The story of our neighbour Loris’s farm - continued ...
Between 2007 and 2011 increasing grain prices ran concurrently with increasing energy prices. A cereals farmer in Friuli benefited more of less according to where his or her farm was located, the type of soil and how many inputs he or she used. As rising energy prices brought rising fertiliser prices, Loris had to make continuous trade-offs between reducing the application of fertilisers, thus reducing his costs but with the effect of also reducing production and thus his income. Overall, however, buoyant cereals prices and good harvests served him well but his farm was always balanced on a knife-edge: one bad harvest or a collapse in cereals prices could bring him to the brink so he started running his farm defensively, only spending when strictly necessary, conserving what he had and risking none of his income. The certain growth of the 1970’s, 1980’s and early 1990’s was just a memory and was replaced by the gnawing uncertainty of running a business that could only survive if run lean, very lean Any fat and the game would be over.
Then in 2011 a single event occurred that was to impact on his farm, and future, in a greater way than anything previously, in his time or the time of his father. In November 2011 Mario Monti was appointed Prime Minister of Italy with a completely unelected executive.
Mario Monti, although unelected, was appointed by the Italian President with the specific stated objective to liberalise the Italian economy and thereby unleash the growth that was being restrained by restrictive laws, practice and red-tape. A newly vitalised Italian economy, it was thought, would be able to outgrow its enormous public debt over time and would thus give investors in that debt the security to continue investing in the short term, at lower interest rates. Monti made little effort at liberalisation. Where liberalisation was tried, it ran-up against a stonewall of organised entrenched interests.
Without vibrant growth Italy will, without doubt leave the Euro zone and most likely default on a part of its public debt. Without liberalisation there will be no significant growth and Italy will be reconsigned to the poverty from which it came, never, in times of plenty, having created an economic environment sufficient to consign that poverty irrevocably to its past.
This last point is a fact. Italy is a dead man walking, a train flung into the abyss, a ship mortally holed below the water-line. But Monti found a panacea much more interesting for a short-term fix to the disastrous state of the Italian finances, a fix so urgent that growth, tardy to arrive and often obstructed, need not any more be considered the fulcrum of future economic health. Monti believed, and believes, as does the Bank of Italy and the Treasury (economic ministry) and almost every expert in Italy and beyond that a massive slab of Italian GDP is in the black economy and if the Italian State could just get its hands on it many short term financing problems would be solved. The Monti government jacked-up taxes and declared war on tax evaders. Italy moved decisively from operating a self-assessment tax system for businesses to an assessment system operated by the tax authorities. The value of cash was reduced to a maximum of €1,000 as this is the maximum that can be used in any transaction. The Italian State under Mario Monti began hoovering-up enormous sums of money, money, the majority of which was obviously not from the black economy and which would have otherwise have been invested or spent. Mario Monti introduced to Italy the voracious value-destroying mechanism of the Soviet Union where the State was a destroyer of value until all the national wealth had been consumed and the system stopped working, all by itself.
It took few months for the Monti government to completely destroy an economy that was, after a national lifetime of maladministration, already at the end. After twelve months consumption had fallen back to the levels immediately following the second world war. De-industrialisation that had been occurring at a constant measured pace became a national suicide.
So coming back to Loris. The black economy doesn’t feature much in Loris’s farm. He is an EU cereals farmer so he produces, sells to registered dealers, everything is documented, low taxes paid, CAP payments dispensed. No chance to evade. But suddenly his costs shot-up. As the Italian State stripped money from businesses, great and small, they sought to recover, at least a part, from their customers. Prices for spare parts became prohibitive and loosed all relation from their value in production. Prices of every single thing that Loris uses in his farming business climbed.
to be continued ....
What follows, are the thoughts of my Friday evening English Conversation class. The original idea was for me to correct the text of the students and post it on the site so that those students with access to a computer could compare and contrast the corrected version with their original effort. In fact, there is little to correct as the English is pretty good. What has surprised us - myself and the students - is the opinions presented in such a structured way. The previous time we discovered that all the students would have voted for Barrack Obama. This time you can see how they see - at least in snapshot - the so-called Anglo-Saxon world!
