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.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

"Sometime before noon, clouds scudded in from the west and rain fell in big scented drops; but the sun re-emerged with a scorching heat, and now the sky is so clear you can see Heaven and spy on what the saints are doing." ( "Bring Up The Bodies" Hilary Mantel )

I know I am not alone in thinking that the juxtaposition of Festivals that are celebrated in Italy at this time of year is rather curious.

On the 31st of October we have Halloween: originally pagan, and which (despite the garish, plastic pumpkins which adorn the supermarket shelves in a land where the real things grow aplenty), remains eerily ghoulish.  The 1st November sees in All Saints Day, dating back to the martyrs of The Holy Roman Empire.  Then on the 2nd of November, The Feast of All Souls when souls in purgatory are said to reappear and, being hungry, eat the meals carefully prepared and laid out for them on their tombstones or haunt the houses which the living vacate on this day to visit the cemeteries.

Near us, the town of Corinaldo is most famed for its Halloween Festa, which begins on 26th October.  Pilgrims come from all over Europe, many in their camper vans, to enjoy the spectacles and partake in the festivities.  But this year we had rain.  The bad weather had been predicted by all the meteorological internet sites and the faithful stayed at home.  Corinaldo tried to put on a brave face - the streets were decorated, local artisans set up stalls in the thoroughfares and most of the planned events went ahead, including the "Miss Strega" (Miss Witch) beauty (?) contest.  Without the usual throngs the commune of Corinaldo ended up out of pocket and deemed the whole affair "un flop" (trans. a flop).

After which the sun came out.  Which was just as well because it enabled the builders to finish the roof on our annexe.  As with the completion of the roof on the main house we shall have our own little celebration and invite the builders and their partners to a dinner;  perhaps a pizza this time, given that it is a relatively small roof.

Another milestone in the construction of the house came with the purchase of a postbox which we proudly put up at the roadside.  A symbolic sense of ownership?  Not really, we were expecting bills for water and electricity and, lo and behold, 2 days after placing the postbox the bills arrived.  Now that's what I call a prompt and efficient postal service;  don't let anyone convince you otherwise.

The Postbox

Il Gelso - The Mulberry Tree

Sunday, 7 October 2012

" 'The low-lying areas of the town around the Forum, and the valleys between the hills, where flood-water usually collected, were drained by sewers leading down to the Tiber.' And this, adds Dionysius, was 'a wonderful work exceeding all description.' " (The "town" was Rome and Dionysius is quoted here in "The Etruscans" by Verner Keller).

The plumber finally arrived last Tuesday!  ("He's the best", says Paolo).  We know this prodigy has arrived because the "new" internal walls have all been hacked almost to ruins, and multi-coloured pipes criss-cross the floors like elaborate sketches for a prototype man-trap.

Outside, yet more menacing pipes have been laid in deep trenches leading from the house to an adjacent field further down the hill.  There are 2 tracks of pipes, one for black water (sewerage) which flows to a septic tank, and one for white water from gutters, sinks et al.  (Fascinating, huh?)

Stefano and his mate are back on site choreographing 2 diggers - to make the channels; to place the septic tank; and then to refill the holes.

Meanwhile, up at the annexe, the cement mixer returns with a new load to fill the "cordolo" (a cordon) which secures the wooden beams in the roof, effectively holding the structure together.  The reclaimed "coppi" (roof tiles) sit patiently to one side, watching cement dry.

These works are dependant upon dry weather.  The Gods are smiling on us this October day, the sun is shining, the temperature has reached 25 degrees.  But, proverbially speaking, we need more than one day.

Paolo walks us up to a high point on our plot of land.  "From here," he booms over the engine of the cement-mixer, "the symmetry of the house can be viewed at its most pleasing."  If you close off all other senses and avoid looking down at the sewage channels, you might be inclined to agree.

