Monday, February 22, 2010

La Nuova (Vecchia) Casa

My new house is about 350 years old. There has been much discussion among our acquaintances as to the real age of the building. There are probably records in some great book at the city archives that we may one day be able to consult, but that would take away some of the lively debate we have been enjoying. Some friends say it is even older, while others argue for a more "modern" construction-meaning it is "only" 250 years old. Judging from the layers of dirt we've encountered I'd throw my vote on the older side of the coin. Maria and I think we could actually see the varying epochs of history in the strata layers that covered the floor. Curtains of spider webs had to be parted, like something you'd see in an Indiana Jones movie. We have breathed in and sneezed out some ancient dirt, my friends.

There is a very old-fashioned fireplace with a very small and irregular bocca, a particular feature very peculiar to this area.  The small hole consumed less wood and wasted less heat, I'm told.  They were also built this way because the primary function of the fireplace was for cooking, and coals would be brought out onto the stone where a pot was hung from a metal ring.

In addition to an apartment likely built in the 1600s we have taken possession of two cantinas and a legnaia. Because the town is built onto the hillside these storage rooms of old are carved out of solid rock. The cantine were the key selling point for Bryan, who envisioned demijohns of vino and legs of prosciutto merrily aging in their naturally climate-controlled depths.

The legnaia, or "woodshed" as it is translated, was a bonus, a room we hadn't seen during our original property tour, which rests below our flagstone terrace and, like the cantine, is chiseled out of the mountainside. It currently contains about 30 big glass demijohns ready for a trip to the local winery, along with a discarded bathtub where, legend has it, potent moonshine was once-upon-a-time brewed up. The legnaia is roomy and cozy and may one day be converted into a taverna or office. We're told we can hack away at the rock to enlarge it, if we should ever feel the urge.

View from the village edge to see how it is built into the hillside

The terrace is going to be a fabulous space once it is weeded. There is room for a bistro table and maybe a wood-burning grill. There are stone built-in planters for herbs and a banco for sitting. Giovanna told me that women would sit there to shell peas or mend clothing while chatting.  I foresee a pretty wrought iron gate at its entrance and wisteria or honeysuckle on an arbor. I will sit there and enjoy my cappuccino while taking in the view and listening to the church bells clang out the time.

Below, in the garden that we are told belongs to us, a nest of cats live in playful harmony, climbing a tree trunk up to a cozy perch of dried foliage that looks like they have taken over an eagle's nest. They are probably descendants of cats who roamed this village with roots dating back hundreds of years, like everyone else who lives here. We are the newcomers, the only foreigners in town, but we have been told that since my heritage hails from a nearby village I am already considered a paesana. With warm smiles, friendly chats, rounds of caffe, and helpful assistance given freely, I have already been made to feel like a local, confirming our choice of this house and this village.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Quest for the Keys

“I don’t have a key or a deed to show for it, but we now own a house in Italy,” I told Bryan in a phone call immediately after the closing. After signing the papers, the notaio informed me that it would take about  a month to complete the official document and send it to me.  As the previous owner dashed from the notaio’s office to catch a taxi, she absentmindedly informed me that she was not in possession of a key to the house we had just purchased, thrusting us in pursuit of a relic that was akin to a search for the holy grail.

Probabilmente le si trova da Peppe,” she told us cryptically. Upon arrival we duly sought out Peppe, who did not have them, but who linked us to the last known keeper of the keys. Peppe held up his hands in front of his chest and, with a regretful expression, informed us that he had turned them over to la signora’s local accountant who handles matters for her in this region. This ragioniera, like all good antagonists, claimed ignorance and cast blame back onto the previous relic-holder, namely Peppe. An impasse lasted several hours.

