What’s it like to renovate in another country? This Italian phrase best describes our current phase.

What’s it like to renovate a small apartment in another country? This Italian phrase best describes the current phase of our Totally-Crazy Tuscan Renovation Project.

7 June, Lucca, Italy.

Do you remember the last update, when hammering was my every day’s soundtrack? Well, today’s music is the drill. A tune so shrill, a neighbor, from the building next door, rang our bell, then hiked up six flights of stairs to ask, “When will that noise stop?”

When, indeed.

You see, layer upon layer of tile and mortar must be removed to carve caves and canals within the building’s original brick walls for housing the kitchen’s updated electrical and plumbing systems.

Loud, dirty, chaotic; those words apply, but a popular Italian saying best captures the feeling of this day – and just about every other day since this update: Crazy. Beautiful. And, Full Speed. Highlights of Our First Two Weeks of Tuscan Apartment Renovation.

That oh-so fitting phrase is…

Che casino.

What does that phrase mean? The word “casino,” derived from “casa” or house, has surfed waves of meaning in Italian history, including describing gambling joints and brothels. It’s the later association that made the word almost-taboo, until recent times. Though an older generation may still frown at the reference, just about everyone uses the phrase to describe something that’s chaotic, nonsensical, beyond stupid…in other words, A HOT MESS.

Weeks 3 & 4 of our “Totally-Crazy Tuscan Renovation Project” traveled up, down and all around. A thrill ride in one minute; then fast train to crazy town in the next.

Progress slowed, frustrations swelled.

Then, just as quickly – as if the Patron Saint of Progress bestowed blessings – our little engine began revving again. Proving, as with any home improvement project, there’s no such thing as stable and steady (as hard as we may work to that end). You’re either rushing or waiting; rejoicing or crying.

I guess there’s no way around it, attempting to cram what should be a year-long renovation project into three months is sure to be total che casino (“what a mess!”).

E vita. It’s life.

Here’s a slice of this Tuscan life where we’ve experienced the most dangerous neighbor meet-cute, got misty over marble and painted everything-not-moving in sight.

Week 3: Slowed Down, Locked Out.
If the first two weeks had a theme, it was “walls,” putting up new ones, busting down old ones. Week 3 encompasses top and bottom, from ceilings to floors. 

Double exposure.
Let’s begin where the last updated ended: Pinkie.

This is the affectionate nickname we have given to the apartment’s 1960’s spectacle of pink tile, the primary bathroom. We decide early on to give Pinkie a manageable facelift, without taking on full scale renovation, (Botox, as opposed to surgery). We will paint, install a new mirror and lighting, but this will be the ONE room, in the whole apartment, which we will not tackle this summer.

And, now…crack, crack, whack! As handyman Hussain removes sections of wall to the adjacent lounge, we hear an unsettling thud, followed by a low “Uh-oh.” We rush to find Pinkie with a crack running down almost the entire length of the ceiling. “This is very dangerous,” Matteo, our geometra, says. The ceiling could cave in any moment.

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Every renovation project comes with handfuls of surprise, some better than others.

We may have no intention of removing the ceiling of any other room than the lounge, but, now, we know…Pinkie needs surgery.

We scramble to remove everything from the room, from the old cabinets and mirror to the old lighting fixture – the one everybody hates, except me – with fingers crossed the ceiling doesn’t fall, with us underneath. When ready, with one whack of Hussain’s shovel, the ceiling comes down. Unfortunately, taking out the toilet tank, in the process. We discover this fact after Hussain leaves for the day. Allora.

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Though this development slowed us down, I must admit…those beams are beautiful.

To recap: Pinkie is the only “working” bathroom. Now, she has no light, no mirror, and – joy! – no toilet. At least we can shower (in the dark).

We are exhausted and disheartened, but also hungry and in need of bathroom usage. So, naturally, we go out for drinks and dinner. By mid-morning the next day – one café outing later – plumbers fix the toilet. Unfortunately, most other work in the apartment must shift to fix the bathroom ceiling and walls. The “Pinkie” debacle will cost us days of work. Two steps forward, one hot-pink leap backward.

