The Italy of 1996 was not the Italy of today. It was the end of the Italy of barely suppressed chaos that rocked and rolled on a sea of inflationary liquidity. Laws were badly written and often not enforced. Peoples’ working lives were to be short and their physical lives long and secure. The Italian State asked for little and in return it gave the collective little: poor infrastructure, incompetent bureaucracy, bad schools and universities, appalling public services, lack of basic communal amenities such as refuse dumps. But what it failed to give the collective, the Italian State made up for by giving to the individual, and in spades. The three great gifts within the means of the State to give were the pension, security of employment and security of earnings to the employee if the employer should fail and disappear. In return the State asked for little but it rendered Italians workers unsackable, it enabled them to retire in their 40’s and it kept them in the manner to which they were accustomed (100% of their salary) for decades even if their underlying employment had disappeared.
But in an ever integrating Europe this was untenable. An Italy that had been forced out of the Italian Exchange rate mechanism in 1992 and had almost defaulted on its debts, that was tardy or non-compliant in incorporating European directives and law was obviously an Italy that would not be able to take advantage of the security that being in ever deeper integration with other, stronger, European countries offered. And the Italian model had reached the end of the line. To Italian policy makers it was obvious that Italy needed to hook itself to the European bandwagon as it was too weak to go it alone and continue to offer what its populace expected now as of right. Only fifty years before most Italians had been in abject poverty. But the Dolce Vita was a right and a religion. To go to eat and drink continuously and conspicuously was, for a people that had previously suffered terribly from pellagra, a right that now defined them. For those that had known the pain of empty stomachs and the degradation of absolute poverty enough was never enough. Italy was a populist democracy and asking a people whose belly’s had to be always full to tighten their belts was not an option. So Italy began to change. It incorporated European directives into Italian law and began the process of enforcing the laws in a more systematic and comprehensive way.
But at La Faula we didn’t know this. And neither did our neighbours and the people from the villages around Ravosa. In 1996 you were still on your own in a Frasca if you had problems. The Carabinieri who controlled us were not there to help us. They were there to enforce the writ of the State across its territory. Disputes, unless they were well out of control and there were dead bodies to deal with, had to be resolved locally. The Carabinieri were more like an occupying power than a source of security and safety.
So it was that in our first years of running the frasca we were shaken down for protection money, had to deal with the Sunday visits of a gangster and convicted murderer from Nimis with his henchmen and sainted mother, had to disarm a knife-wielding teenager who was being bullied and had to manage the non payment of drinks orders by the toughest of men who were completely dangerous and terrifying.
to be continued!
running la faula
So far, in my review of 2013 at La Faula I have covered the volunteers, the guests, the dogs, Luca and Maritza. These are all elements that together with the physical structure of the house and the grounds and environment come together to comprise La Faula at a particular point in time. But La Faula, as a living activity, exists in context and that context is formed by Italy and the Italians. Italy, the State, gives us the legal licence to undertake our activity, it restricts and constrains how that activity may be undertaken, it controls us to ensure that we abide by those restrictions and constraints and it taxes us to pay for the infrastructure and services that it currently provides, has historically provided but that have not been paid for and for the people and goods that comprise the State and who live off and from the State. This is a heavy burden for a small but willing activity like La Faula. But Italy, in all its formal aspects, is wholly dysfunctional, irremediably flawed in conception and expression and is incapable of sustaining itself as a modern State. The First World War, Fascism, the Second World War will be seen in time as the zenith of of Italian State power and organisation. From 1943, Italy began its inevitable decline, imperceptible but implacable, spurts of growth deceiving and covering the corrosive reality that Italy was consuming and not investing. The account for that binge was rendered many years ago, payment will never be made, but like a diner caught without means after a fine meal, Italy is frozen, unable to organise itself to dash into default and so forced into trying to buy time hoping against hope that something will turn up.
So this leaves the Italians, as individuals, who by themselves and as a community form the environment in which the La Faula of Luca and Paul exists. And a good environment it is too! As we are talking here about people some history is required. La Faula is the topographical name for the first small hill that rises up from the Friulano plane. Behind La Faula are the pre-Alps that incrementally become the Julian Alps. The people who lived in this part of the world were always, in their history, dominated by people and peoples coming from outside. The original Celts were subdued by the Romans, the Romans, in turn, were defeated by the huns, goths, visigoths and other northern tribes, German princes controlled the foothills behind La Faula, the Venetians took the area for the trees, the Austrians incorporated it in their Empire, the Turks briefly erupted into the Friulano plane, the First World War in Italy was largely fought in Friuli, in the Second World War Friuli was gifted as a Cossack Nation by the grateful Germans to the cossacks who had fought with them and as they fled the Allied advance Friuli became a target for Yugoslav Titoist expansion. The people that lived amongst this violence, plunder and pillage, the Friulani, were tough, closed, resourceful and resistant. And these were the people that we found ourselves amongst in 1996 when we came to live at La Faula. Many of the older people had been literally baptised by fire: as reprisals for partisan activity the German troops had burnt to the ground, Nimis, Subit, Attimis and Faedis, the villages surrounding La Faula. A civil war had broken out as the German army retreated and pro Yugoslav Italian communist partisans sought to facilitate the absorption of Friuli into Yugoslavia. In the maelstrom of violence and chaos which descended and cloaked those living in the foothills of the Julian Alps, private violence, vendettas and gangsterism flourished. When the German army had retreated, with the help of Allied soldiers, the Carabiniere established order and disarmed the civilian population. Penalties for score settling and private justice were sever. The State held the power and was jealous of it. Fatigued by war, weary of violence, and wary of civil war the people again settled down and enjoyed the economic growth, money and wealth that arrived in quantities never before seen in their part of the world. But they were all witnesses to what had happened and who had done it. They lived together peacefully, but they did not forget. They were tough, suspicious and unforgiving.
