20 dicembre 2009

Very, very, very cold

Very, very, very cold. Minus 9 last night and hasn't gone above –2.5 all day despite bright sun. There has been a heavy snowfall. Mario came down with the caterpillar tractor and cleared our road but it's so icy that it's still not really driveable. Highlight of yesterday was a car coming down the lane at 10pm and getting stuck trying to go back – they'd taken a wrong turn. Eventually they got their chains on and made it back up to the top but for the 20 minutes it took it was fun to see someone else in trouble for once...

2 dicembre 2009

Lovely autumn morning

Lovely autumn morning and I'm just packing to go to London. Sad leaving on a day like this; I do want to go, but I'm already looking forward to coming back! Just about to take Cass out for a last frolic before she's confined to her paddock for two weeks. The weather is starting to turn wintry, at last, with a light dusting of snow on the hills, very pretty. Must dash now.

20 novembre 2009

We sowed the broad beans

We sowed the broad beans, peas, garlic and onions at the beginning of the month. We have a fine crop of fennel, leeks and self-seeded swiss chard, with the broccoli just beginning to develop its florets. Also eating the odd helping of nettles, and wondering what to do with this year's bumper crop of acorns. Cassie loves them but it turns out they can be poisonous to horses (they contain tannins), so I'm letting her snuffle them off the ground when we're out walking, but I've changed my mind about adding buckets of them to her feed. Didn't they make acorn coffee during the war or something? I'll have to get googling.

13 novembre 2009


Hatched! Ken the caterpillar has turned into a lovely swallowail butterfly. Sadly at the wrong time of year, so the chances of survival are low. I'd hoped he'd overwinter.

And Egbert, whom I raised from tiny tiny tiny, has just pupated, but I will spare you the photos of yet another swallowtail chrysalis.

12 novembre 2009

The itinerant sheep

The itinerant sheep have arrived from the other side of the valley to spend their annual autumn fortnight's holiday on the fields across from our house. Cassie is in a state of high alert. She can hear them on the other side of the wood, their baa-ing and their bells, but she can't see them. Sheep really freak her out.

Yesterday afternoon I took her out in the rope halter and she jumped and frisked around and totally failed to achieve anything like relaxation, but at least she didn't run away, and she managed to let her desire for grass overcome her fear. The sheep were miles away at the top of the far field, but every so often they would course in a sort of great wave from one side of the field to the other, very noisily, and every time they did this Cassie became very agitated. My plan is to take her out when they come into the near field and see how close we can get. Being afraid of sheep when you live round here is just not practical.

11 novembre 2009

I like the way things go

I like the way things go with the seasons here. It's a month after the vendemmia and so we get biscuits and buns made with mosto (must, or slightly fermented grape juice) in the bakers, cafés and bars. Yesterday I had a couple of biscuits that had aniseeds in them too, with my cappuccino, and they were so delicious that I bought some to take home. I bought four, and the bargirl threw an extra one in for free. Which is another nice thing they do here.

5 novembre 2009

Three eggs

Three eggs from the ducks this morning — nice, but moving us ever closer to serious egg glut crisis. The two ducklings are fully grown but we still can't tell whether they're male or female. If their tail gets a little curl, that's a sign they're male, but as yet their tails are resolutely straight. Perhaps they're both girls. Six eggs a day would be too many, way too many.

It was a dramatic autumnal morning with the sun breaking through very dark stormclouds and a rain shower falling lightly. In the western sky the full moon was sinking towards the hills and a rainbow hovered over the woods. Everything looked shiny and the colours very intense. I didn't want to come inside.

30 ottobre 2009

Maria called me

Maria called me to see if I could give her a lift up to the cemetery. This is the big weekend for ancestor-honouring and she always takes flowers up to her parents' graves. This year, she confided to me in the car, she decided to get in a day early to avoid the crowds.

A cold front is coming in on a north-east wind and the clouds are gathering behind the mountains but at 3.30 there was still enough sunlight slanting across the fields to make it look pretty. I've never been inside an Italian cemetery before. This is a tiny one on the edge of the village. It consists of a walled, well-kempt, grassy space with at one end of it a high wall of — tombs? Gravestones set into the wall, essentially — but what's behind them? A space containing the ashes of the deceased, or are they just name-stones? I didn't like to ask Maria because she was busily refreshing the flowers and grappling with the on/off switch of battery-operated Padre Pio votive light (luckily I was able to help her with that).

