Before we bought the house we knew it was slowly slipping down the hillside. Our geometra, Leo Agostino had assured us that this was not a problem. ‘All we need to do,’ he said, ‘is to throw a solid concrete base in front of the stone wall at the front of the house, and then build stone buttresses back up towards the arched windows – at an angle.’
All over Tuscany you get beautiful villas – in fact Under the Tuscan Sun could have been filmed in most of the ones in our area. But our house is not like that: big, old and untidy, it sprawls out like several shoeboxes of differing sizes cobbled together, the lids replaced at different angles. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘buttressing can only improve the stark stone under the arched windows.’
‘Why not make it a feature?’ I asked Leo Agostini. ‘Would it compromise the purpose of the buttressing if we dropped them just below the arched windows to make space for some big terracotta pots?’ ‘Not at all’ he replied. ‘Fill them with geraniums in summer and you will have your Tuscan look.’
Next to the Agip petrol station in Greve there is a place with everything terracotta sprawled all over the show. I had often wanted to walk in, and now was my chance. I had the measurements, and very soon I had lost myself in a mire of shocking grammar and dictionary words: Caterina of the pots did not speak a single word of English. I was desperate. If you are going to part-live in a foreign country you simply have to speak the language. I was having weekly lessons at the City Lit in London and could manage the ‘meet and greet’ and the ‘at the restaurant’ bit – but this?
‘What exactly is it that you are wanting?’ asked a friendly voice behind me. I turned. The young man, who had alighted from a motor bike, was clearly sent from heaven. He was tall, with soft brown eyes and a gentle manner. He was also covered in fine brick dust from head to toe, and I took it that he worked somewhere in the back. ‘Oh thank heavens!’ I said. ‘I think that Caterina knows what I want, but I haven’t a clue what she is trying to explain.’
‘She is saying that the pots you want are too big for their normal production. However as all their pots are made by hand they will be able to do them as a special order. It will take several months, as once thrown they have to dry.’
‘Done!’ I said, and with that Caterina took the order.
The young man’s name was Marciano and he had come on his motorbike to buy a small pot for his mother-in-laws birthday. His wife owned a flower shop in Mercatale and she had given him specific instructions as to the type of terracotta pot she wanted.
‘Please excuse this terrible appearance,’ he said ‘but we have just bought a house and it needs a lot of alteration. As the money is short I am trying to do it all myself.’
Now for the past week I had heard some knocking in the evening at Margerethe’s section of our big old house. I had wondered if I should go around, but my Italian had made me hesitate. ‘Er … and where is this house?’ I asked. ‘It is quite isolated’ he said. ‘It is down a steep hill just outside Greve. It is called Casa Fontana because of the two streams that bubble up on either side of it.
‘That’s us!’ I cried, ‘We have bought the section next to you! Isn’t that amazing! He looked at me anxiously. ‘I thought so,’ he said, ‘and when I saw you struggling with Caterina I thought maybe now is the time. You see my English is very poor and when I heard that the English had bought Jurgen’s house I was too nervous to knock on your door.’
‘Well don’t be!’ I said, ‘Come and meet Liam this evening. We can sit on our terrace and drink a glass of wine.’
That evening we sat on the terrace and heard Marciano’s story. The family had been living in Volpaia, a small town up on one of the hills behind Greve …
‘My father-in-law, Enzio, is a passionate gardener, and although old, he is wiry and tough and wanted to have some decent land. He wants to work the neglected olives and plant vegetables. My mother-in-law, Leila, is content to live in an isolated place, and so is my wife, Elena, who in any case will travel daily to Mercatale to her florist. We have a young daughter, Rosanna, who goes to school in Panzano.’
‘But it is more complicated than that.’ he smiles ‘Elena had a daughter before she met me. Her name is Sylvie and she is in her twenties. She and her partner Alessandro have been going out since school days and now want to live together along with us. That is why we bought Margarethe’s section behind you. We have taken out three separate mortgages and are turning it into three different sections.’
He smiled at Liam. ‘At first we tried to buy your section, but at the last minute the owner, Jurgen, reneged and told us that he was selling it to a friend.
Liam and I looked at one another. Friend? By mutual nod we decided to let it go. But my thoughts were running wild … for these are the very people who tried so hard to buy our section … they could have been so resentful of us, not only getting the property but on top of that, we are foreigners.’
‘In any case it has all turned out for the best,’ continued Marciano, ‘As a family we are passionate about land, and the land for Old Enzio to work is good land. Our women are happy with the house, and it is close by for my work. I work as a full time carer for the mentally disabled.’
With that Marciano got up. Then, standing in front of us, he placed his hand on his heart. ‘You see’ he said ‘We feel we are coming home. One of our ancestors was born in this house.’
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