A WEST COAST FARM – PART THREE – OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Sometimes visitors came to Geelbek, but this was very, very rare. We had a long white chalk road and eighteen gates to open. We did not have cattle grids where you could drive around the gate and be lazy. I can remember very few visitors, and the one that stands out most in my mind is the one that dropped in out of the sky …

My brother John, and me, on "the one that dropped in out of the sky"
My brother John, and me, on “the one that dropped in out of the sky”

It was evening time and we were standing under one of the big date palms that flanked either side of the gables when we heard the droning of an aeroplane. Then suddenly it came into sight – a big fat-bellied plane of a dull colour. It flew low low over the hedges and then circled and flew even lower, belly flopping along the long hedge that ran parallel to the lagoon. It disappeared behind the hedge, near the grain silo, and out of sight. Suddenly there was a loud bang.

My father, grandfather and the farm workers rushed up to the top field and there, belly down in the field, was the plane, intact. I do not think that the pilot was injured but I do not remember him. Just the horrible feeling of seeing the plane lying there and wondering if there was anybody hurt inside, or if it was suddenly going to burst into flames.

Sometimes my cousins used to visit, and I loved it. They would come for the week-end and we would play all day. These cousins were all older than me, and I had to run to keep up. They would pile out of the car, quickly kiss Grandpa and Granny hello, and be off, careering down the farm track that ran parallel to the lagoon – for further along this track were the workers’ cottages, and more importantly for us, children.

These cottages were quite square, with a stable door in the middle and fat chimneys on the outside. Each had two small windows opposite the door. They stood right at the end of the great avenue of eucalyptus trees, and from there you could look over the wetlands, across to the water lapping at the edge of the lagoon.

There weren’t many houses, maybe three, but in there lived the loveliest of families. They were the Blaauw families, gentle people whose history went back as far as the Cape itself. Old Leah, our cook was a Blaauw, and beautiful Lena, our nanny, whose tiny baby Kathy was learning to crawl along the flagged stones of the kitchen floor. I suppose you could even say kind and simple Mot, the foundling, was now a Blaauw.

"Sometimes my cousins used to visit ..."
“Sometimes my cousins used to visit …”

On one of my cousin’s visits I remember reaching old Leah’s house, and wanting to run inside, wanting to see what she had in store for us. Sometimes she would have a huge blackened pot bubbling on the wood stove and she would give us waatlemoen konfyt, all crispy and dripping with sugar.

But this time she was leaning over her stable door, and she called out, ‘Kindjies, jy moet nie vandag inkom nie. Vanmore ek het mis op die vloer gesmeer and dis nog nat.’ ‘Little children, you must not come inside today. I have smeared manure on the floor and it is still wet.’ Cow manure used to be mixed with water until it formed a paste, and then smeared on the floor. I never remember it having any smell at all, and it soon formed a solid base, almost like cement.

Mealtimes were always busy. We had a long wooden refectory table that could take eighteen or twenty people. Once on a Sunday a visitor came unexpectedly. He was a travelling person, and I think he may have been selling something. My grandfather asked him to join us for Sunday lunch, and we all sat down. It was roast lamb, and potatoes, and vegetables. The visitor sat on my grandfather’s left, and I sat opposite him, minding my manners very carefully.

The visitor and my grandfather got into a very involved discussion about farming, and I sat, entranced – for as my grandfather was talking the visitor was slowly and carefully positioning his peas all along his knife, from the handle to the tip. Once they were all perfectly balanced, he steadily lifted the knife until it was level with his mouth, then tilted it, and unbelievable! The peas went rolling down his throat. Nobody seemed to notice, but I was lost in admiration.

‘You must never, ever, stare,’ my grandmother told me afterwards, ‘even if you see the most extraordinary things, it appears very rude in a small girl.’

If visitors were scarce at that time, paid ones were like hen’s teeth. Once I became very ill. I had a fever. I shivered and shook, and was cold and hot. My mother was very worried, and by next morning I was covered in hundreds of little spots. My mother wanted to get me to the doctor, but my father, thinking of the eighteen gates and my chronic car sickness, decided on a contingency plan:

At that time we had the most beautiful black stallion. He was a great big horse with fine strong muscles and a magnificent body, and his name was Kim. He had cost a lot of money and he was sick. Three times that week the vet had been, and he was to come again the next morning. ‘That’s it then,’ said my father, ‘the vet must have been trained in all sorts of sicknesses and spots aren’t too difficult to diagnose.’ I was terrified of this vet coming and I couldn’t sleep that night. I had seen the huge horse needles that he jammed into Kim’s flank.

"... the most beautiful black stallion ... Kim ..."
“… the most beautiful black stallion … Kim …”

He arrived the next morning and I could hear him having coffee on the veranda with my father and my grandfather. Then they went outside, to see Kim first, and I suffered even longer. Finally he arrived. He touched my head and looked at my spots. ‘She’s got measles,’ he said. ‘She mustn’t come into contact with other children.’

The next day my cousins arrived and I had the most miserable time – for they wandered all around the farm and I had to trail a safe distance behind them.

Years later I got measles again, so I do not think that the spots that vets are trained to see are the same ones as in humans.

 

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A WEST COAST FARM – PART TWO – WILD PIGS AND STRONG HUNTERS

‘Never have anything to do with horses’, my father would say. ‘there are only three things that are worth knowing about them: They bite in the front, they kick at the back, and they are bloody uncomfortable in the middle.’ My father didn’t like them when he was put onto Geelbek, and he held this dislike until he left.

Geelbek ...
Geelbek gates…

At first my father would take my mother out riding, and I can remember them setting off in the afternoon, and leaving me behind with my grandmother … my father with his sandy hair and fair skin, and my mother with her blue-black hair and her beautiful olive skin.

There had never been anyone else in my father’s life. He liked to tell me about other girls that fancied him, and how he had fallen asleep on a farm road once after taking a local girl out, and he had woken up as the old Chev car came to a standstill between two gum trees, but even then I knew that this was just talk that men do.

My mother was quite a bit younger than my father, and in those days he treated her as something very, very special… he was tremendously generous and kind, but even then he could be hasty with his words.

‘Teddy’ my mother’s mother once said to him, ‘I only hope that when you get to heaven the good Lord judges you by your deeds and not by your words, because if He doesn’t, you surely won’t get in.’

My mother was never as adventurous as my father, and she loved her home and home-making more than anything else. One afternoon when they were returning from a ride she kicked the gate open with her foot and the stirrup got tangled up in the gate latch and she was dragged off her horse. I don’t think she was hurt, but she never rode again. And as I got older I was never allowed to ride either. ‘A horsey woman that smells of the stables is not what I want for a daughter’, my father would say, and the matter would be closed.

When I couldn’t be with my father and my mother was busy, I used to wander around the farmhouse with my grandmother. It had an enormous kitchen, with a big open fireplace. Outside it had a funny little square thatched building. This was the meat house, for we had no fridges. The meat house had gauze windows and no glass, so that the wind could blow through and cool the inside. It had a heavy door and inside there used to be all sorts of hanging things – hams, a dead steenbok, or a whole lamb. I do not think that we ate the wild pigs, but there were plenty of them on the farm.

In the afternoon my grandfather used to put me on his lap and tell me stories about hunting these pigs, and how they ran down into tunnels in the reeds and how he and my father had to belly crawl down the tunnels slowly slowly after the pig. And then ‘whoosh …’ the pig would come careering up the tunnels at full charge and they were in danger.

