18 July 2010

Things are not always as they seem

Some people take their toilets for granted.

We've learned the hard way that one should never take for granted the fact that their excess waste can be swooshed away in one easy push of a button.

During some trauma with our sewerage system in December last year, we were obliged to get very close to the toilet in our Rustico. Now every time we flush we sing the praises of this toilet.

The renovation of the Main House is now at a stage where we needed to finish the bathrooms.

When we purchased the property, these bathrooms had all their fittings, including a clawfoot bath, sinks, showerheads and taps. Some of them were in their original cartons but all had been opened and there was evidence that they'd been the subject of some rummaging. We'd had a cursory glance in the cartons and were confident that all the main parts were there. We also logically assumed that all the preparation work for installation of these parts had been completed because the previous owners had been at a stage where they were purchasing such extravagant fittings (the taps were EUR 600 each!)

What we discovered was something quite different.

The opened cartons did not contain all the necessary parts and some of the parts that they did contain were broken. The benchtop of the huge wooden handmade cabinet in the upstairs bathroom was not actually attached to the rest of the cabinet. The wooden character framework that sits on top of the bench and extends up to the ceiling was not joined to the cabinet but simply balancing on top of it. No holes had been cut in the benchtop for electrical cables or taps. The shower had not been tightened properly so leaked in several places. The toilet had an old-fashioned ceramic water tank that was positioned on a lacework frame at the top of the wall behind the toilet. It had a chain pull that had a ceramic bulb on the end of it but it had no water cock to control the level of water in the tank and therefore the tank overflowed when the toilet was flushed. The pipe bringing clean water to the tank leaked in several places. The pipe taking water from the tank to the toilet leaked at the base of the tank as well as where it entered the toilet bowl.

I had the good fortune to peek into the bathroom at the exact time that my very frustrated handyman (Stu) was being sprayed with water from all directions.

I tried to withdraw immediately in order to avoid both the water and Stu's swearing but I was too slow.

He spat his frustration at me, showing me how poorly every connection fitted. Ignorant though I am, I could fully appreciate that a 20mm chrome pipe could not be adequately connected to a 1 inch ceramic pipe with silicon alone. I saw the magnitude of the problem immediately and, fearful that I might never get out of the bathroom, I suggested a trip to the local plumbing shop.

Completely conquered by the mess that he had to fix, Stu gathered all of the problem bits and pieces while I reversed the car out of the driveway.

We pulled up at FARS and cringed at the number of tradesman vehicles in the carpark. We'd been there once before and experienced total humiliation in the presence of several wizened and wrinkled Italian plumbers. Nevertheless we were desperate.

While Stu got his goodies out of the back of the car, I scanned the English/Italian dictionary for a word necessary for the sentence I was preparing. Leak. Fuga.

Our confidence level dropped as soon as we entered the shop and saw the main man behind the counter snigger just before he dumped us on his junior. The man who had dumped us was one who we'd dealt with before. Perhaps he remembered that we were foreigners who didn't have any idea of plumbing? I glanced at Stu and we shared an 'I want to run away' grin. Several plumbers were already being served so we waited. We felt like two convicts at a military event.

When we finally approached the counter, Stu took great pains to set his bits and pieces up in a manner that might appear logical. I told the junior that we 'had a problem, we had leaks in lots of places and we wanted a solution'. He immediately grasped our problem but not the solution. Instead he called one of the plumbers over to inspect our embarrassing connections. My Italian didn't extend to explaining that we weren't responsible for the chaos that lay on the bench in front of us. As the plumber fingered our connections, I concentrated on the five black stitches that tied together the skin at the tip of his thumb. He kept putting one pipe into the other to demonstrate that they didn't fit, then promptly lost interest. We cringed again. Another plumber came over. I looked at his fingers. He suggested a seal and the junior brought out several, none of which fitted. After that plumber lost interest, the junior told us that it 'wasn't possible'. He gave us a price for a whole new assembly but also suggested that we also try his competition closer to town.

Stu gathered his embarrassing bits and pieces and we skulked out of the shop, vowing never to return no matter how bad our plumbing situation got.

We drove to the competition and found a carpark devoid of tradesman's vehicles. Acting quickly lest tradesmen come, Stu gathered his bits and we entered the shop to find a woman behind the counter. Stu let out a quiet groan, unfairly assuming that the cleavage wouldn't be able to offer a solution. She immediately looked at our pipes, measured everything with a vernier and proffered a correctly sized seal and a little concertina gadget. Although she was worried that one of her solutions may not work, we were more than happy to pay the EUR 2 for the parts and her positive attitude.

