Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Daily update parte nove

It’s been a while. Seems like ages in fact since I last ventured into blogland. Truth is, it’s been hectic, moving into an incomplete house and all, swamped by boxes, trying to get used to a new way of life in our “back to nature” (ish) abode. There’s no “automatic” central heating or hot water system, see, just a “camino” – a wood-and-other-material-burning stove that circulates hot water to the radiators and to the showers and sinks. Which means having to constantly keep the fires burning (literally), and, in the morning, getting them going again.

It’s been an adjustment, on top of all the other moving in challenges that one meets along the way. Like not having doors on any of the rooms, including the only complete bathroom – the incomplete one at least has a door and a working shower and toilet, just no basin (which we’ve waited for over 6 months for, and the stonemason who’s making it keeps telling us that it’ll be ready “tomorrow”, or perhaps “the day after tomorrow”, perhaps to add some hint of authenticity to his claim. Only trouble is, tomorrow of course simply never comes, let alone the day after tomorrow.)

Back to the camino – first order of business is finding the wood to burn. Like everything else in this part of the world, one gets wood from a guy that somebody knows. We’ve found two and had a delivery from each. Neither load burns spectacularly well, but then I’m apparently a skinflint when it comes to how much wood I put on – the locals pile it up like a bonfire, so to keep some semblance of warmth circulating we need to emulate (somewhat against my grain).

Then there’s the showering. Radiator warmth is one thing, maintainable with a moderately-burning, moderately-hot fire. A shower, however, requires us to crank up the heat and keep it there so that the showerer isn’t left shivering as the temperature plummets after a brief flirting with the high degrees. It’s been a bit of trial and error, but one learns quickly when the lesson comes in the form of a wintry chill while completely starkers.

Overall it’s added a whole new dimension to the list of daily household chores – just cleaning out the fireplace, fetching the day’s first load of wood from outside, and getting the fire going with kindling damp from the incessant rain, consumes a good half-hour each morning. I’m not complaining, mind – I rather enjoy the fact that we’re independent of the exorbitant gas prices that everyone else is paying. We’ll probably end up paying about ¼ of what everyone else does for heat and hot water.

Of course, just as the heating lessons were starting, and the chaos of living in the shambles around us was becoming “evident”, should we say, two things happened: (1) Maria decided she needed a break, and sped off for Germany for 2-½ weeks, leaving me to deal with it all, Julius and his schedule included of course, and (2) I got a writing assignment with a very rapid turnaround, requiring me to more or less drop everything to get it done. Just what I needed.

Of course I got through the trial, as one always does, even managing a couple of trips into the snow-and-wind of the mountains, not to mention a rather scary folly of a foray into the muddy mire of the waterlogged backroads and farmtracks at the goading of my son, miffed at my lack of adventurous spirit. (We made it out of this last sortie OK, but only after a few hair-raising, completely out-of-control sideway-slides down and along “roads” with mud a foot thick.) Under the circumstances I was rather impressed at just being able to maintain the status quo, and even make a little progress on getting things done around the house. Naturally, however, not everyone is as impressed at my effort as I am, and I’m now going through a great learning experience being told about all the mistakes that I made in my blissfully unaware, honest endeavours as a temporary single parent and home-keeper.

Things are moving along, though. We have a nice new shiny fridge, a similarly shiny dishwasher (hallelujah), an equally shiny washing machine, and a beautiful but somewhat ill-fitting granite countertop in the kitchen. We also have Sky TV, affording live viewing of South African rugby, the English Premiership, and the Champion’s League. And we’ve now unpacked enough boxes to know that we have enough storage space for about ¼ of our belongings. So instead of living out of boxes, we’re living directly off the floor …

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Finally ...

We're in. Two nights we've slept in the house now, amid a rather large degree of chaos admittedly, but in the house nonetheless. Julius has 3/4 of his bed (bed legs and top layer of the 3-layer mattress missing), while Maria and I are on a makeshift arrangement - comfortable enough - on the floor, waiting for our bedroom floor to be finished and our own bed legs to turn up.

The bathrooms are usable, but lacking final coats of "accent" paint, not to mention a basin in the downstairs bathroom, or places to put "stuff" (toothpaste, toothbrushes, etc). But Maria had a hot bath (that took several hours to drain), and Julius and I have both had showers that crept over the "warm enough" barrier.

The fireplace has blazed on both nights, filling the radiators in their rooms with enough warmth to
keeping the frostman out, and depleting our meager wood supply rather alarmingly.

We've retrieved 2/3 of our belongings from our neighbour's house, and are managing to find narrow walkways between the myriad boxes that are adorning the majority of available floorspace.

If it wasn't for the particularly unfinished kitchen, it would feel like we've moved into a finished house. At least we have a fridge and stove, both operating, but we don't have a working sink, cupboards, or a countertop.

But we'll manage until we've found the time, energy, and wherewithal to get that Nordic resin spatchelored on, and found willing helpers to get our marble dining room table carried inside.

Perhaps the best surprise so far is that the ubiquitous rat and/or mice waste matter in our storeroom was limited to the outside of the boxes - no sign of rodent habitation inside anything, just a few nibblings of plastic here and there ... so far.

I wasn't sure this day would ever arrive, but here it is, and if it wasn't for the absence of a kitchen, I'd be waxing right lyrical now, I'm sure. Euphoria aside, it's good to be in. It's going to be a nice home.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

So near … and yet seemingly inching away

Amongst the milestones of moving into a new house are: (a) moving in, and (b) finishing the move-in. (b) takes rather longer than (a), as most will attest. If you’re renovating, or building, somewhere in there is “completing the building”, and then “completing the touching-up”. The first of these can be pre- or post-(a), while the latter typically coincides or is subsequent to (b).