"... my grandfather used to put me on his lap and tell me stories about hunting these pigs ..."
“… my grandfather used to put me on his lap and tell me stories about hunting these pigs …”

‘Quickly, quickly, shoot it!’ he’d cry and drop back into silence, and I would think how I had nearly lost my grandfather and my father to this terrible wild pig.

He, my father, and my uncles, all hunted a lot. They went to Botswana in a huge caravan, and were gone for many months. Then they would come back and hang biltong on lines up on the ceiling in the kitchen above the Aga stove. ‘Every hunter needs to be a conservationist,’ my grandfather would say, ‘because if you like to hunt you must look after your game and make sure that there is plenty again for next year.’

I used to think that these hunters in my family were very strong and powerful, and never in our household at that time did the womenfolk ever question their authority. Even my mother. The women’s work was to look after the home and the children, and that was the order of things.

My grandmother ... was the head of the house ...
My grandmother … was the head of the house …

My grandmother was the head of the house, she did the ordering and the catering, and that too was the way things were. Once the routine of the house was on the go, my grandmother would work in her garden. She had a little trowel for me, and I remember working busily alongside her. I remember too the smell of lavender and rosemary, and the huge bumble bees that used to hover around my green-lined khaki sunhat.

Once I found a tiny bird, I think that it must have fallen out of one of the finches’ nests. Grandmother and I took it into the house, and we found an old shoe-box. I layered this with dried grass and placed the little bird into it. Granny taught me how to chew white bread into pappy bits, and then hold its beak to my mouth and prize the tiny beak open with my tongue, pushing the bread in. But the little bird died the next day. I don’t remember crying.

Perhaps the rhythm of farm life and the harshness of the environment makes people tougher.

Once my grandfather had the most terrible argument with my grandmother, with the whole house, I do not know what it was about, but I can still feel the atmosphere and the trembly sound. He took himself off to his room, across the coir matting of the big enclosed veranda, up his little stairs where the gabled wing was, and shut the door.

He did not come out for three whole days. I thought he might be dead. Nobody said anything, and when no-one was looking I would climb the stairs and sit quietly, quietly, curled up next to the door to see if I could detect signs of life. The most amazing thing of all was that my grandmother would take him his food. Three times a day she would dish up a plate of food for him, and silently place it outside the door. She didn’t knock, she just went away.

Then, later, the plate was back outside the door, empty.

 

© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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A WEST COAST FARM – PART ONE – OF MISTS AND MEMORIES

Along with his brothers, my father owned a brickfield.  It was situated on the back slopes of Table Mountain, where the stone pines lie down in obedience to the wind, and the Tahrs sometimes stray. My very first memories of this father of mine were him coming home late at night.  He used to stand at the kitchen door leading in from the yard and take off his big brown working boots that stretched up past his ankles.  All I could see of his face were two white patches around his eyes, and the rest seemed to be mud, or a sort of packed clay.  That was when the kiln gave trouble, and he was so tired.  I used to run and give him the pumice stone so that he could scrub his hands at the kitchen sink, and my mum used to run his bath.

Then he would come and sit, all steaming clean in the lounge, and drink a glass of witblits. I used to mix it for him and the smell was amazing – a tot of witblits in the bottom of the glass, a level spoon of sugar and hot, hot water from the tap.

What steamed up from that glass was something like liquorice and there was always a sense of awe about making this drink because my father was one of the most law abiding people I knew. ‘Always tell the truth,’ he would say, ‘and then you will see that the trouble is not half as bad as the worry about keeping quiet.’ But having this witblits was against the law.

Having this witblits was against the law fixed
“… witblits was against the law.”

My father got his supply from a friend who lived high up in the mountains at a mission station. She was the primary school teacher there and twice a year she would come into Cape Town, and on these visits she would bring these huge glass bottles with handles on their necks. They were filled with this ‘white lightning’ and my father would laugh and thank her and say she must be one helluva teacher, not like they had in his day.

Then he would lift the Persian rug in our hallway. Under that there was a neat square cut into the wood. You could hardly see it, but then two of my father’s brothers were carpenters and they were all good with their hands.

Down into the ‘smokkelgat’ the precious witblits would go. The doctor told my mother that my father should sit down every night and have a drink before he had his supper otherwise he would never sit down. But she couldn’t get him to have a drink because in the war he used to swop all his cigarettes for whisky, and that way he got to drink a bottle a day. When he came back from the war his nickname was ‘Whisk’.

That was because of his little fox terrier, my father told me. ‘That’ll be the day!’ said my mother. Anyway, one way or another my father never drank whisky again after the army. ‘Your mother’s too beautiful,’ he used to say. ‘I spent eight years away from her in the desert, and I’m not going to lose her now.’

The brickfields had belonged to my grandfather, and when I think very hard I can remember beyond my father, to the time when my grandfather was alive, and we all lived on a farm. I can’t remember what he looked like, but I can remember his presence very well. He seemed a very strong man and I think he ruled our house completely.

This farm was on the edge of the Langebaan lagoon and it was called Geelbek. This was after a fish like that, although I never saw one. The locals called the farm Twee Gewels, because the front facing the lagoon had two huge white gables. When the sun was setting over Churchaven way the gables glinted and shone right across the water.

29 Geelbek gables in colour fixed
Geelbek – “the front facing the lagoon had two huge white gables”

My grandfather had bought the farm just after I was born, and he ran horses on it. My father and my mother had to pack up their little house in Mowbray and move to this farm so that my father could help run it. But my grandfather ran it very well and my grandmother ran the house very well too, so there was plenty of time for me.

It was here that my brother was born, and it was here that I began to run free with my father. I was his shadow and where he went, I went. This was to cause me great trouble later, as no boyfriend was going to be readily accepted. But right then we spent our days together.

Of the children living on the farm I only remember Louise and Mot. Mot’s real name was Moses. Old Leah, our cook, had named him that. One misty morning she had been walking along the edge of the lagoon – along that part where the flamingoes stand on one leg and the mists roll in from the sea. At first she thought that the sound she heard was the thin wail of the seabirds, but there was something about that cry that tugged at her heart. She stopped and listened.

Something about that cry was terribly wrong. There it was again, a thin cry – the cry of the vulnerable, the unprotected primordial cry for help – and it was coming from the very edge of the lagoon.

With that old Leah lifted her long skirt, and set off into the swirling mists, her stout boots stumbling over the strong tufted reeds as she ran. And there, right on the edge of the water, in a small clearing in amongst the bullrushes she found him. A tiny baby wrapped tight in swaddling clothes and placed carefully in an old wooden crate. There was nothing with him to show where he had come from. Nothing.

Old Leah tucked the baby under the warmth of her overcoat and set off for home, her rough coat wet around her ankles. Over the reeds she stepped, and across the salt marshes she tramped, until she reached the row of tall eucalyptus trees. Finally, surrounded by her family, and in the glow and warmth of the old wooden stove, she opened her coat and placed the baby on the kitchen table for all to see. ‘I found him in amongst the bulrushes’ she said ‘His name is Moses, and now he has found us.’

By the time I remember Mot I think that he was about eleven, and everybody thought that he was a bit simple. ‘Mot is nie reg in die kop nie – Mot’s not right in the head,’ they would say. But for me he was just fine. He had taken to following me wherever I went, and my father was quite happy about this, as he felt that with Mot by my side I could come to no harm. So every morning I would wait for Mot and then the two of us would start our adventures.

