31 May 2010

Vines, prickles and thorns

After avoiding it for a few weeks, it was time to get back into the vineyard again to see if we could uncover any more vines.

I say 'uncover' because the vines have been hidden in a tangle of undergrowth and a mass of overgrowth for the last 15-20 years.

You can imagine what a mess it is.

Blackberries reach insidiously through every other type of vegetation; a blanket of woven prickles. Some of the trees growing between the vines have trunks that measure ten centimetres in diameter. We even found a cherry tree growing horizontally out from the hillside. It was resting happily across several of the rusted wire fences. The poor ugly specimen seemed unaware of the precarious nature of its position; it had an orchard of cherries hanging from it.

We commenced our attack at 9.00am but eventually withdrew from the battle at 2.00pm. By the time we agreed to stop, the chopping of branches, pulling of weeds and dragging of detritous to our burning pile had made us wet and dizzy.

Happily, we did uncover the odd vine struggling to stretch its little tendrils to the sun.

We also uncovered far too many thorn trees.

Later that afternoon, I noticed Stuart carefully feeling his head. When I asked him what was wrong, he told me that a thorn tree had fallen on his head earlier and he thought he might have a thorn embedded in his skull!

An emergency operation was required on Stuart's head.

While the patient sat patiently (?) in the kitchen, I quickly assumed the role of surgeon and went in search of some surgical instruments.

Shortly after, I returned with my eyebrow tweezers and a torch.

After a few jokes about the suitability of my equipment and whether or not the thorn had penetrated his brain, I shone the torch in a rather wobbly way at his head. Then I tried to focus my blurry eyes on the thorn long enough for my tweezers to actually make contact with it.

The bit of thorn that poked out of his skull was minute but definitely solid. When I finally grasped it and pulled, it made a woody sound as my tweezers slipped off it.

At mid-operation, I experienced a slight panic that the thorn really had penetrated his bone and brain. But my panic was short-lived. Stuart brought me back to the task at hand when he yelled at me to 'just get it out!'

Eventually, I grabbed the thorn with more conviction and was a very surprised surgeon as I watched a rather long and evil piece of tree emerge from Stuart's head.

It seems that the vineyard offers more challenges than simply finding vines...

29 May 2010

Embarrassment is a powerful thing

Our neighbours live in Canelli but come to their second house, which shares a wall with our house, every afternoon in Spring and Summer.

We enjoy the solitude when they're not here but we also enjoy the company when they are. We exchange a buon giorno or a buona sera, then make our way to our shared fence where we have an extended chat about the clarity of the air or the beauty of the forest and the birdsong.

Our private road, which is shared by five residences, extends one kilometre from the public road.

Three of the residences are located along the first five hundred metres of the road. We share the last five hundred metres with our neighbours.

The gravel road takes a meandering route up our valley. It hides like a snake under the heavy forest foliage of Spring. The bends are sometimes sharp and the vegetation growing on the shoulders can make it difficult to see too far ahead.

In wet weather, it develops puddles, one being so big that the car has all four wheels in it as it travels through it, the water reaching the rims of our wheels. In a few areas it has landslides where the road threatens to drop into the creek.

In dry weather, the puddles are potholes. The stretch that is shared by the first four residences is potholed through use. The vineyard at the beginning of the road has been responsible for much of this; they have been clearing their land as well as replacing their old vines with young vines.

The road is single lane but there are several places where vehicles can pass each other. This normally requires one of the drivers to back up but it is rare to meet another vehicle so our travels in and out of our property tend to be non-eventful.

In the late afternoon last Wednesday we set off for our Italian lesson.

As we were trundling down our little track in second gear, another vehicle suddenly appeared, sliding and skidding in front of us.

Stuart responded quickly, hitting our brakes and veering to the left.

We watched helplessly as we seemed to skid in slow motion towards the other vehicle.

When we finally came to a halt, the drivers and passengers of both cars stared open-mouthed at the inches of space between the vehicles.

Only then did we register recognition.

As Stu moved to the left to allow our neighbours to squeeze past, we shared nervous smiles and giggles before continuing on our respective ways.

Since then, we haven't met at the fence for our usual chats.

Embarrassment is a powerful thing that hopefully lessens with time.

24 May 2010

The secret to all ills

Did I mention that the secret to all of our ills is our electric blanket?

Yes, we've discovered that no matter how much work we do and how tired and sore our bodies and how wildly our muscles spasm, if we lie on an electric blanket at night we bound out of bed with the vigour of 5 year olds the following morning.

