly hadn't been lying about the cold(er) snap, and the icy wind made it feel colder still.

Buona Epifania!

Reggie wasn't bothered by the cold weather.

A perfect winter's day.

With the local bank holiday, we decided to give the supermarket shopping a miss this Friday, and instead stayed at home making sure we could keep both wood burners fired up. By the time we retired to bed that night and after having both wood burners going all day the house was warmer than we’d had it all winter, the rooms upstairs were a balmy 18 degrees, if anything too warm! But there were warning signs of trouble ahead as, when brushing our teeth, the water pressure from the sink tap was noticeably low, the pipes were starting to freeze.

When weather like this arrives the general advice is to leave a tap running all night (even the guy from the water board told me to do so when he was here last January putting us in a new meter housing). A horribly wasteful idea, but life without water? We’d done enough of that so a tap was duly left open while we slept.

It didn’t help. We hit -8C overnight and despite the running water, the pipe supplying the house froze solid. It was a bit of a blow, but we weren’t the only ones - Donatella, Mara and Franco, and another friend Carolyn, all also reported having frozen pipes, and we knew there would be dozens more in the valley as it is normal practice to have a simple plastic pipe running from a far away meter to the houses (if installed well it would be buried to a depth where it wouldn’t freeze but this is rarely the case and having dug up almost our entire pipe last year to fix a problem last summer there was no way we were going to dodge this bullet).

By 8am it had warmed up to -6C.
Poor Santa Meerkat II was frozen after having been left out all night.

So with no working toilet, no working anything, after walking Reggie we headed out for coffee and breakfast before heading back up the valley to collect some water in the plastic containers we had brought with us in the boot. We headed for the free water fountain (provided by the water board) next to the San Lorenzo hotel - but we found that frozen solid as well.

Unlikely to get any water out of that for a while.

We drove back to the village to collect our bread and buy something for lunch from Amanda's shop, where Samantha very kindly offered us their sink to fill our water containers, which we did, thankful for the chance to at least have enough water on standby for bare necessities such as flushing the toilet. Containers filled, we headed home for lunch of marinated anchovies in garlic, chilli and parsley, and some farinata di cavolo nero - a new one for us, a dish based on polenta with cavolo nero, garlic and oil, very simple but delicious, satisfyingly filling and iron rich.

After lunch it was back into Pescia to do the weekly shop after having put it off on Friday in favour of keeping the fires going and generally avoiding the outside world but it could wait no more not least because Reggie was out of food.

We hit the sweet spot at two o’clock and were heading home within an hour. After unpacking the shopping we spent a while trying to decide what work we could usefully do that wouldn’t require a shower afterwards. While doing so Helen went to get more wood for the fire and came back telling me there was a leaky pipe at the side of the house by the stop-cock.

It was a junction in the supply pipe to the house. Clearly the sun on the lower terraces all afternoon had heated the exposed water pipe and it had started flowing at this point at least. As for the remaining few meters into the house which never see daylight, it would be hard to know.

I disconnected the junction and reconnected it and in the process retrieved an icicle from the tube - I had only been saying earlier that day that my childhood winter memories of winter included seeing lots of icicles but that ‘you just don’t see them any more’. WRONG!

Yep, that's an icicle.

It wasn’t long after sorting this problem and removing the icicle that gurgles were heard in the pipes upstairs and then we could hear the cistern filling!

Now with the promise of a shower that evening, we headed out to do an hour's work moving all the large acacia logs from around the old veg beds in readiness for making the new beds, which will be without edges at all.

With all but the heaviest trunk moved we dashed indoors to fill the wood burner and shower before the dropping temperatures started playing havoc with the water again and settled into an evening of cooking. Now that we could wash up that evening we could use one of our curry kits, tonight it was Ghanian beef and groundnut curry, sweet potato dumplings, curried rice and a pokey little bird's eye chilli sauce. It took a while to put together but it was well worth the effort.

Sunday was a lazy affair - we'd had such grand plans for the weekend but after the water incident (which we were relieved to find was still running this morning) and me almost turning inside out from coughing after just an hour's work yesterday, we did very little in the morning. Helen spent a couple of hours doing her Italian homework and I stuck my head in a book. We eventually mustered the enthusiasm to take Reggie for a walk around midday so that he could blow off some steam as he had been barking into the woods most of the morning (which could only mean that there was a hunt somewhere within his earshot).

Sure enough, once out in the woods we could hear the shouts and dogs but they were a safe enough distance away on the opposite hillside so we enjoyed a quiet and cold stroll around the donkey tracks, getting back to the house for a late lunch of left over curry with a lovely bottle of Greek ale sent to Helen for Christmas along with other Greek goodies.

After lunch thoughts turned to work in order to salvage something of the weekend, but I was soon ordered to stay in doors and ‘rest’ (while writing this blog post for you all) while Helen went out to toil away on the terraces, her migraine having subsided just enough to allow her to do so.