Down one side of the cemetery were several little mausoleum-type buildings each containing six or eight tombs (or whatever they are) of what must be the richer families. And there were four English-style graves in the ground, relatively recent, in swanky polished black granite, which got Maria all emotional as she explained to me who they were. (Three were two brothers and their mother who all died within 17 months of one another.) And then the Sunday-best photographs, one affixed to each stone — all those strong, staunch Italian peasant faces from years ago, staring out from the past.

28 ottobre 2009

Herbie has a small fracture

Herbie has a small fracture in his left back leg, which seems to be healing nicely despite his failure to obey doctor's orders to rest and not run about. In fact he shows no signs at all of developing mentally beyond the kitten stage and is driving Orsetta crazy in his attempts to get her to play with him. He's very funny.

After last week's grim and dismal weather it's now fantastically sunny and beautiful again, with misty mornings and soft autumn colours. Cassie's field is still very muddy, and so is she, although I cleaned her up the other day and took her out. I also closed off the bottom half of the paddock, raked it and sowed grass seed, feeling like someone in an illustration from a medieval book of hours.

We're still getting ripe tomatoes from the veg patch, which is pretty amazing, though obviously not of the same quality as the ones we get in the summer. Sadly we need to pull up the plants now, as this weekend is the time to sow broad beans and sow onions and garlic for
cropping next year, and in our crop rotation plan we've got the beans going on this year's tomato beds. They traditionally sow broad beans on November 1st and 2nd here — All Saints Day and All Souls Day respectively. No idea what the connection is but we go along with it.

19 ottobre 2009

This is the last

This is the last swallowtail chrysalis. I now have three, plus one very tiny caterpillar that I'm not sure will make it. This is a very beautiful green colour with yellow points — the others started off like this too, and gradually turned a leafy brown colour, so I guess that's what will happen with this one as well. They will overwinter and come out as butterflies in the spring. My naturalist friend Andrea has told me to keep them in the light (not to put them out of the way in a wardrobe), as the cycle of day and night is essential to their circadian rhythms and is what will let them know when it's time to emerge. So the next time I post about them it will be springtime.

15 ottobre 2009

It's Blog Action Day 2009

It's Blog Action Day 2009, and these are the latest pictures of my swallowtail butterfly caterpillars Basil and Bob — now preparing to pupate. Very exciting. This year Blog Action Day is about climate change, and I'm proud to have Basil and Bob helping me on this.

Let's think of caterpillars as among the forgotten victims of climate change. It goes like this: as the world warms, the characteristics of habitats change. Spring comes earlier perhaps; the patterns of the rains change; winter comes later and is milder, or the cold snaps are fiercer and at the wrong time. All this plays havoc with the butterfly's (caterpillar's) life cycle. Butterflies lay their eggs on a specific food plant, so that when the caterpillars hatch they can begin to eat immediately. They need to eat and eat and eat for weeks on end — and they need to eat that specific plant. (Basil and Bob ate a lot of my fennel patch.) If the plant's life cycle is altered because the climate is warmer, say, or wetter — well, the caterpillar loses its source of food, and can't survive. Butterflies can expand or move their habitats and colonize where the climate is more favourable relatively quickly, but plants take years or decades to move any significant distance, for deeply obvious reasons. (Ok: no feet.) Plants will lag behind animals in moving as the climate warms; animals will lose food sources and plants will lose pollinators and seed distributors. Whole food chains will be disrupted in subtle but far-reaching ways.

I'm not much of a scientist, but it hardly needs saying that if caterpillars disappear, then so do the creatures that feed on them, and so on down the line. On this green planet we're all linked together. Nothing, really, is too small to be left unconsidered. So, save the caterpillars: if they go, we go — only more noisily, and with a whole lot more pain.

14 ottobre 2009

Here is Ken

Here is Ken in his new incarnation as a chrysalis! A beautiful pale green one with gold flecks. (Hard to get a good photo through the glass jar.) When he comes out as a swallowtail butterfly, will he still be Ken?

Grim sleety day today. Yesterday, which was cold but bright and clear, we saw that the first snow had fallen on the high mountains.

