Three weeks on from my last blog post, and we’re still waiting for the plumber to come to work. He was sighted briefly one morning last week, wandering around the site drinking a bottle of coca cola, but then he succumbed to the “febra di estate”, and hasn’t been seen since. And so we wait.And wait.And wait.The Plumber’s absence, coupled with the extreme heat, mean that we are getting rather behind on our original four month schedule. Of course, four months was always going to be five months, as August doesn’t count when calculating the duration of a project. We’re now eight weeks into the build, however, and apart from the first fix electrics, I’m struggling to think of any real progress that has been made since the end of week three.This lack of progress should be rather disheartening, but somehow, maybe because we are still in the honeymoon phase of our little adventure, we’re not really all that bothered. In fact, we’re probably not as bothered as we should be, given that we’re in process of emptying the flat in Rome.During our eight weeks upstairs, we’ve had a rather jolly time. We’ve hosted four sets of overnight visitors, our son has visited, and we’ve also managed to host a couple of lunches, although I will admit that cooking in “the penthouse” is a bit of a trial, and that the initial novelty of washing up in the bathroom sink has rather worn off. I do still love the fairy lights in my little kitchen though.With two weeks to go until we, and all our belongings have to vacate the apartment in Rome, the ground floor part of the project here should be nearing completion. We should be sleeping in our future bed and breakfast suite, cooking in our fabulous new open plan kitchen, and enjoying the enlarged views of our olive hill through our gorgeous new double glazed windows.But.Downstairs still looks like this.And this:Yup.Open plan alright, but rather more open plan than we had intended, and minus floors, walls, windows, a kitchen, electricity, water …But our rose tinted spectacles remain firmly in place.After all, even taking a shower is exciting when you live on a construction site! Our ancient hip bath (with electric water heater over it) has been “converted” to a shower. My size five feet just (only just) fit in the “deep end”, and my five foot four frame just (only just) fits under the shower head, which just (only just) fits under the water heater. A flimsy shower curtain gets drawn over the switch for the water heater to prevent it from getting wet, and we almost always remember to turn the heater off before we perform the various contortions required to climb into the “shower” and get wet(ish).How can one fail to enjoy a life where something as banal as taking a shower is an extreme sport?In preparation for the loss of the Rome flat, and in the hope that our belongings will survive the building process, yesterday, on the way home from work, I popped into the ferramenta, where my mission was to buy mouse traps and “pet friendly” poison. All of our belongings will have to be stored in the cantina for the next several months, and we’d prefer that they are not eaten by Topolino and his friends. Traps and poison in the shopping basket, I approached the cash desk in rather a hurry, as choosing a pet friendly method of dispatching mice had proved rather more time consuming than I had anticipated.”Ah, signora, I see that you are experiencing problems with mice!” Announced Friendly Shop Keeper to both myself, and the queue behind me.”Um, yes, well, no, well not yet?” I replied.”And I see that it is very important to you that you don’t kill your dogs?” He probed.”Um, well indeed, yes it is” I said.And that’s the moment where I lost the rest of the day. As pet friendly mouse poisoning techniques became the subject for the Afternoon Debate in an argument that rapidly engulfed the entire shop: staff and customers alike.And that, dear reader, is why despite the fact that I have to brush builder’s dust off my pans before preparing supper every evening, I LOVE living here. After all, when showering is an adrenaline pumping sport, and buying mouse traps requires community participation, what’s not to love?
I’m feeling rather sorry for the two chaps who work for The Builder this week.
Having dug out 120 metres of old floor, and smashed their way through every internal wall on the ground floor, they were all set to remove the back wall of the house this week. But then I pointed out that this would leave the house insecure, and that living in an insecure house made me feel nervous. And so we agreed that they would not remove the wall until the new window frames arrived, meaning that we could fit them, build the new walls around them, and fill the holes up with plyboard, thus providing us with a dark, but secure house in which to live until the works are finished.
In keeping with our organic farm status, we aim to be as eco friendly as possible in all that we do. For the building work, this effectively means that the crew are spending the hottest June week on record (38° today and rising) turning everything that previously constituted the ground floor of our home into little bits of reusable stuff, and carting it across the driveway to be stored until it is reused.
The walls, the various tiles, and the flooring have been graded into three different types of rubble, using the rather natty (and surprisingly quiet) machine below. We have already reused a lot of the finest grade (almost powder) to coat the new walls that have been built. The mid grade will be used underneath the new floor, and the roughest grade will be spread on the track that we use to drive up and down our hill, when accessing the bottom end of the olive groves, and the vineyard.
