More than Just a Key – Unlocking the Trip of a Lifetime

The first time we rented a villa was on a vacation we took with another couple to Positano, on Italy’s beautiful Amalfi Coast. The view from this 2-bedroom / 2-bathroom apartment was just as spectacular as advertised. Breathtaking, really. Very, very romantic. Everything was perfect … except for the tiny detail that the second bedroom could be accessed only by going through the first bedroom. We had rented a beautiful two bedroom apartment with an incredible view and zero privacy.

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Our Italian Wedding Photographer

Who doesn’t love a good “piccolo mondo” (“small world”) story? There are two sides to this one, so Paul and I will tell it together. He gets the italics. Fair enough, as long as I retain some semblance of editorial control.

I was in Benano with our friend Deborah to open the house for the 2011 rental season. We were working frantically and wondering how we could possibly finish everything in time for our first guests.

Stuck stateside yet again, I was quietly plotting to squeeze a professional photo shoot of our house into the few hours between the end of the renovations and the beginning of the rental season. I surfed the web in search of the perfect photographer for this most delicate of jobs. I say “delicate” because time was short and Karen was frazzled.

I was very, very stressed. Picture one of those contestants on “Fear Factor.” We were coming down to the wire, with lots still to be done. I was terrified that a houseful of jetlagged Americans would arrive before the hot water heater was hooked up or the beds made. 

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Paul had found the perfect photographer for the job: Gianni Fantauzzi. Pronounced “Johnny Fawn-tout-see.”

Gianni is, in fact, a very busy wedding photographer. I’m not drawing any Bridezilla comparisons here. Really. And he had studied still life photography in London, so he speaks English flawlessly. Paul exchanged several pleasant emails with Gianni as the plot thickened. I had no idea any of this was going on. That was the idea.

With the last of the craftsmen preparing to leave the house and the cleaning crew about to show up for what promised to be a three-day scrub-down, Paul skyped me and ever-so-gently introduced his idea for a photo shoot. I’d practiced sounding nonchalant in front of the mirror. I dismissed his photographer idea out of hand. I think he could tell I was annoyed. Ya think? I swear she thought I said we should bring in a pornographer, so I repeated more slowly “photographer.” She wasn’t buying it. I decided to fall back and play for time.

Paul was great – really supportive and understanding of the impossibility of adding another big item to the “to do” list.   I really slathered on the salve. He invited me to sleep on the idea to see if it became any more appealing. What choice did I have? I was confident that, as the day of the first guests’ arrival drew closer, she would realize that the house had never looked better, and it was now or never for its long-awaited “glamour shots.” 

On the Wednesday before our Saturday opening, I was finally beginning to believe we would actually finish everything on time. This was the opening I’d been waiting for, so I pounced. Paul calmly forwarded his emails with Gianni and suggested I give the poor guy a call, if only to sound him out. I finally knew we had a chance. Before suggesting she call Gianni, I had briefed him on the whole situation and trusted him to seal the deal.

Gianni couldn’t have been more agreeable. He came the next day to scout for a Friday shoot, one day before the guests’ arrival. I could tell immediately he was perfect for the job. He was pleasant, engaging, and professional as he went room to room. To top it off, despite his perfect English, he encouraged me to speak Italian to give myself practice, unless something really important came up. Oh, this guy is very smooth. Well played, sir!

About an hour into his visit, Gianni said, “I have to tell you something in English because I want to make sure you understand. This is amazing – I have an appointment to take photos in Benano tomorrow. I’m shooting a new tile floor for the catalog of the company that made the terra cotta.”

Keep in mind that Benano is tiny. The whole village would fit on a football field. Because ours is the only house with recent construction (“recent,” as in since World War II), I said, “The floor you’re shooting has to be ours.” Cue that awful “It’s a Small World” song. 

As it turned out, our tile-maker was so impressed with what we had done with his tiles that he will feature our floor in his company’s catalog. Imagine, at a time when slipping a photographer into the house on the last possible day was but a figment of Paul’s fertile imagination, the publicist producing the catalog had independently hired “our” Gianni, of all the photographers in Italy. Sixty million people in Italy, and I stumbled across the one who already was scheduled to be in our house that Friday!