One should never take for granted the fact that their toilet refills with water without leaking all over the floor. Buyer beware.

17 July 2010

Summer evenings in the valley

Summer evenings in the valley are simply exquisite. They bring welcome respite from the heat and silent salvation to the soul.

After long uncomfortable days, we usually sit outside for a few precious minutes before we go to bed.

At first the stillness makes us wonder where the air has gone. Then a gentle breeze meanders down the valley. It makes a fluttering sound which changes volume as it works its way through the leaves towards us; if the leaves were metal they would sound like chimes. Then the breeze moves around our pergola like a ghost as it chases the heat of the day away.

My pride and joy, a beautiful climbing rose, seems to stretch wider and higher in the cool night air after it's long drink of blood and bone that I annointed it with at dusk.

There is an occasional distant bark from dogs on the surrounding farms.

The sky is a dark midnight blue and there is a line where the tops of the even darker blue hills meet it. The stars are strong and scattered, their distance from one another making them shine even brighter.

At 10pm, I can hear a farmer still working on a tractor in his paddock at the top of one of the hills. I imagine the dust gently rolling behind his tractor wheels. I imagine the peace that working amidst the grapevines at night might bring him, rows of healthy vines promising fruit his only company.

The birds are silent. They've been replaced by the squirrels, tapping and scratching on the roof. Occasionally one of their stolen nocciole is dropped and it rolls and bounces down the terracotta tiles of the roof into the copper gutter.

Then there is silence. Songs of silence sing. There is also peace. Perfect peace.

The unknown creatures of the creek are squeaking and croaking but when the beetles start their whistling, we realise that they give us the single strongest sound of summer.

I AM artistic...I think...

Stu has such blind faith in me. He believes in my artistic ability, even after I tried to copy Van Gogh's 'Sunflowers' and ended up with a canvas full of conflicting colours of a palette that might be called 'babies excrement'.

Since he believes in me, I have no choice but to believe in myself.

For our 200 year old stone house, I have visions of painting our walls with a rustic effect. Stu agreed, saying that I would do a 'beautiful job' of the painting.

It would be easy. After all, I'd watched a video tape on creating textures at the hardware shop.

So I purchased a natural sponge at great expense (EUR 15!) and prepared the walls in the library with the 'white paint for interior walls' that was already in our stock at home.

Since I was eager to create my artistic effect, I was dipping my dampened sponge into the coloured paint almost before the walls had dried.

My colour had come from my artist's box that I normally use for canvases. Unfortunately, my stocks are a little low so I only have the primary colours. However, I was blindly confident in my ability to mix colours so I sat down at the kitchen table with a plastic lid from a container and my five primary colours and set about mixing.

My first colour was along the lines of my 'Sunflowers' attempt. My second colour was a pink that might be appropriate for a 5 year old girl's bedroom. My third colour might be useful during times of war as it was somewhere between khaki and purple.

After spending copious time on blending (5 minutes), I decided to try the second and third colours. They might look better on the wall.

I gathered my sample colours, dashed over to the house and bounded up the stairs. My confidence was blown out of all proportion.

I dipped my dampened sponge into the first colour, then spotted and stroked the white wall with wild abandon.

When I stood back to appreciate the new look, all I saw was a blotchy pink mess that appeared to stick to my perfect white wall like some sort of alien mould.

I tried the next colour.

But the khaki/purple splotches simply made the wall look like the side of an army tanker!

I panicked.

Maybe both colours would be better if they were blended? I dabbed the pink over the khaki/purple and the khaki-purple over the pink.

No, they were not better. In fact, they were far worse...far worse...

Stu was in the next room installing a bathroom cabinet with the utmost care. He wouldn't be making any emotional choices on colour and he would not be acting rashly in any way.

'How are you going?', he called to me.

'OK...'. No matter how hard I tried, my reply tapered off to a wobbly murmur. My heart was beating rapidly. If the sweat on my nervous skin had a colour, I would have looked like my blotchy wall. I tried to think of something else I could say that might discourage him from peering around the corner. Nothing.

I had to work fast. I had to obliterate my mess before Stu came into the library to see my 'beautiful job'.

