Dear Friends

I am totally excited to tell you, not of something I have just done, but something I will be doing in February. And, I invite you to come and join me for this once in a lifetime experience.

In recent weeks NASA has predicted that the coming winter season will be the best in decades for sightings of the elusive Northern Lights so my English friend, Linda John and I have planned to visit the Arctic Circle and are excited to invite you to share this amazing experience with us in February 2013.

After an evening in the beautiful Norwegian capital city of Oslo, we will fly to Tromso to commence our Arctic Circle Experience. We are thrilled to have engaged a highly renowned Northern Lights tracker who will do whatever it takes for us to get a sighting including the possibility of crossing into remote Finland should the opportunities for sightings that night be better there. Our adventures will include sledding with Huskies, a night in a heated Sami tent and some Arctic cultural experiences in the town of Tromso.

Dates for our Northern Lights Experience are 23 February to 27 February 2013. The cost includes the services of our experienced Northern Lights guide, three nights hotel accommodation and one night in the Sami tent, our afternoon with the Huskies, most meals, (other than a free afternoon in Tromso), flights between Oslo and Tromso and all airport transfers.

We will be travelling in one of the most expensive countries in the world so whilst we have endeavoured to keep our costs to a minimum, the price is £1847 per person based on twin share accommodation. Our group will consist of 8 people so places are limited and your commitment and a non-refundable deposit of £1000 is required by the end of October in order for us to secure the services of the professionals and reserve internal flights between Oslo and Tromso. Our price does not include alcohol so that people can make their own choices in this regard, nor does it include return flights to the UK or elsewhere. There are a couple of airlines that fly to Oslo that we would recommend: British Airways is the most obvious, but Norwegian is also worth a look. Both have daily flights from London and are very reasonable if you book early.

If you don’t know how good these Northern Lights are, google Northern Lights Images AND watch the amazing YouTube video done by English actress Joanna Lumley.  Watching that had me sobbing at the beauty of nature.
Please get back to me immediately if you are interested in joining us. Places won’t last long!

More soon, delightfully I’m back in Tuscany with my son and his girlfriend!

With heart, Buzz


My bikini-clad body had not yet left the most private terrace of my villa when the sound of guns started. Have they no respect for a body catching the last rays of what has been an absolutely beautiful summer?


But no, the Italian have been intent on stocking up on their military fatigues (or replicas thereof) in the local village street markets to head into the hills for their all time favourite activity, hunting!


Every year there are reports of dead hunters in spite of the half-hearted attempts to get them to wear orange baseball caps so they may at least be partially visible in the thickly wooded forests which hide the wild boar that are their prey in this season, now that Licences have been issued for their demise. But I guess they think it is part of the game, which involves very nasty looking dogs which are heard howling in the wee small hours of the morning and late at night, disrupting the otherwise tranquil nature of life in the hills.


Normally the only sounds one hears are the church bells and the farm machinery. Now there are also the sounds of chain saws as the seasons change and their unbelievably neat piles of firewood for the winter take shape. Not a log out of place; all cut to the same length and stacked as if there is a prize for the best. It is part of their “bella figura” mentality I think: everything has to look good, even if it’s not. It’s why they polish their brass doorknobs daily and sweep the front steps: it’s why the girls buy a new pair of jeans every three months and it is why there are no second hand clothing stores around.


But I lie. I have seen two in recent years. One recycled clothing store in a tiny town called Montefegatesi, where the inhabitants went to New York after the war. No doubt they brought the custom back. And last year I discovered a very up-market shop in Sarzana where the offerings were mink coats and designer evening dresses!


So autunno is here. The heat of summer is over, but not entirely. There is plenty of time to sit on the terrace and read and work on the tan just a little bit. But the evenings are getting cool and the activities in the hills are changing.


One of the things I so love about being here is the seasonality of life in rural Tuscany. I think, in Australia, we have lost the ability to live in the seasons. We want mangoes all the year, we want strawberries and pineapples and summer stuff in winter….even when it tastes like cardboard because it is out of season. Here you live in the season you are in. If its summer you eat the delicious stone fruit freshly off the trees without its stick-on label and you are happy to eat apples that are not perfect looking but are also not coated with wax and have not lived for months ripening in a cool store.