This afternoon, as we await the arrival of The Plumber (and wait, and wait), it is too hot to be outside at all, and so the poor guys have been stripping the nasty plasticy artexy stuff that coated the one wall that they didn’t knock down, with blow torches. Much as I feel sorry for them, I don’t want nasty plasticy artexy stuff in my beautiful new living room.
Outside, we have survived our first Organic Inspection. I’m using The Royal We here, as I was on my way to work when The Inspector called, leaving Scott to race around digging out every piece of paper that was demanded. One thing that we have learned about organic farming is that it requires the use of whole forests of paper, every time you even think about getting on with the outdoor chores. In fact, I do actually wonder how organic farmers find the time to do any farming at all, such are the demands of the paperwork.
But maybe that’s just Italy.
Anyhow, “we” passed the inspection, and our guests from the UK were treated to an amusing display of hand gestures, exasperated officials, and Scott’s best attempts to understand my “filing system”, whilst simultaneously mowing the olive grove, dealing with our Proper Agricultural Workers, and answering a million “where do you want this” questions from The Builder. I had, of course, buggered off to work and left him to it. I’d like to say that he also cooked a Full Fried Breakfast for our guests, but he almost spontaneously combusted when I suggested that our dear friends might enjoy one …
In addition to passing our organic inspection, we’ve started the summer routine in the vineyard. The vines have had their first summer prune, and leaves have been cut back so that the baby grape bunches get the full benefit from the sun. Last year’s wine is finding various loving homes, and I couldn’t resist the photo op that presented itself when our first labeled bottles flew the nest.
The hay crop is finally cut, albeit over a month late, due to the spectacularly wet month that May was. Farmers all around us have become nocturnal beings, as it is impossible to work in the fields during daylight hours. The hay is cut one night, turned (just once) the following night, and baled on the third night. Ours will be baled tonight.
And of course, we have entered the season of the Festa. Poor Bella still hates the season of the Festa, even though she’s totally habituated to the sounds of jackhammers, power tools, and The Rubble Maker. Last weekend we were able to take our most recent guests to the Festa of Thanks, which took the form of a free meal (with wine, of course), for the entire village, at the expense of the recently re-elected mayor’s office. We were grateful for this, but even more grateful that the budget for Thanks didn’t run to fireworks.
Even Bella likes the Festa of Thanks!
Hello Dear Reader, remember me? I’m the one that used to blog weekly about my little farm in the Sabina hills. Then I blogged monthly, and then the world started turning so fast that I had no time to blog at all!
But here I am, back on my Monday morning commuter train, with a whole hour to sit and to think and to write.
What a month May was.
I know that I drone on endlessly about how busy we are, and how much there is to do, but it’s all true. And so, several months ago we decided to take a “bit of a pull”, and have a little holiday in May.
Worst mistake ever!
With mild temperatures and never ending rain, the farm and the garden decided to go into overdrive. The tomatoes were growing at the rate of several inches per day. Ditto the lawn, the grapes, the grass in the olive grove, etc etc.
And we weren’t there to do anything about it.
Then The Builder decided it was time to start the renovations, on day one of our holiday. This was A Good Thing for all sorts of reasons, but also meant that we had to empty the entire ground floor of the house, and create a “penthouse apartment” on the upper floor before we left for our holiday. Sensibly, we’re doing a two phase renovation. Phase One has us living upstairs, while downstairs is remodeled, rewired, replumbed and has a self contained “granny annex” put in, to become a bed and breakfast room at some point in the future (but no later than 01 June 2019). We will live in the granny annex during Phase Two, where upstairs will be subjected to the same treatment.
We turned our bedroom into a living room, we turned our daughter’s bedroom into our room, we turned the main spare bedroom into a kitchen / diner, we turned the bathroom into a shower room with a kitchen sink, and we turned the box room into a spare bedroom. Because of course, we’re now coming into visitor season.
Having literally moved everything, including the kitchen sink (yes, we carried the fridge and the stove upstairs too), we set off for a week’s holiday in the UK, and had a wonderful time camping in the Peak District with our son, catching up with old friends and colleagues in London, and staying in a real penthouse at our daughter’s hotel near Cambridge. And finally, thanks to a strike in Rome, a night at Luton Airport.
Arriving home 24 hours late, we missed the opportunity to catch up with The Builder, but my goodness he had been busy, and relatively clean, thank heavens, as we had precisely 24 hours to get tidied up and ready for the arrival of “the penthouse’s” first visitors. A lovely weekend followed, exploring new places on the odd occasion that it stopped raining, but we ran away to Rome in time for Monday morning’s demolition work.
