Of course, we are extremely preoccupied at the prospect of the break-up of the Euro. A partial break-up with, say, Portugal and, particularly, Greece leaving the Euro would put us at La Faula under tremendous competitive pressure as both countries reverted to their own grossly devalued currencies and we remained locked-in to the Euro. But my main concern right now is the fact that if Italy leaves the Euro promptly we might not get heating all winter! The wood-burning stove that we ordered months ago has still not arrived. This evening I received an e-mail directly from the manufacturer saying that the delays in shipment were due to delays they were having in receiving materials from their suppliers. This may or may not be true. However, undeniably, the effect of Italy exiting from the Euro in a disorderly manner would be that, for a time, all deliveries would be halted as manufacturers coped with the uncertainty of a new currency and waited for the economic situation to stabilise. For a moment economic activity would stop. So, for us here at La Faula, a warm winter depends upon Italy staying in the Euro. Every week of extra delay in having the stove delivered brings us closer to the moment when Italy is likely to be pushed out of the Euro. It would be nail-bitingly nerve-racking except that when not typing I have my hands buried deep in my electric throw-blanket!
Today, Mario Draghi of the European Central Bank was reported to have hinted that if Europe was able to create some type of fiscal union for Euro members the Bank may be able to be more aggressive in creating money to ensure that countries remained solvent. Over the last weeks the press have reported that the big bazooka solution would be just the thing because the European Central Bank can create unlimited money (the big bazooka) so no country need find itself short. The Germans felt that this was the road to hyper-inflation. Instead, it was reported that the Germans were leaning towards a fiscal union where the national budgets of countries such as Italy would be subject to prudent oversight and even veto if they carried on with their spendthrift ways.
So there you have it. All that Italy has ever done in its whole existence is create money when it found itself in difficulty. When the actual printing of money could no longer be justified due to the inflation it caused, Italy repeatedly devalued its currency. When this wasn’t enough Italy joined the Euro giving it cheap money based on the implicit German guarantee. Italy is addicted to cheap money. And even this isn’t enough. By racking up a government debt more than twice its GDP it stole the as-yet unproduced gross domestic product of successive generations. And you might ask: did Italy equip those successive generations to produce and pay back that public debt. No! is the answer. It provided its kids with generally second-rate schools and Universities (see the OECD annual PISA surveys). And then, it created an economy that could not even offer these kids jobs. The question is: what kind of people would do this to their own children?
So now, to save Italy and thereby save the Euro the ECB is urged to create money, and lots of it. So, instead of having its bad habits tamed by membership of the Euro, Italy has almost succeeded in having the Euro area adopt its own bad habits. The Italians have succeeded in importing their own disease into the heart of the Euro-zone. That’s something!
We are the smallest of small businesses. Apart from Luca and myself, we employ Maritza the cleaner and have volunteers to help us in the peak of summer. Luca's nephew also helps out from time to time between his studies. The Agriturismo is open for six months of the year and for the remaining months we look after the farm, vineyard and wines. We work very hard in the Agriturismo during the summer but we do enjoy a very peaceful late-autumn and winter. La Faula is something that we do because, in the round, it is enjoyable and satisfying. Economically, it allows us to improve the business and live in a beautiful place but we certainly won't get rich doing it!
Being a small business with limited resources we hope, beyond hope, that the new Government under Mario Monti can and will make the changes that we, people of small businesses, so desperately need. When economists note that the Italian economy hasn't grown for years because of a whole raft of negative factors weigh down on business we know all about it. It isn't hypothetical for us - it really happens - and we dream to have this crushing burden lifted from us. So every night we pray that Monti will bring us salvation just as every night in the past we cursed Berlusconi and those who sustained and supported him for the corrosion that he instigated and permitted and that touched on us, our business and the country we live in.
But desperately wanting something, no matter how badly, should not dim one's critical faculties. Identifying risks and pitfalls doesn't bring them into existence if they don't exist and, if they do, it makes the overcoming of them and eventual success all the more meritorious.
Today in the Financial Times Martin Feldstein, who is a number one big-wig, argued that Italy, by making the right reforms could save itself and the Euro. The corollary, of course, is that if Italy can't save itself it will probably destroy the Euro.