Marble is the jamb.
Thankfully, soon after this major slow down, a missing element falls into place. Taking down walls to create an open living area left long narrow gaps in the floor where the walls once stood. How to fill those walls is an easy – though potentially costly – decision.

When your front door is less than 40 kilometers from world-famous Carrara, marble is part of the local framework. One of the many reasons we fell for this apartment is the marble features in every window and door jamb, juxtaposing with those 80+year-old handmade red and yellow tiles (from a famous Lucchese factory. More on this below).

Though we had no idea how much custom cut and installed marble will cost, we know it is the only material that makes sense. A week after placing the order, as our marble slabs  arrive and “fall” into place, I get a little misty. As a friend says, the marble will now serve as a permanent marker to the apartment’s past. That kind of thinking gets to me every time. Pass the kleenex, please.

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I love these contrasting elements.

The creamy gray and white marble with the striking red tiles somehow simultaneously brings a sense of cohesion and delivers a wow element – all for what turned out to be less than $250. Italy and her built-to-last materials have us thinking about everything differently.

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Bowling ball thumb.
Renovating a historic space offers no guarantees. We have no way of knowing the condition of those hundreds-of-years-old wooden beams above the space we are transforming into an open space. How long have they been covered? Are any rotten? Have they been painted white, as fashionable at one time? Many questions with only one way to get answers.

We are nervous about the “what ifs,” yet race forward, as always. Together with work crew and geometra, we gaze up as the first section comes down. You can almost hear a  collective sigh of relief as dust settles. The beams are stunning. “As good as it gets,” a worker says.

We can see through the opening to the beams above the kitchen as well. “Stunning” is far from a descriptor for those scrawny, paint-flecked elements. We decide in an instant to leave the kitchen ceiling intact and embrace the subtle transition between spaces.

Matt spends the next three days on top of a ladder, arms reaching overhead to scrap, clean and polish every inch of those beams and tiles. Anyone who knows my Type-A-In-Big-Ways husband, knows he goes for it, always. In this case, chasing perfection creates a hole. In his thumb.

 

 

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“It’s bigger today, isn’t it?,” one of us asks every morning for the next few days. By Saturday, the bowling ball protruding from his hand can no longer be laughed away. While I continue sanding walls, windows, doors, and everything else within reach; Matt sets off for the ER to treat the infection.

Neighbor walks the plank.
Yeah, he may be in the emergency room, but he’s still working. Balloon thumb and all, Matt keeps texting to assess supplies. “Do we have enough sandpaper to finish sanding this weekend? What about caulk?” He reminds me the hardware store on our street closes soon and won’t reopen until Monday morning. I dust myself off, grab purse and keys and run out to what we refer to as “Pop’s.”

Ten minutes and a toolbox of hand gestures later, I have everything we could possibly need for another project-filled weekend. Climbing the stairs to our apartment, my spirit feels lighter than earlier. We will make progress this weekend (damn it all)!

Determined to get back to work, I slip my key into the lock. Then…nothing.

The key doesn’t turn. And, the lock doesn’t seem to budge. Over three weeks in this old apartment and we’ve had plenty of problems with plenty of things. The front door hasn’t been one of those problems. Until now. On a Saturday afternoon. When my partner is in the ER.

After jiggling every way I know how to jiggle, I give up. I am exhausted, mentally and physically. I sit on the top step and cry. “Maybe it’s just my key,” says the glimmer of hope I cling to as I wait for Matt. With a tetanus shot, antibiotics and key of his own, Matt arrives home, two hours later. We try his key until all hope is exhausted, then – on a friend’s suggestion – walk to our favorite neighborhood café, Bar Martini. There, we let out a cry for help from forever-kind proprietor Julia. She places calls to two locksmiths before deciding for us that the cost of getting someone out on Saturday afternoon is unacceptable. “We’re okay with paying,” I say, but, she shakes her head and hangs up.

