Casa Del Maya B&B

Friday, April 18, 2014

I Did It!

                I finally did it.

                Two years in Mexico and I finally did it.

                It took me a while to buck up my courage, but I reached way deep down and said to myself, “Self, you know you gotta’ do this.  If you truly want to call yourself a Yucateco… Yucateca?...  Yucatecan?... ah hell, if you truly want to call yourself a Mexicano…Mexicana…shit. 
Just gotta’ do this.”

                I’ve been avoiding this since we moved to Merida.  I would walk to the market…the one in Santa Ana Park or Santiago Park…or even the main one (Lucas Galvez?), I would walk in and see the hanging corpses, the split open flesh dripping red over the table and then snaking its way to the closest hole in the floor.  Entrails piled in the corner and in barrels waiting to be picked up by – whom?  And the stench!  My God, the smell makes you want to hurl.  And yet, I’m supposed to purchase some of these dead corpses and turn them into some type of dish that won’t make Bobby Flay run for a toilet.

                So yesterday was the day I was going to take the plunge.  

               All during my walk to Santiago Park I kept making like Jack Handy and trying to calm myself with my own DeepThoughts.  And it kinda’ worked.  By the time I approached the back side of Santiago Park I was feeling that finally buying one of those (fresh?) chickens in the market was going to work out just fine.
                As I turned the final corner on Calle 70, which runs behind the Park, I was feeling positively elated at the big step I was about to take.  I almost skipped around the corner and headed South and there, right in front of me, was a man suffering from exactly what I feared I might be in the not-too-distant future.  He was bent over, one hand on a light pole, the other on his knee as he projectile vomited onto the sidewalk.
                Oh yeah!  This is a GREAT omen!

                I quickly crossed the street and almost ran past the spot where the man stood heaving in a herculean effort (if I do say so myself) to avoid looking at and – please God – smelling the results of his liquid gift to the city. 

                I began searching my mind for a better thought to push out the vision my imagination was trying to cram into my brain.  But like always, this only backfired and my thoughts were filled with the image that I always use to punish myself.  Suffice it to say that seeing your parents in flagrante delicto when you are 17 is one of those images you can return to again and again in your life when your mind forces you to a dark place.

                I drug myself into the little market area inside Parque Santiago.  I began first in the fruit and vegetable section.  I made my purchases of a pineapple, papaya, cantaloupe, and bananas, then turned to face the dreaded meat room.

                I walked down the little walkway and turned into the room, noticing a band saw on my left that looked like it MAY have been cleaned at the turn of the century – the 20th century, I think.

                A few feet further was one last poultry seller still open at the late hour of 1:30 PM.  The room was hot and smelly, and I was terrified of contracting some animal-borne disease just by being in the room, let alone eating anything that had been hanging out in it. 

                I approached and one of the two women behind the counter left her lunch to assist me.  She looked up at me and knew right away the kind of Gringo she was dealing with.


                After what seemed an eternity I managed a little, “Si”.  Was that me that said that?  It sounded like a 9-year-old little girl who was about to cry.

                I looked down on the counter to see a chicken languishing on the table, already sliced in half.  Each half had a breast, thigh, leg, and more flies hovering about than I’ve seen in the bottom of a very recently used septic tank (but that’s a story for another time).

                The chicken had a nice amount of meat on it, so that was a positive.  The flesh was shiny, not dried out.  I noticed all the fat was still on the specimen as my eyes pored down the breast, past the thigh and down to the legs with…their feet! 

                I tried to be non-chalant about the whole thing – like this was something I’d done a million times before.  I said to the young woman, “I’ll take it all”, then remembered where I was and tried to use my oh-so-excellent Spanish. 


                “My God, this chicken has feet”, I thought.  “What am I supposed to do with feet?”

                Now look, my uncle was a farmer and I spent a couple weeks with him and my aunt each summer when I was a teen, so I learned a lot about farming and milking cows and slaughtering hogs and I know chicken have feet.  But, my God, this chicken had feet!

                The woman seemed to sense my distress about what to do about the feet, so she picked up a cleaver and cleanly chopped them off with a quick 1-2.   It didn’t make me feel much better, but at least I wouldn’t have to deal with chicken feet.  I mean, I know you can make soup with them or even fry them, but I am NOT about to each chicken feet.  You know they walk in their own poop, don’t you?

                The woman plopped the chicken pieces into a plastic bag and nimbly tied it as they seem to do with all plastic bags, here.  The bag was clearly wet and slimy from chicken guts, and I started looking at my own recyclable cloth bag I had brought with me to carry home my purchases for where to put this bag of chicken without making a stinking, sticky mess before I got home.  But then I looked up to see the woman place the first bag into another, stronger bag with handles for carrying.  Guess I underestimated her.