Friday, 21 September 2012

"It is towards Girolamo Guerrisi that we should extend the finger of blame - or, indeed, the hand of congratulation - for inventing the fable that Marco Polo brought pasta to Italy from China." ("Delizia!" by John Dickie)

In this quote Dickie is referring to a short story printed in an American publication called "Macaroni Journal" of 15th October 1929.  The title of the story is "A Saga of Cathay" (written by the above Guerrisi) and its protagonist is none other than a fictional Venetian named Spaghetti.  I'm not altogether sure what relevance this has to my blog, other than I was reading the book whilst on holiday last week and was much amused.

We spent the week visiting the area around Recanati which is just south of Ancona.  It's a little inland from the much coveted holiday resort of The Conero Peninsula (National Park).  There are, undoubtedly, many wonderful things to see and do around here.  A tour of Leopardi's library in Recanati is a must.  Not so the watery cappuccino served in the Porto Recanati bars.

The folk of Recanati are justly proud of their town.  One elderly man stopped his car in the middle of a busy thoroughfare as we were walking along to ask (these obvious tourists!) where we were from, "Ooh, I love the English!"; to sing the praises of his town; and to give us directions, unwittingly,  to all the sights we'd just visited; all the while totally oblivious to the traffic snarling up behind him.

But there's none so proud as the policewoman (vigile urbano) in Filottrano;  super smart in her spotless white and blue starched hat and impenetrable Ray-Bans.  We stopped her in the street to ask directions to a small WWII museum we particularly wanted to visit in the town.  She was fairly sure it was closed on a Saturday morning, but was immediately on her service mobile to someone who might know more.  That 'phone was busy.  Undaunted, she marched us across town to the museum building.  It was closed, but the opening times on the door said it should have been open.  We would have given up, but not our new friend. She led us into the public library next door and demanded an explanation, to be told that the curator was away on holiday - "in America!" (with the key in his luggage?).  We thought we'd come to the end of the line and took leave of our new friend with effusive thank you's and goodbyes, as she went off to resume her civic duties.

We wandered back into the street.  Whereupon, stridently approaching us, was the very same uniformed lady. She'd had a brainwave and, as consolation for our disappointment, invited us back to her offices where she had maps and guides to the town.  Not wishing to disappoint her, in turn, we trooped again, single file through cobbled streets, into the marbled innards of the local police station with its enviable, antique cotto floors.  Here she unlocked cupboards and drawers, producing bounty-loads of tourist guides.  For this she had to take off her official police-woman's hat, but not, we noted, her "official" sunglasses. We now have many more reasons to return to Filottrano, other than the WWII museum.

Back "home" the rustico awaits the plumber ... (at least he's not in America as we see his van about town most days).   Paolo has taken on another hand to construct the low wall which will define the sloping pathway down to the front door.

Progress on the annexe is encouraging, it's almost ready for the roof to be put on, with its reclaimed (coppi) tiles.

Back to the plumber.  He promised to come last week;  then this week;  now he's promising to come next week.  From experience, I know that this trait in plumbers is not exclusively Italian.  Wherever it may have originated, it's gone global.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

"But there's a full moon risin', Let's go dancing in the light, We know where the music's playin', Let's go out and feel the night." ("Harvest Moon" Neil Young)

Last week saw a full moon by night and much activity on our building site during the day.  A digger and bulldozer cleared swathes of land around the house and annexe.  In reality it's only a few acres. but, now bare, make thoughts of future landscaping and planting quite daunting.

A drive of sorts, has been gravelled.  It is on an incline rolling down the west-facing hillside.  Not a steep slope, but sufficient to instil some worries as we watched the conveyor lorry, job done, loaded with the huge 120 ton dozer, attempt to climb it; heaving its weight up to the road and failing on the first two attempts.  (We left after the second.  It wasn't there the next day.)

Whilst the house sits silently, still awaiting the plumber, the annexe is taking shape fast; the exterior walls already as high as the window sills.

During the day we too have been busying ourselves.  Finally we have bought a little terra cotta "fontanella" which will be placed on the wall adjacent to the front door.  So much more modest than our original designs on custom-made marble, but more in keeping with our humble rustic residence.   (And less than a third of the price.)
The carpenter making our windows and doors advised us to go to Fano (north along the Adriatic coast) to choose the "maniglie" (door and window handles and knobs).  Finding the shop was difficult.  It is a little, un-signposted shop, tucked away on a lost industrial estate on the less celebrated side of town.   Only known it seems, by "passa parola" - word of mouth.