So it was that in 1996 Luca and I came to live at La Faula. We had little idea of what we wanted to do with the place apart from recognising that it had some good tourist potential. But the vineyard was already at La Faula and Luca’s father had been making wine there for some years so the obvious thing, given that in a vineyard grapes grow and must be harvested and then made into wine, was to start a “frasca” which is a small unlicensed bar from which, for limited times, a farmer may sell to the public his own wine and, in the case of our local “Comune” (municipality), boiled eggs from our own chickens! In 1996 Italy was at the apex of rule by licence so the possibility to sell wine simply by notifying the local council was of real advantage.
The frasca where a farmer sells his or her wine to the locals was an integral part of Friulano tradition. Most farmsteads had their own vines and made some wine and wine was heavily consumed, constantly and consistently, both at home and in the “frasce” which constituted a meeting place for a very large number of the local men (excluding Sundays when women and children would be brought along!).
As a frasca La Faula was immediately popular from the very beginning. I remember the day we opened. There was no direct connection from the kitchen to the bar area. We had bottled 20 normal sized bottles of wine thinking that this would be enough. But word had spread of the new frasca and we were inundated with people. Luca’s mum washed the glasses in the sink as we didn’t have a dishwasher. I was unable to serve at the bar as I didn’t speak Italian so I was in the kitchen decanting wine from 54 liter demijohns into bottles and relaying our inadequate supply of glasses from the bar to the kitchen for washing and back again. To get to the bar from the kitchen we had to run up and down a series of steps. It was a cyclone and one that was to be oft repeated as we encountered challenges for which we were not prepared.
Gradually we got a grip on the frasca and got ourselves organised. We made a lot of mistakes but I went from not understanding anything that was said to me to comprehending and speaking Italian, albeit rather badly.
to be continued …...
running la faula
Maritza has been cleaning the rooms and doing the ironing at La Faula since 2004. She was a sudden arrival as the woman who had been cleaning the rooms since we started the Agriturismo unexpectedly took ill in August of that year. Maritza, whose sister had married a Ravosa guy came on short notice to help us get through the rest of the season. She has been with us ever since. Maritza comes from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. She followed in the footsteps of her sisters who had come to Italy looking for work. She arrived just as the adoption of the Euro by Italy was exposing and punishing the country’s economic weaknesses. Italy, for Maritza, has been an experience of general economic and social decline. Luckily for us, and for her, La Faula, during this period has been in a phase of incremental and steady growth which has offset, for her, a more difficult environment in finding employment when the Agriturismo is closed.
Maritza, Luca and I are a good team. She and I are both foreigners in Italy and Luca feels like one! It can be said that we experience La Faula as a common adventure. When the Agriturismo is open, Maritza works full time with us. The day starts with Luca and Maritza’s coffee together. Maritza’s daily work programme is posted on a private page of our website so that she knows before she arrives what she needs to do. This allows Luca and Maritza to gossip about the Santo Dominican’s who live in Udine and lead colourful caribbean-style lives! Luca was born in Mexico as his father was an expatriate working in the steel industry there and Maritza’s stories remind him pleasurably of the bustle, colour and confusion that characterise caribbean and central american society.
Originally, Maritza worked with Luca’s mother who helped out by managing the linen, beds and the thoughtful touches that enhance the character of the rooms at La Faula. Now, in 2014, I don’t think that there is a single Italian, of any age, who doubts that computerisation and the internet are key to managing businesses more effectively and efficiently. But Italian culture was inordinately slow to digitise and the internet was seen as by an enormous number of Italians as being irrelevant to the way things were traditionally done and was resisted because it required working in new and unfamiliar ways. At La Faula we had our first website in 1997 and by 2004 it was fully functioning with database, forms, and message system. But the Italian way (also currently) is swathes of paper with everything written in block capitals so while digitisation seems obvious today it wasn’t a certainty that it would be easy to move from the paper based systems we had devised at the beginning and were using. Luckily, Maritza was quick to accept the internet-based tools that we developed and so we were able to manage her work programme in real time and she could organise her time effectively by being able to see in advance the bookings and what would be required of her on a day-by-day basis.
