Luca and Myself want to Wish You All A Very Happy New Year. Luck plays a great part in life so let us hope, all of us, to be lucky!
Being New Year's Eve, many in Ravosa and Magredis will be remembering Daniela. The following piece, translated from the original Italian, is for the relatives in Australia who follow this site:
Dear Mother, Dear Wife, Dear Sister, Dear Friend Daniela,
Since you've gone, we feel a terrible void. Slowly, we are trying to fill it with all the large and small gifts you left for us. Through your actions and sense of purpose, without ever a need for lengthy words or discourses, you deeply touched our hearts and left us a precious heritage. You bestowed on us your all embracing love for life, your ability to live every present moment with intensity and joy, as if it was the last. You bestowed on us your unselfish and caring regard for others like on those times you looked after Grandmother Maria, Grandmother Gerina and Aunt Elvira. You bestowed on us your great strength and perseverance in confronting your illness over the past years. You bestowed on us your great dignity as you undertook lengthy therapies without discouragement, always fighting on the front line. You bestowed on us the hard work, honesty and passion you put in bringing up your family and in attending to your businesses, through which you endeared yourself to so many people from the villages of Magredis, Ravosa and Attimis. You bestowed on us your friendly, easy-going, sincere manners and your ability to mix with others conveying gayness and harmony. Now, our love towards you has found greater depth as we remember your last months.
The illness has won over. Yet, you appeared purified and your spirit, more deep-rooted than ever in Faith, showed itself through an even gentler smile and a loving and motherly gaze. This is the image of yours that everyone of us and everyone who came to your bedside will carry in their hearts and no passing of time will be able to blur out.
Thank you Daniela,
From your large family,
Your husband Gino, your children Carol and Luca, you sisters and brothers, all your relatives and friends.
As promised, our problematic relationship with e-mail .....
At the beginning of the internet age many small web-hosting firms sprung up. They were in many ways experimental. Open programming languages such as php were newborn and were unstable. But e-mail was established and as more, millions more, people connected to the internet their first port of call was e-mail. It was simple and many were used to using it at work. This explosion of private users created fertile ground, first for malicious virus creators and then for scammers. And the relationship between valid e-mails and dangerous one's tilted decisively in favour of the latter. In this time there was no broadband at La Faula and no webmail. It was disheartening to spend so much time and money downloading pieces of software code designed to damage one's computer and e-mails promising fictitious bodily enhancements. As the problem grew so the web-hosters sought solutions and there was a fertile market in experimental filters to block bad e-mails at the server level.
Sometimes, our e-mails would cease to arrive altogether. One particularly defective and destructive filter was called 'SpamCop' which was the cyberspace equivalent of an out-of-control Dirty Harry on speed! It killed everything. When I called our agency, in classic Italian style I was reassured and told not to worry as it happened to everyone. But the problem was our bookings arrived, at that time by e-mail!
I decided that we had to get away from e-mail and so I designed a message system for our web-site. At the beginning it was very difficult for people to use. The concept of registering with a website was new and people didn't like (actually they hated) doing it. Before the spread of e-commerce computer privacy filters were set too high and wouldn't accept the validation cookies at the base of all these systems so it wouldn't work. Plus the software code itself was unstable and web hosting firms were not so adept at providing high and reliable levels of service. Many times I asked myself whether it was worth persevering with the system and one thing kept me going. We noticed that the people who booked using our message system were the most wonderful guests. They were, obviously, open to new things and not afraid of technology. They were able to appreciate what we were doing and liked it. And they were gracious and cooperative people by nature. This had shown itself in the fact that when invited to use our message system, they did. And in person they were the same; open, generous, cooperative, helpful and good company. It's a fact!
As time went on the software became stable, registering went through one stage when it didn't seem so bad but then another stage when it seemed a real pain because of the plethora of nicknames and passwords one was required to have (but have you noticed that this is much less of a problem now - the software takes care of it). It was good for us because people, just by the act of registering to ask for information, had invested that little effort which meant that it was worth investing in creating an appropriate reply. E-mail on the other hand was maddening because the same e-mail asking for availability and prices could be bulk sent to every Agriturismo in Italy (and was often sent to every Agriturismo in Friuli). Professionalism required one to spend time and effort on the reply notwithstanding an awareness that the odds of a booking resulting were minuscule.
So we went through a period of equilibrium as far as communications with La Faula were concerned. It was during this period the travel guides went into decline and the first valid web portals for Agriturismi began to emerge from the jumble of wanna-be, aspiring and fraudulent. At the beginning an aspiring web portal would send an e-mail with a proposal to include one's own Agriturismo for €500 a year (it's always around €500 - this must 'feel' like the right amount - or at least it is the amount people are prepared to pay). The challenge was in knowing whether the portal was the real thing or whether, even if it was, it would draw sufficient critical mass to display high on Google's listings.
There were a number of attempts to rip us off. I don't know if this is common in other countries but in Italy the scam-or semi-scam is a way of life for some, maybe for too many for the good of the economy. A particular problem here is the legal scam exploiting the primitive, ill-thought-out and venal nature of Italy's laws and legal system. One certainly has to be hyper-alert here. Eventually one portal seemed to have emerged from the mass - www.agriturismo.it - and so we got ourselves on it. And so it was that e-mail has inveigled its way back into our lives! Once people have registered with the portal it seems just to use the communication system within which, by necessity, is e-mail.