What is the difference between Italy and the Anglo-Saxon world? The main difference is the language: English is spoken now throughout the world. Whereas our language, Italian, is spoken only in Italy. The Anglo-Saxon countries are: Great Britain, Northern Ireland, the United States of America, a part of Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Of what I have seen so far, they are better than us. They have the highest wages and pay fewer taxes.
The question is what are the different characteristics between Italian people and English or Anglo-Saxon people. Many people believe that, first of all, the Anglo-Saxon people are phlegmatic; that means self-controlled and so having an ability to behave calmly, respectfully and so on. Now, I am going to tell you something about Italian people. They more or less belong to the Latin race. Temperamentally it is easy for them to get into a temper or to be arrogant. But, on the other hand, they are friendly, and offer hospitality to everybody. (I think too much). And they are a good working population. But, the trouble is in Italy that when someone is in power or in charge or in a position of leadership they have a tendency to become dishonest, corrupted and take bribes. Bribery in Italy is really our biggest problem.
I conclude: in my opinion everybody in Italy who is in charge or in a position of leadership should be impeached. Moreover, they should be sentenced "to life imprisonment" because they robbed us.
I don’t know well the Anglo-Saxon world. I only know what I see on the television. I like to see the movies set in England because of the landscapes, the cottages and gardens so full of flowers. I was once in England and Scotland many years ago and I remember the weather suddenly changing from sun to rain, green fields, and dead sheep along the road killed by cars (in italy we can see dead cats). The people are very kind and queuing everywhere. The English kitchen is not as varied as the Italian one. But, I remember, with pleasure, very good salmon, smoked or fresh in Scotland; tender meat in England; and fantastic butterscotch cookies and the baked potatoes with butter and sour cream inside.
Italy contrasted with Europe - After 46 years in Switzerland, I had great difficulty to accustom myself to being in Italy. In Switzerland there are rules and laws that must be respected. In Italy, the politics are an awful and an unappetizing meal. The bureaucracy is a Kafkaesque nightmare etc etc. The Italian people are ingenious, clever, and brilliant both in positive and in negative things. Italy is my country, a beautiful country.
The differences between the Anglo-Saxon and Italian worlds are many. To mention some: in Italy we have the Roman Catholic religion, in the Anglo-Saxon world the religion is in the majority Anglican, Protestant and other. Italy is a republican democracy. This is different to the Anglo-Saxon world in which the monarchy has mostly so far endured. There are other differences, for example, in eating, in the clothing and most importantly in the freedom of information. In Italy we are controlled by party politics and the church. By comparison, the Anglo-Saxon world is completely and fully liberated and free.
Some differences between Italy and some Anglo-Saxon countries. Obviously there are many differences in various contexts. And now I will try to explain my point of view on some of them like:
For example in countries like the USA, the United Kingdom and so on there are only two main parties and electoral law has not changed for a long time. The people after voting can immediately know the winner with little margin of doubt. The candidate presents his programme to govern before and during the campaign and the winner must execute what he has promised.
In these countries there are various important and serious universities that train the management class and future leaders. The main aspect is the importance given to research. They develop new technologies and further knowledge in every field of existence. Many italian students go to these universities.
Much more informal and free without the excessive sentimentalism existing in italian families.
For me this is the fundamental difference but perhaps it is better to stop here ....
The main differences between Italy and and Anglo-Saxon world: London has the Queen, in Italy there isn’t a monarch. The difference between Italy and England is the English Language. This language is connected in origin to the germanic languages. The English Language is spoken in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The countries that have a political connection with the United Kingdon are Australia, New Zealand, Canada and North America.
Another difference between Italy and the Anglo-Saxon countries are that we only speak Italian but those countries all speak English.
