Saturday, 28 February 2009

Italy - all is forgiven.

Overnight the seasons have changed. We've moved from the most horrible damp, windy, bitter winter into an idyllic spring. I'm sitting here - it's already 13 degrees, the birds are singing and the boyz have returned from their walk with their paws free of mud. It makes you remember why Italy is so magical - the trees are all suddenly bursting into bud, the light has changed from a cold harsh northern glare into a soft shimmering miasma, and the countryside is turning from brown into emerald green. Please disregard all my previous grumpy posts -put them down to seasonal factors. I could even forgive ENEL the electricity company!

The jobs for the coming week entail getting out all the tables and furniture in readiness for the summer ( we largely live outside between April and October ), airing the guest rooms ( it's amazing how popular you become in the summer ) and thinking about shade rather than fighting the cold. For the two boyz this is the perfect time of the year - not too cold , not too hot.

On a more serious note the sharp contraction in US GDP yesterday ( down 6.2% in the fourth quarter of 2008 ) points to a nasty, brutish and severe recession that will be mercifully short in duration. The alternative would have been a long slow gradual Japanese style downturn that would last a decade and leave every corner of the economy in turmoil. Despite the gloom there is a silver lining - with such rapid declines taking place it's possible the worst will be over in four or five months and a gradual recovery can begin. It's stillpretty scary living through the sort of downturn we never thought our generation would see.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The worst utility in the world ?

Drove to the local offices of the utility company this morning to try to understand why our utility bills have gone up 35% in the last year for the same amount of power consumed. After waiting for 45 minutes eventually managed top see a 'customer representative'. The term customer has a very different meaning here in Italy from the accepted sense in northern Europe. After asking for an explanation for the unannounced hike was told that if I 'didn't want to spend that much I should use less - it's only common sense'. Was left, as I often am when dealing with bureaucracy here, absolutely speechless. Final humiliation was when I pointed out that electricity charges are falling in Scotland so why not in Italy to which the answer came : ' Yes but this is Europe and we have competition here'. Faced with this blind, illogical obtuseness have retreated to see how I can cut back on the amount we use. Must be the only country in the world where competition leads to price increases. Pricing of electricity here has to be the best advert there is for building nuclear power plants.

As can be seen from the photos the boyz coats are getting very long. As soon as it gets warmer they will be off for a major shearing to remove the worst of the matted hair.

Polish Lowland Sheepdogs and food

Any dog owner will know only too well how their prize animals can move with all the speed and stealth of a puma when food is being prepared. It is uncanny how Wilf and Digby can segue from deep sleep to electric alertness in the space of a nanosecond when we move to start preparing breakfast, lunch or dinner. I don't know whether it is the sounds we make, the action of opening the fridge door, or the smell of food - or a combination of all three - but they have a 100% hit rate when it comes to being in place for meal times. The boyz have been trained so that they know that they have to wait for us to eat first but that doesn't stop them from sitting in the kitchen looking longingly and imploringly at whatever is on the menu. They really are the ever hopeful duo!

Polish Lowland Sheepdogs - the antithesis of fashion.

New Yorkers might be used to seeing chi chi dog stores but for those of us from the northern reaches of Scotland the Harrods pet department is quite an eye opener. What a range of toys and treats. One has to wonder what sort or owner or dog would be seen in public with some of the fashion creations on show? Thankfully, with two robust Polish Lowland Sheepdog brothers canine fashion is not a subject we are ever likely to explore.

If you look closely on the bottom photograph you can see the large yellow squeaking baboon that I bought as a new indestructible toy for the boyz.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Back from London with a boyz toy from Harrods

Found time last night to go to the new pet store on the fourth floor of Harrods. The previous pet store was a rather pokey little corner situated beyond the furthermost reaches of the garden department. Now , the pet department has expanded and has a bijoux location and oodles of space. There is even a pet bakery with all sorts of organic treats for your pooch at prices that are close to stratospheric! The boyz got a large floppy yellow monkey that squeaks all for the grand total of £6.95. Wilf has already been introduced to it and is sitting at the top of the stairs with the strange vibrantly coloured toy firmly controlled between his front paws.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Going to London - back on Thursday

Off to London - will be back on Thursday and will post then.

Wilf returning from his early morning boundary check

Still cold here. The sun has returned but with it a piercing wind from the north. All in all it's been a miserable winter. More and more foreign registered cars have been appearing on the roads over the last week so it looks as if the expats who live in Holland and the UK have decided to head south away from what must be an even worse winter up north.

