Tuscan Tales Chapter 12 – Stone Cold Swimming

"the poppies ... are just showing off"
“the poppies … are just showing off”

We’ve arrived early – 10.45 Pisa- and we decide to take a shortcut through Mercatale … see if it’s quicker. The rain pelts down all the way – too much for the windscreen, but still, in the short time we have been away, Spring has really arrived. The trees are losing their lattice effect; the leaves have popped out in the vineyards, and the poppies? Well they are just showing off.

Past the little wayside shrine of the Madonnina we turn left into our white chalk road. Below the newly pruned olives is a riot of delicate white flowers, something like parsley. The old English couple’s house on the hill still needs the stone wall repaired. Long, bare roots of an olive tree trail down through the sand and fallen rocks.

We drive over the rough bridge under which our stream tumbles, and squeeze down past old Cosimo’s front door. Manuela’s washing lies limp in the damp air. We’re home!

Not bothering to offload, we walk through the gates and into the garden, dying to see if there is any improvement on the desert waste of terrain that we left behind. The huge chestnut tree is simply ablaze with pink and white flowers and every bee in Tuscany must be here. There’s a steady hum like the sound of an inboard motor of a well-kept boat. On the west terrace the roses are starting, the tiny ceanothus is a riot of blue, and Reiner has finished the fence.

"there's a steady hum ..."
“there’s a steady hum …”

We stand on the terrace, looking down towards the pool and the lower olives. Great tracks of stony brown earth have been moved to begin levelling for a lawn. Huge coils of red piping stand nearby, ready to be laid as conduits for water, electricity and gas. After the last near-confrontation with our neighbour Marciano, we’ve decided to direct the rain water from our roof through our land, over our road and into our fledgling olive grove. Although everything is a mess Liam and I feel as if things are moving forward, and we walk down off the terrace to have a look at the new boundary fencing.

The main thing is that it is up! It’s a neat fence, running from the wrought iron railings of the car park, right along our southern boundary, turning a corner at the road and running back up north to meet the huge boulders just below the pool.

So Marciano has kept to his word and allowed the fence to proceed. The fence is built on land that we have paid for, and which we think we own … and land in fact that Marciano also thought was ours, but now disputes. We both know that some day we will have to sort out this surveyor’s nightmare, but not now … we’ll let the dust settle and build up good neighbourliness with Marciano and co.

We move across to the edge of the pool. The water is a light turquoise and exactly as we had planned, the grey mosaic giving it a silvery shimmer. I love this pool, perched high on the curve of the hill, with the land falling away below it, and the vineyards rising up on the hill beyond. ‘I’ll swim a lot this time,’ I think as I gaze down into the deep end.

"I love this pool ..."
“I love this pool …”

Right then I can hardly believe my eyes, for deep below through the clear water are two huge ugly rocks, sitting on the floor. Next to them lies something that looks rather like an old dishcloth. My heart sinks. Who has been rolling rocks into our beautiful pool? Vandals? There are no vandals here. There’s nobody down this quiet cul-de-sac into our valley. Old Cosimo’s grandchildren? No – wild young things that they are they would never do this. And those two rocks are too big for them to lift.

That leaves our new neighbours, Marciano’s family. Is this part of an Italian culture that we do not understand? Having chatted long and earnestly over espressos in the kitchen – about the positioning of the fence – they seemed happy for us to go ahead. Was that mere surface politeness? Are these two great rocks at the bottom of our pool a stalemate … well you go ahead, put the fence up, and we’ll make life difficult for you?

My heart sinks, for we have bought into this tight community knowing that the four families that live under one large Tuscan roof must get on. Dejectedly we turn away and trudge back to the car to unpack.

Lunch is fresh asparagus bought at the market as we passed through Greve. There’s a knock at the door and it is Reiner. He’s come down on his scooter to show us the progress he has made in the garden while we were away. ‘I have a little problem’ he says, ‘and it’s all because of the Kosovan.

