Rain Rain Go Away - Come again another day or month!
Rain Rain Go Away Come Again another Day
Yes, it is officially June now, we are one week in and this time last year I was at the beach every weekend. This year I haven’t unpacked my summer clothes! What has happened to the weather here?
All year we have been rained on frequently. At least once a week and in the last month multiple times a week, with many thunder storms for good measure. After having gone through a serious drought last summer, that led to us hastily setting up three new water butts in the garden this winter, we are now having to empty water out of the butts regularly, as they keep overflowing! The winter stream next to the house, which I love hearing has not stopped running. It has always stopped in March in years gone by. Yikes, is this Global Warming in full effect?
There are positives to all this rain, of course. There are birds in the garden! Yay! For the last two years barely a bird has been singing. Now I get woken to the dawn chorus and they are singing all day. So much so I was on a Skype business call the other day and my client said, ‘Wow you have some great bird song there!’ There has been heaps of new wild flowers that I haven’t seen before on my walks in previous June's, including a lovely flood of dog rose growing along the road. I am going to take cuttings and grow a dog rose bush alongside an exposed part of the garden, as I can’t find this in the garden shops anywhere here and I love drinking roseship tea in the winter. I am also experimenting with infusing regular Grappa, which all my neighbouring Italian friends do here themselves. I am starting off with a yarrow infusion and then a cherry one. The hills are verdant green and lush with leaf. Much lusher than last year and aesthetically everything looks, on the face of it, healthy.
My vegetable patch is coming along nicely, particularly veg grown straight into the ground such as the potatoes, carrots, celery, lettuce, beetroot, onions and garlic. But my tomatoes are about a month behind in growth and my aubergines won’t come out to play. The zucchini flowers aren’t happy either, I really hope this isn’t the second year in a row that I can’t manage to grow zucchini – I must be the only gardener on the planet who can’t pull this off!
The cherry tree is about a week away from harvesting and I am off to buy netting today to keep the birds off most of it. I am looking for new recipes for cherries if you have any. Thankfully I found a great cherry destoner last weekend at a French market I visited on a weekend away in Sete. The French are good at some things, I can’t find this implement anywhere here in Piemonte and yet there are cherry trees everywhere in the Langhe.
We caught up with a local wine producer, Enzo at Patrone in our local pizzeria last week. He is very unhappy about the lack of sun. Last week he said the grapes need a full run of sun and no rain for at least two weeks. Unfortunately for him and all the other growers this week has had some big rainfall already and more to come by the looks of the weather forecast. Optimism is low for the quality of this year’s wine harvest, particularly if this carries on. Last year is looking like a vintage year, though the quantity was low due to hail and the drought the quality is high. Remember to get buying the 2017 Barolo and Barbaresco as soon as they come out of their respective barrels in the next few years!
We are starting to entertain in the garden the next two weekends, weather permitting! Lots of great recipes coming up to be shared soon with you all and I might even make some videos of the recipes this time too!
Myself and Andrew are off to be a guest speaker at the Turin Epicurean event, held in Turin (of course) on 20/21/22 June 2018. Hosted by the lovely Lucia Hannau here are the details. There are lots of talks and cooking class and other foodie elements to get involved with. Come along if you are in Turin those days, I would love to meet you.
I am now off to do a little native American Indian Sun dance! Salute!
Fairy Dandelion Oil
This Spring, our Piemonte garden has been coated in a sunny yellow hue, since the beginning of April. Dandelions are everywhere. There are also plenty of patches of Daisy’s too, fighting for the sunlight, as the grass grows taller every day.
I just had to formulate a plan for this abundance. My research led me to one of my favourite ideas for herbs, a rubbing oil. I love rubbing oil. Last year I made a few pots of St. Johns Wort oil for carpal tunnel syndrome and muscle aches. Dandelions and Daisies are in this area of natural medicine too.
Dandelion flowers have great healing properties for strains and pulled muscles. Daisies are great for bumps and bruises. What a partnership.
I don’t have kids but can imagine that collecting these pretty flowers would be a great fun outing for young children to get involved in and to appreciate nature’s bounty. I have nicknamed this rub, 'Fairy Oil', as we all really know fairies live among the Daisy’s and Dandelions and have magical powers for healing!
If you have any leftover Dandelion flower heads that didn’t fit in the jar, you can also eat Dandelion petals in a salad!
What you can use Dandelion oil for
Dandelion reduces heat, alleviate swelling and inflammation.
You can use it by rubbing a little of the oil on aching sore muscles and joints, swollen breasts and tense backs and necks. Its anti-inflammatory properties are extremely beneficial for treating arthritis and gout by topical application.
