Old Cosimo doesn’t sit on his plastic chair at his front door any more. Every morning I hear the latch on the wooden gate click, and there he is: coming through. In one hand he carries a plastic bucket, and under his arm he carries a plank. At the edge of our terrace he turns the bucket upside down, puts the plank across the top, and sits.
Mediterranean Climate: a type of climate distinguished by hot, dry, sunny summers and a winter rainy season … as is the characteristic of the Mediterranean region and also parts of California, South Africa and Chile.
What foreigner buys a house in Tuscany in mid-winter? Is there anyone out there as crazy as us? We have now stood at the window for the past three days, gazing at the rain. It seems that when it rains here, it sure rains … great buckets of water cascade down from the heavens, and oh, it all seems so familiar. Greve-in-Chianti? Cape Town? Hemispheres apart? I am beginning to think not. Then all of a sudden the clouds part, there’s a hint of blue sky above and I push open the wooden gate and look up the muddy road …
Manuela (our neighbour, and Pasquale’s wife) is outside picking rosemary. ‘It’s Carnevale in Italy,’ she says, ‘and my little grandson Frederico is dressing up for the parade in Castellina-in-Chianti. You should drive down and have a look.’
Carnivalle is all over Tuscany today – Greve, San Polo, all the little towns have had their bill boards up. We head off for Castellina-in-Chianti at about three. Cars are already starting to park on the hills surrounding the town. The high street is festooned with streamers and we enter the upper section through an enormous red curtain. Everyone who has access to a costume has put one on … anything goes …giant mice, horse’s heads and masks galore.
But it is the children who stop me in my tracks. Italians love a festival, and Italians adore children, and the combination today is a knock-out. Wide-eyed, beautiful boys peep out from their mother’s knees, drinking it all in. They’re the tigers, the bears, the clowns and the jesters. There’s a cardinal too – a solemn seven year old in his red velvet hat with rolled rim and his ermine coat.
Then there are the girls – beautiful hooped taffeta dresses mirror pale green and blue eyes, their hair turned lovingly around grandmothers’ fingers, until it cascades down their backs in ringlets …. and if it is not natural, why, there’s a bright orange wig or two added to the fun.
From beyond the church a small group is getting ready. They are dressed in black and white. There’s a mime, a piano accordion and a drummer. They head up the street followed by an extra-ordinary looking fellow in a skirt and bright knee socks. He is pulling a sort of tumbrel, in which there is a broken chair. I’d love to know the symbolism.
The crowd follows until they reach the piazza, forming a circle around them. The mime takes over, and a small boy of about three runs towards him. The mime waits until he is close, and then leaps into a puddle, spraying water far and wide. The small boy, soaked and aghast, turns and searches for his mother. The crowd roars with laughter. This ability to simply enjoy, this is what I love about Italians: it’s time for fiesta, seize the moment …
We head up to the main piazza. Another band has started up and begins its parade towards us. This must be the town band, but today it’s different, for the entire front section is made up of about 40 children, each with a drum. They beat the rhythm with the band, keeping time beautifully: little side drummers and tenor drummers. Proud parents stand and watch.
We stand together and cheer on the children: for it seems to me that whatever the symbolism of ‘Carnevale’ is in the rest of Italy, here in Castellina-in-Chianti it’s all about the new generation: a hands-on lesson in living, breathing and being Italian.
London in Summer. Bright flowers in hanging baskets contrast magnificently with the old black street lamps on which they are so carefully placed. London’s parks, or ‘green lungs’ are ablaze with colour, and small gardens compete with one another for ‘best show.’ So it comes as no surprise to learn that London’s ‘city bees’ are said to produce more honey than anywhere else in the UK.
In the springtime, when we packed up our apiary in the grounds of a north London school, our bee hives were moved to whoever would take them. I took my two hives to my friend called Jars (yes, she sells honey jars). Jars has a double allotment plot in Highgate. To a South African these allotments seem really strange. Although the history of allotments goes way back, they really came into their own during World War 2, when they were part of a huge push to feed a starving and desperate city. Today they still serve a wonderful purpose – for in a city of about 9 million people you desperately need tranquil places of refuge. Jars had given me a key, and once through those huge wrought iron gates, well, another world awaits.
Jars and I had been digging over her potatoes. Once finished we moved towards the end of her allotment, where the apple trees are, and where a neat row of hives stood. My two hives were at the end. ‘Thank you,’ I said, ‘thank you again for taking in my refugees.’ ‘That’s a pleasure,’ she smiled, ‘after all, there’s plenty around for them to forage. You can keep them here as long as you like. Come to think of it … what are your plans for them?’
