Saturday, September 15, 2018

Our home in Italy awaits us—but what will we see upon our pending arrival?

What will our attic look like when we return to Italy in October? We’ve been wondering that all summer.

We had not intended to do any more major work on our house after we invested quite a bit the previous two years to refurbish the roof, put in skylights and add a beautiful wood staircase to the attic. But nature intervened, because our roof beams had tarli—woodworms—and the tarli had acari—mites which are too small to see but wreak their own brand of havoc nonetheless.

I wasn’t supposed to mention these things because Lucy didn’t want to scare off potential visitors, but I think it’s okay to fess up now, since we have in all likelihood resolved the issue. With the stairway installed during the summer of 2017, Lucy loved sitting under one of the skylights and reading. That is, until she started getting some red and extremely itchy welts on her upper body. They looked a little like mosquito or flea bites, but they persisted for at least a week, and we had not seen any mosquitoes or fleas. I was pretty sure there was some tie to tarli, because I had experienced the same welts the previous year, when I had slept next to a piece of wooden furniture that was riddled with tarli holes. When we threw away the holey furniture, the bites ceased.

You can see the old wood in that holds up our ceiling tiles. It
looks like long ago it was painted white, but most of the paint
has since flaked off.
We could see some holes in the beams above Lucy’s attic chair, so I went online for some tarli research. I discovered that tarli (also called anobiid powderpost beetles) do not bite people, but they are the hosts for a particular type of acari named Sclerodermus, a microscopic and parasitic mite that stings, not bites, people. So not only did we need to rid the house of tarli to preserve our wood but also to prevent further acari attacks on our bodies.

Schlerodermus under a microscope.
My research said we could treat infested furniture by taking it to a specialist who would kill the insects with a microwave treatment. But treating wooden beams in place required periodic chemical treatment with a toxic and foul-smelling product. A more permanent solution would be to clean the beams and then treat and varnish them. Mature tarli lay their eggs on the outside of the beams, I read, and then the young ones bore inside to feed for up to four years before re-emerging to mate and lay more eggs. But varnish prevents newly hatched Tarli from boring in.

The welts from a Schlerodurmus sting. Note:
This is NOT Lucy, who declined to pose. I
found this online while researching our problem
I consulted with Juri, our downstairs neighbor. Since we share costs for the roof, it is also in his interest to kill the tarli. It’s complicated, he said, and he would need to talk to some contractor friends for advice. Just before we left Italy last May, Juri came to me with a very expensive but thorough plan. My understanding of Italian is not perfect, but here is what I think he said. We should clean and treat the travi, the ceiling beams and joists. Probably paint or varnish them. But then we should close in the ceiling and walls with cartongesso—sheetrock. Then we won’t have to retreat the wood in future years.

Sheetrock is not something I’ve seen used in Italy often. Interior walls are often made of bricks and then covered with plaster. However, Juri has been using sheetrock on his own home remodeling with great success, and I think that’s a great idea. While we are doing this, he added, we should cover up the rough-textured concrete floor with some sort of tile. We’ll also have to redo some of the wiring before closing in the walls. And we should move some of the plumbing and electrical conduits which take up floor space. Juri can do the framing, sheetrock and wiring himself, as he’s an electrician and he’s also done much of his own remodeling himself.

It’s not really clear to me who will do what, but Juri is good friends with the muratore and it sounds as if they will work together. Muratore, strictly translated, is bricklayer, and in Italy, a bricklayer is needed for many tasks. Since roofs here are almost all made of tile, it was this same muratore who redid our roof the previous year. He also buried some of the conduit in our cement attic floor, and now he will be needed to bury more.

When I ask about costs, Juri says that a first-class job can be done for around €14,000 (euro). This is way out of our budget, I said. Well, we can do a less perfect job for around €10,000 euro. Still probably too much, I said. Maybe we should just treat the timbers and put sheetrock the ceiling for now, I suggested, and do the rest in future years. No, no, Juri said. Even for €7,000 or €8,000, they could do a halfway decent job.

I received no written breakdown of costs or tasks, but we would be leaving in a few days. Juri was anxious to get started, because the muratore had free time now and he would be busy with other jobs later. Juri asked if they could get started now and just get paid later? Okay, I relented, but I can come up with only €10,000 maximum by the end of the summer, I told him.

We were uneasy about this arrangement. Had this been for our home in the States, we would have received a written proposal with itemized costs, possibly from more than one contractor. However, we didn’t know any contractors in Montecarlo. Juri had supervised all our previous work, and it had gone relatively well. The stairway was perfect, the roof no longer leaked and the skylights were okay, even if they weren’t quite as large or placed where we wanted them.

Our choices were to trust Juri and leave the details to him, or do nothing for another year and go find our own contractor next winter. Doing the latter would require a lot of work and communication skills, and it may offend Juri. He and his family are becoming friends, and one of the main reasons we had purchased a home in Montecarlo was to befriend other families there. Would possibly saving a couple thousand euros be worth turning Juri down? We decided it would not, and we gave him the go-ahead to do up to €10,000 worth of remodeling.

But how much would he be contributing, since some of this work would also benefit his family and house? In addition, in June, Juri wrote asking if he and his wife Silvia could rent our house for part of the summer because they were moving their kitchen and their house would be uninhabitable. We gave permission, and he wrote me in July with a breakdown of costs for our project: “Consider that the total will be €14,000.00, doing a great job, really optimal. I will participate with €2,500.00, and considering that I will be renting your house at €15.00 per day (if we stay 45 days I'll give you €675 plus €100 more because it seems right; you were very kind), total €800, then your remaining balance of the €14,000 (-2,500.00 and -800.00) will be €10,700.00.”

Well, that’s more than the €10,000 I said was our maximum, but the truth is, we were having an unusually profitable summer in our asphalt maintenance business, so the extra money turned out to be available. In fact, Juri wrote me recently saying that our old water heater should be replaced now, and we even sent extra money for that. The company that inspects and maintains it has told us twice that we should think about replacing it, because it’s so old that they don’t think they can get spare parts if it breaks down.

So now we’ve sent Juri more than 15,000 U.S. dollars for these projects, plus a few other little ones (removing a large old asbestos-concrete water cistern from the attic and changing our kitchen sink drain to go into the sewer line instead of the neighbor’s garden)—all on faith that he will oversee these jobs correctly and that the price is fair. But I’m comforted to realize that Juri has his reputation at stake as well. It’s unlikely that he’d blatantly bilk a close neighbor, and if we are satisfied with his work, there will undoubtedly be more in the future. The arrangement is not that different from remodeling we’ve had done on our Gig Harbor home—we had a trusted friend doing the work, paying for time and materials after the fact. It’s a little different because we’re not in Italy to see what’s happening, pick out floor tiles or clarify and answer questions, and it’s unlikely that we’ll be given an itemized statement of the costs.

So one can understand our anxiety and eagerness to see what we’ll have when we arrive on October 10. Juri has said several times to trust him and that it will a beautiful work. In less than a month, we’ll be able to make our own call on that.