October 2020

Autumn skies of 2020

The academic year has started with anticipated hiccups and, in fact, the courses that we intended to open in October had to be cancelled (apart from two small groups) before they even started. As I’m writing these lines the general mood is that a second lockdown is imminent. After a summer devoted to bee keeping, chickens and brewing we are now winding down and restarting to concentrate on developing our online presence. As the pandemic lingers on world-wide we thought of trying to see the positives (ha ha) and focus on things we could do online with our teaching as well as going back to some of our original ideas when we first came here . This means that it’s back to weaving projects, home improvements and music. So, here is yet again a scattered overlook of our past-summer and autumn planning dotted between garden, animals, local politics (Elena is finally out of the administration!), building, using the bicycle, gearing up for online teaching and some very exciting personal news.

Animals, cats – lost and found

I’m starting with cats, so you can immediately enjoy some cute cat pictures but actually there is a nice story to it too, hopefully a suggestion on how things will develop this coming year.

We had a few losses of cats since our first adoption as we moved in. After our first cat was found dead hiding in the old pizza oven (could have been some poison he had eaten) we adopted two more kittens: Curiosaky and Mascherina.

Curiosaky and Mascherina (white face and front legs) as they arrived at the Old Stable

A few months later, the female cat (Mascherina) climbed under the car of one of our evening course students and was found dead on the road the next morning. She left Curiosaky alone (who truly seemed depressed when Mascherina left) so we soon got another male kitten to let him take care of.

Nero, the black kitten arrived to us ill, fragile and with a cold, not a great start for the winter season. In effect, I think Nero owes his life to Curiosaky who adopted him immediately, we think that for Curiosaky it was a present to get a new friend after Mascherina’s departure.
Since then we added Tibs, a female kitten to the family, but Curiosaky and Nero always remained best friends.

Curiosaky adopting Nero, providing him with warmth to combat his cold

We were afraid that as they grow up they’ll start behaving aggressive to each other and got Curiosaky sterilized when he was about nine months old.

Then late last June, Curiosaky just disappeared, with no idea of to where he could be going or how. We hardly had anyone coming with a car and since Mascherina had gone we’ve been taking extra care when people drive in or out. We knew cats can go for a period of up to a few weeks to search for adventures (though Curiosaky was sterilized so there was less chance fot it to be that long). We were pretty desperate he’ll never be found. The kids had dreams of seeing him and it was difficult to have these talks where you lay down the facts and the reasonable probability of him coming back alive.

Tibs joining the family music sessions

At a certain point, we even contacted a family that had claimed to have had seen a similar cat in Nonantola, which they adopted for a short time, but then somehow they claimed it had escaped (and we just thought that they changed their mind on handing him over to us). After four months of hoping for the best, we all got to grips (even the kids) with the fact that either he got runover by a car, hunted by a fox or dog or was adopted, somehow, by a new family.

Curiosaky’s first night back, slightly frightened but definitely him

Then one day, just out of the blue, a couple of weeks ago, on an early evening when the sun had just started setting, Elena hears a recognisable meowing from the bushes behind the chicken coop. Curiosaky had returned, slightly frightened, skinny (so probably not adopted by a family) but the same Curiosaky. He was accepted immediately by Nero and Tibs but let to settle in a corner. Maybe they also couldn’t believe their eyes and felt a bit doubtful it was really him.

So he is back now, and hasn’t left since. Got back to his habits of climbing on the front door and peeking through the windows, meowing more than the others for attention and food.

I do hope this a sign for things to come. It’s been a period for everyone where it seems that good things are being lost. Maybe even for ever. But somehow I hope this story is a sign that somethings will come back. Let us hope!

Autumn is here, the leaves are falling and leave an orange, red and yellow carpet in the garden. The chickens love pecking under it to find some juicy insects. Our flock has grown to 17 heads, 3 of which are roosters and I dread the time I’ll have to keep the male number lower… we intend to do it in time for the coming Christmas dinner. I know I can do it like I did it the first time. But, honestly I started getting emotionally attached to those creatures, and it’ll be tough. They are the best animal one can have: they eat all your scrap food, provide you with lots of eggs and quality compost for the vegetable plot, they do not require that much work and economically speaking I’d say they are the most profitable. Don’t forget that the crowing sounds remind you that you live in the countryside and, just that alone, makes me wake up with a smile. If you ever think of starting with live stock, get chickens and you won’t regret it. We might be getting, as a present, five more chickens next week!

Elena’s political adventures, from my point of view

One of the reasons I haven’t been writing much lately is that Elena had embarked on a roller coaster experience in the local politics from June last year, and it seemed that everything I would write in public or would say might be scrutinised by someone with a political agenda. In fact, I was pretty much asked to keep a low profile. Unfortunately, all I really wanted to write about was those political adventures and how they affected our family project – it was too much of a big impact to let it slip away. It felt false to write about something else and ignore the burning part inside me… so I just left it alone and focused on blog posts that promoted our teaching activity. Now, however, Elena has quit the administration work and although there is some sense of bitterness from frustrating experience, we are all relieved, I feel I can write about it. Obviously, from my anti-politician point of view. I hope Elena doesn’t mind.. being so careful not to push political buttons.

Just to make it clear, I never got a trust worthy impression from any politician, they’re ambition to be part of the governing administration is always doubtful to me (is it the love of power? the crave for ‘respect’? or just the fact that they don’t have any expertise and couldn’t do anything else that made them go into administration?). Yes, surely there are people that come to politics because they really want to make a change or push a certain agenda until it is passed (this obviously is why Elena wanted to have a go at it). But seeing the dirty tricks and the sometimes impossible compromises they have to make in order to advance on their agenda seems to make them become untrustworthy .. they claim it is because they have to play their cards well. When it comes to being vague on certain issues or aligning or being silent when there are decisions made against their own beliefs – In my opinion, that sounds the alarm bell and calls for dumping them in the political recycling bin when the first red line is crossed. Take it for example when the 5SM aligned with Salvini and stayed silent on his anti-immigration advances, that burnt their credibility, in my eyes, immediately (though I already suspected they’ll be up for a coalition with the devil before election day). These politicians have no excuses.

As for the local experience, as I see it post mortem, since Elena is not the type that would compromise with such terms.. I couldn’t see her survive for more than a few months when she just started. She did much better than I expected but the cost to her sanity, as well as the price on us as a family was quite dear, when troubles started coming out, she was asked to keep silent and to see if there is scope for improvement or dialogue (no there wasn’t!). Hearing the inside stories of how the administration is run, how decisions are being made and how information is deliberately hidden from members within the administration and from the public made our blood boil. On some of these issues, it even seemed at some point, that not making these issues go out to the public is actually like being part of the crime. From letting the police making urban planning decisions, not listening to experts on urbanisation issues (oh, yes, I know that listening to experts these days isn’t very popular), actively trying to shut out local societies and organisations from receiving information or being allowed to participate in dialogue to voicing racist and misogynist views within the administrational meetings. I really think that the public should know exactly who they have voted for and make these politicians liable.

Elena entered in June last year, in a very positive way her political adventure with the municipality of Liliput

Elena had lots of ideas to promote and worked hard on planning a bicycle path that would connect Modena and Nonantola, as well as for plans for post-covid emergency cycle lanes, soil preservation for the general urbanisation plan that is due to be submitted this year. That was a lot of work and contacts with urban planners and strategists. Nothing of this got materialized, there was just too much inner resistance from the Mayor and her co-workers. It looked like, even though this has been clearly stated in the coalition’s electoral programme, that everyone within the administration was in effect against any idea to promote cyclability and they had never even surfaced that back to their political parties. In general, the strategy seems to be hiding vital information from everyone and settling things within the group of counsellors.. obviously, within closed doors and with only another counselor from her political list, Elena was outnumbered. Elena was kept being attacked on the fact that we are unschoolers, as if she was undermining the political programme by this, she was silenced on her published book, anything really that came from her was hushed and marginalised. She got insults during meetings and I’ve learnt a great deal of Italian machoistic attitudes which I just couldn’t believe still exist and that are still accepted. I don’t even think the people who acted this way even realise how ugly it is or how ridiculous they are. Bottom line, none of the people in the administration seem to have expertise and/or ability to take decisions in their field of responsibility, they don’t even listen to the hired experts. Anyhow, this all ended mid October this year when both Elena and the vice Mayor had resigned together just because it was really impossible to work under these conditions anymore. I doubt Elena will ever tell the details of this adventure, probably wanting to let the civil list have a fresh new try with creating a future coalition. But for me this is all to show that no change is possible in the local arena if the very basics of dialogue are not changed fundamentally.

