Monday 23 July 2018

Officially summertime!

Amongst all of the antics with our little furry four-legged friend two weekends ago, we managed to take time out to head into Lucca.

The weather has all of a sudden slipped into what we recognise as full summer here in Tuscany, and although the weather has been lovely for many, many weeks now, it's the unrelenting heat in the mid-30s and warm overnight temperatures of almost 20C that are now keeping the indoor temperature way up towards 28-29C, meaning the fan in the bedroom is back on duty each night.

With it being so hot (and somewhat exhausted by the entire saga with little Tiny Tim) we'd somewhat lost our momentum with regards to toiling away outside on the land, so with the excuse of needing to find a book for the first English lesson Helen was going to teach this week, we headed over to Lucca for a few hours.

We parked the car and hopped up onto the city wall where we enjoyed the shade afforded by the trees that line the cycle/walkway on top of the ancient wall and walked towards what we know to be the start of 'Via Fillungo', which appears to be the main high street if you can call it that in such an old city.

We followed the street as far as the old Roman amphitheatre, and soon after we found a book shop which had a modest selection of books for learning foreign languages and, after much deliberation over the various 'learn English' books, we walked away with two books and headed in search of lunch in the form of a panino.

We soon got distracted by empty alleyways and unfamiliar streets and got lost exploring for half an hour, which is always a nice way to get away from the throngs - that was until we stumbled across Piazza Napoleon, in which the Lucca Summer music festival is held. Judging by the number of people we spotted dressed in black t-shirts, and knowing some of the festival's lineup, we deduced that this evening's concert must be the turn The Hollywood Vampires, a band consisting of Johnny Depp, Alice Cooper and Joe Perry.

While we sat down to a sandwich and a cold beer we watched the people loitering in their typically black clothing killing time until their idols set foot on stage later that evening.

With a light lunch dispatched, we headed back to try an ice cream shop that Samantha had told us about earlier that morning - apparently the best ice cream shop in Lucca. We're far from aficionados when it comes to ice cream, but to our pallets they tasted very good indeed; I chose a mix of banana and crunchy rum while Helen opted for a plain yoghurt version, these kept us company on the walk back to the car.

That night, we had committed to go to the local Circolo to an evening organised by a voluntary group of locals that raise money for and host the children of Chernobyl. Remember that disaster? How quickly in the UK we moved on from that and onto other things! Here, there are a number of now adult Russians that were orphaned in the disaster and were refugees in this part of Italy, and now the work continues to offer stays in Italy for the young children still living in the polluted area to give them some respite from the sickening conditions back home.

As well as this being a good cause, there was the draw of local bad Manolo Strimpelli that always bring a crowd with their irreverent folk style music. We had seen them once before last year and they were great entertainment, so we looked forward to seeing them again. We arrived at the Circolo at around half past seven, fully expecting to be some of the first there, only to find the BBQ in full swing and in the large outside terrace full to capacity!

The evening was great fun, and we ran into a few familiar faces including Fabio from our English evenings who arrived around 11:30pm so we chatted with him for a while as we watched Emanuele, who runs the club, take to the stage and belt out the lyrics to one of the songs, apparently having been the singer in a band some 25 years ago!

The rest of the weekend was fully consumed with the dramas of fostering and trying to rehome little Tiny Tim, and the mixed feelings of taking him to his new home, and Monday rolled around leaving us feeling a little empty at his departure.

On Monday, I finished off what was the last of the jobs inside Mara and Franco's new apartment in scorching 34 degree heat, feeling glad not to be in the full sun all day long, but sweating all the same.

That afternoon, our friend Daniele who regularly attends our English evenings, called to invite us to dinner at their house the following evening - a BBQ, and extended the invite to the rest of our gang that frequent the English evenings.

After work Tuesday we headed down to the Circolo for 17:30 so that Helen could start her private teaching of English to Michaela, the partner of a walking guide we know, who had approached Helen a few weeks back to ask for help with her English.

While they shut themselves in the library for an hour and a half, I nursed a cool beer and played backgammon with Emanuele while waiting for David (Sarah still being in London for work) and Paul and Kathy to arrive so that we could all head to Daniele's in one car.

