Tuscan Tales Chapter 27 – A New Year … and Spring is in the Air

Spring is in the air ...
Spring is in the air …


All though the long winter months Fontana has stood cold and closed. Did the house miss us, and what have our neighbours been up to? I imagine the warmth of winter fires, snowy nights … when friends ask me where our house in Tuscany is I always say, ‘You don’t have to die to go to heaven, because paradise is right there’.

‘Right there’ is about half an hour due south of Florence. It is in the middle of Chianti, but contrary to the idea of an anglicised ‘Chiantishire’ we are at the bottom of a valley that seems to have stood still in time. Our neighbours still till the land, and three different families live under one big roof of a sprawling 17th century farmhouse. We bought the cattle wing. And so, by ancient stone, terracotta tiles, and the intricate balance that extended Italian groups need in order to co-exist, we are tied to them.

For me there is another factor: here I feel intricately linked to the place of my birth: the blue skies of the Cape, the olives and the vines, and above all the friendliness of the people. When I first arrived at this big stone house our neighbour Manuela was perched high on her steps hanging out the washing. I spoke no Italian. None of our neighbours speak English.

Bourngiorno’ I said praying that would be enough. ‘Brava!’ she laughed, ‘You see, you are talking Italian already.’ I could make that out. They liked me, and I liked them.

Now, after an interminably long winter, we are back. I step out of the aeroplane door and walk down the steps. My feet touch the tarmac. They are on Italian soil and I have arrived!

The Sita bus leaves Florence and starts to wind through the hills surrounding Florence and I sit back and smile. There seems to be a parallel action going on. As the bus climbs the hills, so my shoulders drop.

We hop off at our village and head straight across the road for the café. The owner Santino is inside and throws his arms out in delight. I get two kisses, a hug and a cappuccino. ‘The winter has been so-so,’ he says. ‘Lots of rain and no snow at all.’ ‘Oh – mi dispiace, I’m sorry’ I say. This does not bode well for the farmers as the vines and the olives like the deep snow – as it lies thick on the ground it slowly feeds the water deep down into their roots.

Very soon we are on our way, and as we walk down the bumpy road, pulling our aeroplane wheelie bags behind us, that feeling of being rooted between the two hemispheres returns. The view is simply stunning – the depths of the hills clearly visible through the sparseness of early spring. The little stream, so terribly dry in summer, rushes over rocks as it tumbles its way to Lucarelli, the Arno and finally the sea. We draw closer to the house, walking through Pasquale’s mess of rusty cars, abandoned tools, chickens and the odd pigeon or two. Manuela’s washing hangs stiffly in the crisp air. I stand at the old wooden gate and look across the terrace and into our garden …

Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’
Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’

In the Uffizi gallery in Florence is Sandro Botticelli’s painting of ‘Primavera’, or ‘Spring’ and I, along with so many tourists, have stood in front of it transfixed. But what draws me in are the flowers. Beautiful bare feet rest gently amongst the daintiest flowers of a spring meadow. Then look closer – there are the pinks, reds and whites of every kind of delicate flower imaginable. I read somewhere that there are over 500 plant species in this masterpiece. I could stand there for the rest of my days …

Yet here, at my very own gate, appears the riot in real life: a heady mass of tiny field flowers against the hit of blue rosemary and white viburnum. ‘Wow!’ I say to my husband, ‘Let’s leave the house and just wander around outside, it looks too good to be true.’ And it is. In amongst all the beds, winding through the still dormant lavender and other bushes are deep holes. ‘Something’s been sleeping here!’ I say to Liam.

‘And something’s eaten every single iris bulb – now there really is nothing left,’ he replies. We gaze at the devastation. Porcupine. All last summer we had tried to catch him, but with no success. We had even bought a trap and put in a tasty potato, but no go. When we left, we’d hoped he had left too, but that was mere optimism. Quite obviously he had decided to spend the winter in our garden, with a ready larder at hand.

On the east side of the house we hear our other neighbours. Elena is there walking the two dogs Beethoven and Lily. ‘It is a huge porcupine,’ she says, ‘I saw it the other day. In fact, there seem to be two, one on the inside of your garden, and one on the outside. Come and see what they are doing.’

Some time ago, in order to protect our domestic garden from wild boar, deer and porcupine we had erected a wire fence. On the advice of our neighbours we had run it about a metre deep under the ground to keep the porcupine out. ‘Porcupine will go mad for iris bulbs they had told us they will travel miles for bulbs, and for a potato.’