To someone who is eagerly working and waiting for any of these activities merely to start, these distinctions and timeframes are purely academic (as is the numbering). And they’re most certainly academic for us right now.

That’s right – we haven’t moved in yet, although it’s hardly for lack of trying. Everything in our lives besides “the house” has disintegrated into the background – the very necessary task of getting my Italian driver’s license (to be covered in a subsequent blog), the very necessary task of finding work and/or a source of income, the very necessary task of learning Italian, catching up with friends, even spending real time with our son.

And with every joule of energy that we contribute, the goal of moving in – based solely on a working bathroom and heating – seems to be two joules further away. Here’s a partial list:

  • The special paint which is destined to find its way onto our bath and sinks has not arrived. It was ordered a month ago. We need it to complete the bathrooms. [If you're asking why we needed this particular finish, I'm working on it.]
  • In order to move into the house, and move some of our long-stored items in from the mouse-ridden outhouse, we need to clean the rooms we and they (the “things”) are moving into. Our vacuum cleaner is stored in the house we used to rent next door. The house’s key-keeper, a friendly Englishman, cheerfully announced yesterday that he had lost the key to said house. Aside from the vacuum cleaner we need to do the cleaning, much of our warm clothing, bedding, and kitchen appliances and stuff are in said house. In addition, the compressor we’d hoped to use to help with some power-cleaning of our furniture and other things – we’re expecting some powerful dirt after a year in a rickety, dusty, holy (not-spiritual, that is) storehouse – was removed by the builder the day before we asked to use it.
  • The wooden floor upstairs – site of the bedrooms and therefore the ultimate destination for the stored beds – is finally installed. They started in July. They (the floor layers) are not experts, as the results attest – a bowing surface that had to be nailed down to keep it level, rendering a row of unsightly holes that now have to be filled in. So do the gaps between the floorboards themselves. Given the proliferation of both nail-holes and gaps, it is no doubt going to be a time-consuming effort. Naturally, it’s ours to do … before we then have to paint it with a finish to protect it, that is. And given Maria’s distaste for the varnish that the carpenter supplied (Julius and I, somewhat irrelevantly, are rather taken by it), there will be a delay while she conducts the search for the “right” finish. It’s odds-on that we’ll end up with what we already have, only a week or two later. This, of course, takes no account of the prerequisite search for the filler for the holes and gaps, which has yet to commence.
  • The kitchen “cupboards” – concrete constructions made by the builder – were also selected to receive the aforementioned special paint (see bathrooms above). We started it way after the bathrooms, and we’re now only on the first of the four coats that they will ultimately get. The surface area is much less than the bathrooms, but much harder to do, given that you have to crawl into spaces that weren’t designed for this kind of thing. I hate it, and avoid doing it every chance I get. Along with the inherent slowness of progress, my mindset, which seems unlikely to change in the near future, is equally unlikely to speed up the completion of this rather key location in our new home.

There’s other stuff too, although it doesn’t have an immediate bearing on our ability to move in:

  • We (I use the term “we” loosely here, with a focus on family unity rather than culpability) “mislaid” our cell phone. It’s the only way numerous people, upon whom we are relying to get things completed, can get hold of us, and contains the only record of the phone numbers of those who need constant chasing to get the necessary things done.
  • The downstairs bathroom sink, which was bought some four months ago, finally had the hole for the plug drilled by the marmista (the marble guy from whom we bought it). Only it was the wrong sink … and he can’t find the one we bought.

I’m left considering the possibility of a conspiracy – what else could it be?

“Why” doesn’t matter, of course, when considered in the same breath as the need for (a). Notwithstanding all my rumblings, believe it or not it may be this week. That depends on whether the idraulico (plumber) arrives to complete the installation of the bathroom radiators, toilets and other fittings. Am I holding my breath? Don’t look for me to be going blue anytime soon.

The only thing I can say is – thank heavens for angels like Anna Finn and her two daughters, Mimi and Cara Bella, who have accommodated us uncomplainingly with warmth and grace and patience for the past 3 weeks. Without them, we’d be even more at our ragged ends than we already are.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

House update

Like a tame domestic version of “The Perfect Storm”, there is a convergence of sorts as the triggers for all final tasks on the house start setting themselves off. Upstairs wooden floor, downstairs quartz stone floor, fireplace and heating system, electrical system, doors and windows …

Nothing, of course is straightforward. The guys laying the wooden floor didn’t come when we thought they would, they came a week later, and have yet to finish. Now the quartz stone floor guy has arrived from Germany on a tight schedule, which means that the two floor teams are working at the same time. This is a problem:

  • The wood floor guys generate a tremendous amount of dust from their sawing and cutting … an unwelcome embellishment for the drying resin on the floor below
  • The quartz stone fellow decided to lay the stairs first … thereby taking away the wooden floor team’s access to their workspace, since the only outside door upstairs can’t open with the new way the floor is being laid

This, naturally, is not all:

