Wednesday 31 January 2018

First for a while

(This blog post covers the week 22-28 January 2018.)

So as another week started, and with the promise of a few dry days, it was back to the coal face for us both.

While Helen toiled away in front of her computer I crossed the valley to our friends Mara and Franco's house to resume the work on the conversion of an old lean-to into an apartment. The work has been progressing slowly: all the necessary the prep work amounts to little, visually, to show for a hard day's work, and things barely look different now from how they looked at the start - therefore patience is required of all parties at this stage of the process, safe in the knowledge that soon there will be plenty of more dramatic changes in the form of windows, electrics and plumbing.

Nice tidy window reveal awaiting steel framed glazing.

Numerous layers of lime plaster to build up to required thickness.

Socket back boxes fixed into the wall.
An unintended hole when making a small hole for an electrical socket back box.

Electrical wiring chases in the existing plaster.

Flexi-tubing for cables.

Snoopy modelling an American president styled haircut.

Monday evening marked two weeks since the good ship 'Aperitivi Inglesi' set sail (no, I've no idea why I chose a nautical analogy) at our local circolo (village club) so, having agreed to make it a bi-weekly affair, we set off towards the bar with a handful of materials in the form of flash cards and some additional exercises in the hope that we would have some interest once again.

We had adjusted the start time for the evening on this occasion, and rather than starting at 18:00 as we had done last time, we advertised a start time of 20:00 (somewhat reluctantly, as at this time of year by 20:00 it's already been dark for three hours and we're usually settled in for the evening keeping the wood burner going and the house warm). The reason for the change was that it has become abundantly clear that, virtually without exception, all evening gatherings start at 21:00 here (to allow a decent Italian dinner beforehand), so you can see that with our 20:00 start we were only making a compromise.

Sadly, young Ilaria who came last time, couldn't make it this time, but instead we had first Stefano from Medicina to talk to, who was joined shortly by Fabio, a software engineer from Pescia, and then towards the end of the evening a plant grower called Luca. All three of them had a very good grasp of English, making for a varied evening during which we covered topics ranging from meditation to classic motorbikes, and the origin of the Italian language to politics! Once again our good friends Paul, Kathy and David came along and got stuck in with the conversation as well, so the evening flowed nicely and by 22:30 we were happy to head home feeling as if the evening had been another small step in the right direction - let's see how things progress into spring.

On Wednesday afternoon we both headed into Pescia with Reggie in the back of the car - it was time for his annual jab at the vets with the lovely Alessandra.

This time we went armed with some of his home made dehydrated beef heart treats in the hope that we might be able to reward him for venturing into the surgery. For whatever reason this time Reggie decided he would walk/run/pull us into the surgery rather than having to be carried, as is usually the way. You certainly wouldn't say he was happy to go in, but it was a giant step forward for him after only a few visits - Alessendra clearly has a good way about her and we were soon in the consulting room where, as usual, Reggie refused all treats offered to him, too stressed even to consider eating anything.

We soon administered the jab in the usual manner, all three humans sat on the floor and Reggie trying to hide behind me. By the time we'd had a short chat with Alessandra about his general health and his new raw diet, Reggie had calmed down by the tiniest of notches and was ready to take a dehydrated treat from Alessandra, and then another and another - indeed, he was so keen that I'm surprised she didn't lose a finger in the process. It wasn't long before we were on the way home with a request to return in spring for what will be Reggie's first blood test (to test for filaria, a disease transmitted by biting insects), not wanting to do too much in one visit and ruin the small amount of trust that seemed to have been built between Reggie and vet this week.

Thursday saw another reluctant exit from the house after dark, but only for Helen as it was her second spinning class down at the gym in Pescia. Not having slept well the previous night (and having a much better idea of how hard the class was going to be than the first time she went in relative blissful ignorance), she was less than keen on the idea but went regardless, such is her commitment to cardio exercise.

We finished the week on Friday evening with what felt like a well earned bottle of wine after having forced ourselves to face the supermarket at peak time (early evening) so that we wouldn't have to sully our weekend with such a mundane task. After dinner, we watched the final of Junior Bake Off Italia - something we wish we'd found at the start of the series but will be looking out for next time around as it was hugely entertaining watching these 'mini pasticceri' of 8-10 years of age bake cakes that far exceeded anything I would be capable of, and realising that our level of Italian is about that of an 8 year old!!

