Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Living working and renovating in Italy

This Post follows on from the previous post, "one day in august", to follow the postings you should read the last first and then work up to this one, the most recent, "living,working and renovating in Italy".
In the months to come we would nickname this slippery owner Signore Brutto-ugly, because of his waving arms which glossed over details or direct questions by saying everything was bella-magnificent. He told us the roof was new, as was the heating, the bathroom and the terracotta floor downstairs. We believed him, our friend Constantino back in Lucca would have laughed at us.
A fireplace had been closed up, but we were assured we could easily open it as the chimney still existed. We tried to get a reduction in the price to mend some damp, caused by this closed chimney on the downstairs wall, but were told that the garden was the bargaining point and we would have that included.
A payment was required to accept a written offer which we signed at the house, with the owner and friend turned agent in attendance, apparently the architect had better things to do and no more plans materialised, but they were always coming.
So having gone out to dinner to celebrate our new home accompanied by a bottle of the best vino nobile and finally securing an appointment to see the notaio, (supposedly an impartial person), to receive the expected plans and papers from the architect, we arrived to find out there were no papers. All building had been legal with the comune we were assured.
We loved our ancient home and determined to track down its original date through the archives, with the help of a local contact. Later we found old photo albums from the turn of the century and other personal accounts in the old barn at the back of the garden, dating from the nineteen twenties. Through this we met our neighbours who filled us in on just how brutto Signore Brutto actually was, we now had our very own horror story. Apparently he had emptied the coffers of the entire family of aunts even before their deaths. The grandmother telling us this, uses the word diabolico which sounds much worse in Italian, literally of the devil, to describe how he had hit her brother over the head with a pole. This dispute had gone to court, they hauled out all the documenti of this travesty to show us, and successive ones when a gas and water line had to traverse the private road and he had refused them access. After an entire afternoon trapped in a kitchen which was made in the seventies, where we sat at the kitchen table and were offered sickly orange fizzy drink, we were just relieved to emerge semi alive. We were no longer untouched by the furbi-crooks, but we had a house.
However, after the double agent and the notaio had been paid in advance, (thanks to the workings of the Italian system), we discovered that the garden at the back had not been included in the deeds, and according to the notaio, the legal expert, this was a legal matter that we could persue if we wanted.
We didn’t. We decided after some sleepless nights and fretting about all the money in the notaios’ greedy paws, which we would likely not get back if we retracted, that we would behave like any Italian would. We would put a table and chairs in the small piece of garden, rope it off and fight like hyenas should our future neighbours in the barn like building, sharing our garden, want to argue with us. We had been told by Signore Brutto the building would be renovated into three luxury apartments, sometime in the future. Subsequently the nonna who lived behind us told us that the developer who was to convert this building ran away with all the money, after selling future luxury apartments. At present it is still unoccupied and we have the only gate key, while as I write this, the grapevine is verdant green with bunches of purple black grapes (oh the taste! as they burst in our mouths). It has shaded us this summer, although it looked dead in winter.
Possession is nine tenths of the law it is said, and we were here first. We are ready to fight to the death for our small piece of soil. As an Italian opera has it ‘cling to the bricks, don’t give in!.We later discovered when looking over the town plans with the mayor that our house was the original old part of town the centro-storico. The building next to ours with the stone columns, and indeed our own were the oldest standing probably 200 years old. In our garden the huge stone had been placed over the original well that fed the town. Miraculously next to it there is a tap that pours out ice-cold water that the comune knows nothing about, and we receive no bill for.
So we spent many weekends when we weren’t going to visit family back in Tuscany, working to get the house ready to move into. We fitted a wonderful beech kitchen in the empty room, banged our heads and elbows installing plumbing, a first for both of us, we contemplated calling in a idraulico, but decided we could do it, and if a disaster emerged we would ask in the plumber. Workmen all insist on being paid in cash, up front, no receipt as proof of work done and frankly from what we had heard, were largely unqualified. We selected the paint, a soft ochre for the fat ancient walls. We got the garden cleared of junk, moved rocks around, one whole afternoon. It looked like one of those strongman competitions, with Amante sweating and grunting to move the huge rocks to the right spot to sit on, and me flailing around trying to help him and getting my toes trod on. Without heavy machinery, we got back to our apartment tired, sweaty and muddy but fulfillled.
When you buy a house in Italy, and move in, you will find no taps, no basins, no kitchen furniture, just bare walls. We were lucky, we were left the light fixtures, The toilet and shower were intact, but thats all. Why? maybe because it is assumed you won’t want to cook in another womans’ old kitchen or wash your face in anothers’ old basin. So its all removed.
We were pleased to get the new kitchen we wanted albeit at great expense and we celebrated when the big teak table for six was delivered into the kitchen, but it would have been nice to have had a tap to switch on, to test when the water got turned back on, instead of two holes in the wall. Finally the gas was also switched on and we discovered that the exhaust for the caldaia, (the gas water heater) had been diverted into the chimney that we had hoped to install a woodburner in.
So we came to make friends with a spazzacamino (the chimney sweep) who turned out to be so much more than his Dickensian name suggests. He was apparently an expert on fireplaces, chimneys and their ilk, and also a Tango dance teacher, an incessantantly cheerful talker, and a mine of information which we greedily drank in. On the Sunday when we first met him, he had arranged with us to meet him in his village to go and look at stoves. We drove miles and miles with him into the mountains until we could see Switzerland, to meet a man who designed and made heaters, wood burning ones. He talked non-stop about his competitions in Tango dancing. We arrived and were shown the modern version of wood burners. Encased in ceramic and looking like something that belonged on a grave they were, bleak, cold towers of engineering. We searched for a way out without offending the artist, who clearly thought they were magnificent.
