Thursday, May 31, 2007

Picture update

Monday, May 28, 2007

The gas business

I have this picture in my mind of an earnest man doing his job seriously, entirely and blissfully unaware of the comedy he is perpetrating. I wouldn’t say that this impression is based on the lone sighting I had of this man as he was leaving after his first visit to attend to our gas problems (a little clarification of this last phrase is perhaps necessary and definitely forthcoming). Unshaven and dressed with an informality heavily weighted on the casual, dishevelled side, my first take as he sped away in his Vulcangas van was that we had disturbed an otherwise relaxing workday for him.

My cynical and clearly erroneous impression was corrected later by Maria’s report of his visit. He had proudly shown her where he had fixed the gas leak in the tube leading from the tank buried in the ground. It looked as if an infant had been playing there with silly putty. But hey, who am I that knows little of these technical gas things. After all, in response to Maria’s question whether the tank’s gas gauge read in liters or percent, he had replaced the gauge … with one that had the last 20% highlighted in red, “as a reminder for us to refill the tank when it reached this level.” Phew, glad he did that – I would hate to be surprised by an empty gas tank just because the gauge read 0%.

Helpful guy – fixed the leak, gave the ignorant stranieri an aid to improve their gas habits. No doubt he was very satisfied with himself on a job well done.

So I go and check his work. Open up the tank lid, and get assaulted by a release of trapped gas that made me feel instantly light-headed. The leak was worse by several degrees than it was before – no technical gizmos required, just an average nose.

It was hard to get close to read the now red-banded gauge, but, being the fastidious type, I did. There it was, nestling comfortably at the end of its red zone – 0%. The day before, prior to his “service” call, the old gauge had read 10%. Which means that in the space of a day we had used nearly 200 liters of gas, and we shouldn’t have had any hot water (which wasn’t the case, given the hot showers that were still freely available).

Hmmm – so this “technician” comes to fix a problem, leaves it worse than before, and with fewer aids to monitor our gas situation. Ever open-minded, I look upon this as a new twist on the concept of “aid”, perhaps viewed from a perspective other than mine (the alleged customer).

So Maria calls Simone, a contractor who does “customer service” on behalf of the gas company. He immediately says he’ll take care of it. Having met Simone before and failed to help him understand a different issue we were having (despite several different approaches to the subject by both Maria and me), his confident assertion left me strangely without even the slightest hint of comfort.

Eventually the gas man returned in response to our obvious emergency (according to his red-zone gauge) … 3 days later. Neither of us saw him, but he must have been there, since the leak has been repaired. It now looks as if he brought another of his infant children with him to perform silly putty artwork on the gas pipes.

The gas gauge? Uh-huh – 0%. I wonder what’s making the water hot. Maybe it needs a different technician to fix that problem. Or perhaps he just forgot. After all, he’s already done us enough favours, coming out here twice and all. We wouldn’t want to take advantage of him.

Maria called Simone again to report the possible gas gauge issue. I’m riveted waiting for his response.


[This was written some two weeks before its post date]

Spring is gushing. Everywhere. It’s positively pouring out of every organic pore of every living thing and competing for attention like a class of kindergartners. Things are growing so readily and so richly that one feels almost apologetic and its profusion. Vitaliano’s roses, for example, have spread themselves all over the side of his house, without any apparent nurturing or encouragement, and when we compliment him on them, he simply shrugs and smiles …

Pinks and reds and yellows and blues and purples stand out against a backdrop of an apparent “green” contest, so lush and varied are the shades of the plants and trees. But leading the parade are the moon flowers, or corn flowers, or poppies, depending on who you’re speaking to. There are colonies of them everywhere – some just small “villages”, some vast cities of a red so intense that it looks artificial. It’s as if a wandering painter has carelessly dangled his brush in broad swaths across the countryside, following random mood and carefree spirit. It’s stunning.

The air is warm, the shade is cool, and birds are everywhere, singing their thanks for the good life and the abundance of lizards and bugs and seeds that have exploded into their larders. They’re constantly darting through the air, either with something in their beaks or in pursuit of something to put there, and are so focused on their mission that they often barely get out of the way of the car – it almost seems as if they’re (date I?) playing chicken.

The season’s first spring produce is also changing menus. Vitaliano gave us some spinach the other day that was quite the best I’ve ever tasted (and I’m a spinach lover). The sink was clogged with earth after cleaning it, so fresh was the generous bundle he gave us. They gave us another bucketful 3 days later.

Asparagus, lettuce, beans, and artichokes are all finding their way on to the tables right now. Cauliflower? Can’t find it anywhere – “Finito!” says greengrocer Alberto in his assertion that the season is over, and raising an eyebrow in apparent curiosity that I would be interested in having something out of season. This is Italy – only fresh stuff in season is allowed …

Yes, spring is here, and it’s positively enlivening. Perhaps a godsend then that my computer died, and I’m forced to write this by hand, sitting outside. Perhaps a little later I’ll go and take some photographs.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Daily update parte sette

Work on the house continues to make progress, albeit slow. Paolo the builder has been gone for some 3 weeks now to complete another job, having finished his first phase. Now just (!) the roof, flooring, plastering, drainage, and lowering of the ground around the house remain for him to do.

The electrician has finished the first phase of his work, and the plumber is due to start in a couple of days. We’re still tussling with whether or not to install a ventilated roof (which enhances insulation), but are having an impossible time trying to get meaningful numbers out of people and make comparisons. We’ve recently selected and given the go-ahead on the custom windows and doors, as well as all the bathroom fittings. Now for the kitchen, and the downstairs floor, which we’re tussling over – Maria wants coloured stone pellets with resin, and I want coloured polished concrete. Both may be moot if we can’t find anyone local or reasonably-priced to do it.

