Nellie & Blake are Half-Sister and Brother (they have the same mother but different father) and they are great friends!
Nellie and Hector in the woods behind La Faula!
Every morning we take the border collies for a walk in the woods behind La Faula.
We took the Faula Border Collies for a walk around the property on a lovely spring morning.
Annie Border Collie finds a cosy Faula wood box to sleep in!
The Faula canine soccer team is back in action (if you don’t mind playing with a holed ball!)
A beautiful spring morning at La Faula!
La Faula opened its door as an Agriturismo in 1997. Almost no-one in Italy was connected to the nascent Internet. E-mail was primarily internal within corporations and universities. Only one Italian Agriturismo website was hosted on the web. There was plenty to portend that change would eventually be on the way but most of us lacked the insight to understand the significance of these new but novel and naif ways of managing and presenting information and we harboured a deep and conservative incredulity that rendered us incapable of entertaining the possibility that our known realities could be overthrown in an instant.
Those of us born in the 1960’s in the English speaking world had known only growth, progress and stability. Great, destructive wars had been the reality of the two preceding generations and the desire never to repeat them led us to believe that tomorrow would be like today and the day after tomorrow like the one preceding it. Always a little bit better, with some setbacks, of course, but our belief was that the world would remain pretty much as we knew it. Of course, we lived in the shadow of the bomb, an articulated threat which faced an inarticulate response from the general population. The idea of mankind wantonly destroying the civilisation it had created seemed too monstrous to consider but, of course, we all breathed a sigh of relief when the Soviet Union closed for business.
If we had understood better back then, in 1997, Luca and I would have known that the Agriturismo that we now inhabited and ran was itself a brand new feature on the Italian landscape. Traditionally, if one holidayed in Italy one stayed in a pension or hotel. The lack of legal authorisation prevented hospitality being offered in the countryside and so the cosy country hotels and hotels of charm found amongst the farms that one finds in countries such as France and the United Kingdom never existed in Italy. But in 1985 the first Italian national law to manage and regulate the offer of hospitality on working farms was passed and the Agriturismo came into existence. In 1996 Friuli Venezia Giulia passed its regional law permitting the creation of agriturismi within its territory and in 1997 Agriturismo La Faula received its licence to operate.
In 1996 very many farms in Friuli were still very much family affairs: very small, supporting three or four generations, with some family members also working outside, mainly in public jobs that gave ample time to follow the farm. The idea was that there was an excess of labour available to provide simple but authentic hospitality on the farm so that while dad was out in the morning delivering letters as a postman, granny would be making steaming hot coffee on the hearth and serving hot homemade bread and jams to the guests. It was a beguiling vision but owed more to the romantic notions of rural Italian life of regional bureaucrats can the reality. Rural life in Italy had, until the second world war, been an experience of grinding poverty and malnutrition. Following the war economic growth, the abolition of sharecropping which gave those who worked the land ownership over it and massive State support of Agriculture which included mechanisation, generous subsidies for fertilisers and seeds and the creation of diaries and liveable housing for farmers slowed the movement of people from the country to the city and kept families on the land that they worked. The abundance of riches showered on those working the land, the ready availability of local authority and state jobs paid full time but with part time work allowed the farm to sustain more that its internal economy would otherwise have allowed.
But by the early 1990’s the party was leading to some hangovers. Overproduction of much agricultural produce in Europe had led to butter mountains, wine lakes and the pathological dumping of grains and cereals onto developing markets in the guise of aid but with the effect of destroying local production. Italy’s public finances had come under severe strain and the common agricultural policy was slowly being seen to be unsustainable. But the real problem was that this generous state intervention in Agriculture and the ability for full time farmers to work in state jobs blocked any rational economic development of Italian farms and kept too many people locked into their small farms unwilling to cash out but unable to expand through acquisition. Farming in Friuli was on a “handkerchief” basis. Farmers wanting to buy the few fields that came available on the market were forced to overpay and buy land far away from the location of their farm. Thus Friuli became a region where farmers commuted by tractor to their fields which they then worked for a few hours at the most.
To be continued.
Nellie and Blake enjoying spring 2016 at La Faula!
This is Little Blake!
Once Nellie started to get well again under the influence of the modified diet it occurred to me that the situation merited a serious discussion with the breeder who had sold us the dog. As things with Nellie had deteriorated, we had contacted the breeder explaining the situation and they had made their own vet available to us at no cost. As the breeder, and their vet, are around two hours away from us by car near Venice we decided to continue with our own vets and so didn’t take them up on their offer of having Nellie examined by their own veterinary surgeon. But once Nellie started to get well and we could see a path out of the uncertainty not to say despair in which we had been blindly stumbling it didn’t seem fair to me that the cost and weight of Nellie’s infirmity should fall wholly on us (and Nellie, of course!), I called the breeder and explained that I realised that buying a dog wasn’t like buying a car which was either repaired or returned at no cost to the buyer if it was materially defective. But I did feel that Nellie had cost us a fortune in medical bills not to mention the anxiety and emotional distress involved in the enigma of her illness. I explained that we loved Nellie and didn’t resent for a minute the money we had spent getting her well, but that it did seem a bit much that it all fell on us. I felt the coldness coming from the telephone as the breeder took in the import of what I was saying. “I don’t think that we were at fault or had any part to play in Morning Star’s (Nellie’s) situation” said the breeder. Conversations with the breeder about our Nellie were always a bit strange because to them she was “Morning Star” the name she had at the breeding kennels.
“Of course not” I replied. “But look, we were thinking of breeding Nellie but now that we know that her disease has a genetic component the only responsible thing to do it to sterilise her, which we will be doing”. “Things haven’t really taken the course that we wanted” I said.
“So, I was thinking that perhaps you could provide us with another Border Collie puppy in addition to Nellie” I said. The breeder relaxed at the other end of the conversation realising that I was not asking for money back. “Yes, that should be possible” she said.
“So, maybe the fairest thing would be a second puppy at half the price that we paid for Nellie” I said. I felt that this was a solution fair to us and to the breeder. We had gone to that breeder because they had bred Hector our old father border collie. We loved Hector’s personality and had been impressed by how well the puppies at the breeding kennels were looked after and the obvious affection that the people working there had for the dogs. When we had gone to get Nellie all the same people were working at the kennels which I took to be a good sign. The kennels were clean and spacious and they seemed to take their job seriously. I was sure I wouldn’t get cash back for Nellie because the last three years have been tough times in Italy and dogs are a luxury in tough times so what we had paid for Nellie was psychologically and physically banked and accounted for and I didn’t think that trying to unwind that would be worth the candle. But I did want another young dog as company for Nellie. Our old border collies, Hector, Annie and Rett formed their pack from the beginning and while they tolerated Nellie she could never be truly a part of their club. Plus, Nellie was young and frisky whereas the older dogs are gently slipping into retirement. To spare us her constant attentions and give her a companion the obvious answer was another dog. “A Male dog” would be fine for us” I said.
So it was that in November of 2015 we found ourselves back at the dog breeders to pick up a male border collie that the breeder had been thinking of using as a stud but had changed her mind. He was around eight months old. The little dog was brought out from the runs to the carpark in front of the kennels by the guy who seems to look after the dogs. When we got Hector this guy, an immigrant, was barely more than a teenager. Of course, he is still young but to see him gave us a start realising how much time had passed and how fast. Of course we feel that we got old Hector only yesterday ….! The guy played with the dog. The dog was obviously deeply attached to him and joyfully jumped up and played and ran with him. He was obviously a nice dog but being a bit older and used to the kennels was sufficiently developed to be suspicious of us. While experience has shown us that young dogs or dogs born at La Faula integrate easiest, I felt that this little dog had such a happy and affectionate character that this would eventually prevail over the fact that he was not instinctively friendly with strangers.
We said that we would take the little collie and we returned to the administration office to complete the paperwork and pay for the dog. One thing that most people outside Italy don’t realise is that the 2011 economic crisis during which Italy came very close to defaulting on its debt pushed the political and bureaucratic establishment, perhaps even the Italian State itself, into an existential fight for survival and tax evasion has been relentlessly squeezed from the economy. Self assessment for firms is largely replaced by assessment by the tax authorities based on assets of various types and analysis of the economic activity of different productive sectors. Calculating the income of a dog breeder is a doddle for the tax authorities so whereas, in the old days, the dog breeder would have tried to spread some of the loss of selling the dog at half price onto the State by not declaring as income the half that we paid now they gave us an invoice for the full value of the dog even though we were only paying half of the amount. It’s no wonder that the Italian economy never really takes off!
When we got to the name of the dog we saw on the documentation that he was called “Blay”, the breeder long before having run out of real names for the dogs they sold. “Blay” became “Blake” and we took him home. He waited until we were almost home, and were thanking our lucky stars that he hadn’t vomited, to vomit!
So, in summary, what can we say about Nellie’s ill health in the first year of her life? We can say as a fact that something or things in the normal Royal Canin, Purina (Friskies/Pedigree) and Carrefour brand dog kibble triggered Nellie’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). We can also say as a fact that the Farmina N&D brand 100% grain free kibble does not provoke any obvious ill effects in the dog.
One obvious difference between the normal dog kibble and the grain free variety is that the proteins that comprise gluten are counted towards the total protein count of normal dog kibble and that grains comprise the single major parts of the ingredients.
Celiac disease is extremely uncommon in dogs. We don’t know what triggered Nellie’s IBD but a working hypothesis could be that it was gluten in the normal kibble. On the other hand, a study with a small sample found that the most common allergen for dogs with food allergy was beef (followed by dairy) and none of the farmina dog kibbles contain beef as a stated ingredient. From where we stand now, we don’t know if the normal dog foods we fed Nellie that made her sick contained beef but given this absence of knowledge we should be wary of ascribing her IBD to gluten allergy.
Having, however, overseen a remission of Nellie’s IBD through diet management we can say that Nellie is intolerant of rice as it caused her extraordinarily sloppy stools and once it was eliminated her stools were those of a normal, healthy dog.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, we can see that Nellie is a carnivore that happily eats and digests meat (leaving open the question of beef), wolfs down yoghurt and Kefir and eats fruit without problems (fresh apples and cooked Quince in her home-made dog food).
Now we have eliminated with-grain dog kibble completely from La Faula. One obvious reason, of course, is that we don’t want to risk triggering Nellie’s Inflammatory Bowel Disease if she should somehow get access to normal dog kibble we feed the other dogs. But that is not the principal reason. The principal reason is that we consider Royal Canin and Pedigree and similar dog foods to be a rip-off. They charge enormous sums for dog food that is full of non human food grade grains. They mislead by not identifying the percentage of animal and plant protein in their products. And for the same price we can buy the Farmina N&D dog food which is full of meat and has fruit and vegetables and no grains at all.
We feel that when we left the dog breeder and she looked at us and said “Make sure to feed Nellie a good dog food like Royal Canin” we were sold a pup!
While I was writing the previous diary entries regarding Nellie’s path from abject ill health to normality there was one niggling issue in the background. That was that while it was true that Nellie’s signs of Inflammatory Bowel Disease had gone, her recurrent infections had disappeared, she was eating well and had put on weight her stools were very loose and sloppy. It wasn’t really a case of diarrhea and it didn’t seem to have any obvious negative effects but notwithstanding those facts it didn’t seem quite right. After we had put Nellie on the exclusion diet we became quite expert on her stools as this was an important indicator as to how her intestines were functioning. On the exclusion diet Nellie’s stools had stabilised into good “doggy poohs” of the type you could scoop up and put in the rubbish bin. So far, so good. But in November Luca began pruning the grapevines growing over the pergola in front of the house. The autumn had been warm and dry and the grapes remaining on the vines were succulent and sweet and greatly to the dogs’ taste! So as Luca cut the grapes and woody growth down, the dogs, waiting below the ladder, would feast on the grapes. Although all our dogs over the years have been great grape eaters - we are a vineyard after all with grapevines running right up to the house - we were deeply concerned this year because our internet researches had revealed that there is a link between dogs eating grapes and renal failure. The cause isn’t known but it seemed to us that notwithstanding that the grapes had not caused our dogs problems in the past, probably in Nellie’s case her kidneys would be sure to pack it in. At around this time we discovered in a local pet store bags of cracked rice and as rice is one of the elements of the protein exclusion diet we decided to cook up rice and add it to Nellie’s diet. During this period Nellie’s stools became very loose but we put it down to the grapes she was eating even though the other dogs didn’t suffer such a reaction. As Luca was finishing pruning the pergola the fruits of the numerous persimmon trees behind the house reached maturity and the dogs, who love the sweet persimmon, would jump up and pick them then wolf them down. Nellie who is the most agile of all the dogs was able to obtain all that she could eat. And then, when the low hanging fruit were exhausted, the ripe fruit began falling from the trees so the dogs had all the persimmons they could want to eat. We put Nellie’s continued loose stools down to eating persimmons. This seemed especially likely in the light of what we had read on the internet that the seeds of the persimmon can cause inflammation of a dog’s small intestine! Every time we went to the internet to see what dangers to dogs lurked in our garden we came away more disquieted and apprehensive.
Eventually, however, the fruits of autumn came to an end and winter was upon us. Nellie was wholly on a diet of what I fed her but was still suffering from sloppy poohs. We focussed on the Kefir wondering whether this milk based product full of bacteria and yeasts might be giving her the runs. I reduced Nellie’s Kefir intake over time but to no effect. I reduced the amount of kibble. Again to no effect. On the internet I researched “dogs and rice” and found numerous and consistent reviews extolling the value of rice for dogs as being easily digestible and combating diarrhea. I resigned myself to the fact that Nellie would just be a dog with sloppy poohs and reflected on the extra work this would give us during the Agriturismo season when we are full of guests. Every day of the year Luca and I, each at different times, do a round of the house picking up the dog pooh. Normally, it is a fast and painless process - a flick into the pan then into the waste bin - but sloppy dog pooh around the place is yucky and harder to clean up. While I was dwelling on this thought I decided that no matter how positive rice seemed as a dog’s diet ingredient, I should be rigorous and remove it from Nellie’s diet just to be sure that it was not the cause of Nellie’s horrible stools.
I reduced Nellie’s daily intake of rice and the effects were immediate. So immediate, in fact, that after the second day I eliminated the rice completely from Nellie’s food and her pooh’s became doggy poohs as doggy poohs should be.
So there it is. Nellie, right now seems to be A-ok 👌. Of course, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, being an autoimmune disease never completely disappears and it can flare up again in the future. But after a year it is very fine to have managed not only not to have lost Nellie but to have found a stable equilibrium that allows her to proceed in what seems to be reasonable health.
When Nellie was very sick and we feared that she would surely die, it seemed a great pity as she was (and is) a dog of outstanding intelligence. Of course, because of her illness she spent much more time in close proximity to us than our other present or previous dogs so she became to some extent humanised by the process. But she did have the intelligence to develop a “fit” with us. She is the first dog we have ever had who vocalises feelings by developed “grunting” sounds when she is pleased or wanting to be communicative. She is cunning and can anticipate our actions. She can adapt our behaviour to fit her wants. For example, when Nellie returned to health the Agriturismo was closed and she was very active and requiring a lot of attention. Eventually, I got a couple of soft dog frisbees and would kick off a game whereby I would go to a high point on the farm and would throw the frisbee out over the drop forcing Nellie to run down to pick it up and then run back up to give it to me. My idea was to so thoroughly tire Nellie out that we would be free to carry on our activities during the rest of the day without being harried by her. Once Nellie started to get tired she would only carry the frisbee half-way back up the slope and then she would return to the bottom thus obliging me to walk down the slope to pick up the frisbee if the game were to continue. But perhaps the most interesting thing about Nellie is her coincidental likeness to the original progenitor of Border Collies “Old Hemp” (September 1893 - May 1901) (click on the link below to read about Old Hemp and see photos of him).
