The re-education of the sisters: This time its BYOC (bring your own chair)!

For her birthday I bought Steffanie a reupholstery course that was highly recommended. (restylestudiotoronto.com)  The course offers beginners a unique space to learn the art and skills of reupholstery.    Along with instruction, the studio provides the necessary materials to get you started. Students bring their own fabric for the final stages and of course you need to bring your own chair! BYOC darlings!

The course covered everything right from how to strip the piece down to the framework, how to put in new springs and finally, how to  add the final  flourishes that make it your own. Having recovered a casual dining set (currently residing in rejuvenated style in la casa di Laura) Steffanie decided to take on a much bigger project.

Enter a 1960’s tub chair that had been calling out for help. The chair had been recovered for a second time in the 1980’s with a shiny, geometric pattern and the fabric quite literately disintegrated into dust. Ah the eighties, design horrors of epic and dusty proportions! I think it was ambitious to take on such a large chair however, Steffanie is a brave one and attacked it like a pack of wolves.

Although the course was one weekend long, the chair proved to be a larger task. A couple of extra studio days were needed but the end result is quite impressive – Well done sister! To add to the mystery, Steffanie kept the final fabric and design a secret until the big reveal. No amount of wealsely or sly questions could get any sort of meaningful detail out of her. When the last touches were completed we had a bit of a party in the chair’s honour and Steffanie got to show off her masterpiece in style.

Steffanie brought the chair into the modern day and she also gained new passions for air compressors and staple guns!  Next step will be my sofa and I get to be the apprentice. That should prove entertaining at the very least.ImageImage

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on with the new!

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Letting the sunshine in! We proudly present our first before and after shots!

The renovation of our house has been the source of many hours of discussion and debate between the two of us. Where exactly do we start? We had witnessed home renovation chaos via our friend’s projects here in Canada as well as watching a seemingly endless stream of real estate shows (all in the name of research of course haha). With the further complication of not actually living in the country, we both knew that baby steps and lots of planning would be the best and only way forward for us.

With a limited budget, we sat down with a list and created a timeline of what would be best done now, then soon, then later. If Steffanie could be described as having a super power it would be the Master of Lists and List-making. Thankfully, we have different strengths in different areas and my marginal input in list creating is balanced out in other pursuits. Otherwise, it would be me staring at an excel spreadsheet yelling at the screen in a variety of exotic swear words for hours on end.

With so much to do, it was hard to focus but with our crafty spreadsheets, it was easy to make the first major decision – to upgrade the windows. The old windows were single-paned, no screens and some of them were missing glass entirely.  As a result, the drafts were enough to force us to wear mittens at the table when we were there at Christmas time!  And in the spring … all manner of irritating, stinging bugs nibbled on us while we slept.  Since marinating in calamine lotion isn’t how we envision our vacations, we decided that windows would make a big difference in a variety of ways.

Steffanie on the balcony

Steffanie on the balcony with the old windows and doors

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The balcony with new windows and shutters! Ta Daaaaaah!

balcony without new shutters

Balcony without new shutters

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The balcony with new shutters!

In addition, we also decided to pay the extra money to add two new windows in the bedrooms. Apparently, this caused a lot of additional discussion with the contractor as to why we needed more windows in our bedrooms since we were only there at night (says you).  After making it quite clear we were determined and much to the irritation of our neighbours, new window holes and no doubt lots of noise were created.

Laura's bedroom

Once where only reptiles roamed….

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Behold! A new window and light!

Another less controversial window was also made in what is now our living room. Previously, the room had two French style doors and a window in between. With such an amazing vista, we decided to create a third door and expand the view of the castle. And why not!  Being able to look across at a castle was part of the reason we fell in love with the place and we both want  see as much of the landscape as possible no matter where we are sitting and at any time of day.

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The window on the left becomes ….

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A door!

Of course there were a few delays but in the end, as with most things in Italy, it got done – just not with our city-girl Canadian sense of time.  Italian timing is best calculated with a glass of wine (or several) in hand and lots and lots of patience. Like an opera there are stages and acts involved: Anticipation, Anxiety, Stress, Negotiating , Re-negotiating, Appreciation and then Relief  – in the end, a few extra weeks of waiting versus the many future years of light and beautiful scenery makes it worth the wait.