Reggie's new diet, the stuff of vegan nightmares!
The weekend started with a trip into town for a coffee and pastry, after which we once again decided to try and get lost in the foothills between Pescia and Lucca. It's becoming our favourite pastime of a weekend, albeit only for an hour or so, but it instantly brings a feeling of being on holiday, there is so much undiscovered beauty in these hills of grape vines and olive groves, and such history in the small and largely uninhabited villages that it's like discovering Tuscany all over again. The area we covered this time seemed to be existing in its own little microclimate as well, and the fields and hillsides were dotted with the colours of mimosa, daffodils, crocuses, borage and helibores, making it feel as if spring had already arrived.

After lunch and much deliberation over our to-do list, we decided to do something not on the to-do list (oops), yep... clearing terraces - our second favourite pastime!

Although the task was not on the to-do list itself, we didn't embark on it without reason: I have just ordered 600 wooden dowels of Shiitake mushroom spawn so that we can try our hand at cultivating these tasty morsels this year (and, should we be reasonably successful, with a view to expanding the operation and making ourselves something of a niche in the valley).

Having identified some hornbeam trees in the woods to use as the host logs, we needed somewhere to site them. The answer? On the two uncleared and somewhat shady terraces below the car park.

It was something of a shock to the system to embark on some serious clearing, not having done any of this kind of labour for some months now, but it was enjoyable to get back into the swing of things and to have some fine, sunny weather to do it in.

We toiled away both Saturday and Sunday, allowing ourselves a couple of hours on Sunday morning to plant garlic and bury a water pipe outside the front of the house that was starting to become a serious trip hazard, but otherwise concentrating on the terrace clearing.

It was quite slow work at times, as we kept coming across pieces of fencing and barbed wire from an old fence that had fallen and become buried in the ground and that had now all sorts of plant roots clamping the steel mesh firmly to the earth, meaning that bolt cutters and a lot of brute force were required to free it from the undergrowth.

By the time we called an end to the fun on Sunday evening and as the bonfire burned down we had finished phase one of the clearance and were feeling very pleased with ourselves and at the difference it makes to the nearby area. Weather permitting, next weekend will see phase two underway, which should see the hedge cutters swapped for strimmers with metal blades, but with changeable weather forecast for the week ahead, the ball is in Mother Nature's court.

More "gifts" from the land.

Before clearing.

New terraces!

Keeping a careful eye on yet another bonfire.

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Nose to the grindstone

(This blog post covers the period 8-21 January 2018.)

After two long weeks of visitors and making merry and having no routine over the festive period, to say that the first full week of 'back to normality' came as a shock to the system would be an understatement. As much as we were in need of things returning to something resembling normality and a quieter life post-Christmas, we felt as if we'd gone from zero to 100mph overnight and found ourselves facing the sort of routine that we haven't experienced in quite a while. I say "we", but my week, while busy, was not so different from normal: office work every day. Stuart, on the other hand, embarked on a week of hard labour - leaving the house at 9am and returning at 5:30pm and doing manual work all day. When you have a dodgy thyroid that's quite a feat.

Our friends Mara & Franco are turning an old lean-to at the end of their house into a one-bedroom apartment which they hope to offer for holiday lets. A while ago they asked Stuart if he would help with the work, which he was only too pleased to agree to. Since the project had stalled a little pre-Christmas, Stuart was keen to get going straight after new year and to throw himself into it - eager to do a good job for our friends. Of course, doing this sort of a project is something he hasn't done in quite a while, and the long days of manual work are not something he's had to contend with since his more recent thyroid issues. He did a sterling job of it though, and made it through the week feeling tired, but coping well.

On Monday evening we embarked on a new venture: our first "Aperitivi Inglesi" at the local village club (Circolo) in Pietrabuona. Stuart had suggested the idea to the club's owner, Emanuele, a few weeks ago as a way for us to help to try to encourage people to come to the club - inviting anyone who wanted to come and practise their English in a relaxed atmosphere, with a drink to put money in the till and to help lubricate the conversation. The whole idea may sound a bit Anglocentric, but we often meet Italians who say they wish they spoke better English, or who simply say that they would like the opportunity to practise their English, so we decided this would be a good chance to offer a service, to support our local club, and indeed for us to meet more people in our local community.

