Saturday, December 30, 2017

We’re hoping that our stairway to heaven—and by that, we mean, our attic—will be divine

In a last-minute decision before we left Italy in November, we authorized our friend and neighbor Juri to oversee the construction of a new stairway to our attic. We had planned to install a stairway in a year or two, but Juri suggested that if we did it now, the permit he obtained last summer for repairing the roof would also be valid for the stairway installation.

Our attic with open west-facing skylight.
I’m not sure how that could work, but Juri said he has a friend in the comune who said it would be okay. It seems a little risky, but if anyone knows how to get things done here, it seems to be Juri. In the last two years, he’s been completely remodeling his substantially sized ground floor storage space (which we were under the impression can only be used as storage space) into new bedrooms and living areas for his growing family—seemingly all without permits and inspections.

We live only a few steps from the comune, so it would seem his extensive renovations must be known to the officials there. One can’t help but notice the large trucks coming and going with building materials. Does it make a difference that Juri and his dad are doing almost all the work themselves? What will happen when the property is put up for sale someday and his floor plan is entirely different than what is on file at the comune? However, since homes in Italy are passed on from parents to children ad infinitum, perhaps that day will never come.

In any event, I have transferred the needed money from our bank account to Juri’s. I’m not quite sure if he’s acting as our general contractor or he’s just passing the money on to his muratore friend who’s acting as supervisor. Either way, it’s an act of faith in Juri’s abilities and honesty. We had received a bid from a stairway manufacturer and installer in Lucca, and Juri said he and his friend could do the work better for the same price.

Since we need Juri to be there to open the place for the workers anyway, it made sense to hire him and his friend. Juri is an electrician by trade, and he’ll also install some lights in the attic. And he’ll find a plumber to run our kitchen sink drain into the sanitary sewer system (see The junkyard outside our house . . .).

Our old stairway is a squeaky fold-down contraption that completely blocks the hallway to the bathroom when in the down position. The fold-down stairs also enter the attic right under a low beam, forcing one to enter the attic on hands and knees. The new stairway will start in the front entryway and access the attic at the roof’s highest point. We’ll see what it looks like when we go back to Montecarlo in March.
Ingr. stands for ingresso, or entrance. That's where we want the stairway,
instead of in the dis. (no, I don't know what that stands for, but it's a hallway).

We hope to use the attic for storage, to hang the laundry and as a game and reading room. We could even pull out mattresses and use it as a sleeping area when we have too many guests for our bedrooms. When we open the three new skylights installed last summer, it will allow air circulation on hot days, new spaces to stand up and nice views both east and west.

Speaking of the skylights, while I was in the attic with Juri talking about the stairway, I finally got around to asking why our skylights had been installed differently than the drawing I had left him (see Roof with a view). Structural integrity of the roof wouldn’t allow skylights the sizes and locations I wanted, he said. I’ll have to accept that answer, mostly because its pointless to disagree at this point. It would cost a small fortune to make any changes now.

Installing new stairs won’t be the end of our renovation plans. In fact, we’ll still need some railings inside the attic to prevent someone from accidentally backing into the stairway opening. Then we’ll need more insulation and better flooring. Juri also pointed out that we’ll need to seal off any small holes between our attic and those of the houses that adjoin on the north and south, because rats can pass from attic to attic—and now they’ll have an opening to welcome them into our main house.

All in all, it probably would have been less expensive if we had continued to rent some place during our three or four months abroad, but what price can we put on the feeling of being part of the community of Montecarlo? We have no regrets.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Genetic diversity in DNA testing of Italians should be expected

To people of Italian – and especially Sicilian Italian – descent who have had DNA tests and are bothered that results didn’t show them to be 100% genetically Italian – don’t sweat it. In fact, if anything, these results could just be proof of how Italian you really are!

Before I explain, first of all let’s establish that when most of us say we’re Italian, we mean that either we, our parents of our ancestors came from Italy and that we embrace the Italian culture. DNA tests are an entirely different measurement. They try to trace where all of our thousands of ancestors came from in the past 2,000 years. By the standards used, it would be virtually impossible for anyone to test 100% Italian—or for someone with one Italian parent to test 50% Italian.
Sicily actually has more Greek temples than Greece. That's Alfio di Mauro on the right, with our tour group in Agrigento, Sicily.