But the question has to be asked. If Italy is able to make the right reforms now, why wasn't it able to avoid getting into this mess in the first place. And having got into it, why wasn't it able to extricate itself from it? The answer has to be that a country that used entry to the Euro as a source of cheap money to stave off making the very necessary reforms that the Euro and globalisation where making inevitable and obligatory is probably not the kind of country that can step up to the bat when all is in imminent danger of being lost.
And who are these members of the Monti Government who are to save our poor Italian souls? Well, I can tell you. The Monti Government is comprised of members with the median age of 64 years making it the oldest in the history of the Italian Republic (and that's saying something) and the oldest in Europe. A Minister who is important to us is the Minister of Tourism and Sport, coming in with a sprightly 73 years. These people one can say are part of the Italian 'establishment'. So where were they all these years while things were going so wrong? Many of these new Ministers have held senior State and administrative posts. Of course, they weren't part of the Berlusconi Government but one key failing (of many) of the Berlusconi Government was that it did not reform the State, the very place where many of the Monti Government were comfortably ensconced. And, of course, Italy is the country of the Catholic Church so it could be seen as reassuring that Monti and many of his Ministers are very close to the Catholic church and that one of Monti's first acts as Prime Minister was to farewell the Pope at the airport as the Pontiff departed for an international trip.
So Italy is to be saved by a bunch of sexagenarians and septuagenarians, linked to the Catholic Church and members of the gerontocratic caste that did the very best out of the unreconstructed and unreformed Italy. They are, as usual, representative of the very generation that has destroyed Italy and left no hope or future for the young and those that don't conform to their idea of the correct way to be a human being. I must wish them well, self interest requires this of me as a minimum. Now they are lionised. But I fear that they are the the less noble beasts of old!
What follows is an excerpt form the Independent newspaper of Great Britain dated 2 October 1996. It wasn't as if anyone didn't know where Italy would lead the Euro ......
Jacques Chirac yesterday said what many people had long thought - Italy is heading for the second division in Europe. The country's hopes of qualifying for the first round of European monetary union were severely rebuffed as the French President explicitly stated that the country is too far behind to meet the Maastricht convergence criteria on time.
The French President singled out Italy as a country that might have to wait beyond the launch date of 1 January 1999 to be allowed to join a single European currency. He also made special reference to the Italian lira as a currency whose devaluation could threaten the export markets of the "core" Europe once monetary union was in place.
"More time may be needed for those who are behind, like Italy," Mr Chirac said in what appeared to be a deliberate attempt to humiliate ahead of a Franco-Italian summit meeting in Naples, scheduled for the end of the week.
His comments whipped up a storm of protest in Rome, including reports that the bilateral summit was about to be scrap- ped. The French ambassador, Jean-Bernard Merimee, was summoned to the Prime Minister's office, and eventually Mr Chirac retracted his remarks, saying instead that he "ardently hoped" Italy would make the single currency on time. But by that stage the damage was already done.
By casting doubt on Italy's European future, Mr Chirac effectively cut the ground from under the Italian government's feet in its efforts to sell the budget - an unprecedented 62.5 trillion lire package of spending cuts and swingeing tax increases - as one last big push for a place in Europe.
The financial package has already caused friction between opposing ends of Mr Prodi's broad centre-left coalition, and political analysts believe any serious assault on its credibility would almost certainly cause a government collapse, with incalculable consequences for Italy's future stability. The financial markets remained cautious yesterday, but the lira and Italian bonds lost much of the ground they had gained in the last few days.
Mr Prodi did his best to remain upbeat, evoking "tensions created by the strength of Italy's export capacity": "We always think of Italy being afraid of competition from France and Germany. In fact, France and Germany are also very afraid of competition from Italy."
A more considered look at the events of the past few days, however, suggests the fear is all on Italy's side, and that a number of European countries intend to make sure that a country burdened with singularly unhealthy public finances does not join the single currency until it is ready.
When Mr Prodi's government took office in May, it had no intention of trying to meet the Maastricht criteria by 1997, but planned to satisfy most of them by 1998 - believing at that stage either that the introduction of a single currency would be postponed or that the criteria would be eased.
