“We need to fill in your holes”.
“Nooo you are not to go near my holes,” I shout back. It’s not the first time I have had one of these weird conversations with Mick Kelly (Michele) our Italian Architect.
“I like my holes they’ve been there forever, why do you feel the need to fill them now?” We are talking about the alcoves in the three rooms that were once kitchens in the apartments which will now become bedrooms. I have visions of making them into nice inset shelving units for books and candles or a wardrobe space.
“Rosie it is better for the seismic level of the house. If it was straight bricks it would be okay but the walls are stone so they are irregular and with movement holes are dangerous. A solid wall is safer than a wall with a hole. Holes in the wall make the structure weak and you have a lot of holes already for window’s, doors and fireplaces. We need to fill in the unnecessary holes for safety.”
What he is saying is that in the event of an earthquake the house would less likely to crumble on top of us if we had more walls and less alcoves.
“But we live here beside the lake where there is no earthquakes,” I grumble.
“Yes the lake does protect us from earthquakes, but there is still potential of movement.”
I still find it a little magical that the lake somehow absorbs movement and protects us from earthquakes in such a seismic prone country.
“When the lake dries up and drops below a certain water level, the land around it moves a little and can affect the structure of the house,” he explains patiently.
“I don’t think there’s any fear of that have you seen the front garden? It looks like we’ve moved to Venice.” The Venetian theme around the house has been caused by the unusual heavy rainfall we have been having and exaggerated by the fact that the roofers and plumbers were not watching what each other were doing, so the roofers put one drainpipe on the far corner of the house and the plumbers put the ground drain inlet hole on the near corner of the house. The realisation that never the two shall meet only came about when the scaffolding came down.
This is noted in Mick Kelly’s notes. We’re walking around the house on a ‘finalising phase 1 inspection tour’ with Andrea our builder who has proved to be amazing. Mick Kelly speaks some english but Andrea speaks none he just goes by my facial expressions and hand gestures and understands perfectly. Our project manager disappeared about a month into the project so a new project manager was elected called ‘Google translate’. It’s done quite a good job but sometimes makes mistakes with the finer details. I’m rolling my eyes behind Mick Kelly’s back and Andrea is laughing.
We walk into the bedroom. “You sleep here?” asks Micko. “Yes,”
“But it is dangerous,” he says pointing to the plaster that has been chipped away to put in the new wiring for the light. “It needs to be filled otherwise pieces could fall and it is heavy.”
I find enough Italian to say, “It is okay it over Ronan’s side of the bed.” Andrea is laughing again but Micko isn’t having any of it, “I am serious it is dangerous!”
“Okay okay” I say rolling my eyes again. Andrea is agreeing to get Roberto out to finish filling the ceilings asap.
Later that evening myself and Ronan are laughing about how safety conscious Mick Kelly is when we hear a crash upstairs. It takes us a while to find where the noise came from and then we walk into the room Ronan is using as his office. A large piece of plaster has fallen from the ceiling and smashed all over the computer and printer.
“Maybe he has a point,” I say. “Well, at least it saves us knocking the old plaster off.”
We quietly cross the hall and move our bed to a room downstairs. It’s the 5th room we have slept in since we moved in six weeks ago. Sleeping around has a very different meaning to us.
I text Mick Kelly to say they can fill my holes, better to be safe than sorry. I’ll buy a bookcase.
“I think I need to go to a doctor, there’s something weird happening to my stomach when I do a sit-up. Look at this,” says Ronan lying on the bed beside me and does a sit up. A pointy ridge rises down the centre of his belly as his stomach muscles tighten. “Ronan what the hell is that? It looks like an alien baby is about to burst through your skin.”
“Ha ha Rosemary’s baby! Get it?!”
“Seriously, that looks serious.”
“Yeah I googled it, I think it’s a herniated aorta.”
“Don’t be ridiculous your aorta goes to your heart.”
“It also goes down the centre of your stomach, do you not know anything?”