The locals are now talking about 'the crisis' and the slowdown in the local economy.The bar in the village is notably quieter than usual as people cut back on their breakfast espresso .The restaurants around here are absolutely dead midweek and their owners are all praying for an upsurge in tourists at Easter to compensate for the absence of neighbourhood custom. Naturally, no one has thought of discounting their prices to attract tourists so I am afraid that they will be disappointed. It is interesting that the recession that has been engaging the attention of the rest of the world for the last year has only now percolated down and registered on the local consciousness. The local wine producers continue to expand but I can't believe that demand for their products from the US and the UK is going to be that strong this year particularly as they have raised their prices by 10% from last years levels. The little manufacturing companies around here have been busy selling to Germany for the last fifty years and have simply not been prepared for the 40% fall in German machine tool orders and the consequent cancellation of orders.

Monday, 23 February 2009

Hurry up ! The butchers closing soon.

The road repair team arrive after I've filled the potholes

Yesterday I wheeled ten barrow loads of gravel down the dirt road that leads to the house to fill up some of the pot holes that had opened up in the recent rains. It was back breaking work. Today on my way back from town I was in a self congratulatory mood - the road was as smooth as silk and the car glided along without the usual shudders and shakes. Sadly, this turnaround was not due to my road repairing skills. While I was out the commune workmen had come along with three large truck loads of sand and stone and repaired the entire road. I'd been asking for it to be done for three months and had resigned myself to the fact that they would never show up. What perfect timing! Wilf had a fun time coming out with me to inspect the handiwork.

Zurich - everywhere you go you find a fountain

Have been looking at the snaps I took on the cellphone in Zurich. I've never seen so many fountains in a town - every square and street seems to have one. Must ask to find out whether they are the real thing or a modern adornment built to give a medieval feel to the place. Must be great having them in the summer but a bit frigid at this time of year.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Sunday night server problems

We are so far out in the country here that we have to use satellite broadband. The best Telecom Italia can provide is a dial-up along the old copper wires with speeds that would make a snail look fast. For some reason every Sunday the server for the satellite provider seems to work really slowly - I guess it's when they do essential maintenance. Anyway, the snow and ice have finally gone - Wilf was out this morning rolling and frolicking in what was left of it - but by lunchtime the sun was out the temperature was rising and spring was on the way. I managed to do some olive pruning but the potholes along the dirt road to the house became the priority - the little cars suspension was finding it hard to compensate for the deeper craters.Off for dinner now with our nice American neighbours , will blog tomorrow.

Time to trim the olive trees - Wilf stands guard : ' ils ne passeront pas'.

I've been putting it off but it is now time to trim the olive trees. They put on new growth from the base and from the centre and this needs to be pruned back vigorously to keep the yield up and make the harvesting easy. It's a horrible job. Olive branches are very pliable and are for ever springing back to whack you in the face.

Wilf makes an excellent companion when out in the fields. He settles down and immediately goes into his hard wired sheepdog guarding mode. This involves barking loudly every five minutes or so to let any loitering wildlife know that they would have to contend with him. In this photograph he is putting on his best 'ils ne passeront pas' attitude.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

A picture of happiness

An incident on the Swissair flight

Got home late last night after a long delay on the flight from Zurich. The Swissair Airbus to Rome was just about to takeoff when a young man from the back of the plane came running and screaming down the aisle towards the cockpit followed by a second very large young man who seemed to be trying to wrestle him to the ground. As we all sat there wondering whether or not it was a hijacking ,the first young man collapsed backwards with a large thud onto the floor of the galley.Eventually,the plane rolled back to the gate and the first unconscious young man was taken off to hospital by a team of very efficient paramedics. It seems that the second young man was a friend of his who had been alarmed by his increasingly erratic behaviour while the plane was preparing for takeoff. The crew told me when we eventually got to Rome that this was not an isolated occurrence and that 'bad acid ' is a common cause of extreme paranoia.
Made it home at midnight. There was only one major accident on the motorway from the airport which caused a mere twenty minute tail back. Boyz were of course delighted to have the family reunited. This morning after a healthy walk they have been loaded into the back of the car in readiness for a trip to the local village.

A quick trip to Zurich

A quick overnight trip to Zurich to give a speech about the state of the world economy . I had always thought Zurich to be a dull, functional , fun less place. That would be quite wrong - like much of Switzerland it's quite a revelation when you get away from the main tourist routes or go out of season. The old town has that picture perfect beauty that you expect of Switzerland without the contrived manicured excess that makes Geneva so dull for anyone under eighty years of age. The town is full of restaurants and bars and far from being dour the people seemed to be having fun - albeit in a strait-laced sort of way. No public drunkenness here but plenty of places to stop off and get out of the cold and have a drink!
After Italy it's quite a shock to be in a northern European culture where people stop at traffic lights, where cars aren't double parked and where everything works like clockwork. But the cost! For those of us who have to pay in Sterling the exchange rate comes as quite a shock - a hamburger in the hotel cost £35 and a glass of champagne £30. I guess we are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the days of an overvalued pound are gone for a long time to come.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Todays decidedly chilly view across the hills to Todi

Polish Lowland Sheepdog after an ice storm

Here are pictures of Wilf on this mornings walk. It was so cold I thought that my fingers would fall off but he considered the sub zero temperatures to be a great excuse for playing catch and charging across the fields chasing non-existent animals. His little brother sat patiently by the front gate until his elder sibling returned.