  • The guy who delivered the quartz stone floor material decided to come down the driveway forwards with his big truck before checking to see if he could get out. Needless to say, he got stuck, and destroyed some newly-laid concrete walkways, a terra cotta brick wall, and the recently-laid pebble garden patch in his failed attempts to leave the premises. Our farmer neighbours had to come with their tractor to pull him out. When I asked him if it was the first time this had happened to him (expecting a “yes” answer from this professional driver), he said that it was the third or fourth.
  • The guy installing the camino (wood-burning stove to provide hot water and heating) is a week late, meaning the big, cast-iron brute of a thing still isn’t installed … a necessity before the quartz stone chap can lay the floor in that room.
  • The bathroom upstairs still has a big hole in it (not to mention a very shabbily-concreted corner) … presenting something of a minor challenge for the laying of the quartz stone, since it doesn’t naturally sit well on a layer of air.
  • The doors leading to the outside open (inwards) away from the wall, into the middle of the room, instead of against the wall … and the door guys say that we’ll just have to adjust the furniture to accommodate it, since changing it to the logical way would require making a new door.
  • The mix-up of two very different types of window between the bathroom and the kitchen – making an obvious and ugly mismatch in both places – has been vehemently defended by the carpenters as being “what was decided upon”.
  • The people who were meant to order the special resin paint for the bathrooms didn’t order it because “they couldn’t reach us” (but never left a message, an Italian habit, it seems) … and so now the 4-layer, one-layer-per-day process will have to wait until the bathrooms floors are laid and dry (a 4-day process in itself), further extending our move-in date.
  • Our decision to back up our water and house heating with a gas solution (primary source is the camino – see above) has not been factored into anyone’s plans … meaning that we’ll have to light a fire every time we want a shower or want to wash the dishes.

I imagine I’ll be able to add to this list in time.

Of course, Maria decided to add to the challenges by not liking the partially exposed walls, and asking for them to be filled in. This has left a noticeable line and bump where the old and new cement meet, requiring a search for a solution, and – needless to say – repainting after the quartz stone floor has been laid, an eventuality I had striven with some effort to avoid.

There is, happily, some good news. The electrician moved the floor lights from their mid-room position to a more “ambient” locale, after some (German) insistence by Maria. I will hold my breath that the electrician (the fellow responsible for the sloppy concrete floor in the bathroom upstairs) did not pierce one of the buried water-carrying heating tubes in his endeavours.

It’s starting to get cold. The farmhouse (our current digs) is not very well insulated, and the other day Maria returned home to find a rat on the kitchen table, merrily helping itself to whatever leftovers and other foodstuffs it could find.

We need to move. Our spirits require it, our tired bodies require it, our family unity requires it. I had targeted October 20th, but I now think, with all the recent developments, that’s ambitious.

Believe it or not, I’m not despondent – I think we will move in soon. It’s what we’re moving into that I’m now concerned about.

Monday, October 15, 2007

The marchigiani hunter

The other day as we were sitting down to lunch in our farmhouse kitchen, we were disturbed by a high-pitched squealing, clearly from a creature in some distress. Peering out the window to the farmyard below, Mario’s wife held a rabbit by its feet, the last of its lifeblood staining the grass below, a macabre stain on the garden tool with a serrated edge lying culpably next to it.

It was something of a jarring image, one that has stayed with me. This shouldn’t be a surprising sight, they are animal farmers after all, and out here in the Italian countryside one is constantly reminded of seasons and cycles and life and death. But the banality of the death implement, identical to one that we use for pruning bushes and cutting small branches, along with the knowing, terror-induced screams of a normally-silent animal, lent a heavy aspect to the fate of a “commodity” whose fate was predestined anyway.

Somehow the hunter walking through the fields with a wriggling wild hare in his hands (I saw this scene the other day) conjures a different image – the odds were stacked against the hare, true, but at least he had run around outside for a while, and had the possibility of escape (however slim), unlike his sentenced farmstock brethren.

Which brings me to the Italian – or rather, marchigiani – hunter, a constant sight alongside the rural countryside out here. While almost every square inch of land is put to farm use, in between the fields, tucked into the dales and ditches, are thickets of bush and brush in which live the targets of their bloodlust – hare, pheasant, wild geese, fox, and the big prize, cinghiale (wild boar).

He’s invariably in his camouflaged fatigues (the hunter, that is), looking the part as he ambles through the fields in search of prey one-tenth his size whose dearth of knowledge and access to the kind of hardware that will ultimately spell their doom stacks the odds even further against them.

I’ve often wondered why the marchigiani huntsman wears camouflage – it’s not as if he tries to conceal himself, creeping along quietly to sneak up undetected on his quarry. He crunches through the bush, constantly exuding the giveaway odor of cigarette smoke, as subtle and inconspicuous as the bounding, barking dogs that accompany him, bursting with energy out of their caged existence for these moments of freedom.

His auricular and odorous prudence aside, the marchigiani huntsman is equally adept on the visual front. As I drive along the backroads concentrating on my immediate task of avoiding potholes, tractors, and other cars driving towards me on my side, with casual ease I invariably spot him a literal mile away across the fields as he “stalks” his victims, making a wonderful bulls-eye himself should one have a need for a spot of target practice.

Talking of targets, their shots frequently pierce the silence, normally raising an eyebrow and a consideration as to its proximity. This past week the shots were particularly close, so we peered out the farmhouse window and saw one of the camouflage brigade abandoning his cigarette and charging down the hill after his prey. This was not without a wheeze and a wobble, I might add – it seemed as if this level of physical activity presented a rather infrequent demand on his body.

Ahead were his dogs, yapping and tearing into the bush in front, blissfully ignorant of what they were after. A frantic quack-quack disturbed a duck which went frantically flapping off just inches ahead of the dog’s snapping teeth.

And then everything went still. They – hunter and dogs – stood around with attentive anticipation, waiting and listening as if something was imminent. Perhaps it was the duck he was shooting at after all. But if it was injured, or dead, it wasn’t giving itself up easily. We watched for a while, and then, bored with the (lack of) proceedings, went back to our things.

I’m not sure how frequently this scene replays itself across the Marche countryside. And I’m not sure I’d wager too much against the dogs being responsible for a decent percentage of their “successes” – birds, hares, mice, fleas, etc … But then I’m not a hunter, and in my ignorance, who knows – maybe this is the way it’s done.

