Wednesday 28 February 2018

A quiet week leading into... winter

After the excitement of the weekend it was back to the usual routine this week with nothing out of the ordinary planned except for the next of our English evenings down at the circolo in the village.

So after a day's work, instead of settling in front of the wood burner we dug out some respectable civilian clothing and headed out into the cold, village bound.

It looked like being a quiet night here too, and after 20 minutes we thought we would be going home early - that was until Roberto arrived out of the cold. Roberto is the older chap who spent some time as a waiter at The Savoy back in the 60's. He has plenty to talk about from his past but his opening gambit this time was that of the Bell's palsy (partial paralysis of the face) that had befallen him only four days ago. Once he pointed it out from beneath his scarf and woolly hat it was clear to see. What a brave man heading out into the cold to meet up with a group of relative strangers with symptoms that were currently making it harder than usual for him to talk, eat and drink. We were humbled that he had made the effort (and felt somewhat guilty about the fact that we ourselves had dragged our heels and not really wanted to go out into the cold and dark!).

Time ticked by, and after about half an hour with Roberto alone keeping us company, everything changed when, within the next ten minutes, first Fabio arrived (who we had met for the first time four weeks ago), followed by Daniele (a guy from Montecarlo who we had not met before), a young Albanian lad by the name of Castrio, and then a little later Luca (who has been to each one of our English evenings).

It turned into a fun evening and, as ever, with the impending Italian general election (which takes place on 4 March) there were several points at which things descended into heated political debate (largely in Italian), which tested our own language skills just as much, if not more than anyone's English skills were tested all night! It has been suggested that on the next English evening we set up a forfeit box which must be paid into by anyone who switches to using Italian - given that the next English evening will be the day after the general election, I image that it could be quite the earner for whatever cause is decided upon.

By the time we’d managed to make our excuses, had an extra round of drinks bought for us, and finally managed to convince everyone that we really had to go, it was heading rapidly towards midnight. Once again it had been a very enjoyable evening overall, and it was nice to have met a couple of new faces as well as to see the return of some familiar ones.

The rest of the week slipped by with little to report other than the constant talk between us and our group of friends of the cold front that was approaching and the hope of being able to have a community day on Saturday up at Paul and Kathy's if the weather remained as forecast - a solitary dry day sandwiched between a wet spell and a cold snowy spell. It seemed unlikely, but we held out hope.

On Thursday afternoon we started the process of (re)-securing the chicken enclosure - the finger-numbing job of going round making sure the netting over the top is all firmly knitted together at each of the seams as well as fixed properly to the top of the fence (and with no gaps!). Reggie wanted to see what we were doing, so we let him in and he spent an hour or so discovering the life of a chicken. He thought it was great fun at first, but then got a bit fed up when he realised he was on the inside and we had moved to the outside:

A chicken's life.

Friday was a horrible day weather wise: a biting cold wind and rain was all that awaited anyone who dared to venture outside, so I was glad to down tools for the week over at Mara and Franco's house and head home to collect Helen before going to get the food shopping sorted, keen to have it done before the cold of the weekend bit down.

Despite Friday's deeply unpleasant weather, on Saturday morning we awoke to a clear blue sky! The weather really couldn't have been much more different from that of the preceding week or that which was forecast to start the next morning, so Helen and I headed up to Castelvecchio where we were joined by David & Sarah at Paul & Kathy's house for a community day working outside in the glorious sunshine.

While Helen and Sarah toiled away with hedge cutters, rakes and a bonfire, clearing an overgrown area of the woods beneath Paul & Kathy's house, the boys worked at logging some fallen trees and winching them up to the pathway that runs through the woods so that they can be moved in Paul's powered wheelbarrow contraption at some point.

It wasn't long before we were all (girls excluded) in t-shirts and the woods were full of the sounds of  two-stroke engines angrily revving away: two chainsaws and a winch, which after a couple of false starts, worked admirably dragging up huge trunks of tree that even between two of us we were unable to move.