That policy remained in place until mid-September, when two key developments forced the Prodi government to change its mind. First, the successful launch of tight-budget packages in France and Germany suggested the euro would in fact be launched on schedule. Second, Mr Prodi made a crucial visit to Spain for talks with his counterpart Jose Maria Aznar.
According to diplomatic sources, Mr Prodi asked Mr Aznar to join him in petitioning the big European players for a sort of reprieve whereby their two countries would be judged on their economic performance in 1998, not 1997 as was previously agreed. Mr Aznar refused to go along with this plan, telling Mr Prodi that Spain had every intention of meeting the targets.
Suddenly, Italy seemed to have been left out in the cold, and Mr Prodi rushed back to Rome with a new plan. The first budget was ditched and a new one prepared in 24 hours. The new deal passed muster with the cabinet, and Mr Prodi euphorically announced that the package would get Italy into Europe.
That euphoria has proved near-impossible to maintain. Italy currently meets none of the Maastricht criteria, and even under the latest plan it can only hope to get close to the target considered most important - a 3 per cent deficit-to-GDP ratio, from around 6.5 per cent now.
The plan can only succeed if the political will exists to admit Italy into the single currency, warts and all. Mr Chirac and Mr Aznar have made clear that they don't like the idea, and the dip-lomatic community is fairly sure that Germany doesn't like it either.
"Italy doesn't meet any of the Maastricht criteria and this budget may not even meet its targets. Because of its high public debt and reliance on short-term debt financing, Italy is still a rather different economy from the core European countries," said Ros Lifton of HSBC Markets in London. "President Chirac's remarks may have been politically inappropriate, but he was largely stating the obvious."
I'm sitting here rather enjoying a development in electric blankets: the electric throw (or throw blanket). As I have written previously, some time ago, in fact, we decided to substitute the old wet-back stove in the kitchen, that Luca and I for 16 years had used exclusively for heating our winter living area, with a new, more efficient wood-burning boiler, less prone to producing creosote in the chimney. At the same time we decided to remake our old concrete block chimney installing a stainless steel insulated model.
The chimney has, in fact been remade, and very well. The old chimney was opened-up and gutted, the new one installed inside and the chimney was then re-closed. The finish remains to be done but effectively the house has not visually changed at all. The problems is that the new wood-burning stove has still not arrived although ordered months ago. Our stove installer reports that the factory claims to be behind in orders as the demand this year is intense. It is true that very many people we know have turned to using wood-burning and pellet burning stoves recently to escape the effects of high gas and oil prices. Plus, the woods all around us are being cut for burning-timber, something that was exceedingly rare when we arrived here in the 1990's. So the late-delivery of our new stove is explicable.
Luckily, the weather is very sunny and stable but the temperature hovers around 0°C at night. The thick stone walls of the house are inexorably cooling and inside here is rather as living inside an extremely large refrigerator. Sitting at a computer in the evening is just too horrible to consider. Sometimes I put a small electric fan heater on, letting the warm air blow towards me but outside the direct range of the fan of heat all remains cold so it seems a real waste - especially as electricity in Italy is shockingly expensive.
So this is where the electric throw comes in. It is cosy, warm, uses a small amount of energy and instead of rushing-off to bed after dinner to warm-up one can pass a moment of two in the kitchen catching up with the horrifying news concerning the Euro (eek, eek etc!).
I use this blog to put down - in black and white - the thoughts and impressions that I have formed living in Italy. The Italians a wont to believe that 'all the world is a village', that is that all places are the same and, strangely enough, like Italy. However, in Italy humanity manifests itself exceptionally. Exceptionally disappointing history with so much bad amongst so much good; exceptionally bad government, only bad; an exceptionally dysfunctional State, nothing redeeming there; exceptionally persistent and metastatic organised crime, yuk; exceptionally large public debt, could be dangerous; exceptionally low economic growth, will be dangerous. It is strange though, to think something that nobody thinks at all. In my case, I think that the Italian black economy, while not being a figment of anyone's imagination, is not currently as large as it is made out to be. If true this would have the direst of consequences for Italy as it would mean that the public debt is even more unmanageable than now. The impoverishment of Italy would be inevitable and just a matter of time.
