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Window on Italy - Patience is not my Virtue!

Colleen Simpson

As wonderful as it is to live in Umbria, everyone I know has some horror story about Italian utility companies or commune officials!

Mine starts in the early spring of 2009. Drip, drip, drip comes the water from under a stone stairway we built the year before for our village, in exchange for land for our terraces and pool. The drip, drip, drip results in a nice little pool of water beside the entrance to L’Antica Vetreria’s terraces and pool. I begin to worry about this perfect breeding ground for summer mosquitoes, so I begin calling the commune offices to come investigate the leak. Each time I call, the inevitable reply is: “domani” (tomorrow) , so evocative of the Latin “manana.” With each call, I am promised a visit the following day. Well three months of tomorrows go by and still no visit. Patience is not my virtue! I definitely want the problem fixed before early summer guests arrive.

The Staircase

So, deciding to take matters into my own hands and at least create a drain for the pool of water, I draw a picture of a pick (“piccone”) and the tool is magically delivered into my hands by Mauro of my adopted family along with several shovels. He is aghast that I am going to dig a trench by myself and offers to help. But my dander is up now and although small, I have been known to dig big holes all by myself!

Uh oh! What looks like a one day job becomes two and then four as I pick my way across the little gravel driveway. I unearth huge stones just below the surface that I am certain have been resting there for a few hundred years, like maybe a thousand! Each day I get up earlier to avoid the heat of the day, able to dig for about four hours before being drenched in sweat and blisters begin to form on my hands. I get a great cardio workout, but I don’t recommend this weight loss program to anyone!

The previous year during the height of renovations to our massive abandoned glassworks, I became known as “la donna che sempre lavoro” (the woman who is always working). Word gets out around the village that “La Donna” is going at yet another interesting project on her own, and some people gather to watch from the village wall above. This only strengthens my resolve. I have become the morning show for my neighbors. They shout out advice as I pick, pick my way across the small distance of 20 feet that now begins to feel like 100 feet as the work moves at a snail’s pace.

On the fifth morning after three hours, I am defeated when I strike a stone that appears to go on forever! Deeper and deeper I pick the dirt from around this humungous stone. When at last I have it almost isolated, I strike another stone! It has a “Siamese twin” attached. This is too much and gathering my pride around me like an invisible cloak, I smile wanly, wave to my neighbors and announce that I have an urgent errand to run.

I find in situations like this, when my patience is at its limit, it is better to just walk away. Walk away, pride intact, and wait for another day. It is my own form of “domani.” So off I go to get into my air-conditioned car and drive aimlessly around the countryside, cooling off both literally and figuratively.

Driving toward nearby beautiful Lago Trasimeno, I resolve to spend the rest of the day enjoying myself. I find myself heading to our favorite place to eat beside the lake: Trattoria Faliero. A hangout for the locals, I rarely see a tourist although I tell all our guests to eat there, hopefully timing it for a sunset meal. It was a real “ah hah” moment when Tom and I found it between hardware runs the year before. With outdoor tables under the trees and a panoramic view of the lake and the town of Castiglione del Lago jutting out in the distance, it holds the promise of a thorough soul-soothing on this frustrating day!

Taking a number from the machine in front of the glassed-in display case, I wander over to order an ice cold beer and go outside to stake out a good table. When the reader board displays a number within five of mine, I rush inside and wait my turn to shove to the front of the case filled with fish, mixed seafood, and a plethora of vegetable dishes. I am not completely sure what each vegetable dish is as there seems to be six versions of zucchini today. I have to quickly ask, because each customer is expected to order in a rush. I always order “lago”, the small fillets of lake fish lightly fried with a wedge of lemon, but a good choice is also “mare”, the mixed shrimp and calamari. I add the delicately breaded and stuffed zucchini with pine nuts to my order and grab another beer. A solitary feast is the perfect antidote to frustration and I find my patience, if not completely restored, is at least resting in a “limbo moment.”

I love the solitude I achieve amidst the crowd eating on the terrace and silently eavesdrop on conversations around me. I am actually hoping that I don’t run into any friends, for I wish to avoid explaining my struggle with the commune and my self-imposed earth-moving project, which is fast becoming my own folly!

Satisfied, I drive back to Piegaro and hope beyond hope that some Italian version of a pixie has come and dug that Siamese stone out of the ground for me. But magic is not afoot; it is still firmly lodged in the ground as if in defiance. It has lain there for a thousand years and it is not going to give way to any crazy American women no matter that she is “la donna che sempre lavoro.” Right now I feel like “la nonna che sempre lavoro”, “the grandmother who is always working.”

I sleep soundly that night, having had my morning’s workout with my dear stones and a belly filled with lake fish and cold beer. The next morning as I stand over my Siamese stone, I hear two of my Italian family members: the daughter, Carlotta, and her grandfather, Antonio, talking with an official of the commune on the wall above me. The commune official is very agitated, pointing down to my digging project and gesturing wildly. Carlotta and Antonio are earnestly trying to calm him down but obviously having no success. I decide to join the group and begin to explain what I am doing. The official is having none of my explanation. He tells me that this is not my job! It is not my responsibility! It is the work of the commune! And finally, with greatest emphasis: “it is, for heaven’s sake, a man’s work!” I have seemingly violated some commune rule, although the work is on our land. And, although my neighbors have been tolerant, I have certainly violated a village custom regarding a woman’s role!

I try to explain that I did not received any response to my phone calls, that I tried to involve the commune, that I waited for three months of “domanis” already, that I actually was very patient and that finally I took my piccone into my own feeble woman’s hands to do their man’s work! Well, that shuts him up and he leaves muttering that “Lunedi” (Monday) he would return with the proper water official, perhaps even Aqua Umbra!

Buoyed by this stunning news, I excitedly tell my neighbors that the pool of water will soon be gone and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the mosquitoes will not find a home with us this year! Well, of course my celebration is short-lived. Monday comes and goes when no official arrives. Another Monday comes and goes. When the third Monday comes, I am now determined to take up my piccone again to attract the commune guard! But later in the morning a miracle happens as the Aqua Umbra van comes driving down our private road! The uniformed young man soon determines that a village water main has sprung a leak and it has nothing to do with our own building of the steps. It is certainly not our responsibility but he gives me some sympathetic words and, with admiration, pats my arm, as if to say: “what a fine bit of muscle you put into moving those stones!”

And so it is that exactly three months, three weeks and six days after the main springs a leak, that leak is fixed, the small pool of water is drained and the job is done. They even fill in my trench, replacing those stones into their sacred resting ground, none the worse for wear.

I am looking forward to our next electrical blackout when I climb our pole to fix it!


Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2010

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