Christmas is a time to think of those less fortunate than yourself.

How are you all?

That was from Rory Bremner on last week’s Now Show. Being down here in the south of Europe doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the best of British radio and TV, care of Rupert Murdoch’s FreeSat service. It was most serendipitous that Film4 went free to air in July, providing more movies per week than we can find the time to watch. In the interests of improving our language skills I tried to set up Italian TV the other week, but had to give up because there’s basically no reception here. The only current solution is to use a satellite dish, but we already have one up on the wall aimed at Astra (the wrong satellite) and don’t want to clutter the house up with another. Once broadband arrives we’ll probably be able to get at least the main national channels online so I think it’s best to hold off for a while. At least Frances can listen to The Archers (or as I prefer, The Oooh-Aaarrchers). When it comes to things going on, Apricale doesn’t hold a candle to Ambridge, what with gay weddings, rocky marriages or thespian tantrums at the Christmas show.

Back in England in July we had a problem with the car; something to do with the heating and ventilation that caused a “clack clack” sound to emanate from under the scuttle every time the key was turned in the ignition. The Rampton garage, evidently not having come across this problem before, had hummed and harhed, taken the car in for two days, fitted new parts and charged about £300 for the job. Soon after we arrived in Italy the problem re-appeared, much – as you might imagine – to our displeasure, since taking the thing back and complaining was now hardly an option and we weren’t keen to pay this amount over again.

We finally got round to taking the car in to a local garage to repair the repair, and chose the one recommended by Anna for keeping her ancient Honda on the road for the past decade or so. The mechanic listened while I turned the key and instantly diagnosed a problem with the heating system. However, there are two kinds of garage in Italy; one deals with oily lumps of metal and the other with sparks and wiring. This being an electrical problem and he being an oily metal specialist we were immediately instructed to go to “Elettrauto”. I took this to be the name of a company but it turned out to be the generic name of other type of garage, the kind that deals in electrical stuff. There were three of such listed in Yellow Pages so we went to the closest. The man there also instantly diagnosed the cause of the problem so we booked the car in for the following day.

Later that day I rang up to hear the bad news. It appeared that an electric motor had failed and I had two options; a new unit or a repair. Since the car is due to go back to England in January to be sold I picked the cheaper; the repair. The next day we went to collect the car, and, bracing ourselves for a shock, asked the cost. It was 80 euros, or about one-sixth the cost of the previous “repair”. From which I learned several things, firstly that car servicing is a lot cheaper here than in England, that mechanics here know their stuff and that things can get mended instead of simply jacking in expensive factory replacements.

While waiting for the car we popped into the local VW franchise. Back in October this was the only dealer willing to even discuss selling me a car before I had an Italian ID card, which is dependent on getting a residency certificate, which in turn depends on getting permission to stay, which depends on having bought a house. At the time we couldn’t even start this convoluted process as we were still waiting to complete the house purchase. Now we’re on to step two, waiting for the permission to stay to arrive in the next month or so. This is likely to be beyond our deadline for getting the Megane back to England for its annual test. Without a car to return to means we’ll need to drive back in January, book the test, get new insurance, return here and continue to use the car until the paper chain comes to rest. After that we’d need another long drive to England to sell the car.

poloSo it seemed worth asking again. The salesman showed us a couple of cars, one of which was a 2000 model VW Polo, with automatic transmission, a rarity around here. After checking our various papers, in particular the one recording our ongoing application for permission to stay, he decided there was no legal reason not to sell me the car. We returned the next day for a test drive, then tried to look casual and disinterested to negotiate a better price, but it’s not easy to carry this off in a foreign language and the car was pretty fairly priced anyway. It’s a VW, after all, with a modest mileage, an immaculate interior, not a trace of scratches, dents or rust on the bodywork or underneath and just a few scuffs on the bumpers and wheel trims, which led us to suspect a lady owner. (Sorry if that’s a sexist slur but it’s undeniable that parallel parking is a skill many ladies find difficult to master. Besides, any male-driven car with that kind of outside damage would also have signs of carelessness inside.) When we got home and studied the various papers we’d been given by the dealer we discovered that the previous owner was indeed a lady in her 70s, who had owned the car from new. She probably never took it more than ten miles from the coast, in one of the driest parts of Europe. It’s a bit of a worry, really; we’d avoided buying a new car not just because of the cost but also so as not to endure that period of paranoia waiting for the first dent or scratch. But this one is immaculate in nearly all respects in spite of being a third or less the price, so we’re now fully paranoid and may well not go out at all.