_39_His_name_is_Moses_converted
“His name is Moses …” Mot, seated on the left.

First we would go past the big dam where my cousins used to swim and sail in a tin canoe when they came visiting. Then we would walk along the sandy path and under the huge flowering gum tree to the gate in the hedge. I hated going through this gate, because there, on the other side, were the geese, with their long craning necks and forward pointing beaks, and they would hisssss – and peck your bare brown legs if you didn’t run fast.

But beyond the gate was the farm manager’s wife, Mrs Ferreira, and Louise, who was my age. Mrs Ferreira’s kitchen was small and cozy and always smelt of bread baking. She was a very large woman and she would cut big, thick slices of bread and spread them with goat’s fat and give them to us. I was always skinny and pale, and I think she thought that the big house fed me on quite the wrong diet. Then off we would go, after my father, to look at the horses.

I was completely in love with the horses fixed
“I was completely in love with the horses …”

I was completely in love with the horses. We had lots and lots, and most of them were wild. I can remember them running free, across the reeds and wetlands when the tide was out, their manes streaming out behind them and the mists swirling around them. In the mists they snorted, and the sound seemed to magnify and carry itself across to where I would be perched on a fence with Mot, Louise and my father.

 

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The Cape Honey Bee … Survival of the Fittest?

... waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain ...
… waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain …

Cape rain is like no other rain I know. In the wintertime great drops of water pour out of the sky. Day after day waterfalls come thundering down the back of Table Mountain, down Skeleton Gorge, down Nursery Ravine and down every other ravine they can find. Go out and you get very wet indeed. But what mattered most this past winter is that the land got wet. Slowly the devastated and burnt earth started to come alive again. Fine pale green shoots of grass appeared and then the rest …

the rest fixed
… and then there’s …
rest 2 fixed
… the rest …

 

There’s a phone call from the Cape to London. ‘I’ve been down to the houses and had a look at your hive. I’m afraid there’s nothing going on.’ It’s my brother John, and it’s September. In October we are back in Cape Town for a precious few days, and once there,  I don’t make the trip down to the healing veld on the tip of Africa. It’s a short visit, and back on the plane to London I say to myself ‘Well, this trip I really had no time.’ But if I am honest I did not want to go …

What’s the point? They’ve gone.

Then,  in December, we fly back to the Cape again. This time we land flat-bang into the hurly-burly of the pre-Christmas season. Christmas comes. With it arrives family from far and wide. All want to be together in this isolated place, where the antelope and the zebra roam, and the wild Atlantic Ocean runs roughshod onto the rocks. Christmas goes. Family and friends depart.

And still I do not go to my hive.

We’re all getting old now, my cousins and I. Time to dream, and time to do what you have always wanted to do. After the fire one of my cousins becomes passionately interested in bee-keeping. For some reason all my cousins have nick-names. This one’s Bulldog. Bulldog does a lot of research, and in the spring of the September sunshine he brings two ‘Best’ hives down. Not wanting to disturb our fragile eco-system in any way he simply spreads bee-lure on the inner frames and leaves them empty. ‘A leap of faith and some swarm looking for a home may just take occupation …’ he tells me.

The Best hives are near the skip, a far distance away from my hive. When I was a child there was no such thing as a skip. Behind each house we dug deep dirt-holes in the veld. All rubbish went into those holes, everything, and although there was no such thing as recycling, we had our own very special recycling team. The baboons. Into the dirt-holes they would go, happily tossing out tins, fish bones, bottles and paper – until they found the tasty bits of water melon skins, sweetie papers and anything else suited to a baboon palate.

... the skip ...
… a regular skip …

But now we have a regular skip, brought down by a commercial firm. It has two sturdy lids and a strong locking bolt so that no domestic debris can be strewn across the veld. Not much fun for our baboon recycling team, but at least they won’t need a dentist.

... I am worried about my cousins siting ...
… I am worried about my cousins siting …

Late one afternoon I walk over to the skip, carrying some rubbish. I am worried about my cousin’s siting of these new Best hives. In my opinion they are too close to the skip, and it is in the way of their natural ‘bee-line.’ When a new worker leaves the hive for the first time, he plots his position, rather like a GPS. From then on he will push his personal sat-nav button and come straight in from there. This skip is a clumsy great thing in the way.

I struggle to lift the lid of the skip. The wind is howling and the lid is heavy. I just manage to hurl the rubbish in. ‘The Cape Doctor is really here in force’ I think. The Cape Doctor is the local name for the prevailing summer wind … frequently gusting 60 – 70 knots. Locals say not only does the south-easter blow all the rubbish into the sea, it blows the germs in too.

I turn into the wind to look at cousin Bulldog’s hives. For the past ten days I’ve looked at them, but there is nothing there, no sign of life. Even if I bang on the lid. The two hives have their backs to the south-easter but they are very exposed. Even when the veld eventually grows up, these will still be on the flat grass, with no hope of protection. I watch the hive nearest the sea. ‘Perhaps he has put them here and not under the protection of new bush so that , if we have another fire, they won’t meet the same fate as mine’ I think.

Then, still leaning against the skip for protection, I see a bee career past me. It looks as if it is on a roller-coaster ride as it does a spectacular loop-de-loop and heads straight into the  hive on the sea side. ‘Crikey’ I think, ‘some-one’s moved in!’ Later my son Anton goes and sits on the grass and watches. Yes, they’re in.

And still I do not go to my own hive. I just can’t bear to.

Rather, in the still of the evening, when the wind has died down somewhat, I walk across to my cousins’ house to see my god-daughter, Glen. We sit on the verandah and catch up. I love this god-daughter and I seldom see her. She lives in Johannesburg and has some friends with her. ‘We’re from Jozies,’ they say. I tell them about the new occupants in Bulldog’s hive, and then about the utter tragedy of my swarm. I tell them about nine months ago. About the blackened nucleus of brood that I found, about the burnt and stunned wingless bees I saw, about the few precious drops of honey, and finally about the survivors. Then I tell them about the robbers I saw a week later …

‘Robbers? What do you mean robbers?’ asks Glen. ‘Well, if a swarm is weak, other nearby bees will take advantage and rob them.’ I explain. ‘Unbelievable!’ says one friend from Jozies, ‘Do you think that is what happened? How can you be sure that they were robbers? How can you even tell the difference between a robber bee and an ordinary bee?’ Now Johannesburg is a city with one of the world’s highest crime rates, so I should not have been surprised at the answer. ‘Easy!’ said another Jozies resident, ‘They wear balaclava’s and carry a revolver between their wings. They fly in and clean your house out.’

‘Nonsense!’ said the Cape contingent, ‘These are Cape robbers. They just move in and “borrow” the booze.’ ‘Well, call it what you may,’ I laughed, ‘my Cape robbers did a pretty good job, and now there is nothing. In fact I have not even been back to the hive, I just cannot bear to stand there and imagine all that suffering for nothing.’

With that my god-daughter Glen gets up and walks across to my chair. ‘Yes you can.’ she said, ‘You see where the sun is now? Just above the horizon? Well before it sinks into the sea, you will come back and tell us what you have found in your hive.’

In the final glow of the evening I walk through the veld. All around me is a soft carpet of green. In amongst the bare white sand tufts of vlei grass have appeared, and exquisite little veld flowers. Like sentries high above them stand the blackened branches of the giant protea and leucodendrum bushes. They’re full of charcoal, and spiky. I pass them cautiously, pushing a path through to my hive. I stand to one side, watching the entrance, and thinking about that terrible fire months ago. What actually went on in that burnt old hive, I wonder? And what did happen to that tiny nucleus of bees and molten honey that I, perhaps foolishly, tried to save? The hive is still tied down against the wind and the wild animals, and the little orange plastic bowl that I filled with water still lies stuck in the blackened sand.

