07 March 2011

Playing with fire

Our life here often reminds Stu of his scouting days. He frequently tells me success stories about how he used to light a campfire with only one match, cook a full meal for the scout master and build a bivvy for protection in bad weather.

Well, something happened last week that may put an end to his proud posturing.

He set himself on fire.

It was late winter and we'd already started to think about the jobs outside that needed to be done before the onset of spring. We'd decided that burning the 6-8 piles of weeds and prunings that we'd left to dry over autumn and winter was right up there on the list of priorities.

So last week, on a reasonably clear morning we set off to the bottom paddock, which contained 4 of the said piles. The temperature was still hovering around zero so we were dressed in all our warm gear, including scarves and gloves. We were also armed with the chainsaw and fuel (to cut a few of the larger pieces of wood into firewood), firelighters and matches and a shovel and rake should our bonfire get out of control.

Our first, second and third attempts to light two of the piles resulted in very little flame and much smouldering. In our great disappointment, we convinced ourselves that the piles just needed a bit more sun and then consoled each other by quickly identifying an alternative job closer to the house.

As I was gathering the tools for our return to the house, the aforementioned individual thought he'd give the bonfire one more chance. Unbeknowns to me, he had opened the fuel can and poured fuel on the old oil rag that he used for the chainsaw. He'd then inserted this rag into the middle of one of the piles and set a match to it. All of this careful activity had been conducted with his woollen gloves on.

Suddenly I heard a sort of trembling warble coming from the direction of the said individual. When I looked over at him, I saw that this ex-scout was wildly shaking a flaming glove in a rather panicked way and saying 'oooh, oooh' in a rather understated way. I figured immediately that he didn't want to draw attention to himself lest I realise the stupidity of his actions. But, being a generally insensitive sort of person, I panicked and ran over to him anyway. I couldn't pull the burning glove off his hand because he was waving it around in such an aggressive way that I couldn't get close enough to it. Instead, I did what all good ex-brownies would do. I told him to roll on the grass to smother it.

The individual ignored me. Clearly he thought that my suggestion would extract some unwanted and hysterical laughter from me. With growing alarm, I looked at the flames leaping from his hand. I watched the whites of his eyes as they grew larger and larger. Stu was watching his burning appendage as if it didn't belong to him.

Finally, he managed to wave it around and hit it with the other glove enough to put it out. Then he glanced over at me and I caught an expression which contained horror, relief and pride. I was wondering how he was able to feel any amount of pride at all, when suddenly I saw the other glove on fire! There ensued much the same sequence of events already outlined until he was eventually able to put that one out too.

No more has been said about this incident since it occurred, although I have noticed a distinct absence of scouting stories...

05 March 2011

Still obsessed...

We're still obsessed with our septic system...

We've been uncovering it, opening it, peering into it, testing it, emptying it, poking it, prodding it, stirring it and smelling it ever since we moved here.

Lately, we've become aware of a rather distasteful stench hanging around the house.

Because it smelled strangely like decomposing excrement and old grey water, we quickly suspected that our septic wasn't 'balanced'.

When we did our usual thing and surfed the internet for a solution, we found that we needed to re-balance the bacteria which breaks down the 'horribles'.

So now we're 'feeding' our septic system!

Yes, we regularly feed it with a lovely concoction of full cream milk and vinegar. This unusual combination is left in a bowl for about ten minutes to 'mature'. Once the mixture assumes the appearance of a congealed sort of curdled yoghurt, it's ready!

Then we tip it down the sink.

And we wait.

A few hours later this beautiful mix of healthy bacteria has commenced its work on our 'contributions' to the septic system and the air around the house smells like roses again (sort of...).

Our solution certainly beats dropping a newly killed chicken head into the septic...apparently the old Italian remedy...

05 February 2011

Stripping, filling & painting

Stu and I work well as a team. Well, most of the time.

One of my major jobs this year has been to restore our internal doors.

When we arrived here, all of the upstairs internal doors were painted black.

I have trouble with black doors. I think they look depressing and uninviting.

So I determined to re-create them...

My first attempt to strip, sand, fill and stain a door was a nightmare. I tried to do it without the assistance of stripper and it was only when I realised that there were multiple layers of lead-based paint on the door that I realised chemical assistance was absolutely necessary.

Then, once I'd stripped the old layers of brown, olive green and black paint off as much as I could, I realised that it was always going to remain patchy and wouldn't take an even stain.

So I stripped it as evenly as I could, filled the many cracks and holes that punctured its surface, then painted it a warm cream water-based colour!

Since that first door, I've done three more. They are all matching and the same cream colour. They make me want to walk into the rooms that hide behind them.

Stu and I make a good 'door team'. Stu removes them, I restore them and Stu re-hangs them.

The only time he has become frustrated with me was when, in my enthusiasm, I filled some bolt holes that he'd painstakingly measured for re-hanging!

31 January 2011

Nonno and nonna are with us...

I like old things. They remind me of times gone by. Our 200 year old house allows me to share my life with those from the past. I dream of the people who have lived here before us. I feel their spirits as they waft throughout the rooms. I hear the sound of their arguments and laughter in the stone walls.

