20 August 2010

The European summer holiday can be so annoying

Scuola vacanza. Ferragosto. Call it what you will. You'd think we'd be familiar with Europe's penchant for it's summer holidays by now, after working in procurement year after year and having trouble every August because 'Europe alla vacanza!'

But we weren't ready and that's all there is to it.

At the beginning of June, we were happily attending our Italian classes when we noticed at the end of class one day that there was more joy than normal. The six students were wishing each other 'Buona Vacanza!'. Never really sure of what is going on around us, we assumed that one of the students was going on holidays. We also wished her a 'Buona Vacanza!'.

The following week, we turned up for our Italian lessons only to find that the shutters on the school windows were closed. We rang the front door bell. No answer. We loitered around for about half an hour wondering if the teachers were late. We even forced ourselves to have coffee at our favourite cafe to pass time until the teachers arrived. About an hour later, there had still been no 'movement at the station' as Banjo would say. We went home.

The next day, we lined up outside the school again at our allotted lesson time. Nothing. We went home.

Because we are commited to our Italian lessons, this went on for about 2 weeks before we decided we should be a bit more professional about this business called 'holidays'. We should find out when the Italian school holidays are and put an end to this weekly waiting outside the school like a couple of bitter parents planning to kidnap their respective children.

To our surprise, we found that the European summer school holidays are very long. Where Australians think of the long holiday as 'Christmas holidays', Europeans think of them as 'Summer holidays' and the short break at Christmas as 'Christmas holidays'. Hence our confusion. We simply didn't 'get' that it's all about Summer, not Christmas!

Our realisation about holidays occurred at the end of June. It is now mid August and the holidays aren't over until mid September...

In the meantime, work on the house is continuing but our Italian is deteriorating!

Tradespeople everywhere!

Since commiting to our kitchen, we've been busy trying to get the necessary connections into the space ready for its arrival at the end of September.

There were already hot and cold water connections, waste connections and electrical outlets but they needed to be redirected into the middle of the room where the island would be. We also needed a gas connection. All of this work meant that we needed a plumber/gas fitter and an electrician.

Add to this a carpenter (because we wanted two new glass doors for the kitchen and dining room entries as well as a new window for the kitchen) and a muratore (because we needed to do some serious stone walling in order to make the space for the window) and you start to get a feel for our penchant for multiple tradespeople. By way of explanation regarding the window, previous owners had bricked in a space in the kitchen wall which was once the original front door. This bricked in wall was a blight on the beauty of the rest of the house because it was orange brick as opposed to grey stone. We'd always dreamed of correcting the brick with stone and restoring the house to its original state but thought that such a drastic change would be impossible or cost prohibitive. Faced with one last chance to make such a change, we agreed to obtain a cost for the work and make a decision based on that.

So all of this required activity and dreamed of activity meant that we needed to engage and coordinate quite a few tradespeople, including a carpenter, a muratore, a plumber and an electrician.

First to visit was the carpenter, who provided us with a quote for the new double glazed window that we hoped could go in the kitchen wall. Bepe is about 40 years old. He is short. Very short. When we first met him, he told us that he was from Calabria. Since then, he has made two external double glazed doors for us. Bepe is an artisan. He is a simply beautiful carpenter. His workshop is an artisan's dream, huge beams of old oak and walnut reach from ground to ceiling against one wall. There are several sets of old lourvres in the process of being restored in another corner. There are countless door frames and windows in various stages of production. There is also a very small dog who caused my heart to suffer irreparable damage when I walked into the workshop and surprised him on our first visit. Bepe said he would coordinate with the muratore regarding the creation of a hole in the wall for the window installation and the re-stoning afterwards.

Next to visit was the muratore. Aldo is about 60 years old. He has a bad back, probably from lugging stones around for all of his 40 years in the trade. He looked at the stone wall like only a muratore can and finally announced that it was possible to insert a window. He asked us if we had spare stones so we took him to our little stockpile of stones that we've dug up from the garden and other places. He was relieved, explaining that stones are very difficult to get these days. He even told us that building the stone shell of our house in current times would cost around EUR 200,000! He provided us with a quote for our relatively minor work (by comparison) and we gave him the go ahead, confident that he and Bepe would coordinate the work.

Next to visit was the plumber. Lilo has helped us since our early traumas with water and sewerage. He is about 35 years old and a marathon runner. Because the phone makes me nervous, I prefer to send Lilo text messages on his mobile. They usually start with 'Ciao Lilo, sono Caterina, abbiamo uno problemo...' which you might think would scare him away. Despite this method of communication being a bit too intimate, he always responds immediately so it appears to work for us. In no time at all, we hear a disturbance in the valley and seconds later see a white van speeding up the driveway and sending gravel all over our paddocks. It screeches to a halt in front of the house and Lilo dives out of it. While he gives us a broad smile and a loud 'Buon Giorno' we appreciate his perfect teeth and curly dark Roman hair. He runs into the kitchen, we explain what needs to be done and he runs back to his van. Through the window we see him stumble on a wobbly rock in our uneven path along the front of the house. We watch as he loses control of his body and flails his arms and legs in an attempt to stay upright. We wait for him to fall, perhaps even slide under his vehicle. We worry that he has spained his ankle. But he dives up, throws his body into his van and emerges seconds later with various pieces of plumbing-related paraphenalia.

