If you name your son Mario in Italy, it seems you are writing his destiny to be a plumber. I’ve met four plumbers in the last two months and three of them have been called Mario. One of them actually looked like Super Mario with the same moustache and twinkly eyes and smile.
I got quotes from several plumbing companies for the work to be done in the house. All were similar in price but the contract went to the company which can do plumbing and electrics, could start immediately and have the work finished by mid November. I chose well, I signed the contract on a Friday and there were six guys working in the house on Monday.
The manager of the business is Danny Boy, he’s young and looks like he constantly has a migraine or hung over. My chief plumber is called Mario. He’s great so I call him Super Mario. He has about 100 words of english and I still have only about 300 words in Italian so google translate comes in handy. However, looking back on the texts sent between us on the first day the possessive tense tends to come in at the wrong time.
On the Monday evening that they started work, he texted me and through google translate I answered, this is how the conversation went translated back into English:
Super Mario: I need to meet with the geometra asap, otherwise we can’t continue.
Me: What is the problem?
Super Mario: It is a serious problem with the drainage of the sewerage there is no pit. You only have an old small hole.
I try not to take offence.
Me: I think you are looking at my old hole which is no longer in use? It was there before the house was connected to the public system. The house is on the public sewerage (black water) system, I was reassured this several times when I was buying the house.
Super Mario: Are you sure?
Me: Well that is what I was told, I’m quite sure my old hole is no longer in use.
Super Mario: Tomorrow we meet at 8.30am with the geometra, as we cannot continue without knowing if your old hole to the rear is still being used.
Again I try not to be offended.
So at 8.30am I arrive. There were four guys standing around staring into the oldhole in the back garden. I have only met Danny Boy, and I don’t know which one is Mario.
I walk up beside them and stare into the hole, there is a hose filling it with water. Danny Boy arrived shortly after, I didn’t recognise him as it was the first time I saw him without a mask and didn’t realise he had a beard.
My anxiety to find a solution to this problem which could cost thousands makes me forget that none of the guys around starring at my hole know who I am.
“Ahh she is the owner!” says a stocky guy with a great face in Italian, who turns out to be Mario. They all laugh, I didn’t realise that none of them knew who I was, other than just some randomer who walked in off the street who is not responding to their questions, just smiling and nodding.
“Have you put water down the toilet pipe?” I ask in broken Italian.
“Yes it arrived here. But there is another pipe out of this pit so they will fill it with water and try to find where that goes,” says Danny Boy.
It looks like it is heading towards the lake. This could be costly. Very costly.
We’re all walking around the garden looking for something that might be a cover to an opening of another mysterious hole I might own and eventually Mario sees a concrete step between us and the neighbours fence with what looks like a potential lid. After much effort they lift the lid and there it is: water running from a pipe that is in the direction of my old hole. There is also a feed in from the neighbours garden and then between the two pipes a larger concrete pipe that runs back up between the two houses on my side out towards the road. Relief, the house is on the mains sewerage.
Mario reassures me that my old hole is still in perfect shape, I do not need to replace it, it will work perfectly again in the future as old holes were built to last, they are much better than new holes.
The only problem is that the pit, or my old hole as it is now fondly known as, is in the position where I dreamed of eventually putting a pool. Maybe we could combine the two and have some therapeutic mud bath?
It has been stormy all week here in Umbria – thunder, lightening and deluges of rain, enough to refill Lake Trasimeno for the year. Not the ideal weather to have during the period that the roof of the house has been removed and the new one was supposed to go on. The builders did their best and have a tarp over the house but nothing but a solid roof could keep that amount of rain out, bellies of water form of the tarp and sometimes give way at certain points.
The continuous wet patch on the stairs shows the course of the river that eventually found its place of rest on the ground floor hallway. A miniature prehistoric landscape has developed with terracotta islands with high mountains of rubble surrounded by seas and oceans on the three floors. Together with the walls, having weird shapes spray painted onto them mapping out where they need to be carved out for electrics and pipes, the place looks like a badly kept crack den.