The trouble is that e-mail has come back into La Faula just at the point where we can really improve the quality of Guest experience by using the website and database and improve significantly our productivity.
For example, since we began as an Agriturismo we have had many families with children as guests. A constant problem has been to get right the sleeping accommodation for children; cot, what type, child's bed or normal bed, sides or not? This July we solved it by sending booked guests a link to a web-page where they could see what we have and could make the best selection for them. These selections were automatically sorted by date and room and enabled us to have the right things ready at the right time. No more running around at the last minute swapping a travel cot for a wooden cot, or a regular bed with sides for a child's bed!
This year we began up-dating our recipes list to make it accurately reflect what we serve at La Faula. This year we will send booked guests a link to a web page where they will be able to express their preferences (and anti-preferences!). These will be sorted by week number and give us a broad menù week by week. In a way that we could never have done before, we will be able to incorporate guest preferences into the dining experience. Likewise, we have other ideas planned to use this kind of system.
And this kind of brings me back to the key role that guest cooperation can play in improving La Faula for everyone. If somebody registers and follows the website for their interactions with us it shows a high level of innate cooperativeness, a willingness to trust that our system exists for a purpose and a preparedness to go along for the ride. Of course, this doesn't mean that those who prefer to use e-mail are not those things too! But it does mean that they potentially deprive themselves of a better experience and, more importantly, by not incorporating their input lessen the representativeness of the outcomes. That’s what one could call a sub-optimal result!
Today I spent a large part of the day working on our Google AdWords account. Most small businesses must use Google AdWords. It permits one to bid a sum of money for certain keywords which, when typed by a Googler, will allow a small advertisement to pop-up on the results page. It is an auction and in bidding money i.e. buying the right to have one's little add displayed, one is bidding against everyone else that wants to have their own little ad pop-up on the Google results page. It is infernal. Google offers every online assistance to refine and focus and make one's adds better. But for everyone. So as one refines and - inevitably bids more for the keywords - one pushes someone elses advertisement down the ranking and, maybe, off the page. Of course, there are hundreds, thousands and millions doing this so soon the complement is returned and one's own advertisement stops displaying.
Now, the truth about me is that I am completely undisciplined and more than a bit lazy. I should review our Google account regularly to see which keywords are still 'mine' and those which I have lost as they have been bidded more for by someone else. But I don't. Actually I do it once a year. This time Luca prompted me by observing that our credit card had no more Google debits but rather a lot of iTunes billing and he wasn't sure if this was such a good state of affairs. Well, the La Faula music collection is now superb. Every winter evening after listening to BBC Radio 4 over dinner -PM with Eddie Mair is wonderful - in fact Radio 4 is completely wonderful - I move to the computer and work away while the music streams from our Netgear ReadyNAS device.
But I digress, I started with Google AdWords in 1985 and it has sure developed a lot since then. When I started, our advertisement would display when I bidded as little as 5 cents. Today I arrived at €1 per click for certain key keywords. inevitably as more Agriturismi enter the market, as more Agriturismi use AdWords, the price of important keywords climbs.
When we started here in 1997 one simply got selected for two or three key guidebooks and then waited for the telephone to ring. Now we don't even have a telephone (would you if your home was connected to a 30-year old analogue exchange - good old Telecom Italia!). Fax was the big deal for confirming bookings. For a lazy old person like myself this was a perfect state of affairs. Getting into the guides was the result of luck and application. But for a little Agriturismo there was nothing else to do. Now, however, the internet offers every small business the possibility to reach out to the world via a website. And a website is no good if no-one sees it. So it is really important to master AdWords but to do that there are so many decisions, so specialised, and so far away from the normal humdrum of running an Agriturismo. But they are just as much part of running an Agriturismo as anything else.
Coming to our website. We made a conscious decision quite early on that it would be based on a lot of our own-generated content. We noticed that before most people used internet they would come to La Faula based on the preconceptions that they brought to our little advertisement in the guidebook. Some people knew what they wanted; space, sun, countryside, dogs, animals. But everytime someone arrived at the door and said is this 'Albergo La Faula' our heart would sink. We are not a hotel. We want to be more than a hotel. Our lowest point was when a group of air-hostesses (can one still use the term?) came for a birthday party weekend at La Faula and tried to rise-up to the house from the gravel-covered carpark on high heels! In those days there was even less gravel and the pointy part of the heel would jam in the earth between the stones leaving their shoes behind while they staggered around like some demented flock of Cinderellas!!
Our very first website was a static affair created by a graphic agency. Of course, it had photos of our enormous Maremanno sheepdogs, Minnie, Spotty and Barty. In addition, on the last pages there was a photo of Luca and myself. A rather disturbingly large number of Italians (a fact) reached the conclusion that Luca and I managed the human guest hospitality and that Minnie, Spotty and Barty managed the canine hospitality. So they would turn-up for a confirmed booking with their - he's so well behaved - little 'bobbie' (the Italian pet-name for a pet dog). Of course, being sheepdogs of the protective type, our dogs' idea of hospitality was to rip the interloper to pieces from nose to tail. The guest dog, thus at risk of life and tail would end up cowering inside (and peeing with fear) while our dogs, wolfishly, - and thuggishly, it has to be said -prowled outside.
