Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Terrazza Tales

Terrazza Tales

       In a recent yarn, I went into how, from time to time, we had entertained the idea of trading a roof atop our home in Calitri for a terrace.  The idea eventually germinated into action as we secured a builder but, unfortunately, had to depart before work could begin.  From a distance, as issues arose, we supervised as best we could through emails, hoping all would go well as Nicolo and Canio performed architectural surgery.  Then most recently, I recounted how on a return visit we experienced the finished product, only to see me suffer a back injury.  Fixated on presenting my tale of woe, I never adequately did justice to Le Scale verso il Paridiso (The Stairs to Heaven) or atop the stairs, Paridiso itself.  Here, I'll do my best to rectify that lapse.
       While we had a very good idea what to expect from the photos we'd received chronicling the builder's progress, experiencing it that first time was still a very special moment. In addition to surpassing any picture, it had completely transformed our space.  Our bedroom, which due to its emptiness had seemed huge, now appeared connected and functional, having taken on a more lived-in feel.  A black, powdered, metal stair-frame now ascended a wall once taken-up by Maria Elena's dresser.  It was important that no part of this structure, rising over the entrance to the room as it did, be allowed to clip the doorway.  Thankfully it hadn't.  As large as it was, it was apparent that for a custom fit in the limited space available between ceiling supports, it had been partially made and definitely assembled in our bedroom.  We were surprised to learn that its wooden stair-treads were hewn from strong, straight-grained American chestnut.  Now cherry stained, they'd traveled a long way to serve this purpose.  As we had requested, we also noticed that the bottom three steps, in order to make it easier to access the stairs when approaching from the entryway, had no associated railing.  All looked just perfect, just as ordered and definitely attractive.

       You can imagine then, how our first climb up "The Stairs to Heaven" was intentionally slow and deliberate as we tried to take in every feature, however minor.  Hard to believe, but we practically savored the rise and depth of each tread as, one behind the other, we made our assent.  In early project discussions, just how steep the stairs needed to be and how far they'd extend, following their turn along an adjacent wall, had been at issue.  We were concerned, once the stairs turned, how far they might extend into the room.  Again, the resulting fit and feel were perfect.  We especially loved how the exterior wall undulated and at the top how it curved rather than join the abutting surface along a straight line.  We asked for rustico (rustic) and that's just what we got.  As we made our way, a hand rail to one side steadied our climb.  Ascending the stairs, this railing extended only to the level of the ceiling, however.  Only later did we realize we'd need an additional handrail on the opposite wall to assist in getting down, especially when carrying something.  Tonino, the man who had fashioned the stairs, would literally have to "handle" it, pun intended.  Reaching the top of the staircase, above the landing and still higher above a switch panel, we noticed a hose, serving as a conduit, protruding from the wall.  From it some wires, connected to a single dangling bulb, asked for attention.  Moments later I realized the same situation existed on the terrace.  It wasn't long before that light bulb of realization in my head turned on, for although wiring and switches had been provided, light fixtures, beyond this basic "dangling bulb" form of illumination, were not!  We hadn't expected anything as exquisite as a Murano glass fixture per say, but something beyond basic contractor shabby-chic would have been nice.

       A sharp left turn at the top and a step later saw us, for the first time, emerge onto the terrazza (terrace).  By this time it had grown early evening, the sky gone to pink, but even then, as Mare said and would repeat every time she'd emerge onto the terrazza, "It takes your breath away."  When you walk into an area for the first time, each of us is grabbed by some detail, whether large or small.  It was the expanse of muted, earthy, reddish terracotta tiles, gridded in a charcoal colored grout, all 26 sq meters of it, that first caught my eye.  The plastered walls were bleach white, something else for the "to do list" that awaited me once we settled on a color.  Along the bottom of each wall, a kickboard of the same tile material inched up for a neat finish.  Although empty at the moment, it came together in a inviting and appealing scene.