In the end I couldn’t take the shadow boxing anymore and simply said that, we wanted an old Ghisa stufa (cast iron woodstove) a black one, that you could boil water on, like I had had on the farm as a child. He looked at me with sympathy, since kettles are not used in Italy, who knows what he thought. However, we eventually left saying we would call him, and then on the way home the spazzacamino told us he had one of those stoves from his grandmothers’ home lying behind his house, did we want it? He delivered it a week later for me to restore, and it was wonderfully set on turned legs with all its grills and bits, and so I set about rubbing it down, so I could paint it black, and he could come and break open the chimney and install it. This was what occupied my thoughts at night. A stove! we had a real woodburner, or as Amante still calls it a ‘Sturve’
What followed was the most breakbreaking work I have ever done, we had decided that we would take the wall that housed the chimney for the woodburner, back to the bricks. So we set about chipping off the cement and plaster from hundred year old red bricks to get a surround that looked rustic and Italians call grezzo-rough. It was slow progress, we had been promised that the jack hammer that the spazzacamino had used to open the wall for the chimney would be used to take off this layer at the same time. Unfortunately the tool stopped working after the hole was cut, and yet again like the courtyard outside, our bargaining point disappeared like water in the desert. So dust covered and exhausted, we chipped away at rock-hard cement making painful progress, finally when there was only a square foot left and Amante said he just couldn’t go on as his forearm was too sore and the chisel was slipping, I gave into the frustation of coming so close to completion after three entire weekends spent chipping, and called him a bimbone and a mammone a big baby and a mommies boy, neither of which he remotely is. He agreed that he was.
It’s early June, the bedrooms upstairs have been painted a soft butter and when the sun hits the fresh paint it looks light and warm. We have screwed together designer bookshelves, beechwood bathroom and kitchen units, taken the head of our metal frame bed up on ropes over the balcony window ( it wouldn’t go up the stone staircase that turns a tight corner), installed gas and scarico - a water outlet under the sink We are resting in the sun in the courtyard, now full of greenery under the grapevine and huge pink hydrangeas which have recovered, amazingly. We make a fire outside, and we sit side by side on our rocks and cook seafood spiedini-kebabs on old vine wood pruned last autumn. The stove inside has been lit by Amante he doesn’t miss an oppotunity to test it again although the temperatures are soaring, ‘next winter we will be warm’ we say in unison, as we watch with satisfaction as smoke curls up out of our new copper chinney up on the roof. ‘Expensive, but it works’ I say. Theres a feeling of great achievement between us. The swifts are with us they have a nest of mud up in the eaves, as it gets dark they circle endlessly performing their acrobatics in the air, we watch them mesmerised, they never seem to tire apparently they catnap in the air, truly free from the earth.
The bells begin to sound, we are perched in the most ancient part of the town between two large parish churches, one adorned with angels trumpeting, saints and popes and the other with arched porticos and a magnificent frescoed ceiling. Since there is only about 200 metres between the two churches, with our tower in the middle, when they ring, we don’t only hear them, we feel them. The steadily increasing ding dong and a single louder stroke dong! In the mornings an entire sweet tune is rung out. All our labours here including many pages of this book have been acompanied by these two campanili –steeples adorned with angels and their bells. It’s a sound I have always loved and a sound I now associate with home.I wake to them in the morning and I try to be in bed before midnight strikes.
Talking about the future, we realise that soon our family and friends, soon to visit from Cape town will be looking out of these windows at our tower. We had already taken photos before the renovations to send to them.They applauded our efforts as brave and the results as beautiful, this fuelled us to do more work in the garden and buy garden furniture. One Sunday in the garden centre I dream of trailing wisteria next to our columns, and so we haul two hudge pots home and set the plants free to climb them and produce those lovely mauve orbs, that same wisteria that covers Tuscan walls. From the back of our house it looks like the tower comes out of our roof and is part of the house. It’s so close it may as well be. The photos showed the last late snow we had, it softens the roof and made our little dirt road and archway look romantic and mysterious, and the trumpeting angels on the steeple had cloaks of snow. Finally we have our house-warming dinner in autumn, friends troop through the house, declaring how wonderful it looks, using the Italian espressions, ‘Complimenti, siete stati bravi, รจ come la Toscana’ – just like Tuscany. Amante and I smile at each other over their heads as we descend the stairs. ‘Bravo’ I mouth at him.
At moments when we thought we might have driven a harder bargain on the house and been wiser, our friends consoled us with their stories, which were amazingly similar and often much worse. It seemed that, if you had survived, and were still clinging to your pile of bricks you had done well.
Donatella, who has English lessons with me weekly, tells me how her family was effectively robbed of two basement rooms that formed the foundations of their family house in Venice. Her stor…
A cousin had lunch with them one day and seemed to remember he had played in two big rooms under the house as a child. An investigation was launched. Apparently, a local fisherman had stored his things there and had taken ownership of the rooms from the now deceased grandfather. No record of this change of ownership was found, and a legal battle commenced, the fisherman clinging to the basement and the family trying to prise his fingers off their basement. After six years of expensive and fierce battle, they finally got back their two basement rooms, with the help of a lawyer in Milan. This is the stuff of Operas.
It was she who advised me to set up the table in the garden and fight like hell for it.
My father in law has been fighting for ten years, after exchanging a piece of land big enough to accomodate two semi-detached houses with gardens, on it, for one of the houses, after completion, plus a small cash payment, this for an extra piece he later surrended to build the access road. The promised payment has never been made and ten years later he fights on. Amante, one Christmas Eve asks him what his dream in life is, his answer, to win the case.
Small dream, big principle. Amante’s brother smiles, everyone understands, even I do now.


