Casa Girasole, the converted farmhouse that has become our home, has had quite a hard life, I think. And probably like most of the no-nonsense farmers’ wives who lived here over the years, it has had little truck with frippery and finery and has remained throughout its life plain, unfussy and unadorned. It has also suffered an emergency amputation (in the form of the sudden collapse of a poorly built post-war two-storey extension at one end of the house), followed by extensive reconstructive surgery (in the form of the erection of a properly built two-storey at the other end of the house that was put up by our immediate predecessors). As well as this, it has also undergone an awful lot of work on its innards. On top (literally) of creating an entrance hall, kitchen, dining room and sitting room from a jumble of stalls, stables and storerooms on the ground floor, our predecessors also created four bedrooms and two bathrooms that open off two spacious landings from a pokey two-bedroom apartment – no part of which had been touched, as far as we can work out, for the preceding forty years or so.
Although the surgery was successful and the building has taken well to its new role as what we now know is our forever-home, it still looked more than a little dowdy and down-at-heel from the outside. So having spent our first year working through a long list of modification, completion and repair work on its interior, our main focus since the start of summer has been its exterior. In fact, it was back in spring that Mr Blue-Shirt fitted the new part-glazed front and back doors in solid oak that finally allowed daylight to penetrate the previously rather gloomy hall and kitchen. Then together with our helpful chum Nick, who, luckily for us, prefers to spend his holidays doing jobs rather than lolling about in the garden with a book, Mr Blue-Shirt fitted a set of oak-framed patio doors to the sitting room. Opening onto the garden (and what will eventually become a paved terrace) they finally allowed us to enjoy fully the view up the hill to the village and down the valley to the sea when sitting on the sofa. The windows in the ones they replaced were set at a height that meant that, even for the tallest of people, the view from the sofa was restricted to just the sky and the uppermost branches of our tallest and most unkempt olive trees. So I only got to see the sky.
With Stefano the carpenter having installed the seven pairs of wooden shutters that he had crafted for us in his hobbit-hole of a workshop back in June, it was now time for The Big One: re-rendering nearly the whole of the house, a job which for which even the endlessly capable Mr Blue-Shirt did not have the relevant skills. So through the good offices of our architect, Silvio, we took the plunge and got the experts in. Apart from the new extension (which had been rendered but never painted) the rest of the house – a simple rectangular shape punctuated with modest timber-framed windows and topped with a pitched roof of coppi (traditional interleaving terracotta tiles) – was covered with a coarse sludge-coloured render that, as Mr Blue-Shirt observed, looked as if it had been applied with Wallace and Gromit’s porridge gun. Over time, though, great chunks had crumbled away, leaving gaping wounds that had been inexpertly patched with careless smears of cement: ugly dun-coloured scabs that would never heal or fade. But even when we first viewed the place on a dull November afternoon, we didn’t find it hard to see beyond the place’s sad and neglected appearance. Rather as if confronted by one of those frumpy old farmers’ wives from long before, we were still drawn in by her warmth and serenity and the twinkle in her eye, and could tell straight away that we’d be friends for life.
So, now well into retirement, it was high time to give this stoical and weather-beaten old girl a long overdue and well-deserved makeover. Once the (worryingly rickety) scaffolding had been erected, the first job was the building equivalent of exfoliation: two or three days of pressure washing to remove all the loose debris and dust that, I have to admit, left the place looking scoured, raw and sorrier for itself than ever. But then came the wrinkle-filler and scar concealer, aka render: bucket-loads of fine off-white powder mixed with water into a thick goo that a duo of chatty Albanian workmen spread with speed and skill bordering on artistry over every square centimetre of the surface, creating a finish almost as smooth and flawless as a film star’s forehead.
Only the far side of the house had been completed when we headed off to the UK for a couple of weeks, leaving ‘the goo-masters’ to work their magic on the front of the house, all under the supervision of the ever-conscientious Silvio. Having not been there to see each day’s progress, we were curious to see just how different the place would look when we returned home. And the transformation really was remarkable when, after three days on the road, we finally pulled onto the drive. Gone were the ugly scabs of cement the lumpy, crumbling surface, and the dreary utilitarian beige. In its place were great expanses of perfectly uniform, near-white render. And in the honeyed evening sun the house almost seemed to blush with pleasure in response to our joint delighted ‘Wow!’.
Gone too, of course, was every single one of Mr Blue-Shirt’s tools, gathered over a lifetime of working with his hands, and stolen from the workshop behind the house while we were away, as we discovered once we had completed our inspection of the house…
But that’s a story for another day, since that evening evening of such mixed emotions we have been determined would not taint our dream nor break the special bond that we have formed with this deeply comforting place. And so painting the entire house from end to end became a kind of therapy for Mr Blue-Shirt: making the first reluctant purchases in the long and heart-breaking process of replacing his tools one by one, then building trestles, assembling scaffolding towers, rigging up safety harnesses and sorting out brushes and rollers and buckets. Then finally immersing himself in simple physical toil, spending days at a time in the blazing sun as this dear old girl patiently let him lovingly complete her makeover. And helped him begin to heal himself.