(Published April 2009, Fra Noi, Chicago, IL)
A few years ago, I was working for a large rental villa in the heart of Tuscany. As the owners of the villa spent the colder months in a much warmer climate, it was my duty to attend to the house and its guests, and to make sure everything ran smoothly in their absence. Early one morning however, I got a phone call from one of the people staying there, urgently telling me there was no heat. It was late December, between Christmas and New Year’s, and the temperature had fallen below freezing, and these guests were understandably upset. I hopped on my trusty moped and rushed up to the villa to see what the problem could be.
As most houses in the countryside are not attached to any kind of gas network, the homes are supplied by means of a giant tank, or “bombola,” buried somewhere near the house, and this villa was no exception. The first thing I did when I got to there was to check on the supply of gas. I opened the heavy metal trapdoor that covered the above-ground valves and meters attached to the “bombola,” and I saw that the gauge read over 80% full. I then checked the thermostat, and anything else I imagined that could have been causing this problem, but found nothing amiss. I finally succumbed to the reality that this was something I was not going to be able to figure out on my own, and called the gas company to see if they could send someone out to check and see if there was some sort of blockage somewhere.
To my surprise, they dispatched someone immediately. I was in luck and there was a repairman in the vicinity who had just finished another job higher up in the hills, and was able to stop by on his way down. He asked me if I had checked the “bombola” to see if it was empty. I assured him that I had, but he asked if he could take a look at it anyway. I led him through the back garden and out into the vacant area where the “bombola” was discreetly hidden. He opened the trapdoor, and after a few moments of poking about, checking this and that, he looked around until he saw a rock, slightly larger than his hand. He picked it up, and to my great shock, began whacking the tank with it. This unnerved me a bit, as all the warning labels on the “bombola” have great scary pictures on them, depicting various images of the tank in assorted stages of explosion. And though there wasn’t one specifically portraying a man in blue overalls wielding a small boulder, I still couldn’t help but think that this was more than just a wee bit dangerous. My love for Italy is profound, and it has been my secret wish since arriving here, that when Death finally comes for me, he will find me on Italian soil. But this just seemed a bit soon for me.
After a few good bashes with the stone however, the seemingly-unconcerned-with-being-blasted-into-microscopic-bits technician stood up straight and proclaimed, “Ah, yes! There you go! The tank, she is empty.” Relieved that I was still in one piece, I leaned over and peeked at the gauge that now read below 0%. I looked at the gentleman that had just unintentionally sent my blood pressure well beyond normal parameters, and stammered, “But….how?” He explained that the needle in the gauge had gotten stuck at 80%, but that the tank was in fact bone dry. I stood there pondering just how I would have ever figured that out, when this nice fellow gave me some words of advice that I will carry with me the rest of my days. He smiled and shrugged, and said, “In Italy, when something doesn’t work…just hit it with a rock!”
Now, as absurd as that sounds, you would be surprised to know just how often that remedy works. I have utilized it many times over the years, and with a fabulous rate of success. My most recent experience with this was a few nights ago, when I was taking a shower, preparing for bed. My bathroom is in a central part of the palazzo where my apartment is located, and thereby completely lacking in windows. That makes for a nice warm room when one steps out of the shower, but when one is still in the shower and the electricity goes off, it makes for a very dark place indeed. And that is exactly what happened to me. One minute I was happily shampooing away, and the next I was blind.
I felt around for the handle and shut the water off. Then cautiously opening the shower door, reached out and found my towel. After several stubbings of toes, and a few colorful Italian words, I managed to located some clothes and get dressed. The main breaker for my apartment is located nearly a block away, outside, on the other side of the palazzo. So, wrapping my hair up tight in a towel, I braved the very chilly night air to remedy the situation.
I made my way around the building, and opened the little metal box that held the circuit breakers for all the apartments in the building. All the little green lights were on, except for one blinking red one, and I knew that was mine. I saw that the switch was in the down position, and proceeded to do the logical thing and push it back up. However, it did not stay up. As soon as I let go, with a plastic sounding “pop,” it snapped back down again. After three or four tries, I began to get a little irritated. I stepped back to gather my wits, and stumbled over a rock that was lying there. In a Yoda-esque moment, I heard the words of the Gas Man from years ago, “Hit it with a rock…hit it with a rock….” Putting aside the other voice of wisdom in my brain that was saying, “Yeah, you hit it with a rock and you might blow out the power to the whole building, you goof!”, I picked up the stone and slowly approached the blinking red light. I studied the outer casing of the breaker, and letting faith be my guide, I chose a spot, and with a powerful yet controlled momentum, I whacked.
At first, nothing seemed to have changed. On the one hand that was good. I was halfway expecting all the little lights to turn red, and for a flood of angry neighbors to come spilling out of the building ready to tar and feather me. But there remained only one red light flashing, and it was still mine. Tentatively, I reached in and tried the switch again, and this time it stayed up. Terribly pleased with myself, I returned to my flat, finished my shower, and curled up in bed content in the knowledge that although it may seem primitive by it’s very nature, no matter whatever may go wrong in my life, I need only to hit it with a rock and all will be well.