You know those decisions you make – the stubborn-headed ones – which leave little doubt to making your life more complicated? Weeks 5 & 6 of our Crazy Tuscan Renovation Project finds us crunched between two such decisions.
Like pilgrimage, every year, we visit a tiny northern Italian village, (located over 300 km from the apartment we purchased in Lucca). Sometimes we stay a week, other times for entire summers. There we have friends who feel like family and a place that feels like home.
“Why didn’t you buy an apartment in Trentino?” everyone asks.
One glance at winter temperatures and snow levels and you have our answer. And, also, well…Tuscany, ah, Tuscany, the beauty is undeniable, as is the proximity to mountains AND sea.
Still, when summer begins, Trentino calls (and, we answer). So, even though we only have 90 days available to complete the apartment renovation – the amount of time allowed on our tourist visa – we aren’t willing to give up Trentino. Being us, we decide to go for it all – come what may.
We select two time periods to travel north, anchored around cycling events and a friend’s wedding.
This leaves the entire renovation – from tearing down walls and ceilings, adding new bathroom and kitchen, new electrical and plumbing to sanding and painting every surface, adding baseboards, installing new lighting, furnishing and decorating, and so, so much more – to an eight-week life span.
Just over 50 days, eek!
In these two weeks, sandwiched between those trips, the nearly-impossible goal combined with the weight of being tightly bound to one place begins to sink in. Waves of self-doubt rush onto our shores.
What are we doing here? What madness possessed us to think we had skills for renovating an apartment…in another country? Is this the “adventure” we want? Will we ever finish? What happens if we don’t finish?
Maybe this is the natural flow when taking such a deep dive, but we begin to feel like we just might drown. Between the work we must tackle ourselves and jobs needed to be contracted to skilled professionals, the sheer volume is daunting. Italians and foreigners alike have long warned us of the impossibility of getting anything done in a hurried manner.
It’s true that “domani” (tomorrow) and “la prossima settimana” (next week) are words we hear too often for these ears. The more we seem to push – and push, we do – the more contractors seem bemused and confused.
“For most people, renovation of this scale takes at least six months, if not a year!” our wall and tile guy Nico says. But, we have no time to spare, we tell him.
Living la dolce vita
Nobody said it was going to be easy, much less, happen on our stupidly stubborn timeline, right?
To pick up where the last update left off, Matt and I are heading out on the first Trentino trip, until…
Water, in all the wrong places.
Matt leaves early morning to cycle to Trentino (okay, he’s only cycling part way. Still, it’s a crazy long distance and he’s a crazy man). I will follow the route, via train.
My bag is packed and waiting by the front door, when I take one last walk through. “Is that water on the floor?!” I mumble to myself as I enter the lounge. “F^&$, this can’t be good.”
Given the position underneath the wood beamed ceiling, I realize it must be a pipe leak. But, I have no clue what to do. It’s Sunday morning, in Italy.
“Is there an emergency plumbing service?” I wonder. Luckily, we have befriended an Australian family who live nearby and are builders (seriously, every single member of the family), so I message Anne (a domestic goddess, in all ways). Before I can say, “Why does shit always happen when Matt leaves?”, Phil and Anne are over and he’s crawling around the filthy (and enormous) attic – ruining his best Sunday clothes – to pinpoint the leak source and assure me it’s not a gusher. It’s relief to find the problem is an easy connection fix…if you have the right tools. (We do not). I call our other “go-to friend,” geometra Matteo, and he helps set up an appointment with our plumbers for the next morning. Scheduling any type of work in Italy for first thing Monday morning is a feat, believe me. My bag still sits by the door. I guess Trentino will wait.
After a visit from our favorite plumbing duo – more on the guys later – I’m back on track and motivated to get more done before catching the train. I schedule what is known as muratori (this literally translates as bricklayers, but encompasses everything doing with wall construction and destruction) for the day of return. Their upcoming task will be to rip out the dated kitchen and carve deep canals into the room’s original stone walls. These channels will house the new pipes and electrical systems. In Italian fashion, everyone involved suggests we wait a few days after our return to resume works.