Daisy oil is great gently rubbed on bruises, sprains, sore muscles and dried cuticles.
The weather is like last August and yet it is only the beginning of April. "Is this normal?" I ask my neighbour, Giovanni, “Si e No, the weather here changes its mind like the weather.” he says. "Ah, I see, it’s like a woman then!". “Si”, he says, laughing his twinkly eyes and beaming at me. It seems my Italian sense of humour is coming into its own with my small use of Italian words, which are slowly starting to form sentences, albeit short sentences and in less than a couple of seconds. A vast improvement on a year ago.
Today a small white dog has been to visit, I spotted him running along the main road towards our house and then he bounded up the driveway. I am not afraid of dogs, these days, but you just don’t know what a dog is like, particularly when you haven’t been introduced. I am in the middle of cultivating the vegetable patch ready for planting and Andrew is nowhere to be seen, I call for him but these high 'Langhe' terrace stone walls have the habit of blocking my calls to him, or maybe he is blocking his ears to my frequent calls? Anyway, the dog is approaching, he seems happy, his tail is wagging and he has earnest eyes, like he is looking for something, or someone, but not for me. I ‘shoo’ him away and he shoots off on his little legs faster than a greyhound and runs off back down the hill. How strange, I wonder where his owner is? I get back on with the hard back breaking task of breaking up the land next to the 'lasagne' no dig veg patch. Unfortunately, I had made the 'lasagne' patch too small for my veggie ambitions last autumn and realise that potatoes take up too much space and there isn’t enough space for the carrots, they turn out to dislike manure, which my 'lasagne' veg patch is layered with, so more land needs to be dug out from under the fast-growing grass and wild flowers.
Whilst digging, in the background, I can hear the mating calls of the toads around Giovanni’s very large pond, probably better described as a small lake. They chirrup and squawk their way through the day and I’m sure are having a whale of a time down there flirting with each other and puffing out their slimy chests. I wonder, absentmindedly, if they are edible like frogs are? But the thought is too disgusting, I just can’t bring myself to imagine eating toad’s legs. Last year we were concerned that this squawking noise would carry on all summer, not knowing the mating cycles of these tiny creatures, it seemed to go on for a good 6 weeks, drowning out the sound of the crickets in the fading daylight and for me crickets are the sound of summer, along with that classic chart hit ‘Baker Street’ by Gerry Rafferty, as soon as I hear that song I wish I was cruising along a coastal road in a convertible with seagulls calling in the air.
We have bought a lemon tree, a beautiful specimen with three already grown lemons hanging from its thorny branches. Yes, lemon trees have thorns, who knew! I guess it must be for some sort of protection from animals needing a vitamin C hit. It looks so pretty, sat in a large worn terracotta pot, in front of the balustrade, I think another couple are required and maybe an orange tree. I sit here trance like in front of it, I own a lemon tree, a lemon tree for goodness sake. Does the bounty of this spectacular place every become dull? It’s no wonder Italians are the healthiest on the planet with all this food to eat and not a McDonald’s in sight. The other day we drove through Imperia in Liguria and on to Nice in France and all we could see for miles through Liguria were rows and rows of long, industrial, glass green-house tunnels, some rotting away, others well-tended and stacked with all manner of vegetables, yet crossing over the border to France there wasn’t a single greenhouse, though the terrain was the same, what is it with the French? Are the polytunnels a blight on their landscape, as the road speeds along past Menton, Monaco and Cannes? I love green houses and polytunnels, they are a beacon of self-sufficiency, with a good sized one a family of four can be fed veg for a year. I love imagining what gems are being grown in one and, I do myself, wish we had one here, but I still haven’t worked out where to put it. With all our terraces and plans that change regularly, on what to do with all this land, it probably is better to sit it out and see before investing in a sturdy polytunnel. In the meantime, we have established the temporary 'lasagne' bed and its position on the terrace below the balustrade means I can lean over and see if the zucchini has grown another inch over night, or if those challenging carrots have poked their greenery above ground.
