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 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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Tuscan Tales Chapter 8 – Carnevale

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 …

Frederico is dressing up for the parade ...
… Frederico is dressing up for the parade …

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.

... it is the children who stop me in my tracks ...
… it is the children who stop me in my tracks …

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.

... he is pulling a sort of tumbril ...
… he is pulling a sort of tumbril …

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 …

... the town band ... is made up of ... children ....
… the town band … is made up of … children ….

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.

... it's all about the new generation ...
… it’s all about the new generation …

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.





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Tuscan Tales Chapter 7 – Now that’s what I want to do …

Ch 7 jars apiary
My friend Jars’ allotment apiary …

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.’

Ch 7 the old car came into view
… the old car we had seen under the canvas came into view …

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.’

Ch 7 '... 'one cold & snowy winter's day  fixed...
… one cold and snowy winter’s day in February, we took possession of the keys …

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.

And so my adventures began …


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Tuscan Tales Chapter 2 – Into Tuscany

'some pretty houses down the track'
‘some pretty houses down the track’

It’s easy checking out of Pisa airport. We have a ‘Smart’ car, gold and snappy. We take the SS67 south of Pisa and turn off, planning to cut across the countryside to Greve-in-Chianti. Soon we are winding though the hills – beautiful Tuscan hills, dotted with vines and olives …

It’s not long before we reach our hotel. It’s lovely – set on top of the spine of a hill, overlooking another hilltop village. It’s isolated, with a lovely pool and gorgeous views from the terraces. It has those ‘flop up’ green shade–shutters that are so common in Italy. Tonight’s supper is in an old barn. It’s a buffet, and not very good, but the waiter makes up for it. He has a mischievous sense of humour and he and Liam tease about the choice of wine. ‘I want one that is good, but not expensive’ says Liam ‘but not so cheap that I get a headache in the morning.’ He laughs and promises to fetch exactly that. Lovely sense of humour I think, just like every Italian one meets.

The next morning breakfast is on the terrace, with fresh acacia honey. It’s a still and sunny morning with sparrows chirping everywhere. From where I sit I can see though the lime trees and under the branches to the vineyards rising steeply on the hill opposite. Postcard country. We plan to do a circuit from Greve-in-Chianti on to Radda-in-Chianti and back.

'a little wayside shrine ...'
‘a little wayside shrine …’

On one of the byroads there is a little wayside shrine and a dirt track running down the hill to the right. Some pretty houses run alongside the track, and I point them out to Liam. ‘I wonder what’s down that road.’ I say.

‘I don’t know – would you like to have a look?’ he says. We have slightly overshot the turnoff and he begins to reverse the Smart car. All of a sudden the little car falls straight off the side of the road and into a ditch. I hop out to direct him back onto the road. Just then a battered old kombi-van careers up and pulls off into the dirt road in a cloud of dust.

‘Are you in trouble? Can I help?’ calls a cheery voice. It’s the waiter from last night’s supper at the hotel.

‘No,’ I say, walking up to his car, ‘I think that we are alright and can get out of this ditch.’ Then I look at him and do something that I have never in my life done before. ‘Could you tell me what’s down this road?’ I say, ‘because we are looking for something to buy and I wonder if you might know of anything?’

I honestly do not know why I say this, because the truth is that we are not looking for something to buy. Maybe I am so bold because Liam is safely in the car, halfway down a ditch. For although Liam shares my love of Italy, he has long since had a horror of me finding some romantic ruin to restore in a foreign country, where neither of us speak the language. And even more to the point, he has always had strong socialist roots. ‘Liam’s hair shirt’ his family always teases. Liam does not feel that one should own anything excessive. We are a one-car family, do not fill the bath, and turn out the lights when we leave a room.

‘Well,’ my Italian waiter replies, ‘there are three places for sale. One belongs to my family and the other two to our great family friends. I have the keys to all of them, and would you like to have a look?’  I call out to Liam ‘Come and have a look’ I say vaguely, ‘we’ve been invited.’

We follow him down the stony track, past the two beautiful Tuscan houses I had seen from the top of the hill. The track gets rougher and rougher, and we leave our car at a pull-off and hop into his kombi. As we bump along, we hear his story …


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