I grabbed my roller which was still loaded with white paint and drove it over the coloured spots like a drug-deranged madman on a rampage.

The first coat didn't colour the spots! And it had to dry before I could put another coat on!

I needed time. I could hear his footsteps. I didn't have time. I heard the footsteps stop. I looked up to see Stu's face in the doorway.

'That looks good', he said, always supportive.

'I'm just at the stage of testing colours', I said, 'Which one do you prefer?'. I tried to be as nonchalant as I possibly could.

Stu looked at my collage of goo. I could see he was having trouble recognising any colour at all.

'Do you like the 'fresh green/soft lavender' or the 'warm rustic pink'?', I helped him.

'The lavender', he replied, 'I think...but then, I'm colour-blind...?'.

Life is good. I have a supportive man who is colour blind. It doesn't get any better than that for a woman who imagines that her artistic ability is akin to those of the Renaissance artists.

(TO BE CONTINUED...my confidence is currently at an alltime low and I can only summon enough energy to LOOK at the wall...)

Stolen Jam

We had been working in the garden when we heard our neighbour Renzo call to us. He was standing at the fence with a large cane basket which was full of small yellow fruit.

As we approached the fence, he explained that the fruit had come off his yellow plum tree that hung over our driveway. When he encouraged us to taste it, we popped a few into our mouths and found that they were very much like a red plum. Then he waved his basket at us and told us to 'take, take!'. I quickly dashed inside to get a bowl and happily transferred a few handfuls out of his basket.

That afternoon when we drove to town we noticed that the driveway was covered with these yellow plums. Renzo had said he collects only the 'duro' (hard) ones from the tree because the 'morbida' (soft) ones on the ground don't last long. I wondered if Renzo would mind if I picked some of the soft but newly fallen ones off the ground to make jam.

The following morning, before the sun had made its way into the valley and onto the driveway I set off with my own basket to collect plums. There were even more on the ground than the previous day so I had plenty to choose from. Since the quality of jam is only as good as the quality of the fruit and since I didn't want to deal with any grubs that might be dwelling inside them, I was careful to select only those plums without a broken skin.

As I knelt, bent and squatted to gather the fruit, more fruit kept falling from the tree. The soft dull thud they made as they hit the ground was the pure sound of nature giving which sounded only slightly less relaxing when they hit my head. It was as if by tapping me on the head, the fruit was warning me that there were more of them coming and that I should make haste with my jam making and not waste them! I imagined that it was probably preferable for them to be giving joy in a jam jar than squashed to pulp under a car tyre...

Since my initial expedition, I've made several more trips down the driveway with my basket. The result so far has been 3 batches (18 jars) of tangy yellow jam.

This taste of a bountiful summer will make it easier for us to get through a dormant winter.

Bambi is back!

We'd spent a very hot and uncomfortably humid day at several hardware shops in search of various parts that were needed to finish the bathroom renovation.

Our brains were pulsing with the frustration of not finding what we were looking for and the wet heat had make our skin sticky as if we'd just spent a day on a Mediterranean beach.

The shady driveway that meanders up our little valley was a welcome relief from the sun and we were eager to get home to shelter behind our thick stone walls.

When on one of the curves in the road I caught movement, I immediately assumed it was a kangaroo (Australia affects you that way...)

My sandaled foot moved quickly to the brake, ready to stop if necessary, when suddenly out of the forest bounced a deer and two bambi's!

After they'd crossed the road and bounded a few metres into tall grass, they stopped.

I stopped.

We spent a few delicious moments observing each other.

While we were marvelling at their beauty and elegance (and the fact that we had any deer in the valley at all after recent visits by hunters), they were probably wondering if we had guns...

07 July 2010

It takes courage to destroy

It seems a contradiction but one of the high points of our renovation has been demolition.

One end of our house had two flights of stairs. One flight travelled from the ground floor to the second floor. These stairs were of concrete and tile construction but were dangerously narrow and steep. They also blocked out considerable light, making the laundry damp and the wall between the laundry and the kitchen mouldy. The other flight travelled from the second floor to the attic. These stairs were made of brittle and borer-eaten wood that wobbled and threatened to crumble under foot.

I used to dread going into the laundry to wash our clothes. Instead I would stand for long minutes rolling my eyes around the walls, the ceilings and the floors, thinking of ways I could improve that end of the house.

