June 24, 2004
Ah, to be property owners in Italy! The day finally arrived, after four unbelievably frustrating years of waiting. All that remained was the simple exchange of signatures for a key—or so we thought!
We awakened fresh and excited for the special day to unfold. It was the long-awaited meeting with the Notaio, notary/lawyer—a much revered Italian position held by only the most respected avvocati, attorneys. They are the designated protectors of the national treasures—documenting, passing judgment and finalizing all critical transactions. With everything carefully planned down to the last detail, we were fully prepared and ready to literally seal the deal.
We put on our shoes and grabbed the 4-inch thick folder of official papers just as the phone rang. Barbara, our attorney, spoke with deliberate words in a serious, agitated tone. She just received an e-mail from the developer’s attorney. Suddenly, there seemed to be aspects of the documents, even after weeks of preparation, that were quite different than they had expected, and they found them unacceptable—despite everyone’s diligent checking and double-checking. The attorney informed Barbara that they needed another meeting with her and us before the closing to discuss these problems further.
We both tensed up. Given all the issues and set-backs during construction, our level of trust was dangerously low at that point. We wondered what the company’s legal was up to—surely NO GOOD! Now, we had to arrive in Florence even earlier than we anticipated, so immediately headed for the car. Our early morning last minute preparations were abandoned. We were suddenly LATE!
Arriving in Fiesole we spotted one of the few remaining blue parking spaces, bought time from the nearby machine, slid the voucher onto the dashboard and hurried down the narrow street to Banca Toscana, Bank of Tuscany.
One at a time, we entered the “beam me up Scotty” security vestibule tube just inside the iron grille. Cheryl went first. Once the exterior door slid closed, and all intruders were shut out, the second door opened inside the bank. I waited my turn then repeated the slow process. Once inside the “zone of safety,” we were warmly greeted by Fiorella, our favorite solitary teller who has helped us through many tight scrapes over the years. We had spoken with her on the previous day, so she was already poised to finalize our transaction. Everything was working like a well-oiled machine.
Cheryl crouched down to speak through the small horizontal opening at the bottom of the bullet-proof glass divider. I simply leaned over it. Apparently no one in Italy had anticipated two-meter tall clients when designing the security counter. Fiorella, calmly keyed in the amount for the cashier’s check very precisely. With a look of surprise and concern, she glanced up through the glass divider. “La stampante non va, the printer doesn’t work!” Uh, oh!
Now, at this point in our story, it’s important to know that this bank has only one of everything, except clients. Since the bank had been open for about an hour, a small crowd of interested locals with transactions of their own had collected behind us (of course not in line, because they never learned that lesson). Their lines are more like small groups of performance-goers. The gathered patrons craned their necks to watch our curious drama play out before them. They were not disappointed.
After 20 minutes of trying, retrying and deploying the manager on the phone with technical support, an exasperated Fiorella said to everyone waiting, including us, “Prendate prima colazione per quindici minuti! ” “Go have breakfast for 15 minutes!” This little intermission would give Fiorella ample time to resolve the problem. Dutifully, everyone dispersed for their morning coffee and pastry without any further coaxing. But, for us, the sands of time were streaming through the hourglass!
We returned to the bank only to find that they had made absolutely no progress. Furthermore, without the check, delivered on-time and in person, the deal was off. There would be no closure, no transaction, no receipt of keys. Yikes!
Using our trusty 1980s cell phone, we called Barbara. She immediately demanded to talk to the manager, and to our surprise we heard her from across the room, telling him in no uncertain terms that according to Italian law he ABSOLUTELY HAD TO PRODUCE THE CHECK—if not, there would be serious legal ramifications for the bank. Sweat began beading up on his forehead as he frantically considered any and all possible solutions.
Our time was up! We had exactly 45 minutes to make the drive into Florence, park and find the notaio’s office, which was across town, of course, along the Arno River. The bank offered to courier the missing check to the notaio’s office ASAP, which was a generous gesture, but a very risky one indeed. Out of both time and options, we reluctantly agreed and turned to leave. Just as Cheryl pressed the button to open the security tube, we heard a familiar click and hum from the printer as it finally began printing our coveted check. Whew!