13 ottobre 2009

Hot news

Hot news on the caterpillar front. Ken is definitely in chrysalis-making position: he's curled himself onto a sturdy bit of fennel stem and has lashed the stem to the glass and himself to the stem using strands of silky cobweb-like stuff. He is fastened there by his mouth (?) and his bottom, as well as having a sort of sling around his midriff. Every now and again he twists and wriggles a couple of times in a very slightly alarming manner, so something is going on inside him. I've seen this happen on an incredible video on YouTube ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2cE86AA1q0 ), where the caterpillar shucks off its caterpillar skin to reveal inside, already formed, the chrysalis. I think that's what will happen with Ken. The other big green one, Boris, has been motionless for a day as well but is looking less deliberately placed and more like he just stopped where he was for a rest. The other two are now huge — just as big as Boris and Ken — but their coloration is still predominantly black rather than green. I don't know why they haven't turned green, but they look healthy enough and are eating huge quantities of fennel. Tiny tiny Egbert has reached the heady length of 1cm and is really fairly visible without having to squint.

In other news: the weather has turned, dramatically, and we're now in the full depths of autumn. Big storms yesterday with torrential rain and horizontal winds; lots of branches down all over the roads and the fields running with water. It was 25 degrees on Sunday; today it's 9. Something of a shock to the system. When I went out to feed the animals at 7.15 this morning I put on my new, bargain, fake-sheepskin-lined wellies from Lidl for the first time, to find that the lovely warm lining goes down only as far as the ankle and that the whole of the foot part is completely unlined. What the hell is the point of that? But the air smelt amazing as I hunted about for wild fennel in the meadow — the fennel itself (smelling of curry), wild mint, hay and all sorts of other grassy, herby smells mixed in — brought out by the rain. If only my feet had been warmer I'd have been pretty damn happy.

12 ottobre 2009

The butterfly emerged

The butterfly emerged from the chrysalis on Saturday morning and it's a beautiful red admiral. It took a whole day for its wings to dry. It moved around in the mixing-bowl and also sucked up some juice from a slice of orange that I put in there for it, but it didn't really flex its wings out wide till the following day. So on Sunday morning Alessio and I took it out to the barn and released it right where we found the original chryalis, and when I went to check in the evening it had gone. Hopefully to find a mate, rather than snapped up by a passing pigeon.

11 ottobre 2009

Really lovely day at a horse fair

Really lovely day at a horse fair at a place called Cantiano, about one and a half hours' drive away up towards Urbino. The area is where Cassie's breed comes from — Monte Catria (she is a Cavallo del Catria) — and this fair celebrates the breed. And it was full of Cassies! Most of them behaving themselves really well. Lots of mares tied up with their foals, loose, in tow. It's a selling fair and they were auctioning off the horses (tempting) as well as holding competitions for best of breed and so on. Alessio fell in love with a donkey and John was drawn to a classy-looking black foal.

I spent a long time watching a chap in the indoor arena who was working his horse first on the ground and then mounted, with only a halter, a long rein and a lunge whip — the horse knew exactly what he wanted and responded immediately. It was incredible to watch and I felt like I'd never seen such harmony and understanding between horse and human. He was doing a lot of the natural horsemanship stuff that I've been trying to aspire towards with Cass. I lay in wait and collared the man as he came out of the barn and we had a long chat. He uses the Parelli method and said that when he first got his horse, a couple of years ago, it was a monster — a dominant stallion that would bite you if you got within a metre. Now after Parelli training the creature is a gorgeous, calm (castrated) angel. It was very, very inspiring to see. There's a Parelli trainer there and they run courses, but it's a bit far for me to go and expensive (plus I don't have a trailer, and who knows if Cass would deign to go in it even if I did). But I'll see if I can maybe go and watch again, or something. It's good to know there's a natural horsemanship contingent in the area, at least. His horse was barefoot, too, like Cass.

9 ottobre 2009

Did I mention the egg

Did I mention the egg? I found it a few days ago attached to a strand of fennel and brought it in to see if it would hatch (yet another jar). It was tiny — about 0.5mm diameter — and yellow. Yesterday morning it had turned a dark bluish-black colour. This morning it had disappeared, and there was a tiny, tiny caterpillar in the jar. It's about 2mm long. I've given it some more fennel and it's munching through it. The other caterpillars are growing. I had to separate the two big ones (Boris and Ken) as they had a fight!