One day it came to me. If we removed those two flights of stairs we could insert an atrium or a light well in the two-storey high space that was left. This would provide light, warmth and circulating air for the entire area in two levels of the house.

It was quite simply a wild but brilliant idea. I embraced it with both arms and secretly nurtured it until it was a fully developed concept.

Then I told Stu.

Unfortunately, he was rather tentative about my foray into architecture and design. He failed to reach the same level of enthusiasm, which could have something to do with the fact that he does the work whereas I just dream it up...

So it was with great joy that I heard him mention a while later that my idea had some merit.

A few weeks after that, when our levels of courage were running high, Stu took to the upper stairs with a saw, a cold chisel and a hammer. He carefully took the ceiling out (so that we could re-use the wooden tongue and groove panels), then he cut the stairs and pulled each end out of the walls easily.

We had not bargained on the layers of dust that had impregnated the old wood. As we waited for the dust to subside, we coughed and spluttered our way through a conversation on our progress. We wondered if a section of some of the steps should be retained as shelves jutting out of the wall. Since I was keen to retain some of the history of the house, we decided to keep the best specimens and re-visit this decision once the entire demolition had been completed.

The next morning, it seemed that our enthusiasm woke us early. We dived out of bed and gulped a quick breakfast before heading, belching and burping, towards the house.

The lower stairs proved to be harder to demolish as they had several layers of construction materials on them. As we uncovered the layers one at a time, we found ceramic tiles, then cement, then plaster, then slate. It seemed that the top layer had only recently been added but that the original layer had been there for some time. In the cavities in the walls where we pulled the original slate steps out, we found several sheets of a magazine dated 1950. These sheets were treated with the care afforded to Tutankhamen and have now been framed for hanging in the atrium when it is finished.

While Stu demolished, I swept and shovelled countless loads of rubble into our wheelbarrow and out to our rubble pile.

As with the upper stairs, we retained sections of some of the steps for further design consideration.

Finally, a few days later when the lower stairs were gone, we stood in our sweat and the dust and watched the light rush in. It seemed to rush around the dark corners and lick the cold damp stone on its way. I thought I could almost see the furry white spores of mould desiccate and drop off the walls.

We then turned out attention to two other walls that annoyed us at the base of the new atrium. The previous owners had installed these walls in order to make a hallway from which to access the bathroom and laundry. But now that we'd effectively created a new hallway via our atrium we could remove these walls in order to enlarge the bathroom.

Since it was too late in the day to start on them, we decided to look at them again in the morning and make a final decision after a good sleep.

That night my tired and twisted mind worked against me until I believed that the stairs that we'd removed had been holding up the entire house. In the wee small hours of the morning I tossed and turned in wretched agony as I watched our dream home crumble to the ground, caving in at exactly the place where we'd removed the stairs. I woke exhausted and adamant that we should refrain from doing any more demolition.

By lunchtime, Stu had calmed me down enough to explain that the walls now under our consideration for demolition were not load bearing. I remembered Horace's words of wisdom ('In times of stress be bold and valiant'') then hid in the rustico, covering my ears lest I hear the thud of falling stones while Stu hammered and destroyed.

It is now almost two months since we finished our demolition work and that end of the house has a wonderfully happy, healthy and spacious feel to it.

It hasn't fallen down.

06 July 2010

Food just has to play a part...

I can't resist. At the risk of sounding like any other foreigner who writes about Italy, I'm going to share with you the simplest and best recipes I've yet found in Piemonte...

Tonight we lashed out and had a 2-course meal. The non-ignorant will already know that Italians normally eat a 5-course meal. Unfortunately, I am still some way from achieving a feast of these proportions.

My first course was fresh agnolotti (meat ravioli) with sage. All you do is boil the agnolotti as per normal pasta (always salting the water of course). While it is boiling, fry a handful of cut up sage in butter, then add it to the cooked and drained agnolotti with added olive oil. Delizioso! And yes, I did get the sage from my garden...

The second course was salciccia (sausage) with zucchini and basil. All you do is fry the sausage, then remove it from the frypan. Add butter to the juices and fry the zucchini with a handful of cut up basil. Meraviglioso! And yes, I did get the basil from my garden...

Fortunately for my health, I've discovered the delights of cooking with herbs straight from the garden...

But unfortunately for my health, I've discovering the delights of cooking with butter...