Tuesday 21 January 2020

Back to it

With the Christmas festivities all done with and guests departed, there has finally been some time to properly dedicate our efforts and attention to living our lives here - working on the land, working to pay the bills, working to integrate into the community, working to improve our language and communication skills. None of this comes easily and all of these aspects have some degree of fragility - a couple of weeks of taking our eye off the ball on the land and brambles will have grown/weeds shot up/trees fallen/the window for cutting firewood closed, and so on; a couple of weeks of not working to pay the bills and, well, money doesn't go into the pot; a couple of weeks of not putting the effort in with friendships and relationships in the community and those suffer, and even just a handful of days of not being fully immersed in the language can have a significantly negative effect on our Italian skills (it's amazing and disheartening just how much the simple act of being surrounded by English-speaking people, as well as not tuning into our Italian TV programmes and not seeing as much of our Italian friends sets us back). So, after an almost 3 week break from almost all of the above, it was time to get back to our living our lives here.

With renewed determination (following quite a serious loss of heart and plummeting of self-assurance pre-Christmas), I have done three things since the start of January to attempt to build confidence and fluency in my language ability, as well as develop a sense of independence that I have missed for quite some time. First (a happy coincidence for which I cannot claim any responsibility - the opportunity quite simply fell into my lap and I realised I couldn't possibly turn it down), I have taken up Nordic walking with a small group (of Italians). Our lovely friend Mara asked if I would be interested in going along with her, so of course (in a fit of grasping the nettle with both hands) I said yes. The group meets twice a week, the conversation is entirely in Italian, the people are lovely and very easy to be with, and the activity is enjoyable, already having taken me to 4 different and interesting locations in the valley. Lots of ticks! Second, I have re-instigated a weekly lesson - or at least conversation hour - with our friend (and our former teacher) Samantha in the hopes that a weekly dose of speaking (even if work/other interruptions take me out of circulation in the outside world) and some revision of some of the grammar will help build confidence/familiarity. Third, I am trying to keep on top of seeing some Italian friends socially on a (semi)regular basis, for a coffee or for a drink. All time and effort-intensive, but if they help build my self-confidence and independence and help me to feel more rooted in life here (outside of our 12 acres), it will be worth every iota of effort and every second of time.

On the working on the land front, we have felled, cut and processed around 15 trees on the uppermost terraces - trees that were shading the olives and that would have caused serious damage had they fallen in the wind.

With all the trees we've felled we are in pretty good shape for the winter after next.

There's still quite a lot of bonfire burning to be done though!

We've also increased our stock of pimps (fire-lighting bundles) to around 100 (after having started the process over Christmas). Fingers crossed that by next winter, when the bundles will have dried out fully, we should have a much reduced need to buy any commercially produced fire lighters.

The pimps make a rather lovely winter light display in the house (where they are currently drying).

We also experimented with a new labour-saving (more precisely back-saving) purchase that Stuart had spotted on the internet and used some of his Christmas money to buy us - log tongs - designed to make the moving and carrying of logs easier and with less need to bend down all the time:

We've had a plumber out to fix a leak on the heat pump, and Stuart has spent a day insulating the shed in which the heat pump lives - hopefully meaning it will have to work a little less hard in the depths of winter. Indeed this morning, while just 4C outside, the temperature inside the shed was registering 12C, which is hopefully a good sign.

We've also finally filed our paperwork for permits for permanent residency. We had a farcical morning in which we went to the first comune office, to be told we needed to go to another office. The second office was the correct office in which to file the paperwork but couldn't give us the form we needed, so we had to go to a third office (the main registry office) to get the forms. Once the forms were filled in we had to go and buy stamps for them (a form of payment) from the tobacconist. We then took the forms and the paperwork to the second office to file them, but were told they weren't qualified to check the paperwork we had submitted (invoices, tax records, etc.) and that we needed to go back to the main registry office to have it checked. Once there, the woman behind the counter rolled her eyes in desperation and sent us away again saying that the second office could call them if there were any problems. So then it was back to the tobacconist to get a couple of copies of some of the paperwork, and then finally back to the second office to have it filed. The lady took the paperwork from us and started entering details into the computer. She looked up and asked if we needed a copy of it all and when we said no, she told us we could leave. Naturally, having gone to all the effort and having handed over all our paperwork, we wanted to know what would happen next - the lady simply shrugged her shoulders and said "I don't know"! So, we wait to see if something arrives in the post... keep your fingers crossed and watch this space!

