This is the final Christmas letter of 2012.
20 December 2012
Dear [ ]
For another year, I write with much pleasure to thank you for a wonderful Christmas package, both practical and luxurious!
The microplane is very much appreciated. A great many of our recipes call for lemon or orange zest and so the microplane will be a wonderful addition to our kitchen drawers. We are harbouring the chocolates, keeping them for those particular moments when we come in from the cold outside and feel like a hot drink with something special as an accompaniment! A great selection and we very much appreciate the thought that went into them!
Today is quite a big one regarding my time at La Faula! As you may have read in my blog, we had a leak in our ground-floor central heating circuit. It may have been there for a while but we were unaware of it as we never saw any signs of water on the floor or walls. It is likely that the water had made its own path under the house and as we are near a river it probably got down into the gravel that eventually underlies the house. We decided to re-make the heating circuit but this time with externally-mounted copper pipes running along the walls just under the wooden ceiling beams. This was far preferable to breaking-up the brick floor but it did mean breaking holes in three of the stone walls to permit the tubing to run from the boiler room through to the dining room and then, finally, onto the last ground floor room with the open ’fogolar’ fireplace.
Now, there is a Friulano saying that ’it is better to have the devil in one’s house than a stone-mason’. This arises because of the horrible dust produced when intervening in the structure of stone-walled Friulano houses. Internally, the large stones are covered with lime plaster. When hit with a power hammer this plaster atomises into a fine dust that travels far in the air and gets into every nook and cranny no matter how much effort has been made to isolate the area being worked. Lime plaster powder is unpleasant to the touch, gritty and takes away any sense of cosiness and security from the house. Once the lime plaster has been pulverised away the rocks behind must be smashed, cracked and split by the power hammer. It is best to do this with the doors open so, in the winter, the house gets cold and fills up with a nasty grey dust. As we must do all our house works in the winter, it is a procedure we know well and , as the years go by, we find it always more difficult to endure!
Before we knew that we would have to re-make the ground-floor central heating I had managed to convince Luca (well, bully, really!) that we should order a Norwegian wood stove to place in the open traditional Friulano ’fogolar’ fireplace. The Friulano ’fogolar’ was no more than an open hearth covered by a large hood connected by a horizontal flue to a large open chimney. It is no different in concept from the open fire in the middle of any hut or tipi. The fogolar was the symbol of the extreme Friulano poverty and the lack of resources to obtain metals to create closed stoves. The fogolar was deleterious to the health of those using it as the chimney would draw irregularly and the room was often filled with the toxic gases of partial or incomplete combustion. When the fire was lit, most of the heat went up the chimney so the family would sit just centimetres from the fogolar, hot to the front and cold to the back. When the fogolar was out the chimney would continue to draw air out of the house cooling it down.
The fogolar itself is rather beautiful to look at and as a feature it can be a pleasant experience to sit around one with friends. We did it occasionally but often had to flee the room when the smoke came down and out from under the hood. I got tired of opening this door or that, or that window or this to see if the fogolar could be made to draw better and when it was working well I found myself worrying about having a roaring open fire in the centre of a wood-beamed house. Finally, a fogolar consumes enormous amounts of wood for little heat. It really isn’t worth the candle so for some time I had wanted to find a solution that would allow us to keep the beauty of the fogolar structure while substituting the pre-historic woodfire-hole-in-ceiling system with something more efficient. Eventually I settled on a Jotul F373 wood stove. When Luca discovered that we would have, unexpectedly, to spend on the central heating he felt that continuing with the stove would be an unnecessary luxury. As a compromise, we put off for a year some modifications we wanted to make to two of the bedrooms and went ahead with the stove.
By sheer coincidence, the stove installer (who also had to remake the chimney) came on the same week as the new central heating circuit was being made. Poor La Faula rang to the sound of power hammers. Dust fell from every nook and cranny with the vibration then, miraculously, was taken-up again by those same nooks and cranny’s ready to fall again at the slightest movement. The grit got everywhere and, the sun being low on the horizon at this time of the year, every sunny day revealed every surface to be wearing a patina of grey! The wooden floor on the landing outside Rooms 7 & 8 had to be taken up to give access to the copper heating pipes that had eventually to get to the boiler room. We felt like we were living in a building site. We were living in a building site!
Patience and lack of any other option prevailed, time passed, and yesterday the central heating went live and tonight I am writing this in front of the gently crackling logs in the Jotul 373! I can say that it has been everything that I wanted and more. The ’fogolar’ room that was cold and mostly closed in the winter is warm and cosy. The stove consumes so little and produces so much heat that we keep it going all day. For the first time in our 17 years at La Faula the house has a general background of warmth.
