Early on, during my days alone at our new house, I bought a bottle of pro secco, stood on the south terrace, sipped a glass and tipped the rest onto the earth below — a libation to whatever gods watched over our farm that we might live long and happy in their land.

My petition must have been granted. Through challenges and triumphs, the sixteen years in our Italian house were among our best.

Here are edited excerpts from family letters about continuing efforts to transform that house into our true home.

[Click on photos to enlarge.]


Political map of ItalyFrom Political Map of Italy, nationsonline.org

March 16
I’m back from Pensacola, where my family gathered for the memorial service of Dad’s twin sister. Beautifully conducted by a retired Army chaplain serving part-time as minister to my aunt’s retirement community.

The return trip took four days — drive to Mobile, turn in rent-a-car, fly to Atlanta, sleep. Fly to New York and then overnight to Rome. It seemed foolish to drive on to Amelia after no sleep and 7 hours of jet lag, so I stayed overnight in Rome and drove home the next morning.

I arrived to bad news from Laos and here — Russell has shingles, and all the components of the kitchen haven’t yet arrived, so it can’t yet be installed, despite the 2-week hiatus while I was away.

Fortunately, R’s shingles have affected only his neck and head, although the pain was excruciating. His ears and eyes appear to have been spared, and he reports today that he’s “50% better.”

On the good news side, most of the furniture I’d ordered has arrived, so starting tomorrow, I’ll sleep in a real bed, put away the china and generally start living in a home instead of camping out in a “warehouse.”

Cats in a basketMore good news: the cats are finally spayed! Their heat had been prolonged, while they had a cycle as if they were still in Kazakhstan, followed by another for their European location. The vet finally gave them hormone shots, but the surgery was then delayed because of my Pensacola trip. Yesterday morning, we three arrived as scheduled at the vet’s, but he was detained by an emergency. When he finally arrived after being up all night saving a dog hit by a car, he was fatigued, and his assistant hadn’t appeared.

We were both committed to completing this surgery once and for all, so I suited up and assisted! Yes, dear ones, yours truly dutifully held up the uteri to be snipped, kept the “thread” taut for sutures and served as general helper. I didn’t think about it being my furry children under the drape and just concentrated on his Italian instructions and the fascinating work literally in hand.

It was a review of high school biology but with a living mammal much closer to human anatomy than those frogs we had to dissect. And I finally have a true appreciation for the term “striated muscle.” If ever there were a clear example, it’s a cat’s uterus (which has two long lobes, by the way).

The Easter Report

[c. early April]

My Easter present was a kitchen! Despite predictions of nothing getting done during Easter week, the kitchen was delivered on Tuesday evening and installed Wednesday/Thursday. It’s pretty spiffy-looking, if I say so myself.


The latest game-plan for closets: Vincenzo, the 70 year-old mason, will build thin partition walls of masonry and plaster closing the armadio alcoves. I found wooden accordion doors in Terni, which will be installed by the supplier. I’ll hie down to Rome, where I previously discovered closet systems like those at Home Depot. V & I will install shelves, rods, etc. from these.

V & I will also erect pantry shelves using components I found in Terni. And the “Mappies” (M.A.P. — the folks who installed the kitchen) will build a couple bookshelves in the living room between the windows.

All this should be finished by the time R arrives on April 13th.

In Vientiane, Russell saw the Australian doctor who’s been treating his shingles and who said R is now in routine post-shingles syndrome with no risk of permanent damage to hearing or of Bell’s palsy. In R’s words: “I may be in for some days or weeks of these unpleasant after-effects, but in general, [the doctor] is not concerned and is satisfied with my recuperation.”

I went to Terni and Viterbo to look at computers from 3 suppliers and hope to have a desk-top with all the trimmings after a while. As you can imagine, it takes a little extra doing here to get English-language programs and English-language manuals.

We’re so far north, and the house is so far out in the country, that I have a really spectacular view of the [Hale-Bopp] comet every night. I can see it quite clearly with the naked eye — probably the greatest comet of my lifetime. I feel blessed to be at the right place at the right time.

German Shepherd laying in the grassI’ve finally found a dog. The game plan had been to get one ASAP for security and companionship. But one thing and another kept interfering. After many false starts, I went to meet a year-and-a-quarter-old German Shepherd, and we took to each other immediately. He needs a home, I need a dog, and it was love at first sight. His name is pronounced “zhakay,” but I call him “Zack.”