                I paid for the chicken – 70 pesos – not bad at all – thanked her and headed out the opposite door of the meat room and started my trek back home.  I kept my right eye closed as I hugged the walls next to the very narrow sidewalk opposite Mr. Vomit in an effort to keep from seeing that horror scene again, but I only managed to fill my brain with that horrible image of 85-year-old Mrs. Probst on her front porch in a lovely house dress – and nothing else – sitting with her legs spread wide open for all the world – and teenage boys - to see.

                I think I need help.

                Upon arriving home I immediately stuffed the chicken pieces into a pot, filled it with water, and got it cooking as soon as possible.  I probably over-cooked it out of my irrational fear of poisoning Steve and myself, but it made for a nice, rubbery addition to a chicken-broccoli-rice casserole we ate on for a couple of meals.  And guess what?  I’m still here!  All my body parts still work – well, if you don’t count the knees – and we don’t, yet, feel any repercussions.

                So I did it!  I made that great leap from the grocery store and its scrawny, over-yellowed, shrink-wrapped, perfectly cut pieces of chicken (with no feet), to just about the freshest, juiciest, plumpest natural chicken you can find anywhere.  Next week: fried chicken, chicken panuchos, and even chicken salad!

                Who knows, I just might fit in around here after all.  

Thursday, March 6, 2014

The View From There - Chapter 22

One Perfect Summer

I’ve written about how the Italians know how to live.  We kept hoping some of that would rub off on us.  Their way of life seems much more civilized.  Italians take their vacations every year - usually August, when most of the country shuts down.  They eat long, leisurely dinners, they take passegiati every night, they talk, they dance, they sing, and they work hard.  It’s a life-balance that I envy and hope one day I can achieve.  And as it became apparent this summer would be our only one in Cingoli, we did try to adopt that way of life.
On Saturday mornings, almost without fail, Steve and I would walk or drive to Cingoli for a cappuccino and a pastry from one of the two bakeries in town.  As the snows melted and spring slowly crept in, our Saturday jaunts up the hill became ever more pleasant.  The largest and most popular bakery in Cingoli is Panificio Alberto e Massimiliano Piccinini, but we just called it the panificio.
To say that Italians know how to make pastries is like saying Van Cliburn could play the piano.  They are true virtuosos.  Cream filled horns, Pasticiotto, which is a miniature cream pie, Taralli, or crispy, round donut-shaped cookies, and God the Canolis!  We tried to make ourselves try some of their many different offerings, but once we had the cream-filled bombola, nothing else existed.  First, they know how to make a great bread: light and airy with just a bit of an exterior crunch, and very buttery.  Then they cram it full of the best vanilla cream filling I ever tasted.  It was rich, but I could never get my fill; I just wanted more and more.  I am not certain, but I believe the amount of cream inside the bombola far exceeded the volume of the bread.  Don’t know how they do it, but it seemed never-ending.  Great gobs of the cream squish out the sides of the light, airy bread, and your mouth, as you attempt to take just a small bite.  After one bombola, I was done for the morning.  Great food completely satisfies and satiates.  Those Saturdays became our little ritual and I thought all week about them.  I tried to be non-chalant with Steve about going to the bakery each Saturday.
Me: “So, you wanna’ go to the bakery this morning?”
Steve: “Oh, I don’t know.  What do you think?”
Me: “Well, I’ll go if you really want to.”
Steve: “Well, I don’t have to.”
Me: “Well, okay, maybe we should just skip...what, are you CRAZY?!  I’m starving for one of those pastries!  I gotta’ have one, I tell you!  Get up...GET UP!”
Steve just smirked at me while putting on his walking boots.
We would sit at one of the three tables inside the bakery, savoring the incredible flavors as the line of customers grew and grew.  Every bite was as surprisingly good as the very first bite I had had back in September.  Falling into a pattern of Saturday breakfast in the panificio was as easy as falling off a log. 