Loris’s increasing acre-age, however, brought with it problems as well as benefits. Seeds and fertilisers could no longer easily be managed manually so some kind of fork-lift would be required to load heavy sacks onto the trailer for transport to where they would be dispersed. This would require another tractor. Needing a fork-lift, it didn’t really matter how old the tractor was so long as it was fit for the purpose so, after some scouting around, Loris purchased a small second-hand tractor and mounted a new forklift. Loris was also making more hay and harvesting more grain so he got access to his uncle’s trailer. To speed-up sowing, Loris purchased a larger and better mechanised seed drill. But this was too heavy for the tractor Loris had been using previously so Loris purchased another second-hand tractor to pull and power the seed-drill. Then, in his drive to plough more land faster, Loris purchased a three furrow plough. He came across a second-hand tractor that would be ideal both to plough and to sew. He traded in the tractor he had purchased for the new mechanised seed drill and, in October of this year, purchased the Lamborghini tractor shown in the photos of the day of Wednesday 24 October. This tractor is 17 years old.
The grain prices that Friulani farmers received from 2000 - 2006 were pretty flat and farmers like Loris increased their earnings by farming more land and doing it more efficiently. In Loris’s case he bought machinery new when it was an overt aid to increasing production and productivity, such as the seed drill. Any machinery that didn’t have a direct impact on the bottom line could be purchased second hand, such as the tractors. For Friulani small-holder farmers a good, reliable tractor that is 17 years old is as good a a new one. While tractors used in specialised farming such as vineyards or large land-holdings have become more technologically sophisticated and bring direct productivity and production benefits to the farmer, for small cereals farms tractors are effectively motors-on-wheels and too much electronic sophistication is actually a disadvantage as it makes them more difficult and expensive to repair when something goes wrong.
By 2007 Loris had effectively plateaued in as far as he could develop his farm. Land was not coming onto the market so it was difficult to increase the farm size by purchase. But Loris was also reaching the natural limit of what he could manage by himself through adept choice and use of machinery. Luckily, in 2007 cereals prices took-off, in particular due to cereals being used in the production of bio-diesel. Loris was lucky that a succession of hot summers and drought affected his production little as his maize was planted in clay soil which retains humidity. Nearby farmers with their crops in gravel soils saw their harvests plunge. It seemed to Loris, as it seemed to us in these last years, that he could, after having built-up his business and adjusted it to make the most out of what he had using efficiencies gained by machinery and improved processes, that he could now settle back to a calm life and a comfortable income. But it was not to be.
to be continued ....
... Getting back to the story of our friend, local farmer Loris ...
The 1990’s were a fine time for Loris. Cereals prices were high, input costs contained and he had all the machinery he needed to earn a comfortable living without the all-consuming physical exertion of only a generation previously. Through mechanisation and the increased productivity it produced he was, alone, able comfortably to farm that which he had inherited from his family and, in addition, to increase his acre-age. It seemed to him that his working life would be a trajectory of constant improvement.
In 1992 Italy faced an existential crisis brought on by its profligate and ill-considered economic policy of decades. Italy was ejected from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) ,the precursor the the Euro ,and came to within a hairs-breadth of not being able to fund its public debt. Exit from the ERM saw two more-or-less simultaneous devaluations. Then in 1995 the Lira was devalued again. Inflation at the time was high. All these things favoured and created an export boom in Friuli, principally based around chairs and furniture manufacture. Whether true or not, it was believed that at some point during the 1990’s Friuliwas responsible for 60% of world chair production. By happy coincidence, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe had given Friuli chair manufacturers access to lumber supplies from countries with even weaker currencies that Italy’s and with prices reflecting the relative poverty of those societies exiting from communism.
Friuli was awash in liquidity. Factories sprouted in the Manzano district and elsewhere providing well-paid jobs. Italy was well-placed, because of its manufacturing and steel working heritage, to design and provide wood-working machinery. Many of the normal disadvantages of a weak currency - in particular high input costs - were thus ameliorated. In Friuli it seemed that the party would never end and this was the environment in which Loris found himself.
As all times, when it seems that the party will never end, it already has and Loris faced his first real challenge and the beginning of his having to refashion his farm.