So Nellie, having been diagnosed with Inflammatory Bowel Disease, was now launched upon a protein exclusion diet under which she would be fed only one meat protein at a time to identify those that she could tolerate and, eventually, the protein that would trigger the inflammation of her gut. The discussion with the vet was wholly centered around meat proteins as he seemed to assume that the culprit would be a meat protein. As we finished talking with the vet he explained why there was no real long term medicinal solution in the case of dogs and that eventually her intestine would become permeable to proteins and that her chances of survival after that were virtually nil. At the mention of of intestines becoming permeable to proteins I remembered reading some years before an article in the New York Times about a kid who had some kind of autoimmune disease and I remembered that it had been written that when he was very ill his intestine had become permeable to proteins. I couldn’t remember what signs the child had but I remembered that his illness had been very slow and difficult to diagnose and that in the end he had only returned to health when gluten was removed from his diet.
When we got home we decided to continue Nellie on pig heart as the single protein as this had only just been introduced to her diet. In the pressure cooker I cooked up a big stew of pig heart, potatoes and quince. By the time it cooled Nellie was hungry as she had not eaten so far that day. I prepared a bowl of the stew for her. She sniffed the bowl suspiciously, sniffed again, took a lick then another and then she devoured the stew like an industrial vacuum cleaner. This dog who had treated so much of what we tried to feed her as poison had suddenly finished the bowl of stew and was begging for more! That day, Nellie ate eight bowls of the stew. We were of course astounded and exhilarated but I wondered how she would be the following day as it had commonly been the case that after having eaten a new dog kibble the following day she had refused to eat at all. But the following day she again ate voraciously. What can be said is that she had discovered the joy of being able to eat without problems and was making up for months living on just enough to survive. Within a week she had her first estrous. We still had guests and I was still in the kitchen cooking but now I had a small four legged customer who would come regularly into the kitchen begging for her stew!
Within three days Nellie had completely finished the stew that I had prepared her. Luca rushed off and bought more pigs’ heart and I made another stew of around 9kg in weight. Nellie finished this off in just three days. It felt like I was spending as much time cooking for Nellie as for the guests! I realised that going forward this was unsustainable as I just wouldn’t have enough time to be preparing so much food for the dog. My mind went back to the article in the New York Times about the poor kid who had seemed to have in incurable autoimmune disease but who had been brought back to health by the elimination of gluten in his diet. I went to a specialist pet shop near us and asked them, on a hunch, if they had grain free dog food. She replied affirmatively and took me to see their selection. Eventually I picked a 2.5kg bag of wild boar and apple for the (shocking) price of €27. I took it home and called Nellie. I offered her a handful of the kibble in a bowl. She sniffed it and took a tiny mouthful. She crunched it up in her mouth and then cleaned out the bowl. She crunched that kibble with such obvious pleasure that I guessed that she would still be eating it the following day - and she was.
But Nellie’s special diet didn’t stop there. As an afterthought just as we were about to leave the vets’ surgery upon getting Nellie’s diagnosis, I had asked if we could feed Nellie my home made yogurt as that seemed to be something that she really liked and which didn’t cause her obvious problems and had probably saved her life when she couldn’t eat anything else. “No” said the vet. “Yoghurt is not to be recommended because dogs are intolerant of lactose present in milk. Much better Kefir which is a more fully fermented product in which the lactose is fermented into alcohol”. The vet went on to explain that Kefir comes originally from the caucasus where sheep’s milk is preserved by putting it in a sheep’s stomach (without the sheep, of course!) where it supports colonies of bacteria and yeasts that effectively digest it and render it stable and inhospitable to other micro organisms that might cause spoilage. He referred to some “grains” that are the font of Kefir if you don’t have the sheep’s stomach at hand. You put these Kefir grains in with your milk - preferably raw milk - place the mass in a dark but tepid location, leave it for a couple of days stirring it two or three times a day and there you have it: a white liquid of microorganismally predigested milk ready to be incorporated into your organism along with all the bacteria and yeasts that have grown into massive colonies engorging themselves on the goodness of the milk and incorporating colonies of bacteria that came with the milk and which could tolerate the competition. It all sounded a bit mysterious. Especially the part where the vet explained to us that in its place of origin, the sheep’s stomach in which the milk was becoming kefir was appended above the door lintel and everyone who entered the house would give the stomach a good slap thereby ensuring the liquid stayed homogeneous and did not separate out.
Like many things on the internet, we discovered that Kefir has a loyal and devoted following and that all kinds of health benefits are ascribed to consuming this liquid which it is claimed hosts 30 varieties of bacteria and yeasts. E-Bay is full of people selling the Kefir grains (a combination of lactic acid bacteria and yeasts according to Wikipedia) so we bought 10 grams worth and hoped for the best. The 10 grams of tiny grains eventually arrived sealed in a plastic envelope with a whey-like liquid. Following the accompanying instructions we began the process of feeding the microorganisms contained within and on the grains. This posed a real challenge. True Kefir aficionados only make Kefir with raw milk claiming that bacteria naturally present in the milk enrich the bacterial flora of the Kefir. But what if the bacteria in the milk include Salmonella, E coli and Listeria? The theory of true Kefir addicts is that these dangerous bacteria, if present in raw milk, are out-competed by the absolutely predominant cultures of benign bacteria and yeast present in the grains. This could be true. For example, when wine making, to ensure that wild or non optimal yeasts are unable to ferment the grape must, a starter is made using must and selected yeast cultures. This gives the cultured yeast a head start and through the effects of competitive pressure they tend to outcompete and predominate over other less desirable yeasts naturally present in the must. But they don’t eliminate the other yeasts and sometimes the wild yeasts are so vigorous and favoured by the chemical composition of the must that they predominate in fermenting the sugars naturally present in grape juice. Plus, this may not be a valid comparison. In the end, it was clear that raw milk poses a theoretical risk to man and dog. But in our case, we get the raw milk directly from our neighbour at the moment of milking. We can therefore completely control temperature and cleanliness from the moment the milk leaves the milking pump until it is added to the Kefir grains. Most importantly, our neighbours milk is used in the local dairy to make cheese and so is tested weekly for bacterial load. We proceeded with the raw milk Kefir.
Well, nothing prepared us, men or dog for the effect Kefir has on one’s body. It is one thing to read about these 30 strains of bacteria and yeast contained in the Kefir but it is another to have them all working away in one’s gut! Before feeding Nellie the Kefir, I decided to try it out myself. Within half an hour I felt like a fermentation vat! The effect wasn’t unpleasant or analogous to having a stomach upset. In fact, it was the opposite. It was pleasant but my gut was literally boiling away. The next day both Luca and Nellie partook of the Kefir. That evening with the three of us in the sitting room the noise was only of gurgling stomachs! Eventually the effects reduce greatly but when one takes a glass or two of Kefir one realises that one is not alone but is sharing one’s digestive system with millions and millions of little creatures who, at that moment, are having the time of their (short) lives!
By now we were in September and the activity in the Agriturismo was gently winding down. We had been very busy with many guests in July and August plus one of our younger volunteers during that time had had some medical difficulties which had confronted us with some unexpected and unfamiliar challenges. All in all though it had gone well so I was able to relax a bit and enjoy the warm and sunny autumn bathed in warm satisfaction for a year that, to that point, had passed well. I also had the luxury of being able to devote a bit more time and thought to Nellie. The antacid didn’t seem to be having much effect and she still had her cough. I am wholly ignorant of medical matters and wanted to believe that all that was wrong with Nellie was a malfunctioning oesophageal sphincter leading to acid reflux but somehow it didn’t seem plausible. By now there were less kids in the agriturismo so Nellie was also taking things a bit easier. The only things that she ate with gusto were the yoghurt and pigs heart. For the rest it was obvious that her diet just wasn’t hitting the spot. She no longer seemed to be at the point of imminent death but neither did she seem to be set for a robust and healthy life. We had suffered when Nellie’s illness was a complete mystery to the vets. We had wanted to believe each hypothesis that had been tabled as it was better than the unknown but it seemed to me that the root cause of Nellie’s problems remained unknown At first we were dealing with an unknown unknown and this has led to piecemeal treatment of her symptoms. Now it seemed to me we were dealing with an known unknown. But what was it?
Roughly a week after the endoscopic examination of Nellie’s stomach and intestine, we received an email from the vet with the results of the biopsies conducted on the tissue samples removed from Nellie during the examination. We understood virtually nothing of what was written but we did understand the part that said that the villi in her small intestine were rounded, matted and flat.The vet said that we should make an appointment to see him.
To cut to the quick, it emerged that Nellie had Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). This is an autoimmune condition that comes in many flavours all of which result in inflammation and damage to the intestine of the dog. Pathogenic bacteria can colonise parts of the damaged intestine and over time the damage inhibits the correct absorption of nutrients. Sometimes it is thought that there is a significant genetic component, other times that the inflammation is the result of a food allergy. In every case it is better treated by diet as medications generally aren’t an ideal long term solution for dogs. So the vet suggested to us to immediately place Nellie on a diet of a protein that she is unlikely to have encountered before along with a neutral carbohydrate like potato or rice. He also prescribed for her metoclopramide, a drug that inhibits nausea, regulates peristaltic action of the intestine (the orderly movement of food) and enhances the intestinal muscle tone. Looking up IBD on the internet it was finally easy to see how all the various signs the Nellie had exhibited hung together. The various signs: the nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, anaemia, weight loss were all the common signs of this disease! Finally, we had got to the bottom of it!
It was a bit longer than a week before the blood test results arrived. They had been extremely thorough, and expensive, and when we read the results we were amazed that it was possible to test for so many things! Of course, we understood little of the technical terminology but in the accompanying email the vet said that the tests hadn’t thrown up anything in particular so we would now need to proceed with the endoscopy of the upper part of Nellie’s gastrointestinal tract along with an accompanying series of tissue samples which would be biopsied to provide further analysis. As the vet was imminently departing for his summer vacation, it was established that the examination would take place three weeks later during the first week of September. During the three week interval Nellie’s health stabilized but she was a little skinny waif of a dog and we started to wonder if we should augment her diet with raw meat. We fixed on raw meat because we remembered that when we had been to the Dog Breeder’s to choose a puppy, the breeder had rewarded the two puppies in the display room, one of which was Nellie, by giving them some pieces of raw meat. We decided to do the same. We opted for pig’s heart, mainly because it was muscle without fat and didn’t cost much! I sliced up the heart muscle very fine and we added it to her diet. Like the yogurt, Nellie quickly took to the pig’s heart and ate it with relish. But when we examined her pooh we saw that it had not in any way been digested. We had never fed our dogs raw meat, always cooking it first. Having grown up in New Zealand in the 1960’s where the predominance of sheep and sheepdogs made hydatids (Echinococcus granulosus) a real problem, I had had it drilled into me that dogs should never, ever, be fed raw meat. The internet, on the other hand, was full of raw-meat-for-dogs enthusiasts on the basis that this was more in line with the wild Lupine diet.
Eventually, the three weeks passed and the morning for Nellie’s endoscopy arrived. We were still full of guests so Luca and Davide, a neighbour’s kid who often helps us out, took Nellie to the vets’ surgery. That morning passed very slowly as I was beyond curiosity by now in wanting to understand just what was causing Nellie’s illness. When Luca and Davide returned I was relieved that Nellie was up and about and glad that she had not died under the anaesthetic! Luca said that he had seen the DVD of the examination and that the vet had said that the gastrointestinal mucus seemed fine, that there was no obvious damage to the small intestine that he could see but that the sphincter between her stomach and oesophagus seemed slack and the muscular corrugations of the tube undeveloped. He said that as the endoscope passed Nellie’s trachea he saw that it was massively inflamed and said that this was almost certainly caused by acid reflux from the stomach. As he said: “This can be a problem in humans who stand vertically, imagine what it is like in a dog where the stomach and oesophagus are horizontal and the lungs lower than both!” Luca said that he had got the idea and, at least the cause of Nellie’s constant cough was now identified. In the meantime, the vet prescribed Nellie omeprazole and antacid drug.
A little later Luca and I watched the DVD of the gastroscopic examination together with Luca explaining to me the various stages. It was true, the mucus coating the stomach and small intestine seemed nice and abundant and clean and sticky. There wasn’t anything except a few pieces of grass in Nellie’s stomach. The point where the endoscope passed the trachea was fairly clear because the tissue was bright red but all in all it looked like a clean and orderly stomach and small intestine. There was no obvious smoking gun and it was hard to reconcile Nellie’s terrible illness and symptoms with some acid reflux!
When I had first taken Nellie to the vets’ surgery she had been very relaxed and calm while she was examined. Over time, after numerous visits during which she was prodded and listened to and looked into and having countless thermometers stuck in her backside (only one each time, of course!) she grew very resistent and eventually had to be firmly held if a vet was to examine her or draw blood. The vet asked me to take Nellie and bring her to the x-ray room. I placed her on the table underneath the x-ray generator head and the vet helped me to put on the lead lined protective apron. “Stay there Nellie, stay there” I said as I was placing my arms through the apron, afraid that she might make a run for it. But the room was dimly lit and she stayed where she was. “OK, lie her down and turn her on her side with her legs facing the wall” said the vet. Nellie didn’t want to be pushed down and resisted my efforts. Luckily she is a small dog so I was able to get her in position as the vet prepared the machine. “Now, it is important that Nellie stays still while we take the x-ray" said the vet. He reached over and stretched out her legs and positioned her exactly where he wanted her. “Good girl Nellie” I said. Stay there, stay there, brava!” under instruction from the vet I stepped back and to my relief Nellie lay there and didn’t move as the machine hummed and clicked. “Good” said the vet. Now roll her over to her other side” I rolled Nellie over and she lay as still as a church mouse, barely breathing. “Excellent” said the vet returning to finesse her position once more. And again the machine hummed and clicked and it was all over.
“If she has ingested a piece of wood or plastic which cannot be expelled and hangs around creating inflammation then of course we won’t see it with the x-rays. But you never know, so it is worth having a look in case something show up” the vet said. He helped me remove the heavy protective apron and we returned to his office. He sat at the computer and pulled up the x-ray images of Nellie that he had just taken. He examined the images closely, referencing between the two, looking closer at the screen or enlarging parts that interested him. “No, there is nothing here” he said eventually. “Let’s take some blood”.
Nellie was sitting on the examination table and I was locked in a firm cuddle with her knowing that she had the capacity, if she wanted, to jump like a little black gazelle. As the vet took her leg to shave with the electric razor poor Nellie tried to climb up and over me, anything to get away. She put her front paws on my shoulders and tried to pull herself up and out of my grasp. At this point Luca took her hind part and we laid her down and held her firm while the vet shaved her leg then applied a rubber band to inflate the vein and finally inserted a needle and removed some phials of blood. Being subjected to this procedure certainly caused Nellie some suffering but I felt that, finally, we would begin to get to the bottom of her illness and hopefully from there to a cure so it seemed on the whole completely positive. “OK” said the vet. “It will be a week before we have the results. I will email them to you and your vet once we have them. At that point we will have a better idea of what to do.”
We took poor little Nellie away, a raggedly, rag-like, waif. She was afraid of the other dogs in the surgery waiting room and the city traffic outside with its movement and noise left her uncertain and insecure. She was glad to reach our van and willingly climbed into its familiar interior. The day was sunny and the afternoon warm. On the trip back Nellie vomited as usual but the mountains were majestic in front of us and the evening would be long and we felt better about Nellie than we had for a long time!
In July I was sleeping on the top floor of the barn. The top floor of the barn has a rough wooden cladding with space between the boards for air to pass. The design was to allow grapes to be dried if we wanted to create very dense and concentrated wines. Dense and concentrated wines, however, don’t find a ready market and so we have this great space that turned out to be a wonderful place to sleep. The summer was very hot but the barn was always gently aerated. My bed was hard against the low concrete wall that defined the side of the barn and to which the boards were attached and Nellie slept behind my head on the ledge which was the top of the wall. She would look out of the gaps between the wooden slats until eventually she fell asleep. But she was unwell. Her cough was continuous and she had an unnaturally atrocious breath. She was restless during the night and slept fitfully. I left the low gate to the barn ajar so she could go outside if she needed to and sometimes she did. If dawnbreak was chilly, she would snuggle up against me and gently lick my face. I hated being licked and was terrified of getting some infection from her but in the face of Nellie’s suffering I felt that it was something that I had to endure. I had little to give her and to turn away from her at this time seemed as if it would be an act of unconscionable egoism. When I held little Nellie against me I felt her bones as there was no fat to soften their outline.