So now there are different offerings in the shops and we see huge pumpkins lying among cracked leaves in veggie gardens up and down the valley. The last of the zucchini flowers are coming off the vines, and the zucchini are left for sale, flowerless in the markets and shops. And my staple diet has changed from summer salads to heart warming thick vegetable soups and my home-made bread.


My neighbour Vittorio, who was one of the 27 owners of my property (and that’s another story!) has the largest veggie garden around. Around 70, he is out there beavering away morning, noon and night and I am constantly in awe of the variety and quality of beautiful produce that sometimes comes my way via a wooden box kindly left on my doorstep. Vittorio also owns the local cows. Like all Italian cows, they used to live in his barn but over the years he saw such comings and goings of visitors to my villa that he turned his cows out to pasture at the top of the village and turned his cowshed into an agritourismo, attracting guests for a few days at a time. I don’t think it’s been hugely lucrative, but he is the “capo” of the village, with the local store, his veggie garden and the licence to sell bottled gas for our stoves, so methinks he lives a pretty good life!


One of the great hazards to the hunters is the porcini gatherer. These people, of whom my neighbour and dear friend Anna is very much one, turn into secretive, mysterious, tight-lipped avoidance freaks when the weather is right. A heavy downpour or two followed by some good strong sunshine and they are out; specially designed wicker baskets on their backs and a sharp knife, they head for the hills, avoiding conversation, avoiding others and either trying to hide their car or parking some distance from where they have been watching for signs of fungi life for some days. They know the hills backwards, and they are are fiercely secretive. What is theirs is theirs! Their secretiveness however provides in itself a great hazard: what with them and the hunters in the hills, they have to be incredibly vigilant or else they will end up, not with a wicker basket of prized Porcini, but inside a salami of wild boar and local herbs.


The only other non-Italian in my vicinity is a girl from the UK with a Jamaican mother and a father who hailed from this area who has one of the very few cottages left in the old village that preceded mine, which was razed to the ground by an earthquake in 1920. Her Facebook warnings to me about the dangers of the porcini have fallen on deaf ears. She reckons they are susceptible to the fallout from Chernobyl but I don’t think so. When I question Anna, my expert foodie, she says well it would also affect our apples and pears, our lettuces, tomatoes and zucchini and everything else we grow. And I agree, reminding her of the death of our neighbour last year on her way to 107 good long healthy years.


My colleague in shopping and other delights Linda John has finally left I Cinghiali for a new job in London, but not before we jointly hosted a very successful Women of Wisdom 10 day event. Taking our ladies on the best itinerary we had created for this experience, day after day we wended our way through the valley to the delights of a tiny marble cathedral on a hilltop in the artistic community of Barga, enjoyed an evening of music and a performance by an absolutely amazing contortionist at the gallery of Melbournians Shona Nunan and Michael Cartwright with their son Jacob’s wonderful photos of the local marble mountains, visited the sundrenched Italian Riviera town of Forte dei Marmi for its legendary Sunday summer market, followed by an afternoon in luxury on one of those paid beaches that the Italians and French are so good at. We visited Castlenuovo for their wonderful Thursday market, heading to Shoe Street at Roberta’s treasures; we spent a morning in a mysterious old monastery built into a hilltop, a sun-filled day on the Cinque Terre walking on The Lover’s Walk just a few days before huge boulders broke off and badly and sadly injured four Melbourne women; we enjoyed a day in Lucca watching preparations for their big annual procession that evening, and we lunched at my favourite place, Corfino, in the hills where Martina, the daughter serves, watching her two kids play in the gardens while we eat, where her father attends to our wine (and always offers his delicious home-made raspberry liqueur after our meal), and where her mother cooks up a storm with the most delicious potato gnocchi on the planet amongst other gourmet delights. For ten wonderful days we took in the very best of my valley and introduced the very best of its food and wine delights to our guests. Same time next year.


Linda and I had a couple of forays out of the valley both before and after the WOW event. My attempt to book an hotel in Florence with a swimming pool went belly up when my internet failed and I had to call Expedia. Booking the last room at some beautiful place on the hill overlooking Florence, I called before we left home to confirm parking to be told there was no booking in my name. Only the diligence of the young women there finally elicited a booking in the name Mssirthj which was in fact McCarthy! No wonder I never received the confirming email. The swimming pool in the end was totally useless because it bucketed with rain the entire first day we were there and we were forced indoors to shops and restaurants. And, sadly, at the police station reporting the theft of Linda’s wallet and its 600+ Euros…despite being secreted inside not one but two zips of her bag, worn across her body and with the fastenings at the front! It is a hazard in Florence and big cities and always a reminder to carry not much money and in at least two places and ditto for your credit cards! The policeman was indolent and insolent and it was only my now more than passable Italian that got us through. In the end we decided to have a sit down and a long drink and continue shopping; the prize for the day being a beautiful winter coat for me.


