Tuesday 18 December 2018

A cold week

Last week it felt as if winter had properly arrived in Tuscany - we had some overnight freezes and even some flakes of snow and we were very glad to have our wood burner kicking out enough heat to warm the house up every evening.

Monday was our appointment at the olive mill to have the olives we had picked at Paul and Kathy's at the weekend pressed. On top of very generously giving us their remaining olives, Paul and Kathy also very kindly transported said olives from their house to the mill (the 13 crates wouldn't have fitted in our little Panda in one go!), so we met them there for the pressing.

The final weigh-in of olives was 251kg. We waited while the machines washed and churned and spun and watched the stream of people in front of us each go and collect their liquid gold as it came flowing out of the tap at the end of the process. Finally we got the nod and it was our turn to put our container under the tap and wait for the oil to flow in. Stuart had bought a new container that morning - he had weighed up the pros and cons of a 30 litre versus 50 litre, and in the end had gone for the 50 litre, but only expecting to fill a little over half of it. We were a little perplexed to see the guy who runs the mill keep lifting the funnel out of the top of our container to peer inside - almost as if he was checking to make sure it wasn't going to overflow, but we thought that couldn't possibly be the reason. Only when the flow slowed to a dribble and we went over to take the container away at the end of our collection did we realise that the container really was almost full - 48 litres to be precise! The "resa" (the weight of oil out as a percentage of the weight of olives in) was 17.3%, which is high (our previous harvest in conjunction with David & Sarah had given us a resa of 12.9%). The high yield was likely because of the slightly later time frame of picking - lots of the olives had been wrinkly, showing that they had started losing water, giving a higher oil-to-weight ratio.

Certainly a bumper yield for us - so we have even more reason to be grateful to Paul & Kathy!

Reggie-approved oil.

Another reason to be grateful to Paul & Kathy is that they have already gone through the process of switching their UK driving licences to Italian ones - so, armed with the knowledge of the process that they went through, and all the different steps and forms that need to be completed, we were in a much better place to get the ball rolling on changing our own licences than if we had been going in blind.

We had already had the required medical forms signed off by our respective doctors, and on Wednesday we went to the office of an agency in the nearby town of Borgo a Buggiano that deals with all types of vehicle-related paperwork (driving licences, registration plates, etc.). We knew that the next part of the process was to have an eye test, which would be at the agency. We'd miscalculated our visit though, because we turned up on Wednesday morning only to find out that the doctor who does the eye tests comes in on Wednesday afternoon. So, we took the opportunity to have a cup of coffee in Borgo, to buy some chicken feed from the agricultural shop there, and then headed back home to get on with some work for a few hours before trying again in the afternoon.

The afternoon's visit was more successful - the doctor was in, and although there was a flurry of activity in the agency (which had been completely empty when we'd gone there in the morning), which meant we had to sit and wait for a good while, I did manage to fill in my paperwork and get to see the doctor. The eye test turned out to be more of a "let's check to make sure you aren't blind" test than an actual test of eyesight, and thankfully I passed that bit and got all my paperwork stamped and verified by the doctor.

Stuart's was a bit less successful - he had naturally filled out his medical form honestly, listing his thyroid condition and related medication, and his doctor had signed it. But when the doctor at the agency saw it he said there was a problem and strongly encouraged him to go back to his own doctor and ask him to sign a new form but this time without the condition being listed! Apparently having these things on the form would mean he would have to be seen by 3 separate doctors before being able to progress his application, and he would have to renew his licence every 2 years...

So, on Thursday, Stuart returned to his own doctor, who rolled his eyes, muttered something about bureaucracy and nobody even looking at the forms anyway, and signed a new form straight away. So back we went to the agency on Thursday afternoon - we already knew that the doctor didn't visit on a Thursday so Stuart wouldn't be able to have his eye test, but I had been told to come back on Thursday in order to sign some forms - and indeed there was a very Italian rigmarole of having to sign my name on about 7 different pieces of paper. As far as we knew, though, that was as much as needed to be done and it would now be a matter of waiting for the application to be processed. We will have to wait and see.

On Friday afternoon we went round to our neighbours' for a coffee and to exchange Christmas gifts, and for them to give us a beautiful bunch of holly from their spectacular tree. It was, as usual, very difficult to communicate with them at times (their local dialect and tendency to speak very quickly without making any allowances for slow foreigners sometimes makes it seem as if they are speaking another language that isn't even Italian), but they are very warm and very lovely people. Their friends turned up while we were there (we'd met them once before as well), and with all four of them jabbering at the same time it was totally impossible to follow a thing. I wonder whether we will EVER get to the stage of being able to understand everything. (It was a relief for me to find out that Stuart had also found it hard going yesterday, so not just me!)

