In September we ventured to IKEA in Florence. On the way up the ‘road of the sun,’ as they call the A1 motorway, we stopped at Bettole where there is an ‘outlet village’ and then stopped again to explore Cortona. The ‘outlets' are not the same as in the UK where you can expect to get bargains, items are less than in the shops but still not cheap. Disappointedly in Cortona the famous fountain in the film ‘La Dolce Vita’ isn’t there, sadly it was just a prop for the film. We continued and exited the autostrada for Florence and managed to get lost just off the motorway and had to do a U-turn in the police headquarters. They must be used to this, as we were applauded making for the correct exiton our second attempt. At Ikea they tried to tell us to make an appointment to get an assistant and return in 3 weeks. Our Italian isn’t that good but they got the message this was not a suggestion we were going to follow so a staff member said they would find someone as soon as they could. Elizabetta arrived saying her 10am appointment hadn’t shown up and she’d be able to help us. We were there until 6pm! It was very complicated and in the end said they would not transport the lights, mirrors or smaller items, just beds, wardrobes and the like. The car nearly collapsed with the stuff we loaded in and in the passenger seat I couldn’t see out of the window. The lorry arrived a month later with the bulky flat pack items and a note to say they only delivered up to the third floor as a maximum. As we just have the ground floor and upstairs they were happy enough to unload. There were three items missing, so naturally we declined to sign for the full consignment. They promised to deliver the missing items in 2 days, we looked sceptical. He got his boss to phone us to promise as they would be in serious trouble with IKEA and might lose the delivery contract if they didn’t, so we signed and 2 days later the missing bits arrived as promised.
Painting completed upstairs, which was to be our letting accommodation, we began to assemble the furniture jigsaws for the bedrooms. Divorce was mentioned on several occasions but we eventually got into the swing of things and by bedroom 5 we could assemble in our sleep.
In our own bedroom we installed a small television - we had no idea how good the U.K. television service was until we saw the Italian alternative. Game shows are a cross between Jeramy Beadle and Benny Hill with lots of semi-clad nymphets dashing about. A lot of black and white repeats and imported American detective shows dubbed into Italian. The morning news has a minute slot each day playing old newsreels from the war. There is a channel dedicated to tarot card reading via the phone and a TV shopping by individual companies, nothing like the shopping channel elsewhere. Adverts are by the shop owners themselves or presented by the television stars, who walk from one studio to the next in the interval to sell a kitchen or vibrating chair. They follow every type of sport - skiing, motor-cross, formula 1, golf etc but football is king. We resisted buying a satellite dish as we must learn the language and hope to absorb some of it whist watching and listening. One day we met a man walking up the drive, he said he lived at the house at the bottom of our road and introduced himself as Victorio. He lived with his wife, daughter, and their granddaughter. Were we German he asked? Would we be open for the Easter? How much had we paid for the property? He understood we spoke English as a first language and knew that we had come from between Ireland and England but Wales had him baffled. Still he would wander up every few weeks to see how we were getting on. Sadly he died just before Christmas the first year we were here. There was a full cortege from the house with the family walking to the cemetery behind the hearse.
A few weeks later a stranger appeared, asking the same questions, saying that as a child he remembered the house having huge cherry trees, some 300 years old surrounding it. We think he’d drawn the short straw at the local bar and was sent to see if we were sticking out the winter or, like so many, were only here for the finer weather. We met a succession of people, all of whom said they had lived, been born or worked at the house over a 60 year time frame, all wanting to know the same things, especially how much had we paid for the property? Perhaps it is because the countryside is littered with empty buildings, abandoned because they are too big to live in and costly to renovate and so many left during and after the war for the big cities there is a shortage of people in the rural areas. Talking of the shortage of people, most of the older generation are under 5 foot tall and bow legged, just like the 3 wheeled ‘Ape’ they drive.
We found a DIY store! Privately owned, like most shops even supermarkets, that had lots of hobby stuff, paint – you would not believe the prices - lighting, some tools and garden equipment. For cement, bricks tiles and pipes we had to go to an ‘Edil’, a tradesman’s centre. We also discovered some local eateries, one we called, Pizza and Pasta, for that’s all they do. Every day they made 3 different pastas and 3 sauces or you could choose to have a pizza from the 50 types they had on offer. A pizza each, half a litre of house wine, very nice, and a beer cost less than 20 euros. Fortunately no restaurant expects you to eat a full 5 course meal these days, you choose what you want, unless it is a fixed menu on special occasions.
