Saturday, 4 May 2013

"E a uno a uno li ho lasciati dietro di me. Geometria. Un lavoro perfetto." ( "Novecento" by Alessandro Baricco )

Wednesday evening, 1st of May, a public holiday here.  Here, very sensibly, they take their holidays very seriously.

We were sitting outside the local bar listening to a live band playing covers of Johnny Cash and Jefferson Airplane and other incongruities, while the sun set on a sweltering Labour Day Holiday.  There was quite a crowd, young and old(er), many having just returned from a day on the beach.  They were smoking, drinking, eating pizza and porchetta; these latter being sold from a van set up by a nearby hotel and the quality was excellent.  But mostly people were strolling and chatting and the band went largely ignored, pity, because they were rather good.

We have been here nearly eighteen months and know many of the locals, some only by sight, but that doesn't deter any one of them from approaching us to ask whether our house is finished yet, and they all do, and our answer is well practised, "No, not yet, but soon, in two weeks we hope."  This news is greeted with hearty congratulations.  "Yes", we go on to say, "there are only a few outstanding jobs, we are awaiting the electricity company, the plumber, the electrician and the carpenter to complete them."  This information is followed by tight-lipped, knowing smiles, and the congratulations quickly turn to variations on "Good Luck!" What they don't know, and we don't dare say outright, even  to ourselves, is that water or not, electricity or not, whatever or not, all our worldly goods are arriving from England in 2 weeks and we are moving in, whatever.  Thus the optimistic quote above, which roughly translates as:  "And one by one I left them behind me.  Geometry!  A job done to perfection."

Here is a photo' of the almost completed house.  The railings have been put up and the walls have just been painted.  The paint is in fact a form of coloured plaster "intonaco" and the owner of the shop that sold it to us advised, in his patriarchal way, that we wait at least a month before even looking at it.  But how can we not notice now that the colour of  the fresh paint in the bright sunlight is quite startling? Either it will weather or we'll simply have to get used to living with it, as with so much else in our 'new' house.

The view of the house from across the valley puts me in mind again of Baricco's  "Novecento" - "Aveva un dente d'oro proprio qui, così in centro che sembrava l'avesse messo in vetrina per venderlo." This, I think, loses a lot in translation: "He had a gold tooth, right here, placed so centrally that it looked as though it had been put up for sale in a shop window."

Whether it is symmetry or incongruity that pleases you, there is something for all in the knowledge that Jorma Kaukonen, the lead guitarist of Jefferson Airplane, had/has a gold tooth in his shop window.

Come July, when the land has dried out well enough, the earth around the house will be bull-dozed into some sort of symmetry.  At that point we shall start thinking about the planting ...

Il Gelso as it was ...
Il Gelso as it is today.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

"Allan didn't know if the prime minister was Left or Right. He must certainly be one of them, because if there was one thing life had taught Allan, it was that people insisted on being one or the other." ("The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared". Jonas Jonasson)

The Italian elections last week proved, if proof were necessary, that "Allan", despite the wisdom of his hundred years, was most decidedly wrong.

I spent this morning talking with our lovely bathroom lady about bathroom accessories, in particular, loo brushes. She started by showing me three extravagantly produced catalogues of the most marvellous bathroom accessories I have ever seen. Seeming-precious metals and semi-precious stones designed by artists deserving of that title and produced by artisans worth their weight in gold. What was more amazing was that I might have been tempted to buy if it weren't for the prices. However, I was quickly brought down to earth when told that none of these products was available. All three companies had gone bust. "This is the state of Italy today!" said our lovely bathroom lady. These companies had been selling to the rich, the famous and the aspirational all over the world, now the market had completely dried up. In Italy, she said, no-one is fitting new bathrooms and, where they are replacing the worn out, they go to IKEA. The sales of bathroom accessories in IKEA, she knows, have increased by 300%.

In the shop she just happened to have one loo brush remaining from one of these extinct companies. Last of its kind - a beautiful, bronzed dinosaur, and, just for me, it came with a "sconto" (discount). I bought it, how could I not.

