Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Our far flung correspondent

I have a friend who has recently moved to Italy and I thought you all would enjoy hearing about his experiences with finding housing:
To all my old friends,

Some of you may not know that I recently moved to Italy. I have a job working for the U.S. Army at Camp Darby, just outside of Pisa. In Tuscany. It's wonderful, a dream come true and I'm loving it, but should you ever want to experience the thrill of moving into a house here, read on...

NOW DON"T GET ME WRONG..., I like my house. And I'm sure that it once was very nice and comfortable for its inhabitants, and most likely can be again. There is just this odd little transition period I have to get through before it feels like home. You see, things work a little differently here in Italy than in other places I have lived.

A little background.....

I am given paid housing (up to a limit) as part of my job benefits. There is no on-post housing at Camp Darby so everyone must find a place to live "on the economy" as they say. There is a "housing department" here on post that has a book with photos of available private properties. You can choose several to go and inspect. A person from Housing will go with you to show you places you may want to live. They also assist you in negotiating with the landlord, signing leases and setting up utilities, etc. Otherwise, this process would be a nightmare for non-Italian speakers.

The vast majority of the available housing are apartments or duplexes, single family houses being relatively rare and expensive in this area.
I chose 6 properties to go and inspect. All were within 30 to 45 minutes commute time of Camp Darby. 5 of the 6 were apartments in outlying areas. They were all nice and relatively new, if a bit far away and a little too "suburban" and isolated for my tastes. Great for families, but not so great for a single person who likes to get out and walk to restaurants, shops and other places.

The 6th place was a stand-alone house in Tirrenia, a seaside resort town only about 5 miles from Camp Darby. Now you would think that this town would be the most desired location for anyone looking for a place to live. Alas, that is not the case. Lots of people told me "It's too hot and humid in summer." "It's too crowded with vacationers and people will block your driveway." "It used to be swampland and the mosquitos are ferocious." "It is completely dead in winter", etc, etc, etc.

Despite the warnings, I really liked the fact that what I saw in Tirrenia was a private house with a nice front and back yard, it was close to work, and you could walk 5 or 6 blocks to the little town square and to the beach. Perfect I think.

When I first walked in, it was apparent that the house had not been lived in for some time. It had a very musty smell and was not very clean. The tile floors were dusty and the whitewashed walls a bit dingy. The yard was overgrown with weeds, the back door was old and not very sturdy and the kitchen had nothing, and I mean NOTHING in it but the kitchen sink. This was my first eye-opener about Italian houses. I asked the housing guy who was with me where were all the cabinets and shelves? He looked at me as if I had just been jettisoned from a passing cargo ship and washed up on shore. "No Italian houses have shelves, cabinets or appliances. When Italians move, they take their kitchens with them of course."

Ah yes, of course. Silly me. Hmm. This is a bit strange, I think. But, I can deal with this. I know that the Army is going to furnish me with appliances for the duration of my stay. As for shelves etc., I can always find an IKEA sooner or later. Or maybe someone who is moving back to the states and wants to sell stuff.

I also make a comment about how dirty the house is and the housing guy tells me...."Well, in Italy, landlords don't like to do any work or clean up before they get a commitment." So, essentially places here are shown "as is" with no forethought given whatsoever to presentation, curb appeal or any of those other odd American concepts that we foolishly think may lure prospective tenants into our properties. Here you first have to make a commitment to the landlord (by signing a lease and forking over deposits), then you have to really hope that he will clean up the place and do repairs in turn.

The house consists of two bedrooms, a long, narrow living room with a fireplace, a large foyer or entryway, one bathroom with a claw-foot bathtub and no shower or shelves or mirror, and the aforementioned kitchen, such as it is. All the floors are made of a solid rust-colored Italian tile. There are no carpets or rugs anywhere. Nor are there any lights or even light fixtures. On the ceilings are 3 wires hanging down in every room where an overhead light should be.