Of course, we're a little concerned about the suitability of this 'solution' during summer...

Spinning around

This afternoon, Stu threw something at me.

Now before you consider calling the polizia, the thing he threw at me was the EUR 1 coin that we'd used to 'hire' our trolley at the supermarket. And I guess he didn't exactly throw it AT me; he threw it TO me.

And I caught it!

Now some of you better coordinated individuals may find this trivial.

But those of you who are familiar with my poor motor-neurone skills may appreciate this as a significant achievement.

In my office-based past, whenever I threw anything it would land in a completely unpredictable location. And whenever I prepared to catch something, it would drop, bounce and skid away long before I realised that it had been thrown! For example, if I was to throw a stone into the ocean, it would land on a sand dune. If I was to throw a ball across a field, it would land on my head. Get the picture?

Well, it appears that my coordination skills have improved since I left an office-based life. Lately, I can catch AND throw things with some measure of accuracy!

Of course, it could be that I'm just too exhausted to deliver something to someone or to collect the something that I didn't catch...

But above and beyond this mere throwing and catching business is the fact that today I almost managed to spin my lettuce spinner off the table and out the door!

I am strong. I am invincible. I am coordinated.

21 May 2010

The international guests

It won't be a surprise to anyone that I love books.

They keep my soul warm.

Last week, our Italian teacher Graziella, brought a book into class.

She waved the book around and waffled on in Italian about it but I only caught a few words.

Basically, I heard that something was going to happen with the book for about an hour at 5pm on Thursday in the school library.

When we saw Graziella the day after, she was still wandering around with the book as if she was the publisher.

The book was clearly important to Graziella so I told Stu I was going to do the 'book' thing. Being the selfless human being that he is (coffee addict), he offered to come with me but spend the hour in the cafe nearby.

So on Thursday afternoon, we finished work in the garden, jumped into the shower and then dressed for town.

We arrived in Canelli central a little late because the once-an-hour train decided to come through at an inconvenient time and we got caught at the crossing.

However, we were on time for Italy, where everything starts at least 15 minutes late. Even our Italian lessons don't start on time.

As Stu sneaked off to the cafe, I poked my head in the door. The library was tiny. It was only the size of a loungeroom and it was decked out with approximately 10 rows of 10 chairs. Almost every chair was taken. I was tempted to escape to the cafe.

But Graziella saw me and bounded up to welcome me. She wore a suit and jewellery; her hair was coiffured and her face was made up. She was not the Graziella we knew from our lessons.

She immediately introduced me to the book 'whatever' man (was he the author, the publisher, the illustrator?). He wore a checked shirt and jeans and was a small man, bald and humble but with smiling eyes. He shook my hand warmly and his eyes shone at me. I was then introduced to the school's 'presidente' (principal) who was a little distracted with the event but friendly. I found myself so warmly welcomed that I simply couldn't escape. And I no longer wanted to.

When Graziella asked if Stu had come, I realised suddenly that Stu simply had to be part of the enthusiasm that seemed to be spilling over the place.

I dashed outside to get him, only to see him already in position at an outdoor table waiting for someone to take his order. I gesticulated wildly until he saw me then I waved him over. His reaction wasn't exactly positive, his body language less than enthusiastic at being dragged away from his little luxury in the sun.

I gave up. I know when I'm beaten so I returned to the library and took one of the few free chairs that remained. In the front row.

A few seconds later I felt a shadow hover over me as Stu sat down next to me.

I noticed that Graziella had taken a seat at the front of the room, along with the man who was the book 'whatever' and another particularly dashing young man who wore a shiny grey designer suit and soft handmade leather shoes. I knew they were soft even without touching them. They were the ultimate in Italian craftsmanship.

Fifteen minutes later than scheduled, the very dashing young man started to speak.

I think he was introducing the book 'whatever' man but I didn't catch exactly what he said or what the 'whatever' was. Then he said something about 'journalista'. Immediately after, he asked the book 'whatever' man a question. There was a long response during which the 'journalista' interrupted the 'whatever' man several times. In the typical Italian way, they overspoke each another but talked naturally and enthusiastically.

Suddenly, Graziella got up, armed with her copy of the book. She took a deep breath, which seemed to give her another persona. She then read from her book with such expression and artistry that we sat open-mouthed wondering about the hidden skills of our teacher.

