I’m no Tim Parks, who wrote the wonderful book “Italian Neighbors” as well as many others, but I will attempt here to give you a feel for our neighborhood and neighbors.
There are four apartments in our building that have their entrance through our lobby door. This seems an odd way to state it but, in the historical center, you think you are looking at separate buildings with adjoining walls, but you would be wrong. That is how I tried to look at them, but the spaces never added up. These are people not constrained by such creative limitations, so when more space is needed, one breaks through the adjoining wall and adds whatever space to their apartment/office/shop that is needed and available. As the buildings are stone, the issue of load-bearing walls is not too much of a concern. If you take the time to visually study the outside of these ancient buildings you can see by the changes in the exterior stonework some of the modifications made over the centuries to doors, windows and structural support.
Actually, the outside of these ancient buildings is quite deceptive in many ways. You walk down the street and see the old wooden doors that haven’t had a coat of varnish for more than 100 years, if ever, and the hinges, door-knockers and locks appear much older than that. The shutters are often (not always) falling apart, sometimes hanging by one hinge, with the paint peeling off and the wood dried out. Usually any metal work on the outside is rusty. Even if you get a chance to peek inside a building lobby when walking by it usually isn’t much to look at, so your expectations of what is inside is pretty low. This is confusing because the Italians are so concerned about “La Bella Figura,” but apparently it applies to all things Italian except the exterior of your home. I believe this habit is an old one stemming from the time when the tax collector walked the streets and knew everyone. (I’m currently reading a hilarious book called “La Bella Figura” written by an Italian, Beppe Severgnini, who attempts to explain this Italian phenomenon.)
If Americans care enough to spend money on their homes they want it to show from the street. This is known as curb-appeal and I admit it is not an easy habit to shake. If you took the time and trouble to study our apartment from street level, it would be obvious that this apartment is occupied by non-Italians. Not only are our shutters recently painted (10+ years ago) but what you can see of our terrace reveals plants in new pots, new outdoor furniture, and if you look closely you can tell that Larry patched and painted the terrace walls. Does that constitute “La Brutta Figura?” I’m still confused, so I’m not sure.
So the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” has relevance here because if you are ever invited inside someone’s apartment what you find will often be unexpected.
The apartment on the ground floor below us is reported to be owned by a couple living in Rome who rarely spend time in Ascoli. The one directly above us is undergoing some renovation, so no one lives there right now. When living in such close quarters the habits of your neighbors can literally affect the quality of your daily life. So we do have our fingers crossed with the hope that the people who occupy that apartment in the future are, well, good neighbors in every sense.
This should have been a very short blog post as we really only have one neighbor in this building. The only other apartment in the building is upstairs and is occupied by a very friendly gentleman, David, and his lovely mother, Antonella. David is a geometra who in Italy performs roughly the combined functions of an architect, site foreman and the engineer in charge of building. He/she is also a surveyor and the person who liaises with building authorities and is authorized to draw up plans or renovate buildings, up to certain size limits, without calling on the services of an architect. Our real-estate agent, Cinzia V., is also a geometra.
Since I don’t use last names or addresses in our blog, I don’t think what I’m about to say is a give-away. For the first while I would have described David’s office as being on the ground floor of the building next door. I also was wrongly concerned, because they have those deceiving shutters, that their apartment was small and old which might make us look like American fat-cats. However, Antonella invited me into her home the other day and, thankfully, it is larger than our apartment expanding for quite a ways into the “next building” above David’s office. They actually have two kitchens as the second kitchen, bath and a bedroom could be easily converted into a small apartment. Their renovation, I think, is newer than ours and quite beautiful – David is a geometra – duh! There are no frescoes visible but, even better, Antonella’s deceased husband was a wonderful painter. All the framed art on the wall is his and, if I understood her correctly, he hand-decorated many of the doorways and cabinets.
Antonella, does not know it but she has taught me a lot about hanging out laundry. As her clotheslines are over our terrace I watch and study what she has done. I must have lived a charmed life because between laundromats and personal clothes dryers I cannot ever remember hanging out laundry in my adult life. Sure, I helped by mother and grandmother hang laundry, but that was like pre-air conditioning long ago. And now I have neither! I have learned to turn the pants inside out so the pockets will dry, to put the heaviest part of an article toward the ground and determine which items benefit by multiple clothespins. Whether leaning out the window hanging out her laundry, in the lobby or on the street, whenever Antonella sees me she always smiles and begins speaking to me, naturally, in Italian. I have apologized and told her many times that I don’t speak Italian, but she is so gregarious she can’t help herself. So after I smile and listen to her a while she remembers and says, “non capisco?” I respond with, “si, non capisco” after which there is pretty much nothing else to be said and we go our separate ways. I was worried she might think I was rude so I wrote her a note and used Google translate to put it in Italian saying, “I want you to know how much I appreciate your efforts to make me feel welcome in the building. I am sorry I do not speak Italian and plan to take lessons soon. I look forward to having a nice conversation with you sometime in the future.” It was good that at our party a few weeks ago, with several people around who could translate, I learned a bit more about her and she got a better feeling for us.
There may be only one apartment in our building that is currently occupied but they are not our only neighbors. Our terrace has a common wall with two other terraces. They connect to the building behind us and are above a narrow road for cars to access the courtyard of the next building where there is parking and private garages. Although we have not formally met either family, you get to know a little about them by proximity. Directly behind us is a woman with two teenage boys. I’m pretty sure the teenagers were not happy to see our apartment occupied as they lost their privacy. The teenagers smoke and talk on their cell phones but, since we blurred our direct sight into their bathroom with some plants, we don’t know much else about them.
The wall at the kitchen end of our terrace is common with a family whose access door to their terrace is two buildings down, making it a long entrance to a pretty large terrace. I can’t say much about them except they both work and have a son, Lucca, that I am guessing is about 4 or 5 years old and very much loved. We get to hear the sounds of him laughing, playing games with his parents and riding his tricycle in the courtyard. We have no problem with hearing the sounds of children laughing and squealing with delight, or an occasional infant crying. Nor with the dog who loves playing with his squeaky toy in the parking lot.
However, we do have one annoying neighbor – not really a neighbor per se – actually it is more permanent than a neighbor. The view from our bedroom window is a gated parking lot (the gate is permanently open) where we would park a car, if we had one and paid extra for the space. The space between us and the building on the other side of the lot creates a feeling of openness with a nice view of the sky. However, under that parking lot is another gated parking lot with an operational, and quite noisy, gate located just below our window that frequently opens late at night and early in the morning. Larry, the light sleeper, may yet be tempted to climb the gate with his WD-40 and give it a good squirt but that won’t solve the loud bang when it closes. Since the weather has turned chilly, dictating closed windows and providing few opportunities to enjoy our terrace, we are not likely to learn more about our neighbors until spring.