Inside; a "tardis" of door and window fittings, from the ultra modern to convincing replicas of the antique.  The shopkeeper, indifferent to two strangers wandering in by chance (as if!) to his premises, until, that is, we mention the name of our carpenter, whereupon we are long lost family.  We come out with a precious, glossy brochure to browse through at our leisure, trusted to return it to the carpenter with our order, at our leisure.  Except there'll be no leisure here because, at this stage in the proceedings, every excuse for contact with the carpenter is called upon in order to spur him to complete his task.

The week ended with a visit to the  "Festa della Cipolla" (Onion Festival) in Castelleone di Suasa.   The very same one I mentioned at the beginning of the summer and which has been much anticipated.  Well here we are at what is, certainly weather-wise, the end of summer, and Castelleone is sizzling with the pungent smell  of frying onions.  There are three bands playing, mostly 70's rock and pop, and mostly ignored.  There are some tired stalls selling sundry wares and an ice-cream parlour is attracting some interest.  But, mostly, there are "osterias" (makeshift food- stalls), serving the multitude with multitudes of dishes - all of them containing onions. The onions being celebrated are small, red and sweet - typical of the region.

Every osteria is full, whilst hopeful, eager queues form to pre-pay for their meal.  The food is served tepid, on disposable plates with plastic cutlery and plastic cups for drinks, whether wine or water.  The plastic covered tables and bench seats are all placed, sardine style, in the narrow cobbled streets, under a clear, chill sky.      

There must be several thousand visitors all come to Castelleone to eat onions and... well, just to be here on this harvest night.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

" 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves / Did gyre and gimble in the wabe; / All mimsy were the borogoves / And the mome raths outgabe." ("Jabberwocky" Lewis Carroll)

It is August.  In Italy August is holiday, but seriously.

The motorways and the beaches are crowded.  Every town, and then some, is having a Festa.  Music can be heard in the hills 'til the early hours.  It is hot.

Work on our main house has been suspended, though, to be fair, most of the building work has been completed and we await plumbers, electricians, bathroom and kitchen fitters and, one day, the decorators.

Earlier this month, Paolo and the crew turned their sights to the annexe building.  It should not be such a demanding undertaking as the main house.  The base has been laid with TWENTY EIGHT cubic metres of concrete.  That's a lot for a little building.  The depth was specified by our "seismic" engineer and the exact amount of concrete needed calculated by Paolo.  At the first sign of seismic activity the annexe is where you'll find me!

For now, we are in the depth of holiday season.  But, Ferragosto has come and gone.  Soon it will be September.  Life, as we have come to know it, will begin again...

Alex constructing the weld mesh foundations for the concrete base.  The igloos are in situ to reduce the amount of concrete required.  The base will lie on 15 5-metre re-enforced concrete posts drilled into the ground.

Paolo deep in thought in the site "office" calculating the amount of concrete mix to order.

Weldmesh sheets added over the base and levelling datum points set.  All the shuttering panels are in place and fingers crossed that they will not give way - a potential disaster!

Three huge concrete mixers were required to manoeuvre gingerly over unstable ground

Plenty of practised standing around watching Alex do all the work.

The finished base.  This is what 28 cubic metres of concrete looks like.  The weight is 750 quintals approx. of mix.

Shuttering removed

The view from what will one day be the Annexe portico.

Monday, 25 June 2012

"The defeat of the Spanish Armada changed the course of history. It induced a rush of patriotism in England ... it gave England the confidence and power to command the seas and build a global empire." ("Shakespeare" Bill Bryson)

Le Marche is enjoying the hottest June in over 200 years.  What is it with the weather this year?

Pete and I have been choosing bathroom fittings this week.  Three long, hot sessions of three hours each choosing loos and taps!  What is wrong with us!  Our saleslady, now friend and confidant, is patient and knowledgable.  She flicks through the glossy brochures with the hermetic zeal of an ancient archivist.  This is a family run business.   Her brother sits at a desk at the far end of the shop, seemingly busy, staring at his computer screen.  Every now and then she shouts across to ask further about some product.  Every now and then he shouts over, unprompted, with further information about yet another product.