On a very chilly Saturday morning (so cold that the water in the pipes was frozen when we first got up), we made another pilgrimage to the state archive in Lucca in the hopes of finding something of interest about the history of our house.

Rather embarrassingly, we almost didn't even get to the archive because, despite having visited it not once but twice last year, neither of us could remember quite how to get there and we hadn't brought the address with us. We had a vague idea of the general area it was in, but wandered fruitlessly down countless back streets getting more and more lost and frustrated (and very cold). Just as we were at the point of giving up (or trying to find a cafe with Wi-Fi so that we could look up the address on the internet), we turned a corner and found ourselves right in front of it!

Once in the relative warmth of the reading room of the archive, we saw the same archivist as we'd seen last week when we had visited the secondary branch of the archive (and been told to come back here). She was able to help us a little, and found us one tome dating from 1835 in which we did actually find the name of the 1830 owner of our house - information which we already knew, but we hadn't managed to find reference to her when we visited the archives the last time. Unfortunately it didn't give us any further information (other than confirm what we already knew).

We did look through a tome from 1740 that lists property owners in our area and their respective property, but clearly the same lady wouldn't have been the owner at that point so we had no idea of what name to look for (if indeed the house was even built in 1740 - we know it existed in the 1780s as we have found it on old maps, and we are pretty certain it existed in 1774 as a note we found in the window lintel was dated 1774, but of course we don't know how much earlier than that it goes back). The index for the names of the property owners listed in the 1740 tome was listed alphabetically by first name so it was hard even to look and see if there had been a previous owner in the same family - we did our best but didn't spot anything.

In the end, as it seemed we had hit a brick wall, the archivists who were on duty suggested we go home and write an email explaining what we want to know and everything that we already know and everywhere we have already looked - it seems there is a senior archivist who is more knowledgeable/experienced, and they thought that he might have some suggestions as to where we might be able to look next, if anywhere - possibly even in Florence.

It seems very frustrating to have hit such a dead end - we really only want to know how old our house is (of course we'd like to know more but that's the most important question we want answering), so we hope that sending an email will bear fruit.

We were home from Lucca in time for lunch and we managed to get outside for a couple of hours after lunch to make a little more progress on our fencing project. Unfortunately with all the rain we've had in the last few weeks a lot of soil had washed back into the channel dug by our friends Steve and Kathryn - although it was a much easier job re-clearing it than digging it in the first place. We only managed to complete about another 9m, but we were pleased to have made some progress at least.

Sunday was once again cold and was also forecast to turn wet, so we wrote off the day in terms of doing any outdoor work. After a coffee in Pescia we decided to go in hunt of a Christmas tree. We ended up at a garden shop near to the Ipercoop complex in Montecatini, where they didn't have any cut trees but there was a large selection of trees in pots. We wandered round the trees in the perishing cold trying to find the right compromise between shape/size and price, before choosing one that we thought would actually fit in the car (and we were right - albeit with me having to sit in the back seat behind Stuart on the way home so that the tree could have the front passenger seat!).

After lunch we went up to Vellano to see David & Sarah in the afternoon as they wanted some of our eggs from us. We ended up staying for a lovely couple of hours and a mug of mulled cider, before coming home to decorate the Christmas tree.

We found that, during the last 12 months, the box of Christmas decorations had suffered a rodent infestation. Thankfully, by some amazing twist of good fortune, they seemed to have restricted their chewing to the things with less sentimental value, and my boxes of 'precious', sentimental decorations were untouched. The lights needed a bit of attention in places though, where the wire had been nibbled on.

And so we find ourselves within spitting distance of Christmas - not quite sure how that happened. Our great friends Paul and Marie will arrive this coming week to spend the festive period with us, so for the week ahead we will be on countdown to their arrival.

Monday 10 December 2018

Another autumnal fortnight

Last Monday evening we went to our local village club for a talk about wolves - and more specifically about wolves in the local area. As with so many things here, the start time of the talk was an "Italian" 9pm - as in, we arrived at 9pm on the nose, but the talk didn't start until 9:35pm. With an unknown (possibly large) number of attendees expected, the event had been set up in the semi-outdoor area at the circolo - a large covered terrace but with open sides which, over the winter, are closed with large sheets of thick plastic. The plastic certainly keeps some of the cold out, and acts against the wind, but it certainly doesn't make the area warm. There was a gas-fired patio heater doing its best to kick out heat, so we positioned ourselves as close as possible to that, but were very glad of having piled on our warm layers before coming out and we felt frozen to the core by the time we left at 11:30pm!