A few days later, we heard vehicles making their way up the valley and dashed outside just in time to see Bepe and Aldo pull up outside the house. Bepe had the window and Aldo had the tools. We oohed and aahed over Bepe's beautiful workmanship while Aldo took a jackhammer out of his truck. We offered to act as labourers for Aldo so when it started he didn't waste time asking us to cover the stone pile with a tarp. Apparently, the stones slide off the cement if they are wet which makes wall building difficult. Once the pile was covered, we returned with a wheelbarrow and spade to collect the rubble that Aldo was creating at alarming speed from the old bricked in wall. When he'd finished the demolition, he sent us off to the stone pile to find heaps of flat stones with at least one right angle for him. We dashed off and picked over the pile until we found several stones that roughly met his criteria. Then we wire brushed the dirt and mud off them before presenting them to Aldo. While we waited for his approval or rejection, we felt like new chefs in a Michelin Star restaurant! Before long Aldo had re-stoned the base of the wall up to the window. After Bepe fitted his window, Aldo finished off the wall work with plaster to match the other windows. In the afternoon, when the sun proved too umconfortable for him we rigged up a tarp to provide some shade. We also gave him water and an icecream. He was a perfectionist and his wall was perfect and strong. He had built the external wall first, then the internal wall, then filled the gap between the two walls with cement and brutto (ugly) stones. This meant that the wall was almost three stones thick!

Next to visit was the electrician. Paolo is an enthusiastic 69 year old who is third generation Piemontese. He has an open face that draws you to him. He is a gentle and endlessly happy man who likes to talk. His patience with my Italian is momentous and he goes to great lengths to help me conjugate my verbs. He even introduced me to the Piemontese dialect which I managed to reject immediately. If I get distracted with another 'language' my 'pure' Italian (which is already horrific) will go to pot! Paolo arrived with a helper. The helper did all the work, while Paolo dashed off to buy bits and pieces, have long lunches and even attend his friend's father's funeral! The helper was the slowest worker we have ever seen. He had to run two cables across to the island, drill three holes in a stone wall for new powerpoints, pull cable to and through the holes, move a light switch and wire up the fan for the fireplace. It took him two full days.

I love these visits from tradepeople. Much talking goes on. Much more pointing and postulating goes on. There is a real feel that they want you to be happy with the job and that they want to do the right thing by our old rustic house. It is as if they feel a responsibility towards history. Italians don't preserve history in order to look at it from afar; they live in it.

Having said all that, we do try to minimise our use of tradespeople in order to keep costs down. Managing funds is a constant challenge for us and spending it when we don't have any income is even worse.

So we appreciated the electrician's view of the 'do and pay' relationship between tradesperson and customer.

When we offered to pay him immediately, he smiled and whispered 'Pagi a dopo...pagare e morire' ('pay later...to pay is to die')

What wonderful words of wisdom...but we're wondering exactly HOW MUCH later...our funds planning still needs to be done...

15 August 2010

The 'new kitchen' experience

We were at a stage in the house renovation where we needed a kitchen.

The kitchen 'space' is a square box with stone walls. However, all four stone walls are 'interrupted': a fireplace and radiator stand along one wall, two windows stand on another, there is a door on the third and another window on the fourth. As such, there is very little wall against which to actually place a kitchen.

Confident in the knowledge that kitchen shops are experts in such problems, we've been stalking several kitchen shops in the area over the last few months. This usually involves finding them, getting the gumption to stop outside then actually entering them, viewing the sample kitchens, then leaving before anyone can ask us questions. We'd done relatively well using this approach until we discovered the kitchen shop at Canelli. We were finally 'caught' at this shop. It happened too quickly for us; we hadn't even made it into the shop!

Fabrizio met us at the doorway with a loud 'Buongiorno!' and the smoke of his cigarette. He was in his 20's with very dark hair and very dark skin. He was very tall, very thin and very distracted. He lurched inside, turned the lights on in the showroom and watched our faces as we took in the initial view of several gleaming kitchens. Then he physically pulled us inside and started to demonstrate their features like a model on a game show. He opened every cupboard, moving it carefully and watching the hinges as they swung silently. Then he opened every drawer and turned to look at us to ensure that we noticed the smoothness of the runners. Then he played with every tap, turning them left and right. He even pulled one out of its casing so that we could fully appreciate its flexible hose. He ran his fingers along the stainless steel utensil rails revelling in the quality. Our smiles and our many 'Molto benes' caused him to beam with joy. I'm actually not sure who was more excited about the kitchens, the person selling them or the people buying them. Later we were to find out that his primary interest lay in details and beauty rather than the overall layout and other practicalities.

