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This would also be a great way to catch the posts that are put up and then suddenly removed for linguistic reasons (Jean says they don’t make sense) or social reasons (Jean says I really can’t say things like that).

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Learning Italian

I never realised that learning Italian was a competitive sport.  But around the cottage this is starting to be the case.

Jean's homework.

We had our first lesson last Friday and were plunged into the realm of verbs – both the regular and the irregular.  I must have been away the day they covered all this in school so not only was I learning Italian I was also learning the structure of language – in Italian.  Suffice it to say I don’t think I’m going to be a star pupil.

My lovely wife, however, was taking it all in, chipping in with useful comments and questions and making copious notes along the way.  After an hour my brain was full and our tutor, Mauro, realising that nothing more was going in asked us to do a little homework for the next lesson.  Nothing too taxing but homework none the less.

We adjourned to a bar around the Campo in Siena for a well deserved drink and discussion.  We were pleased with the lesson and with our choice of language school.  Yes, there was some homework to do but, let’s face it, we didn’t have a lot else to do.  It should be easy – no stress.

Yesterday morning I rose at my usual time of 10am, refreshed my cup of tea in the kitchen, and wandered out to the verandah.  There, hunched over her notes with cigarette in hand, was my wife furiously scribbling homework notes, completing sentences, scouring the dictionary for nouns, and  filling page after page with perfectly executed Italian.

Now to put things in context, I’d spent upwards of 15 minutes the previous day sitting by the pool jotting down some random notes which I thought might cover the homework.  I had included a rather good doodle of an Italian villa on a hill with a Cypress tree next to it – not strictly part of the homework but I’m sure I would get extra marks for it.

I could see where this was going and I wasn’t going to stand for it.  The last 24 hours has seen a flurry of activity as notes are made about notes, verbs are conjugated and nouns are possessed and repossessed.  Conversation has been non-existent and the only sound has been the occasional sentence said aloud in italian to test pronunciation.

Alas I fear it is all to no avail as every time I sneak a look at Jean’s work I see myself drifting further behind the pace.  My only hope is that time honoured excuse – the dog ate my homework.

Now, where is Daisy?

Everywhere we go – cars!

Some of the more observant of you may have noticed that in some of our photos of Siena used in another post, there was a considerable crowd assembled outside the Palazzo Publicco in the Campo.

Initially we had no idea why they were there (to celebrate our return to Siena – probably not) or why part of the Campo was being blocked off and officials were running around putting up barriers, blowing whistles and generally ordering people around in the Italian way.

The first clue we had was the sound of high powered engines approaching through the narrow Sienese streets. The second clue was the appearance of some very expensive high performance motor cars which paraded through the Campo. The final clue was the large sticker on each car with a number and the moniker “Miglia 1000”.

It was the day the 2011 Miglia rally came through Siena. The Miglia is an annual rally event for historic cars of note or significance. That means very expensive cars or very old cars, or both. This year it included a Ferrari tribute to the Miglia as well – so that would be more expensive, very new cars. It took around 4 hours for all the cars to go through the Campo on their way north but it was a chance to see some cars that you would normally only be able to see in museums – including a genuine Porsche 550 Spyder.

For those of you who might like to participate in this event next year the entry fee is a mere €6,360.

Back to school

There’s a degree of nervousness around the cottage today.  It’s the first Italian lesson this afternoon which means a double stress.  Firstly we have to apply our brains to something other than – pool day or not a pool day – and secondly we actually have to be somewhere at a pre arranged time.  Almost like a meeting.

But as with all things Italian there is a twist.  And the twist was an invitation we got from our language school to lunch last Wednesday.  It was an opportunity to get to know the staff and some of the other pupils before starting lessons.  Everyone bought something for the meal and we spent 2 hours chatting in a mix of Italian, English and occasionally other obscure languages as required.

The students are all nationalities, ages and backgrounds.  Everything from an Australian art student brushing up her Italian on the way to the Venice Biennale where she is one of the hosts at the Oz site, to a retired Irishman who was taking a group from one of the local Sinese contrada to have lunch with the Irish ambassador in Rome on Saturday.  He had learnt Italian at the school previously and was just taking a few “top up” lessons in anticipation of the visit.

