We lost our Stateside home in 1992, when Virginia’s Stafford County announced it was taking all the properties in our valley by right of eminent domain in order to build a reservoir. At that time, we were living in Laos and asked to receive payment as soon as possible because we were overseas and needed a home to return to. Four years later, when we finally got the check, we were on assignment in Kazakhstan.

For years, ever since we each had been consulting in Rome on a yearly basis and fallen in love with Italy, we’d been considering retirement in an old Italian farmhouse. Now we had the payment for our Virginia house and an R&R air ticket to Rome (see Post #34). Why not move up our residency in Italy? we reasoned. Our clients don’t care where we live, as long as we can get on a plane and arrive at our projects. So that’s what we did. We took the tickets and went house-hunting in central Italy.

Here are excerpts from our weekly letters to the family, detailing how it all came to pass.

[Click on photos to enlarge.]


Map of Italy courtesy of Nations OnlineFrom Political Map of Italy, nations online.org

October 5

We’re back from Italy with lots of news. The first thing we did in our house-search was get in touch with Technocasa, the Century 21 of the Mediterranean, at the suggestion of one of our [consulting client-friends], Pasquale Ferraro. With his help, we set up an appointment with the nearest Technocasa rep in the area where we wanted to explore. We then rented a car, hit the road and checked into a hotel at Lago (Lake) di Vico. The local rep didn’t have anything in his immediate locale, but he put us in touch with colleagues in towns throughout the region.

We looked at casales (“cah-sah-lays” — traditional farmhouses) near the small towns of Monteviascone, Bolsena, Tuscania, Orte, Amelia, Acquasparta and Spoleto — all about an hour or an hour-and-a-half north of Rome. We saw casales which had been renovated and casales which were total wrecks. We saw casales with mountain views and casales with lake views. We even saw a 13th century mini-monastery with original frescos, turned into a rabbit hutch on the ground floor!

In the end, we found three that seemed most likely to fit our needs. One was an un-renovated, three-story stone house on 13 acres with a spectacular view of Lago di Bolsena. The property was full of history, including Etruscan and Roman ruins, with a secret passage from the house to a cave where the family hid during WWII bombing. Despite the beauty of the setting, its historical associations and the charming 70 year-old signora who owns it, we reluctantly came to the conclusion that the purchase price plus the renovation costs were just too much.

The second house was built between the wars and had lots of interesting details, especially the hand-crafted, unique lamp fixtures. There was more than enough space, including a billiard room(!), but it was less of a casale and more of a country house for a rich Roman family. They’d once owned all the land that the eye could see, but now there was only the house and less than two acres of land around it, including a garden with fig, pomegranate, pear, apple and other fruit trees. Because it had been built relatively recently and occupied until not so long ago, it wouldn’t have taken much to fix it up. But the small amount of land meant we could end up with a development next door within a few years. Besides, the house was near Tuscania, where the terrain is rather flat and uninteresting.

So we went back for another look at the third possibility. Over 100 years old but newly renovated, this casale is a few miles southwest of Terni in the province of Umbria. Backed by a wooded cliff with views of the Tiber Valley and the hill town of Amelia (“Ah-may-lee-ah”), the house is far enough off the beaten path that major development next door is unlikely. It was renovated as a second home by a Roman who owns a construction business, so the workmanship and materials are first-rate. Once he finished the renovations, his wife reportedly said, “You’re not married to me. You’re married to that house.” So they got a divorce, and now he has to sell it. The casale features two fireplaces, terracotta tile floors, vaulted ceilings on the ground floor and beamed ceilings on the second floor. There’s a roofed terrace on the north side and an open patio on the south. The property’s five acres embrace some forest, 100 olive trees and a few fruit trees, with ample room for flower and kitchen gardens.

We offered the owner the amount we’d received from the county for our Virginia house. He made a counter offer, and we’ve now responded by fax (because we had to return to Almaty) that our original offer stands. We’ve decided that this is what the house is worth to us. If he accepts our offer, great. If he doesn’t, that’s OK. We’ll just keep looking, especially now that we’ve met so many fine real estate agents who know what we want and can keep an eye out. We took a bunch of pictures, and the owner gave us the official architectural drawings, so if the deal goes though, we can start planning renovations and furniture placement before we leave Kazakhstan. Kindly cross your fingers and toes. The property has been on the market for over a year, and both the owner’s best friend and the realtor are telling him to accept our offer, so maybe we have a chance.

Even if we don’t get the house, we had a great time exploring the countryside and hill towns, eating good food and drinking local wines. It was a restful and interesting time. We stayed in some nice hotels, including a room with a view in Spoleto and an inn on an island in Lago Trasimeno. As Russell said, it was a theme vacation — “Let’s look for a house and see what happens.”