Our great friends David, Sarah, Paul, Kathy and Donatella had all said they would come along to give us moral support and to help swell numbers - it was a good job they did, as there were vanishingly few "takers"! In fact, we had a small handful of people turn up, and while Stuart and I did our best to try and help the lovely Illaria (a friend of Donatella's) with her English vocab (I'm not sure either of us is a born teacher), the rest of the gang chatted to Sandra and Alessio (friends of Donatella's and acquaintances of all of us) in English, so it was mission accomplished, even if not quite on the scale we had envisaged. We were pleased overall with the way the evening had gone though, and decided to repeat it on a fortnightly basis, hoping that a little later into the year might bring in more faces.

Through the week, Stuart worked long days at Mara & Franco's and I spent long days home alone without speaking to another soul (Reggie is not the greatest conversationalist: he tends either to remain silent, giving me doleful eyes when I fail to stop what I'm doing to rub his tummy, or else to let himself out into the garden to shout at the top of his lungs - to such an extent that throughout the week I kept receiving messages from Stuart to tell me he could hear Reggie from the other side of the valley!).
Can you hear Reggie barking through the mist?

We did have a couple of breaks in the working week: one for our weekly group Italian lesson with Johnny along with David & Sarah, and I also had a lesson with Samantha on my own (as Stuart was busy working). It has been a long while since I last had a lesson on my own and it was good for me to put my brain into full gear - it was the most Italian I've spoken in a long while and it was a good reminder that I can do it when I try (and, more importantly, when I feel at ease). Our Italian lessons are so important to us, not only because they provide the opportunity to see friends, which is always lovely (and as well as our fellow students, we are lucky enough to be able to consider both of our teachers as friends), but more importantly because we know that the one thing most likely to cause us to fail in our attempt to make a life for ourselves here is failing to get a grip on the language. It's already fully evident that the language is the one piece of the puzzle that is still lacking, which makes everything much harder, and it's the one thing that still frustrates us and still brings us (OK, me) to tears. Therefore we value our lessons immensely and force ourselves through the drudgery of doing the (actually rather small amount of) homework we are set. It's not always a barrel of laughs, and it's a weekly expense, but for us it is such an important investment - it has become blatantly clear that we can't put a price on learning the language of the place in which we live.

On Sunday, after having had a coffee and gone to Obi to buy a particularly hideous but practical piece of wipe-clean table cloth material that we can put on the sofa when Reggie has a piece of meat to eat (and it's not outdoor-eating weather), we called in at one of our local gyms in Pescia, and this happened:

Yes, I signed up to join our local gym.

You may consider joining a gym to be a luxury - it is, of course, and it is only thanks to a generous Christmas gift from my lovely parents that I have been able to do this (last year I treated myself to a chainsaw, this year a gym membership...). However, for me, the joining of a local gym goes way beyond the simple idea of wanting somewhere to train - after all, I've kept my hand in with exercise, albeit on a far reduced scale, ever since we arrived in Italy and I still do a short exercise session (with the help of some classes downloaded from the Internet) six mornings a week.

For me, the joining of a gym represents something much, much bigger (and scarier, but hopefully in the end far more valuable): it forces me to go out, to interact with people and use the language, and it gives me something to do for myself, on my own, thus rediscovering a little of my independence. Since moving here life has changed dramatically in countless ways, and while I always love going places and doing things with Stuart as a couple, I do find that I have lost something of my independence - having only one vehicle is one contributing factor, as is my working from home (and often going for six days without leaving the house/property), but perhaps the biggest thing is abject fear of having to talk to real, live Italians on my own (something I desperately need to get over - my written Italian is decent, but I'll never get anywhere if all I can do is write it!). So 'Project: Gym Membership' is actually 'Project: Build Confidence, Independence, and Speak Italian'. Needless to say, the idea of actually going to the gym fills me with the utmost fear and dread, but I'm pleased to have taken the first step (I think).

We also managed to get around to doing a little bit of outdoor work at the weekend - first we dismantled the wood shelter in preparation for the large fir trees above it being cut during the week, and then we spent half a day cutting up more small pieces of wood to add to our kindling pile.

As the weekend wore on, it was clear that Stuart's energy levels were spiralling downwards, signalling the start of a somewhat quieter second week. While he just about managed to get to work on Monday, the rest of the week was pretty much entirely written off thanks to the misbehaving thyroid.

