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The House That Patience Built

Valerie Schneider

Ci siamo traslocati.  We have moved.  We decided to trade our cramped, dark apartment for a cramped, bright apartment.  We are still in the centro storico, but now sunlight actually reaches our windows.  Imagine!  While we adored our landlords and were greatly appreciative of all they had done for us, I was becoming depressed at having to turn on the lights at high noon in order to chase away the perpetual dusk in which our casa was constantly kept.  Those oh-so-narrow charming streets and solid stone buildings really do block the sun.

Our next-door neighbors were also slightly insane and would, for reasons beyond our comprehension, drag their furniture about their apartment at all hours of the day and night.  I can understand moving things to clean, but why they felt it necessary to scrape them across the floor at 1:00 a.m...well, that’s a mystery we never did solve.  The signora also screamed incessantly – at her husband, at her granddaughter, at no one in particular.  One day I know for certain there was no one else at home and we heard her high-decibel shrieks, yelling about myriad ills and evils of life in general.  Boh.

So after more than a year we decided it was time to find something a little brighter and hopefully a little quieter.  The search took many months.  First, many landlords want tenants to sign a minimum three-year contract, something we are not willing to do as we don’t know if our permesso di soggiorno will be renewed at the end of the year, and because we’re not willing to commit that much time to one place.  I mean, we just may find some gorgeous casa for sale for a song, right?  The other problem we ran into had to do with language…specifically, my foreign accent.  I would call owners from a sign hanging on the building advertising an apartment for rent only to be gruffly told that the place was not available.  “But there is still a cartello,” I’d argue.  “Non è libero,” they’d say and hang up.  After the third such occurrence I became suspicious and asked a local friend to call the number for me.  Amazingly, for him the apartment in question was suddenly vacant.  When he informed the owner that his American friend had recently called unsuccessfully, she unabashedly told him that she had thought me to be Romanian and she wouldn’t rent to foreigners.  Americans, however, were another matter.  (You lost your chance, lady.)

We resorted to contacting an agent who deals with rentals.  She showed us a newly restructured apartment laid out on two levels, still small but with enough room for us to function and a separate room for my computer.  There was an actual kitchen, not like the proverbial broom closet that served as cooking space in our former home.  The best part was that light flooded in from windows which opened to a small park behind, meaning we’d have a bit of a view of the hills to the south and no building on that side to block the sun.  There was even a teensy terrazino.  We quickly decided to take it.  The owner, a building contractor who has reconstructed several buildings in the centro storico, was called in and the one-year contract signed.

Looking over the Park

View of the Park from our Window

Being that it had never been occupied, there were a few details that needed tending to, which the owner promised to do prior to our move-in date.  He would furnish it for us, too.  We departed for our trip to the US assured by the agent and the owner that all would be well and ready upon our return.  You can guess the outcome; the kitchen cabinetry had been installed but that was the extent of the work he had completed.  No problem, he said.  You can start moving your belongings a little at a time and the rest will be done by the end of week.  (You’re right; I didn’t believe him, either.)

By February 1, we had vacated our old lodgings and moved in completely, and have been expecting him ever since.  He did return to finish assembling an armoire that he lost the hinges for, a project which took no less than three men.  Not to sound too picky, but since there are no Laundromats anywhere in the province, I happen to think that a washing machine would serve me well.  Shower walls to form the cubicle found in so many residences here would help, too.  Mounted light fixtures and a toilet paper holder now seem almost frivolous amenities.  We had been so blinded by the sunlight that we’d failed to notice these little but necessary details.  “Domani,” he tells us.  But domani never arrives. 

Which is absolutely no surprise to my friend Francesca in Rome.  She and her husband, Giorgio, moved into their new house just before Christmas…after waiting thirty years for it to be finished.  Yes, you read that correctly…thirty, three-zero.  Years.  “The coliseum was constructed more quickly than my house,” she likes to quip.  When we celebrated the holidays with them triumphantly in their taverna, Giorgio toasted saying, “Finalmente, piano, piano our house has been built.”  Piano, piano means slowly or little by little, and is a necessary phrase for anyone who lives here.