When I got up, Nellie often stayed in the barn and would only come down to the house later. I would give her a big bowl of yoghurt which she would wolf down. Nellie loved the children who were staying at La Faula and was very caring and gentle with babies. In front of the house is a large pergola and in front of this is a little sandy football field. The field is tiny but it has goals and is fenced off to keep the dogs outside. Hector, in particular, our oldest dog and father of Annie and Rett, has never been trained to play with soccer balls so the first thing he does when he gets one is to destroy it. This can happen surprisingly fast so we have this little field where the dogs are kept outside and small kids can play football without it all ending in tears. Whenever kids were in the field, Nellie was on the outside tracking the ball as it moved too and fro. Sometimes, overcome with excitement she would leap gazelle-like over the fence and carry the ball away to cries and shouts of concern and dismay. Luckily, this was all happening outside the kitchen where I spend a lot of time in the summer so I would sprint outside aiming to get the ball before one of the dogs destroyed it. If Nellie had it still, the ball would be in perfect condition as she would carry it gently in her mouth to no ill effect. If Hector had got to it, however, it was often a case of tears and disappointment! But very quickly Nellie learned not to remove the ball from the field. Instead she would jump the net and race between the players before jumping out and over the net on the opposite side. This became her great game and she would do it for hours. Her illness, eating only yogurt and running for hours reduced to to skin and bones and we felt sure that she was really at the end. By the evening she would be exhausted and spent. Waiting for me, she would lie drained on the half landing between the dining room and the kitchen where the stairs go up to the first floor looking out the window to what was going on under the pergola. I felt terrible not knowing what to do with her. Sometimes I felt myself emotionally drawing away from Nellie in preparation of her death. But for this I felt terrible: to pull away from little Nellie at this moment, to leave her to face this time alone just to protect myself from inevitable hurt seemed like gross selfishness. And yet it was a recurrent instinct that had to be overcome.
Towards the end of July Nellie developed another infection and Luca took her to our vet. Our vet prescribed a course of antibiotics and arranged an appointment with a vet gastroenterologist at the nearest pet hospital. We took Nellie to the specialist and he said that the first thing he would do was arrange a series of exhaustive blood tests. While we were there he would x-ray Nellie to see if there was anything obviously untoward. Then if it was necessary, the next step would be a gastroscopy with tissue biopsies from her small intestine. The problem was that it was August and he would be on holiday for two weeks towards the end of August. The specialist explained that in Udine there was only one other vet who conducted gastroscopies. He asked us if we were prepared to wait or would like him to contact the other vet. At this point a distinct play of the human mind kicked in. Being with this vet who had the means and ability to see what we had all been guessing at for six months was like, in a way, being saved. Probably the rational thing to have done would have been to see the other vet. But we were so relieved to be in the presence of this specialist that we were reluctant to give him up for some unknown quantity. So, “yes” we said. “We would proceed immediately with the blood test and x-rays” and would wait for him to get back for the gastroscopy and biopsies.
Nellie started on a 20 day course of doxycycline the powerful antibiotic. The vet said to return at the end of the 20 days. Almost imperceptibly, Nellie began to improve. She continued to eat little but the quality of her coat improved and incrementally, in the smallest way, she began to put on weight. Over the days, her constant cough became intermittent and eventually disappeared. She was active and playful and although she remained skinny she was looking good. We were of course pleased but it was hard to credit that all these months of problems could have been due to a bacterial infection, especially as no one seemed to know where it could be. Previously, Nellie’s reluctance to eat and her cough had endured even when she was between courses of antibiotics. Plus her intermittent anemia seemed to be a sign hard to reconcile with a simple bacterial infection. Somehow it didn’t all hang together but here she was, under our eyes, measurably getting better. At the end of the 20 days we returned to the vets’ surgery. “I’ve got some bad news” said the vet. “Nellie hasn’t got lyme disease. The blood test is negative so we are back where we started. At least if she had Lyme’s disease we would know where we stand.” I was disappointed. It felt strange to be disappointed that Nellie didn’t have Lyme disease. Normally one is pleased to discover that a feared illness is not present in fact. But to be pitched back into the uncertainty and doubt regarding Nellie’s health, to live with the hope of cure but the reality of decline, was becoming interminably oppressive. “I’m going to put Nellie on another 20 days course of doxycycline” said the vet. At the end of this any bacterial infection, no matter where it is, must be eliminated.”
I left the vets’ surgery strangely disheartened. Nellie was in pretty good condition. Her cough that had been right from the beginning was gone. Her atrocious breath had improved. She was skinny but had added a little bit of weight. She didn’t show obvious signs of sickness. Since being on the antibiotic Nellie hadn’t vomited or had night fever. But the cure still seemed too simple for the extensive symptoms she had exhibited. It was like repairing a broken down car by cleaning the spark plugs! By now the routine was well established. From the vets’ surgery I returned home. Nellie suffered from car sickness so by the time I arrived at La Faula she had vomited mucus and the grass that was always present in her vomit (another bad sign). I departed immediately to get to the pharmacy before it closed at midday. If the pharmacy didn’t have the particular medicine it would be ordered by the pharmacist and I could pick it up in the afternoon. This time the antibiotic was in stock. I already knew the price and gave thanks, yet again, that at least for human medicines there was a national health service to cover most of the cost of medical treatments. Between the vets’ visits and medicines, Nellie was costing us a small fortune. Of course we paid willingly but not blind to the weight it was putting on our financial resources.
For the next 20 days it was possible to say that Nellie was OK. Gradually it seemed to be the case that she was cured, if only because the cure was so long that we got used to a healthy - if food adverse - dog. It became possible to convince oneself that the nightmare for Nellie, and for us, was perhaps over: that things had been restarted and could now proceed smoothly and without difficulty. As it seemed that the antibiotic had produced the cure it was obvious to think that the infection was gone and that Nellie was now free of whatever parasite had been ruining her health previously. It would be true to say that we approached the end of the course of antibiotics without trepidation and with a confidence that she would proceed healthily as all our other dogs did.
For a week or two once she had finished the antibiotics Nellie’s health stayed stable. But then the cough returned. And then over time she showed an aversion to eating that seemed wholly inimical to living. We tried different brands of dog food. Soft and crunchy, all flavours, all guaranteed to be perfect for one’s pet. At first, for a day or two, Nellie would eat the new food she was introduced to. Then after a couple of days she would definitively refuse it. She only ate when she was starving. She lost weight precipitously. I moved to sleep in the barn with Nellie so that if she needed to be sick during the night she could get to the grass. Nellie would sleep in the ledge that runs down the inside of the top floor of the barn looking out through the slats in the wooden cladding to see what was happening below. Normally I rose at around 05.30 in the morning and then went down to the main house but when Nellie was poorly she would stay up there barely moving. Eventually we knew that Nellie could not survive if she didn’t eat. Normally it is advised not to give dogs cows’ milk products as dogs are lactose intolerant and can also be allergic to the casein protein that it present in cows’ milk. But one morning I was putting the yoghurt that I make at home in the serving jugs and I decided to try it out on Nellie. I got a bowl and put some yoghurt in it. I put the bowl near Nellie. By now, Nellie showed such aversion to what we offered her to eat that she would approach the bowl of food as if it would do her mortal harm. Normally she would sniff then not eat. This time she sniffed and sniffed again. She gingerly gave a lick to the yoghurt and stopped. Then she licked the yoghurt again, and again, with an enthusiasm that I had never seen and in a flash the yoghurt had disappeared. I gave her more and she gulped it down.
The month was May. Spring was ripe, the mornings started early and the sun was warm already by 6.30. The light was fresh, the air limpid. Winter was but a shade of the past; plants were reborn with bright new foliage and the birds happy and noisy in their courting. At 7.00 a.m., as promised, the vet arrived. I took him into the staff room. Nellie was on the bottom bed of a bunk bed set and her little head was abjectly poking out from a blanket. She looked so sad and pathetic the vet’s heart went out to her immediately. “Oh you poor little thing” he said “And they’ve covered you with a blanket to keep you warm” he reached in and rolled back the blanket. He looked at Nellie’s gums, around her eyes. He gently got her to stand up and took her temperature. He took out his stethoscope and listened to her heart and breathing. “Well he said” what she has is not going to kill her immediately. What I mean is, she is not going to die now but there is something wrong here, something not right.” He went on “It’s clear that she hasn’t ingested rat poison, but there is something not right about her. Something underlying that is provoking these recurrent illnesses.” He lifted his head up with a start and caught it on the wooden frame of the bunk bed above. It was a good whack and must have hurt. I felt terrible. Here he was, disturbed from his sleep, helping our little dog and he got a whack on the head for his efforts! “Oh, I’m sorry” I said not knowing what else to say. “It was nothing” he replied and began to pack his instruments back into his vet’s bag.
We walked outside, the vet and me. The morning was by now warm and beautiful. The wonder of the morning and reassurance of the vet’s intervention had removed the desperation and panic that we had suffered earlier when we saw that Nellie was, yet again, rapidly declining into illness. “Bring the dog to the surgery at 10.00 a.m. when we open. I’ll tell my colleagues what has happened. We need to examine this matter more deeply. The dog is suffering from some underlying condition and we need to work out what it is. My heart sunk. By now I knew that this dog had a problem, a defect that couldn’t just be cured with an 8 day course of antibiotics. “What do you think it might be?” I said. “I don’t know” replied the vet. “It looks a bit like leukemia. But I really don’t know. But maybe leukemia is worth considering”. I bade the vet farewell, his car tires crunching on the gravel of the carpark and with an unhappy heart returned to the house. I knew that if it was leukemia Nellie was finished. But somehow leukemia seemed unlikely. Her sickness up until then had been a series of cycles with illness followed by a period of normality followed by illness. Not knowing anything, I felt sure that if it was leukemia the decline would have been more linear, irreversible and distinct. But for the first time I was presented with what happens when a living creature is sick and the cause of that sickness is a mystery. In our normal life up until then symptoms are followed by diagnosis and treatment. Relatives, people we knew, people in the village got sick. If the illness was serious like an aggressive cancer they were treated and either got well or died. But everyone knew what the stakes were. People had heart disease. They either got treatment or had a heart attack and, often, died. It all seemed very clear. But here we were with little Nellie, a fur covered, bundle of sick medical mystery.
I went back into the staff room. Nellie was sleeping. I sat there with a heavy heart gently stroking her little head.
At 10.00 a.m. Nellie and I were back at the vet’s surgery. She had improved a little. As she sat on the examination table the vets gathered around her discussing the case amongst themselves. Leukemia was ruled out more or less immediately because if this was the problem she would already have been dead. They took blood samples. Prepared slides. Finally Nellie’s principal vet said to me. “I’m going to test for Lyme’s disease”. In the meantime I’m going to put Nellie on a course of doxycycline, an antibiotic that can penetrate the blood brain barrier. If we are lucky, we’ll find out that she has Lyme’s disease although her symptoms are not a perfect match. Otherwise, we will have reached the end of what we can do here and she will require a gastroscopy and biopsy carried out by a specialised vet.” By now the uncertainty and open questions were starting to weigh a bit. Seeing Nellie sick was dispiriting and the mystery of her condition portended more problems, more trips to the vets and more expenditure, because by now the vet’s interventions and treatments, especially out of hours, were starting to build up. The story was becoming heavy and tiresome and we dreamt of it having a happy ending although the difficulty to get even this far was starting to create a grain of doubt in our mind as to whether there would be a happy ending. At the edges of our thoughts the possibility that she might die hovered, still inchoate, but its outline indistinctly beginning to take form.
When we began life at La Faula in 1995 Wikipedia didn’t exist. The Internet did but only for those in the know. So we brought up our first dogs - Maremmano Sheepdogs - using general books about owning a dog, advice given us by our vets and stories and legends absorbed over our lives up till then. As knowhow, true or false, was so rare and difficult to access, it tended to stay in one’s mind. When someone recounted a story that could be relevant to one’s life, one tended to remember it. It happened that early on in our time at La Faula the dog of someone we knew ate rat poison. That person called the advice line on the poison packet and was told not to worry as the poison was warfarin based and a small amount ingested by a medium sized dog wouldn’t do any harm. Of course, by 2015 the first thing that I did when I got home with presumptively poisoned Nellie, was to access Wikipedia and look up “warfarin poisoning dogs”. Rather to my horror I saw that life in the rat poisoning business had not stopped still in the 1990’s but like everything else had moved on. The tolerance of rats to even higher doses of warfarin had led to the development of even more effective anticoagulants that were combined with warfarin. These anticoagulants do not have an antidote.
While I was frightening myself with the internet, Luca did the rounds of the rat bait boxes. They were all in place and intact. One tends to take the advice of one’s Vet as being authoritative so the whole thing just became a mystery. Immediately after Easter we took Nellie back to the Vets’ surgery where we found Nellie’s normal vet. He read Nellie’s notes prepared by the emergency vet. He noted that her gums were grey and eyelids lacking bright red colour and the tongue a mild pink. He also saw that she was running a temperature so ran a blood test and saw that she had an elevated white blood cell count. He extended the course of antibiotics and gave us a further prescription for vitamin K the warfarin antidote. We took poor Nellie home and she was a vision of abject suffering.
Over the next week Nellie perked up. We obsessively checked her gums and tongue which remained an obstinate gray. By now we knew that it was best to avoid calling the vet after hours if we wanted to finish the year with any money left, so when Saturday came we decided to take Nellie to the Saturday morning surgery. I pointed out that although Nellie had improved, her gums, tongue and eyelids remained grey.
“OK” said the vet “We’ll do another course of vitamin K, it’s a vitamin after all, it won’t do her any harm”
but by now I think that the vets were starting to doubt that rat poison was the problem.
The weeks passed and Nellie perked up but she refused to eat and became thinner and thinner. By now we had a fair number of guests and Nellie loved playing with the kids. When the smaller kids were playing with a soccer ball in the little fenced soccer ground (fenced low, but enough to keep the dogs out) in front of the pergola, Nellie would run around and around the exterior perimeter tracking the movement of the ball. Sometimes in a fit of enthusiasm and excitement she would leap, gazelle like, over the net into the soccer ground then leap out again. Sometimes she was tempted to take the ball with her but cries of alarm from children and parents would quickly dissuade her. The combination of all this activity and Nellie not eating started to convince us that maybe we would lose her.
As Nellie was unwell, we were reluctant to leave her by herself during the night incase she needed to be taken outside or helped in some way. I moved down into the little room we have in the services area for volunteers to sleep in during the summer. Nellie took to sleeping at the end of the bed snuggled up to my feet. I was always alert for strange movements or restlessness on Nellie’s part and one morning, very early, around 4.00 a.m., I became aware that Nellie was shivering. With the light on I saw that she was listless and clearly ill. Shivering passed in waves over her. I woke up Luca and we decided that we would wait and call the vet at 6.00 a.m. We covered Nellie up and waited. The time passed very slowly but eventually it was 6.00 a.m. and I called the vet.
Calling a vet at night or early in the morning is a funny thing. On the one hand, it seems a big thing to disturb a sleeping vet for a dog and until Nellie we had never done it. On the other hand, we had learnt with the death of Little Fritz (I’ll write about this at some later time) that waiting can be fatal for an ill animal. The sleepy vet - the one who had seen Nellie on Easter Sunday - answered the telephone. I heard a female voice complaining nearby. I apologised profusely, explained who I was and who the dog was, and said that I was afraid for the dog’s prospects if I waited for the surgery to open at 10.00 a.m. The vet remembered little Nellie and said that he would be at La Faula at 7.00 a.m.. Nellie lay on my bed, covered but shivering. It seemed like a story without end!
As 2015 began, there was nothing to make us think that the year would be particularly different from those preceding it. Of course, being an Agriturismo in Italy, we hoped for warm and sunny weather. We hoped for many and good bookings and for happy guests. We had confirmed the volunteers who would be assisting us over the summer and were happy with them. In December 2014 we had chosen a new little Border Collie and she would be ready to come and live with us in February. We have had many dogs over the years and so assumed that the new dog would be a pleasant but unexceptional addition to our lives.
But it didn’t work out like that. Yes, the weather was fantastic. We had many and happy guests. Two of the volunteers were fantastic; the third one posed some special needs but life is like that and we grew through the experience. But Nellie the dog roared into our life as a 3 month old puppy and grabbed us emotionally and physically and took us on a voyage of love and suffering, hers and ours, that left us, and her, breathless and shaken.