I’m immediately on my phone googling “Where is Aorta?” and I get a small town in the Netherlands. So I cut to the chase and google Aorta abdominal hernia. ‘For God’s sake Ronan that’s life threatening, when did you notice this?”
“About a week ago.”
“And you are only mentioning it now?”
“I thought it would go away.”
‘What? You thought your aorta would go away?” I’m already texting our Italian friend and neighbour Anna to ask her to help us make an appointment with the doctor and I explain why. She is on it immediately and has an appointment made for later that morning.
As we are not yet full residents in Italy we have not been assigned a doctor and thankfully we have had no cause to go to one up until now, other than me with my frozen shoulder. She’s an older no bullshit doctor, who doesn’t speak english so Anna has to come with us to our medical appointments until we get better at Italian. When I asked payment on my last visit, via Anna, the doctor said “You can owe me lunch at your family’s restaurant”, to Anna. Seems like a fair deal, I drag my Italian neighbour to be an unpaid translator and she then in turn gets to pay for my treatment by giving the doctor a free lunch.
“She is a very good doctor,” Anna had explained on the way for my shoulder visit. “I have gone to her all my life”.
I did previously question Anna’s judgement of the doctor’s worthiness when she told me the three-choice prescription she gave to Anna for stress. “You need to take up meditation or get a strong man to help you with the farm or take up smoking.”
So Ronan goes to the doctor and illustrates the problem by doing a sit-up. Her first reaction, “Why you do sit-ups? You are too old to be caring about a six pack.”
“Because I want to stay fit?”
She tuts. “It is not your aorta, it is your stomach muscles, they have detached and separated. You need to stop doing sit-ups, you will never have a flat stomach because of this. But I will send you for a scan anyway.”
“What causes it?” asks Ronan. “Often pregnancy… but in your case probably lifting heavy objects.”
A penny drops for me. “Oh my God… could that have happened to me during pregnancy? Does that explain why I haven’t been able to get a flat stomach for the last 24 years no matter how hard I try?”
She looks at me. “yes probably… It is too late now for you.”
We leave the surgery both written off as wrecks doomed for Tellytubby Land for all of eternity and with another promise of a free lunch from Anna. She still hasn’t taken advantage of the last one, I’m expecting her to arrive someday at the restaurant with a list of guests and the dates of our medical appointments beside each one she is owed dinner for.
At least we know that Ronan isn’t going to explode.
The private medical clinic for Ronan’s scan is just down the road. It’s a fantastic facility, modern, clean, no waiting. His scan confirms the doctors prognosis, no more sit-ups are prescribed and no heavy lifting, which I know Ronan will ignore. The technician has time so he offers to scan Ronan’s kidneys, liver and whatever else he finds – it’s like when we go to the vet, she gives the pets a full checkup while there for no extra fee. And like our pets, Ronan has a clean bill of health. So we buy a gelato on the way home to celebrate Ronan not being pregnant with an alien baby and both of us never having to do sit ups again.
This week was a busy week in Umbria. It’s not only fire wood collection time but olive harvest season also and this year’s crop is much better than the previous two years by all accounts. I have driven passed Constable styled scenes of families sitting on the green nets under one of their trees eating their packed lunch having started at sunrise and still hours of work to go before they finish at sunset. I’ve seen a Nonna standing half way into the middle of a road holding up the side of a net as the matching Nonno precariously dangled off a wooden ladder reaching the sacred branches of their ancient grove’s boardering trees which were planted before the intrusive road existed.
The olives are picked and brought to one of the many olive pressing mills in the area on the day the crop is booked in, there is no time to waste and not an olive to be missed.
Giovanni (our landlord) had the 20 trees in the front garden stripped in one day. The next day he arrived in a new white shiny Lamborghini. I didn’t realise olive oil was so profitable. I should point out it was a small Lamborghini tractor he was driving. Ronan asked how many miles on it. “Three!” he responded very happy with himself. It must have just arrived and he had hitched up his rusty trailer to it and driven directly to our house to take us up ‘his mountain’ on a fire wood hunt as promised. I didn’t know he owned ‘a mountain’. Olive oil must be very profitable indeed.