So this morning, snug under my electric throw, I opened Il Fatto Quoditiano 'The Daily Fact' and the headline was that tax evasion had reached 18% of Gross Domestic Product. Hmm!!! Maybe, I thought, 'they' are right after all. But then, the article immediately following was about a popular demonstration that formed outside the offices of the State Debt Collector and Recovery Agency, 'Equitalia'. It formed and consisted of people upset, distraught, at the suicide of an entrepreneur in the Veneto region who had found himeslf in economic difficulty an, it seems, was unable to pay his employees. The object of the demonstration was reported as being to evidence their rage at feeling strangled and oppressed by those they defined as being the Strong Arm of the State: The State Debt Collector and Recovery Agency, the Tax Department, the Finance Police, taxes in general, and above all, the Banks. Their proposed remedy being a general tax payment strike.
Now, you should know that here, in Friuli, it is generally believed that the entrepreneurs of the Veneto region don't pay their taxes, that they are the great evaders that we hear about incessantly. So there really is something strange that these people are taking to the streets to protest the oppressive tax burden that bears upon them and the oppression inflicted by the Italian State. Why would tax evaders do this, one must ask? And there is another thing. Why do these people include the banks in this list of State agencies? The answer to this second question is that in Italy banks are implements and implementers of State policy which, for a number of decades has been to recycle the public debt. There is no free market in banking services and interest structure, policy, taxation and rates reflect the need to keep the banks solvently buying Italian debt, both to hold themselves, and to pass-on to customers.
So I think that the story of tax evasion amounting to 18% of PIL should be added to the local legends that we have had to absorb for the whole period that Giulio Tremonti was Finance Minister: that the banks in Italy are more solid and stable than those in most of the rest of the world; that the Italian economy weathered and was weathering the economic crisis better than other countries; that Italy is admired by other countries for how it manages its economy; that to claim that things are not going well here is only defeatism. Vinceremo!
P.S. The dogs asked me to mention that coming inside in the evening is losing its appeal now that the inside temperature is about the same as that in their cage - outside, at least one can howl to the moon!
Last week we had two webcams mounted on the barn. The images from these cams will be published in the next week on our website increasing the real-time coverage of La Faula. The webcams were expensive and to reduce the cost Luca and I mounted the tubing and ran the ethernet cabling ourselves. The suppliers of the webcams invoiced everything, in advance, before they even ordered the cams from the manufacturer, and there was not even a hint of anything being paid in the black (i.e. in cash separate from the invoice). The stove installer, yesterday, finished re-making the chimney that will serve the new wood-burning stove we have ordered. He came down from the scaffolding, having finished the job, at 9.30 and at 9.35 I had in my hand the second of the three invoices covering the total amount. The stove will not be installed until the invoice is paid. It is getting cold in here so I prodded Luca to pay immediately! When the stove is installed we will get the final invoice and the total of the three will cover completely the cost of the job - again nothing in black.
During the winter we do lots of smallish jobs here ourselves. Frequently we go to the local builder's merchants to buy drain inspection chambers, piping, cement, mortar. Lots of little things in small quantities. I can pay by cash or bank transfer but we always get an invoice or till receipt. Sometimes, in the morning, I may go to one of the local bars for a cappuccino. In every case the owners know me well. But they always give me a till receipt. At other times Alcide from the Trattoria Ai Cons invites Luca and I to drop by in the evening for a plate of pasta in company. It's free but when we go he prints out a till receipt for the value of the meal.
Now, we all know that in Italy we all evade paying our taxes. In fact, the black economy is calculated to be so large in Italy that even if just a part of it could be brought into the open the benefits to the public accounts would be huge and the problem of the Italian public debt would diminish. So every Italians government, Monti included, promises that IT will finally clamp down on tax evasion.
Now, it is a fact that many Italians would prefer not to pay their taxes and would not pay them if they could get away with it. Many private businesses when they see that the money paid in taxes is treated with the absolute minimum of respect by a voracious, wasteful and corrupt State regard payment of tax as nothing short of theft.