We worked until around 13:30 when we finally downed tools and headed indoors for an abundant and delicious lunch that Kathy had spent the morning conjuring up: 3 different curries, rice and poppadums, finished off with rice pudding. It was a great way to finish the day with lots of laughs and the frivolity that can only come from having toiled together at work for a few hours in the fresh air.

On Sunday we awoke to altogether different temperatures. Having been promised snow all day long, we had not planned anything for the day, other than maybe some Italian homework in the form of another of the Harry Potter movies in Italian.

First things first though, and we headed into to Pescia for breakfast. Looking back up the valley we could see the snow in the air further up on the hills. After coffee we decided to try and get lost in the foothills again but this time in the direction east of Pescia rather than west towards Lucca.

Recently, we had spotted a brown road sign hidden away on a turning off the main road out of town, indicating that the road was part of an "olive oil route" in the area. We don't fully understand the significance of these signs, which appear all around the area at seemingly random points, but we took it as the sign of a good place to try and explore.

The road did indeed wind its way up into the foothills through acres of dense olive groves but we soon found ourselves at the castle village of Uzzano just above Pescia. It wasn't quite the scale of adventure we had hoped for, but a pretty little drive nonetheless.

As we headed back down towards Pescia, Helen suggested we take a right turn towards Malocchio, a tiny village we had not yet visited, despite it being vaguely in the direction of home.

We wound our way at snail's pace up a hairpin road stuck behind a large group of cyclists who eventually all stopped, as the snow became heavier, to put on waterproof jackets and about-turn, leaving us a clear run to the village.

I say "village", but we seemed to find a cemetery and a restaurant side by side and nothing else. It was a nice drive though, with some different views of the valley, and we ended up climbing over the top of the hill and finding ourselves in Macchino, above Vellano, from where we took the provincial road back to home in time for lunch.

As we approached the house the snow that had been falling heavily in Malocchio and Macchino became very light, so there was little chance of Reggie getting any on the ground to play in, but enough to mean we felt OK about heading indoors for the rest of the day.

After lunch, though, the weather changed yet again: the snow disappeared and we were left with a cold but sunny afternoon. After trying, but failing to find a good reason to stay indoors, we headed outside with the winch and chainsaws in order to fell a couple of trees and strip the bark from them to make the remaining leg posts of the yet-to-be-built tractor park.

It was sunny, but when the wind blew it was icy cold and cut right through, which meant you couldn't stand still for a moment and the only way to cope was to keep going, non-stop!

But stop we did around 5pm, having cut all four new posts and stripped two of them ready for sinking into the ground - not a job we had the energy or inclination for today so we cleared away the tools and took Reggie into the woods for a walk before contentedly retiring indoors for the evening.

Sunday night was forecast to drop to -3C and Monday barely above freezing all day, with more or less the same forecast until Thursday when a couple of inches of snow were due. 

After having been caught out in previous winters, we were fully prepared for frozen water pipes this time by having 75 litres of water in Jerry cans ready for toilet flushing and 18 litres of potable water in bottles - we knew that Sunday evening could be our last chance to shower for a couple of days, so we duly showered, changed and lit the fire... we could be no more prepared.

(This blog post covers the week 19-25 February 2018.)

Thursday 22 February 2018

Not so fantastic Mr Fox

And in the blink of an eye another fortnight has passed. We are still experiencing cold overnight temperatures (and indeed, as I write this, there is a promise of very cold daytime temperatures, arctic overnight temperatures, and even snow in the 10-day period to come), but there have been some definite spring-time scents in the air, there are all manner of different little bursts of colour dotted around the hillsides in the form of early spring flowers, and the days are lengthening, well, by the day. We can now stay outdoors with enough light to continue working until a little after 6pm.

Our hillside from a different perspective.

The last fortnight has seen a mish-mash of activities, ranging from the usual routine to the completely out of routine last week when I headed to the UK to visit family for 5 days while Stuart entertained our friend Dave from the UK here, along with his 5-year-old son Ollie.

