‘Is there something you’ve always wanted to try?’ the man on the video asks. ‘Try it for the next 30 days.’
I am watching a video on setting and, more importantly, achieving goals and it turns out that 30 days is just about the right amount of time you need to form a new habit. ‘Have you ever wanted to write a novel?’ he continues. Well, not really a novel but I have always wanted to write. Over the years, I have dabbled in creative writing, travel writing, poetry and now a blog. Apparently, every November, people everywhere try to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. I know I can’t complete what I want to do in either 30 days or 50,000 words but what I can do is to use this challenge to make a start, to focus me, to write instead of talking about writing.
So, for the whole of November I wrote my 50,000 words (a first draft of course) and now I just need to write the rest. The book: well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? How my childhood fascination with my short, stocky Italian grandmother living in a flat in Croydon led to a lifetime infatuation with a country, its behaviours and habits and those of its inhabitants; how, after many false starts and dead ends, I, with my husband have infiltrated a rural community in the northern hills of Tuscany and renovated a rustic farmhouse under the watchful and approving eye of our neighbours; how the ordinary of their lives becomes the extraordinary of ours and with their acceptance and welcoming, we start to grow into Italian versions of our former selves.
Have I just written the book jacket? I’d better get on with the rest.
If you look carefully you can just see a sliver of pink under a sagging roof of terracotta tiles, the only clue that behind this curtain of ivy or some other such creeper, a building exists. When we first started coming here, more of this house was on show and I wished I had thought then to take a photograph every year, not only to chart its demise but also to record that it was once there. I wonder who owns it and why they can leave it to be swallowed up by its surroundings? But there are many others like it, as the young move away from the villages and inherited properties become surplus to requirements.
Along the lane from us, is another such abandoned house, although the circumstances are different. According to hearsay, a young Milanese couple bought it, started work (we saw them once) and then subsequently split up, all in the space of a couple of years. It seems they didn’t just leave each other; they left the house as well. It would have been lovely once finished with its huge picture window framing the Apuan Alps, but each year something else seems to crumble or crack, more of the outside creeps in and to carry on would actually mean starting again from scratch. We have ‘visited’ on more than one occasion and their vision was clear but now it stands, unloved and forgotten with only us keeping a close eye on it.
I am starting to have mixed emotions about our marble mountains. I love looking out of our windows at the ‘snowy’ white peaks in the distance. But it is marble that glistens, not snow and it is hard to believe that the polished marble window sill on which I lean is a product of these very mountains. It seems too perfect, too far removed from its original harsh rawness.
Some of the most famous sculptures in the world are as a result of excavating marble in this area and there’s no denying it, there’s something fascinating about the quarries. I have been inside one, right in the heart of the mountain learning what it takes to extract the marble, how much it costs. I have looked down on quarries at trucks and diggers that appear like Dinky toys on a white backdrop, listening to the continuous noise of machinery, punctuating an otherwise perfect stillness. I have watched the ebb and flow of lorries, almost mesmerised. I have gazed in awe at the sheer scale of the operation and at man’s capability and ingenuity.
Yet on a recent walk, I saw, perhaps for the first time, the devastating effects of the mining: mountains with shelf like flatness where rugged peaks once were, a level summit, the profile completely altered by man. Nature is being reshaped, scarred and ultimately destroyed. And it’s happening on my doorstep.
I wonder just how much marble is needed. Enormous lumps of it sit in roadside ‘yards’, seemingly overflowing. I pass them regularly and nothing ever looks different: the same slabs, blocks, piles, debris (though apparently it is not debris – ground marble is used in cosmetics and toothpaste, so I suppose that is at least something).
A couple of years ago I was in Carrara with a friend during Carrara Marble Weeks. We saw this Cadillac:
As an example of craftsmanship, skill and perseverance, it was certainly something to behold. But when I now look up and think just how much must have been chased out of the mountain, my admiration turns to sadness.
What will become of this landscape for future generations? What will they see? Will they just see a facade of a mountain poking up in the landscape fooling the world – look behind it and it’s been stripped bare? Will they be marvelling at the marble mountains?
We must be getting the hang of looking after our olives trees if this year’s harvest is anything to go by. After 4 days of picking, and just before the weather turned, we filled 4 big crates. Still short of the 150kg minimum for a pressing, we put our olives in with one of our neighbours. We were not too far off though and managed a very impressive 91kg from 14 trees. This equates to 14 litres of oil. With a run on the special plastic caps for our bottles, we decanted our plastic ‘jerry can’ into 5 litre olive oil cans to be bottled at our leisure.
For now though, we toasted our success quite literally:
With the bamboo chopped down a couple of weeks ago, and my Dad’s help in cutting the canes to length, all that was left to do was to dig out the roots, a task that M took to with gusto. I remember coming one year before we moved here permanently and being dismayed when I saw that R, who was looking after the land in our absence, had cut down the bamboo to ground level. Don’t worry, my mum reassured me, it will soon grow back. And of course she was right. I wonder just how many years that bamboo had been growing. And spreading.
The digging out of the roots took a few days but today, after a final turnover of the ground, we think we’ve got them all. The next job was to level out the earth and create a retaining wall which we did with some old curved roof tiles. While M bedded them into the ground, I was on soil redistribution duty, sieving a mixture of earth, sand and stones that was used to level our sloping drive for the tractor and that M had heaped beside our rubble pile. After 8 bucket loads and some stamping of the ground, we stood back and admired not only our bamboo free zone, but a wide, open view.
All that is left to do is to burn the pile of roots but that’s for another day.
We have a very tall persimmon tree with no lower branches so that all the ripest fruit teases us from above. Even with our new ladder, we can’t reach them all and so leave a feast for birds, wasps and all other manner of insects. Despite our generosity, they are still not satisfied so as the persimmons we can reach start to ripen, it becomes a race against time as to which of us will get them first. In an effort to thwart them, we have taken to picking the fruit early and ripening it indoors.
M is not keen on them though and so they seem another good candidate for the dehydrator, especially as they are best dried when not fully ripe. Persimmons are very astringent when unripe but according to the manual, they lose this in the drying process. The results:
Sweet, slightly chewy slices of persimmon. Suddenly M is keen. Better get the ladder out again and retrieve as many as we can.
We’ve been having a glorious autumn. Despite some overcast days in September and a day of heavy rain, October has surprised us all with almost wall to wall sunshine and higher than average temperatures. The locals are saying they don’t remember an October like it. The mornings now though are taking longer to warm up and as soon as the sun goes down over the hill, the late afternoons are chilly. Even M admits that the time for shorts and flip flops has passed. He’s had a good run though.
Feste and sagre dedicated to the porcini mushroom have now made way for those celebrating the chestnut and if we missed out on the porcini season due to our lack of experience and fear of mis-identification, we have more than made up for it in our gathering of chestnuts. Over a couple of weekends we have collected 5.5 kilos which was much more fun than the subsequent cooking and peeling.
For the second batch not only did we have two additional helpers, we treated ourselves to a chestnut roasting pan and a special chestnut cutter. It was easier but not as easy as roasting over an open fire.
We have turned our haul into batches of chestnut and pumpkin pasta sauce, and chestnut and sage soup, all piled up in the freezer ready for the winter. There’s something very rewarding about ‘free food’ as well as something very addictive about the gathering. Just as well there are still plenty more out there.