Anyway, enough of this writing, I must go and get my school books ready.

We are now with TIM

A big day last Thursday.  We took the plunge and visited the local electronics store to get our technology “italianised”.  It was finally time to break the shackles of Vodafones roaming rates and start to enjoy cheap local calls and internet access.

We went into the local “Trony” shop (it’s italian for Noel Leeming I think) and plonked two iPhones, two iPads and one laptop on the counter and basically said fix it.

The young lady helping us had as good a grasp of English as we have of Italian but one hour and 4 SIM cards and a modem stick later we were customers of TIM (Telecom Italia Mobile) and everything seemed to work – and still does.

We have no exact idea of the rates we are being charged – our anglo-italia mix of language and gestures didn’t quite stretch to that. The TIM website is comprehensive and detailed but also completely in Italian which doesn’t help but we know whatever we’re paying it’s going to a lot less than Vodafone roaming rates.

The next challenge will be to top up the phones which can be done through the local Tabacchi shops which are found in every town and village.  I’m figuring we go in waving our phones and a wad of Euro notes and someone will understand.

I’ll be emailing our new numbers to everyone over the next few days.

Our place.

In the last post about our home for the next six months I may have given the impression that it is small – and it is.  But, at the end of the day, it’s what we were expecting.

Of course it only took a week for Jean to perform a “tardis” like transformation on the place.  Two furniture shifts later and with a little interior decoration our place now feels like – our place.

There’s a list of stuff we’ll get over the next few weeks ranging from decent wine glasses (those of you who have rented a villa previously will remember the thimble sized wine glasses that inevitably are found in the cupboard) to more coat hangers and various kitchen tools and, as mentioned previously, that barbecue.

As predicted, the weather has warmed up – 26 degrees today – the front verandah has become the major living area in the mornings and afternoons.  Maybe we need to get a bigger table out there – something else to add to the list.


There has been a town on the site of Siena since 900BC although the height of Siena’s power was in the 1400s.  Traditionally Siena and Florence have been competing city states with the balance of power fluctuating between the two until this rivalry culminated in a final battle in 1555 which Florence won.  Since then Siena has always been the second city in Tuscany.

Having said that, it’s our local town and our first city of Tuscany.  We love it.

Our love affair began 10 years ago when we first visited.  We had a rental car and very little understanding of Italian and we were determined to see this town.  As we drove in we noticed that the wide modern roads were turning to narrow cobbled roads flanked by two and three story buildings and that the volume of traffic was dropping. The streets got narrower with more pedestrians, all of whom seemed surprised to see us.  Sadly our Italian wasn’t good enough to translate  the “residents only – no entry” signs that dotted the walls.  Eventually we realised that where we had our car was a place where cars simply shouldn’t be – imagine driving through the middle of Queensgate Mall in Lower Hutt on a Wednesday afternoon and you’ll understand.

Our only problem was we didn’t know how to get out again.  Siena is a maze, we had no idea where we were and at that time GPS was still a classified military secret.  My suggestion was we park the car, get out and advise Hertz to come and get it.  Jean was slightly more practical.  She spotted a local taxi and figured that following that would firstly keep us out of trouble and secondly, eventually lead us out.

To this day I’m sure there is a bemused Sienese taxi driver who wonders why two crazy tourists in a dirty Punto rental car followed him around Siena for an afternoon.  Whenever he stopped to pick up or drop off a passenger, we stopped and dutifully waited.  But eventually the twists and turns became less and the roads became wider and we exited the old city through one of the many gates – still following the cab.

We now know the way to see the old part of Siena is on foot and to make use of one of the many parking areas and buildings that are positioned around the outside of the old city.  The one we use most is in the University and the walk into the city is an experience in itself.

