The last months of 1999 challenged us with more of everything — more guests, more renovation planning, more of Russell working overseas while I managed the home front.
When we bought our Italian house, we decided not to do all the renovations at once. Live it in for a while, we were advised, and that proved to be good advice. Often, what we thought we’d want changed as we lived in the house and learned what we needed. We spent our first years planning and completing renovations, often with challenges we hadn’t anticipated.
We spent most of June ’99 in the States, traveling from New England to New York City to Washington, DC to Baltimore to West Virginia for professional meetings, Russell’s 35th college reunion, health checkups and visits with friends and family.
These edited excerpts of letters to our family will fill in some details.
[As always, you can click on photos to enlarge them.]
In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins Hospital hosted us for a full day. We arrived at 7:30 in the morning (having fasted the night before for our blood-work) and departed at 5:30 that afternoon. In between, we had just about everything checked that can be the checked, including specific exams for men and women. Hopkins has a program for people like us who can’t come for a physical exam and tests spread out over several weeks. Instead, they do it all in one day, a boon especially if the patient lives overseas and needs high-quality care during the short period they’ll be in the States.
While we were in West Virginia, we took Dad’s ashes to Cooper’s Rock, where he and I had scattered Mom’s ashes all those years ago. When Russell and I alighted from the car, the only ones there, he said, “It’s like a temple,” and it was — the perfect place for Dad to spend eternity among his beloved West Virginia hills. Dad had repeatedly made me promise that I wouldn’t put him “in the cold, cold ground.” His ashes flew down the gorge among the tall trees while the cicadas sang.
Now that we’re back, we’re picking and eating our own fruit — plums from the old trees already here and peaches from the new trees planted last year.
We ordered two sleep sofas, one to replace a 25 year-old divan we’ve had since the early years of marriage, the other for Russell’s office. So many folks with children have been getting in touch about coming to visit that we gotta have more sleeping space!
Ol’ Zack is doing much better. He’s got his energy back, a lot of the hair on his belly has returned, and he’s altogether on the mend. He’s stopped leaking at night, so we took him off the tranquilizer. His appetite has calmed down now that he’s regained weight, so it looks like it’s finally all over.
Russell’s been painting the gate, the main door of the house and the two doors on the outbuilding a happy shade of sage green. In addition, he’s clearing out briars and bamboo from a small windbreak southwest of the house. Now we can see individual trees instead of a thicket.
We’ve started planning for fall renovations — building a pergola and an enclosed sunporch (or a veranda, as they call it here) on the south side of the house in order to have better heat control. The sunporch will help bring light and warmth into the living room in winter, while the pergola will add cooling shade in summer. These will be built on the cement platform which is already on that side of the house. We’ll pave the leftover space to create a patio for spring and fall. We’ll add new, better placed steps down to the area, plus a small fountain and water garden. The geometra (“surveyer” in English, but he’s responsible for more than that in Italy) came last week with his assistant and took measurements. They returned this week with rough drawings, which thanks to Dad, I could easily read. I was even able to point out some small errors!
The next step is for them to make full technical drawings and get them approved by the Commune (“co-moo-nay” – city hall). Then the muratore (“moor-ah-tore-ay” – mason) and I will go ahead with the work, modifying the design as necessary. For this reason, the drawings are done as simply as possible, so that changes can be made on the spot without the authorities getting upset. As long as we don’t make major changes, we won’t get in trouble; e.g. if we make the steps 30 cm wide instead of 25, no one will come after us. Hopefully, the work will commence around mid-September. Meanwhile, we’re searching for patio, floor and roof tiles as well as someone to make the windows and a door. Just as before, we’re acting as general contractors, because there ain’t no such animal in Umbria.
The scheduling is to avoid the heat of summer, but also to work around guest visits. Two sets coming in August and best friend Bettina here for two weeks in September. July also had two sets of guests.
Magical moments: a) We’ve been living in a sea of sunflowers, planted in the neighboring fields for the oil in their seeds. Soon the farmer will come with his harvester, and we’ll have only the memory of that view. But it’s been just grand while it lasted. b) One evening, just at sunset, as we were eating on the north terrace, we looked up to see a brightly colored flight of delta wings coming straight toward us — hang-gliders powered by small engines with the pilots suspended below. We flicked the terrace lights off and on and waved our napkins. One delta wing broke formation and circled over the house to acknowledge our greeting.
