At long last, after the August shutdown, ENEL, the Italian Electricity Board arrived to connect us to the supply, which permitted the builders from Cassino to initiate the renovation work. It soon became apparent that our team of men were very reliable, hardworking and trustworthy. Each day they trundled to Itri in their old truck, having set off from home at the crack of dawn. Generally they spoke in a very broad dialect which at first we found rather tricky to understand. However Paul, before long, began to mimic the odd phrase, much to the builders’ amusement … for example something that sounded like “naj-jaaah capp-eat!”, which roughly translated means “I haven’t got a clue what you said!!!”. In next to no time they considered Paul to be a member of the “squadra”. On the other hand, they were less than keen for me to work with them, – evidently I was considered to be more of a hindrance than a help. It seems that generally, in Italy, it is just not the “done thing” for women to get involved with building work or DIY.
Orazio, the boss or “capo”, was corpulent and balding, and rather jovial with an artful twinkle in his eye. He permanently had a cigarette perfectly balanced in the corner of his mouth, indeed all the builders smoked like proverbial troopers. Then there was Orazio’s future son-in-law, Marco, who was stocky and muscular as an ox, however a little shy as he suffered from a speech impediment, in the form of a stutter. Then there was Alfonso, who specialised in both plumbing and electrical work. He was very sharp, perpetually cheerful and always found time to listen to our problems or be on hand to offer his wise friendly advice. His eldest son Domenico was his apprentice, an astute young lad, very keen and quick to learn and try out his limited English. Quirino was clearly an experienced builder, he could put up a wall in no time at all. At some stage he had suffered an work accident in which he had lost an eye, it had also paralysed one side of his face, thus one half seemed to be permanently set in stone, while the other side was animated and expressive. His young handsome son, Gino, spoke with a deep, husky voice, and reluctantly worked for the team as a jobbing labourer. Last but not least, was Francesco, known by his mates as “Franci”. He was a intriguing character and the most senior member of the squad. He was an “Inspector Morse look-a-like”, whose striking sky blue eyes peered at us quizzically. He often wore a dark blue woollen hat and looked as if he should be hauling in nets on a Neapolitan fishing boat. Apparently Franci had had a colourful past, and at one time had been the boss of his own building team, however he had somehow fallen on bad times and lost all his money. He was habitually teased by the others as due to his age he was generally slowing up and getting rather hard of hearing. His fellow team mates would play a game of whispering, or speaking to him in low voices, and laughing behind his back when he failed to showed any reaction. Nevertheless, the builders were all good chums, and worked as a tight team, being flexible, each helping out as and when required. They made light of their work by jovially and mischievously ribbing one another.
The first stage of the building work was to renovate the roof, which involved removing all the terracotta tiles. Fortunately the basic wooden beams were still in a good state of repair, so they fitted new treated wooden battens and insulation panels, before replacing the pre-existing tiles.
During this exercise the builders uncovered numerous lizards’ nests, plus a couple of resident bats which periodically sent the builders scurrying. Orazio also built a chimney stack using some old bricks that he had found lying about the place, to great effect, in fact it looked as if it had always been there. Finally the roof was finished off with beautiful copper guttering, flashing and drainpipes.
Whilst extracting an old door frame Marco unearthed a huge network of ant nests. Locals typically treat this type of problem by painting the area with diesel, to eliminate such unwanted guests. Marco began to apply the fuel with a saturated sponge; however he was far from satisfied with the result, thus he decided to take the matter into his own hands. Off he went, returning carrying a petrol can and he proceeded to liberally dowse the area with generous glugs of the fuel and then quickly ignited the fumes. He leaped back as a huge ball of flames soon engulfed the doorway. In hind sight, perhaps this method could have been considered to be slightly “over kill”, nevertheless ultimately it had the desired effect, despite the fact that Marco had slightly less hair than he had started with. We were relieved that the structure of the house was concrete, rather than a more flammable timber framed construction.
Routinely at one o’clock the builders dropped tools and we all would sit down to lunch together, usually “al fresco” with an old door as a table and some rickety old chairs and building blocks to sit on. They began by opening up their knapsacks, which had been lovingly prepared by their doting women folk. Paul had lost a fair bit of weight due to all the manual labour we had been doing, and each day the builders tried to feed him up by sharing their tasty morsels. These gastronomic delights could range from: pasta or stew kept warm in a wide necked flask; sausages or pieces of rolled beef, or chicken; rabbit; octopus each cooked in a rich tomato “sugo” or sauce; Sometimes there were roasted peppers; fresh anchovies marinaded in lemon juice; spicy salami, tasty cheeses; artichokes; “brocolletti”; and huge chunks of homemade bread. Of course all this would be washed down with three or four glasses of wine, frequently their own potent homemade variety. This would be followed by a variety of fresh seasonal fruits, and finally by a coffee. What a difference from the typical lunchtime diet of UK builders of curled up sandwiches or a burger and chips !!!