Also have what's either a painted lady or a red admiral chrysalis sojourning in a mixing-bowl in the kitchen — if it's the red admiral it may well overwinter in this state, whereas if it's the painted lady the butterfly should emerge in the next day or so. Either way, I need my mixing-bowl back.

8 ottobre 2009

Finished the vendemmia

Finished the vendemmia at lunchtime yesterday. It was fun, except I got stung by a wasp. Lunch was good — Maria had remembered about the meat and had cooked me a special tunafish sauce for the pasta (I don't eat tuna, but I did this time) and while everyone else then had huge plates of rabbit and chicken, I was treated to a whole trout. So it wasn't exactly vegetarian, but she'd made a big effort and was very keen that I be happy. Because we had such a wet early summer and then two months of sun, the grapes are fabulous this year. Mario's going to give me some juice to make grape jelly with, and hopefully his wine might be better this year as well!

6 ottobre 2009

Glorious sunshine

Glorious sunshine is what we're enjoying right now — the rain of a couple of weeks ago didn't last long and we're having a fantastic indian summer. The temperatures have been in the low 20s (that's the 70s for those of you who still think in old money: you know who you are) and we've been eating lunch outside every day. The house is cool and it's hard to come inside after that — I like to sit there in my shorts and t-shirt and close my eyes and imagine I'm on my private tropical beach ... then the ducks start quacking or a tractor starts up and that idyll goes up in a puff of smoke. Still, a girl can dream.

On the land, the farmers are ploughing, the last bales are being taken off the fields and the vendemmia (grape harvest) is starting. Mario is doing his tomorrow and we'll be helping, along with one of his daughters and an assortment of sun-ripened contadini. Maria provides lunch, which when I helped a couple of years ago was very funny — she forgot I was vegetarian so she failed to keep any pasta aside for me and just poured the meat ragù over everything. When she realized, she and the daughter then attempted to wash off the sauce under the tap. I was so embarrassed that I even ate it. Worse than the lunch (which hopefully will go better tomorrow) is the fact that Mario thanks us for helping by giving us some of his wine. It's as impossible to refuse as it is to drink, but we still can't help feeling guilty when we pour it down the sink.

The caterpillars are doing fine.

5 ottobre 2009

Haha, those two were just babies

Haha, those two were just babies. Look at their big brother that I found this morning! I went to pick some leaves for the littl'uns to eat and there he was. So this one I found on a stand of wild fennel at the edge of the field, but as the leaves were a bit sparse I then went down to the veg patch to get some leaves from our cultivated fennel (doing very well this year, by the way), and as I inspected the row, I found it pretty much crawling with caterpillars, in all stages of their development. They're veeeery pretty but they are eating a lot. John wants to disinfest the crop but I feel rather attached to them now and no way can we just squish 'em. That would be murder. A re-homing project looms.

4 ottobre 2009

Found these little beasties

Found these little beasties in the fennel as I was weeding amongst it. After much research on the Net I reckon they're going to turn into a kind of swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon, if anyone's interested). They're in a relatively early stage of their caterpillar childhood and should go through two or three more stages before they turn into a chrysalis. I hope to nurture them up to that point and then overwinter them in an attractive home made of a former Nutella jar, and then give them lots of fresh fennel leaves to wake up to next spring, when they should hatch out as lovely swallowtail butterflies.

Here's hoping.

30 settembre 2009

We're busy cooking up

We're busy cooking up or preserving all the autumn produce. Tomato sauce, green beans, pesto, quince cheese, grape jelly . . . We have lots of squash (jack-be-little, sunburst and a large self-seeded unidentified one that grew among the beans), walnuts from our own trees and almonds from a couple of trees left to go wild that we found by a nearby abandoned farmhouse. And it's a great year for sloes - we have 2 litres of sloe gin on the go, gradually turning electric pink.