We can’t resist but to sneak in every evening after the builders have gone, to see the progress, or in the case of this week, the damage. Last Sunday evening, Ronan with the help of a spare scaffolding pole expertly emptied some of the water bellies on the roof tarp above incase they gave way. It was going well until the scaffolding pole he was using went straight through one of the said bellies and he was suddenly standing directly under his homemade version of Niagara Falls. While I grabbed a large plastic bucket to catch at least some of the fallout, a saturated Ronan jumped out of the way. It was like a beautiful synchronised contemporary ballet, me with the bucket, Ronan with the pole and the waterfall backdrop, especially the part when Ronan backed into the makeshift platform the builders had just started to construct that day to reach the centre of the room, it wobbled and began to keel over to the side, I watched in horror at the falling heavy metal poles, as Ronan did an impressive final Grand Jete across our own newly formed swan lake on the second floor just in time to save himself. The scaffolding crashed and wedged itself against the wall in a perfect parallelogram.
Thirty-five years ago, I foolishly asked my math teacher why we had to learn the word ‘parallelogram’, like algebra, I felt I would never use it. He wisely said it would be useful someday. Now I know what he meant, as it describes perfectly the final shape of the scaffolding when my husband nearly got beheaded in Italy. Thank you Mr Maxwell, although I still have never found the need for algebra, but there is still time I suppose.
“Will we just deny we were here today?”
We emptied the full bucket out the window and snuck back out the way we came in.
9 Missing Doors.
9 Missing Doors Who?
Who took them? I don’t care they’re back!!
We went to the house with the Estate Agent and Uncle Francesca and there they were, all neatly stacked with intact door frames still attached. I learn that they are what they call ‘Madonna’ Doors – the door frames attach to the wall and the doors hang from them. We were going to go down the route of charging them for getting the doors rehung but we have put up much more difficult doors in our years of house renovations (you could say we are well hung?) so we would rather do it ourselves and not involve them anymore and just move on.
As expected Uncle Francesca launches into a long story about the doors which Laura, the Estate agent’s assistant, is translating for us – It wasn’t cousin Marco as she first thought, it was Cousin Vincent! (well the Italian equivalent of the name which I am unsure of the spelling of so we’ll just call him Cousin Vinny). Like Cousin Marco, Cousin Vinny was out for revenge on Uncle Francesca over the dispute since the 1974 family inheritance incident. I now feel a bit bad that I had convicted Uncle Francesca for the door robbery without a proper trial. As we’re going to meet Cousin Vinny at the final signing, she couldn’t blame him without it being true. She’s very apologetic, I tell her not to worry, it’s water under the bridge, I jest that she give’s me Cousin Vinny’s number and I’ll sort him out.
After the door inspection we go to the Notary’s office to pay the deposit and get things moving to the final signing. I can see how there is a 45 year family dispute – Uncle Francesca, the little crumpled 4 foot 10 lady, causes arguments. At the office, she argues again about the document the notary asked her to get, which the only thing holding up the finalising the sale. The notary tries to keep calm and explains again and again and again what she needs to do to get the document and finally says she will write the document for Uncle Francesca to give to the judge to sign. Uncle tries but can’t seem to come with a decent objection to this.
Then Uncle Francesca disputes my request for the keys to be left with the notary, she wants to hold on to the keys, so that she can shame Cousin Vinny into returning the missing furniture also. The notary doesn’t want them and Marco, the estate agent, wants to give them to us. Marco ends up raising his voice at her, accompanied by flailing arms and lots of hand gestures. Basically he does not want to have to drive the hour from his office every time I need to have access to allow builders in to give us quotes on the work to be done and it was agreed at the last meeting with the owners that we would get the keys upon payment of deposit. We are given the keys.
On the way home we get a text from the Estate Agent to say Uncle Francesca will follow up about the furniture but here’s Cousin Vinny the thief’s, phone number just in case. Data protection really isn’t a thing here it seems. What do you think we should do with it?? Send him disturbing texts in the middle of the night? Songs by the Doors perhaps?
It’s early February and all we are waiting for is the Power of Attorney letter with the correct wording which Uncle Francesca needs to get redone in court in the next few weeks. So we find and fix a date that all eight owners (from Milan, Florence and Rome) can meet to sign over the house to us.
The date is set, the date our family history is to start a new chapter in Italy will be the 10th of March … but instead that date turned into a dark chapter of Italian history, it was the first day of the Covid Pandemic Lockdown. Everything was put on hold, not only the final signing meeting, but also all our summer wedding work which we had budgeted to pay for the renovations. Our world and the world around us suddenly became very wobbly.
I get a long email the night the doors go missing from two of the eight owners – a cousin and her mother who live in Milan, pleading with me not to back out of the sale, they have spoken to all the other parties involved and assured me none of them were thieves and how we must find a solution. The estate agent had told me that these two owners were very religious and would not lie. But at this point I don’t know who to trust, I’m also wondering how did she got my email address to write me a plea letter, data protection seems to have gone out the window or out nine empty doorways in this case.
