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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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 4

March 10, 2010


My husband, newly arrived on the scene, has clawed his way down to stone. I phone the project manager with the news.

The crew turns up the next day with hammers and chisels. Now that Kim is here, the garrulous workers completely ignore me, peppering him with questions and concerns—never mind that he doesn’t speak one iota of Italian.

Something about a manly presence in the house has lit a fire under the crew. They really get cracking. Chink chink chink. Chunks of plaster fall like overripe fruit, unveiling enormous blocks of tawny stone.

Madonna! They look pretty freakin’ old. I’m prone to wild mood swings in Sicily, and now I’m on the upswing.

“Stones from the old Norman castello!” say nosey neighbors who wander in the house through the open front door, wondering what all the racket is.

They tell me the entire neighborhood scavenged rubble from the castle that once stood on this site before it crumbled in Ragusa Ibla’s great earthquake of 1693.

Norman castle in Ragusa Ibla before 1693 earthquake, copyright S. Tumino

Finding the ancient Norman rocks is a delicious surprise.

There are more surprises to come in the near future, though none nearly so pleasant.



Win this book!!!!!

I love this tiny up-to-date (2009) guidebook. It packs in information in the form of many top 10 lists. It includes charming out-of-the-way places—the author knows the hidden nooks and crannies of Sicily—and  a few fold-out maps.

HOW? Between now and March 26, write a comment on any of my blogposts. The best comment wins. (“Best” could be funniest, most enlightening, most touching…)

Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 2

February 19, 2010

Scaffolding on a Sicilian House, Copyright Jann Huizenga

I scale the scaffolding to inspect the newly-patched roof tiles. Resentment tugs at me—a feeling that my husband should be the one crawling up these monkey bars, not accident-prone me. Why is he 7,000 miles away, on terra firma, while I’m alone in this strange land?  The truth is, the foolhardy idea to renovate a house in Sicily was all mine. But couldn’t he feign a little more interest?

I keep climbing. Anaïs Nin’s words run through my head: Life expands or contracts in proportion to your courage.

It’s cold up here. The house—at the summit of Ragusa Ibla— takes the full brunt of the cutting tramontana blowing south from snowy Mount Etna. The rocks at the edges of the roof are meant to keep the old terracotta tiles from flying away in the wind like a cloud of pigeons.

Antique Sicilian Terracotta Roofing Tiles, Copyright Jann Huizenga

The finished roof, excruciatingly slow as it has been, looks gorgeous in the amber glow of late afternoon. But what do I know. Will it keep the rivers of rain outside? Will the damp house one day be a dry house?

Antique Terracotta Roof in Ragusa Ibla, Sicily, Copyright Jann Huizenga

Earlier in the day I’d rushed down in a panic from Rome because a neighbor had told me my scaffolding permit was about to expire. A denuncia against me—an official denouncement to the police—was under discussion by neighbors. None of my brushes with officialdom in Italy have been good; I’m especially nervous about being on the wrong side of the law in a country where even a bounced check can land you in the slammer.

But in true Sicilian fashion, disaster has been averted just in the nick of time. Fifteen minutes before the permit expires, my project manager tracks down a friend in the comune.

C’e l’abbiamo fatto!” he enthuses, winking and brandishing the new papers. “We did it! It’s been extended. You’ve got to have friends in Sicily.”

Yes, you’ve got to have amici. A truism that becomes clearer to me each day. A friend of a friend—a virtual stranger—has, with astounding Sicilian generosity, donated all the materials for the next phase of the project: the plastering of leaky exterior walls.

Old Terracotta Roof Tiles in Southeast Sicily, Copyright Jann Huizenga

But will the wall work drag on forever, like the roof did?

Will I give neighbors another reason to denounce me?

Will my  husband ever come to Sicily? Will he ever want to see this old house?


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Is My Existence Legitimate?

January 24, 2010

I had cast myself into a new life with all my heart.

But I’d forgotten my head.

Cold reality soon set in. My new digs recalled the toilets at Penn Station: grimy white bathroom tiles were glued to every available surface. Water stained floors and ceilings.

I dropped by the comune to ask about getting a building permit for a renovation—secretly hoping they’d wave me away with the well-worn Sicilian phrase Non preoccuparsi!, Don’t worry, and tell me to go do as I pleased.

Not quite. A goggle-eyed man in a pink cravat presented me with a garbage pail and a list.

A list so long and bewildering it brought tears to my eyes. I’ve translated it to the best of my ability (italics mine).

I’m so doomed.

Sicilian graffiti, Anarchia

graffiti on the back of my house


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