We also finally solved a mystery that has been bugging us for a while and answered a question raised by Kerys's boyfriend, Nick, last summer: we regularly drive past the post office in the Santa Lucia area just outside the main town of Pescia and see this monument - a bomb:

On spotting this when we drove past it back in the summer, eagle-eyed and inquisitive Nick asked what the story was behind it, and we had to confess to not knowing. For months we have been intending to stop and have a look at the inscription but always seem to have driven past it before remembering to stop. This time, however, was different!

As expected, the monument is an old bomb, the inscription explains that it was a 1000 pound bomb which came from an American aircraft. It was discovered in September 1990 when builders were doing the excavations necessary to lay foundations for the (then new)post office outside which it now stands. The bomb was deactivated in situ by military engineer personnel based in Florence. One assumes that the bomb dates from the second world war... but the inscription fails to mention anything about its age.

 As we head towards the end of January, nature is already beginning to wake up (which seems rather soon - even in our brief time here we have noticed milder winters). There are already mimosa trees in flower around the valley, there are young leaves appearing on the elderflower, and we've heard of hellibores and even a poppy already in bloom. We're not quite ready for spring to, er, spring yet - we have more work to do! - but with some milder days forecast in the coming week perhaps we are already coming towards the end of the winter.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Befana day

Yesterday, 6th January, was Epiphany, the feast of the three kings. In Italy it is celebrated with another public holiday and families getting together. It is also often referred to as Befana day, Befana being a benevolent witch who brings gifts for children.

Legend has it that the three kings/three wise men came across Befana on their journey to search for the baby Jesus. They stopped to ask her directions, but she wasn't able to help them. She did, however, give them food and shelter for the night. The next day the three wise men went on their way again - they invited Befana to go with them to find the baby Jesus, but she declined, telling them she was too busy with her housework. Some time after they had left, Befana changed her mind and went out to try and find them but failed - and now, and for time eternal, every year on the night of the 5th January (the eve of Epiphany) she flies through the skies with her broom in search of the three wise men and the baby Jesus, stopping off at every house where there is a child to leave sweets and goodies for the good children or a lump of coal for those who have been naughty.

Yesterday, we were lucky enough to witness the arrival of Befana herself from the skies above Montecarlo:

And now, with Christmas all packed away until next time it's back to something resembling a more normal routine.

Friday 3 January 2020

Happy new year

Happy new year from #182!

A beautiful start to the new year.

December seemed to pass in a blur of cork crafting activities, rain, and preparing for visitors. The weather continued to be dismal, but finally bucked its ideas up just in time for Christmas.

As mentioned, the overriding theme of December was cork crafting. Following on from the visit from our friends Kathryn and Steve in mid November, we set ourselves the task of building up some stock of cork crafts with the goal of having a stall at a Christmas market in San Quirico at the start of December. So, each evening we religiously sat down for a couple of hours of cork crafting: garlands, reindeer, mice and dogs, building ourselves a small army of cork animals.

We also made 6 more pallet Christmas trees after they had proved popular with our friends in the shop (and when I say "we" I do actually mean that Stuart let me loose with the jigsaw and the sander).

