A House in San Venanzo - part 1
We had no interest in Italy. None. Nada. Then Frank (my son) was stationed near Naples for two years, so we decided to go. Our first trip was in September, 2000. We took an organized tour with our good friends Sherry and Dave. We arrived a few days before the tour began and stayed a few days after. We had a fantastic time, and the four of us talked of returning.
For Art and me, that opportunity would come in January, 2001, when NWA offered free airfare from Louisville with frequent flier miles. In March, we had a three week trip planned with my daughter Angela, her husband Duffy, and our grandson Nicholas. We were going to have a family reunion of sorts. This trip had been in the works since Frank and Shannon first knew they were going to Italy. Art and I spent a week in Umbria, and then went to Sorrento for a few days, Later we all met up in Formia, where Frank and Shannon lived. We then went to Rome with Angela, Duffy and Nicholas, and while the parents joined their tour group, we took Nicholas. The story of losing my purse and all three passports deserves a story all its own, but personally, I would just as soon forget the whole incident! Let’s just say that we made it back home eventually.
At this point, we’ve been to Italy 3 times in less than eight months. And we are now wondering, when will we get there again? How can we wait? We have one week of vacation scheduled for October, and, as if heavenly ordained, that turns out to be the same week as the Chocolate Festival in Perugia! So we go.
Next we return in May 2002, for a two week visit, one week in Florence, one week in Umbria. And I am too scared to post on SlowTrav the questions that are gnawing away at me. Could WE live in Italy? How would we do it? Could we afford it? Who would help us? I had posted similar questions after our March/April 2001 trip, and thought it was pointless to keep asking these questions every time we returned home. After all, retiring to Italy is not something for people like us. People with just an average amount of money, little savings, and no language skills.
Once again, divine intervention. Umbriaphile (Carl) poses the same questions on the message board! Well, it must be a sign! We plunge into the discussion headfirst, with much more enthusiasm than facts. And slowly, we start to get the idea, maybe we CAN do this. Ex-pats tell us we have enough monthly income from Art’s retirement. They even say we could probably afford a house. So we begin to contact everyone we ever knew in Italy, or at least those who were foolish enough to give us their email addresses! We scour the web, finding page after page of real estate agencies. Most of the places we see on the web are WAY too expensive for us, but most people seem to think that with some luck and patience, we CAN afford a house.
We make lots of helpful contacts, and decide that we will take our November vacation time to return to Italy to search for the perfect town. This seems to be where we need to start, because that is always the first thing people ask…what size town do you want? We think we know what we want…to be IN a town, not isolated. The idea of an Italian villa sounds quite grand, but #1, we don’t have the money, and #2, how could we feel like a part of a community if we were out in the country, all by ourselves? If we were in a town, we could get to know our neighbors, and our Italian would probably come much faster. We would want a town that was large enough to have the basics, such as a grocery, bakery, newsstand, butcher’s etc. Just large enough so that we didn’t have to get in the car every time we ran out of bread or needed a few things for dinner. And just small enough so that we could become a part of the community. But what did this mean? A town of 100 or a town of 1000? And just which towns were these? We looked on maps, and tried to gauge the size of the town by the size of the type its name was printed in. We made lists and asked for opinions on SlowTrav. November couldn’t get here soon enough!
We had rented a house for two weeks from Judy Tsanos. Helen from Italywithus.com had put us in touch with Judy, who was a recent transplant to Italy. Judy had given us lots of helpful information and we were sure that two weeks would give us plenty of time to house-hunt, city-hunt, and maybe sneak in a quick trip to Florence. Boy, were we ever wrong!
We had agreed to let Maria, Judy’s other renter, continue to live there, partly because we hated for her to move for such a short time, and also, selfishly, thinking that maybe she could help us. Maria had returned to Italy in September, having lived in Rome during her high school years. She was brushing up on her Italian and looking for work, so the three of us had a lot of exploring to do! Luckily for us, we hit it off right away.
Armed with a good map and lots of notes, we spent every day driving, driving, driving. We looked at Spina …too small. Marsciano…too large. Deruta…just not right. And so it went. Every day, new cities on the map, new suggestions, new ideas. Art had originally been very excited by Citta di Castello because it offered so many amenities. Plenty of shops. A good medical center. Always something to do. But then, after much discussion, we decided that we really wanted to stay SOUTH of Perugia. This was progress of sorts…at least we were narrowing down our area of interest. We also knew that we wanted to be centrally located, with good road and train connections. Our plans for our life in Italy included LOTS of travel, within Italy, and throughout Europe.
