November 10, 2006
A longer report this time owing to no having a phone line for a couple of weeks. Torrential rain, some cold nights and a small earthquake. But first you have to read some boring stuff. Downstairs, Anna’s belongings were gradually disappearing to the house down the hill, and we did a bit of work in the garden here and there, mainly pruning off some of the olive suckers, while inside the house measuring up for shelves. It was getting really frustrating waiting for essential tools to arrive, and our limited wardrobe drove us to go out and do regular clothes shopping. This strangely seemed to have little effect; we still felt like campers.
In late October we had a short burst of Autumn before summer returned again. For several nights temperatures dipped to as low as 11 or 12 degrees. Well, this is the Mediterranean, and that’s cold compared to normal daytime temperatures. Anyway, we christened the stove in the guest flat with a nice pile of olive branches and couple of bigger logs. It takes only seconds to get the thing lit, and half an hour later it’s pumping out huge amounts of heat. I now have my mind on taking a chainsaw to the olive trees this winter, both because I hear it’s good for them and also to provide fuel for next winter and beyond. In the mean time we’re waiting for a lorry-load of cut logs to arrive to see us through this winter season.
The cool nights were a prelude to another change. For a couple of days the sun shone through hazy skies, then one Saturday at the end of October we had our first serious rain, a whole day without stopping. Sunday saw a few breaks in the cloud, then on the Monday everything became blanketed in grey fog and once again the rain teemed down on and off all day. On Tuesday the sun came out at lunchtime, having spent the morning burning the water off the trees, roads and buildings and giving a quite tropical effect; high humidity and mist in the valleys. It was a glorious afternoon and by late evening the temperature was holding at 15 degrees; no need for a wood fire.
A strange side-effect of the weather – I assume – was the disappearance of most of the local radio stations. There’s only one we actually listen to and although the radio in the car was able to pick it up, neither of the two in the house could hear a thing at that frequency. This went on for about five days, then the signal suddenly returned. I have no rational explanation for the phenomenon.
On October 24 we were just preparing the evening meal when there was an explosive cracking sound accompanied by what felt like a truck ramming the house. It all lasted for three or four seconds. Yes, our first earth tremor. Like the slightly bigger one that happened just before we arrived in September, the epicentre was probably high in the French Alps (so it’s all their fault) and really just a local affair. But it’s been decades since the last earthquake round here and suddenly we have two, albeit rather minor ones. Hmmm. At least the house has a reinforced concrete frame, unlike all those traditional stone buildings, so if a big one comes bits will fall off but it’ll stay up. Major earthquakes in the Southern Alps are rare; the last one was in 1883 or thereabouts. It was however centred near Bajardo, only seven or so miles from here, and wrecked the village, so it’s hard to see us escaping a repetition without needing some serious repairs. These recent ones have been a lot further to the west, nicely positioned to level Monaco in the event of a biggie. Oh well, we could have stayed in East Anglia and worried about sea level rise instead.
On the morning of Wednesday October 25 our stuff arrived! In a huge van that after some jostling back and forth finally managed to squeeze into the parking bay at the top of our drive. It then turned out to be only half full, so a smaller van would have done just as well and been much less of an obstruction. There was barely enough room for the largest vehicle to pass; in this case a truck even bigger than our van, ferrying rocks to mend the road towards Bajardo.
The house was already cleared, washed and polished in readiness but it was difficult to see how everything would have a home. After all, we’re now effectively down from three bedrooms to one, and the guest suite is already fully equipped. We did leave behind obvious things like the second double bed and the dining room suite but it’s not the major items of furniture that cause the problems; it’s the lifetime accumulation of personal stuff; pictures, ornaments, gadgets. Much of it has been stored away in boxes for years and that now has to stop. Anything that doesn’t see the light of day within a year will definitely be chucked. Promise.
Dwayne and Paul unloaded everything in about four hours then set off back to England, leaving us sitting in the sunshine surrounded by dimly-remembered furniture, with rather too many cardboard boxes to fit comfortably into the house and a sneaking suspicion that their contents, once unpacked, wouldn’t either. Just as well the rain was now over with no more expected for the time being; our front garden was now an overflow storage area. Up till now we always had an attic, a garage and sheds to fill with outdoor stuff; now we only have a small outhouse so it all lies around waiting for a home. I have some construction ideas for when I finish more pressing DIY tasks, but until then the clutter will squeeze in here and there or simply be left outside under a tarpaulin.
The days that followed are a bit of a blur. For three of them I was building and fitting shelves in the pantry to replace the rickety steel shelves that were previously there. Then the men from Telecom Italia disconnected the phone line and moved it down the hill to Anna’s house. We immediately applied for a new number and were allocated one right away, but had to wait for a couple of weeks to have it connected, hence the long delay in finishing this diary entry. At some point we got fed up with commuting back and forth between our two flats and moved everything to the lower one, tidying it up just enough to be able to live in it.
When we finally unpacked things we found a few breakages in the glassware; five in total, but most annoyingly one per set, so we now have lots of sets of five instead of six. Oh well, the plan was to use the stuff – not keep it as a museum – so breakages were inevitable anyway.
