November 30, 2006
We’re now three weeks from the winter solstice and I’m already longing for the days to start lengthening, just as much as I used to in England. I know, you just can’t please some people. After all, the temperature’s been in the mid teens every day and there’s rarely a breath of wind even up here in the mountains, so I have little reason to complain. But we arrived here in mid September, just as summer was drawing to a close, so it’s difficult to really believe in sizzling summer heat. Yes, of course we know it will come; like July was back home this year only hotter, but right now every day is like a good early October day in England, and after a lifetime of conditioning it’s difficult to banish the fear that lurking in the forthcoming weeks will be icy nights and horizontal drizzle. Although we’ve been told more than once recently how exceptionally warm it is this autumn; that’s a bit worrying. How cold is it usually? I heard this morning that an international ski event in France next week has just been cancelled owing to lack of snow, and on BBC Anglia News the other evening we saw sunshine in Ipswich, so perhaps it’s warm everywhere; perhaps global warming has given Britain that Mediterranean climate a few decades earlier than expected. No, I don’t really believe that; I expect by now you have all the windows and doors taped up against the Arctic winds and galoshes by the front door to deal with the floods.
Over the past weeks the sun has risen progressively further to the right every morning; it’s now some twenty degrees round from where it was at the equinox, appearing over Monte Bignone at nearly half past eight and setting over our own hill just after 3pm. We tend to stay in bed until the patch of gold suddenly appears on the wall beside us, which is not always a good thing as we’re usually up too late to get things done before noon when all the shops close for their three-hour lunch break. On the other hand, if we continue the practice then by June we’ll be rising at around 5am and getting to the shops before they open. It’s really quite difficult to live by the sun and still be part of the modern world, but the climate here makes you want to try. In England of course the sun doesn’t behave with such predictability so it’s much more sensible to simply ignore it and operate by clock time.
Admittedly, rising with the sun is only an option for idle retired folk; one denied those who still have to go to work for a living. But it has another benefit for us as we’re in a limbo state between work and retirement, being unemployed and therefore unwaged for another 16 months until the pension kicks in. (At least we’re no longer homeless as well.) Having to live on savings forces one to look at simple economies, and staying in bed until there’s enough daylight to see by and warmth to function avoids the need for central heating. So far we’ve mostly managed without it; every evening the stove does its job and heats the whole flat, but of course by morning it’s long burnt out and gone cold. So sunrise and the sudden rise in temperature that accompanies it, rather than the automatic switch-on of central heating, is the trigger to start the day.
We were also concerned about our reserves of heating fuel. We have two kinds; wood and propane gas, and when we arrived stocks of both were getting a bit low. We waited until becoming the owners of the house before getting a new contract with the gas supplier, and because the tank was nearing the 10% full mark, until we found a supplier it seemed prudent to avoid the central heating and save the precious stuff for cooking and a good shower every morning. We eventually met the supplier in a local bar – the usual surrogate Italian office – and over a coffee discussed the best deal for our future needs. Anna had always phoned up for gas when the tank ran low, but there’s now a new scheme involving a meter bolted to the wall of the house, with a clever GPRS adapter that every two months sends the reading by telephone to the office in Milan for an invoice to be generated. Every so often a gas tanker stops on its way past the house, and if enough gas has been used they fill the tank for us. So we never have to ring for gas and they don’t have to make any special journeys. Some of the cost saving is passed onto the customer as a lower price for the gas, with an additional discount for being loyal and waiving the right to ask an alternative supplier to fill us up if their price is lower, as we could have done under the old scheme.
That’s gas dealt with, which leaves wood. Round here it’s mainly olive and oak. A stove gets through quite a bit of wood in an evening, requiring a certain amount of logistical planning. There are several stages in the storage of wood on its way to the stove. There’s the stuff you buy ready cut, usually by the lorryload. This is a large amount and has to be kept somewhere reasonably close to the house to avoid excessive to-ing and fro-ing with the wheelbarrow. Not too close, mind, or the place starts to resemble a woodyard. So there’s a smaller store right next to the house, sufficient for the needs of a few evenings. Then there’s the messy pile that grows as the olives are pruned, with sticky-out bits and leaves still attached. This is processed into useful logs and kindling, with the leftovers piled up and burnt on the bonfire patch when they threaten to get out of hand. Because our stove can’t take a log longer than about 30cm everything has to be cut to that size with the chainsaw, then the main logs go to join the stuff that was delivered, and the kindling to a covered area to stay dry and ready to light the stove in the evening. As you may gather we’re complete virgins where solid fuel is concerned, having never needed to heat an entire house this way or to continue doing it year on year from our own trees.
