Renovation Road

It’s been seven months since we started the renovation of our house, the final two windows have now been fitted by Nino and Graham has made a fantastic job of the rendering. I think we’ve achieved so much in a short space of time. We started with a shell of a building and now apart from completing the outside space, which is coming along nicely under Seppe’s instruction, all we need to do is fit interior doors and start painting walls.

The seven months of work has had its ups and downs. We’ve had good moments, like when we discovered that the crack in the wall you could put your hand into was not a potential, structural nightmare, but a redundant fireplace. We also had a few bad times, like when the old fossa turned out to be blocked and so we had to install a septic tank, and we also had a real dark moment, when we discovered our builder was a liar and a thief. We’ve gone from spending a night in the car, to squeezing everything into one room and then onto the luxury of two-roomed living. We went from washing in the outside sink to finally having a fully functioning bathroom and also went from using the outside steps to go to bed to eventually having interior stairs.

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I never realised that house renovation was organic and changes to our fixed plans happened. The bathroom was re-sited and bigger than originally planned, the en-suite idea was dropped and the third floor was removed to give us a airier brighter kitchen. Some plans didn’t occur, the original mezzanine idea for the kitchen had to be abandoned when the architect told us the walls wouldn’t take the weight without ugly metal RSJ’s being fitted, and the upstairs door onto a balcony idea also bit the dust, and we downsized from three bedrooms to two. Overall, it’s been an enjoyable seven-months but I’m not sure I’d want to go through it all again, especially living on site as the work takes place.

But we can now sit back and as the end of this year approached we are secure in the knowledge that the roof no longer leaks, rain doesn’t come under the front door anymore and insects can’t squeeze under the gaps in the kitchen windows. This said, we’re no where near finished though. We still have boxes that remain unpacked, we have clutter everywhere that needs sorting and putting in its final resting places and my office needs to be set up properly.

So as the iPod shuffles and Lily Allen sings, He Wasn’t There, I decide to make a start on sorting out the box on my office floor labelled, stationery and office stuff. It’s nice to be finally getting to the end of the renovation road.

Making Good

Today we are having our electrics checked by Aldo, a local electrician. We don’t have a problem with them, but since parting company with our previous builder we think it prudent to do this as we’ve since been told he’s not authorised to fit electric.

Aldo looks more like a Calabrian than an Abruzzese, he’s about 5 feet and a fag end and has a voice that sounds like he’s been breathing in helium. He’s a sort of miniature, Italian Joe Pasquale. He sets too unscrewing the plugs and immediately discovers exposed wiring, he points this out whilst asking why the cable from the meter isn’t in any conduit. I explain that towards the end of his employ our previous builder became very lazy and the quality of his work suffered too. Aldo secures the cable to the meter then discovers that one of the kitchen plugs is broken despite it still being fitted, making it unsafe.

We have a moment where he tries all the main switches and as he can still hear music he can’t understand why there’s still electricity running through cables, he scratches his head and I smile as I tell him that the iPod dock is charged up and not plugged into the supply. I ask him if he can fit me a plug downstairs and also if it’s possible to have smaller centre light fittings so that my lampshades I brought from England can be fitted. He rummages in his tool box and the iPod shuffles and Love Story by the Au Pairs begins to play as he disappears down the stairs.

Twenty minutes later my lampshades have been fitted and he’s sweeping up the plaster where a new double plug has been fitted. As he drives away I make a mental note to contact our geometra who okayed the original electrical work and tell him I’ll be talking to my lawyer.100_7418

Little Jackie Paper–What a Bastard

Today started so well, a storm in the night has brought some cooler air and I managed to complete the first draft of chapter 33, of my novel, ‘52’. Actually, that I could even concentrate today is a miracle. Our builder arrived and set to digging a hole to house the box and earth wire for the house’s electrics. He then set too levelling the kitchen floor, measuring blocks of cement. I am working downstairs and hear him make a telephone call. He then comes down to say the architect, Enzo, (the one that resembles a 1970’s porn star) has called him to say he’s coming over. Odd, I never heard his phone ring.