We realised quickly that she was reading an excerpt out of the book. After a 5 minute reading, she sat down again and the 'journalista' asked the 'whatever' man another question. This cycle went on for about an hour.

At the end, the journalista thanked everyone for their attendance and Graziella thanked the 'international guests' for their attendance.

We blushed deeply when we realised Graziella was talking about us. She then asked us if we'd understood anything. I said 'un po' (a little) and the audience laughed. As most people left, a few people closest to us hovered around, asking us where we were from, where we lived, etc.

I still don't know what the event was or who the 'whatever' man was.

But I do know that along with books keeping my soul warm the locals are keeping my heart warm.

20 May 2010

For the love of the right snake

We've been here for eight months now and had been convinced that Italy was perfect. Put simply, 'perfect' meant snake free.

But our dream has been shattered.

Yesterday I saw a snake!

Yes, I saw a snake behind the house at the top of the stairs near the pizza oven.

I was bounding up the stairs in order to get to the second level of the fienale when out of the corner of my eye I saw a 'stick'.

Now, a stick wouldn't normally attract attention in this place of many sticks, but I had only been up the stairs the day before and this stick hadn't been there then!

I was immediately suspicious, turned to look at it and realised approximately 20 minutes later that it was a snake. Okay, so it wasn't 20 minutes. It just felt like 20 minutes.

Time stood still. It might be fair to say that this little Australian, who should be used to snakes, freaked.

Somehow I got back down the stairs, walked casually over to Stu and mentioned that I'd seen a snake.

He came immediately and sneaked up the stairs but it had already disappeared.

We did the only thing we could do. We stopped all work. Tools down. Gloves off. Silence descended as we both privately wondered how we could tackle the land if there were snakes in the vicinity. PROVEN snakes in the vicinity.

Then we did the next best thing we could. We told everyone we know.

We told our Italian teacher, Graziella. We told our neighbours, Renzo and Maria. We even told a poor unsuspecting lady at a book launch.

Each of them seemed agitated. They initially waved their arms around and made diamond shapes with their hands, all the while pointing to their heads. Then they seemed to calm down and repeat the word 'acqua' (water). Finally, they smiled. We wondered if they'd had a dose of anti-venom at some stage in their lives.

Later that evening, Stu surfed the internet and found that the only dangerous snake in Italy is a viper which has a colourful diamond shape on its head. Luckily, vipers do not make this area of Italy their home. But harmless water snakes do. Apparently, the water snake is 'a European non-venomous snake that is often found near water and feeds almost exclusively on amphibians' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass_Snake).

Locals are a blessing. So are water snakes.

19 May 2010

Now different 'rubbish' is haunting us...

A few posts ago, I mentioned the trauma we were experiencing in terms of our rubbish.

While this particular problem still hasn't been resolved, another rubbish-related problem has raised its ugly head...

When we cleared our overgrown land late last year we didn't realise that we'd make such a huge pile of trees and branches. Actually, make that three huge piles of trees and branches. One in each paddock.

We knew that we had to get to our jungle early, or at least before Spring came in all its glory and force. We simply had to make an impact urgently because the rate of growth was destined to be incredible once the temperatures exceeded 6 degrees.

So we cut trees and pruned branches with a vengeance and made 3 huge piles of wood in the process.

And Spring hasn't disappointed us.

In fact, we've been SO NOT disappointed that we got to a desperate stage a few weeks ago. The piles of dried tinder that we'd cut in Winter were now a problem. Firstly, the piles might completely disappear amidst the new Spring growth. Secondly, the piles were a potential fire hazard for the hot Summer.

While burning was an option, the greenies in us just couldn't see all that lovely garden goodness go up in smoke.

So last month we invested in a mulcher to 'eat' our piles. We launched ourselves at the pile in our front paddock almost immediately. After a whole day, we'd finally reduced it to 3 trailerloads and 6 wheelbarrows of little pieces of munched up wood. The said wood is now all over my garden keeping my flowers company.

Today we launched at the pile in the second paddock. This pile is massive. We had been avoiding it but when we looked at it the other day we were a little concerned to find that the grass growing around it and within it had reached the height of the pile.

Now this job is not a particularly enjoyable one. Although we are doing good things for our garden and being responsible green citizens, it is simply a fact that it is a boring job.

So, being the ex-professionals that we are, we took the time to establish our roles and responsibilities. Stu was to take the car and trailer down to the paddock and work his way through the pile while I was to talk to Mum and Dad (!!??). Then, when Stu brought the first trailerload up I was to be out there, gloves on hands, sunhat on head, ready to work the mulcher.