I think about it and answer:
‘At the meeting last week we specified about the furniture – it is old but I can renovate it. When we visited the house on Sunday and saw how the doors had been ripped away we were very upset. We had began to feel the house was our home and it now felt like someone had ripped it’s heart out. It always looked abandoned but fixable with a bit of hard work and loving care and we had a nice feeling when in it, now it just looks and feels like a slum.
‘As it happened within 48 hours of us signing for the house, and after the house having been untouched for 10 years, we thought that one of the owners, felt it was their right to take what they felt was theirs from the house including the doors. We were not accusing anyone of being thieves, we just thought they misunderstood the agreement, and perhaps they thought we were going to get rid of the doors and replace with something modern and thought it would be okay.
‘We just want to get the doors back. However that does not seem possible now if it was not someone in the family. The doors are not really replaceable as they are all different sizes and made to measure. We were just so shocked.’
To us this seems similar to us offering to buy a car on a Friday and then arriving to collect it on the Monday and the owner says someone has stolen the engine but we are still expected to buy it.
‘A house is not a house without doors and to get doors the same as the ones that are left in the house will be impossible I think, so the only solution if the doors found, is to replace all 22 doors which are estimated at one thousand euro each and the price is deducted from the final balance.
‘However, there is still a possibility the doors will be found, there are CCTV cameras in the town and we know the colour of the van and the time it was there so the police will find the number plate I am sure. Also my mother in Ireland is praying hard to St Anthony that the lost doors will be found, she has a very strong connection with the Almighty and also is very good at putting curses on those that do wrong.’ …
Yes, I have lied all the way through this email. I am in no doubt that it was one of the owners, I do not believe there was any misunderstanding, I don’t know if there are CCTV cameras in town and my mother is not praying to St Anthony nor is she a witch, but my thinking is that this email would be forwarded on to all the owners and whoever took the doors would see it. If the thought of getting a large chunk of the sale price reduced, or if the fear of the police didn’t scare them into returning the doors, then the fear of God or an Irish witch cursing them might? I was using all my bullets.
That evening I took out my Tarot cards and asked about the doors, I got The Magician and The Sun – so my interpretation of that is that the doors will ‘magically reappear’.
On Saturday nearly a week after the doors had been taken, I texted the estate agent and said, ‘if the doors are not coming back, I need to make an appointment for the carpenter to come out and measure up for new ones so the owners know how much they will be paying.’
Text response: ‘There is good news about the doors. I update you soon, Don’t make a carpenter appointment yet.’
Hmmmm. So I go to the Arezzo Antique Market the next day, with an aim of buying something for the house, anything at all, just something to make me feel it is still going to be ours. Without thinking I buy a set of Art Nouveau door handles for €20 … just as I pay for them, the estate agent texts me: ‘Great news! All nine doors were taken back to the house, they are on the ground floor.’
It’s a miracle! She wants me to go ‘visit’ the doors with Uncle Francesca on Wednesday. But I have said ‘no’, we’ll go see them next week when the estate agent is available. I want a translator there as I am dying to hear her explanation. Perhaps I should bring flowers and a ‘Welcome Home’ card?
If all is well, we will go to the notary, pay the deposit and the estate agent’s fee on the condition that the owners leave the keys with the notary, and the owners do not have access to the house once we pay the deposit – just incase they take a liking to the windows also. So it seems positive but I’m not believing until I see them. I wonder if it was the fear of God, the police or an Irish curse that did it?
I text the estate agent, my upset has turned to anger. To replace those doors will cost thousands as they are all slightly different sizes. I tell them that we need all doors returned or replaced and the furniture as agreed otherwise we will not be proceeding with the purchase. We are sure it must be Uncle Francesca and she may be intending to return for more as there were two other doors taken off their hinges. So she needs to be stopped before doing anymore damage to the house.
Within an hour they have spoken to Uncle Francescabut she knows absolutely nothing. They have warned all the owners. ‘Tomorrow we’ll find out who did this and get you back all the doors’.
The estate agents ask us to meet with them and the geomtera at house the following morning to look at the situation and find a solution. We agree, although, I’m not sure why we are meeting to look at the empty spaces where there used to be doors and I can’t think of a solution other than the doors be returned or replaced.
We meet the next day and Uncle Francesca is there too. She’s being very dramatic. She’s using the word ‘terrible’ a lot. The estate agents are looking very embarrassed, “This is not normal. This is not normal in Italy.”