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Castle of Cleto, Calabria

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The re-education of the sisters continue: Getting our farmer “wings”


It had occurred to us that there was a fairly large, fairly obvious question yet to be answered. How exactly were we going to transform ourselves from city caterpillars to country butterflies? What if we hated it? What if the sound of a rooster at 4:30 am caused such a fury that it resulted in its untimely death by shovel? How were we to gain valuable farm experience when our family migrated to the city with our grandparents? Let’s face it, farming skills just don’t come up in general conversation in downtown Toronto. Except perhaps, when it relates to the time-waster Farmville.



Where to begin? We were at the crossroads. Sure we had invested some time and financial resources but we had yet to prove to ourselves that we could actually shovel poo and kill our supper. We know this is a crazy idea and despite never growing crops other than a backyard garden, never dealing with animals other than the family dog, never living in a rural setting beyond the suburbs of a large city, somehow our decision has been the right one. And thanks to a newspaper article, those questions have answers and we got our country wings.


Several months ago, the Toronto Star published a story about an experience on a goat farm in Devon, UK. The reporter went to the farm and learned about feeding, milking of goats and making goat cheese. In return for her labour, she got her room and board. Sounded perfect. We went to the site workaway.com and signed up. It was quite amazing to see the number of countries involved and the number of opportunities. We sent out several requests and to be honest, got a number of rejections.  It was a little ego bruising to get a few curt “not interested” responses however having spent time on dating websites, online rejection has a short shelf life.  And like online dating, you learn fairly quickly where compatibility might be found.

We concentrated our efforts in Ireland. Our escape plan being if we hated it at least we could have a holiday and a bit of craic as they say. One farm stood out. It was a mother-daughter combo in county Mayo. The west coast of Ireland is spectacular and we crossed our fingers for an acceptance email. When we got one, we were really pleased and relieved.

Our flights were booked and our departure date arrived. It was a little daunting heading to a stranger’s home and wondering what might be expected of us…and no less so for the hosts.  However, Mary and her daughter Anna turned out to be the perfect example of the perfect hosts. After driving from Dublin we were welcomed with warming cups of tea and conversation. We had told them about our Italian olive farm and how we wanted to learn about farm life. Its a bit hard to bring up “I want to learn how to kill and clean a chicken” without sounding like a satanic psychopath, which is why I love the Irish so much. They have a bit of mind-reading ability and after a few sips of tea, Mary in her charming accent suggested “now would you girls like to kill a chicken”… we knew we were at the right place. Mary was a natural teacher and her love of farming life was contagious and heart warming.

Our new alarm clock

Their farm has a menagerie of animals including turkeys, chickens, guinea fowl, pigs, goats and horses and four lively and loveable dogs. Our first night we had an excellent meal and were told we would be feeding the animals the next morning. The farm moved at the pace of the sun. Early morning (later than we actually arrive at the office back in the city) we would gather in the kitchen for a quick supportive coffee or tea and toast if we liked. Then we were off to feed the animals. This took about an hour and afterwards we would have our proper breakfast. Wow! two breakfasts! Then after our second proper breakfast we were off to do more physical work at either cleaning out stalls or wood chipping or weeding.

Breakfast is served!

Walking from the stables accompanied by Bella one of the four lovely dogs

There was another pair of sisters staying at the farm as luck would have it.  They were a lovely pair of twins from Dresden who were far more experienced and at least twenty years younger, doing their gap year working on various farms and visiting various countries. With the extra hands, we could rotate our chores and we wouldn’t have to do any one thing too long. Mary made it quite clear we were not to strain ourselves and to say if we were too scared or too tired to tackle something. However, Anna was a cheerful director of operations and never once did we think we were asked of something beyond us.

Another lively second breakfast…introducing Germans to maple syrup was almost a mystical experience hahaha

 

There really isn’t much to shoveling shit. And despite the sound of it, it really didn’t smell, dare I say it…all that shitty.  We were expecting a full nasal assault but actually it wasn’t that bad. I have smelt worse things on the streets in July than what was confronting me in the pig stall. We were to clean out the stall as the previous occupants were off to market the next day. We had never seen a live pig up close. Sure we have visited the “farm” exhibit at the CNE (Canadian National Exhibition) but the animals were generally behind thick glass – for their protection as well as ours. When we heard their morning squeals on the farm it was a serious ear bender. When they say pigs like their food, they really, really mean it. The pig stall was also a hell of a lot cleaner than I expected. Pigs eat in one place, sleep in another and never shit in their bedding. The stall floor was covered in saw dust and straw which compacted during their residency but the fun stuff was concentrated in two corners. We both have a new found respect for pigs. At dinner that night Mary and Anna invited us to accompany them to the abattoir the next day. They always accompany their animals to make sure they get a quick and respectful send off. I know that sounds a bit harsh but bacon and ham come from somewhere and we just spent the afternoon shoveling evidence of their origins.