When Paul first attempted to brew them some espresso coffee they were less than impressed, so gradually they took him in hand and began teaching him the ritual for making a passable brew. In Italy coffee making is quite a science and has to be executed to perfection, especially in the Naples area.
In the lower half of the espresso pot one must pour a little cold water until it reaches the level of the internal safety valve. The small metal filter insert is then put in place and into this the coffee is skilfully heaped “piano piano” and moulded into a miniature Vesuvius. Just as it seems that the volcanic sculpture is complete a little more coffee is gingerly added to form a precarious peak. Then, deftly and with precision, the two halves of the coffee pot must be screwed very tightly together. The pot is then placed over a flaming gas burner. The builders would all watch expectantly until the coffee eventually began to burble and percolate through. The hinged lid could then be left open and the heat reduced accordingly.
Three heaped teaspoons of sugar were then to be added to the steaming aromatic liquor, and the mixture must then be lovingly stirred. The result is a very small, very sweet and very strong dose of “espresso” coffee. Progressively, under the builders daily tuition, Paul’s espresso’s finally began to“perk up” !!!
Indeed, the builders seemed to have taken us under their wing, and were impressed by our willingness to work hard, muck in wherever we could and generally make a go of things. They were remarkably understanding and sympathetic that we were desperate to get installed into our new home as soon as possible, and Orazio and his men went out of their way to try and make this happen.
We realised that we needed to move a couple of olive trees to let in more light and open up some space around the house. Bright and early one morning three olive workers or “operai” arrived with an excavator and operator. The men jumped into the excavator’s chisel-toothed scoop and were elevated to an appropriate height, where they commenced severely cutting back the branches of the trees, each casually wielding a hefty chain saw. After the trees were lopped, the digger then set to work loosening the roots. One tree was a beautiful specimen, said to be several hundreds of years old, and its roots had become intertwined through huge pieces of limestone. The digger was then installed with a noisy hydraulic hammer attachment to hack and chisel its way through the unyielding rock. Over an hour later the tree was finally liberated and was carefully hoisted and manoeuvred out of the way. The locals had said that it was almost impossible to kill an olive tree, unless it gets waterlogged or there is a prolonged frost, which is why olive trees often continue to grow for many hundreds of years. So, the trees were duly replanted in another part of the olive grove, looking a little nude – however we were advised that in just a year or so they would begin to grow back to their former glory. We benefited further as were left with a plentiful stock of olive wood to burn during the oncoming winter months.
At last, the building work was coming on apace, whilst on site the diggers carried out some general groundwork, excavating trenches for laying the new water and electric supplies and drainage system.
Also, at this time, we decided we needed to move the caravan down to a lower terrace, where it could be positioned permanently. The builders and the digger operator, were eager to assist us with this task. They lashed the digger arm to the front of the caravan and Bruno, the operator, demonstrated his skill and precision by gently nudging the caravan backwards, inch by inch, skilfully manoeuvring it round a tight corner, through a narrow gap and down a very steep muddy slope. The mission was successfully accomplished without any damage whatsoever.
Next, we realised that we desperately required somewhere else to store all our tools and equipment, and a few remaining pieces of furniture that we had not managed to store away in various friends’ garages. We decided to purchase and install a large galvanised steel shed known as a “baracca”, which is classified as a temporary structure. Thus once we had cleared out the downstairs storeroom of the farmhouse the builders began excavating the concrete floor with powerful pneumatic drills, as we needed to create a damp-proof air cavity and create room to lay pipes and conduit for electricity and gas supplies.
Orazio set about opening up a doorway in one of the master stone walls, inserting an iron supporting lintel.
He also made a clever suggestion, to have a flat roof on the little bathroom extension, which could also serve as a small sun terrace. This would provide an excellent view-point for surveying the beautiful sunsets and lovely views of Fondi, Terracina, the mountains and even a glimpse of the sea.
Yet, around the middle of October a deep depression settled over us, in more ways than one, when a week of miserable, inclement weather significantly hindered progress. Paul and I took refuge inside the caravan as the incessant rain pelted on the roof. All week heavy dark grey oppressive clouds were driven in from the sea, carrying numerous “temporale” or storms our way. Each and every night our sleep was disturbed as we watched jagged streaks of lightening flashing horizontally across the skylight, swiftly followed by resounding booms of thunder, which furiously reverberated around the surrounding mountains. This miserable tempestuous period left us far too much time to sit and dwell on all the problems we still had to overcome, and there were gloom laden days when we feared we had bitten off more than we could chew. When eventually the torrential downpours abated we saw the storms had they left in their wake a horrendous, squelching quagmire of a building site.
Mercifully this was to be followed by a calmer interlude of weather, which presently lightened our mood and seemed to put things into a cheerier perspective. By now there was a typically autumnal feel, the early morning mists gradually burned away to be replaced by veils of wood smoke which delicately draped across the valley. Frequently the days were clear and bright, and the midday temperature was surprisingly balmy.