25 settembre 2009

It's been a whole month

It's been a whole month since I wrote in here, very busy over the summer but things have calmed down a bit now. Alessio is back at school and we're eating the last of the stuff from the veg patch – tomatoes and peppers mainly, and a few green beans. No indian summer this year – autumn hit us suddenly and brutally a couple of weeks ago with cold and rain and storms. It's warm again now but not with that intense heat that would enable us to go to the beach, say. Mornings are misty and very pretty and evenings are cool. Cassie is wearing her winter coat of mud. Herbie the kitten is growing up physically but not mentally and is still in full-on naughty mode. We tragically lost Blackie last week, somehow he ate some poison and the vet couldn't save him; it was a horrible death and a horrible experience. Mourning a pet is a strange process and I keep thinking I see him just darting round a corner.

24 agosto 2009

16 agosto 2009

The mamma duck is still

The mamma duck is still sitting on the eggs as her full-time job, and comes out every morning to quack very loudly until I go out and feed her. No sign of any ducklings yet. I went to look at the nest this morning because Maria told me that if you hold an egg up to the light you can see if it has an embryo inside it and I wanted to try that. Unfortunately the guard-spiders were too much for me and I couldn't steel myself to get close enough to pick up an egg. So we'll just have to wait and see . . .

7 agosto 2009

We have bats

We have bats. We have three or four bats hanging sweetly in the room we're in the process of converting. One has a baby on its back (or possibly front). They hang as from invisible threads from the beams, and there are possibly some in the chimney as well. Not sure how they're going to like the room being turned into a studio. . .

The other night I'd just finished watching The Sopranos when I became aware of a very large moth in the room. Only it wasn't a moth. It was a bat. The front door was open because of the heat and it must have flown in that way. It swooped around a bit, and then flew out.

I hope it comes back. Bats are very nice.

5 agosto 2009

The duck mysteriously disappeared

The duck mysteriously disappeared overnight and we feared the worst. But it turns out she is broody! She's made a nest at the back of the haybarn and is sitting on six eggs. She staggers out once or twice a day for water and food, and then goes back to sit again. If you go close (which is scary because she has a lot of very large guard-spiders) she starts to get distressed and open her beak and pant, which is a sad spectacle so we leave her alone. Apparently duck eggs take about four weeks to hatch, so we'll see what happens. She's stopped laying now so the meantime we have no eggs ourselves, which is a bit annoying. The young ducks and the male have come to a sort of accommodation and co-exist in relative peace, although when the big duck comes back he rushes over to her and chases the others off.

The veg patch is acting strangely. We have a lot of tomatoes ripening now but not many new ones developing. Loads of cucumbers, which we are attempting to pickle. The courgettes have gone from glut to dearth in just this past week or so and the patty pan squashes aren't producing at all, whereas in previous years by now the sight of another patty pan was enough to make us almost lose the will to live. The green beans are thriving though, and the various lettuces. And it's time to rotovate a new bit and plant up for the autumn – leeks, broccoli, fennel, cabbage.

Still, before doing that I aim to spend at least one day at the lake. Haven't been up there yet this year and feel in need of some time doing nothing except reading, chatting and occasionally turning over so that I tan with perfect evenness.

30 luglio 2009

The new car has finally arrived

The new car has finally arrived! It's a Fiat Panda, all shiny and new and beautiful. (That'll last about a week.) The big deal is it runs on methane, though with an extra tank for petrol in case you run out of methane miles away from a filling station. As well as being relatively eco-friendly, it's very, very economical to run — I filled it up for €7.50 and it's supposed to do 200–250km on that. We're keeping the old 4x4 Panda to get us up the hill in winter!

21 luglio 2009

The figs

The figs are finally ripening and they're gorgeous this year — huge, golden, sweet and juicy. I picked one and ate it off the tree and it tasted exactly of summer.

The veg patch is rampant now and we're back on the courgettes-with-everything regime. Lots of cucumbers too and we're learning how to pickle them (have I already mentioned that in a previous post? Oh well. It's very exciting). Our wild sour-cherry tree yielded up a puny 400 grams of cherries, which made one tiny jar of intensely flavoured, sublime jam.

Cass stomped on my foot last week whilst I was taking her an apple one evening and
rather stupidly wearing only flip-flops. Owwwww.

So life goes on, only with a bit more hopping in it.

