28 June 2010

Our little Strenua

I'm about to embark on Colleen McCullough's seven 'Masters of Rome' books.

So it seems only apt that I introduce the concept of Roman mythology to my Blog.

In giving myself a quick internet-based history lesson, I found a list of the Roman Gods. I learned that the goddess of strength and endurance was Strenua, who is also suspected of being responsible for the Italian tradition of Befana, when on Epiphany Eve (the night of 5th January) an old woman called Befana delivers gifts to children throughout Italy. She is also known as Saint Befana, La Vecchia (the Old Woman), and La Strega (the Witch).

Now let me digress...

We purchased a trailer in Switzerland just before we moved to Italy because we needed something that would help us in our move but also something in which to cart building materials, collect firewood and gather mulch once we were here.

We chose the smallest, cheapest trailer we could find. Actually, at Swiss prices, it wasn't really cheap at all...but it was small. 1.5 metres square to be exact. We thought it was huge when we purchased it but once we saw it clinging to our car we cringed. Perhaps this initial impression was partly due to our car being rather short too (a 2-door Suzuki 4WD). In fact, looking at our car with its trailer reminded me of John Wayne with a horse. Something wrong in terms of proportion.

Over the months, we've come to respect our trailer. We got over the initial shock of discovering that we couldn't actually see it behind our car (which caused major challenges in terms of reversing). We found it was capable of everything we asked of it.

We have recently felt a compulsion to name it, mainly because people just don't seem to respect it.

And since our trailer has the loyalty of a saint, the dignity of an old woman, the magic of a witch, the strength of a god and brings gifts to us like Befana, we have named it 'Strenua'.

However, it has to be said that it has caused us acute embarrassment on several occasions.

This week, we needed 60 pavers (20kg each) and 1.5 tonne of bedding sand for the base of our new pergola.

So we attached our trailer to our car and set off for the heavy duty building materials warehouse in Canelli. When we entered the carpark, we were quickly dwarfed by the builders trucks and construction lorries that surrounded us.

We parked and fled from our vehicle before anyone could see us. In the office, a man took our order and told us to drive around the back of the warehouse to the sand storage where someone would load us up.

When our humble 'rig' appeared around the corner of the building and proceeded to the sand pile, we noticed the driver of the front end loader smother a smile.

After we had proudly manoevred into position near the sand pile, he told us that 500kg of sand couldn't be carried by such a light trailer. We were indignant as we replied that our trailer could take 800kg!

Eventually we convinced him to load it and it was our turn to smother smiles as we watched his expression morph into shock, then twist into a wry sort of amazement.

We made 3 trips for the sand and 2 trips for the tiles.

Our little Strenua has the magic of a witch, the strength of a god and brings gifts to us like Befana...

27 June 2010

Who invented the concept of stress anyway?

I've been reading Frances Mayes' latest book, 'Every Day in Tuscany' (ISBN 978-1-86325-676-6)

She talks about how Italians choose a relaxing lifestyle at all cost. They focus on peace, nature, food. She also talks about the concept of 'stress' and how Italians don't really get the 'stress' thing. Apparently, the Italian word for stress, lo stress, is only a recent import into the language.

I particularly appreciated her comments because they helped me to understand a weird reaction I got from my neighbours the other day.

I haven't been speaking to them because, in trying to learn the correct grammar in my Italian lessons, I have lost confidence in my ability to speak Italian at all, let alone 'properly'. I wanted to be forgiven for my elusiveness so I explained all this to my neighbours.

They looked at me as if I'd grown horns. They stopped speaking, their mouths opening and closing like fish. In the silence, I noticed their utterly perplexed expressions.

Now I know that they just had no idea why I would feel stressed about such a thing when I'm living the perfect lifestyle, doing what I want to do, breathing pure air, living with local flora and fauna and growing my own food, all in a perfectly peaceful valley!

Uncomfortably close and very weird noises

The hunters that come into our valley keep telling us they're shooting cinghiale.

But even though we've been here for nine months, we've never actually seen or heard or even noticed any evidence of these cinghiales. Apparently these wild boar maraud at night and cause all sorts of damage to rural land by digging inconvenient holes all over paddocks and lawns and even under fences.

Either they don't exist in our valley or else they've all been shot...

Instead, we focus on the Lucciole (Fireflies).

Our bedroom has a window that looks out at the vertical tufa drop that reaches down from one of our grape paddocks to the rear of the house.

Every night when we're lying in bed we gaze out our window at the Lucciole who fly around this drop.

These beautiful little creatures keep us entertained for a few wonderful minutes before we gently fall off the edge of consciousness and into sleep oblivion. There are hundreds of them, all shining their little luminous bottoms in the perfect warmth and dampness of the drop.