Given where we are with everything, I must confess that the July deadline to be out of our rental house and into our home looms ominously close, rather too close for my liking.
We could well be back in the caravan for a few weeks until everything’s ready.

If only we had our architect and project manager to help us – his fleeting presence seems barely sufficient as a reminder that he’s involved, let alone directing matters. However, I suppose I shouldn’t complain – at least we’re seeing progress, and it also seems as if we’ll stay within the projected cost. Friends of ours have had to fire their geometra (essentially the contractor) because she failed to submit their permit applications, resulting in a several-month delay on top of the mandatory 60-day waiting period (for certain urban houses, which ours is not) to begin their renovations. And any time you switch personnel (architect/geometra/builder) there’s another inherent delay and potentially additional hidden cost as one departs and the other arrives. We’ve reluctantly stuck with our architect and builder for this very reason. (Unfortunately being your own contractor is not an option – applying for all the permits has to be done through a geometra or architect.)

It’s an interesting process after all, if one is able to step back from it and look down on it objectively. It seems that humans incur a sort of minimum degree of imperfection and inefficiency whatever they do. In Italy it seems that minimum degree is a tad higher than other western countries. “Teamwork” is also not a term whose origins are or whose current residence is comfortable in Italy, and so getting the builder, the plumber, the electrician, the roofer, the window-and-door maker, the marble guy, and the architect to work together is a challenge that elementary school teachers would appreciate.

But even with these potentially frustrating tendencies, there’s a lesson – this is just the way it is. Nothing you can do to change it. And in the process we learn as much about ourselves as anything – what we find important for our comfort, what we like aesthetically, how far things have to go before we reach our “for-heavens-sake-just-get-it-done” stage, what it takes for us to snap, how we deal with resistance and differences of opinion, what our own tipping points are, and doubtless a few others to come.

And so next time I hear our umpteenth “Bruto!” response to our desires, I’ll take a deep breath (this is deep breath country), and in the time it takes me to count to the requisite number, I’ll remind myself how much I’m growing in that precise moment.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A privileged visit with King Arthur and Lancelot

I'm not sure that King Arthur and Lancelot ever discoursed in a rural Italian dialect, or that Guinevere was ever imprisoned in the library of a small central Italian town, but then I'll readily concede that my knowledge of such classics is far from complete. And who, after all, am I to question the passion of the pre-teen knights of the round table as they clambered in their garden-netting armour, cardboard swords clasped firmly in hand, up the hill, through the arch, past the coffee shop, and into the piazza?

It was a privilege to be part of it, an epic, low-cost (no-cost?) production of this legend of the middle ages. Earlier in the day, having just dropped Julius at school, I was asked by Ornella, teacher and film director (at least for the day) to take photographs of the proceedings. Following only one full rehearsal and a few days of memorizing lines, the children donned the costumes they had made themselves, and prepared themselves for the shoot.

Dialogue was delivered as it would be by 10- and 11-year-olds the world over - in a deadpan monotone. The words, however, were to some extent incidental - after all, it's really about the process, and the experience for the kids. And of course the fact that frequently passing farm vehicles drowned out any recognizable words anyway.

For me it was a peek into the world of an Italian elementary school. I discovered there is one constant - noise. Lots of it. The teachers seem immune to it, or perhaps simply deafened into submission. On a few occasions, they invited the kids to let out surplus energy by yelling at the tops of their voices. Somehow, the building remained intact.

The second insight was of the teachers, at least the ones involved in the production. First is the incredible patience they showed in dealing with the very vocal troupe, which impressively remained harmonious throughout the day. Second, and rather more telling, was the obvious love they feel for the children. Touching a child on the shoulder, cradling their chin in their palm, holding their hand, ruffling their hair are natural things they do without even thinking, as if they aren't even aware of it. The kids love it, and respond so positively to it. I wonder how this degree of tactile teacher-pupil interaction would go down in the hypersensitive and vindictive society of the USA.

I've heard criticism that the italians coddle their children too much. We've seen evidence in the way they drown them in layers of clothes in even moderate weather. But if coddling means a liberal display of love, I'll defend the bundling up till the cows come home.

I've now become something of a celebrity with the kids. I and the (equally novice and short-noticed) cameraman were novelties for all of them, participants and lookers-on alike, but me perhaps more so than he because I have a child in the school. They now wave and greet me enthusiastically whenever they see me. I won't deny that it gives me a real kick. Now if only I could hold a conversation with them ...

An unexpected award

Italians like to speak in public. Particularly the mayor of Colmurano. However, between the poor acoustics, fellow audience members who continue to talk as if they're in a coffee shop, and my own linguistic inadequacies, I'm frequently lost within the first few sentences. So I look around at the crowd, and clap appropriately at the annointed moments.

Two Saturdays ago was no different. Sindaco Fabrizio was rambling on, his fellow mayors from Loro Piceno and Urbisaglia at his side, the children and their parents showing impressive endurance given their eager anticipation. It was the inauguration of the tri-town 4th and 5th grade Mother's Day jewelry design contest, and we were there to learn the outcome of the young Colmurano jeweler's deliberations.

We didn't expect a showing, so when Julius was called up as the first Colmurano recipient of a Special Prize, a rousing cheer went up. I swelled with pride and emotion as he smiled self-consciously with the mayor and his plaque. Just 6 months in this country, and the joy and support from his peers for his award was palpable.

Julius' friend Margherita was one of the 3 overall winners, whose designs were turned into real pieces by the jeweler and put on display. The proceeds from their sale go to a local charity for disabled children.

I'm not sure how they chose the winners, since there were numerous other designs that several of us thought were really good, and unlucky not to have been selected. But I'm not complaining - the boost to Julius' confidence is more than I (or he) was expecting or asking for. And as many, many males will attest, confidence is what it's all about ...