Australia Diary Australia

Australia Diary 4 August 2012

4 August 2012

We have been in Italy for the past two weeks and I am writing this from the terrace of our newly renovated house in Introdacqua, the village where my grandmother was born, overlooking the spectacular Abruzzi mountains. The village is in full summer ‘casino’ mode: jazz concerts at the Norman tower, the bars doing a brisk business, all the various foreigners who own houses here are back for the summer, as are all the returned emigranti, mostly retired Americans. The economic situation being what it is, some are giving serious thought to returning permanently, like Rosa who works in the comune. She is from Pacentro via Detroit. Like another daughter of Pacentrani Detroit emigrants — the Material Girl, Madonna Ciccone.


Speaking of the comune, they have just introduced the most bizarre new garbage ‘system’ in Introdacqua, invented, no doubt, by some eco-fascist longing for the days of the real thing. We now have five small bins and every single thing has to be sorted  and placed outside the house for collection, a most unlikely scenario in a town where many of the streets slope at an angle of about 30 degrees and few people can drive to, let alone park in front of, their houses. It is bad enough in summer trying to get up your street, but in winter the entire place turns into a giant slalom run. Consequently, no-one except a few law-abiding hangovers from the days of Il Duce are bothering with the new garbage ‘system’, and the garbage bins down in Sulmona, where the ‘system’ has yet to be implemented, are overflowing.


The church bells here ring the time and the various parts of the day, a hangover from when people went to morning mass and said the Angelus, but alas, no more. However, one tradition remains firmly intact. The bells have just rung 12, the beginning of the pommerigio, the afternoon siesta, and everyone religiously downs tools. In an hour or so, all will be peaceful; the afternoon slumbers accompanied by nothing more than the twittering of European birds, the cicadas, the van with loudspeaker advertising the latest bargains in Sulmona and the woman down the street with the boyfriend in Rome having animated and luridly detailed mobile phone conversations while hanging over her balcony.

Claim your gift


Well at least some people are actually wielding the tools in these days of crisi economica, but they are more likely to be immigrants from eastern Europe. All the tough stuff, like stone work and concreting (and in Italy it’s all concreting), is done by Macedonians from our builder’s team. Even the plumber is international. He was born in Venezuela; Introdacquese on one side, Sicilian on the other. None of them have much lack of work. The plumber in particular is kept busy running and driving up and down the precipitous streets installing pumps and reserve tanks, trying to sort out the perennial summer water shortage. Fine irony for a place whose name means between the water and where the springs, gushing out from the rocks, feed a natural stream, which runs under grates in the town. There is even a working wash house. But water is a problem in a place meant for 1500 people which in summer now houses three times that number — with dishwashers and of course, the compulsory bidet. Yes, as we have discovered, it is actually compulsory to have one.


There are two main builders in town: Peppino, the old original builder, and Tony, our builder. Peppino and his architect nephew do all the renovations for the well-to-do Americans. There has been a huge influx of non-Italian Americans over the past ten years who mostly work with the military and live around Vicenza. They and some well-heeled Europeans have virtually restored the historic centre of this old town and helped revive it as a cultural centre. People start with three walls and a tree growing up the middle, and end up with beautiful stone houses, with all mod cons — except the water.


The other builder, Tony, is a smart young guy, new father of two and living proof of the fact that even in bad economic times you cannot go wrong with a good trade. He is a muratore, a builder in concrete and stone, but he has also qualified as a geometro, (a sort of architect-surveyor), so has undermined Peppino and his nephew. We were in dire need of someone who could prop up our little old place after the earthquake in April 2009. He has done the job admirably, reinforced the whole house, converted the roof terrace and moved the bathroom, all for the price of, say, a posh kitchen renovation, plus a bit, in Canberra. He now has a team working for him, and I doubt it will be too long before Constantine, his number one, branches out himself. However it is hard to see how a VAT of 22-23% won’t affect tradesmen. My view is that it will drive more of them into working under the table for cash.


These two young guys are also living proof of the fact that there will never be any shortage of people in Italy wanting to do building and renovation — Italian or foreign. Italians themselves place great store by home ownership. They have one of the highest rates of home ownership in the world and are very canny with their personal savings, which is one reason why Italians are not in such bad financial straits as people in the rest of the so-called Club Med.

Angela Shanahan is a columnist for the Australian.

Give the perfect gift this Christmas. Buy a subscription for a friend for just £75 and you’ll receive a free gift too. Buy now.

Show comments
Can't find your Web ID? Click here