Days of Donkeys and Wine

February 21, 2013

How beautiful to see a lifelong dream coming true!

My friends Diana and John, who hail from Montana, had schemed and dreamed for years about how to make a life in Italy. Then in 2006, they bought a country property in Sicily (about 30 minutes from my village), complete with an army of olive and almond trees, and a roofless farmer’s house. They would arrive on the island for a few months every year to toil away on the house, staying till their money ran out. Then they’d go home to work some more at their jobs.

Italy makes you sharpen your wits. They battled the Italian bureaucracy and eventually nabbed residence permits and a power line to their property.

We drove out to their house last week as afternoon ripened into evening and clouds boiled in the sky. A chill wind rippled the olive leaves as we rattled up a long driveway. Then our eyes feasted on this:

A renovated stone house in Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

A view of the back of the house.

A stone house renovation in Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

A view of the front of the house. From left to right: Diana; Cynthia, a neighbor originally from Malta; and my husband, happy that he has no olives to take care of…

The house is still raw inside, but all the original stonework will remain untouched: niches, shelves, and horse-tying stones.

Sicilian Stonework in a Farmer's House, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian Stone House, copyright Jann Huizenga

Sicilian Stone House, copyright Jann Huizenga

Diana and John plan to live full-time in Sicily, raising donkeys and making wine. After years of patience and persistence, their dream is close. Real close.

Complimenti, amici. Auguri!!!!


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On the Skids in Sicily

March 9, 2012

Near the end of my house renovation in Sicily, I was so broke that I begged chairs that friends and acquaintances were tossing out and shopped the Modica flea market (the last Sunday morning of every month on Corso Umberto I) for doorknobs, lamps, and dishes. Even my garbage men knew to sift through their trash for the American lady.

I furnished the salone last. Its centerpiece is a skid. As in Skid Row.

Shamelessly scavenged from la strada.

(Brutta figura, Sicilians would say.)

I lugged it down to Giuseppe, my neighborhood carpenter, and asked him to give it a real good sanding. He did, and it shines.

Then I threw down a couple o’ cushions, filled up a bowl with oranges, added two found objects (Grim Reaper scythes), a pile of books, et voilà.

A bona-fide living room.

At night I light swarms of candles, and the skid looks like a million bucks.

Do you decorate with found objects?


Read more about my life on a shoestring in Sicily here.



Giuseppe, a fine Sicilian carpenter

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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 12

July 15, 2010

A working kitchen has finally emerged from the rubble like a phoenix rising. After two nail-biting years.  No longer do I boil up boxed soup on a hot plate, despair, mix paint around with a carrot stick, despair, write on a plaster-encrusted sawhorse lit by a bare bulb. I have a real table, lights, a working stovetop. Not just any stovetop, amici, but a Renzo Piano one. (Renzo Piano is the Italian architect who designed the Pompidou Center, the new wing of the Chicago Art Institute, etc.)  The stovetop is a piece of impeccable Italian design, though tricky to light and hard to clean (makes perfect sense as form usually trumps function in Italy).

Flies buzz in tight circles. The Iblean light beats in every morning, shining off the mirror-like floor.

The centerpiece of the kitchen is the cathedral dome out the window, and the soundtrack to my life are the bells, scaring me out of bed at 7am, marking the passing of each quarter hour, ringing for the dead, for weddings, for evening vespers, for morning mass, and for festa—four crazy-making days straight.

I love my Sicilian kitchen, and I’m grateful for each day I spend there. (What are you grateful for? Come on, tell us.)


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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 10

May 17, 2010

Doing the bathroom twice was not fun.

In the aftermath of Round One, I was tempted to give up and flee Sicily for good.

Results of Round One

“You get no respect from your crew,” noted a friend. She persuaded a local bigwig to throw his weight around, Sicilian-style, as my proxy.

That did the trick.

Early one morning a new piastrellista, tile setter, showed up on my doorstep smelling of cologne and rubbing sleep from his eyes. He toiled away in a no-nonsense fashion, furiously attacking his predecessor’s work. Glass shattered kaleidoscopically.

Io sistemo tutto,” he kept repeating. I systematize all. (Sistemare is one of the highest Italian virtues.)

To fuel his fury, I ran to the local bar for tiny cups of thick black coffee and sweet ricotta tarts.

Round Two produced an apple-green bathroom. The tiles are ceramic and plain—not the pricey designer ones of yore. But you know what? Good riddance to those fancy-pants glass tiles. I like the brighter cheap-o ones better.

Results of Round Two

I hate to trivialize Andre Gide’s words by using them in this mundane context, but I’ll do it anyway: “One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.”

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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 7

April 12, 2010

Into the cramped space under this arch—hardly big enough for a closet—I plan to stuff an entire bathroom: sink, toilet, shower, heat rack, mirror, towel racks. The project manager is insisting on a bidet (he says no Italian can live without one), but you’d have to put your foot in the bidet to squeeze into the shower.

This is part of the cantina, the old wine cellar that is slowly morphing into guest quarters.

I plan to expose as much stone as possible inside and above the arch. The back wall, which needs to be waterproof, will be a sea of tiny tiles. Tiles the blue of a storm-tossed Ionian Sea.

Beastly expensive tiles.

I knew nothing about the cost when I ordered. I didn’t bother to ask the price. I figured: they’re just tiles made right here in Italy, not some expensive import. How much could a few little tiles cost?

The boxes finally arrived from Milan, along with the bill. My eyes popped. I had to read it over and over. I could feel my face on fire.

“Well, you ordered glass tiles,” the project manager says. What did you expect?”

I did notice how lustrous they were, but I had no idea they were glass.

I thumb through the instruction manual that comes with the tiles. The installation looks complicated. “Are you sure the mason is up to this?” I ask the project manager. The mason seems to have perfected the art of banging and pounding, but I’ve never seen him do anything delicate with his thick, calloused hands. Do I trust him with my treasures? Has he ever installed anything of the sort?

Non preoccuparti,” says the project manager, winking. Don’t worry.

This is the favorite phrase down here. It usually means trouble.

But who am I to argue?



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