12 luglio 2009

Just back

Just back from a trip to England, where it was hotter than it was here, apparently. But we seem to have had enough heat combined with rain to allow the veg patch to flourish and the land to be more jungly — and greener — than usual at this time of year. Herbie the new kitten is gradually but systematically wrecking the house, with a brief calm, and in retrospect blissful, interlude while he recovered from being bitten by one of Mario's small dogs.

The baby ducks are about a month old now — not so baby any more — and are being severely harassed by the big male duck. He’s violently aggressive towards them, though it’s clearly a hormonal aggressivity and what he's after is sex, not murder — but the poor things dash about going “peep peep” at the top of their little voices, flapping about and desperately trying to get away from him while he pursues them with single-minded determination. The grown-up female, showing no sisterly solidarity, ignores the whole performance — actually, she’s probably relieved.

We were afraid he was going to harm them if they were shut in together so we’ve been keeping them separate at night, while letting them loose together during the day so they can get used to each other; but the other day Alessio and I were at the market where I bought the ducklings originally, and he persuaded me to stop and ask the guy “what to do about the boy duck”. So I did. And that provided another of those
female-English-city-slicker humiliations which are a fundamental part of life here.

“The male,” I explained carefully (bearing in mind there was a child present), “is very aggressive towards the female ducklings.”

Pitying looks and smirks exchanged between duck man and gap-toothed old farmer client hanging round for a chat. Patronizing comments such as “It’s just nature, love” and so on helpfully furnished.

“Yes, I know, but he’s so aggressive, I wasn’t sure if it was, er, normal.”

Overt grins and more patronizing comments along the lines of “Oh, it’s normal all right darlin’.”

“Yes, I know, but I’m afraid he’s going to hurt them.”

Outright laughter and more patronizing comments of the “well, they’ll get used to it, fnaar fnaar” variety, followed, at last, by some advice — to just put them all together and let them get on with it. And by the information that breeders usually keep one male to every eight females, so if we only have four females . . .

I scuttled off, feeling like a willing party to duck rape. Still, it’s a relief to know it’s all only natural.

21 giugno 2009

The old cherry tree

The old cherry tree just below Cassie’s paddock has a fantastic crop this year. I noticed it as I was clearing the long grass away from the electric fence yesterday, and hopped outside the fence to pick some. Unfortunately the tree’s on a part of the slope where the ground drops away steeply and not only that but even the lowest branches are so high that I had to stretch to reach them. Using a stick, I managed to pull down a couple of branches so that I could pick the cherries, but I couldn’t reach any more after that (and fat stripy green caterpillars were falling on me too). Very frustrating. I ended up with half a kilo, even so. And they’re incredibly delicious — perfectly ripe, big, dark, juicy, sweet, full of flavour. Maybe the best cherries I’ve ever eaten. The birds will get the rest and I don’t begrudge them, but I think I would enjoy them more . . .

17 giugno 2009

And this is another

And this is another new pet. Okay, no, it’s not. It’s a monstrous caterpillar-type thing that I found this evening crawling on the tarpaulin covering the hay. At first I thought its head end was where the antennae are and that the headlike end with the eyelike spots and mouthlike parts was the tail end, serving as a cunning caterpillar bluff to fool predators. But after some close observation I think the mouthlike parts were in fact mouth-parts and the headlike end was in fact the head. Not sure if the spots are the eyes though. Those leglike bits had a tenacious grip — I couldn't shake it off that twig. The photo with my finger in it gives some idea of scale. Am going to send the photos to a naturalist friend and see if he can shed any light. Can’t type any more now, the damn kitten is climbing all over the keyboard.

Last passing thought: if this is a caterpillar, what the hell kind of monster butterfly is it going to turn into?

It's a while

It’s a while since we had a baby animal, so this is our new kitten. Arguments as to his name are still ongoing. He’s about eight weeks old and has been hand-reared as his mother was killed while the kittens were two days old. He’s very friendly and purrs as soon as you go into the room.