So here I am, beside the ’fogolar’ writing this. Soon with a cup of hot milk I will go up to bed. Summer, of course, is a real pleasure, but winter, at La Faula, has for Luca and myself just got immeasurably better!
Well, I hope that you enjoyed the story of how La Faula ’warmed-up’.
We do wish you a Very Merry Christmas, that next year is a good one and we very much look forward to seeing you in August.
Very Best of Regards - Paul and Luca
This is the third and penultimate Christmas letter of 2012. It was sent to a family who come to La Faula as guests but who have become friends.
11 December 2012
... "Well, I’m sitting here closed in the kitchen. Luca is in his office doing his distance learning course on web-site programming. Outside the kitchen, the dining room is unmade with the tables in the middle of the room, the chairs and decorations removed outside and the furniture that remains covered in plastic dust sheets. As I guess that you will remember from my earlier diary entries, the central heating circuit on the ground floor had been leaking for some time. We never actually found out where the water was going but hearing the water pressure tank constantly re-filling when only Luca and I were in the house meant that either we had ghosts fond of taking long showers or there was a leak. We tracked the leak down as far as the ground-floor central heating and tomorrow the plumbers should come to remake the heating circuit. Of course they were due to come today but ... well .... you know .....!
Passing through from the dining room to the end room on the ground floor where there is the open fireplace, there the whole room is work-in-progress! Quite independently from the central heating I had managed to talk Luca into agreeing to having a wonderful glass-sided Norwegian wood-stove mounted in the old ´fogolar´ fireplace. Today the stove-installer and chimney-maker came and began by smashing up the centre of the old fireplace. He´s a good guy, very able and efficient but he was working with the doors open so the room got pretty cold, dust was everywhere. At moments like these the place certainly loses its cosiness and one can´t wait for the work to be over to put everything back in order! I am pleased though with the stove and I know that it is going to make La Faula much warmer and comfortable for us two old guys!
We are actually having a really nice winter in every respect. Autumn was warm, relaxing and peaceful. We have the right number of dinners out with friends for it to be enjoyable, but not excessive, and the rest of the time we enjoy being here with the dogs. Luca has sold a large shipment of wine to Japan and so I need to get packing and do some more wine-bottling. The great thing about winter, though, is that there is really no stress at all so it takes a lot of discipline to push oneself to get things done!
... Now, I do have to tell you that yet again, the [John Doe]’s have been - actually will have been - responsible for another cunning improvement at La Faula. This time my attention was drawn to the problem of the inflatable beds and animals in the pool area. After hearing about how your beds and animals were appropriated - or should I say misappropriated - I got to thinking what could be done about it. Then, after your stay, we had two families of Belgians, with lots of kids, and they took no chances with their inflatables, obviously having had problems in the past. These families, after each session in the pool, took all their inflatables up to their rooms (it drove Maritza mad having to try and clean around giant sharks, turtles and dolphins!).
So I have designed an elegant, strong-but-lightweight structure, of the style of the stainless steel towel rack, that will enable families to lock-away their inflatables near the pool area. I think this will be a winner and will bring order to the air-bed world!
Luca and I really appreciate your having sent us the Christmas pudding. It has not yet arrived so we will look forward to the postman´s visit with positive anticipation in these days (normally the postman only brings bills and suchlike so a scrummy pudding will make a welcome change!).
... I liked you comment on [X business] having some kids with special needs and some very challenging parents! Having one´s own small business is tough but at least one has the chance to learn from past experience and to modify things to try and make challenges less challenging! Every year when we close at the end of summer I take stock of what we could do to make things easier for us and for our guests. I find this the most satisfying part of what we do! In some ways challenging people can be the most satisfying - at least when you manage to content them - and you then know that at some future time if a similar situation should present itself you will probably be able to manage that without too much difficulty.
I will pass-on your good wishes and thoughts to the woman in the conversation class who lost her 16 year old son in an accident. It is a very brave thing that she is doing culturally to talk about this as in Italian culture misfortune is normally not disclosed. In fact the Italian word to describe misfortune is "disgrazie" or "disgrace" meaning away from God´s grace so it carries the connotation of being in some way responsible when bad things happen. Her 84 year old mother is also in the class and is appalled by her (adult) daughter´s openness but I encourage everyone to write what comes to mind without fear of censure. It is a good class and I do enjoy my one-and-a-half hours every Friday at the old Ravosa Primary School!"