Our local Italians are wary of foreign labour. Mostly it’s the Albanians … they’re bottom of the list and are happily and conveniently blamed for anything that goes amiss in the village. ‘Lock your doors at night,’ I was told, ‘For although you live down an isolated valley the “Albani” could come through the woods while you are asleep.’

Kosovans are next on the list. In the little piazza in our nearby village these poor chaps hang around hoping for a day’s casual work. Mostly they don’t seem to get it, but Reiner had found one, a tall strong young man, willing to dig all day. His name was Agron, and he was here the day we left. Silent, watching us while he worked.

‘Well,’ Reiner said, ‘Agron was digging below the pool and he chopped right through the outlet pipe. Water simply cascaded out and rushed down the road into old Enzio’s olives. Agron went on digging. Eventually I heard a terrific noise … old Enzio was singing a cantata. I was on the west terrace, and by the time I got there it looked to me as if half your pool was about to disappear into Enzio’s orto –vegetable patch. And that bloody Kosovan just carried on digging. I didn’t know what to do, so I stripped off my clothes, just to my underpants. This, in front of old Enzio’s horrified eyes … he even stopped his cantata for a minute.

Then, taking a big rock with me I dived into the pool and tried to block the outlet. Then another rock came in with me and I tried to push my vest between them. Now I have fixed the pipe. How can that Kosovan stand there and watch your pool disappear down the valley? Maybe next time I’ll find an “Albani”. I am very sorry.’

Imagine Reiner’s surprise when we both started laughing. ‘We’re so glad you’ve put the rocks in our pool.’ we say. Reiner’s face says it all … now these foreigners really are strange.

Later Elena drives past on her way back from her florist in Mercatale. She and Marciano stop to say hello and ‘benvenuto’ – welcome back. We chat about the unseasonable rain, and they tell us how old Enzio has come and painted the trunk of our tree on the terrace blue. He is trying to stop the centre rot and the ants crawling up. ‘That is so kind of him,’ we say, ‘thank you.’

"Old Enzio has ... painted the trunk blue ..."
“Old Enzio has … painted the trunk blue …”

‘It’s a pleasure,’ Marciano replies ‘my father-in-law cannot see a plant die. He will get yours to live.’

All is right again at our beloved Fontana … for after all, we are living “in commune.”


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 11 – Don’t Fence Me In

My Dad always said to me … if the gap between what you think you can do and the gap between what you actually can do is a small one, that’s good. Most of your goals you will achieve. But, when the gap between what you think you can do and what you can actually do is so unrealistic that any goal is impossible to attain, well then you are in trouble. These will then merely be wild dreams, impossible goals. I tend to stray on the wild dream side …

he could turn his hand to anything
… he could turn his hand to anything …

But not Reiner. Reiner was a drifter – multitalented, he lacked any desire to set or achieve goals. Yet he was highly intelligent, could turn his hand to anything, and was intensely creative. We had heard of him through a friend in the village. He had moved into our area about a year ago, rented a small run down stone house on the edge of the village and was available for odd jobs.

One morning we saw him in the piazza and had a chat: ‘Speak English?’ we said. ‘Any language you wish!’ he replied. ‘Oh – Goeiemore?’ I said, trying a bit of Afrikaans. ‘Goeiemore,’ he said, ‘Hoe gaan dit? Ek praat ook Flams – dis meer maklik vir jou as Hollands!’ He grinned. (Good morning. How are you doing? I speak Flemish as well – it’s easier for you than Dutch!) Originally from Holland he had wandered around Europe trying his hand at everything. Now, he agreed to come and erect our fence. It would run along the new border below the swimming pool.

Soon bales of wiring and stout poles arrived, and Reiner set to work. ‘We’ll need to dig deep down into the earth he said, probably about a half a metre – that way the porcupine won’t get into your garden. If they do they’ll eat any bulb you have. He set his measuring line with two sticks and a length of string, and got to work. By evening time he had got a fair way.

‘I wonder how much he will get done today?’ I asked Liam as we drunk an early morning coffee on the terrace, ‘He seems quite committed.’ ‘Not sure, we’ll see.’ Liam replied. ‘Rumour has it that he has a drug habit and tends to disappear from time to time.’