We walk around the house all together slowly to look at the spaces where the missing doors had been, I’m still not sure why, maybe they are hoping they will miraculously reappear? The house looked sad before but now it looks like a slum.
Everyone other than us is denying it is a family member. The whole time Uncle Francesca doesn’t stop lamenting and talking.
Then she announces a neighbour saw a white van there on Sunday morning.
On the sofa in the hall there are piles of old books ready to go in the next collection. Romance novels mostly, Readers Digests from the 70s. A plastic sewing box with scraps of lace, two faded pictures from the wall and an old fake gold drinks trolley.
Our son notices a perfect cross shaped clean mark on the wall above the bed, a crucifix has been removed.
There’s also an old copy of a ‘Children of Fatima’ book on top of the romance novels. So we are guess the ‘thief’ is religious … the irony is not lost.
I make the point that it has to be one of the owners – the house has not been touched for 10 years, who else would turn up with a van during daylight within 24 hours of us signing to buy it? She’s still talking a mile a minute, hands are going everywhere, she is re-enacting and piecing the whole crime scene together in front of our eyes.
And just like any good 70s crime series, her re-enactment gives her a sudden revelation, she concludes that it must have been the devil cousin Marco wanting to get his revenge on her about the dispute over the other inheritance. The neighbour’s description of the man with the van fits thecousin’s description perfectly.
Up to this point I was still convinced it was Uncle Francesca in the kitchen with the crowbar but now I’m leaning towards Colonel Marco in the library with the candlestick.
“But why the piles of romance novels in the living room?” I ask. Uncle Francesca’s answer is very animated and high pitched. “He was searching for secret documents about the last inheritance,” Laura translates.
Mario, who is nothing short of twiddling the end of a handlebar moustache he doesn’t have, makes a statement to Uncle Francesca, “I will NOW bring you to make a police report. Perhaps they have cc footage of the van in the village.” Uncle Francesca, is flapping about a bit, looking through the box of lace scraps. She looks at her watch. “Si si. We go now.”
They return shortly. The police station is closed for lunch.
Mick Kelly has turned up, he knows an artisan carpenter who can make doors from old wood that will replicate the others. We agree that the cost will be deducted from the amount we pay at the final signing.
… However, me thinks the doors will magically reappear.
Join us again next Monday for the next instalment of this game of Umbrian Cluedo and the case of the Missing Doors.
We file into the office to sign the Compromesso . There is ‘Uncle’ Francesca at the top of the table, and there are three middle aged cousins, Chiara and Paulo who are sister and brother and Marco who looks like he had a late night out on the town and just stopped by on his way home.
Also in the room there are the estate agents, the geometra, Lizzy the notary at the top of the table, and on our side of the table Laura, Ronan, me and our friend Lucia who is there to be our interpreter.
So we are all ready. Lizzy begins to read the 20 page document. She gets half way through the first sentence and ‘Uncle’ Francesca pipes up with a protest. I catch Paulo looking at the ceiling and muttering ‘Mama Mia’. Lizzy’s lips are getting tighter, Uncle Francesca has a bunch of papers in her hand from her ever growing large file, she’s quite irate, Lizzy waits till Francesca burns out everything that she has to say and then calmly says something back. But it sets Francesca off ranting again. Marco’s phone is ringing, he takes the call.
All of a sudden Lucia, who is supposed to be here just to translate, is shouting at ‘Uncle’ Francesca. The estate agent is nodding in agreement.
I whisper loudly, “Lucia what the frock is going on?”
“She’s crazy, she thinks she knows better than the notary about getting the court document changed. No one knows more than the notary. That is why she studied for years, you don’t argue with the notary, it is like arguing with a judge you just do what they tell you to do. And that is what I told her.”
The notary continues to read, Marco continues his call. If Francesca is going to object to every sentence I can’t imagine how long this will take.
Twelve pages in and we have had no further interruptions just a few fact checks back and forth between the geometer and the notary. It was all going well until the part we came to about the buildings that need to be destroyed.
It’s a heated discussion, everyone except our side of the table is ranting. Sure I might as well join in. “Scusi” I shout, the room quietens, “Momento”, I’m quickly running out of all the Italian words I know.“I need to know what is being said, so can you kindly wait until Lucia has time to translate for me.”
“They must agree to destroy the buildings before you can buy it.”
“Which buildings need to go?” I know the one at the end of the garden has to go but which of the two others, the garage or the side building? I point to the plans where both are called ‘Fondo’. “It is not these, these are okay they have the permissions. It is the attachment to the back.” She’s talking about the small ugly perspex porch at the back door.