‘Well Elena,’ I say ‘This one, trapped in our domestic garden for most of the summer and all of the winter, must be the wild card, for nothing we try seems to get him out’.

‘Nothing?’ laughs Elena ‘You forget about Primavera. Spring. Amore. Love. Just look at your fence.’

And all along the base of the fence, like a long trench, our porcupine has been digging to get out. But why, when there remain other tasty bulbs in our garden? Then we look through the fence. And all along the base on the other side of the fence runs the same trench. ‘You see’ says Elena ‘there is a man and his ladylove and they cannot get to one another’.

‘Well,’ says my husband with a smile, ‘Let’s help love find a way. Tonight we leave the gate open. If he’s so keen to get to her, he’ll push off’.

‘But what if he’s not too keen on her – or worse still – he invites her back into our garden?’ I ask. ‘After all he likes it here, and what’s more the digging seems to be more furious from the outside. She’s quite obviously one of those pushy girls.’

‘Well, to be sure to tempt him out, we’ll put the trap outside the gate too. Then we’ll place a nice tasty potato back in the trap and see if he falls for it this time. Liam smiles ‘ … Just maybe he’ll invite her over for dinner!’

A potato love-letter? Call it Spring, Primavera or what-ever … wouldn’t work for me!


© 2016 hemispheresapart.com

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Tuscan Tales Chapter 15 – Sausage Thief

There’s a little fat pig local to our area, and it’s delicious. Its name is ‘Cinta Senese’.  TheSenese’ part of the name stands for Siena, and you can see the first painting of it in the Palazzo Comunale in Siena, dating back to 1338. There it is, sporting a beautiful black coat and a white belt, or ‘cinta’. Hardy little thing, it clung on through the centuries, through thick and thin, and was in real danger of extinction just after World War Two. But above all it is tasty, and so farmers are breeding it again, and it is on the way up.


Cinta Senese pigs near Castellina
Cinta Senese pigs near Castellina

It is not as plentifully available to buy as the salsiccia toscana, but our butcher has it, and we have bought some as a special treat. Fabiana and her friend are coming over for supper and we want to thank her for all her help when we moved in.

It’s a lovely evening … warm on the terrace, and we tell Fabiana of our water problems. It seems we are sharing a dysfunctional borehole and the future looks bleak and unfriendly. ‘We are having an important meeting here tomorrow morning,’ I say. ‘Our neighbour Marciano is coming, and the new person who has just bought Stefan’s family’s little house above us. It is the three of us that will share this problem, and we simply have to sort it out.’

Fabiana tells us of the water diviner from Lamole. He is an old man, about 85, and so skilled at his job that French television did a documentary on him. ‘He will come to you,’ she says, ‘He won’t charge – it’s the love of his life.’

While we are chatting we hear a noise. ‘Don’t worry, it’s Cosimo’s cat!’ I say.

Later we hear it again … and turning around to the barbecue I see the most extra-ordinary looking dog. He’s light brindle, with Jack Russell legs and the low-slung body of a Bassett Hound. His face is the size of a soup plate and it is too large for his body.

The Sausage Thief
The Sausage Thief

He has a string of our precious ‘cinta senese’ sausages in his mouth and he shoots off through the old wooden gate with Liam in pursuit.  ‘Ahhhhhh!!’ shouts Liam, and the dog drops the sausages. But instead of running off, he turns in mid-flight, and, teeth bared, he goes for Liam. Liam stands his ground. ‘Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr!’ Liam yells at the dog, baring his teeth. With that the dog, with his teeth still bared, slinks off.

There’s a bite or two in a sausage, which we avoid, and Liam eats …

I must learn to make coffee. The whole group has arrived for todays ‘water crises meeting’  … Marciano, Susanna, who will help us translate, us and our new neighbour, Sebastiano. They have all asked for coffee. Sebastiano beams when introduced to me. He is in love with South Africa. ‘Ah … Stellenbosch,’ he says, ‘and Pinotage’. He speaks a smattering of English, very very little, but he tells Liam we are to come and dine in his restaurant. ‘Just for you, I will close my restaurant,’ he says, ‘I will cook you a wonderful meal, my speciality, myself, for free, and you will bring the wine from South Africa.’

The meeting starts well, and finally everyone is sitting around drinking my instant coffee – except for Marciano who shakes his head mournfully and says ‘Non, mi recordo!’ (No, I remember!) This is from the last time. I try to concoct an espresso in a small cup. It looks black and dubious but I put it in front of him anyway.