When Luca’s mum stopped working at La Faula, Maritza stepped into the breach and took responsibility for the rooms and linen. Although her workload increased markedly, she upped her game, reorganised herself and ways of working, increased her efficiency and productivity and was able to manage work previously done by two notwithstanding that La Faula had increasing numbers of guests. And, in addition to all this Maritza cleans the rooms as if they were her own.
So the 2013 season in the Agriturismo was a good one for Maritza. But when we closed, for the very first time in all these years she was unable to find bridging work over the winter. Maritza is willing and resourceful and it shocked her, and us, when she found herself at home without employment. Since 2004 when Maritza joined us, she has dreamed of working at La Faula in spring-summer then going home to Santo Domingo for the autumn and winter months. The economic depression in Italy has meant that this will now be a reality deriving though it does from necessity!
running la faula
To describe what 2013 was like for Luca at La Faula, requires a little background. La Faula was Luca’s dad’s hobby farm. As a child Luca lived some years at La Faula with his family but then they moved to Udine. As a teenager, Luca spent a number of summers on a farm in Herefordshire to improve his English and he eventually studied and graduated from the University of Stirling in Scotland. He then decided to stay in the United Kingdom which he found preferable to the chaotic and non meritocratic nature of Italy. It is true to say that if Luca had not met me he would most probably still be living in the UK.
Following the Second World War, Italy embarked on a consumption led rave fed by Marshall fund monies, financial support during the cold war by both the United States and Soviet Union, wholesale printing of the Lira, multiple devaluations of the Lira and, ultimately, borrowed money. Silvio Berlusconi was wholly accurate when he said that in countries with a lower public debt than Italy most of the debt was held by private citizens whereas in Italy, where private debt was historically low and savings and wealth high, the debt was held by the State. Effectively the citizens had the cash and the State held the debt that represented that cash. The Italian “festa” reached its peak in the 1980’s. Waves of strikes allowed workers to appropriate ever more of the (declining) wealth of the nation, businesses evaded taxes and exporters benefited from devaluations of the Lira. State workers didn’t work. Productivity was generally low. Disposable income was high. Working conditions were ever more generous. Of course the apotheosis of the good times in Italy was also the inflection point into decline but to Anglo Saxons who had suffered the disorienting and sometimes wrenching economic restructuring represented by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan it seemed as if Italians had discovered the secret of the perpetual perfect life. And not only the perfect life but in an undeniably beautiful country with a great climate, a riveting history and delicious cuisine. It naturally followed that there were in the 1990’s an explosion of books such as “Under the Tuscan Sun”, “Italian Neighbours” etc. in which english speaking people recounted the wonderful adventures of inserting themselves into and sharing this Italian reality in which the foibles of the Italians were presented as charming and attractively exotic!
So it was that when Luca’s dad, who was coming up to retirement, asked Luca and his sister, who was married and living in Spain, whether they wanted to do anything with La Faula they both said no but I said to Luca “you must be nuts. Your dad is offering to give you a farmhouse with vineyard in a beautiful corner of Italy and you’re going to turn it down.” And Luca said “Look, you don’t know what Italy is like. You don’t know what the people are like. It’s not a country to live in. To go there would be a big mistake”. But I’m a pushy so-and-so and my idea that we should go to La Faula and see what we could do there prevailed and we went.
It is true to say that the Italian way of being which includes slyness, mendacity, corruption, influence peddling, nepotism (obviously), obfuscation, gratuitous desire to see others done down, malice and envy amongst other things impacts profoundly on Luca in a way that it doesn’t on myself, a foreigner who sees the Italians as another (and stranger) people. But Luca loves the outdoors, the countryside, animals and birds, gardening and growing things so the agricultural side of La Faula was to his complete pleasure.
La Faula consists of two independent activities: grape growing and winemaking and hospitality. As for all businesses in Italy, at La Faula Luca and I may only undertake those activities for which we are licensed and overarching our particular licences are the rules applicable to our type of business imposed by national and regional laws. When the Agriturismo sector was being developed in Italy, it was strongly resisted by the hotel sector which saw Agriturismi as a competitive threat. To hobble Agriturismi and blunt their threat to hotels, it was decided that Agricultural tourism would be a secondary activity to agriculture and so the majority of the earnings of a farm containing an agriturismo must come from Agriculture and the time invested in hospitality must always be less than the time invested in farming. Failure to respect these rules risks fines, declassification as a farm and suspension or cancellation of the business’s licence.