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52, because each week matters. http://barrylillie.wordpress.com/category/my-novel-52/

I’m cracking on with my chapter, trying to imagine I’m in the Potteries, attending a summer fayre held at the local church. With my iPod shuffling away and my imagination running amok, all is well with the world. Enzo arrives and I hear him converse with the builder, they then move away out of earshot and have a conversation. Next thing I know my workspace is invaded and they come in and look at the ceiling and with voices in overdrive that gabble away incoherently. Turns out the kitchen floor that was originally a problem, then no longer a problem after removing weight from the roof, is now a problem again. “You must remove it,” Enzo says. “You must be joking,” I reply.

The architect cannot comprehend why I am unhappy with his decision, he doesn’t think it’s a problem that removal of the floor now will damage the bathroom, the tiled walls, the bedroom below and also not to mention the newly plastered ceiling. He doesn’t see why my telling him I am unhappy, because all the work and materials we’ve paid for will have been for nothing. Our builder just stands in the background shaking his head and trying to look as if he’s a neutral party to the discussion. I tell Enzo, “Okay stop work, no floor, no job.” he looks shocked so I change tack, and add I don’t have the money to remove the floor, so I’ll go back to England. Consternation crosses our builders face and, Enzo mumbles something about floors collapsing when asleep, and I without a hint of a mumble tell him to, go away but less politely. He leaves with our builder and the two converse at the top of the lane.

Our builder returns and we tell him to pack up and go. He says, “Enzo crazy,” and continues with the new floor. I say, “You can’t do this Enzo said, no cement.” the reply is, “it’s okay, I only use a small amount of cement.” – makes you wonder, doesn’t it, as the work is almost coming to an end?

Just to get away for a few minutes, I drive to the shop and the iPod shuffles and the classic children’s song Puff the Magic Dragon, plays and when it gets to the part where Peter, Paul and Mary sing, ‘A dragon lives forever but not so little boys. Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys. One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more’,’ I said to myself, “I bet he became an architect, bastard.”

The Pizza Eating Cat

Saturday morning arrives and as I open the front door I’m welcomed by mewing from the semi-feral cat that lives in the lane. I call it Balenò (Flash) as she has an orange ziz-zag on the top of her head. As the iPod shuffles and Mark Owen begins to sing Four-Minute Warning, I retrieve the piece of pork rind from last night’s dinner that I saved in the fridge. I throw it to the cat and she devours it greedily.

It’s a very vocal cat, constantly calling and constantly hungry. She lives mostly in the garden of Adam and Sarah’s, holiday home at the bottom of the lane, where guests staying feed her. But when no one is there it comes on the scrounge up here. I don’t mind giving it the odd morsel, but don’t feed it everyday, otherwise it’ll take up residence here. The cat is about three-years old and seems to be constantly pregnant, as are all the feral queens in the countryside. In 2011, she had one kitten that survived two-days before being taken by a fox. Until recently she was swollen with kittens, but there’s no sign of her offspring, so I can but assume they suffered a similar fate to the other kitten.

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After yesterday’s blustery weather, the morning is still and the cat basks in the sunshine. I drink my coffee watching her as she deftly pounces upon a lizard and swallows it almost whole. Our builder arrives with pizza and the cat becomes interested in the humans, or more truthfully in what the humans are eating. She brushes against our ankles calling out for a morsel. I drop her a piece of pizza and she’s on it with the same swiftness she used to catch the lizard. Very quickly it’s gobbled up and she meows again wanting more. After three more hunks of cheese and tomato covered focaccia, she strolls off towards the shady spot under the drying washing at the top of the steps and flops down and closes her eyes. Time for a morning snooze.

