Monday was the start of what promised to be a packed and interesting week, so full in fact we had to write everything down on the calendar in the kitchen so as not to forget - something we almost never have the need to do, such is the way of life here.
For starters, we had invited the long-suffering Samantha one of our Italian teachers, to dinner along with her partner Mario whom we’ve met a handful of times in the family shop but with whom we've never exchanged more than a few words before now.
But before that we had other things to attend to and after lunch and having walked Reggie twice around the woods we loaded him into the car to head back to the vets in Pescia for his follow-up vaccination jab.
The usual whining was the sound track to the trip until we got to the vets, at which point he knew what was happening.
After a short wait we attempted to walk him into the surgery but couldn’t get very close at all so I had to resort to picking him up and carrying him in as I did last time. I can’t imagine what people must think of us, it’s common to see people walking around carrying small handbag-type dogs but as yet I’ve never seen anyone walking around carrying a 30kg lump of fear like we have to on occasion.
Anyway, we got the jab done without too much wrestling and he even licked (but didn't eat) a treat offered by the vet, a small step for us, a giant leap for Reggie.
On the way home just as we approached Pietrabuona my phone rang. It was Valerio, our nearest neighbour. I didn't quite understand what he said on the phone but suspected it was something to do with the woodman wanting to cut our precarious roadside trees and wanting some help. It was exactly that, and as we approached Valerio's house, sure enough we spotted him, the three woodmen, and their tractor on the road, chainsaws revving. Valerio had called to ask for help stopping traffic at this busy little junction so that the lovely but huge silver birch could be dropped onto the road. So I leaped out of the car while Helen jumped into the driver's seat to pull over in a layby just off the junction and wait.
And the tree certainly did drop! The upper branches exploded into a cloud of wood and splinters and newly forming buds as traffic sat and watched the carnage. I’m not sure whether this kind of work officially requires council permission, and it was too late to ask, but within ten minutes traffic was passing again and most of the wood had been swiftly cut up and dragged away into Valerio’s garden where the woodman's truck was waiting to take it away.
|Beautiful Silver Birch tree but MUCH too close to the road.|
|None shall pass!|
|Ok...maybe in a few minutes.|
At this point I went to join Helen and Reggie in the car and we headed home to await the arrival of the same guys at our house after they had finished cutting another three (smaller) trees down in the same spot.
About an hour later the buzzer rang and I could see a large tractor filling the video screen so I opened the gates for them to chug their way down to the house.
Having seen the trees a few days before, Giorgio, the boss, parked the tractor with rear winch facing the three tricky Robinia (false acacia) trees that were now right in the middle of our lower terracing and veg plot before he and his men set to work felling them. This involved our 6 metre ladders, which were used by the slightest of the three men to climb up and attach the winch cable as high as he could, above the height of the telephone cable right next to it. The next guy then went up with the chainsaw and made the birdsmouth cut in the side of the tree, and Giorgio then yanked the tops off the trees with the tractor winch before then felling the trunks at ground level.
It is about a year ago now that we had Romeo come with his tractor and winch and cut about a dozen Robinia trees from the same clump, dragging them all up to the drive so that we could cut and split them - and we are burning the wood from those trees this winter.
Romeo had declined to cut these three remaining trees as they were so perilously placed between the electric supply cable to the house and the telephone cable. We had since hoped that sending a recorded delivery letter to the electric company ENEL to request ‘pruning’ (which is what ENEL advised us to do when Donatella kindly called them on our behalf before Christmas) would bring about their arrival to take care of the trees - in fact Giorgio told us that it is the electricity company's responsibility to deal with trees within 6 metres of either side of their lines. However, with no response from ENEL (which didn't seem to be a surprise to either Valerio or Giorgio), we decided to get the job done at our cost and while we had the chance.
|Ladders weren't quite long enough it seems|
With the guys trundling back off up the driveway, one driving and one each standing on a rear wheel arch, I went back indoors to turn my attention to dinner as it was now around 5pm and Samantha and Mario were due at 7:30pm.
Despite the fact we were having to use the oven downstairs in the apartment (our oven once again having gone on strike), we were in good shape by 7pm and with a roaring wood burner we awaited their arrival.
Thankfully the meal was well received (thanks in no small part to Delia Smith for the starter - pear, gorgonzola and walnut salad - and main course - individual cottage pies with cheesy leek topping - and Waitrose magazine for the pudding - Tunisian lemon cake). Indeed, Mario commented at the end of the evening that proof of how much he enjoyed everything was how little water he'd had to drink, as if he has to eat something he doesn’t like he does so with the aid of a lot of water to wash it down!
As Mario doesn’t speak a word of English, Helen and I were a little nervous before the meal but we needn’t have been, we had a lovely evening, almost exclusively in Italian, waving our guests off shortly before midnight.