When Nelli arrived she was just three months old and has immediately weaned from her mother. At La Faula, for six months of the year we have guests. We have cows and chickens that we butcher. We have bits and pieces and bones and leftovers that we pressure cook together to create the “faula doggy soup” which we feed to the dogs along with broken up dried bread. This had seemed perfectly adequate for the last 19 years and our dogs seemed to have thrived on this diet. Branded dog kibble came in handy in January and February when the ingredients for the doggy soup became scarce but otherwise we had tended not to use it. But over time we began to wonder if perhaps feeding our dogs leftovers, albeit leftovers with meat protein and vegetables, was selling them somehow short. That maybe they really did need regular dog food to supplement their diet with protein, vitamins and minerals. So we began sprinkling dog kibbles on the dog’s dinners.
Thus it was that when we took little Nellie from the dog breeder, we were very receptive to her admonition: “be sure to give Nellie a good puppy food, like Royal Canin”
We knew that one of the historic motivations to our not feeding our dogs on dog food but on leftovers was the price and so, given that we guessed that Nellie would probably be one of the last dogs to come to La Faula with us, we decided we would make up for this “neglect” by sparing no expense to give Nellie the very best. The very next day following Nellie’s arrival Luca went out and bought a 12kg of best Royal Canin puppy food.
We feed our dogs in the morning. They anticipate the feeding and gather round and mob us until we go up to the barn where the dogs’ fridge is and serve them their meal. We assumed that Nellie would be the same. Puppies are generally hungry little beasts and among the many terrific moments in their young days is feeding time. But Nellie wasn’t like that. I prepared a bowl of broken dried bread, doggy soup and dog kibble and proffered it to her. She approached it gingerly, sniffed it and walked away. She didn’t want it.
I assumed that once Nellie got used to the place and the feeding she would get over her reticence and eat, as do the other dogs, as if that meal contains the very last food left for them on the planet. But it didn’t happen like that. Nellie approached each bowl of food with trepidation. If she was very hungry she would eat but then immediately go to the verge above the red bungalow and eat grass. She vomited often and her feces were loose and unformed.
I cut back on the bread and the doggy soup not questioning for an instant the integrity of the Royal Canin dog food. But when this went on we tried other brands of branded dog food, in particular Purina/Friskies. Then we tried the Carrefour branded dog food but Nellie never wanted to eat. Occasionally I would try just feeding her bread and faula doggy soup but she didn’t want to eat this either. I started giving Nellie raw eggs thinking that this would be a good source of nutrition and it was, she loved them. Nellie started taking cow manure from the field where we have our cows and eating it. She ate chicken faeces and wolfed down moist clay. She would steal any eggs she could find that the chickens had laid outside the coop during the day.
When Nellie arrived it was February and cold. As Nellie was an outsider we wanted to make her feel accepted and secure in her new home and give the other dogs time to get used to her. Nellie was pretty small so we put a box next to the bed, on my side, and when we went to sleep we would put her in the little box. Being experienced in this we knew that it would only last a couple of weeks and that as a puppy isn’t toilet trained, during the night one has to have an ear always open for the moment the dog gets restless and starts moving in the box. Then starts the urgent operation to scoop the puppy up in one’s arms and rush it down the stairs, open the door and get it outside before it begins it’s pooh. More or less immediately the puppy learns the routine and then it is possible to train it to do its business prior to going to bed by taking it for a walk on the grass outside immediately before bedtime and praising the dog to the stars when it randomly does a pee at that time. Dogs are primed to be toilet trained because they have an instinct not to soil their living area so something that seems like it could be really difficult easily slips into place. In the case of Nellie this just didn’t happen. She couldn’t hold it in and many times at 3.00 or 4.00 in the morning I was there with a dustpan and brush, swathes of kitchen roll and a mop smelling of chlorine cleaning up her mess.
Then one night she developed the shakes in her little box, she was weak and Luca guessed that she had a fever. I felt that we had to do something otherwise she might die so we took a (canine) antibiotic that we had leftover from another dog and pushed a double dose for her weight it down her throat. I was tired and resigned to the fact that there was nothing we could do until the morning so Luca took her and her little box on his side of the bed and fortunately the shivering stopped and reedy breathing became regular and she was still with us in the morning. At this point began the calvary of Nellie and the vets.
When the veterinary clinic opened in the morning we were waiting outside. We explained to the vets what had happened during the night and the problem of her uncontrolled bowel habits. A blood test established that she had an infection, somewhere, so the vets decided to continue her on the antibiotic that we had administered during the night for the standard period of eight days. During these eight days her fever subsided and her health returned as before but she still only ate when she was desperately hungry and she never seemed to be able to control properly her bowels.
Then Nellie developed a cough, a deep, husky rasping that built up to finish in a great retch. Her breath became foul, she didn’t eat and she was increasingly skinny. Normally, once a dog is acclimated to La Faula it gets put in the cage at night to sleep. Although Nellie was too skinny and unhealthy to put in the cage all night, we wanted her to get used to being caged sometimes as this is important in dog control and safety. We decided to put Nellie in the cage for the hour that it took us to do our evening run. But once in the cage Nellie panicked and became increasingly distressed, clawing and biting at the tough galvanised wire until we feared she would do herself harm. Inexorably we were being bent to Nellie’s illness and she was bonding to us in a unique and dependent way.
On Easter Sunday of 2015 Nellie was lethargic and overcome by lassitude. She seemed to have fever so we wrapped her up in a blanket and called our vet’s emergency number. It was Easter Sunday but the vet agreed to see us at the clinic at 10.00 a.m. Our vet’s practice has a number of vets in it covering dairy and pig farms and domestic animals. The vet who does most out of hours work we had never met as he follows mainly dairy and pig farms but we knew of him by reputation and being the principal agricultural vet of the practice, I had always imagined him to be an older, distinguished, James Herriot type of vet with grey hair and a phlegmatic manner. In fact, he turned out to be young and friendly and empathetic to Nellie who was passive with sickness. A measurement of Nellie’s temperature and it was clear that she was battling an infection. The vet rolled back Nellie’s lips and peered intently. He pulled back her eyelids. “Yes” he said
“the dog does have an infection but it’s this that worries me”
he was indicating Nellie’s gums.
I looked at Nellie’s gums and didn’t know what I was supposed to be seeing.
“They are grey, there’s not enough blood, they should be bright pink” he said
“I think that she might have eaten an anticoagulant rat poison. We have to move fast as she may be haemorrhaging internally.”
I immediately searched my mind to understand how Nellie could have got hold of rat poison. That winter had been very mild and damp and had been a great season for the rats. Luca had had to use all his cunning preparing irresistible foods containing various poisons and only after weeks of great patience during which the natural suspicion and reticence of the rats was overcome by the great culinary offers made by Luca were they completely eradicated from the area around the chicken pen which was a kind of rat paradise.
Being a portly (is that a good way to put it?) middle aged man, I had no hope of ever being a GoPro user (let alone a "Hero") until GoPro introduced the "Fetch" dog harness.
(Have a look at a YouTube video by clicking on the link below).
Now Annie is in training to wear the harness and once she is used to it she will take on her new role as dog photographer at La Faula!
So far in my review of 2013 at La Faula, I have considered the volunteers and the guests. So this leaves, to visit, the dogs, Luca, Maritza, the lady who does the cleaning and, finally, but probably most decisively, Italy in whose web of structures, permissions, prohibitions and taxes, La Faula is permitted to operate.
I am writing this in the “fogolar” room, the small room that was formerly dedicated to an open hearth for cooking and heating surmounted by a large decorated hood into which the smoke rose and exited through a chimney at the top. The “fogolar” while subject to much romantic Friulano folklore, was the miserable way to harness fire by a poor and metal-scarce people. Old people who experienced the fogolar as children have only disagreeable memories of smoke and soot. Luca and I also had long experience of the fogolar, which we would, in shared moments with friends, light and sit beside. Smoky rooms, smoky clothes, doors and windows open on freezing nights were inevitably the result so last year we inserted a fine Jotul wood stove that permits me to sit beside a crackling fire with the head of Annie the border collie on my lap.
When Luca and I arrived at La Faula we determined that having dogs would be a part of our experience here. First, we had the large white maremmano dogs, Minnie, Barty and Spotty. When they got older we got the border collies, Nellie and Hector and although Nellie is dead we live with three of her and Hector’s offspring: Anna, Fritz and Rett. It is all too easy to anthropomorphize the dogs we live with and see in them traits that we identify with as humans. But I think that at La Faula we see things differently. It all started with the maremmano dogs. This breed of dog, that is the same as the Pyrenean sheep dog, is one of the original European sheepdogs. In Italy they were used to protect sheep from the wolves. In central Italy humans have always coexisted with wolves and they still do. Shepherds were poor and before the early 20th century, without rifles or shotguns. In the face of a wolf attack the shepherd could do little but retreat to a hut leaving the maremmano dogs to defend the sheep and drive off the wolves. Thus maremmani dogs were selected for their reliability and capacity to act independently of their human master. They are amazing dogs because they only recognise a pack hierarchy consisting of other maremmano dogs. Human beings, are never their masters, but can be their equals if the humans are respected.
We didn’t know all this when we got Minerva, our first maremmano dog, and mother, eventually, to Spotty and Barty. We wanted a maremmano because we had seen these great, white dogs with the sheep during holidays in the Apennine mountains of central Italy. We got Minerva and while she was just out of being a puppy she sliced off the top of the ear of my young niece who had just seconds before arrived to visit us for Christmas with her parents, my cousin and his wife. I think that it was our second year at La Faula, we were remaking the kitchen, everything was dusty with masonry dust and disorganised and my poor niece was in the pediatric ward after having the top of her ear (cleaned of masonry dust) reattached by a specialist surgeon. Then there was the wait of 10 or so days to see if the ear had taken (it did, luckily), the notification by the hospital of the dog attack to the local public veterinary service, holding the dog in quarantine in case she had rabies and deciding if the dog was a menace needing to be destroyed. It wasn’t a very good start to the dogs at La Faula!
In the end the dog wasn’t destroyed because she was eating her dinner when in the confusion of the family’s arrival the child approached her. She hadn’t bitten my niece but had spun her head around with her mouth open and a sharp tooth had cut clean through the soft tissue at the top of the ear. At this point we didn’t have the Agriturismo but had a little winery bar where we sold wine by the glass to the locals. We loved Minerva, the dog, and realised that we would have to get a grip on the situation. Reading about these dogs, I understood that Minerva would not automatically defer to me as a kind of top dog but that I would have to engender respect in her and make her understand that certain behaviour, such as biting was a no-no! When one is younger, everything seems possible and that with will one’s ends can be achieved. I set about training Minerva to accept that if she let someone remove a wonderful, cooked, pigs trotter from her bowl she would get it back plus a treat for her good behaviour. With strength of force, I made the dog understand that I would not defer to her, that I would be persistent and unremitting and that aggression would not be accepted. I taught her that she had not to fear but to accept sudden movements and being manhandled. It did take time. As I write this I remember that the very first thing that I had to do was make her obey me and this involved getting her to come when she was called. At the beginning, coming to me when I called her was considered a complete optional by Minerva and so the two of us spent hours where I would call her, she would stay placidly sitting, then eventually I would pick up her 65 kilos and carry her to where I had been standing. It was only when Minerva accepted that her impassivity would not win-out that she began to respond to me and to my commands.
And so it was that our relationship with our first dog, Minerva, developed into one where the dog had to respect certain rules but was otherwise a free member of the La Faula team. This was crucial to keeping a rustic dog, bred for open spaces, in an environment with lots of people coming and going. Minerva, who died of old age, never harmed another person and she gave birth to the wonderful dogs, Spotty and Barty who were an integral part of La Faula, the Agriturismo, for the first 12 or so years.
As the Maremmano dogs aged we started thinking about succession and realised that we were getting older and having 65 kilo dogs wasn’t such a good idea, especially when they had to be taken to the vets or looked after when ill. So we got Nellie the border collie, and then some time after, her mate, Hector. Nellie had five puppies and we kept three of them: Anna, Fritz and Rett. Border collies, of course, are a completely different kind of dog to the Maremmano. Border collies come genetically primed to be trained and are ready to take instructions from their master. But the same training regime applied. The dogs had to be trustworthy even when out of our sight. By the time we had the border collies we had many families with small children at La Faula and so we had to be sure that the dogs would not bite. As the border collies are small and can be victims of cruel or thoughtless behaviour on the part of children, we encouraged them to show aggression by snarling and showing their teeth when they were being harassed but again biting was a no-no and it proved quite easy to train them to move away from situations that were bad for them.
So it is that the dogs of La Faula are dogs and not people. But they are a key part of the La Faula team. We only see them occasionally during the day when the Agriturismo is in full swing as they pass their time with the guests. Many guests bring the dogs little treats so Anna, Fritz and Rett associate people staying at La Faula with food, caresses and, sometimes, kisses (the big test as to a dog’s trustworthiness).
In 2013 the four dogs that we have fulfilled their function of Faula canine hosts in fine form. They were friendly, played with the kids and showed loyalty to those who return and who they now recognise as friends. It couldn’t have been any better.
To be continued!
The photo of the day is of the last courier delivery of Christmas Eve when Franca of Wiesbaden’s Christmas package for Hector, Annie, Fritz and Rett arrived. Tomorrow they will open it under their Christmas tree (but it may take a day or two for the video to appear on the Home Page!).
2013 was probably the best year we have had at La Faula since arriving here in 1995. Financially, it was not the best because the very cold and wet spring impacted on the beginning of the Agriturismo season. But this year saw at La Faula a wonderful confluence of people and events that we were, with a security and confidence gained through experience and learning, able to savour and appreciate in the moment. It was so good that every day was a special gift; we didn’t live for the tomorrow but lived in the day. It is hard to believe that something so good is likely to be repeated.
The elements that make up La Faula during the Agriturismo season are the place, the volunteers, the guests, the dogs and Luca and myself. At the beginning of the season it seemed like the year was progressing much as any other. The chill dark of winter gave way to warmer and longer days. After a period of preparation, the Agriturismo opened and received its first guests. Warm weather arrived and spring seemed to have begun. This was our 16th year with the Agriturismo so we slipped into an easy routine. But then it began to rain. And it became and stayed cold. It seemed that it rained every day until the beginning of June. It rained so persistently that it seemed, eventually, that it must rain for all the year. We lost the ability to imagine sunny, bright spring days. Now, of course, we know that we are not responsible for the weather. But we also know that people come on holiday to Italy looking for a warm mediterranean climate. It became a burden to come in to prepare breakfast, hearing the sound of raindrops on the vines of the pergola, the breakfast room seemingly lit against the darkness of the night when, in fact, it was only the darkness of the pergola under unremittingly gray clouds. I felt for the guests and I suffered.
But there was a point of light in all this. And this was Todd. Todd was our first volunteer of the season. And he arrived in May when summer seemed as if were going to be but a chimera. Todd came from New Zealand. He was in his late 20’s and so had work experience. He had decided to have his bit of time overseas before he got too old and through a mutual friend arrived at La Faula. Todd was an all-in-all enthusiastic, friendly, open, decent and jolly character. He was, of course, somewhat surprised to find that the Italy of his imagination, an idyllic summer paradise, was actually rain sodden, very lush and very green, rather like the tropical forests in the North of New Zealand but considerably chillier! But nothing held Todd back. His enthusiasm and enjoyment in being with the guests warmed the atmosphere and melted our defensive diffidence that had grown along with the appalling weather. And the guests too pitched-in and made something fun out of something that could have been a disappointment. Kids played games together in the dining room, they ran and played outside with the dogs until numerous bedroom windows overlooking the field in front of the house were thrown open and children, washed by the rain, were sternly ordered inside. And when they didn’t come in, barefoot half-dressed mums and dads raced out under driving sheets of rain to get them inside. And dinner times were fun, with everyone together in the not so large dining room, and drinking and talking together. There was warmth even though outside it was cold.
Working in the kitchen was very cosy. Todd quickly understood the mechanism of the La Faula dinners and derived real pleasure from serving great dishes to the guests. It seemed as if an angel had come to help us and so the beginning of the season, instead of being unremittingly dark became something cosy and enjoyable. We knew that it was good and counted our lucky stars!