And why was I shopping for bathroom accessories? Because our bathrooms have been tiled! A week of blood sweat and tears getting our awkward-sized tiles and our complicated walk-in shower unit around the "squadrati" (not squared) walls. Added to which, only one tiler was on site, the other having to care for an injured relative. This lone tiler, using his knowhow gained from years of experience, and with bountiful concern for our wellbeing, advised us that the "fuga" (grout) which we had originally chosen wasn't quite right. The whole of Le Marche then had to be scoured (by us) to source precisely the "right" fuga.

Last week too, the windows and external doors were fitted and look amazing - framing all the views out, that is, before we have to bar some of them in. This is on Paolo's advice and we're still not sure whether it's for security or for aesthetic reasons.

An example of traditional Marchigiano window ironwork

So then the "fabbro"(blacksmith) came.  Paolo introduced him in flamboyant style, "Never been to school, but can fabricate any piece of metal to any design with the greatest of skill!" Looking at this diminutive, shy, old man we wondered...  His son had ferried him in the company truck. After dropping his father off the son deftly backed the truck straight into Paolo's ironwork gates which crumpled on impact. The son got out of the cab and looked at the sorely bent gates and said cooly, without hint of a grin, "Good thing we're blacksmiths'. The father walked up to inspect the damage and pronounced, "If I'd made that gate it wouldn't have crumpled like that." You've got to give it to them, that was some sales pitch!

Paolo's gate after the event

Next Monday morning we have a 10 o'clock appointment to confirm our order with the blacksmith's daughter.  Taking everything into account, perhaps these Italians know what they're doing after all.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

"All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair - The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing - And Winter slumbering in the open air, Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring! And I the while, the sole unbusy thing, Nor honey make, nor build, nor sing." ("Work Without Hope" Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

It is Monday morning, the start of the working week and a momentous one for us. This week the tilers will come to lay the floor and bathroom tiles.  The carpenter will come to put in all the windows, the marmista (marble mason) will measure shelves for the bathrooms - layers of finishing touches which will make the house a home, before we make it our home.  I note there is no vocabulary in Italian to distinguish "house" (casa) from "home" (casa).  Something to thank the Saxons for.

It is early Monday morning, before 9am, and outside the house vans and cars are parked. We approach, smiling, with an air of expectancy and curious to see the unfolding of this watershed day.

As we approach we know something is amiss. There is much muttering, walking around in circles, swearing, names of prominent politicians flung, together with gesticulating arms, into the frozen air.  On seeing us they stop talking, discard their cigarettes, stare at their boots.  We quickly learn that a new law has been passed (when? where? how?) which prohibits more than one artisan from working on the same building at the same time.  We are told that, if caught breaching this new regulation (and sure as eggs is eggs they will be caught), the fine is 10,000 euros!

Now, one could waste time speculating as to the rationale behind such a law - is it to stop these massed artisans from arguing? to stop them wasting time gossiping? to prevent them tripping over each other? to delay a week so they can finish off another job? (too cynical?) to ensure at least one party is paid?  Such speculation is futile.  Much better for them to waste considerably more time trotting off to the local  tax lawyer and pay him a hefty fee.  For this the "commercialista" will help them form an "associazione" thereby enabling them to work as one.  The paperwork and approval will take a week to be drawn up and approved.  Meanwhile all work ceases.  The gates to the site are chained and locked, the key is left to rust and we are left to rage.

But it could have been worse.  Later in this idle week we idle into our regular greengrocer, only 12 kilometers or so from the site of the house.  He is effusive in his welcome and full of sympathy for our plight.  We haven't said a thing yet, honest.  He knows all about how the work on our house has had to stop, how the tilers were caught breaking the law, how they were fined, how aggrieved they are, how innocent folk for miles around are outraged at the injustice of it all - and so on, and on.  We are, to say the least, a little taken aback.  We buy some blood oranges (like gossip unbelievably juicy at this time of year) and reassure him that he must have misunderstood the story somewhere along the line (how long and tangled that line!).  Unless, of course, the misunderstanding is all ours...