I sometimes wonder if half an acre is enough for all the storage, or if there are enough hours of daylight to deal with all that cutting and lugging around of logs. At least all this is only a winter activity, but it looks like it may be a major one. Oh, and by the way I keep getting complimented on my first effort at olive pruning (see the November 20 entry), although I have to establish each time that yes, I did do it myself. Even if the result looks a bit strange I’m evidently doing what mere foreigners aren’t supposed to be able to do as they’re not blessed with years of training and secrets passed down from father to son.
Another activity is growing things. We made a start on the first part of our vegetable garden (orto, as they call it here, the word from whence we get “horticulture”). The northern end of the terrace on which the house stands has been a junkyard for some time as it doesn’t lead anywhere in particular. At the far end it houses the foul water drainage system; some kind of septic tank that appears never to need emptying and doesn’t have any visible means of doing so anyway. When we arrived most of this terrace was bare earth and rocks but the recent rain, limited as it was, produced a sudden explosion of weed growth, which simply made it look even untidier.
About four terraces up from the one in question is the main fresh water storage tank. The Italian water system is very different to that of the UK; instead of having a metered supply you pay a fixed amount and are delivered a constant dribble, day and night, whether you can use it or not. The actual amount is 50 litres per person per day and it costs a breathtakingly cheap 50 euros a year. So we have a large 15,000 litre tank on one of the higher terraces and let it gradually fill. The float valve doesn’t appear to work so if we don’t use it as fast as it arrives the excess goes to an overflow pipe, which I’ve re-routed so it arrives at the lower terrace to be used to water the orto rather than simply wasted. I’ve since been told it’s illegal to use the drinking water supply for watering; a separate, metered supply is provided for that purpose. But if it’s OK to have four baths a day, why is it not to use a few watering-cans full for the garden? Especially as you can’t use it faster than it arrives. Another mystery of the Italian System.
So the next job was to transform a weed-covered, rock-strewn desert into a passable vegetable garden. This means digging, or perhaps more accurately, excavating. The soil isn’t actually bad, but it’s composed of rocks of varying sizes, from grains of dust and sand through to hernia-inducing boulders suitable for building terrace walls. The trick is to maintain the average size low enough to produce a facsimile of soil. And to grow things that can tolerate rocks or even like them. Carrots and parsnips are definitely out; the local favourites are tomatoes, peppers, zucchini and green beans, but this particular patch is earmarked for Cape Gooseberries, of which I have several packets of seeds. This fruit – related to the tomato – is seemingly unknown in Italy (though to be fair you have to hunt a bit to find it in the UK) but it seems a good candidate as it likes poor soil and plenty of sunshine. I have in mind growing enough to be able to offer them to local restaurants as a speciality dessert. The seeds will be sown in trays in January, potted on then planted out in late March or early April for a summer harvest. There’s no real risk of frost here; we have two lemon trees that survived last winter, the harshest in recent memory.
Digging the garden is hard work. A spade is out of the question; the tool of choice is what I believe used in England to be known as a croom (that’s only a guess at the spelling); a kind of long-handled fork with the tines at right angles. A combination of fork and plough, assisted at times with a pick-axe for when it bounces off buried rocks. The weeds have roots like small parsnips so it’s slow work, but I guess it won’t be as bad again; this terrace hasn’t been touched for years. Hopefully some of the other areas earmarked for growing things won’t be as difficult.
It’s not enough to have the soil dug and water to hand. Just as in England you have to protect your tender crops against unwelcome visitors. Although bands of wild boar aren’t too common in the Home Counties, here they’re a frequent source of damage and it can be risky to encounter them as they come armed with sharp tusks and can be very aggressive. Hunters roam the hills regularly and we often hear the gunshots, the barking of dogs and the tinkling of bells the dogs have to wear to avoid getting shot themselves. In spite of this the cinghiale still pay night visits from time to time in search of roots and berries, especially in winter when it gets cold up in the higher parts of the Alps. You always know when you’ve had a visit as some new part of your garden has had a good digging. Not the part you actually want dug, of course; that would be too much to hope for. So a fence will be needed round anything delicate; mainly as a deterrent, since although a wild boar is strong enough to push in any fence it’s not smart enough to know that it can. Down the hill, Bruno’s fences of thin sticks and netting wave in the breeze but appear to do the job anyway. Or perhaps the cinghiale simply don’t share his taste in produce.