The problem facing Agriturismi is that the rigidity of the regulatory matrix conflicts with economic and factual reality. In Italy, the high costs of production, labour and bureaucratic compliance in a globally competitive market is forcing wineries to grow, increase production and constantly improve their quality. Growing good grapes, making great wine and then selling it is a laborious and capital intensive business that requires high levels of agricultural and oenological skills, constant positive cash flow and a dedication and commitment that is more than full time. Likewise, offering hospitality that is more than just holiday bungalows, requires accommodation stock of the highest quality, cooking skills, computer and internet skills, cutting edge organisation, long hours and dedication to keeping guests happy and satisfied.
When we came to La Faula I felt that Luca and I had no advantages at all in the winemaking business and so we should focus on hospitality where our lack of experience was less of a disadvantage and where the combination of our experience and language skills and the striking beauty of La Faula would give us a competitive advantage in the market. My idea was to create a kind of charm hotel in the Italian countryside of the type that I had stayed in in France. Of course this was not to be as the land of La Faula was zoned exclusively for farming and there was no concept in Friuli of hotels in the countryside and so there was no law which would allow such an activity to take place using farm buildings on farmland. What there was, however, was a new law creating Agriturismi which allowed for derogations from the laws and restrictions regarding zoning and land and buildings use. An Agriturismo licence allowed farm buildings to be used for accommodation and the cooking and serving of food therein and so there was no other choice than to become an Agriturismo.
The problem that La Faula faces is that both the Agriturismo and the winery, as they develop, are requiring increased dedication of time and constant improvement but because of the way the law and our licence are structured we are unable to reduce the amount of vineyard we have, which would be the logical thing to do, to more manageable levels. Thus, we find ourselves with more vineyard than we want or need but, notwithstanding this, when we grow grapes they still have to be good and improving and when we make wine it still has to be good and improving - and saleable - and the Agriturismo must offer guests an exceptional experience without exception. The heaviest burden falls on Luca, who principally follows the vineyard at La Faula, as the vineyard requires a massive dedication of time and resources in Spring-Summer and this is the time that the Agriturismo is also at its peak.
So 2013 was for Luca a wonderful year because he had a partial respite in the vineyard. One of our neighbours needed top quality grapes for his top quality wines. He agreed with Luca that he would harvest the 2013 grapes but he wanted to be sure that the grapes were up to his standards so he undertook all the vineyard work except for spraying the grapes with copper sulphate which Luca did with our bulldozer. For the first time in years Luca was able to enjoy the summer in the Agriturismo without the pressure of summer pruning of the vines, cutting of the grass in the vineyard and on the banks, plucking the leaves from around the bunches of grapes and the numerous other jobs that a vineyard requires during its growing season.
I wrote at the beginning of my review of 2013 at La Faula, that what makes La Faula are the place, the volunteers, the guests, the dogs and Luca and myself. With the volunteers of 2013 we couldn’t have been luckier. And also with the guests.
We started the Agriturismo season, as ever, with Nichole and Nello from France. They have been coming to La Faula every spring and autumn since the year 2000. We commence every season of the Agriturismo with them and we close every season with them likewise. Of course, over the years we have become friends and we have shared life’s ups and downs together. They are older than us and we have learnt from them the undeniably positive message that it is possible, even as one ages, to stay alert and interested and to find interest in the lives of others. From this springs empathy. And we have benefitted from their experience and wisdom as they have illuminated, from their own experience, some of the twists and turns that probably will await us as we proceed down the road of life!
In fact, as we look back, for Luca and I began this Agriturismo in 2000, we realise just how much we owe people who came to stay at La Faula and who gave us more than we could have hoped to have been given. The guests who showed patience, forbearance and humour at the beginning of the Agriturismo’s life when we we utterly overwhelmed by the enormity of running a small hotel, and a vineyard, and tending cattle and making wine. There was a period when running the La Faula kitchen followed on from a day of Luca and I working in the vineyard. Guests knew where dinner was going to be served but never when! Here I must mention a time when the first course was eventually served at 9.30 p.m. but we found the guests at their tables hilariously drunk at they had imbibed freely of the wine while they waited! Another time when a group of guests went for a long walk and found themselves followed by our then young maremmani dogs Minnie, Spotty and Barty. As part of the walk was along a road, the men in the group removed their belts to make improvised leashes! As I write this I think of so many wonderful guests and times that we have shared with them. The great rabbit escape comes to mind when Luca’s rabbits escaped and Corbinian and Johanna tracked them down and caught them all over the garden and put them back in the cage only for them to escape again through an almost imperceptible hole. There are so many, from the guest who designed the images of the dogs we use on the aprons and table mats to Franca, a girl from Wiesbaden who sends the dogs a Christmas package and a card that remembers those dogs who have passed on.
Having a place like La Faula, it is very hard to be cynical about human nature when we see, every year, so many wonderful and generous spirited people. People who have patiently tolerated our experiments in ways of managing and operating La Faula. People with small businesses of their own who have shared their own experiences with us and allowed us to attain strength through the commonality of shared experiences. Guests who have told us what we could change and improve. It is true to say that La Faula as it is today carries the hue of the people who have stayed in it!