So, as I finish this post off, Helen is working on the lower terraces to try and clear some of the wood I cut down there, the mid afternoon sun has come around to the front of the house and is coming in through the window behind me, bathing the staircase in an orange wintery glow while the wood burner roars away with another belly full of acacia and Reggie is out cold in front of the fire.

Monday 2 January 2017

The most productive Christmas period?

This Christmas has been the first one in the 14 years that we have been together, that we have ever spent just the two of us alone together. Of course we missed seeing our families, and we missed sharing it with our great friends Paul & Marie - who have come to stay with us here for the last two Christmases - but we made the most of the quiet time together, we had a lovely Christmas day, spent a fun Boxing day night with our friends Paul & Kathy, a lovely relaxed New Year's Eve with our friends Mara & Franco, and for the rest of the holiday period... we were out working on the terraces.

Yes, other than the obvious celebratory days, the theme of the week has pretty much been raking and burning, with a bit of composting and wood moving thrown in for good measure. We managed to sit still and do nothing for precisely one day - Christmas day itself - after which we found ourselves getting itchy feet and started off with moving some piles of wood down the terraces on Boxing day, moving more wood and turning the compost piles the day after that (after coming home from a lovely evening and overnight stay with Paul & Kathy in Castelvecchio) and then throwing ourselves headlong into whole days' worth of raking and burning and tidying on the upper terraces. This has to have been our most productive Christmas period ever!

All tuckered out after a morning of presents.

A short interlude in Montecarlo on Christmas morning while the turkey was in the oven.

Beautiful Montecarlo.

Christmas food prep.

Christmas lunch table ready!

"Santa Meercat the Second". Reggie's favourite present from Paul & Marie.

The new and the old ("Santa Meercat the First" having arrived, courtesy of  Paul & Marie, two Chriatmases ago).
After a bright, sunny day for Christmas day itself, Boxing day started out grey and cloudy:

The weather had brightened up by the afternoon though, by which time we found that we just couldn't sit still any longer so we ventured outside in our work clothes to start moving some piles of wood down the terraces.

We took Reggie for our Boxing night party at Paul & Kathy's, where we ate a delicious spread of leftover turkey and trimmings, played some hilarious rounds of the game Taboo, and whiled away a lovely, relaxing evening in the comfort of Paul & Kathy's toasty warm home and above all in great company. Reggie made the most of his mini-holiday, tearing around the garden, barking at all the neighbourhood wildlife, and most exciting of all (for him), he got to sleep on the bed with us.

We awoke to another gorgeous morning in Castelvecchio, and after a leisurely start to the day, a delicious breakfast of eggs, bacon and toast (and plenty of coffee), we said our farewells to Paul & Kathy and took Reggie home for a snooze on the sofa - he'd spent so much energy chasing around the garden that morning that he didn't even need a walk.
Early morning Castelvecchio.

Reggie's second home.

Not a cloud in the sky.
While Reggie snoozed on the sofa, we weren't quite ready to sit still, so we busied ourselves with moving some more wood - this time some wood that was logged and split many months ago on the lower terraces beneath the house and that needed moving up to the woodpile - and with turning the compost piles.
Back home in time to move some more wood and turn the compost.
The rest of the week was mainly taken up with raking, burning, cutting trees (creating yet more mess to be burned), more raking and burning. The general pattern for the week was chilly nights, frosty mornings, sunny days, and then back to chilly nights with clear skies.

One of the most disappointing bonfires I've had - it just didn't want to get going...

... meanwhile Stuart was creating yet more mess to be burned.

Beautiful winter sky.

A(nother) frosty start.

Better bonfires! Two at a time this time.

Venus shining brightly in the evening sky (above the tall tree on the left).

Another bright and cold morning.

Surveying the land - and the work left to do!

Yet more wood to move.

The pile gradually making its way down the terraces.

New Year's Eve was spent with our good friends Mara & Franco, who invited us over for a spot of dinner, the all-important lentils (which are eaten on new year's eve to bring wealth and good fortune), and of course celebratory drinks. It proved to be a relaxed, easy-paced and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

New Year's Day dawned bright and sunny - another cold and frosty start, although after having celebrated with Mara and Franco until the early hours, and not having got to bed until 2.30am, we didn't rush to get up in the morning, and we even allowed ourselves a day of doing (next to)nothing.

We took Reggie for a walk in the steep wooded area beyond our house, beyond our washing line. This is the area of our land that we have explored the least (in part because it is so steep and rocky), but Stuart was keen to try to get down to the river/stream that borders our land - and with a lot of scrambling, we finally made it to the bottom, finding a sizeable pool, which Reggie happily splashed about in despite the chilly temperature of the water.

So, as we make our way into the first week of 2017, we're looking forward to a year that we hope will see plenty more progress on our land and our lives here - lots more time spent with our great group of friends, more progress with our language skills (we HOPE), visits from and to loved ones, more apartment guests, the production of lots more vegetables, maybe our first harvest of honey, solar powered hot water (finally!), and who knows what else besides. Happy new year!