“I’ll be back,” Julia says, hopping on her bicycle and pedaling away. Before anyone can notice the only person to serve food and drinks has disappeared, she returns. She instructs us to meet her friend Luca outside his wood-working shop, only a few doors from our apartment. Every day, we walk by this window, usually peering in to see a lanky man hunched over one project or another. From the shutters and cabinets cluttering his shop, it seems his skillset covers a spectrum. Now, we wonder if those skills extend to break-ins. Soon, this new friend tries every trick in the book – including that often-reliable “credit card in the seam” – to open our door. No luck. Our across-the-hall-neighbor – who we have just met for the first time – tries her hand, too. Not happening.

We ask her name and thank her for trying to help. Anatasia responds by asking if our terrace door is open. “Let’s see if it’s possible to get from my balcony to yours,” she suggests. Standing on her balcony, the distance seems impossible. Too far and far too dangerous, I say. Yet, before I can utter, “Let’s pay the locksmith. Anything he wants,” Luca appears with a piece of wood from his shop. He ties a rope around Anatasia’s waist – by the way, they have just met as well – attaching the other end to her balcony railing. He holds the board and nods for her to walk across. Did I mention our apartment is on the third floor?

“I’m not scared,” she says. “I once worked in roofing.” After she opens our door from the inside, Luca says, “Don’t worry, I will replace the lock on Monday.” Before leaving he reminds us that someone must be in the apartment at all times until the lock is replaced or else…someone is walking the plank, again.

 

 

 

 

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Week 4: Vai! Vai! Vai!

By the end of the weekend, we manage to get the lounge painted and vow to push hard in the coming week – forward progress, only, dear Patron Saint. It’s time for big leaps.

Head and heart in harmony.
Of the hundreds of rental apartments we’ve seen over the last four years of travel, it’s safe to say, no less than 75% have featured IKEA cabinets and countertops. It’s the sensible way to go, Good quality, fast production, and stylish design; along with a system set up to minimize language barriers.

In route to the appointment, my head says,

“We can’t go wrong.”

While my greedy little heart chimes in, “Wouldn’t we prefer something more custom?”

I struggle along the journey, which takes a train, then metro, then taxi to get there. Turns out, this is only the beginning of this joy ride. Within minutes, an employee too-young-to-have-ever-given-serious-thought-to-what-constitutes-adequant-kitchen-work-space tells us our ideas are unrealistic. Plus, our irregular dimensions and angles are next to impossible, she insists. Our very presence is an insult, she implies.

Then, she asks, “Are you ready to place the order?”

“If not, you must schedule another appointment,” she adds. “Of course, we do not have another appointment until 10 days from now.”

So, for the first time in shopping history, two people with money to spend leave everyone’s favorite adult-candy-store…empty handed, and on the verge of tears.

What to do now?

Exiting the train station in Lucca, I begin begging, “Honey, can we please go in search of the world’s largest spritz, pronto?!,” then, added, “outside the walls.” He was clearly surprised (and not by the spritz craving). Outside a city center – any city center – is not something I normally propose. My rationale was simple: I look terrible; I’m in a foul mood; I don’t want to see anyone.

As we walk further from known sites, we literally kind-of stumble upon a local kitchen shop. “Is it open?” Matt asks, as we peer through the window of Casa Italiana. We walk in at 6:30 in the evening, sit down with a consulate who, in the time of 30 minutes before closing, helps us design our dream kitchen – bringing it in, as promised, for not much more than the IKEA estimate.

 

 

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The next day, our new friend (and hero) Carolina visits our apartment for precise measurements. She says the kitchen will arrive from the factory in Bari in 30 days, fully assembled and then her team will install. This means I won’t have to clutch a packet of IKEA assembly instructions in one hand, while pulling my hair out with the other as Matt paces the kitchen floor, yelling, “Where’s the screw for this piece?!” Ah, the good times we will miss.