When we finally finished renovating our bedroom, it was only fitting that my spirit friends should be surrounded by old bedroom furniture.

So on a clear blue sky day in mid September we found ourselves driving to Torino.

While local farmers were busy amidst the vines and driving tractors pulling trailers laden with grapes to cantinas, we were going to collect an armadio for our bedroom.

As we approached Torino we were rewarded with beautiful views of the alps that surround the city. Torino was shining in the brisk late summer morning as if to show off its royal past.

The purchasing process for our armadio had been a simply wonderful experience, right from finding it on ebay italia, communicating with its owner, then finally driving to 'meet' it for the first time on that fresh morning.

The lady who sold the armadio to us, Daniela, is slim, has short grey hair, beautiful clear olive skin and is in her 50's. She met us at the gates of her apartment building in the centre of Torino and took us upstairs to her apartment. While she prepared coffee for us we inspected the armadio. It stood in her wide hallway amidst boxes and mess because she was in the process of moving. A glance around the apartment told us that Daniela was an artist and a musician (pianist) and perhaps a little eccentric. After coffee we asked her to play us something on the piano and were stunned when she rewarded us with several bars of clear and confident classical music.

It was love at first sight. Our new armadio was old. It is an antique from the 1850's and made of solid walnut. It has all sorts of cracks, marks and damage on its lovely patina and these give it heaps of character. It also has a legend.

Daniela explained to us that it had belonged to her grandfather who had come to Italy from Germany where he lived near the border with Holland. He was apparently a very intelligent man and a brilliant photographer and he used to develop his photos in the armadio, hanging them on the rail to dry in the dark depths of the cupboard!!! He eventually gave up the art of photography at the age of 90 and died shortly afterwards.

Unfortunately, the armadio was much bigger than we had imagined. We realised fairly quickly that it would be impossible to travel back to Canelli with this precious antique sliding around on top of our little 1.5mt x 1.5mt trailer. We told Daniela that we thought it was too big for us to take. She looked upset for us but then went over to the armadio with a small screwdriver and proceeded to undo several tiny screws as well as some larger bolts that we'd never seen the like of before. She told us the armadio broke down into 12 pieces! We were wrapt!

Just as we were starting to dismantle it, I noticed a small antique desk on the opposite wall. It was made of beautiful wood and had a smooth marble top. Daniela said it was her most treasured possession.

After a few minutes, we had dismantled the armadio to the stage of having to lift the top off it. Just as Stu lifted the top off, there was a sudden slip and a crash. The two doors of the armadio had crashed to the floor, smashing into the marble desk on their way. We were horrified. Amidst profuse apologies, we dropped to our knees to check the desk. Thankfully there was no damage. We then checked the armadio doors. Again, no damage. Both pieces of furniture were aged and well-preserved; their materials hardened and their construction stern stuff! We learned quickly that the doors of our armadio are held on by a link into the top.

Daniela was very emotional as we prepared to take the armadio away. She helped us carry every piece into the lift and out to the trailer. She even got involved in the loading and helped us to squeeze cushions between various pieces to protect them. The loading took a full hour and she was clearly thrilled that we had taken so much care with it.

Just as we were finishing the tying down, I noticed Daniela walking around the trailer with her arms crossed and her head bent. She seemed to be meditating. Suddenly she looked up at me and said 'Mio nonno e molte contento' ('my grandfather is very happy'). She was absolutely beaming. It was as if she'd got a message from beyond. When she grasped my hand for a photo beside the trailer, I felt strangely connected to this woman.

Later, when the armadio had been re-erected in our bedroom, I had stood back and welcomed nonno to the house.

A few weeks later, we returned to Daniela's apartment, this time to buy the matching cassettiere (set of drawers) which belonged to 'nonna'.

Now, when I look at our old furniture, I imagine the sound of nonno's voice in the waxed walnut wood of the armadio and see the stretch of nonna's smile in the polished cracks of the cassettiere...

30 January 2011

I love the way I can be childish...

It was when the wheels on the elegant white car in front of me started to spin that I started to panic.

I was driving our Suzuki Grand Vitara in a snow storm for the first time in my life.

I was 45 years old.

I could have panicked and, as a much younger person, I probably would have.

But last night I didn't. I now have a mature mind.

I slipped the car into 4WD and confidently passed the other car, which was now painfully zig-zagging towards the peak of the range just outside Canelli.

A few minutes later I was at home and dressed in my pink and brown flannelette pyjamas. Within seconds I was tucked up in bed enjoying the warm heat of the electric blanket on my back. The snow was long forgotten.

A few hours later I was awake and dressed in my 'round the house' winter garb. I was looking out of the bedroom window at a valley that lay thick and heavy with snow. I was challenging the clods of snow on the trees, teasing each of them, hoping that I'd be watching the unlucky one when it finally fell silently to the ground. I laughed and clapped my hands when I won.

I love my mind. I love the way it alternates between maturity and childishness.