For me evening time is a quiet time, a sombre time, a time for reflexion. Homecoming time. And that is exactly what I saw. Suddenly one, two, three beautiful bees – for all the world a working team, appeared out of nowhere, their little legs laden with pollen. They settled comfortably on the entrance that I had reduced for them months before. Then they stepped inside.

settled comfortably
… their little legs laden with pollen …

A new swarm? Hardy descendants of the old swarm? Survivors of fire, of robbers, of black ants and of baboons?

Walking back towards the warm light of my god-daughter’s house I could not help but feel that they are indeed the survivors … for surely only the tough pull through on this unforgiving tip, at the very edge of the African continent.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 26 – ‘Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …’

‘Oh the weather outside is frightful, but the fire is so delightful, and since we’ve no place to go – let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.’ Not quite so fast, Dean Martin! For as far back as I can remember, while the battery operated radio belted out tinkly stuff of reindeers racing over snowy roofs, our family was perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. This is in the Cape, where the hot sun shines down on a sparkly sea.

... the bontebok in the veld ...
… the bontebok in the veld …

Our reindeers were the bontebok in the veld, and thanks to a very old fashioned mum, we bravely tackled an enormous Christmas day meal right slap bang in the middle of the day. Turkey, suckling pig, chicken, brandy butter and fruit pudding all swallowed down in the boiling midsummer heat. ‘It must be so easy in the cold,’ we kids would gasp, as we tottered from table back to beach.

So imagine my excitement when we planned our first Christmas in our very own piece of rural Tuscany. Some children could make it, and some precious cousins too. ‘We’ll buy a tree and put it near the arched door in the dining room,’ I said, ‘and we’ll decorate it beautifully. We’ll have stockings hanging from the mantel piece above the fire, and serve mulled wine to all who come through our door.’

‘At long last we’ll tackle that wretched roast turkey in a proper climate,’ I thought, ‘and finally I won’t feel as if that stuffed bird has transferred its aggression to me.’

‘I really hope it snows,’ I said to Liam, ‘… we’ll have walks in the snowy woods and on Christmas Day we’ll walk up the steep chalk road to the little church and sing hymns – it doesn’t matter if we’re not Catholic.’ ‘If it snows like that,’ laughed Liam, ‘no-one will get up our road – and I am not sure how easy it will be to have a traditional English Christmas. In the first place I bet you won’t find brussels sprouts, and thank heavens for that. Come to think of it – what do Italians eat for Christmas?’

Very soon our family had flown in, and our cousins had flown in, and the house was filled with laughter and expectation. One morning we slipped and slid up the rainy road and managed to get to the butcher in Greve. It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling, and meat and sausages and cheeses wherever you look.

It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling
It’s a wonderful place with hams hanging tightly from the ceiling …

‘Buongiorno!’ I said to the man serving, ‘We would like a smoked gammon and a turkey please.’ ‘Why?’ asked the man. ‘Well, it’s Christmas in a few days and I want to cook them.’ I said. ‘Why you want to cook them?’ he asked.

Wondering if they had got extra staff in for Christmas I decided to spell it out, patiently: ‘Well, my grandmother taught me how to cook the smoked gammon.’ I said. ‘I do it with beer and mustard and it is delicious … and as for the turkey, well nobody actually likes it but it’s traditional.’ ‘No, no, no,’ he said, ‘You don’t understand! In Italy, I cook. You eat. You must tell me what you want and I cook it for you and you fetch it.’

‘Done deal!’ I said, happily dismissing hours of work in the kitchen. ‘You don’t’ by any chance mean the turkey too?’ By this time Liam had gotten interested. ‘Actually I was thinking of a chicken and a duck as well,’ he said.

‘I will prepare them for you,’ the man replied. I will roll the turkey and the chicken in one, and for you I will also roll a guinea fowl and a duck together. You can put both rolls in the oven at the same time.’ ‘Let’s leave the oven out of this,’ said Liam, ‘I think we’ll barbecue them.’ We had used the oven once or twice but it seemed to make funny bomb-like noises and nobody really trusted it.

‘No meat to prepare or cook.’ I thought, ‘How wonderful.’

piled high with box upon box of panettone
… piled high with box upon box of panettone …

‘Shall we head for the supermarket and see if we can buy a Christmas pudding?’ I said. ‘Nobody likes that either.’ said Liam, who had clearly put it in the turkey category. He was in luck. The supermarket was piled high with box upon box of panettone.

This is what we have for Christmas.’ said the teller, ‘It’s light and fluffy and just the thing after a big meal. Serve it with a bit of vin santo or limoncello and just relax.’

Relax? On Christmas Day? How wonderful.

Back home I ducked under our neighbour Manuela’s cold damp washing and climbed the steep stairs to Manuela and Pasquale’s. I love it up there – there’s a middle room as you enter, and all other rooms lead off from this. In the wintertime Manuela and her mother-in-law sit around the kitchen drawing warmth from the ancient wood stove. There’s generally an old relative nodding in a corner rocker and Pasquale beetles in and out bringing in the cold, the wet and the mud.

‘Where do I buy a Christmas tree?’ I asked. The assembled aged looked at me curiously. ‘You can’t plant a tree now.’ they said, ‘The ground is too cold and it will die.’ ‘No,’ I explained, ‘I want a pine tree that is chopped down – a ‘Christmas tree’ – one that I buy in order to decorate.’ ‘Not here,’ they said, ‘that would be a waste of the tree. Here we buy some outside lights, and then we find our best tree closest to the house and put the lights in it.’

‘That tree with the blue trunk, the one on the terrace that old Enzio painted for you, that is the tree to choose.’ came the advice from the old boy on the rocker.

‘No meat to cook, no pudding to make – and now no decorations to bother about.’ I called as I came back through our door. ‘How simply unbelievable. All we need to do is concentrate on the real meaning of Christmas.’

‘Let me do the decorations.’ said my daughter in law, and she put on her wellington boots and headed for the woods. Soon she was back with an armful of woodland magic … the brown leaves of the oaks, the fallen acorns, the orange berries of the pyracanthus and the dark blue berries of the juniper bush. She placed them in the middle of the long dining room table, winding some in and around the plates and cutlery.

‘It’s as if the woods have come in to dine with us!’ I said. ‘How wonderful.’

In the evening we put our names in a hat and chose our stocking. We hung them on the mantel piece. Then Liam and our son hung the lights in the blue-trunked tree. ‘Not too early tomorrow morning!’ I said to Angela, a young of heart cousin of barely contained excitement.

It seemed as if I had barely closed my eyes when there was a tap on my door and a quiet voice was saying ‘Merry Christmas.’ ‘Oh Angela, it’s too too early.’ I said ‘Do go back to bed and try and sleep just a little longer.’ ‘I can’t.’ came the voice, ‘You must get up. You simply must come and see.’ I threw on my gown and she took my hand and led me down the steep winding stairs. Downstairs with the huge arched windows all around us, we stood, transfixed …

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow ...
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow …

‘Oh the weather outside is frightful but the fire is so, delightful, and since we’ve no place to go – let it snow let it snow let it snow …’

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 25 – Let the Light Eternal …

splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea
… splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea …

Born firmly on African soil, we grew up as African children do, running through wild acres of the veld and splashing in and out of the Atlantic sea. The languages, culture and experience of Europe passed us by. Totally. We learnt no French, no Spanish and no Italian. There was little chance of classical music, opera or art museums.