While I'm not sure exactly how a luminous male bottom attracts a female, I do appreciate the light show they provide. They loop and frolick around the drop, all the while turning their lights off and on. It's like watching the stars on a night when the sky is speckled by tiny clouds that sometimes expose the stars and sometimes hide them.

Our sleep is usually long, our bones and sinews heavy and over-extended, merging into the sheets.

But in the wee small hours of last night, our sleep was broken by a rather unfortunate and somewhat aggressive sound.

It was a loud rough grunt that was repeated every few seconds. One grunt was very close to our window; the other some distance away. The noises sounded like a very large dog with a seriously sore throat or a cow with a seriously bad case of worms.

I knew instantly that it was a cinghiale. It was just so strange, abrupt, earthy and, well, pig like!

Stu dived out of bed, grabbed the torch and went outside.

I maintained my half-conscious state, occasionally imagining a boar of massive proportions much like the one in an Australian horror movie I'd watched in my youth. In 'Razorback', a monster of a boar would charge at humans and trample them to a bloody mulch in the remote lonely outback.

I rustled myself into greater consciousness to listen for the desperate cries of Stu.

When I heard him creeping around the back of the house near our window, I opened my eyes to see the torch light looping and frolicking about the tufa and the foliage on the drop.

I wondered what the Lucciole were making of the giant illuminated 'bottom' that had entered their space.

Meanwhile, the grunts had stopped. Clearly, Stu's presence had scared the cinghiales away.

Before he returned inside, he stood at the window, shone the torchlight on his face and made ghost noises at me. I can't remember my response but I suggest that I didn't play the game.

We now firmly believe that cinghiales exist in our valley and they certainly haven't all been shot!

20 June 2010

Canelli under Siege!

Last weekend we attended the two-day re-enactment of the Siege of Canelli which occurred in 1613 AD.

The city is very serious about this event. For two days they take the city back to the year 1613 AD. They wear period clothes, deal in medieval currency and eat only foods served in the 17th century!

They even work hard to create a sense of the Canelli of the period, when it was surrounded by a stone wall and the only entry was through a grand stone gate with turrets.

During the week prior to the event, the city centre is closed to non-residential traffic while the city 'gates' are re-erected. These gates must be made by professional film set designers because they look like stone but they are made of wood!

On the actual days of the event, 'inside' the city is closed to all vehicles so you really feel as if you're under siege but are safely taking protection within the walls of the city.

Also 'inside' the city the buildings are draped with hessian to make them look as if they are from the 17th century. There are outdoor stalls and taverns that are also made of rough hewn wood and hessian. It all looks so wonderful!

The people of the city play out the re-enactment over a 2-3 hour period on the first day. Initially, men on horses knock on the gates to warn the city of the enemy's proximity. Then groups of 'farmers' and 'peasants' leave the countryside to seek protection within the city walls. There are also rebels, soldiers and many other groups parading into the city.

The whole event is punctuated with drums and medieval music.

Once you've finished watching the re-enactment at the city gates, you enter the city, where you convert your Euros to Testinos.

With your Testinos, you buy a wine goblet which can be re-filled at every makeshift tavern 'within' the city walls.

It helps you get up the hill to watch the battle of the warring forces, which occurs in the fields surrounding the castle. Half an hour later, the Canelli forces return to the city exhausted after the battle. You continue to drink...

That evening, there is ribald revelry 'inside' the walls as the farmers and peasants amuse themselves at the taverns that have sprung up in the streets. There is even the odd prostitute positioned to hassle you! The party goes on until midnight.

The next morning there is a huge battle at the gates, which the Canelli forces win, then there are celebration lunches held all over the city!

A truly amazing event!!!

19 June 2010

The Monster

My relationship with my garden has been difficult ever since we moved here.

I would launch at it with enthusiasm, then lose interest with surprising speed.

Within a few weeks of being here, Stu had realised that my problem was The Monster.

The monster is a huge expansive bush that sits at one end of my garden. The monster is one of those plants that propagate via sucker roots. The monster is very established and frighteningly rigorous. It's roots reach out insidiously under the dirt and suddenly appear somewhere else!

Actually, lots of somewhere elses.

So gardening for me was depressing. I would launch on it, weed it and plant special bushes and flowers in it only to find that yet another monster had appeared. No matter how hard I worked to manage my garden, the monster would breed copiously. It could haunt me from all different locations!

Finally, we decided to remove it. Simple.

Six months ago we cut it back severely in order to see what we were dealing with. Once all the foliage and branches had been removed, we found that the root ball of the main bush alone was 1 metre in diameter!

Since Stu has a level of perseverance akin to the bush, he used all manner of instrument and method to take to the monster with vigour. He dug around its roots with a spade, he hacked at it with an axe, he scraped at its suckers until his fingers were raw.

But nothing moved him any closer to the demise of the bush.

