November 10, 2014

Crazy Year!

The holidays rising right up before us will pass in a blur at our house. Although the restoration of Bramasole is not yet over, in October we launched a big project at Chatwood, our farm house in North Carolina.  I hope never again to hear the expression “can of worms,” which amplified here to “exploding can of worms.”  All I really wanted was a kitchen to replace the weird L-shaped narrow one that we currently maneuver.  A 1930s sunroom along the back of the house, with a wide and close view of the garden, seemed ideal for transformation. It has leaky windows, an ugly floor, and is too narrow for any good arrangement of furniture.  Double the size, we thought, and there’s a dynamite greenhouse kitchen right off the big living room.  The current kitchen, with the panty knocked out, could become a bedroom.  And we want to insulate this old board house which is impossible to heat well.  We decided on geothermal. After many meetings with Fred, our architect friend, and the preservation committee, we gained approval. Restoration stories! They all have the same narrative threads running through them! I’ll cut this short.  What is happening is that all the stabilizing work that must precede the dream kitchen and bedroom, is draining the coffers so fast that we may end up with a completely solid house–but no new project!  The estimates were, for us, over the moon. And so much to do to prepare. First, asbestos all over the basement. (No mention in inspection report.) A crew in hazmat, with a guard, spent a week sawing pipes–loud–and running huge filter fans and shaking the house. Then, to install the geothermal and ducts, a huge basement excavation began and it’s still going on. Three men running wheelbarrows of red dirt to a huge berm that’s growing in the front yard. They’re into the second week of that. It’s like tunneling with a spoon for a jail escape. I can’t believe how good natured and cheerful they are.  Forgot to mention, we took out an internal chimney that ran through the kitchen and attic (hence the awkward L). It was a 40s vent for the basement boiler that must have been a relic of the industrial revolution. When the chimney came out of the attic, we decided to put a dormer in the roof, matching the dormer on the other side of the room. Soon the attic will be an almost-room, a secret reading spot.  I loved finding the pegged beams at the peak and the Roman numerals on each beam along the roof peak.


The new roof is next. Off it comes so that insulation can be installed underneath.  The new one will be weathered zinc metal, replacing what Ed calls “”urp-colored asphalt shingles.” Then painting. Of course, of course, there are layers of lead-based paint, so welcome back the hazmat suits.  What insulation there is in the attic just won’t do and must be sucked out. Basta!  Enough!  Suffice to say that our days are full, the satisfaction of preparing the house for the next hundred years is great, and that we can’t wait for it to end. And Bramasole, too should be drawing to a close in the next couple of months, leaving us with–again–a healthy and solid house.  Much of this, though, is like buying a new washing machine. Not fun like a new painting or sofa, just invisible, virtuous improvement. There are morals there but I’m not inclined to pursue them, as I would prefer the greenhouse kitchen!  

I haven’t seen Bramasole in six weeks. The stone masons there must have been beamed in from the renaissance–they are masters of their craft, patient, and proud. Their work is gorgeous, whether brick or stone.

September in Italy is sublime–the most dependably serene weather, with one golden day piling onto the next.  The highlight of our six weeks was an intimate dinner at Villa Taverna, the American embassy residence in Rome, and getting to know our terrific ambassador John Phillips and his super wife, Linda Douglas. We were invited to stay overnight and were given the presidential suite! All the American presidents have stayed there, most recently Barack Obama, and it was such a thrill to lay my head on the pillow that so many world leaders must have dreamed on.  The villa is ensconced in formal gardens, where wandering late, you might hear the distant roar of a lion from the zoo at Villa Borghese. Full of art and southern Italian tile floors and courtyard light, it’s a fine residence for the American ambassadors. May I have his job when he’s finished with it?  I took a few pictures but I guess it would be tacky to post them.

Returning to the chaos of Bramasole, we felt full of energy and excitement and started up immediately on finishing the plans for the new kitchen there.  We took another short trip to Florence, which just keeps getting better and better. If you go, do visit the new second floor of the Mercato Centrale, now a chic and contemporary haven for artisan bakers, vintners, and all things food! Many more streets are closed to cars, prompting a revival of bicycles with Italian drivers. Watch out! I also recommend a visit to the newly revamped Richard Ginori store on via Tornabuoni. Dazzling!

For the first time, we are not in Italy for the olive harvest. You might have read that 2014 is a tough year for olive oil. A heat wave in May blasted the teeny developing flowers and they fell. Many people are not even harvesting. We have a protected grove and were somewhat spared. Fabio and friends brought in the oil for us, since we had to get back to NC. Our mill just shipped us a few cans, so we are already tasting the crisp fall air of Tuscany, the green goodness, and the spicy after-bite of just-pressed  oil. Nothing like it! First use–a pan of vegetables tossed with olive oil, salt, and fennel seeds, then roasted.  Great with Ed’s stuffed pork roast, and leftovers go happily into a pasta sauce.

Next year I plan to be on the other side of renovations and to post only about travel, books, gardens, food! All the fun things our homes are backgrounds for. My attic will be orderly, the garage pristine, the house warm, and the basement free of snake holes and possum nests. I will make peace with my L-shaped kitchen and find a comfortable chair and lamp for the attic dormer where I can plot a writing project.  Oh, writing! I almost forgot about that.  Time to forge ahead into blank white pages.

Instead of the bountiful, laden table I’m used to, our just-family feast will be Julia’s beef bourguignon followed by a stroll along Hillsborough’s new Riverwalk. Ed will be heading to Italy soon after; I will stay to supervise here. What a crazy year.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

PS–The November issue of OUR STATE magazine has a huge section on the charms of Hillsborough. I wrote a short ode that’s included, too.