We speculate on how this will impact on the rest of our re-structuring.  All the workmen are specialist artisans (artigiani) from Sandro the stone-mason to Gabriele the plumber; from Mirko the electrician through to Reimund the carpenter.  Will they all have to tip-toe onto the site one at a time with no two allowed to work together?  We are not too discouraged, after all we have some reason and sufficient experience to suspect that this week of enforced idleness will have been put to good use working out an appropriate "scappatoia" (escape route or work around!),

The week is at an end.  It is Saturday; the temperature has dropped.  We have had some snow, but now the sun is shining and we can all enjoy our day of rest.  

Sunday, 27 January 2013

"How eerie it had looked in that first morning light, like a shipwreck that had risen silently to the surface." ("The Crossing" Elly Griffiths)

La Pensilina Fotovoltaica

This is a wondrously strange wooden structure.  Covering 12 x 7 meters of land and standing 3.80 m. at its tallest.  We had thought, in the planning, that it would dominate the garden, obscure the view south eastwards towards the hill fort town of Piticchio, dwarf the principal house and incite the wrath of the locals with its discordant aesthetics. Of course, we also thought that it would harness the sun's energy to provide an ecologically (and financially) efficient means of producing electricity.  The latter has yet to be proven (the financial benefits will take years to realise), but the former have all proven to be unfounded ... so far.

There is a concrete base on which sits a framework of massive fir beams, which, whilst admittedly big, has blended into the landscape with (dare I say) an aesthetic of its own. It is as if it has been absorbed by the landscape in the same way as it in turn will absorb the sunlight.

Inside the house the piping for the underfloor heating has been intricately laid throughout, all 7 kilometers of it.  The plumbers brought in a mobile boiler (have you heard of such a thing? I hadn't) to test the system, and it is working.  Just as well really, as the whole floor has already been cemented over.  And this is no ordinary screed, it contains metal filings designed to conduct  heat more effectively.  This too will have to be proven, although how one judges whether they make any difference is as much of a mystery to me as the whole cat's cradle of the photovoltaic system!  But, the fact remains that the house, without doors and windows, is heating up very nicely thank you.  Long may it continue.

The weatherman: impressive, indubitable, in his air force uniform, assures us that we will have snow again within the next two days.  Not so much, I hope, as to delay the arrival of the piastrellisti (tilers) to lay the floor tiles.  After that, the underfloor heating had better work, or we're all back to the drawing board, or the ice age.

Other great strides have been made.  The pergola has been assembled, an oaken structure, this time to shade from the sun.  Again, not as straightforward as one might think.  The base follows the old stable floor plan and is not a perfect rectangle.  Paolo mutters about how these old houses are all "squadrate" - out of kilter.  And then there is the problem of where to place the vertical beams so as to minimise the obstruction of the view.  It only takes half a day, five grown men and teatime looming to help solve everything.  I think they did rather well.  The next day the structure was completed.

La Pergola

The Main Pergola Cross-beam
Strides too on the stairs front.  Alessandro tiled the whole staircase in a day by himself. Paolo and I took over 2 hours (effectively the best part of a morning) just deciding how to arrange the tiles on the two (yes, two) steps leading from the ingresso (hallway) to the soggiorno (living room).  I think we did rather well. That afternoon the tiles were in place and grouted.

Stairs from below

 Stairs from above

Steps from hall to living-room

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

"She suggested they go into the forest where the wild boar were still hunted. 'If one charges you,' she said, 'you have to wait till the last second, then jump to one side like this. The boar run fast but they can't change direction.' 'I'll remember that,' said Bruno.' " ("A Possible Life" Sebastian Faulks)

We saw one once, a wild boar as big as a Dexter cow and twice as broad.  We were driving home from a nearby restaurant after midnight, turned a sharp bend on a steep road and the boar suddenly appeared in the headlights, calmly ambling across the road right in front of us.  The car was slowed because of the bend, which was fortunate because that boar wasn't going to veer or slow for us or anything else.  After that I knew as well as Bruno that if a boar were charging me I wouldn't wait till the last second.  At the restaurant we had eaten a pasta dish with cinghiale (boar) sauce, it was very tasty.