Plans for home improvements – the 110% energy governmental incentive

Since our inner insulation work to make up the teaching room and guest rooms was completed nearly two years ago, we haven’t done much in terms of building. The barn still remains the day-dream go-to place. It needs so much work that we can probably do anything with it: that pub, cultural centre, textile workshop and what not. However, our own home and stable suffers from the lack of proper windows (all single glazing) and with hardly any insulation. Anything that would improve on this could cost us a fortune. News is that, fortunately, as part of a European push to cut down on emissions, lower urbanization expansion and to help the building sector in these troubled times, there is a national incentive to fund 110% of home improvements that upgrade the energy efficiency in two levels – practically paying home owners to upgrade. Our farm house is currently on the upper limit of the G grade, which is very low but not too low that basic improvements won’t be significant. After we consulted a energy technician, it seems that with just external insulation and changing the window fittings, we could jump the two required levels for a 110% lending scheme. Obviously, the banks that absorb the long term refund want a fair share and thus, in reality, the 110% funding schemes turns out to be more like 90% funding for the homeowner directly. It’s still a great deal of help, and knowing that you pay 10% while the state provides the rest is a great feeling. Honestly, I think it’s a great way of providing work for builders, and really making home owners take that big step in making their houses more energy efficient. After three winters of struggling to maintain 17 C indoors as well as having leaking windows when it rains… I can tell you that we can hardly wait to see if we can go ahead with the project. I’m still warry of it not happening at all, there must be some small detail we haven’t understtod or taken in account. So far we have a team of a builder and energy consultant that are taking care of the small details, planning and legal part. We’ve got the details from the bank and quotes for new windows and doors. But I won’t party before it’s all done.

Meanwhile, we inherited Elena’s mother in law’s old kitchen that is planned to be replaced by a new one. So we were delighted to fit it in our old space. It feels like having a totally new kitchen.

Rounding up – cycling, online teaching and some personal news

10,00 km on our Urban arrow cargo bike

We’ve turned 10,000 km on our cargo bike since it was bought in 2016. In reality we’ve done most of it (round 8,800 km) from the end of 2017. So that is nearly 3000 km per year, not including the errands we do with our ‘normal’ bicycles. 4 years without a car!

I’ve been saying for ages that we should add online materials for our students… this becomes a necessity during the pandemic. We’ve been rediscovering the potential of online teaching as we revert to individual Skype/Zoom lessons. But also the long forgotten video materials that can be used effectively as a support for our students in general. So it’s less talking from now on and starting to produce these videos we have been thinking about so long. Keep tuned!

Turned out to be a long post, so here is some personal news if you got all the way through to the bottom. Here it is: We are expecting a new baby girl next March and we are all very happy! The Old Stable project is expanding its membership. So far Elena and baby are doing well, we could just recently start feeling her kicks.

Collecting honey from the previous year… hoping the next year gives us more!

Hoping the new year brings lots of excitement and satisfaction. In the Jewish tradition on new year’s day it’s custom to dip an apple in honey to wish for a new year full of blessings and honey.
Jewish New year, falls after the end of summer after honey is collected so it nicely reflects nature’s gifts of the previous year.

Post-covid summer 2020 at The Old Stable

The Italian lockdown that span (give or take) 8 weeks from the end of February to the beginning of May gave us plenty of time to try new things, work in the garden, play lots of music, slow down hectic rhythms, just relax and think about the things we want to do. It has also provided us with time to think about what we worry about most and what we care for. Time will tell if we are beginning a recovery or that we are heading into a much worse wave with graver consequences. I wish the post title is correct and that we are truly entering a post covid summer.. though I doubt it.

When we were ‘closed’ in our open-air and spaced lockdown bubble we developed much hope in the aftermath of the pandemic: maybe it’ll give birth to a future of a drive to sustainability, less frantic consumption, quieter rhythms, more bicycles, less pollution, more incentives for local and environmentally friendly businesses, a more aware education system and so on. I’m not here to make any political suggestions or share huge revelations on my part so I just hope that the following short bullet point update with picture speaks for itself .

In a nut shell, for us, this spring and early summer was all about learning to be more self producing, to develop resilience to change: more nature, more attention (and quality time) for the thing that we already do.

Our original colony we split (yellow hive) and a swarm we collected earlier this Spring (blue)

Here is a snap list of what is new:

  • Bees: We jumped into the deep water and started the beekeeping season totally on our own! This included learning how to split a colony, collect a swarm of bees (we did this, three times this year) and that’s on top of the basics that we still had to grasp. A steep learning curve, indeed, but very rewarding and we can’t wait to harvest some honey.
Closeup of a frame with capped brood and drone cells
Trying to find the queen to split our original colony
  • Vegetable plot: Our vegetable plot has tripled in size this year. We planted potatoes, tomatoes (lots of them!), sun flowers, cucumbers, courgettes, peppers, melons, peas, flax seeds, cabbages, cauliflower, corn and obviously lots of hops: 5 varieties that will all give us harvest this year.
  • Cats: We have two new young cats: a female kitten we nickname Ginger and a male: Nero
    Ginger has just caught her first mouse this week
  • Chickens: We had our first chicks hatch from our own hens and it’s a wonderful story as mother hen turns out to be ‘Storm’ (‘Tempesta’) – the chick from last year that lost her siblings to a falcon and her mother to the terrible storm of June last year.
‘Tempesta’, now mother hen with her three new chicks
  • Music: We played lots of music together and embarked on a tough challenge recording a tune a day and uploading it to YouTube for over 49 days in a row.
    Now, you can listen to last one, number 49 (or look for the entire play list). In the last post I linked only to the first one.
Our last tune in the family band challenge – What will be, will be.
  • English teaching: Although we managed to hold a few on-line courses during the lockdown, we had to postpone most activities and restarted around mid May. We were very happy to see everyone again, though from a distance and in the outdoors. I’ve bid before to create on-line resources and now with the pandemic it has become a real necessity. Keep tuned. I hope putting some resources pretty soon,

I guess there is still much more to write about but I’ll try to extend on specific topics soon. So that’s it for now. Hope you all keep safe, positive and resilient!

Storms of summer 2019

What a summer full of adventures, pretty stormy too, in many respects eventful to our Old Stable project. It’s been hectic and yet again when I sit down to write about it, it all looks as if time has slipped so quickly in between our fingers: so much has happened in so little time.

From an upsetting visit of a hungry fox, through a mini tornado with ghastly winds and political engagement. We had a busy summer even though we didn’t have plans for building projects (finally, we had a summer’s rest from that!). However, I did really want to clear up some of the mess we’ve accumulated in the last two years and free some of the spaces we so wish to use with the people who visit us. But it’s only in the past two weeks that we finally got to do something about it. So let’s start with a general overview and hopefully I’ll add some pictures on the way. This post will include:

  • The joys and dramas of having animals in the countryside
  • Crazy storms and their effects on the garden (and my dear hops) including a few trees that needed to be cut down. more dead animals.
  • Elena’s political activities: from volunteer to list member and finally commissioner. Completely un-planned yet so obvious it would happen eventually. This summer was a lot about that and the adjustments we need to make for it
  • ‘Io imparo da solo’ , Elena’s book about unschooling in Italian just came out in print.
  • Gearing up for next year teaching activities

Joys and dramas of having animals at The Old Stable

The idea of coming here was to be closer to nature (and family) and to enjoy the ability to produce at least some of our own food. This, at first, involved just creating a vegetable plot but animals started coming very soon after. At first, finding mice running up and down the stable (remember that Autumn of cyclists visiting?) called for a cat who did the job well and changed my initial thoughts about cats as a pet. Soon after mining the cat, came the chickens with just a few ex-industrial hens. The joy of collecting your own eggs and having your chickens follow you like pets is enormous. So is the joy of cuddling a cat on an early morning beside the fire place and having him follow you as you go to collect wood. We also collected a random rabbit, that’s a different story. However, there is a lot of drama that comes along too. As I wrote earlier in a post, we also got some 10 chicks later on to realize we’ve added three more males to our flock, resulting in: a cock fight, a badly broken leg and finally, my first attempt at wringing a cockerel’s neck followed by preparing chicken broth.

