One morning several years ago, I took a break from typing notes for my book. I sank into a chair at a deserted Thai resort, turned on the flickering satellite internet, and pulled up my bank account.
I stared at the screen for a minute.
In another window I clicked to enlarge the photo of a three-room house in Sicily that had been haunting me for half a year. A house that by most definitions wasn't one at all.
Then I made one of those life-changing decisions, a collision of circumstance with impulse, that leaves your loved ones reeling: I decided to buy a house I'd seen only in photos, in a town I'd never visited before, from people I'd never met.
The U.S. dollar had just shot up against the Euro. Now was the time to grasp a dream I'd been chasing for years: an art studio of my own.
Original photo of Studio Sicilia in 2008 from the agency's website
Small House Obsession
For years I'd scrolled through hundreds of websites in a half-dozen langauges, examining small one- or two-bedroom homes in southern Europe, searching for a location for an art studio. They ranged from cave houses in Spain to ruins on Greek islands, French farmhouses to Portuguese shacks. But they all had several things in common:
* They were in a place I spoke (or would like to speak) the language
* They wouldn't require a mortgage
* The local cuisine was spectacular
* Their winters were short and mild
Mags (L) and me in 2000, sculpture apprentices to Jerome F. Cox
Italy offered the most choice at my budget (as little as possible!), and Sicily was the most affordable. But while I'd once apprenticed to a sculptor in Tuscany, I'd never made it to Sicily. So a year before I bought my studio, I flew out for a visit to get a taste of the island. In Rome I saw my dad for the first time in years, then took a night train down to Sicily's east coast. It's the most developed part of Sicily, and the most Greek.
It was the off season. Cool air coasted through uncrowded streets. I wandered through the historic town of Siracusa by the sea, took the Circumaetna train up and down the notorious volcano, and scandalized hotel staff by chatting with old men whose wives waited for them at home. (Never mind that my husband was waiting in mine, far away in Hong Kong at the time.) The island's checkered history has left traces of civilizations past: Islamic, Spanish, Bourbon. The food is exquisite, and the urban accents are easy to understand — Italian's a second language for everyone here, too.
I wanted to come back. And knew that I would, some day soon.
Months later, I spotted a little "house" on an agency's website. It wasn't what most would think of as a house: three separate rooms, next to but not connected with one another, each with its own entrance, an old-fashioned pair of wooden doors. It was about the price of a decent secondhand car. Straight away, I fell hard for its unusual diagonal lines: an exterior staircase and sharply angled rooftops that carved up space in unexpected directions. Such a contrast to modern apartments: all rectangular boxes with standard windows. Vernacular architecture like this was just what I'd been looking for.
But I'd never visited the town of Cianciana, and couldn't find out much about it online. The agency listing it had received 100% positive ratings from expat buyers in online forums, and I contacted several to get more details.
A search turned up someone blogging about Cianciana, an American named Hilary. "Is there something wrong with the water?" I wrote. "Why are there so many properties on the market in such a small town?"
The water in Cianciana comes directly from a reservoir where well-known companies bottle their water, she said. For generations, many young people have moved to northern Italy and Europe, where there are more jobs. Cianciana's connections with England were the reason behind the English website.
Hilary volunteered to look at the house with the agents.
Studio downstairs from agency photo, 2008
Her report was grim.
"Don't get it," she said. "We couldn't tell what condition the floors were in, because the place was filled floor to ceiling with junk. It'll cost you at least double the purchase price to make it habitable. There are plenty of houses in town that'll cost you less to renovate, with more space." And she emailed them to me.
But I loved the building's quirky exterior. And the reason for its low price – its impossible interior – held possibilities. Its vaulted ceiling and wooden roof won me over, and its small size would control renovation costs. As I traveled through Southeast Asia, talking to papermakers for the last leg of my book, I couldn't stop thinking about it.
So that morning when the U.S. dollar spiked and the house price dipped under $10,000, I decided to gamble with my savings. "How much is required for a deposit?" I wrote the agency, which was called, appropriately enough, My House. They fired back an email to say that for about 40% down they could hold the house for me, and the game – the gamble – was on.
I did paperwork at Italian embassies, and more international transfers. Had headaches that were a precursor for more later, once renovations began. Some documents had a crucial word mis-translated, or were incorrectly stamped. There were extra fees and forms because I wanted to buy it under my own name (Italian law automatically puts property in a couple's name, but my husband naturally thought I was mad to buy the place and at the time wasn't interested in shouldering half the renovation costs). None of it was simple, but the agency was straightforward throughout, particularly Joe Guida, their British-Sicilian agent who deals with stranieri like me in fluent English. They were honest and wonderful to deal with, from beginning to end. (Actually there's not been an end to our relationship; they've been helpful with everything from electricians to documenting my first artist's stay at the studio.)
And nearly two years later, when for the first time I walked down the small street where my house stood locked in the dark, it was like greeting an old friend. Like me, she was showing her age, and her exterior looked a bit rougher in real life than in photos. She'd had an interesting past that I could only guess at by traces that remained: patterns rolled onto plaster walls, a bricked-up stove and blocked chimney. Soon I signed the papers and was handed a set of oversized antique keys, and she was mine.
And then the real work began. But that's another story.
It's taken several years to make the studio habitable, and there's much more work to be done. But it's been worth it to do it in the time frame of my life and projects, rather than that of a mortgage. To have the freedom to say: "Let's do these renovations next year" instead of taking out a loan. This is how people once bought their houses, and how many in Italy still do.
This is living life on my own terms, not those of a bank.
A synopsis of the transformation in pictures. Links to renovations after the photos.
The studio/living area has metamorphasized from this:
The bedroom entranceway from this (Joe Guida pictured):
the studio's entryway from this:
the bedroom brightened from a dark room with florid patterns:
to bright with new entranceways – all approved by a geometra (similar to an architect/head builder) – skylights, and white plaster and paint:
the bathroom from this – just a toilet and sink, with no shower or hot water -
from no kitchen to this:
Some nuts and bolts: it's relatively straightforward for most foreigners to buy property in Italy–long-term visas there are another matter. There can be pitfalls with illegal builds, particularly in the countryside. It's important to choose a trustworthy agency, and while foreigners will pay more than local residents, it's important to have a clear idea of what prices really are in the region.
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