The passegiato I had a bit more trouble getting used to.  I mean, who walks in the U.S.?  If God wanted us to walk he wouldn’t have invented drive-thrus. 
But in Italy, in every town we visited, there was a passegiato walkway.  In Lucca it was on top of the city’s stone wall.  In Venice it runs along the Grand Canal.  All of Rome is one big passegiato.  And in Cingoli it stretches along the west side of town and snakes its way alongside the road leading to the many small towns east and south of Mount Cingulum.  The walk is lined with old oaks, with park benches set every 100 or so meters on the cobblestone walkway. 
We have walked the passegiato in the daytime and at night, and it is almost always in use by the locals.  By day women walk arm-in-arm, talking.  Mothers push baby strollers.  Runners pass by with a whizz. At night entire families stroll along the walk before heading to a local pizzeria for dinner.  We tried several times to add this little ritual to our daily routine, but we just couldn’t do it.  We figured that just walking up the hill to Cingoli was passegiato enough for us.  Besides, I get bored easily.  I had a better time walking down Via Coppo, through Torre, and beyond.  I made that walk four or five times each week.  But we did spend a good amount of time walking Cingoli’s passegiato.
I don’t know about all of Italy, but in our area around Cingoli there is a traveling market. 
Vendors have trailers that open up to display their wares, and they travel from town to town on a weekly set schedule.  Cingoli’s day was Saturday.  So after we had our pastry and cappuccino we would walk the closed streets that contained the market.  Here you could purchase almost everything imaginable, from clothing and shoes to the latest kitchen gadget “As Seen On TV”, to linens and towels, tools, and more.  I often wondered how the local shopkeepers felt about this weekly invasion into their market, but everyone seemed to do alright. 
A man and his wife sold fresh cut, cooked porchetta sandwiches.  They cut thick slices of meat off a freshly cooked pig and served it up on hearty buns with mayonnaise, if you so desired.  So after our tour of the market we had to stop for lunch and grab one of those incredible pork sandwiches.   
In Italy, dinner is another matter entirely.  I cannot tell you how many hours we spent at long, leisurely dinners in Cingoli.  When you eat at a restaurant in Italy you are supposed to make it an event.  There is no busboy waiting to pounce on your table to turn it around for a waiting customer.  You sit, and sit, and eat, and drink, and sit, and have dessert and after-dinner drinks, and sit, and talk, and then, just maybe then the waiter will bring your check. 
The best time we ever had was when we had dinner with the Cingoli chorus.  We ate at Il Ragno (The Spider), a very popular pizzeria restaurant in town.  It is down the street from the Porta Pia, the rear gate into/out of Cingoli.  Ilda, the chorus director, ordered all kinds of different pizzas, and the waiters brought them to our table as they were ready.  She also ordered stuffed, fried olives, called Ascolana.  They were like little balls of heaven: tender on the inside, crispy on the outside, with a delicate meat wrapped around a green olive, dipped in batter and fried golden.  We would return to Il Ragno many times and order only Ascolani and wine.
As we left March behind and entered April it was time to put out our vegetable garden.  This is something I had wanted to do for a long, long time, but never quite found the time or inspiration.  But sitting on that hill overlooking the Marche valley was all the inspiration I needed.  Every day I saw farmers preparing fields for their crops, usually sunflowers.  And everyone has at least a small garden next to their house.  So we got out pencil and paper and drew out our garden plan.  It was to be 30 by 10 feet, with rows of peas, green beans, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes of course, potatoes, carrots, onions, and herbs: oregano and rosemary.
We found a garden center about 8 kilometers down the road to Macerata and bought our seeds and bulbs, along with fertilizer and some equipment.  The next day we began removing the grass from the garden plot and Cathy lent us their tiller, which made plowing the plot a breeze. 

