Thursday 27 July 2017

A new set of wheels

(As requested by regular blog readers: this blog refers to the week of 17-23 July 2017.)

This week was another busy one - with family due to arrive at the end of the week, the days were filled with lots of jobs, errands and bits of paid work to try to get as much as possible done before their arrival. That said, we still managed to find time to have a lovely evening socialising with our friends and we managed to fit in a cheeky worker's lunch at the lovely Toti restaurant on our way home from picking up our new car!

So the week started off with Stuart spending a long morning strimming the grass at the house of Carolyn, an acquaintance of ours/friend & neighbour of Paul & Kathy's. Although Carolyn is currently living back in her native Australia, she was keen to keep the grass tidy at the house here and had asked Paul to arrange for it to be cut. Coincidentally, Carolyn's house is one that Stuart and I looked at when we came to the area hunting for property. At the time we viewed the property, the bats that flew out of the living room were indication enough of the amount of work that needed doing to put us off pursuing the property any further - but we were bowled over by the beauty of the place as soon as we saw it.

So, after a long morning's strimming along with Paul himself and David, he headed back to Paul & Kathy's for lunch - I was very kindly invited to join them for lunch, but with work piling up on my desk I felt I had to decline so that I could chug on through my own work.

By the time Stuart returned home mid-afternoon, he'd had a call from Lunatici, the car dealer we had visited on Saturday to look at Pandas. The dealer had called to let him know that the Panda he had found for us had arrived from Lucca and was available for us to go and have a look at and test drive. So, once I'd finished up work for the day, at around 6pm, we headed out to the dealership on the Lucca road. We were impressed with what we saw - the car was spotless and looked in great shape, so when we were asked if we wanted to take it for a test drive, we of course said yes. We drove the car around some of the country lanes, tried it on some hills, and on the main road and were very pleased with it. So, on returning to the show room, we did the deal, signed various pieces of paperwork, and left with the promise of the car being ready to collect (oh, and pay for...) in just a few days' time.

Tuesday was a busy day filled with more work up in Vellano for Stuart, as well as to-ing and fro-ing for various pieces of pipe and plumbing for the job up there. I, of course, spent the day in the office, and I don't think there's much more to say.

Wednesday started off with our Italian lesson with Johnny. It was just Stuart and me in the lesson again this week as Sarah was still away and David was also about to head off for a few days in the UK, so it was down to the two of us to tackle Johnny's list of phrases to translate from English into Italian as well as a short Italian comprehension piece.

With the lesson finished, it was straight to my desk for me to cram in a couple of hours' work, while Stuart headed out to Esselunga to pick up some supplies for the evening. We had invited Paul & Kathy and their friend Simon, David, Donatella, and our apartment guests, Mike and Cath, for aperitivi on our patio in the evening. We spent the afternoon preparing snacks for the aperitivi, and received our guests at 6:30.

Crostini with tomato & garlic; crostini with parsley & garlic; humus; crostini with cheese & figs; crostini with gigante bean & rocket; crostini with goats cheese, walnut & honey.

Of course, it was still roasting at 6:30pm and there was nowhere to hide from the sunshine, but our guests gamefully sat in the sun on the patio in the sunshine until it mercifully dipped below the hill opposite. We had a lovely evening with everyone, and as we might have predicted, "aperitivi" turned into "well into the night", with guests leaving some time around 11pm.

Thursday started off with a call from Maurizio at Lunatici, the car dealer, to let us know that the car was ready for collection! Stuart hot-footed it into Pescia to arrange for the insurance to be swapped from the Doblo to the Panda, quickly emptied everything out of the old car, including taking the roof bars off, and then we headed to the Lucca road to go and complete the deed.

Within half an hour, we were driving away from the dealer in a shiny new(to us) car! All within less than a week from making enquiries to leaving in the new car. Amazing, and such a different (so much better) experience than the last time we bought a car in Italy! Let's hope this one also brings us fewer problems...

After having driven a little way further towards Lucca to find the office in which we needed to sign some paperwork to transfer ownership of the Doblo to the dealer, we were heading towards home when on impulse we decided to stop at Toti for a worker's lunch. It was a rare treat for us to eat out just the two of us together, so we enjoyed the experience, feeling ever so slightly as if we were on holiday (the new car adding to the feeling as it felt as if we'd just picked up a hire car!).