Tomorrow, as I'm on a roll, I'll move on to e-mail, why we got rid of it, how it forced itself back through the door, and why using the La Faula messaging system instead of e-mail results in a better holiday for everyone (that's a tall order!). Then, if I’ve got any stamina left, I’ll turn to Facebook, and why we struggle to use it.
In the meantime if you go to http://www.faula.com/stats.php you will see just how helpful Google is to get people to your website. Of course, the trick then is that they book!!
LINKS TO RECENT FOREIGN PRESS REPORTS
This year I read 'Italy's Sorrow: A Year of War 1944-45' by James Holland. The Allied Troops who battled their way up the Italian peninsular were enormously advantaged in materiel, especially tanks, lorries, and self-propelled guns. But they were almost of no use. The Italian winters can be fierce and rain and mud turn the clay into a viscous, tenacious, sticky glue. Vehicles, even tracked vehicles struggle to move. As I read numerous retellings of troops and vehicles mired down and unable to move my mind flicked to La Faula and I thought about our own vineyard, etched from the steep slopes of a hill and carved from a clay, unyielding as cement when dry and grabingly tendrilous when wet.
I remembered the times one tractor has had to pull out another, of tractors sliding sideways in a row of vines until stopped by poles and wires. I remembered the times, while replanting vines, that the clay built-up so firm under the bulldozer that it was stranded and sliding sideways. These problems, of course, are only an inconvenience. Provided it doesn't roll a tractor that slides will eventually come to a halt, leaving deep furrows in the mire to mark its passage.
So today Luca went into the vineyard to begin ripping between the lines of grape vines. The 'ripper' is a large blade, around 1 meter long which once it enters the ground slices vertically while being pulled forward. At the base of the cutting blade is a bow towing a plug; the bow raises up the ground while the plug creates a tube in the clay. The effect of 'ripping is to open up the soil, permit the air in to encourage life and create drainage channels to take the water away.
In such a challenging environment one proceeds into the vineyard knowing that there is always the risk of damage. That one is working on a hill adds the risk of roll-over, something every farmer wants to avoid. Modern tractors roll-over. But the event should be survivable provided one remembers in the stress of the moment the right actions to take.
Working with powerful machinery in dangerous situations is common enough but when you are the one doing it, and something starts to go wrong, in that instant there won't be anybody to get you out of it. In that moment it is up to you, and you alone. Of course, once the situation has stabilised, and you have switched-off the tractor and exited from it you will feel great relief. But then you will see that the tractor is still there and you know that it will be you to re-enter it, turn it on and begin implementing your plan to retrieve the situation. One just can't leave tractors abandoned on hills when one encounters a sticky situation!
So it was that today I was behind the house splitting wood. A golfer came up to chat and as we were speaking I was watching Luca's tractor ripping on the hill. Everything was proceeding fine when instantly, but smoothly, the front, wheels still straight ahead, swung to the left towards the vines and ultimately the drop to the next terrace. There was no special noise. It just happened. And then the noise of the tractor stopped and everything was still. I cursed. When one is a farmer, every difficulty avoided is a blessing, every difficulty visited a weight.
We passed a super Christmas. Traditionally, in Italy, Christmas eve is very important with people going to mass and then going to a local restaurant to eat tripe. Afterwards, when they get home presents are exchanged. The following day, Christmas Day, after a good lie-in (that is except for those who are doing the cooking!) everyone sets in for a wonderful, and long, Christmas lunch. It was like this for us (except that we skipped the mass).
On Friday night we went to our local trattoria Ai Cons. Luca had had a craving to eat tripe cooked by Elda, the co-owner and cook, for months. The idea turned my stomach - eating tripe, that is - so I settled for a scrumptious plate of venison stew with polenta (actually two plates, becuse if you like a course at the Ai Cons they are very likely to give one seconds!).
The Ai Cons was bright and warm with happy Christmas lights. Various people from the village were there also to eat or simply to stop by and have a drink in company. It was really nice. We were of course all old. Italy is ageing at a tremendous rate. Young 'indigenous Italians are quite rare; it is the foreign immigrants who are having the children here. Most of the families eating dinner consisted of three generations: people in their 70's and 80's, their children in their 40's and 50's and their children in their late teens. The demographic pyramid was completely inverted: the people in their 70's and 80's were numerous, grandparents, unmarried sisters and brothers, cousins; the people in their 40's and 50's many less and then just a sprinkling of teenagers! It was a joy to see these big families together, and a joy for Alcide, husband of Elda and co-owner of the Ai Cons, as the older people are paying for everyone else in these times!
Christmas day we went to Luca's mum and dads' for lunch. Luca's mum is a great cook, the wine was French and very fine. Luca's sister and her husband had gone to spend Christmas in their house in Spain so we were joined for lunch by Luca's niece and nephew. Luca's parents have been well treated by fate, fortune and Italy and so they always find me a bit of a grumbling stone-in-the-shoe constantly prophesying hell and damnation for Italy. Luca's niece and nephew are actually Spanish but have been in Italy for a long time. They are very polite and have always been the epitome of discretion and good-company at family get-togethers (plus they dress well which is also very nice).