       From the deck's surface, my eyes next flashed to four niches that had been grafted into the surrounding walls.  Serving as shelves, they give the space added old world character.  Various materials had been cobbled together in their construction.  Some recycled our old half-pipe roof tiles along their edges while another featured mummoli insulating hollow cylinders salvaged no-doubt from some ancient ceiling.  Stone slabs served as the base of each shelf.  Interestingly, a number of shelves contained electrical outlets.  Their variety, varied sizes and shapes, right about mid-wall height, would be perfect for candles, a home for a cork screw or two, and seeing we had power available, small lamps, even a radio.

       It is common in the Borgo, along with rocks used to hold down roof tiles in windy conditions, to see weeds sprouting on roofs and at home in gutters.  Dust in the air carried by sultry Sirocco winds, born in Africa, provide the organic material.  Seeds float by and nature eventually does its magic.  Before long, unless removed, a shangri-la hanging garden is on the way.  Depriving the rain any chance to flood our terrace, some new gutters had been installed and in other places cleaned.  From the new look of some of the rounded roof tiles on an adjacent building that fed a gutter, it looked as though they had been repaired, making the roofline straight and neat.  No weeds yet!  Then again, maybe I should look at the gutters as a sort of garden in the concrete maze of the Borgo.

       Lastly, a waist high iron railing connected the terrace to the sprawling scene spread before us.  It compelled you to turn your head toward the pastoral countryside lying beyond this barrier at tiles end.  High up as we were, it was as though we teetered on the brink of a precipice, at the edge of nothing.  The distant horizon and landscape of undulating hillocks, fractured with dusty country lanes, adding kilometers, not meters, to our home.  There had been no way to predispose us to this scene since photos could not do justice to its reality there under a delirious evening sky.  From images, along with bits and pieces of information, we'd extrapolated ahead, all the while anticipating in our minds what the finished project would be like.  Only your eyes could appreciate the majesty of this undulating sea of peaks and languid valleys layered toward the horizon.  The scene, though steady, we soon realized seemed to change dimension as the teasing light of morning transitioning into afternoon and beyond, before being extinguished by the western horizon.  As hours passed and shadows shifted, the expansive panorama revealed infinite, almost multi-spectral gradations in the scenery ... and what a scene it was.

       Toward our left lay Mount Vulture, now thankfully an extinct volcano.  With what remains of its saw-toothed caldera, it dominates the horizon.  Ancient lava flows have created a soil rich with minerals, in which today's Aglianico grapes thrive.  Originally a Phoenician grape, they were brought there by Greek settlers long before the age of Rome.  Later, Aglianico became the prime ingredient used to make Falernian wine, a wine which once reigned even over mighty Roman consuls and dictators.  Along these verdant slopes, and still beyond, farther east, lie sites of historic carnage.  Hannibal and his army surely glimpsed its summit when at Cannae in 215 BC they slaughtered 55,000 Romans in a single day.  Much later in WWII, its far slope descended to an American B-24 bomber base on the outskirts of Venosa.  On a foreign morning for many a crew, this dramatic vista was the last sight they'd ever see when, fully loaded, they failed to clear its summit on takeoff.  In an odd twist, in Venosa today, while all evidence of this airfield has disappeared, reclaimed once more as farmland, pieces of Marsden-matting, a perforated steel material used to make runways, can be seen ingeniously incorporated into basement windows throughout the town.  They make potent grappa brandy from discarded grape skins, seeds and stems, why not homes from the leftovers of war?

       Swinging right, along the crest of distant ridgelines, we glimpse little towns like Rionero, Sant'andrea, Ruvo del Monte, and Rapone.  Continuing on, our sight naturally travels along the ridgeline of the once celebrated Appian Way, the Roman road that connected Rome to the port of Brindisi, where history tells us Roman legions boarded many a ship for conquests abroad.  Still farther right, we settle on the distant shiny dome of the largest observatory in all of Europe, at Castlegrande, before finishing our dizzying head swing having arrived at Pescopagano, clinging as it does to its sloping mountain foundation far to our right.  Author Hilary Cooper once wrote, “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”  Here, undeniably, was one of those moments, fortunately one we could experience again and again.  We had finally been freed from the walled confines of the small and sloping courtyard outside our front door.  That first night, we indulged in an antipasto-like dinner of salami, cheese, salty bread and wine by dangling bulb-light under a star studded sky, freed from the confines of walls.  Mesmerized, we watched as filaments of light from distant towns added to the evening ambiance as each twinkled to life.