And yet, in the examples above, these people are all invoicing for the goods and services provided leaving nothing out that may interest the taxman. They do this because they are subject to 'sector study' analysis whereby the tax authorities will expect a person or firm involved in a specified economic activity in a particular part of Italy to earn a specified amount in a year. Previously to the Prodi governement of 2006-2008, the idea of taxation through Sector Studies was to ensure that economic activity, at the small and medium enterprise level, was subject to minimum effective taxation. The Prodi government of 2006-2008, however, covered the boom period prior to the 2008 crash. During this time the Italian Government increased substantially the estimated income earned by firms sector by sector. The subsequent economic crash and prolonged down-turn that carries on through today left many businesses earning, in reality, less than that which was estimated by the tax authorities. Once a business earns less than what the tax authorities estimate, it pays that firm to eliminate activity in the black and declare it's true income and pay tax on that. If a firm is not congruent with the sector studies and pays the lower rate based on what it declares it cannot risk being found, upon inspection, to have undeclared income.
In addition to sector studies there are controls based on the assets that an individual has. There must be a relationship between the assets and the income declared otherwise a prima facie case of evasion is established and the citizen must justify the source of funds to the assets held (and holidays taken etc). When it comes to controlling there is not only the Inland Revenue with its corps of inspectors but there are the Finance Police, an Army with, amongst others, the role of combatting tax evasion. And then all the other organs and agencies of the State that control business, including taxes and excise duties, have the obligation to reveal and report suspected cases of tax evasion as does every layer of government right down to your local council.
So it seems to me that either Friuli is a special case or the problem of tax evasion in Italy is more nuanced than it seems.
The black economy is black because it is unknown. Knowing human nature and extrapolating from cases where it is proved, we can be sure that it exists but being unknown it cannot be quantified. If it could be quantified it would cease to be unknown and once known would cease to exist. The black economy is a known-unknown. In Italy the black economy consists of tax evasion by normal economic actors and underground transactions conducted by organised crime. Obviously, organised crime is a social harm that one would hope the State would move against for reasons other than bringing-in extra income.
In the 1980's the Italian public debt was climbing uncontrollably. The government of Bettino Craxi (corrupt and eventually to flee into exile) supported by the equally corrupt and Mafia-connected Christian Democrats proved unable to bring State Spending under control. Italy had a large deficit and its public debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product was almost twice the amount of similarly-sized European economies. Unable to effectively tackle spending, the Italian Government decided to increase the size of the Italian economy. It did this to the extent of increasing GDP by 18% through what was described as a statistical sleight of hand involving adding to GDP a newly estimated sum for the black economy.
In 1992 Italy suffered a balance of payments crisis, was ejected from the ERM (forerunner to the Euro) and devalued twice. From this time on Italy brought its deficits down and moved into primary surplus - that is it the State took in more than it spent excluding debt costs. For every year except one since this time Italy has remained in primary surplus - that is, excepting interest on its public debt, it doesn't spend more than it receives.
So it would seem that Italy is not the spendthrift country that national stereotypes would lead us to believe.
In 1992 Italy realised that if it could bring the black economy into the sunlight and tax it, it would go a long way to solving the problem of its enormous public debt. And so every year and every government since has worked away, industriously and with the complete power of the Italian State behind it, to find and tax undeclared earnings. It has been so successful that the banks in Lugarno, a town in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland, that served Italian citizens wanting to salt their money away from the Italian taxman, have found their Italian custom drying up and have either closed branches or down-sized.
So one might ask ones-self why the public debt is more or less the same as in 1992 and why the Italian Court of Accounts claimed this month that tax evasion is running at 18% of GDP. It seems that the black economy grows as fast as the Italian State can find parts of it and tax them. This means, literally, that the better and more effective the Italian State is at eliminating the black economy the faster the black economy grows.
But there is another factor to this equation. For 20 years the Italian economy has been stagnant with little or no growth and frequent bouts of recession. The Italian economy is moribund and the usual suspects to explain this are increasing international competition, family firms, firms too small with too little capital, bureaucracy, rigid labour laws etc. Without any doubt these are all important factors.
But what if, just what if, my examples above, the CCTV seller, the stove installer, all the local bars and restaurants, all issuing invoices or till receipts, were not the anomaly but were more the rule, at least in North Italy. What if the State had effectively managed to get a whole lot of small Italian businesses to pay their taxes. But following the chimera of the enormous black economy the Italian state devoted more and more resources to shaking-businesses down, looking for more money. And this in a country where the fiscal pressure on business is enormous and was, in the past ameliorated through evasion.