Local guides were enlisted to help us seek out clues to its whereabouts. They surveyed the situation and assessed varying motives for concealment. After about an hour of piazza-side discussion, a consensus was reached that the ragioniera, acting as an agent for the insensitive land baron, was to be held accountable. Peppe, after all, was a neighbor who was happy to have us buying property in the vicolo, and he had explained quite worthily to my guides that he had returned the key because he fully expected that it would have been sent to the signora, so she could present it to me at the closing. All involved, including eavesdropping passersby, agreed the ragioniera was the key-keeping culprit.

Phone calls were made, but the noble’s agent, not wanting to stoop to drive from Potenza into the hinterlands to search for them, suggested that it was our problem and we should “just have a locksmith come over and change the locks.” That’s when our friends, Peppino and Giovanna, donned their armour, stepped in, and got themselves into a true chivalric lather. “This is unacceptable! How can this woman not have a key ready after all the months Valeria has waited? What do you mean you expect her to go through hoops to get inside the house she has just purchased? It’s not her responsibility to get keys made! You get them made and bill them to la signora!”

More inquiries ensued involving a widening circle of players; our righteous search for the holy grail led us through shadows and rocky terrain while our hopes of finding the coveted key flagged. Finally, in late afternoon, la signora deigned to return a call to Giovanna, wondering why everyone was so worked up. Her condescending nonchalance set Giovanna, a normally sweet-tempered, angelic-faced woman, into a diatribe explaining to la signora the meaning of courtesy, telling her that her actions were not just rude they were of cattivo gusto, socially unacceptable and uncouth. This may be how you do things in Roma, she railed, but it is a slap in the face to Valeria, who wants merely and rightly to enter the house she purchased a couple days ago. It is your duty to get her a key, and get it to her NOW!

I’m always amazed at Italians’ ability to argue forcefully and then end a conversation on an amiable note. Giovanna returned to her normal self, uttered some pleasantries, chirped a sweet buona sera and a series of musical ciao-ciao-ciao’s and snapped her phone shut.

Scusami,” she said, “but this has me so angry!” Then she was off in pursuit of la signora’s local housekeeper to see if she had an extra set of keys for this particular apartment. The elderly lady was appalled at the story, delved into a search in la signora’s “big house” and came up empty.

With spirits flagging we all tromped down to the coffee bar like a dour parade. The ragionera was not happy to be among the peasants dealing with this, even more so now that half the town was angry with him and his boss. He had, somewhat suspiciously, located the small keys for the cantinas, our rock-hewn storage chambers where generations of prosciutto-making and sausage-curing has taken place. One door opened easily; in the other, the key fit and turned but not enough to ease the lock open. He suggested WD-40. While it may well have been a sensible idea, our knights were not going to allow him to shirk any of his full duty. There followed more arguing from Peppino. More waiting.

The ragioniera went off somewhere; I figured he escaped back to Potenza, out of reach of the villagers who were clearly enjoying the show and whose ire was mounting against him in favor of the povera signora americana who had been innocently, fruitlessly, diligently searching and was being held out in the cold by the landed gentry.

Suddenly the ragioniera appeared with a long silver key. He held it aloft like a religious icon. We don’t know from where he procured it or whose door it was meant to open. “It just might work,” he said. I knew it was not the original key for our door; when we looked at the apartment the key that had been handed to us was a big iron thing. He made a ceremonious gesture and inserted his new find into the old-fashioned keyhole and twisted it. The door snapped open.

Amid cheers and a reverently spoken ‘finalmente’ we crossed the threshold into the inner sanctum. It may have been the dulling light, or perhaps my newly-inspired suspicion of the suddenly-discovered relic, but I thought I detected a slight smirk on the face of the ragioniera as he departed.

The original iron key has not turned up, still secreted away to confound the seekers. The mysteriously-appearing replacement is duller than the original grail perhaps, but it gave me access to the castle nonetheless, with my fellow villagers wishing me a warm welcome by their solidarity in the search.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Thelma and Louise in a Low-Rider

Or, as Maria put it, Thelma and Louise in a Low Rider Doing Under the Tuscan Sun in Basilicata With a Toilet Brush (the complete title).