And so it was that on the afternoon of 8th December we put on thermal layer after thermal layer, packed up the car and headed up to San Quirico. Stuart bravely and skillfully took the car all the way up the tiny narrow cobbled streets to the piazza to unload our stock - at one point the car almost got stuck halfway up a particularly steep stretch in a particularly narrow archway with a difficult angled turn and slippery cobbles beneath and with the smell of burning rubber filling the car we thought we might have to roll backwards down the hill again, but with some skillful maneuvering on Stuart's part we made it past the crunch point and up to the piazza - a drive not to be repeated any time soon!

The market was somewhat underwhelming, with only 6 stalls including ours, and as we arrived rain started to fall - not the most auspicious start for our Christmas market career. Nevertheless, we laid everything out (having had a practice run at home the day before) and sat to await customers.

The flow of customers was almost as underwhelming as the size of the market itself and when our friends David, Sarah, Paul and Kathy turned up they almost doubled the number of punters.

In the end, we sold 3 cork mice, 3 cork reindeer and 4 cork dogs. After the €10 we had paid for the stall, we made about €15. Not quite the runaway success we had hoped for!

Somewhat disheartened, it was at least a relief to be able to call an end to daily cork crafting activities (as enjoyable a pastime as it can be, it had become slightly more of a chore) and to pack away all the materials from the dining room table - making our home look a little less like Santa's workshop.

We had a second half-hearted stab at doing a Christmas stall later in the month, this time at the circolo in Pietrabuona. It turned out that the "Christmas market" was just us, but we managed to sell a wooden mushroom, two cork dogs and a cork reindeer - just about making more than we had spent on buying drinks to help pass the afternoon.

Facing the hoards of customers.

A bit of Christmas cheer.
Although somewhat disappointed by the lack of interest in our crafts, we are not wholly defeated and have packed everything away to be stored until (possibly) making another attempt at cracking the Christmas market next year.

Besides which, we found an alternative use for the pallet Christmas trees - maybe we were just marketing them in the wrong way:

A Christmas tree? Or a perfectly sized tablet pc/ipad holder. 

Since the weather wasn't up to a great deal during the most part of the month, we didn't manage to get out and get much done - although one of the few jobs we did tick off was to create extensions for the drainage channels on the drive to take the rainwater further away from the drive.
Early December morning.
The extreme wet weather we have had during November and the first part of December has caused several landslides in various locations around the valley - they vary in degrees of severity, but land slippage is a serious issue and one that can be both dangerous and costly.

More rain.
Having installed concrete drainage channels in our drive back in 2014, and added more channels this year, we have made a big improvement to the run-off of rain water from the drive. Before the channels were added the driveway acted as something of a riverbed, channelling the water downhill towards the house, soaking the wood pile and even reaching the door of the apartment during particularly heavy rain. With all the channels added and working, the water is now channelled away off the drive, meaning that a lot less of the drive gets washed away down the hill! However, there is still damage to be done - having large amounts of water draining straight off the drive onto the hillside is almost inviting erosion and slippage, and should the earth slip away from the edge of the drive itself, we would be in trouble.

The drainage channel extensions, therefore are intended to carry the water further away from the edge of the drive and dump it at what is hopefully a safer distance away from the edge. A simple construction, we took some lengths of large plastic tubing, cut them in half horizontally, then attached them to the ends of the concrete drainage channels.

We didn't have to wait long to find out if they were working as we were treated(?) to the mother of all downpours just two days later. We were pleased and rather satisfied to find that all channels were working perfectly.

Before we knew it we were hurtling towards Christmas, and preparing for the arrival of Stuart's mum, Sheila, for her biannual Christmas stay, on 19th December. As well as Sheila, we were expecting more guests for Christmas itself. Our great friends David & Sarah had promised us their company this Christmas after having spent the last one with their families in the UK, and as a last-minute addition to the party, we were contacted a few weeks before Christmas by our New Zealand friends Nick and Tess to ask if we would be up for hosting them for 2 nights as they would be driving through the area en route from Rome to London and passing us just about around Christmas day.