After taking our WOW ladies to the train for their onward travels we headed for an afternoon of eating, drinking and sightseeing in the wine town of Montecarlo and then to the spa town of Montecatini where we travelled up to the old town in a funicular dating from 1898. A day or so later we headed up the motorway to the beautiful city of Parma and its lovely shops. Dedicated to Verdi, Parma is small and do-able in a day or so, and we enjoyed the different architecture and the scenery on the way. Fidenza followed; we arrived just as the first shop we saw full of beautiful clothes was closing (but not before we had been in and bought) and Linda remarked as we sat down for lunch “if they’d known we were coming, they would have stayed open”. It is STILL annoying that shops shut for several hours at lunchtime, and mostly all of them do.


No wonder the Italian economy is in such a diabolical situation. My bank, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena, supposedly the oldest bank in the world, recently needed to be propped up to the tune of $1 billion. Press reports laughed at the smallness of the amount, how trivial they said, and how ridiculous when in fact the deficit was due to the enormous amount of money that the Monte dei Paschi had lent the government! Robbing Peter to pay Paul methinks!


The Italians have a pathological hatred of the banking system. In all the years I have been here (now 24) I cannot get a cheque book that contains more than 12 cheques! They don’t exist. Furthermore, when I used to pay my manager with cheques, it would cost her about 40 Euros a cheque to go into her account. Now, I do what most Italians do, pay with cash.  And so add to the economic woes of the country.


When Italy changed over to Euros on 1 January 2002 there were fears that all the Lire in trunks under beds and in garden sheds would hit the banks and they would not have enough Euros to pay for them. But I think they eked them out, bunch after bunch of crumpled old notes, not wanting too many questions to be asked. Even today they grumble when you want more than a couple of thousand Euros from the bank and I have been told not to pay people in cash. Sorry, Mr Bank, none of your business! And in my local supermarket, they have a machine that puts even a 10 euro note through it to make sure it is legal tender before they accept it to pay for your groceries.


Their debt situation is critical and probably a no-win. The bodies that are trying to fix the problem suggest they go after all the high flying industrialists and tax them properly. These guys are mega billionaires who have enormous yachts, properties all over Europe and the ability to hide their money just as well as some notable Australians who paid or pay little tax. I think they should tax the Church: the wealthiest landholders in the country, and receiving the most benefit from the taxpayers and contributing little. Some would say nothing. I am not so unkind as to agree but I similarly do not endorse the greed and fear of the churches that is endemic in this country. But that is for another time.


Meanwhile, I sit in the sun in my new office in the villa and write, and sit in what’s left of the sun in my new outdoor furniture and read. Now that I have claimed this place as my official residence (and finally been given resident status again in Italy) I have done a huge cleanup in the villa, the shed, the stables, the cantina…you name it. Stuff that has not seen the light of day for a long time has been removed to the little roadside deposit where the Comune collects it once a fortnight, and dust that has accumulated for a decade has been swept away. I have a list of jobs for next season including new built in barbecues and new gardens and I have ordered two beautiful sofas for the sitting room in the villa with delivery in March. And, having tidied up everything I can lay my hands on, I am preparing to leave this haven for the winter.


But not before the Vendemmia; the annual grape harvesting, which happens this weekend at the vineyard of Totti, my yard man who makes delicious wine. This is a first for me and I understand that the men are the pickers of the grapes and the women are in charge of the food and wine. So it all sounds good and I shall report on it next time.


I am off to London for a quick visit next Monday: to stay with my son and his girlfriend for a few days and then a weekend party with my trainer buddies in a castle somewhere in the middle of the country. And, to start a search for an apartment to rent for I have decided I will winter in lovely London with its cultural life, its concerts and opera season, my friends, and all the films I have missed in the last six months. A poor substitute for the hills of Tuscany? Maybe, but as a variety junkie, the contrast will be wonderful and then the anticipation of returning here for primavera will be heaven!


Until next time, with heart