Andrew, now a force to be reckoned with in DIY, has kept his latest skill, taught by the wily Giovanni, on how to ‘cement in posts’ for this very project, building us an enclosed veg garden to keep the critters out. It’s the simplest thing ever, we dig out 6 holes around the veg bed and fill them with simple to mix cement and pop the posts in, then we wrap some green garden wire fencing around the outside and tie with plastic straps. Then we pop some netting over the top to keep the birds out and hey presto an enclosed veg patch, which from the inside looking out appears to be more of a veg prison but I am selfish with this project and no critter is going near this patch. Not coincidentally, I am woken in the middle of the night, after we finished the enclosure, to the sound of bellowing outside the house, a deer has stumbled across the enclosure and sounds like it is crying! I am sure it had lined up this veg patch, as a new trendy ‘pop up eatery’ in the area and was looking forward to many midnight feasts but now, alas, this is not to be. How strange the timing of this visit, I imagine he was stopping by regularly to see when this ‘pop up’ would be open for business and he would get the first table and the pick of the crop for dinner and now he has found that the rules have changed and, no, he is not on the guest list and will not be going in!
The little white dog keeps returning. This morning, I am out watering the flowers and roses along the driveway when a gentle woof comes over the top of our upper terrace, from our neighbour's, Gianna’s, holiday home, who is currently absent. Startled, I look up and there he is, his little head with the cutest black droopy ears, looking at me like I am about to burgle the place. ‘Basta’ (enough), I shout at it and he sprints away. I am starting to feel a bit sorry for him, why is he hanging about the place and where is his owner? I pause over wrapping up the lamb bone scraps from dinner, we normally give these to a grateful Giovanni for his dogs, should I give them to the little white dog instead? It’s such a difficult decision but I am firm and will not, after all, he could keep returning for food and never go home. He certainly isn’t a wild dog, he looks well maintained and is not aggressive in any way. We decide to go up by car to Gianna’s at night to see if he is there, and lo and behold there he is, perched up on a box under the outdoor shelter, bright eyes shining at us, is there hope in his eyes? We drive back down, the problem is we don’t know what the rules are in this area, do we report it to the police, or the council, would they take him and put him down, or say it’s our problem, as we found him? Too many questions. We decide to leave things as they are, surely he will trot off home soon?
I am in the vegetable prison looking at my juvenile delinquents, to see if they are behaving themselves and growing into hard working, behaved, adults. So far, they appear to be sulking. After hardening them off outside the greenhouse but tucking them in warmly back in the greenhouse each night, I am sensing petulance and bottom lips stuck out at this alarming state of affairs, as they are now being left out all night in the elements. Please grow I beg them, please show my neighbours I am not a lunatic with the no dig ‘organic lasagne bed’ experiment. I can’t bear to fail at this, they will all look at me with an ‘I told you so’ look and wonder why I am so lazy as to not furrow the ground and fill it with chemical fertiliser. Please grow. I am contemplating piping in some classical music to cheer them up while I speak to them quietly and lovingly. I am in this state of contemplation when a car pulls up and a woman, older than me, shouts out ‘Buongiorno’, I look up surprised, and see a little old red car with the lady in the front and, is it right, it can’t be, in the back is the little white dog! Huh! She asks me if the dog is mine! Oh no, I shout ‘uno momento’ and I scamper down the terraces to her car. There he is in the back shaking like a leaf, probably at the sight of evil me. I greet her with astonishment and explain my limited English. Earlier, Andrew and I had been driving back to the house when we passed the dog lying on the road a few bends away from our place, he was lying next to a baseball cap. This was weird, as there is no reason for a baseball cap to suddenly appear on the road and surely the dog knew this was not a good place to lie, although we barely get two cars an hour on this road. This kindly woman had spotted this too but, with more heart than me, she had stopped to pick him up and put him in the car, without the hat. I explained that ‘no this is not our dog’ and with great hand gestures, circled the area, to demonstrate he has been running about all over the place for the last couple of weeks. She thanks me and explains she is on holiday at our neighbours to the left of our house, adjacent to Giovanni’s, and sets off down to the house with the dog. I am so happy for the little fella, at last a home! I am yet again gardening the next day when there he is, being walked along the road, without a lead by the woman, the dog is bounding around her feet, as she walks along, and he is not letting her out of his sight, his little white tail is wagging non-stop and I am sure he is smiling. I could nearly cry with the relief, as I see him bounding down the lane to their house, turning every few seconds to make sure she is following. Home sweet home.
See what May holds in store here.
February in Piemonte - The toughest month of the year!
After the hustle and bustle of Christmas and New Year, February reached out it’s long spindly white glove beckoning us to retreat into its cold embrace and give up on the rush and pace. Everything looks dormant, brown and lifeless with not a speck moving except our neighbours’ chimneys curling warm spirals into the clouded skies. This is the resting month, a time to reflect, plan and do nothing. And for a new farmer like me a period of agitation. I itched to get on to the land and do something. Andrew set off to Dublin for a week’s work leaving me to my deep contemplation of everything green and verdant in my future planning mind. I need to step into this month much better planned next year. I am thinking a month of big bountiful books to read and a hobby, or two, to take my mind off the action less deadness of the earth in deepest winter.
