This article appeared in the March/April 2003 issue of Dream of Italy. Updated 2018.
When we were Romans, we fell in love with Lake Bracciano.
It wasn’t hard. Lake Bracciano, less than an hour from the Colosseum as the pigeon flies, is one of the best day trips out of the Italian capital.
The lake is big, deep and clean. Three ocher-colored medieval towns, one with a rambling 16th-century castle, sit along its banks and in the rolling green hills hugging its waters.
A long, lazy meal at one of the many sun-kissed restaurants along the shore is a favorite Roman pastime. And for us, swimming off a rented pedal boat in the lake’s blue-green water is one of life’s great pleasures. Followed by lunch.
So when we saw the little strip of land for sale perched just above the lake in the small town of Trevignano, we had to buy it. We were staying in Rome forever. We had decided that. So what better long-term project than to slowly build a weekend house at a place the family all wanted to go when we woke up on a summer morning?
The problem was the “forever” part.
Just two years after my husband, Mick, and I sat at a settlement table and plunked down most of our life’s savings for that little sliver of hill with its amazing lake view, we were packing up to move to Washington.
When we left Rome in the winter of 1997, our house was just a concrete shell. Only the week before, we had signed an agreement with Domenico, a local builder, to construct the house. At that point, we could have sold it, abandoning the project like we were doing our life in Italy. But we decided not to.
And we found that the biggest trade-off we made by moving to Washington, D.C., was the exchange of a 45-minute drive for an 18-hour, two-plane journey to our weekend house. And forget the weekend part altogether.
But we persisted. We felt we never really had a choice.
So for the past five years, we have been building a house in Italy from Washington while working at full-time jobs and raising two teenagers, going to check on the project for only two — sometimes three — weeks a year.
And now, seven years after we signed on the dotted line, we’re actually almost done. And we managed to do it without getting divorced, or having a nervous breakdown or a serious falling-out with anyone in Trevignano.
For anyone contemplating building a house abroad, ours is a tale of the trials that occur when you live tens of thousands of miles away from your vacation home.
The Back Story
Our house couldn’t have happened without Italo and Eufemia, the Italian couple in their forties who own the other half of our duplex. Our houses — theirs is hot pink, ours is yellowy gold — are attached on one side, although you hardly notice it. (The colors look good, too. I swear.)
Because I was born in Italy and come from a long line of Italians, I know well the Italian cardinal rule: It’s all who you know. What convinced me the project was even possible was that we were basically doing it on the heels of Italo and Eufemia, who knew exactly what they were going to build and with whom.
Italo works for the town government and Eufemia sells vegetables in the local market, and the two of them had been waiting years for building approval on their land.
The owner of our part of the land immediately put his up for sale when the approval came through. Land with building approval is worth significantly more than the same parcel without approval — for obvious reasons.
Over the years Italo and Eufemia waited, they researched every builder, every carpenter, every plumber, every wrought-iron worker in the area. Although you employ only one builder in Italy, you still have to choose your own subcontractors, although the builder can make recommendations.
We skipped the research entirely and just used the same workers as Italo and Eufemia.
So by the time we left Italy, we had everyone lined up, down to the electrician and the plumber (Eufemia’s nephew). The rather large obstacle of who-would-do-what had been neatly taken care of. And we watched while our neighbors built their house, always two steps ahead of us.
The plans that were approved by the local council were also quite detailed. They dictated every aspect of the proposed houses — from their square footage to their height and width. We were only allowed 1 1/2 levels above ground; our houses would constitute what is called a bifamiliare, or a two-family house.
Most European countries prohibit brand-new mini-mansions on the edge of historic medieval town centers — the main reason Europe still looks as it does.
Italians stretch building plans as much as they can, though, since a sense of civic duty is not a predominant national trait. But if they go too far, they’re slapped with hefty fines and sometimes forced to take the offending structure down — unless a bribe can help.
For our house, Domenico cheated as much as he thought we could get away with, subtly adding several hundred illegal square feet to our house by enclosing a section that on the plans was left open as a portico, digging out a wine cellar off the back of the basement and extending the size of the kitchen/dining room, which was under the new portico area.
Hopefully nobody will notice. If anyone tells on us, Italo and Eufemia insisted, we’ll just tell on them. Everyone does it, she said.
Lots of Tiles, No Beds
Building a house means constantly compromising. It also means a lot of shopping. Both of these are not the best ways to spend your vacation.
During one visit — the summers all run together in one big blur of errands — Domenico said it was time to pick out our floors and tiles. We’d go together to the store one afternoon. He didn’t mention that we’d be picking every floor, every tile, every towel rack and every cabinet for the entire house.
When we arrived at the store, we started looking through the terracotta floor tiles (most of the house has tile floors). Then we moved on to the hardwood samples for our bedroom. Then there were the outside tiles for the terrace, the two side patios and the area around the front door.
Then came the bathroom section, filled with a dizzying array of tiles, faucets, bathtubs, handles, towel racks, shower doors and shower nozzles.
No break after two hours in bathrooms. Straight on to kitchens, where I spent much of the time worrying about the choices I had just made for the bathrooms. Several fitted kitchens were laid out. My throat was parched from the July heat.
“We need to select our entire kitchen now, too, Domenico?” I asked, my head aching and Mick flagging next to me.