“You may be exhausted from your trip,” someone says. Matteo reminds us having the muratori take out the old kitchen means living without water, stove or work surfaces until the new kitchen arrives. He calls me a few days later to make sure we truly want this work scheduled so soon.
“Maybe you should wait until the new kitchen arrives to remove the old kitchen,” he sweetly cautions. We have been promised the new kitchen will arrive in two weeks, but Matteo has his doubts (spoiler alert: he is right, oh-so right).
We ignore all advice, double down and, in addition to muratori, schedule plumbers and electricians for our return. Knowing all the works required between removing the old and installing the new could take days, at holy best, we decide that keeping momentum is worth the gamble. Because, if you’re running blindly, you might as well sprint, right?
So, how many workmen can you fit in one small kitchen?
As predicted, it’s chaos. If you remember the last update, “What’s it like to renovate in another country?, the sound of drilling through these thick stone walls can only be described as “godly.” It’s a wonder only one neighbor has appeared and begged us to stop. Also, of wonder? That so many men can talk incessantly over such thunder.
What can they possibly be discussing at such length? And, why are they so angry?
The joke is with wild hand gesturing and raised voices, Italians often seem angry during conversation. But, as we’ve witnessed time and again, it’s not anger. Only passion. A subject like where to place an electrical outlet can elicit thirty minutes of dialogue, with everyone involved – muratori, plumbers and electricians – sharing an opinion. Then, you bring in drainage placement and vocal pipes nearly burst. After each animated episode, they turn to us.
“What do you want?” they ask. And, just like that, we’re making decisions without hesitation, as if we know what we’re doing. (We do not).
As ruble stacks on the floors and day comes to an end, canals are dug, and electric and plumbing lines have begun to be built. And, we…are without kitchen. The plumbers take mercy on us and offer to attempt to reconnect the old stove to new lines as a gap measure. (Though we have a new stove, in-code electrical infrastructure is not in place for it yet).
By now you know how much we like nicknames for things – it helps to have a sense of humor. We call the stove, which we inherited from the previous owner and have somehow managed to use for weeks, “old wobbly.” With only three legs, two functioning burners and two settings (hot and hotter), we are ready to see Old Wobbly go, but not just yet.
Old Wobbly stands alone in the room, facing her new more modern version. No cabinets or countertops for company. And, the biggest absence, no sink. So, no running water in the kitchen. All dish washing and food prep will now take place in the bathroom (aka Pinkie).
“It’s like camping!”, we say, and proceed to cook feast after feast in this makeshift arrangement. As the days follow, we sand and paint the kitchen walls and ceiling, install new lighting and settle into this weird, yet livable pattern.
Friends in hardware.
We agree on a color palette of light grays and stark whites, with soft blue for accent walls. Nothing too jolting. We will let the red and yellow floors take center stage. Classic, clean, simple, that is the aim. Well, simple is never easy.
The gray is too light, blue is too dark, these old walls suck up paint by the liter and we’re exhausted from running back and forth to hardware stores (not to mention, carrying 5-liter buckets down the road and up the stairs). I won’t even get into our alchemist-level mixing of paint colors from leftover remnants…not the world’s best decision-making.
One of my favorite days involves running three miles, most of which is down a winding, death-defying road leading out of town to reach the marvel of hardware store named Papeschi. (Being carless is one of our favorite aspects of this new life; but, let’s just say, it presents challenges).
After stacking goods so high the trolley won’t budge, I have several 14 liter buckets of paint, rollers, extensions, half a dozen lighting fixtures, antique wiring and ceramic connectors, along with much-needed recycling bins. Gathering this assortment of fun has involved mispronouncing every syllable of every Italian word I can conjure on my “help me, please” tour of departments. By the time I drag the stupid trolley, wheels screeching, to check out, every male employee I’ve interacted with over the previous two hours has gathered around the door. I guess they want a laugh watching the lunatic foreigner load her car.