The insurance was horrifically expensive; the garage came up with two quotes, at 1500 and 1000 euros, and I found one on-line for 840. All these are for basic insurance; no fire, theft or damage cover. I hear that although a no-claims discount can be earned it’s not as generous as the UK one, and you can’t transfer your UK bonus. On top of that it costs 400 euros to re-register a car in your name, which must be a considerable deterrent to selling cheap cars.

I have to say I’m puzzled about the cost of motor insurance, which is just about the highest in Europe. I can’t speak with vast experience, but I’ve driven on several occasions around Liguria, Piemonte and the Valle d’Aosta and have found Italians to be on the whole courteous drivers, certainly as compared to, say, Los Angeles, Paris or London. Even when negotiating the centre of Turin last year as if on eggshells after picking up an almost new Renault Scenic there was little sign of impatience from other drivers. Not everyone is a saint, of course, any more than they are in England, but few cars display damage much worse than scratches and minor dents. Perhaps the antics of drivers in Milan, Rome and Naples have loaded insurance for the rest of us.

When we returned to collect the car we found that until we get Italian identity cards we can’t fully own the vehicle. We have instead a temporary document, valid for a month, that establishes our right to drive the car; after that we’ll have to go back and renew it. It’s a little strange that no other garage in the area appears to know of this as a way of selling cars to foreigners whose applications are being processed. Or maybe they do but can’t be bothered with the work.

If only everything in life were as reliable as a Volkswagen dealer.

chilisTo celebrate, dinner was cottage pie. I know, wanton extravagance, and we even have a glass of wine from time to time. To add some extra interest Frances decided to use one of the diminishing stock of chillis we brought with us from England, having grown a bush in a pot in the garden at Rampton. Since we arrived we’ve left them to dry, first in the sun then more recently in a dish in the kitchen, and we rehydrate one when we need it. I read somewhere that the further north they’re grown the hotter they are. No kidding. These things are evil. After handling one don’t even think about touching sensitive parts of the body such as eyes or nose or … well, anywhere. Just one – the smallest – of these little beasts turned the dish into a hot chilli con carne. You might regard that as a recommendation for what to grow in a sunny corner next year. We’ll certainly grow some, along with tomatoes, peppers, onions and whatever else we can find room for. It’s not that we’re after self-sufficiency in any of these things – though that is entirely possible – but rather the thought of all those terraces being unused. An attitude born out of a lifetime living in tidy parts of England where every part of the (usually small) garden has its use and leaving parts effectively wild isn’t something you do. One terrace is already dug in readiness for my crop of Cape Gooseberries and another is earmarked for the other vegetables.

The biggest problems with growing crops are provision of water and protection from wild boar and sunshine. Some kind of fenced enclosure may be needed, probably with black netting over the top as is commonly seen around these parts. Time to start looking into where to obtain the necessary materials such as steel scaffolding poles, which sounds as though it might be a bit expensive.

logsAt last our firewood has arrived. Ten quintali, or about a ton, for 140 euros. This doesn’t seem to me particularly cheap, but I’m assuming it’s the going rate round here and we haven’t been ripped off. Moving it into storage took 14 barrow-loads of logs and left me with another of sawdust and small chippings, which seemed a bit excessive, though admittedly the chips make good kindling. I suppose it’s our fault for having a stove that only takes 30cm lengths. The one in the flat upstairs will take longer logs, which obviously requires less cutting and produces less waste. Perhaps the stuff is weighed before cutting and you get the sawdust as well as the wood. Chi sa (who knows).