There is no one else in the shop, though the telephone rings often and she breaks from us to have  a detailed discussion and archive ruffle for some other demanding customer.  At one point she takes a break to collect her two year old from nursery, at another to lead us through back-room labyrinths to look at some product that is actually in stock - this is rare.  Other frequent breaks to shoo away her ten year old who, with precious entrepreneurial skill is trying to sell us his own home made lemonade at 50 centesimi a plastic beakerful.

During one session another customer walks in, sits behind us.  After an hour or so Pete turns to her to apologise for keeping her waiting.  "No problem" she replies genially, "I've spent weeks choosing a tap for my kitchen sink and I'm no closer."  If she'd told us that last week we wouldn't have believed her.

By 7pm Friday evening we are satisfied (as far as one can be) that we've chosen almost everything to fit out two bathrooms, but we have been known to change our minds.  We make an appointment to come back next Tuesday.

Outside, entrepreneurial son has set up  a lemonade stall in the car park.  There isn't another soul about. I feel for the lad and stop to buy, "One lemonade please, but 50 cents is too much, I think".
"OK, 25..."
"A deal!"  I can't decide whether the boy's not such an shark after all, or whether I should have bargained harder.  The tepid water with a squeeze of lemon and a sachet of sugar with the local bar's logo on it tasted quite good really - I tell him so.  His smile is inscrutable.

I am writing this as Italy is playing England in the quarter finals of the World Cup.  When you read this you will know the result.  Pete has gone for a boys' night at Paolo's agriturismo to watch the game on a big-screen TV.  He'll be the sole Brit there.  I felt a bit like Sir Walter Raleigh (playing ... bowls was it?), when the approaching Armada was sighted.  Goodness me, look what happened when England won on that occasion, but that was Spain, wasn't it?

In the garden here, one lone flower on the prickly pear has bloomed.  It blooms for one day and then it dies.  But what a day!

Thursday, 7 June 2012

"A child said, What is grass? fetching it to me with full hands; How could I answer the child? I do not know any more than he." (from "Song of Myself" Walt Whitman)>

Summer has finally arrived in Le Marche.  The balers are making hay and creating fever pitched frustration amongst the drivers on the narrow roads.  Vineyards are being weeded, sprayed (for bugs?), and prayed over.  One way or another the countryside is a-buzz.
And then there are the odd, few fields where, it seems, time has stood still.  Here men drive their womenfolk in the early morning and leave them to their day's work, harvesting the crop.  The women wear long, flowered dresses, with dark scarves tied over their heads and as they work they chat to each other loudly and unceasingly.  The crop (for what it is I do not know) is gathered into little stacks around a wigwam-like,wooden frame.  When the frame has been covered with the dried grassy/hay-like crop, a little canvas "sail" or "hat" is tied on top and each corner fastened with string which is staked to the ground.  These little stacks have something medieval (almost primeval) about them.  Something one of the Breughels might have painted.  We have gleaned that the stacks are called "cavalli" (horses) because of those little hats tied on top like saddles (?).  The idea is, apparently, that from the stack, seeds, or perhaps beans? (or perhaps magic beans?) will fall - this is the harvest.  It looks as though this method of harvesting has not changed for centuries.  I don't really want to know what the crop is;  that would break the spell.

At sunset the "luciole" (fireflies) work their own magic as they ignite, flicker and frolic in their unchoreographed dance across the parched lawns.  The chemistry which makes them glow is the stuff of science - thank goodness no one's told them that.

Yesterday we went inland to Acqualagnia, the land of the "marmisti" (literally - marble-mason). We finally found an artisan who will make my little wall mounted fountain to my own design.  It's not an essential part of the house , we shouldn't really be bothering with it right now, given all the other things that have to be sourced and chosen, but right now this is my little bit of magic and mystery.

Today, at il Gelso there were two groundbreaking events. 