I had the best time working in that garden every day.  I wasn’t sure I would stick to it, but I found it incredibly rewarding to see the little seedlings grow to mature plants that, by June, began bearing fruit, er, vegetables.  The first to come up were the onions, and they were fantastic.  But that was nothing.  By June’s end we began harvesting potatoes and a few tomatoes, and added to the harvest each week.  We ate all summer out of that garden.  We had so many tomatoes that we began canning them.  Fresh peas are to die for, and a just-pulled carrot has a sweet flavor that gets lost sitting in a store.  The green beans all seemed to come in at once, so we ate a lot of beans for a couple of weeks.  I roasted vegetables in the oven many times, topped with our fresh oregano and rosemary, and we ate all kinds of potato dishes.  When we had to leave Cingoli I remember thinking how much I was going to miss that little plot of land that was our garden.
Also in the spring we saw the various fruit trees, bushes, and vines on our property begin to produce.  There were three cherry trees, each a different kind.  We were over-zealous when the first tree sprouted thousands of cherries; we picked them all and canned 50 jars of cherries and froze another 10 pounds worth.  Steve’s sister and brother-in-law visited in June and Kurt could not stop popping the cherries in his mouth.  He said they were “like candy”.  Indeed they were.

We also had three fig trees on our property which produced the sweetest, juiciest figs.  We made about 25 jars of fig jam and enjoyed it all summer on toast or crackers for breakfast, or anytime for a great snack.  There were grape vines, of course, but they had been buried under 20 years of neglect, so they did not produce much that summer.  But we harvested tons and tons of elderberries and made jam from them, too.  I had always thought elderberries were only in Kentucky.
We had persimmons, blackberries, and one tree produced a fruit that looked like a pale tomato.  We asked and asked what they could be but no one seemed to understand our description of them.  We got several answers about what they were and never could settle on a definitive one. 
On day in May – that dangerous month – we were walking down the hill from Cingoli.  We passed through a street that cut down a different way than we normally went and came across a landing at the bottom of some steps that was covered with chestnuts.  We wondered why no one had bothered to pick up all these little treats and roast them at home.  Knowing for certain that that would be the case very soon, we quickly walked home, grabbed some plastic bags, and drove the car back up to town.  We loaded up the bags with our secret treasures and quickly threw them in the back of the car, all the while looking around to be certain no one saw us.  After all, we were newbies in town; surely local residents had first dibs on these little gems.
Back at home we split the brown nuggets and roasted them in the oven.  About an hour later out came the first batch, steaming hot and looking quite alluring.  I took a few into the living room and Steve and I popped them open and dug out the meat and popped it in our mouths.
“Kind of bitter, don’t you think?”, Steve said.
They were more than bitter, they were terrible.
“Yeah, not what I expected.  Maybe we got bad ones.”
We each ate another, but the result was the same: a biting, very bitter taste so strong that you just wanted to spit them out.
“What’s wrong with these things?”
“Did you roast them correctly?”
“Can’t really go wrong with that…you just put them in the oven.”
Something was not right, and so I turned to our modern information source, the Internet.  I looked up chestnuts and looked at the photos to compare them with ours.  They were close, but there was a subtle difference.  And as I read about chestnuts I came across a little line that said something about not confusing chestnuts with buckeyes, which are non-edible to humans and, in fact, poisonous.
Alarmed, I grabbed the plate of buckeyes I had roasted and took them to the kitchen.  Should I tell Steve?  Or should I just wait and see what happens?  If he died I’d never have to admit my stupidity.
“Uh, have some news for you.  Pretty funny, really.”
Steve just looked at me with that look of “what did you do NOW?!”
Seems these are not chestnuts, but buckeyes.  They’re kind of poisonous.
We actually had not eaten enough of the buckeye meat to make us sick.  It was so awful tasting that we spit most of it out.  But what a couple of dolts! 
The next Saturday market day we bought some roasted chestnuts from a vendor. 
“Oh, so THAT’S what they are supposed to taste like.”
Spring also brought all kinds of outdoor events.  The festivals had continued all winter, but now there were other kinds of events to attend.  In March we drove to Fermo, about 20 kilometers from Cingoli, for “Tippicitta”, set in an industrial area outside Fermo.  There were vendors and marketers pushing travel, selling or giving away samples of their products, and generally promoting Les Marche. 
We picked up a lot of literature for our future B&B guests about things to do in the area and also purchased some sausage and a great pecorino cheese, along with some interesting jellies made from onions, peppers, and other odd base ingredients.
Also in March was the Energy Show in Villa Potenza, just outside Macerata.  It showcased the latest in energy-saving technology, such as solar and wind, as well as improved appliances and other home devices. 
In April was the annual Cingoli bike races, which saw participants arrive in Cingoli from all over Italy and Europe.  The main race must have had 500 bikers.

Easter in Italy is, as you might expect, huge.  The shops and bars are full of plastic and fabric easter eggs filled with candy and gifts.  One was so large that it covered one of the tables in Patty’s Place. 
Also in June was the aforementioned Mongelfiere, or balloon festival.  The balloon staging area was the open field just on the other side of the road to Cingoli.  As the balloons filled with helium we were treated to the sight of all of them rising into the air at the same time.  They then slowly drifted over our house and down into the valley below.  About 2 hours later we watched as they each found an open field to land in, their chase vehicles finding a road to where they finally landed.

There were many more festivals, gatherings, and day-trips.  As summer came to a close we faced the fact that the Italian government was not going to issue us work visas, which we would need to operate the B&B.  We spent a lot of time at the immigration office trying to find the person that would say “yes”, but to no avail.  In September we made our sad plans to return to the U.S.  But first we had to sell our dream – if we could.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