Then, in June, the rain stopped. And it became sunny and warm and wonderful. And it stayed that way until October. And when the local farmers complained about the drought we didn’t give a fig. We had paid with our psyche for the wet spring. And now we accepted every sun drenched day under blue skies as our right! We derived pleasure from the Canadair water bomber that passed regularly over La Faula on its way to the sea to skim up water to fight the extensive forest fires that had broken out in the Alps and which were fanned by the strong hot Fohn winds of this summer. But those winds, gently persistent breezes when they licked La Faula, raised in the spirit some ancient but undefined memory of the pull that always brings mankind to the warmth. It was Italy as Italy should be in the summer. And in June Matthew arrived.
Matthew was our second volunteer of the year. Matthew was coming to volunteer at La Faula for the third time and he had been twice previously as a guest. Matthew added to the richness at La Faula. Open and friendly, Matthew was the very volunteer who those years ago had insisted that he would not be limited to washing dishes and preparing salads but would also cook. From Matthew’s first focaccia came the systems that we use in the La Faula kitchen today and the recipes that form the basis of the meals that we prepare. We owe a lot to Matthew. Matthew jealously guards his culinary expertise and he fine tunes his recipes until he gets them perfect. A course over, when the plates are brought back to the kitchen he watches like a hawk and if a plate comes back with food on it demands of the server to know who it was that didn’t finish the course and why! From my point of view to have someone in the kitchen that is so focussed on getting the dishes exactly right is of inestimable worth. Of course, the actual fine tuning remains Matthew’s secret but the basis is there and watching Matthew I try to pick up what I can to import that into the recipe’s structure!
With Todd and Matthew, and the summer, and the guests, friendly and accommodating, and the dogs and the kids and the space, the time rolled on, effortlessly and with its own momentum. I knew it was good, and I savoured it, day by day.
And the atmosphere flowed into Luca and Maritza, our cleaning lady, and this year, although they both worked hard, very hard, they enjoyed it and it was satisfying and fulfilling and not debilitating. It was the generosity of spirit of Todd and Matthew, the dogs and the guests and La Faula itself, for welcoming spirit it has, that came together to create at that place and in that point of time a small world in which all was more or less perfect.
TO BE CONTINUED!
Last Friday, we finally received the price quotation from the window maker. Now, I wrote previously that we particularly want this window maker to make the two new windows for the mezzanine floor of Room 2 as he had previously made all the new windows when we previously renovated La Faula in 1999 and we have been very impressed by the quality and endurance of the windows in the subsequent thirteen years. However, there were for sure going to be some delays in having the windows made as he was running fast to have all existing orders for windows completed, the windows mounted, invoiced and paid for by the end of the year otherwise they wouldn’t qualify for a 55% tax deduction under one set of Italian anti-austerity laws. So we anticipated delay, but what we didn’t anticipate was the price quoted to make and mount the windows. I can tell you that the price took our breath away! It seemed that the only thing to do was to ask Paola our Architect to contact the window maker and seek a discount. I anticipated some success with this approach as our architects, since the renovation of La Faula in 1999, had often used this particular window maker to provide windows for their projects. Normally, in Italy, approaches based on shared experiences and interests bring good results but the window maker’s response to Paola’s request for more reasonable prices was instructive in illustrating the key role that the Italian State has in wrecking the Italian economy.
Paola called me up and said that she had spoken to the windowmaker who was prepared only to offer “un scontocino” (a mini-discount). She explained further that on the one hand the windowmaker was full of work not only because he was making windows made that qualified for the 55% tax deduction for private citizens improving their houses but also because he was making windows for projects such as new Agriturismi and diffused-hotels funded by the European Community. Paola explained to me that the reality was that these factors had the effect of sustaining prices. But Paola also said that when she spoke to the windowmaker he had explained to her that his costs were very high, which they are. In Italy raw materials, labour and energy are incredibly expensive. So if the order was for a complete set of windows and doors for a new house, he had economies of scale which allowed him to offer better prices. But in our case, the two windows would be bespoke, they couldn’t be made in series, the machinery would have to be reset and their production would be more labour intensive. Finally, for the mounting of them, he would have to send his installers down to Ravosa from the Carnic Alps and this would cost him more. The windowmaker told Paola that as a sign of good faith he would offer a “sconticino” or mini-discount but that he couldn’t do more than that.
I told Paola to go ahead and accept the new offer when it arrived. The reality was that this is a reality that you have to face if you do business in Italy. I fully understood the position of the windowmaker because we, at La Faula, do the same. We don’t under any circumstances take guests for one or two night stays. The costs of short stays are just too high to justify them. The costs of cleaning and remaking rooms and of washing and drying the towels and linen not to mention the very real wear and tear inflicted by people who don’t anticipate having to stay long in a room make it economically unjustifiable at Agriturismo prices. Of course, we also prefer longer stays because La Faula is our home and we like to have guests who stay longer and get to know the place and enjoy it, something which is all but impossible for one just passing through. But Maritza, our cleaning lady, costs us a fortune in social security contributions, our electricity is at business prices and we pay the highest prices in Europe for it after Cyprus (40% more than the average). Water is expensive as we now have to pay for years of under-investment which left the public water supply in a bad state and the water companies are standard Italian public bodies, bereft of competition, inefficient and featherbedded. And finally we are hit by the myriad taxes: those that we pay directly and those that we pay indirectly because they are paid by our suppliers and increase the cost of our inputs.
When it all boiled down to it, we have begun the works on Rooms 1 & 2 and what matters most is that they are done well using good quality materials that will pass the test of time. But we know that the relationship between what we must spend and what that expenditure will earn is completely unbalanced. We are paying Rolls Royce prices for an Audi product, which is not bad in the sense that you have something of quality that is pleasurable but it is not in any way sustainable. Currently, in Italy we are being subjected to an intense propaganda campaign on the part of the Government that the economy has turned the corner and that growth has returned and we will all see its effects any time now. The Prime Minister and Economics Minister exhort us just to be patient and we can be sure that economic growth is diffusing among us currently as we carry on our daily activity. This might be true. At some point the contraction of the economy had to stop or within a short time we, in Italy, would all be running around wearing animal skins and carrying clubs. But it beggars belief that an economy in which new business investment is so expensive (unless funded by the European Community!) and in which prices are stuck by the fact of producers paying excessive taxes, can result in an economy capable of delivering sustained growth and improved living standards. In fact, what we are experiencing is the death grip of a drowning system which grabs at any value produced by the private sector to feed its desperate need for economic oxygen. Italy, not operating a communist system but one of generational exploitation, has always prioritised consumption over production. The generation born just before, during or shortly after the Second World War always consumed more than it produced, even when its members were active in the economy. Avid and ravenous also in retirement and represented by the political system that they maintained, they now demand that not only do we support them but that we also pay down the debts that they wracked up. They’ll be lucky!
When we decided to remake Rooms 1 & 2, Luca wondered if it was worth getting in our architects for what seemed to be a very simple remodelling. He wondered if it would not be enough just to call in a draftsman to do the designs and manage the plans and planning permission. I remembered that when we had moved into La Faula we had made a number of internal changes oblivious to the bureaucratic formalities. My reasoning at the time was that if we used local tradesmen, in particular those who had done jobs at La Faula from time to time, we could be sure of having the works done in the style and manner appropriate for a house such as ours. In fact, it did turn out to be the case that the changes that we made at the beginning and before we embarked upon the major restoration, were wholly in sympathy with the style of La Faula and so we avoided any obvious eyesores!
But since my naive arrival in Italy, I have learnt that there are many sharks in the sea and tigers in the woods so the assistance of a proven guide was to be preferred. I reasoned that even if the job seemed very simple there were probably enough unknown unknowns and known unknowns to stick with a proven professional such as Paola the Architect.
When we saw the designs that Paola prepared, we saw that she had, for the two new windows, departed from the existing style of the house. Into the external wall of the Room 2 mezzanine floor would be opened two large and long arched windows. Now, arched windows are no novelty in Italy, but in our part of Friuli arched windows are rare with the traditional layout being that the top floor of the house, being the granary, would have small windows under the eaves sufficient to allow the passage of air to keep the grain dry but not any larger than necessary. When I saw the windows on the design, long and arched, I knew that they were out of the predominant style of the house, and I knew that no draftsman would ever have put them in. But I also knew that we had hired Paola for her “eye” and ability through intelligence and creativity to bring forth a beauty that would not only be pleasing to the guests who would be using the room but which would enhance the pleasure of the house on the eye. Personally, I couldn’t imagine how the windows could aesthetically fit with the house but my lack of architectural imagination meant that I had to take Paola’s insight on trust.
Here in Ravosa-magredis, they say that if you have Gregorio as your stonemason you don’t need an architect. Gregorio’s father was a stonemason, as were his uncles. Gregorio has only ever worked as a stonemason and in his head he carries all the knowhow of centuries of building in the Friulano way. But he also went to school and studied building science so he knows the science and theory behind what his forebears and years of experience have taught him. To have Gregorio work for you is a lucky stroke. He is intelligent, precise and knows the Friulano farmhouse inside out. And Gregorio was completely against the arched windows, not to mention architects. As Gregorio told me, if you go to the Doctor’s and don’t behave yourself, the doctor will make you pay with horrible injections. If you don’t show respect to an Architect they’ll make you pay by making you redo all sorts of difficult things. But he just wasn’t having any of these arched windows. Now, as I wrote previously, I was also Gregorio’s labourer so I wasn’t in a great position to assert myself while I was being sent up and down the stairs taking rubble down and bringing concrete and mortar up! For me it was important that Gregorio not only make the window holes as Paola the Architect wanted, but that he do it with positivity and not in a begrudging way.
So Gregorio and I looked at the designs, walked outside and looked at the house up close then further away.
“No, arched windows just won’t look right” Gregorio said.
“They’ll look like eyebrows”
“And look, all the other top floor windows are small and tucked under the eaves. How can we have these long windows reaching all the way to the floor. And in any case you can’t have windows that reach all the way to the floor”
I persevered. I recounted all the buildings within a couple of kilometers of us that had arched structures. Luckily, since I had seen the designs I had been particularly alert for arched structures in the old farm buildings in the villages near us. It was true that over time, individual stonemasons had incorporated arched windows into farm buildings, mainly barns, but it was enough to prove that the arch was not an un-Friulano invention of our architect, Paola. Having established this fact, the main question was the height of the windows.
“The top windows have to be smaller than the windows on the floors below” said Gregorio.
“You can’t have two great long windows at the top of the house”
Now, Paola had left us designs showing the windows should be 180cm high. I knew that getting the window holes of this height was going to be a struggle. When it came time to make the window holes, Gregorio was on the scaffolding on the outside with the jackhammer. Much to Gregorio’s pleasure, we had discovered that the external wall at the height we were working was made of brick and not stone so making the holes was to be relatively easy. I was inside and as Gregorio vibrated the bricks out of the wall with the jackhammer, I would immediately grab them as they came free and put them in a pile next to me.
“Is this enough” Gregorio would ask me after every layer of bricks had been removed.
“No, no. The hole is too small” I would reply and Gregorio would remove another layer of brick. From the inside I could see where the apex of the arch should be and could see that getting there was going to be a struggle.
I decided to encourage him.
“Look Gregorio” I said
“I read a review on Trip Adviser where some guests had reviewed an Agriturismo badly because they were on the top floor and the windows were too small to let in light and air. They had even put photos of the tiny windows on the review”.
Gregorio has never seen a computer up close so there followed some time to bring him up to speed with travel sites in general and the concept of reviews which I explained to him in other countries also applied to builder, bricklayers and stonemasons!
“When people come on holiday to La Faula they have to find what they want” I explained.
“And people want to see the blue sky and the beauty around them. They don’t want to feel closed in”
This line of argument seemed to make the difference. No longer was the height and style of the windows solely an artifice of the architect’s caprice that we had somehow fallen for, but it was a real response to a pressing problem of our business. So Gregorio let me keep suggesting that he remove more layers of bricks until we reached a height that we both begrudgingly thought could be a good compromise. The windows are 140cm high so they have lost 40cm that Paola had planned for them. But they have made the back wall of the house. Looking at the back wall, the new window holes, arched and long, give a harmony and gentle charm that the previous workaday aspect of the wall lacked. Even Gregorio was taken by them.
And it turned out that Gregorio had made arches in the past because getting the arch right and keeping the concrete up until it hardens requires knowhow and technique and he knew how to do it!
to be continued
The poor dogs! Life at La Faula without guests to entertain them, leaves them bored beyond belief. I certainly feel sorry for them as during the six months that the Agriturismo is open they have all the fun and stimulation that a dog could want. But once we close, and winter descends, they really don’t know what to do with themselves. Normally, Luca gets up first and lets Annie, Rett and Fritz out of their sleeping cage. Hector, being the daddy dog, sleeps in a cosy old wine-barrel placed under the eaves of the house and containing a scruffy old blanket. When I come down the stairs the dogs are grouped at the bottom waiting for my appearance. Even if one’s instinct to being mobbed by a small pack of frisky dogs first thing in the morning is to hang back, I tell myself that dogs are people too and I must be as enthusiastic to see them as they are to see me. So I descend into the furry mass, there is lots of jumping up and sharp claws on soft skin, but instead of ordering them to sit I draw them to me and tell them just how pleased I am that we are together again this morning and how wonderful it is for me to find them there and how much I appreciate their very being. If it is one of the three days of the week when there is no hunting, I tell them that we are off for our morning walk. Forbearing a cosy coffee, I move outside with the dogs, put on a jacket all the better to resist muddy paws of leaping dogs, struggle into my wellington boots which always seem too tight to easily contain the legs of my trousers, and we set off for our walk down the river stopbank. Even though we always do the same walk, until we reach the stopbank, there is lots of running forward then coming back to see if I am still there. The beginning of the walk is a time of great excitement, the dogs running madly around, running at me, sometimes jumping up, then running wildly away. We cross the little bridge in front of La Faula. I feel slow and lethargic but try to force myself to stride purposefully and vigorously ahead. The dogs wait at the other side of the bridge just to be sure that we will be taking the same route, just in case, maybe this one time we will take the stopbank to the left instead of the right. But I am too lazy to push out on a new route today. I’m happy with the one we always take so I turn right and the dogs having the walk’s route confirmed, hare off in a mad dash down the small rut worn in the long grass by the weekend’s motocross bikes.
The three male dogs, their morning adventure confirmed, disappear into the distance. I hear barking in the woods as they find the trace of some animal, probably a squirrel in a tree. Annie, however, stays with me. She runs ahead, sniffing and exploring the long grass but always runs back to check if I am there, sometimes sitting down for a cuddle or turning over for a tummy rub. I imagine that I am in the wilds of Alaska with my trusty dog. The air may be sharp and the environment hostile but man and dog resist the elements! Then I remember a recent news report about an adventurer just rescued from the hostility of the Canadian north who survived by eating the very dog that had protected him from the bears that had destroyed his canoe and eaten his food. Suddenly it seems much better to be on the stopbank of the Malina river with my trusty pooch and a hot cappuccino awaiting me when I return home!
Last Wednesday, our little walk took a rather unexpected turn. For the last week there has been a very low pressure area over the mediterranean sea between Sardinia and the Italian mainland. This created a cyclone that has devastated Sardinia and brought massive rainfall to the Western side of Italy. Here in Friuli we are in the North East corner and so have avoided most of the bad weather. There has been, however, regular rainfall and the rivers, although not flooding, are running high. My morning walk with the dogs takes us to a ford over the Malina river which runs in front of La Faula. The Malina is a torrent so most of the time it has little water but when there is rainfall in the mountains it fills quickly and runs swift and dangerously. The ford is the point at which Annie and myself turn and retrace our steps home to La Faula. However, if the ford is passable, Hector, Rett and Fritz cross the river and carry on exploring before returning home. I have always been impressed by the fact that the dogs know when the river is running too swiftly to cross and so return to La Faula with Annie and myself. On Wednesday, however, I got to the ford and found Hector, Fritz and Annie up on the bank watching Rett who was just reaching the halfway point of the ford. They knew and I knew that the river was too strong and in an instant Rett was swept off the ford and was in the frothing, churning water being carried downstream. My first instinct was whether I should go in to retrieve him but instantly put this out of mind: Rett is a strong dog and I could see that he was paddling well and keeping his head up. I was more likely to come to harm than he was.