October 10
The owner of the house in Italy turned down our offer. For some reason, both Russell and I think the process is not really over — just intuition, nothing really concrete. Anyway, we’re going to let him stew for some weeks, then renew the original offer. Maybe it’ll look good to him then. In the meantime, we’re instructing Technocasa agents to start looking again. Who knows? Maybe we’ll find something even better!

October 24
Last night, the phone rang around midnight. It was our friend Pasquale calling from Italy to say the owner of the property we wanted had reconsidered and decided to accept our offer. We hadn’t yet renewed our bid; we were letting it ride, and he apparently decided to close the deal before the offer was withdrawn. It was so amazing — I wasn’t even excited. I’d felt a real calm about this transaction all along, like it was going to come through, and we shouldn’t get upset when he turned us down a couple of weeks ago. Then the call came, and I thought, “Well, now we can get busy.”

Of course, I am excited about the prospect of having our dream of an old house in the country come true And I’m looking forward to having all our stuff in one place again and having a home of our own. Now we don’t have to worry about where we’ll go when we finish here. We’ll go home!

November 13
[In response to a question from a family member] Yes, we do speak some Italian. We’ve worked there off and on for more than a decade, Russell once being in Rome for three months while I was in Pakistan. And we studied Italian in night school when we were in DC. Of course, we don’t speak it as well as we’d like, but we’ve sent for language tapes, and knowing French helps. We hope that by the end of our first year in Amelia, we’ll be chattering away.

December 14
We went to the Italian Embassy in Almaty and had a Power of Attorney notarized, so our Italian lawyer can sign initial papers for the “new” house on our behalf. The purchase process is similar to that in the States — one makes an initial payment signifying serious intentions, there’s a title-search, etc., then you close the deal some weeks later with the final payment. At that time, various binding documents are signed by both parties, and I’ll go to Italy to sign for both of us. At this point, we don’t know when that will be, but it could come as early as late January.

[We really lucked out with our lawyer. Following Pasquale’s advice, we hired a bilingual American married to an Italian. He really made the legal hoops easy.]

December 21
We had a minor setback on the Italian casale this week. One of the legal property owners is the underage daughter of the man who renovated the house. He put her name on the deed as a sign of his love and affection. Now that they’re selling it, and she’s a minor, the courts have to agree that her rights are being respected. But her father didn’t file with the court to consider this case until Dec. 11, so that pushed everything back. We won’t make the initial payment or sign any papers until her claim to the property is cleared by the court, a process which could take up to three months. So I’m not going to Italy in January, for sure.

February 15
Floor planWe’re moving forward, finally, on the Italian house purchase. All the red tape has been cleared, and we’ve instructed our American bank to wire the down payment to our Italian lawyer’s account, directing him to forward the money to the owner and to sign the initial agreement on our behalf. If all goes well, we’ll go to Italy for the closing in April, plus buy sheets, dishes and other stuff we’ll need to move in. Then we’ll use the house as a base camp for a little Umbrian vacation with Dad, who’ll fly over for the legal formalities and the fun. I’m enclosing a floor plan of the house, FYI (not to scale, but you’ll get the idea, even if the “hall” on the first floor is really a cantina, or storeroom).

I’ve decided to build some closets into the bedrooms (double-starred on floor plan), replacing the traditional armoires. And I’m sketching several alternative layouts for remodeling the 16.5′ x 19.9′ kitchen — lots of space to play with. Because of the window- and door-placements plus a working fireplace in one corner, it’s really a challenge to figure out where everything can go. Does anyone have experience with the pros and cons of either a stove or a fridge placed diagonally across a corner? What about putting a stove under a window? (No need for curtains because of the house’s isolation and its exterior shutters.)We welcome your comments and suggestions. Keep in mind that putting a stove or other appliance in an island is virtually impossible because the floor is old bricks sunk in cement, so putting in hookups would be exorbitant.

March 19
We got word this week that the down payment has been made and the initial papers signed on the Italian house! Despite all the problems of the last six months, we’re now locked in, and the owner can’t sell to someone else without paying an enormous penalty. It’s very likely that we’ll be able to sign the final documents and become official owners on April 15, as hoped.

March 28
I’ve been making a notebook with preliminary plans for the house — ideas from books and magazines for both indoors and out. When I see something that might be right, I copy it from the book or cut out the magazine photo. I’m going to take the notebook to Italy next month, so we three can look at the ideas in context. I’ve also started making preliminary decisions about the stuff that’s been stored in Virginia for five years. I made three lists: “Take to Italy,” “Sell” and “???” The first two categories are fairly easy. For example, we’ll take our Oriental rugs but sell the American appliances because they’re 110 volts. I’m not sure what to do about the items on the third list. I suppose it’ll all become clearer as time goes on. All advice welcomed.