The first week of the fortnight saw us "hosting" (I'm not sure that's really the right word - Emanuele, who runs the circolo in Pietrabuona, was the real host - perhaps we were more the "facilitators", although that sounds a little too much like corporate-speak for comfort!) the next in our series of fortnightly English evenings at the local village club. Although still only the third such event, the evenings seem to have evolved into a case of sitting and chatting with people whose English is maybe a little rusty but overall very good indeed - good enough for really quite wide ranging conversation. The conversations do inevitably switch to Italian a lot of the time, of course - which means that Stuart and I are getting plenty of Italian practice too(!). We have really enjoyed meeting some interesting people through these evenings - this time we spoke with the lovely Stefano from Medicina, who honed his English when he spent time in India (and who, this week, played us his didgeridoo and his Tibetan bells - and let us have a go at playing his Tibetan bells too), Luca, who is involved with the agricultural college in Pescia, and Roberto, from Borgo a Buggiano, who learned English as a waiter at the Savoy 50 years ago (and doesn't look anywhere near old enough to have been in his early 20s that long ago) and who revealed that, amongst others, he had waited on the Queen, Tom Jones and Petula Clark (although not all at the same time). Conversations ranged from Mr Bean (arghh) to immigration and national anthems, and by the end of the evening we were left feeling exhausted, but happy to be in the process of making new friends.

Perhaps the major event of the week was the one alluded to in the title of this blog post. Regrettably we had another visit from Mr (or Mrs) Fox, and once again we lost all of our chickens (yes, all nine of them) to the blood-thirsty creature.

We were quite flabbergasted by the fact that the fox visited not in the dead of night, nor in the shadows of twilight but in broad daylight - right in the middle of the afternoon. And we didn't hear a thing. At the time, we were in the middle of an Italian lesson with Samantha and Reggie was snoozing on the sofa. The lesson came to its end, Samantha left, and a couple of minutes later I was alerted to something unusual by the fact that Reggie was making a racket outside - not that Reggie making a noise is unusual in itself, but I could tell from the pitch and excitement of his barking and whining that there must be something on the terraces that he wanted to get to. On opening the door I realised he was looking towards the chicken enclosure, and on following his gaze I spotted the tell-tale sign of feathers everywhere. The deed had already been done, and it seems Reggie had spied the fox as it was leaving and running off across the terraces.

With heavy hearts we went to assess the situation. It turns out that the anti-dig defences that we put in around the perimeter fence (and that our friend Allison had put blood and sweat, if not tears, into helping us finish) had held brilliantly. In fact, they had held so well that the fox had been unable to dig its way out of the enclosure (it had tried about 4 times) and had exited the same way it had come in: through a small hole between the top of the fence and the netting that forms the roof of the enclosure. Having been unable to dig its way out, the fox had been forced to leave empty-handed, leaving us with nine chicken corpses (two of which were headless - the fox had clearly snacked while he went about his business).

Spot the hole.

A fox-sized gap.

The anti-dig defences held.

Unable to face doing anything with the chickens there and then (and knowing that the night was going to be cold), Stuart gathered them all up and shut them inside their house for one last time, and we tried to put them to the backs of our minds until the next day.

So Saturday was mainly spent plucking and butchering chickens. With Reggie having recently begun a raw meat diet, we felt as if the lives of the chickens hadn't entirely been lost in vain and after a messy, sticky, smelly few hours practising our butchery skills, we had half a freezer full of chickens all portioned up ready for Reggie to tuck into in the future.

So long Arthur.

Sad face.
A carpet of feathers.

Sunday was an altogether cleaner day, and we spent the afternoon making a start on building a tractor and tool shelter - a job that has long been on the to-do list: for far too long the tractor has sat under the temporary shelter of a piece of tarpaulin anchored down against the wind (at times less successfully than others) with a few large pieces of stone, and our various tools (spades, forks, rakes, hoes, splitting axes, shovels, saws - you get the idea) have been piled up behind the house and exposed to the elements. As if in demonstration of exactly how long this job has been in coming, the first shovel that Stuart picked up and thrust into the ground disintegrated in his very hands, the wooden handle parting company with the business end at a weak spot where the wood had rotted through. Thankfully there were alternative digging implements though, and between us, we dug a set of holes 40cm deep into the ground and found some long and straight tree trunks (which handily had already been felled for some months) to cut into 2.5m lengths and strip of bark to be used as posts.