The heart of Siena is the Campo, the large semi circular piazza in front of the Palazzo Pubblico or town hall which has it’s own impressive clock tower.  The tower dominates the city skyline and is an ideal vantage point to view the city.  It’s 400 steps to the top and the climb is not recommended for those scared of enclosed spaces (the walk up has virtually no windows and is a narrow spiral staircase) or heights (the view from the top covers a fair chunk or the Tuscan countryside).

The campo is also the location for the twice yearly Palio when the various contrada or neighborhoods of Siena compete in a horse race around the Campo.  If you are visiting Siena on July 2 or August 15 it’s a “must see” event.

This trip we couldn’t wait to visit Siena and specifically to spend an afternoon sitting in the Campo having a drink with the girls and simply take in the sights and sounds around us.  And that’s the thing.  While the Campo is a major tourist attraction with tour groups and tourists always enjoying the sights, it is still a place to find the locals doing what Sienese locals do best.  Just getting on with life.

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Tuscany is green.

No I don’t mean in the tree hugging, hemp suit, brown paper recycling way.  The landscape itself is actually green – bright, glowing verde.

Everytime we’ve come to Tuscany in the past it has been midsummer.  And the heat of the preceding months have done their work – the colours of summer are tans and browns and burnt ochres.  The colour palate hints at green in the trees, cypresss and pines, but the overwhelming look is a faded patchwork of earthy tones.  Fields of sun flowers are dotted in between hay fields that have been harvested and now lie dormant, brown and tanned in the sun, the hay resting in rolled bails drying and waiting for collection before Autumn.

But May is different.  Everything is growing furiously.  Crops have yet to be harvested and the countryside is bursting with life.  It’s like some controversial artist has taken a brush and wiped the brightest green across the Tuscan hills and valleys.  The Tuscan tourist board would not be impressed.

A neighbouring villa on a nearby hilltop.

As we drove to our cottage for the first time this green-ness took us by surprise.  Were we in the right place?  Had we inadvertantly stumbled into Tuscany’s greener and wetter neighbour Umbria by mistake? Were our memories playing tricks with us?

Happily the last few days have seen the start of Tuscany changing from spring to summer.  Spotted across the landscape, some fields that were green have now been harvested and have, overnight, taken on that dried summer feel.  In the mornings we hear the sound of tractors firing up and later that day another field has been transformed.

Already we can see the Tuscany we remember returning, slowly but surely.

The full view from the terrace.

We’re here!

After a 2 hour drive from the Portofino Coast with a stop off in Florence to pick up some doggie supplies we arrived at our place.

We were greeted by the owner Mrs Patrizia whose grasp of English was amost as good as our grasp of Italian and after much hand waving, nodding and gesturing she showed us around our home for the next 6 months or so.

The guided tour didn’t take long.

We’d figured that the whole cottage was about half the size of our living room at home and we were right.  Three rooms – an open plan lounge, dining room and kitchen, a bedroom and a bathroom.  The open plan area is compact enough that taking the dishes from the dining table to the kitchen means leaning back and putting things on the bench.

The cottage has an unofficial fourth room which will probably get used the most as summer progresses – the front verandah which is shaded in the mornings and catches the afternoon sun filtered through the surrounding trees.  In the height of summer this will be the centre of living, I suspect.

Although the cottage is ideal for a week long summer rental, it lacks a few things we consider necessities for a 6 month stay and we are spending the first week making lists. Currently the list contains everything from a decent kettle (making coffee, no problem everything is provided but boiling water for tea means a saucepan of water on the stove) to more pillows, a barbecue (we are kiwis after all) and decent wine glasses.

One thing that took us by surprise was the lack of a decent oven. There is a gas hob and a small benchtop oven but nowhere for Jean to cook her famous Tuscan roast chicken.  This something we are going to remedy and we are on the lookout for a decent benchtop oven.  Either that or we are going to be buying one hell of a barbecue.

A new and exciting place to visit.

On our trip south we needed a place to stay for a night between Villefranche-Sur-Mer and our cottage.  We wanted to avoid the big cities like Torino and Milano and so, once again, Trip Advisor was tasked with finding a place.  More accurately Jean using Trip Advisor was tasked with finding a place.