Andrew kindly, and with great patience, taught me how to light the fire in the kitchen, our only fire. I placed the spindly twigs in a triangle and placed the fire-lighting cube in-between them and lit it with a long gas fuelled lighter. I stood back waiting to bask in the heat and glory of this primal action. And I did, for two beautiful golden minutes, then all became black, sooty and choke inducing, the fire had gone out, this happened repeatedly, with myself cursing and banging the fire wishing and pleading it to light. Normally, back in Dublin I would have switched the radiators on in no time and not given a second thought to the temperature. The problem with living on a small holding in the Langhe hills is there is no gas ‘on tap’, it gets trucked in and fed into an underground tank. Suddenly gas had a price, not a bill every other month, now I knew how much our gas tank held, €650 euros of gas. So, looking at the radiators I reckoned I could tough it out and not turn the gas on. I tucked myself up in a blanket on the couch, like an Eskimo, and sipped cold local red wine from my little wine beaker, hoping, vainly, that I might lose an inch from my waist, while preserving the gas tank and turning into a castle style aristocrat in our winter hideaway, like the white winter witch in ‘Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe’. I padded, throughout the evening, in my thermal socks, back and forth to the inside temperature gage and watched it tick down from 14 degrees to 10 degrees. At ten degrees, I decided the only sane option was to climb into bed with two hot water bottles, one resting against my back and the other pressed up to my chest, thermal socks plus my beret for my best impression of Scrooge in a ‘Christmas Carol’ and in an amoebic state fell into a deep, frozen sleep, I seemed to wake in the same position I had slept in with the furry water bottles still in position. The birds cheeping outside and early workers humming by, intermittently, on the road beside the house. Was I really this inept, could I be the most useless Firestarter ever?
Andrew returned from Dublin and, of course, in one fail swoop had the fire roaring and sending the temperatures back up to the high teens, making me feel I was on a beach holiday in some exotic winter sun destination, I was sweating, clearly my body had adapted to the cold and I ended up parading round in my t-shirt and wondering if my peri-menopause was moving into the ‘hot flash’ period! On Saturday, we invited dear Giovanni around for dinner, without Anna, who was in Switzerland with her family. We went to the nearby massive supermarket in Acqui Terme, for a change, and to our delight discovered the most amazing tiny lamb cutlets, I hadn’t seen any lamb anywhere in over two months. In the garden section I found the accompanying mint plants ready for me to pick the scented green leaves for my mint sauce. That night we set about a first course of Irish smoked salmon, that Giovanni had asked Andrew to bring back from Dublin, and had the roast potatoes on and the place was, of course, warm and toasty, we had some classical Italian music on for our guest and the Dolcetto opened and ready to go. Eventually, though a little uncharacteristically late, Giovanni arrived. Arms flapping, and sighing and ‘Mama Mia’ing’, after many hugs and kisses we got to the bottom of things, his donkeys had escaped. He had carelessly, in his own words, left the gate open when driving his tractor down the terraces and the two adults had scarpered off like they were in an ‘Escape from Alcatraz’ and after much torch light hunting he was none the wiser. Giovanni then collapsed on a chair and munching a breadstick, with intermittent sighs, and slugs of Dolcetto, we hesitantly presented the smoked salmon, hesitating as we both thought, surely, we ought to be out looking for the donkeys. But, Italian men will always prioritise food first, and he had called all the neighbours, in advance of our meal, asking them to keep him posted of any strange barking dogs going mad at the sight of two lumbering, grass hoovering, donkeys in their midst, besides they had cow bells on and could be heard, if the wind was in the right direction. So, amongst much tension, we had our smoked salmon and minted lamb, though you could see the stress in Giovanni’s eyes and it was the most strained meal I think I have ever had. Fortunately, after the main, and with the most perfect timing, Giovanni’s phone rang, his donkeys had been discovered some 2 kilometres away! We got up without a moment’s thought and bundled ourselves, with torches, into the car and tore off down to the location. It was pitch black, very cold and the stars were brightly lit with a near full moon shining down on us like our very own giant nature torch.