“If you don’t pick it this summer then it’ll all get delayed another year. Just do it now. And then we’ll go have a gelato.”
In less than 10 minutes, Mick and I picked out the kitchen that we plan on owning until we die. And I hate the countertops.
In the land of granite and marble — and they weren’t even that much more — we picked a kitchen with laminate countertops. I didn’t even realize it that afternoon.
But Domenico was right. Errands do get delayed a year when you don’t have time to cross them off the list that year. Like what happened with the downstairs beds.
When we looked through our to-do list a couple days before leaving in the summer of 2000, we realized that one of the things we hadn’t yet done was talk to Franco, our carpenter.
For years, we had been talking about building two loft beds for our downstairs bedrooms. We had to get that squared away with Franco before we left, or we’d have no beds for two years.
We swung by Franco’s shop. It was shuttered, even though it was still before 1 p.m., Italian siesta closing time. We went to the coffee bar next door to ask where he was.
“Franco closed his shop for summer vacation this morning,” the guy at the bar told us. “He was here until noon today closing up.” I looked at my watch. It was 12:30. We were leaving the next day. He wouldn’t be back until September.
“Yell up to his parents,” the coffee man said helpfully. “They live above his shop.”
“Signora Torrigiani,” I yelled at the closed windows, trying to get Franco’s mother’s attention. “Signora Torrigiani!”
The windows stayed tightly shuttered.
“Maybe they went with him for a few days,” the coffee man suggested. “When they come back, they can give you the number of where he is.”
When they come back? In a few days?
Tears sprang to my eyes.
“But I won’t be here in a few days,” I stammered. “And I need him to come up to my house today.”
“Well, then come back when you are here,” he said. “He’ll be here. Franco’s always here.”
I started to cry. The man stared at me.
“That woman is getting very upset about Franco not being here,” I heard him say to an elderly gentleman nursing a cup of coffee, looking as if he had nothing to do for the next few months.
“Isn’t that the woman who’s built a house up the hill?” he asked the coffee man. “Si, I think that is her. Why do you think she’s getting that upset about Franco?”
A year later, we talked to Franco and he came and measured. And so last year, we had beds.
Putting Down Roots
Why stay with a project this hard? Why didn’t we just sell when we left Italy for Washington, D.C.? Well, for starters, there’s the lake — and the kids.
At lunchtime in Trevignano, we almost always head to our favorite spot: a vine-covered restaurant called La Casina Bianca (the Little White House), which is along the lake. We like it because you can swim at the beach, eat a beautiful lunch, swim some more, have an ice cream and a coffee in the afternoon, all without moving much.
The owner’s three sons wait on tables while the mother, a friendly Neapolitan, cooks. We eat homemade pasta with porcini mushrooms and the lightly fried local lakefish known as persico.
One day after lunch last summer, as we sat on the sun-dappled patio, the 14-year-old son of an expatriate couple who have lived in Trevignano for years walked up and joined us.
“Ciao, Roscio!” the waiter called to Julian, a lively redheaded teenager with a face full of freckles. He’s known around town as Roscio or Red. He’s completely bilingual, and he’s our sons’ best friend there.
Julian ordered french fries and doused them with salt and fresh lemon. “I love them with lemon,” he told Patrick and Ben, who were skeptical. “Let’s go play with the boat.”
While the boys splashed each other from their cheap blow-up boats, Mick and I ordered two espressos and two Amaros, the Sicilian after-dinner drink we love, and watched them. One of the best things about going to Trevignano is what the boys do there.
Because we don’t have a computer and there’s nothing on Italian television in the morning, they do all of their summer reading in the two weeks we’re there. In the afternoons, they play for hours in the lake. And in the evenings after dinner, they walk over to the coffee bar in Trevignano’s main piazza and play video games with a gaggle of local kids. Or they beat them at basketball at the old hoop in the center of the square.
Trevignano is a safe, sleepy little town. We let them run around without worrying.
“Pat, over here,” Ben called, laughing at his big brother, imploring him to throw the ball. Julian hurled himself, back first, onto the boat.
They’re still little boys here. And the coffee is delicious.
But what drove us to stick with our house wasn’t just what everyone loves about Italy — the cappuccino, glorious weather, terraced hills and astounding architecture. For me, it was about my past, my family’s past and who I am. And Mick knows and respects this.
My father, Luigi Iacono, brought his family to Washington from Italy in 1957 when I was 3 years old, after he’d lost most of his money in a failed business venture in Naples. Luigi used to tell my brother and me when we were kids growing up in Arlington, Virginia, that the Iaconos really belonged in Italy, that America wasn’t our home. It was only temporary, he would say. Assimilation was not his goal; he insisted we speak only Italian at home.
As with many immigrants, though, my father never did go back. He died in the United States, in a Virginia condo only 10 months after Mick and I moved back from Rome. My mother still lives there.
Even though my parents never went back, I did, my father’s words propelling me there. After I graduated from college, I decided I had to go live in Italy.
Mick and I met in Rome six months after I arrived. We stayed for six years. And again, after our boys were born, we went back for another four. The time we thought was going to be forever — the time we bought the land.
But as with my father, America had its pull, too. At a certain point in my life, it seemed the right place for me to go with my family. And for now, it’s better that I stay in the United States.
When I do go back to Italy to live, though — as I surely will — I’ll have my little duplex to go to, a luxury my parents never had.
— Daniela Deane