I hear a noise and get up and go out onto the terrace. The strange dog is back sniffing around the barbecue. I go to the door thinking what can I lob at him so that he never returns? I see the heavy rubberised door mat and I pick it up and lob it. As it sails through the air I feel some-one at my shoulder. It’s Sebastiano! It’s his dog!

‘Oops. Scusi,’ I say, ‘I thought it was a wild dog.’ ‘Didi Didi’ he yells. Didi stops in his tracks. Strange, slanty eyes look at me. I’m with Sebastiano now, I’m brave. ‘Didi Didi’ I say, moving closer. And Didi promptly rolls on his back to be tickled. Sebastiano is devastated by the tale of the three sausages. ‘I will buy you more’ he says.

But Sebastiano’s misery doesn’t end there. As they walk up the hill past Cosimo he gets short shrift from the old man … for Didi, on the way down to his master, has bitten old Cosimo on the arm.

I try and introduce them, pointing out that Sebastiano has bought Stefan’s family’s house and so is now part of our small commune. But the old boy is clearly put out, and is barely civil to Sebastiano. He shows us the Didi’s teeth marks, shaking his head and pointing at the dog. Didi is going to be penned in …

Will Didi be penned in? With old Cosimo and Sebastiano getting off on such a bad footing will there be more bad blood? And what about me? After lobbing a very heavy mat at the precious Didi … will we ever get a restaurant closed, just for us, while the owner cooks? Clearly living in commune is far more complicated than I thought.


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 13 – The Birth of Beethoven

Old Enzio’s dog followed him everywhere. He was one of those dogs made up from every other dog on earth … four long legs supported a stocky body from which various coloured hair sprouted … like old bits of coir that had escaped from a worn mattress.

"His name was Ringo ..."
“His name was Ringo …”

His head was elongated and faded old eyes peered out from bushy eyebrows. From underneath his jaw he sported a grey flecked goatee. His name was Ringo, why I never knew, and if you ever wanted to know where Enzio was, well – you just had to look for Ringo. ‘He adores that dog,’ said Leila, ‘I don’t know what he’ll do when Ringo goes.’

And so we watched Ringo’s failing health with trepidation, for as summer declined, so did he. His legs were shaky and many’s the time he would sit on the gravel road watching Enzio work in the field below. He was just too tired to get down there.

By Christmastime Enzio and Leila had decided that Ringo could not last the year out and that it would be best to get a new dog straight away. And what better Christmas present than a little puppy for their grand-daughter Rosanna? Rosanna would be thrilled, Ringo could teach the puppy good habits, and it would lessen the pain for everyone when Ringo did go. It seemed a neat solution all round.

The morning after Christmas there was a knock at our front door, and we heard a small voice calling ‘permesso?’ .. may I come in? And there stood Rosanna with a tiny bundle of spots in her arms. It seemed sort of like a Dalmatian turned into a plump little milk bottle, sporting legs. ‘She’s called Lily,’ Rosanna told us, ‘and she’ll be Ringo and my friend.’

"Lily ... lovely, but wild ..."
“Lily … lovely, but wild …”

Over the next few months Lily grew into a lovely, but wild dog. Ringo’s innate good manners seemed to pass her by as she happily dug up our bulbs, tipped over boxes of grass seed and sat on small plants. More Dalmatian and less brain seemed to be the order of the day.

Then, even though she was still only a puppy, Lily suddenly lost her exuberance. She seemed lethargic, content to lie under the shade of a tree and let the garden be. And even though we are surrounded by solid country folk, who know all about the birds and the bees, we all missed it. Lily was pregnant.

But how? Our big house has no other dogs and our small valley is isolated. No-one even thought of Ringo, who by this time was virtually at death’s door, and could barely stand for more than a couple of minutes.

Then Lily’s puppies were born … all nine of them. Eight tiny little girls with soft white fur and little black spots, and the ninth, oh yes, Ringo’s son. There the little chap stood. A true chip off the old bloc. Patchy coir hair, bushy eyebrows, and even a moustache under the chin. There was no mistaking it.

"Ringo's son ... Beethoven"
“Ringo’s son … Beethoven”

Once again Rosanna stood with a small puppy in her arms, and once again she had the honour of naming him. ‘I am going to call him Beethoven,’ she said, and like his father Ringo, no-one quite knew why that particular name was chosen.

Everyone came to admire the little miracle, but there was none prouder than the ancient father. For Ringo had lived to see his son, and as if his mission in life had finally been accomplished, shortly after this he simply rolled over and died.

"... none prouder than the ancient father ..."
“… none prouder than the ancient father …”


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