Steffanie vs poo

Laura vs poo


The next day we went with Mary and Anna to the abattoir. Neither of us knew what to expect. For us, bacon came in packages and here we were at the start rather than the butcher’s counter. We were first in an expanding line of local farmers bringing their pigs “to market”. Before the animals took their final walk, they are labelled with something called a slapper. This proved to be a valuable lesson. A slapper is like a tattoo. It has sharp inked needles that make animals traceable to the farm. Each farmer has  a unique number and must be accompanied with matching paperwork before anything can happen. Despite the violent description of the slapper, when Anna “slapped” the farm’s pigs they didn’t even flinch and merrily went on munching their breakfast. As we were waiting in line one of the other more burly of the farmers decided to slap his pigs in a low-sided, open trailer. This was a disaster waiting to happen. Pigs aren’t stupid and the force of the slapping lead to escaped pigs and general chaos for more than an hour. It took ten men running around waiving and generally looking like a clown act before the brilliance of producing a bucket of feed reared its head. Lesson learned. Slapping a pig so hard to prove before our very eyes that if you can’t be a good example, be a warning. Duly noted.

Runaway pigs!



After our highly amusing trip to market and now fairly proficient skills with a pitch fork it was time to put our selves through another more daunting task… time to see if we could actually do the deed ourselves. Mary’s philosophy of animal raising is that animals need to be respected and never to have a harsh moment and deserve a quick and efficient journey to the table. Her method of getting a chicken “oven ready” so to speak was indeed quick and relatively bloodless. Chickens have a design flaw in the sense they have an extremely weak neck and they can be detached in seconds with the aid of a broom handle. I didn’t realise I had done my first act of butchery and neither did Steffanie, there was no dramatic sound or feeling of detachment of the head and Mary had to say “they are gone” for us to realise it was over. Literally seconds. Yes, there was flapping but it was not the actions of a living animal. Wow! We both did it! No tears, no running around carrying on(us not the chicken).  To be honest it was so quick, we didn’t have time to flinch if we even felt the need to.  That morning we woke city girls and went to bed farm girls.

My eyes say it all…

Dinner!

Plucking the chicken went very quickly once Mary showed us the method. It happens as the bird is still warm and removing the feathers is easiest at this point. And our new grim fact: chickens eat the ends of freshly plucked feathers. That actually was more gross to witness than killing it. Once we had plucked the chicken we took our birds to a cold room to drain and cool down before we cleaned and prepped the bird for cooking. This was the final step. Sure we could do the deed but could we clean it the following morning without hysterics? Its a lot less messy when the internal organs are cool. For the sake of my more sensitive friends we were very successful and without the gory details- we took to it like water off a duck’s back… yeah, yeah bad joke but its hard to be amusing when you have your hand up a cold chicken’s ass.

Butchery becomes her



In our week on the farm, we shoveled a mountain of shit, fed animals that previously were only known to us in clean, clear, boneless packages in the store to killing and cleaning them. If we deserve to get our farming wings, it must be for that at least. The entire week was a brilliant and lively affair. The other pair of sisters, Pammi and Franci, were excellent company and we were so glad to meet another set of like minded sisters. 

It was a trans-formative vacation. No swim-up bar, no sleazy wait staff with ready made seduction lines, no thumping dance music, no feelings of insecurity in a bathing suit and no hang overs…it was rubber boots, a waterproof shell suit, no make up and no pressure. We left changed people and have memories of a life time and made great friends.  If that doesn’t describe the perfect holiday – let me know.

It was hard to leave!

Oh and the rooster survived. Doesn’t mean we didn’t think about it once or twice.

Back in our city camouflage – a fine day in Galway!

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Summer Update: tiling, new windows and plenty of quality time lounging

This is going to sound like bragging (because it is) but the summer weather in Ontario has been spectacular – maybe not for the farmers but there has been plenty of rain lately to make up for the hot, summer sun of July.  We have been doing several rounds of lake side visitations but also willing to pull our weight as guests. And also got to learn something too!