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A Stair is Born

Today has been an odd one. Looking back at the posts on this blog, you’d be forgiven for thinking aren’t most for me. Our builder arrived and proceeded to measure me, “Aspetta,” (wait) he said as I walked away after he determined I was 1.557m tall, he then measured the length of my foot, then made me walk normally, stopping me he then got down on his hands and knees to measure the length of my stride. He makes a remark about measuring an other part of my body, then screws up his eyes and laughs at his own joke. I tell him, I think he’s a nut job and leave for the bank in Lanciano.

Now initially, I’d been led to believe that in Italy, it costs more to withdraw cash in person rather than use an ATM. Turns out that whoever passed me that nugget of information was wrong. At our bank cash transaction at the sportello (banker’s window) cost nothing, unlike cash machines.  I collected my cash from the very pretty girl and am leaving when Massimo, the manager appears, he calls me over and we exchange morning pleasantries, he asks if I’d like a coffee, I say yes and he opens a door to let the person the other side that he’s popping out for coffee. I peer in and sat at the desk is a woman who is the spitting image of  Marge Simpson’s sister Selma Bouvier: the one with the parting in her hair. The woman stands up and despite not being bright yellow looks even more like her cartoon doppelganger. I want to laugh but this would be rude, so I cover it by pretending to sneeze and go outside to wait for Massimo.

Coffee over, I drive back when the iPod shuffles and Barry White, begins to sing Can’t Get Enough of Your Love Babe, as his bass laden voice fills the car I smile wondering what our builder’s up to back at the house. He calls me Barry White, I asked him why once and his answer was simple yet honest, he said because you are named Barry and you’re white. You can’t say fairer than that.

I get back and the result of all the measuring is revealed the staircase has been started to be installed. He explains that being a big man he had to get the headroom correct, I in turn correct him and explain the phrase is tall not big, he says why, because he’s a small man. I explain that small and short are different words in English, he then says he has tall feet for a small man. We laugh and I give up correcting his English, even when he says for a tall man my feet shouldn’t be so short. I’m tempted to tell him size 8 (42) is average, but realise that I’d be unable to explain why in this case short and small are correct usage when talking about feet, but not when talking about his height.

The day ends and after he’s gone, I spend my time walking up and down my bespoke staircase. You see I’m easily pleased.

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Chieti Baby Boom

Today it seems everywhere I have been there has been a pregnant woman. Yes, pregnant ladies everywhere today. I nipped to the builders merchant this morning and there was the man with a dirty pick-up collecting some bags of plaster. I’ve seen him almost every time I’ve been and his truck is dirtier each time. However today, standing in the yard and leaning against his mud splashed vehicle is a woman, heavily pregnant and smoking a cigarette. Inside the cab is an equally dirty child, its face smeared with what I’m hoping is just the remnants of a chocolate croissant. The man comes back, barks something at the woman. She then flicks the red ember from the end of her cigarette: an act we called ‘nipping’ when I was a teenage smoker. She pops the half smoked fag-end behind her ear and climbs into the pick-up.

On the way back I decided to drop into the supermarket for some mackerel for lunch. As I drive the iPod shuffles and Toyah, sings I Explode, my thoughts bounce back to the heavily pregnant smoker, and I picture her gorged belly exploding and hundreds of tiny smoking babies pouring out onto the ground. Maybe there’s the germ of a story in that thought.

I’m in the supermarket and browsing when I turn a corner into another aisle and there’s a young couple, possibly mid-twenties. He’s holding her hand and with his other hand is stroking her belly, she too is heavily pregnant. This outward show of affection is nice but it’s odd as it’s the girl who is carrying the basket containing their shopping. A woman spots them and she walks over asking when the baby is due. Suddenly she’s stroking the girls belly too. Why is it that when people see a pregnant woman, they feel the need to stroke the bump. I’m not sure how I’d feel if every person I passed in the store wanted to pat my paunch. As I leave the supermarket another woman walks over to the pregnant girl and more bump brushing takes place.