As was the case of all small-holder farms in Italy after the Second World War, Loris’s farm included a cow stall and in his case he had eight milking cows. As in many villages, Ravosa had a cooperative dairy to which the milk would be brought in the evening and morning. The cooperative building and plant itself was provided by the Italian State but the farmers paid the running costs, including the cheese-maker, and they received cheese rounds in proportion to the milk that they contributed. The dairy also skimmed some milk fat to make butter, which was sold, but this was essentially a side-line with fresh ’latteria’ cheese being the principal product. Of course, the stalls were small and the cows were kept principally to provide milk and cheese to the farmer’s family. But some cheese was sold to non-farming folk and this produced a small income.
But while a small cow-stall might make sense for a large family where the women and children could manage the cows and the milk and the produce of the cows could provide needed protein and some cash, it made no sense in relation to the smaller nuclear families that were becoming prevalent in Friulano agriculture in the 1980’s. And whereas labour had been traditionally divided on the farm with the animals being the women’s responsibility (plus bringing-up and looking after the children, and house-cleaning, and cooking, and washing!) and the fields and crops being that of the menfolk, sole farmers, like Loris, found themselves having to absorb both roles. Moreover, stall keeping, animal husbandry and milk production are labour intensive, and if practised on a small scale are only economically viable if undertaken by the farmer his or her-self.
The time had arrived when Loris’s stall had to go. This was a tough decision. The stall had been a key part of the farm all of Loris’s life up to that point. To abandon it seemed as if to remove a pillar from the farm. But it was no longer economic. Loris had to focus on cereals production and increasing his acre-age. The time to buy milk from the super-market had arrived!
The first five years of the new millennium, 2000 - 2005, saw Loris expanding his acre-age and up-sizing his farm machinery to permit him to manage his increasingly larger farm. At the beginning of the decade most of the farmers were aged in their early thirties being the generation born around the 1960’s that were now fully working their family farms. They were flush with cash an eager to buy more fields. But few fields were on sale so prices were high and competition for them fierce. Those fields that could potentially have been put up for sale were those of farmers who lacked off-spring or whose kids, if they had them, had no interest in carrying on the agricultural tradition. But for so long as they owned agricultural land they received the CAP payments so they were incentivized by the Common Agricultural Policy not to sell. This prevented young farmers from buying land to increase the size of their farms. It placed a break on the aggregations of farms instead keeping them small and unable to benefit from economies of scale. So the farmers would either be paid to plough, sow and reap the pensioner’s fields or the pensioner would keep the PAC payment, the farmer would rent the field and plough, sow and harvest on his own account. This was a time when knowledge that some fields were coming on sale was treated as information of the greatest value. Negotiations were conducted in secret to avoid creating an auction as more farmers got interested. But the seller "held the knife by the handle" as they say in Italy and farmers were forced to concede that no negotiating was to be had. One paid the asking price and that was that!
By 2008 the value of agricultural land around Ravosa had simply got too high and at this point Loris decided that he could no longer justify buying more land. Instead he would focus of renting fields to use as his own.
to be continued ...
As for the last two years, this year I am teaching English conversation for the "University of the Third Age" at the old Ravosa elementary school. Every Friday night for 90 minutes the poor students, mostly retired, must endure English conversation in New Zealandese which is certainly not BBC English! This year, I have tried getting the students before-class to prepare some text in English on a given topic. Then they read it out loud and while they are doing this I type it down on my Chrome-book (which works very well also off-line!). I promised them that I would put the text on-line so that they could compare their original effort with something that has been corrected. Of course, it is not helpful to re-write what the students have done but, luckily, this is not really necessary as most have a fair degree of basic English skill. The topic, rather obviously, for last week was the American Election. Below you will see what the students, all aged between 50 and 82 years, made of it! Rather to my surprise they were all, to a man and woman, Obama supporters. Obviously we really are living in the time of Obama!
