Thursday, February 18, 2010

Riding Around on the Carouse-e-el

While waiting for the re-wired money to be accepted by our Italian bank this time, I must run to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to meet Prince Sultan bin Salman, who in 1985 went up in the NASA Space Shuttle.

On the 5:00 a.m. drive to Rome we pass, at the turn off to the new property, a burning car that has driven into a roadside ditch and exploded in the early morning hours . I don't believe in omens, but my Italian driver grabs his crotch and suggests I should do the same anyway. A gesture to ward of bad luck.

2.5 hours later, at Rome's Da Vinci Airport, I board my plane to Frankfort, Germany, where I expect to catch a flight to Riyadh. 2.5 hours later, I arrive in Frankfort having missed that flight. At the Luftansa info desk I am told there is simply no other plane that can get me to Riyadh in time for the meeting that day, so, after a 3.0-hour lay over, I board a return flight to Rome and arrive back at Podere Villore around ten 0'clock that evening.

But there is some good news: The money has cleared, and the family has agreed to reconvene for the sale on May 22nd at noon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Deal Is Off!

In Siena we park beside a spinning carousel, unaware of how apt it is as a metaphor.

Stefania asks what we intend to do. In Italy it's illegal to write a bad check, so our choices are really only one. We can sign the checks and find ourselves in jail, or we can tell the truth and hope the notary, Mr. Kopini, will do everything but transfer legal ownership to us.

This is disconcerting because we would not have driven to Siena if this was the only option. Why didn't we discuss this before traveling all the way here? Because Stefania and her husband Antonio were buying a second small parcel from the same family and it was convenient for them to transact the sale at the same time.

As we walk, Stefania warns us about something she calls "Italian bluster." She says not to be alarmed if we experience it at the meeting. But we don't have to wait that long.

On a quaint street before a quaint door outside the surprisingly modern Notaio's office, we converge with Daniele and the family of sellers. When Stefania pulls Daniele aside and explains the money situation in hushed tones, Daniele's face turns bright red and he speaks rapidly. "The truth must be told!"

We enter the office and stand in the waiting room. Mr. Kopini enters and greets us. Stefania pulls him aside and has a word with him while the rest of go into the meeting room.

At the long boardroom table, the family arranges itself while Sally, Daniele and I sit at the Notary's end of the table, leaving a chair for Stefania between us. At the far end of the table sits a dignified, immediately likable, English speaking man, a Florentine banker here to represent his recently indisposed wife. Beside him is a regal looking older woman and another well-heeled man in a suit (a power attorney from Grossetto). There is also a doctor and his pretty wife. This is the Bracciali clan, the elegant, educated part of the family. They hold one-half of the property shares and are the ones who took the trouble to introduce themselves to us in the foyer.

From the middle of the table down sit the members of the Manzi clan, owners of the other half. These include the aging car mechanic of Montisi and his brother, as well as a tightly wound, 40-something woman with witchy black hair that has in it, the more I look, seed pods of some kind, as though she's just crawled out from under a bush. She sits directly across from Sally and glares. Beside her, across from me, is a man I assume is her brother. He is wearing sunglasses, and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, and several gold chains around his thick neck, and a tee-shirt. He is slouching in his chair, arms folded (I'm not kidding) like James Gandolfini. Did I say he's wearing sunglasses inside? Sunglasses and a cap that he will leave on all through the meeting?

Stefania comes in and explains in English that the Mr. Kopini refuses to do anything at all until we have the money in hand, and that we need to explain the situation to the family. Sally and I are mortified, of course. And when Stefania explains in Italian the reaction is palpable and dramatic.

"If I’d known, I wouldn’t have driven all the way from Grossetto," says the lawyer. Sally pleads that we are sincerly sorry and Stefania even shows the bank memo explaining that the money was wrongly returned. But this is where the division in the family becomes clear. the seed pod coiffed woman and her shady brother erupt in machine-gun Italian too rapid and simultaneous for me understand or recount here. Finally, the elegant banker at the far end of the table injects a voice of calm: "We know you are honest. It is just a mistake." The black sheep go quiet for a moment.

Seizing the moment, the notary asks Sally and me to excuse ourselves and tell Antonio to come in so he and Stefania can at least go through with their own purchase. But seed pod woman slams her fist to the table. “I am mad," she says to Stefania. "I was in an institution!” Then she points to Sally and me. "Without their money, no deal." The pair of shades beside her nods agreement. Now everyone is talking, including Mr. Kopini, trying to convince the two black sheep that Stefania is only our translator and the land sales have nothing to do with each other. But they won't listen. Everything is off unless all the money is here. Period.

Embarrassed and feeling bad for Stefania and Antonio, I'm tempted to take this as a sign and forget the whole deal. But the Notaio, all business, invites the sellers, if they still want to sell, to give power of attorney to one or two representatives, making it easier when the money is is in the bank. Everyone does except the black sheep, who immediately leave in a huff.

And that is why I have no picture of the family to show.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Circus Begins

Delirious with jet-lag the day after I started chopping vines, I made the mistake of asking Daniele if it was OK to do this. He said no, the owners were liable if I got hurt, but he said it staring off into space as Italians tend to do when they really think something is your own private business.

Sally and I discussed it that evening and agreed that: A) We absolutely needed to know as much as possible about the property before we committed thousands of dollars of our savings to it, and B) I would absolutely not sue if I did hurt myself. So, I put on my gloves and went back to work.

Two mornings later Stefania called to say we needed to go to the bank RIGHT NOW! to get a bank draft to transfer to one of the ten owners to get the chicken coop volumes added on the maps in Siena so the property would be ready to buy when the entire ten-member clan sat down together at Mr. Kopini the notary's office at 5:00 p.m. on May 15th, 9 days. It was the first we had heard of this date.

I won't go into the complicated way money is handled in Italy at this point, nor will I bore you with the crazy loopy way we had to assemble our weak dollars, convert them to Euros, and wire transfered them to our bank in Montalcino to cover the checks we were about to write in fractions of 26ths. Suffice it to say that when the 15th rolled around, our best efforts would inevitably, but not predictably, be thwarted.

Over the week I hacked and flailed and pulled and stacked, surprised by how well the first vines I'd unsmothered were doing, and by how many vines and fruit and nut trees were actually alive under the strangling canopy. During breathers, bright red field poppies, yellow broom, purple wisteria, green winter wheat, cherries and salmon pink peaches in bloom, were the more distant impressions I took in. While the cuckoo's woodwind complaint mocked me, Sally crawled around staining her knees and keeping an eye our for vipers, but not for the beautiful cock pheasant that spooked her when she nearly bumped into it and set it to flight.

For some reason, though we'd wired it from New York with time to spare, our money was not showing up at our branch bank account. Sally made countless calls to the States only to be assured that it had indeed been wired. Somehow it had disappeared in wire-space.

On the morning of the 15th, $150,000 was still not in our account. But our Italian bank had figured out where it was: It was now back in our New York account, where it had been rerouted, quite arbitrarily, by someone at the main office in Rome.

In a few short hours, we would meet the sellers holding checks that were essentially worthless.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

CRAWL! By Sally Gall

As I was using a sharp machete to discover the features of property we didn't yet own, Sally was crawling around on hands and knees using her sharp eye to discover a world where much goes on unnoticed except by babies, soldiers and picnickers. It's a jungle down there at ground level, and the beautiful photographic exhibition she created from the point of view of the newly born, the resting, and the dying has introduced us to a new kind of natura morta.

"Grand Jete"

"Salad Days"

"Pas de Deux"

"Study for a Roman Fresco"