Sunday, August 31, 2014

Stairway to Heaven

Stairway to Heaven

        "Italians are good at making roofs, Zio Paolo, not terrazze (terraces)."  That's what I recall my good friend Antonio counseling me, but I didn't listen.  We were infected by then with a “have to have it” virus and if not treated, only the scourge of buyer’s remorse might lie in our future!  Ah, buyer's remorse, that nagging questioning, sometimes broadening to discord, that arises when you've made a difficult purchase decision, and following that decision, questions whether you've made the right choice.  For a boat purchase they say the entire period of ownership is remorseful - the best days being the first day you buy it and then only again when you sell it.  Heard that before?  Houses run the same gambit.  The movie, The Money Pit, vividly comes to mind in both instances, the only difference being whether you throw your money into a bottomless, never ending construction morass or a hole in the water.  Having survived this long, we know the feeling well.  Well, that's about how it started and, to tell you the truth, we still don't know how it will end.

        Here was our situation:  In the Borgo people live in ancient "concrete condos" on mostly parallel streets that spill down the side of a mountain.  For the most part, one home overlooks the sea of tiled roofs of its neighbors on the streets below.  Most everything is attached, one ancient building joined to another, thus my illusion to a condominium.  But for the small and sloping courtyard outside our front door, we had no outside space to enjoy.  What there is, which because we were the only people there, we refer to as Piazza Monico (Monico Square) - four walls confined our little space with about as much blue sky above as you might expect looking up at the sky from the bottom of a dry well.  The downhill side of our place, however, had the wonderful views of the remainder of the Borgo as it cascaded and stretched out below us then across the expansive countryside extending from Campania to mountaintops in Basilicata capped by ancient Rome's once famous thoroughfare, the Apian Way.  While we were use to outdoor spaces and with all of Italy around us, we only had this confined, postage stamp size space outside our front door.

        Here was the grand idea:  With three rooms in "Casa Della Feritoia", our home, why not just remove one of the roofs, the roof over our bedroom, and transform the freed-up space into a terrace accessible from our bedroom?  Simply brilliant!  The operative word here was "just!"  Was something like this even feasible?  Structurally could it be done?  What would it cost?  Always present the concern: Could the money be better used elsewhere?  Being in the historic area of Calitri would there be license, approval and building permit issues?  Are they even called "building permits"?  This being Italy, I could only fantasize on how thick the stack of paperwork, the degree of signature gathering, stamping and shuffling between offices that lay ahead if we decided to proceed.

        For a while, the idea was on again and off again, though mostly off.  In the meantime, husbanding the idea, I'd occasionally make inquiries.  It took about a year for the seed to germinate and take full root.  I talked with friends who put me on to others more familiar with a project like this.  You already know how Antonio felt.  Key to this hunt was getting some answers to our questions, having swelled sufficiently by then to fill a tome.  One of the major issues was how exactly to access the roof from the bedroom.  Where for instance would the stairs go and would they be of conventional design or possibly, with an idea of saving space, circular?  Answers came in the form of Canio.  He'd been recommended as a local ingegnere (engineer) who could oversee the task if we decided we liked his answers.  His formal training was as an aeronautical engineer but there was a gigantic dearth of this kind of work in Calitri, far away as it is from the busy every day, if not throughout all of Italy.  Hopefully, other than a fluttering pennant there would be no canard or rogallo wings up there on the terrace to catch the wind swooping down from the Castle still higher above us.  It wasn't long before we'd had a few meetings with Canio to discuss, as best we could, our ideas.

        My verbal explanations were eventually replaced by a sketch I believed everyone could understand.  I was hoping to be consistent with whomever we talked with.  As time passed and new ideas emerged my drawing gradually was refined.  Truly, a picture is worth a thousand words, maybe two-three thousand in Italian!  Canio took it all in and eventually gave us an estimation of what he thought the project would cost.  The only trouble was, of all the bids we eventually received, none were even close.  On that note, put out of the idea, a sort of depression set in, which festered for about six months.
        But why be pragmatic?  After all we were already invested in Calitri.  What difference would a little more in the way of investment matter?  Beyond the initial purchase cost seven years earlier, improvements to this point had been rather modest.  We had redone the stove, sink and counter top area of the kitchen.  I recall it well because while it was happening Osama bin Laden had been killed and travel warnings had been issued to Americans abroad.  So what did we do but go on a cruise out of Bari to places like the Greek Islands and Rhodes, where in fact we saw our first mosque!  We had also replaced a faulty water heater, and speaking of heaters, one year had installed gas wall heaters so we could enjoy all four Italian seasons if we chose to.  Besides, but for the failed water heater, these projects had been undertaken while we were not there.  Talk about being chicken and avoiding all the mess and inconvenience, but why not.  Spaced out, these projects hadn't been bad.  Amortization over time wasn't a bad concept either.  And who knew, maybe the Euro would cooperate and take a nosedive!  So with this project what did it matter if we postponed getting a new used car for a few more years?  It was all a part of life's choices, wasn't it?  Besides, life being as short as it is, it's one thing you can't amortize indefinitely!  Now unfazed, we got serious about the project again.