Here I must temporarily digress. Early Friday evening one of our neighbours dropped by to purchase some wine. He follows our website and this blog
'Oh' , he said
'Your Blog has become so critical - all that writing concerning Berlusconi!'
'You've pulled out all the stops!'
'It's true' I said
'Now I just write about it as it is!'
But what I wasn't expecting was what happened at the family Christmas lunch. Luca's niece is just finishing her PhD Thesis. While we were having lunch she remarked during conversation to Luca and myself in a matter-of-fact way that our generation had consumed everything and that while she could accept not getting a pension what she couldn't accept was that there aren't any jobs for graduates.
Of course I demurred at the idea that Luca and I had consumed everything (apart from anything else I'm a foreigner and Luca only returned in 1995) and suggested that she look instead at the generation of her grandparents. I pointed out that we were the only people in the family working in the private sector and it seemed rather a lot to expect our taxes to cover eight people, including ourselves.
Of course, Luca's parents bridled at the suggestion that they had consumed everything, that must have been the others, and as no-one could take responsibility Luca's niece was left with her problem.
Now, of course, Luca's niece is a very able person who will have no problems creating a fine career for herself, if not in Italy, then outside. But in the end, the old people paying for the young will not satisfy the aspirations of youth to build their own lives. Before Christmas the violence in Rome by young - very young - people was extensively covered by the press, here and abroad. Nobody in Italy is taking responsibility for this situation, no politician here is prepared to countenance a shift in resources from the older to the younger. The young have not been cut adrift. Rather they are being towed behind and slowly they are pulling themselves towards the Old People's Express. When they board it times will be interesting indeed.
Luca and Myself Wish You All a Very Merry Christmas!
If you have been to stay at La Faula you will know that we have many guests from the United Kingdom. Having lived in England for 9 years I was always struck by the feeling commonly found in a strata of English people that things are always somehow better on the Continent'. After Thatcher many English people felt that the Continentals with their work protection, short working hours, longs holidays, not to mention better trains, had somehow discovered the secret of earthly paradise. When sunshine and wonderful food are factored in the effect is sublime.
Now that the UK is struggling with snow and cold the normal English breast-beating has again surfaced. 'Why', some (actually more than some) ask, 'can we in the UK never manage to cope well with heavy winters while, on the Continent, life carries on as usual'? Well actually the reality is that here in Italy the motorways got blocked too and people spent nights (and days) stuck in their cars. But at least the Italian media can console themselves with the fact that The UK is managing worse because their airports stopped working! But today the Bank of Italy released some statistics that should make one pause before readily accepting that the Mediterranean (or at least the Italian) way: populism, spending money to spread it around, going into massive debt to keep everyone happy and avoid reforms that would undermine 'social cohesion' is somehow superior, in social equity terms, to the vicious free market anglo-saxon model.
The Bank of Italy reported that at the end of 2008, 45% of the total wealth of Italian families was held only 10% of those families. Fully one-half of Italian families hold only 10% of the total wealth of Italian families. As the Bank of Italy stated 'many families keep modest means or lack wealth meanwhile at the opposite end few hold enormous wealth [Molte famiglie detengono livelli modesti o nulli di ricchezza mentre all'opposto poche dispongono di una ricchezza elevata - http://www.rainews24.rai.it/it/news.php?newsid=148508].
And another little shocking piece of information. ENI is effectively a monopoly gas provider in Italy. It is 30% owned by the Italian State [http://www.eni.com/en_IT/investor-relation/eni-stock-markets/shareholders/relevant-partecipation/relevant-partecipation.shtml]. It has been deeply involved with Gasprom and Russian gas pipeline plans. Wikileaks leaks of US diplomatic cables evinced US concern that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was profiting personally from these arrangements and to this end was leveraging his strong personal relationship with Vladimir Putin. This very night it has been announced that ENI is under investigation for evasion of gas excise duties to the sum of €1.7 billion. I guess what the government doesn't take as tax it gets as a dividend!!
The series of photos for 18 December 2010 were taken in an old Friulano cow stall forgotten by time. The farmer is an old lady. She grew up on the farm with her mother and father and brothers and sisters. She never married and found herself running the farm and looking after her ailing father. Now she is alone on the farm. She was extremely reluctant to have us photograph, ashamed and embarrassed at the mess and obvious poverty.
But the farm buildings showed signs of past affluence. Elaborate and extensive iron-work. Alterations and works - seemingly all from the 1960's. But now the lady runs the farm by herself. Alone, it is too much for her. The cows are milking cows. She milks alone every day and night of the year and brings the milk in churns to the dairy at Ravosa where it is made into cheese. The lady probably isn't personally poor, small farms in Italy still provide a living. But the farm is poor. Alone she and the farm are winding down. Continuing on past momentum until that too eventually finishes.
The farm is interesting because the cow stall is pretty much as once upon a time and as the cow stall at La Faula was.