Sliding the check into our bulky folder and spinning around, we found that they had already opened the wide emergency exit door, anticipating our need for a speedy exit. Italians think of almost everything. We dashed out the exit and ran to the car.
Driving like true Italians, speeding dangerously the entire way, we arrived in Florence and parked under the Santa Maria Novella Train Station, which was as close as we could get to the historic center. Up three flights of stairs from the lower level, we made a hard right and headed directly for the taxi stand. We decided that walking wasn’t fast enough and that a ride was the only way we’d make it. But, at the taxi stand, there was a long queue of impatient people waiting, to our dismay.
Suddenly, walking/running was our only remaining option, without a word, we instinctively started off, wasting no time. Earlier we had entertained images of casually walking through the ancient Florentine streets, basking in the sun on our special day. Those images evaporated, to be replaced with actual images of shortcuts we could remember to avoid the crowds. Hardly able to keep the telephone up to an ear, between our jarring footsteps and trying to catch our breath, we called Barbara. “We’re in Florence, in ritardo, late. We’ll be there subito, right away.” Speriamo, We hope!
Barbara’s voice on the phone was tinged with frustration and a slight hint of anger which was not like her, at all. It seemed that, as luck would have it, the developer’s representative was stuck in traffic and would be 30 minutes late. We immediately stopped to catch our breath. Both relieved and frustrated, we decided to slow our pace the rest of the way!
We arrived in Piazza Goldoni, surrounded by incredibly old buildings, where the notaio’s office was located. After confirming the name and address on the brass plaque by the stately stone entrance, we casually strode across the courtyard as if we had all the time in the world. Up the grand staircase we climbed. At the top floor, we were greeted by a receptionist and ushered into a sitting room the size of an American suburban home.
The grand windows were thrown open overlooking the sunny piazza and a light breeze wafted around us. Through the window from the beautiful street below, the clamor of gli macchine, autobus e motorini, cars, buses and vespas continued without interruption. But, our hustle-bustle was over. In fact, we felt strangely secure and calm, housed safely within this Renaissance giant of a building. Tensions eased. We whispered to each other, “Are we actually going to close this deal after all?”
In fact, Italy has her own special way of making you think all is calm and beautiful, even though deep down there’s a constant churning. We suspected that this peaceful moment was too good to be true. Our intuitions were spot-on!
When Barbara arrived, we were led into a small conference room where she read the latest revised contract aloud. We were shocked to hear that they had reneged on almost all of our previous agreements. Upon concluding, Barbara said, “This document as written is TOTALLY unacceptable to us,” and of course we agreed. “Maybe this closing will not happen today, after all. In fact, because of these changes, the entire purchase is in question.” OMG!
An hour later than the appointed time, seven more Italians arrived. We totaled 10, some people we had never seen before. The serene, classic surroundings seemed to mock the underlying turmoil, since almost everyone knew that the proceedings were highly contentious and destined to fail. But, we continued on as if nothing was wrong—it’s the Italian way!
The wise and experienced notaio finally entered the room quietly without fanfare, but offered a soothing joviality and sense of deep understanding about such weighty negotiations. He sat down in his large leather chair and began reading word by word from the twenty-five page contract in Italian, adding emphasis and bravado for flair to the otherwise dull and pedestrian content.
When the notaio finished reading, Barbara reviewed and presented changes to each and every contentious item—one by one. We must have looked defeated, because Barbara turned away from the others at one point to give us a boost in the form of a quick wink. When Barbara winks it’s actually a very good sign. The next thing we knew, the company representative had miraculously agreed with all of our requests which Barbara had described so eloquently. Without exception, they were all, “so noted.” We had magically returned to the original contract that Barbara had literally drafted 4 years earlier. Hmm.