12 giugno 2009

Making daisy chains is not as easy

Making daisy chains is not as easy as I remembered it to be. We were up in the mountains today doing some research for a website John’s designing, and went to look at the source of the little river Nera. A beautiful, peaceful spot a little way beyond a very pretty mountain village (Castelsantangelo sul Nera), with a grassy lawn and benches — sounds horribly like a tourist trap but there was just one elderly couple there apart from us. Someone had laid a daisy garland on a big stone in the stream and I told Alessio it was an offering to the god of the spring, so he promptly went and pulled up the nearest buttercup to chuck down into the water. We stopped him and told him to make a proper offering if he wanted to do that. Which led to the effortful daisy chain attempt. We managed to string five or six of them together, but it was a far cry from the substantial and carefully woven garland that the previous offerer (offerant?) had left. Alessio left his there anyway and I told him to make a wish. “What shall I wish for?” “I don’t know — wish for something simple, like a nice summer.” “I wish for a beanbag chair. I really want a beanbag chair, mum.”

Right. Think I'll leave that in the hands of the river god.

6 giugno 2009

Last night we went

Last night we went out for the end of year meal with Alessio’s school class. This is a good class, a friendly, outgoing group, so we’ve been lucky – the other classes don’t do a lot of socializing together, whereas our class is always having get-togethers and meals and trips, which is obviously good for us as incomers. Last night’s meal surpassed all others, I’d say. It was a cena a base di pesce (fish dinner) and we hired a little chalet-type social centre in one of the tiny outlying villages, with space outside for the kids to play and a barbecue grill. Arrived around 7.30pm and finally departed at 1.00am, having eaten a stupendous multi-course fish meal of professional quality and sung and danced and even cleared up afterwards.

And I woke up at 6.00 this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep, with the consquence that I’m so tired now I can hardly focus to write this. Wanted to write a lot more but it’ll have to wait.

Good night.

28 maggio 2009

Few things are as much fun

Few things are as much fun as watching a cat stuck up a tree. This is Orsetta in the higher reaches of the big walnut, which caused much merriment.

I can't make the layout work how I want it to, but never mind. Other than cat diversions, it's been haymaking time. Very, very hot and for once none of the looking anxiously at the sky and calculating the odds of it raining before the bales are in. Mario spent a morning making around 50 small bales for me (well, for Cass) and then got bored with the time it was taking and lugged out his other baler that makes huge round bales and finished off the job in less than an hour. Meaning we have these huge rotoli this year, which is ok as they're cheaper but not so ok as they're less easy to store (won't fit in our barn because of access difficulties) and for the fact that they're impossible to shift without a tractor. Mario has deposited five of them along the edge of her paddock and says he'll bring more as and when I need them.

Cass was not at all happy at the rotoli suddenly appearing, and when she came up to look at them she got too close to the electric fence and got a hefty electric shock, which sent her squealing away across the field. Then she came back and stared at the rotoli in horror, snorting and tossing her head, and you could practically see her thinking: That fence was fine till they came, they must be really, really bad. It was very funny, actually, except that when I took her out the following day she was very, very wound up and jumped about all over the place as if things were about to leap out at her from behind every tree. Even letting her tiptoe up to one of the bales and take a bite out of it hasn't helped much. Sigh.

20 maggio 2009

The mornings are cool

The mornings are cool and fresh now with a hint of the hot day that’s to come. Mist in the valley when I go down to feed the horse, quickly burning off. I love this time of year. We have our own strawberries! (OK, just a few, but fab all the same.) The land went from being a mud patch to a lush jungle in about a week, and the long grasses are all going to seed already. The farmers have started to cut the hay and everyone’s planting up their veg patches like mad – late start after the rainy spring, but the ground is now so warm that whatever you put in grows very fast. We’ve rotovated and dug in a lot of manure, and the earth is finer this year though still very heavy. We’ve put in 40 tomatoes and a load of cucumbers, courgettes (green ones and yellow ones), patty pans and various winter squash. Still need to plant peppers, aubergines and salad. Currently eating lollo rosso and swiss chard which have made it through the winter, and waiting for the broad beans to be ready – couple more days should do it. John has created an asparagus bed but you have to wait at least two years before you can eat the crop!

It’s been too hot to do much during the day but I’ve been taking Cassie out to the riding ring, partly to let her munch down the grass in it (otherwise she just eats while she's meant to be working) and partly to actually work her. I’ve been trying some loose schooling with her, making her go round the ring without being attached to a rope, and it’s a lot of fun. I've got her doing walk, trot and canter on command. She seems to like it and it’s making her more responsive. I’ve been looking at a lot of riding chat forums on the web and people talk about playing with exercise balls with their horses – now that would really freak Cass out, but if I can get hold of one I fancy trying it!