Later in the day I’m waiting for the ATM in Altino to become vacant, there’s a woman standing using it and after withdrawing money from it, lo and behold; sorry for the cliché, she turns around and is also pregnant. As my seedlings took a pelting in the previous days of stormy weather I decide to check out what’s available at the local shop. I’m wondering if I ought to buy some tomato plants now, or wait to see if mine perk up when another pregnant woman approaches me. This one has a baby in the crook of her arm, balanced on her hip, it looks to be around two-years old, she’s pushing a pram containing another younger baby and in her belly she is carrying the unborn addition to the family. The poor woman looks tired; ever likely. Her husband leaves the local store and calls to her, he’s short and round with enough wiry hair bulging out of the top of his shirt to stuff a mattress. He’s balding prematurely, a sure sign of powerful fertility and as I decline the chance to purchase some more tomato plants and wander away thinking about the tired looking woman, I wonder if her husband could be responsible for the recent Chieti baby boom.

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As I don’t have a photo of a pregnant woman, and because it would have been creepy to have taken any of those I saw today, I’ll leave you with a snap of our town. Casoli, CH.

Before posting, a friend just read this and in an Arnie Swarz etc. etc. voice said, “I’ll be back, the sperminator.”

Generosità

I think the Italian people are inherently a generous bunch. Over the past four weeks I’ve been showered with no end of free things. My builder has brought me bags of De Cecco pasta, croissants and pizza. A neighbour dropped by to welcome us with a bag of fresh eggs and I’ve had two litres of home produced olive oil given to me, not to mention my lovely handmade olive wood hanging basket. All of these things have been greatly and graciously received. One thing I have noticed that the Italians are very generous with is advice. Everyone has the answer to any little problem, and despite everyone’s answers being different, theirs is always the definitive one.

I’ve had advice about foraging and had the results for dinner, I’ve been directed to shops that will save me money rather than using the large supermarkets and even had three different people ask if I’d like to buy their house for a very good price. Because I already live here, I am entitled to get it at a discount unlike a foreigner who’ll have to pay more for it. I’ve politely declined all three offers, much to the sellers amazement; Why wouldn’t I want a second house a few kilometres away, Italians have more than one – I really am a pazzo straniero, (crazy foreigner)

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Last night I was watching a DVD when at 9.00 there was a knock at my door, at first I was quite shocked, as we’re so remote you don’t expect visitors to arrive unannounced. I open the door and its Nicolo from the farm down the lane. “Genziana, un regalo per te.” (Genziana, a gift for you). I take the little bottle from him and thank him, he squeezes my hand and wishes me a good night, calling me his new friend. I close the door and say to my other half, “See it pays to be friendly with the locals.” Genziana, is a straw coloured liqueur made from the roots of the gentian plant. It’s drank as a digestivo after dinner and has a bitter, herbal taste. This gift is obviously homemade as it’s in an old beer bottle with a plastic stopper. As I’m not really keen on it, I shall save it for visitors and stick with grappa and my own homemade limoncello.

I was waiting in line today in the post office, when a young girl came in and gave everyone that was waiting a small polystyrene cup with a shot of espresso inside. Now she could obviously have looked at me and assumed that being a foreigner I’d not want a shot of the rocket fuel, but no, she didn’t even enquire if I’d like one, she just handed me my cup and along with the Italians in the queue, I thanked her and enjoyed my mid-morning coffee, feeling very much an accepted part of village life here in Abruzzo.

Later, in the afternoon, a car pulls up and its our builder’s wife, she arrived with dolce (sweet.) So we all tuck into a slice of soft brioche style cake and munch sugar coated almonds as we stand around gabbling away like turkeys, while the iPod shuffles and fortuitously Mac and Katie Kissoon sing Sugar Candy Kisses

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04.05.13: Last night I decided to post this addition to my blog when there was a knock at my door, I opened it to find Michele there with another handful of wild asparagus for me. I’ll have to think of a way of repaying all this kindness.