Thankfully, we had an appointment with an endocrinologist lined up for Wednesday morning - Stuart had made the appointment five weeks ago, and we were pinning a lot of hope on being able to talk to someone who had been recommended to us by Samantha and Amanda, both of whom are registered under this specialist's care for the same thyroid problem.

Unfortunately, it transpired that something had got lost in translation and we realised (just as we were about to set off for the appointment) that the appointment had been for the previous day and we'd missed it. What a disaster. Just as we were starting to think we were managing to get by in Italian, with enough language (albeit sketchy) to cover just about every eventuality, this came as a stark reminder that we're nowhere near "there" yet. So, while Stuart headed straight back to bed, I sent a plaintive message to Samantha, relating the sorry tale, and a matter of a few hours later she was phoning me to tell me she'd rung the doctor's office and arranged for him to squeeze us in the following day! Another reminder, but this time of just how fortunate we are to know such kind, generous and helpful people here, and to be able to count them as our friends.

Thursday was, therefore, a fully packed day. At 8:30am, the three guys arrived to start cutting the enormous fir trees that stand in front of our house; Donatella also arrived at the same time to attempt to take Reggie out with me as a means to get him away from the noise and confusion going on at the house; in store for the afternoon was a trip to Pistoia for the appointment with the specialist, and for me, the evening was to be my first venture into the gym in Pescia for a spinning class.

The tree cutting went very well - having had terrible weather in the first part of the week (high winds and heavy rain), the morning dawned dry, bright, and mercifully still. The guys got straight to work and trimmed each of the six fir trees that were towering taller than the roof of the house. The idea is that, by taking the tops off the trees, they become less likely to catch the wind, and therefore safer, yet because we haven't had the whole trees taken down we retain both the privacy and the shade they afford us. As last time, the guys worked efficiently and tidily and by 1pm - just as the first few drops of rain were beginning to fall - they had completed the job and left some very neat (if very large) piles of fir branches stacked up in the drive.

Reggie's morning was also a great success: in the end, Donatella and I decided to take him just as far as our upper donkey track where we could try some search-and-find with him. After tying a piece of chicken wing to a piece of string, Donatella dragged it along the ground then hid behind a tree - the first time allowing Reggie to see what she was doing, and on subsequent occasions not letting him see her do it. Then we let Reggie pick up the scent and go and find her. He was brilliant! And he seemed overjoyed each time he found her. A great start and something we hope to repeat.

After a hard morning's searching Reggie slept through much of the chainsawing going on outside - result!

The day continued on a positive note with the trip to Pistoia and the visit to the specialist, who was prompt, friendly and, most importantly, thorough. He explained things very clearly and we left feeling a lot happier, better informed, and less worried. He suggested that Stuart alter the dosage of his thyroid medication once again, and that in a couple of months' time, he have another blood test and told us simply to send him the results either via email or via WhatsApp and that he will respond with advice - what a great service!

The final activity for the day for me was the spinning class. If I'm honest, I had been worrying myself sick about it since the moment I booked the class at the weekend, counting down the days, evenings, hours with mounting dread. So the fact that Thursday was such a packed day was quite a blessing, as it kept me and my mind fully occupied, leaving me far less time to worry about it than I'd had on all the preceding days.

I am happy to report that I survived. Although only just. I found the class incredibly hard - it's been so long since I last did a proper, live, spinning class on a spinning bike, with real people and a live instructor that I was utterly spent after 10 minutes, with another 35 minutes still left to endure (for the last 3 years I've been following classes that I've downloaded onto my tablet PC and using my road bike attached to a turbo trainer - and it turns out that a road bike on a turbo trainer is very different from a spin bike, and that as hard as I might think I'm pushing myself on my own, it's nothing compared with how hard I push myself when there are other people in the room!). I did find myself wondering whether I might pass out at any point - it was so hot in the tiny, dark room (another aspect of spinning I'd conveniently forgotten about), the music was so loud, and I was so puffed that I had visions of ending up in an embarrassed, crumpled, sweaty, English-speaking heap on the floor... But, as I say, I was thrilled to have got myself there (and home again), to have made it through the class, and even to have had some dialogue with other class members. Now I just have to make it back again next week, and the week after.