As the South African comedian Pieter Dirk Uys once explained ‘Africa was our whole world and it engrossed us completely. As a child I had a map of Africa on the wall next to my bed, and if I turned it upside down, then South Africa was on the top, and Europe stayed under the duvet. That was good.’

‘I’m going to learn French!’ I announced to Liam when I first arrived in London. ‘I know that it is at a very late age indeed, but I think my brain can take it.’ ‘Excellent,’ he said ‘go off and learn French so that you can speak Italian.’ ‘How odd is that?’ I thought. The French and all they stand for had long been a romantic dream of mine. At university I crooned away to Edith Piaf’s Milord, and smoked French cheroots. ‘Now I can go to Paris and sit in a night club and be – oh so – oh la la — French!’ I thought. So, for about three years, I battled through acres of French verbs never really knowing what was potting.

Then we bought Fontana. Out went the French and in came the most beautiful language in the world. The language of opera, of friendship and of love. From the gentle dialect of the Florentines to the more guttural Tuscans in our valley – those of the ‘ghasa and ghoco-ghola’ fame – I love it. And I fell in love with Europe and all it has to offer too.

There can be nothing more exciting than packing your car outside your home in London, and getting it ready to drive right across Europe. Once the picnic basket goes in, with its thermos flasks of coffee and snacks for the road, you’re set. ‘Let’s not go the same way every time,’ I said to Liam ‘let’s go the scenic route. Let’s spend a couple of nights on the road each time we go. Let’s go up through the Swiss lakes, or down to the Mediterranean, or even through Spain. Let’s do what we never did as children.’

And so we did, and it was wonderful. Yet every time that we reached our final destination, and we bumped down our perilous and familiar road I would think ‘Can there be a better place than this anywhere else on earth?’

‘You know, you don’t have to die and go to heaven,’ I said to Liam, ‘because paradise is right here.’ ‘That may be’ replied Liam but each time I arrive back I wonder if our old boys will still be there. They may be tough and wiry but they are really getting very frail.’

Then one day it happened. We arrived back fairly late in the evening. In the morning I threw open the shutters. The early morning sunlight streamed in and as I leaned out of the window to savour the moment I saw Leila down at the chooks. Alone. ‘That’s funny, where is old Enzio?’ I wondered, and I leaned out further. ‘Buongiorno,’ I called out, ‘Come stai? How are you?’ ‘Non cosi bene – not so good.’ came the reply. ‘I’ll come down,’ I said.

It transpired that a few weeks back old Enzio had had a heart attack. He had landed up in the hospital at Poggibonsi, and was now at home recovering. He is impossible,’ Leila told me, ‘he listens to nothing and will not rest even though the doctors have told him to.’

‘Well thank heavens he has the spirit to recover.’ I said.

 

the walking of Beethoven
… the walking of Beethoven …

Over the summer he did just that. Every day the old boy was up at the crack of dawn. Then Leila would take him by the hand, and with her help and the help of a stick, he insisted on slowly taking charge of all his old chores. One by one he achieved them, starting with the care of his beloved chooks and the walking of Beethoven, and slowly progressing to the more arduous tasks of strimming and gardening.

Everybody admired him, and especially old Cosimo, who seemed to do less and less himself and become more and more reliant on sitting on his upturned bucket offering words of encouragement. ‘Bravo!’ I would hear him call, ‘just a little more and you have done it.’

‘I don’t think old Enzio is the one to worry about’ I said to Liam one day. ‘Rather it is old Cosimo … he is getting less and less mobile and he’s a frightful colour.’ I had been over chatting to his daughter Manuela and his wife Flavia. ‘The women tell me that he won’t listen to a thing either … he eats and drinks what he fancies, and then sits in the sun.’

Not too long after that we managed another road trip. This time we decided to drive back to Italy through the Rhone valley, passing Dijon and Lyon, and overnighting along the way. On the final day we happened to be driving by the outskirts of Portofino.

‘We’ve got a little time – I reckon we are about 5 hours from Fontana – so why not pop in and have a cup of tea with Leo and Nell?’ I said. These friends of ours had just bought a house on the hills above Portofino and were anxious to show us what they had found. ‘Good idea,’ said Liam, ‘let’s do it.’

looking down on the bay of Portofino
… looking down on the bay of Portofino …

Leo and Nell were in and very soon the kettle was on the boil. We sat out on the terrace looking down on the bay of Portofino, entranced by what they had bought. Nell was getting to know the neighbours and Leo had taken to getting up every morning at 6am and exploring the countryside. ‘Stay for the night’ they begged, but we decided not to. ‘We need to get home’ said Liam, ‘we have already taken four hours out of our journey and we really should go.’

By the time we bumped down our stony road it was at about ten in the evening. Not a light shone in the big old stone house, for these are working people, field workers, who get up at the crack of dawn and work to the hours of the sun. We unpacked as quietly as we could and went to bed.

The next morning I ducked under Manuela’s washing and climbed her rickety stairs. I am in the habit of doing this when I arrive and it helps me to settle back. We usually have a little chat. Manuela feeds me shockingly strong espresso and her mother-in-law Flavia starts to frown in preparation of trying to understand my Italian.

But not this time.

‘Permesso’ I called knocking on their old brown door. The old fashioned courtesies still exist here. Manuela came to the door ‘Entra’ she said. Her face was swollen and puffy. Seated at the table beyond her was the large form of Flavia. Dressed entirely in black she was rocking backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. Pasquale stood behind her his hands resting gently on her shoulders. He seemed at a loss to know what to do. ‘Che e’ successo? – what’s the matter?’ I asked.

But I knew. Old Cosimo was dead.

What I did not know, was that the funeral had been the afternoon before. Had we not decided to take a break for tea with our friends we would have been there …

Sitting atop the spine of one of the hills surrounding Panzano is a small cemetery of the utmost charm. I like to wander around it, for on all the graves, in good Catholic fashion, there is a picture of the person buried there. It sets my imagination going … who were they? Who was this young or old person?
Did they live a good life, or was it once of hardship and toil? If you pass this cemetery at night, every single grave, and the niches in the wall, are lit up. This is for 365 days of the year, through the heat of the summer, and through the cold dark days of the wintertime. They never go out.

Now the time has come for the eternal lights of that small cemetery to shine down on old Cosimo. No more will we see the familiar old figure toddling from plastic chair to upturned bucket to swing seat. No more will he weave fantastic stories around small events. No more will we see Manuela scolding him while she marches him through our wooden gate to return one of Liam’s tools that he has somehow ‘borrowed’.

A lovable, feisty, cheeky and simple rascal has gone, and quite simply, our little valley will never be the same.

our little valley will never be the same
… our little valley will never be the same.

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 24 – Hedging your bets …

It’s early morning. The time that I like best. The house is fast asleep and all is quiet. Our house guests will wake late – all our visitors do as they settle into this lovely stone house at the bottom of the Tuscan valley. They can be the movers and shakers of the world, these friends of ours, but when they take their luggage out of the car, and walk through the old wooden gate they simply stop and stare. Then I watch … I see the beauty of the valley, with its vineyards, its olive groves and the dense forest below slowly wrap its arms around them and hold them there. A deep and soporific peace envelops them and from then on they don’t move much.

