Thursday, April 29, 2010

I (Don't) Want My HGTV!

I’m ditching the remote. I’m pulling the plug on HGTV and breaking away from browsing the magazine racks. I have tossed too much money to publishers of home improvement “guides” that charge ridiculous cover prices for useless fluff. I’ve wasted too many hours in front of the tube in search of inspiration for our renovations only to find myself frustrated and hapless, so I’m calling it quits on consumer design theory.

I’m tired of seeing cavernous kitchens that are termed “small space,” and I cannot watch one minute more of would-be home buyers traipsing around far-flung locales flinging around $700,000 budgets for vacation homes they’ll visit for a few weeks a year. So-called “Tuscany style” books, *so* aren’t.

Magazines show lovely before-and-after photos, but when you’re dealing with a house that is mere decades old and giving it a makeover, and you have a super-sized home improvement store down the street, it’s fairly easy to be a do-it-yourselfer. This Old House? HA!

Shows that promise design solutions make me laugh. Sure! Anyone can remodel when you’re pulling out wafer-thin drywall, slapping up a coat of latex, and scattering advertiser-sponsored accessories about liberally. I say, try taking a 300-year old stone building cantilevered onto a mountain with walls that are three feet thick and an electrical system that is roughly one generation removed from Edison…then find me and we’ll talk.

We’re discovering why big home-improvement stores aren’t…uh, big in Italy. Any small undertaking has the potential to become a major ordeal. This is a bit tough for Bryan, an avowed putterer and competent DIYer.

I carried home some Italian magazines which had fabulous photos and ideas, and were well qualified to offer suggestions on ancient structures and their unique qualities, but they suffered unfortunate bloody deaths in my suitcase. The sole survivor was the one I purchased for the cantina restoration, a project we won’t be tackling for quite some time.

To make the place habitable, at least to a camping level, we need a kitchen. Houses in Italy, if you don’t already know, come bare. We’re talking no fixtures, no kitchen cupboards, no sink, buck nekkid bare. One dusty bulb hangs from a wire in the living area as a lone light source. We are luckier than some: we have functional bathroom fixtures and a roof. Many homes we looked at contained neither.

Lovely Old-World Kitchen...would love to find one of these!

I wasn’t thrilled with the previous owner’s placement of the kitchen and gray-tiled walls. I have been weighing the idea of moving it to the other side of the large living space. I explained my thought to our engineer-slash-contractor friend who assured me it was doable. All I’d have to do would be to jackhammer up the floor the entire length of the room and plumb in piping, then jackhammer some more to create a drainage system, make a trench through the stone wall to transfer electrical wires, and then wrap a gas line around the outside of the building to that part of the house. Then, of course, find tiles that match the flooring to fix the jack-hammered parts or else tear out all the tiles and redo the entire pavement for the room. No problem.

I think now the kitchen may remain where it currently rests. But the odd-sized space, the fireplace, the uneven walls, and weird window placements present challenges. I’ve sought solutions, but so far they’ve eluded me. All the kitchen designs here are for enormous rooms with an acre of countertop and a six-burner pro-style stove. In short, they’re bigger than my entire allotted living-dining-kitchen space.

Italian design kitchen sites are fabulously geared toward small spaces, but are also frequently, fabulously modern. I briefly toyed with going sleek and gleamy as a contrast to the antique character of the place, but then decided that I’d prefer to keep it rustic. Finding the items and figuring out how to make them fit in the limited space is another matter. The visions pirouette in my head but whether they’ll work in real life is anyone’s guess.

But first things first. Doors. Our first simple project is to replace the two sets of decayed French doors that lead to balconies from the living room and bedroom. Alas, “simple” is such a relative word. The project is going to involve stone masons and wood workers. A door cannot simply be purchased and installed. There are no standard, pre-fab sizes ready and waiting at Lowe’s. It has to be specially made to fit the opening. Rotted lintels and jambs must be removed. The stone must be repaired after their removal. New lintels and jambs must be installed. Then the doors that have been made just for our piccola casa can be hung. Except. The thresholds need work, too. More stone masonry.

It probably would all be fairly simple and straight-forward if we were there, but communicating back and forth by email and phone calls is slow and tedious. I’ll be traveling there shortly but we needed to the get the ball rolling: the woodworker needed to order the materials so he can make the doors. The stone mason had to meet with him in case the stone work would change the dimensions of the openings. Photos, emails, and misunderstandings have abounded. It’s a clumsy ballet played out in work boots and cyberspace.

If HGTV wants some compelling restoration viewing, this would do nicely, I think. Much more challenging than most of the “reality” shows I’ve turned off. But alas, they have no programs like “Design on a Euro-Dime” or “Rustic Old World Kitchens in the Old World” or “Generation Renovation: The Medieval Edition”, so I’ll be tuning out.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Happy Birthday Roma!

Tanti auguri a Roma, the Eternal City is celebrating its 2763rd birthday.  For an old gal, she is still full of vigor, vitality and verve.  The city that was started by orphaned demigods has never forgotten its semi-supernatural birth, somehow pinpointing its fateful founding moment to April 21 and parlaying it into a party celebrating its past.