LATEST NEWS LINKS:
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f29f3a5c-0a18-11e0-9bb4-00144feabdc0.html#axzz18UmvMtum (you will need to register to read Financial Times Articles. It is free, easy and worth it)
During the day, especially while working in the vineyard, many topics come to mind for this diary. After dinner, having decided what I want to write about, I put the music on low, stretch my legs out under the computer table and start writing. It does require some effort and I don't want it to eat-up my whole evening so when the flow comes to a natural stop I finish it there.
This afternoon we were in the vineyard pulling out broken and consumed poles and pressing down their replacements. What I wrote last night drifted into my mind and suddenly I thought 'At 50, after 15 years putting-up with that fogolar, why should I any more?' Of course, the attraction of the fogolar as it is now is that one can experience passing time around the hearth as in past times. But these are not past times. While talking about the fogolar, our neighbour Alcide told me that when one went into the old houses many years ago, the cooking room - where the fogolar was - was always black from soot and smoke and smelt of 'stiz (burnt embers - in Friulano 'Ciapá di Stiz'). What comes to mind is the image of the old lady who cooked the grill on the fogolar at the restaurant La Rochet. After decades being hunched under the fogolar hood she was almost bent double. It is moreover not hard to imagine that the fogolar was the cause also of ill-health, especially for the women, caused by constant exposure to smoke and combusted gases.
In any case, quaint as it may seem now, it is perhaps ridiculous to venerate an element of past life that was anything but naif and that was a symptom of poverty and which did nothing but inefficiently consume large amounts of wood for little in return and which just laid one other weight, among many, on the backs of a burdened and weakened people.
I think that one day we are going to place a nice, glass-sided wood stove, in the fogolar and my winters emulating old Friulani heating habits will be finished!
LATEST FOREIGN PRESS - 17 Dec 2010
A little while ago I wrote that at a lunch with some of the villagers I was asked what I was writing about life here in Ravosa. Previously, I always imagined that I was writing to you who have been to La Faula and who, in addition to 'the holiday', are interested in 'the rest' (or at least some of it!!). But it turns out that I was also writing for those who had emigrated from Magredis-Ravosa - in fact, for their children. Since mentioning that the La Faula website is a little, partial, window on life in Ravosa, others have messaged and, in fact, I am writing for Friulani in Mexico, Canada, The Untied States and, of course, Australia! When we factor this into the webstats for our site, and add visits from friends, relatives and friends of La Faula we start to wonder if anyone actually finds and visits the site for the first time - for the sake of our business let's hope so!
So it is with some pleasure that I load this evening the photos from last night when we had some local friends to dinner and to pass some time around the traditional Friulano open fire, the fogolar. Of the people in the photo, two were emigrants in the 1950's but later returned to Ravosa. One went to North Queensland to cut sugar cane and the other to Rhodesia to eventually become a mine overseer. Italian culture is still rather blokey so there was only one woman to leaven the male mix.
As I mentioned, the fireplace we were sitting around is known in Friulano as a 'fogolar'. It is the poorest and most miserable way to harness fire, effectively being an open fire in the middle of the room with a hood suspended from the ceiling and a side-exiting chimney. The poverty in Friuli was so great until (and sometimes after) the 1930's that ordinary people couldn't afford to have stoves containing metal parts. A fogolar is a real pain. The diameter of the chimney has to be large or the room fills up with smoke - in fact it often does anyway - so unless the fire is continuously lit or the chimney is closed the constant flow of air up and out cools the whole house down. The chimney closing mechanism on our fogolar consists of a badly-cut piece of light iron plate which one kind of pushes into the chimney hole hoping, at the same time, not to damage the chimney rendering thereby inviting a house fire! Obviously not wanting to force the plate, one then risks that the plate simply falls flat inside the chimney on a windy night and so the room becomes a kind of fridge until one climbs again into the fire hood and repeats the process.
As everywhere, when one goes out to dinner in Ravosa it is normal to bring a gift. Yesterday afternoon we were up on the hill working in the vineyard and we saw our neighbour's white Suzuki 4x4 arrive. He had come to deliver an enormous mulberry tree stump. Until the late 1950's most farming in Friuli was subsistence farming. The challenge for the farmers was to find some activity that was capable of producing cash. The way they did this was to produce silk for Venice. The silk worm lives on the leaves of the mulberry tree. So the Friulani fields were hedged with coppiced mulberry trees. The farmers would have a large room in the house with thousands of silk worms. The leaves were layered on wire-woven wooden frames, rather like bedframes but bigger. The women would harvest the branches with the leaves and the children would look after the worms and harvest the cocoons (I must find out more about this). It was only two years ago that we eventually decided that we could no longer justify storing the frames that were at La Faula and we cut them up. At the time, and still, it seemed like an act of cultural vandalism. It still sits uneasy with me.
So it is that as the farmers increase the size of their fields for more efficient production they remove the mulberry trees including the stumps. Most farmers have a pile of mulberry stumps somewhere piled-up on the farm. The stumps are very difficult to cut with a normal (i.e. farmer's, not woodsman's) chainsaw so they tend to get lumped on the fogolar whole. So yesterday evening, although with some - no, more than some - doubts, Luca and I loaded the stump onto the grate of the fogolar. I made a little nest of kindling around it and set it alight. Well, the reason that the fogolar went out of fashion is that apart from the fact that it can reduce one's house to a fridge, it can also threaten to burn the house down and then smoke all living things out of it!