We contacted Wendy, a friend of Judy’s for some help. Wendy is an American who has lived in Italy for eleven years now. She is a translator for a real estate company, and we had sent her an email wish list before we arrived. Using her contacts, Wendy arranged for us to see several places …. Grutti…no, the medieval tower sounded nice, but the city just didn’t “feel” right. San Terezziano… a wonderful little medieval walled village, but more work than we wanted, and more money than we could afford! Todi…while the town seemed nice during a rainy November day, the thought of thousands of tourists from May through October each year made us say no. Amelia was too far south, and too far away from everything else we wanted to be near.
One day while on our way to another town on our list, Maria saw a sign for Massa Martana, and said she had heard good things about the town. Art took the exit, and there was Massa Martana, in the process of being completely rebuilt. Seems that the town had been severely damaged by the 1997 earthquake, and was only now rebuilding. The town square was filled with five, no, seven huge cranes, and it was obvious that the entire city within the walls was being rebuilt. The best of both worlds! Medieval charm, a walled city, and all new, modern conveniences!
As we wandered around, we spotted a woman working in the (closed) grocery store. As had become our policy, we asked her if she knew of anything for sale. This kind woman dropped everything, and gave us the grand tour! Since Maria was with us, we were able to get many, many details, and as luck would have it, this woman owned three apartments. She told us everything would be completely restored within a year, and took us on a tour of not only her three apartments, but several others as well. We got the name of the immobilliare (real estate agent), and left quite elated! What a cute town! Perfect size! Great ambiance! Modern heating and plumbing! Art was completely captivated, but then I started to think about the practicalities….do we really want to live in an apartment, with someone above and below us? Won’t the apartments be dark, due to the narrow streets? Maybe a rooftop apartment with a terrace would solve those problems, but could we afford one? Finally we realized that although Massa Martana was TOO cute, it was not going to be our new home.
More driving. More towns. I’m taking notes, taking pictures, trying to remember not only details, but also FEELINGS. We arrive in Bevagna during the riposo, when everything is closed. The size is good. And it is FLAT. Italian hill towns are wonderful to look at, but when you are living there, you must consider whether or not you will want (or be able) to walk the hills everyday. Of course when you see 80 year old women walking for miles and miles, uphill and down, you feel guilty for being such a fat, out of shape American, but you still have to accept the reality of it. Bevagna is not only flat, and of a good size, it is also conveniently located to major roads and to a train hub in Foligno. It also has fantastic views OF the hill towns, such as Assisi, spreading out across the hillside. Well, if it’s this good, it must be too expensive for us.
Maybe Canara, just down the road will offer a reasonably priced alternative with many of the same qualities. But then we decide that it just doesn’t “feel” right. On to Bettona. People are harvesting olives as we climb the hill up to the city. The city is charming, but don’t you feel a bit isolated sitting on top of the hill like that? And every day, it’s more of the same. Collazzone. Colleppe. Aquasparta. Sangemini. Corciano…cute…VERY cute. Torgiano is cute too, but a little too big. We fall in love with Montone. Looks like the town Disney would have designed as the perfect medieval Italian hill town, and the 360º views are to die for. Good access to the E45, but we have already decided to stay SOUTH of Perugia.
We call Graham and Lin who run La Porta Verde. We have seen some houses on their website that we like, and they have invited us for lunch before we see them. They are English, and have restored a farmhouse that was unused for 30 years into something warm and homey. The renovations aren’t complete, and eventually they will have a nice little bed and breakfast with seven ensuite guest rooms and one self-catering apartment. They have three freezers FULL of the fruits and vegetables they have harvested from their garden. I ask if they ever worked this hard BEFORE they retired, and Graham says, “No”. Our ideas about retirement are quite different from Graham and Lin’s!
After a wonderful lunch, prepared in a fabulous kitchen that Graham both designed AND installed, we head off to see what we are calling “the divorce sale house”. Wendy had alerted us to this bargain… seems it was originally listed for €140,000, and now, due to an impending divorce, has been reduced to €70,000. We drive and drive, then turn down a deeply rutted white road, desperately in need of gravel. This road goes on and on, and on some more, and at the end we find ourselves in what we knew we would never want…a borgo. Although we have been told the house is habitable, but could use a bit of modernization and sprucing up, we consider it a total disaster that could only be saved with a bulldozer.
