Thursday 6 March 2008

Italian builders

Working with builders when I first arrived in the Cortona area seven years ago proved to be a real eye-opener, especially language wise, as well as a sharp cultural learning curve. Nothing prepared me for the complexities of the Italian cantiere, or for the laughs that were to be had therein. Having first learnt Italian over in the western half of Tuscany, and grown used to certain inflexions, I found myself thrown mercilessly into the world of Umbrian builders who, to put it delicately, did not speak quite the same language that I was used to. Particularly difficult to get used to were phone calls to builders, where at first much of the content passed over my head in a blur of Umbrian drawl and local dialectic. Once I discovered that there were at least half a dozen words for any one thing on a building site, depending on where the builder hailed from, I was able to get to grips somewhat more quickly. On the opposite end of the linguistic spectrum was the technical jargon that made up the Computo Metrico Estimativo (building quote), that made me come over quite faint when I was first presented with one for translation. Any readers who have ever had occasion to read through one of these tomes will hopefully empathise. Certain of the riper phrases that I picked up on building sites, and later tried out on unsuspecting neighbours and colleagues, were normally greeted with the Italian equivalent of “one does not say that in polite company”. So I soon learnt to store these tit bits of rudeness into my mental Italian thesaurus, saving them gleefully for occasions when dismay and/or irritation needed to be fully aired in one’s best colloquial vocabulary.

In my experience both British and Italian building sites tend to be similar in terms of the language one expects to hear, although I don’t think you would find your local bricky bringing every animal under the sun (and the Madonna’s virtue) into question with the quite the same regularity that his Italian counterparts do. There is, however, one factor that very definitely sets apart the two cultures and that is: LUNCH. By and large the Italians take as much pride and care when eating on a building site as they might do at home for Sunday lunch with the family. I have seen all manner of makeshift kitchens cobbled together from ancient fridges and gas stoves, tables made simply from building blocks and scaffold planking. Depending on the state of the house they are working on, the building crew might even be lucky enough to set up camp in a room with a fireplace, ensuring even more salubrious surroundings than usual. No matter that there might not be a roof on the house, or that Arctic winds are blasting through the windowless openings, making any work a misery; as long as there is a sealable room on the premises, it will become the canteen.

Not a cheese and pickle sandwich in sight, or a mug of hot tea or a can of Coke. These guys do the whole show, the full monty; antipasti, primi and secondi, local wine and freshly brewed coffee to wrap up, as well as a grappa, obviously. One of my best memories from my years of restoring houses was a particularly whopper lunch that took place one day in the old kitchen of a house undergoing a full restoration. As I recall it was the only room on the first floor that actually had a floor at the time, so some care needed to be taken to avoid walking through the wrong doorways. Taking pride of place on the makeshift table was a whole spit-roasted piglet, ordered the previous day from a chap with a local monopoly on such things. Bruschetta with home-grown olive oil to start; spaghetti with aglio, olio e peperoncino to follow; rounded off with the fennel and rosemary stuffed porchetta with a side dish of spinach. All washed down with copious quantities of that hairs-on-your-chest type of local red wine, sipped from plastic cups, seated on dusty building blocks or bags of cement, enjoying the sun through the window and generally wondering if I would achieve any more work for the rest of the day. How could you beat that? One did have to wonder how accurately the walls and floors could possibly be constructed after such an indulgent feast at this hour, as well as hoping the builders had the nimble footing necessary for the dizzying heights of the four storey roof construction, but somehow they always did manage it. With this in mind, I wandered off to nurse my full stomach in peace and leave the experts to get on with the real work.

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