While we were walking in Spain last month, our house in Martina Franca experienced a much-anticipated facelift. Ever since we acquired this centuries-old place years ago, we had intended to address its aging stucco façade before chunks of ancient plaster wreaked havoc on passers-by below. But there always seemed to be something else more urgent to fix, so we postponed the inevitable until we couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Home improvement is never pleasant, but now I am a firm believer in absenting yourself completely during the process. While there is some inherent risk in trusting the fates to make sure it all works out the way you imagined, avoiding the dust and noise made it all worthwhile. Hedging our bets, we deputized friends to drop by, unannounced, to assess the progress, surreptitiously shooting the occasional photo to send us in an effort to calm my nerves. It turns out we needn’t have worried. Angelo, our intonachista (plasterer), was an absolute champion. He came highly recommended by the neighbors who had not-so-subtly referred him to us over the years. His work was superb and he finished the job both on budget and weeks earlier than promised, firmly dismissing stereotypes of Italian remodeling horror stories. He even sent his own photos to us on the Camino, pressing his son into service to navigate the electronic mail infrastructure on his behalf.
After we returned to a shiny new, blindingly white house, we were visited by representatives of Martina Franca’s Comitato Centro Storico, a citizens’ group dedicated to preserving and improving Martina’s historic town center. It seems they wanted to include our house in a competition called “Barocco in Fiore,” an effort to adorn as many centro storico balconies with flowers and hanging vines as possible, focusing attention on Martina Franca’s baroque architecture among the annual wave of summer tourists. But that appeal was just the thin end of the wedge. Next we were invited to join the committee to further its good works, including translation services and an appeal to share the punto di vista degli stranieri (foreigners’ view) on such pressing issues as parking in the historic center, litter abatement and more.
We went along to our first meeting eager to join in with fellow preservationists. While the group bore some resemblance to volunteer civic groups everywhere, there were some classically Italian elements that served to remind us that we were out of our cultural depth. The meeting started pleasantly enough: introductions were made and polite chat about where we lived, who we knew and what we thought of Martina Franca occupied the first half hour. But it became clear that no decision-making would take place at the actual meeting since factions had already met and discussed their positions in advance. And because the positions were fairly well entrenched—and diametrically opposed—nothing much happened beyond a drawn-out discussion of where the Barocco in Fiore ballots should be printed and how much should be spent to finish the job. Oh, and there was quite a lot of back and forth about whether or not to identify street names on the map that accompanied the Barocco in Fiore
competition, along with how the map should be folded to best effect. All of the comitato members thought it best to share their thoughts simultaneously, with voices that got louder and more definitive as opposing views were aired. Every so often, someone would need to leave the room for a cigarette, stopping to light up, breathe in and exhale for emphasis before actually leaving the room.
While we adore the way all these newly-flowering balconies cascade prettily throughout the main thoroughfares and meandering alleyways of our town, we have decided that the committee is doing a wonderful job without us and we needn’t return to the weekly meetings unless a translation is urgently required or a foreign opinion sought. Perhaps civic volunteer work is the same the world over and we lack the stuff of committed foot soldiers. Still, we’ll lend our support from afar by patching our stucco, watering our new plants and vigilantly collecting any litter that strays into our path. And we’ll keep you posted on whether or not we prevail in the competition, but there are serious contenders in our own little quartiere alone. After pulling and alarming number of dead blossoms from our geraniums this morning, we’ll probably vote for them, too.