Waving our guests off, we returned to Sabina to find that summer had finally arrived. And to an impromptu site meeting, during our Saturday morning lie in! The Builder, The Plumber (who is afraid of our dogs) and The Electrician were all in what we used to call our living room, along with The Electrician’s Friend From America. Our FFA, who is a great guy, lives in the village as well, and recommended The Electrician to us. FFA is nearing the end of his own renovations, and has done many renovations in the past. As his husband is Italian, he speaks not just fluent Italian, but fluent Builder’s Italian, which is really rather wonderful. But slightly unnecessary when he’s talking to us, so I did have a chuckle as I came down the stairs with coffee (a great time filler as I frantically got dressed!) and found FFA and Scott discussing the merits of three phase electricity in Italian …
Site meeting, house and land cleaning, village festa and guest turnround done, we sadly had to return to the UK for the second time in a month, this time to attend the funeral of my wonderful grandmother.
And so we returned to Olive Hill at the end of Week Three. All of the internal demolition work had been completed, the floor had been removed, and the new internal walls had been built. And there was still almost no mess, neither downstairs, nor upstairs in “the penthouse”. Once again, we cleaned, tidied, cleared, and prepared for visitors, but this time in 30 degrees, because summer has finally arrived in Sabina.
Tired but happy, we were so relieved that the worst of the noisy, dirty building work was behind us, and it had hardly been noisy or dirty at all. Right until The Builder knocked on the door Sunday. The Builder is Lovely Indispensable Neighbour’s son, and so he always visits mama for Sunday lunch. We walked through the work done so far, and complimented him on the precision, the tidiness and all round wonderfulness of the work to date. And almost missed the reason for his visit, which was to inform us that the entire back wall of the house would have to be demolished, as it was basically built from crumbling Lego bricks, and would surely collapse if anyone so much as looked at it in an offensive manner…
And so I’m running away to work again. Leaving Scott to deal with the demolition, Bella’s nervous breakdown, and the imminent arrival of two more friends from home.
I was never much of a fan of Wet, Wet, Wet: Marti Pellow was just not my kind of heart throb. And I am definitely not a fan of Wet, Wet, Wet when it comes to the weather.
April has been a month of damp, mizzle, drizzle, showers, rain, torrential downpours, thunderstorms, hail, and even days when it rained cats and dogs. I’ve blooming hated it, and I have had enough. Now that it is May, I would really like the Italian climate to make a return, please.
Outdoors, as a consequence of the weather, we are getting really rather behind. The pruning that should have taken place in March, and then in April has been constantly hampered by wet weather (our Proper Agricultural Workers do not go outdoors in the rain) or by wet trees (you can’t prune a wet tree). On a positive note though, the mild(ish) winter and wet spring has induced an incredible abundance of olive flowers, even on the damaged trees! Of course yesterday’s hailstones and gale force winds may have destroyed them completely but I don’t know yet, I’m on my early morning commuter train to Rome …
The orto (veg plot) has been taken over by us this year. Lovely Indispensable Neighbour (LIN) finally admitted that she really couldn’t face the work. I’ve planted tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, Chillis, three types of lettuce, spinach, beetroot, onions and courgettes so far. And just the other day, a special delivery of dwarf French bean seeds arrived from my dad in France.
My officer training of, ahem, thirty years ago came back to the fore, as I made tripod after tripod from bamboo stakes, all lashed together to withstand any weather, and any weight of crop. If I’m honest, unless each plant produces a crop weighing around 75 kilos, I may have overdone it with the lashing together bit, but old habits die hard. In support of the Great Orto Effort, Scott has bought Yet More Power Tools, as apparently, I will drown in the mud between the rows of heavily cropping vegetables without paths made from wood chippings, and that meant we had a suddenly urgent need for a wood chipper …
Anyway, it all looks very pretty (photo is pre wood chips and minus several tripods). LIN has come over to supervise several times, and has declared my work “buon lavoro” and prettier than her efforts. I am sure that this can only be a good thing.
The vines have nearly all recovered from their abandonment, and are mostly growing beautifully. Scott has mowed between the rows, and is currently strimming between the vines. A fly, or possibly a moth or butterfly (yup, I have no idea) is laying eggs on the leaves of some of the red grapes, and we noticed the first hints of mildew on some white leaves this weekend (not surprising after all the rain!), so we are probably going to do an initial spray this week, weather permitting. We are in the process of organic conversion on the farm, and so are very limited with what we can spray, but we do have a few weapons up our sleeves.
We are also agonising over whether to make “raw wine” again this autumn, having bottled 200 litres of last year’s “vino contadino”.