USA - Election of American President. After an election campaign, head to head, Chicago and America celebrated Barack Obama’s victory. Mitt Romney was the loser, but with fair play, he admitted defeat and congratulated Obama. This is America’s democracy.
What I think about President Obama. For his family, he is a good father so I hope and think that he will be a good President for America. When he knew of his victory he was very exited. And he thanked his people for having voted him President.
American Presidential Election Day was on 6 November 2012. The winner was Barack Obama of the Democratic Party. He took 50% of the vote. Against Obama was challenger Romney of the Republican party who got 48% of the vote. Barack Obama has been re-elected for another 4 years.
Four more years was the slogan!
On his first appearance at the press conference shown on BBC/CNN television Obama said: “I will finish doing what I have begun.
You know the slogan "We can do!"
The American people voted for the re-election of Barack Obama because he will behave favourably towards, in particular, those from the working class and also Latinos, Indigenous Americans, women and young people. They expect him to solve all the important problems such as health care (only started), unemployment and many other things.
Instead the Republican challenger, Romney, cast his lot on behalf of the Capitalist People. He lost by a few votes.
At a television press conference Romney congratulated President Obama on his re-election. Romney also said: “I would like to collaborate with your government”. And finally he said God Bless You and the Big USA!”
Another Obama slogan "Forward!.
6th November Election Day USA!
Obama wins! And I believe that so so many people in the world are very happy. Me too! Obama gives the impression of being a reasonable person, honest and optimistic. He has a very kind family. I think that his wife Michelle has contributed deeply to his re-election. Of course, there are other people who are not happy at the result of this election. But I note one thing that is very special about America. The loser gives his congratulation’s to the winner and Democracy goes ahead, like in Italy - Ha Ha!
I really hope that Obama may contribute to improve the good life in the world. Another difference with Italy: in the USA people vote on one day and in the same day we can know the winner.
I am happy that Obama has won the American Presidential election because he is credible. Because during his presidency he maintained all that he promised. He is important also because he is the President that has given medical assistance to poor people. That’s all. For me it is fantastic!
The winner is Barack Obama. just as I expected. I am very happy for this victory because Obama is for Europe politically. The four years that he governed were very difficult for him because of the international crisis. Romney didn’t inspire confidence and I think he wouldn’t be able to govern. In Ohio the people gave the casting vote for the winner. The votes of Afro American and Hispanics were very important. His famous slogan when he won the first time was "Yes we can".
And so Obama won again. His ideas are good and he is young and full of energy. But this global world is very complicated. I don’t think that only one man can resolve all the problems even if he has a lot of power. The fact that almost 50% of the American people voted for Romney means that not everybody supports Obama. Now Obama has to work hard and I hope that the political system in the United States is better than ours. I hope that all the people, even the opposition, work together for a better result.
... Getting back to the story of our friend, local farmer Loris ...
Loris doesn’t have a computer or smart phone. He understands about the internet though and when he needs to purchase spare parts for his agricultural machinery on-line he gets one of his nephews to do it for him. He has digital security cameras to keep an eye on his tractors and diesel tank so it is not fear of new technology that holds him back from completely going digital. Rather, it is, for him, the feeling that the last of the old life, the memories he has of how things were in Friuli before the serious earthquake of 1976, the memories of life lived close to the stall animals and working the fields with primitive implements pulled by animals or simple Fiat tractors. A way of life secure in the shared strength of extended family working together, close to the land and its fruits. A more simple life gone already. So Loris resists moving onto the internet, putting a WiFi in his house. By keeping things in some way how they were before the digital world, he pays homage to his memories and an existence by now largely forgotten.
So it was that when I recounted to Loris what I had written in the last diary entries for October he listened intently.
He, like me, was rather taken to realise the massive accumulation of wealth that had occurred to his family in such a short period of time.