Our new flock of chickens arriving late August, our chick ‘Tempesta’ (storm) is standing proud on the feeder

Late spring come fox and pretty much killed all our chickens but one. It was quite devastating and I felt guilty for weeks for not making sure the chicken pen was closed properly that night. Feathers all scattered around the yard and around the fence, a hint of what might have happened the previous night, and only one survival walking carefully between the debris. I found only one dead chicken in the field outside our house. The rest must have been dragged to the fox’s den. It took me around a month before I headed up to Spilamberto animal market to get a few more chickens only to discover that during the empty period a rat has decided to occupy the nearly empty chicken pen and thus the new flock had strangely refused to go in it to sleep. I dreaded another fox visit and found myself another month trying to catch the rat with: traps, glue and even poison so that I can finally put the chickens in the pen again and close carefully against another fox visit. The chicken saga hadn’t finished yet… our friend the pharmacist has brought over a hen with all her 10 little chicks under her wings. She heard about our fox’s visit and she had too many to take care of and so we got mummy and children as a comforting present. We were very happy observing how mummy chicken takes care of her little ones. Mummy hen and chicks were of a different type called here ]french chicken’ (francesina): short, small and somewhat round.. they can fly and lay eggs pretty much everywhere. Little did we know that a family of falcons had nested that time in our barn

The backside of the barn where we store wood and grow hops. This year we also had a nest of falcons that happily fed on our chicks

In fact, this year we noticed that the number of pigeons nesting in the barn has dropped considerably and it took us a while to figure out why. Eventually we noticed that mummy french chicken has been loosing chicks everyday and their numbers went from 10 to just 2-3 in a weeks time. Funny thing is that the chicks seem to have disappeared during the day time. One day our middle child told us she saw a big bird looking over the chicken pen fence.. ah ah we understood , here comes our falcon. Mummy french chicken had only one chick left. A little yellow cheeping chick. His story is not over yet and you’ll find it in the next part about our summer storm and the havoc it created in our garden.

Another new arrival that brought us, unexpectedly, a lot of joy is the bee hive. Elena got this as an exchange for English lessons she gave to a daughter of our friends. I’m being taught how to treat the bee hive and how to collect honey in the summer season, I think at the end we got highly paid and we’d be happy to have more of these fun exchanges. Yes, I do most of it… Elena bring the ideas 🙂

Our new bee hive

On the drama side again, Mining the cat died this August probably from eating some poison from a different field but as I used a bit of rat poison myself in the chicken pen the month before, I still have fears and guilt feelings that it could have been somehow me that caused it. That was definitely a heartbreaking event for us and the kids. But yet again our pharmacist friend came to the rescue and brought us all the way from the south of Italy three new kittens! However, within less than a week from their arrival three kittens became two as one was attacked by either a stray dog or a fox and was found dead in the next morning. Looking back I should have kept them from the beginning indoors until they are bigger (now the two remaining stay in the stables during the night). This just adds to my guilt feelings. So all in all a summer full of dramas around the animals in our Old Stable. The rabbit btw, decided it’s all too much and has escaped. I saw her nibbling here and there in the yard together with a hare that hopped by… but since that black kitten has been found dead I haven’t spotted the rabbit and hare either.

Crazy storms and their effects

The willow in the front before being cut

Whether it’s just the fact that we are now living closer to nature or that we are more and more aware of how the climate is changing globally from media and from being more active in the area, we feel that the weather lately is going crazy and that the consequences are grave. The month of May was a very strange one with a big dose of rain nearly on the verge of flooding. The worst day was at the very end of May with a frightening storm composed of 115 km/hr winds that shaved everything on ground and showered hail as big as tennis balls. The storm only lasted 15 minutes or so but the effects were horrendous. The aftermath looked like someone cleared up the garden and combed the grass vigorously to one side. branches and leaves were scattered everywhere. It was so shocking that I dared take no pictures. My glorious hop plants that looked like they’ll be giving me endless fruit were torn from the bottom of the vine stems. It took two days to see the effect as they turned brown and shriveled on the ropes. The willow at the back had one of it’s major branches split in two.

The willow at the front (that was way too close to the building) showed a big fracture along its trunk. Eventually, we had to take it down and now the front patio lays empty.

The willow at the front after being cut down

The chickens were hit the most with three dead, probably from the hail hitting them hard. It’s how I get back to our little chick story. Mummy french hen got killed by the hail but her one and only chick that survived the continuous falcon attacks was found shivering and cheeping under a bush. We took him in and let him stay indoors for nearly a month before letting him out again.

Mining the cat (RIP) and Tempesta the chick

He and the cat became the children’s best friends. The cat sitting on their lap, the chick on their head. He got the name of Tempesta – meaning Storm. We could have been hit harder and many around us lost windows and even solar panels. Our roof stayed intact. However, since that storm every time the winds start getting stronger or the clouds begin to darken I feel the shivers and run to close all the shutters. In July we escaped to Switzerland to see our relatives, we paid a visit to a glacier in Mt. Titlis … all I could think of is how this might be the last time we get a chance to see a living glacier and how the climate is definitely changing. Man’s fault or not.

Elena’s political activities

Summer offered us another type of storm (at least in my opinion): entering politics or worst still, the local administration. We’ve always wanted to get involved more in the community and push for change (from cyclability to reducing waste, education reforms and welcoming immigrants). Elena has taken things seriously. It started with giving a hand writing a political programme for a local list that ran for the local elections somewhere early spring. Elena got very active in the environmental debate and tried to formulate a programme that will include building the long awaited Nonantola-Modena bicycle path among other things. Within a span of a few months we found Elena being selected as the commissioner for: environment, mobility and urban development in the newly elected administration which was formed by a coalition of the democratic party (PD) and the new list (Una mano per Nonantola). It’s a storm because it shuffles the way we have to approach our projects. It minimizes the amount of time we have as a family and separates Elena, in some way, from developing our teaching activities at The Old Stable. I’m restricted in writing about our experiences as a family with Elena being part of the administration as I might be accidentally giving some sensitive political information… I can only say that it’s not easy for Elena or me… and the frustration in working in the adminstration is immense. I started understanding why things don’t move much in Italy. I’ll let Elena write about it.. she really should. She says she’d write a whole book. which brings me to…

Io imparo da solo – Elena’s book about unschooling

Just before the election time (or was it in between), Elena sat down to complete a book she always dreamt of writing: a book for parents who want to know what led to our decision to unschool our children. The book has come out (in Italian, of course) and is printed by Tera Nuova. I started reading it, as I never got the chance before, and I find it quite a good read. The right humble pitch it deserves. A link to the book you can find here.

Gearing up for the new academic year

With all the storms behind us, or simmering down, at least, summer is also a good time to regenerate and pick up the enthusiasm for improving on last year’s teaching activities. This summer I had the pleasure of meeting some enthusiastic teenagers that are keen on trying new things such as role playing games and theatre activities. We are coming up with some new ideas and hope to get more enrollments this year. More about this hopefully soon (and in Italian !)

Spring 2019 – long awaited update

Translation in to Italian in progress…. Sto lavorando alla traduzione di questo post sul blog. La vostra pazienza è apprezzata!

I’ve definitely been neglecting our website and blog (In general, my on-line presence has been diminishing since we got here but maybe that’s just a good thing). During this time, a few issues were itching me to write about, though as times before, a long string of excuses delayed everything until one reaches a point where he feels it’s all too late and irrelevant. I constantly need to remind myself that the whole point of our online space is to keep us reflecting and appreciating our own progress as well as to reach out for those interested to join our project, in some way or the other. It helps outsiders not only to see what we are currently up to, but also how we actually got here.

What I hope will follow is a brief description of the main things we have been working on during the winter months and early spring as well as important events that shaped our current direction. This time round I am forcing myself to pick up on the next level of my Italian and thus I’ll be trying to translate this post to Italian (with the help of google of course! and the proper Italian speakers around me). I have promised myself that I will follow up shortly on individual topics mentioned below. Let’s hope I’m disciplined enough to deliver these promises.

  • As I wrote in the Christmas post, we dedicated much more time to music and music education. We had thoughts, in the past, of creating our own family folk band and time has ripened. After taking an experimental practice challenge and spending cold evenings close to the stove with our fiddles, whistle and guitar, we gathered enough confidence, courage and repertoire to keep a relatively engaging and energizing 15-30 min act.  Our famous incident in November with playing in the market has transformed little by little and accumulated to the formation of our family band named by our eldest as: ‘Naughty notes, family band’.
Founders of ‘Naughty Notes, Family band’ (including the cat). * Kids are not shown for respect of their privacy. However, all  absent three are the heart and soul, obviously!