Daniele is Pesciatina born and bred, while his wife, Lara, comes from San Quirico in our valley, but they now live in a small village called San Salvatore, just inside the comune of Montecarlo (which in the car takes only ten minutes from Pescia). We arrived to the inviting smell of a lit BBQ and soon were in Daniele and Lara's lovely garden enjoying drinks and antipasti under the pergola, the sun still glaring down hard at this time of the evening.

Having been told by Daniele not to expect too much, 'it's just a simple dinner as an excuse to get together', we all ate until we could eat no more! There were crostini in abundance, sliced cured meats and cheeses, a farro and tuna salad, then all manner of flesh cooked on the grill, huge lumps of watermelon, and coffee and cantuccini to end with. We left, stuffed, at around midnight having had a really great convivial evening that we all agreed should be repeated.

Daniele and Lara's dog tried to join us at the table.

On Wednesday, I sadly said goodbye to some old friends, my old Merrell shoes that I bought on a trip to Vancouver while staying with our friends Andy and Vanessa eight years ago. They had lent us their car and sent us off to hike up 'the Old Chief'', but since I hadn't brought any suitable footwear for such an activity (the trip had been tagged on after working at one of Helen's conferences in Vancouver), we stopped at a mall on the way and I left with a nice pair of Merrell shoes with vibram soles. Little did I know they would be with me eight years later, having had a rather tough life! Recently, they finally gave in, and it was time to replace them with a new pair of Merrells, how could I not, having had such a good experience the first time?

The rest of the day I finally turned my attention to our own house, having not been asked by anyone else to do anything else, so I made a start on finally finishing the flooring in the sheds, the majority of which I had done when I built them but I had yet to cut and lay slabs under the doors which up until now had been an open invite to the local rodent population to go in and set up home.

On Thursday, after having had a terrible night's sleep on account of Reggie going nuts in the middle of the night in his bedroom, and Helen having to get up to let him out into the garden to do even more barking, we awoke to find out why: one of our young apples trees (that we planted three years ago, and had this year, for the first time, started fruiting) had been brutally ripped out of the ground and rolled down the hill towards the house.

There used to be an apple tree here... had been ripped out of the ground, rolled down four terraces, and ended up by the gate.

It was the second time we'd found this tree had received some overnight attention but, with the first having been much less brutal, we had put it down to deer (rubbing against the 'protective' cage that surrounded its trunk), so we hadn't been too worried. Clearly this was not the work of deer but more likely the wild boar we had captured on the wildlife camera in the car park in the early hours of Wednesday morning, intent on getting to those tiny apples the tree was busy growing.

Wild boar up to no good.

Historically (not that we have much history here but in our short four years), we've only come across a small family of pigs on the driveway once. Evidence of pigs digging around in our woods, especially along the upper donkey track, is not uncommon, but never have we had any clear evidence of their presence so close to the house. It's a worry for us now, as should Reggie come across one he may not fair as well as when he finds deer, the males in particular known for killing dogs with ease.

This, combined with the fact that, since this beast has eaten well here once, it is likely to keep returning, and maybe bringing its friends and family, means that we're going to need to prioritise the fencing in of the terraces for everyone's sake (including holidaymakers that sleep directly beneath Reggie's bedroom).

On Friday, we finished our day jobs a little early so that we could head back to San Salvatore to meet Daniele at his house again, having agreed to go for a walk in the countryside around Montecarlo with him. We arrived at 16:00, and after a quick coffee we set off from the house at an alarming pace, Daniele almost running, it felt to us, and it was still over 34 degrees!

After an initial panic, Helen and I settled into the walk, as did Ugo the dog who for some kilometres struggled to keep up.

It was an interesting walk, with some stunning views, and we discovered parts of the countryside and hidden-away hamlets that we'd never seen before.

The pretty hamlet of San Martino in Colle.

The Quercione (giant oak).

There are supports holding up the ancient branches.

Also known as the Quercia delle Streghe (the witches' oak).

In part of the walk we used a small section of the ancient pilgrim route, the Via Francigena which connected Canterbury to Rome - in fact in some places you could see the grooves left by the cart wheels.