"But you are missing some facts" he told me
"First, to make the story complete you need to mention that it was the raising of silkworms that gave my family its first cash crop." Loris said
In the early part of the 20th Century Venice was a centre of silk working. The mulberry tree upon which silk worm (larvae of the bombyx mori moth) feeds had been brought to Friuli from Asia and established itself well. Agricultural fields were delineated by lines of mulberry trees and the leaves would be harvested to feed the silkworms who would eventually spin themselves a cocoon of silk. The cocoons were then sold for cash to the reeling plants around Udine where young women and girls would remove the single true silk thread from cocoons floating in hot water. This was a step-up from subsistence farming.
"Second" Loris said "You need to mention that in 1993 the Common Agricultural Policy payments began."
The Common Agricultural Policy payments gave Loris, who had taken over his father’s share of the farm in 1991 at the age of 28 years, a secure income not linked to the vagaries of production or prices.
So in the early 1990’s when Loris took over his father’s farm it was at the economic apex of small-holding agriculture in Italy. Smallholder farmers had enjoyed a transfer of economic wealth on a massive scale that had been partially, if indirectly, initially funded by the United States, debt incurred in making capital investments had been eroded away through inflation and input costs artificially reduced through subsidies. Product prices were supported by State buying and, when this got too much, finally, guaranteed CAP payments ensured an income separated from production and prices.
In an incredibly short period the feudal system of share-cropping had given way to land reform on a massive scale lubricated by a flow of money that quietened any resistance and brought rural misery into economic comfort. Mechanisation and the use of chemicals had brought a massive increase in productivity. But just as the peasants had worked for the landlords prior to the Second World War, now they effectively worked for the Italian State. Needing the affirmation of the massive rural vote, a validation that the previous landlords had never required, The Italian State ensured that Italian farmers were comfortably off. But in return they were expected to do what the Italian State required of them and so they were managed, educated and herded principally by Coldiretti the Catholic corporatist union created to bind smallholder farmers to the corporatist Italian system, in large part by ensuring that their concerns were met. It was a real two-way street. But a street of stasis where the status quo would reign, productivity stagnate and increasing costs render Italian farming always less competitive.
to be continued ...
... picking up from yesterday:
One of the good things about writing a blog is that it gives one an audience to carry around in one’s head, a kind of angel on one’s shoulder, a point of reference to whom experiences, thoughts, ideas and reflections can be related, daily, even if not actually on the blog. As someone who has a busy internal life, it offers me the chance to objectify my view of the world, relate it as if on the blog, and not bore witless those around me who really couldn’t care less about my opinions or how I see the world! In Italy, this is virtually every Italian I know as they, themselves, were born with innate perfect knowledge and applying the self-evident truth that all the world is the same (as Italy) - tutto il mondo é paese - there is nothing that I can tell them that they don’t already know. But this is a digression into an old saw. What I really wanted to say was that in the last weeks one of the things that I wanted to blog about was that at La Faula we have reached the end of constructing things. We have one small modification that we want to make to two rooms (which imbecilic planning laws layered onto bureaucratic caution and inertia have blocked already for 3 months) but that’s it. Of course, we want to keep making incremental improvements to La Faula rendering it always more beautiful and attractive as a place to stay but the making is done. Now our challenge is to mentally move from the pleasure of new things to the grind of repairing things that break and maintaining that which we already have.
New things, of course, generally, don’t break so, like a new car, there was a period at La Faula when everything was spanking and we didn’t need to worry about searching out water leaks or worry about central heating pressures. But now the complexity that is La Faula means that repairs and maintenance are a serious business. If, like Superman, one could view La Faula with x-ray vision, just the pipework, drains, electricity plant and communications system would look like an overlapping, overlaying and tangled spaghetti. So many pipes and tubes and cables run under and around those tranquil and soothing gardens of Luca that surround the house that we have reached the stage where no more excavations can be made without risking damaging existing infrastructure.
When things break it is a hassle. Making something new brings pleasure. But the challenge for us is to find satisfaction in making right those things that are consumed and broken. Some things, such as solid wooden furniture, are often more beautiful when worn. Luca’s garden becomes ever more beautiful as the plants grow and it finds its own balance and harmony. And a house, like La Faula, if handled with respect can develop character as repairs and modifications alter the planned symmetry of the moment that it was made. In fact, La Faula has been made and remade many times. I think of La Faula as an old lady to whom we should not try to re add the patina of youth. Rather, when we intervene structurally or in the house’s plant and systems we should do this in a tasteful way recognising that we cannot go back to its beginning more than a century ago.