        In addition to the town's permission, we learned we also needed the consent of all owners living under our bedroom roof!  That was an unexpected surprise.  Apparently, like us, though most lived elsewhere, they relied on our roof to protect their ancestral homes down below.  We grew concerned.  From some of the real estate nightmares we'd heard about, properties could be held in the names of multiple family members.  If any one of them refused to cooperate and sign, our project was, if you'll allow me another boating nightmare reference, dead in the water.  We left this to Canio who before long had owners we didn't know coming by to see what the project entailed and where exactly changes would be made.  Come to find out we needed only three signatures.  I recall signing my part of the consent form on Canio's back when we happened to meet on the street downtown!  Things were moving.  Now all we needed was the simple matter of a contractor.

        By the time we were through we entertained three genuine bids and a few interested but not really serious inquiries.  Some we received while we were in Calitri, while others arrived via email when away.  In Italian of course, it was an effort to translate them and once translated, decipher their intention paragraph by paragraph.  For instance, the term lavori in economia was often used and translated to "works in economics", which remained meaningless even in English, but then maybe my assistant, Google Translate, was having an issue with it.  We learned it was a catch-all term used when a worker is to perform some task that the builder couldn't accurately quantify with measurements, like square meters, but the builder could calculate the hours the worker would take to do that particular job. Thus the term "works in economics" as I recalled that economics was nowhere close to being an exact science!

        We finally settled on the proposal submitted by Nicola, a contractor whom our house manager, Emma, had often worked with.  He came highly recommended and was backed by the collateral of a work history evidenced in construction projects large and small carried out throughout the region.  His team for instance had built the foundations for many of the wind turbines in the countryside.  To do this he had to be certified, for these were not toy windmills but major soaring undertakings.  Their bases, though not visible, were massive rebar and concrete underpinnings as grand as the foundations of a high rise building, just short of a skyscraper.  While we did not anticipate that much concrete, or wind for that matter, up on our roof, it was comforting nevertheless to think, while recalling Antonio's council, that if he could handle the big stuff, our job would be a piece-of-cake.  Besides while not realizing it, I'd seen one of Nicola's projects in town on the scale of what we anticipated.  Off and on I'd watched as his team had installed an additional story above Itaca, a store in Piazzale Giolitti, down behind The New Paldo's Bar.  When I thought about it, ours was a subset of this job, with some demolition involved.  I'd even called up to a workman, who for that matter may have been Nicola, who dropped a business card to me.  It was kismet; little did any of us then realize he'd soon be tackling our project. 

        We closed the deal at our kitchen table, a place, world over, known for hosting important events.  Before we arrived at that point, however, we discussed matters one more time.  Emma, who speaks English very well, was our voice and go between.  As they were rattling back and forth in beautiful to listen to Italian, we sat there with little insight into their rapid conversation, though all the while knowing they were holding our money hostage!  In the end, our team consisted of Emma the communicator, Canio for design and technical oversight, and Nicola for the construction.  Since we'd not be there to see the job through, there was a highly enriched degree of "trust me" involved for the terrazza (terrace) would be totally built while we were away in a sort of remote control fashion.  While definitely remote, we wondered just how much control we'd have!  I insisted we all toast to the project with some vino and after some hesitation on their part, for what upstanding Italian would drink wine in the middle of the day and God forbid in the absence of food, they agreed.  We last saw Nicola one evening at the ‘Tre Rose’ restaurant downtown.  His parting words to us were, “It will be beautiful!”  So that's how we left it, buoyed on a sea of wishful thinking by his message of promise!

        We departed Calitri after picking out materials like tile and fugue (grout).  Everything was in place but the weather, which unlike our neighbors, refused to cooperate.  Nicola and company were on hold until the rain stopped and there was a forecast of clear days ahead.  That took about four weeks, heralded when progress photos began to arrive starting with pictures of the scaffold rising like a metallic beanstalk from the street.  Although I had informed her of what was about to happen, a full-time neighbor below and directly across the narrow passage which separated us, would have to endure the dust and noise of the roof being removed and who knew what else afterwards.  That, and the scaffolding at her doorstep, had us wondering how we would be received when we returned and what type of gift might approach making amends.

        It wasn't all smooth sailing for there were a few hick-ups along the way and one giant choking gag.  First off, though we had heard it might not happen, early on, we received a payment request for the scaffolds in the form of a town tax.  Well I guess there was no way of hiding it from view since, as we understand it, you had to walk under the metal latticework to pass along the street.  The arrival of pictures, soon afterwards, made me think of details we'd not discussed, as for instance the need for a door stop and door insulation.  With the removal of the attic space that had served as a kind of insulating barrier, had they decided where insulation would go ... would the insulation be added outside to the terrace floor or would it be added inside to the present ceiling of our bedroom?  While we had settled on a conventional stairway, issues over the staircase design were a constant concern.  One source of anxiety was just how far it might extend into the room.  Would it need to be notched to fit around a wall heater?  When we saw that they had cut into our ceiling for the staircase and noted a light switch just inside the door to the terrace, I wondered if they had also accounted for turning on/off the light from below.  Eventually a photo arrived of a bedroom mounted wall switch.  Canio had it covered.  But these, like questions about colors, were minor issues easy to discuss on-line and resolve.