In late October we made a start on emptying the annesso (pigsty) as the ivy was infested with the largest swarm of wasps we had ever encountered. The stuff we found in there was incredible, old geysers, good tiles, two old gas cookers, bed frames, radiators, old tins of paint, think what is in your shed that needs chucking out, we had it plus some other unidentifiable bits. The rubbish is not collected you take it to the large bins on wheels at the side of the roads. Green is for anything, brown for food stuffs, yellow for paper and blue for glass. Anything that can be used by someone else is left along side and we have collected the old glass oil bottles to decorate the grounds. We also finished clearing a path to the ‘grotto’, a hollowed out space under the second terrace, which had been brick faced in the 1800’s. Unfortunately the brickwork was coming away from the cave entrance but it was stable enough for us to store things in and it had a resident bat. So we’ve bats in the grotto … this is not news to family and friends who already reckoned we had bats in the belfry!
Our English speaking accountant negotiated with a contractor to look after our rented 600 trees, which we have to comply with the terms of the grant. This first year there was a bumper harvest so we negotiated a deal with the contractor – he kept the income from the oil in lieu of payment, giving us 30 litres which we shared with friends & family who visited and worked. Getting wood for the winter was another informal arrangement. Our accountant gave us a contact in the local piazza café. Where we ordered 30 quintali as we only had an open fireplace that sent most of the heat up the chimney. We then bought a caminetti, a closed fire unit with a glass door and fans to push the heat into the room. The plumber fitted it! The house, not having anyone live in it for 5 years, was damp and the wonderful tiled floors were now ‘stone cold’ so working outside in the autumn sun was warmer than being indoors most of the time, cooking and ironing was a warm pleasure.
We tackled the brambles on the first terrace. Standing at the top and chopping at the bottoms of the briars pushing the tangle down the bank, making huge bonfires. This went on all winter long, even Xmas day, and we still had only just cleared the whole length of the first terrace by the spring.
When the weather got colder, in the late November, the wasps subsided and we hacked off the ivy on the pigsty and burnt it. December we had a terrific storm, and guess what? The building fell down! Thankfully the car was parked some distance away so no damage done but would you believe it we heard nothing above the racket the storm was making. The geometra said he’d do the paperwork for the Comune so we could remove the pile of rubble and ‘save’ the footprint to rebuild the same size structure further away from the house at a later date.
We were siting having lunch, indoors on this occasion, when we saw a man with a gun walking past the kitchen window. Cautiously we opened the front door and peeked out. He seemed surprised to see us and greeted us politely. We said we lived here. He said he had been hunting on the land for 5 years and no one had ever been here and he was sorry to have disturbed us. There are no trespass laws here. If the land is not fenced and does not have a sign saying “no hunting” hunters can enter as they please but not shoot within 200m of a property. 1st October is the first day of the season, it sounds like Chinese New Year. We have never seen anyone carrying a single pigeon, pheasant or hare, but the men were always fitted out in full combat gear. Camouflage jackets, trousers and bandoleers of cartridges for their guns. The dogs, all stupid, wore bells. We thought this was to drive the game towards the hunter, but in fact to warn the owner of the animals approach so he didn’t shoot his dog by accident! A friend remarked that, when you considered the cost of all the equipment involved, licences, dogs and their food etc it would be cheaper to go to Harrods and buy the game plucked, stuffed and ready to cook.
We saw lots of evidence of wild life, badgers, porcupines sauntered up our drive and dug up roots, leaving their black and white quills behind. The wild boar, shy (no wonder) rooted around ploughing up the ground and one morning Michael saw a huge stag standing in our car park, it simply vanished into the woods below the house, so silent for such a huge animal.
We ate our first Christmas lunch, outside in the weak winter sunshine. We began with hot bruscetta . We then had an onion and olive pie with roast vegetables, not that usual here as vegetables are not eaten in quantity with a meal followed by panetone a sweet bread filled with dried fruit for desert. We had just discovered a local cantina that sold a very nice red wine for 7 Euros for 5 litres, if you brought your own bottle, so we had a very merry Christmas.
Recipe: Almond Cake- in Italy the cakes and biscuits are very sweet so you may need to adjust the sugar content to suit your taste.
Shortcake base:-¾ cup plain flour, ¼ cup sugar, pinch salt, grated rind of a lemon, 4 table spoons butter, 1 egg yolk. Filling:- a little butter, a little flour, 11 oz whole almonds chopped finely, 3 whole eggs and 3 egg yolks, 1 cup and 2 tablespoons of caster sugar, 1 cup corn flour, 2 teaspoons baking powder, ½ cup ,milk, 4 tablespoons of softened butter, ¼ cup icing sugar.
Heat oven to 350 ° Make the base:- heap the flour and create a hollow in the centre, add sugar, salt, lemon rind, softened butter and egg yolk. Knead together. Butter and flour a large cake tin and press the mixture over the base thinly.
Filling:- beat eggs and yolks together with the caster sugar until very foamy. Gradually add eggs mix to the cornflour, almonds, milk and butter. Pour mix over base and bake for 1 hour 15 mins. When cool dust with icing sugar.