When my husband Jesse decides he wants something, there is no stopping him. I’m lucky I happened to be in his path when he decided to get himself a wife. After we’d spent a summer vacation looking at houses to buy in Le Marche, Jesse was determined to go back to Italy that next January and decide if one of the two properties to which we’d narrowed our search was right for us. I had to stay at home to maintain a routine for our young daughter Sophie who was 8 at the time, so Jesse was on his own to make some big choices and negotiate a house for us.
He’d set up some tentative meetings with Hannah and her husband Mick, a lovely young British couple who were renovating a house in our town, and had ties to the phantom British real estate agent I mentioned in the beginnings of our search. They knew some key locals ̶ the engineer Pasquale, who would ultimately design and oversee the construction of our house (as well as become one of our dearest friends), and another British ex-pat couple, Corinna and James, who also owned a house in the town and appeared to be representing some other properties in the vicinity.
Jesse arrived in Ancona on a gray, foggy January day, and drove his rented Nissan Micra to our town. He tried to get a room at the San Carlo Hotel down the hill, where we’d once had a superb steak dinner, but in this desolately off-season, no one showed up at the check-in desk. So he cruised back down the main road to a nearby village where the local hotel, Beppe e Lucinda, welcomed its guests with a one-story Eiffel Tower in the empty field adjacent to their parking lot. Off-season it was indeed, and Jesse hit the jackpot, nabbing the bridal suite ̶ complete with pink sheets, lace hearts, ruffles and perfume ̶ for the price of a single room! He lasted about three nights before moving back into town for a Spartan room over the bar.
On that first night’s dinner in our town’s pizzeria, Jesse heard guests speaking English and, on a hunch that this might be the Corinna and James he’d contacted, introduced himself. They chatted about Italy, Italians and living abroad, hit it off, and arranged to meet in the next days.
The first stop in the search was at Casa Flaminia, which we’d seen the summer before. It was smallish but seemed to have potential, with a small building attached to the main house that would make a cozy guest studio. Both Pasquale and James met him there and they spent a few hours examining the house and grounds and discussing the options for renovation. This was also the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Pasquale and Corinna and James, all three having a deep appreciation for the land, the town, the traditions of these old farm houses, seeing the potential in bringing them back to life.
The next stop was Casa Pulito, a property adjacent to the agriturismo that had become our second home, if you hopped a fence and followed a path through the woods. This labyrinthine house had an interesting layout that was roomy and strange, with several fireplaces in odd spots, half staircases, out buildings, multiple doors. When Michele, owner of the agriturismo, brought his geometra, a friendly and relaxed local professional named Marcello, to see Casa Pulito, Marcello had some important information. He’d done the mapping of the house, knew it was a two-family home, and if it was for sale at all, he thought only half of it was available, thus explaining the house’s complicated layout. He also gave us our first glimpse into Italian inheritance law, by explaining that the house had been passed down to a slew of cousins and aunts, they were all feuding with one another and any kind of business transaction would be highly complex. All we knew was we’d heard a fairly reasonable price for the house that past summer, but once the owners knew some Americans were interested, the price had more than doubled.
Pasquale showed Jesse a few other houses he knew about close to the town, some adjacent to his land. All were seriously run down, some had potential to become really interesting dwellings, especially given the vision and creativity of Pasquale, who, as a gifted engineer, saw no obstacles in joining buildings, making roads where none existed, exploiting the virtues of these old edifices. In addition, Pasquale had grown up there and had a busy career in the area ̶ he was familiar with the local building and construction codes and regolamenti. So his ideas were always within the limits of what could and couldn’t be done.
The rugged, woodsman geometra whom we’d met the summer past who’d hurtled us around the province in his Jeep to houses of dubious ownership, also showed Jesse a few more on this trip. But once again, he didn’t know if these properties were really for sale, their prices, how to get in, and they were generally in brambled, untamed areas ̶ too overgrown to really see their merits, though most had stunning views.
The following day, Jesse met with Corinna and James who showed him two or three houses that Corinna was rep’ing. She had a fervent love for this area and the elderly people who’d lived there for generations. Many of these “salt of the earth” cittadini were still working small patches of their land, but had grown too old to really cultivate their properties, and their children weren’t interested. The younger generation had moved to larger cities, either in Italy or abroad, to find jobs. I think Corinna felt that finding buyers for the portions of these older properties that the owners could no longer care for would not only bring new life to the old houses and surrounding land, but also provide the elderly owners with an unexpected cash bonus they could surely use to make their golden years more comfortable.
The three of them had lunch together and a bottle of the local Rosso Conero at Corinna and James’ house. They are both artists and were renovating their house as James had time. They now had electricity and plumbing, after having moved in without it. Their beautiful aesthetic permeated every inch of this house, from their artfully threadbare chartreuse silk couch to the simple bathroom fixtures James had created and installed. Over the years, we watched the house fill with James’ astounding artwork and witnessed the evolution of an elegant work in progress.
I think this lunch they had together was a kind of audition for Jesse ̶ to make sure he really respected this traditional country life in Italy and to make sure he was a genuine mensch. Because after lunch, Corinna and James showed him the house that would eventually make us fairly close neighbors. Up the hill from their house, around the bend and down a steep tractor path was an old, dilapidated farmhouse, half covered by gnarly vines and guarded by an immense oak tree. Rounding the corner of the house was a double-door sized entrance, wide open of course, to what would have been the animals’ quarters. Dirt floor, an old wooden cart with iron fittings, a trough across the long side of the room, a cute pighouse down the slope from the main house with four picket fence gates to keep the pigs in their respective stalls ̶ these were just a few of the property’s many endearing details.
The house resonated immediately with Jesse. In addition to the house’s own simplicity, its position synchronized the structure with the land. It was midway down the valley with views of the Sibillini Mountains to the southwest and 360 degree views of cliffs, woods, manicured farmland, an olive grove, grapevines across the way, a few houses here and there, but none close enough to really impose.
Over the next few days, Jesse spent a lot of time there ̶ alone, with James and Corinna, with Pasquale, who pronounced it “a good house ̶ very traditional.” Jesse took countless photos and made long virtual video tours to bring back to Sophie and me. Nature had done its best to re-integrate this house into the landscape. Tangled vines had entered the house through many of the windows, stone walls and stairs were crumbling and dangerous, big chunks of the roof had collapsed, bats and lizards had taken up residence, fallen trees were lying in what might one day be the den. But somehow this house and its relationship to the land fomented a vision.
Now here’s where the family lore is in dispute. I swear that there were photos of this house on Corinna’s website which I saw before Jesse left on this trip, and I said, “That’s going to be the one ̶ look at that one”. Jesse doesn’t remember any photos, nor does Corinna. I guess we all want to claim prescience for knowing this would become our little slice of paradise. Regardless, when we saw all the photos and videos upon Jesse’s return, we three agreed, sight unseen, this was going to be our house.
Next installment…Il Compromesso!