Just then we heard Marciano’s motorbike coming down the track. The work on their section was going well, already bits of furniture were being moved in, and the old boy, old Enzio, arrived daily to work his field. ‘Come and have coffee!’ I called to Marciano. He opened the gate and stood in front of us. ‘Thank you,’ he said, ‘I need to talk to you about where Reiner is digging for the fence. You see, old Enzio and I measured it carefully from our side, and we feel that you have got the measurement wrong. You are putting your fence on our land.’

‘Impossible’ we said. ‘We are working from the measurements that Leo Agostini the geometra drew up. Our boundary takes a step down from the stone wall at the carpark, and then aims for the circular track that links through to your house. So that is what we took. ‘No.’ said Marciano firmly ‘That is not correct. There is an indentation there – your land starts within the stone wall. Come with me and will show you’

Standing at the wall, to us his measurements were way out. But Marciano remained firm. ‘Also’ he said ‘do you know that I have a right to walk over your land at any time that I wish? I can open your gate and walk right through.’

I can open your gate and walk right through
… I can open your gate and walk right through …

‘Please do,’ I said, ‘If we are here it will be nice to see you, and if we are not here, well you can keep an eye on the place. I’d like that very much.’ Marciano looked at me uncertainly. ‘Mmm,’ I thought, ‘He’s just testing the water.’ With that we turned and off Marciano went, across the dirt road and down to old Enzio working his land.

Before Reiner arrived, Marciano was back. ‘My father-in-law old Enzio says, “Put the fence where you have started digging.”’ And so we did.

A couple of weeks later, when the fence was up, and our neighbours had moved in, Liam gave Leo Agostini a ring. ‘I’d like to sort out this business of the boundary fence.’ Liam said ‘Would you come down and check it all out?’

Later that day Leo Agostini arrived. He was, as usual, beautifully dressed – in tailored dark trousers, an impeccably ironed white open-necked cotton shirt and black patent leather shoes. He and Liam wandered around our dusty patch, looking at the fence and chatting amiably. Eventually they turned towards his car. ‘I have looked carefully,’ he said, ‘and I am puzzled.’ ‘Why?’ asked Liam, ‘As you see, I have your plans in my hand, and your boundary line is clear.’

Leo Agostini glanced at the plans in Liam’s hand. ‘Oh,’ he said ‘Maybe in error I worked off an old plan I have in my office.’ With that he climbed into his shiny new car and drove off.

At the end of the month a bill arrived in the post. ‘For services and advice, including an onsite consultation.’ The amount was enormous. ‘No way am I paying this!’ exploded Liam. ‘An enormous bill for coming to tell me that he worked off the wrong plan? No word of apology? I may be ‘stranieri’ – a foreigner – but this is taking it way, way too far. No way – no pay!’

But like the proverbial boomerang the bill just kept coming back.

And so the fence stayed, and we paid.

and so the fence stayed, and we paid
… and so the fence stayed, and we paid …


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 10 – New Neighbours

Before we bought the house we knew it was slowly slipping down the hillside. Our geometra, Leo Agostino had assured us that this was not a problem. ‘All we need to do,’ he said, ‘is to throw a solid concrete base in front of the stone wall at the front of the house, and then build stone buttresses back up towards the arched windows – at an angle.’

All over Tuscany you get beautiful villas – in fact Under the Tuscan Sun could have been filmed in most of the ones in our area. But our house is not like that:  big, old and untidy, it sprawls out like several shoeboxes of differing sizes cobbled together, the lids replaced at different angles. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘buttressing can only improve the stark stone under the arched windows.’

... you will have your Tuscan look ...
… you will have your Tuscan look …

‘Why not make it a feature?’ I asked Leo Agostini. ‘Would it compromise the purpose of the buttressing if we dropped them just below the arched windows to make space for some big terracotta pots?’ ‘Not at all’ he replied. ‘Fill them with geraniums in summer and you will have your Tuscan look.’

