“What do you mean, the old men of the village don’t come over to take a look at a building site in the UK?” asked my Italian friend, bewildered.
I was asking why, over the last month or so, a stream of people have walked, driven and peered over at our ongoing – and increasing – collection of bricks and dust. It would appear that putting up a crane is the equivalent of sending out a round of party invitations.
“But you’ve put up a wall?” this grey-haired, heavily-accented villager exclaimed disappointedly, having stepped across the threshold into what will become our new home. “Before it was all open-plan: entrance, kitchen, living room, all together…”
I briefly run him through the plans: this downstairs area will become a hidden laundry room, wine cellar and additional food storage space. I conveniently leave out the fact that the architect had initially wanted to put in another dividing wall to make this space even more fragmented.
I decide to divert the course of the conversation by asking more about what the house was like before I arrived. My knowledge of the people who lived here before us was very limited. I knew that they were an elderly couple and they had been rather backward shepherds. The outside area has strange nooks, crannies and winches that evidently were used for keeping animals and storing hay. Apparently their dog was always tied up. Fifteen years, permanently attached to a hook on the wall. I’ve been told too that the bathroom was only put in ten years ago; before that, the toilet was outside.
My spontaneous visitor today told me about the other side of their lives and livelihood.
In the space in which now holds our two cars and a trailer of logs, they kept seven hundred sheep. (I think that number is a bit of an exaggeration but it’s what he told me.) The sheep would graze on the two adjacent hillsides, nowadays so dominated by vineyards that it is practically inconceivable that so many sheep could have found enough pastoral land on which to feed.
Returning to the house, this man explained that this ground floor area was also where they made cheese; sometimes neatly arranged by the open fireplace to absorb the smokey flavours, other times kept in a cupboard near the doorway to be aged. The upstairs (in what will become our living room) was where they laid out wool to be washed and brushed.
The goat’s skull that I found (did you see this post?) was actually quite famous. (Whoops!)
It turns out that as well as sheep, they had several goats. These goats were of a rare breed, native to our town and brought back from the brink of extinction only through the efforts of this couple. It apparently was so remarkable and their dedication so admirable that they were featured several times on the main Italian television channel, Rai 1.
I bring myself to ask what happened to these rare goats once the couple retired and subsequently died. He tells me that there are still a few of these goats being raised on a hillside a couple of kilometres away from here. In doing so, he aroused a curiosity that is surely going to get me the reputation in the village of being the crazy lady. Once the grape harvest is over and I have spare time once again, I want to find out more about these goats and if their new owners are making cheese from their milk by the fireplace.