Cart wheel grooves on the Via Francigena.

We basically encircled the hill town of Montecarlo for three and a half hours, clocking up over 18 kilometres and feeling wrecked by the end (aching hips, aching knees, sore feet). We're clearly no longer used to this kind of walking any more (at least not at such a pace, and not in such extreme heat!) - give us strimmers to cut grass, hedgecutters to cut bramble, or firewood to cut and split, and that's where our strength lies these days, our hiking days maybe over!

We clocked up a little over 18km in total, the mapping device having missed the initial section of the walk.

After downing a glass of cold water back at Daniele's house, we waved him goodbye and hobbled back to the car to drive home.

The weekend's task was to make a start on what we hoped to be the final grass cut of the summer (this all depends on the weather, of course, but the sustained heat has now started to halt new growth and, should summer stay like this, there will be a gradual yellowing of everything now until new growth starts again in autumn). After the exertions of Friday, however, we were fit for nothing on Saturday and spent the day hobbling around the house, staying out of the sunshine and feeling rather broken!

After a good night's sleep however, Sunday was a new day. After an early start (on the terraces by 08:30am) and three and a half hours' of strimming each, we had managed to cut all of the main section of terracing above the house. We downed tools, hit the shower, and headed out for a bit of exploring, heading for the medieval village of Montevettolini, near Monsummano ,to view this little village that has been mentioned to us on a couple of occasions now.

Having seen on the internet that there is a small restaurant in the main Piazza, we decided to maybe have a bite to eat there for lunch.. but in typical Italian style we arrived to find it closed (quite probably the owners were sunning themselves on a nearby beach).

As we walked around the village, it slowly dawned on us that we had, in fact, been here before! (And on that occasion the bar and the restaurant had also been closed!)

It was now after two o'clock, the heat was extreme, and  we were both rather famished after all the physical exertion of the morning, so we decided to head towards Montecatini Alto, this being a sure bet for food outside of normal lunch time hours.

We didn't get that far however, as a little way along the road we came across a nice looking place which appeared to be open, so we pulled in to try our luck for a rather late lunch, only to receive a warm welcome into a blissfully cool (air conditioned) dining room. What a find!

Given that we only tend to eat out these days if a friend has a birthday or if we have friends and family over, it felt a bit overindulgent for us to be eating like this, but hunger had won and the guilt soon faded once the chilled white wine arrived.

To start, we shared an enormous platter of cheeses with a spicy jam, which I then followed up with a veal steak while Helen had a plate of perfectly cooked slices of tuna steak - a rare find around these parts and it was amazing, I think Helen thought her birthday had arrived some weeks early.

Back to reality on Monday, I kicked off the week working on the outside area at Mara and Franco's, building a fence, a couple of gates, a small door and a couple of other bits and pieces, putting in some good work on my vest tan as I did so!

On Tuesday evening it was back to the Circolo for the second of Michaela's English lessons, which went well. Helen, having got an idea of her level from the previous time, had prepared accordingly some material to work on, and both came out of the library looking rather frazzled.

This week, with nowhere to dash off to, we stayed at the Circolo for around an hour, chatting with 'Michi' as she's called by friends, and Emanuele, who filled me in on the various folk bands in Italian history from where some of Manolo Strimpelli's inspiration is drawn.

As the summer wears on, Helen's workload steadily builds as it heads towards conference time of year and all the preparation that it entails - a good reason to stay indoors and out of this sunshine, but I know all too well she'd rather be in it getting her hands dirty with me. This week, though it was more a case of getting my feet dirty, along with most other parts of me.

Our rainwater collection tanks had run out of water a few weeks back, and we'd had to resort to using metered water to keep the veg garden watered until we could get the ram pump (that I set up last year to draw water from the stream that borders our land) going - a job I had been avoiding until I had rerouted the delivery pipe through the sheds rather than being an unsightly trip hazard behind the house.

Having recently emptied two of the three sheds I'd managed to reroute the pipe and we were now ready to put the ram pump back into service.

A few frustrating hours across the rest of the week ensued as I couldn't get the thing to run for any more that a few seconds. After ruling out one or two things and making a new filter to stop the supply pipe getting blocked, I realised that there was constantly air in the supply pipe which was causing the pump to stop functioning.

