Even though we are expecting 5cm of snow tomorrow (?), Spring is definitely creeping up on us. Warmer weather will bring bees (good) and wasps (not so good). At the beginning of winter last year, a lone wasp stung me when we were making some adjustments to the laundry after the installation of the instant gas hot water system. Apparently, queen wasps leave their nests at the end of the warm season, sit out winter in a safe spot alone, then wait to be found by worker wasps at the beginning of the next warm season. The sting (between my two middle fingers) was not too painful so we assume that the queen was semi dormant and didn't give me a full dose. My mother has a strong and dangerous allergic reaction to wasp stings and a friend here was rushed to hospital a few years ago when he was stung. So we didn't take any chances. I told Stu that I had been bitten and took the "in case of emergency" medication down from its special location beside the snake bite instructions. We were on alert to take the medication and/or go to the doctor if I had any breathing problems but this wasn't necessary as the pain and the lump dissipated within a short time. Not long after my bite, Stu was also stung and had the same mild reaction. But our friends tell us that subsequent stings may not necessarily elicit the same result so we are on early alert and the "ICE" medication is back in place...
28 February 2014
27 February 2014
I like old things and have been collecting old plates and tins for some time. I actually take a keen interest in anything discarded by others. After all, one man's rubbish is another man's treasure! We have been doing a lot of walking lately and have been saddened by the amount of rubbish that is discarded along our driveway. This detritus is usually no ones treasure so we have been collecting and discarding it properly with our own rubbish. However I always look at it. One day last week, I found an empty plastic packet that had once contained a hand warmer. Interesting! On another day, we were walking along the main street in town. Local residents had put their rubbish bags out for collection and, in one bag, I noticed a beautiful old tin. "Oh, I would really like that tin!" I said to Stu as I moved towards the bag, eyes gleaming in anticipation and arms outstretched ready to rip it open. Unfortunately, Stu's heavy hand stopped me and pulled me back. "Don't even think of it, Steptoe!"
25 February 2014
Spring is on its way! The days are warm and the bulbs in our garden are starting to peek above the soil. Even the garden stall is back at the market. Since we want to make maximum use of our earth this season, we have been out in the dirt and sun for the last 3 days creating our landscape and preparing our soil. Stu has been busy building another terrace and stone wall to blend our driveway into the landscape better. Yesterday he finished the wall and started on a drainage job which will divert excess rainwater across the driveway. In the meantime, I turned the earth on the new terrace to remove any rocks, stones and weeds then dug ash and compost into the soil. We will buy 10-12 perennial plants for the border and fill the interior with plants donated by one of our friends. I also turned and weeded a patch of the herb garden which was covered in a nasty creeper that threatened to take over the entire property. I then turned the stale soil in the old display wheelbarrow and tin bath and added ash and compost so that they are also ready for planting!
The new terrace
The concrete drains across the driveway
24 February 2014
Despite the fact that we both felt under the weather this week (colds?), we forced ourselves out to fill our potholes with rubble. Stu loaded 10 wheelbarrow loads onto the trailer, then we drove the trailer along the driveway, stopping at each pothole to offload. We now have a driveway which is presentable for half of its length. The other half beckons...
20 February 2014
The competition is hotting up. Knives are out, lies are being told about other competitors, people are underestimating the brilliance of their past eggs. There are even dark debates about the real colour of an egg (should it be white or brown!?). Thanks to some recent cooking, I now have 8 eggs to paint. I have heard that some fellow competitors use duck eggs: a larger canvas but also an unfair advantage. For my midget eggs, I am hoping that my fine brushes, reading spectacles and magnifying glass (winged keel!?) will do the trick. I have also roped Stu into making me a contraption which will allow my true brilliance to shine!