On the Portofino coast a hotel called Cenobio Dei Dogi caught Jean’s attention and met our standard requirements of parking and dogs welcomed.

It was quite expensive – even with a discounted rate – but this was offset by free parking (it can be as much as €25 a night at some places) and no charge for the girls (which can also be as much as €15 a night each).

Finding the hotel which is situated right on the waters edge was a challenge as leaving the highway, which is high above the water, meant winding down the hill using the usual maze of one way streets and switchback roads that is typical of driving along the Italian Coast.  Some of the roads are so close together and the switchbacks so tight that our Tom Tom GPS navigation system couldn’t tell which of two roads we were on.  This is a recipe for wrong turns and the occasional wrong way up a one way street.  Being Italy this type of thing warrants a blast on the horn from fellow motorists followed by a wave of the hand once you extricate the car and get back on track.  You get the feeling even the locals have trouble on occasions.

Jean’s visit to Trip Advisor had given us an idea of what to expect but the reality far exceeded our expectations.  The hotel was built in the late 50s or early 60s and that classic character has been retained.  You are half expecting movie stars like Cary Grant or Sophia Loren to sweep into the bar or out on to the terrace for a pre-dinner aperitif.

We wiled away the afternoon on the Terrace, overlooking the Ligurian Sea enjoying a drink or two.  The service was immaculate and friendly.  When our waiter found out one of our dogs was called Poppie there was much amusement.  He explained that Poppi was the name of his fellow waiter and this became an ongoing joke for the rest of the afternoon.

Hotel Cenobio Dei Dogi will be our last taste of hotel luxury for a while as our next stop is Tuscany and our new home.

View looking north from the terrace with morning coffee in progress.

Dogs in hotels, bars and restaurants

The concept of taking our girls into a bar or restaurant in Wellington is inconceivable.  Here it is the accepted norm, in fact hotel and bar staff are quite surprised that we would even ask if it is possible. “But of course” was the standard response matched with a look of surprise.

So for the last week (and in the UK also) the girls have learnt about eating out. We always thought that Poppie would be good around other people, food, noise and the bustle of a bar or restaurant.  We weren’t quite so sure about Daisy.

Our friend Andre nick-named her Walter (after grumpy Walter Mattau’s character Oscar in the TV series The Odd Couple) because she would sometimes greet him or the kids with a growl and a nip at any hand that was in reach.  It’s fair to say Daisy isn’t good with people.

In a bar or restaurant she potentially was dynamite.  And the first times we went into assorted pubs in the UK she had her moments – and a fair bit of time out on the street being walked up and down to cool off.  On one occasion she exceeded herself and christened the pub carpet but, as someone pointed out, it was no worse than what happened to the carpet on a Friday night anyway.

By France she had the whole thing under her belt (or should that be collar) and no matter whether it was a half full local bar or a packed fine dining restaurant she behaved herself perfectly.

Up to a point.  The only thing we have to master now with Daisy is other dogs.  Daisy plus any strange dog means chaos because Daisy clearly thinks she’s a German Shepherd.  She has no fear of other dogs and barks and snarls at them, anytime, anywhere.

It’s good we have something to work on over the next few months.

Next – Italy

Good weather has followed us through France and we are now relaxing – even more than usual – on the Cote d’Azur at our favourite Cote d’Azur hotel – Hotel Welcome at Villefranche-Sur-Mer.

The view from our room at Hotel Welcome.

In the last four days we have driven the length of France from Calais to Nice with stops at Lille, a rather special Chateau in the Champagne region which warrants a post of its own, and in Lyon.

Our trusty Peugeot has served us well and is now covered in a broad selection of French bugs and insects.  It has used two tanks of gazoil (diesel) – at about twice the price of diesel in New Zealand so don’t complain about high petrol prices folks. We have overtaken about 10,000 trucks on the trip and been overtaken by about the same number of flying Porsches, Audis and BMWs.

We are now only a day or so away from our home for the next 6 months and are looking forward to settling into a place for longer than one night and being able to unpack properly.