The sound of a rake being dragged through gravel is carried on the breeze up through my open window, the rhythmic rasps providing a percussion accompaniment to the morning birdsong. It is barely 8am and Mr Blue-Shirt has already been hard at work for over an hour and he is keen to finish before the sun gets too hot. His task today is evenly spreading across the drive the six tonnes of coarse pinkish-grey gravel that the previous evening had been tipped in neat conical mounds onto the sixteen tonnes of tightly compressed hardcore he had laid the week before. A simple enough task in the grand scheme of things. But getting things this far has been quite a logistical puzzle for Mr Blue-Shirt.
For we – and Mr Blue-Shirt in particular – have come to the conclusion that DIY in the British sense is not really ‘a thing’ here. Yes, ‘fai da te’ exists, but even the fact that there is no corresponding, universally known ‘FDT’ acronym is perhaps quite telling: Italians just don’t embrace the notion in the same way. True, there are plenty of ‘fai da te’ stores. Indeed, one of the most popular, OBI, at first glance is practically a clone of B&Q, right down to its orange and black corporate colour scheme. And, just like B&Q, its rows of hooks and banks of mini drawers are filled all the widgets, nuts, springs and washers required for various repair jobs or simple home improvements like hanging a shelf, replacing a tap or fitting a spotlight, along with the necessary tools to carry out these jobs. But over the last couple of years, I’ve lost count of the number of times Mr Blue-Shirt has returned from a trip to OBI, chuntering like an idling tractor about the unavailability of this, that or the other part, tool or material. Admittedly, though, most of Mr Blue-Shirt’s projects are of a different order of magnitude to hanging shelves or installing a tap. Before he got on to re-surfacing the drive, for instance, he rebuilt the front step and added the first phase of the terracotta-tiled terrace that will eventually encircle the house. Then while he was at it, he dug the foundations for the next, much bigger phase, and as part of this he also installed proper drainage so that rainwater from the roof is now carried away underground to soak harmlessly into the garden rather than just spewing straight from the downpipe out onto the ground right by the front door.
It’s not as if Italians’ indifference to DIY can be explained by respective rates of home ownership: I had thought that a culture of renting was perhaps not very conducive to a culture of DIY on the basis that tenants would have less of a vested interest in the place where they lived, or perhaps because restrictions in the lease might restrict tenants’ rights to spruce up their homes. And when landlords want to carry out improvements to their properties, they are more likely to employ professional tradespeople rather than do it themselves, surely. Sounds plausible, right? Except it turns out that home ownership rates are in fact higher in Italy (71.5%*) than they are in UK (62.5%*). So while I have yet to find the true explanation for this particular cultural difference, the fact remains it can be maddeningly difficult for a private individual to hire building equipment. Which brings me back to Mr Blue-Shirt’s logistical puzzle. For even when he does manage to sniff out a hire place, his request to rent whichever piece of kit he’s after this time is typically greeted with a counter-request for his ‘partita IVA’ – his VAT registration number and hence proof that he is a registered business, which, of course, he isn’t. Then there’s the fact that the equipment he generally needs to hire is not typical of the average DIY-er either. This latest project has at various points involved a digger, a tracked, self-filling wheelbarrow-cum-spreader, and a petrol-driven flattening plate. All of which through sheer persistence and by persuading the staff he really does know what he’s doing he’s been able to hire from the one and only proper builder’s merchants that is happy simply with his Codice Fiscale (roughly equivalent to one’s National Insurance number). We’re not sure how they manage to get away with this lack of bureaucratic rigour – but it’s probably best not to ask.
We are grateful for their pragmatism, though. It has meant that the expanse of coarse rubble made up of discarded building materials left over from when the house underwent its initial conversion matted together by a slowly encroaching carpet of rough grass and weeds that together passed for our driveway has now gone. In its place, the neatly spread contents of two trucks full of hardcore and gravel. That’s another thing, incidentally, that makes DIY such a challenge: it is seldom possible to source of the elements of a given job from the same supplier. Early on we wanted to erect a few metres of the ubiquitous orange net fencing for a reason I no longer recall. But the place that sold the plastic netting did not supply the steel rods to go with it that you hammer into the ground and thread the netting onto, and the ferramenta (ironmonger) that sold the steel rods didn’t stock the orange net they are designed to hold up. And so it was with this job: the quarry that supplied the hardcore and gravel sells to the public, but it doesn’t deliver. So unless, like Mr Blue-Shirt, you are lucky enough to have a van which your aggregate of choice can be shovelled straight into, or, as in this case, the load is too big for that van, it is down to the customer to sort out delivery. And since this is likely to involve a tipper truck, this means enlisting the services of a tame builder to do the job for you. And where was Mr Blue-Shirt to find this tame builder? Well, at least the quarry was able to suggest someone nearby who might be able to help: a building company a few kilometres further along the Potenza valley. Only it wasn’t where the GPS said it would be, so back Mr Blue-Shirt went to the quarry to ask for better directions. Only it had closed by this time and the chap who works there was just leaving. But he did offer to show Mr Blue-Shirt the way to the building company – and they ended up down a track off a lane a good kilometre and a half from where the GPS had originally taken him. No matter: he had found his tame builder, and better still, Alessandro could pick up our load from the quarry and deliver it the next day. OK, he eventually turned up a good three hours later than actually agreed, but when he did finally get here it was with the right amount of the right product. And to prove it wasn’t a fluke, it was the same story with the second load. So it isn’t birdsong I can hear along with the raking. It is Mr Blue-Shirt whistling: he’s cracked his latest DIY puzzle – which has made shifting six tonnes of gravel by hand seem like the easy part.