An ice storm overnight and a magical landscape this morning

Woke up at five this morning to a howling gale and the sound of hail stones beating down on the roof. Digby, who is frightened by extreme weather, dragged himself up the stairs and hid under the bed while Wilf feigned a top dogs indifference and majestically slept through the storm at the front door. After breakfast we went for a walk to find the whole countryside covered in a layer of ice a couple of centimetres thick. Digby who has been suffering from a sore hip refused to move outside the gate while Wilf went chasing after a ball at high speed cavorting through the ice encrusted grass in the olive groves to his hearts content. It was registering minus ten on the outside thermometer which is a decidedly un-Italian temperature. Digby is now back in and reclining on his new bed in front of the fire. I shall try to entice him out for a walk when the sun warms up the air.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The ageing Polish Lowland Sheepdog - signs of recession in Perugia.

Went to Perugia this morning to get a new dog cushion for Digby. His hip dysplasia is causing him pain when he walks and in this bitter cold his favourite position is curled up in front of the fire on a padded cushion. The dog bed we currently have was bought in Scotland shortly after the two boyz arrived and is today a combination of health hazard and eyesore - it's held together by a few fraying and heavily chewed pieces of cloth. Its a shame to see him dragging his back legs along but it is a common problem in the breed when they get to 8 years old. Painful or not, it doesn't interfere with his appetite. Hopefully, the warmer weather when it arrives will alleviate the symptoms. For the time being one of us has to take his elder brother out for a walk while Digby sits by the gate sciouring the horizon and waiting mournfully for his return.Polish Lowland Sheepdogs 'do' sad well.

Saw the first tangible signs that the recession has finally hit Italy. A perfume factory next door to the dog supply shop in Perugia is closing. It employs 90 staff but demand from the US and eastern Europe has collapsed and the company is retrenching to its remaining factory in Milan. The outside of the factory is covered in hand painted signs berating the management as liars and thieves etc etc. Large bunches of brightly coloured balloons add a festive and very Italian touch to the sad sight. I think there is going to be much much more of this. I spoke to an old family friend in Moscow last night - Russian industrial production fell 20% in January - and he says that contracts are being cancelled and imports are in free fall. Without these large export markets the Germans and Italians are going to find it hard to stop their respective economies declining by four or five percent this year - a figure much higher than the one or two percent they are expecting.It's often forgotten that Britain accounts for 14% of EU exports and its not difficult to forecast that demand from the UK is likely to be dire this year. Add the weakness in the US and now Russia and Hungary and the snowballing effect of this downturn stretches everywhere including those countries that thought they would escape the worst of it.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Wilf enjoys the Arctic winds - Digby doesn't

Boy has it been cold ! The ice has formed a surface half an inch thick on the puddles of water down the driveway and it's remained frozen solid all day. We have burnt twice as much wood in the house fires this year as we did last year and the use of gas and electricity are up by 40% - I guess that's proof that this has been a severe winter. Despite the cold we've all been out in the grounds working out what needs to be done when the spring arrives. The wild lupins that we planted in the four hectares immediately around the house are coming up again and we'll leave them in place .The number of birds and hares seems to have increased this year over last so perhaps the lupins provide good ground cover and seed.Wilf has been having fun in the wind but Digby's arthritis has been playing up again with the extreme cold and he's been sheltering in a sunny spot in the garden.

Saturday, 14 February 2009

A shock from the electricity bill

Have just received our electricity bill. The price of electricity is now five times , yes 5 times, what we pay for a kilowatt hour in the UK. The increase was itemized in small print on page 4 of the supporting notes - naturally no pre-notification of the increase had been sent out or explanation posted on the company website. Consumer rights and protection are unheard of here. Guess it's the price you have to pay in a country with no nuclear power generating capacity, no gas or oil reserves of its own, and a reliance on Russia for its energy supplies. It could also be something to do with the freezing weather this winter which has kept us in much more than last year. Today we have seen minus seven and snow. The boyz have loved it but the little ones hip has started to play up in the sub zero temperatures.