Will run for marble.
I begin the aforementioned shit-show-turned-glorious-kitchen-day with a long run…to a tile store (there’s no such thing as a run of leisure these days). With each passing kilometer, I feel pressure build. We are behind schedule on materials, because I have stubbornly insisted on exploring hand-made custom tiles – made by A. Tessiere & C., the same revered company that produced the apartment’s distinctive red tile floors, sixty to seventy years ago. Last week, we met with the head designer and toured the factory. While Matt appreciates the artwork, he worries the company, which specializes more in grand palace floors than closet-size bathroom walls, may be out of our league. Plus, it’s been ten days and we haven’t received a proposal.

“We need to move forward with shower tile and kitchen backsplash,” he says. “Go to a home store and place an order today.” With this directive, I set out for Berni.  I assume this mega store, located on the outskirts of town, is similar to Home Depot or Brico Center. I use this time alone to set my mind right, aiming for acceptance with every stride. By the time I arrive, sweat dripping down all my cheeks, I tell myself,

“Settling for generic, could-be-anywhere-in-the-world tile is okay,” and I’m almost convinced it’s true.

You know how it is, once your mind is set in one direction, it’s oh-so hard to accept another route.

As I enter the showroom, I can’t hold back the laughter. I snap a photo of the first display model – way more art exhibition than sample shower. Before I can text the image to Matt with a note saying, “Mamma Mia, this place is out of our league,” an elegantly-dressed woman with understanding eyes asks how she can help. I stammer and stutter, before doing what I do best in these situations. I show apartment photos.

 

 

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“You already have such strong elements, red and yellow floors, with white marble,” Monica says. “Why would you mix other materials to compete?” She’s beautiful and sensible, so Italian. I asked what she would suggest and without hesitation she says, “Marble tiles, of course.” I told her that was a lovely idea, but our budget was not so lovely. “You will be surprised,” she says. When Monica gives me the quote, I let out a very in-elegant squeal.

“Locally-produced material so beautiful it makes me misty just thinking about it;” check that one off the list.

Lucca customized.
With shower tile on order, I consider the pressure off. We can now consider the kitchen backsplash as a separate element. “Since we’re talking about a relatively small space,” I plead with my bottom-line-focused husband, “maybe we can splurge on custom-made, hand-tinted tiles here.”

Wouldn’t you know, I hear from the fine folks at A. Tessiere, the very next day. That afternoon, as Matt, our geometra Matteo and I squint under a mid-day sun, Demetrio presents sample patterns for us to consider. “We could go with a patchwork,” he suggests, “but I prefer a more tranquil design.”

My thoughts go back to the first day I looked into the showroom six months earlier – I came across the factory randomly during one of my exploratory runs (fitness is hardly the benefit of my running routines, as you have probably already discovered). I appreciate every single tile as an individual work of art, and my eyes kept returning to one particular pattern. Not only had we not found an apartment at that point, we weren’t even sure we would EVER buy a home again. That afternoon, my gaze through the showroom window was merely dreaming.

 

 

 

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Now, after all these months, challenges and the biggest leap of life, my eyes rest again on that simple, yet elegant design. I nodded to Demetrio and he begins assembling a pattern.

In this moment, in a tiny factor within walking distance of our apartment, a craftsman is making each of these tiles by hand, by a centuries-old tried and true method. This work will soon be the centerpiece of our kitchen. (An update: today, the factory calls to let us know each of our tiles has been produced. These beauties must bask in the sun, like beach-lovers all along the Mediterranean.

The drying process will take about 10 days as long as weather cooperates and…

Our forecast looks sunny.

 

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Next up: Painting, lighting, plumbing and more! (Oh, the joy).

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Here’s to progress! Our Crazy Tuscan Renovation Project is somehow still on track!
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Up, down and all around. We’re still smiling, though!
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When it all gets too much, we walk onto the balcony and take in this view. Deep, deep breaths.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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