I have a mild dispute going on with my husband. He wants to get a sun-roof constructed over the open-air roof terrace, so we can have barbecues up there without getting slow-roasted in the sun before our food does, and developing skin cancer before lunch is over.
My reason is simple: it would mean letting Sicilian builders into the house, which would simply be too traumatic. And life threatening.
Everyone has a traumatic builder story, I think. Nobody likes having them working in their home. But in Sicily, they are the worst in the world, I suspect.
It’s not that they want a cup of tea with eight spoons of sugar in it every half hour, like English builders. It’s not that they have bottoms, as in, bare ones with hairy buttock cleavages showing. It’s not that they tell you they’ll come on Monday morning and then show up mid-afternoon on Thursday. It’s not even the fact that Sicilian builders always have to work in groups of ten, with one man doing the work while nine others watch him and egg him on by proffering constructive criticism on every move he makes.
Oh no. It’s that, as we watched our house being built, it gradually became apparent that the Sicilian builders didn’t know how to use spirit levels. They were ex-convicts, who had deliberately reduced their already modest intelligence quotients down to single digits by using alcohol. But they had hammers, so we couldn’t challenge them.
The house looked beautiful at a casual glance but, when we moved in, it was impossible to find a right angle, a horizontal surface or, for that matter, a vertical one anywhere in the entire building. You see, if builders don’t know how to use spirit levels, then buildings won’t have horizontal bottoms. And if builders cannot get their bottoms right, how can their tops be OK?
- The man we hired to tile the bathrooms could not find any way to disguise the fact that the shower cubicle is seven tiles wide at the bottom and eight tiles wide at the top.
- The rectangular mirror we ordered, to be set into a space in the tiles above the sink, had to be trimmed to a rhombus to make it fit.
- The men who fitted the overhead kitchen cupboards asked me if I wanted them to make contact with the wall “at the top”, or “at the bottom.” “Both” was not an option, they explained patiently.
- The glass shelves for toiletries were aligned with the edges of the tiles. When we watched my perfume bottles go skiing one after the other onto the floor, we realised the shelf was set at a one-in-six gradient.
- The drainage hole at the centre of the courtyard stands at the peak of a tiled summit, whilst the rainwater drains away from it into the four marshy corners, where it incubates a new generation of mosquitoes once every three hours.
Our house was built by a man called Fortunato Mastronzo. If you translate this literally into English, it means “Lucky, but a turd” – the turd part corresponding perfectly with the Italian word in both its literal and metaphorical sense.
I remember when the house was being built we arranged to meet him at the construction site. He left us waiting for two hours while the builders all sipped beer and wondered where he could have got to. Eventually he turned up with a cigarette hanging from his lip and extensive wet patches under his arms. He smelt of sweat and too much aftershave and he left us standing around for another quarter of an hour while he talked on his mobile phone, the cigarette glued to his lower lip wagging up and down dangerously until a particularly extravagant hand gesture sent it flying and he sprang backwards, brushing the scorching ash off his paunch.
We toured the developing shell of the house. When I looked at the marble windowsill in one of the bedrooms I realised it was sloping inwards, not outwards. It was angled to make all the rainwater flow straight into the room. When I pointed this out to Mr. Turd, he vigorously denied it, so I picked up an off-cut of copper piping left lying around by the plumber and placed it on the windowsill. We watched it roll rapidly towards us onto Mr. Turd’s foot. He flinched when it landed and I may not have been completely sincere in my apology.
Besides never apologising for his lack of punctuality, Mr. Turd was completely unruffled by our complaints about the construction. I suppose all my frustration should have been thoroughly predictable. England’s national monument is the biggest clock in the world, whereas Italy’s most famous building is a tower which leans off at thirteen degrees to the perpendicular.
During some of the long sleepless nights in my little crooked house, I have drawn comfort from the fact that, despite its being so squiffy, the Italian builders have nevertheless made the Leaning Tower of Pisa remain almost upright for the last eight hundred years.
Forgive me, though, if I don’t want a replica of it built on top of my own house.