What follows is the second of my Christmas 2012 letters; this one sent to an old friend in New Zealand after a period without contact. I have excerpted those parts relating to Luca and myself and La Faula.
11 December 2012
"... Winter is lovely here. Now we are only open six months of the year from March - September so the winter is time for the vineyard, wine-making and bottling and doing those things that we can’t get done in the summer. This year, 2012, was a good one for us. By now we have been going as a farm-stay properly since 2000 so we have built-up a bit of a clientèle plus we have some experience behind us. The Agriturismo is fun but tough as we have to work very hard in the peak months but then these autumn and winter months are just divine. I am a lazy fellow so I enjoy not being under any pressure at all!
Europe in general has problems with the Euro and Italy, in particular, is in dire straights. As most of our clientèle is foreign so far this hasn’t impacted on us much. But right now Italy is entering an unbelievably recessive (I would say depressive) phase so it is pretty uncertain what lies ahead. For sure Italy can’t stay in the Euro and I think that we are going to be living history here at La Faula for the next couple of years!
The wine side of the business goes pretty well, if not particularly profitably! Up until now we have done everything from growing the grapes thru making the wine then bottling it. Not knowing anything about this it was pretty tough for a long time and we learnt through a lot of error plus we spent money poorly on the wine-making side of the business. Our wines now are well received. We win awards and export to Japan but as the Agriturismo grows running the two businesses simultaneously becomes a real challenge, especially with us getting older and with increasing summertime temperatures ripening the grapes ever earlier and bringing the harvest date forward so that it conflicts with the season of the Agriturismo. Running a small business is just a succession of challenges, I guess if you don’t overcome them then you are either bankrupt or dead. If you are neither of these then you must have surmounted the previous challenges and so go on with a temporary feeling of satisfaction: temporary because the next "Oh no!" moment is already lined-up around the corner and just waiting to pop-out and hit you!
Luca is fairly happy at the moment. He finds living in Italy more of a struggle than I do. I very much like this part of the world and like the people in the village and the friends that I have made. Not to mention the great food and wine! Luca, obviously, is more ambivalent about being here (still). Italian society is not at all suffocating for foreigners - think of all the Brits and Americans who have come to live here over the years - but it is a very conformist society for the Italians. Being Italian, Luca is never completely free of this so his experience of being here is a bit different to mine.
Luca and I have for sure got older. The work though is pretty physical and so, although we suffer, as all farmers, from bad backs and creaking joints, overall I think that it is good for us.
A really important part of our life here has been our dogs. Once we had eight in total. Now we are down to four. Unfortunately dogs live short lives so recently we have have faced some moments of loss. Of course, they are only dogs but they are also our partners in the Agriturismo as many families come for them, so when one dies we feel the loss as a closing of a chapter in the great adventure that is our coming to La Faula!"
As Christmas comes around every year, it seems the moment when I have the time and inclination to write to friends. Sometimes it is to give thanks for a gift received, sometimes to renew an old friendship or nurture an existing one. As I know that some of you who read this blog are also friends, I thought that it could be nice also to share my news with you. If you were the recipient of this letter I hope that you won’t mind if I give the parts relating to life at La Faula a wider circulation!
30 November 2012
... Every morning I wake up to Radio 4 and the shipping forecast. Most mornings it seems that the UK is enveloped in rain and darkness and I guess that this can’t have been any help. I imagine that the current UK weather must be provoking real respiratory problems, it all seems so damp and humid!
Here we have been very lucky and have had a really nice and warm autumn. It has rained a bit but nothing exceptional. As I guess you know Tuscany and Puglia and many other regions have been very badly affected by flooding. I love the autumn and winter in Friuli - when warm that is - and so far it has all been to my liking! As you read in my blog, we lost our central heating circuit on the ground floor. As the boiler still heats other sections of the house this has not been such a disaster as it could have been if the weather had turned cold. The new radiators have, in any case. arrived and my guess is that they will be mounted next week so I am expecting a very cosy winter. We have also ordered a Norwegian wood-burning stove to insert into the traditional fireplace in the little room at the end of the house where you did a lot of your work. The stove has three glass sides and can be rotated so I am actually looking forward to being able to sit beside the fire in the evenings and do my computer work. Old age makes one realise that creature comforts are not to be deferred to "later" as "later" is more or less already here!
