“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.