Tuesday 17 March 2020

Life in lockdown

Today (Sunday) is the sixth day of our enforced lockdown here in Italy. These are strange times indeed. On a normal Sunday the road that runs through the valley bottom below is is usually fairly quiet, but you can always spot the pre-lunch rush as people head in their cars into the valley to the various restaurants for their Sunday lunch, the post-lunch rush as people head back into town, the church-going traffic, the groups of cyclists puffing their way up the steep valley roads and the motorbike enthusiasts opening the throttle as they roar around the bends. Today there has been little to no traffic on the road. Eerily quiet.

Of course it has been for some time that we have been keeping an eye on the COVID-19 situation here in Italy and a week ago schools were closed, public gatherings were cancelled, restaurants and bars were only allowed to operate if they could guarantee a 1m distance between customers, and we were pondering whether or not to go ahead with our fortnightly English evening at the circolo. We had sent a message to the group of attendees to test the water and most (but not all) said they would rather not come, so we had taken the decision to put it on hold for a few weeks, feeling that that was the most responsible thing to do. Little did we know that matters would be taken out of our hands the very next day, with the Italian government announcing an enforced lockdown country-wide.

Initially there was a lot of confusion - bars and restaurants were allowed to open but only if they could guarantee a minimum 1m distance between customers and only from 6am to 6pm. Yet at the same time we were all told we were only allowed to leave our homes for "essential" travel - going to and from work, doing essential shopping, or going to medical appointments, so who was going to be frequenting the bars and restaurants? Confusion reigned and while we dutifully stayed at home we heard stories of the streets being full of people, school kids meeting up and playing together, and it all seemed a bit chaotic. Little surprise, then, that the following day the government tightened the restrictions yet further, also closing all bars and restaurants and all shops other than food shops & tobacconists. At least this made things much clearer, and sanctions were brought in to deal with anyone found to be abusing the regulations. The police are operating random checks to make sure that anyone out and about has the required self authentication paperwork that states where they are going and why (the reason needing to fall within the limited number of allowed essential activities).

The supermarket now operates a system in which only a limited number of people are allowed in at once and only one person per family is allowed in. This results in people queuing for up to two to three hours just to get inside the supermarket. Larger supermarkets are closed at the weekends. You are only allowed to visit your nearest supermarket (a maximum of two times in a week) and absolutely are not allowed to cross into a different comune to do your shopping.

We have been taking it in turns to go and buy our fresh bread from Amanda's shop in the village. It was my turn yesterday - the first time I'd left the property or seen another face in 5 days.  The road was unusually quiet and when I got there both Amanda and Samantha were wearing face masks and gloves. It was hard to hear what they were saying through a face mask and there was a strange awkwardness as everyone did a strange sort of dance shifting around trying to keep 1m away from each other. Another lady was waiting to come into the shop when I left - she had seen I was in there and waited outside until I'd left..

A lot of local businesses have started offering home delivery services - initially for the elderly population but also now extending that to others as well. We bought some sheeps' cheese from our friend Stefano the shepherd in Medicina (which wasn't exactly delivered to the door, but Stuart was able to collect it from the car park behind the circolo). We've just discovered that one of the local places that sells wine in bulk is also doing home deliveries, so will probably be adding that to the list at some point soon!

Update: We did add it to the list and 10l of white and 10l of fizzy wine were delivered to the house yesterday!

The weekly market ran in town yesterday - although only the food stalls were allowed to set up (none of the usual clothes stalls etc.) and everyone had to keep 1m distance from each other and wear face masks. There were civil protection officers on hand to make sure people followed the rules. They have even started spraying the pavements with disinfectant, which seems a little over the top (I'm not sure there's any evidence to support that as a form of prevention), but I guess it makes people think/feel as it something is being done.

The last week saw the second confirmed case of COVID-19 in Pescia, although it was unrelated to the first and there's no indication of further cases relating to this one either.

Of course, here at numero 182 we are already quite isolated in a physical/geographical/topological sense, and I already work from home, but the difficult part is the not being at liberty to go out and do what we want - to go for a coffee at the weekend, even do the supermarket shopping together, and not being able to meet up with friends at all (technically you're not even meant to go to visit family members).

We are incredibly lucky to have 12 acres of land to roam around in, a beautiful view, and to be in the middle of nature, but even with all of this the prospect of not going anywhere else for the next few weeks is quite tricky, as is the prospect of not being able to socialise with friends and see others in the community.

But, on the bright side, lockdown has - so far - been incredibly productive for us. With no errands allowed to be run, no Italian lessons, no Nordic walks, no friends to meet up with, all of our time (for me my time after having finished my office work) can be (and has been) dedicated to working on the land. We are also very fortunate that lockdown has thus far coincided with a period of dry, sunny weather.

Just prior to lockdown Stuart completed his beautiful set of steps from the car park down to the lower terraces - a construction that almost rivals the Great Wall of China!

We also put together one of the two metal-framed raised beds we had bought (from Amazon) a few weeks ago before we had managed to source the plastic containers that we will also be using as raised veg beds.

You'd have thought that putting together a rectangular metal box would be relatively simple, but this thing (and its "instructions") made assembling an IKEA bookshelf look like child's play. It took us around 3 hours to get it all sorted, all the hundreds of tiny fiddly nuts and bolts in the right places, but we were pleased with the end result and look forward to filling it with seedlings soon.

We have placed the bed on a double-thickness layer of small-holed fencing material - the idea being that voles shouldn't be able to dig up through the fencing material. With that to stop voles and the height being enough to stop porcupines, it will (should, at least) only be deer that we need to worry about, and we should be able to provide protection from deer relatively easily by putting some form of netting over the top.