Kev Cruz said...

Hiya Donna!
Does that mean I can set up as a Gypsie in your Garden hahahah!
Great post by the you've erned your lunch ticket!

Kev Cruz said...

I must think positive...I must think positive! It's not easy you know!
Have a great evening!
P.s Maybe our Grandads knew each other.

Anonymous said...

When are you gonna write some more...I'm an eager fan!

Expat in Italy said...

I post regularly, yet since my blogs are lengthy, I tend to put one on every two weeks. The next one is on residency paperwork

emily said...

Very nice! The garden sounds enviously beautiful. Any pix?
Kev, don't think this writer needs to hear about lunch tickets.....

Let's hear about the bus driver!

Como the beautiful

Como the beautiful
walk near the lake

Hidden Italy, the places we visit regularly from Tuscany to the lake district above Como.

When I became a resident in Italy in 2001, I already knew how visitors liked to praise her places, food and art.
I had visited many times as a visitor myself, and been enchanted.
This site is rather designed to show the hidden Italy, the real Italy experienced by it's residents.
The events of the year, from registering as a resident, to celebrating Christmas, Easter and many other festivals, buying a house, working, banking, and still enjoying its beauty, are to be found here.

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expresso machine

expresso machine
close up

click on picture to glimpse Roses lime

my mother

my mother
my mother's pizza tuscany




My favourite writings on Italy

  • Italian Education/Cara Massimina Tim Parks
  • Where angles fear to tread E.M. Forster ISBN0140180885
  • A small place in Italy ISBN0330338188
  • D.H.Lawrence and Italy ISBN 0140095209
  • The Italians by Luigi Barzini Touchstone books ISBN 068482500