Tuesday was ‘community day’, this time at Paul and Kathy’s property in Castelvecchio, just up the valley. As they have a largely fenced in garden, and as they enjoy his company, they kindly allowed us to bring Reggie along to join in too.
We all busied ourselves down in Paul and Kathy’s woods below their house. While Helen and Sarah started a fire and tidied and burned, Paul and David got to work on a few acacia trees that had come down in a storm, Donatella made use of Paul's motorised barrow to take the wood we were cutting up to the house, helped by Kathy (in between cooking our lunch), and I moved wood from the stream where it was being cut up to where Donatella was loading it.
|Job made much easier with the 'power barrow'|
Reggie liked to think he was helping too.
It was a busy and physical morning of work, but more so for Reggie who couldn’t contain his excitement for a single second having not only new woods to play in but all his favourite friends in one place! By the time we stopped for lunch around half one he was pooped and Helen took him to the car for a sleep while we all headed indoors for a lovely lunch cooked by Kathy and her Mum… So lovely, in fact, we dragged the whole affair out over three hours before finally all leaving for our respective homes to light fires.
Wednesday started as usual with our group Italian lesson with Johnny, David and Sarah up in Vellano, and after waving Reggie goodbye we were soon ensconced in their kitchen with a large pot of coffee to kick start proceedings.
After the lesson we headed home and made an early lunch so that we could enjoy the lovely spring weather and get some work done outside.
First jobs were to take the newly acquired oscillating stirrup hoe to the veg garden and hoe over all the newly made beds to deal with any new weed growth, followed by turning over the two compost heaps and tidying more of the ground control fabric to finish off the area that will be this year's growing space.
|The amazing oscillating stirrup hoe!|
|2 cubic metres of compost turned again... looking better each time.|
With that done, it was late enough after lunch to head out to run some errands, so we went on a quick tour of the area getting fuel, stopping for a quick coffee, and then ordering a new shower waste/drain/siphon for the apartment at CLLAT in Pescia (I had found the brand name for the shower waste and emailed the manufacturer last week with photos to ask why we were getting odours from the shower and why on earth I could feel a breeze from it - they recommended a new updated insert which had to be ordered from a local reseller). Then we headed home to get back out into the sunshine.
|Don't look too closely... no idea whose hair is in there! (You couldn't resist could you... you clicked it!)|
Once home, Helen adorned the strimmer and went to make a start on the terraces behind the house while I burnt the huge heap of olive prunings that had been cluttering up the car park area for several weeks. As Helen ran out of fuel and darkness faded there was just embers left in the fire so we headed indoors to light the wood burner before starting on a much-needed dinner.
|First of many strimming sessions this year.|
|First of many bonfires to burn prunings.|
Thursday was another prompt start - it always is for Helen but less so for me these days but today I had arranged to go and collect a bail of straw with Mara.
When I say bail, I don’t mean the rectangular things you might imagine farmers throwing around (the sort we have bought a few of ourselves since being here), I mean one of the enormous rolls of straw that in summer look like giant toilet rolls that have been dropped in the yellow parched fields of rural England.
I met Mara down the hill and hopped into Franco’s pick-up that she had commandeered for the day.
For those that remember, we had a ‘permaculture’ evening at Franco and Mara’s some months back where a lovely guy called Andrea had come along to show us photos of his veg garden and talk about how he had turned it from what his dad had made, which was a very traditional veg plot using mechanical means to plough and till, into a no-dig type garden following the guidelines of Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer who flew in the face of traditional Japanese practice to develop a less intensive and more natural system of farming.
In this system a lot of straw is used as mulch, which in turn rots down and conditions the soil over a number of years. As such, Andrea has a rather healthy appetite for the stuff and buys in rolls from a local farmer. Last year, Mara and her neighbour Silvia bought a roll with Andrea’s help and this year now we were benefiting from Andrea’s connection too - as well as from Franco’s pickup!
Mara and I met Andrea for coffee and pastry then headed to the farm to collect the straw. Within minutes the farmer arrived and then his son in a tractor, who proceeded to load the straw into the pickup while the father quizzed Andrea as to why and how he uses so much straw - clearly as puzzled as he was intrigued. We were soon on our way back to Andrea’s house for ‘5 minutes’, as he was keen to show me his garden.
Needless to say, five minutes turned into 45, but it was well worth the time spent just to see the difference his method had made in the soil he had been growing in compared with that just two steps away that he has yet to convert.
We left with a crate full of red lettuce and cime di rapa (turnip tops) and headed back to unload, which we did with Helen’s help to avoid the roll of straw flattening us and then destroying the fence and veg garden below before ending up in Pietrabuona.