Italy has gone-off the cliff. It’s all over but no-one wants to say it (I write like one of those mad, paranoia-driven, American right-wing, conspiracy minded, wing-nuts!). Whether they say it or not, the game is up, time is called and Italy is on a quick ride to poverty. It is not unbelievable but what I do find unbelievable, in a way, is that it has happened and so quickly. When I wrote in my blog, upon the arrival of Monti, that this would be the result of his policies, my conclusions were the result of my intellectual understanding of economic cause and effect. Argument and reason can bring one to an intrinsically shocking conclusion but this doesn’t mean that one is personally shocked. But, I am shocked by what is going on around us at the moment. The economy has stopped in Friuli and the statistics indicate that this is the same, if not worse, in other parts of the country. The feeling that I have I compare to the feeling that German Jews must have had in the 1930’s - before the war - when they realised that the Nazis where serious about changing their role in society in ways that once would have been unthinkable. That a government of a Western Country would so deliberately - if ignorantly - destroy the last possible chance for its citizens to enjoy the lifestyle of a moderately prosperous developed economy defies belief. Italy is Zimbabwe.
Of course, the official line in Europe is that Monti has saved Italy. But this doesn’t make his evil any less real. It’s the real-deal Len! It is this Italian generation’s equivalent of the second world war. Thankfully there is no war to be had, so deaths will be avoided, but the social dislocation will be equally as great and Italy, from a much less illustrious base, will decline as inexorably as the Roman Empire, just with a super-enhanced velocity!
Moving-on, Luca is fine. Very relaxed at the moment. I must write and tell you all about the wine situation. It is, in fact, a very Italian story, but I should mention that we have just sold two large pallets of red wine to Japan at a good price. This is satisfying and in the next weeks I will be bottling more wine. Anyway, wine shall be for another night! ...
The story of our neighbour Loris’s farm - continued ...
Factories are closing and the surplus labour that once went to work in industry is now stuck on the land. Children that would once have left the farm for greener pastures and fields anew now remain at home with their parents. As family size grows, these young people are pushed to enlarge the amount of land that the family farms. Of farm machinery there is excess capacity, so they search out fields to rent. Land is not for sale as retired farmers hold onto the land in order to receive the CAP (Common Agriculture Policy) payments. The increased competition for land is stressing Loris. Over recent time, Loris had arrived at a settled number of retired farmers and their descendants that he rented land from. An informal "gentleman’s agreement" operated to prevent poaching of land to rent between the existing farmers. But the introduction of extra labour into the rural economy has upset this agreement and the new entrants, motivated by need and, probably, desperation, have no fear in attempting to poach fields from other farmers, such as Loris, by offering slightly better rents to the owners. The cake is not getting bigger but it is being sliced more finely and Loris is feeling the pinch.
And another change has occurred which has affected, profoundly, Loris’s feeling of financial security. Ten years ago Loris looked at his large house, barns and workshops and saw a capital investment that at the end, or in the case of some unforeseen negative event, could be turned into a generous cash sum to guarantee his future financial security. But in the last year the market in housing and farm buildings has frozen. It is clear that there was historic massive over-building of the small-holder farms. Now there are too many farm buildings attached to too little land. The buildings are old and expensive to maintain, the houses uninsulated and expensive to heat in the winter . Loris can not envision anyone wanting to buy his farm as a whole. The best that he can foresee is selling the fields piecemeal. Suddenly, Loris has realised that he is not working to create a capital asset the value of which he will realise when he retires. Instead of value having been added to the farm in these last years, value has been taken away. The real value in Loris’s farm is in what he can earn by farming and what he will realise from the sale of the productive land that he owns when he eventually retires.
So, there are too many farmers, with too many small farms and with an extremely limited supply of land for enlargement . These farmers, unlike the previous generation, cannot respond to their straightened reality by leaving farming and moving into industry, as there is no industry, and they are without the possibility of emigration as they are tied to their farms and in any case lack the skills to emigrate and re-establish themselves in another field in another country. The economic crisis in Italy in the last year has seen the reversal of the normal flow of excess labour from the countryside to the city or to industry. Lacking other possibilities, children stay at home on the farm even if it is too small to sustain them as adults. It is a disaster. And this disaster was created by State intervention that favoured the establishment of too many inefficient small farms and then, by keeping CAP payments to retired farmers and their descendants (who register themselves as farmers), ensures that land is locked down and not available to those farmers trying to farm for a living and who need to get bigger to utilise their plant more efficiently and to increase their productivity.
As Loris says, can it really be the case that in the Povoletto Council area comprising five villages, there is the need for seven combine harvesters and more than 200 tractors?