At the end of the week Stuart managed to get himself over to Mara and Franco's for just a couple of hours' of work on Friday afternoon - despite having felt uplifted by the consultation with the endocrinologist, the effects of increasing the dosage of his medication take a few days to be felt, so once again he had to make his apologies for not feeling up to working in the morning. While he was working there, I was busy preparing dinner for them, as well as a lunch for the following day as not only were Mara & Franco due to come round for a curry on Friday night, but we had scheduled a 'community day' for Saturday (to start at 9am) to help us clear up some of the mess left after the cutting of the trees.

Despite almost having a nervous breakdown over the cooking of about 7 different dishes all at once, I managed to put everything together in time and we had a great evening with Mara & Franco - time to pay them back not only for their hospitality over the festive period but also for providing lunch for Stuart each time he works at their house.

Thankfully it wasn't too late a night on Friday, meaning we were able to get up early enough on Saturday to get ourselves ready for the community day gang: Donatella, Paul & Kathy and David (sadly we missed Sarah on this occasion as she is currently working away). After coffees all round we embarked on a long morning's hard work: Donatella and Kathy started a bonfire in the car park area to burn through the enormous piles of fir tree branches; David and Paul headed off into the woods with their chainsaws to log some of the many fallen trees that are dotted around in the woods; Stuart and I re-stacked the wood piles in the quarry at the end of the drive to make room for a new wood pile and then collected and stacked the logs that Paul & David had cut up.

We were thrilled with the work that, together, everyone got done - Donatella and Kathy had managed to get through more than half of the fir branches (battling with very damp branches thanks to the previous day's rain, and consequently a very smoky fire), David & Paul logged enough trees to load a full two pallets' worth for next season's burning, and Stuart and I finished re-stacking the old wood pile and stacking the new one. After all that hard work we settled down to a veg chilli and egg custards before everyone headed off to soak their aching limbs and get the smell of smoke out of their hair. We continued with the burning for a couple of hours after they left before calling it a day ourselves and relaxing in front of a film for the evening.

On Sunday, before starting any serious work, we headed out for our weekend coffee ritual and followed that with a little drive around an area we don't know so well: just off the Lucca road there is an area that is littered with grand villas - most of them faded glories today, but still grand enough to be able to imagine the world of opulence that they must have hosted in their heyday.

Villa Torrigiani

The afternoon consisted of re-constructing the wood shelter and doing another 4 hours' worth of burning on another very smoky fire. By the time darkness fell, we'd managed to clear the path down to the apartment, with just another two smaller piles still left to burn.

By this stage Kathy and Donatella had already burned more than half of what had been piled up.

It was then time to spend the evening relaxing and recharging batteries for what we are hoping will be a productive week ahead.

Tuesday 9 January 2018

21 days (happy new year!)

 (This blog post covers the period 18th December 2017 - 7 January 2018.)

Happy new year!
OK, so we have been slack with our blogging over recent weeks. Apologies to our regular readers, but we hope you will understand that with a tide of visitors to prepare for and look after over the festive period, and routines having gone out the window, something had to give! Now that we are back to something more approaching normality we hope to get back on track.

We had Stuart's Mum, Sheila, staying with us for two weeks over Christmas and New Year, and our dear friends Paul & Marie staying with us for the week over New Year as well. We also hosted our great friends David & Sarah for Christmas Day, so festivities were plentiful!

Aside from eating and drinking and making merry at home, we had a fair few mini-excursions and celebrations with friends and an altogether packed three weeks.

Stuart, Sheila and I put our crafting skills to the test in the days running up to Christmas and finally found a use for the baskets of corks that we have been accumulating over the years: cork Christmas wreaths. It took us a few attempts to find the rings (of polystyrene) on which to base our creations, but the Aladdin's cave that is Lemmi (a hardware/homeware/craftware shop in Borgo a Buggiano) came up trumps, and our visit there took us to a new coffee shop whose barista excelled herself with the festive cappuccinos she produced for us.

Festive cappuccini!

Once back at home we put the production line into action, with Sheila gamely impaling corks with cocktail sticks while Stuart and I got creative with assembling the wreaths. Poor Amanda and Samantha (two of the intended recipients of our craftwork) were baffled as to why, after having bought a box of 400 cocktail sticks from them in the morning, we were rushing back just a few hours later to buy some more (after all, who on earth needs 800 cocktail sticks in one day?!). In the end, we were pretty pleased with the results.

It's not Chritsmas without a crafting session.

Three down, two to go.