The kindling took and the flames wrapped themselves around the dry mulberry stump which began to glow and give off light blue flames. The flames increased and soon were roaring up the chimney. The chimney sits against tinder-dry wooden beams, the hood has a wooden surround and a nice edging of fabric. Being a bit of a sissy I always hate the beginning of getting the fogolar going. Probably the only thing worse is when atmospheric conditions mean that the chimney doesn't draw so the fire doesn't take and the room just fills up with smoke. Anyway, last night was high-pressure so soon the trunk was glowing amidst the flames like some infernal creature. I wondered to myself what mess the fire extinguishers would make if I was forced to use them. At the same time the enormous size of the trunk meant that even though it was burning cleanly and rapidly, the fierceness of the reaction was producing more heated air and smoke than could be drawn-up the chimney. The room inevitably filled-up with smoke. I then opened all the doors and windows. Of course the room stayed warm but it does seem bizarre to try and warm a room by creating a fire that requires all the windows and doors open!
By this point I was supposed to be preparing the lasagna and the apple crumble!! Unwilling to leave the room to the fire I was forced to sit and hope for the best and pray that the stump would soon reduce to gently smouldering embers!
ITALY UPDATE: According to Confindustria, the Industrialists Federation, since the beginning of 2008 Italy has number of employed has fallen by 540,000 not counting the 480,000 who are being paid to stay home and not work by the State. Economic growth for the next two years is forecast to be weak with unemployment continuing to climb. http://www.rainews24.rai.it/it/news.php?newsid=148388 Considering how few work in Italy (see the post for 20 November 2010) apart from the issue of who is to pay the public debt the question must arise as to who is to pay for the Dolce Vita?
LINKS TO RECENT FOREIGN PRESS REPORTS
14 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11995277
14 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11996551
14 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11992034
14 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11994321
14 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/gavinhewitt/2010/12/berlusconi_survives_storm.html
14 Dec 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/15/world/europe/15italy.html?hp
Today Silvio Berlusconi narrowly survived a no-confidence vote in the upper and lower Houses of Parliament. In the streets of Rome and other major Italian cities there were protests, sometimes erupting into violence, by students and other young people.
But what does this mean? Absolutely nothing. Italy is a country governed by old people, run solely for themselves and their own pleasure. Of those who might care about this state of affairs, the various Police & Paramilitary Forces and the weight of the State squeeze all but those with nothing to lose into inaction. A democracy it isn't. One votes for a party and the party leader chooses those who sit in the parliament. The party that gains the most votes obtains an automatic majority in parliament irrespective of the actual number of votes it receives. Most Italians consider Italy to be a democracy. Generally, the people are ill-educated ( http://www.pisa.oecd.org/dataoecd/54/12/46643496.pdf ), lack capacity in foreign languages and are by nature insular. The Italians, collectively, find themselves every time misjudging great moments of change in human society. Now they have to affront a world changed by advanced technology, by the internet and by the need for the State to remove itself from those spheres where the private is more efficient and productive than the public. Italy can not and will not manage this challenge.
The latest Bank of Italy statistics show that only for the month of October the public debt reach a new record increasing by €22.6 billion. From October 2009 until October 2010 the public debt increased €62,857 billion - €87.25 billion per month. The public debt stands at €31,123 for every single inhabitant in Italy ( http://www.rainews24.rai.it/it/news.php?newsid=148318 ). The Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti, is roundly praised by commentators for his prudent handling of the public finances.
LINKS TO RECENT FOREIGN PRESS REPORTS
13 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11980275
13 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11982228
13 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/thereporters/gavinhewitt/2010/12/berlusconis_last_days.html
13 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11981740
13 Dec 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/14/world/europe/14italy.html
Note: To view 17 free Financial Times articles every 30 days it is necessary to register - it is worth it - the articles on Italy are superb!
FOREIGN NEWS ON ITALY:
11 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11963648
9 Dec 2010 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11938665
20 Nov 2010 http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/programmes/from_our_own_correspondent/9209907.stm
10 Dec 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/arts/music/11scala.html?hp
3 Dec 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/03/world/europe/03italy.html?ref=italy
1 Aug 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/01/business/global/01italy.html
Before I continue recounting the affairs of meeting between 'interested citizens of Povoletto' and the tourist consortium 'Dolce Nord-Est' I must rather sheepishly apologise for the difficulty in following the diary entries in the website. After my observing in my yesterday's blog my recent loquacity I received a call today from a wonderful woman (she really is, I'm not just saying it!) who sweetly told me that as a frequent guest to La Faula she often visited our website but had found finding previous diary entries on 'La Faula Today' a real trial, if not down-right frustrating. That neither the diary entries nor her visits to the site followed a regular pattern meant that it was extremely difficult finding previous diary entries, especially those over one month old.