Photo of Giorgio in their upstairs kitchen

Front of Giorgio and Francesca's House

Giorgio and Francesca had wanted to build their dream home in which to raise their two sons.  They visited a builder who told them he was currently beginning a development on the northern periferia of Rome.  He had several other interested families, and if they banded together and formed a cooperativa, they would be able to purchase materials at a cut-rate and get some tax breaks, too.  They thought that sounded like an economical idea, met the others involved, and decided to proceed.  The catch?  Everyone would have to put up the money together and the twelve houses built all at the same time.  No problem; everyone was confident that the necessary funds would be available and they’d start the project within two years.  This, Francesca told me, was rather rapid by Italian standards thirty years ago. 

In the intervening three years, the contractor absconded with the cash, leaving a neighboring development high and dry and this group of friends with no other recourse than going to court.  Which takes years.  While Group Two had found their land sold out from under them, Francesca and Giorgio’s cluster was fortunate that the thief had not been able to unload their coveted terra before the whole lawsuit began.  In the end, they still owned the property, which was something to be pleased about.  They would regroup and start over again when everyone had the money to do so.  Which took years. 

They had, of course, not expected so many Christmases would pass them by while they waited, but in order to make use of the land they had paid for so dearly – and to not let the circumstances get them down - the cooperative had to be retained.  There was nothing to do but wait.  Their children grew up, served their military duties, and went to college while the house and large yard that was to be their playground and haven was still a mound of dirt.  They were excessively more patient than I would have been.

A new building crew was hired and the project began when everyone had enough money to build the foundations and pour the concrete shells of the structures.  Then, like skeletal scarecrows, they sat empty and forlorn, the bulky cement floors open to the elements for a couple of years, again awaiting the needed lire.  Then the lira changed to Euro.  Piano, piano the houses began to take shape.  The builders worked on each house in succession: first the walls of one, then the next.  They would finish one necessary portion of each of the twelve houses before proceeding to the next step, such as tiling the roofs, then installing plumbing and electrical, and so on. 

More time passed.  When we first arrived in Italia twenty months ago, Giorgio had been optimistic about spending that first Christmas in the new house, as things appeared to be proceeding rapidly enough to dare dream such a thing.  Instead, another year unfolded before enough was completed to make it livable.  Meanwhile, Francesca, a consummate gardener, had landscaped and planted their vast yard.  They packed picnics to enjoy on the back cement patio. They procured an autumnal harvest from the orto.  They moved furnishings from storage into the garage, awaiting the finishing touches. 

Just a week before the holidays they were finally, officially residing there, and we arrived to find the living room piled high with neatly packed boxes and the taverna and garage jammed full of furniture.  Bryan and I spent three days in sweat pants and grubby t-shirts cleaning, unloading, re-cleaning, rearranging furniture, and cleaning again to have at least the taverna and accompanying kitchen usable to host the famiglia for the grande festa on Christmas Eve.

Giorgio is a chef, so the kitchen in the taverna was designed to be restaurant-quality and the country-style fireplace meant to give off heat, sure, but mainly to be used for cooking.  He was in all his glory, rising at 6:00 a.m. to start puttering and sautéing, lighting the fuoco and keeping it going all day while he grilled our lunches then prepared our dinners, which we devoured after the long working days. Scanty bare bulbs hung from the ceilings, paint and plaster coated the every tiled surface, the new heating system proved to be quirky and difficult to regulate, and the refrigerator would not be delivered for a couple more weeks, but they were happy as could be and twenty of their nearest and dearest would be showing up to celebrate this momentous event. 

Photo of Giorgio in their upstairs kitchen

Chef Giorgio in Upstairs Kitchen

Oh, did I mention that their shower walls hadn’t yet been installed, either?  So when I mentioned to Francesca that we were still waiting for the owner to finish these promised projects she cheerfully chirped, “well, piano, piano.  Have a little patience.”  I’m fairly confident that they will be completed before our one-year lease expires.  At least I know it can’t possibly take thirty years…can it?

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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