Saturday 31 August 2019

Hot and humid

Over recent weeks the intense heat of summer has continued, although we are now in a more changeable phase - hot weather but with regular thunderstorms, that sometimes bring torrential rain and other times just bang and crash and rumble but without so much as a drop of rain. The storms we've been having of late haven't been the sort that bring any relief from the intense temperature, but rather just make the air hot and damp - a bit like being in a sauna.

The intense heat has almost entirely put a halt on our work around the property. Every morning when it's a pleasant 21C I think "right, this afternoon I will do XYZ", but as the afternoon rolls around and the temperature is a searing 34C or similar, the will to even be outside for more than a couple of minutes completely disappears, let alone the motivation to do anything constructive. The sun doesn't start to disappear from our patio area until around 6.30pm, so until then we find ourselves hiding in the shade and even questioning the wisdom of our decision to buy a west-facing house!!

But of course, once the intensity of the heat is dialled down, the evenings here are perfect - a lovely temperature, not too hot but definitely not cold either - and as we sit in our comfy garden sofa-chairs taking in the view, we are often treated to amazing aerial displays by swifts that swoop low over the garden picking up the evening insects then high up into the sky, somehow managing to avoid crashing into each other. And once the light starts to fade, the swifts are replaced by bats that flit across the dusky sky doing the same thing. Once darkness proper has fallen we are often entertained by the various different owls we hear screeching, hooting and tu-whit tu-whoo-ing (we sometimes even wonder if someone is standing in the trees taking us for a ride doing an impression of an owl, such is the totally classic sound of some of the "tu-whit tu-whoo"s). Naturally, Reggie is not quite as enamoured with the owl noises, and it's never long before his bark overrides all other animal noises!

Summer evening sky.

So, all this is a long-winded way of saying that we haven't done much to report.

We've been busy socially - a Greek meal at our local circolo in celebration of Emanuele's birthday (along with our lovely apartment guests, Jenny and Gordon, and our friends Paul & Kathy and Andrea); a fabulously fun evening at the annual summer Sagra at the circolo in Vellano with our friends Paul & Kathy, Ludmila & James and later in the evening David & Sarah and Donatella too, complete with Irish music and dancing; a long-awaited catch up with our friends Samatha & Mario over dinner under the stars on their roof terrace; dinner followed by a dip in the hot (well, cold) tub at our friends Andrea & Begona's; a curry dinner at our house for our friends Serena & Gianni, as well as various other catch-ups with other friends. A busy time on the social front - somewhat tiring but in a most enjoyable way!

Hmm, the less said the better.

I also had a lovely birthday...

... a delicious fish meal with my lovely husband, the day off work, and an evening sharing a drink or two with our guests - perfect!

We haven't shirked work entirely, in fact quite the opposite - I've been busy at my computer, this being the busiest time of year for my work, spending around 7 hours a day at my desk. And Stuart has worked on our friend Dave's new website and both re-built a set of stairs and laid a new kitchen floor for our lovely friend Sue. While he slaved over the set of stairs on his own (a back-breaking job made harder by trying to do it during the biggest holiday week in Italy when all builders' merchants were closed and he had to trek to Obi and back many times over for materials), he knew from the outset that the kitchen floor would be a job that required some extra muscle. Ever ready for a challenge, I took the day off my office work so that I could join our friend David as a labourer on the project (David and me being the brawn), while Stuart (the brains) worked his magic laying and levelling the floor. By the end of a hard, hot, dusty, dirty days' work, David and I had mixed and carried 70 bags of concrete (a little under 2 tonnes), and Stuart had laid a perfect floor - a thing of beauty even before tiles have been laid! A tough day, but the change of scene, the great company and the finishing of a project by the end of the day all made it incredibly enjoyable and satisfying!

The master at work.

A thing of beauty!