Our water supply comes from the well of the main landowner in this area, Signor D’Annibole (dah-nee-bo-lay). The Commune is now saying that everyone has to hook up to the public water supply, so Mr. D, who supplies water to everyone this side of Montecampano village, is offering to dig a trench to our house and connect us to the public supply. He’d even pay for the pipe, if we were unwilling or unable to do so. We’re part of a consortium of farmhouses out this way, so we’ll be talking with our neighbors about the consensus. BTW, Mr. D is devastatingly handsome, but that’s neither here nor there.
A visit from California friends coincided with the 80% eclipse of the sun. It seemed like just another cloudy day as far as the dimming of light was concerned, but the TV news had suggested standing under a tree and looking at the altered beams coming through the leaves. Lo and behold — images of the eclipse on the backs of one and all!
Umbro and Elisabetta, whom some of you have met, have a 12 year-old daughter who was confirmed on July 21st, the same day her new brother was baptized. We were invited to the ceremonies and to the party afterward, the only non-family members enjoying food and drink except for the godparents. Made us realize they feel the same way about us as we feel about them — family.
We hosted our own party this month, inviting the extended family which owns Amelia’s furniture store: one grandmother, one son with wife and three kids, one daughter with husband and two kids — all good friends. (We’ve mentioned the daughter before — Giuseppina, who sings in the Amelia Chorus as well as helping homeowners with everything from buying a new bed to designing a kitchen.) We blew up balloons and a giant beachball and two kinds of soap bubbles. We played frisbee. We drank all sorts of cold drinks and ate snacks. Then we settled down to serious eating: prosciutto and melon, shrimp salad, sun-dried tomatoes, grilled eggplant and black olives for starters; then gazpacho with garlic croutons, followed by curried chicken salad and couscous salad and for dessert, yellow seed cake, poached pear and ice cream, fruit and cookies. This probably sounds like a lot of food to you — and it is — but Italians prize abbondanza. For a good party, there should be many dishes, none completely consumed. I cooked for two days, they all commented on each dish (though many were strange to them), and we ate leftovers for two days afterwards.
Two more events this past month demonstrated how we’ve become part of this community — the only non-family members at a wedding anniversary celebration and the confirmation of the son and daughter of our nearest neighbors.
Russell faxes daily from Tashkent, where he’s managing two short-term projects: one for the European Commission, conducting a seminar on foreign investment policy for the President and his Cabinet; the other advising the UN Development Programme on accelerating democratic transition in Uzbekistan.
A very good visit with Bettina, best friend, maid of honor and frequent room-mate from college days. You likely recall that her husband died suddenly in January, while I was taking care of things after Dad’s passing. I flew out to be with her; now she’s flown here to be with me.
[When Russell first came from multi-ethnic California to West Virginia, he said, “Everyone here looks like you.” Not exactly, of course, but many of the state’s residents arrived several generations ago from Germany, Scotland or Ireland. So lots of us do have similar physical traits. When Bettina came to Italy, folks often asked if she were my sister. “Not of the blood,” I answered, “But of the heart.” They smiled, knowing exactly what I was talking about.]
I’m now preparing for a visit from my step-sisters starting this Wednesday and another set of guests on the 19th. One of my Amelia friends said this week: “Non hai una vita, hai un albergo.” (“You don’t have a life, you have an inn.”)
Another great visit, despite R being in Tashkent, this time with my stepsisters. Lots of sightseeing, lots of talk, lots of shopping. As we parted, we promised not to let too much time pass until we met again.
Soon after Russell’s return, we drove to Rome to attend a book-launching party for an American friend’s new opus about the history of the city as seen through its churches. I was so inspired by her book that later, while Russell was still busy with Tashkent report-writing, I went back to Rome for a couple days of touring — Santa Prassede and Santa Maria in Trastevere and on the Equiline Hill, Santa Maria Maggiore, its ceiling gilded with gold brought from the New World by Columbus.
Russell finished his last report just in time for a 24-hour visit from the woman who introduced us and her husband. They’ve spent most of their lives in the U.S. Foreign Service; he’s now retired, while she continues to work in Damascus.
It looks like the sunroom and new patio on the south side will be delayed until spring. First, the mason couldn’t start on time. Now the window-maker says there’s been so much delay that we’re running into other promises he’s made. Then we hit bad weather. I expect we’ll start construction sometime around the beginning of March.
Signor D’Annibole’s men have now dug a trench and laid pipe ready to connect our house to the public water supply about a kilometer away. We’ve completed paperwork with the Commune, so complicated that I can’t remember it well enough to relay the story. Suffice it to say that all the officials were apologetic about the byzantine bureaucracy. If all goes according to plan, the Commune’s plumber will connect the gauge to the far end of the pipe next week. Then D’s man will connect this end of the pipe, and we’ll be in water — hot, cold, running and above all not delivered through ancient, corroded pipes.