However, if the above scene is representative after all, I’d say that – all things considered – this is a relatively happy circumstance for the animals that find themselves out there in their milieu … at least in comparison to the lot of the poor rabbits in the barn below us.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The book release

A couple of weeks ago there was a festa in Colmurano celebrating the 140th anniversary of the local events committee (if I understood Ornella and Maurizio correctly, which is a 50:50 shot). Aside from anything, 140 years for a local organization is quite something, and is starting to approach the nature of “tradition”, at least in the youthful fields of my heritage.

In any event, everyone (apparently) was there, including the bishop that Colmurano’s parish falls under, the president of Macerata province, a 92-year-old from Sicily (who made the trip especially), and an apparently well-known 82-year-old actor from Rome.

It was also the official release date for a book on the life of one Don Quirico, a priest who served Colmurano for some 50 years just over a half-century ago.

This is all significant (in a way) because I was asked to take photos for the book about 2 months ago. They needed one photo of Colmurano, but they were so pleased with my work they selected 4, and asked me back to take more photos inside the local church, 3 of which are also in the book.

And as a result, Ornella (who got me the assignment in the first place) made sure I knew about the ceremony.

Scheduled to start at 4:30, we arrived “early” at 4:45, only to find that we were still 45 minutes premature. Pranzo (lunch), it appears, had “run a little long.” However, this provided an unanticipated opportunity for entertainment, watching the passing parade as we waited outside the church for the proceedings to begin.

First up was a disheveled woman dressed in black and wearing slippers, shuffling up through the piazza. My first thought was that she’d taken herself off the drip at the rehab center and escaped, only to be drawn like a moth to the flame of a human gathering. I feel dreadful saying this, but she had the appearance of an old hag. She sauntered over to the banner-bearers in front of the church, all dressed in black with a grey sash, clearly with some office to perform. They greeted her warmly and gave her a sash to put on. So much for my ability to call it with even the remotest accuracy – such is the Catholic sisterhood.

All around, too, a gaggle of women thronged, many of them capably “filling” their outfits in a way that their designers would have probably deemed “ambitious”. In particular, one might say that the upper realms of their ensembles were distinctly challenged in containing their wearer’s contents. This is by no means intended to imply any degree of unattractiveness – on the contrary, my attention was immediately captured and held a willing prisoner.

What was intriguing, however, is that they then strolled into church. With my colonial upbringing in what I would have deemed an average Presbyterian congregation, I had always associated modesty with churchgoing attire. But not here, apparently. It seems that we’ve got it all wrong – church is just another event of the calendar, like the daily coffee at the bar, or Sunday lunch. And after all, when you’re out and about, why wouldn’t you want to catch the eye?

Anyway, finally things caught up and we ambled in, leaning against the back wall in a standing room only church. Emblazoned front and center was a large picture of Colmurano with said priest superimposed on it – “That’s my picture”, I thought, enlarged rather well. (Strangely enough, that one isn’t in the book – it’s the best of the lot.)

Then came the speeches. We didn’t understand anything. I’m not sure it mattered. People wandered in and out as with any Italian function. Some, dressed to the nines for the occasion, never even made it inside the church, lingering instead in the piazza outside, talking over the drone from inside being piped out to them. By the third speech we were done, and left - the Italian proclivity for one of their passions (talking) on this occasion for us eclipsed another of their famous passions (one that we wholly embrace) that would no doubt have followed ... eating. I wonder what we missed.

The picture that never made it ...

Monday, October 01, 2007

Daily update parte otto

Julius started school on September 13th, his first foray into the media (middle school), and – from all accounts – a big leap from the elementary. It’s an earlier start (8am) – not a happy prospect in our household – it’s further away in Urbisaglia, involves dropping him at the bridge at 7:15am to be picked up by the bus, and – worst of all – requires attendance on Saturdays. True it’s mornings only (except for a l-o-n-g Tuesday), but still – Saturdays? Apparently only France and Italy (in Europe, at least) still follow this childhood-depriving practice, and it’s so established that – unlike the horrified reactions it elicits in fresh stranieri like us – it doesn’t strike the locals as being the slightest bit strange.

After a less than enthusiastic start, it seems to have improved a little day by day, notwithstanding the increased homework load. But it’s wrought a distinct change in our household routine – the early start has resulted in an equally early start for me, and after dropping Julius at the bus, I’m at our house painting by 7:30.

On this front (painting our house), like Julius’ new school experience, after a slow start things have gone better day by day. Our self-imposed deadline to finish painting upstairs by this past Friday was comfortably met … and then Giuseppe the carpenter didn’t turn up to lay the floor this weekend after all. Oh well, it needed to be done anyway, and it seems the carpenter will be there this coming weekend.

Only the fire-stained beams remain to be “fixed”, hopefully to gain a whiter shade than the yellow that they’re currently sporting. Following several coats and attempts to remove the stain, we’re now down to a salt treatment as a last resort.

After that it’ll be downstairs, which we need to finish before the German quartz floor guy arrives on October 11th. This will be the last task before the plumbing, heating, and electricals can be finally hooked up and we can move in. We’re focused on October 20th, and – needless to say – can’t wait.

Other than house- and school-related preoccupations, there’s space for little else.

Maria did give her first-ever German lesson this past week to a lone Italian student. She was late, in not atypical fashion, although on this occasion her dead car battery was the culprit. Luckily she had given herself enough time to get there so that when her car failed she was able to walk from the farmhouse where we’re staying to our house where I and my car were – a 45-minute walk – so that she was only 10 minutes late for the lesson.