It was when he found that the roots of the suckers had diameters of 100mm that he finally cracked.

I looked out of the kitchen one morning and found him poised above the monster with the chainsaw.

I knew it was time to suggest a break.

I did better than that: I took him to Australia, where it was easy to forget about the monster.

But on our return, it was there to greet us. In the early Spring, it had flourished with even more enthusiasm. Although we had shorn it down to a few stubs of wood, it had sprung into life again and sprouted seemingly stronger foliage.

Not able to cope with this sort of challenge immediately, we focused on other jobs instead. We planted seeds and seedlings in the vegetable garden, we tiled the bedroom floor, we even created an light atrium in the house.

Although we tried to ignore this stubborn plant, eventually we had to acknowledge its existence: after all, the great gaping hole around its base wasn't enhancing the appearance of our front garden.

When Stu attacked it with the axe, we watched as the metal bounced off the healthy green wood. He poured fuel on it and tried to set it alight. I poured poison on it. But it still lived!

We ignored it again.

Finally, our neighbour suggested soaking the root ball in water and using high pressure water to remove the dirt around the solid mass of roots and suckers before then attempting to chop the roots out.

So Stu soaked the roots and was eventually able to see light between several of them. It was painfully slow work but he was encouraged. After several more days, he finally axed through all of the exposed roots and rolled the main root ball out of its massive soggy hole.

Tomorrow I can't wait to get into my garden!

17 June 2010


I am proud to announce that I am progressing well with my book.

I now have 35,000 words and am aiming at something like 90,000-120,000 which would make it consistent with similar books.

I am enjoying the journey...and am encouraged hugely by the number of people who read my Blog!

07 June 2010

Our New Neighbours

A few weeks ago, we were driving up our little valley when we came across a length of thick white tape that had been strung across a line of temporary posts on one side of the road. On closer inspection, we found that the tape was electrified and that it made a complete circuit around a section of land.

Someone had installed a temporary fence.

We'd never seen anyone in this block so we didn't know who owned it, if anyone owned it at all! It couldn't really be called a paddock; it wasn't the most agriculturally useful piece of land because of its narrow shape, its steep sides and the shadows it received all day.

When we stopped to peer through the scrub along the fence, we found a white horse and a donkey!

We watched our new neighbours for several weeks. It didn't take long for the grass in the fenced area to disappear and the foliage along the temporary fence to flatten.

One Sunday, a young man drove his small white sedan up our driveway and parked outside our house. We were working upstairs in the casa grande and looked out of the library window in order to see our visitor. The man was short and skinny, perhaps 20 years old. He wore a tidy collared shirt, old jeans and boots.

As we watched the man walk towards us, I heard Stuart's brain clunk as it prepared the necessary words to explain that we couldn't speak much Italian. But before he could get any words out, the man had positioned himself under our window.

As his enthusiastic face beamed up at us, he launched into a torrent of words.

I felt like Rapunzel.

I caught 'cavallo biano' (white horse) and 'mangiare qui' (eat here) amongst them. When he pointed down the valley, I quickly figured out that he was the owner of the horse and donkey and that he was looking for another agistment location. Our large grassy paddocks must have seemed perfect to him. From their now muddy patch, the horse and donkey could probably even smell our grass!

As with everything we do, we wanted to make sure that we followed any traditions or expectations in the region. Luckily our neighbour Renzo was visiting his property at the time, so we walked the man across to Renzo where I explained what was being suggested.

Renzo talked to the man and eventually confirmed that my translation had been accurate. The man had a horse and a donkey that he wanted to agist on our land.

We asked for his advice. He explained that the man wasn't offering a contract and therefore agistment may not be advisable. If the animals took fright for any reason (e.g. a cinghiale) they could pose a potential risk to the walkers, cyclists and horseriders who pass through our property to enjoy the tranquillity of the valley.

We had to make a decision and we wanted to make one that was right for all of us.

We decided not to be too enthusiastic about the idea.

Renzo kindly explained our quandary to the man and it was agreed that he would seek alternative agistment but that he should feel welcome to return if he couldn't find any.

The horse and donkey have remained in the same section of land along the road and we have not seen the man since.

But we've often wondered how he faired finding alternative agistment.

This week, we were driving up our little valley when we noticed that the thick white tape had been moved to the opposite side of the road.

When we stopped to peer through the scrub along the fence, we found a white horse and a donkey...

04 June 2010

You never know...

A few months ago, I announced with great pride that we had an almond tree.

I was proud of my tree. I loved it's thick dark trunk that stretched strongly into the sky. I felt happy when it blossomed in early Spring. I wasted many hours imagining what I could do with the nuts that would grow on the tips of it's branches.

So you can imagine my shock when I looked at my almond tree today and found clusters of bright red cherries hanging from it!