The two rows on the right of the photo are some of the new logs; the rest are stacked closer to the house for immediate use. The stuff from the beach (see my last letter) is on the left and the whole area is surrounded by chunks of olive from my pruning efforts. Once I’d finished stacking I realized that the new pile was no more than twice the size of the one from the beach, so we must have collected at least half a ton that weekend, with a value of 70 euros or more. Not bad for just the cost of driving there and back a couple of times and a bit of healthy exercise.

The olive prunings are already mounting up seriously and so far I’ve only cut two trees of any size. There’s literally tons of wood waiting to be taken if the chainsaw is up to it. The usual strategy for trees that have been left for any time – as have ours – is to fell the main trunk and allow one or two suckers to take over. Everywhere you see relatively young-looking trees growing out of huge ancient stumps, so there’s rarely any new stock going in. It seems most of the trees are hundreds of years old, however young and fresh they may look. It also seems there are laws against cutting down trees without permission – oops, too late – so it’s difficult to see how any renewal can take place. Perhaps it doesn’t need to. The other day I was able to find a few new suckers with a root system attached, so I hacked them away from the parent and potted them with a view to filling some gaps on the upper terraces. So far they seem to be doing well.

I had a phone call from someone who was previously just an email address, a Scot who lives in the West Country. He’s keen to move to Apricale and we discovered each other via the on-line forum run by Italy Magazine, a valuable resource for all matters Italian. Tom’s employer has agreed to let him become a teleworking contractor, but only on condition that he can use broadband to connect to the office in Bristol. We’re all keen to believe the promises of broadband “real soon now” (to use that wonderful American euphemism that often means “don’t hold your breath”) and on the strength of that Tom and his Italian wife Paola have bought a piece of land just on the edge of the village on the road leading to us. They were in town for a few days checking up on things and took the opportunity to pop in to us for a quick visit. Under local rules, to build a house you must either have a building already on the land – almost anything will do, even a pile of rocks that may at one time have been a pigshed or outside toilet – or have enough land to qualify for a proportionally-sized house. In their case it’s the latter, a typically vertiginous series of terraces previously used for agricultural purposes. But it’s only a four-minute walk into the village to unwind at the bar, something they’re likely to need quite a bit as there are all manner of problems building a new house, what with difficulty in getting large vehicles down the track and the usual problems with builders, who have no better reputation here for their ability to deliver on promises – or on time – than they do in the UK. The usual advice is not to hand over any more money than is absolutely essential until the job is done, to keep an incentive for them to return and finish it. The plan is to build an ecological house, which should be interesting, but managing it all from England presents many challenges. We wish them all the best of luck and there’s always a bed for the night here if the flat is vacant. It’ll be nice to have some more English speakers around; like us they intend to move here permanently and not maintain a bolt-hole “back home”.

I’ve been told more than once that cutting ties like this is terribly brave, or foolhardy, or even both, but for my part I always wonder at the stamina of people who have the time and energy to run houses in two different countries. Many hold down full-time jobs too – how do they do it? The other day I started to make a list of things that need to be done around here, but I soon stopped as it all got too frightening. Pruning the olives, rebuilding terrace walls, digging vegetable beds, laying paving on the patio, fixing flashing on the roof, constructing fruit cages, organizing a concrete drive… Enough already. Even if you pay others to do the work you still have to be around to give orders, and the thought of doing that from a thousand miles away makes me feel like a strong drink and a good lie-down. When I go on holiday the last things I want on my mind are concrete mixers and spades.