"I like driving in my [new]car - it's not quite a Jaguar..." etc.

Of course, we weren't on holiday and once back from lunch it was back to the grindstone in the office for me, while Stuart did more jobs around the house.

It was an early start on Friday to say a sad and fond farewell to our apartment guests Mike & Cath. We hope that they won't stop at just the two visits and will be back again for more in the future!

After that it was a full-on day of work in the office for me, while Stuart cleaned the apartment in readiness for new guests the next day before starting on tidying up our own house a little.

Saturday was a long day with Stuart doing both a check-in and a check-out at the pool house, and the pair of us spending the day trying to ready our house for the arrival of Sheila, Kerys & Ben in the evening - part of which involved creating a makeshift office for me in the corner of our bedroom and moving computer, printer, etc. accordingly, while also trying to make the office-come-dumping-room seem a little more like a bedroom for Ben to sleep in.

After a hard day's tidying, furniture moving and cleaning, Stuart prepared to head to the airport to collect everyone at 10:40pm.. only to find that their flight had been delayed. To cut a long and frustrating story short, everyone finally arrived safely at the house at just before 2am. The second time Sheila has been let down by BA in the last month, although at least this time they actually got her here - eventually!

After an hour of catching up over a drink and everyone reacquainting themselves with Reggie, we finally all headed to bed just after 3am.

With such a late night, and the exhaustion of travelling the day before, it was a slow start for us all on Sunday, but once our newly-installed apartment guests had headed out, we felt it was safe for us all to head out too (leaving Reggie at home free to bark as much as he liked without disturbing people downstairs).

We went straight to Sandrino's cafe/bar for a late morning coffee, which turned into a light lunch of pizza slices while Stuart and Ben trashed it out on the table football.

After a trip to Esselunga to pick up some supplies, we spent a relaxed afternoon reading, playing board games, playing with Reggie and generally taking things slowly, finishing the day with a barbecue and an early night to go some way towards making up for the night before and to prepare for the week's activities ahead.

Tuesday 18 July 2017

Know your onions

The week started with Stuart heading to Brunetta's (the owner of the pool house) in the next valley over, to finally complete the painting of her loft conversion - after to-ing and fro-ing several times there in the last couple of weeks it was good to know that it was finally completed.

After lunch, Stuart headed down to the river at the edge of our land to play around once again with the ram pump he had constructed and various lengths of pipe, while I (after finishing work in the office for the day) did some weeding of the veg beds, some harvesting, and watering.

Tuesday morning saw Stuart back at the pool house early in the morning before heading to Vellano to spend a morning tracing water pipes through the woods with David - this time in an attempt to find a fault with the water supply at the house they look after. With the pipe running several hundred metres through rough terrain, woodland, underneath fallen/logged trees and through brambles, it was a little like finding a needle in a haystack and promised to be a laborious task. Certainly by the time Stuart got home (without having solved anything) he was soaked to the skin in sweat and in need of a power nap after lunch to re-energise.

Energy was a particularly important consideration that day as we were heading to Lucca in the evening to go to a concert as part of the annual Lucca Summer Music festival. We'd last been to a concert in Lucca two years ago, and this year we were spoilt for choice in terms of the artists we would love to go and see there (Imagine Dragons, Pet Shop Boys, Erasure & Robbie Williams, Kasabian, Green Day...). In the end, we had decided on a concert featuring the British artist Rag n Bone Man and the American singer LP, and my lovely sister, Rach (& family) had kindly paid for tickets for us to go as birthday presents for both Stuart and me.

As it happened, our friends David & Sarah had also bought tickets for the same night, so we travelled to Lucca courtesy of a lift from them and spent a very enjoyable evening together.

Two years ago we had been to Lucca to see Paolo Nutini and had been bowled over by the whole event - the open air concerts take place in one of the city's piazzas, surrounded by historic buildings, and you are free to wander around the area immediately surrounding the piazza to buy drinks and ice creams from the shops and bars that border the piazza, giving the whole thing a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere. While the seating/standing/capacity arrangements differ from one night to the next (depending on the artist performing), you are never far away from the stage and this venue is a far cry from the stadiums that many of the artists might be more likely to spend most of their time performing in - making it a privilege to see them in such a venue, and perhaps a pleasure for them to perform in as well.

