It’s our house – let’s knock it about!

My expat life in Istria

Busy, busy, busy. At last, we reached final contract stage for our new house. Then, with it barely paid for, we started gutting it. So inevitably, this week’s focus has been restoration, but we also find time for lunch with Pip … and I get a history lesson.


We take ownership…

Toasting the deal with a drink in the sunLife in Istria may be chaotic but, when things start to happen , they often happen all at once: Monday was one of those days. We first met at Tetida to finalise and sign the contract for restoration with Miro (our builder). Next, as he left, Valter (house owner) arrived and we moved immediately to completing the purchase paperwork. Then it was time for a celebratory coffee and pelinkovac – no business deal in Croatia is complete without a sealing drink. Thus ‘fortified’, P and I went to the bank to make the final payment, while Valter took the contracts to the notary. Everything now completely official, we went to the house together to take meter Valter handing us the key for Kovaci in Istriareadings and Valter ceremonially handed over the key – a wonderfully quirky old thing.

Kaštelir is an amalgam of numerous little districts. Our other house, ten minute’s walk away, is in Brnobici. This one is in Kovaci, which I now know means ‘blacksmiths’ in Croatian. “Kovaci”, Valter explained, “used to be the blacksmiths’ district and there’s still a metal-worker in the village today, just up the hill.” Wonderful – a kovac in Kovaci!


… and start knocking things down

An early start on Tuesday found us meeting Miro at 8:00 am at the house to get things going. A new day, new doubts and nerves. What have we taken on?!

Dust everywhere as the ceiling comes down in Kovaci, IstriaWhile I have complete faith in Miro’s building skills – he built the Little House for us – my big concern was communication: his English is about as good as my Croatian, so we needed a translator. Luckily he has three sons who all speak English and his two eldest, Toni and Miran, work in the business. Miran’s currently off heavy work, needing an operation on his knee, so was appointed translator. It worked really well: we went round the property together and very quickly firmed up (she means changed – P) our plans. While we talked, Toni and Amir (the other member of the crew) started demolition work – by the time we’d finished our discussion, they’d brought a ceiling down. At this rate, the work really won’t take long … and we won’t have much house left!

With his team of four, plus some specialists, Miro expects the house and garden work together to take about 45 days, so hopes to be finished mid-March, weather permitting. I’ve been going there every morning: following progress, taking photos, answering questions, and Miran’s texting me an update each evening.

Toni chipping old plaster off the facade of Kovaci in IstriaSeeing the work in progress and being kept so well informed, my fears about what we’re undertaking are subsiding (at least for now). I know we’ll hit glitches, but currently everything’s going very smoothly (Rather too smoothly: this can’t be right – P).

A lot’s already been accomplished and I’ll be posting about it soon. With so much going on, it’s hard to find the time to live it, let alone write about it! Wonder what it looked like before they started knocking it to hell? Here are some photos: outside, downstairs and upstairs.


Let’s have lunch…

With at least an hour spent each day visiting the house, life’s double crazy at the moment, so I decided to complicate things even further by asking Pip (our boating correspondent) over on Wednesday. She’d not seen our place before, so I showed her the Little House and then, after lunch, took her on a tour of the rest of my property empire – Kovaci and Brnobici. Being a good guest, Pip acted suitably impressed and didn’t say we were totally insane – which, I suspect, was what she was thinking 🙂


… and a history lesson

Reassembled old cart next to a pile of rubbish at Kovaci, IstriaOn Saturday, when I popped up to take a few photos, I found Valter and his friend Milo clearing out the barn. They’d already removed an old cart and assembled it in the driveway. As I arrived, a plough and some spare cartwheels were going into a trailer for storage in another of Valter’s barns. “Look at this,” urged Valter, rubbing a plaque on the plough. “It’s a number plate. Like cars today, in Yugoslavia, ploughs had to be registered.”

Plough registration plate for Mate KovacUnpacking the barn was a real history lesson. Next up were old school records. “When the new school was built, they were just going to throw these out,” explained Valter, brushing off the dust. “They’re pure history. I’ll give them back to the school, when they realise what they’ve done. But for now, I’m keeping them safe.”

Old school record on cart in Kovaci, IstriaThe contents of the barn proved fascinating … as did Milo. Originally from Istria, he’s spent most of his life travelling the world, living for many years in China and Japan. Until we bought it, whenever he was in the area, he’d sleep in the house. He said he slept better there than in Valter’s spare bedroom! He’s currently visiting from Fukushima, where he’s been helping with the relief effort. I thought I lived an interesting expat life: his is far more exotic. Milo with an ox-yoke across his shoulders in Kovaci, Istria

“Please e-mail me these photos,” he said, posing with an ox-yoke. “Istria’s so very different to Japan, I’d love my friends in Fukushima to see them.” They’re on their way, Milo.

Just as I was leaving, I was called back to look at a gravestone – not something you’d expect to find in a barn. It was Valter’s grand-parents’. Like in many rocky, Mediterranean countries, where  usable soil is in short supply, in Istria you only have ownership of your grave for ten years. After that, the grave is resold. Valter collected the headstone when this happened with his grand-parents: another slice of Istrian history in our barn.


Building weather

Miro & sons (Miran, Andre, Miro & Toni) at Kovaci in IstriaWe’ve had fantastic, dry weather this winter – great for building. So as soon as Miro started work, I was sure the heavens would open and the winter rains would finally arrive. Luckily, so far they haven’t. Instead we started the week with a deep freeze. Temperatures plummeted (it was -7°C at 7:40 am on Tuesday, when we left to meet Miro). But when the sun came up, it warmed up quickly and the days were lovely, with some real strength in the sun.

Towards the end of the week, temperatures began to rise and the skies turned leaden – it  was miserably cold and looked like snow was on the way. Luckily that only lasted a day and Saturday brought warmer, Spring-like weather.

Of course I doubt Spring’s really arrived, but it’s a nice ending to the week – and I’m now off for a Sunday walk to enjoy the sun :).

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