While on a tour of Sicily in 2015, I interviewed Alfio Di Mauro, whose family roots go back centuries on this beautiful island. Di Mauro has a science PhD and was a researcher at the University of Catania, but now he’s a guide with Rick Steves. He pointed out that a true Sicilian or Southern Italian would have to be a blend of diverse genetic origins.

‟Sicily was in the center of what the Romans called the Mare Nostrum – Our Sea – the Mediterranean,” he said. ‟It was important first of all because it was a fertile land, a garden-like island of the Mediterranean. And second, it was a natural stepping stone between Europe and Africa. Between the western tip of Sicily and Tunisia is only 80 miles.

‟Also, Italy’s long shape divides the Mediterranean from East to West. Sicily is at the end of it, and it’s like the cork in the bottle. So if you were controlling the 80 miles of sea, plus the two miles between Sicily and the Italian peninsula, you were controlling any trade routes between East and West, and North and South. For thousands of years, Sicily was THE island to control. It was considered the center of the civilized world.”

And so the invaders came, saw and conquered, leaving behind traces of their languages, traditions, favorite foods, superstitions and genetic footprints.

‟We’ve had more than 17 invasions in 2,000 years,” Di Mauro said. ‟No other part of the world so small has had so many invasions! You will never find such a power-packed, genetically diverse and historically interesting place like Sicily. If you do a genetic survey of Europe, which is the country with the highest diversity? It’s Italy! What is the region that has the highest diversity? It’s Sicily! It has the highest genetic diversity in Europe.”

What Di Mauro didn’t mention but easily could have: Sicily’s status as a multi-cultural hub of travel and trading also drew many outsiders interested in establishing businesses. When the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492, for example, many found Italy a safe haven with prospects for making a healthy income.

So if your ancestors came from Italy, don’t expect your DNA results to show anything other than a blend of civilizations. It’s actually additional evidence that you truly ARE Italian.


Sunday, December 3, 2017

Distinctions that make a noun male or female made perfectly clear

Which language is easier to learn, English or Italian? Some may say Italian, because every letter has the same sound every time. In English, letters can have vastly different sounds, and one has to learn how to pronounce each word. One famous example that advocates of English language reform like to cite is ‟ghoti,” which can be defined as ‟a limbless cold-blooded vertebrate animal with gills and fins and living wholly in water.” That’s right, un pesce. How could that be? ‟Gh” can be pronounced as ‟f,” (enough). ‟O” as ‟i” (women). And ‟ti” as ‟sh” (motion).

But then, one has to consider those pesky masculine and feminine nouns in Italian—and many other languages as well. For English speakers, grammatical gender is one of the most vexing aspects of language learning. In addition, it sometimes seems that grammatical gender doesn’t match up with the “natural gender” of the person or object being described. In Portuguese, the word mulherão means “voluptuous woman.” However, the word itself is masculine. In Italian, a woman’s breasts are seni, a masculine noun. Virilità, the Italian word for “manliness” is feminine (as is also the case in Spanish, Latin, German, Polish, Russian and Hindi).

However, sometimes the logic is clear, as in the situation with some of these newer (and a few older) words.

FREEZER BAGS: These are male. They hold everything in, but you can see right through them.
PHOTOCOPIERS: These are female, because once turned off they take a while to warm up again. Also, they are effective reproductive devices if the right buttons are pushed, but pushing the wrong ones wreaks havoc.
TIRES: Male, because they easily go bald and are often over-inflated.
SPONGES: These are female, because they are soft and squeezable and they retain water.
WEB PAGES: Female, because they’re constantly being viewed and frequently get hit on.
TRAINS: Definitely male, because they always use the same old lines for picking up people.
HAMMERS: Also male, because in the last 5000 years, they’ve hardly changed at all, yet it’s sometimes handy to have one around the house.
THE REMOTE CONTROL: Female. Ha! You probably were thinking male, but consider this: It easily gives a man pleasure, he’d be lost without it, and while he doesn’t always know which buttons to push, he just keeps trying anyway.
GPS DEVICES: Gender neutral. They are a perfect blend of male and female. They’re always positive they know the best way, yet the voice giving instructions is infinitely patient when we make a wrong turn.