Bittersweet Move

On the wall of our new house hang the nails the previous owners put up for their pictures. The other day, standing among the boxes filling the dining room, I reached down and unpacked a plate that had hung in my old house—an antique porcelain plate, cool white with magenta roses on part of the rim. It was still dusty from our comings and goings in the old house, from the ashes of the fires we lit there, from the fine, yellowish dirt that got whipped up and about in that windy place.

I hung it on a nail, admiring it, enjoying its shape, the brushwork of the roses, its translucent rim. I remembered finding it at an antique fair among similar but slightly bulkier or brighter or darker plates that I would never have bought. I thought about the moment in which the previous owner had hung whatever he had hung on that nail, twenty or thirty or fifty years earlier, and I glimpsed, too, the cliché of my children packing the plate and the rest of it back up again one day. Still, I would decorate this room and the rest of the house as I had the old one, with plates and chairs and rugs chosen by me for their particular look and feel. The items would lend our lives grace, warmth, a certain hue. We would eat supper with this plate, maybe, hanging near us, for years to come. The dust would collect again. Something was descending through the ages, I felt, and we would be a part of it.

There was a certain hilarity to my cherishing these objects, I knew, to the joy I found in those pretty, senseless things, in the feeling of plucking them out of oblivion, bringing them into my warm home, giving them a place.

I felt sharply the ridiculousness of my actions. Like that of the owners before me, my creation would live for a mere instant, relative to the life of the house and the rest. I did not, for that moment, fear death, but I felt deeply sad that the evenings together, that our moments in this house would some day be cut short, that I could not go on enjoying it all, go on enjoying what I felt I had just started to savor, that it—or rather, I—would end.


Immobile, in Italian, has two meanings, one, “unmoving,” just like its English equivalent, and two, a “property or real estate asset.” The two meanings have converged for me recently, in an unmoving way.

This morning, I locked myself in the bathroom. It had been one of those weeks: we’re moving house—actually, I am moving house, my teenage daughter and my boyfriend having done less to help with the move than our pet fish, which, after being transported sloshing and slopping IN its aquarium (my idea) to the new house, spent a week leering at me from the bottom left corner, in that fishy way it has, as if complaining about its new quarters.

My daughter has been complaining more explicitly. “This house sucks!” has become her mantra, the house having replaced me as the reason for all her problems—arriving late for school, forgetting a textbook, not being able to find THE ONLY JEANS she will wear—this last actually a reasonable accusation given that we do not have a working washing machine.

We had been living in limbo, our old house already missing sofas, chairs and tables, our new house still without beds or appliances, all thanks to my now-clearly-reckless plan to do most of the moving “ourselves,” in an interval of eight weeks between the two days for which I hired a moving company. After a few weeks of going back to the old house to do laundry, the movers finally brought my extra-large washer to the new house, carried it upstairs and attached it. It would not start, however, and I discovered that the water supply to the laundry room was turned off. Undaunted, using a wrench, I experimented with opening and closing various valves—to no avail. Then, the other day, I noticed there was another washer attachment downstairs, but now there’s no one around to move that monster back down. I have, however, managed to drill some holes in the laundry room wall and hang clotheslines, so we are fully prepared to dry clothes whenever it becomes possible to wash them.

The kitchen came much better equipped. There’s an oven—“brand new” according to the former owners–which I keenly tried out on the first night we spent in the house. It has a number of quixotic features, including a handle on its door that heats to the same temperature as the oven itself and an internal space unencumbered by racks. I could have lived with these eccentricities, but the oven also short-circuits the entire property. As the technician revealed on his 100-Euro visit, although the oven was indeed new, it had sat unused for so long that its “resistenza,” or heating element, had failed. A new one was ordered, and when he brought it, the technician not only charged me another 100 Euro but immediately diagnosed what was wrong with the dishwasher, which has been leaving a grainy film of churned up food bits on whatever I load. The silverware basket was interfering with the circular motion of the spray arm: first, I tried cutting off its handle (Do not try this at home!) and when that didn’t work, I abandoned the basket, scattered the knives and forks around in the top level and pressed start. The spray arm still didn’t turn, though, because it was blocked by dinner plates. I had assumed a dishwasher was equipped to handle a standard nine-and-a-half inch plate—were plates smaller in the old days when the dishwasher was born? Hidden upside: without plates encumbering the dishwasher, the scattered silverware comes out much cleaner.

The lack of WiFi at the new house would normally be driving me nuts—you’d think I’d need it to run my business–but I haven’t had time to run my business—I’m too busy moving!–so being off the grid is mostly fine. In any case, the 1.8 mega-byte per second cell network happily accommodates what I have been doing instead: hate-texting with the movers. They were friendly at first, but they took a three-hour lunch break one hour into an eight-hour work day, which in itself is fine—a man’s gotta eat! What irked me was that they had rented me a fancy moving truck with a crane for those same eight hours, the operator of which they accidentally took with them on the lunch-break marathon. He had to eat too, as the firm texted me back. At that, I stooped to texting a long paragraph (always a sign of losing the upper hand) to point out that my employees have regular lunch breaks, too, -regular in the sense both of daily but also of “at a normal hour,” i.e., not at “10 IN THE F@#%ing MORNING!!!!@#?!”

I’ve been trying to point out to my daughter all the advantages of the new house. Most of the other appliances function. The doorbell, for instance, rings when you push its button, although it may feel marginalised by now since the front door no longer closes. The lock started giving me trouble, so I had the handy man take it apart, because I was afraid I’d get locked out. He put it back together, but got a key stuck in it so that it no longer turns, which together with the swelling of the old, long-unused wooden door, leaves the entrance looking very welcoming, as if it were signalling in an underworld code, “Come rob this house.”   