I get out of bed, open the curtains and look at the hill opposite. Normally long rows of vines run upwards from the stream below, following the curve of the hill until they reach the line where the forest begins. But this year, just at the beginning of summer, machines arrived and pulled out the vines. Then they pulled out the trellis and laid them neatly to one side, and then they left.

Now the ground will lie fallow ...
Now the ground will lie fallow …

Here in the heart of Chianti, it seems commonplace to renew vineyards on a regular basis. Now the ground will lie fallow and they’ll be back at the beginning of next summer to plant the new vines. This summer we’ve had good rains and everything is green, almost lush. The huge old Cyprus tree next to my window is alive with small birds chattering away at the break of day.

‘Time for a swim.’ I say to myself. I walk down the steep terracotta stairs, across the hallway and out onto the breakfast terrace. The light is extra-ordinary – a soft translucent glow seems to be spreading itself softly through the branches of the trees … under and over it goes, winding its way through the lavender and wisteria, on through the olives and out past the rose climbing over the wrought iron gate.

I stand at the edge of the pool, just drinking all this in. Down below I hear our neighbour, old Enzio, letting his chickens out. Better get in before the house wakes … I put on my goggles and go straight in. ‘Twenty lengths, that’s the minimum …’ I tell myself as my body hits the cool of the water.

My goggles are old and I cannot see anything outside of the water, but with my head under the water they’re OK. I strike out .. ten laps, eleven laps, twelve … I’m at the deep end and about to turn. Suddenly there is an awful scratching on my right arm. Something is trying to claw its way up it. I try to shake it off, but I’m too ungainly in the water. It moves further up my arm, and then there’s a loud hiss in my ear.

My first thought is a viper – in our part of Chianti it is the only snake that is pretty deadly, and we have had one in the garden before. I can’t see through my ancient goggles but I manage to shake it loose and strike out for the shallow end. It takes a lot to frighten me, a tough South African background sorted that out, but right now I am simply terrified. As I swim I am yelling loudly, simply shattering the calm of the morning. ‘Help! help!’ I call, ‘Help! Something’s in the pool and it’s following me!’ But no-one comes. I seem to take forever to reach the shallow end, where I risk looking behind me.

... swimming bravely after the only raft it can see ...
… swimming bravely after the only raft it can see …

And there, swimming bravely after the only raft it can see, which is me, is a tiny hedgehog. Its dark little eyes are wide with terror as its little paws strike out bravely towards it’s perceived salvation. But this saviour has lost all sense of humanity. ‘Help! Help!’ I yell again ‘It’s a hedgehog and it’s after me.’

By this time I have managed to wake the house, well some of it. Liam comes, my nephew comes. ‘Oh my word!’ they cry. How did the little thing get into the pool? It must have been in most of the night, and it looks so frightened. ‘No, no!’ I yell, ‘You don’t understand. It’s me that is frightened. It jumped on me. It ran up my arm. It hissed in my ear. Oh oh oh.’

They look at me in astonishment. What’s happened to the tough South African, the brave wife, the plucky aunt they know? Who is this jabbering wreck?

‘There, there,’ they say, ‘you get out slowly and we’ll fetch a net for the poor little thing.’ ‘What will you do with it?’ I ask. ‘Please take it far, far away where it can’t see me and I can’t see it.’ ‘Calm down aunt,’ says my nephew, ‘it is perfectly harmless, and is more frightened than you.’ ‘Go and make her some tea,’ says Liam, ‘and I will take it far down into the wild olive grove.’

And that I thought was that.

The next morning I deliberated long and hard before deciding to swim. ‘Better just do it.’ I finally decided. Once again the house was quiet, and once again the early morning magic down at the pool made me glad that I was up. I checked the skimmers carefully – for when the little thing had fallen in during previous night the pool motor would have been off. He had probably spent the night balanced on a skimmer. My turbulence in the water must have flushed him out. ‘Ready as I’ll ever be!’ I thought and dived in.

... this shower ... is tucked away on an old stone wall ...
… this shower … is tucked away on an old stone wall …

I had a wonderful swim, then headed for our outside shower. When our guests first arrive, I show them this shower. It is tucked away on an old stone wall and it is completely private. As we stand there I say, ‘The water is the same borehole water that is in the house, the pressure is wonderful and I cannot imagine standing looking at a tiled wall when you can look down on this incredible view. In fact I do not think that I have showered in the house once since we arrived.’

Then I watch their reaction. They look at me dubiously, and I can see what is running through their minds. ‘She’s crazy, and we would never do that.’ That lasts for about two days, and after that, they give it a little try. Then the warmth of the shower, the sunshine on their tired city bodies and the sheer magic of the surroundings does its work. They are hooked.

After my shower, and feeling a million dollars, I walked around the garden, just taking in the little things … hundreds of brown furry bees were busy on the lavender and a lean hungry wild cat was stealthily licking water from the fountain. With the house still asleep I moved towards my bee and butterfly garden. ‘I’ll sit on the swing seat for a while, perhaps fetch a coffee?’ I thought.

From the swing seat I looked around the garden. I like what I call ‘rooms’ in a garden. When the surrounding hedge grows up I am hoping that you will have to push your way in here, and nobody will be able to find you. The hedge is pittosporum tobira, chosen for its sweet smelling flowers that attract bees. An empty hive stands under a rosemary bush in expectation, but no luck so far.

‘Another few years and this hedge will have matured,’ I thought. Some weeks before, when the porcupine set about devouring our irises, Liam had put a trap under it. He checked it every morning but nothing seemed in the least bit interested in it.

Or not?

... curled up fast asleep ... Nothing would budge him.
… curled up fast asleep … Nothing would budge him.

This time the trap seemed to have a dark shadow toward the back. I moved closer, and pulled the trap out from under the hedge. There, curled up fast asleep was a little hedgehog. Nothing would budge him. We had to tip him out.

 

Now I am sure that there are dozens of tiny hedgehogs all over our valley, but I am absolutely convinced that this particular little fellow was the swimmer of the night before. He seemed utterly exhausted.

After all, wouldn’t you be after two all-night sessions in a row? First, a night in the pool, and second, a very long trip indeed, all the way back up the hill, just to get home?

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 23 – Hystrix Cristata

The gentle rolling hills surrounding Florence may look utterly beautiful – but don’t try to garden them. Full of enthusiasm when we first arrived, we bought every plant we set eyes upon. Then practically everything died … daphne, roses, three wisteria and even an oleander. Too high at 550 metres, with hard packed hillside clay and stones, it is also ‘off the wall’ alkaline. Then there is the harsh month of August where the temperatures soar into the 40s and our entire house and garden are reliant on one temperamental borehole. So we’ve battled and battled.

‘Look over your neighbour’s fence’ advised Liam’s mother, who at 90 was still an excellent botanist ‘What grows for them will grow for you.’ So I did. Over our stone wall towards Manuela and Pasquale’s grow broken tiles, rusty cars and washing. Then again over our fence towards Leila and old Enzo’s grow chickens and rabbits in hutches. In summer though, they put out bright red geraniums in terracotta pots. ‘OK,’ we said, ‘we’ll go simple.’

From the old stone house, on the right hand side of the path we planted lavender and a few hardy horizontal icebergs. The bank on the left hand side of the path we decided to keep even more simple. We planted it with the tough local cistus or ‘rock rose’ and in between the cistus we planted iris.