The mythical origins of Rome come from the legendary pairing of pagan god Mars with a vestal virgin, who gave birth to twins, Romulus and Remus.  Modern Romans are ever aware of their partial deity origins as well as her place in world history, which is why they consider their city the center of the universe- or at least the center of Italian culture, history and politics.  A couple of Roman friends weren't too amused by the title of a play that was performed in Ascoli Piceno last year, "Ascoli era Ascoli quando Roma era pascoli" - rough translation: Ascoli was already a city when Rome was still a pasture.  While they conceded the historical truth, they also pointed out that Rome subsequently conquered and destroyed Ascoli, then rebuilt it as a Roman city, whose street pattern and ruins remain.

The birthday bash will go on all week with elaborately costumed re-enactments, parades and concerts, lavish banquets, long-winded speeches, chariot races, and eye-popping fireworks.  Admission to the city's museums will be free.

If you can't be in Rome to celebrate, don't fret, you can still fete at home:

*Tie on a toga and do dinner like the ancients with this rundown of Roman recipes

Prefer to eat something from this millenium?  Kyle Phillips offers a lot of classic dishes from the Rome region.  Or order a more modern specialty, Pesto alla Romana, developed by my friend Giorgio, utilizing the flavors of the countryside - mint, hazelnuts and pecorino romano.

*Learn your Roman name.  (Mine would Gaia Valeria Fortuna...has a nice ring, don't you think?)

*See the scenery of the bella citta' through a slew of web camsSecret Rome's photos capture candid shots and spectacular spots all over town.  Roma Every Day gives you a daily photo fix.

*Light some torches and sing a rousing rendition of Tanti auguri a te, while eating a Nutella birthday cake.

Happy Birthday, Roma!  Still bella after all these years!

Graphic credit: Ancient

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Friends and Famiglia

While looking through some photos recently -old family treasures as well as newer shots- I realized just how many pictures I have (and how many I still need to label, categorize, and edit, but that's another story!)  Both sides of my family have boxloads and hard drives full of photos, so I think it must be a genetic trait to hold on to them instead of weeding them out.  While I really not a pack-rat, photos rarely get pitched. 

My grandmother was notorious for sneaking snapshots when you least expected it, although to her dismay a high proportion of her pictures decapitated someone or caught a corner of her thumb in the process.  It didn't matter, she kept them all and rolled them out at every family gathering.  I admit I always loved looking at them, laughing at the clothes and hairstyles, and reliving funny family moments.

While looking through and labeling some of my more recent shots, I realized that not only do we have wonderful familial ties with family members who are also friends, but I have treasured friends who have become a part of my family, too.  Glancing at the photos, it also struck me that some of these friends even look like family!

Can you tell which ones are related and which ones aren't?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

A Day of Remembrance

This morning at 3:32 a.m. the bells of L'Aquila tolled resonantly, pealing 308 times for each victim of the earthquake that ravaged this city one year ago.  More than 20,000 people braved the high-altitude night chill and threatening rain to gather and commemorate the moment that changed their lives and their city forever. 

They snaked through the rubble-strewn centro storico in a solemn torch and candle-lit procession, making their way to the Piazza Duomo.  At 4:00 a.m. a mass was held inside the severely damaged Basilica, with big screens set up in the piazza to bring the message of hope and perseverance to the overflowing crowd.

While the tendopoli have been dismantled and prefabricated houses have been set up, they are temporary shelters far removed from the city, in "non places" that lack public transit connections, grocery stores, restaurants and gathering spots.  The residents are housed but they are not at home.  They are in a sort of limbo in a hinterland; the heart of their community has been destroyed and they do not yet have a place to regain that sense of being and belonging that they need and crave.  The centro is still overflowing with 4 1/2 million tons of rubble and the residents are not allowed to enter their old neighborhoods, their piazzas, their homes.

The earth-jarring, life-shattering quake took place one year ago.  The aftershocks have ceased, the victims have been buried, the survivors have carried on, but tremors of displacement, disillusion and devastation continue to rock their world.

Today I bow my head and pause to remember; I stand with the Aquilani to tell them that they are not forgotten.

* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Related Links:
Dear Davide:  A touching letter from 12-year old Sofia to a classmate who died in the earthquake.

3:32 a.m.:  Eleonora's experience during the earthquake and her time in Abruzzo.

Then and Now:  A photographic slideshow of scenes comparing them from a year ago to today.

Abruzzo: Un Anno Dopo il Terremoto - a report on the state of the area one year later (in Italian)

Adopt a Student from Abruzzo.  NIAF continues their support of Abruzzo students to help them continue their studies.

The Eagle is Slowly Rising.  My previous blog entries about L'Aquila.

** Post Edited 4/7/10 to add photos of the MAPs (Moduli Abitativi Provvisori, modular provisional housing units).  They are clumped together and located in rural areas or villages outside of L'Aquila.  A list of those locales is posted on the Protezione Civile website.   As the photos show, these are rapidly-constructed temporary dwellings, resembling glorified Tuff-sheds on concrete slabs.  They are certainly better than tents, but they do not embody or encourage the sense of "home" and place that make a community.