My Italian continues to improve, altho I’m far from being able to hold my own at a dinner party. Right now, I can talk about a lot of things, but with poor grammar and not all the words I need. For example, here’s a recent request to my neighbor, Ornella, about her husband:

Adesso, ho una macchina per erba. (forearm rotating horizontally to ground, accompanied by R-R-R-R_sound) Ma non montaggio. Forse Paolo aiuto quando ha tempo?

How it might sound in English:

Now I have a machine for grass. R-R-R-R. But it’s not assembly. Maybe Paolo assistance when he has time?

What it means:

I just bought a lawn mower. But it’s not assembled. Maybe Paolo could help me put it together when he has time?

Fortunately, the Italians (unlike the French) are delighted when I can string three words together sans grammar but with lots of body language. That kind of attitude on their part makes me positive about continuing to try.

My Easter was quiet and uneventful. I spent most of the day unpacking kitchen items, washing and putting them away. Then in the evening, I had my first real meal in the house since I moved in — no tin of soup, no packaged risotto mix — sautéed spinach salad with lemon juice and sautéed eggplant with tomato-basil sauce over penne. About halfway through the meal, I looked around and thought, “Isn’t it grand to have a real kitchen after all those years of making do?”


April 20
With Russell here, I have access to his laptop, so I can finally type a letter which you can easily read. You’ve probably correctly deduced that I don’t yet have my own desk-top. I just haven’t had time to get back to Viterbo and close the deal.

Russell seems to be profiting from the R&R at home, sleeping better at night and having a nap most afternoons. Despite all my best intentions, we didn’t get everything ready before he arrived. We have closets, but no doors; a pantry, but no shelves. In theory, these two improvements will be completed this week, before company comes — a friend from Laos years overlapping with a couple Hoosiers some days later. Fortunately, we have enough beds to go ’round.

Russell’s trip here shouldn’t be wished on our worst enemy. He flew down to Bangkok OK, but when he got ready to fly out of Thailand, the flight was cancelled because of an air traffic controllers’ strike in New Delhi. Therefore no planes could fly over India. Thai Airways took the position that this was a political matter, so they had no obligations to the hundreds of stranded passengers. The airport hotel doubled its rates and put triple service charges on international calls. Russell was lucky to find a room and to board a flight the next day. I got up at 3:30 and drove to Fiumicino, standing during the 3.5 hours his plane was late, not daring to go to the ladies’ room or have a cup of coffee for fear of missing him.

[When I saw him walking down the gangway, my first thought was, “Oh…my…God.” He looked so tired, worn and aged from his ordeals with shingles and flights, I almost didn’t recognize him. Fortunately, his first full night’s sleep in five weeks went a long way toward restoring his well-being.]

He and Zack get along beautifully. The two of them have discovered lots of trails all over this hillside — grand for walks, and Zack doesn’t have to be on a leash. Unfortunately, Zack and the cats don’t get along beautifully, but each day they’re tolerating each other a tiny bit better. I’m hoping that by this fall, we won’t endure the Canine – Feline Frenzies every time they catch sight of one another.

I finally found a set of dishes I like, thanks to R’s sharp eyes when we were in Rome. We were mainly there to visit some newly excavated rooms in the palace of Augustus (“…and the word went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be taxed…”). These were only open to the public this past week, and because it was not widely publicized, we were among the few foreigners there. The rooms were quite small, none of them as large as any room in our house, and beautifully decorated with frescoes as fresh now as when new. This is due to a later Caesar building on top of the Augustine palazzo and thereby preserving it. The palace was only discovered in recent years, so it was a special privilege to see those fascinating rooms.

Our nearest neighbors, Ornella and Paolo Zarra, had us to lunch today — home-grown chicken, home-made pasta, home-grown and -made wine, salad from their own garden with their own olive oil. Delicious and the perfect example of how most farmers here are nearly self-sufficient.

May 7
Life is mostly back to normal after a challenging couple of weeks entertaining two overlapping visits from guests — different in age and energy and interests. I managed to get pretty severe food-poisoning toward the end of the last visit, so Russell drove the couple to the Rome airport while I rested up. When he returned at 10:30 a.m., we both spent the day in bed recuperating. Having that much company when you’re still on the shake-down cruise of how house and kitchen work was a challenge, but we learned a lot. We’re not yet ready to open the S&S B&B, but we know better how to manage guest-visits the next time. (Which is this Saturday — friends from our Hawaii sojourn.)