New Friends

                One of the things Steve and I always enjoy about running a B&B is the fantastic people we get to meet and with whom we have become friends.  We’ve met folks from the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Italy, U.K., Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Japan, Egypt, France, Australia, Germany, Austria, Romania, Argentina, Columbia, Brazil, Spain, Syria, Iran, Lebanon, and many other countries I have momentarily forgotten.  I can safely say that they all have been interesting, friendly people. 
                What makes this come to mind today are two things:  we are approaching the end of our first year at Casa Del Maya, and the departure of some guests who have been with us three times, and whom we now consider to be good friends.  Lee and Paul are finishing up a house in Merida, and we look forward to the day when they are living here.  Until then we must satisfy ourselves with their periodic renovation-check visits.  Come back soon, guys.
                Departures are bummers, because we hate to see our guests leave.  But I guess without the coming and going of our guests we would not have the chance to make new friends. 
                We hosted a fascinating Japanese artist, who works in several mediums, including creating live silkworm installations.  He also creates sculptures in stone and wood.
                We met Joel, a singer-songwriter with a gold record for his work with Bonnie Raitt.  We have had actors, writers, artists, and many “regular” people who have been just as interesting, telling us about their world travels.  We even had a Russian princess stay with us. 
                We have had several photographers, both professional and amateur, who have sent us fantastic photos of Merida and Casa Del Maya.  Another interesting chap was Paul, a pub designer in London.  He has created many really cool bars in the London area, and owns several himself.  Suzanne is a TV producer from New York, who we hope to see again.  Our first guests, Zach and Andrew, live in New York City; we felt a real connection with them right from the first. 
                Many of our guests “discovered” Merida while visiting, and some have already moved here or are in the process of purchasing a property.  Dean and John are now living here and renovating two properties and thinking about opening a business.  Paul and Steve purchased two properties, as well, and are moving to Merida in the spring.  Carol and Virgil fell so in love with the city that they returned a few short months after their first visit and rented a home to get a better feel for living here.  These are but a few of the many guests we have welcomed at Casa Del Maya in our first year.  All have become friends. 
                Another great aspect to running a B&B is the way we get to vicariously travel.  Our guests share with us their travels and their home countries, which only force us to lengthen our bucket list.  I was not certain the Netherlands was high on my list before we met a lovely family here for a week who espoused the virtues of their homeland.  The large population of Brazil kind of scared me until two young people from that country convinced us that we should visit.  And although the pyramids and other archeological elements of Egypt have always interested me, I was not certain it was a place for me to visit.  But now that we have hosted some lovely people from Egypt, I am anxious to see it for myself.
                There is not a place our guests hale from that has not peaked my interest.  I want to go to Vancouver, Montreal, Colorado, California, see more of New England, the U.S. South and heartland.  I want to see a musical in the West End of London then have drinks at one of Paul’s pubs.  I want to get out to the countryside of France as well as revisit Paris, and stop in to say hello to Anne and Estelle and Thierry and Alain.  Despite having lived in Italy there is still so much to see of that incredible country, as pointed out by our Italian guests.  In short, it’s going to be a busy retirement, someday.

                So as we round out our first year operating a B&B in this incredible Mexican city, we thank all those guests who have walked our pasillo, shared their lives, and helped us become a top B&B in Merida.  And we look forward to discovering more of the world through the eyes of our future friends.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The View From There - Chapter 21

Since We’ve No Place To Go…

I guess I never really thought about what winter might be like in Cingoli.  I realized we were sitting on top of a mountain, and that that would affect our weather, and I knew that this part of Italy received its fair share of winter weather, but I hadn’t really given much thought to how it might affect our lives.  Not to worry, we would soon learn first-hand.
In October the only snow was on the caps of the Sibillini Mountains, southwest of Cingoli

Our first snow that year was on December 13.  It began falling at 5:00 PM and by the next morning we had about 5 inches of snow in our yard and surrounding fields.  But down Coppo there was none.  That clued me in as to the impact our altitude might have on the upcoming winter.

The air was crisp and cold, and the roads were slick and dangerous. 
I turned on the kitchen faucet and got only a trickle of water.  Great.  First snow and the pipes were already frozen.  I half expected this.  The plastic pipe running from the well to the house sat on top of the ground.  Of course it was going to freeze.  But the metal pipes that ran through an open space on the ground floor were also frozen.   

We decided that the next day we would drive to Trovigliano, a small town about 5 minutes south of Cingoli, on the Macerata road.  We had discovered a great little hardware store there, with a guy running it that spoke English.  His name was Francesco (yes, another Francesco – we would meet many Francescos), and he might advise us about our pipes.  But to make it to Trovigliano, which sits down in the valley, we knew we needed chains for our car tires.  So we wrote down the size of our tires and walked up the hill halfway to Cingoli, to a small auto repair shop just the other side of Borgo San Lorenzo.  The man who owned the shop did not speak English, and we still didn’t speak much Italian, but he made it clear that there was a number missing from our tire size.  He showed us the labels from the packages of snow chains to clarify. 
So we walked back down the hill to look anew at our tires and, sure enough, there was one extra letter we missed the first time. 
Back up the hill to the auto repair shop.  We gave the man the missing letter and he gave us a set of chains.  We looked at the box they came in and the numbers did not seem to coincide with our numbers, which we tried to point out, but the man kept shaking his head “yes”, indicating these were the correct chains.  We paid our 100 euros for the chains, and carried them down the hill to put them on our fabulous Fiat.  They did not fit.  They were clearly too small.
There are steps leading to Cingoli somewhere under all that snow

So up the hill we stomped.  Oh, I was peeved (I was more than peeved, but I didn’t want to write "pissed") and as soon as we entered the shop the man looked at us with a knowing look on his face.  He already had the correct chains out and waiting for us.  He apologized (either that, or he had a crick in his neck) and we dragged ourselves back down the hill to Coppo 7.  The chains fit perfectly.  But by this time we had missed choral rehearsal that evening.  We sent a text message to Ilda, the director, apologizing. 
Cingoli's passegiato