Anyway, the first half of the talk, given by a lady who studies the local wolf population, was the same as we saw at a very similar talk last year in San Quirico - although we were pleased to find that we understood a lot more of what she said this time. The second part of the evening was a talk given by a man who has been studying ways of defending livestock against wolves (looking at different types of fencing, and various other deterrents). In contrast to his colleague, this guy spoke at a million miles an hour and mumbled a lot, so we didn't grasp quite as much of what he said. There were some interesting facts and figures though. Dogs (of a certain type) are one of the best defences, which is interesting because one of the problems caused by wolves is that they prey on domestic dogs (those that are left to wander around alone outside at night, that is). There has also been some interesting research into different types of fencing, playing noises that the wolves don't like (he described the noises as being to wolves the same as someone scraping their nails down a blackboard is to humans), and using various different scents that are off-putting to them.

The talk was aptly timed as that very afternoon Reggie had come out of the woods proudly carrying a deer spine with two legs attached (which subsequently dropped off). He brought the spine all the way back to the house with him, whereupon he sat himself down and started to eat it. It's very likely that the deer remains were the leftovers of a recent wolf meal.

Monday's wolf talk at the circolo.
We had intended to do some more work on our fencing project at the weekend, but despite it being perfect weather for it, our plans were foiled by the local hunters. In our area wild boar are hunted in squads with dogs - and the hunters and their dogs can cover quite an area in the course of a hunt. It was just as we were about to start our afternoon's work when we heard the tell-tale noise of dogs barking and bells (which the dogs wear around their necks). They weren't immediately close, but close enough for us to be wary about letting Reggie out (and close enough for Reggie to get himself worked up), and since we didn't want to go up on the terraces leaving Reggie on his own in the garden (giving him even more to be worked up about), we reluctantly decided to change our plans. 

Instead of fencing, we took the opportunity to do some more work on building up the garden wall, getting us a step closer to (at some point finally)being able to finish the pergola floor.

Reggie did his best to help.

Later in the afternoon, we went to visit our "new neighbours", Gianni and Serena, who we had met (in fact we were introduced to them by our friend Emanuele) at the wolf talk at the circolo on Monday. While they could be classed as neighbours when going as the crow flies (they are just across the hillside from us, and we even realised that we can hear their dogs barking from our house), actually getting to their house involves a long trek all the way into Pescia and then back out again, heading up our valley but on the opposite side of the river.

When Gianni sent directions to get to their house, he said "you pass a house with lots of ducks outside". I imagined maybe 4 or 5 ducks - and possibly even plastic ones rather than real ones - but in fact we came to a point on the road where we simply couldn't pass because there were so many ducks in the road! Stuart started crawling along in the car, but it was impossible to see whether they had actually moved out the way or were just squatting low down beneath bonnet level, so in the end I got out of the car and walked (squelched) ahead of it to make sure they were all shooed out of the way. Gianni and Serena said that the man who lives in that house is a bit of a recluse - clearly he loves ducks!
So many ducks!

We very much enjoyed meeting Gianni and Serena properly, and seeing around their lovely home and the amazing artwork that Serena produces for a living. They seem lovely people, very friendly and very much on our wavelength in terms of living the same lifestyle. They have two enormous dogs (Reggie looked positively small to us when we got home!), two turkeys, some chickens, some fish and seven cats! I had animal envy, and came very close to smuggling one of the cats home with me.

It was the first time I'd had any cat snuggles since losing our dear little Florence. I very nearly smuggled this one home.
On Sunday we headed up the road to Vellano to help our friends David and Sarah with the last of their second olive pick of the year. After having had so many olive-laden trees left unpicked at the end of the harvest they did in collaboration with us, they decided they would like to pick the rest of the trees and do a press of their own. By the time we lent a hand it was already their third day of picking and they had been going great guns! It was just a morning's work, therefore, to lend a hand in the final push for them to reach their required weight of olives - indeed it was a good job it wasn't an all-day job as the rain came in halfway through the afternoon.

The amazing ginko tree that belongs to David & Sarah's neighbours looked particularly stunning against the darkening sky.
The olive/leaf sorter proved to be effective.
David & Sarah's cachi (persimmon) tree always looks so beautiful, as if it's adorned with Christmas baubles.

The following Monday we had our English evening at the circolo. Just four people came (all the regular faces: Roberto & Vikki, Daniele, and Luca), although with just the two of us native English speakers present that was just about the right number to be comfortable. We had made a "swear jar" to take this time - something we'd been talking about for a while as several people (of whom Stuart is one of the worst offenders) have a tendency to lapse into speaking Italian (which, of course, would be fine if it wasn't specifically intended as an opportunity for people to practise their English.). The idea of the swear jar is that if anyone speaks too much Italian they have to pay into the jar, with the proceeds going to the charity that deals with blood donations (which Emanuele, the owner of the circolo, is heavily involved in). It seemed the perfect use for a piggy bank in the form of E.T. that used to belong to Stuart when he was a boy. It has been sitting in the cupboard for a few months (freaking me out and taking me by surprise every time I opened the cupboard) so we stuck a sticker on the front of it (saying "if you speak too much Italian you pay me €1"). We only collected about 1.50, but it did seem to concentrate people's minds as to why we were all there!