Tom’s visit prompted me to do some digging of a different kind. The next day I had to pop into the village to post a letter, and while there asked at the commune for any further information regarding broadband. Our mayor is closely involved with an international consortium bringing fast wireless Internet to places that are difficult to serve by conventional means (i.e. by telephone) and Apricale is the location of the first pilot scheme. There’s money from the EU and from Antibes business park and under the terms of the grants the work was due to be finished at the end of November. I’ve no idea what technology is involved but I hope that being a guinea-pig won’t be too frustrating.

bignoneThe mayor gave me a complete run-down of the current situation, some of which I understood and some of which another of the staff was able to confirm in English. The rest will no doubt become clear in due course. It seems that the work to add a new transmitter to the radio tower (just visible, centre right, in the photo) on Monte Bignone was in fact completed on time at the end of last month, and that all remains is to sort out things over on our side of the valley. Access to the system is by a small aerial which I understood will be supplied free, and places that don’t have line of sight access will use a relay at locations such as the vigili del fuoco (fire station). I’m not sure where that is, but we’re right opposite the transmitter so we don’t have that problem. The service will cost 25-30 euros a month, a little above normal broadband prices, but the speed is likely to be way in excess of what is normally available via the telephone line. All of which is very exciting. January is now given as the date for things to happen, and there will be notices posted around the village in due course telling us what to do next. If all goes well Apricale will leapfrog from being a medieval backwater to one of the most technologically privileged places in Europe and a premier choice for doing business on-line from home. It remains to be seen how much of this promise is actually fulfilled.

Just to make the prize even more tempting, when I visited the home page of the company that hosts this web page I discovered they’d upped my allocation of disk space – at no extra cost – from 20GB to 200GB; just about as much space as I use on my entire computer. It would take more than two years running day and night and cost over ten thousand euros in phone charges for me to fill that space using my current Internet connection, and I’m not at all sure what to fill it with anyway, but if I’m to get value for my eight dollars a month I’ll need somewhat more speed. Oh well, pazienza, pazienza.

Christmas dinner in Italy is very different to that in England, going by the evidence here in the shops. The usual things we Brits take for granted – turkeys, stuffing, Brussels sprouts, parsnips and cranberry jelly – are either rare or simply unavailable, leading one to suspect that the festive meal here is probably similar to what they have every other day of the year, only more so. To go native this early in our new life would be a bit premature so when we heard the Monaco Carrefour has a foreign food section we organized a visit in our new car. (Paranoia had to give way to the need for a good Christmas dinner.) After missing the correct exit from the motorway in the mistaken belief that there was another closer to our destination we found ourselves in the less desirable part of Nice, a run-down, traffic-choked building site with dodgy-looking pedestrians giving us suspicious looks for being the only foreign car in the area. I heard later that Italian cars have been attacked while passing through. This may just be an unfounded rumour but I was starting to get the same feeling I once had in Los Angeles after taking a wrong turning off Sunset Boulevard and finding myself in another world of crumbling houses and burnt-out cars. Nice is renowned for having traffic problems and it seems to me that like Blackpool it’s a fairly unattractive town with a glitzy sea-front attached. To avoid being unpatriotic I should point out that it also lacks wide sands, a tower and donkeys, so of course it doesn’t really measure up to our jewel of the North West. If you ignore the year-round sunshine, that is.

It took nearly half an hour to extricate ourselves and find the coast road, but eventually we made it to the Principality. In the supermarket you can indulge practically every taste from home, with the exception of a few items like custard powder. All those things we’d either run out of or would do so at some point in the future; peanut butter, Marmite, beef suet, icing sugar, soft brown sugar and above all, Cheddar cheese. Italy and France are full of fine cheeses with much to recommend them; we practically live on Gorgonzola at lunchtime but we’ve yet to find a local substitute for Cheddar for cooking. The ones we’ve tried turn into rubber bands and stick to your chin rather than behave themselves and just melt. So we now have a kilo or so of best Cheddar in the freezer alongside the turkey.

The strange convoluted road system of Monaco extends to the underground car park at the Centre Commerciale. Finding the entrance is the first challenge, requiring at least three almost identical circuits of the same part of town, then once inside there’s a baffling array of tunnels heading off in all directions; joining, crossing and re-crossing without giving any sense of the size of the place. Right angles appear to have been banned and having parked we were seriously worried about ever finding the car again. Which would have been a shame, having only had it for two days. But we eventually cracked the code and after wheeling our trolley round a few wrong turnings were able to locate it in the maze.

apricaleWe won’t be completely friendless over the holiday period. There are usually things happening in the piazza, where a bonfire will be lit on Christmas Eve and kept going until Epiphany on January 6. As a taster, on Wednesday evening a fire was lit and the local primary school pupils sang and acted a short play, mostly in Apricalese dialect, though I doubt I’d have understood much of it had it been in Italian. Or even English, given the problems they were having with the radio microphone. It was quite well attended although most of those present were probably parents. At these events it’s best not to go too well dressed and to stand upwind of the bonfire with its frequent flurries of sparks.