What I couldn't work out was how the air kept getting in - the supply pipe was nicely below the surface of the water, maybe the new filter needed more holes in it? So I took down a drill to do just that, and managed to get the pump running for a few minutes. It kept running... so I headed the 40 metres up the river bed again to see how the filter was working, and all looked great! And then it stopped. However, just as it stopped I realised I could hear a hissing noise behind me, I looked around to find a damaged pipe with water squirting out.. and letting air in! I'd finally found the problem but had no spare joints to repair the pipe so had to wait until Frateschi reopened that afternoon.

Having recounted the tale, Danilo down at the builder's yard told me he was convinced the culprit would be squirrels. I was unsure, but once back down in the river it seems Danilo may have had a point, there had clearly been something gnawing at the pipe and the teeth marks looked small.

Anyway, with the pipe repaired, I primed the pump and off it went! Having felt only that morning like the pump was junk and that we'd have to go back to the drawing board, it was suddenly fixed and by the time I got back up to the house, water was filling the tanks!

Reggie will be much less pleased however, as he has thoroughly enjoyed coming down to the river with me to splash around in the refreshing cold water (although of course it may not be long before another pipe repair is needed).

On Friday evening, we went back to the Circolo to meet another Emanuele. This guy lives in Castelvecchio and is part of the group of local mountain bikers know as the 'Nani' or the dwarves who amongst other things dedicate their some of their spare time to clearing some of the footpaths in the valley - he's now a qualified mountain bike instructor and wants to start organising biking holidays in the valley, but finds a lack of English a problem and, having heard about us through the other Emanuele, wanted to meet and have a chat. Seemingly another really nice guy, we had a great chat with him about the state of the footpaths in the valley and the need to encourage tourism by way of walking an cycling tours. We subsequently arranged to make an attempt to help him with his English at the same time as Helen helps  Michela with hers, the idea being that while Helen teaches her, I will try my hand at teaching Emanuele. I'm not convinced I'm up to the job, but as we've found out over here, you have to jump in the deep end to get the best from everything, what's the worst that could happen? An Italian with a Brummie accent?!

On Saturday morning after coffee and cake we headed over to OBI to buy a paddling pool, something that we had given thought to last weekend after our hours of strimming in the heat. The idea of being able to at least put our feet into some cold water from the comfort of our outdoor armchairs was too much to resist, and we thought that maybe even Reggie would build up the courage to use it. Strangely, as much as he loves splashing around in the river, he doesn't trust a paddling pool one inch and on the last attempt, he used it only to drink from.

Almost as if we controlled the weather, as soon as we started filling the pool some rain arrived - not much, sadly, as the new olive trees on the terraces could do with a drink (something that will have to be done by hand soon if nothing more falls). It soon brightened up and by the time 6pm rolled around we both emerged from the office (having done both our Italian homework and a few hours' prep for Tuesday's English lessons) we relaxed with feet in the pool and some chilled white wine. Reggie, of course, merely drank from the pool.

On Sunday morning we headed again into Pescia for breakfast, happy to have our favourite coffee bar back open after a summer closure, after which we decided to head straight home to finish the last of the strimming that escaped us on the upper terraces. This time, it was just a case of an hour and a half's worth of strimming each to get the job done, which was just as well because just as we finished, the clouds darkened, the rumbles of thunder got louder, and the heavens opened. We ate lunch inside to the sound of loud claps of thunder, but disappointingly little rain again.

We enjoyed a Ligurian style salad using some of our home grown snake beans from the garden (courtesy of David & Sarah who grew them from seed and passed them on as small plants) and eggs from our chickens. With Kathy having ordered 24 eggs for Friday just gone, and the chickens seemingly having made a group decision that it's too hot to make eggs every day, we hadn't eaten any ourselves for a couple of weeks - no real hardship, but it made the salad all the more enjoyable to have some eggs in it.

Snake beans!

A morning's harvest.

Just like the day before, the storm blew over quickly and the sun reappeared, so while Helen went outside to wrestle with some elderflower and pokeweed that was blocking the view from the guest patio, I set to work writing this blog - a long overdue catch-up, but as you can see, we've been somewhat busy enjoying life of late. Work hard, play hard.