While we were away, another family moved into our shed. A rat family. Now I have utterly no experience with rodents and Stu has experience but won't do anything that requires him to get closer than two metres from them. Since we discovered that we had these "squatters", we have been very careful when opening the shed door just in case they run up our trouser legs. Our friends have strongly advised us to "evict" our rats before the breeding season starts in Spring. With visions of the plague in our heads we decided to act quickly. Our first approach was to spread rat poison in the form of pellets around but this seemed to have no effect. So we took ourselves off to the hardware shop and purchased two rat traps. We cut a tasty piece of cheese and set one trap on top of the woodpile, secretly hoping that it wouldn't work (if it did, who would "extricate" the body!?). Five days later the cheese was still in place. So we returned to the hardware shop and purchased rat poison in paste form. We placed four of these in the shed. Two days later one of the sachets had gone. One day later we found a rat in the trap. This of course meant that the "who would empty it" issue had to be discussed. We eventually shared the task, which involved a lot of jumping and squealing, but it was my ultimate task to carry it away and discard it. We are confident that our squatters will be gone soon.
18 February 2014
Yesterday we found Easter eggs in the shops. Recently a friend invited us to an egg painting event. Huh? Apparently, at some time during our 3 year absence, our group of friends here have established an annual egg painting event/competition to mark Easter. I asked for more information. My friend told me that we each drain and dry several eggs before the event, then bring them to her place for painting. There is, of course, lunch and wine involved. Since we had planned to have eggs for breaky this morning, I didn't waste any time in changing my breaky menu from fried to scrambled. I took 4 eggs out of the fridge, then proceeded to poke and dig into them until I had made small holes at each end. I then pierced the yolks and sucked and blew through them until I had a bowl of wobbly whites and shattered yolks in front of me and several almost perfect but empty shells in my hand. Then I rinsed the shells and placed them in a bowl to dry. We are ready. Let the games begin.
Our pellet fire has been chugging away all winter keeping us toasty warm. So we were slightly concerned yesterday when it turned itself off! A quick discussion with our friends helped us to understand that ash builds up in the chimney, then falls and blocks the air flow. Since pellet fires operate on such sophisticated and sensitive technology, when the airflow is blocked, they simply turn themselves off. After breakfast this morning, the resident chimney sweep (Stu) went out to investigate if this was the problem with ours. A few minutes later he returned to the kitchen to announce "I'm going in...confined space...safety...watch me", before turning and leaving again. I grabbed my coat and followed. When I arrived at the pellet fire room, I saw that Stu had positioned two ladders to give him access to the chimney. I watched as Stu climbed one ladder, then launched himself across the fire box onto another ladder and into an area that would definitely be defined as a confined space. He then dismantled the chimney and cleaned quite a load of fallen ash out of the bottom catchment tube. When the chimney was clean, I tried not to laugh as I watched my soot-faced man work out how to re-erect it...
Above: the confined space in the pellet room
Above: Stu with the pellet chimney apart and the bucket of ash that he gathered from it
I think this bit goes here...
...and this bit goes there..
...then we put this bit here...
16 February 2014
Our driveway is of gravel construction and follows the creek as it twists and winds out of the valley. The track is shared by 5 houses, 4 of which have been doing renovations over recent years. Renovation means construction materials which are carted in by trucks that cut into the gravel and create potholes. The simple act of preparing to survive winter calls for heavy truckloads of wood or pellets. On top of this are the snowploughs which remove a good layer of gravel off the road. Add to this an unknown person who, some time ago, unwisely dug a trench across the road to allow excess water to run off into the creek. Over time, the water that flows through this trench has erroded the driveway so that one tyre tread is about to be lost to the creek! Enter Stu. Stu has been gathering old metal posts, wire and wire mesh from around the house and using these to build a little corral across the collapsed area. He now has a good strong reinforced boxing through which he will place a drainage pipe before filling the area with rubble followed by gravel and cement. Once this job is done, we will use the rubble from our renovations to fill in the other potholes along the driveway. Our "strada brutta" will soon be safer and smoother...but probably never quite "bella"...