We took delivery of 100 chestnut posts on the first morning of full lockdown, which has meant that we have been able to forge ahead with the project of shoring up the terraces beneath the house.

Having borrowed the petrol-powered winch from (and which we co-own with) Franco, we spent a full day working on Tuesday felling around six more trees in the mushroom-land area. The winch was necessary because these were particularly large and particularly difficult trees - ones that were leaning the wrong way and required the winch to pull them in a different direction from that in which they would naturally want to fall. I can tell you that there's nothing quite like sitting to operate a winch directly beneath a tree that's being felled to get the adrenaline pumping...

By the end of the day we had amassed an enormous stack of logs.

We spent the next few days continuing to log trees, strip bark from the logs, and tidy up the mess the tree felling had created in mushroom land.

Finally, we decided we had amassed enough materials in the preparation phase to actually have a go at starting the project.

Before work began.
Even using the petrol-powered auger digging the holes for the chestnut posts proved to be hard work. The ground is so very stony/rocky (it's no wonder that our local village is called "good stone") that the auger struggles to get in very deep so we have to keep stopping, using a wrecking bar to break up rocks in the bottom of the hole, clear the rocks out, and then try again. The holes need to be around 50cm deep, with the posts needing to go around 60 cm into the ground. Slow and physically tiring work! But getting the posts into the ground seems to be the rate limiting step and once those are in it's a relatively fast and satisfying process to complete a section of wall by lying logs behind the posts and then back-filling with soil, in doing so beginning to create a brand new intermediate terrace.

First section!
We seem to be managing about 3m worth of wall per half-day - fairly slow progress but not so slow as to be disheartening, and we are finding that an additional 3m each day (6m on a full day's work) is enough to make us feel satisfied and very, very pleased with the way the project is going so far! We are ever hopeful of coming across a piece of ground that doesn't contain stones and that the auger will simply slide through like butter... but we are managing our expectations!

While it can feel slightly frustrating not being at liberty to go out for a change of scene, we are mindful that there is good reason for it and we know that there are many, many worse places in which one could spend in an enforced lockdown. We are thankful every day for our beautiful, beautiful surroundings.

Monday 2 March 2020

Project planning and preparation

Benjamin Franklin famously said "if you fail to plan, you are planning on failing", and with that in mind (and as spring pushes ever forward), we have done a fair bit of planning and preparing in recent weeks. 

Most significantly we have begun to move forward in the planning and preparation stages for the mammoth project of shoring up the banks of the terraces beneath the house. In our last post we mentioned that we had decided on a reinforcement strategy using chestnut posts and logs, and since then we have: bought (in conjunction with our friends Paul & Kathy) a petrol-powered auger to help with making post holes, ordered 100 large chestnut posts, felled several trees and cut them into logs of 1m lengths, stripped the bark from those logs, and taken delivery of 10 large (1000 litre) containers which will eventually become raised beds for growing vegetables (not part of the terrace reinforcing project, but the ultimate aim is to put these on the newly secured terraces). Stuart has also nearly finished building a beautiful set of steps that will make access to the lower terraces during the project infinitely easier and safer.

The auger is Reggie-approved.

A nice clean post hole.

... and a post held firmly in place.
10 tanks for future use.
We are now just a few more trees' worth of logs (and the delivery of the chestnut posts) away from having everything we need to embark on the project. It's a big project, but it feels good to have a plan coming together and the preparations in place. We intend to do it in stages - hopefully finishing one terrace this spring and moving on to the next one in the autumn. 

A beautiful set of steps - and Reggie approves.

We have also taken advantage of the spring weather to plant some more fruit/nut trees, putting in three more almond trees, two walnut trees, a hazelnut, another persimmon and two blueberry bushes as well as a beautiful decorative (not for fruiting purposes) mimosa.

Almond tree planting.
Reggie's contribution to the tree-planting.
A mini orchard is taking shape.
The spring-like weather has even afforded us our first opportunities to eat lunch al fresco and to enjoy a glass of wine in the late afternoon sun. Having said that, as I write this the rain is hammering on the skylight and the wind howling in the flue, so you can rest assured that we are still having our fair share of inclement weather!

First outdoor "cheers" of the year!

From one side of the valley...

... to the other. The view from our friends Mara and Franco's house on the hillside opposite us.

The other form of planning/preparation we have been doing is building up some of the most basic stocks in our store cupboard. One could hardly fail to notice that Italy has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus and we have been keeping tabs on the situation. While the worst affected areas are much further north of us (Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romana), there has been a confirmed case in our local town - news of which threw the local population into panic and the supermarket shelves were quickly stripped bare. The patient here in Pescia (who had been on a business trip to Lombardy and who quickly isolated himself once he felt ill) is reported to have recovered already, and none of people he came into contact with (who were quarantined as a precaution) have shown any signs of becoming ill, so it seems as if here at least the case has been well contained and dealt with effectively and efficiently. 

For now, we are mainly only concerned about the possibility of the area ending up on lockdown (as has happened in other communities in Italy) should there be more cases reported locally and thus potentially having short supply of the essentials, but we have stocked up on store-cupboard items, and (most importantly!) wine, so we are not greatly concerned. Of course, like the rest of the world, we follow the news reports and we hope that the situation sorts itself out quickly.

Wild crocuses currently line the driveway.

Almond blossom.

Local wildlife - a coypu spotted on the roadside.

Black irises.

Early wood violets.