Well, it’s 16.34 on Saturday afternoon and the Rai 2 programme ’Sereno Variabile’ will begin at 17.05 looking at various localities in Friuli. Luca feigns indifference, even hinting at shyness,but I think that we are all hoping that La Faula makes it into the final programme and is not left on the editing suite floor in favour of more interesting places! It is strange. When the film crew arrived the first day they were in eight persons. The support from the Friuli Region Tourist board numbered three including their own official photographer. Rai, the State Broadcaster, is this year in a €129 million loss. The Friuli Region pays its counsellors the second highest stipend in Italy after Sicily which is really saying something. The many quangos and entities under the control of the Friuli Regional Government are divided-up by the political parties like so much spoil.
Louis Theroux, in making his BBC documentaries, has visited and filmed much more challenging and interesting places than La Faula with half the crew. When he stayed at the Wild Horse Brothel this was easily verified because among the myriad mirrors it was possible to see the cameraman, who was alone. When Theroux was arranging to meet and film Michael Jackson’s father the intermediary insisted that he couldn’t take such a minimalist camera to the interview - it wouldn’t seem serious. Theroux was reduced to saying lamely that it was broadcast quality. And if I understood the credits correctly the director on that documentary was also the cameraman.
But, when push comes to shove, and Rai, the State Broadcaster has called to visit, not to see if the licence fee has been paid (in fact the Finance Police do this!) but to film the fruit of one’s labours, and that old fossil of a presenter, Osvaldo Bevilacqua, charming and friendly, but who has been presenting the programme since 1977, has sent a wave of excitement around the people of Ravosa with time to be interested in such things, well, when that time comes one does want to see La Faula making it to the national Italian TV. Corrupted so easily! ... Got to go!!
Well, maybe you were wondering if we managed to feature in the programme - or maybe not? The fact is that our face has been saved in front of those in the village who knew about the up-coming broadcast. Probably for the first time ever the village of Ravosa appeared on a map on national Italian television. It even had those little dots marching to and from it as they do to show movement on a map. There was a good section on La Faula, although I don’t think that it was mentioned by name. Luca did a long interview on organic wine and there were wonderful and lingering shots of the harvest, the Faula hill and vineyards and the inside of the dining room (see the photos of today). Giovanni, a friend who was sitting with us said: ’You see. La Faula is a place that you can put on television’ and it’s true. Sometimes Luca and I feel that other parts of Italy such as Umbria, Tuscany, Sicily, for example, are so much more interesting. But objectively viewed, Friuli and La Faula looked beautiful. At a moment like this it would be snarky to dwell on the fact that the director stayed during his time in Friuli in probably the most expensive accommodation available with the rest of the crew staying in something only a little less. I guess that as we were already paying for it, we should be happy that this time, unlike most times in Italy, we got something back!
Now you don’t just need to take my word for it. Click on the link below and move the progress bar knob forward to minute 26 to see Luca and La Faula!
Well, there I was last Sunday. Feeling great and enjoying the relative freedom of the closure of the Agriturismo, I started the day with a cycle stopping-off at Bin-Bar and the Trattoria Ai Cons for a cappuccino. Then Luca and I removed the plastic and shading from the greenhouse tunnel to let the last tomatoes ripen. Everything folded away, after a quick shower, I went with my friend Loris high-up in the hills between Italy and Slovenia to collect a long-outstanding debt for hay he had provided to a farmer who keeps goats and sheep and makes a wonderful pecorino cheese. Unfortunately, this taciturn but not unfriendly agriculturalist, is a reluctant payer so Loris has to spend hours mooching around before the debtor, realising that Loris isn’t going away, relents and coughs-up a portion of the money owed.
To help Loris pass the time, on this occasion he invited me to come with him. Now, it’s not such a bad job as it might seem as the sheep/goat farmer has a little bar where he with his wife, son and daughter sell ice-chilled beer on the tap. It’s a nice location high-up in the wooded Julian pre-Alps, so if one ignores he slightly strange feeling of being involved in a game of attrition it is possible to pass a pleasant Sunday afternoon there.
The problem was that as I got out of the car I felt a click in my lower back and the muscles all went tight. From time to time I have suffered lower back pain. It’s unpleasant but it normally only lasts for a week so hobbling up to the bar I pulled my weight onto my elbows and enjoyed an icy Moretti beer, one of my favourites!
At the beginning the farmer/debtor greeted Loris in a distant way but then engaged himself in conversation with other guests of the bar who also seemed to be personal friends. Loris and I passed time making conversation with the daughter and son. Everybody was pleasant but in the air I could feel the disappointment and lack of enthusiasm for Loris’ presence. It was one of those things. Nobody liked the situation but two years had passed since the hay had been given and Loris wasn’t going to let the debt go uncollected. The empty spaces in the conversation got bigger and bigger. I must admit, I just drank more beer and felt increasingly like a tourist who, leaving the beaten path, had intruded by accident on some foreign settling of accounts the exact details of which could neither be completely understood nor comprehended.
