So when former HelpX-ers Tess and Nick (the pair of New Zealanders who, back in November 2014, among other things, built Reggie's fence and gates around the garden, helped toilet train Reggie and even helped us name him) contacted us to say that they had some close friends who were travelling around Europe in a campervan (just as they themselves had done 4.5 years ago) and who were interested in doing some HelpX-style work in exchange for somewhere to stay, we couldn't help but agree to take them on, and we eagerly awaited the arrival of Kristen and Grant.
We wouldn't usually dream of seeking helpers to do physical outdoor work at this time of year, large projects being much better suited to the cooler autumn and winter months - but that's how things panned out so we decided that careful planning of what work we did and at what time of day we did it would be the way to manage things (I should say here that despite these guys coming to volunteer work, there's no way our consciences would have allowed us to sit back and watch them slave away on their own without us joining in too!). It was clear that a morning work schedule would be the way to go, avoiding the very hottest part of the day, but as for the project(s) to tackle with the extra help, that was a more difficult decision, and one that kept changing right up until the day before their arrival!
We had toyed with ideas including: getting the veg beds thoroughly weeded; finishing cutting, moving and stacking the last of the wood for the winter wood pile; clearing and building some steps down to the river at the edge of our land... but the job that forced its way to the top of the list, virtually shouting and waving at us, was putting in some new drainage channels across the car park and the end of the drive.
Our very first HelpX-er, Noah, helped Stuart put three drainage channels in at various strategic points along the drive back in October 2014 (you can read about it and see the photos here). These helped enormously by diverting rainwater away from the drive and down the side of the hill, thus leaving a lot more of the surface of the drive, well, on the drive, than would have been the case without them. A while later it was obvious that, while there was an improvement in the state of the drive, a lot of water was still building up and rushing down across the car park, so in 2017 Stuart and I then dug and constructed another, much longer channel across the drive. That too helped enormously, but it has gradually been becoming clear that another channel is really needed - in very heavy rain a veritable river builds up and gushes down across the car park and all the way down to the outside of the apartment, taking in (and soaking) a good chunk of the wood pile as it goes. The amount of detritus that was washed down the drive (and the amount of gravel from the drive that we found halfway down the hill) after last weekend's torrential rain was the unmistakable signal that "Project Drainage Channels (v3.0)" was what we should throw our extra labour at this week.
|On the upper donkey track, the rain water had carved out a path that ran from the top of the track right to the bottom.
Kristen and Grant arrived in their trusty campervan just before lunchtime on Monday. Having spent the previous evening at an Elton John concert in Lucca (part of the Lucca Summer Music Festival), they confessed to feeling a little fragile, and since the heat of the day had already built up to furnace level and we didn't really feel like punishing ourselves too much either, we decided to put work plans on hold until the next morning, and instead, after lunch, spent an afternoon getting to know our guests and taking them on a brief tour of the property.
|The scary campervan! - Reggie took an intense dislike to the camper and barked at it for 4 days in a row.
Turns out that Kristen and Grant are great company. Of course, we could have put money on that - knowing that they are close friends of Nick and Tess and knowing what great folk Nick and Tess are, and how much we enjoyed their company all those years ago. We had a very enjoyable evening (in fact the first of several during the week) chatting about our respective lives and adventures as well as putting the world to rights and pulling out our favourite soapboxes.
The next morning, it was full steam ahead. Except poor Grant had woken up feeling pretty rough and with a very sore throat. To his immense credit he rallied, and Kristen and Grant spent the morning first weeding and mulching the raspberry enclosure and then joining me and Stuart in starting to dig the first of the drainage channels.
Stuart and Grant headed off to Frateschi, first to buy the concrete channels, and then the bags of concrete we would need to complete the job, while Kristen and I picked and dug at the ground, trying to get the channel to the required depth and width.
|It took Reggie a while to get used to Kristen and Grant, but he was happy to watch over the work from a safe distance.
By the end of day one (lunchtime) we had done the required digging and placed the concrete channels in the hole, with concreting to be done the following day.
During the afternoon, Stuart took Sheila into Pescia with him on some errands and then on to visit some friends of hers that just happened to be staying at a hotel in Montecatini Terme for the week (what are the chances?!), while I battled with heavy eyelids while trying to get on top of some office work, and our Kiwi helpers took the opportunity to catch up on sleep in a real bed, after 3 months of sleeping in a campervan.