Surprisingly, we both took to our roles in earnest. Stu would bring a trailerload up and I would mulch it, then he'd bring another trailerload up and I'd mulch that. And on. And on. And on. To amuse ourselves, Stu listened to his ipod while I muttered and challenged myself to finish one trailerload before he brought the next one up.

Unfortunately, I never achieved my objective.

But I live in hope. After all, there's one pile left. And it simply must be tackled within the next few days.

Perhaps next week I'll be able to report at least one rubbish problem solved...

15 May 2010

A problem with positioning

Stu has observed some very strange behaviour in me.

Apparently I plant flowers, then move them to another spot a few weeks later. I re-plant them, then move them to another spot a few weeks later! This is a continuing cycle.

Unfortunately, it is true. I do this!

But what absurd aspect of my character makes me do it?

Am I indecisive or dissatisfied?

Perhaps I have a fear of putting down roots?

12 May 2010

Blood, guilt and emptiness

We could have been forgiven for thinking that Santa had come to our valley 7 months early (or 5 months late)...

A few days ago, we were taking a well-deserved lunch break on our terrace when we suddenly heard bells.

They were of the 'Rudolph the red nose reindeer' variety and they were coming closer.

We bounded off our seats and leaned over the railing of the terrace, our heads turned hard right towards the entry to the property.

Within seconds, 5 dogs appeared on our driveway: 4 beagles and 1 blood hound. Each dog had several small bells hanging from a collar around its neck. They were shortly followed by 4 men in boots and orange fluoro vests who carried two-way radios in their pockets and wore rifles over their shoulders.


The dogs were fine specimens, the hair covering their sturdy bodies clean and glossy. They hovered around our hedge for a while, pushing their noses into the greenery and bumping snouts in their eagerness to take on a scent. We wondered if they could smell the hare that had appeared there the day before.

The humans oozed the same level of excitement. Their steps were strong and deliberate and their faces tense as they called a distracted 'Buon Giorno!' to us. They didn't even take time to stop and talk, instead explaining in mid-step that they were hunting 'Cinghiale!' (wild boar).

Excitement must be contagious because very shortly we felt as exhilarated as these strangers in our valley.

But as animal and man moved off, we slunk back to our seats to ponder the concept of hunting.

As Australians, we are well aware of the fox hunts that are still conducted in England today. We'd always been critical of blood sports. Our conversation went along these lines for the next half hour. In the end we agreed that there was something different about hunting a wild boar to eat. Italians hunt for food. Since they have such a deep respect for food, it seemed easy to justify hunting for this purpose.

The bells hung in our valley for the next hour. Sometimes they would sound close by, perhaps in our vines or down at the creek. And sometimes they would seem at a distance, possibly on our neighbour's property or in a secondary valley.

At one point, the bells came very close. There was a cacophany of noise only metres away from our seats on the terrace. This time, we jumped up and pounced on the gap in the stone wall to try to see something. The men were calling loudly to each other constantly; their two-ways scratching frequent messages. We wondered if the purpose of this constant communication was to minimise their chances of being accidentally shot.

We could feel the tension. Our hearts pumped faster. The hairs on the backs of our necks stood up in anticipation of a gun shot. Every few seconds a dog would come into our limited view as it bounded through the long grass, clearly chasing 'something'. The men would yell louder, the dogs would bark stronger and the bells would tingle faster.

So it was strange that, when a volley of gunshots finally rang through the valley, we suddenly felt guilty and lonely.

At that moment, we hoped above all else that the bullets had missed their target.

It was one of those times when I truly wished it had been Christmas and that the visitors to our valley really had been Santa and his reindeers.

11 May 2010

Taking our rubbish on tour

The getting rid of rubbish is one of those things that one takes for granted.

One certainly doesn't expect to have to take one's rubbish for a considerable drive in the country every week.

Living close to nature, we try very hard to be environmentally responsible. We buy groceries that have minimal packaging and we compost everything that will break down (apparently garlic and onion skins don't break down so this is the only organic matter that we don't compost). We even have a small-sized rubbish bin in an attempt to limit our waste.

We have a private road up to our house that is about 1 kilometre long. The rubbish truck does not travel on private roads so we need to drive our rubbish to the corner where the private road meets the public road or drop our rubbish off ourselves at local skips that are provided by the Canelli Comune.

For our first five months here our rubbish system worked well.