I smile and try to be light and funny, saying I would see them next time. As I reach into my purse for my phone, a tampon leaps out, falling on the shop floor. I’m old enough to know this should not mortify me, yet it does. The men develop a sudden interest in the ceiling, eyes are all diverted up and around. That is until they see a taxi arrive.
And, when the taxi driver sees me and my trolley, he’s all eyes, too. He very kindly helps me load my supplies, then chats the whole way home (turns out, his son lives across the street). He asks questions about the renovations and sharing some of his own home improvement stories. We’re working with broken English and broken Italian, naturally, but make it work. At my door, he helps me unload, then shrugs off a tip.
I vow never to make the Papeschi run again, the road is too dangerous. Then, a week later, I do it again. And, when my taxi arrives, it’s the same guy. He gets a progress update in full. (He and I will repeat this dance a few more times in weeks to come).
But, hey, life’s too short to embarrass yourself at just one hardware store, right?
In what feels like daily runs to another wonderland known as Brico Center, I do everything but backflip to get attention of the old man working in the lumber department. He’s talking to a trio of other old men and seems in no hurry to attend the needs of some “girl.” “She probably doesn’t even know what she wants,” I feel him thinking. After an uncomfortably long period of time, I sigh loudly in exasperation, throw my hands in the air and begin walking away. All I can think is “Uomi Vecchio!” Unfortunately, my thoughts and voice are in tandem.
“Oh shit, did I say that out loud?” I wonder. I look over my shoulder to see every eye on me and surprise on every face. Then, a burst of laughter ripples through. Italian humor thrives on good-natured ridicule. They ate up being called “Old Men!” My ‘old man’ not only helps me with lumber, he also helps me select a sander and sandpaper.
Our neighbors love us.
Other than the plank-walking neighbor Anatasia across the hall, we haven’t connected with anyone in the building. At least, not in any real way. Unless you consider being yelled out as a real connection point. Who can blame them, really. We have work men coming and going. Their trucks take up all parking in front of the apartment. Hammering, sawing and drilling ring through the building. And, the only thing we make more of than noise, is dirt.
The man from the apartment below is coolly polite. Yet, he doesn’t hesitate to inform us if any drop of water leaks from the pretty little flowers and herbs on our terrace down onto his new awning. The ancient little lady who resides on the ground floor surely long ago gave up being polite. She yells and bellows like thunder when any water, other than rainwater, leaves our terrace gutter and dumps onto her courtyard.
She admonishes Matt so loudly one day, he looks at me with those I-didn’t-do-anything-wrong eyes and wisely says, “We’ve got to address this problem or it will fester.” Downstairs we go and knock on her door. We are fully armed.
With mop and bucket.
When her daughter opens the door, Matt says, “We are here to clean the water from your courtyard,” she is mortified. She apologizes (on behalf of her mother). We apologize (on behalf of water). We promise to pay more attention and part with smiles.
And, now, a wish we didn’t even know to hope for is granted. A permit is posted on our building’s front door signaling major renovation works to begin in another apartment (to the eye-popping tune of 60,000 euro, as stated in the permit). Someone else will make noise and dirt – seemingly on a much, much grander scale than us. Yippee, we now have companions on the “hot seat” and that feels cosy.
Rays of light.
We count our blessings every day for the amazing friends and tribe we have. None more special than our friend Christophe, who happens to be a builder, engineer, artist and lighting guru. Throughout the process, he has come over from visiting his family in Nice to stay for a week here or there and help us. There’s no way we could finish this renovation without his skills, guidance and good humor.
This time, he arrives just in time to tackle lighting, in every single room of the apartment. Our Italian elettriciste as they are called, say that a track lighting system is just what we need to show off wood beams and stonework. “It’s very expensive, though,” they say, “And, it could take us weeks to order.” We scratch our heads, not really understanding how this could be so.
Then, Christophe opens his magic backpack and not only has he brought mounds of stinky French cheese, he also has lugged cable and lights to install in the lounge, kitchen and bathroom! He positions one of the lights to strike this giant old stone in the lounge, and the colors are magic. Greens, blues, golds and browns shine from the surface. This is the first moment when we begin to feel things will all come together.
