Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

To Dream the Impossible Dream

We are building our dream house.

We’ve been at it for a little over five years now. So, who out there in the crowd would like to take a stab at guessing where we are, exactly, in the dream house construction? I hear “choosing window treatments” from the back. The little bald guy here in front says “final touches on landscaping” as he puts away his landscape supplies. Well, everyone hold that thought, and I’ll get to it in a minute.

I’ve discovered that building your dream house is not all it’s cracked up to be. You see, dreaming is what happens when one is lying in bed at night, soundly sleeping. Reality is what goes down when one is lying in bed at night, wide awake.

For example, I always dreamed of owning a piece of land where I could build myself a big old house any damn way I wanted to. And the money to afford it. The reality is that we have the incredibly good fortune to own farmland in a historically protected area inside a park. On the other hand, we unfortunately own farmland in a historically protected area inside a park. So already real life starts to move at least a couple of paces away from dreamland.

We can’t build anything ex novo. Because it’s farmland, and it’s a park. We can do Orange County residential remodel, and, within some pretty restrictive limits, add onto existing structures. But that’s okay, because my in-laws live in a house much too large for just the two of them, so the plan is to divide their home, carve out an apartment for them, and take the rest plus a bit that we will build on for ourselves.

Another example of the reality not matching up to the dream thing. Never, ever, in my wildest, craziest, most terrorizing dreams did I conjure up a situation of essentially sharing a semi-detached with my mother-in-law until death do us part. Which some days threatens to be sooner than nature intended. But I’m okay with it. I have reached a place that can be characterized, depending upon one’s point of view, as bitter resignation or Zen-like acceptance. I know this because there has been a dramatic decrease over the past decade of conversations with my husband which begin with me saying the words, “Can you believe your mother just….?”.

And we can’t build in any style that suits our fancy. Historically protected means that it will be stone walls, terra cotta tiles, and wooden shutters, thank you very much. Everything. Our doghouse has a cotta tiled roof. So there goes my dream of a Graceland replica right here in central Umbria, complete with the fully upholstered billiard room. (I’m kidding. Anyone else out there ever visit Graceland? My brother and I road-tripped from Chicago one crazy weekend while we were in college, a weekend which culminated in a heavy late night rap session about life priorities and facing up to adult responsibility in an all-night diner with the sum total of our remaining cash laying on the table between us, by the end of which we had managed to convince ourselves that the wisest decision was to go with the the four foot by two foot framed black velvet painting of The King (in his Vegas period) and sleep our final night in the car. The painting still resides in my parents’ basement, and every couple of years they stumble on it again and threaten to either ship it to us in Alaska or Italy or throw it out.)

So, okay. Stone, terracotta, attached to the in-laws’ house. We started drawing up blueprints.

I’ve discovered that drawing up plans for your dream house is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I’m from a culture in which your life is divided among a succession of houses, commonly located in a succession of cities or states. My husband’s family, on the other hand, can trace themselves to this piece of land we still own, based on a fragment of parchment that we just recently discovered in the local archives, to 1130. Right. Like, a hell of a long time in dog years. So let’s just say that if it were a choice between moving or giving up his kidneys, we’d be looking at lifelong dialysis for my spouse. This is paired with the fact that I, after more than a decade of building, renovating, refurbishing, and generally ruining my nails, have sworn that our house will be the last time (LAST TIME) we do any sort of construction work. Ever.

These two factors together lend more than a bit of gravitas to the whole process of drawing up blueprints. It’s not like ten years down the line we can just decide to sell our place and pick up and move on to one where there is more pantry space in the kitchen and a sunroom. This is a house we will be living in for the rest of our natural lives with little or no significant changes or additions. It gives you a bit of pause when you are deciding where the guest bathroom should go.

The process is also complicated by the fact that we don’t have a heck of a lot of money now, but we plan to in the future (who doesn’t?). So there are all these wild card spaces like a big unfinished cement basement, that for the time being will remain a big unfinished cement basement but one day may morph into a home office and/or den and/or home entertainment space and/or guest suite. And a dining room that will surely be outfitted for the next decade in plastic patio furniture until we can afford the Prairie style dining set and hutch that was in last month’s Vogue Home.

I’ve also realized that my husband is not the man I thought he was. I was under the mistaken impression that we both had grandiose dreams of spacious houses with large, sunny windows and cathedral ceilings. Having grown up in small, cramped, urban dwellings where every room was shared and multi-purpose, I want a big house. A house where everyone has a room of one’s own. And every room is dedicated to a single purpose. And you need an internal tracking and satellite communication system to find each other.