The paperwork was signed.  The deed was read aloud in a tiring session in a notaio's office.  The house officially became ours.  Maria and I packed the Fiesta and prepared to hit the road that would transport us south to Basilicata. Giorgio told us all was well with our trusty little car. He had replaced the battery and had it looked over by his mechanic. Tutt’OK, he said, so I hadn’t had any reason to think anything would be amuck.

Suitcases, duffel bags, and Bryan’s tool box were all neatly stowed. I got in, excited to be on my way to my new home, only to discover that the driver’s seat was broken, stuck into a strange position that elevated my knees to the steering wheel while dropping my caboose to the floor. Hmm, definitely not how we left it.

I reached below my right knee and lifted the lever that controls the seat gizmo. Niente. Several tries, no movement. Giorgio got in and yanked at it; he didn’t remember adjusting the seat in that peculiar manner but couldn’t figure out how to get it back to its normal upright and locked position, either. Things were getting ready to turn into an ordeal as he and Francesca were making noises about taking it to a mechanic. Maria and I wanted only to get out of Dodge and be on our way, so we cut off all talk of meccanicos and repair shops by hopping in and roaring away.

I felt like I was in a low-rider with my butt scraping the pavement, forcing the rest of me into an uncomfortable recline.  All I needed was the tricked-out wheels and leather-twine covered steering wheeling to be a covergirl for Lowrider Magazine.  Well, that and more cleavage.

With my knees slapping the steering column we laid down a bit of rubber on the Grande Raccordo Annulare, the ring road that encircles Rome, and hit the accelerator. We whooped with joy when we hit the A-1 autostrada, Thelma and Louise on the open road whizzing past ancient hilltop villages and blowing past Fiats. 

We stopped at a roadside truck stop that Bryan and I had previously discovered which offers zero atmosphere -okay, let's be honest, it's a dive - but they make one of the best pizzas in the country. No, I'm not kidding.  Any time we are anywhere near the place we make a detour to eat there, so it was clearly destiny that we arrived in time for a late lunch of a perfect pizza graced with mozzarella di bufala, the king of soft, creamy. luscious cheeses. We were the only females in the joint and drew lots of curious eyes.

When my hips could no longer stand the pressure of the seat position, Louise – er, I mean Maria – took over, thus giving her a new adventure…driving in Italy for the very first time. She worked it like a real Italian and zigged through traffic, rode the center line like a native-born driver, and gestured expertly at a slow poke.

The roads became less trafficked, the mountains swelled before us, the elevation change strained the engine. We had arrived in Basilicata. We started uphill from the Basento Valley just as the sun was starting to recede, casting a magical glow upon the hilltop towns around us. We bounced over ruts on the narrow, twisty road, Louise’s rear firmly planted on the chassis.

We arrived at the agriturismo to find enthusiastic hugs from Peppino and Giovanna, a warm fire, and a family dinner of homemade specialties laid out in eager hospitality. 

Welcome home.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Partying Roman-Style on Jetlag

Knowing that internet access would be sporadic throughout the trip I lined up guest bloggers to keep you entertained in my absence.  I hope you enjoyed their insights.  Thanks to Jessica, Giorgio and Pauline for keeping things lively around here!  The three weeks went by far too quickly, but we had a near-lifetime of experiences in a short time span.  Memorable, touching, comical, educational and fun...I am still processing it all. 

Over the next couple weeks I'll be sharing some of those experiences.  Part I - The Roman Birthday Party...
* * * * * *

Maria and I inadvertently discovered an unfortunate truth. When one arrives in Europe with sleep deprivation and an 8-hour jetlag, and one is allowed to nap for only 45 minutes upon arrival before being rocket-propelled along curvy roads to a party being held in a 13th century castle where one is made to consume a six-course meal and interact exclusively in a foreign language, one has exactly 4 hours and 23 minutes of afternoon brain function and adrenaline to expend before one’s energy reserves give out and one’s exhausted head hits the table amidst raucous Romans dancing the electric slide.

