Several weeks ago, I can’t remember how exactly how many, N came home for lunch and announced that we had been sequestrati (sequestered.) ‘Che cosa?’ I asked him. I’d never heard the term applied to people before. He explained that some workers were outside erecting blockades at both ends of the street because of the risk of a building collapse.
‘How are we supposed to come and go?’ I asked.
‘Don’t ask me. You can climb over the one at the corner, but it’s not easy.’
‘Which house is it? I asked.
Standing at the window, he pointed down the street, and said, ‘The white one.’
I looked out and tried to guess which of several white houses he meant. ‘The one with the red shutters?’ I asked.
‘No,’ he said, ‘it’s next to the yellow house where they’ve built the blockade.”
‘The one that’s kind of beige?’
‘No, it’s the other one.’
‘Oh, now I see,’ I said, deciding to remain perplexed.
A few minutes later, he went downstairs with Pata to investigate further. I stirred the risotto until it was done and then went out onto the terrace to see what was taking him so long. He was talking to two neighbors he seemed to know well, but I had never seen before.
‘Have you heard anything new?’ I yelled down to the street.
‘They’re going to turn off the electricity,” he yelled up.
I imagined sitting in the dark for days, waiting for a building to fall.
‘It’s not the white house,’ he yelled up, ‘it’s on the other side of the street.’
On the other side of street from the white, yellow, and somewhat beige houses is the ruined shell of a building that collapsed decades ago. Attached to one side of this ruin is a small abandoned house that once had a shop on its ground floor; on the other side, closer to our house, lie the remains of a convent garden. The whole complex constitutes what is perhaps the biggest eyesore in town, and it dominates my visual perception of this place. Often on my walks in the medieval quarter I am surprised to remember that the town is not entirely hideous, and that, on the contrary, much of it is quite attractive. When I first moved here, I found it astonishing that a ruined building filled with a mountain of debris should be left to stand in a historic center, in the piazza of a fifteenth-century church, but now I know that there is nothing unusual about such neglect of public spaces and of public safety.
‘The risotto is ready,’ I yelled from the terrace down to N, and went back inside to spoon it into three bowls. Once I put them on the table, the lights went out. I waited a minute or two for N and Pata, and then went back out. ‘The electricity has been turned off,’ I announced, and then told N that the risotto was getting cold and reminded him that Pata wasn’t wearing a jacket. I smiled, thinking of the level of cultural assimilation I had just displayed to the neighbors.
Later in the afternoon I heard a great rumbling and went to the window. The bucket of a bright orange excavator was scraping at the wall of the ruined building. Every third or fourth swipe, massive stones and chunks of mortar fell to the ground. I was amazed to see such a thing, never having imagined that there would be any sort of intervention. The work continued for a few hours, resulting in a large pile of debris in the street. The next day, workers used the excavator to load the rubble onto the back of a flatbed truck, which carted it away in several trips. After that, work came to a halt, with the excavator parked in the piazza for several days.
Walking up the street one day, I overheard two people talking about the demolition. From her terrace, a woman complained that now the ruined building’s condition was even worse than before. A young man standing below insisted that the space would be cleared for a parking lot and a small piazzetta planted with trees. As I passed, the young man nodded a greeting to me. Nodding back, I asked him, ‘Will it really? Because I haven’t lived here long, but from what I’ve seen, lots of things get started, but nothing ever gets finished.’
‘No, no, this is something they are really going to do. They’re just waiting for permissions.’
Later I told N about what the young man had said. He said that the parish priest had told him the same thing.
A few days later, the excavator was back in action, scraping at the shell of the building, reducing it to half its height. It took down the facade of the adjoining house, revealing a storeroom with obsolete domestic appliances on the ground floor, and a room with shockingly blue walls above. The demolition went on for a couple more days, the excavator pulling down the walls of the structure, and later piling the debris on the back of a waiting truck.
On market day, the work stopped. The authorities cordoned off that section of the piazza. The next day they put up orange emergency fencing along the walls of the building, all the way up the street, past the abandoned garden, up to where its wall adjoins our house. It seemed to be a sign that work was about to begin in earnest. But the next day the excavator disappeared from the piazza.
Since then some strong rains have dislodged bits of mortar along the whole length of the wall, but they remain on the ground behind the fencing, together with bits of trash passersby have begun to throw there. One by one the stray cats who fled from the site the day work began have returned to the ruined garden, hunting for rats in the weeds and overgrown grass. And in their houses overlooking the town’s biggest eyesore, the residents of this neighborhood are left wondering whether decades more will pass before the next phase of demolition.