31 January 2011

Nonno and nonna are with us...

I like old things. They remind me of times gone by. Our 200 year old house allows me to share my life with those from the past. I dream of the people who have lived here before us. I feel their spirits as they waft throughout the rooms. I hear the sound of their arguments and laughter in the stone walls.

When we finally finished renovating our bedroom, it was only fitting that my spirit friends should be surrounded by old bedroom furniture.

So on a clear blue sky day in mid September we found ourselves driving to Torino.

While local farmers were busy amidst the vines and driving tractors pulling trailers laden with grapes to cantinas, we were going to collect an armadio for our bedroom.

As we approached Torino we were rewarded with beautiful views of the alps that surround the city. Torino was shining in the brisk late summer morning as if to show off its royal past.

The purchasing process for our armadio had been a simply wonderful experience, right from finding it on ebay italia, communicating with its owner, then finally driving to 'meet' it for the first time on that fresh morning.

The lady who sold the armadio to us, Daniela, is slim, has short grey hair, beautiful clear olive skin and is in her 50's. She met us at the gates of her apartment building in the centre of Torino and took us upstairs to her apartment. While she prepared coffee for us we inspected the armadio. It stood in her wide hallway amidst boxes and mess because she was in the process of moving. A glance around the apartment told us that Daniela was an artist and a musician (pianist) and perhaps a little eccentric. After coffee we asked her to play us something on the piano and were stunned when she rewarded us with several bars of clear and confident classical music.

It was love at first sight. Our new armadio was old. It is an antique from the 1850's and made of solid walnut. It has all sorts of cracks, marks and damage on its lovely patina and these give it heaps of character. It also has a legend.

Daniela explained to us that it had belonged to her grandfather who had come to Italy from Germany where he lived near the border with Holland. He was apparently a very intelligent man and a brilliant photographer and he used to develop his photos in the armadio, hanging them on the rail to dry in the dark depths of the cupboard!!! He eventually gave up the art of photography at the age of 90 and died shortly afterwards.

Unfortunately, the armadio was much bigger than we had imagined. We realised fairly quickly that it would be impossible to travel back to Canelli with this precious antique sliding around on top of our little 1.5mt x 1.5mt trailer. We told Daniela that we thought it was too big for us to take. She looked upset for us but then went over to the armadio with a small screwdriver and proceeded to undo several tiny screws as well as some larger bolts that we'd never seen the like of before. She told us the armadio broke down into 12 pieces! We were wrapt!

Just as we were starting to dismantle it, I noticed a small antique desk on the opposite wall. It was made of beautiful wood and had a smooth marble top. Daniela said it was her most treasured possession.

After a few minutes, we had dismantled the armadio to the stage of having to lift the top off it. Just as Stu lifted the top off, there was a sudden slip and a crash. The two doors of the armadio had crashed to the floor, smashing into the marble desk on their way. We were horrified. Amidst profuse apologies, we dropped to our knees to check the desk. Thankfully there was no damage. We then checked the armadio doors. Again, no damage. Both pieces of furniture were aged and well-preserved; their materials hardened and their construction stern stuff! We learned quickly that the doors of our armadio are held on by a link into the top.

Daniela was very emotional as we prepared to take the armadio away. She helped us carry every piece into the lift and out to the trailer. She even got involved in the loading and helped us to squeeze cushions between various pieces to protect them. The loading took a full hour and she was clearly thrilled that we had taken so much care with it.

Just as we were finishing the tying down, I noticed Daniela walking around the trailer with her arms crossed and her head bent. She seemed to be meditating. Suddenly she looked up at me and said 'Mio nonno e molte contento' ('my grandfather is very happy'). She was absolutely beaming. It was as if she'd got a message from beyond. When she grasped my hand for a photo beside the trailer, I felt strangely connected to this woman.

Later, when the armadio had been re-erected in our bedroom, I had stood back and welcomed nonno to the house.

A few weeks later, we returned to Daniela's apartment, this time to buy the matching cassettiere (set of drawers) which belonged to 'nonna'.

Now, when I look at our old furniture, I imagine the sound of nonno's voice in the waxed walnut wood of the armadio and see the stretch of nonna's smile in the polished cracks of the cassettiere...

30 January 2011

I love the way I can be childish...

It was when the wheels on the elegant white car in front of me started to spin that I started to panic.

I was driving our Suzuki Grand Vitara in a snow storm for the first time in my life.

I was 45 years old.

I could have panicked and, as a much younger person, I probably would have.

But last night I didn't. I now have a mature mind.

I slipped the car into 4WD and confidently passed the other car, which was now painfully zig-zagging towards the peak of the range just outside Canelli.

A few minutes later I was at home and dressed in my pink and brown flannelette pyjamas. Within seconds I was tucked up in bed enjoying the warm heat of the electric blanket on my back. The snow was long forgotten.

A few hours later I was awake and dressed in my 'round the house' winter garb. I was looking out of the bedroom window at a valley that lay thick and heavy with snow. I was challenging the clods of snow on the trees, teasing each of them, hoping that I'd be watching the unlucky one when it finally fell silently to the ground. I laughed and clapped my hands when I won.