We follow his rattly trailer up the mountain to a section of fenced and gated woodland. We walk after him as he points out neatly stacked piles of wood. We’re not quite sure why we are being taken on a tour of the different deposits of felled wood, but the walk is enjoyable. Watching Giovanni getting very excited about a bunch of mushrooms which he promptly fills his cap with is even more enjoyable. He gives us an explanation of why he is so excited about these particular mushrooms and tells us not to tell anyone, no fear in that as none of us understood what he said. He points to the smaller ones beside which he’ll come back for tomorrow when they will be much bigger. Maybe it’s not just the olive oil that allows him to afford a new Lamborghini and a mountain, maybe it’s all the money he also saves by foraging for food?
We follow him back up to where the tractor is and load the large pile of seasoned logs already piled near the gate into the trailer. Giovanni definitely has OCD and I know he will have a particular way to stack them and sure enough he does. Long pieces are propped up around the edges to form a fence as the fatter logs are loaded. We are quite happy with our stacking effort until we are headed back down Giovanni’s mountain and get stuck behind two tractors at different points with skyscraper loads of perfectly stacked wood.
We stop off at the house on the way back. One of the advantages of buying The Sighing House was that the plaster was pretty sound in most of the rooms so they would just need a lick of paint and no need for re-plastering. Not anymore unfortunately, the open topped roof during the three wettest weeks of the year took care of getting rid of that plan. Large slabs of ceiling plaster now lie shattered on the floor. We also have a new variety of mould growing on some of the ceilings, this one is a nice orange tone to go with the autumn theme. Perhaps a rare edible fungi will now grow from the damp blackened walls which we can sell to Giovanni to fund all the re-plastering that will need to be done. One can only hope.
Watermelons are rampant here at the moment, they are ginormous, carrying them to the cash desk is like an Ironman challenge but they are the most refreshing object to munch on in the current 36 degree days we are having here in Italy.
Before lockdown happened when Ronan and I would go to the local supermarket, we often saw a little old couple together. The gent would pick the fruit up with his plastic gloved hand, gloves have always been provided in supermarkets for handling and choosing fruit and veg in Italy it’s not just a covid thing, anyway this old gent would pick up the piece of veg and smell it, inspect it and if it passed the test it would be placed in the basket while his wife patiently waited for each verdict. He was back again after Lockdown and this time he was tapping water melons. It piqued Ronan’s curiosity, “What do you think he is listening out for?”
“A little hello from inside perhaps?”
“Do you think a hollow sound is good or a dull sound is bad? Or would hollow be bad and dull would mean good?”
“I don’t know, just buy a bloody watermelon.”
That was about a month ago, and last week Ronan was back at the supermarket in our town and as usual for this time of year, there were a lot of German and Dutch tourists doing their shopping. In the fruit aisle there was a big crate of huge watermelons. Ronan being Ronan couldn’t resist. He goes along tapping each watermelon and holding his ear to it trying to figure out, or be given some divine sign, as to which would be the best watermelon to buy.
A tourist comes up to him and starts speaking Italian, Ronan doesn’t know what he is saying so asks “Can you speak english?”
“Oh yes great, I am sorry for my poor Italian.” The tourist says to Ronan, who doesn’t speak a word of Italian. “Can you choose one for me?” he says pointing at the watermelons.
Instead of picking one at random and exiting stage left as quickly as possible, Ronan spent a couple of minutes going from watermelon to watermelon tapping each with his ear close to the crate, and giving his new found expert opinion on why one sounded better than the other in his best Italian speaking english accent. “This one, you should choose-o-this-a-one-a,” he said confidently. When he looked up there was a small crowd watching. The tourist was very grateful and Ronan nodded and backed away, having a little laugh to himself.
When he had finished a quick shop and was at the pay desk, he looked over and there were still several tourists tapping watermelons and listening for the magical mystery sound. Ronan who will be forever now known as The Watermelon Tapper came home without what he originally went to the shop for – a watermelon.
Do you smell vegetables before buying? What do you look for to show they are the right choice?