So I told her. I told her all about my dream that had so nearly come true. I told her how quite by chance we had stumbled on a small piece of paradise deep down a Tuscan valley. I told her how, at the last minute, the owner had felt honour bound to sell to a buyer that a local agent had found. ‘And apart from everything else,’ I said, ‘I really wanted to keep my bees there. I wanted to have a small apiary – just like yours, and I am still somehow rather stupidly holding onto that dream.’
We stood at the entrance to her hives, watching the bees fly in and out. Now bees do not like horses, or perfume, or watches, or mobile phones. And normally in this peaceful place I have my phone turned off. This time I had forgotten – and it rang.
‘Well ….’ said a familiar deep voice. ‘Do you still want a small place in Italy?’
Only one word came out of me. ‘Repeat?’
‘Jurgen has just phoned me from Pisa Airport’ said Liam. ‘He arrived in Greve three days ago, and was kept waiting until 9.30 last night before he even saw the sale contract, and he is not a happy chap. It appears that things were more complicated than he thought. The buyers are an extended family … grandparents, their daughters’ family with one young grand-daughter, and an older grand-daughter with a partner. As is common in large extended Italian families they wish to remain close and so they want to divide Jurgen’s house into three separate dwelling units. So they are applying for three separate mortgages … hence the delays.’
‘I could understand their difficulty with the different mortgages’ Jurgen had told Liam, ‘but when I heard that my lovely home was to be split into three – that finally made me come to a decision. The deal is off and if you would like it, then the house is yours.’
Three days later we flew to Pisa, having arranged to meet Jurgen at the Ristoro di Lamole. Once more we were sitting on the terrace watching the fading light dance through row of cypress trees. ‘Look, there he is Liam! ‘I said as the old car we had seen under the canvas came into view. Jurgen hopped out, a dapper man full of pent-up energy, and clearly one who likes to be in control. ‘This is going to be interesting,’ I thought, as Liam clearly likes to be in control as well. However our first meeting got off to a good start and as we headed back to our agriturismo (B&B) we felt pretty pleased.
We had found an agriturismo close to Greve, in the little hamlet of Lamole. It was called Poggio all’Olmo, and had wonderful views and a beautiful swimming pool. After an early morning swim we sat around the pool wondering if the sale would go smoothly. Already there had been some worrying glitches … for although the original agent had accepted that his deal was off and was happy to still receive some commission, the notare had proved tricky. First he had protested strongly that he would rather deal with the Italian buyers. Then, when he realised that Jurgen was not going to retract his decision, he had announced that he could not deal with foreign buyers as he does not speak English … and neither would he be able to find an English speaking notare in the area. In an area nicknamed ‘ChiantiSHIRE?? This seemed difficult to believe, and I was beginning to worry that as foreigners we would not be welcome.
‘Are you going to write about all this?’ Liam asked me. ‘You know, one of those books … the ‘find a wreck in a romantic foreign country, impulse buy it, have a terrible time fixing it, being cheated all the way and practically lose all your money. Then finally hey ho! At the end of the day a magic wand appears and all is fine in the state of paradise.’
I thought about that carefully, and in a way Liam was right. I cannot remember a time when I have not written, and yes, I had been writing a diary since the very first day we saw the house, and yes, I felt as if I could write there forever. I may even have thought about writing ‘that book’.
But somehow this ancient Tuscan farmhouse, halfway down a forgotten valley did not seem like that. I looked at Liam slowly and sombrely. ‘Liam,’ I said slowly, ‘In the beginning that is what I thought, and heaven knows I am sure that we will have our fill of trouble, with the title deeds, easements etc, enough to write an entire book … in fact a ‘best seller’ type of book. A book of double dealing, backtracking and backhanders … for heaven’s sake this is Italy we’re talking about!’
‘But quite frankly I think that it would do this incredible place an injustice.’
For already this big old stone house was not like that. Even for me, with my love of words, it had been difficult to describe. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but it seemed that every time I went there the house appeared to be exerting its own influence. The minute we entered we seemed to lose all our city-stress, and even our sense of time. Look at old Cosimo and half-blind Pasquale, look at their peaceful happy natures. Something’s happening there. And very soon we are to get new neighbours. Who will they be? And, like me, will they too feel the influence of this house?
I took a deep breath. ‘No, Liam’ I said, ‘I want to write about people. Ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but living them out in the most privileged and beautiful surroundings imaginable. Ordinary people living under one big Tuscan roof, and within solid stone walls that have stood the test of time for over three hundred years. Now that’s what I want to do.’
And so, many months later, one cold and snowy winters’ day in February, we took possession of the keys, opened the gate and unlocked the door.