We head back to Graham and Lin’s and look through their listings to refresh our memory, and find a house that had interested us when we saw it on the website. It’s in a town called San Venanzo, it looks fairly modern, and it’s within our price range. We remember this house for two reasons: one, all the pictures are captioned in German, and two, for some reason there are THREE kitchens. Art says, “THIS is the house I want to see!” and Graham calls the realtor. As luck would have it, the listing agent is the same woman who sold Graham and Lin their house, so they are able to catch her on her cell phone, and although it is 4:30 and darkness is RAPIDLY approaching, we agree to meet at the house ASAP.
Although Art is impressed with many things about the house, I remain skeptical. It is definitely not my dream house. The town is cute…not too small, not too large. It’s not walled, but it does have a gelateria AND a bakery. (Sort of a his and hers deal we had agreed upon earlier) Art likes it because it is not just modern, but also because it is not falling down. No chipping plaster. No uneven floors. Central heat. Gas Mains. Lots of windows and cross ventilation. Two bathrooms. He tries to sway me with the fact that one of the bathrooms has a bathtub, which was a big item on my wish list. I remain unmoved. The house has no charm. It has a slight Bavarian feel to it for some reason, perhaps because of the carved wooden railing on the staircase. It does have a small yard (plus), but it’s all in shade, so no tomato plants in the summer (minus). The yard backs up to a park which adds to the privacy (plus) but the only access to the yard is from the outside (minus). It does have a garage, which is a big plus. There are kitchens all over the place…one is in the garage. The rooms are nice size. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there is paneling on some of the walls…the sort your Dad put in the basement rec room back in 1962. Graham assures us that this is not covering up any defects, and could be easily removed.
We walk through the town, down the main street. In addition to the shops already mentioned, there is a flower shop, a post office, a gas station, a hardware store, a newsstand, a butcher shop, two small grocery stores, several bars, even a hotel. Oh, and the volcano museum which we would not discover until later. Two banks. Some sort of regional office for the forestry service. Police station, medieval ruins. A woman we meet during a return visit tells us that there are no Americans or English living here.
Did I mention that it is in our price range? What’s wrong with it?
We travel to Paciano to have lunch with Margaret and John. We know that they have bought the house we want…it is a terra ciello (ground to sky) with a small garden that has a terrific view. It’s also in a cute little medieval walled city. We also know that we could not afford this house. We tell them about the San Venanzo house, show it to them on the computer, and Margaret says, “if you want it, go home, get a second mortgage, buy it, then put your house up for sale. Don’t risk losing it if this is what you want.”
I am still thinking. A second visit has improved my opinion, and Art has made some valid and positive points about the house, but I am still waiting for the house to say something to me. Anything. It says nothing. Maybe this is just because I don’t understand Italian.
Graham suggest moving the kitchen (that would make four!), and also suggests adding a door in order to get to the yard from the house. These things make sense, but I’m still uncertain. I know that I COULD live here, but do I WANT to live here? Is it still my dream if it’s not in a walled city? On the other hand, walled cities attract tourists. Do I want to live in the middle of Italian Disneyland? Part of me says, “Yes!”. I think we could have tee shirts made that say “I live here and you don’t!” But, if we lived in San Venanzo, we could live as the Italians do. We could meet people. Walk to the shops everyday. And I could be in a walled city in 30 minutes or less if I wanted to.
Now I have to decide, do I want to live in a fairy tale, which I probably can’t afford, or do I want to live in San Venanzo. And slowly, I decide: it’s better to live in San Venanzo for real than to wait for the fairy tale. If I wait for the fairy tale, it may never come, and all that time will have been wasted.
And so we bought the house in San Venanzo.
Postscript: Everything we read told us how much Italians love to bargain. The house in San Venanzo was listed for €103,000. Graham says they will probably take €100,000. This information comes from Donatella, the realtor. The owner now lives in Bologna, and has no further interest in the house. We think we will offer €93,000, just to get the ball rolling, then decide to offer €95,000, hoping that at least some of the furniture might be included in the deal. We have been told that he wants none of the furniture, but will remove anything we don’t want. We aren’t sure if this means it will stay. We offer €95,000 on Thursday. On Friday, Graham sends us an email that says, “Congratulations, they accepted your offer!” So much for negotiations.
Post postscript: We eventually bought all the furniture for an additional €500.