After having had such a good time the last time we went to the music festival, and not being quite so well acquainted with the music of the two artists we were to see (we had heard both of them played on Italian radio a lot, so knew about 3 or 4 tracks from each artist), I was a little apprehensive as to whether it would live up to the last concert. I needn't have worried. Rag n Bone Man opened the show - which may come as a surprise to many Brits, who will have seen him rise to quite a level of fame in recent months and who probably haven't heard of the other artist, LP. The minute Rag n Bone Man opened his mouth we knew we were in for an amazing show. What. A. Voice! His performance was understated and humble but his voice did all of the "talking" (as it were) - we were blown away by his talent and wondered if we should just leave once he had finished as we weren't sure anyone could match it. But once again, we needn't have worried. And once again, the minute LP (an American singer-songwriter who has written songs for the likes of  Cher, Rihanna, the Backstreet Boys and Christina Aguilera, and now seems to be doing her own stuff in her own, very distinctive style) opened her mouth we knew we were in for another incredible show - her voice, and her energy (not to mention her unnatural talent for whistling) were just astonishing.

It seemed we had picked another great night at the festival, and by the time the concert finished at a little past midnight, and we left to walk through the quiet streets of Lucca back to the car, we were buzzing from the evening's performances.

After a late night on Tuesday, it was with slightly bleary eyes that we greeted Johnny for our weekly Italian lesson on Wednesday morning. With Sarah heading off to Norway for a few weeks' work, and David driving her to the airport, it was just the two of us in the lesson this week - we spent our time looking at indefinite adjectives (each, some, any, many, none, other, lots etc.).

After the lesson, Stuart hot-footed it into town to visit Coldiretti, the agricultural organisation, to see if he needed to pay them any money for tax purposes, but once again the answer was 'not this month' (long may that continue!). 

Later in the afternoon, after finishing work in the office for the day and after Stuart had done some more chores around the place, we packed up the car with cans of fuel, safety equipment, strimmers and hedge cutters and headed up to Vellano to meet David for an evening's grass/vegetation cutting. The grass at the holiday let David helps look after was in desperate need of cutting, and a wall of bramble was encroaching on the terraces, and with guests arriving in the not too distant future, the plan was for us to spend a couple of hours in the "cooler" evening air doing the work. Well, come 6pm it was still well over 30C, and the three of us spent a very hot two hours strimming and cutting and whipping the terraces into shape, leaving us feeling utterly spent! 

What we felt like by Wednesday evening.
Thursday wasn't much of an easier day for Stuart, at least - while I plugged away at my work in the office, he headed up to Marliana, a village beyond Vellano, to do some strimming at another house there. After lunch, it was time for another Italian lesson with Samantha - nothing as "easy" as indefinite adjectives this time though - it was back to the baffling congiuntivo and the rules for when and when not to use it.

As if that wasn't enough, while I went back to work after our lesson, Stuart headed up to Castelvecchio to meet with Paul and pick up some beautiful old stones that our friends Simon and Susan no longer had space for at their house and wanted to rehome (Stuart being sure that we will find a use for them here, somewhere). Paul had offered to help with the transporting of said stones, which turned out to be a whole lot heavier and more back-breaking than either he or Stuart had bargained on!

Post-stone moving.
Friday was a much more ordinary day - pool cleaning, apartment cleaning, office work, a bit of lawn strimming, supermarket shopping, and then welcoming our latest set of apartment guests. Or should I say welcoming them back? Our guests, Mike and Cath, are our second set of repeat-visitors, having first come to stay here back in May last year. It was lovely to see them again and once they had unpacked and settled in we spent a very enjoyable couple of hours catching up with them over a glass of wine under our pergola.

Saturday started the way most of our weekends tend to start, with a coffee at Sandrino's cafe in their lovely garden area. After that, we decided to go on a bit of an impromptu car-shopping expedition, and ended up at the Fiat dealer on the road to Lucca. We had a look around at some methane-fuelled Pandas, and talked to the guy about what we were interested in, asking if we would be able to part exchange our Doblo. While he didn't have anything suitable in at the time, he looked on his computer and found a car that seemed to fit the bill perfectly, that was currently in Lucca. He said he could arrange to have it brought to the showroom during the week, and we left him with our phone number so that he could call us when it came in.