        It was the arrival of one photo in particular, however, that got us concerned that there might be "Trouble with a capital ‘T’, right here in River City!"  Its arrival bled the expression from our faces.  We noted a thick concrete mini-wall on the street side where the railing was to go.  About two feet thick and three feet high this wall had for years and years supported the street-side lower part of the roof, now demolished.  It was so high that, if it stayed, I doubted we'd even need a railing.  Its size took away from the space of the terrazza, making it look like an empty swimming pool, not a terrace intended to exploit the view.  With the roof now gone, we questioned what structure it supported and why it couldn't be removed.  We were informed that for structural reasons it had to remain.  Lost in awful, a palpable chill had invaded our terrace thoughts.
        We began referring to it as the "Railing Wall", sounding much like the "Wailing Wall" we had recently visited in Israel.  Unlike that wall of comparable distance away, our notes were not left in small openings and cracks but sped by email and reply emails to and from Calitri.  Our emails expressed our disappointment.  A newly made sloping stairwell cover to one side and a neighbor's wall on the other side already effected views in those directions.  Now this high-rise swathe of a support wall killed any hope for a forward view!  It would be like sitting in what they call "obstructed view" seats at a ball game!  Sitting in a chair or lying on a lounge we anticipated seeing only sky, and below it, a wall the height of a kitchen counter.  We feared we would need to stand to enjoy the view, which defeated the whole purpose of the terrazza.  We were in effect back in Piazza Monico, only a story higher!  Was our idea of a dream terrace falling apart?  Like a dream broken in a Humpty Dumpty like fall from our apparent "Railing Wall" was there enough crazy glue to put it right?  Mare was of the mind that we ask that they stop work until this was resolved, which I did.  In a big way I wished I was there but then they probably didn't want me underfoot, which I imagine is putting it mildly.
        Although we preferred that it be totally removed, I proposed alternatives and sent drawings to illustrate the ideas that ricocheted around in my mind.  I cast around for anything that might reduce the effect of being in a confined space.  Couldn't they reduce its height some ... how about by half?  If there were metal or structural supports inside, couldn't they be tastefully exposed and fashioned into part of the railing?  There was even an idea to lower it right down to the terrace floor and insert a metal support plate or rod across the span.  I went so far as to ask that they do something for me in way of an experiment.  I asked that they take one of our kitchen chairs and snap a picture toward the railing wall while seated in the chair with the camera at eye level.  I wanted to see that photo.  It never arrived.  We still don't know exactly what happened but a photo eventually appeared, which caused us to cheer and believe that there had to be an Italian saint who answered prayers specifically dealing with terrazze!  Canio informed us that they had a workaround too difficult to explain by email.  We didn't care, the photo was of a workman with an electric jack-hammer removing the wall.  I could almost hear the sweet sound of its rat-a-tat-tat as the wall fell and the view spilled in.  The bijou swimming pool effect was totally gone.  The “Railing Wall” would become simply a railing after all! 
        Needless to say, this was no typical operation.  Because our Team was conscientious and of single mind, even when faced with challenges and distance, things were done to our liking.  Email communications interspersed with photos had kept us in the loop.  To this point we still have not seen the finished product, although because of the professional efforts of Emma, Canio and Nicola we have a clear idea what it will be like to climb those stairs and step out onto our panoramic perch.  We imagine ourselves rushing up slowly, taking in each detail.  For the first of many times we will be privileged to observe the vivid transition of day from a palette of vibrant pastels to the pale purple sky of late afternoon twilight; a sunset just as the stars began to be born and crickets chirr; a night sky illuminated by a slice of moon and the twinkle of distant hilltop towns; to the moment the brilliant yoke of dawn reemerges to the trill of birds to reclaim the day and plow it with sultry sunbeams.  Offering a snapshot in the life of a day, across the seasons, we think it will be a pinch me moment worth waiting in line for!
        We will soon see what together we have crafted, the finished product, atop La Scala per il Paradiso (The Stairway to Heaven).  Soon afterwards we are planning to host a mighty party on the terrace with the workers, the Team, neighbors, a posse of our Italian friends and especially our dusty neighbor down below.  Price of admission is at least a chair, since we will be far short, and definitely a bottle of vino, no matter the time of day!  To this point you have only heard our side of the story.  Come to the party to hobnob with the Team and hear theirs as well!  And yes, lest I forget, at this point there is not a drop of remorse, but now post-purchase, we'd like your impression once you sample the vino and the views as to whether our "Stairway to Heaven" was a good idea.

From That Rogue Tourist,


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy. Then look for and click on a photo album entitled "Stairway to Heaven"