We followed Rett down the river. He was paddling madly and somewhat to my surprise seemed quite buoyant. I imagined that his fur would weigh him down but perhaps it had air trapped inside so it kept him up. Eventually he got himself onto a clump of trees that normally are on the edge of the river but which were now an island in the middle. The dogs were still with me and we got to the riverbank opposite him. Rett was rapidly evaluating his situation and I did the same. To get to us Rett had to enter the river again. The river at this point was relatively narrow but it was fast and churning with white froth. If he could ride it he could perhaps get to the side. If not, he would be carried ever further down. Rett looked at us and then launched himself into the water. His head was up and he was paddling madly. He must have put every effort into that swim and at some point his feet touched the bottom and being four-legged he dragged himself out of the brown rush of water. He came towards us like a rocket, ridiculously small with his fur all stuck down. He was a dog charged with relief and happiness. He ran round us and when we reached our path flew like a bullet, down the stopbank and away from the place where he had faced such fearful circumstances.
Dogs, of course, are not people. But, like us, they make errors of judgment and, like us, sometimes those errors put them in mortal danger. Rett, in that churning water, was in imminent peril. But he showed tenacity and courage and wild relief and happiness when he was again on safe ground. We, myself and the other dogs, could only be bystanders. He had got himself into danger and had to get himself out. And he did. So what could have been a moment of loss and sadness instead became just another adventure and so, in the morning, when I come downstairs, and Rett jumps up on me and scratches me with his claws, I don’t order him down but instead tell him just how happy I am to find him there and how happy I am that we can, this day, go on our morning walk together!
I have written in a number of recent diary entries that Italy is in a deep depression. You would imagine then that there must be a massive amount of idle labour and capital just waiting to do our small renovation of Rooms 1 & 2 of the Agriturismo. In particular, one would guess that there should be no problems having the two new windows made promptly! Well actually, there are. In fact, our supplier is so busy that he is unable even to provide us with a quotation. Yesterday, Paola the Architect called me to say that she had just spoken with the owner of the factory who we want to make the windows concerning the absence of the quotation that had been promised two weeks ago.
“Lui ha fatto una scena propria Napolitana” she said
That is, he had made a completely “Neapolitan scene”. Now, to be honest, I don’t know exactly what a “Neapolitan Scene” is but knowing the reputation that the Neapolitans have in the North of Italy, I guessed that she meant something completely over the top: beating of breasts, tearing of hair, crying and screaming.
Of course, we could look around for other windows producers, but this particular factory, located in the Carnian Alps, made all the other windows during our restoration of La Faula and we are so happy with their quality and endurance that we really want to stick with the same producer.
Paola went on to explain to me that a key economic stimulus tool used by the Italian government has been to offer significant tax deductibility for house renovation plus a lower value added tax rate (10% as opposed to 22%) and that for one particular stimulus package the work must be done, invoiced and paid for by the end of the year. Our window producer, therefore, instead of suffering low sales and production finds himself under terrible pressure to have all jobs finished, charged and paid for by 31 December. Our two windows won’t even get a look in!
But 31 December is important with respect to our little job for another reason. The stonemason and plasterboard mounting company are subject to the Italian “Sector Study” tax regime. Under this regime, the tax authority sets the earnings that firms or artisans are deemed to have made in a tax year. The firm or artisan must declare at least this much income (with invoices to sustain the declaration) or risk real problems with the Guardia di Finanza (Finance Police) or Inland Revenue authority. Now our artisans have a real problem with this as the effect of the recession has been to leave them below their respective officially deemed earnings level. The plasterboard mounting company has had to lay off workers and the stonemason was himself laid off at the beginning of this year and passed a good period of time until he managed to get work coming-in as a self-employed artisan. But the genius behind the sector study regime is that it is absolutely non-personal: it applies across-the-board and is not concerned with the individual subjective positions of those to which it applies. So our artisans are worried and they have told us that the jobs must be invoiced to us before the end of the year. Payment can come later, but the important thing is that the invoiced amount will be part of their declared income for this year. You can imagine that in such a system any idea of doing some of the work “in the black” is inconceivable.
And what is the effect of all this? The effect is that the work we are having done is far too expensive. The artisans are required by the Italian State to declare a certain amount of income which is hard for them to achieve in the current recessionary climate. Afraid of under-declaring, they are all forced to keep their prices high thus negating the tendency in a recession for prices to fall. Effectively, the Italian State creates involuntary price cartels where all members are obliged to ask the prices necessary to give the State its demanded share. And, being orchestrated by the Italian State, it creates price cartels where none would otherwise be possible; the potential members being too numerous and too dispersed to effectively coordinate their economic activity. It is demented and is utterly destructive of the economy. And where is that money going? Well, that money is going into the great stimulus package that is the Italian pension system. In this recession, Italian State spending is around €800 billion or 51% of GDP. Of this, debt servicing consumes €80 billion. €162 billion is spent on salaries for State employees. But €220 billion, or around a quarter, is consumed by pension payments. When you add to this the fact that 51% of Italian public debt is held by Italians or their institutions, you realise that the pensioners are being paid directly in pension payments and also as holders of the public debt. But to this jolly mix, one must add another fact. That is that non public sector wages (public sector wages for a period must forego their annual increase) have consistently grown, and are currently growing, by more than inflation. Apart from the fact that this, absent unlikely productivity gains, renders Italy increasingly uncompetitive, it means that employed workers with secure positions can happily resist the current recessionary environment. And State employees, their annual national wage negotiations currently blocked, still benefit from the standard automatic seniority increases that apply across-the-board under their existing national contracts.
So it is, that Italy is in depression, is suffering rampant deindustrialisation and unparallelled numbers of business failures and closures but a very great number of Italians have never had it so good. Pensioners and the securely employed, whether in the private or public sector, can enjoy all the stimulus measures offered by the State, they can renovate their homes and put in new windows without worrying about the high prices: they can deduct these from their taxable income!
For the last 6 days I have been the stonemason’s labourer which has left me, every evening, feeling as if my arms have passed the day being wrenched from their sockets. The stonemason, who could probably out-Thor Thor, treats me as if I were a 16 year old apprentice and so I have spent most of the past days carrying mortar and cement up three stories and rubble and dust down! Gregorio, the stonemason, is from Ravosa. When we first arrived at La Faula from London, it was Gregorio who did a lot of the original building work necessary to get us going. I was 35 years old and he 31. My Italian was rudimentary and his instructions largely incomprehensible. But time lost in explanation was made up for by the fact that I was fit and active and a useful pair of arms. Now, I have to be careful of my back and heavy loads leave me feeling every joint and socket straining and the play worn into them after 19 years on the farm! Gregorio too goes red in the face as he pulls up heavy buckets of mortar with a rope and hook.
Still, it is nice to be working with Gregorio again and apart from the great job he did making the new window spaces for the new Mezzanine floor to Room 2 and doing the finishing work to the internal walls, he is applying himself to various jobs that have needed doing for a while but which were, individually, too small to interest anyone to come and do them.
It’s strange just how dysfunctional and distorted the Italian economy is. Italy is in a terrible depression. People are emigrating to find work. But I’d be buggered if I could find anyone prepared to do the little jobs that tend to build up around La Faula. Not for little money, but for any money! Ravosa and the neighbouring villages are full of retired stonemasons and bricklayers. But they receive a good pension and doing odd jobs could cost them their pension so they prefer to live the life of riley and do nothing. Artisans, on the other hand, find that little jobs tend to be niggly and that they can’t charge out their labour properly as the time spent doing them is disproportionate to what they can actually ask in payment. So they don’t do them.
So although Gregorio keeps me on my toes, it ensures me of the soundest and deepest of sleeps in the night and he is methodically seeing to various jobs that over time had become annoying cankers in the fabric of La Faula!
Before starting the work, we had a meeting at La Faula with the Architects, Paola and Oscar, the Engineer and the Smith who would be making metal support plates from which would be suspended cables necessary to sustain the mezzanine floor where the beams had been cut to make way for the new stairs. All of us had been involved in the original renovation of La Faula in 1999 when the bedrooms were added and all had been involved in the subsequent conversion of the pig stys into bungalows (2000), the building of the new barn (2001) and of the swimming pool (2006).
We had all aged. The engineer was still driving the same BMW that he was in 1999. Oscar, the Architect, apart from assisting Paola, was now the expert in acoustic insulation and would guide that part of the project and the Smith had changed the most from having been a teenager fresh from having completed his military service in 1999 and working in his Father’s and Uncle’s metalworking firm to now being the owner, with his elder brother, of that very same firm. It was great to be together again. There is something in human psychology that rejoices in joining again with others with whom one has experienced some challenging and cooperative adventure. The sense of continuity and context that being together with these people brought forth was secure and satisfying. We had all worked together on the various Faula projects, together we had faced challenges of many types, but those challenges had been overcome and we all had a sense of satisfaction of jobs well done and success attained.
But there was more to it than that. As we walked down the gravel drive beside the house and towards the carpark, chatting and laughing, conversation turned to the challenges we had all faced in our separate businesses and professions. And then we shared something else. Each of us, at different times, had faced existential difficulties caused by our dealings with the Italian State and Bureaucracy. Those threats, because threats they were, had led us to wonder in dark moments whether running our various businesses in the way we believed was best would be thwarted by the capricious, illogical and despotic exercise of power by those who have authority over us. That we were still here together meant that we had survived, and the greatest risk was at the beginning when we were all still innocent of the problems that the Italian State apparatus can cause a private business in Italy.
It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that it was a “Band of Brothers” moment. We were comrades because we had, each of us, survived travails and injustices and were still here to tell the tale. And this brings me to an important point in this blog of life at La Faula.
In our normal business at La Faula we encounter continual and unremitting problems with the Italian State bureaucracy. We have been shaken down, subject to abuse of power, faced by minor corruption and commonly have authority exercised over us by the grossly incompetent, disinterested or self-interested. Most of what we earn we are expected to turn over to the State which is desperately in need of money. If you have a business in Italy it goes with the territory. We have also been helped and supported by individual government workers with humanity, decency and common sense. But they were the minority. The authority that the Italian State exercises over a private business in Italy is that of an overlord and does nothing more than replicate the authority that was exercised over the people, who were principally rural and sharecroppers or day labourers, by their Lords and Lackeys until the land reforms and the pretence to the monopoly on the exercise of power by the renascent Italian State following the Second World War. Henceforth the Italian State claimed and enforced its monopoly on power to the exclusion of the great landlords who, by dint of their great landholdings and control of the means of subsistence, had hitherto principally exercised temporal power of the normal lives of most of the people. And as the people left agriculture and created businesses and formed corporate bodies to conduct those businesses, the Italian State stood in relation to them as the landlords had stood in relation to the peasants. The change was one of scale not of substance.
So it is that in this blog I prefer not to detail our regular travails with the Italian bureaucracy. It would be pointless and uninteresting. What is interesting is to analyse to what ends the State exercises its power. The great Landowners were very clear as to the why part of their exercise of power: it was to control the rural labour force to ensure a supply of ready and compliant labour to fund the lifestyles of the landlord and the landlord’s family. If one substitutes the “Italian State” for “Landlord” the result is the same.
TO BE CONTINUED
Last night I determined to return to write my diary after a break of some considerable time! I intended to begin by saying how much I had enjoyed living in an analog world again these last weeks, delightful autumn activities having kept me away from the digital world of websites and digital communications. But first I had to get the photos of the day from my camera into my computer. And at this point the digital world came back and hit me with vengeance! I couldn’t find the correct USB cable that would connect to my camera! I searched high and low. I couldn’t even remember when I had last used it. Of course, my mind harboured countless images seen during the summer of black USB cables with the tubular ferrite bead at one end. I fancied that I had seen one in almost every place, every day, I searched drawers, “remembered” having retrieved it recently and having put it away ready for use, wondered if I had lent it to a guest during the summer, imagined that maybe I had even filed it by accident with the great jumble of leads and cables, collected over the years, no longer used but kept “just in case” but after hours had elapsed and I had traversed La Faula, the barn and various rooms numerous times without success, I gave up on the diary and hoped that I would have more success in the light of the following morning. In fact I did. I did find the cable and did manage to unload a surprisingly old selection of photos from my camera and so tonight, beginning with the wonderful shots of Annie running free on an autumn afternoon I return to my blog!
The last guests of the Agriturismo season departed La Faula about two weeks ago. They were two friends from Minneapolis, one of whom had already stayed with us in May while following the Giro d’Italia bike race. Finishing by saying goodbye to someone to whom we had said hello much earlier on in the year was a nice closure giving the sense of the wheel of activity having fulfilled its cycle over the summer thereby bringing us to a natural and pleasant ending. The thing is that our experience of the Agriturismo is so intense that the season’s events are a close packed jumble of people and events, nothing anymore in a clear order, just pictures and memories impressed upon the mind. The Agriturismo season at La Faula sees us meeting, re-meeting, talking to, socialising and following a flowing flux of people, all equally important and all deserving our best attention. Then there are the volunteers that help us out. There is the mutual getting to know each other, the need for rapid absorption of tasks and skills and finding comfortable insertion into the La Faula “family” no matter for how brief a period.
In past times the closure of the Agriturismo would have folded immediately into the harvesting of the grapes and winemaking. But this year, as in a number of previous years, the white grapes were ready while the Agriturismo was still in full activity. The weather was wonderful, we had a great volunteer to help us and so we kept on with the Agriturismo until the bookings finished. We were on a roll and were on the downhill slope so we went with it and got a neighbour to harvest the grapes and make the wine. The Agriturismo closed naturally at that point at which everybody who was to take a late summer holiday had and before autumnal trips had begun.
The great freedom that arrives for me at this point is not having to think about preparing, then preparing dinners. Days take on a languid aspect, pleasant and unconstrained by obligation. The vegetable garden and our produce can be contemplated and enjoyed in a way that is not possible during the haste of the Agriturismo season when organisation and efficiency reign. Hours can be spent with a sharp pair of scissors (I don’t like squishing bugs) hunched over the cabbages, gently pulling back all the leaves that bend, searching out the caterpillars and moth larvae that will deprive me of the perfect cabbage head that Luca will cook in the evening.
Over these last weeks I made pesto and tomato preserve. I made grape jelly from the grapes of the pergola and fig jam from our white figs. I made apple juice and apple conserve and as I write this there are two pressure cookers of quince cooling on the stove behind me. Tomorrow I will make quince and ginger jam. Next will be a gardiniera of green tomatoes, peppers and onion. It is delightful, and it satisfies some deep need, to harvest in autumn, as the days shorten and winter looms, wonderful foods, and to put them away in anticipation of their enjoyment, when all around is brown and cold and flat, in a bright kitchen, warm and cosy and secure!
By the end of the evening I couldn’t wait to get home. The uncertainty relating to Fritz’s whereabouts was wearing and the desire to get home and find him there great. Wanting to avoid the difficult feelings that would go with losing the dog, I hoped to find that everything was alright after all. As we came up the Faula driveway, and in front of the house, Hector, for a moment, in the gloom seemed to be Fritz. Everything was alright after all! But then we saw that it was Hector and Fritz was still away from home.
The night gave the possibility that in the morning Fritz would be back at La Faula and so comforted by that hope I went to bed. During the night I slept fitfully and woke-up when I heard Rett barking. Maybe Fritz was back? But in the morning, he wasn’t and it seemed that I would have to confront the fact that Fritz was gone from La Faula for good.
I imagined Fritz happily living with another family that he had followed on an Easter Monday walk and who, taking him for a lost dog, had brought him home and decided to keep him. Or I imagined his little lifeless body lying abandoned on some lonely grass verge beside a road where cars passed indifferent to the fact that he was our pet that we loved.
I had memories of our walks in the winter and the moment I let the dogs out of the cage in the morning and he does a scratchy roll on the gravel. I remembered how Fritz had cried when I went to see him after his hip operation two years ago. I thought of the little Belgian boy, Ossip, who had walked Fritz after the operation as part of his physiotherapy and who in a couple of days would be arriving with his family to see his canine friend.