The next morning the extra sleep seemed to have given Grant's immune system the boost it needed and while still not feeling 100%, he said he was feeling a lot better, so after breakfast together we all headed back out to the car park for round two of channel digging. This time, we dug a channel in which to place the large, enormously heavy old carved stone edging pieces that Stuart had brought back from a house in Castelvecchio where they were being thrown out last year. The plan is for these to form a neat and attractive edge to what will eventually (one day) be a tidy and shaded seating area around the back of the house. Clearly that day is still a long way off, but we've now at least made a start!
With the channel dug for the stone pieces and the concrete channel pieces concreted in and the hole back-filled, it was time to call it a day again. After a late lunch, we decided to all head into town to give Kristen and Grant a whistle-stop tour of Pescia, a chance to eat ice creams, and a taste of the delights of aperitivi - we stopped at Franco's bar in the main Piazza for a glass of prosecco and a generous plate of nibbles.
On the final working day of our guests' stay with us, the plan was to dig a much shorter channel but a little further up the drive. Stuart and Grant went off to Frateschi once again to get the materials while Kristen and I started the digging - soon finding that the stonier part of the driveway was full of very large rocks and stones and nowhere near as easy to dig as the first channel! Nevertheless we persisted, and by the time Stuart and Grant had finished maneuvering the stone edging pieces into place we had dug the required channel, and then it was a relatively quick case of mixing concrete and laying in the concrete blocks.
After showers all round and lunch, Stuart headed off up the valley with Sheila and our guests to give them a quick tour of the local area, while I once again battled the tiredness and the heat at my desk.
Unfortunately, by Thursday afternoon Kristen had begun to feel the same symptoms as Grant had suffered with earlier in the week, so it was another quiet afternoon of napping for them after returning from the trip around the valley.
Friday was a no-work day for Kristen and Grant as they would be leaving us and heading for new adventures. They took advantage of their last morning in a four-walled abode to do some last-minute washing, tidying and cleaning of the campervan, and planning where to head to next.
We waved goodbye to our new friends on Friday afternoon, having thoroughly enjoyed their company as well as feeling delighted with the progress made with their help. Without their help we would never have tackled this project at this time of year (it would have been autumn or even winter before we even considered doing it), and it would have taken us at least twice as long, if not more. So we are very pleased indeed with what we've achieved in less than a week!
Friday was also Sheila's last full day of her current stay with us, and at the end of the day she had offered to take us for aperitivi. Our regular spot for aperitivi was closed for holidays this week, so we put some thought into where to go. Didn't take us long to remember that we'd seen our friends Amanda and Alessio had advertised that they would be doing a cocktail/aperitivi evening at their restaurant that night. So the choice was obvious!
We arrived a little early at the restaurant, so sat at the bar with a delicious mojito made by Amanda while we awaited the arrival of Chiara, the cocktail lady. Chiara has invented a concept of ready-made cocktails using fresh, local, seasonal ingredients, with a base of gin. There were six to choose from, all of which sounded delicious, and to go with each cocktail Alessio had conjured up a delicious finger food plate to match and complement the flavours.
Sheila and I both started with a lovely fresh-flavoured grapefruit-based cocktail - a flat collins - which was accompanied by an amazing dish of pieces of trout in the most incredibly fresh and zingy chill infused jelly. I quite literally cannot stop thinking about how delicious it was! Meanwhile, Stuart's choice of cocktail - a negroni - was equally flavourful and was accompanied by a delectable chicken liver pate. Other plates of food we tried included a DIY (in a fondue) pork tenderloin pieces with a grapefruit sauce; deep fried prawns with an incredible beetroot accompaniment, and delectable marinated mackerel pieces. Sheila and I also shared a strawberry-based gin sour before wobbling out of the bar feeling very content indeed!
Sadly for our friends, we were the only people who had come to the evening (at least at that time of the evening), but for us it made for a very enjoyable time as we sat at the bar and chatted with Amanda, Alessio and Chiara while sipping our drinks and tasting our treats - great drinks, great food and great company.
As I write this update, the Kiwi lurgy (or was it an Elton John lurgy?) has made its way round to Stuart - it seems to be a fast-moving and hard-hitting thing, so we keep our fingers crossed that Stuart will be able to shake it as quickly as Grant seemed to be able to, and that it doesn't spread to me or head back to England with Sheila. We have two days of relative down time now before the arrival on Tuesday of Stuart's daughter, Kerys, and her boyfriend Nick. It's certainly proving to be a busy summer!