The boxes we live in

It was lovely, darlings, just wonderful. Our jet aircraft deposited us at Rome’s charming airport, where our driver Sergio was waiting. He deposited our luggage in the boot, and we were off to our enchanted mountaintop. Francesca, our longtime family retainer, was waiting for us with ice cold Grechetto white wine from our neighbor, The Count’s, vineyards. The servants took care of our wardrobes while Katherine and i sat under the pergola, observing our little paradise, sipping our wine and nibbling on Francesca’s scrumptious tidbits. The salumi! The cheeses! I was utterly intoxicated. The scents of wisteria and jasmine perfumed the ……

————————-SCRATCH THAT

Sorry. I was indulging in an Under the Tuscan Sun kind of reverie. I see lots of that in real estate ads here that cater to foreigners, especiallly impressionable British and American people looking for that perfect villa getaway. Hey, it’s a nice fantasy.

Probably because we were forced to stay at home for more than a year because of the pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about shelter. Perversely, while I’m a homebody—too lazy to rouse myself to go out much—I was fairly indifferent to the particulars of that home. It just has to be in a decent neighborhood and give me enough space and comfort for when I got home from the newsroom that was my daytime hangout.

But a kitchen renovation some years ago, some homebuying and hours of HGTV during lockdown got me thinking a lot about what The Spartan Woman and I like and have done. And I realize that a lot of what we go for has a lot to do with the culture we were brought up in and, for better or worse, that indulgent children of the ’70s thing that’s shaped a lot of our moves, from career to food to dwellings.

I’ll admit that I’m a fan of House Hunters International. I like to see what housing looks like for normal, non N.Y. Times real estate section buyers. And yeah, it’s always funny when the couple frowns at stuff like small refrigerators or washing machines in the kitchen, both common features in European homes.

It seems that the biggest conflict among couples is whether a property is full of old country charm or modern design and conveniences. I come down on the modern side, and I’ll tell you why. For me, the charm thing is overrated, and all too often old houses and apartments can just be dark and depressing. And when I say modern, I don’t mean corporate modern. There are lots of ways a space can be comfortable, individual, funky even, yet up to date. Look at the boutique hotels in Barcelona and Brooklyn.

When we went house hunting a few years ago, we unwittingly did our own version of House Hunters. We saw three very distinct properties. One was a gracious country home that had seen better days. And the listing deceptively left out an attached small home, complete with chicken coop and chickens. (“You don’t have to worry about them; the owner comes by to feed them every day,” said one of the owners to us in Italian.)

Another was an odd, smallish house on a plateau above a town. To get there from the nearest city, you have to drive through Italy’s equivalent of Anyroad USA, with car dealerships, gardening centers and supermarkets. Oh, and a huge prison and a long rutted dirt road. The last was a house perched on a hill in a green rural place, with a stupendous view across a valley and to the mountains—and, crucially, space for the pool that we’d long dreamed about having. It had two connected apartments, the upstairs one like a modern city dwelling and downstairs a slightly more rustic look.

We opted for number 3 (above, the day we first saw it).

The old world charm.

Part of the reason was that we already had a tiny place with Olde World Charme. Years ago, when it was obvious that we were putting too much of a strain on the sweet friends who put us up in Perugia, we bought our training wheels, a small apartment in their neighborhood. It was a new space in a very old building, the earliest parts that date to the 12th century according to our building neighbor-historian. The builders kept as much of the old detail that they could, including timbered ceilings and brick arches. The big kitchen ceiling timber is so old that it broke a couple of drill bits when we installed track lighting.

Another is the house on Staten Island that we’ve lived in since the mid-’90s. It’s over 90 years old and it has lots of period detailing and period plaster and lath walls. The Italian house’s clean straight walls and ceilings appealed to us, as did the big windows, which give us a lot of light and great views of the surrounding landscape. We did some updating to the systems, but by and large when we’re here we’re in a fairly sparse, spacious modern space. It contrasts nicely with the rustic outdoors, the fruit trees and mountains views, not to mention the flock of sheep that roam these hills.

So if you want to visit us and indulge that Italian country fantasy, we’ll put you up in the ground level apartment, which has more of a rustic air. There’s a big, bright kitchen with more traditional look. (Upstairs we opted for that modern Euro laboratory kitchen style.) We’ll spend a lot of time outside anyway; we’ve got a nice garden table and comfy chairs.

We’re not alone. Local friends of ours built a home for themselves a couple of years ago, and it’s a modern off the grid paradise. Solar panels heat the house and supply electricity, while a cistern gathers rainwater for their olive trees. They took what could have been a loggia and turned it into a thoroughly modern glassed-in kitchen with tremendous views of the valley and hills on the other side. We can practically wave to each other across the valley. (A high-powered telescope would help…) They cook on an induction range, and sleek built-ins hold their media devices.

I guess while visitors get charm we locals go for the new stuff. It makes sense—if you’re on vacation, you choose something different from your everyday environment. But living somewhere everyday, light, space and convenience trump romantic notions of a place.

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