And so it was that 2013 saw a wonderful collection of La Faula guests. As I have written, during the wet spring, everyone made the most of what there was and this positivity lifted the place up and in some way made the stay worthwhile even though the sun was hiding! And then the perfect Italian summer arrived and the openness and friendliness of the couples and families staying at La Faula made something that was intrinsically pretty good even better. Luca and I work like dogs at La Faula. But when things are going well La Faula is a little bit of paradise. And to call a bit of paradise, even a little bit, home, is great fortune indeed! So for those of you who are reading this because you have stayed at La Faula: Thank You!
As I write this, the far edges of the winter storms that have flagellated northern Europe and the western side of Italy are bringing persistent rain to Friuli. It seems warm with the daytime temperature being around 11°C. In the morning the dogs romped and played in the sodden fields in front of the house. Then they decided that it would be just great to come inside to sleep. Somehow, being the less dirty, Annie and Hector inveigled themselves inside and are snoring at my feet. Poor Rett and Fritz, tiny with their wet slicked down fur, are curled up miserably in the barn. So coming back to 2013 at La Faula …..
This year we had four volunteers. Todd and Matthew started off the season from May until July. In July the other volunteers, Jonas and Ida, arrived. Jonas has been coming to La Faula as a guest with his family since he was five years old. Last year, when he was 15 and on holiday here he said that in 2013 he would like to volunteer at La Faula following his 16th birthday in June. We said yes as it was the only correct thing to do but I was deeply concerned that it had real potential for disaster and creating ill feeling where before there had only been friendship. The way that we integrate volunteers into La Faula now is wholly the result of our experience with Matthew when he was first volunteering here. Prior to Matthew coming to La Faula that first time, volunteers helped out with the breakfast, prepared the salads, set the tables, served and helped with the washing up. Of our own volition we would never have asked or permitted a volunteer to actually do some cooking or take responsibility for a dinner course. But Matthew, who is very able, and very clear in his mind, had grown up watching Chefs like Gordon Ramsay on Saturday morning TV and he felt, very strongly, that he should be involved in the cooking while he was volunteering. In managing the volunteers there is a real skill involved between knowing when to say “no” and knowing when to let something proceed to see if something good or new can come of it. Often I feel placed between the devil and the deep blue sea! In that case I decided that given Matthew’s desire to be involved in the cooking we should try to proceed with it and see if we could formalise it so that we could manage the risk of something going wrong. Matthew decided that he wanted to make the focaccia that he made at home. His mum e-mailed the recipe over and I, who had never made a focaccia in my life, looked up our Italian recipe books to see how they were made here. From this beginning came the prototype of the standard format for Faula recipes that we use now. Using Matthew’s mum’s recipe and those from the Italian recipe books, I created a draft standard with the ingredients portioned per the number of adults dining, referring to the utensils in the Faula kitchen and with the cooking temperature and time adapted to the Faula oven which is very old and large and slow. My idea was to leave little to chance so that the whole process would be guided from start to finish and we could be sure of actually serving the focaccia in the evening at dinner.
Well Matthew went ahead and made the focaccia. Luckily he was a good home cook so he avoided obvious pitfalls and made the necessary adjustments to suite the recipe for larger numbers of people. That evening Matthew’s focaccia was the starter. With much fanfare it was removed from the oven and taken to the small serving table under the pergola. Steaming hot, the focaccia was cut by Matthew and served by Ruth the other volunteer at that time. I had no idea how the focaccia would be. It certainly looked good but as it was being served directly to the guests there wasn’t really the chance to taste it first. I watched with some trepidation as the guests tucked into the loaf. Then, Andrea, an English lady sitting with her husband and two kids turned around and said to Matthew: “finally some Italian cooking at La Faula”. We all laughed and realised that the experiment had been a success. And from that point on the volunteers were involved in the cooking of the dinner courses using standard recipes which are more like food preparation algorithms. But the process of integrating the volunteers in the dinner preparation has been a long one and has involved hours and hours of work honing and improving the”recipes” and the constant incorporation of feedback from the volunteers who have to use those “recipes”.
So I was really quite afraid as to whether Jonas would be able to integrate himself into the Faula system regarding the dinner preparation. For one thing the “recipes” are in English. They are not complicated but they are a fully comprehensive - thus dense - step-by-step manual of food preparation: you start at the first word and by the time that you get to the last you are serving 26 people under the Faula pergola! It is a challenge for those not used to working in English. And it requires a mature and responsible mind. Childish fooling around must have already given way to a serious capacity to dedicate oneself to the task at hand with the objective of completing it to a high level of perfection. Of course, not all adults are capable of this, but one assumes that maturity is a factor of age and that teenagers, lighter in years, are less likely to have attained the necessary maturity.