We met Nick and Tess five years ago when they came to stay with us as HelpX-ers - a situation in which we provided them with accommodation and three meals a day in return for them working and helping us out with various tasks around the property. Back then, we were newcomers here ourselves - it was our first winter here, we were struggling to work out how to use the wood burner, the windows were all single glazed (and cracked), we has little to no firewood (a large part of their work with us was collecting and cutting firewood from what was already lying around in our woods) and when they arrived, we were a two-cat-and-no-dog family. In fact, Nick and Tess were here with us the very day that we brought our Reggie home - they helped us to name him and they gamely stood out in the garden in the dark and pouring rain, patiently waiting for Reggie to perform his toilet needs so we could all shower him with praise. It was Nick and Tess who put a large part of the work into building the fencing around the garden, as well as other tasks like re-pointing the garden wall underneath a large tarpaulin to shelter from the rain. All done with great enthusiasm and cheer and all work rounded off with a fun-filled evening of eating, drinking and chatting. Happy memories!

So, as you can imagine, much has changed since we last saw our Kiwi friends, and we were excited to be seeing them again. They had told us that their travel plans involved collecting a campervan from Rome and delivering it to London. What they hadn't told us was that we would be able to spot them coming from a mile off. The polite way to describe the campervan would be to say that it was adorned with rather colourful artwork - using the word "colourful" both literally and in the same way as one might describe the archetypal fisherman's wife as using colourful language. The theme of the van appeared to be recreational drugs - one side depicting a woman with white-coloured substance dribbling out of her nose and the caption "[cocaine] on the brain" (the caption now partially obscured but clearly that was what it had originally read), the back featuring the caption (once again now partially obscured) "I don't do [coke] I just like the way it smells", and the other side "cheap thrills" featuring a crazy-haired chap holding out a handful of pills. Hmm, talk about inconspicuous...! I hasten to point out that this wasn't Nick and Tess's choice of paintjob- they were driving the van back to London for the company that owns a fleet of similarly colourful rental vans across Europe.

We had arranged to meet Nick and Tess in Montecarlo on Christmas Eve as they had planned to arrive around lunchtime and had very kindly offered to take us out for lunch. As we pulled up at the edge of the town we immediately spotted the van - they certainly weren't hard to find!

We enjoyed a great lunch together before heading back home for the grand reunion between Nick, Tess and Reggie. We had pre-warned them that he likely wouldn't remember them and would probably bark at them a lot. He duly did that, but we engineered a Reggie walk together through the woods, which helped him warm to his old friends, and by the evening while still a little nervous of them, he had certainly stopped barking at them - a good result! He remained very angry about the van though. It clearly offended his sensibilities.

We spent the evening finalising preparations for Christmas lunch (prepping veg) and catching up with our friends.

 Christmas day started bright, crisp and clear, and after Stuart and I had taken Reggie out on a Christmas morning walk, we convened back at the house with Nick, Tess and Sheila for a breakfast of scrambled egg and smoked salmon washed down with prosecco.

The turkey went into the oven straight after our breakfast, and we started the process of heating ovens and finalising dishes for lunch. We were joined at midday by David and Sarah, raising the level of Christmas cheer even a notch higher.

By some stroke of accident we were ready to sit down to lunch at about 1.20pm. That certainly wasn't what we had anticipated (last year if memory serves me I think we ate around 4pm!), and if we were completely honest about it, it probably wasn't optimal timing after having had a late and large(r than normal) breakfast! Nevertheless we ploughed on.

Following a starter of mushroom and chestnut pate (made with our own chestnuts that had been marinating in brandy for around 3 years), the table groaned with a main course of turkey for the meat eaters and nut roast for the vegetarians along with side dishes of red cabbage with apple, apricot and pistachio stuffing, pan fried brussels sprouts with chestnuts, broccoli and cauliflower cheese, roast carrots and, of course, roast potatoes along with a tasty vegetable gravy made by Sarah.

Ready to feast!