The terrain in our area is perfect for growing grapes and the countryside for many miles around us consists of high rolling hills that support steep fields of vines. Many of the roads are narrow with sharp curves and steep drop offs. These roads are frequented by semi trailers carting equipment for the wine industry as well as tankers full of wine in bulk and trucks laden with bottles of local wine for distribution. Add to this, public transport in the form of buses and motorbike riders who think they are Valentino Rossi and you get a fairly worrying picture of our roads. So far we have survived in our car, although one must constantly watch for drivers cutting corners and trucks that need 1.5 lanes to manoevre. More recently, we have had cause to experience the bus system. First impressions were perhaps predictable, with our 8.40am bus to Acqui Terme arriving 15 minutes late. As we boarded the bus, the female driver launched into a loud but friendly explanation of her morning so far. It seemed that her trip had been marked by many spontaneous stops including one concerning a letter that lay white and limp on the dashboard. Eventually, after demonstrating an appropriate level of interest and concern, we paid for our tickets and found a seat halfway down the bus. I marvelled at Italian bus culture as I watched 8 other passengers board and sit in the first 3 rows, as close to the driver as they could get. There ensued a very lively conversation involving all 8 passengers and the driver about the stops and the letter. A few minutes later we were travelling out of Canelli and along one of the aforementioned roads. At the first stop in a small village at the top of the hill, a lady stood up and walked to the front of the bus, mumbling and complaining all the way. The driver stopped the bus, said something back to the lady and watched her disembark before recommencing the trip. There was a short period of silence while the driver turned the bus into a steep descent. But this was the calm before the storm. As we gathered speed down the valley, the driver launched into a diatribe. My limited Italian didn't allow me to understand much of it but my knowledge of body language told me a lot. She was certainly riled about something! I watched as she yelled loudly, taking a hand off the steering wheel and gesticulating wildly across the windscreen. As the bus hurtled down the valley, I struggled to hear what she was saying but I watched in even greater horror as she took both hands off the wheel, stretched them high and low, made wide circles around the cab, even turned around to assess the level of support of her 8 passengers! I closed my eyes for the remainder of the descent. At the bottom of the hill, the driver stopped the bus at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere and half the passengers disembarked. Not knowing what was going on, we adopted the "wait and see" position. Within a few minutes, another bus arrived from a different direction. This bus announced its destination as Acqui Terme. We scrambled out of our bus and joined the already offloaded passengers as they boarded this new bus. We eventually found ourselves at our planned destination...albeit 15 minutes late and a little more highly strung than when we started...
15 February 2014
I have always been a homebody. Even when I travelled extensively, I have always loved returning home. This is perhaps strange for a person whose grandparents lived in different countries and who moved many times throughout her childhood. I was born in Sydney and moved to Tasmania when I was a toddler. I moved to Invercargill as a Grade 1 primary school student, then to Melbourne for the remainder of my primary schooling and most of the secondary years. I moved to Queensland for Year 12, then lived in Gladstone, Brisbane, Singapore, Sunshine Coast, Switzerland, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane, Papua New Guinea and Italy. So, with no singular home base, how do I define "home"? I define it as wherever I am at the time, which can be quite disconcerting for family and friends, especially if I happen to be staying with them! I sometimes catch an expression of alarm flash across their faces when I suggest that we go "home" to their places. At the moment, home is an old stone house in Italy which many other people have called "home" before me...
14 February 2014
It has been suggested by my most avid reader that I explain what a "cinghiale" looks like. A cinghiale is a wild boar, the meat of which is considered a delicacy and used in the best of Piemontese cooking including salami. We have hunters in our valley on a very regular basis who come in search of cinghiale and there is evidence of the animals presence in the form of footprints and nests.
