Just over six years ago, in late June 2001, work on our house was interrupted by the unexpected visit of a local policeman (vigile). Apparently there'd been a complaint from someone, we weren't told who, that we were about to add an entire floor to the house. This was unlikely; the house was already four floors high and we barely had enough money to restore what we had, let alone add to it. What we had done was add what's known here as a cordolo, a band of reinforced concrete that runs along the top of the outer walls, holding the entire structure together and providing a solid base for a new roof. We would happily have done without this; it was expensive and slightly raised the roof, something we felt would reduce the charm of the rooms on the final floor. But our builder and surveyor both insisted and we fell in with their plans. It's hard to find a restored house in Fondi that doesn't have a cordolo, after all. They're as much a feature of the town as the massive cobbles or the old women selling vegetables from their doorsteps.
But the vigile, spurred on by his zealous, newly-appointed superior, decided we'd committed an abuso edilizio. This term covers everything from opening up a foot-square window in a wall to building a three-storied seaside house with mooring point for a couple of yachts in a national park. Berlusconi's villas (and private mausoleum) are notorious abusi, though not much seems to happen as a result. We were taken to a lawyer, the brother-in-law of our builder. He said we shouldn't be worried, that everything would sort itself out, although how this might happen wasn't clear. Two days later, the main door to the house had a police notice attached to it saying that the house was sotto sequestro. In other words, we couldn't even enter the building, never mind continue with the work.
We weren't living there yet, but we'd planned to move in that summer. Only hours before the vigile turned up, we'd carted into the house a pseudo-baroque (1940s) sofa and armchairs we'd found in a second-hand furniture shop on the Pontina. We had to leave our flat in Rome to make room for some friends of ours, so much of the first floor was filled with boxes of books, clothes, stuff, a chandelier Giuseppe had bought from a flea market before we even had a house to hang it in, rugs, beds, kitchen tables and chairs. The house contained everything we owned and loved.
It took us a week or so to have the seals removed from the door, at least for the house's owner. Me. It took over a month to get permission to enter the lower floors and carry on with the work. We were lucky; we moved back into the flat we'd had before, and sold to a friend, or slept downstairs at Sally's. We watched the work continue, the sun beating down into roofless rooms, the shadows of the beams moving across the floors. And then the weather changed.
We applied for permission to put on a temporary roof as rain soaked the newly-laid floors, sank deep into the walls, gathered in puddles, bounced off the marble stairs,warped the new doors. We were told that the half-dozen wooden beams constituted sufficient protection. We tried sheets of plastic, but the wind ripped them off. We tried to waterproof the floors, pretend we had a terrace surrounded by walls with windows and doors, but the rain seeped through. One autumn night, we were lying in bed in our borrowed flat, unable to sleep for the storm. We pulled macs on over our pyjamas, slipped flip-flops onto our feet; ten minutes later we found ourselves sweeping water out of what was supposed to be a bedroom, shivering, drenched to the skin, crying with rage at the hopelessness of it all. The following day, we put on a temporary roof.
After that, it became what the lawyer calls 'tutta carta', an endless accumulation of documents and applications and statements and testimonials, the file getting fatter and older as the years passed. We thought we might be able to take advantage of an amnesty under Berlusconi 2 (I know, I'm ashamed), but it would have cost more than the roof itself and besides, we only had to wait another year or so for the case to fall off the radar. The statute of limitations for abuso edilizio is five years, but this was extended for those who didn't take advantage of the amnesty. OK, we thought, six years. We're nearly there. And then, this June, we were.
Just over a week ago, the house bell rang. Giuseppe went downstairs to open the door while I squinted down, as I usually do, from my study balcony to see who was there. I recognised the vigile at once. He'd come to see if we'd done any work on the roof. Well of course we had. He said he'd be back with a camera. We went to the lawyer. The lawyer said that the statute of limitation applied to the abuso but not to the violation of the sequestro, which was subsequent to the abuso. How subsequent? he wanted to know. When we told him he said that with any luck the statute of limitation would apply to our second crime if the police didn't decide to speed the whole process up, which was unlikely. I use the word crime because violating seals is, apparently, a criminal offence. In theory, though only that, I could go to jail. In practice, I'll have to give the lawyer his usual whack and may be fined. In the meantime, I have a record.
Two days later, the vigile came back and took his photographs. And now we wait. Contrary to logic and common sense, the longer the business takes, the more it suits us. But, of course, we continue to live beneath a roof of corrugated bituminous stuff that's designed to be used under roof tiles, not in their place. We continue to live in half a house. The hardest thing to stomach is that there seems to be no way to unite the requirements and processes of the law with the facts of the case. No way to simply bring a judge into the house to see what's been done and listen to why we did it.
The biggest irony is that, since we were charged, the use of a cordolo has been accepted by the local administration, which now recommends its use on old houses in the centro storico of Fondi. Unfortunately, this eminently sensible decision isn't retroactive.