       We spent the first few days, beginning at dawn's first glimmer sitting on the terrazza, putting our bedroom back together.  While thinking about how we might decorate the terrace, we first rearranged the limited bedroom furniture we had and spent time re-hanging shelves and pictures.  It was reassuring, right off, to find that our small two-seat couch fit in the restricted area beneath the stairs, making for an inviting space to sit and read.  We'd waited a long time for this to materialize, made a blizzard of decisions before and after we departed, dared greatly that all would go right, and worried over the outcome.  By all accounts, although we may have been brash, we had also been fortunate.  Just like the bedroom furniture, things were falling into place.

       Our friend, American Joe, offered us the use of his truck, a small FIAT pick-up on the order of a Ford Ranger.  You don’t see many trucks in Calitri other than the omnipresent Ape that, given a rich imagination, approaches something on the order of a truck.  A full bed, Hemi, V8 Ford F150 with dual rear wheels would be the talk of the town!  Short of that, Joe's little roadworthy stick-shift truckster was just what we needed.  It took Mare and I a few trips to and from Naples and later Altripalda to find and transport the various items of furniture we’d decided upon for the terrace.  Our first roundtrip had been for a barbecue, which to me is essential outdoor furniture.  While in Italy, I'd missed being able to grill (and sometimes burn our dinner), all the while dodging the smoke.  It's easy for me to outrun my imagination. As a willing victim then of over-expectation of grand occasions, this one was a four valve monster from the US.  When I'd replaced the regulator for an Italian equivalent, it worked just fine connected to a local gas bottle.  We'd also been fortunate especially with the table and chair set and again later with the cantilevered umbrella we found.  It was end of season and in the spirit of making room on the display floor, both these items, just the ones we liked, were on deep discount.  It was definitely one of those cases when right place met right time.  In fact, because we had to make multiple trips due to space limitations, when we returned, the prices had again been reduced.  Something was amiss, almost oxymoronic in its oozing contradiction - the more you buy, the more you save.  It's just amazing how delightful it can be going broke, saving money!

       We were so looking forward to seeing the terrazza completed, ready to enjoy, that lugging, tugging and toting our purchases into place was more a labor of love, then work.  Then again, I recall the work part.  Never let it be said getting to “Heaven” would be easy!  The toughest parts were negotiating the stairs with our purchases and dealing with the cement slabs used to hold down the umbrella - but lugging that Italian size gas bottle into place certainly deserves an honorable mention.  One slab needed to be cut along its diagonal into triangles for a better fit.  This meant hauling it back to the truck and a short trip to visit my friend Canio, the marmo (marble) man.  I'd met this particular Canio a year or so earlier, when he'd made porcelain plaques from pictures I'd provided of my parents.  Their images are now fastened to their cemetery headstone.  Today, they have the conspicuous honor of being the sharpest looking couple in St Joseph's Cemetery, especially since no one else has anything like this Italian tradition of personalizing a headstone.

       And then there were my brief days as a budding Michelangelo, only in my case with skill and soaring scaffold replaced by an unsteady hand on a step ladder.  The exact name of the color we’d selected was Curcuma 80, Fassade A1, ApmhiColor W Base 1 3L, or getting away from hardware store chemist parlance, simply yellow.  Funny how many yellows there are to sift through.  I can add that this particular batch was a bright saffron-yellow variant.  It took a few days of off and on work to complete, since it got hot at times up there.  The toughest parts were the tight spaces in and around the built-in shelves.  It took a tiny brush on the order of the kind you get in a child's watercolor set.  It was interesting how, once I’d brushed it on, the color, like the view itself, seemed to shift with the light.  With our rooftop perch predominately facing east, it was at its brightest by late morning then faded throughout the afternoon to an ever-deepening muted hue.  In the honeycomb of humanity in the antico Borgo of Calitri, I’m sure it is now quite visible from a distance – if, that is, you know where to look.