Arriving at a farm, up on the high ridged hill, we spotted the farmer flagging us down and thankfully he was laughing about the whole situation with Giovanni, as he stepped out of the car, explaining how his dogs had suddenly gone nuts at some sound and wouldn’t be quieted. I think Giovanni was mightily relieved they hadn’t been shot, a frequent pass time of farmers in this region who spot trespassing ‘meat sources’ on their land, Giovanni is one of them. I got my torch out and headed along a steep terrace in the direction the farmer pointed, stumbling across, and into, divets and crevices I, at some point in this cross-country trek, realised I was on my own. Curious, I spun round and listened and sure enough there a cow bell, back in the direction I had come from, tinkling like in a fable on a starry night. I walked back slowly towards the sound with Giovanni shouting, ‘va bene’, ‘all good’, at me, while holding the donkeys by the scruff of the neck. Andrew came up and took one of the donkeys by the leather collar and then both he and Giovanni walked the donkey’s slowly back under the star lit night with the moon behind them and looking nothing less than like Joseph and his helper on the way to a nativity scene, if it had been Christmas this would have topped all events since our arrival in this mystical place. Needless to say, an hour later Giovanni was back in our kitchen for pudding and some warming red wine.
Our first Christmas in Piemonte, Italy
It was with great excitement that we approached Christmas knowing this was our first experience ever in this wondrous land at this festive time of year. We decided to invite my mother for her first experience too and looked forward to her arrival, particularly as she was bringing little goodies, such as home made mince pies, with her that we were not able to have the time to make here from scratch.
Our plans for rest and relaxation though came to a grinding halt on the 19th December, the snow came. Now, for those who may have read my blog from March 2016 you will know that I am not a fan of snow here at all. I love the idea of a white Christmas, as long as I am squirreled away inside with a larder of food and lots of firewood and a full gas tank. This time we were caught out, returning from a trip to Dublin we arrived from Milan into Piemonte without a snowflake in sight. Once we got to the Langhe there was snow everywhere and, as we drove deeper in, the snow on the ground appeared to have grown in depth by an inch every mile. By the time we got to our town though things seemed to have been taken care of, and the snow was neatly brushed to the kerb and lots of people seemed out and about getting on with life. We decided, foolishly, to not stop at the supermarket and continue up to the house to put the heating on before coming back down for provisions. Wrong move! We got to our snow-covered driveway and a short way up the hill we got stuck with the wheels spinning faster than a hamster after chocolate on the wheel. We were going nowhere. Andrew parked it ski style so that we didn’t slide back down and stepped out of the car. The snow was about a foot deep and we trudged our way up Andrews shortcut, the recently made steps to the house, rather than risking ourselves in our town shoes up the drive. On a close inspection of the cupboards and fridge I established a possible plan of meals for a few days. The gas tank though was just under 20% and the firewood was limited to about 5 days. To make things worse the forecast read heavy snow all day and night for two more days. Tired out and, as it was dark, we decided to relax on the couch and not move.
The next day we woke and found ourselves snowed in, 14 inches of snow lay on the ground. We started shovelling. It was fortuitous that the car had got stuck so close to the bottom of the drive, as last time I had to dig the 200 metres from the house to the road, this time it was only about 40 metres. The next step was trying to work out how to use the legally obligatory snow chains, we had never opened these before. They looked like a snake’s chain mail and one that had been sliced into ribbons. Fortunately, YouTube came to the rescue and all was revealed. Finally, able to drive out of the driveway, we made it down to town for provisions. On the way back up we spotted our neighbour trying to dig his way out and after a chat Andrew volunteered to go back in the morning and dig him out too, as they were likewise caught out and were off to Milan for Christmas. With all crises averted we finally looked forward to Christmas and my Mother’s arrival.
My mother is an adventurous spirit and had decided to train it from Milan to Alba our nearby main station rather than us drive to Milan. She arrived laden with presents and mince pies galore. Christmas had begun.
After much Twitter and internet research I had decided on pheasant, as the main meal on Christmas day, Turkeys not being readily available. Besides, with the amount of pheasants everywhere picnicking on the land, and in our garden, this had to be the best choice. I went to the local cooperative butcher, a very popular place with the locals and it stocks local farmer meat. The queue was out the door. This is not because of this special time, the queue in this butcher is out the door most days, if you go at the wrong time. I was once trapped in this place in August, unknowingly before a saint’s feast day and was there for nearly an hour while everyone ahead ordered a week’s supply of meat to feed a family of 10, or so it seemed. Having been stuck next to the cash till section for a good 30 minutes I was astounded by the amount being rung up, without fail the minimum had been 60 euro, most were way more. The problem, although I am sure there is some community element to this, is that there is only a husband and wife team running it, with a back-room butcher cutting up whole carcases, the husband cuts up the meat and weighs it at the front counter and the wife rings it up and looks after the small dairy and hams counter next to the till.