After having attempted to be clever about dismantling the guest pergola a few months back (thinking that we might simply be able to lift the whole structure out of the ground in one piece), and having found the legs firmly anchored in the ground purely by force of gravel, Stuart had the idea of using gravel to hold the new tractor park posts in place rather than going to the expense and trouble of mixing up and pouring concrete. So, once each hole had been dug, one of us held the freshly stripped post in place while the other poured in a bucket of gravel around the base (the gravel having been robbed from the guest pergola area, where handily we'd had an excess). We then tamped down the gravel, poured in a little more, tamped that down and, very satisfyingly, we had a post firmly held in the ground.

By the end of the day we had put in place the first four posts - it doesn't quite look like a tractor/tool park yet, but it's a good start!

The planned tractor park site.

Stripping off the bark.

Digging post holes.

Four posts in place.

So we spent the following week separately - while I headed to the UK for some long overdue family time, Stuart spent the week playing host to Dave and Ollie, finding a range of activities to keep them both suitably entertained, from tractor riding and bonfire burning to a trip to Lucca, a round of necci (chestnut pancakes) on pancake day, and plenty of tramping through the woods.

Tractor rides.

More tractor rides.

Burning the last of the fir tree clippings.

Rules at a restaurant in Lucca. "Things you must not ask the staff: 1. A discount; 2. To change table; 3. The recipes for the dishes on the menu; 4. Meals that are not on the menu; 5. Honey for the cheeses; 6. Fennel salumi and pizza; 7. New season's oil for free; 8. The phone number of the waitresses or the chef; 9. If he is Pisan, (NO!); 10. Limoncello (we serve Frulloncello with lemons from Villa Frullo); 11. WiFi (we have it, but won't give it to you); 12. There is no mobile signal (thank God!);13. Don't reply 'everything's fine' when it's not, tell us so and we'll fix it; 14. Separate bills." 

On my return from the UK, just as we pulled up and got out of the car back at the house, we looked up and what should we spot in the chicken enclosure above us but the fox, paying a return visit (exactly a week after the murderous deed, almost to the hour!). This time we were able to witness the difficulty it experienced in getting out of the enclosure and we watched it jump at the fence, scrabble its way up and fall back down again a couple of times before it finally succeeded in gaining enough purchase to haul itself over the top and through the gap. The video below isn't the best quality, but keep your eye on the fence about halfway along the right-hand side of the enclosure.

Having seemingly taken the rain over to Bristol with me, it seems I brought it right back here to Italy again and Saturday was a complete washout - any hopes we'd had of making progress on the tractor park, or indeed any other outdoor job, were dashed. Since Stuart was also suffering somewhat badly with a cold that he'd managed to catch from Dave during the week, we decided to surrender ourselves to the sofa and in a compromise between complete switch-off and feeling as if we were doing something useful and keeping our brains active, we chose to start watching the series of Harry Potter films in Italian - a nice, gentle way to ease back into things after a week of being surrounded by English.

With the weather somewhat improved on Sunday we managed to get outside for a little fresh air, although we weren't quite up to doing anything as demanding as work on the tractor park - here's hoping for dry weather over the coming weekends to help move us on.

(This blog post covers the period 5-18 February 2018.)

Tuesday 6 February 2018

On a roll, two in a row!

As Monday morning ticks away in the background I sit down to write my second blog post in as many weeks, aided largely by a new tablet PC bought this very morning.

I had bought my first tablet PC a few months before leaving England as a means of having some useful form of internet access while on the move between England and Italy - particularly as we had a very important funds transfer to arrange while en route, believing that we would be having a meeting with the notaiao to finalise the purchase of our house the day after our arrival - little did we know we'd be waiting a month for that, but I'm straying from the path somewhat...