Raw wine is made without the addition of anything except fresh air to crushed grapes, a method that is fairly standard locally, and relies on natural “good yeast” in the air causing spontaneous fermentation. After the harvest, the used grape skins and stalks are taken back to the vineyard and dumped, year after year, so that gradually, over a number of years, the good yeast multiply, and the wine gets better and better year after year.
When this method is not followed, “bad yeast” quickly take over the air. Bad yeast make bad, maybe even dangerous wine. LIN and her husband were using our grapes, and the raw method for a number of years, but prior to that, the large quantities of out of date chemicals we have found in the cantina would rather suggest that the owners were making commercial wine, which relies on killing all the natural yeast with sulphites, then the addition of yeast that is guaranteed to be only good, then killing that off with yet more sulphites when fermentation is complete.
We think that the wine we have made tastes pretty good. We’ve fed it to a number of guests and they have managed to smile as they have drunk it. It has been variously described as anything from “not dreadful” to “bloody awesome”. Nobody has died (yet), and the amazing gift of raw wine is that it doesn’t give you a hangover like that sulphity stuff you buy in shops does. But it’s a highly fragile process, fraught with the danger of producing vinegar.
So was this beginner’s luck?
So what to do next year?
What would YOU do???
I really don’t know why I haven’t sat down and written about last week’s commemoration at Montebuono. I have done literally nothing but talk about it ever since the event, but I’ve struggled to find a way to describe it coherently .
Just in case you have no idea what I am talking about, I suggest that you read this blog post, describing the story of eight young American soldiers, shot by the SS at a local monastery in April 1944. Along with the local expat and Italian communities, we have spent the last couple of months helping to plan a ceremony to commemorate the 75th anniversary of this event, as well as trying to find relatives of the eight, and fund raising for a new commemoration plaque to be erected on the site of the tragedy. This excellent news article describes the day far better than I could ever hope to, but I would still like to record my feelings about having been involved (in a very small way) in something of which we are both very, very proud.
Unusually for me, at this point, I find myself lost for words. So I think that I’ll focus on the extraordinary people that I met over the weekend, and the stories that they told me.
Before the service, as we all waited to be served an enormous breakfast in the town hall, an elderly gentleman called Tomasso introduced himself to me, and we chatted the normal, every day small talk that one does in these parts: how many olive trees we have, the fly, the frost from last year etc etc. I then asked him how he came to be at the ceremony. “Because I met the soldiers” he told me. He then went on to describe the evening when, as a ten year old boy, the soldiers knocked on his front door in the centre of the village. He talked about being utterly terrified (the Germans were singing and drinking in the osteria next door), and helping his equally terrified father to give them some food. After the shooting, his father was one of the villagers who helped to give the soldiers a decent burial. Tomasso was devastated to discover that these were the same soldiers he had given bread to, as his father recognised the ring that one of them was wearing.
We were transported up to the ceremony in a procession of four wheel drive vehicles. The walk from the village takes an hour, and the track is incredibly steep. During the ceremony, I stood next to Nello, and then translated as he told his story to our dear friend Jim after the ceremony. As a 13 year old boy, Nello was one of the villagers who buried the soldiers. He told us about the shock at seeing seven bodies in a row on the ground, and an eighth, who was apart from the group, and appeared to have been shot as he attempted to escape. Every year, Nello climbs the mountain, to say a prayer for those soldiers at the place where they died. The picture (top right, above) shows Tomasso telling his story at the post ceremony lunch, with Nello listening on.
Over lunch I got talking to Janet, the historian who had researched the story. I had rather assumed that atrocities like this had been very common (on both sides) as the war started to come to a close, but apparently this was not the case at all. Indeed, Janet is only aware of one other similar event. Our poor guys were discovered not by regular soldiers, but by the SS, and of course, this event took place a matter of weeks after “The Great Escape” from Stalag Luft III, after which Hitler apparently sanctioned executions, rather than trials for escapees. But still, Janet had no explanation for why these particular soldiers were executed on the spot. And so I introduced Janet to Nello.
The final character who I met over the weekend was 98 year old British veteran, and long time Italian resident, Harry Schindler. Harry had arrived on Friday evening, wearing a “Bollocks to Brexit” badge, and regaled us all with the tale of how he had come to take the British government to court over the disenfranchisement of British expats in the recent referendum. But holding the government to account is just a hobby for Harry. His real job is keeping the war alive in people’s memories, and doing whatever he can to prevent a third world war. Saturday morning, minus the badge, but wearing his own medals, Harry was bounced up the side of a mountain in a four by four with the rest of us for twenty, stomach lurching minutes. He then remained on his feet, bolt upright for the hour long service. During lunch, he delivered a ten minute long speech, in Italian, which had several people close to tears.
