I’m working on a project just outside CdP. It’s an unusual one for me, because I’m coordinating works inside the house, after which I will hopefully progress to the garden. The other day I turned up and there wasn’t much in the way of works going on at all, so I called the delightful head builder to find out why.
The reason, he said, was desperate lack of staff. He was rather proud that it wasn’t Covid which had laid them all low. One of his men had blood pressure of 200/120: he was keen to get back on site but (wisely) no one thought that was particularly advisable. Another is a wine buff and had taken time off to go to Vinitaly – which is a brilliantly Italian-builder reason for absenting yourself from work.
There are few things I love more than a building site. Gardens, and garden-building sites, probably top my natural habitat list but a busy complex dusty challenging building site – my own or someone else’s – comes close behind, and is pure joy to me.
I love the tearing down and the immense potential, the dovetailing of manual tasks and technologies, the mesmerising edge where practical knowhow and engineering theory meet and make magic: it’s the grown-up version of my beloved childhood Lego… and then you can live in it.
I have little experience of building sites elsewhere but I strongly suspect many are not nearly such fun as Italian ones, especially those in a rural area full of stone houses of indeterminate date. The same traditions which went into construction through the ages is needed to turn those crumbling piles back into liveable spaces: I’m constantly made aware that these masons could slot themselves effortlessly into any century they like. But ancient skills blend with the sharpest edges of modernity too. It’s just brilliant.
Also brilliant is the ambience and chitchat – banter, methodological debate, repartee, philosophical ponderings, gossip, musings on the state of the world. When I meet with the plumber and the electrician and the joiner and the head builder these days, global supply chain issues are bound to come up: materials which six months ago arrived on site from one day to the next may now take weeks or even months, and cost 25% more than last time you needed them. Italy’s totally unwieldy but superb superbonus scheme (George Monbiot raves about it here) has, inevitably, aggravated an international problem by pushing domestic demand up dramatically.
The other day’s delays+costs conversation drifted sideways into packaging. I mean, when things do turn up, they turn up wrapped. The electrician bemoaned tiny lighting components arriving in huge boxes filled with protective stuffing. The plumber is fed up with bubble wrap.
The words “bubble wrap” set off a strange reaction of mutual recognition and indulgent smiles, and a strong sense that everyone knew what everyone else with thinking about.
I’ve written about Fratelli Binaglia before. It’s a massive hangar of a place down in the retail park in Po’ Bandino where lugubrious men – the eponymous Binaglia brothers – pick slowly through the kilometres of shelves, and eventually come up with the piece of ironmongery that you have always needed but have never been able to find. These brothers, it seems, also have an aversion to bubble wrap but rather than chuck it they recycle it – at least the long strips of the ghastly stuff with larger air pockets. As customers purchase screws, nails and washers, they snip off individual pockets just below a seal, slide the bits and bobs into the open end and close the packet with a tiny bit of sticky tape. The mention of this set the building site team into gales of affectionate laughter.
Perhaps the best thing of all about the various building sites I find myself involved in is the humanity of it all. If a client is willing to be drawn into the process, to be fascinated by the whys and wherefores and to become a willing, participating part of the crew that’s pulling the project together, it’s just so rewarding. When I hear property owners (mostly, but not only, non-Italians) complaining about shiftiness, fecklessness, unreliability and even dishonesty in Italy’s building sector, I have to wonder: where oh where did you go so wrong?
I’m not completely naive. I know that operators of this ilk can be found on Italian building sites, just as they can be anywhere in the world. I also know that I am in the enviable position of having worked with just about everyone in this neck of the woods and being able, on the whole, to collaborate with the kindest and IMO best (not that there are many whom I would discard, I have to say). If I can inveigle my clients into immersing themselves into and enjoying their projects as much as I do, I feel I’ve done something good.
This article in the New York Times really made my heart sing when I spotted it last week. The nerdy pleasure I take in my Personal Weather Station reached its climax, I think, when I realised that it had registered the pressure wave from last January’s massive volcanic eruption in Tonga. And here’s the NYT extolling PWSs the world over for their contribution to monitoring a once-in-a-century shockwave. I’m proud to have been a part.
So many things are pointing to some kind of return to normality. At Pieve Suites I have bookings spread over the next few months, from visitors who are arriving from abroad. After two years of crazy last-minute August-only pile-ons, mainly involving Italians, this is a very welcome development.
Our Palio will be held for the first time since 2019; our Infiorata too. The traditional Easter market – for which the weather, uncharacteristically, was mostly fair – was a heaving mass of humanity. The town council is claiming market visitor numbers were up 80% over 2019, the last pre-Covid edition of the event. Is this realistic? Sure, there were lots of people there but that seems a little wild to me.
In fact, without wishing to sound like a conspiracy theorist, I’m seeing all kinds of fancy footwork where official statistics are concerned. Why, for example, did the Umbria region stop updating its town-by-town case data on 31 March? And why does our mayor’s weekly FB address to the populace now contain simply generic “numbers are plunging” statements, rather than any real information about what on earth is going? Because the town council can claim victory over Covid as much as it likes, but that’s not what I’m seeing all around me. As far as I can tell, people are dropping like flies.
Collective paranoia is shifting towards collective turning-a-blind-eye. Of course we well vaxxed people are unlikely (touch wood) to get much in the way of symptoms. But I still don’t want to have it. Being in the Golden Circle of the unscathed is rather comforting. It’s widely expected that all kind of Green Pass and mask mandate rules will be lifted from 1 May, and I’m filled with trepidation.
We went to Florence to see the Donatello exhibition which was wonderful and moving in the Palazzo Strozzi bit, and bewildering in the Bargello bit where it was kind of difficult to work out what/where the exhibits were, and even the many Donatello pieces always housed there were inadequately labelled and signposted. Hey ho.
We all know of his mastery of ultra-bas reliefs but when you get up close to them, in the flesh (or marble, or bronze, or terracotta) they are truly wondrous – the Pazzi Madonna and the Christ supported by Angels in Palazzo Strozzi, the Dudley Madonna in the Bargello.
Florence, too, was a leap back to a pre-Covid era, with centro storico crowds which had us hankering for the past two years of sneaky visits to echoing ghost towns. In piazza della Signoria we risked losing chunks of scalp to people with selfie sticks. Selfie sticks – why would anyone bother to blow the dust off them?
But the return of the hordes has brought new threats as this article explains. So far, drones have ‘only’ hit precious monuments. What happens when they start plummetting on to people too?
I can’t help thinking that the kind of person who brings their drone-toy on hols is someone who needs the grown-up equivalent of video games to shut junior up and give parents a quiet moment to savour an experience; that fiddling with a buzzy thing takes unenquiring minds off the fact that they don’t understand what they’re doing on holiday in a place which they’re not really interested in anyway. But maybe I’m being unfair.