That first tablet was a revelation and many of our first year's blog posts were typed on it, so it was a sad day when it died, earlier than expected and probably still within warranty (just), but such was our distance from the store from which we bought it and our workload that it got put into a dusty corner of the house and forgotten about.

It is only now that I have been able to find the funds to purchase a new one - not expensive when compared to a mobile phone, but there is always something more important to spend our limited funds on than gadgets, though we had agreed that having a new tablet would be useful, not in the least so that we might keep on top of the blogging a little easier.

That might all sound like a poor excuse, but five days a week Helen is in the office in front of her computer while I'm busy with other things, often outside, and at the soonest moment possible she likes to leave the office for a change of scenery (even if in the winter months that is just as far as the living room, it's still a change of scenery). This means we are somewhat reluctant to do any of our own admin during the weekend, so as to give Helen an all important break from her desk (a desk that of a winter's weekend is a cold place to be as we only light the wood burner in the living room). And so it has come to pass that we've acquired a new tablet. Let's hope that equals more regular blog posts from the comfort of the living room.

Last week was business as usual really, with very little to report.

Sunlight on the hill above us.

Monday evening saw us putting our Italian comprehension to the test when we attended an open meeting between residents and politicians (from the local council and from the provincial level) at the Circolo in Vellano about the state of some of the local roads (in particular Il Traspo - the road that Donatella lives on, which has been in a terrible state for quite some time) and the hydrogeological problems that urgently need addressing in our valley.

The period between Christmas and New Year saw a large landslide on the road that runs along the bottom of the valley and from there on up to the villages of Lanciole and Crespole, as well as a subsequent additional slide at the same site a couple of weeks later - the road was closed, re-opened after some clearing work, and then re-closed when the secondary slide occurred, and it now remains closed (or closed-ish - while officially closed, it seems that frustrated motorists are in the habit of removing the barriers and driving through regardless). The village of Vellano itself is classed as "R4" on the scale of hydrogeological risk - meaning it is an area of very high risk. A project is already in place for addressing various issues to help secure the village, but such is the scale of the project that it has been split into three parts - the first part was completed a while ago, but the rest still remains to be done. As we understand it, the landslide that happened over Christmas is all part of the overall issue affecting the area.

The evening saw first a detailed description of each of the topics of discussion - technical details as well as the current situation - followed by questions from the members of the public on each. The discussion was fairly technical, and quite heated at times, as worried and frustrated residents put their views to the politicians. As with so many of these things the overriding theme of the evening was "there's not enough money to do what needs to be done".

Come 11:50pm, emotions were starting to run high amongst residents and politicians alike and, having concentrated on the discussion for more than two hours already, and with voices starting to be raised to levels that were uncomfortable to listen to, we decided to call time on our participation and make our way home.

If you look carefully you can see our concentrating faces.

We had our group Italian lesson on Wednesday morning - David had returned from a visit to England the evening before so joined us here at our house for our lesson with Johnny on what was a horrid day: cold, wet and windy.

After an enjoyable lesson translating a story about the history of St Vitus's dance, I spent half an hour fitting a new automatic door closer to the front door, the idea being that, now, when Reggie opens the door to let himself out (as he does at frequent intervals), he will no longer leave the door gaping wide open and letting all the warmth out (especially on days like today).

It's a simple spring-loaded mechanism but seems to do the job perfectly, gently closing the door once he's gone outside. It should also stop the door slamming open against the wall when he decides to launch his full 30kg at the door at top speed. 

After lunch and a worsening in the weather I decided I couldn't face heading out to work in what is still practically the outdoors over at Mara and Franco's, so with a pitiful message sent on WhatsApp I retired to the seat on the sofa next to the fire to continue making notes from my book on olive pruning, in readiness for the pruning season late winter.

On Thursday Helen had her lesson with Samantha in the afternoon while I was back working across the valley at Mara & Franco's house, and again had her spinning class at the gym in Pescia in the evening. This week, however, instead of going alone I drove her into town and did the food shopping while she was exercising. That worked extremely well for me, as there must have been only half a dozen other shoppers in Esselunga at that time of night - I doubt I'll make a habit of it though!

