During the first week in Italy, we got temporary transportation and began looking for housing. At first, new friends would go with us to help find homes and tell us more about the area. Before we had left for Italy, the Military had sent us an “introductory memo” of some kind that informed us that we needed to show up with at least $600 (or more!) in extra cash to purchase things like closets and storage cabinets (and that was a lot of money for a young lieutenant!). They weren’t kidding! The military was shipping all our furniture to Italy, but most Americans did not already own closets or kitchen cabinets!
The Italian houses (aka, villas, meaning detached homes) were quite different than our American homes. The first thing we had to do was to get acquainted with what to expect when looking at houses. The Italians bought houses with nothing except the bathrooms intact (which, BTW, were usually beautiful!). The kitchens had the plumbing sticking out of the walls, but they expected to purchase all their cabinets as well as their sink and faucets. As for the bedrooms, they were just empty rooms with no built-in closets. That was why we needed to bring money! If the Italian owners listed the house for rent on the base, they had to agree to install a sink and a faucet in the kitchen. Everything else was up to us.
The other real difference was what materials were used and what colors were on the outside. Where Americans might expect carpet or hardwood floors, the Italians used tiles. And I mean, they used tiles everywhere and they seldom matched from room to room. We had marble tile on the treads of the stairs, tile on the porch, different tiles in every room and tiles on the entire bathroom. The bathrooms were usually beautiful and had everything included, even a bidet. We used our bidet to bathe the girls in when they were little. Other friends of ours put a pretty fern or a decorative plant in theirs. After we had lived there a while, we learned to use the bidets as designed, but it took a while!
As for the outside colors, their idea of what made a beautiful home was also different from Americans, especially with the "newer" homes. Once we found our house and moved in, our landlord, for example, was still painting the exterior of the home. He painted the front of the house a lovely moss green, and the side of the home a cream color. Then he started painting the wrought iron railings on the porch. He started painting the outside railings black. That seemed nice, even though we had two colors on the outside of the house. Then he returned and started painting part of the decorative parts of the railings in white. He later came back and painted the other decorative parts blue.
As he was painting the last of the railings, he asked me if I liked it. I was a bit flustered on how to answer and not upset him. I told him that in America, we did not use as many colors. He asked what I thought. I told him it seemed a bit like a "carnivale" to me (Remember, my language skills were still VERY limited!). He laughed. He told me that the various colors showed that the owner had really cared about what colors went on the house and was a sign of "prestige". Remember, we were living in a small village next to the mountains. I feel certain that the people in Milan or Rome may not have felt the same way.
The Italian homes also usually had "persianas" or "rolladens" (built-in moving exterior shutters that went up and down; forgive me for probably not spelling those names correctly; one name is supposedly Italian and the other is supposedly German... we were in the Alpine area of Italy where both languages often merged). The shutters were great for hail storms, but did nothing to keep out bugs during the summer months. The homes did not include screens. As a result, many of us Americans went to the base woodwork shop and made screens that we could pressure into the marble frames of the windows outside the persianas. Our landlord thought they were absolutely unnecessary and laughed about them.
About 30 years later, we visited the home when we returned to Italy on a "Reunion Trip" with the Aviano Reunion Association. The landlord has since passed away, but his son (who was about my girls' age) was now living there with his wife and two girls. As we were talking with them, I noticed that the screens were still there, but now painted and well tended! The wife commented on how wonderful they were and that the children did not get bug bites. I told her (quite proudly) that we made them! It was a really fun moment. She had really thought they were marvelous.
As an example of how all this affected our looking for houses, I offer this funny experience. One day, Tom and I were out by ourselves looking for a home in a borrowed car. Our babies were being looked after by a lovely American family with five children, the Girards. We had heard about an interesting home somewhere near Porcia that was available for rent. The “padrone” (landlord) was not “registered” with the base, so there were NO cabinets anywhere. I had my handy-dandy dictionary with me and we pantomimed most all of the conversation. Things like “Is this the ‘camera’?” (which means bedroom OR room) and he kept saying “si”. Yep, they were all “rooms”! All rooms were basically vacant and the whole house (including the garage) had beautifully tiled floors. The man was very nice, but we could tell the house would never work for us.
As we were trying to back up after saying “Grazie” and “Buona Sera” and “Ciao” many times, we had trouble figuring out how to put the car in reverse. As we were finally backing up, the man kept waving “ciao” (with his hands waving in a way that looked to us like “come here”). “On, no!”, we said to each other. “He wants us to come back!” We kept smiling though our teeth, but made a special effort to get the car back into “forward”. As we did so, you could see him waving almost frantically for us to ignore what he had “waved”! He started waving “NOOOOO”. I am sure he was more delighted than we were as we continued on our way.
Isn't Italy wonderful??!!