Eventually the farmer came over and Loris offered him a drink in his own bar. Having established that the encounter was to be friendly and understated, the farmer politely refused the drink and offered to show Loris his new tractor. Loris accepted and he and the farmer departed by foot, striding like farmers do, while I rather pathetically shuffled along behind. All I lacked to give full flavour to my hunched-up self was a good sniffle!
What then followed was that I - and Loris - felt that, leaving the beaten path- we had happened upon something from another world, the significance and import of which we couldn’t understand. The farmer proceeded first to show us his brand new Claas tractor. It was big, and had a front-loader attachment on the front to lift and transport hay bales. And from there we climbed a small road and arrived in front of a barn where an enormous machine was hot-air drying enormous round hay bales in an open-sided structure so that the whole area around the machine was hot. It defied belief that such a machine could be economic to run. It must cost so much to blow-dry the hay bales with hot air - in an open-sided structure - that it would have been cheaper to ship Mars bars directly from the United Kingdom to feed the goats and have them delivered directly by helicopter.
I was so taken by the whole thing that I forgot my sore back, the fact that I was supposed to be playing second string to Loris, and I launched in with a whole range of questions. The machine was so big that I even stepped inside it to see through the round quartz-chrystal peep-hole into the heart of the burner. As I looked into the fiery furnace I thought about our pathetic efforts to save energy at La Faula and our energy bills and I knew that I was faced with something completely different.
By now the farmer was rather enthused by my interest. But I knew that Loris was wondering how it could be that someone who could afford to air-dry his own hay bails could not or would not pay for those he had purchased. ’Not only can I heat the air using this diesel operated furnace’ said the farmer, ’But I can heat the air using boiling water through the integral heat-exchanger run off the wood-chip boiler down there’ He pointed to a pair of containers near the new tractor.
’What’ I said. ’You also have an industrial wood-chip boiler?’
’Yes, come and see’ the farmer replied.
We walked down the slope and as we got near the containers I saw that they weren’t containers at all but two specific modules attached to which was a plaque stating that it had been funded by the Friuli Rural Development Programme itself funded by the EU. The farmer clicked a button and one complete side of the module lifted-up and open revealing a massive wholly-automated wood-chip boiler with integrated hopper and feeder. I was flabbergasted and enthusiastic as machinery interests me and I always love the opportunity to get up close to something that whirrs and clicks and moves by itself. I was taken by the touch-screen control and the sheer size of the firebox.
I was impressed but I did notice the absence of a hopper to store the wood-chips. And where were they dried, I wondered. ’Where do you get the wood-chips from?’ I asked.
’Ahhh, said the farmer, I get them from the branches left over after the lumber-jacks have been cutting forests in the vicinity. I wait until they have been down a year and then I collect them and grind them up. I’ve got a very large wood-chipper’
This I didn’t doubt. It stood to reason that if the Regional Government had funded a wood-chip furnace it would have funded at the very least the wood-chipper, if not some forest to feed it!
But he went on ’Yes, when I build the eight new bedrooms in the house for the Agriturismo I will use this to heat it.’
’Eight new bedrooms!’ I replied
’Yes’ he said ’I’ve got the project and application ready. I’m just waiting for the next round of grants being awarded.’
Nothing else remained to be said by that point. Loris and I were dumbstruck at the public expenditure on display within this 10 square meters of this tiny farm. What followed then was a brisk tour of the new stalls where the goats and sheep were housed. We gazed aghast through the large glass feature-wall of the dairy where shiny stainless steel vats and equipment, all of it new, gleamed. We admired the control boxes connected to the 19Kw producing photovoltaic panels on the roof of the barn. We saw the brand-new trailer for dispersing manure, but no manure had touched it yet. We even saw the Indian worker who was feeding the goats and sheep.
We returned to the bar at the front of the house, and I noticed that half of the house had recently been done-up in tasteful rustic stile. I guessed that the other half was waiting for the bedrooms funding. I didn’t know how to make sense of all this. And I still don’t. But in this tiny farm, which would have once been barely removed from being at a subsistence level there was, without a doubt, more than €1 million of public investment. And I wondered what I hadn’t seen.
I drank another beer. The day was hot, my back had come back to haunt me twice as bad, and I had that feeling once has almost continuously in Italy that so much is inexplicable and unfathomable according to one’s normal understandings of how things work. And the truly terrible thing is that this applies not just to things that happen somewhere else in Italy that one reads about on news websites. This applied to things that one can touch and feel! How could this guy possibly have received so much from the Region of Friuli Venezia Giulia? I’ll never know. I’ll never be able to understand it even though we, Luca and I, in the exact same sector and governed by the exact same rules.