My housing person sees me looking at the dangling wires and just as I turn to ask him why there are no lights, he arches one eyebrow and I immediately know the answer. "Italians take their lights with them when they move, don't they?," I say. "Yes, Signore McDaniel, that is correct." Hmm.

Armed with all this information and with the notes I have made about each place I have seen that day, I retreat back to base to the hotel where I have been staying for a month. I am feeling somewhat overwhelmed and confused. What to do? Which one to pick? Should I go see more?
I mull over it all for the next week.

As expected, I get conflicting advice from my all Italian staff in the library. "Go Look at More", "Don't Settle", "It Sounds Great!", "Don't Rush In", "Make Sure it's the Right One,You're Going to Be There a Long Time."

Of course all this advice makes me feel so much better.

Before going out to look at places, I had been given a checklist by my staff of things I should look for in a property.:

1. Does it have double-pane windows (it gets cold here in winter)?
2. Do the windows have mosquito screens?
3. Do the front and back doors fit snugly, can you see light when they are closed?
4. Is it air-conditioned?
5. Has it been freshly painted on the inside and cleaned?

My House:

1. No
2. No
3. No and Yes
4. No
5. No and No

Despite knowing all this, eventually the siren song of convenience to base, short commute, walking distance to shops and restaurants and proximity to the beach sway my decision. The real estate maxim holds true over here as well...it's all about location, location, location. I go for the fixer-upper.

Some people look at me as if to say "Boy, have you made a mistake." Others say "You will love it!"

And now the REAL fun begins.

My first duty is to meet with the landlord and the housing guy to sign a contract. I say "contract" because it all seems to be much more formal and official than a mere lease. It has to be registered and certified at the municipality and then signed by a notary. During this meeting with the landlord, I am informed that my lease is for 4 years. "Wait a minute!" "4 years?" "Who said anything about 4 years?" It's the standard Italian contract, Signore McDaniel. "It is?" Yes.
"But what if I want to leave the house and live somewhere else?" Ah, but you simply have to give 6 months official notice Signore McDaniel. "6 months?"

After a few more bombshells like the fact that I have to pay the first month's rent and 2 months deposit, plus the annual heating inspection and the septic tank inspection and the garbage pickup fees, etc., I'm beginning to understand that in Italy, all the rights and privileges are on the side of the landlord, and all the obligations and fees are on the side of the tenant. Hmm. Is this what 2500 years of civilization does to a housing market? During the lease negotiations, I do manage to get a commitment out of the landlord to clean up the place, repair some broken shutters and paint the interior of the house. His return volley is to say that if he paints the interior now, then I will have to have it repainted when I move out. "Is this normal?" I enquire of my housing person. Yes, Signore McDaniel, it is. Hmm.

The following week I'm off to the Water Company's office in Pisa to have the water turned on in my name. Why could this not be done over the phone? Because it seems that the tenant previous to me (an Italian fortunately, not an American) had not paid his last few water bills before he moved out and in Italy, when that happens, they come out and remove the entire water meter, and not just turn off the water supply. Why? I have no earthly idea. However, my housing guy seems non-plussed by the whole concept so I just take it at face value and move on. What it really means is that we have to go to the main office and fill out lots of forms to get it turned back on and a new meter installed. 2 hours later we are done.

Next is turning on the electricity which is accomplished with remarkable efficiency and a minimum of fuss. Feeling as if I am on a roll, there only remains the gas to be turned on. My housing guy makes an appointment for the gas technician to come to the house and tells me to be there when he's there so I can sign some paperwork. Easy enough I think. Since this appointment is to occur the following Monday, I think this may be a good time to move most of my stuff in and finally get out of the hotel on post. So, I move the majority of my stuff to the house over the weekend and just leave a toothbrush and change of clothes in the hotel room so I can go back there and sleep on Sunday night.

At 9:00am on Monday morning, I am at the house and the gas company technician arrives. He is on a scooter. He says hello to me and I grunt something back in Italian and he starts looking around for the gas meter. He finds it and then looks at me strangely. I wonder what is going on and he motions me over. "Signore, blah,blah,blah,blah.............." he starts rattling off in Italian. Although I have no idea what he is telling me, his finger pointing to a gaping hole where the gas line should be tells me everything I need to know.