(Not sure where #5 got to!)
In the days running up to Christmas we introduced Sheila to our best Italian friends Mara & Franco, who generously entertained the three of us not once but twice at their home, with Franco cooking traditional chestnut pancakes (necci) for us and rolling out his best English phrases for the benefit of Sheila, who was suitably amused by his antics (not to mention being stuffed to the gills with the pancakes!).

Christmas Day itself started (after a morning walk with Reggie) with a visit to Amanda & Samantha and their parents, Julia & Vittorio, in the shop both to collect our bread and to deliver cork Christmas wreaths to them all, finally coming clean about why we'd needed so many cocktail sticks - they seemed pretty pleased with their gifts, but were even more bowled over by the Christmas jumpers we were all sporting (bought over from the UK courtesy of Sheila). They made us all line up for a Christmas jumper photo shoot, each of them snapping away on their phones, making us feel as if we were on some sort of bizarre Christmas red carpet! We left the shop promising Amanda that she could have Stuart's Christmas jumper (complete with flashing lights) when he had finished with it, in time for her to wear it next year.

A Christmas morning Reggie walk.

The rain started on Christmas Day around lunchtime, but with David & Sarah arriving to help us celebrate, our spirits were far from dampened. Together, we pulled together a feast fit for not one but several kings: a pear, walnut and gorgonzola salad, followed by roast turkey, roast venison, a pistachio and chestnut bake for the vegetarians, roast parsnips from David & Sarah's orto, roast potatoes from our orto, red cabbage, carrots, and sprouts with chestnuts, followed by a traditional panettone filled with chantilly and hazelnut creams - complete with mountain village scene on top - that Sarah & David had ordered from one of the local bakeries in Pescia.

Table all set.

A monster parsnip from David & Sarah's orto.

Let the eating begin.

Sweet treats: panettone with mountain village scene.

Mara and Franco called in on us on their way back home from Christmas lunch at Franco's parents' house in Vellano. With us having a rather late lunch and them having had a fairly early one, they arrived just as we had sat down to our main course, but they gamely sat and waited for us to eat, and we did so we introduced them to the concept of Christmas crackers and paper hats. We had a great couple of hours with them until it was time for them to head back home to check on poor Snoopy who'd been home alone all day.

Once Mara & Franco had gone, it was time to get serious with the board games: David & Sarah, Stuart and I sat down to a marathon session that included Personal Preference (a new one to us, but hilarious), Harry Potter Cluedo and Scrabble, all of which was accompanied by the mandatory (at Christmas time) picking at leftovers as well as a delicious selection of English cheeses brought over from the UK by Sarah, and of course plenty of bubbles and wine - the perfect way to end the evening.

With the weather pretty dismal from Christmas day onwards, and Sheila having been struck down with a bad cold, we were pretty much housebound for a few days after the 'big day', although we visited Paul & Kathy and Kathy's Mum, Gill, for a delicious post-Christmas meal of nasi goreng and a much appreciated change of scenery.

Come the end of the week it was time to prepare for the arrival of our guests for New Year, our great friends Paul & Marie. We collected them from the airport mid afternoon on the Saturday and, after giving them a chance to deposit their bags in the apartment and have a drink, we whisked them straight off out to San Quirico to the annual "fucarone" - a giant (seriously huge) bonfire in the centre of the village square, which is lit on the 30th December each year to celebrate the ending of the year (the celebrations also involving chestnut pancakes, mulled wine and sausage sandwiches). The bonfire was impressive for its size (some enormous lumps of wood) and careful construction, and intriguingly had been lit from the inside (you could tell they'd done this before). It was also a sight to behold being so close to objects that could easily catch fire: the large Christmas tree in the village square, the power lines running above it, the buildings all around the square and the people all standing so close to it (a very large percentage of whom were sporting the shiny acrylic puffer jackets so favoured among Italians at this time of year!). There were several marshals on guard though, who spent most of the evening throwing buckets of water onto the flagstones beneath the fire (which had been built on pallets to raise it off the ground).

The "focarone"in San Quirico.

Enormous lumps of wood,

Sparks flying perilously close to the power lines.

Mulled wine all round - cheers!
At the festa, we met up with Donatella, David & Sarah and Paul & Kathy, and once we had seen enough of the bonfire we all headed back to Paul & Kathy's for some delicious soups (so delicious I am still thinking about them more than a week later), cheese and drinks, as well as a good catch up with our friends and a chance for Paul & Marie to reacquaint themselves with everyone.

