Three Stripes of Color

January 31, 2013

Passing by this wall today, I was reminded that in Sicily, when you renovate your house, you don’t just pick an exterior color and slosh it on.

Your neighbors get to weigh in first.

You paint three color samples on a wall, then wait a few weeks for their feedback.

Stripes of Color on Sicilian Wall, copyright Jann Huizenga

In this case, the owners obviously (!) have their heart set on bright yellow, but the exact hue is up for negotiation.

A few years ago, my mason painted swaths of ripe peach, yolk-yellow, and Parmigiano on the side of the house facing my neighbor S’s house.

“Don’t choose the garish yellow,” S said one day. “Ti prego.” Indeed, it was she who would be most affected by the color choice as she stares right out at a large blank wall of my house.

“Which do you like best?”

“The light yellow.”

So Parmigiano it was. I was happy to let her choose the color of my house, as good neighborly relations are key to my survival here.


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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 15

February 20, 2011

This was my bedroom, before. Crusty, water-stained walls and semi-ruined tiles from the early 1900s.

Bedroom Before

I plastered, painted, and had the floor professionally scrubbed and polished. The tiles look better but are still very distressed. But that’s OK. After all, I moved to Sicily to embrace antiquity, didn’t I? They’re refreshingly cool in August, ice-rink cold in December. Someday I hope to afford an antique Sicilian lace curtain.

Sicilian Floor Tiles from the Early 1900s, copyright Jann Huizenga

Bedroom After

Bedroom in House in Sicily, copyright Jann Huizenga

Bedroom After

Nice old blocks of sandstone were discovered on one wall, so I left it raw.

Bedroom After

I added a new knob to the squeaky old door. For €20 you can get a glass one made in Venice!

Murano door knob, copyright Jann Huizenga

Bedroom After

My gaudy plastic chandelier lights up my life.

Chandelier from Coin (sort of an Italian Target)

Dogs bark in the distant canyons at night. Mornings I wake up to sunshine, gonging bells, and fluttering doves.

The room is still a work in progress. I’d love to hear if you have a design idea. And please don’t say “pull down that horrid chandelier.”


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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 11

May 29, 2010

I’ve cooked up the idea of installing in my kitchen a tile baseboard (called battiscopa, literally hit-broom) with a floral design. It’s going to be more than twice as high as a normal Sicilian baseboard.

When I explain my brilliant idea to the project manager, he knits his shaggy eyebrows into a scowl and gives his head a sad shake.

No, Gianna.”

I get a whiff of his strong aftershave.

Perché no?”  Why not?

He shoots me a look you might give a very slow learner.

“Non si fa in Sicilia.” It’s not done in Sicily.


I search for the right words. I tell him the ceiling is very high “e a me piace i fiori.” And to me pleases the flowers.

“Non si fa,” he repeats with steely authority. It’s simply not done.

Does he think one non-traditional battiscopa will throw the whole island out of whack?

This isn’t the first time I’ve run smack into the Wall of Tradition. Sicily is a culture that values the Old Way, the Way of Granny.

I adore this about the island, really I do. In fact, I’m restoring my house in the Way of Granny. Mostly. I’m preserving and enhancing whatever is old. The floor tiles I’ve chosen for the kitchen are traditional Sicilian ones made in Palermo. The floral tiles are also an old Sicilian motif.

But I just want to tweak things a bit here and there, add my own little spin.

In the end, I defy the project manager. The new stonemason masterfully installs the butterscotch-colored daisies while crooning Sicilian love songs.

“Beh, non e brutta,” the project manager concedes when he sees the battiscopa. “It’s not ugly.”

Sicilian Floor Tiles, Copyright Jann Huizenga


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Readers, can you help me? Will you consider voting for my Sicily photograph in the Islands Reader’s Choice poll? Here’s the link. The link will bring you to a photo I shot of a Sicilian woman in Capo Passero (in the extreme southeast corner of Sicily). You can vote by clicking on *My Favorite* underneath the photo. (I could win a photography course and you could win a camera!) GRAZIE MILLE! (To see thumbnails of all 22 photos in the competition, click this link.)

Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 8

April 26, 2010

Tragedy in the bathroom.

Remember those beastly expensive Italian glass tiles I naively ordered?

These are them, installed.

When I sprayed glass cleaner over my new sea-blue walls, wiping away the obscuring film of white plaster the mason had left, I could not believe my eyes. Not a single straight line! As if an ill-tempered four-year old had been hard at work.

How could I have allowed this to happen, you ask?

Well, early in the day, curiosity kept prompting me to run down two flights of stairs and check on the work. After 30 minutes of this, the mason said I made him nervous, and would I please go away and cease to bother him? The work is molto delicato, he said, and it is necessario to concentrate and be left solo.

And so away I went, full of cockeyed hope that I’d soon have a useable bathroom.

I returned to the house after two days, descended into the winery-cum-guest quarters and beheld anarchia. Thousands of tiny mosaic tiles stuck willy-nilly onto the wall. I felt like I’d been gored.

But I refused to face reality. Don’t panic, I told myself. It’s rustic. Rustic is good. It fits the theme of the wine cantina. Molto rustico! Charming in its own way. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?????

I called over a few friends to have a look. Horrid, they said, daring to utter the bald truth. Really horrid.

It doesn’t look bad from afar, though, does it? If you kind of … squint at it?

Now what do I do.


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Restoring a Damp House in Sicily, Part 5

March 20, 2010

Chink chink. Whack whack. Hammers bounce off chisels. Lumps of plaster drop like overripe fruit exposing ancient stones, ghosts of centuries past.

I’m giddy, over the moon. And look! A stone arch where an ugly closet used to be! I love going backward in time.

But like the Sicilian saying goes: Quantu cchiù autu è lu munti, tantu cchiù profunna è la valli, the higher the mountain, the deeper the valley.

Neighbors—a stocky elderly couple—knock at the door one day just after I’ve arrived back from Rome. “Signora, there’s a problema.” They seem agitated. “Come see.”

I follow them up a flight of steps into their home. The houses in Ragusa Ibla are fitted together like jigsaw pieces; neighbors live over me, under me, to the right and to the left. The couple waves arms around and jabbers in sync. What in God’s name are they pointing at?

When my eyes adjust to the semi-darkness, I see what must be dozens of cracks like spider legs crawling over the walls. Bad news indeed, but what do these blessed spider legs have to do with me?

“Signora, all the pounding away in your house has ruined our walls.”

For a minute the room lacks oxygen. Are these cracks really new? Sicily is on a fault line. This could have happened years ago. I want to bring up these ideas, but of course I don’t. Instead I say in a voice sharp as a prickly pear, “Let me speak to the project manager. We’ll resolve this.”

Things are getting tangled up. Cu’ havi terra, havi guerra, Sicilians say, owning land is like fighting a war.

What will this cost? I’m hemoragging cash. The dollar is at an all-time low. I consult with Sicilians in the know.

Mason: No way we could we have done that. Impossibile. You’d be a fool to pay a centesimo.

Friend 1: Sicilians see Americans as a giant slot machine. Don’t pay.

Project Manager: It’s possible we did cause the cracks. We’ll never know. Pay up. Keep the peace.

Friend 2: It’s extortion, pure and simple.

Have they typecast me? The lady with the American dollars? Have I destroyed their walls? Do I now have two houses to restore? What to do?

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