We had our first official band performance during the Irish Festival (Irlanda in Festa) in Nonantola for St. Patrick weekend. It’s a start of something exciting and has inspired me to think about parallels between our English teaching activities and the music education adventures we are going through as a family. For my part, I started finally, to take violin lessons after years of picking up things on my own as well as very bad habits that I realised that could not serve any good example to my young classically trained children. The whole topic definitely deserves more attention on the blog. Yes, I promise!

  • Elena has finished writing her book about un-schooling, submitted her script to the editors and we are eager to see it getting shaped for publication. At the time of Elena’s research and writing we engaged in much talk about what we are doing as an un-schooling family the conflicts and accordance it has with the music lessons the kids are taking and the approach we adopt when it comes to teaching English at The Old Stable. This goes back to the previous point but it stands on its own right. The book is fruit of Elena’s hard work at the end of the day!
  • We had time to realize what works, refine and experiment with our teaching styles. Though the year started very slowly with few enrollments to the adult courses (if you recall we had lots of hops between fears and hopes, also economically speaking), we later on took on a few private students that kept us afloat and helped us realize our teaching strengths. Although we initially wanted to avoid private tuition, we find a lot of satisfaction and opportunities to know our students better. We have formed a large and happy group of primary school children and two nursery groups. Both prove successful and highly enjoyable.  With the year coming to a close (another two-three months), it’s time to re-assess and pitch our plans for the next year.
  • Wanting, since we got here, to participate in concrete activities that promote environmental issues and cultural understanding, this winter, we got to the point where we just had to make a move.  Since there are so many issues to fight for and so many ways to do so we had to choose our wars and weapons! Here is the list:

    • Using the bicycle so often has resulted, naturally, in joining the campaign for accessibility for bicycles.
    Elena and the cat with our cargo bike fleet: The Urban Arrow and the Xtracycle

    Elena has definitely taken the active role here and has joined numerous meetings with the local administration together with FIAB Modena and Legambiente. To see the fruits of these meetings you can check out the blog she started which serves for collecting and spreading all news about the Nonantola-Modena bicycle path. On my part, I mainly do the cycling and have explored the percorso natura to Modena and St. Anna. I’m collecting evidences for points of improvement where we pedal to Castelfranco-Emilia. I told Elena that I’d be willing to make more youtube videos (like the one I prepared on the Urban Arrow in Bath) but this time, in Italian! These will be about our bicycles and cycling experiences, short clips to get people inspired and aware of what is feasible.

  • Elena has joined a candidate list (Una Mano per Nonantola) for the Nonantola municipality elections. It is formed by a number of members of local associations. They meticulously worked on a working program and Elena was involved in the environmental section, promoting again cyclability and other issues. For my part, I give the ‘moral’ support (Elena will disagree!) and as a result of her late night meetings, scything and feeding the chickens and rabbit fall on me. But really, if I had to choose I wouldn’t change for anything.
  • Winter months are always slow when it comes to embarking on big building projects. As a result instead of building and fixing things I feel that we have just piled up on furniture and bric a brac that we thought might be of use in the future for our activities. Our ‘Old Stable’ looked like (up until two days ago! and not really over yet) a messy junk yard and during the winter months we just kept on dreaming on how it will look like when we’ve finished putting everything in place. (We are still dreaming on how it will look like). However, with that in mind. Last but not least is updates on beer.

    Cascade shoots reappearing from the ground after a long winter break.
    • Beer has been on the make on a relatively regular basis. Winter temperatures allowed me to experiment with my first batches of Lager yeast. It sure makes a difference in taste.
    • First year’s harvest of cascade hops was, as expected, relatively poor. But it allowed around two batches of 50 L of beer to be completely free of commercially grown hops. It definitely gave me a taste for more!
    • Earlier this month the cascade hops re-emerged from the ground with healthy looking vines thick and green… ready for their seasonal climb. I’ve ordered more variety of hops and enlarged the hop yard.

    So with this Spring update, I’ll leave and start picking up on our ideas. I hope writing more in detail about some of these topics fairly soon.

    Running up to Christmas ‘scrambled thoughts on toast’. Reflections on our project, music and education.

    The day starts early when it’s still dark and in the bedroom it’s, at times, below 14 C. Loading up the stove with wood, then feeding the chickens, the rabbit and the cat. The reward is seeing the sky lit up in a pinkish shade of blue with strikes of yellow hovering above the little shadows of barren trees and a distance farmhouse. A quiet coffee and maybe a few morning pages before the kids wake up and breakfast ritual is rolling.

    Where have the last two and a half months gone?

    Where have October, November and (already more than half of) December gone?… actually we are already past Christmas and It’s nearly New Year! It seems we had so much happening that we couldn’t even sit back and reflect. It’s time to update a little even though I feel it’s all going to end up in a big plate of scrambled thoughts on toast.

    In case the warning about ‘scrambled thoughts’ alarms you or you are just about to be tired of reading anyway here’s the guardian’s summary of our last couple of months at The Old Stable: Looking back, it were two and a half months all around music and education.
    Key events:

    • We attended a book launching event in Nonantola where Sonja’s (92 year old woman from Israel) childhood diary was translated into Italian. Sonja was one of 72 children hosted in Villa Emma during WWII and was saved from the Nazis by being hidden by families in the area. her diary covered among other adventures, the period in which she stayed in Villa Emma in Nonantola. The way the event was managed, the way the stories were portrayed and the lack of respect (in my opinion) to Sonja left me disappointed and wondering what is our role as parents in keeping the history alive and mainly the important lessons that these stories bring with them.
    • I took a mind blowing course arranged by Musicians without Borders in Bologna coming back with a thousand things to think about and do. (some connection to Sonja’s story here)
    • We had a drama (with a happy ending) around the children’s music activities where we were fined for ‘begging’ as we played music in the market. It all triggered a cascade of social initiatives, open discussions and new friendships. It was also a big push to do more music!
    • We watched two operas in Pavarotti’s Theatre in Modena. Where we also knew the viola players (there is a connection to the Musician without borders course and the drama mentioned in the previous highlight). That is more operas than I saw in my whole lifetime (I saw one before that as a teenager in 1992 with my grandma in Vienna, she loved opera)
    • We also held our first weekend beer course and as a result: 80 L of various types of beer are waiting to be drunk soon.
    • Finally, a quick visit to Israel to celebrate and reflect on my 40th birthday, also involving music and you got the picture.

    Keep on reading if you wish to get that ‘scrambled thoughts on toast’. Unfortunately, this time round I don’t think that pictures can give a visual summary of it all. But I’ll try.

    Reflecting on the progress of The Old Stable Project. October 2018

    Starting with some reflections on where we are heading with the project. We are entering our second year in The Old Stable and yes, there is still plenty to do when it comes to renovation, building, planting, setting up the language school and learning ‘new’ skills of farming (two weeks ago, for example, I found myself on YouTube learning how to clip chicken’s wings so that they don’t fly over the fence and horribly, then last week, I had to pull a rooster’s neck as he got badly injured during a fight). But what really remained so far behind the scenes is the constant debates and brain storming sessions we have around what we really want to do with our new lifestyle. I think it boils down to redefining what The Old Stable is about. We are still in the phase where we try to articulate what we want to do and why we have made this big change in the first place. In essence, we still ask ourselves on a frequent basis the following question: why did we leave everything and come here in the first place?


    Elena would probably emphasize the eagerness to do something connected to the land, to the environment, to live a more sustainable life, to be closer to the family and god forbid, maybe get involved in some activism. I agree with all these reasons, but I’m not sure where it started for me.  Basically, I think we left our academic jobs and came here in order to have more time with our children, to really get to follow their growth. It seemed that a change from a hectic job where you leave in the morning and come back in the evening just to be stressed out because you didn’t finish a draft of a paper or an experiment on time was badly needed.  We wanted to go back to our inner artists too, to have more time to watch the world around us, be more creative like we used to be when were slightly younger: draw, write, play music. This realization became more vivid when we started our path in ‘homeschooling’. After a year and a half of ‘homeschooling’ in England it just made sense that we all needed to get rid of some rigid social structures and expectations. And that, just like our kids, we just needed more time to do what we like.