The main issue, for me anyway, is the fight to get to the front and be served. When I first came to Italy I was prepared for the 'no queue' rule and each for their own, that, I thought, was the Italian way. But like many things in this perplexing country, there are local customs too. Mostly, in my town, it is a contradiction and more often there is a queue. Generally, it is the women who visit the butcher to get their weekly meat. The men lurk about outside with a cigarette, or sit on one of the benches inside, chatting to their neighbours. The women are a force to be reckoned with though. Because we are so close to Switzerland there are the contradictory 'courteous' women who seem to have an organised queue going, some of these ladies are Swiss in colouring too with blonde hair and blue eyes, which may explain their orderliness. Then there are the 'stranieri', like me, who follow the queue too. But the alpha Italian matriarchs upset this pretence to order and will appear suddenly directly ahead of me in the queue, with still 5 people ahead of me to go. Then another will appear at my side and start to inch further ahead of me on their tiny block heels, which, all women of a certain age, all wear here. I’ll look around for help with these 'ladies' and see the women behind me talking to each other saying things like, ‘She’s ahead of me (as in me), I don’t know who that woman is who cut in though, do you know her?’ etc. They will gossip like this for ages but do not assist in explaining to the one who cut in that there is a queue. This is perplexing, as it can take at least 30mins on a Saturday to get served. Four days before Christmas I was there for 40 minutes. One woman in her fur coat walked in to the shop a good 20mins after me and stood at my side, thereby bypassing about 10 people behind me, strangely she was joined by her massive burly farmer husband who kept leaning into me to talk to his mate on my other side. This went on for 10mins and then, as I finally got to the counter, she cut straight ahead of me, bold as brass. I was apoplectic. I could hear the murmuring women behind me tut tutting and turned to look at them to apologise but they just gave me a little wincy smile, as if I were to blame for them having to wait another 10mins. When it was my turn I asked to pre-order a pheasant to collect on Christmas Eve and the butcher practically laughed at me, and said something in Italian to the people in the shop, about this ‘weird’ order, they all tittered. He shook his head, no it would not be possible to get a pheasant. I asked for venison, surely with the deer ranging in my eye sight every day this was possible. Again, another joke, at my expense, was made to the onlookers, no, this would not be possible either. So, I had to settle for a Capon chicken for Christmas Day and a couple of guinea fowl for St. Stephen’s day. Not quite what I had envisaged (but joyful nonetheless). It was akin to another trip there, on a quieter day. when I had asked him to leave some fat on a pork joint, after all he trims every bit of fat off everything there, it’s the Italian way. Again, another joke was made by him to the waiting customers, even his butcher in the back room leaned around the door frame to see who had asked for such a thing. I may as well have been asking for a McDonald’s Happy meal. I really can’t say I enjoy going to this butcher and only go because the meat is totally out of this world, which makes it worth it every time. Hopefully, when I am more fluent in Italian, I can come up with a couple of useful phrases to throw back at the butcher and the Signora’s when they 'but in' next time, hopefully sooner rather than later.
Read the next installment, just when you thought the weather couldn't get worse...
In Piemonte, and the Langhe Hills in Italy, we have found our perfect home, our spiritual home and our neighbours have been the biggest part of making us feel at home. Coming from Dublin, we were fairly spoilt, we lived in a close knit community in a cul-de-sac, right in the heart of South side Dublin city centre. It was a haven of tranquillity, yet, only 200 metres away, one of the main, dual carriage, arteries into the very centre ran by the house, but it was so built up we never heard a murmur of the endless cars, bikes and buses that toiled up and down the main road all day. The cul-de-sac has a beautiful flower garden, made by two lovely old 'fellas' who adopted it a couple of decades ago from a slab of empty, degrading, council concrete. We were very fortunate to find that home. Our neighbours were mainly over 60 and some had even been born in their current home, along with 10 other children. The amount of children our neighbours parents had was staggering. I kid you not, one of my closest now sadly departed friends, Patricia, had been born into a family of 21 children (same parents), albeit on the other side of town, quite spectacular. All day long there are coming and goings of grand kids and grown up kids dropping into visit our neighbours, some actually come every day to visit their parents. It’s that type of community. A rare community in the city.