The effect would be to damage private enterprise, to remove the economic incentive to be in business and to remove to the State funds that would otherwise have been reinvested in business or spent in the real economy.
I will take a punt that as of today, November 2011, the Italian black economy is not nearly as large as it is believed to be but the Italian State, in trying to get at it to solve sins of the past will carry-on inflicting long lasting damage on private economic initiative in the country. The effect of this will be that economic activity will remain wounded and the economic growth that is supposed to save the country from its debt will remain as much a chimera as the pot of gold tucked under every Italian firm if ony the State could get its hand on it. And worse, if the black economy is smaller than officially estimated then Italian Gross Domestic Product is, in reality, smaller than calculated which means that the public debt is a greater percentage of GDP than is currently believed and Italian deficits are a larger percentage of a smaller GDP. In the end, if this were to be the case this would be a real disaster for Italy: smaller and saddled with a more intractable public debt.
In our kitchen we have an Italian postcard from the early 1940's. On the back is printed in bold, with the Royal Crest, VINCEREMO (we will win). Dream on.
Yesterday evening, Luca and I watched the sunset through the hole in the kitchen wall where the chimney used to be. Had we wished to, we could have passed thought into the dining room and watched the sun set through the hole in the wall that had suddenly appeared while the old chimney space was being enlarged. But we didn't. Instead we enjoyed the cool blues, reds and orange hues of the closing day and felt the crisp air against our faces. It could have been romantic but for the grey smothering dust that coated every surface around us!
Italy has a new executive government of unelected persons deriving their legitimacy from the support given by the elected representatives of the people.
This, in and of itself, is testament to the fact that the elected politicians in Italy are not up to the job of dealing with liberalising the Italian economy to permit the country to grow out of its debt. For without this growth the debt will never be repaid and the markets are on to the fact that this was, in fact, the strategy of every recent government but one (the 'technocratic’ Dini government). The plan of the Italian gerontocracy was that those of that generation that had enjoyed the fruits of the debt would continue to enjoy it until they were long-gone. All they had to do was to postpone the default onto some other generation. But the markets called their number and the Italian gerontocrats found themselves with their pants down.
Last Sunday the Golf Club had a tournament in the morning followed by a lunch. During the lunch one member, a vocal and staunch supporter of Silvio Berlusconi, commented in the most scathing of terms on Berlusconi's having been pushed into resigning and foretold the failure of the Monti executive. 'Just you watch' he said implying that punishment would come to Italy for what had happened. Nobody dared to say a word. Those of the Italian Left would have been agin him from the start. Many of the people present would have voted for Berlusconi at least once. But now, for them, he had become a liability so apart from members and supporters of Berlusconi's party most just wanted him away.
The problem is that the Berlusconi supporter had a point. And behind that point is an inconvenient fact of history. That is that Mussolini lost power in the same way. In 1943 the Allies had invaded Italy and were moving up the peninsular. Mussolini's government was functioning dysfunctionally and Mussolini personally was chronically ill. Government and the country was chaotic and senior Fascists eventually moved against him in the Grand Council of Fascism meeting in July 1943 (19-7 against). Effect was given to the council's decision by the King who had Mussolini arrested by the Carabiniere.
Of course, Mussolini was a Dictator so there were no popular elections that could have turfed him out. But the way in which he was deposed left a large body of Italians, supporters of Mussolini, furious at the way they had been deprived of their preferred leader. This, and Mussolini's summary execution, left unfinished business for a large part of Italy, a business that remains unfinished to this day.
So it is, of course, that Berlusconi had become a liability and had to go and he did resign when he saw that eight members of his government had not voted on a routine financing bill. But he never lost a confidence vote in the parliament and, although popularly elected leader, he was, in effect, pushed into a corner from which he had only one exit.
Objectively, this provides a poor basis upon which to construct an executive government of unelected technocrats. It leaves a boil of injustice in the body politic. And Italy will pay for this just as the cutting off of Mussolini created a cohort of Italians, blind and unreasoning who, many years on from the death of their hero, were and are desirous to live only under a government of Silvio Berlusconi, the nearest an Italian can get to fascism-with-power in the modern age.