Next to the Agip petrol station in Greve there is a place with everything terracotta sprawled all over the show. I had often wanted to walk in, and now was my chance. I had the measurements, and very soon I had lost myself in a mire of shocking grammar and dictionary words: Caterina of the pots did not speak a single word of English. I was desperate. If you are going to part-live in a foreign country you simply have to speak the language. I was having weekly lessons at the City Lit in London and could manage the ‘meet and greet’ and the ‘at the restaurant’ bit –  but this?

... there is a place with everything terracotta ...
… there is a place with everything terracotta …

‘What exactly is it that you are wanting?’ asked a friendly voice behind me. I turned. The young man, who had alighted from a motor bike, was clearly sent from heaven. He was tall, with soft brown eyes and a gentle manner. He was also covered in fine brick dust from head to toe, and I took it that he worked somewhere in the back. ‘Oh thank heavens!’ I said. ‘I think that Caterina knows what I want, but I haven’t a clue what she is trying to explain.’

‘She is saying that the pots you want are too big for their normal production. However as all their pots are made by hand they will be able to do them as a special order. It will take several months, as once thrown they have to dry.’

‘Done!’ I said, and with that Caterina took the order.

The young man’s name was Marciano and he had come on his motorbike to buy a small pot for his mother-in-laws birthday. His wife owned a flower shop in Mercatale and she had given him specific instructions as to the type of terracotta pot she wanted.

‘Please excuse this terrible appearance,’ he said ‘but we have just bought a house and it needs a lot of alteration. As the money is short I am trying to do it all myself.’

Now for the past week I had heard some knocking in the evening at Margerethe’s section of our big old house. I had wondered if I should go around, but my Italian had made me hesitate.  ‘Er … and where is this house?’ I asked. ‘It is quite isolated’ he said. ‘It is down a steep hill just outside Greve. It is called Casa Fontana because of the two streams that bubble up on either side of it.

‘That’s us!’ I cried, ‘We have bought the section next to you! Isn’t that amazing! He looked at me anxiously. ‘I thought so,’ he said, ‘and when I saw you struggling with Caterina I thought maybe now is the time. You see my English is very poor and when I heard that the English had bought Jurgen’s house I was too nervous to knock on your door.’

‘Well don’t be!’ I said, ‘Come and meet Liam this evening. We can sit on our terrace and drink a glass of wine.’

That evening we sat on the terrace and heard Marciano’s story. The family had been living in Volpaia, a small town up on one of the hills behind Greve …

‘My father-in-law, Enzio, is a passionate gardener, and although old, he is wiry and tough and wanted to have some decent land. He wants to work the neglected olives and plant vegetables. My mother-in-law, Leila, is content to live in an isolated place, and so is my wife, Elena, who in any case will travel daily to Mercatale to her florist. We have a young daughter, Rosanna, who goes to school in Panzano.’

‘But it is more complicated than that.’ he smiles ‘Elena had a daughter before she met me. Her name is Sylvie and she is in her twenties. She and her partner Alessandro have been going out since school days and now want to live together along with us. That is why we bought Margarethe’s section behind you. We have taken out three separate mortgages and are turning it into three different sections.’

He smiled at Liam. ‘At first we tried to buy your section, but at the last minute the owner, Jurgen, reneged and told us that he was selling it to a friend.

Liam and I looked at one another. Friend? By mutual nod we decided to let it go. But my thoughts were running wild … for these are the very people who tried so hard to buy our section … they could have been so resentful of us, not only getting the property but on top of that, we are foreigners.’

‘In any case it has all turned out for the best,’ continued Marciano, ‘As a family we are passionate about land, and the land for Old Enzio to work is good land. Our women are happy with the house, and it is close by for my work. I work as a full time carer for the mentally disabled.’

... the land for old Enzio is good land ...
… the land for old Enzio is good land …

With that Marciano got up. Then, standing in front of us, he placed his hand on his heart. ‘You see’ he said ‘We feel we are coming home. One of our ancestors was born in this house.’


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