About ten years ago I came upon an opportunity to buy a small piece of property in the beautiful farming community of Bagnoregio, Italy. Having vacationed in this funny little town for several years, I’d made many friends of the locals and word of mouth is a powerful tool in small Italian towns. This can be a good thing and maybe not so good, at times. At any rate, I ended up with more than just a property. I ended up with an incredible tale that is not yet finished.
Farm valley of Bagnoregio
It will take much too long to tell the entire story here, so it will be told in increments, maybe 3, maybe 4, depending on just how far I get with this small amount of blogging space. It starts with my friend Carlo, a German immigrant who settled in the farm valley several decades earlier, becoming a local character with friends and business associates all over the regions of Lazio and Umbria. He’s the one that invited me to think about buying a property in Bagnoregio, as I was spending so much of my time there. He actually took me to see several properties, most needing much renovation. I wasn’t convinced I could afford to buy anything but he insisted there was something available that would suit me. And indeed, Carlo heard about two acres on a hill that an old farmer wanted to sell. So, we went to see it and after climbing up the driveway and coming to the top where the little building (an old stone “barn”) stood, taking in the captivating view which was breathtaking, I knew I wanted this place for my own.
There was no electricity or water, just a hand dug well, 50 olive trees and a sickly little vineyard. But I could see the entire farm valley and the Umbrian mountains, not to mention Civita Bagnoregio, the “dying” city, which sat high above it all. Carlo was sure that my closest neighbor who’s property backed up to this one would be happy to share utility lines for a small fee.
Old stone barn doors
The farmer, an ancient looking man who came twice daily to the land to care for the animals he raised, rabbits, goats and chickens, was tired and probably saw an easy way out of the daily trips in his little three wheeled truck that putted up and down the hill at 10 miles an hours.
The timing couldn’t have been better as the Italians were still using the lire and he asked just $12,000 for the property, plus a few costs for fees, etc. There are two “contracts” for selling or buying property in Italy, the first being the deposit which is determined by the two people in negotiations. The second contract is for the remaining balance and is executed anywhere from six to 12 months later.
End of first segment: You won’t want to miss the subsequent chapters! Especially the surprise ending!
OK, six months passes and I return to Italy for vacation, tour leading and to finish the sale of a lovely piece of agricultural property in Bagnoregio. If you recall, I had completed the first step in the process of the sale by paying a deposit of half the amount of the agreed upon price. The next step was to pay the balance and sign the paperwork, which would put the deed in my name. Sounds simple enough to me, most especially if one speaks fluent Italian (which at that time I did not)! I would spend the better part of a day regretting that “infraction”, if not several others.
Did I mention that the whole family showed up wearing, again, their “Sunday best”? Yes, and it was clean, pressed and vintage mid-century, same as the first meeting. And of course, everyone was talking all at once with instructions for seating, routes, and who knows what else, as I was still struggling to understand Italian. I was fortunate enough to have mama and her sisters in my car, with not word of English between them, shouting louder and louder at me in hopes that I would understand what they were saying by raising their voices ever higher. “Capice? Capice? That, I understood and my answer was continuously, “no, non capisco, mi dispiace”………or in English: “Do you understand? No, I do not understand, sorry. And I’m not even sure that was the correct Italian response!
So needless to say, after trying to navigate the two lane road, find Italian translations in my rattled brain and doubting my decision to own this beautiful two and half acres of farmland, I was a bit frazzled and had a pounding headache when we arrived. But reminding myself I has more than half-way through the process I just kept telling myself it would be over soon. In retrospect, which is always so much more fun to ponder later, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. It’s one of those events that sticks out in my memory as an unbelievable piece of theater that could not have been fabricated had someone tried.
The end of Chapter Three in this epic saga left me with my chin on the floor and my heart somewhere south of it’s usual resting place! I had just been told by one of the relatives of the couple I was purchasing a piece of property from that she would not sign the paperwork making me owner. Everyone else around the table had already put their “John Hancock” on the contract and she had crossed her arms emphatically stating, “no escrito”!
Viterbo, Lazio, ItalyThere was much clucking and cross talk at this point from all the others at the table. Why? The notaio (para-legal) finally got someone to clarify the big question of why she would not sign and evidently it was just that she indeed, did not write (escrito). She was illiterate, as some of the older generation in small villages still are. I proffered suggestions such as making a mark on the page, an X possibly, but apparently that was either not understood or was not legal.
After some twenty minutes of much conversation in which everyone spoke at once, seeming not to listen to one another, decisions was made! The county clerk would go to lunch! After that a power of attorney would be drawn up for one of the other relatives to make a signature. Oh and did I mention that none of us were included in the lunch plans. Since the farmer’s family was not accustomed to being in the “city” or going out to restaurants to eat, we just sat around the table for two hours waiting for the clerk to come back. I had no idea how long the clerk would actually be gone and I was determined to wait it out with the rest of the family. They were very kind to me, shouting in Italian to ask if I needed the bagno (bathroom). That I understood! I’m not sure how I made it through those two hours but at long last the clerk returned with new paperwork and his hunger satiated, while my stomach gurgled and groaned about being so empty. (In hindsight I know I could have gone to eat, but not knowing all the protocol regarding the family and the fact that some had ridden in the car with me, I opted to wait it out with them rather than add another ding to my already tarnished reputation. They had previously made clear that my poor language skills defined a major character flaw, from their viewpoint.)