Dog in the Road

How many times have we heard people say, “If I won the lottery I’d leave here and go and live in paradise.” But nowhere on earth is perfect, even paradise will have its idiosyncrasies, its problems and its bugbears. Since I chose to live in Italy, and more importantly Abruzzo, people must think It’s my piece of paradise, and it is. That is, to say how I define paradise. In my wildest dreams it’d be somewhere with a great climate, endless activities to enjoy and I guess, as this is my dream, I’d have Tiziano Ferro as my live-in lover/personal crooner. But this isn’t a dream it’s reality and despite having a great climate and endless activities, Italy can be infuriating, but so can England, America or anywhere. So I like to think paradise is taking pleasure from the simple things and not dwelling upon the negatives.

After running a business and living in England, I’ve now started to enjoy those simple things. Things like popping to bread shop in the morning and passing the time of day with the locals as you buy some foccacia, or chatting to my neighbour about nothing of great importance and drinking an espresso standing at a bar with men in overalls… Ooer missus ! I like driving the short distance to the, fontano communale in Perano and getting a litre of ice-cold fizzy water for just five cents and talking of driving I like the fact that when I pull into a petrol station a human being serves me. I guess it’s a little like stepping back in time but with iPods, memory sticks and DVD box sets.

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One thing that has not been pleasurable is paying €1500 to obtain permissions from the comune (council) to work on our house. Back in the UK there’s choice. Choice of windows, doors, paint colours etc. Here you have to tow-the-line. We can only paint our house white or beige, (now how do you actually define beige). In other towns there are yellow, pink and pale green houses, but here in our little hamlet, it’s white or beige; any other choice of colour will require a fee for the comune to consider it and a man to come out to fill in forms in triplicate. Another idiosyncrasy that I find annoys me, is having to drive in daylight with your headlights switched on and don’t get me started on the inability of any young woman sat behind a cash register to smile.

Some pleasures are applicable only to where you are situated, I’m lucky, within twenty-minutes of my front-door I can be at the coast, within thirty, I can be in the mountains and if it grabbed my bag within sixty, at the ski slopes. Some pleasures don’t involve much effort and happen naturally. Take the other night for instance, I took a stroll around Civitella Messer Raimondo with Seppe and we chatted about the history of the town and looked at the views across the countryside. (There’ll be a separate blog posting about this within the coming days, so stay tuned for, Hanging Baskets and Cat Flaps, coming to a laptop near you Cat face.)

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One simple pleasure this week was the kind gift of ten beautiful white free range eggs, however one thing that certainly holds no pleasure for me is being sent to buy something our builder requires when my knowledge of construction has previously been obtained via stickle bricks and Lego, add to this the foreign name and you may as well ask me to broker a peace treaty between north and south Korea. However, would I swap this new life… Not a chance.

 

 

The original title to this blog posting was, Simple Pleasures. But today I saw something that I have to say touched me deeply. The Italian’s have a relaxed attitude to keeping dogs, they let them wander around unchecked, and many’s the time I’ve heard brakes screech as a dog wanders into the road. Coming out of Selva Altino is a small bar where locals have their coffee and every morning an old gentleman totters over with his small sandy coloured dog at his heels. Today would have been no different, had the dog not spotted another across the road and decided to walk over. The inevitable happened, the driver in front of me had no time to stop, thankfully death was instant. The saddest sight was the old man’s desperate efforts to get into the road, as the traffic continued moving on the left hand side. Seeing the man’s distress a lorry driver stopped allowing him to collect his companion from the middle of the road.

Makes those simple pleasures all the more special.

Method in the Madness

Living on a building site isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I’ve had grit in my bed, dust in my sock drawer and splinters in my, well lets just say I sit on it. Add to this the fact that I’ve just discovered I’m allergic to cement and you can forgive me for saying, that this is a testing time. okay it’s not as bad as four years in limbo, being displaced, but it runs a close second. I know the weather here in Abruzzo is better than it is back in the UK at the moment, but what good is sunshine when you’re trapped in a restoration project.

