Monday, August 7, 2017

The Gingerbread House

Once upon a time, there was a house on the top of a high hill in Italy.  The surroundings 
were spectacular, so beautiful that they cast a sort of enchantment on the place, and on the ability to view it realistically.  It created an almost insurmountable desire to just stay there and look at the constantly changing light and shadow on the wonderful landscape.

The house was actually two houses, one the family home of the owners, and the second a building that had been converted into two apartments, upstairs and downstairs.  The buildings looked quite charming, and all around, of course, was the incredible landscape and the quiet of an isolated location surrounded by nature.

Ahhhh, things are not always what they seem…

The houses belonged to an old acquaintance of my partner, or actually, to her husband.  They had not really been in touch over the years except for a few casual meetings, but when Lucretia (as we will call her) heard that we were looking for a house to rent, she got in touch.

She is a very attractive woman for her age (50), and was very charming, smiling all the time, and expressing great interest in our needs. We could rent one apartment, ground floor, and use some of the outbuildings or sheds for the dogs.  There was a great deal of land around, we could make yards, kennels, no problem.  There was a lot of junk around, her husband was one of those people who believed that everything could possibly be of use at some time, and so collected all the discards of everyone and piled it up around the property.  There were stacks of all sorts of old building materials, broken furniture, lumber, window frames, old doors – you name it, and probably you could find it.  But we could see that with some clean up, the place had great potential.

Her husband, Giovanni, was dying, she told us.  He had a cancer of the brain, which was incurable, although various treatments had been tried.  She needed help caring for the animals and the place, so was interested in renting the apartment.  The upstairs apartment was being reserved for the person who would have to take care of Giovanni when he was not able to function anymore.

Once he was dead, the junk could be taken care of…

She promised us plenty of space for the dogs, and her help in finding some work with the dogs with children's groups, something I had done in the past and was very interested in continuing to do.

We should have been more careful, we should have asked more questions, we should have inspected everything more thoroughly….but like little Hansel and Gretel, we were tempted and seduced by the smiles, the wonderful scenery, and the idea that the little apartment would later be expanded, the junk gotten rid of, and there would be plenty of room for the dogs.  

So we moved in.  It worked out that we moved at the worst possible time of the year, November, when everything was cold, gray, damp, and uncomfortable.  There was incredible fog, like I had never seen before – when you looked out over the landscape, the fog looked like a sea, with the tops of the hills sticking out like islands.  It was often wet and rainy, enough to turn the strange local ground into thick and sticky mud, that clung to everything and turned to heavy dust when it dried.  We were very cramped in the tiny house, as all the dogs were inside with us.  Although we had been promised use of outbuildings to make kennels for the dogs, and the possibility of putting up prefab kennels next to the house, the area that actually we were allowed to use was much less than we had been expecting, and the fence around the yard was not yet finished either.  So the house was in fact more of a kennel, and there was a constant battle against the mud and dust – which we usually lost…The house was heated with a wood burning furnace that was connected to both houses, and there was also plenty of hot water.  But there were few other amenities.
Living in the house gave us a different viewpoint than we had when we first came to see it.  The ceilings were very low, the insulation was very poor, the living room had no windows at all, and it was very cold if the furnace was not on.  There was no connection for the television, the phone reception was not reliable, and the wifi was really our only connection to the world.

The house actually was very strange.  It was almost completely paneled in wood, but obviously the work had not been done by professional experts.  The construction seemed to have been done in a strange way, without proper insulation, so there was constantly a drizzle of dust and other unidentified materials falling through the cracks in the ceiling and accumulating everywhere.  The doors didn't really fit properly, so according to the weather, sometimes they closed and sometimes they didn't, swinging open of their own accord.  The pipes for the radiators were not in the walls but rather haphazardly crisscrossing the rooms.  I don't think the apartment would have passed any safety and up to code examinations…

We had only casually met the homeowner, Giovanni, all of our dealing had been with his wife.  But now, wife and children spent almost all their time in an apartment in town, and we were alone on the property with him.  Lucretia had expected him to be dead by now of the brain cancer.  However, it had been operated on, and he had gone through the usual treatments, and it seemed to be in remission.  Lucretia's plans were not going as she had expected…

Giovanni was a very kind, interesting and helpful person.  He loved animals, had three dogs of his own, as well as other animals, and deeply loved nature and a life devoted to it.  After many years of being a town dweller and working in a bank, he finally had fulfilled his dream of having a house in the country where he could have some animals, grow some of his own food, and enjoy the great beauty of his surroundings.  He loved going for walks with his dogs in the surrounding woods and fields. 

Giovanni was interested in our dogs, and did a great deal to help us build a kennel room and a yard for the dogs to run in.  He was very clever at finding solutions for many things, and had a huge variety of tools and also of building materials, almost all of it recycled.  Things that were junk for others made his eyes light with pleasure and he would bring home all sorts of things that might be of use in the future.

I was familiar with this point of view, the Bedouin also believed that everything might possibly be of use some time in the future.  There were usually big piles of what we might call junk in the vicinity of their dwellings, but for them these were future treasures.

