Old Stone Homes and the Art of B&E: Umbria, Italy

November 17 – 18
Renzetti, Umbria Italy


Culpability is still an item up for debate.  Who was to blame for closing the front door while forgetting the key inside?  The little stone cottage that sits at a turn in the road eleven kilometers outside of Cittá di Castello, was, in that one instant, completely impermeable.  As was his custom each morning, Ryan meticulously latched every window in an effort to retain the warm air inside, and the only other door downstairs had been locked and shuttered since the prior day.  There was simply no way back in without a key.

Who was to blame?  Had Ollie, in his dash out the door slammed it behind him as Ryan and I were packing up the car for the day’s outing? Had the baby, whom we were under the assumption, was trailing the next-door neighbors loose ducks, wandered back to the house? I daresay, had I absent-mindedly let the door close after me without thinking that the latch would automatically catch?  I daresay. Sour remarks were traded back and forth as the four of us milled around the front yard, kicking dejectedly at little tufts of sod that had sprung up at the corner of the driveway.

“This has to stop.  It doesn’t matter whose fault it was.  The reality is, if we can’t figure out how we’re getting back in, it’s going to be a long, cold night for all four of us in the car.” Ryan was ever the rational voice.

“Yeah, either that, or we’re looking at a five-hour round-trip to and from Rome to pick up the spare key”.  I was usually the pessimist.

Ultimately, it was Oliver who devised the next plan of action.  “Let’s see if Giuliana has a spare!” He was off and around the corner in a flash.  The only other home within a kilometer or so was the semi-adjoining cottage, where a 70 year old, grandmotherly Umbrian had lived with her husband for the last 50 years.

Giuliana’s Italian was laced with a thick accent, that, on a good day, was difficult for even a Roman to follow.  Despite our language barrier, we had become close with her and her husband Piero over the two weeks we had been in residence, and Kendley affectionately called them “Nonni” (grandparents).

Giuliana was sorry to report that she did not carry a spare key, but was happy to let us phone our close friends in Rome on her ancient rotary dialer.  We were guests of family friends from that city, who, eighteen months earlier, had answered a home exchange request and had stayed at our home in California.  Andrea and his wife, Solen, had high-power jobs in the city as a congressman and reporter, respectively.  Incidentally, as it was our luck, they were deep in the midst of these jobs when we called with our unfortunate news.

“Oh my God”. Andrea struggled to keep his voice even as he carefully instructed in English.  “Listen, I am going to call the Vigili di Fuoco, that is the fire department, and they will come to open the door.  I don’t know, though, if they will have to break the window or the lock.”

My heart fell.  This man had done more for us over the past several months than anyone had ever done for us before. He assisted us with our Permessos di Soggiorno; not only had he offered his own home as the address required on the application, but he had also leveraged his contacts in Rome’s central immigration office to get our request approved and processed.  If we were planning to spend two years in Europe, it would all be on account of Andrea and Solen’s efforts in this realm.  Not to mention that they had become very close friends of ours, and we couldn’t bear the thought of becoming a nuisance to them.  I immediately offered to drive to Rome to pick up a spare key.

“No, no, no…that will cost at least €100 in petrol.   I have another idea.  There is a bus that leaves from Via Tiburtina today and arrives in Cittá di Castello at 7pm tonight.  I will, I don’t know…I guess I will give the driver a key….”

Another drawn-out “oh my God” on the phone, and I cringed.  This was too much.

“Andrea, there must be a locksmith…how do you say, l’uomo che fa la chiave …right?  Someone who does this in Cittá di Castello?  Or Perugia?  We can’t break your door down…how do I tell the firemen NOT to break your door???”

Ryan was agitatedly rubbing his eyebrows between his thumb and index.  I could sense the gears turning in his head as he calculated the expense this little oversight would potentially cost us.

Non rompere la porta.  And lock is serratura SER-RA-TOO-RA.  Window is finestra.  If you can PLEASE ask the firemen not to break the window…that door is very old… NON ROMPERE LA FINESTRA …”

As I repeated my new Italian back to Andrea, Giuliana plated homemade polenta and ragú for the kids and began attempting to force-feed the baby, who was on a crash-course with nearly every solid-looking item in her kitchen, including Piero.

Minutes later, we collectively rushed outside as the firemen arrived on the scene.

“This could be worse,” I said, turning to Ryan.  “There actually could be something burning down”.  Ryan glared back.

As the firemen brandished a thin yet durable sheet of plastic, I entreated them non rompere la porta o la serratura o la finestra and they smiled back at me and shook their heads.  One of them wedged the plastic sheet between the double doors and began to slide it up toward the handle and the lock. We were all on tenterhooks.  Fifteen seconds of coaxing the plastic into place was all it took for the desired “click”, “clack” and ”pop”; the door swung open.

I cried something like “Buonabellisimagrazietutti!!!” which made everyone, even Giuliana chuckle, and Ryan darted inside to grab the key.  Before they left, the Vigili di Fuoco were kind enough to pose for a victory photo.

Vigili di Fuoco

The following day, Giuliana invited all four of us over to the weekly Sunday supper she prepared for all her local family members.  With the help of her half-British sister-in-law, and our very best pidgin Italian, we traded laughs over the previous day’s events.  Ryan brandished the key from his pocket, where it now remained for safekeeping.

Non dimenticherò mai!” We would never forget.

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