Boxing Day (Santo Stefano sees the hunters out in full regalia in full force.  Their cars line the country roads at all the strategic locations.  The sounds of gunshot and baying dogs are all around.  (We have been told of a hunter who hunts only out of season for fear of getting shot.)  Then all is peaceful once more until New Year's Eve (notte di San Silvestro) when, of course, we have the fireworks.  This year, prior to the night, the news is full of the new laws banning fireworks in town centres (finally!), except in Naples which, for reasons every italian seems to comprehend, is exempt.  Despite this, the next day the news is full of deaths and maiming caused by fireworks.  Here one has to resort to the French, "plus ça change..."

Work on our house continued right up to the 24th and will resume today.  In the interim we have been visiting our site with family and friends to view progress and debate THAT colour.  Thankfully throughout the holiday the weather has been gloriously sunny and the "sticky" mud, a feature of the building site, is drying out, mocking our insistence that all visitors bring along "suitable" footwear.

We spent New Year's Eve as guests of Italian friends.  After a veritable feast we toasted and embraced as the changeling hour struck.  Of course Paolo was there.  Everyone put him on the spot asking for a date in 2013 when our house would be completed.  Even in his cups he remained steadfastly, albeit charmingly, noncommittal.

After midnight we all sat at the table and played cards till 3.00am.  The game was called Sette e Mezzo (Seven and a Half), a gambling game played with Neapolitan cards.  Now you'll ask me how one plays and I will tell you.  There are no rules, or if there are, they are somewhat flexible.  Laugh a lot, shout a lot, swear a lot, cheat ad infinitum.  Leave the table at will and return at will without ever losing your turn (whenever that was).  Glare at your opponents cards and advise (preferably unwisely) whenever you can and especially when you can't. Argue about all of the above all of the time and then some.  Beg and borrow when you must, promise to repay and then forget...  are you getting the hang of it? Great fun to play (!), even though at the end we had lost all our initial stake - all five euros of it.  When gambling here, we now learn, it is advisable to keep the stakes low.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

"And would it have been worth it, after all, Would it have been worth while, ... If one settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, And turning toward the window, should say: 'That is not it at all, That is not not what I meant, at all.' " ("The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" T.S. Eliot)

For the most part the exterior of our house is "facia vista", exposed stonework, in all the subtle earth colours of the region from soft yellow to deep rust.  But there are areas, including the whole of the kitchen, which was the stables, where the exterior is plastered, "intonacato". Here we need to choose a colour of paint. It's not such a big deal.  It's not easy either.

Paolo insists that there are unspoken rules about colour. Houses must be painted in Marchigiano (from Le Marche) hues in order to be traditional. Looking around the towns and countryside you can see that for the most part he is right. Unusually in a country where conformity to the rules of fashion is paramount, there are some transgressors. Bitterly striking yellows, acid greens, deep, almost purple, browns and even (most unforgivable) white, will taint the horizon.

From the outset I had my sights on one particular house in a small hilltop town nearby. Mondavio boasts the best preserved "rocca" (fortress tower) in the region. It is also where I occasionally go to school to learn Italian. This house is not especially remarkable except for the colour of its intonaco: an earthy, pastel apricot. It has the advantage of blending with the stonework, having terra cotta tones, whilst a bit fruitier for interest. I have passed the house many times on my way to lessons, seen it in all weathers and at different times of day. I've set my heart on this colour.

Far too timid simply to knock on the door and ask the owner where he got his paint, we go to the supplier of our building materials, give the proprietor the address of the house and ask him to check it out and match the paint.  This is Italy, he understands, obliges, and eventually produces two sample paint pots.  One, he says, is spot on, the other a little darker, but we are to try both on a patch of our wall and wait and see.  There are also instructions about not painting the samples close together, about painting very large patches, and more. We ignore them all.