With the straw and other goodies unloaded, and some golden grappa and home-made mirto passed over to Mara’s hands, she left us to prepare lunch.
|Look bigger up close, don't they!|
After lunch it was our weekly visit from Samantha to see if we couldn’t make a few more words of Italian stick in our ageing grey matter. I think all three of us were pretty exhausted by the end of the two-hour session!
On Friday morning I headed up the hill to pick David up so that we could buy some chestnut fence posts from a place Donatella had told us about, three villages beyond Vellano.
As we left Vellano the fog that we'd woken up to got thicker and thicker. When we arrived in the little hamlet of Femminamorta (which literally means "dead woman") we found the closed restaurant behind which we'd been told was the wood yard. Pulling in, we saw no signs of wood but persisted and parked the car and went further down the track on foot, eventually coming to a large house around which, through the fog, emerged heaps of chestnut poles - we had found the right place!
Our feeling of achievement was short-lived though, as realised there was nobody around to sell us the wood! We saw some people through a window of the house, but they clearly had no interest in a couple of strange men circling their house, which seemed odd. I decided to wave at them and ask about buying some of their posts.
An old lady came to the window and we chatted for a few minutes, the short story being that the wood yard people would unlikely be at work today as it was raining... so we left empty handed.
After lunch it was back to routine to finish off the working week and we headed into Pescia for the weekly supermarket shop before heading home to light the fire and open some much needed wine while looking forward to a weekend of sunny and hopefully productive weather.
Saturday I as usual stayed in bed while Helen rose around 7:30am to head to the 'gym' for an hour, taking Florence out with her as she did, the usual routine.
Once we were both up and showered and my phone switched on, a couple of messages arrived from Antonio - the guy from whom we had ordered a new chainsaw many weeks ago - asking if he could deliver the new saw and spares we'd ordered at 10:30.
It already being around 10am, Helen decided to dash out with Reggie for his morning walk while I awaited Antonio's arrival.
Just after half ten he arrived and gave me the usual briefing on operation and safety and after insisting I try the new saw in front of him he left with a loose arrangement for us to meet soon to collect the warranty and to pay him for what he'd delivered.
This put a sudden new spin on the weekend and instead of the planned olive pruning, we both knew that chainsaws would be involved and most likely the trees that had been felled and left strewn on the terraces on Monday would be the victims.
First thing was first, however, and Helen and I headed out towards Montecatini, first stopping for cappucini then next onto Maury's homestore for various random bits for the apartment.
From there it was a quick trip to Decathlon for a horse whip for Reggie... that sounds wrong so let me elaborate a little: Helen has found some new training ideas online, one of which involves encouraging the chasing of an item on the end of the whip and encouraging when they stop chasing - a form of impulse control - I'm oversimplifying it somewhat but suffice to say that this is supposed to help with impulsive dogs, of which Reggie is a firm and long standing club member.
It was then home via Amanda's shop to collect bread and take away a squid salad for lunch, all in the interests of speeding us through until we could start work.
After a pleasant lunch on the patio in the sunshine, we headed down the terraces looking a little like a Stihl advert, although not a very well dressed one - Helen was wearing my chainsaw trousers, which were too large for me, never mind her, and I was sporting my usual beaten up work clothes.
After a bit of instruction and guidance, Helen slowly worked her way through the dissecting of the felled Robinia trees while I used a bill hook to clean up the limbs she was passing me, which enabled me to keep an eye on what she was doing as she went along.
Once the majority was done and just the tricky and large bits were left, we swapped jobs and I took the bigger saw to finish off the dissecting work before we finally downed tools around five with a day of splitting and stacking to look forward to Sunday.
|Steady does it.|
Sunday greeted us with another glorious clear blue sky and after breakfast and a dog walk we left Reggie in the garden and went back down the terraces.
After building a makeshift storage space in situ using the last of our spare pallets, Helen set to work splitting while I cut any odd bits we missed yesterday, and stacked as we went along.
It was a long and physical day that finished just before dark, punctuated by another lunch al fresco and by a second walk in the woods for Reggie.
When we finally retired for the evening we had a lot to feel happy about in the form of around a tonne of the best firewood available, starting its seasoning process ready for next winter. From what we've estimated, this pile will be around a quarter of the amount we will have used by the end of this winter, so the splitting won't finish here, but we already have the rest of the wood we need to accompany this stored in the quarry along the driveway on pallets in metre lengths. That will need to have moved before Alain, the bee man, arrives with 36 hives for the Robinia flowering season in April though, so the clock as always is ticking.
|With her old friend the axe (that's not a euphemism for me)|
|Someone said 'good wood warms you twice, once to cut it the second when burning it'|