Franco’s birthday bash started with an enormous meal worthy of whatever noble type used to occupy the castle. Plates continually appeared; we kept pace with the voracious eaters at our table, forks bouncing amiably while a singer crooned poorly-pronounced American tunes to the appreciative diners. An emcee, who was part comedian/part magician/part late-night talk show host dressed in a retro white suit, wended his way through the tables performing tricks and word plays.

Just when we thought they were going to roll out the cake, Franco’s wife yelled, “E adesso balliamo!” thus turning the dining room into a stage set for Dancing With The Stars.  Music poured out of a large speaker and started bouncing off the stone walls while a multi-colored disco light show commenced. The stars –or at least their Italian look-alikes- strutted to the dance floor. We watched Richard Gere twist his hips while his scarf swished in time to the beat. Two couples over from him we spotted a young Tony Bennett gracefully twirl his well-heeled partner in perfectly-executed loops. At one point, when the emcee shouted out instructions for an interactive game-dance, Peter Lorre came and grabbed my hand, forcing me onto the dance floor while smiling and jovially whispering to his friends, “I’m dancing with the Americana.”  I think maybe points were being racked up in some manner.  Maria was forced into a line dance and passed around like a trophy.

Then things began to turn hazy. Through the fog of fatigue, the lights and music started to warp and it seemed like I was watching a live Fellini film from the inside out. The dancing couples seemed to be all in synch, and the scene appeared to alternately speed up and then slow down while misty camera work gave it a dreamy appearance. Big smiles from Tony Bennett, then the camera cut to a lady with her head resting on her husband’s perfectly-fitting suit jacket, all seen through pearlesque light that would suddenly gain brilliance before fading back to a soft glow. Then Tony Bennett laughed, his face right in front of mine, and I realized that we were not watching the scene so much as the performers were watching us, and being very amused by our droopy eyes and tired heads bobbing toward the table in search of pillows.

I don't think Fellini could have scripted it any better himself.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

And The Winner Is....

{drum roll}


After shoveling a tunnel-like path through nearly 2 feet of snow, Bryan came inside and drew the winning name in the Baci Birthday Bash.  Congrats Vicky!  Since she lives in nearby Maryland I hope we can meet for a cappuccino so I can deliver the Baci treats in person.

Thanks to everyone for coming to the party, and for coming along on the adventure.  It means a lot to me that you take time to be a part of my journey.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Coming Off an Italy Hangover

I found myself stumbling and tripping while desperately filling a glass with water to quench an incredible thirst.  I felt woozy, dizzy, and disoriented, as if beset by a horrible hangover after an all- night binge.  Which I guess was rather to be expected since I just spent the past three weeks inebriating myself on bella Italia and was now paying the price with a bad case of jetlag.

I arrived in New York yesterday afternoon ragged and bedraggled.  Airline travel saps my energy and luster like nobody's business and leaves me blotchy-faced and wiped out.  I heaved my suitcase off the carousel to find it resting in a pool of blood, evidence of red wine hemorrhage seeping from its pores.  Despite my very careful packing and many previous experiences of wine-hauling, the baggage handlers at JFK managed to find a way to create carnage in my bag.  I discovered my hand-carved stone timbro di pane from Matera was busted as well.   The newspapers and expensive magazines I had packed served as gauze to soak up the bleeding, ruining them all. 

I awoke at 3:00 a.m. with the hangover symptoms, despite not having drank anything, and tossed around in bed trying to reclaim some snippets of sleep, mostly unsuccessfully.  An afternoon's nap will hopefully get me through to this evening as I attempt to put my body clock back onto the Eastern US time zone. 

Internet access was rather sporadic throughout my trip but I haven't forgotten about the birthday present.  The Baci gifts I brought home are safe and dry and tomorrow I will have Bryan pick a winner out of a hat.  Now excuse me while I prop my eyes open long enough to extract red wine from my clothes...