Jonas arrived on a Monday and the first week for him saw him swimming in a nightmare. The English of the Faula kitchen was fast and accented: Matthew from Glasgow, Todd and myself from New Zealand. Working out what was going on at dinnertime was a gigantic jigsaw puzzle but without time to work out how the pieces came together; one set of operations were completed and immediately another set started. Everyone was working fast and Jonas was trapped in a thicket of linguistic incomprehension. And then there were the “recipes”. To fully understand the “recipes” Jonas had to “get” the system that was operating. After the gentle pleasure of being welcomed to La Faula, a tidal wave of information, of ways of doing things, procedures and responsibilities broke upon him. Of course, I knew that if Jonas gained mastery of the situation and met the challenge it would be of inestimable value to him both in confidence and in English but it wasn’t a certain outcome.
By the time Jonas reached the first Saturday night he was still suffering deeply but he had just begun to make sense of the challenge facing him. He could see the outlines of how things worked and he began to be able to anticipate what he had to do and be proactive even if the whole experience was a heavy burden upon him. On Sunday dinner is not served at La Faula and Luca and myself and the volunteers go out for a pizza. After breakfast Jonas disappeared into his room. We all knew that the week had been really tough for him and wondered if he would stay or would choose to go home. At around 3.00 p.m. Jonas emerged and asked me what time he should be ready to go with us to eat the pizza. I was really thrilled!
Jonas had hit the wall and gone through it! And from then on there was no stopping him. He had got the hang of how things work at La Faula and he powered forward. During the first week his ear had attuned to the different types of English he was dealing with and his comprehension shot up. He could now place the recipes in context and see commonalities and similarities between them. His confidence and enthusiasm carried over in his dealings with the guests and he was liked and appreciated. His sense of humour emerged. He was a real character and he made the best desserts ever made at La Faula!
In July Ida the fourth volunteer arrived. Ida was a 22 year old Polish student who had had extensive work experience. Ida was what every business dreams of having. She was intelligent, focussed, grasped quickly what she had to do, did it and then asked you if you needed help. Ida was a real professional. There was nothing complicated about Ida. She was good company, easy to be with and just made life easy in the kitchen.
I intend to write again about each of the volunteers later in a bit more depth. The reason is that the volunteers have become really important to La Faula. But not all volunteers align themselves with La Faula. For some it is just a job and way to stay in Italy in the summer time. This year all the volunteers went that extra mile for us. They took what we are doing at La Faula and made it better. When they left La Faula, they left it a better place than it was when they arrived. Each one of Todd, Matthew, Jonas and Ida was different but each had a generosity of spirit and they gave of themselves to La Faula, and the guests and to myself and Luca.
TO BE CONTINUED
So it was that after an inspection from the NAS Squad of the Carabiniere, we found ourselves with a Maisonette with mezzanine floor that we couldn’t use. In addition, at the time that we renovated La Faula, in 1999, awareness regarding thermal and sound insulation was low and the range of insulating materials limited. Although the architects had attempted to soundproof the Maisonette with mezzanine floor (Room 1) from the Room below the mezzanine (Room 2) with felt and foam and cork, this had proved only partially successful and as time went on and the beams and planks dried and split and twisted, and the cork became brittle and gained the ability to transmit sound, noise between the two rooms became a real problem and we became restricted in how we could use the rooms.
Italy is in a depression, and has been for at least a year. Prior to that the country has been substantially in recession since 2008. The country is effectively bankrupt although it is inconvenient to the Italian ruling class and Eurozone to admit this. So the Italian State has begun extorting money from businesses in a very serious way. This is a real problem for us. Not only in the direct and indirect taxes and social security levies that we pay but in the way that the “pizzo” demanded of businesses in general by the State feeds into all and every stage of economic activity and dramatically increases every businesses and our cost base.
Our response at La Faula has been to dramatically cut our running costs and eliminate investment of capital (human or otherwise) in non profitable aspects of our business. So we have removed ourselves from the simple bed & breakfast, self-catering and short stay sectors of the Friuli Agriturismo market focussing instead on longer stays with half-board (more or less) and on return clients and clients who are likely to recommend La Faula to others. Like every business, we have to be focussed and unique but unlike every business in the U.S. or U.K. or Germany or Australia or New Zealand, for example, we operate, being in Italy, in an exceptionally hostile environment for private economic activity.
And while it was always imperative that we satisfy our clients needs, the anvil of the Italian economic environment and the hammer of Trip Advisor oblige us to ensure that every person or family that comes to stay at La Faula has the right, in the sense of 150%, accommodation for their needs. And this requires the maximum of flexibility with different configurations of rooms and configurations within rooms to match the differing family configurations that come to stay at La Faula. So, having Rooms 1 & 2 half “out of action” was a luxury that we could not afford.
