A HOUSE IN SAN VENANZO PART 1 0F 3
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’d been to Italy 3 times in less than eight months. And we were now wondering, when will we get there again? How can we wait? We had one week of vacation scheduled for October, and, as if heavenly ordained, that turned out to be the same week as the Chocolate Festival in Perugia! So we went.
We next returned in May 2002, for a two week visit, one week in Florence, one week in Umbria. Once we returned home I was too scared to post on SlowTrav the questions that were 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 same questions after every trip. After all, retiring to Italy was 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) posed the same questions on the ST message board! Well, it must be a sign! We plunged into the discussion headfirst, with more enthusiasm than facts. And slowly, we started to get the idea that maybe we COULD do it. Other ex-pats told us that Art’s retirement would be more than adequate. They even said we could probably afford a house.
We contacted everyone we ever knew in Italy, or at least those who were foolish enough to give us their email addresses! We scoured the web, finding page after page of real estate agencies. Most of the places we saw on the web were WAY too expensive for us, but most people seemed to think that with some luck and patience, we COULD afford a house.
We made lots of helpful contacts, and decided to take our November vacation time to return to Italy to search for the perfect town. This seemed to be where we needed to start, because that was always the first thing people asked…what size town do you want to live in? We thought we knew what we wanted…to be IN a town, not isolated. The idea of an Italian villa sounds quite grand, but, #1, we didn’t have the money, and #2, how would 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 wanted 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 that mean? A town of 100, a town of 1000, or 10,000? 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 come soon enough!
We had rented a house for two weeks from an American named Judy. 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's 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 really cute, it wasn't going to be our new home.
More driving. More towns. I took notes and pictures, trying to remember not only details, but also FEELINGS. We arrived in Bevagna during the riposo, when everything is closed. The size was good, and it was FLAT. Italian hill towns are wonderful to look at, but when you're 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 was not only flat, and of a good size, but was also conveniently located to major roads and to a train hub in Foligno. It also had fantastic views OF the hill towns, such as Assisi, spreading out across the hillside. I thought "Well, if it’s this good, it must be too expensive for us."
Maybe Canara, just down the road would offer a reasonably priced alternative with many of the same qualities. But then we decided that it just didn’t “feel” right. On to Bettona. People were harvesting olives as we climbed the hill up to the city. The city was charming, but I thought we might feel a bit isolated sitting on top of the hill. And every day it was more of the same. Collazzone. Colleppe. Aquasparta. Sangemini. Corciano…cute…VERY cute. Torgiano was cute too, but a little too big. We fell in love with Montone. It looked like the town Disney would have designed as the perfect medieval Italian hill town, and the 360º views were to die for. There was good access to the E45, but we had already decided to stay SOUTH of Perugia.
We decided to call about some houses we'd seen on the internet. First we saw what we called “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 drove and drove, then turned down a deeply rutted white road, desperately in need of gravel. The road went on and on, and on some more, and at the end we found ourselves in what we knew we would never want…a borgo. Although we had been told the house was habitable but could use a bit of modernization and sprucing up, we considered it a total disaster that could only be saved by a bulldozer.
We headed back to the agent's house to look through the listings to refresh our memory, and we found a house that had interested us when we saw it on the internet. It was in a town called San Venanzo, it looked fairly modern, and it was within our price range. We remembered this house for two reasons: one, all the pictures were captioned in German, and two, for some reason there were THREE kitchens. Art said, “THIS is the house I want to see!” and the listing agent was called. As luck would have it, the listing agent was free, and although it was 4:30 and darkness was RAPIDLY approaching, we agreed to meet at the house ASAP.
Although Art was impressed by many things about the house, I remained skeptical. It was definitely not my dream house. The town was cute…not too small, not too large. It wasn't walled, but it did have a gelateria AND a bakery. (Sort of a his and hers deal we had agreed upon earlier) Art liked it because it was not just modern, but also because it wasn't falling down and in need of complete restoration. No chipping plaster. No uneven floors. Central heat. Gas Mains. Lots of windows and cross ventilation. Two bathrooms. He tried to sway me with the fact that one of the bathrooms had a bathtub, which was a big item on my wish list, but I remained unmoved. The house had no charm. It had a slight Bavarian feel to it for some reason, perhaps because of the carved wooden railing on the staircase. It did have a small yard (plus), but it was all in shade, so no tomato plants in the summer (minus). The yard backed up to a park which added to the privacy (plus) but the only access to the yard was from the outside (minus). It did have a garage, which was a big plus. There were kitchens all over the place…even one in the garage. The rooms were nice size. Oh, and I forgot to mention that there was paneling on some of the walls…the sort your Dad put in the basement rec room back in 1962. The agent assured us that this wasn't covering up any defects, and could be easily removed.
We walked through the town, down the main street. In addition to the shops already mentioned, there was 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 wouldn't discover until later. Two banks. Some sort of regional office for the forestry service. Police station, medieval ruins. A woman we met during a return visit told us there were no Americans or English living there.
Did I mention that it was in our price range? What was wrong with it?
We traveled to Paciano to have lunch with our friends Margaret and John. We knew that they bought the house we wanted…a terra ciello (ground to sky) with a small garden and a terrific view. It’s also in a cute little medieval walled city. We also knew that we could never afford their house. We told them about the San Venanzo house, showed it to them on the computer, and Margaret said, “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 was still thinking. A second visit improved my opinion, and Art made some valid and positive points about the house, but I was still waiting for the house to say something to me. Anything. I needed some inspiration, but the house said nothing. Maybe it was just because I didn’t understand Italian.
The agent suggested moving the kitchen (that would make four!), and also said we could change a window into a door in order to get to the yard from the house. These ideas made sense, but I was still uncertain. I knew that I COULD live here, but did I WANT to live here? Would it still be my dream house if it wasn't in a walled city? On the other hand, walled cities attract tourists. Would I want to live in the middle of Italian Disneyland? Part of me said, “Yes!”. I joked 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.
So I had to decide: did I want to live in a fairy tale, which I probably couldn't afford, or did I want to live in San Venanzo. And slowly, I decided: it’s better to live in San Venanzo for real than to wait for the fairy tale. The fairy tale might never come, and all that time would 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. The agent said the owner would probably take €100,000. The owner had moved to Bologna, and had no further interest in the house. We thought we'd offer €93,000, just to get the ball rolling, then decided to offer €95,000, hoping that at least some of the furniture might be included in the deal. We'd been told the owner didn't want the furniture, but woul remove anything we didn’t want. We weren’t sure if this meant it will stay or not. On Thursday we offered €95,000. On Friday, we receive an email that said, “Congratulations, they accepted your offer!” So much for negotiations.
Post postscript: We eventually bought all the furniture for an additional €500. We also removed all three existing kitchens and put in a brand new one. A window was changed into a door so that we could access our back yard more easily. When the park behind our house was restored and all the dead trees removed, we discovered that our garden actually got enough sun to grow some flowers and herbs. We've never regretted our decision to choose this house or this town. It WAS/IS my dream house, but apparently it was one of those dreams that you just can't seem to remember once you wake up. Now I don't have to remember my dream - I live it every day!