Excitement over, it was time for Stuart to go to the pool house to clean the pool in anticipation of imminently arriving guests, while I cooked up a batch of carrot soup for the freezer.

Once all the pool cleaning and check-in at the pool house had been done, Stuart came home and joined me for an afternoon of tidying and tending to things in the orto - including harvesting our onions. While there were some losses to the dastardly voles, in all probably only a dozen were eaten by the little varmints, so we not too bad a score really.

Know your onions!

After finishing up in the orto we cleaned ourselves up and got ready for an evening out. We had decided to try the recently re-opened bar at the San Lorenzo/Santa Caterina hotel just down the road from us that had advertised doing aperitivi. We asked our guests, Mike & Cath if they would like to join us, and David and Donatella were to come down later. So the four of us headed to the hotel, where we found a very pleasant bar and seating area and had a lovely couple of hours chatting with Mike & Cath and later David & Donatella as well. By the time aperitivi were done with, it seemed too early to call a halt on the socialising, so we invited everyone back to our patio, with a stop-off at Nerone on the way home to buy pizzas!

Reggie was a little perturbed by the sudden influx of people interrupting his quiet evening on the sofa, but once he realised he knew everyone, and that there were six pizzas and six pizza boxes coming his way, he soon settled down next to the table under the pergola, waiting for pizza crusts and other goodies to come his way. All in all another great evening!

We started Sunday, of course, with a coffee in the garden at Sandrino's cafe, before coming home in time to meet David here - who was coming to assist with the laying of pipe from the river through the woods, hopefully to reach and deliver water to our irrigation tanks!

The three of us spent the morning traipsing through the woods and battling with uncooperative pipe that wanted to do anything but lay straight, and by lunchtime we actually had a trickle of water coming into the irrigation tanks - all the way from the stream in the woods below.

A giant slinky.

Finally wrestled into lying flat.


Just a trickle, but enough!

We celebrated the achievement with a lunch of three different salads (farro with grilled veg; carrot, chickpea and pine nut; tomato and cucumber with mozzarella and pesto) and a bottle of wine, and took the time to relax for an hour or two.

With David then hot-footing it off to go and do some painting elsewhere, we turned our attentions to the quarry area at the end of the drive (having tried to think of something we could do/somewhere that would be in the shade!). While I cut banks of bramble and piled up the clippings ready to be chipped, Stuart took the earlier pile of chippings to the compost pile, turned the compost, and cut a cherry tree (a "hard pruning"). After an hour or so, we headed back to the house and while I took Reggie for a walk and then watered the orto, Stuart added another few stones to our work-in-progress herb garden, finishing off a productive day and a busy week.

Compost from the leaf bins!

(Still) a work in progress.

Friday 14 July 2017

Old maps and new pumps

Monday was a fairly uneventful day here as I went into the next valley to aid Brunetta (owner of the pool house) in finishing painting her new loft conversion, returning home in time for lunch and a visit from Dave and Sarah who had popped in with a bag of ripe figs to swap for one of our cabbages.

Tuesday was altogether at the opposite end of the spectrum as I started at the pool house at half six as per usual before heading to Vellano for the morning to do a bit of work with David, mainly in the form of yet more wood staining.
Small grass snake taking a dip.
After lunch back at home, Helen and I spent the afternoon making a start at installing the hydraulic ram pump I'd built down in the river. Helen carried the precious and somewhat fragile pump while I dragged a 30 metre roll of tubing through the woods with me.
Snagged yet again!
Blurry but seemingly happy


The river bed is full of fallen trees



version 1 too leaky!
So as the photos show, we had some measure of success in laying the so-called drive pipe from the natural pool up river and sucking hard to get the siphon to start getting water to not quite the location we needed it - seems I couldn't measure precisely enough with strides when negotiating a rocky riverbed - but for now at least it was enough to test version one of the pump. I call it version one as it soon became clear that once enough pressure had built up in the orange pressure chamber, leaks were appearing, releasing the required pressure. So that was as far as we were going to get that day, and another shopping trip elsewhere in town would be needed to find some better and high-pressure-type tubing with appropriate adaptors.

Wednesday, feeling a little weary from clambering around in the river the previous day, I opted to try and tick off a job from our ever-growing list by heading into to Pescia to get some car insurance quotes. I first headed to Allianz, where our friends Paul and Kathy had been getting good deals which was also very conveniently located next to two possible high pressure tube outlets... or so I hoped.

