Saturday, 16 November 2013

Starting Work

Starting Work

A brief summary of what went before


I was on holiday in the outback of Australia when my husband first had the idea of renovating a house in Greece.


The next year we took a trip to the island of Lemnos for a quick look, to see if we thought this plan was really possible. We also visited Athens and Santorini.

Takis had known what he was doing: when he took me to see the house, he’d counted on the romance getting to me. And it did. I now found myself buying French and Italian house-and-garden magazines and looking for pictures of old stone houses with shutters. And then, when I caught myself trying to find out something about the history of Greek ‘Venetian’ houses, I realised I was well and truly hooked.


And, the following year, although we only owned half the shares of the house, we began work.

Whatever you can do or dream, you can begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. 
William Hutchinson Murry

Owning as many shares as he did Takis felt that he needed to protect his investment – at least to get the roof repaired. He fatalistically believed that, since much had worked out well for us up until now, things would continue to do so. I still had my doubts. I could not forget that as well as the old collapsing terracotta-tiled roof there were 300 square metres of uneven and cracked floorboards and damp crumbling stone walls, each 800 millimetres thick, to deal with. True, there were things to be excited about, but there were many other things that were not ideal. However, if I was honest, I knew we were both falling in love with the idea of renovating an old stone house.

It was September 2004. Takis' daughter came with us for the first month and we stayed two more. At first she and I went from room to room trying to put some order; emptying out all the accumulated rubbish left in the house by previous generations. Our investigation of the house was in many ways a repeat of the investigation Takis and I had made the previous year. We went from room to room and opened up a few shutters here and there. As we opened up one set of shutters a neighbour outside yelled up a warning at us, as he could see that the shutter was hanging by only one hinge and was in danger of falling down into the street below.

Whereas the year before I’d entered the house with mixed feelings this time I was excited by the idea of actually part-owning the house. So, although the plaster was stained, the shutters boarded up or hanging at an angle, I felt energized by the determination to renovate. Of course, looking at that outside balcony, rusted and slowly dropping boards into the street below, and at the electrical cables hanging precariously from the walls of each room, I could also see there was a daunting job ahead of us.

And not only in the house, for this was a house-and-garden complex. Out in the garden, while there was potential there was also much exhausting work to be done. Alongside the road was a two-metre high stone wall leaning out at dangerous angles, and the large yard looked like a disused football field. It took a lot of imagination to envisage this as a garden full of patios, terraces, trees, beans, cabbages and tomatoes.

Moving from room to room, looking at the piles of rubbish in each room – at the old beds and mattresses, chairs and pictures – we wondered how and where to start. Was there anything that could or should be kept? What should we throw out? The bedrooms (for nearly all the rooms had been turned into bedrooms) had countless sagging beds with lumpy sagging mattresses. The dated bathroom was similar to those you find in run-down hostels. And the kitchen had a ceiling that was grubby with years of cooking splatters. There were also numerous small tables, whose legs were standing in metal containers that we assumed had been filled with water to keep ants at bay.

So, while Takis visited engineers and talked to neighbours, we two began hauling out old torn, smelly curtains, cushions, sofas and mattresses. And, after heaving it all down two flights of stairs, we dragged everything to one end of the back terrace. The pile grew and grew. In the end we counted fourteen mattresses, several old bedsteads, many card tables, broken chairs and bags of old shoes. Still the pile continued to grow until it was as high as the first floor.

A neighbour came to see what we were doing. We showed her the pile. And when we were finished, though we were hot, sweaty and dirty, and exhausted, we were laughing as we balanced triumphantly on the top of the heap.

That evening I wrote a list of some of the things we’d discarded. When I read it aloud Takis said we should set it to the music of the carol, ‘On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me’ – though we agreed that sending any of these things would be no act of true love.

1 lounge suite – stained
2 bags of old photos, papers and letters
3 portable wardrobes – unstable
4 suitcases – stiff
5 card tables – wobbly
6 pairs of shoes – squished
7 leather bags – hard
8 bedside tables – peeling
9 pillows – saggy
10 picture frames – chipped
11 cushions – misshapen
A box with 12 cheap necklaces
Curtains for 13 windows – rotting
14 mattresses – grotty

1 ironing board – shaky
A few plastic potties – all colours
Buckets and spades – cracked
A beach umbrella – broken
And a black tuxedo – old fashioned.

The bags of old photos and papers we stored in a chest of drawers that I intended to keep. We also decided to look at the old dress jewellery again. The tuxedo I kept, as the waistcoat and trousers fitted me perfectly. A day or two later a truck drove up to remove the pile. It took two trips to remove the accumulated debris.

Books about overseas renovations

Jeffrey Greene, French Spirits:A House, a Village, and a Love Affair in Burgundy (Harper Perennial, 2003) Greene tells in lyrical prose the story of turning and old presbytery into a home. He is an American poet and I found his account charmingly sympathetic to the neighbourhood and house.

Eleni Gage, North of Ithaka (Bantam Press, 2004). Eleni is the daughter of Nicholas Gage who wrote a book called Eleni about his mother. This book was later made into a film and it told of her imprisonment and execution during the Greek Civil War. Eleni, the grandaughter, goes back to rebuild the family house. This is the book that most echoes our building adventures while also drawing on references to the family’s past.

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