Our “closing date” is set for April 22. We’d wanted April 15, because that’s Russell’s birthday, but the Italians will be busy with Easter (a very Big Event in Italy, as you can imagine) and then a general election, so there was no way they could close by then. We’ll depart on the 17th via Istanbul, where we’ll stay overnight at airline expense, then on to Rome the next day. Dad’s working on his reservations to arrive 20/21 April. If all goes well, we three will stay in a suite at the Hotel Siena near the Spanish Steps, then go up to Amelia the day after closing.

May 1
Our sojourn in Italy went very well. We signed the documents, and the house now belongs to us. Dad arrived safe and sound, and we all had a good time seeing some sights and taking care of business.

R&I landed at Fiumicino Airport on Thursday, April 18th, our eyes glued to the taxi windows during the ride into Rome. After the extended winter in Almaty, seeing a landscape so green and full of flowers was truly magical.

We met with our lawyer, ran errands and did some shopping the next two days. Then on Saturday, we drove up to Amelia to go through the house with the sellers to discuss what furniture we might buy if the price was right. We were interested in the kitchen (Italian houses come stripped — no kitchen appliances or cabinets, no light fixtures, etc. — so we wanted to keep theirs until we could design and install one of our own), the couch and chairs, two bedroom suites and a few other odds and ends.

Dad arrived on Monday. I met him at Fiumicino, and we joined Russell at the notary’s office to sign the documents. The notary’s job is much more important in Italy than in the States. It’s his responsibility to be a neutral party, ensuring that all has been done properly and everyone’s rights protected. (And he’s personally liable for both parties’ satisfaction!) The meeting took a couple of hours — among other things he has to read the very long, multi-clause contract aloud before it’s signed. That’s the law. The highlight was when our lawyer turned to us, looked over the rim of his glasses and said in English, after a sea of Italian flowing back and forth, “The house is now yours.”

Once the formalities had been observed, Russell popped the cork on a bottle of champagne for toasting all around. I made a short speech assuring the owners that we knew how much the house had meant to them and that we would cherish and care for it as they had.

It was a long and very satisfying day despite the fact that we couldn’t come to terms on the furnishings we wanted. They asked 10 times what we were prepared to pay! We three and our lawyer tried to figure out where they were coming from, since we could furnish the whole house for that. Rich Americans syndrome? We’ll never know. When we move in December, we’ll have to start from scratch instead of having a cushion of basic pieces (especially, there’ll be NO kitchen). On the other hand, the owners graciously offered to let us use their furniture during the following week when we’d be staying at the house with Dad, so that was a pleasing compromise.

Italian countrysideThe next morning, we drove north to Amelia, one of the oldest hill towns in Italy, dating back to pre-Roman times. We needed to open a local bank account, rent a P.O. box, convert the electricity service to our names, etc. Our real-estate agent not only went beyond the call of duty in terms of helping us take care of these tasks, she also drove us to the top of our new hometown and talked the cathedral caretaker into a tour, complete with viewing the highly animated creche which only comes out at Christmas.

In between taking care of business, we three visited the nearby hill towns of Orvieto and Todi. Umbria is famous for its cuisine, and we sampled many of the local delicacies. One night, it was pasta with truffles. Another night, we had grilled chicken with herbs. And always we ate wonderful salads and vegetables — a special treat after the long Almaty winter.

photo of four people in front of a buildingPerhaps our most memorable meal was on the Saturday we left Umbria, Pasquale Ferraro, who’d done so much to help us during the months we were house-hunting and negotiating, came up with his wife (a West Virginian!). We five went for lunch at a restaurant perched on the side of a cliff. Across the gorge and above us was Amelia in all her walled beauty. Dad and I started with a speciality of the house, a large pasta sheet rolled around meat and vegetables, baked with cheese. Next, Dad and Russell had venison, while this small-eater sat that course out. Dessert was especially sinful for all of us. Throughout, we drank the local wine, Ciliegiolo (“chee-lee-eh-jo-low”), its rich red color accounting for its “cherry tree”

Back to Rome that afternoon and a good night’s sleep at the Hotel Siena. Dad took off the next morning at 6:30 a.m., and we flew out at 10:30. A long, hard journey straight through for the better part of 24 hours, arriving in Almaty ready for bath and bed.

House and dirt road

Eight months would pass before we’d leave Kazakhstan for Italy. But in the meantime we were content, knowing we finally had a home of our own.

It was there, waiting for us.


Kazakhstan, 1996:

Farewell, Almaty


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