Outside the house life goes on around us. A French Porsche owners club included us on the route of one of their weekend tours and for ten minutes or so we were treated to the sight and sound of expensive machinery wending its way up the hill to Bajardo.
The other day the Naked Harvester came to lay out the nets round the the olive trees on the terraces below us. We’d been (unreliably) informed that this gentleman was in the habit of stripping off before starting work, but Frances was most disappointed to find him working fully clothed. I chatted with him for a while and was told the olives were barely worth the trouble of collecting this year as most of the crop had already fallen off in the long dry summer and what’s left is of rather poor quality. Down the road, Bruno is also debating whether or not to bother collecting, so we’ll probably leave the crop this year and do a good job of pruning instead. It’s a shame to see such waste but expensive to get someone in compared to the likely value obtained. Our trees are in need of drastic pruning, which as noted above will result in useful firewood. Fallen olives are rather messy as they take a while to decompose and leave black oily marks on anything they touch, but the cost of collecting them is significant, olive oil is cheap in the supermarket and our taste buds aren’t yet sensitized to be able to appreciate the difference in quality of our own crop.
A major milestone was reached when I set up the satellite dish, and for the first time in nearly two months we could once again enjoy our favourite TV and radio programmes. The news seems a little strange, perhaps even foreign, but then so does stories about Mafia killings in Naples. It’s all far removed from day-to-day life in the Ligurian hills. Anyway, thanks to Rupert Murdoch’s FreeSat package we can experience life through the box just as if we were living in Norwich. No it’s not strictly legal; it contravenes the terms of the Sky licence that restricts them to broadcasting to the UK. But who’s checking?
Last Saturday Anna rang to ask if we’d like to go to a concert of Gregorian chanting in Ventimiglia. Hmmm, lacks a certain amount of wow factor but why not, as our Italian friends Mauro and Carla, a sweet elderly couple who live up the road, up the road were going too. The event was held in a church in the Old Town, high up on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean with the lights of Menton and Monaco to one side and Ventimigila to the other.The performers comprised a dozen or so people of both sexes, who sang – without any accompaniment – a dozen or so pieces from the 12 to the 17th centuries, with an introduction (in Italian) before each piece. As is the way of these things the evening turned out to be much more interesting than we might have guessed and it was free to boot. I’d always associated Gregorian chants with stuffy and boring religious dirges, but I was evidently wrong as most of the songs, although obviously devotional, were quite jolly. It was all over in just over an hour, and we might then have accepted an invitation to go back for drinks with Mauro and Carla but for the need to get up earlier than usual for an organized walk the following morning.
The other day I discovered a notice pinned up on a door in Apricale, advertising a Sunday walk along a recently reopened path linking several old olive mills. Lunch was also organized – naturally – so I rang to book a couple of places. On the day about 50 people turned up and we all set off down a path to the “torrente”. This translates as “stream” but can be a little misleading since at some times of the year it carries huge amounts of rainwater or snow melt. The path connects Apricale with its neighbour Perinaldo, but we weren’t going that far, just along the stream for a while before turning back to the village.
There are two Roman bridges across the stream, about a mile apart, and a succession of pools and glades among the trees making it a pleasant place to escape the summer heat. The tour included two guides, one an expert on wild plants and their uses in the kitchen, and along the way he collected a dozen or so species such as thyme and sage. We smelt wild garlic a couple of times though we couldn’t spot the source. It was difficult to follow the commentary, of course, as it was full of so many special Italian names for things, but we managed to chat in a mixture of languages with some of our companions.
Along the way we passed a couple of derelict mills, evidence of the importance of these places to the economy in days gone by. The owner of the one shown here refused several offers from potential buyers a few years ago, but since then the roof has fallen in and the place is now all but unsellable. This is not untypical of the area; families tend to hang on to old buildings long after they have any economic value and neglect essential maintenance, ignoring the loss of potential income from selling up. The process can be seen in the place Anna is renting just down the hill from us; the owner is now in her 80s and invalided to a flat in Ventimiglia, and her family have little interest in the place beyond using it for weekend parties. It’s starting to fall apart and is quite likely to look like this mill in a decade or two.
November 7th was the day to “do the act” – in other words complete the purchase of our house. I already had a bank draft for the required amount, and the procedure was to meet at the office of the notary – a person acting on behalf of the state and not representing one side or the other – to go through the contract, number all the appendices, collect signatures on all documents, hand over the bank draft and pay various fees to the estate agent, to the notary and of course to the state for the equivalent of stamp duty. Albeit much the poorer we are now at last the owners of our house! To celebrate, lunch in Bordighera out on the pavement in the Autumn sunshine. Lots of things yet to do, like tell the commune we are the new owners (so they can address tax demands to us), apply to the police for permission to stay in Italy (you have to show you have adequate means and aren’t simply planning to live off the state) and buy a car (most dealers want to see the permission to stay). Miles of red tape, but that’s the way in Latin countries.