A beautiful day for a drive in the country!Great! We made it through the lunch hours, the clerk returns with the correct paperwork to complete the transaction, signatures are captured, the last of the money is exchanged and safely tucked into the patriarch’s mid-century sport coat. I am the proud new owner of two acres, fifty olive trees, a very sick little vineyard and a gorgeous view!!! We are all smiling and shaking hands and it’s time to return to Bagnoregio with the same amount of shouting and berating of me about my poor language skills as on the drive earlier. But this drive is much easier for me for I am now through the difficult part of this whole event. Or so I thought. Oh you thought this was the last chapter?
So, once we settle on a price for the property we must hire a “notaio”, a sort of para-legal professional, who handles the creation and filing of contracts between the buyer and seller. Bruno was a handsome, shy Italian man in his late thirties with an office in the center of Bagnoregio. He spoke about as much English as I spoke Italian which meant we needed my friend Carlo to interpret for us. That worked well up until the day I was to meet with the farmer and his wife, to sign documents for the first of the two contracts needed for completing the deal. Carlo had his own business to conduct that day and was not available so I joined Bruno and the sellers at Bruno’s office.
This couple who looked quite ancient to me, were probably not much more than 65 years old. But they had not lived an easy life. In fact, the husband had come from a family noted to be the last “cave dwellers” of this little town because during the second world war they were so poor they had lived in one of the numerous Etruscan caves in the valley. Had he not married up, so to speak, he would not have had any land for sale to begin with. Neither the farmer or his wife spoke any English and they were a bit indignant that my Italian was so poor, saying (through Bruno’s struggling English interpretation and many hand gestures) that it was imperative for me to learn their language if I was to be a landowner in Bagnoregio. I smiled, nodded and promised to do just that, but for the moment I wanted to get through this torturous meeting, sign documents and hand over the enormous stack of lire I had stashed in my bag.
When Bruno brought out the city plans that showed the property and its boundaries we discovered that there was also another detached piece of the sale in a different part of town that went with the package (it took half an hour with much hand and arm waving to convey all this to me), which to this day I’ve not seen. However, I do know that it has quite a few very old chestnut trees on it and it’s not much bigger than a good sized RV. Oh well, finding that is on my bucket list as I’m sure it’s just another small adventure.
After about an hour of me listening to the Italians speak Italian and catching maybe 1% of what was being said, my paranoia set in. What the hell was I doing here, trying to buy property so far from home? In a language I couldn’t really speak or understand? And what if I had missed some important details or what if they were all just conspiring to rip me off? No, no, no, I told myself, that is not the case and I have $6000 in Lire in my bag so just do it, as Nike prompts. When it came time to hand over the loot, I counted out pile after pile of tiny lire. Do you know how many lire it takes to make $6000? And then, the farmer, his wife and I sign documents and he proceeds to pack all the money into his vintage sport jacket, circa 1952. Yes, the couple had come dressed to the nines in their very best Sunday clothes, clean, perfectly pressed and from another era altogether. I failed to mention that I felt as though I had stepped into a Fellini film, which continued to be fun for another year or so.
The next step in the process of signing the “first” as the contract was referred to and after handing over the money, was to walk over to the farmer’s town home and have a celebratory drink, though it was only 11:30 in the morning. Hey, what the heck, I’m in Italy and I just bought property. And yes, the farmer’s jacket was bulging with my lire but he didn’t seem the least bit concerned as we walked through the little village to their home for a little mid-day apertivo and toast to ourselves. Little did I realize that this was only the beginning of a story that is unfinished today, eight years later! Stay tuned for another chapter in June.
It occurs to me that this tale may not be finished before the end of the year! In fact, even if I choose to end it on this blog, there are still ongoing subtexts that I am working on. But then, since this is all taking place in Italy, it’s no surprise that the story will have a beginning, middle and possibly no ending in the near future. And, as I have adopted the Italian attitude about such things, I’ll just continue to practice my patience.
late afternoon in Bagnoregio, ItalyNow, where were we? Oh yes, back home in Bagnoregio, dropping off the family I purchased the property from after signing the final contract and handing over the last payment. To be honest, I’m a little vague on the rest of that day as the morning was quite taxing. I know I finally got some lunch and later that evening there was a celebratory dinner with friends. There is a foggy image of me shaking my head, telling the story from the previous chapter about how the day went and then sleep!
I made phone calls home to family and a friend about the conclusion of the sale. Then, before returning home later in the week, I started asking around about contractor’s who might help me construct a small house. The little stone barn that stood there, at least one hundred years old, was simple, strong and built in the style of the valley. It’s red tile roof, new in the last few years, was a stark contrast to the stones it was built of, which were all taken from the surrounding land. About 200 square feet, it was the size of a small bedroom so I would need to add another bedroom, bath, and great-room/kitchen. That was as much of a house as the spot it stood on could take. I wanted to leave the fifty olive trees intact and not change the landscape much, so it would maintain its rustic aura, which I had fallen in love with almost two years earlier.
Red tile roofAnd rather quickly I got a message from someone who claimed to be a contractor in the area and he wanted to have a lunch meeting. After doing a little homework I found out that he indeed was a local contractor who had moved to the area recently from Rome. We arranged to have lunch and I brought along another friend, Carlo, who could translate if need be. It turned out that Carlo and the contractor, Angelo knew one another as they had done some business together previously. We talked about what I wanted, what it might cost and how long it would take to build after getting permits. The part about permits brought on a huge fit of laughter from the two men. Apparently, that particular agricultural valley was not easy to build in, though not impossible. There would be some negotiations with the commune (city) that had to happen. But I was assured it would be no problem and all I had to do was hand over a pile of money, just a deposit to start, so Angelo could get started grading, etc.
I told him I would be back in a few months and would take care of the deposit once I saw the plans. We agreed to meet when I returned. Stay tuned for the building of the house in the next chapter!!!