Here, you can watch Harry explain why his war is not over.
The families of eight young American men, who lived and died here, should know that their ancestors were looked after by the residents of Montebuono – in life and in death. They are still remembered and cherished. They played their part in liberating Italy from a dark period in history. Tomorrow is Liberation Day here in Italy, and I feel that I have a much greater understanding of what that means now. And for that I have Tomasso, Nello, and Harry to thank. And, of course, eight American soldiers.
Back in February, I wrote about how overwhelmed we were feeling with all that we had to achieve at Olive Hill, in this blog post. Having just reread it myself, I thought that now might be a good time to revisit some of the issues that we were facing back then.
I started my moany post by complaining about the weather, as it had been raining for days and days and days, inside and outside the house. We mended our leaking roof one day while the sun was shining, but we don’t know if the leak is fixed, as we’ve had no rain in the weeks since the repair. We’ll find out later today I suspect, as thunderstorms are forecast. Obviously, I’ve bravely run away to work, leaving Scott at home, armed with a mop and bucket. I’m feeling pretty confident that I, at least will stay dry for the afternoon!
As to the renovations, we’ve been far too busy outside to even think about making progress inside. The days are warm and sunny, so we don’t need central heating (although we have ordered a shiny new boiler, and a solar system for the hot water), and the tractor is working a dream, which means that Scott is now able to concentrate breaking other vital equipment instead. This week’s list of broken kit includes the flail mower (a wonderful grass cutter/ mulcher combo that sits behind the tractor), the chain saw, the pole chain saw, the smart car, and my favourite wheel barrow (which has had a flat tyre for the last six months or so).
And yes. That is hundreds of bottles of unopened wine behind the “in need of repair” pile.
With longer days and better weather, we have really started to get our trees in order. When we bought our olive hill, we were faced with 200 sick and abandoned trees, and another 200 overgrown and abandoned trees. With the help of our Proper Agricultural Workers, we cut the sick trees right back last year, and have already repruned them all this year, so most of them are starting to look pretty healthy. This spring’s task is the overgrown trees. Unfortunately, we haven’t had as much help from our PAWs as we had hoped for: spring is a busy time for everyone, and obviously, we are at the end of the queue when loyalties are tested. But we’ve got a good idea of how and what to prune now, so we are getting through them, albeit rather slowly, thanks to the list of broken equipment. In amongst the most abandoned section we found this tiny little tree, buried in undergrowth and debris left behind by a former “custodian” of the land. The pictures show the before and after shots of “Patrick” as the littlest tree is now named:
Late March is “bud burst” time in the vineyard. I now understand this term properly, as every day another apparently dead vine springs miraculously back to life. It’s truly exciting to walk the dogs at this time of year. Our Farmer Neighbour has sown pasture in the “fallow” (read abandoned) arable fields either side of the vineyard too, so it’s is all really quite neat and tidy down in that part of our hill.
Unfortunately, I think that this year we may also be looking after our own vegetable plot. Lovely Indispensable Neighbour has tended it for many, many years, including the year since we bought the place. She has always paid “rent” for the plot in the form of produce, an excellent arrangement that has suited all parties very well indeed. LIN is getting on in years though, and has had a couple of really nasty bouts of bronchitis this winter. She’s not at all sure if she’ll be fit to tend the plot this summer. This leaves us in a bit of a pickle, as although the plot belongs to us, we feel incredibly guilty at the idea of taking it back from her. But we also can’t judge if the plot is actually a burden to her and she’d genuinely rather be shot of it. So for now, we’ve offered to clear the ground and prepare the soil ourselves, and then have another chat in a week or two about the year ahead. I can’t help but feel that “guilt over using your own veg plot” is a uniquely British problem to have …
Talking of uniquely British problems, we are now as Brexit Proof as we can be, with residency obtained, and Italian driving licences applied for. We have been watching the daily soap opera known as The News with the same trepidation of many other Brits in Europe, I suspect.
And finally, (never start a sentence with a conjunction) I’ve got a new job! We had always been clear that I should continue to teach English midweek, in order to help with cashflow during the renovations, and also to prevent us from driving each other mad as Scott adjusts to life as a civilian. Commuting to and from Rome has been making for very long days away from the hill, however, so you can only imagine how delighted I am to have found a part time job in a nearby language school! The school is expanding, and finds itself in need of a teacher who can help it to develop and deliver new programs to an expanded client base. So (NEVER start a sentence with a conjunction!) I have swapped the train for the smart car, and now wind my way to work on the most beautiful commute imaginable.
La vita è bella.
Life is wonderful.