"Team Kitchen Floor".
Sadly, the orto has really suffered this year, and over recent weeks the weeds have really taken hold - after Potato Gate (porcupines having eaten every single last one that we put in the ground) and Fennel/Onion Gate (voles having eaten 90% of the fennels and 60% of the onions), we rather lost our way in terms of motivation to keep things going. Not only that, but the very unseasonally cool and wet weather in May stunted the growth of a lot of the plants. As such, weeding hasn't been done, tomatoes haven't been tied up, and an overall air of neglect has taken its toll. It's all a bit disappointing but we are still harvesting tomatoes and have had amazing crops of beetroot and aubergine, both grown from seed. Encouragingly, the raised bed trial that Stuart set up a few months back has been a huge success and everything that he planted in it (he threw a bit of everything in, just to see how it fared: parsnips, kohlrabi, tomatoes, beetroot, spinach, basil, rocket, aubergines...) has seemed to thrive and do really well. So the plan for the winter is to create several more raised beds, which can't be reached by porcupines or voles! (We just have to hope that the deer don't become the next big problem!)

Rain drops on the sunflowers.

The sunflowers are loving the "wild" treatment of the orto!
The chickens have been suffering somewhat in the heat - while they are still laying routinely, there have been days when I've spotted them sitting under the olive tree with their beaks open and wings spread trying hard to keep cool. We decided to treat them to a chicken-spa in a bid to help them cope with the hot weather. We installed a mini-pergola for an added spot of shade in their enclosure, as well as a cooling mist-spray (a hose attached to the water pipe that sprays water into the air). They seemed a bit confused about the water spray at first, but soon started pecking around in the wet soil - whether they enjoy the cooling effects of the spray or just the bugs it brings up from the ground we're not sure, but they seem to like it either way!

Mini pergola for shade

..and a mist-er.

Complete with rainbow.
We are about to welcome Sheila (Stuart's Mum) and Yvonne (her - and our - friend) back again for another week here - Yvonne's second visit this year and Sheila's third. So amongst office work and other chores there will no doubt be time made to catch up with them over a drink or two in the coming days - days which we hope will bring a little bit of respite in the temperature and start to see the beginnings of what we hope will be a fine autumn!

Tuesday 6 August 2019

A step back in time?

The events of the last week have almost made us feel as if we have stepped back in time 4 years: we've had trouble with our internet supply; car troubles and a broken down tractor. While nothing insurmountable, general weariness left us feeling as if it was all quite a lot to contend with.

Of course, in these situations there is no alternative than to get on with things, and thankfully the internet issues were eventually sorted out (well, of a fashion), the car problem was fixed first with a jump start from a passing stranger (Stuart was stuck halfway between Pescia and Lucca when the car failed to start) and then a visit the following morning from the friendly mechanic from our local garage (who diagnosed a duff battery and duly replaced it with a new one). The tractor problem remains an open ticket, but at least doesn't impinge on daily life in quite the same way as other issues (at least, not until we need it...).

For me, this time of year has always been about work - not the satisfying physical outdoor type of work, but the computer-screen-staring, sedentary, office-based work. This year is somehow seems to be even more challenging than in previous years - 7 hours sitting in front of pages and pages of technical conference papers seems quite energy-sapping, which is not helped by the fact that for at least half of that time it's in a room that is plunged into darkness and it could as easily be night-time as daytime. The shutters-on-windows exercise that we started a month or so back (closing all the windows and shutters to keep the sunlight out in an attempt to make the house less oven-like) has been very successful, and even when temperatures hit 39.5C the other week, we still managed to keep the house (just!)below 30C. So it's worth it. But it does somewhat mess with the mind and natural body rhythms when you spend hours on end indoors in semi-darkness!

Of course, not all of our time has been spent indoors. We spent a week getting up at 6.30am every day in order to get the grass cut on the terraces. In the extreme heat, the last thing we feel like doing is cutting the grass on the terraces, and in theory, the heat (and dryness) should keep things from growing too fast and looking untidy. However, throw in the odd day of rain (thunderstorms), and lo and behold the grass shoots up and the weeds even more so. With visitors due to arrive, and the place looking unkempt, it was a task we simply had to tackle. Doing a couple of hours of strimming each morning before the day heated up (finishing by about 10.30am) proved to be a fairly efficient (and certainly more comfortable) way of operating, and after having repeated the exercise 5 days in a row we had finally got all the grass cut and looking much neater.

Aside from grass cutting we have tackled precious few outdoor jobs - a combination of heat, visitors, flu-like illness (Stuart), bursitis of the elbow (Stuart) and days of full-time office work (me) have pretty much put a halt on progress. We find ourselves almost counting down the days to the cooler weather of autumn and winter that will allow us to get back outdoors more comfortably and achieve a lot more.