I love my mind. I love the way it alternates between maturity and childishness.

28 January 2011

Always check one's most vital winter equipment BEFORE winter...

Most of you will have the good sense to know that one should check one's most vital winter equipment BEFORE winter.

The ignorant amongst you will understand that we had so much else to do just to get INTO the house for winter that we assumed the fire burning happily away in the kitchen would last us throughout the cold season...

Alas, this was not to be the case.

Last week we had a chimney fire. Our most precious fire, the one in the kitchen that also breathes warm air into our bedroom, started spewing noxious gases into our bedroom. At the time, Stu suspected a chimney fire because of the heat in the stones behind the fire and the colour of the smoke coming out of the chimney. But neither of us realised the danger associated with breathing in the smoke. The fumes were shocking but we went to bed anyway in our poisonous room and woke up with rasping throats. In hindsight, it's amazing we didn't die in our sleep (the gases coming off a carbon build-up in a chimney can be equivalent to carbon monoxide poisoning!)

Anyway, we immediately phoned the muratore (wall, roof and chimney expert). Aldo is our favourite tradesperson because he is patient, reliable and honest. He said he would come. We didn't push the 'when' because we were already aware of the dangers of getting on a roof during winter and even suspected that he might not be able to help us until Spring! Instead, we waited for a phone call from him to confirm his visit. It didn't come while my sister Joanne and two young nephews Nic and Sam were here but it did come the day we dropped them off at Malpensa for their return trip to Australia (2 days ago).

I was in a rather emotional state after realising how empty and quiet the house was, when Aldo phoned and said he would arrive immediately!

Despite my red eyes, we showed him our problem and he said he would come the next day with a cherry picker. He demonstrated some concern about the muddy state of our driveway in terms of manoevring the cherry picker but it didn't last long once he remembered that very cold temperatures were forecast for the following morning so any mud would be frozen anyway.

So this morning at 9am, Aldo, two young men and a cherry picker drove up our driveway. It was particularly frosty at minus 5, perhaps the worst we've had yet. There was ice everywhere: the grass, the trees and the roof where all frozen. And of course the mud.

As I watched them stabilise the cherry picker, I felt sad that my nephews had missed this 'event' by only days.

However, the grown up Italian men were like boys anyway, as they 'played' with the cherry picker. They argued over who should use it and laughed at each other's lack of ability to move it smoothly and in the right direction.

Two of them went onto the roof while the other managed the engine of the truck which was connected to the power source for the extendable arm. The two on the roof looked long and hard at the chimney, then decided to cold chisel off the brick top so that they could see inside the cavity all the way down to the kitchen. Aldo had a very small torch to assist their viewing so I wasn't surprised when he asked me if I had a stronger torch. Of course, to collect my torch, he needed to come back down via the cherry picker. Cynically, I wondered if this wasn't just an excuse to have another 'ride'. There was quite a bit of hidden laughter as the other two men watched Aldo negotiate the arm down without breaking all the tiles on our roof in the process.

Once back on the roof, he yelled down that the chimney was clean and that a stainless steel chimney flue had already been installed in the brick cavity! We felt embarrassed but he explained that if the stench had been so bad it might have completely burned off the offending layer of carbon. We were also wrapt to hear about the flue because this seems to be a priority for everyone who restores houses and we weren't sure if ours had been done or not.

It was at this point that Stu's life turned to crap. Aldo invited him to come up in the cherry picker to have a look down the chimney himself. Aware of Stu's fear of heights, I quickly volunteered him and in no time at all Stu found himself in a very wobbly cherry picker with a very dodgey driver.

Once Stu had been returned safely to ground, Aldo announced that he would 'go and get the stone'. 'The stone' was to replace the bricks that had formed the top of the chimney. During the Autumn rains, we'd been plagued by a leaking chimney and he had explained to us then that it was normal Piemontese practice to replace weak brick chimney tops with a single piece of stone.

When he returned half an hour later, he had a beautiful piece of grey granite with him. Once up on the roof, he positioned the granite perfectly, finally cementing it into place. I noted the pride he took in ensuring that his cement mix was right. When he built the stone wall in the kitchen for us a few months ago, he was very fussy about his mix. A real craftsperson.

While he was doing this, he asked us to light the kitchen fire so that he could see if the smoke was still coming into our bedroom.

A few minutes later, we had all three men in our kitchen. Aldo's two young helpers looked and behaved like they'd never seen a fire before. Within seconds, Stu's humble fire which was focused on maximum efficiency in terms of wood usage, had been fed like never before! It was a veritable bonfire as it roared away in its confined space! Then they sat back and marvelled at how much heat came out of the fire and how far into the room the heat extended. It was really quite hilarious.

But once the initial excitement was over, they all looked at the flue and the fan and decided that not enough air was getting through the fire and that this was causing the build up of carbon inside the chimney. To avoid future chimney fires, Aldo told us we should run the fire fast and hard (a bonfire) every few weeks. 'Make it eat the wood!' he exclaimed.

So we are warm again, albeit because of a very attentive Italian tradesperson rather than any great pre-winter planning on our part...