Anna is having a Christmas Eve do, also involving a bonfire. Her rented house suffered major leaks in the recent rain and she persuaded the owner to invest in a new roof. The job has just been completed – I must say most beautifully – and all the old roof timbers are out in the garden waiting to be disposed of. She’s resurrected an old stone building housing an oven and barbecue and will do soup and fondue for sixteen people, starting outside round the bonfire and later going indoors. I am to be bonfire-meister, a role for which some of you may consider me to be well-suited, so I’ll have to get down there earlier in the day to clear the area and build the fire. We find Anna to be frighteningly efficient when it comes to entertainment, but I suppose that having lived in a warm climate as a single woman for ten years or more it would be more surprising if she didn’t know how to throw a party in the open air.

marketToday was our last shopping trip before Christmas; this time to the weekly market at Ventimiglia to buy fruit and vegetables and maybe a few items of clothing. On the way down through Apricale we picked up a young-ish lady hitchhiker on her way to the gym in Ventimiglia. She turned out to be a Russian called Svetlana, a waitress at one of the restaurants in the village and a former gymnast from the Urals who has lived in Italy for about ten years. It seems there’s quite a large Russian ex-pat community in San Remo, a sign of the times in a changing world.

On our way to town we found a card waiting in our mailbox (the post is only delivered as far as the chapel about half a mile from here and every house has a small box normally crammed full of circulars) telling us there was an item to pick up from the post office. It turned out to be a lifeline from home, a food parcel from our oldest and dearest friends containing several welcome and difficult-to-obtain items, the king of which was a real Christmas pudding! We’d been discussing whether to buy a pudding of some sort and were ready to make do without, but now the decision is made for us and just like the rest of you we’ll be lolling around on Monday afternoon, over-stuffed and tiddly.

Ventimiglia market was a busy as ever. Although the stores in town have their spring stock in their windows, most of the market stalls were selling pullovers and other winter woolies with no sign of such springtime frivolities. Very sensible, with two of the coldest months yet to come. As usual, most of the customers were French, presumably because there’s nothing comparable on the other side of the border. In the covered fruit and vegetable market we discovered Brussels sprouts, something we’ve not seen in any of the supermarkets. We assumed them to be imported but no, they’re all the way from Albenga, about 50 miles along the coast. That only now leaves parsnips, something we’ve yet to see either here or in France.

The fog that brought Heathrow airport to a halt and threatens the very foundations of Christmas is the result of a huge area of high pressure sitting over the country. Most welcome in summer but at this time of year usually responsible for low temperatures and poor visibility. The same weather system is bringing us clear skies with lots of warm sunshine during the day, but a cold light Northerly breeze; the Tramontana after which we named the house. It’s ideal weather for getting on with chores in the garden, but as yesterday was the winter solstice the dark evenings are long and require a good supply of logs for the stove. I once read somewhere in an article that although December 21 is the shortest day there is some asymmetry, a wobble in the Earth’s orbit, resulting in the mornings continuing to get shorter even as the evenings start lengthening. By observation it seems this may be true; the sun has definitely been disappearing behind the hill a few minutes later than a week or two ago, currently at about a quarter past three, while sunup is still getting a little later each day. According to the article the mornings won’t start to get lighter until some time into January. I intend to be on the case and get the facts.

This is my last diary before Christmas, so may I wish everyone a Buon Natale, thank those who sent us Christmas cards and and apologise for not having sent out any ourselves on grounds of cost. We hope that Santa fills your stockings with just what you wanted, that your Christmas dinners are cooked to perfection and if you are travelling this weekend that the weather doesn’t cause you problems.

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