Then he waved his arms wildly which apparently meant that we should follow him. We soon found ourselves in his office. His gangly legs seemed to wave around dangerously as they lurched him towards the air conditioner which he turned on, and then the window which he closed. He then fell into his chair where we were relieved to see his appendages finally stilled. Not knowing exactly what we were getting ourselves in for, we watched him, perched on the edges of our fluorescent orange chairs. He opened his computer and waited. There was an awkward silence. Without enough Italian to make small talk, it was a very uncomfortably long wait. Was he opening his emails? Should we leave? Suddenly he burst into action and demanded measurements. A bit shocked, we told him we didn't have measurements; at this stage we just wanted to know about quality and approximate cost.

He sprung out of his chair and fell onto the door, opening it and again beckoning us outside with arms that looked like they would flail by themselves were they not attached to a body. Back in the showroom he walked us around the various kitchens again, this time providing approximate prices. I noticed his very long fingers lingered on certain elements of the kitchens, obviously his favourite pieces. We thanked him and told him we would think about the kitchens. On our way out he thrust a small piece of cardboard at us. 'Vieni!', he pleaded. The cardboard was an invitation to a special event that was to be held the following week. The business was launching a new cooker range. Guests would enjoy free wine from the region and free food cooked by a local Michelin Star chef.

Back in the car, we agreed that the kitchen prices were attractive. We also agreed that the event was attractive.

A few days later we found ourselves outside the showroom again, this time with a list of 'nice to haves' and several hand-drawn plans of our kitchen. I'd translated the 'nice to haves' into bad Italian. They included an island, a pull-out pantry and cupboards with wire shelving. The plans showed various views of the room: the first showed the walls, the second the arched ceilings and the third the wooden beams. Fabrizio's arms and legs were still worryingly active as he ushered us into his office. He took copies of the drawings, sat down, settled his limbs around his chair and opened his computer. Again, he waited for software to open, then he started to input all the dimensions on my plans. Slowly. Very slowly. After ten minutes, we realised that he intended to enter all of the dimensioms into his program then and there. Since he'd only got as far as half a wall in ten minutes we started to worry about the deep hole of silence and patience that stretched out in front of us. We suggested that we leave him to it and return that afternoon to see his design suggestions.

Five hours later we were sitting in Fabrizio's office, waiting for him to reveal his initial design.

We knew there was a problem because his arms and legs were considerably less animated.

'La cucina e molte difficile!', he announced, 'Molto problemo!'

'Si', we agreed.

We sat there, watching his face keenly for signs that something might be possible. Our faces must have inspired him to take further action because he suddenly beamed again, leaped out of his chair and bounded through the door. He returned with a short man in his 50's. This was apparently Giovanni, who we later discovered was Fabrizio's father. We watched Giovanni dither around the office for a while before he picked up my drawings and beckoned us to follow him. Like father, like son. We followed him out to the showroom but then found ourselves alone again except for a jittery Fabrizio who hovered around us playing with taps and cupboards. Eventually, Giovanni burst through the back of the building (via a door of course) with another man who we later discovered was his other son Luca. Giovanni beamed into our faces as the two of them walked past us and jumped into a car, where they started the engine and waited. We saw them peering into the showroom at us. We looked back at them, wondering where they were going. When Fabrizio mentioned that they were going to our place to measure our kitchen space, we realised that they were waiting to follow us home!

Aghast at the speed at which things were moving but feeling almost as enthusiastic as the locals we said goodbye to Fabrizio, who yelled 'Buongiornata!' at us through a fog of smoke, and jumped into our car.

There started a journey of two cars towards one home. The conversation in our car went something like 'How did this happen?' and 'Are we sure we're ready?' and 'How do we know they're the best/cheapest?'. The conversation in the other car probably went something like 'I hope they don't want it before the summer holidays' or 'Siesta's only an hour away' or 'Mama's made pasta for lunch'.

A few short minutes later, Giovanni was in our kitchen almost before we could open the door. Within minutes, Giovanni and Luca were deep in discussion regarding design alternatives and there were scotch tape lines all over our kitchen floor. I wondered how the tape was sticking to our dusty tiles and how long it would stay there. Then he grasped our wrists and took us for a journey around the imaginary pieces of kitchen. We liked it. Somehow, amidst many smiles, nods and grazies, we understood that Giovanni would give the design to Fabrizio who would enter it into his software and that we should return to the showroom to view the design within a few days.

We spent the next few days wandering around our scotch tape kitchen, considering possible enhancements. We also attended the special event, where we met two people who have since become our close friends (but that's another story...).

A few days later, we were in Fabrizio's office looking at our new kitchen in 3D. He had already built our enhancements into the design and we were in the process of signing a contract. We were immensely happy with the family and their business. We loved Fabrizio's enthusiasm, appreciated Giovanni's capability and felt secure in Luca's seriousness. We'd even met and adored Fabrizio's mother Philomena and we'd enjoyed the special event immensely.

We have a kitchen. Well, almost...