Firstly, the kitchen walls have been finished, the wooden beams have been fitted and this morning the "pianelle" (the ceiling tiles) are being put in place.  They are old tiles, I don't know from where they were sourced, but they are the last set of ceiling tiles to go in the house and they are the most beautiful; all shades of rust and ochre.  The kitchen is beginning to look like a habitable room at last. 

Secondly, this morning, Paolo became a grandfather!  A girl!  More magic and mystery.  He'll be in a good mood for a while; I must make some of the important, impending choices on the house before the euphoria wears off.  Suspect there's no rush though.


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

But humans had fought a long battle with nature. In London victory was almost complete. Acres of bricks and concrete and steel with only the tamest sprouts of green. In London a man could really feel he was master of all creation." ("Grace" Maggie Gee)

Our "house in the making" has been progressing apace.  The "ripostiglio" (utility room) has walls and a roof.  The walls of the kitchen are going up: new walls all around, including a double wall around the original building, necessary to hold up the roof and to establish the kitchen as a separate entity should the earth move.  This wall between the living room and kitchen will be over half a metre deep, almost a corridor!  On the side of the master bedroom there will be a "loggia": a little gallery or walkway.  The cement for its floor has been laid and already a cat, perhaps wild, or perhaps a fox, has left its prints.  Our neighbour had four of his sheep killed by a wolf the previous night.  Our paw prints may be those of a wolf, he suggests.  I think he was joking.

But the most impressive piece of construction, a tribute to Paolo's strategic planning, took place last Friday.  At present the annexe is a rectangular stretch of land with four little poles marking out the four corners of its area.  The main house is far from ready, but Paolo is thinking ahead.  The foundations of the annexe have to be prepared well in advance.  Early Friday morning a digger with a hydraulic boring screw arrives and begins to dig out the first of fifteen holes - each more than 5 metres deep.  Every strata of the clay soil comes out darker and heavier the deeper the bore goes.  The final layer is almost black.  It looks heavy, but it is deceptive, it is light and and slightly moist and crumbles as you clench your fist around it. (It has not the slightest smell petroleum.)

A host of rusty, tubular weld mesh wire cages have been lying around on the site, weeds have twined themselves around them.  I hadn't really noticed them, thinking them part of the flotsam of a building site.  Once the holes are drilled, Paolo and his helpers carefully lower the cages into them.  This manoeuvre requires strength and precision, it is feat of... heroic proportion (?)

As if by magic a cement lorry, its revolving drum turning like a barber shop sign, arrives as the last cage is in place.  The cement is carefully channeled into the holes..  The cement lorry, with the ability to turn on a penny (like a London taxi), positions itself precisely before pouring its load.  Not a drop spills.  That is, not until the job is done , when the driver tips out the remains of his load on a bare patch of ground nearby.  Paolo studies this dollop of cement incredulously, he hasn't yet worked out his strategy for disposing of it.  He's got a month 'til it hardens completely.  He's knows this, it is why he has filled the holes well in advance.  The buried cement pillars will form the foundations of the annexe.

There were two earthquakes in neighbouring regions of Italy over the weekend.  Major quakes - quite devastating in their effect.  Thinking of them brings home the fact, like nothing else so far, that I am truly in a foreign land.

Drilling the 5 metre holes for the concrete posts

Carrying the wire rod for the concrete posts

Heroically raising the reinforcing rods

Filling the post holes with concrete

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

"Breathe out the sense of place, the sense of humour, and the sense of despair that fill the air...". (Donna Leon commenting on the work of Camillieri)

We are currently living on one side of a valley and our new house lies on the other.  The ridges on either side are divided by the river Cesano, which lazily flows into the Adriatic, about thirty kilometres  away.  Few bridges cross the Cesano along this end of its journey.  One such bridge has recently fallen down;  reportedly by a flash flood.  It was a historic bridge with what must have been beautiful stone arches.  Now it is a crumpled heap of masonry scattered across the seemingly benign waters of a mild Spring.

Being one of the few, this was an important bridge for transport across the valley.  On all the approach roads the Commune has now erected unmissable and unmistakable "No Through Road" signs ("Strada Interrotta") in wild orange and black.  For none is this more inconvenient than for the cement company whose quarry blots the landscape to the north of the river.  But theirs is the stuff that constructs and their multi-ton lorries need to get through, and they know that the Commune is not going to rebuild the bridge in a hurry - not in a year, not in a decade perhaps.