The afternoon had worn on and was tiring. I drank some more beer but my back didn’t let-up. There was silence. The other guests had gone and the brother and sister, I should have said previously that they must have been in their 20’s were sitting, passing time lethargically, with a friend. The silence filled the space and Loris decided that it was time to make his move.
’Ahh, I think that it’s time to go’ he said ’Do you think that you can, umm, ahh ...’ he trailed off. It was the moment of truth but I felt like I had passed an hour in the hay-bale drier. I felt brittle and crackly and irritated by the fact of the afternoon having taken on an unreal quality. On one side of the scales Loris’s right to be paid a very small sum of money. On the other side this mass of shiny newness, unjustified on any economic grounds, showered by unfathomable means on this tiny, uneconomic farm high-up in the Friuli pre-Alps somewhere near the Slovenian border.
The silenced ballooned again into the space. ’Yes, yes’ it was the daughter. ’Come, come with me’ she said and Loris disappeared with her into the house. I made small talk with the farmer about his dog, an ageing German Shepherd. I liked the dog and I liked how the farmer described how he had rescued it after it had been caged and ill-treated when you and how the dog sometimes still cowered at brisk and unexpected movements. Talking about the dog and watching him sleep, trustingly, at the feet of the farmer, his master, took me away from my back.
Loris returned and we left. And as we drove away we asked ourselves if we live in the same country and experienced the same reality as other people. We asked ourselves if the same economic rules applied to us as to other people on this peninsular. Or were we just particularly stupid and ignorant of the big secret that we don’t know, but that others do, that can release a person from the normal rules of making a business pay without going bust. It’s all very Italian. Maybe Loris is not very Italian. Because he doesn’t know the secret. And neither do Luca and myself.
To finish the story, Loris and I dropped-in on our friend Walter, who with his wife and daughter runs the Agriturismo Ai Farris about a kilometer from La Faula. Walter and his wife, when she gets out of the kitchen, are robust and good company and the daughter is intelligent and welcoming. It was early evening. There were some hanger-ons from a christening lunch and the dinner crowd hadn’t arrived so Loris and I sat with Walter, ate some sliced meats made with donkey-meat, Walter’s speciality, and drank some good cold beer and talked about Italy. Of course, we didn’t talk about the little farm just over the hills. In Italy prudence dissuades one from doing this. But it was in both of our minds, Loris and me.
By the time we left Walter’s Agriturismo my back was on fire and I could barely walk. Against my will I was curling up. I knew that once Loris dropped me off I had to get to bed. It would be the only safe place because soon I would be unable to get up off the floor. When Loris dropped me off I arched from the car. Hector came up to greet me. The lights of the yellow bungalow were on and Nello and Nichole were inside with relatives from Povoletto. The lights of Luca’s office were off so I guessed that he was in the house. To undo my laces I lifted a foot up onto the low brick wall on the side of the drive. Blackness exploded in my face, the muscles of my lower back locked antagonistically, and I rolled over onto the gravel. Hector licked my nose. The muscles released and I lay there wondering what to do next. I could hear Nello and Nichole in the bungalow laughing and talking. I didn’t fancy calling them. It seemed like a bad film. I knew that Luca wouldn’t hear me in the house. And then I realised that this was all visible on the webcam!
Last week, Osvaldo Bevilacqua, host of Sereno Variabile, an Italian TV travel show that has been going since 1977 came to La Faula to film a piece on Organic Wines (I believe it will screen on 29 September and will be viewable on the programme website after). This was part of a visit to the Collio Orientale part of Friuli. Of course, not watching Italian TV, I had neither heard of the programme nor of the presenter Bevilacqua. But the presence of him and his film crew sent a frisson of excitement around the village once people realised that he was here (he had lunch at our neighbouring Trattoria Ai Cons). But when Rai, the Italian State broadcaster, had contacted us to arrange the visit I told Luca that, in my opinion, we should tell them to stuff-off on the grounds that Rai is a part and symbol of Italy’s decadence and rot. But Luca was having none of it .... to be continued!
It’s amazing, even a bit disconcerting, the two lives that we live here in one year at La Faula. Today, I found myself really wondering if only last Tuesday the Agriturismo was open and we had guests and I was serving breakfasts and dinners. It already seems not only another time but another world!
When the Agriturismo closes I dive back into my world of Ravosa, of Friulano dialect and the interests, passions, cares and concerns of those who live around us. During the summer the world comes to La Faula. But in the main the world doesn’t come to most of the residents of Ravosa-Magredis. The world as they know it is the fantasy one propaganda-ised via Italian television. Even as they have television as a constant companion, my neighbours don’t wholly trust it, so they adjust and paint the stories and images they see on the screen with the colour of their beliefs, experiences and prejudices. Every vision and view is equally valid and equally pushed and defended. Everybody has their own truth. But it’s not a shared truth. I love it. It’s rich, wild and often bizarre. And as everyone’s own belief’s and prejudices are a light shone into their character, it illuminates the wild diversity of belief people can attain when those who command them seek to dominate them through manipulation rather than free them through education.