    Initially, it wasn’t my intention to share much of our personal exploration around education choices as I wanted to keep this blog dedicated mainly to the development of The Old Stable project. In addition, people get on the defense when education topics are discussed, as if we were trying to prove how bad parents they were for doing or not doing something. But, as it is becoming clearer to me that our education choices ARE an important part of The Old Stable project, sharing the developments without disclosing some of our thoughts around education will be missing on a big deal of how we got here.
    Elena, on her part, is currently writing a book about ‘unschooling’ in Italian. It’s not her own idea it has been actually requested by an Italian printing house, so lately we had these topics discussed around the table again. In a way, it helps fine tuning our ideas.

    John Holt’s ‘How children learn’ published in the mid 60’s is probably that which influenced us the most for taking the ‘non’ schooling approach

    I’d like to connect my scrambled thoughts to the events I highlighted earlier and can’t see where to start. There is so much in this ‘non’ schooling world that’s it’s hard to know what’s best to say first. All I wanted to share really is that our basic belief is that a child needs far more time then we can even imagine to: play, figure things out on his own, and be bored without any interference. Not sending the kids to school just allows them more time to do all the things I just mentioned (and I’ll leave the other advantages to a different time). Basically, this means that the parent has to be somehow more at home (whether it is one or both). Once we started freeing our own time to allow this natural growth, we realized how we benefited from it too.

    Questions that we never thought of before, started surfacing and a lot of ‘taken for granted’ answers started being questioned, too. I’ll mention one that we get a lot of, regarding socialization (how do you get the kids to socialize?). That particular one made us reflect a lot about what socialization really means and I think it can explain a lot of my scrambled thoughts for this post. As much as school provides some opportunities to socialize with children of the same age, it also minimizes (or even prevents) socialization in other contexts such as: with children at different ages (much bigger or much smaller), old people, the sick, parents at work and so on.

    An example of how socializing skills (or the lack of it, in this case to be explained shortly) comes in when I think of the book launching event in Nonantola earlier this October (a link to how the papers presented the event, in Italian is here, this is also where I got the photo of her with the mayor and the director of the Villa Emma foundation). A much more revealing interview with the Villa Emma foundation director is linked here

    sonja Borus_Sulpanaro
    Sonja Borus at the old people’s centre in Nonantola, October 2018. A total lack of communication skills on the part of the Villa Emma foundation director. Rather than being angry, let’s do it better!

    The event of Sonja Borus’s translated diary launching struck me in a way that I am still trying to get to grips with. I got very angry, but the positive side is that it made me want to socialize much more, especially with the old and to make sure my children do so too. It made me realize that at The Old Stable we should take part in the debate around how immigration is dealt with, in the present, and to provide opportunities for people from different generations to speak to each other. How were these immigration waves been dealt with in the past? and what are the lessons we could learn?

    In brief, how I saw the book launching event managed is as follows: An old woman, holocaust survivor came all the way from Israel to see the places and to speak about her experiences to the current citizens of Nonantola. This was supposed to be a truly golden and once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ask questions and to listen to someone that was a survivor rather than a local. The day started with an ‘informal’ meeting in the old peoples centre where Sonja could have met and spoken to some of the people that knew or actively participated in the events around the saving of the Villa Emma children. It turned out to be a very long speech by the director of the foundation who hardly spoke directly to Sonja, passing on the microphone to a few old people of Nonantola who told their stories (or their parents’) but with very little attention or direction to the star of the event.  Sonja doesn’t speak Italian and was accompanied with what seemed to be a pathetic translator. Even when there were some comments or things that may be of interest to Sonja the translator just sat there doing nothing.

    It seemed to be an event to praise the people of Nonantola in the past who took on to save the Villa Emma children, to retell an historical event as a myth. What they appeared to be saying is: ‘All the people of Nonantola were taking their moral responsibility to save the children of Villa Emma and that all were part of the resistance, we must keep this heroic episode alive!’. Yeah, sure… but how?… and is this really the way for keeping the stories alive? How is that, now-a-days the anti-immigration stance is alive and kicking also in Nonantola? wasn’t there a way to get the debate a little less superficial? Aside from the shallowness of the debate, the opportunity to listen to the story from the point of view of a survivor was totally lost. In the event, Sonja’s daughters were present and I had to ask them, in private, after the morning session was closed, whether they deliberately asked the organizers not to ask Sonja any questions or let her speak. No, they also found it a bit strange but then they were also grateful for being invited and for being partially funded by the association for the translation work so they couldn’t really complain. I found it shameful that such an opportunity that will most probably never come back has been discarded so easily. I was then optimistic, it could have still been just a bad start of the day, maybe during the official launch of the book, later in the afternoon, Sonja could talk more about what she wrote in person to all the people in Nonantola. However, when we gathered in Salla Verde next to the municipality there was now also the German historian who worked for years on the topic of Villa Emma and a dry teacher-like translator who had lots of comments to say about the translation work. There was so much irrelevant talking and Sonja was left to wait for nearly two hours before she could say anything. The commentators spoke about her ‘non perfect’ German language and her emotional stress that is conveyed in the diary as if she wasn’t there at all. Nothing was ever said in person. At that point, my blood was already boiling and I couldn’t stand it no longer. Elena had to stop me from bursting out from the crowd shouting what a disgrace to ignore such a person and what an opportunity was lost. I’ll never be a good politician, I’d burn all the bridges before I could get anywhere.  So that was beginning of October and I’d promised that I’d write an open letter to the director of the Villa Emma foundation on how badly the event was managed. However , by the time I was ready to write and was organizing my thoughts on how to create more opportunities to make a discussion around the Villa Emma story as part of our activities in the Old Stable (brain storming all the Israeli-Italian connections I can create) .. our next adventure came up, somehow it’s all connected in my scrambled thoughts on toast.

    Come end of October and as part of our efforts to provide different socialization opportunities for the kids (as I mentioned above and especially after Sonja’s episode). I happened to be left with Emily, our middle daughter one Monday morning and we came up with going to Nonantola’s morning market to play a few tunes we recently learnt on the violin and mandolin.

    Elena and Emily as seen in Resto del Carlino

    That time of day the market is full of old people that do their vegetable shopping just in front of the municipality. I thought to myself that that was a wonderful opportunity to meet, make people smile, and to let Emily show her skills without being judged.

    It was great, Emily played and the appreciation was immense, smiles, claps and also pocket money. While we were closing our instrument cases and I was having a conversation with a local journalist who shared my thoughts on the previous week’s book launching event, two municipality police approached. I had no clue what was their problem but it was clear that they wanted to fine me for something. It took them a while going through the municipality rule book. I was slightly shocked, a bit embarrassed. Was there a strict rule against playing in the market? something I didn’t really understand? Anyhow, they could warn me and I’d just go away… finally, they handed me a €100 fine which only later I understood to be for begging and disturbing the public… also for taking an advantage over a minor in doing so. Looking back, it’s quite humiliating.

    Emily cried, but a overwhelming number of people (mostly old!) ran to comfort us, make sure that Emily wasn’t too traumatized. Nearly everyone, including the mayor but not the policewoman that fined us, were supportive and encouraged us to go and play in the streets again. We even ended up with a new friendship with an old man that was part of the group of teenagers that knew well the children of Villa Emma, back then in 1943. He was present in Sonja’s book launching event the previous week. As soon as the policewoman went away he got Emily some jam he made at home and told her about similar things that happened to him in his childhood. The best part of the story from my point of view, is that we got closer to the teachers in the music school we are attending in Bologna and that we got such a big boost of encouragement that we ended up playing music more than before. A month later our family violin teacher, as well as two other music teachers and three families from the music school came to busk with us in front of the municipality. It was such a meaningful social event, especially for the kids.

    Busking in Cork, Ireland, June 2018. Busking is becoming a family tradition and we find it a great way to connect with people in the street. Mainly a way of sharing happiness through music.

    You can get more of the ‘fine’ story here (translate to English, if needed). I’d go on about explaining why I think that busking is such an important thing to do, not only for gaining confidence in performing but also for the social aspect of sharing one’s music… but it really is worth a post by itself and I’d rather try to tie all this to our reflections on the development of the Old Stable Project. After the event, it just occurred to me that for some people music is just not appreciated enough and that it is really considered ‘begging’.

    So, can we somehow get people through our activities to:

    1. Socialize more (and bridge the age gap between the old and the young)?
    2. Create more opportunities for locals to meet immigrants in a friendly atmosphere?
    3. Get people to appreciate music and share their music?