CONTINUED MONDAY 4 NOVEMBER 2013
But remaking Rooms 1 & 2 in Italy’s current economic climate seemed also to be a luxury that we could not afford! Having building works done in Italy is unbelievably expensive and nine consecutive quarters of declining GDP have not resulted in artesans prices softening. Materials cost more than any real value they can have and Value Added Tax has just been increased to 22%. Luca and I were conflicted: on the one hand we saw the need to remake the rooms but on the other hand it would cost more than it should in any rational economic system and it would take away from the cushion of retained earnings that we are trying to build up to protect us in the bad times that we fear are imminent in Italy. To invest such a large amount for what is objectively a very small job imposed a huge hurdle for us to overcome. That is, to spend all that money and remove some of our financial security, the return on the investment, in financial terms, would have to be real and significant and for a small Agriturismo in a corner of Friuli nothing is guaranteed.
In the end we decided to proceed with the works. A key part of the work was sound-insulating Room 1 completely from Room 2 by building a series of plaster board walls, separated from each other, and with alternating dense layers of fibreglass insulation and mineral wool. Another part was connecting the mezzanine floor to Room 2 below by creating a stairway from Room 2 into the mezzanine floor. Two windows would then placed in the external wall on one side of the mezzanine to bring in extra light and afford wonderful views of the hill behind La Faula. The two existing kitchenettes - one in Room 1 and one in Room 2 had to go as they no longer meet fire and health regulations due to the wooden floor (health - food crumbs can fall into the spaces between the floorboards) and wooden beams and ceiling (fire - a fat fire caused by someone cooking would not be contained in the kitchenette).
I have to say that I really didn’t think that these works would bring tangible benefits to La Faula. I wondered whether making these changes would seem contrived and forced and not bring the improvements to the guest’s experience that we hoped for. We have all stayed in accommodation where modifications seem ill-suited to the space available or forced and inharmonious if not downright out of place. It seemed to me that this was the risk that we were running: creating a space that just didn’t seem “right”, wasn’t comfortable in its skin!
We turned to the Architects who had been responsible for the renovations we made to La Faula when we created the Agriturismo and who had designed and project managed the bungalows, barn and swimming pool. Our luck in finding these architects at the very beginning of our time at La Faula is a story in itself and the fact that La Faula is still here and is what it is owes a great deal to them. Having Cigalotto & Santoro Architects work for us also illustrates the importance of luck in how things turn out. Paola Cigalotto and Mariagrazia Santoro are competent, capable, honest, uncorrupt and professional and most of all, they act in their client’s best interests. To find all these elements together in an Italian professional is not so common and while I wouldn’t want to say that venality is the rule rather than the exception, one’s chances of finding a professional in Italy who doesn’t act in your own best interests are not insignificant. Our guardian angel was with us that night that I found myself sitting next to Mariagrazia Santoro at a dinner celebrating epiphany 1998!
Paola and Mariagrazia divided their work with Paola doing a lot of the design and Mariagrazia following the permissions and bureaucratic requirements. One had to be careful though, not to imply that Mariagrazia was any less of an architect because she followed the paperwork whereas Paola saw the to more “glamorous” part of designing the new project! That said, Mariagrazia is currently an appointed Minister in the Friuli Venezia Giulia Regional Government responsible for planning and public works so obviously her skills in dealing with the bureaucracy were not to be undervalued or underestimated! It was Poala who had originally designed Rooms 1 & 2 so it was Paola who was responsible for the designs for the changes that we now wanted to make. Mariagrazia following her ministerial duties in Trieste much of the time meant that Paola is currently assisted by Oscar, now an Architect in his own right, but who was fresh out of University in 1999 and in pre CAD days was doing the scale drawings giving life to Paola’s pen and ink sketches.
TO BE CONTINUED
Today I made thirty 500ml jars of quince and ginger jam. In the late afternoon Luca brought me an equivalent number of quinces to that I had just used for the jam. We have only one quince tree. It is small but this year produced the most abundant quantity of quinces. I guess that I will turn the quinces into compote which I will freeze- next year there will be plenty of apple and quince crumble and apple and quince pie on the menu!