The downside, of course, is that if you can’t agree whether or not there is a fox in the chicken-coop, as their so often is in Italy, or whether the wolf is at the door, as he has been so often in Italian history, you can’t do anything in a coordinated fashion to protect the chickens or keep the wolf in the forest where he belongs!
This morning, after most of the summer away, I returned to my favourite local trattoria, the Ai Cons, for my Sunday morning cuppucino. To get to the trattoria I exit La Faula, cross our little bridge over the Torrente Malina and turning right follow the river stop-bank West for around 100 meters. Then, to my left, is the Ai Cons and after a rousing shake-up running down the near verticle wall of the stop-bank I cross the road and find Elda and her husband Alcide always with a warm welcome and ready to discuss the challenges and vagaries of the hospitality business and how things are going in the local wine sector.
This morning, at the beginning of the stop-bank there was a fresh cow pat. Now, locally, the only farmers with cattle outside (i.e. not permanently kept in stalls) is ourselves and Alcide’s brother, Giorgio. Giorgio, like us, keeps a few cattle for the meat. Mostly, the cattle are followed and looked after by Gino, Giorgio and Alcide’s brother-in-law who is the other guy in the photos of today.
The fresh cow pat posed a dilemma. If it came from one of our cows that would be a problem as it was over the bridge and, theoretically, in reach of the provincial road where speeding is the norm. Luca had told me some days ago that the smallest of the cows had learnt, during the drought of June, July and August, that the dry earth lost its conductivity, and had got into the habit of pushing through the electric fence in search of fresh grass. Even though it has rained since, the ground is still very dry and once an animal loses fear of an electric fence it remains constrained by it only to the extent that it wants to be.
So I was faced with the dilemma as to whether I should return to La Faula and check whether all the cows were in, thus delaying my oft-dreamt of during the summer cuppucino and chat, or carry on and hope that the cow pat had been left by one of Giorgio’s cows which had somehow escaped its field. I opted for the cuppucino!
I even have to admit that once I got to the Ai Cons and started recounting to Elda how our season had been and the interesting things that had happened during the summer, I completely forgot about the cow-pat and cow on-the-loose. It was to my relief, then, that Gino arrived and told us that he had just finished getting the bull (Giorgio’s bull) back in the field. Somehow the bull had escaped during the night and had been found happily munching away in a Ravosa vegetable garden this morning. Luckily, most of the people in Ravosa are related so a large bull munching up someone’s vegetables is not the disastrous tragedy that it could be!
p.s. to my great pleasure, Luca and I have been invited to lunch at the Ai Cons at 1.00 p.m. I have vowed to myself to try to keep my weight down this winter .... I’m not sure that Elda’s great cooking is going to be a good start!
I think that more than once this year, when talking to guests I analogised the moment of the last guests leaving with the feeling of school’s out for the summer holidays. That is, that wonderful feeling I had as a kid in New Zealand in the 1960’s when school broke for the summer hols and days of seaside leisure stretched ahead without the menacing cloud of study and homework.
Although lacking the prospect of summer, or long days spent at the seaside, the departure of the last Faula guests of the season carries with it that feeling of a slipping away of responsibility. No more responsibility to get dinners right and on time, no more having to get the volunteers doing what we want, no more responsibility to keep the business keen and honed. The pressure of time and performance ebbs away. Of course, La Faula carries on as a farm. But the pace is leisurely, time gives rather than takes away. Trips and dinners with friends beckon. Altogether the road stretching out ahead is one of calm and measured paces.
And made better by the satisfaction of an Agriturismo season well passed. Challenges there were and difficult moments. But not so many and they were overcome without the expenditure of great and exhausting effort. The guests were a wonderful bunch and their enthusiasm and participation in our idea of La Faula was gratifying and pleasing.
We struck it lucky this year with two of the volunteers, both language students from Great Britain. Both intelligent, competent and useful. Of course, it’s a lot to expect to insert someone who has never been here before and pretend that they should instantly grasp the ways of La Faula. But in the round both volunteers were a great help and made my life significantly easier during the summer.
In a world full of challenges and pitfalls, lurking accidents and misfortunes it is a wonderful thing to find oneself, even if just for a moment, in the sublime zone when everything has more or less gone right. Of course, it will not last and new challenges are already on the horizon just waiting to be perceived. But today, in the warm late-summer sun, under a cobalt Friuli sky, life truly seems to be the gift that it is, even if sometimes we don’t believe it to be so!