When I first arrived in Puglia and took possession of the ” habitable” house we had two neighbours at the top of the street one either side of the road. I had assumed the house was indeed liveable in as there was a family living in it who we bought it from.
Quite quickly , however, it became clear that Italian families in the South were clearly a great deal more hardy than we wimps from Cyprus and prepared to put up with a load more inconveniences than we were.
It seemed that anything that could go wrong with the house went wrong over the first few months. The electricity would fuse almost at will and always just when you need it most. the log fire driven central heating would either overheat requiring flaming logs to be removed from the fire in old metal paint pots or failed to draw filling the rooms with dense smoke. The rainwater collection tank would overflow into the downstairs area at the slightest sign of rain and the windows in the main let in more rain than they kept out.
I even had a puncture on the jeep only to discover that the spare had gone flat and that the jack had been nicked on the voyage from Limassol to Salerno. Quite why a seaman on board a bloody great roll on roll off car ferry should want a Jeep jack is still a mystery to me.
Day after day I would walk up to one or other of the neighbours and ask for their help having spent time before rehearsing my little speech in Italian in front of the mirror. No language course prepares you to actually live in a country . Being able to oder a newspaper or enquire if there are any messages for you at an hotel reception is of no use when trying to explain the latest catastrophe to befall you the night before . Nor is there any language course that prepares you for then having to reply to the questions regarding the electricity box that both the neighbours and then their friendly electrician would throw at you. I’d like to buy that handbag in the window does you no good and trust me on that because I have tried it.
The neighbours were fantastic. One or other would organise for yet another tradesman to come and fix the problem or run the offending part into town to have it repaired.
Both became honorary Brits in their book and would “help” with me understanding what it was the man who had arrived to fix the thing was saying in Italian. Flavio did this by taking what he had said in Italian and then stepping in front of the man and shouting the same words at me . He would then step back and point to the man and ask him to say a few more words before he would again step in with the “translation”. Giovanni conversely would put the words another way and then also bellow at me. In his case however it was because he is almost totally deaf . This is somewhat worrying in that until this year when he retired he was driving buses in Taranto. Not only was he deaf but always wore thick glasses when trying to watch the TV from anything more than 3 feet away though I never once have seen him wearing them when driving. Indeed when out walking and I see his car coming at me I take to the hedgerow as he goes past oblivious to my presence on the road.
Never once did I feel they were hiding from me as walked up . Indeed one or other would come down the driveway to meet me and hear news of fresh disasters when ever they spotted me walking towards them practising out loud the sentence that would explain the latest problem. Of course it never did as I put the accent on the wrong part of the word making it incomprehensible. I did in the end resort to writing it down as it saved a great deal of misunderstandings and meant a plumber didn’t come to fix the electrical fire in the wall and the farmer didn’t come to put the TV ariel back up. Though to be fair he was very good about it and did indeed get it back up.
Within a few months though i had got my feet under the table of the local bar and had begun to find the people to not only fix the problems but to entirely replace almost everything in the ” habitable” house. I passed the time of day with the neighbours but never had to call on them again for help.
Unfortunately Flavio lost his wife to cancer and has moved back to Martina Franca to be near his daughter but Giovanni is still around especially in the spring and summer.
It was he who paid me the ultimate compliment yesterday.
The lad from the bar who has been helping ( well okay doing everything ) with the planning and building of what before was a field that we euphemistically called the garden had been to finish a flower bed. After he had gone back up the driveway Giovanni came down at his usual trot. “Who was that ” he asked and I told him. ” Where did you find him” again I told him. Now I should explain that my local bar is not a salubrious joint. Indeed many Italians have been quite surprised we use it. Giovanni is the same but has watched the various workmen come up and down the driveway ( Italian houses are always work in progress) and knows that they do a good job.
“Listen ” he said ” do you think he would do my garden ?” So the tables had turned and instead of me asking him for help he was asking me. I was of course delighted to organise it after all he has done for me but maybe I have now arrived a little more .