Intrigued, shocked even, I tried it out myself and discovered that the lady was right. The system that we had implemented to allow browsing of previous photos and blogs was completely hit and miss and was too uncertain. We will, of course, put it right, one of our motto's (nabbed from the advertisements of LV Martin & Sons, Lambton Quay, Wellington, New Zealand in the 1970's) is 'If it's not right, we'll put it right' (see a version for the 21st century at http://www.lvmartin.co.nz/public/aboutus/advantage.aspx ). It did remind me, though just how our website has grown. The precursor to this site was created in 1997 (you can visit it at http://users.libero.it/faula/ ).
I started my Diary on the 18th of July 2001 (see http://www.faula.com/news.php?start=10 ). The diary was a fitful affair as I never found the right 'voice', always being torn between the desire to speak, as if among friends, frankly and openly, and the necessity to use the website as a marketing tool. Many aspects of life at La Faula aren't relevant to having a holiday here. They become interesting, of course, to people who have been coming here for years and who enjoy knowing more about our experiences than those that they can see during their stay. It is this fact and the reality that we now have a confidence in the Agriturismo born of experience that we lacked at the beginning. In 2001 all was to play for. We had just finished remodelling the house. Hospitality was a new thing for Luca and I. We had no idea how it would go or who our guests would be.
Of course now we know not only who many of our guests will be but, for those coming for the first time, we know pretty much what they broadly will be like as they chose to come here on the basis of what they found in the site.
In 2005 we began La Faula Today with the first photos of the day (see http://www.faula.com/photos/dailypht.php?start=1400 ). The digital camera had arrived. At the time it seemed perfectly reasonable to enable browsing by clicking on back and forward arrows or by inserting a date. It just didn't occur to us that it would be a hit and miss affair for a website surfer to find a date on which I had made an entry! This has been the state of affairs for the last five years. Please don't hesitate to let us know those other things that don't work!
I can see that I won't be carrying on with my Dolce Nord-Est story this evening so the latest little snippet from Rai, the Italian State broadcaster, is that one family in 20 with a mortgage was, as of 2007, insolvent. Rai was reporting a just-released report by the Bank of Italy, the central bank (see http://www.rainews24.rai.it/it/news.php?newsid=148133 ). This puts Italy right up there with Spain regarding the risk to banks of mortgage defaults. But the difference is that Spanish mortgage holders are in difficulty because they purchased grossly over-priced accommodation in the middle of a speculative construction bubble. This didn't happen in Italy. Mortgage holders in Italy were, of course, sold mortgages by the banks that they never should have been. But the fundamental problem is that the Italian economy is either contracting or becalmed and stagnant. As people become poorer at the margins they get into difficulty with their mortgages. The Italian economy is like an over-ripe fruit. Going mushy from the outside.
Maybe you've noticed that recently I've become more prolific in my diary entries. The reason is simple. After dinner with Luca, the wood-burning fire cracking away in the corner, I sit in the warm and cosy kitchen, Annie the Border Collie in a wood-box beside the computer, luxuriously stretch out my stockinged feed, go through the news, load the photo of the day and then it seems only natural to drop you a line. If I think of the peaceful calm of the Faula kitchen in the winter compared to the summer it barely seems the same place!
http://www.rainews24.rai.it/it/news.php?newsid=148108 Rai reported today a Eurostat release that one in two Italian women between the ages of 16 and 64 is completely outside the labour market neither working nor seeking work. Of these only 15% describe themselves as being wholly dedicated to the family. It's no wonder that cunning Italian Finance Minister, Tremonti, was this week pushing the idea of the EU issuing Eurobonds. How much better to get German tax payers to underwrite Italian leisure!
Today we started breaking canals into the stone walls to bring ethernet cabling to the half of the house that we didn't do last winter. Stone walls are the most amazing producers of dust. We smashed- off the rendering by cold-chisel and hammer hoping to keep the dust down. It must have been better than using a jack-hammer but at the end there was a lot of dust about all the same. Today we started on the 1st floor and are dreading the next couple of days when we will bring the work down to the ground floor. The thing is that relying on mobile broadband requires us to have the 3G Router in the highest point of the house whereas the internet connectivity is required elsewhere - generally much lower down. We can't rely on the WiFi of the 3G Router itself because the stone walls and long layout result in poor or no signal. So the best solution is to pipe the connection down to where we need it. Unfortunately this means making tracks through the walls. If only we could have foreseen the need for ethernet in 1999 when we renovated the house into an Agriturismo!
Picking up my previous diary entry, I wanted to recount what happened last Thursday evening when I went to a public meeting called by the local Municipality. The purpose of the meeting was to report on the activities of an organisation created by 5-6 local councils to promote this part of Friuli Venezia Giulia. The name of the organisation is Dolce Nord-Est (Sweet North-East) and we at La Faula have been very happy with their work as they created a public footpath around and through La Faula and they have created a number of relaxation areas for tourists in the locality.
Representing officialdom at the meeting was the president of the organisation, a staff member and six council members with responsibility for the productive sector, tourism, wine etc. In the audience were Agriturismo owners, wine producers, ’frasca’ owners (a type of bar operated at the winery door), representatives of each village committee plus some other well-wishes with nothing to do on a damp winter’s night.... to be continued
Times in Italy are uncertain. It has been unequivocally established that the Prime Minister and many of his allies are a criminal gang with a side-penchant for wild parties involving prostitutes. The economy which has spent many of the last 15 years in recession is struggling to return to growth. And it has recently become clear that in a Country where 81% of the private sector workforce works for companies employing less than 250 people but accounting for more than 70% of GDP, many of those same small companies are not going to make it and will close or go bankrupt.