The pale blue iris ... has done us proud ...
The pale blue iris … has done us proud …

The pale blue iris is the city flower of Florence and for the past five years it has done us proud, multiplying nicely. In spring they put on a wonderful show. ‘Finally,’ I said to Liam, ‘finally we are getting a garden.’ So inspired were we that back in London we spent a good deal of time at the Chelsea Flower Show chatting to the expert at the stall of the Irises. We even arranged, at the end of the summer, to buy more exotic colours from him and see if they would take. He thought they would, and so did we …

Hystrix Cristata
Common name: the Crested Porcupine, found in most parts of Italy.
Average head and body length: 60-83cm (24-33”)
Weight: 13-27kg (29-60lbs)

So right now, something a little shorter, but as heavy as my six year old grandsons, is romping through our garden at night, causing about as much damage as the children in Lord of the Flies.

something ... as heavy as my six year old grandsons
something … as heavy as my six year old grandsons

At first we were not sure what it was. One beautiful clear morning we took our mugs of coffee and wandered down stony the path, simply savouring that time when the light is soft and the birds chatter in the tops of the Cyprus trees. ‘Utterly wonderful,’ I said to Liam, ‘Aren’t we just the luckiest people on earth.’ Then we looked down.

Great tufts of leaves had been tossed around like hapless craft on a stormy sea. At the base of these leaves, where the green turns to white, that’s where the bulb should be. All that remained were the serrated ends where some sharp teeth had been working overtime. The surrounding soil looked as if a bobcat digger had started a new excavation project.

Great tufts of leaves had been tossed around like hapless craft on a stormy sea
Great tufts of leaves had been tossed around like hapless craft on a stormy sea

‘Crikey!’ I said, ‘What’s going on here?’

The first one to volunteer was old Enzio. ‘l’istricci – porcupine,’ he said, ‘Mangia tutto – it will eat everything.’ He and Liam walked around our perimeter fence. When we had erected it we had purposely buried about a third of it into the soil to prevent any animal entering our domestic garden. They found nothing alarming. Then old Enzio’s daughter, Elena, arrived. ‘Possibly it can fit between the struts of the pool fencing’ she volunteered. But old Enzio was adamant. ‘It won’t fit!’ he said, ‘The struts are too narrow.’ And off he went back to his chooks.

Next in was Manuela. ‘You must buy a trappo.’ she said. ‘Porcupine will do anything for a potato. They will walk miles to find one. Put the potato in the trap and you will catch him.’ ‘Then what?’ said Liam ‘What do I do with him once I’ve got him?’ ‘You must take him seven miles away, over the hills to Lamole,’ said Manuela, ‘because once a porcupine has found a place for a good meal he becomes totally single minded and he will always come back to your garden.’

‘No he won’t!’ came the answer from down at the pool, where Michele our pool man was busy cleaning. ‘He won’t come back Liam, because I will eat him. You catch him, I eat him. Simple.’

... and I have one big black dog full of spikes.
… and I have one big black dog full of spikes.

A few nights later, the damage was even worse. This time our immediate neighbour Alessandro came to have a look. ‘I think he can climb quite high’ said Alessandra. ‘You need to barricade the part of the stone wall where there is a gap in the rosemary’. ‘A climbing porcupine?’ said Liam dubiously. ‘Rather, I borrow your dog, Pedro, and shut him in our garden for the night.’ ‘No! No! Liam!’ cried Alessandro, ‘Then, in the morning you have a naked porcupine, and I have one big black dog full of spikes.’

Giuseppe, who owns the tiny shop at the top of our hill, gave us some bright blue liquid with a ghastly smell. ‘He’ll never come back’ he said. ‘Just put this down.’ But our porcupine was made of sterner stuff. The damage carried on unabated. ‘I think there is a small problem with a trap,’ I said to Liam, ‘I think they could be illegal, but let’s go and find out.’

In the local agricultural shop nobody mentioned the word illegal. ‘Catch it’ they said ‘They taste a bit like chicken.’ So we bought a trap … a rectangular wire trap with a raised end for the potato and a fierce snap-door to close once the unsuspecting porcupine was inside.

But somehow, we have attracted the most suspicious porcupine in Tuscany. Night after night the damage continues and right now he has worked his way through about 80% of our beautiful irises.

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 22 – Fire!

Right now it is as dry as dry can be. There’s been no rain since I cannot remember when. The earth and our two tiny streams stretch out their arms to a merciless god. ‘When will the rains come?’ is a question on everyone’s lips. Old Enzio shrugs, ‘The moon’s too full,’ he tells me, ‘the rain will come with the new moon.’
‘Two weeks?’ I gasp, ‘Can the garden wait?’

Conscious that our borehole dried up last summer, we water plants selectively. The favoured and the fittest cling on, the weaker do not survive. The ‘favoured’ include geraniums – for what is Tuscany without geraniums? And equally so, what is Tuscany without olives? Despite the searing heat and the temperature soaring towards the forties Pasquale is working the olive groves around us. Up and down the steep lines he goes, working our neighbours’ olives as well his own. He seems to take enormous risks on the steep hillsides, and I often fear for him.

For Pasquale has macular degeneration. He has about 25% vision left in one eye, nothing in the other. Fortunately the noise of his tractor, an ancient Lamborghini, is completely overshadowed by its squeak. As long as I can hear a soft steady hum accompanied by a shrill rusty squeak, I know that he is safe.

... an ancient Lamborghini ...
… an ancient Lamborghini …

Sometimes our hills prove too steep, even for Pasquale’s abject lack of judgement, and then he has to strim the grasses down by hand. All this is in preparation for the olive harvest next month, when huge nets need to be placed below the trees. But the strimming is also to prevent fire, as right now the grass is crackly dry and as brown as a Highveld winter.

One morning I walked up our hill to meet my friend Jazz, who was coming over from Castellina-in-Chianti for lunch. I’d seen Pasquale strimming the olive grove of Sebastiano, although from any distance he wouldn’t really be able to see me. After lunch we’d planned to fetch Jazz’s daughter Giovanna from school.

It’s unusual for anyone to be out and about at this time unless they have to – it’s far too hot, and it is siesta time. But once we got to the fork of our small track, it seemed that siesta time had been forgotten. Just above the road Pasquale was halfway up Sebastiano’s grove, fire all around him and spreading rapidly as the dry grasses caught alight. Jazz and I looked in horror, for instead of beating at the top of the ring of fire, Pasquale was banging away at the bottom. And with an upturned fork.

From the top terrace of the house old Cosimo had seen him and with all good intentions had grabbed his stick and hobbled up the road to help. Well in his eighties and with a pacemaker, the uphill hobble had proved too much for him, and he had collapsed on a nearby rock. ‘Aiuta, aiuta! Subito!’ he said to us. ‘Fetch help! Quickly!’

... old Cosimo on his rock ...
… old Cosimo on his rock …

Now in our valley on a boiling midsummer’s day between two and four, that is simply not possible. Leaving old Cosimo on his rock and Pasquale beating against alarming odds with his fork, we tried the easiest first – Liam. With good South African roots and born on the Highveld he’d know what to do. What’s more he wasn’t sleeping. He was reading. ‘Right.’ he said, and taking two sturdy spades, he set up off up the hill.

