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 …