But what are the odds of this happening on this very day at this very time? Her car hasn’t given the slightest bit of trouble so far, and on her walk from the farmhouse to our place, not a single car (and a possible lift) passed her. Coincidence? I think not. [Insert tongue in cheek here.]

The other event of note was the first snowfall of the season, in September no less. It only dusted the mountaintops, but after last year’s dearth of snow, it’s a promising sign for the coming winter, at least if you’re a snow-lover like HRH.

Today, a glorious cloudless autumn Sunday morning, I’m sitting on the patio at our friend Anna’s house, babysitting their animals as they visit friends and family in London. It has a spectacular view over the mountains, hills, and valleys, and is a much-needed respite from the basic existence at the farmhouse – TV, permanent hot showers, insulated windows, dishwasher and washing machine, and a life that we’d almost forgotten existed.

As much as old farmhouse living is full of “character” and “colour”, I have to confess it’s all beginning to wear a little thin. It’s time to be in our own place again, with our stuff immediately at hand instead of irretrievably buried in a storeroom stacked to the rafters, or in an attic that we have to get permission to access.

So we’re counting the days, not missing the irony that even though we’ve always targeted having just one bathroom done so we could move in, the bathrooms will be the last things to be completed.

So it has gone thus far, and appears to be continuing. There are times when it seems as if this all as a test, and we’re being provocatively challenged – is this what we really want? I wonder if everyone in our position goes through this …

Monday, September 24, 2007

September reflections

This is the third September in succession that I have sat in this very spot on our patio looking out over the rolling fields and the mountains, distinctly aware of the moment – the soft warmth of the descending sun, the cool evening approaching, the silence of the Marche countryside, and a delectable Marche rosso or bianco at hand.

Two years ago it was a trip to initiate the renovation process. That was the stated primary goal. Unwittingly, however, and perhaps more importantly, it served also to let the significance of our real estate purchase sink in, rather than being a distant acquisition, a “thing” like our somewhat impetuous Panama purchases. It didn't start well - after the first visit back to the house, Maria wanted out – she hated the house and property she’d loved just a year earlier when we first saw it and bought it. “How can we get out of it?” she asked. She even spoke to our realtor friend to see what we might be able to get for it. After a few days, however, she settled down, and enjoyed a few moments just like this one right now, feeling in our cheap plastic furniture like royalty on their thrones.

Last year’s trip was deep breath time. We’d moved. Julius had been thrown into the educational deep end with his English and German in an almost all-Italian school. I had no job, nor did Maria. But it was moments like this very one that made us realize why we’d moved, and how strong those few intangibles on the credit side were in contrast to the lengthy list of tangibles on the other.

Today I’m (obviously) drawn into reflection. The sun is warm, the breeze is kind, and the Verdicchio is crisp. And my mood is buoyant. It was a day of accomplishment. I can safely say that I had nothing to do with any of it, but I have no qualms about taking the “feel-good” reward for it. Two concrete things happened.

First, the gas company came and buried their tank (for cooking and heating) – a step towards functional living.

Second, Cesari (the guy from Isoterm, a local building supply company) – a drop-dead gorgeous, green-eyed, quintessential Italian model type – bought his high-pressure spray gun and painted all our ceilings, up- and downstairs. It had taken me 2 days to do 2 rooms with my more modest equipment, and all I could see was a long, long haul ahead of me to get it all done. In one fell swoop, he rescued my next two weeks and gave them back to me. And took us another step closer to moving in.

But perhaps most significant of all, I’m sitting on our transformed patio, walled and bricked in and as inviting an outdoor space as I’ve come across. This is perhaps one of the most important aspects of the house for me, given that I’d rather be sitting outside under virtually any (reasonable) circumstances.

And my wonderful office – another important aspect, given that I’ve never had one that didn’t double as something else – opens right out on to it. Three other glass doors on this western side open out to it, one from each of the other 3 rooms on this side of the house – Maria’s “drawing room”, the dining room, and the lounge.

With the quirky little stones – seemingly carved by an unseen avant garde hand – on the enclosing retaining wall, it has a unique character that says: “Welcome to this warm and friendly space. Feel the sun, the breeze, the moment. And stop the clocks – there is no other time but now.”

Me and my Verdicchio couldn't agree more - I feel like I could sit here forever.

Friday, September 21, 2007

One year on

It’s been a year now. I arrived in Italy on September 5th last year. So – what’s the verdict?

Knee-jerk is perhaps a good place to start – Damn! I’m living in Italy!

This little realization strikes me at irregular and yet moderately frequent intervals, and to tell the truth I’m still a little surprised at it. That’s probably because somewhere in my cautious, South African-reared conscience, I didn’t think that I would be capable of such a daring and “exotic” venture. Whether it’s the influence of living in the US or my adventurous wife that has cajoled me into going for it, I’m not sure, and I’m also not sure it’s important.

This “living in Italy” thing transcends the physical dimension too – I’ve left my old lives behind, and there’s no question of returning to them. Even in the moments of supreme emotional challenge (and there’ve been many), my thoughts have always been “how to overcome” rather than where to flee. I don’t know if this is folly or fortitude, but I’m not questioning it.

The second immediate sentiment is “Damn! I’m not in my house yet!” Like any homeowner in the throes of a makeover (the inevitable personal side as well as house-related, as all in that position will attest), the house saga dominates much of one’s thinking and worrying space. But I still have the excitement, and the vision of myself living in it, and now that we’re just a month or so away from moving in, the despondency has an end. I’m sure that in the coming years I’ll look back on it with some amusement and the knowledge of one with “experience”.