On Friday evening Paul and Kathy came round with their friend Simon who was visiting from England. We have got to know Simon pretty well over the last year or so, and it's always nice to see him when he comes for a visit - especially when he comes bearing gifts/swag! On this occasion we'd asked if he would bring us a precious jar of Pataks lime pickle (something we plan to further educate our friends Mara and Franco with the next time we cook them a curry). After a pleasant couple of hours catching up with them all they left us to the remainder of the evening, heading home to pack overnight bags ahead of their weekend trip to Rome for the Italy v. England rugby game.

Saturday was yet another horrid day, but we braved the cold, wet weather for a coffee and cake in Pescia before trying to get lost again in the foothills between Pescia and Lucca, this time with the added goal of trying to climb up into the snow that had fallen overnight and that we could see tantalisingly dusting the tops of the hills.

On the first objective we excelled and found some yet more glorious countryside and yet more enormous villas before popping out on the road that heads up into the Garfagnana. It's clear that between us and Lucia we are already running out of places to indulge in our new-found hobby. On the second count we failed - it seemed the higher up we got, the further the snow retreated,  and we found no sign of it.

Stunning views from Matraia.

Lucca is down there somewhere.

We had to give up at that point as we needed (or should I say the chickens needed) more grain and we had only half an hour in which to buy it before Signore Perondi (Mr Chicken man) closed his doors for the weekend. With grain purchased and a chat with Signore Perondi Junior, whom I had not met before and had just returned from a business trip to Telford (of all places), we headed back up the valley and decided that we would give our snow chasing one more try, this time driving up our own valley towards Pontito... and bingo, we found the snow!

The snowy rooftops of Pontito.

As we turned around and wended our way gradually back down the valley, the snow slowed, turned to sleet as we passed through Vellano, and by the time we'd dropped down to our altitude it was mere rain. So with the fire lit we resigned ourselves to an afternoon indoors.

Over the course of the afternoon and evening we binge-watched six hours of Inspector Montalbano (all in the name of homework, you understand). Helen astutely surmised this week that while our language is improving, and more or less sufficient to get by here day to day, we still don't yet hear the words like in our native tongue - by that I mean, if we sat next a table of people conversing loudly in Italian, it would still largely just be noise to us unless we actively tried to tune in to listen and understand, whereas were they talking English, we would have to try to tune out so that we didn't hear what was being said. It's an odd stage to be at, and it may always be this way, but we have decided to watch as much Italian TV as we can cram in, in an effort to address this, and in an effort to try and improve our comprehension of Italian spoken at speed - which may well turn out to be our ultimate hurdle.

Sunday was an altogether different start to Saturday: it was still cold, but patches of blue sky greeted us and we were feeling more motivated to get out into the fresh air, but not before cappuccini and pastries in Pescia. Sadly, by the time we got back home the weather had worsened and it tried to rain, which dented our enthusiasm for anything but retreating indoors again.

That said, we had committed to giving the chickens some much needed TLC so, having lured them into the top of their enclosure, given them a large pile of fresh vegetable peelings to keep them busy and closed the makeshift gate on them (all in a bid to give us the freedom and safety to do what we needed without having to worry about unexpected attacks from the ever aggressive Arthur), we were able to give the coop a full clean out, repair one of the large doors which had become jammed, refill food and water receptacles, and replace the exit ramp which was about to collapse. That and collect a basket of eggs, of course.  

We then rather unenthusiastically wandered around trying to get motivated before finally settling on a couple of hours more tidying work below the car park, cutting up a couple of fallen trees that were lying across the bank and clearing more bramble from around them.

Such was the state of our enthusiasm that we were thankful when the clock struck 5pm and we felt justified in calling it a (somewhat unproductive) day and returning to the comfort of the sofa and the log burner to re-charge for the week ahead.

(This blog post covers the week 29th January - 4th February 2018)