I think some of the Dublin neighbours were a bit put out when we moved in to the cul-de-sac, us 'yuppy' types', so they thought, and with the Mercedes, and right in the top price boom year, 2006, a doomed year for all who bought in Ireland! But the house price was very much within our comfort zone, thankfully. Some of the neighbours had tried to secure it for their adult kids, but had been out bid, or hadn’t even tried to bid, on the, what they thought, extortionate house price; after all some of them had bought their house for €5,000 back in their younger years. So we had to meet the begrudgers and make friends. Which we did, by gardening our socks off out the front of the house, we adopted some waste land circling a street tree and turned it into a herb surround and a window box of lavender and heather and a blooming rose bush by the front door. They were happy then, we weren’t those ne’er do wells who buy a house and rent it out to uncaring souls, we wanted in, and we got in. Over the years we have sadly said our farewells to good people who passed on and we all attended, as a community group, all the funerals, there were no weddings, as we were all beyond that. But we mucked along, with the odd fall out, normally over people parking outside each other’s houses, the prime spot, every house owner cherishes in our street, right outside the front door, no driveway you see. God forbid a visitor unknowingly steals the cherished spot outside a neighbour’s’ door. Most of the time, in the early years, it was our cherished spot that was hijacked, until, Andrew, the new Alpha male of the street, went into battle. So spells of not talking and sulking did descend into our pleasant spot but it was never for long, the day soon came when normal conversation about the weather, and ailments and flowers resumed. So I can’t say that we lived in some stereotypical cold city centre spot, because it was warm and treasured but what we have found in Italy has taken neighbourhood to a whole new level.
Giovanni, our Langhe neighbour, and our house vendor, had taken it upon himself, with no prompting, to march us round, after we closed the sale, to meet the neighbours adjoining our land. We were met with the gruffest, grumpiest dog ever, and no, not one who becomes a dote after a few strokes. So, keeping the grouchy dog at bay, we had been taken into a lovely old kitchen for our first neighbour visit. We were offered plates of biscuits and nuts and coffee and had a good chat. A real Italian welcome, no visit, it turns out, goes without refreshments, we have to keep our own cupboards stocked with emergency biscuits for such an occasion, of which there has been plenty. Then we met the wonderful Gianna who lives in the house above us, retired, of course, and she has three houses, the one near us she uses for the summer, and it is also the one she was raised in. Seeing a similarity, I hope. Gianna is like the stereotype in the movies you watch about people moving to Italy, she loves shouting a ‘Buongiorno!’ at me from over her terrace balcony, which, each time, scares the wits out of me, normally she catches me in a trance while I weed the flower bed and, once recovered from the shock, I always bounce back a smiling ‘Buongiorno!’.
In our Langhe Hills region, it is courteous to always announce your arrival, if there has been some absence, not to announce one’s arrival led us to the most amusing, if not a little irritating, moment this first year has provided us with. We had set out in March from Ireland to our new Italian house, prior to moving there full time, and had decided to purchase a couch from Ikea in Genova, a good 2 hours away. So we had hired a van because they didn’t deliver back then, though this summer Ikea decided we weren’t that far for a delivery, the usual Italian inconsistency! So we hired a massive white tall van and drove to the house the day before the trip to Genova. All fine. We awoke in the morning and Andrew went for his morning stretch, taking in the 'bella' view over the veranda outside, most often he does this just in his boxer shorts, thankfully not this time, only to see Giovanni trotting up the drive. He went down to meet him half way (it’s a very long drive) and ended up being met by Giovanni and the Police! Giovanni thought we were being burgled by some white van mob and had called the police to get to our house asap, “Why didn’t you call?”, he said, and “cellulare me” (mobile phone), “I didn’t know you were here!”. Embarrassed, he sent the Police off, goodness knows what they thought of us, and I joined the, very wound up Giovanni and more chilled Andrew in the ‘welcome’. My thoughts were, ‘why on earth would I need to call the neighbours to come to my own house, we own it, it’s not a holiday home’ etc etc. So, slighted at being treated like a tourist, I joined the discussion, a little bit too strongly, and with arms flapping, from both sides, Giovanni “arrivederci’d” at us and stalked off. We didn’t talk to Giovanni for a good couple of months after that episode! Chiefly, because he didn’t do his usual daily visit, which had irritated me in the first month, bless him. He doesn’t speak English, and why should he, so we couldn’t call him and make peace, as we’re not quite that fluent. Then, one day in early summer, accompanied by my mother, a person Giovanni seems to have taken a brotherly shine to, we dropped into his home. He met us as if nothing had happened, three kisses, wine, nibbles offered and we have since then carried on as normal, with Giovanni visiting a few times a week, not daily and a number of wonderful reciprocated dinners with him and the other neighbours. Truth be told, I don’t know what we would do without him. We really did buy him with the house, that was the joke we had with our estate agents, but it really is true. Though we know when he doesn’t like a decision of ours, such as where to put the veg patch, as he has a ‘tell’, he quickly shuts down the discussion with an ‘arrivederci’ turns on his tail and walks off. Though we are so used to this we laugh it off and sometimes run up and give him a hug, no silent moments have passed since.