I found myself living as if I was back at the beginning of Shaar Hagai, cleaning, building, constructing, making use of everything to save money.  Giovanni did not consider at all that I was a not so young woman, there was work to be done.  And to my surprise and pleasure, I found myself capable of doing things I had not done for years.

My Italian vocabulary added some new and interesting words – cariola (wheelbarrow), viti (screws), rete (wire), caldaia (stove), and so on.

But sadly, as in all fairy tales, the good king was fading…Giovanni started to feel unwell, and examination showed that the cancer was back.  He went through another operation, but although he refused to give up on his life and activities, the prognosis was not good, not good at all…

Here the story becomes dark.  Giovanni's wife and three children, who we had hardly seen until now, started spending more time on the property.  Lucretia worked part time as a teacher and was a writer of children's books, quite successfully.  When we first met Lucretia and discussed the possibility of renting a place from them, she was very enthusiastic, she told us she loved animals and nature and would be happy to have us with the dogs, and that she would be able to help us find work, in projects for educating children about animals and science that she was involved in.  This sounded great!

But the facts turned out to be different.  There was no more discussion of mutual projects.  To the contrary, the dogs bothered her, she didn't want us to keep them in the house, but the areas promised us for the dogs outside of the house, had been cut in half. The dogs barked and disturbed her, the dogs smelled, the dogs, the dogs, the dogs….In fact, most of the barking of the dogs was caused by her children and dogs running around and agitating our dogs with screaming, waving of sticks, riding by on bicycles, and doing whatever they could invent to make the dogs crazy…

The situation deteriorated.  Giovanni was becoming weaker in front of our eyes, although he was trying very hard to continue to live the life he loved.  But we found out that Lucretia had managed to have him declared incompetent (after all, he was a "man with half a brain"), so that she was now the owner of all the property.  It was quite obvious what her intentions were, her time schedule had just been spoiled by Giovanni's persistence in staying alive.  It was obviously also disappointing for the "cucciolino" ( "puppy dog") that followed after her everywhere and was obviously waiting to take over from Giovanni….

Lucretia had an older daughter from an earlier marriage.  She was an attractive girl like her mother, with ambitions to be a model, something that was very unlikely to happen – at 21, she was too old to start a modeling career.  She now came to live in the apartment above us, which was supposed to be for caretakers of Giovanni.  There was little caretaking going on.  However, she had no compunctions about caretaking for herself – starting with complaints about the dogs, she continued with complaints about us watching movies on the computer later than 10 in the evening. Her usual way of complaining was to bang on the floor of her rooms with a broom (our ceiling), violently and insistently.  If that wasn't enough, she would come down and pound on our door, screaming, "I can't sleep!!!! Look at my face!!! Look at what I look like when I can't sleep!!!!"

Of course, the dogs did not find this at all amusing, and barked in our defense, causing more banging and screaming.

The evil queens punished us in many ways.  There was no longer any heat provided, and it was very cold, the middle of the winter, with temperature around freezing.  There was no hot water.  And the final straw was when they shut off the wifi connection, our only connection to the outside world….

We were given one month to pack up and leave.  There was no question that we wanted to leave, we were extremely stressed and so were the dogs, we were very worried about them as well.  We felt very sorry about Giovanni, who was a shadow of his former self, and although feeling very unhappy, was not in a condition to get involved. (Subsequently, the old king was committed to a hospital, where the evil queen refused to let his friends even visit him without her permission…)

Finding a place to go to in one month, with all the dogs – more or less mission impossible…
But we were determined to get out.  The enchantment had ended, we could now see the reality, and it was not a fairytale, not a gingerbread house, but a dark and depressing soap 

Next time – Moving again

Update:  A few months after we left the Gingerbread House, the benevolent king Giovanni died.  His last days were spent in hospice conditions, and no one who was not approved by Lucretia was allowed to visit.  So this good man died without his friends around him...


  1. You must have been so stressed! I'm sorry it happened that way. You did not deserve any of that treatment. How nice of you to share the contrasts, the goodness of Giovanni. That shows your beautiful heart and ability to appreciate those people and things that matter in life and goodness. He sounds like he was a good man. How lucky he was rot get to enjoy meeting you and having that time. Maybe thats why you were sent there. You are a survivor and a fair person. I think of you often and the dogs and send many good wishes your way. Thanks for the update.

  2. I am sorry you had to have these additional stressful living conditions after leaving your beloved home in Israel. It is blessed that you were able to help Giovanni have some happy times, and he was able to help you for awhile. I hope this next chapter goes much smoother.

  3. Really! GOOD GRIEF
    Sounds like a horror story all right.
    Hard to imagine such an evil personality.
    Sounds like Cruella de Vil from "101 Dalmatians".
    She wasn't good looking because she was kind.And I guess she conned Giovanni too!Sorry you didn't smell the fire and brimstone before.
    I hear there is a heat wave in Italy now.
    I hope you get back to normalcy soon and don't have any more complications.
    I wish I could read about more joyous events. But I love hearing from you. Wish I could help more than give encouragement.