A permanently open front door would worry me from an ecological standpoint, but “It isn’t winter yet,” as my electrician keeps telling at me when I call him to come and unblock the boiler that he certified on the day I moved in for 150 Euro and which stopped working as he drove off. Stopped working is maybe too harsh a way to describe the boiler’s recent behavior: it does work after I reset it, for an hour or so, but I spent more time resetting the boiler last week than I did washing dishes by hand, so the jury is out.

Other than the front one, doors are mostly not a problem, except for a few of which I had to remove the handles—the inside or outside handle kept dropping to the floor upon closure, risking leaving someone closed in or out of a room, but without any closing mechanism at all, it would be impossible to get trapped. Except I did, this morning, in the bathroom: I had forgotten to remove the outside handle and was now locked inside.

Maybe it’s for the best, I thought. I can take a long shower, and someone will eventually find me. Alas, the boiler needed re-setting so there wasn’t any hot water.

Paring Down

Mid-winter is belt-tightening season, literally and figuratively, everywhere except in Tuscany. The Tuscans eat just as much now as they do during the holidays, partially because, with the last feast, Epiphany, falling on January 6th, and Carnevale starting, some years, hardly a month later, there is no post-holiday season, and partly because the three- or four-course meals they enjoy over the holidays continue at family Sunday lunches all year round. So the belt stays on the same hole year round. Figuratively speaking, there is no household budget trimming either in the wake of Christmas, because frugality is like religion here—touching everything and everyone.

Before moving to Tuscany, my idea of frugal living was mid-1990s New York on a legal assistant’s salary—i.e., I couldn’t afford to go to Dorian’s every night of the week. The Tuscans, though, have taught me to interpret the term more strictly.

One of the first things my future mother-in-law noticed when I moved here was the price tag on some dish soap I had bought: “It’s thirty cents less at the other supermarket,” she pointed out helpfully. She also taught me how to save at the dry cleaners: “Just have them clean the skirt, not iron it. You can do that yourself,” which got me 50% off.

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By now, the persimmon trees have lost their leaves, so the branches, covered in hundreds of round, orange-red fruits, stand out against the often-grey sky. The grapes and olives are harvested, but it’s too early to start pruning vines or trees. Leeks and fennel grow, without much attention, in the vegetable garden. We’ve eaten, for the time being, enough grilled mushrooms, mushroom pasta and mushroom risotto. It has started to rain, and it is the time of year when the thick-walled farmhouses feel colder than the scirrocco-driven dampness outside, so we come in, light the fire, drink tea and play briscola.

playing cards
Tuscan playing cards

On weekend mornings, we hear the dogs and gunshots of the hunters in the fields and woods around us. A friend brings me a piece of boar, which another friend makes into sausage and salami for us to hang in the cellar and eat this winter. Someone else brings chestnuts to a dinner party, and we sit up late around the fire with a good excuse to drink lots of wine. The ash of the fires and the dogs’ now always-muddy feet are reason enough to ease the housekeeping standards. Continue reading Ringraziamento

The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

Life in provincial Tuscany involves a cast of what seemed at first like supporting characters but, fifteen years in, have become in many ways the people I know best, simply because we’ve been through it all—together.

candlesticksIf you like antiques, you had better like carpenters, of which, here in Siena, there are a confusing variety of specialists. There’s the one we call “quello bravo,” whom we hired to make cabinets out of some three-hundred-year old, massive chestnut shutters. Then, there are the two who repair antiques, one rebuilding the damaged section, the other, called the “shiner,” who buffs or waxes or polishes the reconstructed section so that it blends in with the old. There used to be yet another carpenter, whom we called the “candlestick guy,” because the first time I went to see him was about a pair of termite-stricken antique altar candlesticks. He specialized in anything very old, or very precious, or very small.

When I got a dog last year, all these carpenters seemed pleased. Animal lovers, I thought, until one of them explained, “Dog owners are my bread-and-butter.” I didn’t make the connection until Kaya, my Maremman Shepherd puppy, chewed through the bottom bar of a four-hundred year-old chair.

Continue reading The Butcher, The Baker, The Candlestick Maker

The Women’s End

At dinner parties in Siena, the tables are boy-girl, i.e., the men sit at one end, all together, and the women at the other. The main topic at the men’s end is, apparently, the Palio, or professional soccer. One summer, with my family visiting, during a party at our house, my sister and I got up from our women’s end to clear one of the courses, and once safely in the kitchen, she asked me, “So what are the women discussing?” “Floor wax,” I told her, in truth.
rug and brushThe day my Italian ex-husband’s first wife moved out of the 11th-century fortress he calls home, his aunt moved in to keep house for him, and the day I moved in, she handed the housekeeping over to me. “I do a floor a day,” this 76-year-old explained, “starting at the top, on Monday, with the bedrooms and bathrooms,” including it turned out, washing their tile walls. I started to laugh when she pulled out the feather duster, but she carefully showed me how to clean the intricate woodwork of the bed with it, then how to brush the rugs—no vacuum-cleaners on site—with what looks like and must originally have been a bunch of twigs bound with twine, although not before clearing the walls and ceilings of cobwebs by means of a ring of bristles stuck to an extendable pole. She explained the importance of vinegar, for the drip stains on the shower doors, and bleach for the toilets and bidets. Had they ever considered hiring someone to clean, I asked? “Che ci vuole?” was Auntie’s answer, “What’s it take?” by which she meant, hardly any effort at all.

Continue reading The Women’s End