The easy-going plumbers Antonio and Ditta spend as much time in the apartment as us. Between the reworking of Pinkie’s plumbing (after the ceiling incident), creation of a new bathroom, new kitchen, new caldera and air conditioning, let’s just say, they are constant companions.
People have asked how we found contractors we can trust. Well, in this case, Facebook. I did a search for plumbers and found their office, a block away. Having a contractor located physically so near, yet also with an online presence for reviews makes me giddy. I sent a message, then walked over and introduced myself. I instantly liked the feel of their office and both man’s friendly, shy smiles. “You’re hired,” I said.
They have been with us for all the big moments, including two occasions this week. I am not sure which calls for bigger celebration, Matt’s birthday or installation of a washing machine. We have been without a clothes washer for weeks, so this first load of laundry feels monumental.
Matteo brings gelato cake and everyone takes time to celebrate. We also have visits from American, Canadian and Dutch friends during these weeks and roll out the best possible hospitality from our little makeshift kitchen and current makeshift life. Cheers ring through these slowly-evolving spaces.
Every third Saturday & Sunday of the month, antiques, oddities and sundry-other-sorts of dealers and vendors take over the streets of Lucca for one of the region’s largest outdoor markets. While I normally disdain shopping, browsing under shadow of this Tuscan town’s grand churches, palaces and cafes is pretty sweet.
Because we are starting from scratch, we must furnish every room of the apartment – a daunting task. Not only do we need a ton of “stuff,” we also need each element to work together, seamlessly and artfully so. This is the stage I have most looked forward to reaching, yet also am most afraid of screwing up.
Within a few hours, we make big scores (and big decisions). We venture out on a funky old hospital meal cart that we envision as the coolest bar cart/kitchen island. We swoon over a mid-century Italian coffee table, but hesitate, wondering if ’round’ is the right fit for the space.
We debate an artfully restored mid-century dining table. Its boldness thrills and scares us at the same time. We walk around for hours, stopping back by the booth ever so often to look again. Then, we decide to embrace bold and go for it! “Someone just bought it,” says the artist as we approach. Almost without words, we sprint back to the booth with the coffee table and swoop it up before its gone.
We happily score a full set of nice silverware, plus funky-fun flower painting. And, best of all, I spot what I instantly know is my writing desk. It’s a vintage school desk which still bears a plaque for student #12.
Now, we must get it all home. Our apartment is about a kilometer away through narrow streets, packed with Sunday strollers. I hug the coffee table to me like a giant 20 lbs. teddy bear. Matt lugs an iron bar stool – each made from old Singer sewing machine legs – in each hand with 55 pieces of silverware strapped to his back. A man from one of the market stalls follows with tiny rolling trolley heaped with the bar cart and my desk.
Somewhere along the way, the tire of his trolley deflates and we take turns pulling and pushing the cart through the streets. We also happen upon an outdoor art show clogging the streets with crowds. We all take deep breaths when we reach our apartment’s door.
Now, only three floors of steps to go! The pleasure, the pain. It’s all part of it.
Aiming forward, moving backward.
“The muratori pick up marble. But, not your marble,” says Matteo. The “marble” in question is the shower tile planks we have ordered for the new bathroom. “What do you mean it’s not our marble?” I ask. Matteo laughs as he explains that the order picked up was meant for some other Americani. “Your marble is in Florence,” he says.
Naturally, this little mix up costs us precious time, but, honestly, there are so many moving parts at this stage, we barely notice. A few days later, Nico shows up with “our” tiles and we help him carry these giant slabs upstairs (no gym membership needed in these days).
With Christophe’s lights positioned, along with light streaming in from a window high above the shower, the tiles gleam as they go into place. For me, it’s a hallelujah movement.
“It’s all coming together,” I dare to think.
Stay tuned! Next up, the kitchen saga, arrival of tesserae, and the housewarming party! Along with plenty of before and after photos. It’s almost a wrap, friends!