“That?! … That’s brutto,(ugly) I’d have that down by myself in an hour, we were getting rid of it anyway. We’ll take care of it. We’ll look after the destroying.”
The notary and geometer are looking at me a bit bewildered. “Si?”
“It’s Ronan’s birthday next week, I’ll buy him a sledge hammer.”
“But it’s a lot of work.”
“We are good at destroying things. If it speeds things up here, we’ll take the responsibility.”
“Okay then, if you are sure,” Lizzy scribbles notes in the margin.
By the time she is finished going through the document two hours have passed. Just as she is finished I say, “Can we note that it is sold as furnished?” I have done my research, I know that if you don’t state furnished in Italy then they can remove everything that is not screwed to the wall such as kitchens, light fittings, bulbs, sometimes bathroom suites and it’s important you note everything you want included in the sale. I’m thinking of the wrought iron bed, the marble table and the sofas I now want to upholster. There are also some nice light fittings.
The notary asks the three cousins, they are saying ‘si, si’ and shoulder shrugging, but I notice ‘Uncle’ Francesca looking flustered out the corner of my eye. “Okay?” asks the notary directly to Uncle. ‘Si’ she says, her hands lift off the table a little.
We’re now going to take a break, while the notary’s secretary makes the amendments to the deed.
Uncle is up on her feet, she takes her phone and explains she needs to go to the pharmacy. She’s gone out the door before we notice she has left her purse behind. Chiara runs after her with it.
Uncle Francesca is back quickly, the notary is still busy preparing the final document and Mario, Ronan and the geometer have gone outside for a cigarette.
Uncle sits and shuffles through her papers. Marco is looking at her, waiting for her to make eye contact, it’s not working so he says something to her. Silence falls in the room, I don’t know what he said but the atmosphere has shifted.Within seconds their voices are raised at each other. I don’t know where to look, embarrassed for them having a full blown row here in front of strangers.
Paulo is on his laptop and his sister is scrolling through Facebook. She laughs and then shows Paulo a short video of a cat falling off a shelf, I know because she pushes it across the table to show me too, leaning under and avoiding Marco’s pointed finger at Francesca, “I have a cat like this!” she says loudly in Italian so that I can hear her above the shouting. Neither of them seem at all bothered that their cousin is shouting at their 78-year-old aunt and that she is alone in her fight back.
“What is happening?” I ask Laura.
“The cat missed the shelf.” she says laughing at the video.
“I mean with this.” I nod towards the war going on in the room that only I seem to be noticing.
“Ah, okay, they are arguing about a previous inheritance. He believes Uncle Francesca took more than she should have. It was in 1978 and their families have been arguing about this since then.”
I want to break into the theme tune of Frozen ‘Let it go’.
Chiara and Paulo are complaining of being starving. This quietens Marco and Uncle Francesca. If it is one thing Italians can mutually agree on is food, nothing interferes with their three hour lunch breaks. They are all agreeing that they are starving.
At last we get to sign the document and everyone leaves.
Two days later we stop by the house, I want to measure the shutters. Ronan tries the back door and it’s open, so we go in and walk around. Something doesn’t feel right, something has changed and I can’t put my finger on it. The house looks sadder, more derelict and I don’t know what it is. I notice a broken tile on the ground in the doorway of the kitchen and then I figure it out.
“Was there a door here before?”
We’re both standing staring at an empty doorway, wondering if there was a door there before. We walk through to the next room the door is off it’s hinges and lying against the wall.
“That’s odd… I think I would have remembered noticing that before.”
Ronan goes down the hallway. “There’s no door here either… There were doors, weren’t there?” We’re both doubting ourselves.
Then I remember that I took a walk through video on my phone, the last time we were here. I’m scrolling and eventually find it. I’m looking and looking and yes there it is, a door. There were definitely doors here and now they are gone!
I’m already running up the stairs. Three empty doorways, not just the doors gone but the frames also. And two more doors lie waiting against the wall waiting to be collected. The lock on the apartment has been busted open. We go to the next level, more doors and frames gone, plaster splattered on the floor from the walls where the frames have been prised from. All together there are nine doors gone and three more lined up to be taken.
Then I notice, the marble table and chairs and the wrought iron bed are also gone. “What the frock? No!”
I’m raging. I use Google translate and leave a scrawled note for Uncle Francesca. ‘Francesca, Return the doors and furniture or the deal is off.’