I felt a great sense of loss but then it seemed ridiculous and out of proportion. Sure, Fritz was a great pet but he was only a dog. I thought of friends who had lost their child to Lou Gehrig’s disease and asked myself how I could permit such a welling of emotion for a small dog when people commonly face much worse. It seemed perhaps indulgent and a bit exaggerated. Then I thought of the expense of Fritz’s hip operation and how he had recovered so well with mobility and without pain. Now all that money would never be depreciated by years of Fritz running free with the other dogs in the fields and on the hill of La Faula. As I passed the paper-recycling bin I saw one of our new paper table mats with an image of the four dogs on it, done by a guest of last year who had been taken by the friendliness of the Faula border collies. Already just printed, the image was a lie as Fritz was no longer or was, at least, no longer of La Faula!
Anna, Fritz’s sister came up. "Come on Annie" I said
"Let’s go and have a look at the old shack"
I pulled on my gumboots (Wellingtons) and Anna and I walked across the field in front of the vineyard towards our neighbour’s shack. I had no hope of finding Fritz. It was a pro-forma action but had to be done just the same. I walked with Anna where I walk often with all the dogs who run and galavant with the pure pleasure of being alive, free, without fear and loved. By now I was getting pissed-off that it should have happened that Fritz was no longer with us. One doesn’t want bad things to happen and this was a bad thing even if he was just a dog. At the minimum, the money we had spent on his hip replacement had not been returned in full. And even if a dog is just an reflexively animated people pleaser, Fritz had given me pleasure and I did love that dog even if that love is, by definition, less than that we can express to a person.
Anna and I approached the shack. There was a tent in front, closed and I couldn’t tell if there were people in it or not. Quietly we moved past the tent and looked into another large, high-roofed white tent where, obviously, the party had been held. Only a couple of black bin bags, full, were present. I was impressed that at the end of the festivities the kids had cleaned everything away. Passing alongside the lean-to on the side of the shack I noticed some abandoned plastic plates with chicken bones. Fritz must have had a great party here! Anna was busy sniffing around, I guess wishing that she too had been at the party. I had hoped that Anna, being a dog, would in some way indicate to me the presence of Fritz, if he was nearby, perhaps hurt, but there were just to many good smells and interesting stories to occupy her!
I reached the door of the shack. I was unsure what was inside and whether there were perhaps kids sleeping there. I gently lifted the latch and pulled the door a little ajar. Inside it was gloomy with the light coming through one small, dirty window. In the dusky light I made out some rows of benches. There was a smell of fire and perhaps a fireplace in the middle of the far wall. But my eye caught a movement at my feet. I looked down. It was Fritz, his little nose pushing out through the opening!
I laughed to see Fritz pushing out through the door and looking up at me with a sheepish face. He was rotund as a sausage, black with soot and had the air of a dog that has had the party of his doggy dreams! "Come on Fritz" I said. "It’s time to go home!"
As I write this Fritz is curled-up outside the Yellow bungalow. Inside are our friends, who came originally as guests, and who lost their child to Lou Gehrig’s disease. These people who come to La Faula twice a year have been coming since October 2000. They have shared La Faula, the way we make it grow, and our trials during those years. They share a love of dogs and know and remember the Maremanni, Minnie, Spotty and Barty and the border collie Nellie, the mother of Fritz and Anna and Rett. During the time of our friendship we shared, incomprehensibly of the profound magnitude of the suffering, their loss.
So I suppose that all loss is a tragedy for those who feel it. And the size of the tragedy is commensurate with the magnitude of the loss. The premature loss of a pet is a small tragedy compared with other things that happen to people. But it hurts all the same.
So when I finish this diary entry, press send and confirm the "Diario modificato regolarmente." page and get up and pass Anna stretched-out on the mat, and Hector underneath the bench next to where I am sitting, and Rett stretched-out on the mat at the entrance to the dining room and then look across to the Yellow Bungalow where Fritz is waiting for his friends to open the door and - if he is very lucky - let him in, I will give thanks for a loss avoided and will savour this moment when all is as it should be and is right in our little world knowing full well that these moments, transient and ephemeral, are the diamonds in the rough of life!
As I write this Luca is stretched out taking a snooze on the couch. We are in the "fogolar" room, the old kitchen of La Faula with the open fireplace. The open fireplace now hosts a very efficient wood-burning stove and its gentle crackling is keeping us company. I am sitting on one of the benches next to the stove, my computer on the drop-leaf table that once hosted, and sometimes does still, a carafe of wine, glasses, a salami and loaf of bread.
Under the bench the border collies, Rett and Anna are stretched out dozing. Heavy dog sighs and occasional grunts are mixed with the light whistling coming from their long noses. Hector, being the daddy dog, is curled-up on the mat and Fritz is trying to get as close to Luca as he can without disturbing and being sent away!
It is snowing outside, a heavy wet snow that becomes water in an instant. The sky is grey and the colours mute. Last night we had friends around to dinner. It was a hospitable night, warm, friendly with each enjoying the company of the others. Luca cooked-up a great Friulano feast: he started with mixed cured meats, salami, prosciuto and mortadella. The first course was a serving of gnocchi with home-made tomato sauce and pasta shells with lentils, garlic and olive oil. The second course was two types of sausage made by our neighbour, Nichola, served on a bed of turnips pickled since the grape harvest in the pressed grape skins then grated and cooked long. Big bowls of local fresh chicory and steamed winter vegetables accompanied. The meal ended with the carneval sweets frittelle and crostoli accompanied by grappa and coffee!
But we have to say, that after a certain age, a dinner like this takes its toll. When young, one wonders at the rigidity of the old clinging to their fixed and certain regimes. As one becomes old, one realises that it is those fixed and certain regimes that refurnish the structure that an inexorably degrading physical existence is eroding. The young are fully autonomous. We older one’s are autonomous only within limits. Ten o’clock really is a good time to go to bed and a moderate evening meal of pasta and vegetables really does go down better. In any case, the night was fine and the day, wet and grey, gave us the excuse to stretch out, with the dogs, and do nothing.
But there is another aspect to this story. I am gratified that Luca has chosen to stretch out here and enjoy the warmth of the new stove. At La Faula, Luca is the holder of the purse, the "Mr. No" of expenditure. Every business needs a "Mr. or Ms. No" who asks "Do we really need this?" and "We can’t justify spending money on this at this time". It keeps the business focussed and honest as there will always be someone ready to spend. I like to think that I am not reckless in what I want to get for La Faula. But it is true that my ability to convince myself that expenditure is necessary or will bring significant benefits tends to run ahead of the reality. I have more faith that everything will turn out OK in the end and that I can trust things to fate. Luca doesn’t share this magical thinking being one of Italians who emigrated away to find a life more meritocratic, less corrupted and less degraded than what was on offer in Italy. Having returned to Friuli he knows that in Italy nothing turns out OK unless it is managed. Italian chaos inexorably moves towards entropy and the coldness of emptiness so one has to marshal one’s resources to resist the drag into nothingness. In Italy it takes one’s life force to resist the omnipresent badness that swirls around motivating others to behave in illogical, unpredictable, untrustworthy and dishonest ways. It is a miasma of badness, bordering on evil, but too banal and too present to merit such an appellation.
So it was that in October 2012 when I suggested getting the stove Luca replied with a non-negotiable "no". Here at La Faula we are adrift, bobbing about in a sea full of mixed and turned tsunami detritus: relics and remainders of a society built beyond sustaining that has collapsed and is swirling about in the forces of decline and degradation. "All true", I said, "but if I have to be in a country in terminal decline, at least I want to be comfortable and warm". Luca would not move on this one. There was no business justification for the stove so the cold would have to be endured. Remembering that the cricket played and sang in the warm summer evenings while the ant forewent but built a buttress against the cold void of winter, I did wonder if I was making a mistake. Who knows? Until another season has passed and we have filled the hole in our accounts left by the stove one cannot say. But one can say, with certainty, that we have passed a bloody good, cosy and warm winter. It couldn’t have been better no matter what follows!
This is the final Christmas letter of 2012.
20 December 2012
Dear [ ]
For another year, I write with much pleasure to thank you for a wonderful Christmas package, both practical and luxurious!
The microplane is very much appreciated. A great many of our recipes call for lemon or orange zest and so the microplane will be a wonderful addition to our kitchen drawers. We are harbouring the chocolates, keeping them for those particular moments when we come in from the cold outside and feel like a hot drink with something special as an accompaniment! A great selection and we very much appreciate the thought that went into them!
Today is quite a big one regarding my time at La Faula! As you may have read in my blog, we had a leak in our ground-floor central heating circuit. It may have been there for a while but we were unaware of it as we never saw any signs of water on the floor or walls. It is likely that the water had made its own path under the house and as we are near a river it probably got down into the gravel that eventually underlies the house. We decided to re-make the heating circuit but this time with externally-mounted copper pipes running along the walls just under the wooden ceiling beams. This was far preferable to breaking-up the brick floor but it did mean breaking holes in three of the stone walls to permit the tubing to run from the boiler room through to the dining room and then, finally, onto the last ground floor room with the open ’fogolar’ fireplace.
Now, there is a Friulano saying that ’it is better to have the devil in one’s house than a stone-mason’. This arises because of the horrible dust produced when intervening in the structure of stone-walled Friulano houses. Internally, the large stones are covered with lime plaster. When hit with a power hammer this plaster atomises into a fine dust that travels far in the air and gets into every nook and cranny no matter how much effort has been made to isolate the area being worked. Lime plaster powder is unpleasant to the touch, gritty and takes away any sense of cosiness and security from the house. Once the lime plaster has been pulverised away the rocks behind must be smashed, cracked and split by the power hammer. It is best to do this with the doors open so, in the winter, the house gets cold and fills up with a nasty grey dust. As we must do all our house works in the winter, it is a procedure we know well and , as the years go by, we find it always more difficult to endure!
Before we knew that we would have to re-make the ground-floor central heating I had managed to convince Luca (well, bully, really!) that we should order a Norwegian wood stove to place in the open traditional Friulano ’fogolar’ fireplace. The Friulano ’fogolar’ was no more than an open hearth covered by a large hood connected by a horizontal flue to a large open chimney. It is no different in concept from the open fire in the middle of any hut or tipi. The fogolar was the symbol of the extreme Friulano poverty and the lack of resources to obtain metals to create closed stoves. The fogolar was deleterious to the health of those using it as the chimney would draw irregularly and the room was often filled with the toxic gases of partial or incomplete combustion. When the fire was lit, most of the heat went up the chimney so the family would sit just centimetres from the fogolar, hot to the front and cold to the back. When the fogolar was out the chimney would continue to draw air out of the house cooling it down.
The fogolar itself is rather beautiful to look at and as a feature it can be a pleasant experience to sit around one with friends. We did it occasionally but often had to flee the room when the smoke came down and out from under the hood. I got tired of opening this door or that, or that window or this to see if the fogolar could be made to draw better and when it was working well I found myself worrying about having a roaring open fire in the centre of a wood-beamed house. Finally, a fogolar consumes enormous amounts of wood for little heat. It really isn’t worth the candle so for some time I had wanted to find a solution that would allow us to keep the beauty of the fogolar structure while substituting the pre-historic woodfire-hole-in-ceiling system with something more efficient. Eventually I settled on a Jotul F373 wood stove. When Luca discovered that we would have, unexpectedly, to spend on the central heating he felt that continuing with the stove would be an unnecessary luxury. As a compromise, we put off for a year some modifications we wanted to make to two of the bedrooms and went ahead with the stove.
By sheer coincidence, the stove installer (who also had to remake the chimney) came on the same week as the new central heating circuit was being made. Poor La Faula rang to the sound of power hammers. Dust fell from every nook and cranny with the vibration then, miraculously, was taken-up again by those same nooks and cranny’s ready to fall again at the slightest movement. The grit got everywhere and, the sun being low on the horizon at this time of the year, every sunny day revealed every surface to be wearing a patina of grey! The wooden floor on the landing outside Rooms 7 & 8 had to be taken up to give access to the copper heating pipes that had eventually to get to the boiler room. We felt like we were living in a building site. We were living in a building site!
Patience and lack of any other option prevailed, time passed, and yesterday the central heating went live and tonight I am writing this in front of the gently crackling logs in the Jotul 373! I can say that it has been everything that I wanted and more. The ’fogolar’ room that was cold and mostly closed in the winter is warm and cosy. The stove consumes so little and produces so much heat that we keep it going all day. For the first time in our 17 years at La Faula the house has a general background of warmth.
So here I am, beside the ’fogolar’ writing this. Soon with a cup of hot milk I will go up to bed. Summer, of course, is a real pleasure, but winter, at La Faula, has for Luca and myself just got immeasurably better!
Well, I hope that you enjoyed the story of how La Faula ’warmed-up’.
We do wish you a Very Merry Christmas, that next year is a good one and we very much look forward to seeing you in August.
Very Best of Regards - Paul and Luca
This is the third and penultimate Christmas letter of 2012. It was sent to a family who come to La Faula as guests but who have become friends.
11 December 2012
... "Well, I’m sitting here closed in the kitchen. Luca is in his office doing his distance learning course on web-site programming. Outside the kitchen, the dining room is unmade with the tables in the middle of the room, the chairs and decorations removed outside and the furniture that remains covered in plastic dust sheets. As I guess that you will remember from my earlier diary entries, the central heating circuit on the ground floor had been leaking for some time. We never actually found out where the water was going but hearing the water pressure tank constantly re-filling when only Luca and I were in the house meant that either we had ghosts fond of taking long showers or there was a leak. We tracked the leak down as far as the ground-floor central heating and tomorrow the plumbers should come to remake the heating circuit. Of course they were due to come today but ... well .... you know .....!
Passing through from the dining room to the end room on the ground floor where there is the open fireplace, there the whole room is work-in-progress! Quite independently from the central heating I had managed to talk Luca into agreeing to having a wonderful glass-sided Norwegian wood-stove mounted in the old ´fogolar´ fireplace. Today the stove-installer and chimney-maker came and began by smashing up the centre of the old fireplace. He´s a good guy, very able and efficient but he was working with the doors open so the room got pretty cold, dust was everywhere. At moments like these the place certainly loses its cosiness and one can´t wait for the work to be over to put everything back in order! I am pleased though with the stove and I know that it is going to make La Faula much warmer and comfortable for us two old guys!
We are actually having a really nice winter in every respect. Autumn was warm, relaxing and peaceful. We have the right number of dinners out with friends for it to be enjoyable, but not excessive, and the rest of the time we enjoy being here with the dogs. Luca has sold a large shipment of wine to Japan and so I need to get packing and do some more wine-bottling. The great thing about winter, though, is that there is really no stress at all so it takes a lot of discipline to push oneself to get things done!
... Now, I do have to tell you that yet again, the [John Doe]’s have been - actually will have been - responsible for another cunning improvement at La Faula. This time my attention was drawn to the problem of the inflatable beds and animals in the pool area. After hearing about how your beds and animals were appropriated - or should I say misappropriated - I got to thinking what could be done about it. Then, after your stay, we had two families of Belgians, with lots of kids, and they took no chances with their inflatables, obviously having had problems in the past. These families, after each session in the pool, took all their inflatables up to their rooms (it drove Maritza mad having to try and clean around giant sharks, turtles and dolphins!).
So I have designed an elegant, strong-but-lightweight structure, of the style of the stainless steel towel rack, that will enable families to lock-away their inflatables near the pool area. I think this will be a winner and will bring order to the air-bed world!
Luca and I really appreciate your having sent us the Christmas pudding. It has not yet arrived so we will look forward to the postman´s visit with positive anticipation in these days (normally the postman only brings bills and suchlike so a scrummy pudding will make a welcome change!).
... I liked you comment on [X business] having some kids with special needs and some very challenging parents! Having one´s own small business is tough but at least one has the chance to learn from past experience and to modify things to try and make challenges less challenging! Every year when we close at the end of summer I take stock of what we could do to make things easier for us and for our guests. I find this the most satisfying part of what we do! In some ways challenging people can be the most satisfying - at least when you manage to content them - and you then know that at some future time if a similar situation should present itself you will probably be able to manage that without too much difficulty.