Our New Year's Eve festivities started with dropping in a David & Sarah's for pre-dinner drinks. David & Sarah had opted to stay in for New Year's Eve, while Donatella was heading to the Circolo in Vellano for the evening, and Paul & Kathy, Paul & Marie, Sheila, Stuart and I were all heading up to the village of Goraiolo for dinner at Locanda Zacco. It was lovely, therefore to have a quick drink where we got to see everyone before all heading our separate ways for the evening.

Paul very kindly drove all of us up to Goraiolo, but he might not have made the offer had he known what the weather would have in store - it was exactly the same as the only other time Stuart and I have eaten at Locanda Zacco (which was when my Mum & Dad were staying with us a couple of years ago): it was so foggy that at times we couldn't even see the edges of the road, let alone anything in front of us. Fog lights made the situation even worse, so we crawled along, collectively holding our breaths, inching our way slowly up to the village - poor Paul was then in the unenviable position of knowing that he had to drive back down again at the end of the evening, and I'm not sure we remembered to thank him enough for being the superstar pro-driver (thank you Paul!).

Thankfully, the perilous drive up the mountain proved to be well worth it and we had a fantastic evening - delicious food (and copious amounts of it), a lovely atmosphere and great entertainment.

Found it in the mist!

Happy new year!
Oh dear... who let the Brits in?!!

To blow away the cobwebs on New Year's Day, we had a bright and sunny walk along the river in Pescia - it was the first time we'd seen blue skies and sunshine for a little while, so it felt great to get outside and stretch our legs.

Beautiful coloured shrubs growing in the nurseries along the river.

Is that blue sky?

Enjoying the chance to get out in the sunshine.

In the days that followed new year, we managed to fit in a visit to Montecarlo, a barbecue (yes, in January), a meal out at our new favourite pizza restaurant, Come a Casa in Borgo a Buggiano (which caters for gluten-free diets without so much as raising an eyebrow), a roast dinner, lunch at our favourite coffee bar in Pescia, and even our own necci making, thanks to Franco having loaned his paddles to us (the necci, made by Stuart, were jolly good too - a very impressive first attempt!).


Barbecuing in January.

Necci paddles heating up.

Oiling the paddles with a half potato.

Batter on the paddle.


Of course, all festivities must eventually come to an end (you could almost hear the sound of our livers and digestive systems heaving a sigh of relief), and after Sheila left for the UK on 4th Jan, we then also had to take Paul & Marie back to the airport on the 6th. While we know it won't be long until Sheila is back with us in the spring, we also hope that Paul & Marie will be back here again soon.

We had tried out a new cross-country route to the airport when we went to collect Paul & Marie, as recommended (and thoughtfully programmed into a sat nav) by our local Paul (as opposed to the one we were collecting!). Having found the journey to be quick and - importantly - toll-free, we did the same route when we dropped them off at the airport. The new route was a little bit of a journey of discovery, as it heads across a part of the local area that we hadn't found before. On our way home from the airport, therefore, we made a quick stop to explore the interesting-looking village of Vicopisano.

Vicopisano is a fortified medieval village about 15km east of Pisa, which is mainly famous for its castle (Rocca Nuova) which was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and built in 1434.


Once home, it was time to turn our attention to all the chores that accompany the end of the festive period/had been building up waiting for us to do: taking down Christmas decorations, doing laundry, checking on the chickens, tidying the house, and a variety of other tasks to bring us crashing back down to normality!

"When our visitors have all gone it will be nice to have the sofa to ourselves again", we thought... except someone appears to be sitting on the floor!

We finally managed get outdoors and do some work on Sunday for the first time in many weeks (both being visitor-free and having dry weather), and we spent a couple of hours chainsawing some of the wood in the quarry by the gates and moving it down to the woodpile - we are running slightly low on kindling-sized wood, so wanted to get some more under cover and drying in case we end up needing it in the coming months. It felt great to be out working in the great outdoors again, if only for a couple of hours, and I for one am looking forward to much more of it in the coming months.

Reorganised wood pile ready for more kindling.

Cutting up more kindling.

More kindling added to the wood pile to start to dry out.
We wish all our readers a healthy, happy and prosperous 2018, hoping that it brings you everything you hope for and more.

Helen, Stuart, Florence & Reggie.