Barely able to move after all of that, we decided an afternoon Reggie walk was in order, so we left Sheila (who was feeling under the weather and hadn't slept well the previous night) to go and have a rest and the other six of us headed out through the woods with Reggie.

By the time we waddled back to the house we felt as if we had made enough space for some pudding and we tucked into a delicious spiced cake made by Sarah, accompanied by "rum-cotta"(TM) - ricotta whipped with a little sugar and rum - sheer genious and so delicious I could have eaten a bowlful on its own (I didn't).

We transitioned from that into a marathon afternoon and evening of board games, stopping only for a second wave of eating around 10pm when all the leftovers were returned to the table, together with bread and butter for those who were hankering after turkey sandwiches. That was enough to sustain us through more rounds of board games until finally we threw the towel in and called it a day around 1.30am.

Boxing day started a little later than previous days and after a slow start and a breakfast of coffee and a few rounds of toast, Nick and Tess bade us farewell and set off to continue their journey northwards, aiming to reach Lucerne later that day. We also waved goodbye to David & Sarah, who headed up the hill to enjoy the sunny day at home.

With Sheila still feeling under the weather, Stuart and I headed up the terraces to try and take advantage of the sunny weather and get some outdoor work done. We felled two more acacia trees on the upper terraces, logged and tidied them, before spotting Paul & Kathy's car coming up the road from below (we were expecting them) and racing down the terraces to get to the house in time to let them through the gate. They brought Kathy's Mum with them, who is also here for the Christmas period, and Sheila joined us all for a catch up over a drink with cakes that they had kindly brought with them.

The next few days passed in a bit of a slow motion blur as germs rotated around between Sheila and Stuart - a really horrible flu-like lurgy - making everything somewhat subdued and curtailing activities. However, it did give Stuart the opportunity to try a recipe from his new (Christmas present) book on herbal medicines: garlic cough syrup.

Garlic syrup - kill or cure?

We spent New Year's Eve at home with a spread of home made dips alongside cured hams, cheeses and various other "pick n mix" foods while watching TV. We have certainly maxed out on TV in recent days - watching numerous films as well as UK-based TV shows. Stuart and I will need to get back into our Italian TV in the new year, our Italian ear will certainly need some re-tuning after being surrounded by so much English!

Happy new year!

Despite having been feeling under the weather, Stuart was determined to try and salvage some productivity during the festive period. The 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year is quite sacred to us - it's the only time in the whole year when I feel I can legitimately and completely sign off from office work with impunity, and as such it is a unique opportunity for us to get outdoors and work together over a sustained period, moving things forward at a rate that is impossible for most of the rest of the year. With the weather also having been perfect - clear blue skies and sunshine - it was disappointing to be struck with ill health. But Stuart bravely steeled himself and pushed himself to cough and splutter his way up the terraces, and we have to date managed to fell and process 8 trees on the upper terraces. Not quite the amount of work we might have hoped to have got done, but with both guests and germs in the picture not a bad amount all things considered.

We also had an attempt at a slightly less physically demanding task: creating some pimps. Yes, pimps.

It turns out that a short bundle of twigs tied together - for the purpose of acting as a firelighter - is called a pimp. We thought it was a faggot, but it turns out that a faggot is a longer bundle. With an abundance of twigs available (following the felling of 4 ash trees), we decided it was worth attempting to make some pimps (to be used next winter for lighting fires, hopefully meaning we can avoid using commercially produced firelighters) rather than simply burning the whole lot in a bonfire. Rate of productivity was a little low on the first attempt, but we think we could increase that fairly easily and it proved to be a very satisfying task.
Pimp-making in action.

Stack em up - six pimps.

And so as we creep into January, we hope that germs will soon be defeated and we'll soon be back to full strength - although of course it's also back to work and normal everyday chores in a couple of days' time.

We are promised more cold and clear weather for at least the next ten days, a blessed relief after the soaking we got through November and the sort of weather that makes this truly our favourite season here.

Happy new year to all!