The next day we tried out our new chains.  They worked pretty well, getting us up Coppo to the main road to Macerata.  The main road was already clear of snow, so we had to stop and take off the chains as we were told that if we drove the car on a paved road with the chains still on the tires the chains would break. 
At the Trovigliano hardware store we explained to Francesco our frozen pipe problem.  He told us to thaw the pipes, then wrap them in bubble wrap and duct tape (they call it American tape).  So home we went with the supplies, used a blowtorch on the metal pipes to thaw them, then wrapped them as instructed.  In the yard I disconnected the plastic pipe and rubbed it with my hands, and slowly the tube of ice came out the end.  I also wrapped this pipe.  Then we waited.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to try the pipes.  And sure enough the water flowed freely.  Bubble wrap...who knew?!
That night we got more snow.  By morning there were eight inches on the ground.  And it was cold. 
The bathroom water was flowing fine.  But the kitchen, alas, was at a trickle again.  I guessed that the kitchen pipe ran up the inside of the exterior wall, close to the outside, so that the cold air froze the pipe.  How would we fix that one?  Our only solution was to leave the water running at a trickle whenever the temperature fell to below freezing.  Until we completed the renovation that is all we could do, short of breaking into the wall to wrap the pipe with bubble wrap. 
That evening we were scheduled to sing with the chorus at a church in a town about 20 minutes from Cingoli.  Apiro sits about half-way between Cingoli and our friends Patrick and Enzo’s B&B, Mulino Barchio. 
We got in our funky Fiat and started up our driveway.  We barely made it to the top, then turned left and drove along the level portion of driveway until we came to Coppo itself.  We turned right to head up to the main road.  The car started out fine, slowly climbing up.  Then, after about 15 meters, the car slowed to a standstill.  The tires began spinning, so I let up on the accelerator, but it was too late.  The car started sliding backward.  It is the creepiest feeling to be in the drivers’ seat, driving forward, while the car moves backward.  After a few meters the faltering Fiat turned 180 degrees and continued its slow descent down Coppo.  I pumped the breaks gingerly, and the car finally came to a stop right at the turnoff to our driveway. 
Steve and I looked at each other. 
“Darn!”, I said.  (Okay, you got me.  I didn’t say “darn”, but I didn’t want to write “damn”.)
We sat there a few moments, wondering what the car had in mind, next.  We quickly decided that if the car wanted to go home, we would take it home.  So I drove to the parking pad we had made the month before, just at the bottom of our driveway, and parked.
We texted Ilda to say we would not be able to drive to Apiro, and she texted back that we could ride with one of the chorus members.  All we had to do was meet them in front of Pesaresi at the end of Borgo San Lorenzo.
We loved our house and loved where it sat, affording us that incredible view (and if we thought the view from Coppo 7 was great before, it was magical after a beautiful, white snowfall), but we now realized that we might need more than a Fiat 500 next winter.  If I was to find a job teaching English, as was my plan until we opened the B&B, I would need to know I could get to work every day.  In the situation we were in I would have had to miss three days of work.
For the rest of the winter, whenever it snowed, we left the car parked and walked...mainly because when the car made its dramatic 180 back down Coppo, the snow chains snapped and that was the end of them.  And I was gosh-darned if I was going to purchase another set of chains.  (I wasn’t really thinking “gosh-darned”, but I didn’t want to write...well, you know.)
The positive part of this is that as we walked up Coppo in the snow we would stop and turn around to look at the view down into the valley and beyond to Monte Conero on the Adriatic.  You know those little Christmas villages you can buy and set up on your mantle or TV console?  The views of the little towns and villages down in the valley we were looking at were where the artisans got their inspiration.
Looking down the valley from Borgo San Lorenzo
Is that real, or a photo of my sister-in-law's snow village collection?

Two days before Christmas we were walking to a chorus concert at a local church.  I was fuming and fussing about having to wear a black suit and trudge through the snow to this stupid concert when we came around a corner and saw a woman pushing a wheelchair.  We had seen her many times before, pushing her husband in his wheelchair through the cobblestoned streets of Cingoli, up and down the steep hills around town.  And here she was in 8 inches of snow, still out providing her husband his nightly passegiato.  I shut up and never again complained about walking (well, not aloud, anyway).
The concert was at Santa Sperandia, just outside the Porta Pia gate. The church is named after the patron saint of Cingoli.  Her mummified body is on display in a side apse of the church.  Kind of creepy to me, but you see it all the time in Italy. 
Snow at our house, no snow down Coppo