So, the cement company has built their own bridge.  It seems kinda logical, doesn't it.  It's a low bridge, a bit boring maybe, maybe prone to flooding, but it's functional and it must be sturdy enough to bear the weight of those lorries, for now.

The Commune maintains its rigid signs - "No Through Road".  They know nothing of the new bridge ;-)

The local community knows better and traffic flows regularly and smoothly over this stretch of the Cesano.  An occasional car stops, hesitates, sees the next car plough happily through, starts up again and, lemming-like, wagons ahead.  Long may it last.

One wonders what will come first - the reconstruction of the centuries old bridge, or the collapse of the new under the weight of those cement lorries.  Then again one wonders why the cement company doesn't construct a new bridge in the likeness of the old.

As in a glass house, we travel south across the valley to view the latest developments on our new construction.  The wooden frames where the doors and windows will go have been put in place.  We are here to decide which walls the bed heads will rest against so that those walls can be straightened.  Our choice is limited to those which are already relatively straighter, i.e. the one in each room.

Our bed will face south, I don't know if that's good feng shui, but it leads to Rome and so perhaps feng shui is a bit irrelevant here.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

"At that moment he spotted the Traffic Department car parked behind his and the overalled warden jotting down his registration number. Harry crossed the street and held up his ID card. "I'm on police business". "Makes no difference. No parking is no parking", overalls said without pausing in his writing, "send in a complaint" ". ("The Leopard", Jo Nesbo).

The Italian newspapers today report that the "vigili urbani" (traffic police/wardens) in Rome have run out of official parking tickets.  (A case of "cuts" cutting off the nose to spite the face?).  No problem, with sound Italian ingenuity the vigili have printed off, and are attempting to present transgressors with, photocopies.  The question is whether a photocopy constitutes a valid legal document.  The wardens are consequently having to summon up all their "charm" to convince the lawbreakers that their parking tickets are indeed valid and that the on-the-spot fine must be paid forthwith.  How resourceful can a traffic warden be?   Disarmed, must be disarming!  as one resourceful journalist put it.  (The alliteration translates well).

Due to a "technical" hitch the amount of  real space for the staircase in our house falls somewhat short of that allowed on the original plan.  We are aware (sort of).  Paolo has been trying to worry us with this for weeks:  "But, I have to recalculate every step to the millimetre!" ...  "I have to redesign the entire stairwell!"  We smile meekly, sympathise, place a reassuring hand on his shoulder,  rue that there isn't one on ours.   Whether out of self-preservation (this was a problem too far), or whether out of absolute faith in Paolo's ingenuity (I prefer this one) we didn't take the bait, refusing to be reined-in to this potential nightmare.

As it turns out, Paolo has won through.  We always knew.

The base of the staircase has just been concreted.  We have access to the first floor as such, as yet.

There will be a first floor... won't there, Paolo?

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

"Marine atmospheres in search of colours, in the naturalness of materials and lines of horizons." (from the introduction to one catalogue of medium-range Italian kitchens, designed by their specially commissioned "poly-sensorial" architect. The english translation is theirs.)

Now that the concrete base of the kitchen is down, we have a clearer idea of its dimensions.  This means only one thing - we have to choose a kitchen.
When it comes to state-of-the-art kitchen design Italy has no peer.  At the top of the range the Tate Modern would be hard put to find worthier exhibits.  A few of these kitchens even look as though they might be fit-for-purpose (as functioning kitchens, that is).
But, as with all things Italian, for the modest man with a modest budget, buying a fitted kitchen is quite a different kettle of fish.  I think I may have moaned about shopping in Italy before - it's a nightmare!  (And you can forget internet shopping, Italian design is pre-Unification when it comes to web sites.)

There are hundreds of little outlets for fitted kitchens, one for almost every town in Le Marche alone.  Many are reasonably priced and Italians, it seems, will not think twice about ripping out and replacing a kitchen on a whim.  Styles range from the cluttered, impractical country-style with tile and grout worktops - what? -  a poor imitation of a gypsy caravan, through endless IKEA lookalikes (or is it vice versa), to copies of the modern masterpieces.

