This morning, I write this update with the soundtrack of hammering pulsating from another room. We are two weeks into the renovation project and that noise, along with an oddly vast spectrum of destruction and construction sounds, is our current Tuscany-theme music. Our entire world is work-in-progress as we live in the space while tackling much of the renovation ourselves, along with an assortment of contract workers. They arrive every morning (even Saturdays) at 8 a.m. and work tirelessly until 5 p.m. We have settled into rhythm, each day learning a bit more about each other. Hussain, who seems to be a specialist in everything from ceiling takedowns to plaster and cartongesso (dry wall), has been with us for four days now. This morning, I stupidly forgot marks the first full day of Ramadan. I feel like a brut for tempting him with coffee and torta. Maybe this is why he hammers so loudly now.
If you’ve followed our travels, you know Matt and I have crisscrossed Italy, from Trentino to Campania, Marche to Liguria, for long stretches. We’ve rented apartments in locales from tiny mountain villages to ritzy seaside resorts, often for months at a time. Yet, as you can imagine, buying and renovating your own property – in our case, an 80-square-meter apartment on the top floor of a 500-year-old city center building – is a different language.
Two weeks in and our to-do list, which already spans pages, keeps expanding. Regardless, when it comes to projects and goals, Matt and I only know one pace: full speed. And, so far, this fast-moving transformation is everything we dreamed, plus some.
Here’s Highlights of Our First Two Weeks of the Italian Apartment Renovation Project:
Becoming part of an ambient system.
One of our first goals upon arrival was the glamourous task of deciphering garbage and recycling systems. “You must sign up to get a card from Sistema Ambiente,” said our rockstar realtor Lorrain. Since the office of that great name – loosely translated as “environmental system” – is only a 15-minute walk from our apartment, we set out immediately. As I’m guessing with any utility office, anywhere in the world, the waiting area was chaotic, but fellow customers were gracious and willing to help. Once we figured out how to generate a service-appropriate number from a kiosk, we waited mere minutes for consultation (completely in Italian, naturally). We left ten minutes later with those prized Ambiente cards in hand, along with a hefty supply of recycling bags for each category. For one flat annual rate of roughly $200, we can simply drop rubbish outside our building, on specific days (for instance, organic items and paper are collected on Tuesday; non-recyclable as well as plastic, aluminum and glass on Thursday). Best of all, we have 24:7 access to a state-of-the-art recycling system at the end of our street.
Also, in the realm of domestic bliss, after consulting with an Italian chef, we purchased a full set of Lagostina cookware, along with SMEG stove, washing machine, tea kettle, vacuum cleaner, iron and so on. Most of which, (except appliances, naturally), has been carried by hand or strapped to our backs – sometimes, for miles – to reach our apartment. #carlessineurope
Navigating multiple foreign-to-me languages.
Just two days after landing in Italy, I set out on an epic journey. I would visit OBI (an Italian Home Depot, of sorts) as well as the galaxy known as IKEA. My shopping list was daunting and ranged from plumbing connections for a new toilet and bathroom sink to shelving, drill bits and extension cords. Imagine trying to find incredibly specific items in completely unfamiliar stores, in a language you barely understand. Broken bits of Italian, plus Google Translate and wild-person hand gesturing made my conversation with an OBI employee about whether or not grease was needed for the toilet tube…pure comedy gold.
My maiden purchasing voyage into IKEA was shades more ridiculous. Within minutes, I realized I had no clue how to actually find and buy ANYTHING. After chasing a few blue vests, I finally asked a fellow shopper to explain to me how the ecosystem works. “I like this shelf. I would like to purchase this shelf. How do I accomplish this goal?”
Having a clothes line of my very own.
For these past four years traveling primarily in Europe and Asia, Matt and I have left many American ways behind, including reliance on that precious power-hogging machine, the clothes dryer. Hanging laundry on the line, outside a kitchen window or terrace rack, has become one of my favorite chores. Not that we have an actual washing machine installed yet (that comes soon), but thanks to a friend/neighbor willing to run loads of laundry for us, I finally got to hang clothes on my very own outside line. I know the day will come when a lacy panty slips out of my hand and sails down three floors to rest in someone’s garden (remember that time the wind ripped all my hanging wash off the pins and down onto the veggie stalls in Rovinj’s outdoor market? #goodtimes), but still the whole process makes me giddy. How much more domestic can I get?
Seeing our name on display.
“You must put your name on your mailbox and outside buzzer,” Lorrain says. It took days to put this call to action, but finally I dipped into the ancient little hardware shop on our street. Not exactly a “Mom & Pop,” this place is all Pop. Browsing isn’t really how things are done. Buckets, boxes and shelves of dusty stock are strategically placed out of reach behind a tall counter minded by the proprietor. You describe your project to him and he fishes around until he finds what you need – which, for us, one day meant a 50-year-old plumbing connector (yep, he found it in a box of old, loose parts). Luckily, on this day, my need was simple.