We went trick-or-treating at our local friends’ houses. Russell wore a caftan of many colors with a gray wig, telling everyone he was “Guru Grigio” (Gray Guru). I wore a mirror-work shalvarkemiz (tunic and baggy pants) from Pakistan and a wild curly yellow wig with my nose lipsticked red. It made a surprisingly good clown outfit. We passed out jack-o-lantern balloons and similarly shaped boxes of candy, hauling in sweets of all forms.
We had two Thanksgivings. On the day, we had an attenuated version, because R was working with a colleague who’d come down from Florence to collaborate on the report for his UNDP project in Uzbekistan. I fixed roasted turkey breast wrapped in bay leaves and bacon. We had cranberry sauce which I’d discovered in Rome with potatoes and a salad of endive, walnuts and apples, plus local wine and a pumpkin pie made from scratch.
We had a bigger celebration in Rome on Saturday. A West Virginia woman married to a Canadian-Italian invited lots of friends to share in turkey and all the trimmings. Two turkeys, in fact, plus two kinds of rice, two kinds of yams, dressing, brussels sprouts, corn, cranberry sauce, three pies, and I don’t remember what else. We contributed Waldorf salad and a pumpkin pie. Following Italian tradition, we sat down at 9 pm, and folks were still at table when we had to get on the road after midnight!
We’re finally hooked up to the municipal water system. We’ll miss seeing the little man (c. 5 feet tall) who came to read our meter and present the bill when we were connected to D’Annibale’s well. He was such a typical country-man of the region, a type rapidly disappearing as young folk watch MTV and hanker for the bright city lights. He’d come on bandy legs, head always capped in heat or cold, to talk about the weather, the olive and grape crops, when to plow and when to plant. His dialect is so heavy we often had to work together, asking him to repeat, in order to understand, but it was always worth the effort. Sad to think we won’t have him so easily with us anymore.
November set a record for guests — three visits in one month and the first time we had two of them simultaneously. That’s the end of guests for the foreseeable future. We’re looking forward to a calmer 2000, having warned folks away from the Pope’s Jubilee Year, when 34,000,000 visitors to Italy are expected. Not a good time to visit unless you’re a pilgrim. As a couple of you have suggested, we’re a bit fagged out with hosting. Each and every guest has been most welcome, but having so many visitors has been pretty disruptive of our normal lives. And for me, especially. After 15 months of taking care of other people, some of it pretty intensive — not to mention the trials of Zack’s operations — I need a little TLC myself.
Early in the month, we went to a wonderful production of Rossini’s “Marriage of Figaro” at the Teatro Sociale in Amelia. The production featured our local orchestra and chorus with imported stars for the main roles. Our opera house is one of the oldest — some say THE oldest — in Italy, built for exactly this kind of production: an intimate space with four tiers of boxes around a small orchestra section. A special evening shared with friends Giuseppina, Alberto and daughter Debora.
Our olive harvest was plagued with bad weather and R getting the flu. When it got really cold and windy, we wore the long johns and balaclavas purchased for Kazakhstan’s freezing winters. And when we could, we took pruned branches to the south side of the house for plucking. We were only able to harvest about 2/3 of the crop but ended up with 250 kilos of olives and 50 liters of oil, enough for two years plus gifts to friends and houseguests. This is considered a very good ratio, and we were told that our quality of oil, extra-virgin and cold-pressed, is now selling for $50 a liter in New York City.
We decided to treat ourselves to a London sojourn as our mutual Christmas present, Dec. 11th to the 20th, traveling by train the whole way. We really enjoyed the leisurely time in our own compartment overnight to Paris. Then we took the Eurostar through the Chunnel — fascinating to see typical French countryside when you enter and typical English countryside when you exit. Feasted on museums and theater and English-language movies and lots of shopping, especially for books, books, books. Don’t know how we got ’em all home, but we did.
When we returned, Russell had a relapse of the flu, and I got it too, so we spent two days in bed, including Christmas. Dinner that night was scrambled eggs and toast. Never mind, New Years will be roast beef and champagne.
COMING NEXT MONTH
Spring 2000, Italy
At long last, the southside renovations are completed.
Pergola, sunporch, patio and gardens in words and mostly pictures.
LET ME HEAR FROM YOU.
Please take a moment to share your thoughts.
Your comments help make the blog better, and I always answer.
* * *
If you enjoyed reading this post, I hope you’ll SUBSCRIBE by clicking on the button below. Every month, when I post a new excerpt from my life overseas, you’ll get an email with a link so you can read the next installment. Subscription is free, and I won’t share your contact information with anyone else. Your subscribing lets me know you’re reading what I write, and that means a lot.