After walking out of the insurance office with a quote of over €1300 (€250 more than we paid last year with our current broker), which was apparently a reduced price for having a smart box fitted to the car to monitor driving style, amongst other things! What happened to insurance being a risk business? Must we expect a future of completely automated cars that we still have to pay to insure? Out of principle I wouldn't take one of these boxes anyway - it seems insurance companies like banks these days want their cake and they want to eat it, the inevitable outcome of having shareholders to feed?

[THUMP] (the sound of me jumping down from my soapbox). [Sigh] - the sigh of relief of my wife.

So anyway, the plumbers merchant had no tube to serve my purposes so I went to the irrigation shop where I had initially bought the rest of the components for the pump - yet again it was another lesson in asking for something even if you can't see it. I hadn't seen this type of tube when I bought the valves and other bits and pieces so had left without this bit and instead bought what turned out to be sub-standard bits from Frateschi. Had I just asked in the first place, I would have been furnished with what I left with that day (the correct pieces for the job) and would have saved myself €40.

Next stop was Pescia to the insurance broker named Cattolica, who Paul and Kathy were now insured with and had an even better price from.

After helping an American couple work out how to pay for their parking using a credit card (a new experience for me also), I headed to the Cattolica office, only to find their computer system out of action and be told to return after 5pm in the hope they had it fixed by then.

It seemed I wouldn't be getting a tick on our list after all!

As I was walking back to the car I passed the state archive building in central Pescia and noticed it was open. As with most places here in Italy, they do not have regular hours and opening times change on different days of the week, so spontaneously I decided to poke my head in and ask how we might go about finding some information about our house - mainly, if nothing else, when it was built.

It had been suggested to us that, if we took our purchase contract and paid a paltry fee we might be able to have access to whatever info they had about our property, so I wanted to finally confirm that, and maybe put the wheels in motion rather than just saying 'we should pop in there sometime', as we do almost every time we drive past.

It got the impression that the staff in there have slow days, and before I knew it large maps were being produced for me to look at to identify land parcel numbers, which would then correspond to entries within the old-looking books they had... What I thought would be a two-minute conversation in fact lasted for around two hours as both members of staff went around the place generally making a mess on my behalf. There were maps and books everywhere, and after an hour and a half we had seemingly hit a dead end where we couldn't decipher a handwritten number, combined with the confusion of land parcel numbers changing in the early 1900s when our part of the valley switched from being under the control of Vellano and fell instead under the jurisdiction of Pescia.

Things were approaching lunchtime, and I'm not sure whether it was this or the fact the members of staff had something to do that had them both so animated - either way, things were going at a speed now and I found it hard to keep up! Just as I was about to thank them for trying and walk out leaving them to tidy up before lunch, the lady (whose name I never got to learn) had a eureka moment and found a mention of our house changing hands. This gave us the magic number that we couldn't decipher and meant we could easily go back as far as their records allowed, which was 1825, showing that the house had changed hands, but within the same family, three times over a century or so.

That was then our deadend, I was worn out after two hours of that carry-on and left with a piece of paper scribbled with a few lines of relevant info that should now enable us to head to the state archive office in Lucca to go back even further. A job for another time, and another day, but exciting to have got so far and now know we should easily, in theory at least, be able to get back to the origins of the house.

The rest of the day I spent in the relative coolness of the house (27 degrees) to write up the previous week's blog, as i'm doing right now on the following Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday was another full-on day. I started at the pool house in the early morning before heading up to Vellano for a morning's work with David, coming home for lunch before heading back to the village of Pariana to help Brunetta with yet more painting for the afternoon.

That evening we spent a lovely couple of hours with our guests Katie and Greg, not forgetting Reggie who really quite enjoys a visit to the guest garden despite the presence of guests - in fact it seems to really help the bonding process along. I say 'bonding' in the loosest possible terms, of course, where Reggie is involved although he was readily offering Katie kisses before the night was out and even took a treat, if somewhat reluctantly, from Greg.

The week had somehow disappeared in a blur and after a slow start to the morning on Friday, having slept like the dead, I went to sell some of our excess veg to Amanda, filled the car with fuel and the went again to Catollica for an insurance quote, only to find that on Fridays they close earlier for lunch and I had missed them by 15 minutes!