Just in case all this hard work might cause health problems we went to see the doctor. There’s nothing wrong with us other than things nobody can do much about, such as flatulence and old age, but we wanted to see what’s on offer and if we need to register. The surgery is near the village centre, beside one of the steep carruggi that lead up to the piazza, on the ground floor of an unremarkable building rather in need of some maintenance. On the wall outside is a sign advertising an apartment for sale on an upper floor. Convenient. There’s a tatty beige waiting room with a ring of hard chairs round a table bearing a few magazines, but nobody seems to want to use it, preferring to sit on the benches outside where they can smoke themselves unhealthy or watch people passing by and greet them with the usual cheery ciao. Even when it’s raining, as it was that day. There was no receptionist to be seen; just the doctor himself in another sparsely-equipped beige room.
When it was our turn we introduced ourselves and asked about the need to register. I understood only about a third of his reply, but the gist of it was that no registration is necessary. In the event of an emergency we’re covered by our E111 NHS cards under a reciprocal arrangement between our two countries. The situation was less clear regarding non-emergencies; it seems we should present ourselves to the foreigners’ office at the hospital in Ventimiglia. We may be in a kind of limbo until we gain residency status here, but I’ll need to ask other ex-pats to be sure. Fortunately, next door to the surgery is the pharmacy. We’re told Italian pharmacists are doctors themselves and can offer sensible advice on a wide range of problems, and there are apparently three times as many doctors here per head of population as in the UK so perhaps the pharmacies absorb some of the excess. The queue for the doctor always looks short and I suspect that whinging about minor ailments hasn’t been elevated to the same high art as it has in the UK. The consequent need to book 48 hours in advance has yet to reach these parts. As have computers, receptionists and piped music.
Are people healthier here? Tough question. There seem to be a lot of ancient people about, or maybe they just look ancient and are in fact all in their 40s. If sun, fresh vegetables, olive oil and steep hills to walk are good for you then we’re in the right place.
Talking of food, we’ve been here since mid-September and until this week had yet to take ourselves out for a meal. This was for a number of reasons but mostly because we got so used to eating in we never got round to it. Also, we always seem to be in a hurry to get home with perishable purchases. But on Tuesday we found ourselves in Bordighera at lunchtime with time to spare. We’d been doing some shopping, mainly to buy a garden sprayer, the kind you wear on your back and pump with one hand while operating the spray nozzle with the other. There’s a really friendly garden supplies shop in a back street just off the main coast road, with staff that know their products and have time to help you choose the right one, so after buying the said item we went for a walk along the promenade. This is an extended car park and is rarely busy, though I can’t speak for July and August, and it was a lovely day with blue sky and sunshine. There was just one eating establishment open, a pizzeria right on the edge of the beach, so that’s where we went for lunch. The place is aimed squarely at tourists, with wood and gleaming chrome furniture, and only three tables were occupied so we were able to choose one right by the balcony overlooking the sea. Seagulls wheeled around looking for scraps and the sea splashed gently on the shingle below us. Wonderful. I rather suspect this may become a regular event, if not a frequent one.
If there’s any particularly noteworthy feature of life here it’s the market. Shopping is of course an Italian passion and they rarely miss an opportunity to indulge themselves. Every town has a weekly market, where you can buy meat and cheese, fresh produce and clothes. Like in the UK these markets are run by the same people each week and I imagine they guard their patches fiercely.
Every now and then there are other, more impromptu markets such as the one the other day in Dolceacqua. This one was more of a craft market with home-grown produce thrown in. There were stalls selling home-made olive oil soap, home-made soap with marine extracts, soap with almond essence… no excuse to be dirty. Several stalls were selling honey, which we ignored, as you do if you already have some in the larder. On one stall were jars of what turned out to be mature sheep’s cheese, of which the stall-holder offered a small cube on a stick as a taster. Fatal. A powerful, irresistable taste. When I asked how to serve it the answer was with chestnut honey, which by coincidence could also be purchased on the same stall. Chestnut honey? Oh well, it’ll get used up some time, we thought, and bought the smaller of the two sizes available.
When we got home we opened the jar for a quick sample and our taste buds were instantly assaulted by the most wonderful honey flavour. I wouldn’t have identified chestnut in a blind tasting, but whatever processing is done the results are truly amazing. This isn’t our first experience of this nature; on more than one occasion we’ve bought something that ought to be recognisably similar to a mundane product available in the UK, but turns out to be an unexpected taste explosion. One such was fish fingers at the local freezer shop, which are as far from the stuff promoted on TV by the bewhiskered one as you can imagine. And then some. Another is a Ferrero product called Pocket Coffee – a chocolate with a liquid centre that delivers a sudden hit of pure Italian espresso coffee. Highly addictive. Maybe that one is available in the UK and I just never discovered it. Surprises like this are fun; I just wish we’d bought the larger jar of honey but I expect another opportunity will come around. In the mean time we’ll get back to the freezer shop for some more fish fingers.