So what else? We came to live life for itself, and nowhere that I’ve been is this mantra as obvious as it is in rural Italy. Everything – and I mean e-vry-thing – is a process, and in most cases an opportunity for social interaction. Outcomes are not entirely irrelevant, but they’re not the be-all and end-all that they are elsewhere. Having been here for a year now, it’s quite clear that the Slow Food movement could only ever have originated in Italy.

Has it had the desired effect on me (i.e. slow down, loosen up, smell the flowers, etc)? Sometimes … when I think about it, or when I’m in such a moment. Like stopping to pick up Julius in Colmurano, for instance, when the prevailing atmosphere drugs one into the “live in this moment” mood. Or my experience in the Arte Strada’s preparations. Or in my awareness of seasons and cycles, which seem so much more prominent to me here.

It’s a vital attribute in dealing with Italian bureaucracy, and it’s one area that I’ve failed in. Poste Italiano and Telecomm Italia are primary examples of this. I still haven’t adopted the resigned attitude of long-time residents to these monolithic monuments to inert parastatals, and who knows, maybe I never will. We’ll see.

I’m trusting that osmosis will ultimately play its part in attaining that attitudinal plane. The way people here adopt you can only help, and it’s been perhaps the most notable aspect of living here – the warmth and generosity of the people. I only wish I could interact with them more freely, and therein lies another personal frustration – my struggles with the language. Naturally one has to shoulder most of the responsibility for not having become proficient, but when I compare the effort that Maria’s put in and the ease with which she’s become adept, I suspect there’s also a little bit of innateness about it. So be it – I just have to work harder. Classes in Tolentino start again soon, and so off I’ll go to work on my integration.

Julius, after a cautious start, has surprised me with his local affinities, and a loyalty to Marche (and Regnano in particular) that’s disproportionate to the time he’s spent here. He has his ups and downs, some of them related to the state of his friendships, others influenced by trips away to family (Germany and South Africa). The only thing from his previous life that he hankers after is his school. The public education system here is very rigid and “old school” (as it were), with little room for creativity or variations from the norm. And unlike both of his schools in the US, they barely get to go outside here, regardless of how good the weather is. Perhaps I’m naïve or uninformed, but it strikes me as a blind and unaware perception of the needs of 11-year-olds – keeping them sitting on their butts all day instead of letting off steam and energy in a physical way is nothing short of a travesty, denying them a crucial part of their growth and childhood.

Of course individual teachers also make a difference, and Italian love and caring shine through in the good ones. In one instance last year, when Julius was being ostracized by his classmates for having not towed the group line, his Italian teacher Lori noticed and spent 2 hours one afternoon with the class talking it through. When it comes to their emotional wellbeing, she (and others) treat them as children rather than as pupils; I just wish that this would extend to all aspects of scholarly life.

Maria, for her part, has found her feet as she would just about anywhere. Her natural flow with the language and the way Latins find her to be “simpatico” has helped her integrate quickly. But the house has taken its toll – her German penchant for precision and punctuality, along with the local resistance to anything that varies from what they’ve always done, has resulted in much stress and frustration. Hopefully that will all be a thing of the past rather soon.

The only real loss of our move has been the fourth member of our family, our beloved Mr Young (see previous post here). In the end, it seems our unsettled life in the six months before his death was just too much for him. The passage of time has helped me heal, Julius too I think, but not Maria – she still harbours a deep sadness that won’t go away. Perhaps there’s a (harsh) message in there somewhere – we shall see.

There’s so much more, too, to be thankful for – the crisp clean air, the stupendous views, and the blazing wildflowers of the Sibillini mountains … the soaring cliffs and turquoise waters of the Riviera del Conero … neighbours knocking at your door with spinach, garlic, tomatoes, still dripping with earth.

And, of course, being able to wake up in the morning and say: “I think I’ll go to Florence today.”

Now all I have to do is find a reliable source of income so that we can stay here …

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Non-Italy pictorial: Out of Africa

Africa's largest (Kruger National Park) ...

... and it's smallest antelope, the Damaraland dik-dik, Waterberg Plateau Park, Namibia

Diverse watercraft on a blustery Durban day

This baobab tree is supposedly 2,700 years old - near Tzaneen, Limpopo province, SA

This guy watched us closely for a long time as we took our break on the bush walk, Kruger NP

Sable antelope, Kruger NP

A new day and some new carrion?

A motley crew enjoying sundowners, Kruger NP

Waterbuck, Kruger NP

Lilac-breasted roller

Bar's open!

The desolate beauty of Damaraland, Namibia

Victim of the Skeleton Coast, Namibia

Dunes of the Namib, the world's oldest desert

Krisjan from Damaraland

Full moon rising, Waterberg Plateau campsite, Namibia

Harry (of Potter fame), one of the newest adoptees at Cheetah Conservation Fund near Otjiwarongo, Namibia

Victim of the desert (springbok carcass) - b/w Damaraland and Skeleton Coast

Dragon's jaw natural rock formation - Twyfelfontein (translates as 'fountain of doubt'), Namibia

Rock etchings (2-6,000 years old) at Twyfelfontein - the famous long-tailed lion

Amazing Damaraland campsite - Xanagu near Twyfelfontein

The old and the older - welwitschia plant (hundreds of years old), fossilized tree (millions of years old)

Female relativity - wife, niece, sister outside Windhoek

Swakopmund craft market and the buzz of a film crew

Maria and Paula - Khomas Hochland, Namibia

Reluctant tourist subject (HRH), abandoned rig in background - Skeleton Coast

Lone dune boarder - south of Swakopmund

Cool dude at moonrise - near Windhoek

...and an 80th birthday to cap it all.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Back from southern climes

We’re back. The clichéd “doesn’t feel like we’ve been gone” feeling is settling in just days after the six-week southern African jaunt. Family, friends, a warm winter, a safari, and a dusty ride through some of the planet’s most desolately-beautiful landscapes took our minds off the renovation struggle for a while, but here we are once again, back in it.