       Everything finally in order, including light fixtures, the first visitors to see our terrace were actually staying with us as house guests.  In fact, it wasn’t a day after picking up Jack and Dotty in Naples that we put them to work as they joined us in getting ready to host a party, offering weight to the adage, “there is no such thing as a free lunch!”  While we were getting ready, three vacationing NYC couples including Peno, the owner of Rossini's Restaurant on East 38th, Manhattan, happened to stroll by below our windows.  Their New York accents, tinged with some Long Island brogue, had given them away.  Coming inside, and seeing we had plenty of this spectacular scenery to share, it wasn't long before they took Le Scale verso il Paridiso for a brief look-see.  We recently reciprocated.  Rendezvousing with Jack and Dotty, we splurged on a entertaining music and food filled evening at Rossini's!

       Finally prepared, we enjoyed a number of gatherings with friends on the terrazza in celebration of its completion.  The first, along with Jack and Dotty, was early on a sunny Tuesday afternoon.  All told there were eleven of us.  Our friends brought along wine, dessert dishes and salads.  Tired as we were, we used the Tre Rose Osteria downtown for trays of brasole, lamb cacciatore and a veritable trough of cingul, a local pasta favorite.  No fusion fare here, this was strictly Italian.  I didn't get to use the barbecue at all that go.  We talked, told stories and jokes and of course ate long into late afternoon, long enough that we eventually didn't need the shade of the umbrella.  A few spills of wine, definitely a waste especially in Italy, provided a perfect way to christen the terrace, but more importantly, proved that we had the proper run-off toward the gutters.  Oh, there was one other thing we’d established - our bedroom ceiling could clearly take the combined weight!

       Now properly inaugurated, a week or so later we had another party.  This one really a transplanted dinner party.  My back had been acting up by then and friends, Gerry and Bernie, gladly relocated a party they had planned to our home, since it would have been difficult for me to get to theirs.  This time, with the judicious help of a strong dose of Ibuprofen, I got to grill the sausages and steaks that Gerry brought along.  I must add that they came out just great.  Our dinners finally tucked away, we talked to each other sideways as we stared, wide-eyed until our sight failed, far off toward the stupendous scene bathed in an autumnal glow.  It only adding to a wonderful feast, thoroughly enjoyed by one and all.

       The Romans, who once walked this land of enchanting vistas had an expression, vita brevis, life is short.  Handed down through the centuries to today, it remains elegantly brief and certainly true.  Eventually, for each of us, this realization occurs at some point, some even referring to it as a mid-life crisis.  Whatever we call it, we soon understand that we should do what we love in what time we have.  For us, it is travel and its endless opportunity for adventure.

       Let me suggest that the pleasure of travel begins with anticipation.  We had long anticipated the day of our return.  All the while we counted the days, wondered, imagined, and as if in the arms of Morpheus, dreamt about what we'd find when we entered our home to experience, for the first time, our new terrazza.  Would we be pleased or disappointed?  Would it be thumbs up or thumbs down on the potential folly of a wild idea?  "You want to what, cut your roof off?"  Maybe all the combined positiveness (is there such a word?) of our anticipation had been prayer-like, for our entreaties had definitely been answered.  We loved what we found.  Anticipation had eventually given way to real life, when reality puts flesh to the imagined.  Home in the States once again, we are already planning and of course anticipating what it will be like to return for another first, this one the arrival with our daughter and her family.

       Time to lock the door, travel and enjoy your awayness!  You might even knock on ours, take that flight of steps to sit and sag with us as we contemplate what goes on in all those houses below us, imagine what lies on the other side of that hill, down that dusty white road and just beyond those mountains.  A word of caution, however.  Be sure not to over exert yourself on the climb.  Save at least a mouthful of air because as we discovered, beyond all our anticipation, it will surely "Take your breath away."

From that Rogue Tourist


For related photos, click here on Eyes Over Italy.  Then look for and click on the photo album entitled "Terrazza Tales".