A day before Christmas the snow finally melted.  We were able to get out and do a little shopping for ourselves (we had long-ago shipped our Christmas presents to family and friends in the U.S.). 
On Christmas day we were invited to Patrick and Enzo’s for dinner.  There were six of us, including a couple who lived nearby who were originally from the U.K.  Linda and Nigel are retired and love living in Les Marche. 
The wine began flowing immediately, and the food soon followed. 
Enzo started us off with focaccia bread with tomatoes, black olives, and rosemary.  Homemade focaccia is fantastic – tender inside, crunchy outside.  He also brought out his homemade black olives cured in a salt and garlic brine.  They were addictive and I think we cleaned him out. 
Mulino Barchio

The main course was lasagne, a capon, beef, potatoes, broccoli, carrots, and gallons and gallons of wine, or so it seemed.  By 11:30 most of the group was pretty smashed and enjoying life (as the designated driver I stopped drinking at 6:00).  Steve sang all the way home and woke the next morning with a sick stomach.
  We were scheduled to sing another church mass the day after Christmas.  Ilda told us to meet her at the Porta Pia at 5:20 so she could guide us to the church.  Apparently it was too difficult to explain to us where the church sits.  Boy!  For a small town Cingoli sure has a lot of churches!
We arrived about 5 minutes late, unfortunately.  We sat in the car, parked just off the road, next to the Porta Pia and waited for someone to show up.  Finally Ilda's husband drove up next to our car.  
"Hello American Buoys!", he said out his window and motioned for us to follow him. 
We turned the car around and headed back down the street – toward the hospital.  He turned down a street on the right – the first right past the 502 intersection – and drove down the hill.  The next right led to a church where we found a parking place. 
The entrance to the church is a stone wall with an arched opening.  It has an outdoor vestibule, leading to the church on the right and an annex building past it.  The entrance to the church did not actually place you inside the church, but in a second vestibule, this one with a roof.  The actual church entrance was a set of narrow double doors, and only one was open so you had to kind of turn your body as you entered. People used to be smaller, especially American people.
The church is small, with pews for maybe 200.  It had a large apse area, with old curved wooden pews for the choir.  It was cordoned off from the rest of the church, so we were able to leave our coats and personal belongings there.

We marched out to the front of the apse and sang our little songs.  The concert went quite well, actually.  I think the acoustics in these churches helped hide our choir's flaws.  The soaring melodies and harmonies actually seem to blend better as they twirl up towards the high ceilings.  We repeated one of the numbers as an encore, and they applaud everything – even the “actor” reading the texts.

After the concert we were invited to dinner the church had prepared for the choir.  Unfortunately, not everyone in the choir stayed for dinner.  Too bad, because it was delicious.  First we were brought pasta in huge bowls that volunteers dished out to us.  We were offered second helpings, but experience told us that there would be a lot of food coming and not to fill up on this “prima piatta”. 
Next came pork chops.  They were the freshest, most flavorful chops I've ever tasted.  They were relatively thin, pan-fried simply in olive oil, with a few herbs thrown in.  We did accept second helpings this time – I could not help myself.  Along with the chops came mashed potatoes.  For dessert they brought us a simple sugared cake.  About 6 monks from the local monastery joined us – I wished our language skills were better so I could have learned more about their lives and work.
When dinner was over we stepped outside to a blanket of snow on the ground. 
Since our snow chains had been destroyed during the last snow, I was worried about getting down Coppo safely.  But as we drove down the road toward our house, the snow became lighter and lighter until it was clear that the snow had fallen only in Cingoli...Coppo was clear.
Throughout most of January the temperature settled somewhere between 40 and 52 degrees.  That kept any snowfall from lasting too long.  But it was also often too cold to work much on the house.  We were in the middle of the doors and windows project, but could not set window frames or paint when it was below about 45 degrees – the paint would not stick well or dry very quickly.  So we spent a lot of time sitting in our one warm room – the living room.  We had one gas space heater and two electric ones, but they pretty much could handle only the living room.  I cooked in the kitchen sometimes in freezing temperatures, all wrapped up like I was trudging through the snow.
In February we took a respite from our new lives and visited family in the States.  My mother was in the hospital with pneumonia and Steve's parents wanted to see him, so we took three weeks to visit both Louisville and Pocomoke.  Seemed like a bit of a cop-out to me, to leave Italy after only 5 months, but family called.  The whole time we were in the U.S. I wanted to be home, working on our property. 
Seems we missed a lot of snow while we were gone.  I guess I don’t regret that.
March was still cold in Cingoli.  On the 2nd we woke to 10 inches of snow on the ground – the biggest snowfall of the season.  Yea!  We returned home just in time!  But it only lasted a day or two.  It reached 50 degrees on March 4. 
After almost 20 years living in Florida, going back to a winter, in a house with no heat, was a challenge.  But we made it through and we actually began to look forward to future winters, and springs, summers, and falls, in Les Marche.  We felt more at peace with ourselves and our lives, we had learned a great deal about living, and couldn’t wait to see what more Italy had in store for us.  True, we weren’t going to be there forever, as planned, but we intended to make the most of our time in Italy.  Besides, Italy would always be there; always had been.  It was ourselves we had to worry about.  Italy is forever; we are not.  