It was a nervous return, given the lack of accommodation that awaited us. But once again, thanks to our lifesaver Ornella, we’re back in the farmhouse until our house gets finished. Turns out Paolo the builder worked through most of August (unlike his compatriots), and we were greeted with a nice surprise when we first visited our house. But more of that in another entry.

So what to write of la dolce vita when we weren’t here for six weeks? Perhaps a few thoughts on the similarities and differences between Italy on one hand, and South Africa and Namibia on the other.

Similarities? Strangely, yes. The chaos and indolence of Italy has an unlikely mirror in the “inaccuracy”, should we say, that one finds in Africa.

Take our attempts at buying a cooler and freezer blocks. The store assistant at Pick ’n Pay (in Johannesburg) said they didn’t have any, so we walked through the mall to the house ’n hardware store where we bought a decent cooler. But no freezer blocks. Where are they? At Pick ’n Pay, of course. Back to Pick ’n Pay, where we find the freezer blocks next to … would you believe it … a cooler. At half the price. So back goes Maria to the house ’n hardware where she gets a refund, but back at Pick ’n Pay things aren’t going so well. There’s no bar code on the cooler, which means we can’t check it out, even though it clearly shows a price of R89 (around $12). So over we go to the customer service desk for a series of prolonged discussions, summonsing of different people (including the guy who told us they didn’t have coolers, just to instill a little confidence), all the while glancing anxiously at our watches which are creeping closer and closer to the arrival time of our guests back at my sister’s landlord’s house. Eventually, some 25 minutes later after a few saunters here and there – African store assistants are physically incapable at moving anything faster than an amble – the store manager gives it to us for R58. I think it was simply the number that came into her head at that very moment.

But for the language and the race (and perhaps the final price), this could have been an episode out of an Italian store. We encountered it again and again.

For the rest, however, the differences were stark.

  • Johannesburg’s fortress existence, living behind high walls and barbed wire, where everyone has a personal “close-shave” story to tell. A lasting image one late night on the way home – a man and his bloody, cut-up pursuer almost ran straight into our car.
  • Car theft – it’s standard practice to pay a car guard every time you park your car, such is the risk of it not being there when you come back. The guards are not armed, and there are stories of bribes by organized thieves, but it gives everyone (a false) peace of mind.
  • Pestering art and craft salesmen, desperate to get just a tiny piece of the obvious (relative) wealth borne by European visitors, a far cry from the Italian whose apparent lack of interest in the sale renders a very different frustration for the buyer
  • Waves (the marine kind)
  • Wildlife, in and around the urban areas as well as out in the bush, and in numbers that you just don’t find in Europe
  • In Namibia, endless vistas of dust and stone and straight, deserted roads, and a peaceful, liberating feeling that you could be the only people on the planet

So as hard as it was to leave my family and my friends and my homeland to return to our new home, it is nice to be able to run inside to get something I’ve forgotten … without having to lock the car every time. It’s nice to be able to stroll through the streets at night … without having to look cautiously over my shoulder at every stranger approaching out of the shadows. It’s nice to be able to sit outside of an evening and admire the view … without a wall and a fence and barbed wire separating me from the view and the rest of the world.

It was also interesting, exciting even, way out in the desert country of Namibia, to hear the Italian staccato that we’ve become used to in the past year. This is a new development – the Germans have always gone there in large numbers (there’s a daily Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Windhoek), but in my previous 6 visits I’ve never encountered Italians before. To the persistent embarrassment of HRH the boy king, we struck up conversations every chance we could, exercising our rusty Italian to their pleasant surprise. Somehow it brought the two places a little closer together for me, and the possibility that perhaps you can have two homes after all, even if you don’t live in one of them.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Phew! Temporary digs

It wheezes with the effort of a heaving asthmatic, bravely soldiering on some 50-plus years after its creation, struggling to keep its charges cool in the sweltering heat of the Marche summer. What is it? A fridge. An old one, still chugging along in the old farmhouse that we find ourselves in for the 10 or so days before we leave for South Africa.

This monument to Indesit is a true relic, and one of several quirky features of a house that is huge, only occasionally inhabited, and partly used as a farmhouse along with its surrounding fields that have been worked for the past 38 years by Mario from Paterno.

The ground floor is home to several dozen rabbits and chickens, giving the place a distinct whiff, one that is no doubt quite pleasing to the rather large and pink pig which wallows sadly in his small concrete pen, no doubt waiting out his days – unbeknown to him – until he becomes so much prosciutto, speck, and ragù. It’s hard not to feel for the poor animals, but us born of the city perhaps don’t appreciate the business of rural survival and working with reality, as it were. It’s made Maria reconsider her meat-eating habits, particularly her pork ones, given their living conditions, diet, and apparent lack of friendliness to the human system.

We’re one floor up, in two bedrooms, a central room, a bathroom, and a kitchen, with the other two bedrooms stacked to the rafters with the boxes and packets of “stuff” (clothing, books, household goods, you name it) that are supposedly destined for Poland where one of the co-owners of the house, Marino, is a priest. The other owners are his brothers the doctor in Colmurano, and Piergiovanni, hiking friend and husband of Ornella (deputy mayor, mother of Margherita, Julius’ class-mate, and provider of photographic work for me), and they generously offered us the place knowing our precarious predicament.