Monday 9 July 2018

Animal antics (Tiny Tim tugs at heartstrings)

Never a dull moment.

In recent weeks it feels as if we have really been made to know that we are living in the middle of the countryside. Of course, we do know it, but every now and then Mother Nature makes sure that we haven't forgotten her. Recently it has felt as if all the wildlife in our vicinity has made a concerted effort to make its presence known.

Now we are fully into summer, and sleeping with the windows open is obligatory if we have any hope of getting the bedroom below 30C, our sleeping patterns are at the mercy of the various beasts with which we share our hillside.

Last week we woke at 03:30am one night to the sound of a deer barking right outside the window (in reality it was probably on the terraces close to the house, but it was loud enough to sound as if it was standing right beneath the window).

The very next night we woke at 04:00am to the bizarre and extremely loud sound of a pair of foxes fighting on the top veg terrace, immediately below the house. We shone a torch out, and saw two pairs of eyes shining back up at us, but they were undeterred and continued their shenanigans for about half an hour.

Then there have been the family of swifts that have used our bedroom windowsill as a landing and feeding ledge daily, the evidence of fox digging around the chicken enclosure, the rocks that have been displaced in various spots along the drive - probably by badgers (and indeed our guest, Norman, told us that he had seen a badger in the car park one night), and the hedgehog that appeared one evening on the other side of the guest fence and which sent Reggie into barking overdrive (the poor thing just curled up - clearly trying to hide from the racket that Reggie was making - and in the end, in a bid to stop Reggie digging his way right the way under the fence to get to it, I donned a pair of thick suede fire gloves and took it to a safer, altogether quieter spot along the drive).

But by far the animal that has caused us the most loss of sleep, and taken up the most amount of our energy, time and emotions, has been a little 10-week-old kitten who presented himself in our lives on Thursday evening.

He didn't come as a complete surprise, as two days previously one of our nearest neighbours (the house at the very bottom of our hill) had messaged us with a photo of said kitten drinking from a bowl saying "is this your cat? we've found it outside our house". We didn't think much more of it, other than having in the backs of our heads that where there's one kitten there might be others and we were a little cautious when taking Reggie out for walks in the woods.

Come Thursday evening, we were sitting under the pergola just about to start our dinner when suddenly there was a loud miaowing. Nothing unusual in itself, because Florence was sitting in our bedroom window and miaowing down at us outside. But this was different. It was coming from a different direction, and it wasn't Florence's miaow.

We downed forks and rushed down to the guest garden/top of the veg terraces where the sound seemed to be coming from, and started searching the undergrowth. Of course, no sooner had we got down there than the miaowing stopped - possibly because Reggie had started up a volley of barking - and it was impossible to locate. So, we headed back to our dinner, managed to take another two mouthfuls before the miaowing started up again. This time, I crept as quietly as I could around the back of the house, turned the corner and saw a little black and white face looking back up at me from the pile of rubble behind the house. The instant it saw me it dived for safety - underneath next winter's wood pile.

Operation capture the kitten then began - we located one of the cat travel crates in the shed and took it, along with a pile of cat treats, to the wood pile where, on our knees we started trying to coax the little thing out. He was clearly very hungry, and the prospect of something to eat was enough to bring him out from his hiding place just long enough to grab a treat and retreat. Unsurprisingly he was incredibly jumpy and the slightest movement of a hand had him scurrying back to his safe place. But after 10 minutes or so of gaining his trust, we managed to coax him out far enough to get hold of him and manhandle him into the crate. The poor thing was terrified, biting, scratching and hissing, and climbing the walls of the crate trying to force his way out through the holes in the wire mesh, but at least we had him secure and out of harm's way.

Of course, Reggie had been watching this play out from afar - stuck in the garden behind the fence - and was extremely agitated. There was no way we could take the little kitten into our house, and it was difficult to know (in our own agitated minds) where to house him safely. In the end we settled on the section of the shed closest to the house, where there was enough space for the cat carrier and would be quiet, dry and safe. We fed him a few more treats, brought him some water, which he lapped up thirstily, and then left him to calm down.