    At that time I was desperately thinking out loud and trying to use the few local contacts I have to gather what we can actively do in these areas. I mentioned in the last post that we started attending some local meetings on the themes of immigration and environment. Elena is a little more active in going to meetings :). I went to one meeting of ‘Anni in Fugga’ which centres its activity around helping immigrants in the area to get through the Italian bureaucracy and to integrate more easily. As well as to listen to what they are up to, I wanted to offer a place to hold some social and musical events and keep brain storming loudly our ideas until we can offer something concrete. I only realized later that the name of the association ‘Anni in fuga’ (which means ‘years on the run’) is the book title of Joseph Indig’s story of the children of Villa Emma and from which the idea for the name of the association was taken. So within my scrambled thoughts… it all connects somehow.

    Then our violin teacher suggested that I contact someone from Musicians without Borders to see what they had to say (check out the link, if you are interested to know more about them). I ended up taking a mind blowing course that they were holding just a couple weekends later in Bologna.  Their general idea was to get musicians to volunteer in immigration centres in the Bologna area and use music to connect between people. We learned how to run musical activities using vocals, body percussion and more. The organization itself has a wider scope and you can read more about the organization in the link I’ve inserted earlier. For me, it was perfect timing as it was relevant to everything i was thinking about at the time.  From teaching to getting involved in work with immigrants to just doing things related to music. This is when my scrambled thoughts went all gushing everywhere.

    Getting rid of complexes. ‘Hanging out with musicians’ as a Bodhràn player in Galway, Ireland in 2004.

    Initially in the course I felt like an imposer.. I’m still struggling to get rid of the stigma of being an amateur percussionist and being defined as ‘hanging out with musicians’ like many drummers are.  The fact that I was training to run musical based workshops along side the first violist of the Emilia Romagna regional orchestra didn’t make any sense to me. However, we shared a lot in common with mainly our eagerness to do something with music for the benefit helping immigrants. I came back with a billion ideas to implement! Who knows, maybe one of these days we could get the workshops and courses running at The Old Stable!

    To connect it to our opera experiences… it was there in the Musician without Borders course where I got an invitation to attend an opera in Modena, as the first violist could arrange cheap tickets for us. He was playing in Il Corsaro.

    The theatre in Modena… the kids got to see two operas within a month’s time

    I ended up going with both the daughters and it was a fantastic experience (everyone thought we’d get bored!). They got the chance to see a live orchestra in a proper opera house. Going back to socialization opportunities, the majority of the public were pensioners. They were excited to see such young children attending. A woman even asked the girls to tell her at the end of the show what they thought of it… and they did! She was very happy.

    A month later we got to see our actual violin teacher who also plays the viola, playing in a different opera in the same theatre. This time, it was also an opportunity to meet with a friend from the music school!

    Finally, a nice conclusion to this music-education mumble has come with us playing with a epic local group for Christmas, passing by the old people’s home and various points in the town.

    24th of December, 2018. The abbey in Nonantola. Music it is.

    I think that that was enough scrambled thoughts for now. Congratulations if you made it up until here. Like many of my posts, apart from sharing the developments, the actual writing about it really helps myself refine and vocalize ideas.

    Let’s hope that The Old Stable projects develops to something more connected to music.
    I am working towards updating more about the first beer course that was held end of November and more about our musical adventures!

    Till next time!
    Happy New Year




    Hops (between) hopes and fears

    This post is about hops, those that brewers harvest but it is also about the hops we experienced in the past two months between feelings of fear and hope.

    Autumn has practically arrived at the doorstep and has fooled us with long spells of heat and sun just before it came knocking at our door. I think we knew it was coming and felt it creeping. A frantic two month of last minute preparations was accompanied by the silent awareness that our time is running up before the sun goes away and prevents us from working outdoors. Our last August-September efforts included: closing up the old chimney in the kitchen, finishing up the classrooms, painting the kitchen walls and window bars as well as the inner windows, putting sealant around the window frames, collecting wood for the fire and finally connecting the remaining wood burning stoves to the chimney.

    This transition time between summer and autumn is also when the aroma of the hop flowers are at their peak.

    A happy homebrewer in early autumn

    For a homebrewer, this is a reason to hop around the garden with joy. Alas, I’m still learning what’s the right time to pick the cones. Too early will lend some grassy flavours to the finished beer.

    A hope cone

    Too late, and I’ve lost the season’s harvest. Rubbing the cones between one’s hands releases the familiar aromas of an IPA. This year I harvested two varieties: Cascade (the American variety that is so fruity to the smell) and Brewer’s Gold which lends a great balance between mild grass and fruitiness.

    Our classroom ready for winter activities

    Our main task in the past two months was starting up the teaching activities and getting enough students to enroll in the English courses. It feels like that the entire ‘The Old Stable’ project relies on us being able to work from home. It’s only in that way that we would be able to spend time with the kids, manage the garden and hold social and cultural activities in a sane manner. Up until now, it was the sweet part of starting something new, throwing ourselves to the wild and hoping it all works out with the important difference that we had enough backup funds to get us going. It was the fun part of being a builder, carpenter, decorator, gardener and headmaster without being stressed about income. Now it’s time to live up to our own expectations and make our dreams a working reality.

    We designed our courses and tried to work out what was the best strategy to pitching up activities. We might have started too slowly. We advertised via friends and Facebook with only a few visits to the nearby schools handing out leaflets. Now the ‘academic’ year has started and we are far from filling up our courses. In fact, we are feeling a little on edge. We even started having doubts that we would be able to afford the kids’ music lessons, the one and only outsourced activity that the kids are involved with. Welcome to the life of being an independent! I feel a little embarrassed to share my worries as it was definitely expected and for the main part there are plenty of people out there that deal with this feeling yearly and here I am complaining after years of being spoilt, earning a monthly income without having to care about its actual source.

    Putting aside the economical worries associated with opening one’s own business, the political atmosphere in Italy, particularly in the area of immigration has started to become quite toxic. As much as people ridicule Salvini’s actions and discourse, his speech has infiltrated the mainstream conversations and allowed those with xenophobic ideas to feel free to express their views. In fact it were Italians votes that got Salvini into the government. If not just sadness, these developments evoke fear that a very bad time is approaching. Being brought up in a family that suffered losses in the holocaust I only think of the worst to come. This time it’s not the Jews they are after, but I still have this sensation that I can’t trust the people around me. what do they really think? and on which side will they be when the time of truth comes?

    The castle of Brisighella. A weekend that blew some fresh air in our activism sails

    On the other hand, good things happened too, and maybe not surprisingly we wanted to make the most of the little opportunities and positive ideas that came along. It started with Elena being invited to participate in a small weekend festival in Brisighella devoted to environmental and social issues. The focus this year was on reducing waste at home. Elena was invited to talk about our experiences as a zero-waste family without a car. We were hosted by a very nice family and got to meet people that were like minded, interested and wanted to do something. This already brings a bit of hope. We came back full of energy to be more active on the bicycle issue. Elena has kept on creating contacts in the last couple of months and has become an active member of the ‘Legambiente’ in Nonantola. I’ll let her write about the ‘Nappy library’ and the campaign that is running to complete the construction of a bicycle path connecting Nonantola and Modena. She has quite a lot on her plate and can guess that this gives her something to hold on to and hope that good things will come out of it soon.

    As for me, in the last month I got in touch with ‘Anni in Fuga’ of Nonantola, an association devoted to helping the local community of refugees in their daily tasks and integration. I was hoping to offer some space and ideas to arrange cultural exchanges especially around music at The Old Stable. Although it’s still early ideas I got a warm welcome and the members seemed interested. By chance through our violin teacher in Bologna I got to participate in a three day course run by Musicians without Borders and Musicians for human rights which really blew my mind. It was great meeting other people that wanted to do something too. I’ll have to write about this later and more lengthily, it’s still early times but there is a feeling that we are getting towards realizing some of our ideas.

    We’re still slow with our tiny business but know very well that it is a matter of determination and patience.. all to come in good time.

    So in summary, two months and a half between hope and fear, lots of hops in between.
    I hope updating with our social activism soon. Till next time.

    Inizio officiale corsi 2018/19

    Per la versione italiana scorri verso il basso. Migliorerò il mio italiano col tempo, la vostra pazienza per favore 😀

    So here we are! It’s been a year of work to sort things out but we can finally announce that our first official activities are starting from October this year!