The notaio gracefully spun around in his chair, handing the old document over to a clerk and charged her with making all of the necessary changes. In the meantime, we all waited patiently amid small talk, laughter—punctuated with some rather awkward silences.
Finally, the new contract was formally presented to the notaio as if it was the original, and nothing unusual had just happened. After a cursory check of several critical items, as only a seasoned notaio can identify, he carefully turned to the last page for le firme, the signatures. Pens were poised, hovering mid-air, ready to swoop in for a hasty, yet long anticipated consummation of the deed. But WAIT. STOP EVERYTHING. THERE’S A PROBLEM, AND THE DEAL IS OFF!
Suddenly, the company representative lurched forward and grabbed a small adding machine. She wanted to double-check the total. After punching a quick string of numbers, she ripped off the paper tape with a righteous wave of her hand, exclaiming that there was indeed a mistake in the calculations! Pens were lowered to the table and we all joined in a chorus of disturbing sighs and groans.
Back to the drawing board. At that point, loud arguing broke out, with broad gestures to command attention and accentuate certain key words. Each side seemed to be simultaneously surrendering, yet insisting as arms were thrown into the air and bodies slumped back into their chairs. We were the only ones just listening as everyone else aggressively talked over each other. It was like a barroom brawl and we couldn’t understand one word. Basically, all hell broke loose!
The din began to die down as everyone either wore out or acted as if they really understood what had just happened. The conclusion: the representative was correct! A mistake had, in fact, been made. However, it wasn’t enough of a change to be a deal-breaker. We suddenly had an impromptu sideline meeting with Barbara, and on-the-spot, renegotiated the final price to everyone’s satisfaction. Wow!
With pens once again in-hand, we finally signed on the line as the company representative smiled. She handed us the key as if it was just another day of routine business. Everyone got up, exchanged warm salutations like we were all old friends just simply spending 3-4 leisurely hours reminiscing together. There was laughter, hand shaking and a few slaps on the back. We were free to go. Our work was done.
We returned to the piazza where life hummed with its never-ending congested din. We felt a little let down by the finality of it all. In a strange way, it seemed so ordinarily Italian. Rather than the intense aggravation that we had learned to expect, we were suddenly left without a problem to solve. We had to admit to ourselves that our next focus would have to be, how to create a REAL life in Italy.
As we stepped from the curb the company representative and their lawyer rode past us on their bicycles—just another day at the office.They waved to us and then disappeared, chatting and bumping along down the cobblestone street and around the corner.
We grabbed a couple of pannini, sandwiches, and went out to look at the piece of real estate that we had just bought. We stopped by the old vacant barns to retrieve some boxes we had left there in storage. Mostly, we just wanted to use the new key and open the front door of our newly acquired portion of a Tuscan farmhouse. We walked silently from room to empty room trying to imagine our life there. Then, thirty minutes later, we relocked the door with our new key. It was time to go.
During construction and beyond, our home away from home had been Il Trebbiolo, the villa down the hill. They would host us for one more night. Filetti di manzo, carcioffi fritti, e spinaci, small beefsteaks, fried artichokes and spinach sautéed with garlic, was the first real meal that we ate as homeowners. We toasted all the different characters in our 4-year drama with a bottle of Chianti; gave each other one of those looks with a half smile and raised eyebrow; and waltzed our way into the next phase of our adventure—grateful and confident that we could overcome any obstacles tossed our way.
We asked Sabrina, the villa owner to call an early morning taxi for us, and then went upstairs to pack.
June 25, 2004 7:05 am
Our return to California was surreal. We settled in on the plane as it taxied down the runway.We were amazed to realize that, after all the years of waiting, the process was finally finished—literally, only hours before our scheduled departure. We were totally exhausted. There was no question that we’d sleep on the long flight home.
Touchdown in California was abrupt. We were jostled from shallow airplane sleep to ask each other the same question, “Did we just collectively dream those last four years, or did it really happen?”
It really happened!
Recollections from the summers of 2000 to 2004
Related Music and Stories
Following are two related songs written in the “heat of battle” at frustrating times.