Our most recent visitors were Stuart's daughter, Kerys, and her boyfriend, Nick. They arrived hot on the heels of Sheila's departure, giving us a brief two-day window in which to collect our thoughts and prepare for more guests. That proved to be a much needed window, as Stuart was struck down with a flu-like lurgy (left behind by our Kiwi helpers the previous week) and needed the time to rest.

Thankfully, while not 100% better, he was sufficiently recovered to spend some time taking Kerys and Nick out and about, taking them to Pescia, Montecarlo, Montecatini Terme, Montecatini Alto and Vinci (no, not all in the same day!). Kerys and Nick also took the opportunity of being here in Italy to take a whistle-stop trip to Rome. Having originally planned to spend one night in the city, after deciding to change mode of transport from the expensive fast train to the much cheaper but much slower bus from Florence (which was then delayed), they extended their stay to two nights to ensure that they had enough time to see everything they wanted to see. They came back to us exhausted but entirely satisfied with their trip - they loved Rome and all it had to offer.

As ever, it was lovely having them to stay and we look forward to their next visit.

Montecatini Terme.
Tettuccio spa.

No sooner had Kerys and Nick left than it was time for more guests, but this time ones we didn't already know - it feels as if this year has been very heavily focused on visits from family and friends, as well as returning guests (who are more or less friends too), so the arrival of completely new people in the apartment was quite a change.

As has so often been the case, our new guests Karen and Rich turned out to be great company, and we enjoyed spending a couple of evenings with them over a glass of wine or three. Not only that, but it turned out that Rich does wood working professionally, being a teacher of teachers! Having spotted Stuart's workshop and the lathe, he wasted no time in asking Stuart about it, and offering him some advice and a lesson - an amazing opportunity!

Too early for Christmas? 
Aside from guests we have been busy on the social front too - sometimes a little too busy, with seemingly non-stop late nights adding to overall weariness!

One evening we entertained Luciano, who is the gardener at the house we look after in Medicina, and his wife Monica. They are lovely people, very easy company, and absolute fonts of knowledge. The next evening we headed up to the very same house for a barbecue and social evening with Ludmila and James, who are currently renting the house for a year. Ludmila and James first visited us as guests last year, before deciding they loved the area so much they would like to return, but this time for a whole year. They have become great friends and are forever generous in their hospitality. On this occasion James even braved torrential rain, thunder and lightning to stand at the BBQ cooking for us while the rest of us waited in the dry indoors!

A week on, we headed up to Medicina itself, also with Ludmila and James, to a meal laid on by Stefano, the sheep farmer. Having known of Stefano for some time, it has only been relatively recently that we have met him on a few occasions and started to get to know him - another fascinating individual whose skills range from shepherding to cheese making, carpentry, music (drumming) and street artistry! During the summer he and his wife put on a number of meals up at their farm, where people from all around come to enjoy the delights that they cook, each week there being a different theme. This time around it was a pig roast, with more pork and sausages than 25 people could manage to eat - but there was also antipasti, cheeses to die for, fried chestnut flour donuts, lemon cake, plentiful wine, limoncello... All eaten at a large communal table under the stars, making it a truly social event - we met some interesting fellow diners and covered topics from food and drink to politics, and even managed to involve James and Ludmila when our fellow diners slowly revealed that they could speak a little English.

The following night we had an impromptu invitation to join our neighbours for dinner - we had popped in to see them briefly the previous morning as it had been a long while since we'd caught up with them.. and they promptly invited us for dinner along with Rosanna's brother, Marco and his wife Marcella, who had just got back from a holiday on the island of Elba. We've long coveted Rosanna and Valerio's outdoor kitchen and dining area from afar, and on this occasion we got to experience it close up as we dined outside, with Rosanna cooking fish, steaks and sausages on the outdoor grill. As ever with our neighbours, there was enough food to sink a battleship - we were relieved that we had decided to walk there, giving us a small chance to let it all go down at the end of the night before we got home, but we still felt full the following morning!!

At the beginning of a new week we hope for fewer challenges and the chance to have some earlier nights.

The orto is not very productive this year, but is still providing us with the odd crop or two.

Meanwhile, the fruit trees on our terraces have been more productive than ever before - peaches, apricots, plums, pears and almonds.