So it was that late last week we realised that we had a big leak in the central heating system and further research identified the leak as being in the circuit on the ground floor comprising the dining room and the adjacent room with the old Friulano fogolar hearth. Properly the part of the house that we heat with our new wood-burning boiler. Now, after some bad early experiences of Italian severe lack of foresight on the part of the first lot of artisans that worked on the house, I developed the habit of building redundancy into anything I can in the house that I am involved in. If we are putting down pipes I also lay empty tubes, big one’s, just in case tomorrow we may need them. If something functions with a pump I try to ensure that some minimum function will also be available if the pump packs it in. I put in inspection boxes just in case a drain should block. And I can only recount that I am constantly faced with "No don’t do that. If there’s a problem later you can address it then. Just put in what you need." And "Why would you duplicate work" or "A tube of 70mm diameter is enough, why put one of 90mm?" etc. But I work on the principle that if it ain’t broke but it is reasonably foreseeable that it will break tomorrow make sure you have a back-up. And in this case, some years ago I had our plumber bring down from the first floor to the dining room central heating piping to which we attached a fan assisted radiator to ensure that we had heating down below even if the ground-floor circuit failed to function. At the time we did this I think that both Luca and I knew that the old pipes running under the ground-floor tiles would one day disappoint us and so today, all those years later, that work, that at the time involved breaking the wall and creating dust and dirt and inconvenience, has finally paid off!
To remake the ground floor heating circuit we will not be breaking up the floor to lay new pipework. Rather, we have decided to run copper pipes externally on the wall immediately below the ceiling beams. In this way, old lady Faula will have a few more wrinkles but those that, one day, come after us to live in La Faula will stay warm down below sure that if something goes wrong they will know it instantly and they will be able to put it right with minimum fuss. An improvement, I’d say!
Since I wrote my last diary entry, I’ve finally understood the problems with the diary menu system. Since we changed the display of the diary entries earlier on this year, quite a number of people, guests and also locals, have told me that there were problems seeing the diary entries. Being mainly preoccupied with writing the entries, a quick whiz over the menus seemed to confirm that everything was alright. But Luca, who is doing a distance-learning course on web-design, has started digging into our website and to my horror he explained the problems with the menu system as it currently is. There is a technical problem in that diary entries for the months following March of this year are not displayed in the comprehensive month/year menu. There is another problem in that the diary page initially only displays diary entries for the current month, not the last entry made. So, for example, if my last diary entry was 31 October but we are already in November and, as yet, I haven’t made my first November entry, then the diary page, confusingly, will display a blank. Finally, the various arrows created only confusion and choosing the year was otiose.
We will put this right. But it does unsettle me that amongst all the information that we are constantly processing about our little business - from how the grapes are doing, when next to bottle the wine, how bookings are going, what improvements and maintenance we should conduct this winter, a myriad of things, the information that there was a problem with part of the website was heard and understood by me but didn’t trigger the correct response which would have been to try and understand the problem. Rather, it stayed there on my radar as something registered but parked.
This problem with the diary section of the website has an analogous one with our central heating system. Last year after a long and cold wait, we finally had fitted a wonderful, efficient, wood-burning boiler. For the period of last winter that we had it, it performed stunningly: the part of the house where Luca and I live was warm and cosy. Being an Agriturismo, with many rooms and bathrooms, we have a rather complex boiler-room and the level of complexity was increased by permitting the wood-fueled boiler to access part of the general heating system to allow us to heat our rooms and Luca’s office. Now, the Agriturismo is closed in winter so at least we don’t need to worry that problems with the central heating system are leaving guests cold! But I noticed last winter that there were large swings in the pressure registered in the central heating system. Pipes would feel warm to the touch when warm water should never have been able to push into them. It was all very peculiar but there were no obvious leaks so I studied the plumbing diagram in the wood-fuel boiler instruction manual and found that our plumber had not fitted an expansion tank as required. When asked about this he said that it wasn’t strictly necessary as the volume of water in the central heating plant was small so even an increase in the water’s volume as it heated would not result in much of an increase in the internal pressure of the plant. It was all a bit strange and there seemed to be no obvious explanation for the anomalies in the central heating plant but there were no water leaks that we could see and so we finished the winter, cleaned the boiler, closed the stop-cocks and completely forgot about central heating as we sweltered through a summer that was 2°C higher than the mean!