28 January 2011

Always check one's most vital winter equipment BEFORE winter...

Most of you will have the good sense to know that one should check one's most vital winter equipment BEFORE winter.

The ignorant amongst you will understand that we had so much else to do just to get INTO the house for winter that we assumed the fire burning happily away in the kitchen would last us throughout the cold season...

Alas, this was not to be the case.

Last week we had a chimney fire. Our most precious fire, the one in the kitchen that also breathes warm air into our bedroom, started spewing noxious gases into our bedroom. At the time, Stu suspected a chimney fire because of the heat in the stones behind the fire and the colour of the smoke coming out of the chimney. But neither of us realised the danger associated with breathing in the smoke. The fumes were shocking but we went to bed anyway in our poisonous room and woke up with rasping throats. In hindsight, it's amazing we didn't die in our sleep (the gases coming off a carbon build-up in a chimney can be equivalent to carbon monoxide poisoning!)

Anyway, we immediately phoned the muratore (wall, roof and chimney expert). Aldo is our favourite tradesperson because he is patient, reliable and honest. He said he would come. We didn't push the 'when' because we were already aware of the dangers of getting on a roof during winter and even suspected that he might not be able to help us until Spring! Instead, we waited for a phone call from him to confirm his visit. It didn't come while my sister Joanne and two young nephews Nic and Sam were here but it did come the day we dropped them off at Malpensa for their return trip to Australia (2 days ago).

I was in a rather emotional state after realising how empty and quiet the house was, when Aldo phoned and said he would arrive immediately!

Despite my red eyes, we showed him our problem and he said he would come the next day with a cherry picker. He demonstrated some concern about the muddy state of our driveway in terms of manoevring the cherry picker but it didn't last long once he remembered that very cold temperatures were forecast for the following morning so any mud would be frozen anyway.

So this morning at 9am, Aldo, two young men and a cherry picker drove up our driveway. It was particularly frosty at minus 5, perhaps the worst we've had yet. There was ice everywhere: the grass, the trees and the roof where all frozen. And of course the mud.

As I watched them stabilise the cherry picker, I felt sad that my nephews had missed this 'event' by only days.

However, the grown up Italian men were like boys anyway, as they 'played' with the cherry picker. They argued over who should use it and laughed at each other's lack of ability to move it smoothly and in the right direction.

Two of them went onto the roof while the other managed the engine of the truck which was connected to the power source for the extendable arm. The two on the roof looked long and hard at the chimney, then decided to cold chisel off the brick top so that they could see inside the cavity all the way down to the kitchen. Aldo had a very small torch to assist their viewing so I wasn't surprised when he asked me if I had a stronger torch. Of course, to collect my torch, he needed to come back down via the cherry picker. Cynically, I wondered if this wasn't just an excuse to have another 'ride'. There was quite a bit of hidden laughter as the other two men watched Aldo negotiate the arm down without breaking all the tiles on our roof in the process.

Once back on the roof, he yelled down that the chimney was clean and that a stainless steel chimney flue had already been installed in the brick cavity! We felt embarrassed but he explained that if the stench had been so bad it might have completely burned off the offending layer of carbon. We were also wrapt to hear about the flue because this seems to be a priority for everyone who restores houses and we weren't sure if ours had been done or not.

It was at this point that Stu's life turned to crap. Aldo invited him to come up in the cherry picker to have a look down the chimney himself. Aware of Stu's fear of heights, I quickly volunteered him and in no time at all Stu found himself in a very wobbly cherry picker with a very dodgey driver.

Once Stu had been returned safely to ground, Aldo announced that he would 'go and get the stone'. 'The stone' was to replace the bricks that had formed the top of the chimney. During the Autumn rains, we'd been plagued by a leaking chimney and he had explained to us then that it was normal Piemontese practice to replace weak brick chimney tops with a single piece of stone.

When he returned half an hour later, he had a beautiful piece of grey granite with him. Once up on the roof, he positioned the granite perfectly, finally cementing it into place. I noted the pride he took in ensuring that his cement mix was right. When he built the stone wall in the kitchen for us a few months ago, he was very fussy about his mix. A real craftsperson.

While he was doing this, he asked us to light the kitchen fire so that he could see if the smoke was still coming into our bedroom.

A few minutes later, we had all three men in our kitchen. Aldo's two young helpers looked and behaved like they'd never seen a fire before. Within seconds, Stu's humble fire which was focused on maximum efficiency in terms of wood usage, had been fed like never before! It was a veritable bonfire as it roared away in its confined space! Then they sat back and marvelled at how much heat came out of the fire and how far into the room the heat extended. It was really quite hilarious.

But once the initial excitement was over, they all looked at the flue and the fan and decided that not enough air was getting through the fire and that this was causing the build up of carbon inside the chimney. To avoid future chimney fires, Aldo told us we should run the fire fast and hard (a bonfire) every few weeks. 'Make it eat the wood!' he exclaimed.

So we are warm again, albeit because of a very attentive Italian tradesperson rather than any great pre-winter planning on our part...