After lunch I headed into Pescia to do the weekly food shop, as is the norm to allow us a free weekend.

Saturday morning after walking Reggie we headed to Sandrino's for coffee and pastries before deciding that, it being such a lovely morning and it being so nice to be out together on such a glorious day, we should not head straight back home just yet, and that maybe we should take a trip out to try and find some replacement garden furniture for the apartment.


While here two weeks ago, Mom and her friend Yvonne had done a great job with some wood glue, a hammer and nails fixing up the current guest patio furniture which, over the winter, had become a little worse for wear. It still looks great but the some of the arms had become detached at various places and if you leant back with any weight you would find the chair arms detaching - not ideal, and while they are suitably fixed for this summer, we thought it would be better to replace the furniture sooner rather than after a disaster later.

As it was, we headed in the direction of Lucca to find the hidden away Carrefour from which David and Sarah had bought their lovely garden furniture. Sadly we found very little left by way of garden furniture, but we left with four outdoor cushions and a new mosquito trap for the bedroom. Having satisfied our desire to see a bit of the outside world, we headed home for lunch.

After lunch we took the new and improved ram pump version two back to the river to see if the new pressure chamber would hold out.
The pool of crayfish.
Drive pipe.
Ram pump version 2.

It did!! And after half an hour of priming the pump it started clanking away automatically! I was so amazed by this thing I had put together actually doing what I had seen these pumps doing on the internet I didn't care at that point whether water was coming out the pipe further up hill. In fact it wasn't, but that did nothing to dampen my feeling of accomplishment. I left the pump running for a couple of hours to give it time to fill the 80-90 metres of delivery pipe in the hope that then we might see water arriving out of the tube 14-15 metres or so higher.

After that small success, and with Mara and Franco due for dinner, I decided to have a go at making one of the blinds I had been pondering over for the pergola to block the blinding sunshine that we now get of an evening in the hope that it would make it bearable to eat outside that evening.

With the help of Helen we managed to erect the first of three blinds in less than an hour and we tidied up before heading indoors to start cooking.

Helen cooked a lovely meal for us all using one of our somewhat demanding curry kits from the ever reliable Spicery, introducing yet another style of curry to our intrepid culinary explorers.

The pudding we tried was not from our kit but from a cookbook Helen bought some weeks back and although the taste was lovely and in keeping with the Indian food we served, it look terrible. Had the caramel not stuck into the pan, remaining there when the flan was turned out, it would have passed as a reasonable dessert. Thankfully it seems even Franco can be polite about food and nothing but complimentary noises of 'mmmmm' were heard around the table.

Blind number 1, version 1.

Pudding disaster!
Sunday started with a walk up the terraces with Reggie from where you can now clearly see the state of the dying silver fir tree in front of the house, I see a new drama in the near future involving this tree, but that will be for another blog post in the winter.
Spot the dying tree.
Sunday was hot and humid. With heavy, overcast skies (but not a drop of rain), the heat felt intense and oppressive and while I retreated to the bedroom for a couple of hours of catch-up sleep, Helen busied herself cooking up some of our glut of courgettes to put in the freezer.

By the middle of the afternoon, it was so hot and muggy that we decided Reggie needed his cool coat on, so we wet it as required and put it on him. He immediately went into a sulk and went off to his bedroom to prove it.

...and now i'm going to sulk

...and sulk some more!
While Reggie sulked, we sifted through the piles of leaflets and information on the area we have accumulated in the apartment and filed it all into a nicely organised document box file. Thrilling, I know, but it's a job we've been meaning to do for a long time and we did have a glass of wine while doing it, which made the process almost enjoyable.

Information overload.
After that small achievement we gave in to Reggie's sulking and took his coat off him, which saw him immediately spring back to life. It seems as if he sees the coat as more of a punishment than a cooling aid!

There MUST be something i can bark at outside SOMEWHERE!
Finally, we ended the weekend with a quiet night watching TV and hoping for some fresher weather in the morning!

Managed a little more compost making early in the week

Roughly 1 cubic metre

Compost nice and hot

Beautiful cornflowers

Bumble bee enjoying the spacious squash flowers

Florence fennel

Brought some sunshine inside the house
These bees LOVE artichoke flowers!