Armed with white tape and marker, I scribbled our name and, not without a little guilt, taped over the previous owner’s name. The very next day, we noticed our building administrator – the tenant who cleans the stairs, fixes lights and handles repairs for the common spaces of our building’s six apartments – had already replaced my tape with a permanent display. What a sight to see “Simpson” mingled with all those Italian names.
By the way, the Italian word for “police” (polizia) and “cleaning” (pulizia) sound similar to us, so we spent a few days thinking Signore Baldocci’s role was “Police of the Stairs,” which struck us as oddly militant, then we realized he is, in fact, “Cleaner of the Stairs.” Much more civilized.
Tear down those walls and give us Lucca’s glorious light.
Anyone who has renovated a house or apartment knows the speed which project lists morph and expand. Determining priorities can be dizzying. What should we tackle first?
Create a second bathroom? Add a master bedroom closet? Install new kitchen cabinets and appliances? Tear down interior walls? Rip out the ceiling to expose centuries old beams and brick?
Naturally, Matt and I, along with our friend Christophe, decided to start all of the above projects, plus some, simultaneously on week one. Perche no? Why not, right?
Running multiple projects at the same time is every bit as crazy as you can imagine. Every single item we own is covered in twelve layers of dust and dirt. I have a visual on the tape measure at all times, it seems, except when we actually need it. Same goes for hammer, corkscrew, shoes, wallet and all necessities of daily life. Nothing has a place, everything lives out of sorts.
Perhaps the best example of the chaos is this gem: During the first week, we bricked up the only interior door leading into the kitchen (to carve out existing hallway space for a second bathroom). This meant the only way to reach the kitchen was via french doors leading out to the terrace, then walking across the terrace and back into the house via another set of doors into a bedroom. No big deal for one or two days, right?
A contractor was scheduled for the next day to take down a series of walls separating two small bedrooms and kitchen – to create a large, open living and dining space – and return our kitchen access. Naturally, that contractor cancelled. Something about permit and insurance issues, blah, blah.
It didn’t take us long to realize the utter ridiculousness of the situation we created. During the 10 days it took to find a new contractor and square away permits, reaching the kitchen for food, water, mopping supplies, wine – you know, all the good stuff of life – required a stroll outside along the terrace. (Nifty way to curb middle of the night snacking, by the way). Lucky for us, last Sunday brought one of the biggest storms to hit Lucca in quite some time. Monsoon-like rain and heavy hail poured from the sky as I balanced a tray loaded with the frittata I had just made, plus salad, bottle of wine, plates and glasses – this is Tuscany living, after all – along the terrace under the cover of umbrella wedged into my armpit. All so we could “picnic” on the bare floor of a far room, one of the only spaces not covered in dust. Ah, memories of la dolce vita.
A new – and, for sure, better – contractor arrived last week, with Hussain and two other workers. All hassles were forgotten as, within an hour, rays of light began bouncing through an expanding hole in the first wall. By that afternoon, the entire space was open and we were in awe. Light streaming in. Panoramic views. All of Lucca through our windows.
It is magic.
Demolition continued the next day, as our merry crew tore and ripped down the ceiling to expose original beams and brick work. Tears pooled in my eyes to see the condition and beauty of the historic woodwork. We were also thrilled to see the original brick wall peeking through, which we all instantly agreed – siamo d’accordo– should be left exposed near those enormous beams.
Looking back on the first viewing of this apartment with our agent, we knew the space could be extraordinary. We just knew. We envisioned the potential of modern renovations illuminating historic features. Now, six months later, that love-at-first-sight feeling has only grown, expanding and morphing much like our project list and knowledge of plumbing parts.
To celebrate this beautiful beginning, we’ve chosen a name for the apartment – every home should have a name. The previous owner, a lively and sweet lady named Signora Angelini called this place home for 63 years. She welcomed us into her home on multiple occasions during our decision-making process. Walking through her rooms, I studied the artwork she had collected – much of which came from her own travels around the world. I longed to ask her if we could purchase a piece so that something important to her would stay in the apartment. In the end, I didn’t ask. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate.
On the day of closing, she invited us over to her/our house to share a bottle of prosecco in celebration and she told us how much she had loved living here, but her legs simply could not go up and down three flights of stairs every day, (She has since moved right down the street to a smaller, ground floor apartment). She gave me a pretty piece of jewelry on that day. Then, two weeks ago, when we arrived to an empty space for the first time, we found a piece of her artwork hanging on the otherwise bare walls. Somehow, she just knew.
We will call our home Casa Angelini.
I gotta go, as Hussein has just called us into our home’s original bathroom – dubbed “Pinkie” for reasons you shall soon see– to show us a problema. His work in the adjacent room has just created a crack running the bathroom ceiling’s length.
“Pericoloso,” he says. “Dangerous.”
Looks like we will be removing another – not planned for – ceiling.
Allora. Stay tuned. This adventure is only beginning.