    Last year we already had our first classes of Play and Rhyme Time and Tea and Talk but our pioneer little students and their parents as well as the adults from Tea and Talk were hosted in our living room. They had to share with us our children’s mess! and had to settle with only a small table in a circle. We might miss the first year of trying things out on a very small scale however it’s time to keep things a little tidier!

    Empty class with space for our toddler students. Those who started with us last year will recognize the yellow carpet.

    We now have a designated classroom with a big blackboard and plenty of space for our youngest students to roam and dance to their favourite nursery rhyme songs. The room will be able to accommodate courses during the colder winter months too!

    We have arranged a calendar of courses and we hope to get them all filled with happy English learners soon!

    Our old style classroom blackboard. Originally the back panel of the transportation box for our bicycle.


    For now, we offer two courses for children: Play and Rhyme Time (nursery age, 3-6 years old) and Fun Time! (elementary school age , 7-11 years old)

    For adults we offer two types of courses. The first, for complete beginners (or nearly complete beginners): Chat and Laugh, which we hope gives the idea of the course’s approach: lots of fun and practical!
    The second, is for the more advanced or intermediate level who wish to dive into conversation: Tea and Talk.

    Finally, we are excited to try out some new workshops:
    How about learning how to make beer at home, in English? with Inglese a tutta birra
    Or what about doing some theatre in English?
    Last but not least we hope getting some interest in an intensive workshop in communication and presentation building aimed at the professional level!

    At the bottom of this page (under the Italian) we also have our first flyer with information on the courses we offer this year. If you know anyone interested please pass this on!

    Eccoci qua! È stato un anno di lavoro per sistemare le cose, ma possiamo finalmente annunciare che le nostre prime attività iniziano officialmente primo di ottobre di quest’anno!

    L’anno scorso avevamo già le nostre prime classi di Play and Rhyme Time e Tea and Talk, ma i piccoli pionieri ei loro genitori, e anche gli adulti di Tea and Talk, erano ospitati nel nostro salotto. Hanno dovuto condividere con noi il casino dei nostri bambini! e hanno dovuto accontentarsi solo con un piccolo tavolo rotondo. Ora è il momento di tenere le cose un po più ordinate!

    Abbiamo un’aula designata con una grande lavagna e un sacco di spazio per i nostri studenti più giovani per ballare le loro canzoni preferite. La sala sarà in grado di ospitare anche i corsi durante i mesi invernali più freddi!

    La lavagna nuova! 

    La aula didattica

    Abbiamo organizzato un calendario di corsi e speriamo di averli tutti pieni di felici studenti inglesi presto!

    Per ora, offriamo due corsi per bambini: Play e Rhyme Time (età della scuola materna, 3-6 anni) e Fun Time! (età della scuola elementare, 7-11 anni)

    Per gli adulti offriamo due tipi di corsi. Il primo, per principianti assoluti (o quasi principianti): Chat and Laugh, che speriamo dia l’idea dell’approccio del corso: molto divertente e pratico!
    Il secondo, è per il livello più avanzato o intermedio che desidera immergersi nella conversazione: Tea and Talk.

    Siamo entusiasti di provare alcuni nuovi workshop:
    Che ne dici di imparare come fare la birra a casa, in inglese? con Inglese a tutta birra
    O che ne dici di fare un po ‘di teatro in inglese?
    Ultimo ma non meno importante, ci auguriamo di essere interessati a un workshop intensivo di comunicazione e presentazione per il livello professionale!

    Abbiamo anche il nostro primo volantino con informazioni sui corsi che offriamo quest’anno. Se conosci qualcuno interessato per favore passa la parola!


    One year on

    Yet again I’m skipping more than a month in reporting on our progress.
    It’s been a year now since we moved to Italy and set up home in The Old Stable and I guess there is room for a short reflective post about how it has been so far.

    We came with great ideas to make our home a place to work from and share our passions, there were plenty of ideas to develop and keeping a blog and a website was a way for us to play with ideas and help us monitor our progress.

    We came with big ideas

    Most of the pages in the website, if you had a look before are pretty much like having a virtual bank of activities we could run in The Old Stable. Aside from a couple of children Rhyme and Time courses and one adult session of ‘Tea and Talk’ , we haven’t put into practice any of the other ideas this year. We had put aside some enough funds to allow ourselves to work at home for a year without really earning.

    External changes within the first summer

    This allowed us time to plan our own activities and save a bit by doing whatever we could in renovations, on our own.

    From day one we had our hands full with all sorts of construction work: from fixing the roof to installing a stove and rebuilding and painting the shutters before winter, to arranging the vegetable plots and getting chickens. At the same time our minds were trying to imagine what kind of activities we’d manage to set up from home to at least cover our running costs. Now time is up and we hope opening The Old Stable for regular activities this autumn.

    As I mentioned in early posts, we realized that during autumn and winter times we can’t really hold activities in the actual Stables without a properly installed heating system. The barn building needs a lot of initial investment in order to make it suitable for holding activities in it, but that is really the long term plan.

    So it was about in late May, when spring came with its new energies that we started insulating the very top floor so that we could use the rooms upstairs.  The rooms at the top floor were used in the first year as a storage place for old furniture given to us as presents. Things we knew we could use one day but didn’t really have the space to mount them. During the winter it gets very cold and in summer it gets unbearably hot. It’s only later that I learnt that these conditions (extreme hot and cold) are ideal for making Balsamic vinegar to allow slow acetification during winter and sufficient liquid evaporation during summer. That’s why traditionally, those that make thier own balsamic vinegar keep it in the top floor.

    The first room to be tackled. The top floor, without insulation turns out to be ideal for making your own Balsamic vinegar.

    The first thing to do was to do some research on the materials we could use. Although we wanted to use sustainable and as much as possible natural materials, we also wanted a material with high insulation capability, economically viable and relatively easy to work with. That’s quite a lot to ask for. But we settled with a multi-layer reflective and breathable material which was not cheap and probably not the most ecologically sustainable, but I believe that a good insulation saves a lot of energy and that pays back on the ecosystem too.

    Initial wooden frame to external walls.

    Building wise you can follow the pictures to see how it all went. From a basic wooden frame to laying the silvery shiny NASA-like material to adding a spacer (practically another frame to allow an air gab between the insulation material to the cover which was either cellulose fiber wall or a tongue and groove wall ceiling. For the roof we used a double layer insulation, meaning that two spacers were used. Sounds simple but it took a lot of time and frustration to get things in good shape.

    Laying the first layer of insulation on the external walls

    Now the rooms are ready to be painted but I haven’t downloaded the pictures that show the wooden ceiling and the cellulose plaster boards, yet. Within a month we should have them arranged as classrooms and a small guest room and I hope to post these as soon as we are ready to start publicizing our teaching activities.

    The months of August and September are planned to be dedicated to updating our website pages, especially those that are related to the English teaching. We plan to arrange a few promotional events and start recruiting students for next year.

    The hops are growing, and beer is being drunk, chickens are happy and the rabbit too.

    Until the next one.

    April-May 2018, Spring brings enthusiasm

    Yet again a blog entry that is slightly overdue but this time I have a good excuse… we were really busy, we are still very busy, in fact I’m taking away precious sleep time to write these lines and tomorrow we wake up early for another day full of work to be done. Hey, but I’m not complaining one bit, this is so much fun and there is so much to be looking forward to. The featured picture I chose for this entry is of one of the ex-battery chickens we have adopted late April. The picture was taken the day she arrived. Although with hardly any feathers and skinny as can be, evidently she is all full of  enthusiasm and eagerness to learn about the outside world, roam around free in the open and to appreciate real sun light. I think it sums up our mood… battered slightly by the cold winter and the realization that much more needs to be done before we can pitch up activities in The Old Stable we have emerged with regenerated enthusiasm and optimism with the first rays of proper sunshine. We have come with new ideas and it’s time to get work done.

    So in brief, in case you wanted to watch the photos and skip the wording, the last month and a half included: building a chicken coop and getting chickens in (and a cockerel), pitching up a hop garden (I thought I’d have to wait for next year!), seeing our veg plot sprouting, building a temperature controlled chamber for the fermentation vessels in the brewery and starting renovating upstairs in order to open airbnb-type activities.

    We had two couples from England coming for visits early to mid April and it pushed us to rethink on how to accommodate for guests. It seems that our visitors loved it here and we enjoyed sharing our experiences. We got to a conclusion that insulating the upstairs rooms will allow us to move to the top floor and leave the first floor where we sleep now for guests. The unfinished bathroom on the first floor, left by the previous owners, needs to be completed and that can create a whole separate living unit for a family on the first floor. Potentially an airbnb.