It seems that this time, since the gas bills had not been paid, the gas company had not removed the meter but had decided to remove about 4 feet of the gas line itself to the house. Why? I have no earthly idea.

I look incredulously at the technician, and in my best Spanish/French/English mishmash, try to ask him "But you are with the gas company, weren't you supposed to know that there was no pipe before you came out here???" My poorly expressed sarcasm is completely lost on him (he understands nothing I am saying) and I resort to calling my housing representative to find out what is going on. I hand the technician my cell phone and after a few minutes of discussion, it is decided that another department of the company will have to come out and install some new pipe before I can get gas. The new appointment is for the following Monday.

So, there I am, almost moved in, but with no gas for cooking or hot water for showers. Luckily I did not tell the hotel on post that I was leaving so they have not canceled my room. I load up my car again and trudge back to the hotel with most of my things.

Now all of these showings and utility appointments are taking place during business hours and I am starting to feel a bit guilty about leaving work so much. However, no one else seems to think much about it and it appears no one is keeping tabs. Still, in an effort to reduce my lost work time, I have the brilliant idea of scheduling ALL my remaining appointments for the same morning on the same day. Might as well kill several birds with one stone, I think.

The next Monday rolls around and I am again back at my house with my car full of stuff. It is 8:30am. The first guy to show is a different gas technician. He immediately starts cutting and fitting pipe for the gas line. So far so good. Next to show are two guys who are bringing me the kitchen appliances that the Army provides you as long as you are working here. They start trundling in with a stove, a washing machine, a dryer and a refrigerator. This is great I think. What a deal! Minutes later the first hiccup occurs. There is only one water line in the kitchen. It goes to the sink and nowhere else.
The solution is to put the washing machine outside on the back wall of the house where there is another water line. "Okay, I can live with that. It's better than no washing machine at all", I say to myself. It even reminds me a little of my grandmother's old wringer-washer that used to sit out on the back porch of the farm house.

Around this time, another truck arrives which contains my temporary furniture. They have a bed, a couch, a couple of wardrobes, nightstands, etc. I will use these until my own furniture arrives from the States. There is much confusion and noise going on in the house. Workmen are asking me for screwdrivers and wrenches and where I want things. Through sign language and my feeble Italian, I mostly understand what they want. Another repairman shows up and is in the bathroom trying to fix my outside shutter. He's making a total mess in there and I am wondering who is going to clean it up.

One of the workmen is up on a tall ladder installing overhead lights. Yes, that is a service the Army also provides as it is a well-known fact that no Italian houses have light fixtures. Why did I not know this? The only problem is that I miscounted how many overhead lights I needed and now I have run 2 short. Unfortunately, the bathroom did not make the cut so I will have to bathe in darkness until I can reorder some lights.

About two hours after all this began, I start smelling gas. It has a really rancid smell to it, not at all like the sort of sickly-sweet smell that is added to American natural gas. This smell is much more like rotten meat or sulphur or worse and it chases me out of the house almost immediately. I find the gas technician and ask him if everything is okay. He says yes, it's only some old, bad air in the lines. Man, I'll say, I'm thinking.

Inside the kitchen, most of the appliances have been installed. They are checking the stove and out comes that foul smell again. Once more, I retreat to the front yard. "No problem signore, it will go away." " You will see." Famous last words I am thinking.