I will pass-on your good wishes and thoughts to the woman in the conversation class who lost her 16 year old son in an accident. It is a very brave thing that she is doing culturally to talk about this as in Italian culture misfortune is normally not disclosed. In fact the Italian word to describe misfortune is "disgrazie" or "disgrace" meaning away from God´s grace so it carries the connotation of being in some way responsible when bad things happen. Her 84 year old mother is also in the class and is appalled by her (adult) daughter´s openness but I encourage everyone to write what comes to mind without fear of censure. It is a good class and I do enjoy my one-and-a-half hours every Friday at the old Ravosa Primary School!"
What follows is the second of my Christmas 2012 letters; this one sent to an old friend in New Zealand after a period without contact. I have excerpted those parts relating to Luca and myself and La Faula.
11 December 2012
"... Winter is lovely here. Now we are only open six months of the year from March - September so the winter is time for the vineyard, wine-making and bottling and doing those things that we can’t get done in the summer. This year, 2012, was a good one for us. By now we have been going as a farm-stay properly since 2000 so we have built-up a bit of a clientèle plus we have some experience behind us. The Agriturismo is fun but tough as we have to work very hard in the peak months but then these autumn and winter months are just divine. I am a lazy fellow so I enjoy not being under any pressure at all!
Europe in general has problems with the Euro and Italy, in particular, is in dire straights. As most of our clientèle is foreign so far this hasn’t impacted on us much. But right now Italy is entering an unbelievably recessive (I would say depressive) phase so it is pretty uncertain what lies ahead. For sure Italy can’t stay in the Euro and I think that we are going to be living history here at La Faula for the next couple of years!
The wine side of the business goes pretty well, if not particularly profitably! Up until now we have done everything from growing the grapes thru making the wine then bottling it. Not knowing anything about this it was pretty tough for a long time and we learnt through a lot of error plus we spent money poorly on the wine-making side of the business. Our wines now are well received. We win awards and export to Japan but as the Agriturismo grows running the two businesses simultaneously becomes a real challenge, especially with us getting older and with increasing summertime temperatures ripening the grapes ever earlier and bringing the harvest date forward so that it conflicts with the season of the Agriturismo. Running a small business is just a succession of challenges, I guess if you don’t overcome them then you are either bankrupt or dead. If you are neither of these then you must have surmounted the previous challenges and so go on with a temporary feeling of satisfaction: temporary because the next "Oh no!" moment is already lined-up around the corner and just waiting to pop-out and hit you!
Luca is fairly happy at the moment. He finds living in Italy more of a struggle than I do. I very much like this part of the world and like the people in the village and the friends that I have made. Not to mention the great food and wine! Luca, obviously, is more ambivalent about being here (still). Italian society is not at all suffocating for foreigners - think of all the Brits and Americans who have come to live here over the years - but it is a very conformist society for the Italians. Being Italian, Luca is never completely free of this so his experience of being here is a bit different to mine.
Luca and I have for sure got older. The work though is pretty physical and so, although we suffer, as all farmers, from bad backs and creaking joints, overall I think that it is good for us.
A really important part of our life here has been our dogs. Once we had eight in total. Now we are down to four. Unfortunately dogs live short lives so recently we have have faced some moments of loss. Of course, they are only dogs but they are also our partners in the Agriturismo as many families come for them, so when one dies we feel the loss as a closing of a chapter in the great adventure that is our coming to La Faula!"
As Christmas comes around every year, it seems the moment when I have the time and inclination to write to friends. Sometimes it is to give thanks for a gift received, sometimes to renew an old friendship or nurture an existing one. As I know that some of you who read this blog are also friends, I thought that it could be nice also to share my news with you. If you were the recipient of this letter I hope that you won’t mind if I give the parts relating to life at La Faula a wider circulation!
30 November 2012
... Every morning I wake up to Radio 4 and the shipping forecast. Most mornings it seems that the UK is enveloped in rain and darkness and I guess that this can’t have been any help. I imagine that the current UK weather must be provoking real respiratory problems, it all seems so damp and humid!
Here we have been very lucky and have had a really nice and warm autumn. It has rained a bit but nothing exceptional. As I guess you know Tuscany and Puglia and many other regions have been very badly affected by flooding. I love the autumn and winter in Friuli - when warm that is - and so far it has all been to my liking! As you read in my blog, we lost our central heating circuit on the ground floor. As the boiler still heats other sections of the house this has not been such a disaster as it could have been if the weather had turned cold. The new radiators have, in any case. arrived and my guess is that they will be mounted next week so I am expecting a very cosy winter. We have also ordered a Norwegian wood-burning stove to insert into the traditional fireplace in the little room at the end of the house where you did a lot of your work. The stove has three glass sides and can be rotated so I am actually looking forward to being able to sit beside the fire in the evenings and do my computer work. Old age makes one realise that creature comforts are not to be deferred to "later" as "later" is more or less already here!
Italy has gone-off the cliff. It’s all over but no-one wants to say it (I write like one of those mad, paranoia-driven, American right-wing, conspiracy minded, wing-nuts!). Whether they say it or not, the game is up, time is called and Italy is on a quick ride to poverty. It is not unbelievable but what I do find unbelievable, in a way, is that it has happened and so quickly. When I wrote in my blog, upon the arrival of Monti, that this would be the result of his policies, my conclusions were the result of my intellectual understanding of economic cause and effect. Argument and reason can bring one to an intrinsically shocking conclusion but this doesn’t mean that one is personally shocked. But, I am shocked by what is going on around us at the moment. The economy has stopped in Friuli and the statistics indicate that this is the same, if not worse, in other parts of the country. The feeling that I have I compare to the feeling that German Jews must have had in the 1930’s - before the war - when they realised that the Nazis where serious about changing their role in society in ways that once would have been unthinkable. That a government of a Western Country would so deliberately - if ignorantly - destroy the last possible chance for its citizens to enjoy the lifestyle of a moderately prosperous developed economy defies belief. Italy is Zimbabwe.
Of course, the official line in Europe is that Monti has saved Italy. But this doesn’t make his evil any less real. It’s the real-deal Len! It is this Italian generation’s equivalent of the second world war. Thankfully there is no war to be had, so deaths will be avoided, but the social dislocation will be equally as great and Italy, from a much less illustrious base, will decline as inexorably as the Roman Empire, just with a super-enhanced velocity!
Moving-on, Luca is fine. Very relaxed at the moment. I must write and tell you all about the wine situation. It is, in fact, a very Italian story, but I should mention that we have just sold two large pallets of red wine to Japan at a good price. This is satisfying and in the next weeks I will be bottling more wine. Anyway, wine shall be for another night! ...
... picking up from yesterday:
One of the good things about writing a blog is that it gives one an audience to carry around in one’s head, a kind of angel on one’s shoulder, a point of reference to whom experiences, thoughts, ideas and reflections can be related, daily, even if not actually on the blog. As someone who has a busy internal life, it offers me the chance to objectify my view of the world, relate it as if on the blog, and not bore witless those around me who really couldn’t care less about my opinions or how I see the world! In Italy, this is virtually every Italian I know as they, themselves, were born with innate perfect knowledge and applying the self-evident truth that all the world is the same (as Italy) - tutto il mondo é paese - there is nothing that I can tell them that they don’t already know. But this is a digression into an old saw. What I really wanted to say was that in the last weeks one of the things that I wanted to blog about was that at La Faula we have reached the end of constructing things. We have one small modification that we want to make to two rooms (which imbecilic planning laws layered onto bureaucratic caution and inertia have blocked already for 3 months) but that’s it. Of course, we want to keep making incremental improvements to La Faula rendering it always more beautiful and attractive as a place to stay but the making is done. Now our challenge is to mentally move from the pleasure of new things to the grind of repairing things that break and maintaining that which we already have.
New things, of course, generally, don’t break so, like a new car, there was a period at La Faula when everything was spanking and we didn’t need to worry about searching out water leaks or worry about central heating pressures. But now the complexity that is La Faula means that repairs and maintenance are a serious business. If, like Superman, one could view La Faula with x-ray vision, just the pipework, drains, electricity plant and communications system would look like an overlapping, overlaying and tangled spaghetti. So many pipes and tubes and cables run under and around those tranquil and soothing gardens of Luca that surround the house that we have reached the stage where no more excavations can be made without risking damaging existing infrastructure.
When things break it is a hassle. Making something new brings pleasure. But the challenge for us is to find satisfaction in making right those things that are consumed and broken. Some things, such as solid wooden furniture, are often more beautiful when worn. Luca’s garden becomes ever more beautiful as the plants grow and it finds its own balance and harmony. And a house, like La Faula, if handled with respect can develop character as repairs and modifications alter the planned symmetry of the moment that it was made. In fact, La Faula has been made and remade many times. I think of La Faula as an old lady to whom we should not try to re add the patina of youth. Rather, when we intervene structurally or in the house’s plant and systems we should do this in a tasteful way recognising that we cannot go back to its beginning more than a century ago.
So it was that late last week we realised that we had a big leak in the central heating system and further research identified the leak as being in the circuit on the ground floor comprising the dining room and the adjacent room with the old Friulano fogolar hearth. Properly the part of the house that we heat with our new wood-burning boiler. Now, after some bad early experiences of Italian severe lack of foresight on the part of the first lot of artisans that worked on the house, I developed the habit of building redundancy into anything I can in the house that I am involved in. If we are putting down pipes I also lay empty tubes, big one’s, just in case tomorrow we may need them. If something functions with a pump I try to ensure that some minimum function will also be available if the pump packs it in. I put in inspection boxes just in case a drain should block. And I can only recount that I am constantly faced with "No don’t do that. If there’s a problem later you can address it then. Just put in what you need." And "Why would you duplicate work" or "A tube of 70mm diameter is enough, why put one of 90mm?" etc. But I work on the principle that if it ain’t broke but it is reasonably foreseeable that it will break tomorrow make sure you have a back-up. And in this case, some years ago I had our plumber bring down from the first floor to the dining room central heating piping to which we attached a fan assisted radiator to ensure that we had heating down below even if the ground-floor circuit failed to function. At the time we did this I think that both Luca and I knew that the old pipes running under the ground-floor tiles would one day disappoint us and so today, all those years later, that work, that at the time involved breaking the wall and creating dust and dirt and inconvenience, has finally paid off!
To remake the ground floor heating circuit we will not be breaking up the floor to lay new pipework. Rather, we have decided to run copper pipes externally on the wall immediately below the ceiling beams. In this way, old lady Faula will have a few more wrinkles but those that, one day, come after us to live in La Faula will stay warm down below sure that if something goes wrong they will know it instantly and they will be able to put it right with minimum fuss. An improvement, I’d say!
Since I wrote my last diary entry, I’ve finally understood the problems with the diary menu system. Since we changed the display of the diary entries earlier on this year, quite a number of people, guests and also locals, have told me that there were problems seeing the diary entries. Being mainly preoccupied with writing the entries, a quick whiz over the menus seemed to confirm that everything was alright. But Luca, who is doing a distance-learning course on web-design, has started digging into our website and to my horror he explained the problems with the menu system as it currently is. There is a technical problem in that diary entries for the months following March of this year are not displayed in the comprehensive month/year menu. There is another problem in that the diary page initially only displays diary entries for the current month, not the last entry made. So, for example, if my last diary entry was 31 October but we are already in November and, as yet, I haven’t made my first November entry, then the diary page, confusingly, will display a blank. Finally, the various arrows created only confusion and choosing the year was otiose.
We will put this right. But it does unsettle me that amongst all the information that we are constantly processing about our little business - from how the grapes are doing, when next to bottle the wine, how bookings are going, what improvements and maintenance we should conduct this winter, a myriad of things, the information that there was a problem with part of the website was heard and understood by me but didn’t trigger the correct response which would have been to try and understand the problem. Rather, it stayed there on my radar as something registered but parked.
This problem with the diary section of the website has an analogous one with our central heating system. Last year after a long and cold wait, we finally had fitted a wonderful, efficient, wood-burning boiler. For the period of last winter that we had it, it performed stunningly: the part of the house where Luca and I live was warm and cosy. Being an Agriturismo, with many rooms and bathrooms, we have a rather complex boiler-room and the level of complexity was increased by permitting the wood-fueled boiler to access part of the general heating system to allow us to heat our rooms and Luca’s office. Now, the Agriturismo is closed in winter so at least we don’t need to worry that problems with the central heating system are leaving guests cold! But I noticed last winter that there were large swings in the pressure registered in the central heating system. Pipes would feel warm to the touch when warm water should never have been able to push into them. It was all very peculiar but there were no obvious leaks so I studied the plumbing diagram in the wood-fuel boiler instruction manual and found that our plumber had not fitted an expansion tank as required. When asked about this he said that it wasn’t strictly necessary as the volume of water in the central heating plant was small so even an increase in the water’s volume as it heated would not result in much of an increase in the internal pressure of the plant. It was all a bit strange and there seemed to be no obvious explanation for the anomalies in the central heating plant but there were no water leaks that we could see and so we finished the winter, cleaned the boiler, closed the stop-cocks and completely forgot about central heating as we sweltered through a summer that was 2°C higher than the mean!
Last week it seemed that the time to light the wood-fuel boiler had arrived. Although not so cold, we’ve had some rain so a wood fire is just the thing to keep one feeling cosy. I opened the stop-cocks to the central heating system, fired-up the boiler with good dry timber and sat back to enjoy the experience! But I couldn’t enjoy the experience. The boiler worked fine but the pressure of the central heating system was too low and stayed low, there were large pressure swings and hot water would force its way back into radiators that should have been full of cold water. And worse, the pressure pump that ensures that everyone gets good showers in the summer, even when the house is full, would suddenly kick-in when no water should have been running! For sure there was something wrong but the strange thing was that there were no obvious leaks in the house. More calls followed to our harried trusty-plumber. Now, if you say that your dining room is awash with water and you could traverse it with a dinghy a plumber, any plumber, will assume that you have a plumbing problem and respond with alacrity. But if you disturb him or her bent double behind pipework trying to get an oversized wrench around a rusty and locked pipe, and you whine that there is not actually anything concrete like water spurting Niagara-like from a broken pipe but you just have a feeling based on the pressure differentials between when the central heating plant is hot and cold and, well, some pipes get warm when they should be cold, then the plumber will conclude that you are likely to be a hallucinating neurotic and will invent some story, any story, to reassure you that the problem is a minor one, completely normal, and easily remedied by the most simple of morons.
"Have you checked the pressure of the expansion tanks in the principal central heating circuit?" asked the plumber
"Actually, no" I replied "Should I have?"
"Certainly" said the plumber. The air behind the membrane should be at 1.5 bar. And you need to pump them up occasionally"
"You do? Really" I said wondering why you would need to pump up the air cushion in the expansion tanks if the air couldn’t go anywhere being closed inside the cushion membrane.
"Certainly" said the plumber. "And the membranes break. Yes, they break often."
"Oh" I said quite taken aback. Nobody had ever told me that I had to regularly take the pressure of the expansion tank membranes. It seemed that it was all my fault. And they might even be broken and thus not doing the job and who knew what damage this could have provoked, all because I hadn’t kept those expansion tanks maintained!
"Don’t you worry" said the plumber. "Pump-up the tanks and I’m sure that you will find that all the problems solve themselves."
"And take a valium and don’t call me again with spurious concerns" I thought I heard the plumber say but maybe I just imagined it.
Following the plumber’s advice, Luca and I nearly wrecked our backs dragging down the air compressor from the workshop. Little air-compressor wheels don’t run well over coarse gravel put down to resist the passage of tractors. As the plumber had promised, I found that the expansion tanks were without pressure and so I brought them up to 1.5 bar, precisely, as I had been instructed to do. But I had no sooner screwed the plastic cap back on the valves (there are two tanks) but I saw that the plant pressure had dropped back down again to almost nothing. Then I knew, without a doubt, that we had a leak in the central heating system somewhere in the house and it was a big one.
to be continued ......
p.s. writing this was a pleasure on my new Samsung Chromebook sitting in our cosy kitchen listening to the rain driving down on the last of the leaves still appended to the grape vines straddling the pergola outside. It did take me a bit longer because in getting used to the spell-checker I did find that it has a tendency to deal with mis-spellings by eliminating whole sentences but by now I know that no sentence of mine is so good that it is an irreplaceable jewel and so, consequently, a sentence lost is not a sentence mourned!