I have since read that Italians treat their friends as family, and I don't doubt it, for us two 'blow ins' we have truly landed on our feet here.
Find out how we started this Piemonte Italian dream here.
Ahh, Italian kisses, the stuff of movies, romance and… no this post is not that romantic! Italian kisses are confusing, they are perplexing and inconsistent and sometimes head-bumping and embarrassing. Told you it wasn’t going to be romantic!
I’m talking about greeting and kissing Italian friends in Italy. In all our travels to Italy we never really had to think about kissing anyone but, well, ourselves alone. Staying on past holidays in Italy, as tourists, in remote self-catering homes, meant we hardly saw a soul, apart from venturing out to the markets and restaurants as unidentifiable tourists that no one wanted to kiss, thank goodness! Now, living in Italy, it is a different matter.
Since buying our house in March this year we have established some wonderful friendships in our area, most of them are our neighbours, 9 people locally and Natascia and Marco our estate agents from Acqui Terme, who have become firm friends. Most are Italian and two are Swiss married to Italians. So far so great. But one of the delicate moments that I struggle with when greeting any of these new friends is the ‘kiss’. You can read all you like about this on Google and think you know the right way but, as with so many things in Italy, there are regional differences and rules are complicated. So far I have to try and remember who does what kisses, on what side, in what style and when, as there are four different kissing greeting styles we have encountered, so far, and we have to remember them all, depending on who we are greeting!
Firstly, there is the two kisses approach, firstly one to your right of the persons face (their left cheek) and then to the left side (their right cheek). Awkward in itself coming from a land where we greet our very best friends with one peck grazing their right cheek – full stop! So now, like driving on the opposite side of the road, I have to remember the opposite side of the face first, fortunately, and this is how I remember it, both are on my right side!
Secondly, there are three kisses, one to your right side of their face (their left cheek), then the left and back to the right of their face (their left cheek). Giovanni sprang this one on us both when we had our first dinner at his family home, Giovanni originally hails from Sardinia, I’m not sure if this is a Sardinian style though. Much head knocking ensued, at that first dinner, from going the wrong way in the early greeting with him and his family and then assuming the kissing had ended when there was another kiss left to do, lots of, “Ur, sorry, um, ah ha ha - yes we are Irish and we are used to one, ha ha, yes, but when in Italy, ha ha, ahhh”, cringe! So we had to get this kissing started off properly. We then took this three kiss rule to meet Natascia and Marco for lunch, they went along with it too. ‘Excellent’, we thought, we have nailed the kissing!
Thirdly, we noticed with Giovanni’s wife, who is Swiss, that she prefers proper air kisses, like a fashion diva, which she is not, she is the gentlest loveliest lady but it is the Swiss way to ‘Mwah’ into the air three times, starting the air kiss above their left cheek.
Fourthly, there is one person who likes one kiss, to the left cheek side, we haven’t worked out why this is yet though. There just is no consistency, I love being in Italy, they really keep me on my toes.
Then there is the diplomatic trick of remembering all these different greeting arrangements when we all meet for a dinner party, a regular occurrence with our neighbours, this is particularly difficult at the end of the night after a feast of food and lots of good wine when the kissing repeats again, this time in saying good night.
We have recently learned from Natascia that she was going along with our three kisses, which we had inherited from Giovanni, as she thought it must be the Irish way of kissing and was being polite by following our lead! Yeah right! Irish, yes maybe the Irish are known as really friendly people but intimate gestures, forget about it! So we have learnt that she does two kisses, starting on the persons left cheek. Ahhhhhhh!
But the golden, Italian kissing greeting etiquette, rules here is that firstly men kiss men in exactly the same way as described above, so everyone gets kisses! So both Andrew and I have had to struggle through this learning curve together. How very cool is that! Secondly, the kissing greeting commences at the second meeting, so in the first meeting a polite, standard, hand shake and ‘piacere’ (nice to meet you), is the starting point. Then kissing begins from the second meeting onwards, if it is in a social, friendship forming, context, not a formal meeting at the bank etc.
I reckon the easiest way, if socialising in a group, is to hang back and watch others kiss first, see how they are kissing and then replicate the correct way to show how culturally sophisticated you are.
I love living in Italy.
Next installment - Love thy Neighbour!
Share our stories with your friends.