13 February 2014
Some time ago, we managed to purchase a couple of bottles of wine that were completely unpalatable. These particular bottles were purchased from a local supermarket so our bad experience should not reflect on the quality of cantinas in our area. Before throwing it out, we asked our friends to give us their thoughts. Pursed lips and screwed up faces told us everything we needed to know. We were poised to pour both bottles down the sink when one of our friends suggested we use it to make balsamic vinegar. Under his guidance, we topped up the bottles with white vinegar and sealed them with cheesecloth and rubber bands. They are now breathing and ageing in our cellar...to be tasted in 12 to 18 months!
12 February 2014
You might recall a posting a few weeks go that introduced our fox hole? Well, here is the sequel... It was on a lovely warm 17 degree day that we took our friends for a walk down our driveway to show them our fox hole. We were ooh-ing and aah-ing over the hole when a local Italian who regularly walks up our valley approached us. He asked us what we were looking at so we told him about our fox hole. We knew something was up when his expression changed from slightly amused to hilariously entertained. He then explained that this hole had been there for many years but "comes and goes". We were confused. He then walked around in circles looking at the ground like an aboriginal tracker. Suddenly he pointed at a disturbed area and declared it to be the work of cinghiale trotters! We were more confused: a cinghiale would never fit into our little fox hole. It turns out that our "fox" hole belongs to a colony of giant snails. These fat juicy snails (le lumache) are apparently a delicacy to the Piemontese much like escargot is to the French. When food supplies in the valley are low over winter, they are also appreciated by cinghiale, whose hungry snouts dig holes in search of them...
11 February 2014
We have been challenged by the postal service. It seems that some of our mail is being delivered direct to the house rather than to our p o box. This is creating some trauma for the current postie. Three years ago, we had a letterbox but our old postie suggested that we should get a p o box because she would be unable to deliver to the house when it snowed in winter. So we did the right thing, rented a p o box, issued "change of address" notifications to all and sundry and took the letterbox off the tree near the entrance barrier to our property. For the 3 years we were away, we continued to rent the p o box and only recently renewed the rental for 2014. However, since our return to Italy, some utility/communication companies have required a physical address for initial billing rather than a p o box. These are the letters that have recently been delivered to our house. In the absence of a letterbox, our current postie slots our mail behind the "proprieta privata" sign on the barrier. When the barrier is closed, she also has to do what must be a "10 point turn" on our one-lane driveway to get back out of the valley. Twice over the past week, she has left handwritten notes. The first told us to get a letterbox; the last told us that our correspondence had been returned to the post office because there was no letterbox and because the road was barred. Ominously, the last contained exclamation marks. So Stu spent yesterday morning finding the old letterbox, which he then reattached to the tree before I painted a big "24" on it. We will now have to advise the post office that we have a letterbox...again...as well as continue to pay for our p o box...
The notice from the postie
Our newly installed old letterbox, with number hand-painted by me
08 February 2014
A major feature of our house is its nooks. Because the house has developed organically over 200 to 300 years, these nooks are examples of the changes in design and lifestyle of its many owners. Some of these spaces used to be doors or windows while others were once chimneys. They provide perfect opportunities for interior decoration. Here are a few of our nooks...
The nook in the dining room, which is used to hang our glasses
The nook in the dining room, where a painting hangs
The nook in our bathroom, where photos of Australian bark hang, and a basket of towels and soap sits
07 February 2014
With the sun shining, we wasted no time getting outside yesterday. Stu started the construction of a stone wall which will create a second terrace in the front garden. He will plant lawn on this terrace and we will place a statue or bird bath on it. I planted more box plants between the current hedge to ensure that it all joins up together nicely. Then I planted 2 more box plants along the driveway which will be subjected at some later date to my first awkward attempts at topiary. After that, I moved a lilac and planted 20 lavender and 10 rosemary cuttings in pots and put them in our greenhouse to take root. I will plant these herbs in the top paddock behind the house. We stopped for a late lunch in the sun, our first under the pergola since returning to Italy. At 10 degrees we took off our layers and life was close to perfect.
The lilacs all in a row
The greenhouse with cuttings