6 maggio 2009

Time has whizzed

Time has whizzed by as usual, I seem to have been busy doing who knows what, and I haven't written for ages. Easter was good, with fine weather and our first apartment guests of the year. Alessio got a week off school and we had various English friends around to have some fun with. In fact we had two or three weeks of sunshine and got quite used to it, and then it suddenly turned cold again and rained solidly for a week – last week, which was unfortunately the very week that my parents were staying.

Because of the grim weather we've been unable to progress with the veg patch and it's still bare earth. John has rotovated it once but needs to go over it another time before we can plant. We dumped quantities of horse manure on it to try to improve the soil quality – it's heavy clay, which forms impossible-to-work clods when wet and dries very fast to a concrete-like consistency. Hopefully a few seasons of manure will make it less clay-ey and more amenable to growing tender veggies. We've sown our courgettes and squash seeds in pots but will buy all the rest as seedlings.

We're thinking about getting some chickens to mix in with the remaining ducks, as it seems to be impossible to buy point-of-lay ducks to replace those that were lost over the winter. You can keep chickens and ducks together and it would be nice to have a mix of ducks' and hens' eggs. Ducks are a lot more amusing to watch so we wouldn't want to just have chickens though. Maybe we'll get a couple of ducklings now as well, and hope we can actually get them through next winter alive and in one piece . . .

9 aprile 2009

Speedwell, chickweed, goosegrass

Speedwell, chickweed, goosegrass, deadnettle . . . I spent hours, or what seemed like hours, this afternoon weeding and hoeing the veg patch and seemed to get nowhere. I excavated the two very small gooseberry bushes and the two very small currant bushes, which were almost drowned in chickweed, and I salvaged what I could of the raspberry canes, ditto, and I attempted to hoe amongst the broad beans, but it’s a somewhat dispiriting task with the ground so hard (despite the rain) and the weeds so tenacious. And my tennis elbow so sore. And my back. And the little toe of my right foot, where Cass trod on me again last week.

. . . As I write, the house has just shaken again with another big earthquake. The death toll in Abruzzo has reached 280. The original big quake woke us up in the middle of the night, though we couldn’t tell how bad it was till the next morning when I turned on the news. Since then we’ve felt all the large aftershocks — 5.5, 5.3, 5.2 on the Richter scale — big, scary earthquakes in their own right, although our house is strong and we don't worry that it'll actually collapse. There’s no structural damage round here and certainly no lives lost, but everyone remembers the Assisi quake of 1997 and all the damage it did in this area — for the first few years we were here, the skyline of Camerino was defined by cranes rather than medieval towers, the town council was housed in the bus depot, and people were still living in containers. Now L’Aquila and the little surrounding villages will have to go through it all — all the
reckoning with the fear and the pain, the years of rebuilding and recovery. But first the burials and the mourning. And meanwhile the speedwell and the chickweed grow apace across the trembling earth.

2 aprile 2009

On Saturday night

On Saturday night we took part in Earth Hour, WWF’s turn-your-lights-off-for-the-planet worldwide symbolic gesture, at 8.30, eating supper by candle-light and playing Scrabble in the dark (candle-light is dark!). Watching Alessio light the tealights was terrifying. Who’d have thought it could be so hard to get the hang of matches?

That was also the night the clocks changed, and the evenings are now light till about 7.30, which is great. (The adverse effect of course is that it’s now back to being almost dark when we get up at 6.30a.m., which is not so nice.) With all the blossom and the wildflowers there’s a proper sense of spring now – or there was till a couple of days ago, when a cold depression blew in, and a cloud has been sitting on top of us ever since, and we're back to mist, rain and mud. We’ve turned most of the radiators off but I’m still wearing two pairs of socks.

Not so many cuckoos here, but we’ve spotted the First Hoopoe of Spring. Hoopoes migrate here for the summer and are stunning pink birds with black-and-white striped wings and a crest. They tend to return each year to nest in the same place, like swallows; no sign of them yet, but our resident pigeons are nesting in their holes in the outside walls of the house, and there's a great deal of small-bird activity, blue tits and finches flying about with twigs and moss in their beaks. The sun has to come out soon. . .