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The View From There - Chapter 20

Home Improvement (Sorry, Tim)
The house at Coppo 7 needed work both on the inside and outside.  It took us a few months, but we got it habitable.  In fact, it looked quite nice, if I do say so myself – and I do.
When we arrived in September, the doors and windows to the house had deteriorated to the point that the house was pretty much left open to the elements.  We had tried to secure it in previous trips, but our quick fixes didn’t last long.  On one visit we noticed a window had fallen out of its concrete and stone frame to the ground below.  We tried to place it back in the frame, but without the proper tools we were spinning our wheels.  The front door was quickly rotting away due to rain dripping off the roof and through a hole in the gutter right above the door.  And the windows and shutters that remained had been shot at by local hunters.  Seems our property was very popular with wild boar, and a great place to bag one.  We even found an old hunting blind in the field behind our house.  I guess when the hunters were bored (no pun intended) they used our house as target practice.

Anyway, after cleaning the house and moving in, we began repairing/replacing doors and windows.  All the interior doors had been removed by someone and stacked in an inside room, so all we had to do there was refinish and rehang them.  But the exterior windows and the front door were a different matter. 
We figured we needed a secure front door, so we worked on that one, first.  After we purchased our fantastic Fiat we purchased some pine boards to make a new front door.  We chose pine because we thought it would be only temporary until we renovated the place properly – no need spending good money on good wood that was soon to be trashed. 
We purchased a small table saw, drill, hammer, screwdrivers, and a few other tools at Brico, our friendly neighborhood hardware store only 30 kilometers away, in Jesi.  We patterned the new door off the old one.  Well, what a difference that new door made.  We stained it dark and coated it with polyurethane.  We took the old door’s hardware, sanded it down, and reused it for a great result.  The door was a double door, and on one side was a steel bar that swung up and inserted into a slot in the door, for security.  We were so proud of that door; it inspired us to get to work on the windows. 
Old front door

 New front door

A new window
We took down each window and repaired/replaced as necessary.  I think we had to rebuild about half the windows.  We drove to a local glass factory and bought glass for them and had windows that looked the same as the old ones.  Again, we were very proud, and even more inspired.

We needed a mantel for our fireplace, so we went out to the annex building, which would need complete rebuilding anyway, and took one of the large ceiling joists, cut it down to size, sanded it, and sealed it and hung it in place on the fireplace.  Wow, did it look good.  Our confidence was now soaring. 
We next tackled the plaster walls.  We went room by room and fixed or replaced the plaster as needed.  We heard from one local that our living room once had been used as a recording studio for a local band.  They had stapled soundproof tiles on the walls.  The tiles were gone, but there were thousands upon thousands of tiny staples still embedded in the walls.  It took us two weeks to remove them all. In the “guest” bedroom the plaster was completely gone down to the stone, so we cleaned up the stone and left it exposed, like you see in some buildings.  Again, it looked great.
We used muratic acid on the floors, removed 20 years of dirt, grime, and bird doo-doo.  (I didn’t want to write “shit”.)  We then sealed them and they looked great. Did the same to the floors on the terrace.
Terrace tiles before
Terrace tiles after

In the kitchen, where was located the fireplace, we took out an old, metal kitchen sink counter.  We built a new counter of wood, and cleaned up the old sink and installed it, topping it off with a yellow fabric curtain around it.  We went to the fabric store in Cingoli, found a fabric we liked, and sewed it and put it in place with a long, steel spring used as a flexible curtain rod.  We put in a small gas stove, refrigerator, and microwave and we were in business!
Kitchen before

Kitchen fireplace before

Kitchen after

The roof had a few leaks, so I climbed up in the attic to see if I could find the sources.  I found several places where the water had eaten away at the supports, so I put in a few new ones.  Then we had Farid, the Turk, fix the roof tiles.  Basically he adjusted their placement so the water would no longer run inside the house.  He did a great job as we never had another leak.  Seems the heavy terracotta tiles just sit on the roof, interlocking each other.  But you need to know how to place them on the roof, and that is something we left to an expert.  At the bottom edges of each side of the gables they place stones to hold the bottom ones in place. 
After the place was done, off to IKEA we went for furniture and we had a beautiful home to live in if I do say so myself. (Again, I do.)

Living room before

Hall before

Hall after
Guest room before
Guest room after

We pretty much finished making the house habitable by August.  By that time we knew that we were not going to be able to stay in Italy.  The U.S. economy and the Italian government seemed to both be working against our dream of making the property into a B&B.  So when it came time to sell, all our hard work really paid off.  It is what allowed us to have a second chance.  And even though we could see that our future was to be elsewhere, we were not done with Italy quite yet.