On a drizzly afternoon two small patches are painted side by side on the kitchen wall. Before the paint has even dried we stand back in horror and exclaim, in unison with Paolo, his sons, Alessandro and everyone with a view: "They're not right, they're all wrong.  O per amor di Dio, che faciamo! (What in God's name do we do now!)  In desperation we paint the least offensive colour onto a large brick and Peter and Paolo's son (the painter) drive up to Mondavio to see if the colour matches against the house. They return fairly sure it is the same, but insist that I take the sample myself and check just to be sure.  In reality it is so that, should it be wrong, I can be blamed.

My Brick in repose against the kitchen window

I carry the heavy brick, the bulky colour chart and the burden of my responsibility up the hill in Mondavio.  I stand outside the all important house, deposit my load by the roadside and begin my assessment.  An elderly lady walks slowly up the otherwise deserted road, wishes me good day and without asking, immediately intuits what I am doing, as though this were a normal everyday event in this peaceful place.

"Yes, yes, put it here to see" she commands. Then, "No, no, it's weathered there, but here, yes here, see it's the same colour. Che bello colore!"  She goes on her way, she has an appointment in town at 2.30 she explains.  It's nearly 3.00, but I am secretly glad she is delayed.  She has made the decision and in so doing has relieved me of the responsibility.

On my return to the building site the proprietor of the supply store has arrived, somewhat diluting my triumphal return.  He is delivering some cement bags, but has time to look at the samples on the wall. He is a patient man.  He looks at the wall, looks at all of us and says benignly, "Paint another, bigger patch and wait, wait, perhaps a month, and you will see."  It's not a: "be patient, my dear children, and all will be revealed unto you," but it may as well have been.

We are waiting, and watching...

Sunday, 18 November 2012

"sta il cacciator fischiando / su l'uscio a rimirar" ("San Martino", poem by Giosuè Carducci).

The Feast of San Martino celebrates the transition from summer/autumn to the depths of winter;  seen by Carducci as a threshold.   The weather is expected to be unseasonably mild;  the Italian version of an Indian summer.

This year, however, whilst very warm, it rained, and it rained.  In Tuscany and Umbria they were flooded, as RAI news endlessly reminded us.  Even the "Tevere"in Rome nearly broke its banks.  Here in our little part of Le Marche our little "temporary replacement" bridge (see blog of 1st May 2012) was swept away by the flood waters of the Cesano river.

Now there are two bridges, the old and the new, both impassable.  Locals come from the north and from the south banks of the divide to stare at the destruction.

On the south side there is a little restaurant, a kind of roadside cafe, frequented by lorry drivers and canny locals. The food here is excellent and cheap, as is the house wine (even cheaper this time of year because the new "novello" wines have just been pressed). Today the restaurant is almost empty. The patron bemoans his loss of custom with a shrug and a smile, as he heaps another helping of fresh "pesce blu" onto our plates. These "little pilchards"(?) are baked whole in a seasoned crumb  and are eaten with your fingers. They may be finger-licking good, but this is more feast-food than fast-food.

Whilst one thoroughfare has been destroyed another has been created.  The pathway up to our front door has been concreted.  The actual work took less than two hours.  The build up took many hours of argument among the workers - how wide should it be, how high, how steep the angle of incline?  We had very little say and, as usual, Paolo did it his way.  Once paved, I'm sure it will be perfect, or, at least, Paolo will convince us it is so.

For those interested, here's my own liberal translation of Carducci's "San Martino"

Clouds shroud the hills
A mist rises
And under a nor’ westerly
A rage-blanched sea cries out.

Meanwhile, unseen, beguiling fumes
Of fermenting wines in oaken vats,
Smother the alleyways of the borgo,
Seducing the senses.

A spit, over a burning log
Turns the roast, the fat spatters,
In a doorway stands the hunter
Whistling, watching, waiting.

Starlings swirl in charcoal scribbles
Across the clouds’ pastel blush
Wayward scrawls, like wayward thoughts
Atone at evensong.