Steffanie was able to spend a glorious week in Lake of Bays with supreme hosts extraordinaire Kathryn and Bob.  While there were many quality hours on the dock, Kathryn also got to show Steffanie the ropes when it comes to tiling. Kathryn being an experienced tiler was the supervisor and director of the new backsplash with fancy tiles around the stove and sink. I think the results were fabulous and look forward to putting her new skills to the test when we return to Italy.

Steffanie in front of the new back splash – well done sister!

We are also pleased to announce the first major bit of renovation is currently happening to our Italian farmhouse. We did a long list of what needed to be done and included time lines and what we could realistically do ourselves to save on costs.  After much debate with pros and cons hashed out (after many, many hours and pints) it came down to windows being first on the agenda. 

One of the many eclectic things about the house were the panes of glass being much smaller than the frame.  I am not sure at the reasoning to having windows  that do not go to the top of the frame – perhaps for circulation reasons?  The only things that flowed other than a breezey draft were our tiny, scampering guests. So we are putting a stop to their furry fun disco and they are going to have to learn to party outside from now on!  We have decided on the colour of the frames and sills and they are going in as I type this.  

At last! It seemed like forever to get it all in place and it’s all very exciting and very adult and mature…but seriously, why are windows so expensive???? I realize it is all very labour intensive but  getting that bill was a bit of a kick to the shin.  Despite the throbbing pain in the wallet, it is our first step towards our gigantic leap.  We feel pretty accomplished by that and we definitely deserve to pat ourselves on the back, preferably on the dock with a cold beer in hand!

Another perfect end to the day on Lake of Bays, Muskoka

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The re-education of the sisters: the wonderful world of woodworking!

Steffanie and I both know that we have a fairly limited skill set when it comes to country living. Yes, we can put together a garden thanks to our childhood but knowing about growing tomatoes and parsley isn’t exactly enough to transform ourselves from urban corporate warriors to countryside Amazons. As we have a tight budget, we know that doing some of the work ourselves is going to save us money. But, we also want our home to be inviting – not like a group of drunk-monkeys-with-hammers got a hold of some plywood and a nail gun and decided to build a patio. So, off we went for woodworking lessons.

Once again, fortune smiled on us and we found a great teacher named Tom Fidgen. Originally from  Cape Breton, Tom is a  hand-tool specialist and gives lessons in his studio here in Toronto. Having never taught women before, I can imagine the impression the two of us made at ten in the morning with lip-gloss and hoop earrings and a pink hammer. At the time, the pink hammer was the only tool in my possession which I bought at a breast cancer fundraiser (because I was tired of ruining my shoes trying to hang pictures.) Tom, despite initial nervousness and faced with two tall, glossed up women beaming with pride about some sort of useless pink tool – was a patient, engaging, humorous and excellent teacher who made the lessons really fun! When he was first attempting to describe a wood plane, we both inspected the tool in front of us and exclaimed in unison – Wow! it works just like a foot plane at the spa! Basically, woodworking is giving a piece of wood a pedicure. You even use varnish! Ha! See, woodworking summed up in less than ten words.

In our first lesson we learned about wood planes, different sharpeners, how to saw, how to look at a piece of wood and know which is the “pith” side and to “plane to the points”. In our second lesson we learned different joints including bridal and dovetail joints. In just two lessons we both felt like a whole new world was opening for us. It’s made us both feel empowered and confident enough to take on other challenges. Now when we look at IKEA furniture its not- gee, that’s cute….it’s hey, we can make that! Many thanks to Tom! and for those in the Toronto area wanting to book a lesson or anyone who wants to check out his work and website please drop by:

http://www.theunpluggedwoodshop.com

First lesson – Steffanie saws!

First lesson - Laura saws!

First lesson – Laura saws!

Our first joint – who knew they had cheeks and shoulders?

Completed!

Our first dovetail! fancy!

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The closing, keys and long underwear

After deciding to take the next step of our new journey, we spent the better part of 19 months securing a mortgage through a UK broker of an Italian bank.  Yes, it can be done!  We laid our lives out for them to scrutinise and scrutinise they did.  Yet again, our patience and persistence paid off – our signing day had arrived and we were finally heading towards our Italian dream!