Friday, 13 February 2009

The Roman Servian wall

Just outside Rome's main railway station can be found a stretch of one of the earliest roman walls built around 400 BC. The masons marks and numbers can still be clearly seen. Originally, the walls had earth piled up against their inner,city sides as a form of embankment. This soil buttress provided additional strength against attackers trying to undermine or batter their way through them. Until the eighteenth century many of these earth embankments were still in place but used not for defensive purposes but as vineyards. Tourists rush past Termini into the heart of the city but the Diocletian baths, the sculpture museum and the Michelangelo courtyard are all well worth visiting. The MacDonalds in the basement of the station has an excellent section of the wall incorporated into its structure.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Romes orange trees

Always amazes me that Rome is full of orange trees in full fruit at this time of the year. The Via Veneto is lined with them.For a Scot it seems quite exotic to have citrus fruit growing in a city centre but for the Romans they aren't even worthy of comment. Came across this marvellous little art deco parish house near the Defence Ministry - it would be quite at home in Austria or Slovenia but is an altogether alien presence in classical Rome.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Workmen gone, snow coming, 2 wet dogs.

The electrician, plumber and burglar alarm people were wonderful. If you have doubts about coming to live in Italy then don't be afraid of the standard of service and knowledge from the craftsmen here. They are every bit as professional as any of their peers in Germany or France. Our builder introduced us to his colleagues and we have been looked after wonderfully. The dark side of living in Italy is the bureaucracy. ENEL the electric utility to give them their due were efficient, they repaired the broken feed within two hours of it being reported but left it to us to discover that the power was back on - a call would have been nice. The inspector who came to make sure the boilers had been installed correctly spent two and a half hours filling out a form , he insisted on coming inside to do it as it was to cold outside ! Naturally, the requirements are that we install a sign on the front door saying that we have two boilers and providing a map to show where the extinguisher, fire blankets and other safety features are located. How many houses have you seen with a sign like that on their front door? Pure madness.

It has now started to snow. After a perfect day the temperature suddenly plummeted around four o'clock this afternoon and the first snow showers arrived half an hour later. The boyz are looking very dishevelled.

Raining in Rome ....again!

Stayed in the St.Regis in Rome on this last trip. It's handy for the railway station . All I have to do is walk across the forecourt and past the Baths of Diocletian and I'm there. It's probably the best hotel in Rome for comfort and service and is used by diplomats and businessmen but the location isn't the best for tourists as its ten minutes from the historical centre. The hotel was originally built in the late 1890's and has a stunning lobby - arguably the grandest of any hotel in Europe including the George V in Paris. If I was going for a relaxed weekend I'd stay in the Raphael just of the Piazza Navona - it's slap in the heart of the Centro Storico and the modern rooms although not huge are well air conditioned and comfortable and half the price of the St.Regis.

Italian trains

The old workhorse from Orvieto to Rome
The 1950's Edzell style InterCity

The brilliant new high speed train to Milan

The boyz being stoical about the rush of workmen

What life in Italy is really like.

Yesterday we had the water softener serviced. Woke up this morning to find that power in half of the house was off. It was what they annoyingly call an intermittent problem -some power points in the kitchen worked while others were dead. My first thought was that the plumbers must have disconnected something when they were servicing the water system the day before. After an urgent phone call they showed up at 7.30 but after checking they announced that it was nothing to do with them. The electricians were very good and turned up half an hour later. The first thing they did was disconnect the electricity which caused the burglar alarm to switch onto battery operation and start the sirens wailing.This in turn meant calling the burglar alarm company which unhelpfully suggested that they show up on Monday afternoon! While all this was going on an inspector from the regional government arrived to check that the new central heating boilers had been installed correctly. We now have the boiler inspector, a new burglar alarm company and ENEL the national electricity supplier at the house. I shall post an update later when we are all less frazzled.

Monday, 9 February 2009

An indecorous snooze under the kitchen table.

Hastily getting ready to go down to Rome on the train. Will take the mobile phone with me and post some snaps. Weather today great, tomorrow rain is coming south from Germany. The stress of my getting ready has caused Digby to fall asleep under the kitchen table in what looks to be a highly uncomfortable position.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Wilf and Digby help with winter pool maintenance

The pool has recently been making strange gurgling noises so off with the cover to see what's been happening since it was closed up last October. The boyz took an active part in the process but have a wariness of anything to do with water.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Two Polish Lowland Sheepdog brothers sheltering from a thunderstorm.

It has suddenly started to pour with rain here in Umbria - heavy, continuous, and unrelenting. What started out as a perfect day changed at lunchtime when a front blew in from Tuscany. The man in the fresh pasta shop was almost depressive about the weather - the wettest winter in fifty years according to his father! The boyz are full of vim and vigour and are itching to get outside and into the puddles. When it eases off a bit I'll walk them up the hill and then spend twenty minutes toweling them dry.

The peculiar Amanda Knox murder case is underway in Perugia - I really can't make head nor tail of it. Is it possible that the prosecutions claims of satanic rituals and drug enduced sex games will stand up to cross examination?