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

Friday, 16 March 2012

"Spring is sprung, the grass is ris. I wonder where the birdies is. Some say the bird is on the wing. But that's absurd. I always heard the wing was on the bird." Spike Milligan

Trees that a week ago were still laden with snow are now abundant with pink and white blossom.  The season of the snow plough is ended - bring on the diggers!  Well, one digger actually, owned and operated by Stefano - a modest fellow, but so sought after for his skills that we (we are assured by Paolo) are very fortunate to have him working on our house.  Fortunate indeed!  Stefano and his little digger can move heaven and earth in a six hour shift and, if the mountain won't come to Stefano, god help the mountain!

Earth has been removed inside and outside of the house to depths where you can feel (nay, see) the heat rise from the earth's core.

As we approach from the roadside the house is almost invisible behind mounds of displaced earth.  The grounds around the house look like an alien breed of giant moles has invaded, whilst the house itself rises like a little jewel in the midst of all this activity.  The whole team is there.  While Stefano digs and twirls, others scoop and "bob" in this carefully choreographed dervish dance.  Paolo is measuring depths, grinning and growling alternately, but mostly growling: deeper, deeper!

Our dogs sit patiently in the open doorway, watching and wondering: Surely with this much digging someone will come up with a bone or two soon!  If any treasures are uncovered neither we nor the dogs get to know.

This is not all.  Around the walls even deeper trenches have been dug so that cages can be fitted into which concrete will be poured to secure the foundations of the old walls.  The floor levels have been grazed to the required depths.  The house itself will have 3 levels as it cascades down the hillside, and ceiling heights will be... anyone's guess.  The area for the kitchen has been gauged, levelled and concreted.  All is ready for the "igloos" to be put in place.  Igloos are igloos.  They sit on the concrete under the floor and are there for ventilation.  In case you're wondering, they're made of plastic!

For the first time we can walk freely around the ground floor.  Now we have a true sense of the dimensions of the rooms.  This is not a big house - where will we put all our stuff in storage?  Stuff that worry, where will we put anything at all?

The whole of the first floor ceiling has been demolished and until it is reconstructed, we look up from ground level to the top floor roof beams - cathedral-like.  We had better make the most of this illusion,  the new ceiling, i.e. the whole of the first floor goes in next week.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

"Round its roof hung a gutter as wide as a human thigh. Here whatever fell from the sky fell in abundance. There was no other man-made structure in sight. ("Anatomy of a Disappearance" Hisham Matar).

And now the snow has gone.  It is hard to believe that such snow ever fell here at all.  Though in its wake much has been ruined.  Towns are impassable, where the structure of palazzos in their centre, has been weakened and threatens to collapse.  Young olive trees planted last spring, have withered entirely, having been buried in snow.  Much older, well established trees have been bent and broken by the weight of snow.  Fallen branches litter the roadsides; men are at work everywhere lopping precarious branches or repairing road surfaces ruined by over eager (perhaps inexperienced?) "ruspe" (snow ploughs).

Our structure has proved itself sound.  The roof has held solid and the chimneys stand proud and valiant.  The new copper gutters gleam in the sun.  These gutters have a dimension and an almost-beauty which English houses, their roofs wired with sorry strands of black plastic, can only envy.

The next stage of the project will be the re-construction of the kitchen.  Men are already at work!