My husband, who grew up in a large, rambling (though derelict and freezing) farmhouse and who spends almost every waking hour outside tinkering with bits of machinery covered in grease anyway, dreams of a single-wide parked in the middle of the woods which has no running water and can be adequately heated with a woodstove, as far as I can figure out.

So, we have lots of exchanges that go like this: “Honey, I think we need a craft room in the basement.” “You don’t do crafts.” “Ah, but I would if I had a room to do them in.” Or “I was thinking it would be great to have a gym where we can put our Nautilus and stationary bike.” “We don’t have a Nautilus and stationary bike.” “Because we don’t have any place to put them!”.

I told him the other day about an article I read about the Spellings in Hollywood and their palatial home in which they have a room they use to wrap gifts in. You know, the old Gift Wrapping Room. So he gets all high and mighty about fossil fuels and energy conservation and starving children in Africa, like I wasn’t the one reading “Affluenza” out loud to him last week.

However, we managed to overcome all of these hurdles and actually came up with some working plans. Actually, we came up with about a dozen versions of working plans, but we settled on a final version that we could both agree on.

At this point, I discovered that having working house plans is not all it’s cracked up to be.

I never realized the intense bureaucratic involvement required to conceive working house plans. It apparently takes a village to raise a roof. There is the architect and the contractor, the construction company and the accountant, the engineer and the city planning board advisor. So, I came up with a plan. I figured the best way to expedite this whole process was to sleep with them. All of them. Luckily for me, they are all the same man and I happen to be married to him. And given that in 11 years of cohabitation we have only managed to conceive two children (and we use the rhythm method), my plan did not entail the massive time commitment one would have supposed.

It’s convenient to sleep with your architect and contractor. For one, it’s amazing the amount of closet space that can miraculously be added on to your house plans once you start wearing sweatpants, turtlenecks, and socks to bed. And it’s nice to be able to roll over and continue your debate regarding cotto or parquet flooring at 3 a.m. without bothering with a telephone.

I’m not the only one who disturbs our night rest like this. My husband woke me up a few months ago by shaking me urgently and saying, “You know what I really love about houses in America?” My mind raced: Refrigerators with their own zip code? Windows that slide up and down so that every gust of wind doesn’t threaten to smash the glass to smithereens? Mailboxes with little flags? No, he wants a laundry chute. I thought this was strange, because no one in my family and none of our friends have laundry chutes, but it turns out that he had just seen this B horror flick in which the laundry chute was a pivotal plot device. Of course that meant revising the current version of our house plans, because any logical place from which a laundry chute would originate in the current plans deposited the laundry either in the middle of the living room or on the kitchen island.

On the flip side, living with your accountant is not such a great thing. Every suggestion is greeted with grimaces, muttering, sighing, punching numbers into a calculator, and a stiff drink. It’s enough to drive you to agree to the single-wide.

But, with much wrangling and compromising, sighing and swearing, and facing reality, we deposited our spanking new and improved house plans with the correct municipal office to get the final stamp of approval.

I’ve discovered getting your house plans approved by the Comune is not all it’s cracked up to be.

We got a registered letter a few weeks after submitting our plans for approval, informing us that there is a road that runs through our hypothetical living room. Now, our hypothetical living room will be hypothetically located where there is now my son’s sandbox, the clothes-line, a hammock strung between two centenarian oaks, and a five foot hedge. We don’t see much traffic back there, and a quick call to my husband’s grandmother, who is 96, confirmed that no one has a living memory of there being a road which runs through the middle of our back yard for at least the last century.

Unfortunately, municipal maps have the last word, and there is, indeed, a road behind our house on the map. Thus began an odyssey lasting several months of road declassification paperwork, which had to be signed and notarized by all of the property owners along the ghost trail (none of whom, miraculously, put up a fuss) and submitted for review and approval. Then the approval had to be submitted with the house plans for approval. And in the intervening months, we had a bit of a think about the plans we had submitted originally and decided to tweak them slightly. And in the meantime the laws governing how and where you can build on farmland in a historically protected area inside a park changed.

And so, here we are. Five years later. Want to see our dream house? Well, put on your reading specs, because it’s rolled up in a cardboard tube on my husband’s desk.

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