At some point during all this brou-ha ha, a little old man shows up in my living room. He is not wearing a uniform and I have not seen him before. I don't think he is one of the various workmen as he seems to be past retirement age. He's about 5ft.3 with snow white hair. He seems friendly and introduces himself. I am Filippo La Bella, he says. He knows no English but I am able to ascertain that he is the previous tenant of my house. I am a bit surprised to see him. He starts pointing to the back yard at a storage shed. I understand that some of his belongings are still in that shed and he seems to want to know when would be a convenient time to come with a van and take it all away. "I work during the week but you can come on the weekend if you would like", I tell him. I reach into my front pocket to get my cell phone (so I can look up my own number) and the loose button on my shorts that I have been ignoring for days decides to give way. It shoots onto the floor with a light clank and rolls away and my shorts start slipping down my legs. I freeze and leave my hand in my shorts to hold them up. Mr. La Bella says nothing but looks at me a bit oddly. Perhaps he's just being nice, I think. I discretely switch hands, retrieve my cell phone and give him my number and he seems happy with this. He gives me a bemused smile and rides away on a bicycle. I don't know if he saw my button fly off or not. More on him later.

So now I'm running around the house looking for something to hold up my shorts. Well, this is a new house for me so as yet there's no "junk drawer" with a clothespin, or a paper clip or a stapler or a safety pin or anything. There's nothing! The rest of the morning I am walking around the house while the workmen are still there with one hand in my pocket as if I am out for an Autumn stroll.

Around 11:00 am, the gas technician finishes, the furniture and appliance guys are almost done, and in comes the heating inspector. He could not come before the gas was turned back on so I have scheduled him to come right after the gas line has been reinstalled. Turns out that the furnace is in the garage. Furnace is not really the right word. It is in fact one of those "on-demand" water heaters that is hung on a wall and that almost all European homes have. These types of water heaters/furnaces are mostly unfamiliar to Americans. When you turn on the hot water faucet, the heater fires up and heats the water. Just for that one use. There is no hot water heater so no gas is used keeping hot water at the ready.

Now, in general, I think these devices are quite clever and are wonderfully energy efficient. However, there are some tricks to using them as I discovered long ago from bitter experience. First, you must boldly turn on the hot water faucet. After the heater kicks in and you start getting hot water, then you slowly start turning on the cold water faucet. It is highly inadvisable to turn the cold water on too quickly or too forcefully as many times the heater thinks you don't want any more hot water and shuts down. You don't realize the error of your ways for a few seconds until you are soaped up and suddenly are subjected to a blast of frigid cold water as the fire has gone out. Frantic fiddling with the faucets then ensues. The best advice is to leave well-enough alone for the duration of your shower once you find a setting and a temperature you can tolerate.

Anyway, I digress. Around noon, the heater technician is still in the garage. With my hand in my pants, I go to have a look and I see about a million parts scattered on the ground. The technician is shaking his head and tsk-tsking. Uh oh, I know what this means. Moments later my landlord shows up and he and the technician enter into a lengthy conversation about the merits of repairing this old heater or installing a new one. By the looks of the rusty parts I see all around, the decision is clear. There's no hope for this one and a new one must be ordered.
More conversation between the landlord and the technician. I gather that a new one can he had and installed in about 3 days. The landlord looks at me as if to say "You'll appreciate this later on in the year" and so I vaguely agree to the timeline. What else can I do? It's either repair this one and have it break down again in two months or wait for a new one.

So, by mid-afternoon, I am firmly ensconced in my semi-furnished, poorly-lit and cold-water-only house. It's a start, I say to myself. At least I have a place to live. For the next three days, I take the quickest showers known to man. They can't last longer than about 90 seconds. And I'm talking a full shower here. Fortunately, the weather is quite warm so it is not too painful. Since no one can see the back of the house, I open up the bathroom shutter and window completely. It's a large window, almost as big as a door. I have a vague yet exhilarating feeling of showering outside.

So I'm here. It's not quite a home yet, but I'm working on it. Stay tuned for further episodes of "Mikey Moves to Italy."
Don't miss next week's episode where Mr. La Bella returns to the house and goes into a rant! Also, look for "How to test a new home furnace."

Mike's kitchen on move-in day:

And Mike's washing machine:

For the record, I fall firmly in the camp of those saying "You'll love it!" but then I'm not the one taking cold showers in the dark.

1 comment:

heydave said...

Some of the same oddness I heard about in Germany. Here's hoping the wine shop is very nearby!