On Monday evening our friend Luca invited us to go along to the surprise birthday party he was throwing for his wife, Anna Livia, at a pizzeria the next day. We've met Anna Livia on a few occasions, and were touched that Luca had thought to invite us, so how could we refuse? I have to say that it was a little of an assault on the senses - still feeling a little on the sensitive side after the events of recent months, being immersed in a large echo-y pizzeria at the end of a table of 25 or so loudly gabbering, jabbering, gesticulating and pontificating Italians was something of a test of endurance, but we sat with the one other person we knew there, along with a couple of other guys who were friendly enough to include us in their conversation, and overall it was a very jolly affair.

On Friday morning, we got up and out the house nice and early and headed for Lucca. We had finally got around to making an appointment at a secondary branch of the state archive in order to try and continue our research on the history of our house that we had begun almost exactly a year ago. (Unlike the main branch that we visited before, this branch is only open on Fridays, by appointment only - and only 10 people each time.) We weren't sure what we might find, but it had been suggested to us last year that we should visit this branch for more information - so perhaps at the very least there might be some older maps we could look at to see whether or not the house was marked on them, or some older land registry archives.

In the end, it turned out to be a bit of a wild goose chase - having found our way to the archive, gone through the process of re-registering our details with them (our previous registration had just expired after 12 months) and sat down to explain to one of the archivists why we were there and what we were hoping to look at, it turned out that they didn't have anything relevant to us there at all. And in fact, after a brief discussion between all the archivists in a huddle, they suggested we go back to the original (central) branch that we went to and have another look through the tomes that we looked at before. They also said something along the lines of if you want to know more about the house you have to engage a solicitor to do the research(?!).

So it was a disappointing morning (although the one part that wasn't disappointing was the fact that we didn't have to stay in the archive all morning - it was freezing in there - even all the staff were wearing coats and scarves - so it was quite a relief to leave after about 20 minutes!). We think we will make a return visit to the central archive at some point to have another look at the huge tome we looked at last year - there must be some record of our house/its owners in the there, we think we might have missed it the last time and that a bit more of a concerted, concentrated effort is required.

Friday afternoon was spent prepping, cooking and cleaning in anticipation of a visit from our friends Mara and Franco in the evening. It's been about 6 months since we last had them over for dinner and I hadn't seen them since August, so it was a long overdue social. I have to say that I was a bit apprehensive at the start - I feel as if both my Italian and my social skills (or sociability) have suffered a little in recent months - but I was relieved to find that after a little while (or maybe more accurately after a little wine) I relaxed enough to enjoy the evening and participate in the conversation.

Saturday was forecast to be clear and sunny (despite it having tipped down with rain throughout the night), so we had arranged to go to our friends Paul and Kathy's in Castelvecchio to pick their remaining olive trees. Very kindly, they had offered us their remaining olives - having already done two harvests this year themselves and having more than enough oil for their own needs. So first thing on Saturday morning, we all (Reggie included) hopped into the car and headed up the valley.

Reggie was first to be ready for the off!
We spent a lovely day in the fresh air picking olives with Paul and Kathy, and by the end of the day had racked up almost 13 crates' worth - certainly enough for a pressing. Reggie had a great day running around Paul and Kathy's garden and terraces and was suitably exhausted at the end of the day - he did lots of snoozing in the evening!

A day's pickings.
It was pretty wet first thing on Sunday, and what with the weather and feeling a little tired after a day in the fresh air on Saturday, we had made up our minds that it would be an indoors day - but of course, by the time we got back to the house after our morning coffee in Pescia, it was starting to brighten up. And then the sun came out. So, somewhat reluctantly, we decided to get ourselves into gear to do some fencing... . We got changed, went outside... only to find that there was a hunting dog on the nearby hillside (we think it must have been lost because there was just one and no apparent hunters with it), which was driving Reggie to distraction. So once again, we couldn't risk letting Reggie out on the terraces with us for fear that he would tear off and try and find the dog (or indeed that other dogs with or without associated hunters might appear). So our plans were foiled by the hunters once again!

Instead, we took the opportunity to rake the drive. Paul & Kathy had raked it while they were dog-sitting for us when we were in Bristol at the start of November, but since then a lot more leaves have fallen from the trees, and with the wet weather we've had in recent weeks the drive has just started to become a bit slippery when going up in the car. So instead of building fencing we spent a couple of hours raking all the leaves off the drive before finally coming in for a late lunch and lighting the wood burner.

A low visibility day.

One minute you're in the sunshine, the next you can't see a thing.. and then this happens.

A porcupine quill - we haven't found one of these on our property since the year we moved in.

Fungi standing to attention.

Rain on gaura

Mist and cloud above Pietrabuona.