In between making the jam, I was involved in following the first day of work involving the remaking of Rooms 1 and 2 at the back of the house. When we restructured La Faula in 1999 we had no experience of hospitality and our architects had no previous experience in designing hotels or Agriturismi. All together, we launched ourselves into uncertainty and it is all credit to our architects, and I guess to some extent luck, that what we created at that time proved to be almost exactly apposite for our business needs today. “Almost” because being uncertain as to what the La Faula farmstay activity would involve, our architects designed Room 1 as a maisonette with additional sleeping on a mezzanine floor to accommodate groups. The mezzanine floor, was actually the roof of Room 2 which had been comprehensively, if not effectively, soundproofed. Although the rooms layout was approved at the time by the local authorities regulating our activity, actual implementation of the law regulating Agriturismos saw us restricted in how we could distribute our guests. At the beginning we, and our architects, believed that provided we respected the fire regulations concerning sleeping numbers and fire escapes as well as the maximum number of guests able to sleep in the house according to our licence, we could distribute them as we pleased so, for example, if there was a girls volleyball team having a weeks training camp at La Faula, instead of dividing the girls equally amongst all the rooms we could, for example, concentrate them in various parts of the house according to their ages. And as we did host for a number of years a girls volleyball team on summer training camp this is exactly what we did at the request of the parents and organiser who wanted the younger girls to stay together and the older girls to stay together. So the very young girls would stay in Room 1 where they were comprehensively supervised by a coach in Room 2. Unfortunately, this was in breach of our authorisation as in Friuli each bedroom receives a specific authorisation that enumerates how many may sleep in it. Not to respect this authorisation automatically triggers a fine and most probably suspension of our licence.
So two years ago, in the last week of August, we hosted a weeklong camp by a girls volleyball squad, as we had for many years and we distributed the girls, as every year, as directed by the organiser, coach and parents. Basically the younger girls were at one end of the house and the older girls at the other. The week passed well and without incident and on the last Sunday, as every time, the parents came and took the happy and tired girls home. On the Monday we had an inspection by the NAS squad of the Carabiniere. The NAS is the “Nuclei Antisophisticazione e Salute and it is one of the organs of the Italian State that controls hotels, restaurants, food producers, supermarkets, farms and any other activity that involves public health issues. Unlike the Regional Health Department that applies Regional Laws and authorises our activity, rooms, kitchen etc., the NAS inspects to ensure that national laws impacting on health are applied and respected. I don’t think that I can adequately express in words the mix of feelings that this control by the NAS engendered. We were of course more than relieved that when they inspected the house it was empty of guests apart from one valiant couple who had stayed at La Faula notwithstanding the volleyball camp. But we knew that if the inspection had been only two days previously we would have been toast, and burnt toast at that!
We never hosted another sports group again and we scrupulously distribute the guests in the rooms according to our authorisation. The weekly girls volleyball camp that for so many years had taken place at La Faula to the satisfaction of all petered out after a try in another location the following year. So it was that Room 1, the Maisonette and Room 2, sitting under the mezzanine floor, were ripe to be rebuilt.
to be continued
Easter Monday was a busy day at La Faula. In the morning guests who had stayed for the Easter holiday period left and in the afternoon friends came and we sat around the wood-burning stove eating well, drinking and talking. There was lots of talking!
During our time in the room with the stove the dogs came in and out, begged food off us, got banished outside but then sidled in with the next person to enter the house. I was vaguely aware that Fritz was not among the dogs but assumed that he had found something better to do outside. Eventually our friendly and cosy afternoon in company drew to a close, our friends left and we had a short break before being due at the Trattoria Ai Cons where we had been invited for dinner. It was dusk and time to round-up the dogs and take them to their sleeping cage where they are the stars of the "Sleeping Dogs" webpage. Fritz was no-where to be seen. So we called and hollered but he didn’t turn up.
Now, it’s not so unusual for the dogs to make little visits to the fields around La Faula. If something interesting gets their attention such as a badger set or a field freshly sprayed with liquid manure they depart for a little adventure. But they are never out of earshot and a good bellow, such that the hill echoes with dog names, invariably brings them back. So it was perplexing, worrying and saddening when Fritz didn’t come back. We searched the ponds and recalled the people passing through La Faula on Easter Monday rambles. We hoped that in his friendly way he hadn’t attached himself to some other family and was about to start a new life with someone else. Worse, we recalled that our dogs are not familiar with roads or cars and we had visions of him slack and lifeless beside some road. We wondered if his hip replacement had given out and he was injured in some wood around La Faula. All in all it was pretty sad. But just before leaving for the Ai Cons trattoria we noticed that some local kids were having a traditional Easter camp in a shack in one of our neighbours fields. As Fritz likes to go and visit the neighbour when he is working the vineyards in front of the shack, it suddenly seemed probable that Fritz was there and enjoying plenty of pats and begging food off the kids.
It seemed so likely that Fritz was with the kids that we didn’t go to find him. The field with the shack abuts La Faula and there are no roads so we guessed that Fritz would make his way back home once the party was over and, the next day not being a holiday, the kids went home themselves. The kids were local and would have known that Fritz was from La Faula so we had no concerns for his safety. We didn’t really want to bust-in on th kid’s party so we departed for the Ai Cons where Elda and Alcide and the waitresses were relaxing after a busy Easter. But it was a case of salt having lost its taste. Normally I love an evening at the Ai Cons in the company of the usual’s who congregate there. But on that Easter Monday evening I felt concerned. When a dog is away, of course, one imagines that it will all turn out alright and the dog will come home. But one fears that the story may not in fact have a happy ending and in that uncertainty uneasy grows the soul!
to be continued.