Have you seen my tombino?
Wait, what? Is that a pick-up line?
NO! We just can’t find that darn tombino. In Italy, of course, language results in many quizical and/or dumbfounded glances. In this instance the word tombino verrrrry loosely translates to mean, a large underground junction box. It is the heartbeat of many systems that feed into a country dwelling like ours. Running underground for about 120 meters (roughly 400 feet) are electrical cables, telephone lines and water systems. The tombino is a heavy concrete lidded box. In our Tuscan hideaway, stealthily secluded underground are many of these cement cubes about 5 feet on all sides. Typically unseen and NOT generally a topic of conversation. However, in these post-pandemic times, it has earned the distinction of being one of the most important talking points in our little corner of the world. Once found, you could probably hide in one, but we wouldn’t recommend it. But, WHERE, oh where, is my tombino? That’s the million-euro-question. Typically they’re fairly easy to locate, but unfortunately, ours has been covered over by years of crunched and compacted gravel mixed with gritty dirt. You get the picture?
It seems that our utilities have been interrupted by a tiny little country mouse who has nibbled through the yummy gray sheathing on the power cable to create a hole for water to seep in. Once the cable gets wet, you’re only months away from full-on corrosion. One day we’re feeling the “power”and the next day our “current” strength is completely gone. Living Without Power is of course, annoying, unacceptable, and even dangerous. The only way to remedy the situation is to locate the exact position of the “nibbled-through nuisance wire”—good luck with that! We had no choice but to locate all 7 of the buried tombini under the driveway as the first step in our problem-solving process. The first six, okay. Number seven, no way. What a challenge—trying to find a “nibble in a dirt-pack.”
Now, electricity certainly is a utility that we have come to enjoy on a daily basis. With the flip of a switch, we have light. The familiar click of a gas stove reminds us that it uses an electric ignition. But more than a mere creature comfort, it’s essential for surviving frigid winters in Tuscany. Without power, there’s NO heat. Without heat, cast iron radiators freeze. When they freeze, they burst. And they are NOT tidy bursters. They spray and spit rusty water as far as their cracks will allow. The force exerted from them mimics little explosions. It’s certainly not a pretty sight, and hopefully you’ll never have to witness or clean up such a disgusting mess.
During the pandemic, our neighbor informed us that we had suffered a loss of power in the winter. Yikes! We immediately flashed a joint memory of bursting radiators. Since it was too cold and nearly impossible to repair the electrical lines mid-winter, we borrowed electricity from a neighboring building. Using a very LONG extension cord (as a temporary measure), we kept the radiators happy enough that they didn’t crack-up under the stress. So when warmer weather arrived, we kicked into high gear to find a quasi-permanent solution for the electricity issue. Hence, we found ourselves in a desperate search for that seventh elusive tombino, which was the key to our success.
Alongside two trusty electricians, we energetically swung picks at the hardened earth and scraped the loosened dirt with our shoes and shovels to clear the debris. After multiple attempts and without success, we shifted again and again, to a different digging location, every time someone shouted “Let’s dig here!” The driveway started to look like giant gophers had taken up residence, randomly having popped up, leaving gaping holes and massive mounds of gravel. Our day ended on a note of dismay and discouragement.
But persistence persisted. Later that evening, our neighbor sent a text, “WOW, I found it.” No, he hadn’t been out digging in the dark, but he had discovered an equally valuable treasure—a single photograph of the house during construction. Some 20 years before, in the foreground, just barely within the frame was an old cement-covered Tuscan wheelbarrow balanced across a hole in the ground—a square hole. Safety first! There, beside that rusty-wheeled implement was a chunk of concrete shaped like—yes, a square lid. In the silence of the night, our sleuthy neighbor dug through hundreds of photos to find perhaps the only picture ever taken of that lonely tombino during construction.
As with any Italian problem, endless loud talking and arm-waving is required, along with a dash of clever insight. But the noise, persistence and cunning almost always pay off. Fortunately, our neighbor snapped pics of the more mundane phases of construction—capturing momentary glimpses of life “uncovered.” We’re not finished with the repairs yet, but we currently have direction. Having a plan and renewed hope is certainly em-POWER-ing!
Related Story and Music
You might check out another story called “Living Without Power” that we wrote and recorded back in 2009 amid a devastating hurricane. Following is the music if you want a quick listen.