Last week it seemed that the time to light the wood-fuel boiler had arrived. Although not so cold, we’ve had some rain so a wood fire is just the thing to keep one feeling cosy. I opened the stop-cocks to the central heating system, fired-up the boiler with good dry timber and sat back to enjoy the experience! But I couldn’t enjoy the experience. The boiler worked fine but the pressure of the central heating system was too low and stayed low, there were large pressure swings and hot water would force its way back into radiators that should have been full of cold water. And worse, the pressure pump that ensures that everyone gets good showers in the summer, even when the house is full, would suddenly kick-in when no water should have been running! For sure there was something wrong but the strange thing was that there were no obvious leaks in the house. More calls followed to our harried trusty-plumber. Now, if you say that your dining room is awash with water and you could traverse it with a dinghy a plumber, any plumber, will assume that you have a plumbing problem and respond with alacrity. But if you disturb him or her bent double behind pipework trying to get an oversized wrench around a rusty and locked pipe, and you whine that there is not actually anything concrete like water spurting Niagara-like from a broken pipe but you just have a feeling based on the pressure differentials between when the central heating plant is hot and cold and, well, some pipes get warm when they should be cold, then the plumber will conclude that you are likely to be a hallucinating neurotic and will invent some story, any story, to reassure you that the problem is a minor one, completely normal, and easily remedied by the most simple of morons.
"Have you checked the pressure of the expansion tanks in the principal central heating circuit?" asked the plumber
"Actually, no" I replied "Should I have?"
"Certainly" said the plumber. The air behind the membrane should be at 1.5 bar. And you need to pump them up occasionally"
"You do? Really" I said wondering why you would need to pump up the air cushion in the expansion tanks if the air couldn’t go anywhere being closed inside the cushion membrane.
"Certainly" said the plumber. "And the membranes break. Yes, they break often."
"Oh" I said quite taken aback. Nobody had ever told me that I had to regularly take the pressure of the expansion tank membranes. It seemed that it was all my fault. And they might even be broken and thus not doing the job and who knew what damage this could have provoked, all because I hadn’t kept those expansion tanks maintained!
"Don’t you worry" said the plumber. "Pump-up the tanks and I’m sure that you will find that all the problems solve themselves."
"And take a valium and don’t call me again with spurious concerns" I thought I heard the plumber say but maybe I just imagined it.
Following the plumber’s advice, Luca and I nearly wrecked our backs dragging down the air compressor from the workshop. Little air-compressor wheels don’t run well over coarse gravel put down to resist the passage of tractors. As the plumber had promised, I found that the expansion tanks were without pressure and so I brought them up to 1.5 bar, precisely, as I had been instructed to do. But I had no sooner screwed the plastic cap back on the valves (there are two tanks) but I saw that the plant pressure had dropped back down again to almost nothing. Then I knew, without a doubt, that we had a leak in the central heating system somewhere in the house and it was a big one.
to be continued ......
p.s. writing this was a pleasure on my new Samsung Chromebook sitting in our cosy kitchen listening to the rain driving down on the last of the leaves still appended to the grape vines straddling the pergola outside. It did take me a bit longer because in getting used to the spell-checker I did find that it has a tendency to deal with mis-spellings by eliminating whole sentences but by now I know that no sentence of mine is so good that it is an irreplaceable jewel and so, consequently, a sentence lost is not a sentence mourned!