Then Jazz and I rushed from door to door. Forgetting the obligatory polite greeting of the big old house, we abandoned the ‘permesso’ part. ‘Sebastiano!’ we yelled, thumping on his front door, ‘Come quickly your olives are on fire!’ No answer. More banging brought his wife Mirella to the window. ‘He’s fast asleep,’ she called, ‘but I’ll try!’ Next on to Matteo – with the same results. Do Italian men sleep while their women watch? Next on – old Enzio. ‘Oh forget him,’ I said to Jazz, ‘Leila’s out and he’s stone deaf, we’d have to tip the bed over to raise him.’

Making our way back we saw Liam, Matteo still in his vest, and Sebastiano, all firefighting on the hill. Each had a spade and a workable system had been set up – Pasquale being placed where he could do the least harm. ‘You see if old Cosimo is ok,’ Jazz said, ‘I’ll go and see if I can help, although they seem to be getting the flames under control now.’

... firefighting on the hill ...
… firefighting on the hill …

But old Cosimo was far from under control. Bent over his rock, hatless and in the blazing sun, he had both his hands clasped to his chest and was gasping for breath in an alarming manner. His face, normally a sort of unhealthy chianti-wine colour, had turned purple, and his eyes were afraid.

Kneeling down on the rough grass in front of him I looked into his eyes. Frightened, with his heart rate probably soaring, he clearly needed air badly, but with his hands in a vice-like grip over his chest, and bent double, he was unlikely to get any. ‘Look at me!’ I said, ‘Keep looking straight into my eyes.’ And taking his hands gently in mine, I tried to raise them up, away from his chest. No luck.

Now here’s where I need more Italian lessons … or is it the pronunciation? ‘Pieno, pieno,’ I said in my best speaking voice.

Piano, piano!’ came from the hillside above me.

What on earth was Jazz on about? And still Cosimo would not part his hands from his chest. ‘Pieno, pieno, Cosimo,’ I said, ‘Trust me. Look into my eyes.’

PIANO! PIANO!’ Came the echo back from the hillside. That was enough.

‘All very well for you,’ I yelled back up the hill, ‘having a good time fire fighting with the boys while I battle away here between life and death. And what on earth are you wittering on about anyway?!’

‘Trust me, trust me!’ mocked Jazz from her lofty perch. ‘He’s never going to trust you, he hasn’t a bloody clue what you are saying!’ And roaring with laughter she delivered her master blow – ‘You’re telling him ‘Full, full’ instead of ‘Slowly, slowly.’ ‘And he’s full of fear anyway, so he probably thinks you’re a right idiot.’

Chastened, I turned to look at him, but by this time, what with all the backchat and the laughter, old Cosimo had calmed down.

And so too, had the fire.

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 21 – High Hopes

Pasquale has a problem. The simplest of souls, there are two tasks he cannot resist. Firstly he enjoys nothing better than setting himself a simply enormous project, and then starting it – the end of which in all the years we have been here, I have never seen. Then again he seems fascinated by taking things apart, but the getting it back together bit, why that seldom happens. Rusty tools, electrical wires, old beds, broken farm implements … Tracey Emin of the unmade bed fame need have looked no further. It all lies here. A photograph or two and she would have immediately shot to fame.

It all lies here
It all lies here.

Close to Pasquale and Manuela’s section of the house is a verdant piece of land, stretching from the white gravel road downhill towards his borehole. It flattens out a bit as it goes and this summer Pasquale decided to enclose this huge area for a vegetable garden – an ‘orto’. First he would fell some trees, and then sink the poles deep into the ground, possibly with cement. Then he would twine wire between the poles thus keeping the porcupines at bay. And finally he would plough and plant.

… perilously close to the road …

We arrived down our hill a quarter of the way through the pole stage. Wooden poles lay entwined with spades, rolls of wire and a pick-axe or two. The cement mixer waited expectantly in the background. As he had started at the hillside end of his project he was standing on the road to greet us. The holes he had dug for the first two poles were perilously close to the road, and the soil was already starting to shift off down the hill. ‘Buongiorno!’ he said, ‘Bienvenuto – welcome back.’

The soil was starting to shift downhill
the soil was already starting to shift off down the hill …

Buongiorno,’ said Liam, ‘I do hope these holes are not going to erode the road away?’

‘Never!’ said Pasquale. ‘I am going to make a new little muro by packing stones up to form a small wall.’ As he had hectares on his side, we could not quite see the point of all this extra woe. The poles could simply have been set two metres further down the hill. ‘Well, it is all going to be lovely.’ we said, our hearts dropping.

... the deer will stay out ...
… the deer will stay out …

‘Yes.’ he said. ‘Not only the porcupine, but the deer will stay out and I will bring you tomatoes and beans.’

We left Fontana after a fortnight, and once more drove past the poles, wire, spades and a pick-axe or two. The cement mixer remained at the ready. But by then he had tired somewhat and in the centre of the land small rows of tomato plants were springing up, surrounded by a much simpler protection of canes and wire. How far do you think he will have got in a month’s time when we are back? I asked Liam. ‘I am afraid the task is greater than the man.’ Liam answered sombrely.

And sure enough, when we returned a few weeks later there it all lay – the spades, the axe the whole lot. ‘I wonder where he can be?’ I asked. ‘Oo Oo, just look!’ said Liam as we drove past Manuela’s washing. And there on the narrow road lay heaps of scaffolding.

Old Cosimo, forever at the ready to offer news, called out from his swing seat … ‘Look at Pasquale – there he is! He’s putting up the scaffolding so that we can have a new roof. The section above their bedroom is leaky, it’s ‘rotto’. It needs to be fixed before the winter rains. ‘Which winter?’ muttered Liam under his breath.

But Pasquale stuck to his task. Day after day the searing heat shimmered down and up the scaffolding he went. He refused any help from anyone, and all day long he clambered down to mix more cement. The whirring of the little machine that pulled the bucket up for him became the noise of the summer. ‘Come down,’ we would call, ‘It is far too hot.’ ‘No, rimango qui! – I stay here!’ he would call.
‘Maybe he is in such a hurry as while they have no roof they have no bedroom of their own,’ smiled Leila, our neighbour on the other side. ‘We Italian families all live together, but sharing a room with your parents-in-law, even for Pasquale, is a bit too close for comfort …’

I stay here
No, rimango qui!

One particular day the heat seemed to go crazy. The temperature seared to forty, and all you wanted to do was stay inside the house, protected by the thick stone walls that those Tuscans of long ago so wisely built. Around about lunch time we heard a tremendous crash Then silence. We hurried outside. Pasquale had fallen off the top section of scaffolding and landed on the middle section. Up Liam shot, and, helping him up, said ‘Now you simply must come down.’ ‘Never! Not until it is finished’ said Pasquale, and with that he promptly climbed back up again.

‘What on earth can we do?’ asked Liam, turning to the small crowd of gathering neighbours. They glanced back up at Pasquale and then looked at Manuela. ‘Absolutely nothing’ said his long suffering wife. ‘I can only threaten him with hospital – he is simply terrified of that. He has only been admitted once in his life and vows never to go again.’

‘Oh, what happened? Did he have a bad experience? I asked.

‘Terrible!’ came a voice from up high. ‘You know how sometimes everyone likes a bit of a party? Well one night I had a good few glasses of red, and went to bed. In the middle of the night I woke up with the most unbelievable thirst. My head was banging and I had to have water. So I leant over, and, in the pitch dark I felt for the bottle of water on the floor. To my relief I found it, and drunk the whole lot – in one gulp.’

‘Only trouble was it was floor cleaner.’

Unfinished fencing, half-finished roof, one eye and a floor-cleaner drinker. What ever could he do possibly do next??

 

© 2015 hemispheresapart.com

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