100_6075Today I did my morning trip to the builders’ merchants for the day’s materials, but today was different. You see today I understood why I had to keep going for cement etc. in dribs and drabs. For the past two weeks it’s annoyed me that I have to do the daily trip, but no longer. At the start of the restoration I asked the builder how many bags of cement will we need to complete the master bedroom downstairs, his reply was “I don’t know, but today we’ll only use four.” Confused, I asked why we only buy four bags, when we’ll have to come back tomorrow. His response to this question was, “Why tie money up in bags of cement that sit waiting to be used, money is better in your bank.” I tried to explain that, I’ll still have to spend the money the following day and he said, “But you held onto the money for a day longer.” What a crazy way of looking at things, I first thought.

Then Nino arrived to measure for windows, he measured only one room then left. “Why didn’t he measure all the windows?” I asked our builder, who just shrugged his shoulders and shaking his head told me because the each room is a separate job. “But it makes sense if he’s here to measure all the windows in the house. That’s what they would do in England.” Our builder removes his hat and wipes his brow before telling me, we’re not in England, we’re in Italy. What a crazy way of looking at things, I thought, again.

The quote comes in from Nino and I say it’s okay, so he arrives at the house again. This time he’s measuring for a window and a door for the second bedroom. The process is repeated, he leaves after ignoring the kitchen windows and the third bedroom’s window. The following day he calls with his quote. I tell him it’s fine and ask if he’ll be coming today to measure the other windows. “No,” I’m told, “I will make these two jobs first.” I’m about to say that surely my total requirements are just one job, but think better of it.

Now to  work on a house in Italy you must obtain permission from your local comune (council). This means paying for a piece of paper and a job number granting you permission to move doors or build a balcony etc. So this extra expense has to be factored into any restoration project. So our 1970’s, porn star look-a-like, geometa (architect) comes along to measure everything and says you may just need a simple number. We then mention we’re putting in stairs and the whole thing changes. Apparently, new stairs will alter the house considerably, and will therefore require a complete job number and permissions. Total cost will be one thousand five-hundred euro. He says he’ll be back to take photos on another day and can I e-mail him our house purchase paperwork and payment will be split into three payments of five-hundred euro, cash if possible and cheque later. “I could just give you a cheque for the total amount,” I say, “Or cash if you…” I am unable to finish as he strokes his moustache, looks over the top of his sunglasses and says “No three payments is fine.” He then hitches up his ridiculously tight jeans and strides off towards his immaculate cherry red sporty number that’s parked beside my dirty sand-covered Zafira. What a crazy way of looking at things, I think, yet again.

Later this practice of one job being split into several smaller ones, and payments being requested in instalments makes sense. I’m in town, talking to my bank manager, he’s asking how things are progressing and I tell him how it’s going. “I’ve not seen any cheques go from your account,” he asks. I explain that I’ve not needed to write any. “But what about your builder, how do you pay him?” I explain that we pay him a daily rate we’ve negotiated. “Ahh, I see.” he says. “You have taken to the Italian way of doing things very quickly,” I’m a little confused, and about to let him know that I find it frustrating that I have to pay everything in several small amounts, rather than in one go, when he says, “Here, it’s against the law to pay anyone more than one-thousand euro in cash, you must set up payments with the bank. So people break down their bigger jobs into smaller ones and invoice for smaller amounts. It our way of keeping secrets from the government.”

Suddenly it all makes sense “But I still don’t understand why I can’t buy more cement and let it sit outside waiting to be used, I’m hardly going to buy a thousand euro worth of the stuff,” I tell him as he sets a coffee down in front of me. “Well,” he says, “it’s just the way we do things. But no doubt somewhere there’ll be no madness in the method.” I smile at his misquoting, Hamlet and stir my coffee as the sun shines down upon Lanciano.