(We were offered two other places at €500 for the 10 days, apparently quite reasonable for this area and time of the year, but we – mostly Maria – felt it was too expensive. She was prepared to stay in our caravan in this hottest summer for over 100 years without a bathroom, a kitchen, or electricity. I was reaching for my wallet when Ornella came along with this life- and marriage-saving offer.)

Needless to say, we’re hugely thankful. And it’s been an experience, already after just two days. Almost half of the windows are home to wasp nests, either populated, abandoned, or under construction. And on two of the nights we’ve had bats flying around inside our rooms for at least half-an-hour until they found – or new helped them find – the way out. Their apparent struggle to locate the path to freedom – the same as the way in, the window – has thrown my previous admiration for their sonar capabilities into some question.

There’s also a ghost in the water system, a sort of delayed alto-tenor’s wail every time a tap is turned on somewhere on the property.

It certainly has one thing that a lot of more recent or reconstructed houses don’t have with all their new finishes, fittings, and furnishings – character, and loads of it. What a great project it would be to give it back some of its lost glory, while keeping its idiosyncrasies.

But that’s no matter, we have our own “character study” to worry about, one with its own set of idiosyncrasies, and I can more-or-less guarantee that there won’t be a pig in ours…

Arte Strada - a (renowned?) Italian festival

Arte Strada is a phenomenon in Colmurano. It is, apparently, nationally known, and according to some, is one of the largest festivals in Italy, attracting anywhere from 10-40,000 in 2006 year depending on who you talk to and how close to the date of this year’s event you speak to them. I’m skeptical, but then I’m just a natural-born skeptic.

In 2007 it ran four nights from Thursday July 12th to Sunday July 15th, and included 6 “formal” performance venues accommodating 16 performance acts ranging from music to dance, and magic to juggling, and a variety of informal spots where fire-throwers, single-wheel bicycle funny-men, and the like did their things.. I went every night, and it was, in a word (or three), a total blast.

Music ranged from California rock to Italian Celtic, and ethno-Germania to Italian pipes. Top of the list for me, though, was an African drum band, who lost themselves in their rhythms, simultaneously intoxicating countless members of the audience who gave themselves away with inane grins of ecstasy. Up there too was another African outfit, an acrobatic dance troupe from Kenya, whose energy and smiles lit up the central stage and filled the ancient piazza every time they performed.

Stalls selling the usual art-and-craft-type stuff were there – most of it rather good quality and interesting, actually – along with a leather-vested, dead-head-looking palm reader and a portly middle-aged Tarot card reader. And, of course, food, a fixture in any Italian gathering of more than 3 people. None of the beverages or edibles was easily accessible, but it didn’t stop the lines, which, for any Italian gathering of more than 1 person, is a social event in itself.

“Buzzing” is a word that comes readily to mind, perhaps more aptly than I’ve ever used it before.

Scattered around the place was a diverse set of oversized, painted wooden statues of curious design and undertone. I’m not sure if the theme was Egyptian, ancient European, or other-worldly, but these erect, horned, and exotic-growth-adorned creations were an intriguing addition to a top class event.

I had the privilege to be part of the preparation – unwittingly but not unwillingly – when I went to get an ice cream at Amanda’s shop the night before it started. Roberta, Colmurano’s maintenance man and father of Julius’ classmate Eduardo, saw me and roped me into helping move a few of these statues. It gave me an insight that made the smoothness of Arte Strada’s operations even more impressive. Here’s why.

We had to move one of these large wooden fellows, fairly heavy but not dauntingly so, and yet stilll heavy enough to use a forklift on one side and a cadre of men (most of them with cigarettes dangling from their lips) on the other (the statue was “lying down”, as it were). We moved it to the appointed (or anointed?) spot.

Or at least near to the appointed spot, because there was a car where it was meant to go. A car, that is, standing right under the “All vehicles forbidden from yesterday until tomorrow” sign, and a car that was clearly visible in its current spot before we started moving Basin Man (my name for the statue).

So now the car owner was sought … and found. He came to move his car. He got in, started it up, started to reverse … and stopped – Basin Man was in the way. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to those that knew where the statue was headed, and yet no-one seemed in the slightest bit thoughtful about the order we’d chosen to do things in.

So we moved Basin Man a few feet, this time with more difficulty since the forklift had disappeared somewhere else along with some of the muscles that helped him over in the first place. Car reverses a little more … and stops. Basin Man’s still in the way.

Finally we moved him far enough out of the way so the car could reverse out of the space. But instead of continuing to reverse all the way out of the piazza to one of the clearly visible parking spaces about 50 feet away, he goes forward, heading straight into the piazza with its “busy” Italian congestion making the maneuvering of a car well nigh impossible. It didn’t stop him from trying, and, I must say with some admiration, succeeding.

While the car driver was contributing to the central chaos, we were putting up Basin Man – we formed a sort of human lever and pulled him up onto his rostrum to the full extent of his height, some 12 feet or so. We examined him. Unfortunately, our efforts to allow the car to get out had moved him off his stop by about 10 feet.

So we had to move him. This was a far more difficult prospect when he was standing up than when he was lying down. It turns out that the leader of the pack knew that we were lifting him on the wrong spot, but waited until he was up to point out this fact. No surprise or remonstration from anyone though when we found out, and then struggled to move him without toppling him or falling over each other.

Finally, there he was, in place and ready. It had taken a good 30 minutes. It should have taken 5.

I must confess I watched this unfolding with a sort of dumb incredulity at times, at others with silent bemusement, but never (it should be emphasized) without a smile. I was educated, enlightened, and enchanted. In Italy, it’s all about the process, the opportunity for interaction, and the propensity for animation.

Therewith endeth today's Italian lesson.