The story has a happy ending, as Paul and I both count Gianni as our friend. Have a look at a selection of the “glam shots” he took.


One final aside: It’s ironic that I found a wedding photographer beause Karen and I had no photographer when we got married 20 years ago. I hired one but forgot to give him the address of the church. At least I made sure Gianni got to the right place at the right time.

The Truth Can Finally Be Spoken

Construction?  What construction?

Yeah, there’s been a dearth of construction-related news here.

As the months and then years dragged on and our theoretically minor renovation project grew in scope and complexity, friends often asked how the work was progressing. My response?


I couldn’t possibly talk about it without exposing my abject fear that the project would never end — and certainly not before June 4, the scheduled date of arrival of our first guests. How could I possibly have posted pictures like this, taken in March?

Granted, it was a huge step ahead of where we started….

… but we were at a point of no return.

Unlike last year, when we were able to put the project on hold and open the house for the summer rental season, there was no turning back from a hole in the floor where we wanted stairs to be.  So I wrote a nary a word and posted nary a pixel.

Thing is, I was scared witless (or something that rhymes with it).  Time marched on while we (“The Benano Split” — Paul and I and our friends/co-owners Jeff and Robin) anxiously awaited news of progress. Meanwhile, unaware of our angst about the construction schedule, our 2011 guests were paying their deposits and buying their tickets.

But it all came together just in time.  It was if we had written the plans.  And, in fact, we did.  We planned for it to be finished by early June, but maybe we should have been more specific … it was originally intended to be completed in June 2010.

But we’re so happy with the results that the extra year hardly seems to matter anymore.

Here’s another set of before and after shots:

More to come.

This Old House

We landed yesterday morning in Rome and took the train to Orvieto, arriving just after 10:00 a.m.  I loved seeing our neighbors in Benano again, and my Italian teachers will be happy to know that our hard work is paying off:  I had actual conversations, simple though they were, with two of my favorite neighbors.  I was thrilled.  (ComplimentiAlessandra, Mariateresa e Michele!)

My Italian didn’t work quite as well in the meeting with our architect and contractors, but I would have missed half of a conversation in English about the kinds of finishing details we discussed.  (For example, I didn’t know the English word for a heavy, two-paneled ground-floor door on the outside of a thick stone wall, but now I know Italians use the term mercantile.)

The work on the house exceeded my expectations.  Since I was last here, our amazing and colorful team of contractors built an interior staircase that provides easy access from the first-floor kitchen to the ground-floor terrace, and they opened up a new window in an upstairs bathroom.  Permission to cut that window opening in the three-foot stone wall came only after we were able to prove to the authorities that there was historic precedent for it.  (We have a photo, which I will post later if I can find it, that shows the outline of a window in the stone wall.)  We’ve thus opened a view that was closed off many hundreds of years ago.  Seeing it for the first time, it occurred to me that the view from that window probably hasn’t changed a bit in all that time.  It still looks out on the same hill, the same forest, and the same fields farmed in the same way, with the same broad plateau beyond.


Channeling Nancy Drew … or, The Case of the Mysterious Fresco

We had heard that our little village of Benano is featured in a fresco in Orvieto, but all we knew was that it was supposed to be in a building across the piazza from the Duomo.  So I went on a fresco hunt this morning.

The Etruscan Museum is directly across from the church, so that was my first stop.  I was deflated when I saw its stark white walls.  Museum staff confirmed that I wouldn’t find any frescos there.  They didn’t know where to suggest I look, so I poked my head into a few shops opposite the church. Then I came to this locked door.

This looked as promising as it was imposing, and I suspected I had found it. I had also found a fellow student in the piazza, so she was with me when I rang the bell. The lock buzzed and the door popped open and we found ourselves in an empty marble stairwell. Seeing neither people nor a fresco, we took the only route possible, which was up the stairs. We came into another empty anteroom.  But this one had frescos near its very high ceiling. We had found it!  We took some pictures, congratulated ourselves on our ingenuity, and when no one ever came to see whom they had buzzed in, we left the building.

So I don’t know anything else about the fresco.  I’m clearly no Nancy Drew when it comes to sleuthing.

And that’s OK. I’m getting used to not understanding a lot of what’s happening around me. It’s a humbling and kind of liberating feeling.