Russell’s return to Laos has been repeatedly rescheduled. It’s now put off until late June because all four of the parties — reps from the Lao govt, the Asian Development Bank, PACMAR and Russell himself — can’t find a mutually-agreeable time period when they can all get together in Vientiane. He’s a bit disappointed at the extended delay, but I think it may be a good thing in that it will let his health improve some more.

Neighbor Paolo harvested his first crop of hay from our fields this week. (A boon for both: we get rid of the high grass, and he gets the hay.) The work is highly mechanized, involving various machines hauled behind his tractor — cutting, bunching into long mounds and bailing. He won a cup at the local agricultural fair last year for precision tractor-driving — a maestro to behold.

Yesterday evening, a fox came loping down our hill. Zack was chained for the night and couldn’t see him. Relaxed and safe, the fox bounded past our kitchen window and down to the next field, looking for dinner, his brush trailing jauntily behind. How amazing to see a fox so comfortable in a landscape which has been farmed for thousands of years.

May 27
We’re about ready for Dad’s June visit and all that follows, including a party with c. 30 local friends to celebrate his 87th birthday.

Having company and parties is a good incentive for attending to all those tasks left undone. We’ve finished the exterior gardening for this year — flower beds by the driveway, a rock garden/retaining wall on the other side of the drive, pots of flowers along the front of the house and beside the covered terrace.

We’ve also cleared and burned a lot of brush (meeting several snakes in the process, but they were just as scared of us as we were of them), pruned dead branches from fruit and nut trees, mowed the grass around the house (it’s not a lawn and never will be — think of mixed grass and other greens that grow around a typical farmhouse, and you have the idea). Russell has cleared yards of vines from the hillside, revealing roses, lilies, lilacs and other flowering plants cultivated by a long-ago owner. Some of these we’ll move closer to the house when the fall rains are about to come. They’re lost to view, many of them, behind the propane gas tank installed by the previous owner for cooking and for heating radiator water.

Rocking chairWe purchased some of the furniture we need to fill in the gaps between what we brought and what we bought. We found some simple white cotton curtains with faggoting for the living room, got them hung and hemmed, as well as some yellow-and-green-striped curtains for the pantry doorway. I’ve used fabric from our previous venues to make lots of cushions for the window seat. We hired a local upholsterer to re-cover [my maternal grandmother’s] rocker and [Russell’s mother’s] antique corner chair with handwoven silk that R brought from Laos. The upholsterer used the left-overs for couch throw pillows.

Russell cleaned out the old forno (the outdoor pizza/bread oven), the garage and the outbuilding store room, and we’ve straightened up the cantina (the room where wine and olive oil were stored and where we now stash all sorts of things).

So we’re about as ready as we can be. We still haven’t found dining chairs, but Dad’s birthday festa will be an outdoor affair, and we three can eat at the kitchen table the rest of the time. I’m determined not to rush on the dining chairs. I want something both attractive and comfortable — not an easy task. When we do find ’em, we’ll buy ’em.

P.S. from RBS:
To make sure we don’t become homesteading drudges, we’ve begun taking a day-long excursion each week. Last week, we drove to the charming hill town of Montefalcone. Highlights included the local museum in a deconsecrated church with an excellent exhibit showing how medieval frescoes are cleaned and restored, plus a stroll through narrow, 500-year-old lanes with doorstep and window-box geraniums and petunias. A leisurely drive home over country back roads revealed Umbria’s rolling terrain.

Super weather effects have also been a delight in recent days. One morning last week, Nancy woke me to a scene outside our windows like a child’s fairytale. Our hillside property was in full sunlight. Below us, a white fog was cruising up the valley at a healthy clip, silently obliterating the landscape below and the farms across the valley. As we watched, our vantage point became an isolated island, still fully sunny but now surrounded by a snowy sea.

Last night, a late-rising past-full moon cast long, strong shadows across the house, olive trees, valley and neighboring farms. The scene was pure black and white for miles, clear and yet unreal. For a city boy like myself, rural scenes like these bring simple delight in middle age.


Getting Our House in Order, Part 2

The Story in Pictures


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