We think we'd like a country style kitchen of sorts.  But, when it comes to country kitchens you can't beat English design and workmanship.  I now know why endless repeats of "Midsommer Murders" (dubbed) are so popular on RAI TV.  Italians aren't interested in solving the crime (they've got Montalbano for that), they simply want to catch every glimpse of those quaint, english kitchen interiors.  Who can blame them!

I, however, have my sights on BIGGER horizons, neither of which fall within the fitted kitchen pricing category at all.  Firstly, I'd like a BIG fridge, with a BIG freezer - for ice-cream.  Secondly, a BIG sink - for washing BIG pasta pots.  And the third is, an outrageously  prominent, all singing, all dancing gleaming stainless-steel coffee-making machine for ...  "bella figura".  And, lastly, a cosy corner where I can drink my mug of Instant; eat my Marmite toast unseen; and with confidence, plan my day in the sun.

Monday, 26 March 2012

“Something was nagging at me. I tried lying down on the bed and reading. A book about how the potato came to Sweden. I had read it several times before. Presumably because it didn’t raise any questions. I could turn page after page and know that I wasn’t going to be faced with something unpleasant and unexpected. I switched off the light at midnight. My two animals had gone off to sleep (...) I tried to come to a decision.” (“Italian Shoes” by Henning Mankell).

I read today, that in the current economic crisis, Italians are spending about the same as always.  The difference being that they are spending less on shoes, but more on over-the-counter medications.  I don’t spend too much time drawing conclusions from that.
The burning issue which kept me awake last night was “cotto”.  For the floors of our “new build” do we lay real cotto tiles or porcelain (gres porcellanato)?  The pros and cons are manifold.  Cotto is the genuine article.  It is, and it looks it!  It complements a rustic house.  It diffuses heat evenly from underfloor heating and, with modern methods of wax protection, it is (we are assured by the makers) relatively easy to maintain.  But, it creates an uneven surface, it is more expensive and complicated to install and it is more prone to crack, especially in an area of seismic activity.
Ah, seismic activity!  Peter, Paolo and I spent two and a half hours last week with the structural engineer, agreeing (trying to) his detailed report, which ran to over 1,000 pages (we took his word). It was not the report itself which took so much time, as the discussion, sometimes heated on the engineer's side, about the nature of Italian bureaucracy which requires such a lengthy report on a small house.  Oh, and the one about unskilled brickies being paid more than highly qualified structural engineers.  (For all I know there may be a commissioned report somewhere which analyses how each of these income groups spends its money).  At the time it seemed like a relief when the "seismic" question surfaced.  Peter asked how the seismic activity beneath our house rated.  “Moderate” was the expert’s reply.  No-one  asked, nor was told, where “moderate” features on the Richter scale of an earth moving disaster.
Back to cotto.  Yesterday we drove 2 hours inland to Perugia to visit a real Umbrian cotto manufacturer.  (Such is the gravitas of this decision.  It should also be mentioned that we had previously visited a world renowned porcelain tile manufacturer, based not a million kilometers from here).  In Perugia each cotto tile is made by hand in an enormous barn.  The floor is heated and the tile makers work at a blink and you miss it pace, hopping to their industry on bare feet and using the simplest of wooden frames to shape each tile.  The tile is then placed on the warm floor to partially dry before going into the oven.  The oven is then heated to some unimaginable (scary) temperature.  For some reason the rough wooden templates, and those bare feet, brought the pyramids to mind.
Porcelain tiles, on the other hand, are relatively effortless to install and maintain.  They are virtually indestructible and, with Italian design ingenuity, can be breathtakingly beautiful.  Some can look like the real thing - almost.
It’s a tough call;  can lead to sleepless nights.
Back to the house itself where work progresses at its own pace.  Igloos are ready to be put in place and soon we will be pressed to decide on the flooring.  Something to be pondered upon after a good night’s rest, I think.  Domani ...

Stack of igloos waiting to form the sub-floor