So Loris will keep on farming, carefully, and earning a living. Costs are high, but for cereals farmers prices have recently improved and forecasts are that the deleterious effects of global warming on food production and increasing world population will keep prices high and higher in the future. Where his story will finish-up he doesn’t know. But he does know that no matter how good or bad an entrepreneur he is, he doesn’t define the rules of the game. Farming in Europe is a Statist project. The terms under which it is conducted are defined by the political system. Loris runs on the treadmill that has been made for him. His father and uncles got on it and were, in the times of boom, handsomely rewarded. Those times are over and Loris has inherited the treadmill. It gives him a living but he can’t avoid the feeling that as the treadmill turns for him it inexorably slows. It seems like entropy. And it probably is.
Remembering a First Christmas, Italy
I remember something about Christmas. In that time, we had only one day for the Christmas festival: the 25th of December, the birth day of Jesus Christ and the Faithful went to Church, the Priest celebrated the mass and the Faithful had previously made the Nativity Scene that recalled the birth of Jesus Christ I also remember that the Christmas carols were very moving. I should also note as regards the Christmas festival that I remember it as being important and very nice. Also the children, everyone, on Christmas Eve put their shoes under the window on the window sill or on the floor and Father Christmas brought some presents like an apple, mandarins nuts and oranges. A few families made and decorated the Christmas tree. Underneath the tree there were some presents to give each other. To conclude I would like to give you my Regards and Best Wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Lastly, I will tell you something about the really different Christmas festival that I passed when I was in Australia. Usually everybody spent the Christmas holiday at the seaside. Because over there it was summertime. And so the weather was very hot.
Christmas many years ago. I remember awakening in the wee hours of the morning when it was still dark. I called my mother who was still asleep as I wanted immediately to check if Father Christmas had been. To my big surprise I found my first bicycle.
We were in three children when I was a child and I remember not a particular Christmas but the atmosphere of Christmas I remember that we decorated the Christmas tree using many glass balls in very different colours, and for lighting we used candles. But my mum was afraid because of the risk of fire So we lit the candles only for a short time, switching off the electric lamps and so the light was suggestive, flickering. We even made a nativity scene and we children were always discussing how to prepare it. I remember in the evening we went to bed very excited and anticipating the morning and we were full of expectations for the gifts that we would find in the morning. I don’t remember any particular gifts but I do remember the joy of the wait.
Christmas in the 50’s in Artegna. I remember the nativity scene with the moss of the woods. The Christmas tree was for rich people. I remember 24 December the midnight mass and after, at home, the warm broth and a slice of focaccia. And after to bed. I remember the presents, little things: mandarins, walnuts hazel nuts, peanuts, some chocolate and some candies. Seldom toys. For us children a wonderful festival. Christmas is today still beautiful a family festival, but ..... now already in October in the department stores there are a lot of Christmas ornaments, glitter, garlands etc. and balls, balls, and more balls! What a drag!
Christmas 1946. In that time I lived in Rome with my family before transferring to Brazil with my family. I am sick in bed because I have one of the children’s sicknesses. I am not in my usual bedroom with my brother but in another room of the house. In this room my mother has installed a very big nativity scene, as was the tradition in my family. It has a large blue sky with many little stars, little statues represented the Christmas folk like Mary, Joseph, shepherds and so on. There are many little houses and the mountains dusted with faint snow and multi coloured lights. This installation is mounted on a table and surrounded by a table-skirt. In the night I see my Daddy come in the dark into this room carrying many packets and putting them under the table-skirt. Next day is Christmas day and the packets are distributed amongst the members of my family. That magic charming atmosphere of this first Christmas was never more created in my life (perhaps because in Brazil it was summer time and too hot).
My first Christmas The time is too distant to have a lot of memory. The images that I have in my mind are not very clear. But in particular I remember the great preparation of my mother to dress, to be elegant, together with all the family. After the mass we exchanged presents. I remember well the presents under the tree to open, a great meal and sweets to have after dinner.
The memory that I have of Christmas is Christmas Eve. There was a special dinner and there were also traditional sweets. Then at midnight we went to mass. We were a large family and we had only the produce of our land to eat. My parents as a Christmas gift bought oranges and sweets. In those days, where I was born, the mountain villages were very poor. Then I got married. With my husband, I emigrated in search of work to improve our lives.
My memories of Christmas are beautiful: even if we did not have family, close friends only, because my parents when young emigrated to Venezuela there was a lot of fun, food to eat, music and gifts. I believed in the Christ Child and so I wrote letters to get what I wanted as a gift and almost always the gift arrived. We didn’t want expensive gifts because these were in other times with few needs, not like now, but we were all happy! Now there is no longer Christmas for us for when one’s child has died, one can no longer celebrate.