Watermelon – L’anguria
Tourist – Il turista
Battere le dita- tapping the fingers
Can you speak english? – Parla inglese?
Since we’ve come to Italy, vet visits have become a regular occurrence. I’ve had pets all my life but I’ve never had to visit the vet so much in my whole animal owning life than I have since we arrived here two years ago.
We brought two dogs with us Asha – a large black german shepherd who is afraid of the dark, creaking doors and thunder. And a bicon frise called Looney who isn’t scared of anything and likes to save small creatures from cats.
We have since adopted two Italian black kittens, Spooky and Moonface.
Our first vet visit was with Looney, she couldn’t stop sneezing for 24 hours and pawing at her snout. I searched for an english speaking vet and found Maria just a town away.
Arriving at her surgery I suddenly feel tall. I am 5.2” I’ve never felt tall in my life. Maria is less than 5 foot, smiley and welcoming. She thinks Looney has snuffed a seed up her nose. She’ll need to be sedated for Maria to examine further.
Now, what I am used to in Ireland is the vet either keeping the pet in over night or giving you an appointment for the following day. But not here in Italy.
After telling us Looney will have to be sedated, I find myself holding a drip. It’s happening now and we are part of the assisting operating team it seems. Ronan is excited, I’m not. I’m not good at these things, I’m squeamish as hell. Ronan looks after all cuts, bruises, tiny bells inserted into ears, broken bones, laundry chemicals in eyes, glass eating… all the wonderful things that having kids involves.
So I hand the drip to Ronan and back off. I watch through a squint. Looney is dopey. Maria gets a magic tweezer like tool with a light on the top. Soon she says “Ah yes there it is”. She pulls out the mucus covered seed with long barbs. “It was very far up, it could have been dangerous. These seeds you must be careful of, we have many seeds in Italy that dogs inhale and get stuck in their skin. Particularly these, they burrow into the skin.”
She also pulls out two small rotting teeth.
We have been with her nearly an hour. The sedation medicine cost €30. The total bill cost €40.
With four pets now, we have Maria on speed dial and have been to her for sterilising, a tail amputation, a fractured back, sore paws, ear infections, eye infections, bad breath and teeth.
We were back again last week as we noticed flies around Asha and discovered a cut under her long hair at the top of her tail. It wasn’t pleasant. Off we go to Maria. Asha has been there so many times at this stage that she walked straight over to the scales, stood on it and looked back smiling at us proud of her 55kg.
Maria has her assistant vet with her today. I feel even taller as her assistant is a slight woman even shorter than Maria. Do you have to be a small woman to be a vet in Italy?
Again we’re there as Asha gets sedated and we are put in a room to let it take affect while she attends another patient. When Asha is out cold, Maria returns and gives Asha the best Brazilian ever, she should be a beautician. She cleans the infected wound,. I gag. But luckily we have caught it early otherwise it could have got very serious. She gives us a prescription for painkillers and an antibiotic. She says something about humans being cheaper but I don’t quite understand. Is she telling me she treats humans too on the side but doesn’t charge as much?
While there she gives Asha a full check up of her ears, teeth, eyes. All good.
The total bill is €50, with the sedation included at €40. So for a checkup and treatment Maria has yet again charged us €10 for her time (plus 22% VAT).
Our local chemist doesn’t have the antibiotic, so we go to a neighbouring town. They don’t have it either, but wait. He looks it up on the computer, “It’s a big dog yes?”
“Yes” I nod.
“There is a human form of this antibiotic, it is the exact same but under a different name. I can give you that? You need two boxes, the animal form of the medicine is €49 per box, but the human form is €7 per box. The Italian government subsidise medicine for humans but not for animals.”
Ahhh that explains what Maria was saying about humans being cheaper! … And it’s also why Asha is now a human as far as the pharmacist is concerned.
Dog – cane
Cat – gatto
Injured – ferita (feminine)
Not eating – non mangiando
Infection – infezione
Seed – seme
Sedate – calma (feminine)
Antibiotics – antibiotici