Having lived in London for many years – trudging in and out of rented shoeboxes, from Bloomsbury to Brixton to Kilburn – there are rules one becomes accustomed to, topped up by the overarching knowledge that all estate agents are unanimously and unashamedly detested.
In Italy, I’ve met nothing but charming landlords. (My landlady shimmers around wearing top to toe beige and pearls.) I have discovered Italians lay great store in signing lists of paper – also known as documenti as they insist on calling them. It’s like an age old nod to the notion of honour, and each landlord will have their own way of doing it: some via email, some via letter, some via…fax. YES THERE ARE STILL SOME FAX MACHINES HERE.
My understanding is the more documents floating about generally suggests the hope that the government will conveniently stay out of matters. I like paper, but since arriving in Italy I have contratti overflowing out of baskets, on top of the fridge, rustling in underwear drawers, under my bed. I even find them tucked in books as spontaneous one-time bookmarks.
A few months ago, I moved into a charming, if rattly, not-so-modern apartment in the historical centre of Padova. I quickly got to know the local plumber or idraulico Riccardo, who my mum met and compared animatedly to Zeus – and Florido the construction worker.
There was quite a lot that needed fixing – Riccardo and Florido now help themselves to coffee as they go about fixing pretty much everything that should have a function: radiators, boiler, cupboards with half a door. I learn something new about the city every time Riccardo visits; exclaiming wildly with his large hands that at the end of the tram line there is a small chapel lined with renowned early-14th century frescoes.
Moving into an Italian apartment was a peculiar experience, and I’d like to share a few things that surprised me.
1. I was overjoyed to see I have what can only be described as a ‘barely-there-bath’
My mother is the queen of baths: morning or night, five minute dips. As a child, the sound of running bathwater was wonderfully familiar.
My own fault then to hope I too could find a place with a big basin of bubbles. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting a white, lagoon free-standing tub or a cream, enamel pool-bath – something modest.
But mine is not quite a bath. It wants to be – I know it does – but it isn’t. It’s an odd ‘barely-there-half-bath’, as if the person responsible was irrevocably distracted by a bird on the windowsill and forgot to build the other half.
And that’s not it. Rather excitingly, I was told someone needed to – il prima possible – rip out a fig tree that was vigorously protruding its way through the bathroom wall. Perhaps it heard a rumour of the ‘barely-there-bath’ and wanted to see if it was true.
The fig tree – my first and last – was promptly sliced away before the inevitable springtime growth surge – now I’ll have no fresh figs this summer – and still a ‘barely-there-bath’.
2. Various keys that don’t do anything
I feel like a janitor to a secret building, laden as I am with at least three keys that don’t seem to do anything. They simply don’t apply to any door in the palazzo. I’ve checked with my estate agent, the landlady and generally strangers I pass on the palazzo steps, waving them absentmindedly in their faces – to no avail.
They are orphan keys. They hang happily next to my actual apartment keys. Are they for the post box? No. The grim-looking cupboard half way up the stairs? No. The solaio, the attic? Nope. Convinced they will be of the utmost importance before I leave, I eye them on my way in and out, the child in me hoping that they’ll unlock some unknown, secret world when I need it most.
3. A dangling chandelier
Don’t you just love chandeliers? One of the interior touches that caught my eye was a black chandelier hanging from the ceiling – not embellished by dripping, handmade globules of Murano glass – just simple (probably Ikea.)
Sadly, I mean, obviously – none of the lightbulbs worked. But while my boyfriend sweetly replaced them, I admired the eccentric black and white tiles in the hallway, sunbeam smattered and airy living room spilling over the terrace through flowing, white curtains, the view of pink, stucco fronted palazzos – it was as close to a luxury apartment I could get.
Maybe the agente immobiliare cashed in on the fact that if something is beautiful, it doesn’t mean it needs to function.
5. To clean or not to clean?
In London, you’ll be hung, drawn and quartered – twice – if you fail to professionally clean your flat before leaving it. Woe betide you if so much as a splodge is found on the kitchen surface. Absolutely leave a shiny invoice of proof for the beady eyed estate agent whose sole purpose in life is to cause as much anguish for you as is feasibly possible.
It was odd then moving into the apartment to find it noticeably unclean. Sticky. The following weekend was spent scrubbing, brushing, bleaching to within an inch of my life, American Psycho‘s Patrick Bateman would’ve have been proud.
6. Plant presents
The lady who previously lived in the flat left me a delightful selection of surprise plants on the terrace: a pointy Aloe Vera and a miniature, darling peach tree where promising buds are just peeking their way into the world again. Perhaps she couldn’t be bothered to haul them down the three flights of stairs. Or perhaps she was feeling generous and inspired to leave a homely trace especially for me.
During winter, my terrace was a rather desolate: a ‘graveyard for plants’ I was rudely informed.
I popped onto the chilly terrace every now and then to rearrange and poke at the plants. Wondering how I manage to simultaneously neglect and overindulge them with water.
Now that spring is here, I’m thrilled to see the peach tree is alive, (hurrah!) but my Ikea Dracaena Marginata couldn’t look more dead. Am I allowed to blame Ikea for that one?
Anyway, the ex-tenant left a colourful welcome letter sprinkled with spontaneity and kindness that made a nice change to a grim invoice. Now that’s the kind of document I’ll treasure and store safely away.