By this time it was getting quite late so we went through the usual bedtime routine with Reggie and headed off for some much needed sleep... Ha. Well, sleep would have been nice! Reggie had wound himself up so much that it took 3 attempts to get him to settle in his bedroom, by which time it was way past midnight. Come 5am, Florence started making it clear that she would like to go outside, so I got up to let her out, only to find that Reggie was already whining and barking and the kitten could be heard miaowing from inside the house! So, despite feeling as if I needed another 3 hours' sleep, I got up in order to perform a juggling act of letting Florence out, moving the kitten down to the apartment (why we hadn't thought of that before I don't know), letting Reggie out of his bedroom and encouraging him to come upstairs with us for a bit while Florence had some outdoor time, then shutting Reggie back in his room so I could get Florence inside!

Thankfully, things calmed down once the kitten was down in the apartment as it turns out the soundproofing is a whole lot better than it is in the shed adjacent to the house, and Reggie soon calmed down, oblivious to the furry bundle in residence beneath.

We needed to decide what to do with the kitten, knew we couldn't keep it, thanks to Reggie's incompatibility with cats, but were clueless as to the procedure for taking it to an animal shelter - besides which we hoped we might be able to find it a home. First things first, though, we needed to give it a good breakfast and some more water, and we needed to clean the crate out, which quite understandably the kitten had toileted in over night.

It was then that we realised that, with no guests in the apartment, and if we blocked off the entrance to the bedroom and covered the sofa with a tarpaulin and towels, we could let the kitten out down there, giving it room to roam and relax a bit, and that would give us a little breathing time to try and find him a home. Of course, it ran straight under the kitchen units, but it didn't take much to coax it back out with some food, which it gobbled down in one go. Then, very gradually it started to relax and come towards our hands for a bit of fuss, and before we knew it the loud miaow had been replaced with a loud purr and he was enjoying being stroked and cuddled and clambering all over us. We fairly quickly worked out that we had a little boy on our hands, and it wasn't long before we found him a name, albeit a temporary one: Tiny Tim.

Tiny Tim soon relaxed with us and started to feel at home.

We spent the next 48 hours desperately trying to find him a home (while rapidly falling in love with him). We put posts on various local groups and pages on Facebook, posted in all our WhatsApp groups, asked everyone we knew, and even other people helped out by posting on Facebook and asked people they knew… yet it seemed nobody wanted him. We photographed him and videoed him and even paid to "boost" a post on Facebook that - according to Facebook - was seen by over 3,000 people. Yet there were still no takers. It was beyond belief that nobody would want to take on this little guy.
Who wouldn't want this little guy?

In the end, just as we were starting to give up hope and coming to the realisation that we would have to take him to an animal shelter the next day, our friend Amanda phoned me to ask if she could pass my number to someone she knows who 'really loves cats' and who might be able to help. Of course I said yes, and within a couple of hours and after a few more videos and photographs had been sent back and forth, the lady had found someone who wanted Tiny Tim!

So, yesterday evening, feeling a mixture of relief, apprehension and sadness, we drove Tiny to his new home (in Pieve a Nievole – about half an hour away from us). His new family seem like really nice people, they assured us that their dog is very good with cats and that he even used to sleep together with their old cat. They appeared to be totally bowled over by Tiny Tim (well, who wouldn't be?!) and seemed very much to be responsible pet owners. When we left, Tiny Tim was snuggled up on the lap of the teen-aged daughter purring loudly – he had taken to them very quickly, which has to be a very good sign.

Nevertheless, we came home feeling heavy-hearted – there’s still the worry of the unknown; the road the house is on is pretty busy; what if the dog doesn’t like this cat; what if things don't work out, etc.! All quite emotional really. I’ve no idea how people who work in animal rescue shelters manage to pass animals they have cared for on to new owners with little more than a bit of faith. And as for when we think about how Tiny ended up in the woods in the first place (undoubtedly he was abandoned in the woods - an unwanted kitten, the inconvenient product of the household cat, etc.), to say that it makes our blood boil is an understatement.

For such a tiny being, and such a brief spell in our lives, he’s left quite a hole!