    So below is a snippet of how we build our chicken coop from scrap materials. We got ideas from the internet.

    We have now on average 3 eggs a day and the chickens from the industrial battery have gained weighed and grew back their feathers! such a pleasant sight.

    The setting up of the hop garden was an adventure by itself but I’d let the pictures below do the words. I’m in a steep learning process and didn’t know which types of hops can actually grow here. Luckily I found an Italian nursery that was very friendly and helpful. I’ve planted two varieties that should uphold the heat of the Emilia Romagna area: Cascade and Brewer’s Gold. A few plants look like they have suffered from the heat wave of early May which unfortunately fell on the week they were transported to their new home but a couple have already started climbing up their strings and I have hopes (in hops) that the others will survive and catch up.


    Last but not least, below is a picture of the initial frame I’ve built for the fridge that will be used as a controlled temperature chamber for fermentation. I think it’s time I wrote a proper post about the brewery and how it has developed so far. The project is complete and I can’t believe that I’m practically ready to brew all year round!

    Before I conclude this update I’ll add a picture of the room we have started insulating ourselves with a multi layer NASA like insulation roll.
    Hopefully my next post will be with pictures of a finished project! Until the next time!

    Upstairs room, intended to be a classroom and library as we start insulation work

    February-March 2018, from teaching to allotment preparation

    So I missed a blog post and skipped the cold month of February. March is already midway through and yesterday was probably the first convincing sign of Spring coming. This year the winter re-bounced early in March, just as we started waking up and feeling chirpy, with a sudden drop of temperatures and it only seems now that it’s picking up back again.
    So what have we had in these two months? Everything looked like moving in slow motion and the cold and somewhat wet days kept us away from any activities of building or planning.

    A sudden drop of temperatures gave a nice fresh whiteness to the Old Stable but we were held back with big jobs.

    Most of our efforts turned out to be devoted to keeping the essentials going on, like heating up the stove and clearing up the tables, washing up and dishes. This winter turned longer than expected, and just to make it feel even longer, we have already enjoyed two waves of a nasty flu.

    There is no doubt that holding classes and courses in The Old Stable are nearly impossible under winter conditions (without a proper heating system) and we are forced to rethink our strategies for taking off with our teaching projects. Our first English courses have started but these are held at the moment in the living room with little space and, although with a nice friendly atmosphere, we would rather have a dedicated space for teaching so that our kids can still go on with their own business.

    Starting mid February, when it seemed as if the worst period of winter was behind us, we started planning our veg growing space and decided to go ahead with a practical approach to permaculture (or whatever you wish to call the non invasive and without a glimpse of pesticides type of farming, some may add: good luck with that!). The main idea in my eyes, (Elena can add the other bits or contradict me altogether), is that you let the natural cycle of vegetation be the sole treatment of the soil. No digging, no tilling, no weeding. Essential minerals for growing certain crops would be introduced by planting other vegetation to complement the life-cycle of materials.

    A permaculture plot in preparation, we took the practical approach of weeding just for the first year.

    The proposed growing space is essentially covered with a big heap of dry straw or hay and is let to mulch. The soil shouldn’t be disturbed in any way and thus walking is only allowed in the surroundings. Ideally, a plot like this should be left untouched for TWO years before planting anything hence, our practical approach; In a few places we have weeded whatever we could and covered with hay so that within beginning of Spring we would be able to start the first planting.


    Obviously, my mind is already gearing up for setting up our hop garden. Rhizomes are usually planted in November but the plot and climbing frame should be prepared in advance. I’ve already noticed that it’s a good idea to pre-book the hops from a nursery as early as April, sometimes they just sell out too quickly especially when it comes to the ‘trendy’ hop variety such as ‘Cascade’ and ‘Citra’.. all those IPA lovers.

    Speaking of beer, the first wannabe Irish stout has been barreled, bottled and consumed by our friends and relatives, so now is the time for a new batch of something. It turned out well with a full aroma that I’ve expected but the alcoholic content and the body feel were both lower than what I intended (enough of homebrewing highbrow talk now). The take home message of these cold months is that I have realized that we really need to build a cold/hot chamber for the fermenters as temperatures up in the brewery room during winter are even too cold for making lagers while during the summer they’ll be probably way too hot. For now I’m thinking along the lines of building a box around a used fridge just like in this DIY project. Expecting parties and events this summer, and hoping to get the beer flowing I should better start about now!

    Jumping to other topics of this month I’d like to write about our bicycle endeavors. We might not have written much about it on the blog or website (except in the small print down below the web page, you might notice that we mention something about limited parking places and how we would love to encourage the usage of bicycles)… anyways, we are known here sometimes as the no-car people. In fact we started promoting commuting by bike when we were in Bath and even produced this video.

    Our electrically assisted cargo bike

    We try our best to commute with only bicycles and public transportation. As long as it’s between The Old Stable and Nonantola or Castelfranco Emilia, it is quite easy. But when it comes to the bigger cities such as Modena (only 13 km away) or Bologna (46 km) then things become more difficult as cycle paths are limited as well as unmarked properly and roads are trafficky. Add to this the fact that Italian drivers are not used to respecting cyclists and you get to a feeling that commuting by bike is impossible. This month we joined FIAB (The Italian Federation of Friends of the Bicycle… sounds funny doesn’t it) as we wanted to be part of a national campaign for promoting bike mobility. The best part was that we met amazing people, friendly and devoted to sharing their biking experiences. Within no time we had one member knocking on our door to get some video footage for their new local campaign and another that volunteered to show us the safest way to cycle to Modena and Bologna. Just a couple of days ago I set off with an ever so friendly and enthusiastic Mara from Nonantola to explore the way to Bologna and back. We did it in one piece, taking around two hours and 45 minutes each way. It was beautiful and surprisingly I felt safe! For those coming here by plane… just that you know there is a way to do the last stretch from the airport to The Old Stable by bike!

    With a subtle twist to the bike topic (It’ll come probably at the end of this story) I’d like to end up with last week’s experience: being interviewed for the local Radio station: Radioattiva (Radio active). Elena, being the local and well connected person was approached a couple of months ago to be interviewed in an hour long radio show in Nonantola (the station turns out to be around the corner from her mother’s house). We seemed interesting people with some exciting ideas for the radio people, worth while apparently for an hour long conversation.

    An historic picture of the founders of Radioattiva back in the 70s in Nonnatola (http://www.radioattivanonantola.it)

    Obviously we agreed as we could tell our stories, push our campaigns for the environment and get ourselves known to promote English lessons and the cultural association. We were asked to chose the songs (a mix of Arabic, Israeli, Irish and Italian songs we love listening to) and have a fun conversation with Paolo and Massimo, our hosts for the hour. It was sheer fun, time passed so quickly. It was just great sitting behind a professional looking microphone fitted with tennis racket looking filters and seeing all the behind-the-scene activity. We haven’t recorded the interview and I know that Elena’s mum didn’t even bother to listen to us. My mum did and probably a few bored friends. It is an internet radio and it occurred to me that probably very few were really listening nowadays to internet radio… or maybe I’m wrong? I found the story of the Radio very touching, in some way even sad. A bunch of teenagers in the 70s really worked hard enthusiastically to open a free radio station. Paolo and Massimo being part of the founding group. Then financial problems and teenagers leaving to study and get a ‘proper’ job made it impossible to keep open and the station was shut down. With eyes still brilliant the old fellas decided to reopen as an internet radio 30 years later. They love it and it seems as if they go back in time behind the controllers and the microphones, but they claim it’s hard to find youngsters as enthusiastic as they were… nowadays with Youtube, facebook and instagram there is less magic in the old style radio (and you can imagine the song of the Buggles of 79 playing in the background). And then came my thoughts of when I listen to radio… well when do I listen to radio? (and here comes the twist) : I listen to the radio when I’m driving on my own in a car. So as I’m advocating to get the cars off the road (especially those that carry only one passenger at a time) and get everyone cycling…. I might be helping in killing the very last chance of Radio broadcasting to survive.  Just a thought.

    On a very happy note, as I’m writing these lines, I’m in contact with an English musician that we might be hosting at The Old Stable this summer! It’ll probably be our first and it’ll be something folky and festive. I can’t say anything before we get it all settled. But I’m hopeful that this spring will give us lots of inspiration and work for the coming months! We’ll keep you tuned.