I'm sitting here in a moderately unmade kitchen. I never got back to the story of the Chimney Man (I will) but the upshot of our chimney travails was that we had to remake the chimney that vents the wood-burning stove in the kitchen and replace the old wood-burning stove with a more modern and efficient model less prone to producing condensate and creosote. Two or three weeks ago it seemed like the outside temperatures were on the way down and life in the house in the evening got pretty chilly. However, the temperatures are back up again and so it is enough to open the doors and windows of the house during the day to allow the house to heat-up, a heat which it them maintains overnight. It is the opposite of what one must do in high summer which is to keep the house closed during the day and open it up to cool down at night.
I don't know if I have written about it, but I am currently attending an evening class on advanced wine-making. La Faula is a small outfit and I have no formal education in wine-making, so I tend to feel like a bit of a fraud when in the company of 'real' wine-makers. Two Saturdays ago, we visited a well-known local winery as part of the course. One of the other students said to me:
'You're from La Faula, aren't you. Luca & Paul Wines?
'Yes' I said. 'But we're only a small undertaking, more of a hobby really' Self depreciation is my self-defence.
'I saw you in the Espresso Guide' said the other student. 'I was flicking through the wines of Friuli and I saw you were in there. I think you got 3 Bottles for one of your wines.'
It was all very embarrassing. The Espresso Wine guide is the real-deal for Italy. It is there with the Gambero Rosso as the bible on Italian wines.
'No, no.' I replied. 'That's impossible. We've never submitted our wines to the competition. You must be confusing us with someone else. We are just a little outfit producing wines for our Agriturismo.'
'I was you' he insisted. Luca & Paul Wines, Povoletto. I'll bring the guide next week.'
By the time I got home, I had forgotten all about it and so didn't mention it to Luca. The week passed and I went to the evening class on Tuesday and Thursday and didn't think any more of it.
However, this Saturday passed we had another winery visit and at the end we were in the winery shop talking with the owner. I feel humble in the presence of the other students, wine-makers, all of whom inherited family wineries and all who attended the local agricultural high-school specialising in viticulture and viniculture. Being at this level they are of modest wineries, the top-flight go to University and graduate in Oenology or Viticulture and don't do evening classes in advanced wine-making. All-the-same, my fellow students represent generations of knowledge and experience and are woven into the fabric of Friulano wine-making, for better or for worse.
'Che furbo' [What a sly one] I heard. 'Look here! It's you.'
It was the student who the previous Saturday had insisted to have seen us in the Espresso Wine Guide. He proffered the guide to me, open.
'I can't see'. I said 'Without my glasses on I'm blind'
'Look it's you'. He replied. Luca & Paul Wines, Azienda Agricola La Faula, Povoletto. Merlot 2006 Three Bottles.
'Ahh' I said. 'Yes. That Merlot 2006 was wonderful. In fact it sold out straight away'. This was true. It had been a very good wine and we no longer had even a bottle for remembrance.
'Ehhh, che furbo' said another student. 'Always making jokes about your wines and here you're in the Espresso Guide. Hmmm.'
I was quite thrilled, I have to admit. I guessed that Luca must have submitted the wine for the competition. He takes care of this stuff. We don't buy the guides so had never bothered to check to see if we had been included. Now, to be clear, a top-top wine gets Five Bottles and Four Bottles is a very good wine. Three bottles means that the wine is good enough to distinguish itself from the pack. I was pretty pleased.
Coming back to the kitchen, today the stove fitter began the process of remaking the chimney. Once that is done he will fit our new wood-burning stove and cosiness should return to the La Faula kitchen in the evenings. All day the house rang to the sound of the Kango Hammer and dust snuck in through every crevice leaving a fine patina on every thing and every surface. We moved many kitchen implements from the kitchen to the dining room but the dust got them anyway. So here I am. In a corner of the kitchen where my large computer sits. Cold draughts catch my right ear and I'm wishing that I had waited a week longer before having my hair cut so short. It is not exactly like being in a construction site, but it has a bit the aspect. Soon there will be nothing to do but go up to bed, snuggle down under the sheets and watch another episode of The Restaurant on my iPad (who does get to partner top French Chef Raymond Blanc at the end - I don't know - I've got another 16 episodes to watch!).