Nothing really prepared us for the final closing day of buying our property.  The range of emotions was fierce as we waited for documents and approvals.  It took months to arrange.  There were complications because the agricultural land laws haven’t been changed since ancient Rome – think you can battle bureaucracy? Try taking on Julius Caesar! The Roman laws included the first right of refusal to the neighbours. This meant that the paperwork had to be hand delivered to all adjacent landowners and their responses needed to be gathered and accounted for before we even placed our bid. There were further complications with taxation rates and what was considered “domestic” land versus what was considered “agricultural” land. Complications, complications, complications.

However, just because something is complicated doesn’t mean it doesn’t get done. Once you accept that you are just a piece in the celestial clockwork of Italian bureaucracy, don’t just pack a lunch – pack for an extended stay.

When our day of reckoning finally arrived, it was like the scene from a Marx brother’s comedy. Our attorney, the estate attorney, the translator, the witnesses, the notary, the other witnesses for the witnesses, family members of those involved and various other people “helping” out. Oh, and a baby. It was close to Christmas and the notary had to bring her newborn in – hey, why not I say.  We had our mother with us so everyone had their own family mascot.  As we all sat down for the reading of the contract, we didn’t actually think they were going to read the entire deal out loud. Wrong. Not only were they going to read out it aloud, they were also going to have our translator speak overtop of the Italian.  It was a wall of noise, hand waving and baby cooing.  The only thing missing was a dog act or a juggler.

After all that time waiting, we finally had a copy of the keys to front door. The sisters became home-owners at long last! There is nothing quite as sweet as the jingle of keys to your very own home!

Over the threshold and on to our next phase of life starting with our 3 week Christmas vacation in our new home, we were joyous and blissful and happy. Just one tiny, tiny, tiny problem. There was no heat. No one had lived in the house in fifteen years and despite being in southern Italy, it was December and snowing! Thankfully, our trusty real estate agent Yvonne came through with some gas heaters to take the chill out of the 10⁰C air…inside.

Can post-deal signing keep you warm at night? Not as well as high quality long underwear from Canada.

Dawn over the valley - our first day of home ownership!

Christmas time in Southern Italy! crazy!

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Destiny makes an offer

Searching for our dream property in Calabria was like putting the pieces of a puzzle together with your eyes closed. We just had this vague idea of “some place in Calabria” and we were open to investigating anything that struck our fancy (within our budget). We were looking at anything – whether it was a nice landscape or seascape, near a large town or a mountain village. The longer we spent on real estate sites the more our ideas evolved about what we wanted. We were definitely lucky in meeting our extremely patient real estate agent Yvonne. Originally from Manchester, Yvonne moved to Italy with her family and had local connections and contacts in the area.

It was an absolute bonus to have someone who spoke English and who also understood what it would take to just up and move to another country. Our search was so much easier having a bit of a kindred spirit to help with the endless parade of documents. While we were perusing her property website, we had found a lovely apartment with amazing views that caught our attention. We were seriously contemplating making an offer, when it was scooped up. At the time we were bitterly disappointed but once again disappointment saved the day!

After losing the opportunity of the apartment, we decided to revisit ideas of a more radical nature. If we missed out on a flat – how about a farm instead? If you told my purple-haired twenty-year old self that in twenty years I would be suggesting to my sister that we buy a farm in Italy – I would have laughed at you and then added in some colourful language regarding your mental health. However, there it was…let’s be farmers.

What do we know about farms? Other than visiting them as children….nothing. However, we did have a large family garden growing up and the thought of moving to a farm basically came down to…if I can cope with modern office life …how bad can chickens be? Of course as I write this, we haven’t dealt with chickens yet so there is plenty of room here for yelling “I TOLD YOU SO” in the future.

With our newly revised idea of “farming in Calabria” Yvonne had a few agricultural properties for us to go and visit when we arrived on vacation. We had seen a property on her website that really stood out….12.5 acres, olive trees, fruit trees, beautiful views of the mountains and  sea, close to the airport, close to the beach….just about everything we had envisioned.

It really was love at first sight. Sure it needed work but standing on the balcony over looking the valley and on to the sea, breathing in the scent of wild flowers and listening to the distant tinkle of bells on the sheep – we just hated to leave. There was even the added bonus of a castle ruin to add to the romance. It was like destiny was making us an offer and tempting us with another view of another life. All we had to do is accept. What do you do when destiny calls?

Get a mortgage.

The view from the balcony - the village of Cleto, Calabria

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