We purchased strong plastic bags for our bin and at the end of each week, we would remove the bag, seal it properly, then drive it to the closest skip and drop it off.

That is, it was all going smoothly until a few weeks ago.

One morning we set off with our rubbish only to find that the skip had been removed.

Not easily put off, we drove our rubbish around Canelli until we found another skip and dropped it off.

This new system worked well for a week.

One morning we set off with our rubbish only to find that all the skips had been removed within the boundaries of Canelli.

We stood beside the now absent skip and looked at each other. We were clearly lost without a skip.

Not easily outdone and always practical, we put our rubbish back into our car and set off to find a skip outside the boundaries of Canelli.

After several hours, our rubbish was still in the back of the car and there was nought for us to do except drive it back home.

In the safety of our home we talked long and hard about the missing skip situation. We decided to ask Renzo what we should do with our rubbish.

But by the time Renzo came out to the valley again our pile of rubbish bags had grown. We were now too embarrassed to even ask Renzo!

So we did what all desperate people do in Italy. We went to the Canelli Commune. The two ladies in charge of 'rifuiti' were in place behind the sliding windows in one of the hundreds of offices in the maze that is the Canelli Comune.

Unfortunately, because I was so eager to dispose of our rubbish as soon as possible, I hadn't prepared for the conversation I would have with them. When I reached the window, I realised that I didn't know the Italian word for skip. I had planned to explain to her that the skip had disappeared and then ask here to tell us what to do with our rubbish.

Instead, I found myself telling her we had a problem with our rubbish and that there used to be a big (what?) that we put it into. In order to explain the concept of a skip, I gesticulated wildly and created an enormous shape with my arms. The ladies looked askance. They told us to turn right at the horse cart. Like I said, my Italian goes to pot when I'm under pressure...

We thanked them and left the office.

Afterwards I told Stu that the poor ladies probably thought we had a mountain of rubbish to get rid of. On high alert for potential outbreaks of the plague, they were probably redirecting us to the health department!

After this traumatic episode, we sought the shelter of our valley.

But every time we went outside the rustico, our beautiful green view seemed to be obstructed by our growing piles of rubbish.

(Please note this is a mild exaggeration. Suffice to say that we were personally very aware of our rubbish and our lack of apparent options)

Over the last few days we've been observing what other people do. It appears that some have wheelie bins while others use bags. From the overflowing wheelie bins that lined the streets, it seemed that rubbish collection day was Monday.

So on Monday we decided to drive to the end of our private road with our ageing rubbish in the trailer and drop it off at the corner where the private road meets the public road.

Having positioned our rubbish carefully in order to optimise its chances of being seen by any rubbish truck that happened to pass by, we spent a happy morning confident in the knowledge that we were no longer responsible for our rubbish.

Unfortunately, when we went to our Italian lesson later that day, our rubbish was lying in wait for us.

Worried that dogs, pigs or rats might rip the bags open and spread our secrets all over the town of Canelli, we stopped, picked up our rubbish and put it in the back of the car. Perhaps we'd got the day wrong? We'd try again tomorrow.

The following morning was cold. After dressing warmly, we walked out to the car eager to handle our first priority for the day. When we opened the doors to get in, our old rubbish rushed out at us. We could barely get near the car for the thickness of the stench that emanated from it.

One smell I remember particularly strongly is 3-week old garlic and onion skins.

Anyway, once we realised just how 'on the nose' our rubbish had become, we decided not to risk trying the street again. We needed an immediate outcome.

So that's how we came to be travelling around with our rubbish this morning. A full and comprehensive tour of the surrounding comunes was required before we finally found a skip near Asti and offloaded our burden.

As I write this, I still don't know what to do with our rubbish next week...

03 May 2010

Is it haunted?

We've spooked ourselves.

Yes, in our efforts to freak each other out, we've actually managed to convince ourselves that our house is haunted.

I cleaned the windows the other day but when I looked through them at dusk all I could see were cobwebs hanging thickly from corners and fireplaces.

When I went into the house the other day alone I felt a 'presence'. Strange noises and groans seemed to ooze from the walls. Ghosts of past owners perhaps...

Every so often, Stu launches out of the front door as if he's being pursued. When I question him, he says there's an old woman after him. A witch, to be sure.

So all ye who may partake of our hospitality in the dark nights be warned: When the light from yonder is gone and all is in darkness, strange spirits lurk...

Did I mention the doors that were banging last night...?