Some of Berlusconi's allies, betrayed or with an eye to a future accounting, have peeled away and made cause with other small parties to try to bring his government down. Remembering the end of Mussolini (on whom he consciously modelled many of his mannerisms) - when dead, defiled and exposed to public ridicule - and Craxi (godfather and godfather to one of his children) - pelted with coins by a baying lynch mob and forced to flee in exile to Tunisia (where he died), Berlusconi is hanging on, using every old trick in the book against his enemies.
But here at La Faula life goes on as usual. As it does in all Italy. As far as us small guys are concerned it is the State that runs our lives, not the government. The Police forces are numerous, the bureaucracy perverse and inclined towards malicious, the legal system mystifying, arbitrary and capricious. One must just keep one's head down, hope that one's business goes well and that luck, for only luck it is, keeps one out of the clutches of the Italian state system.
When times were good and Italy was racking-up its public debt, devaluing, washing the country with liquidity, it didn't matter how the government or the State worked. Everyone won the lottery every day. But now, the Government has made a decision to keep paying the extravagantly generous pensions to the numerous Italian pensioners - they, with massive savings, then repay the compliment (with encouragement from the Italian banks, should it be needed) by pushing their savings into Italian Government bonds (the income from which is tax free). But this only enables the government to refinance a large part of its deficit internally. For the rest it must look outside. And now the bond markets want to know how Italy is going to get its debt down.
Growth is not an option to reduce the debt. The lunatic regulation of the private sector, the inept public sector, the myriad controls and requirements, the state-sanctioned monopolies and oligopolies in key sectors are but sand in the mechanism and so the private sector, as a whole, is surely winding down.
Bringing up tax revenues is not an option either. It is a totem in Italy that the black economy is enormous. And this is used to calculate GDP and numerous other statistics of how the country is doing. But if it were known for certain how large the black economy was it would be possible to eliminate it. Italy has a separate army - yes, it is an independent army within the state - to deal with tax evasion. The black economy is black because it is hidden although, of course it does leave its traces. In the past the Italian government was served by over-estimating the size of the black economy - for one thing it made the public debt seems smaller if GDP contained a big chunk of, as estimated, underground economy.
But I digress. Us small companies - all of us employing 81% of the private sector workforce, that is - are where the thin edge of the State wedge strikes. We don't have the resources and the bulk to deal with the State at a distance. For us being treated bad is personal. There is nothing we can do about it but we carry antipathy in our soul.
So it is that many small-business people are carrying enormous resentments right now. Business for many is tough to extreme but taxes are being levied arbitrarily, militarised controls inflicted. The Courts, swamplike, don't give protection or respite. One just has to put one's head down, like a mule, push-on, hope for the best, try to have some money for one's-self at the end of the year.
But occasionally, there is a local public meeting where the State, pathetically represented by the local municipality, can be, well, if not kicked, at least vented at. ... to be continued
When our Maremanno sheepdogs Minnerva and Spotty died this year we put photos of the burial on the Home Page Photo of the Day. A guest who came shortly afterwards remarked during conversation 'Boy, I was really surprised to see these photos on a Web Site Home Page but then I guessed that they must have really loved those dogs'.
This year, Dave my old plumber who would do jobs in my apartment when I lived in Hampstead came to visit. His 'girlfriend' Janice (of 35 years) was, until she retired a dog breeder. They have been here many times over the years (I got all the money I paid him over the years in London back!) and Dave had always said that the big disadvantage of having dogs is that you outlive them so have to go through the pain of losing them .... but that the reverse would be worse! I always thought that this was a rather witty remark until it happened that I lost my first two dogs Minnie and Spotty.
It is obvious that only some people are 'dog people' and our relationship with these canines, seen from afar, must seem a bit odd, even exaggerated. But looked at with a dispassionate eye, it is amazing, and somehow wonderful, that of all the animals that shared the world with man before he came to dominate it, some very, very few individuals decided to live near and eventually with man and that man welcomed them into his life. If one lives with a dog, that cooperative relationship is reestablished every day that the sun rises and man and dog wake.
In the case of Minnie and Spotty they performed the service of looking after the farm in the winter. They warned us when predators such as foxes took interest in the chickens. They let us know when people arrived in the carpark. Their loyalty was to us as ours was to them and we enjoyed passing time in each others' company. Of course we fed and accommodated them but wouldn't one do this also for a human watchman?
And in the spring when the Agriturismo opened they understood that it was again normal for people to be constantly around La Faula and many a guest entering the house late at night has had to pass over their prone and sleeping forms, perhaps with some trepidation at first, but never eliciting a response. Minnie and Spotty also provided friendship and hospitality on their own account remembering affectionately many returning visitors. We knew that they had their special favorites but it was a secret that we faithfully kept. They were true hospitality professionals!
And so it is that we enter our first winter without them. To our great pleasure, joy even, Barty is still with us but, already an old dog, we are providing her with a tranquil retirement. She is no longer a working dog. And today we remembered the service that Minnie and Spotty gave us.