Yesterday I took Fritz to the vet's. This was a big day of reckoning for Fritz, although he did not know it. The trip was to ascertain whether Fritz' hip replacement had taken and knitted properly with the bone. I didn't want to think of the ugly choices that would confront us if the x-rays showed things not to be as they should be. But, thinking of the stress that Fritz must place on his hip in moments of play, and when running and jumping it seemed to me to be almost beyond hope that the trip should finish completely positively. The operation was in early July. Now, I swing between believing that dogs are intelligent creatures, able to understand us and our social interactions of a non-conceptual kind and believing that they are simply living automatons to which we ascribe intelligence because they behave in ways that we like. I was, however, struck to see that Fritz had no fear to be at the veterinary surgery and when the vet came into the room Fritz' tail started wagging furiously and he rolled over for a good tummy-rub.
We paid a lot for Fritz' operation but at least it went to a vet's practice and a vet who had obviously treated Fritz well and left him with lots of positive memories.
Well, you too can play vet and see the photo of the x-ray. It looked good to me and the vet confirmed that it was. Everything is in order. Now we just have to hope that it doesn't wear out!
Today the technicians mounted the two new webcams. We hope tomorrow to have the web pages ready so that we can put the images on-line. We are happy with the cams and the images. There are some technical glitches with the live image which I hope are not also present in the transfer of the images that appear on the website. So that is another one of our projects for the winter done. The last 'extraordinary' project for this winter is the fitting of a small wood-burning boiler in the kitchen and remaking the chimney that serves it. This work should be done next week. Luckily it seems that warm and sunny weather has returned so provided everything goes to plan the experience, while unsettling, shouldn't be too traumatic. These old Friulani farmhouses have the most amazing capacity to generate dust when stonemasons are working in them. Having doors and windows open while workmen are banging away inside is pleasant in warm and sunny weather. In cold, damp or rainy weather it is a torture!
Today we in Italy still have the Euro and life went on as normal. I am waiting to have two very expensive day-and-night webcams installed so I don't want any major economic upsets until this happens. Especially, as we have already paid for them plus the installation. As I wrote previously, the supplier wouldn't even countenance our order unless we paid everything up front. I'm quite looking forward to having them mounted, especially the one that will face the hill. It will be interesting to see if we see any interesting animals on the screen. We did have the European Jackal a couple of years ago. The Lynx and Brown Bear have made a big come-back (actually they came from Slovenia over the mountains) in recent years. Sometimes the dogs go berserk at night barking so it would be good to find that we can see animal life at La Faula that previously was cloaked by the darkness.
This year buying the webcams was enough and we won't go for some good infra-red illuminators .... but, if we have a good 2012 ....
This evening I went for my second run. It was 5.30 and dusk was cloaking Friuli. Like yesterday, I jogged along the river stopbank. As I was leaving La Faula a shot pierced the still evening air to my left on the far corner of the vineyard. A poacher! I wasn't sure what to do. I certainly was going to continue my run, but I was dressed in a black top and light-grey Virgin Atlantic pyjama bottoms. I didn't want to be taken for a deer and blasted into the next world. I carried on internally debating whether it would be best to return home and get a reflective cyclists belt or carry on as I was. I was afraid that the reflective cyclists belt might gleam like an animal's eye, there in the complete dark, drawing the poacher's fire so I opted to continue while hoping for the best.
The poacher's shot had given me a little surge of adrenalin, but today, as I went on my thighs got heavy and full of dull pain. I scraped the grass tufts with the soles of my shoes as lifting my legs became a chore. I didn't find any good rhythm but I knew that this is when the benefits start. I would have liked to make little stops, now and then, you know, just to walk a bit, but he who stops is lost so I slowed down but carried on. As I neared La Faula I heard movement in the woods to my side. The poacher! 'Ciao!' I said looking in the direction from which I had heard the sound. The movement stopped, I increased my speed and fair flew home, imagining, in a childish way, that I was outdistancing the range of the shotgun.
Now, of course, the poacher is one of our neighbours who slips out of the house at dusk to search for prey. What prey I don't know but maybe the new webcam will inform me!