Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Bi-polar Baschi

Wikipedia says bi-polar disorder is a condition in which people experience abnormally elevated and abnormally depressed states for a period of time in a way that interferes with functioning. Some of us have known people with this problem but here in Acqualoreto we’ve come up with a new variant, a bi-polar local government.

Our local government isn’t really local, since the village of Acqualoreto is only one of nine towns and villages in the Comune (Township) of Baschi. Despite having only 2650 residents, the Comune covers a huge area and our village is twenty-four kilometers from the seat of government in the town of Baschi. The population of Acqualoreto may reach 150 but it fluctuates wildly from winter to summer and many residents live in the countryside or along the roads leading in and out of the village. Less than thirty people currently reside within the remnants of the medieval castle that forms the core of the village. The street running around the circumference of the core is 200 meters long.

Last summer, during the manic phase of local activity, the cobblestone paving of the perimetral street was completed. It had been started a few years earlier in conjunction with the driving of dozens of huge piles to consolidate the hill, the laying of new sewers, and the burying of most overhead utility lines. At the same time, most of the five kilometer road down to the river was repaved and the fifteen year-old concrete retaining walls, which keep the town from sliding down the hill, were faced with local stone. That so much time, effort and money was expended on a shrinking medieval village is something I don’t expect my pragmatic brethren in the USA to understand, but I rejoice that there is a determination in Italy to preserve treasures that we’ve inherited from the past.

Psychologists suspect that Vincent Van Gogh suffered from bi-polar disorder. Most of us are grateful for his manic output and creativity but his life was plagued by self-doubt leading to madness and despair.

What passes for madness and despair in Baschi appears to reside in the Building Commission, which has shown signs of instability for decades, even as the other administrative functions of the Comune have grown steadily more responsive to the public’s needs over the past several administrations. Its task may not be easy since Italy has more laws than most other countries, laws that are frequently in conflict with each other. As long as I’ve been here, rules for building on agricultural land have been restrictive, with three hectares of land required to build a modest sized house. About a decade ago, the laws were made even more restrictive, although some concessions were made allowing larger additions to existing buildings. When the new regulations went into effect, new houses started popping up in the woods like mushrooms. Somehow, despite the restrictive regulations, some of these new houses even had auxiliary guest houses nearly as large as the main house, on plots that didn’t appear to be all that vast. Whether they’re stately or garish, whether or not they exceed their allotted size or violate parts of the Building Code, nobody complains here about the new houses, or any other project for that matter, on the sound principle that everyone’s property is in violation of some regulation or other, and no one wants to be responsible for the irreversible unleashing of inflexible compliance powers.

The big wave of building subsided but it was only a lull before the depressive state returned, bringing strange projects in its wake. An abandoned house in the old village center has been allowed to disintegrate, leaking water into at least three adjacent houses, making them unsalable at best, uninhabitable at worst. Other than briefly closing the perimetral street to protect passers-by from falling roof components, the Comune has done nothing. Nearby, one owner did a nice job of renovating what had been the ugliest house in the old core. It had been abandoned for decades and now looks much better, except that the stucco walls are painted a bright white, in clear violation of local building rules. Outside the village, on the most beautiful building site on this precious protected landscape, a huge three-story stone bunker emerged from traces of an ancient foundation, all under the guise of renovation of an existing building. A nearly invisible remnant of a doorway with the outline of a tiny window above it led the archeologically expert designer/geometra to convince the Building Commission that this had been a two story building. The unfinished basement walls and windows, which were required to be enclosed by areaways and covered with soil, remain clearly in view from the village, below the elaborate stone walls above. The visual effect could be described as chaos and decadence but perhaps that’s allowing too much subjectivity to creep in.

Our general store/bar went out of business about five years ago when the owner died. Now the ground floor of the building is being divided up into two mini-apartments, one of which has a main room with no window. It gets light from a glass entrance door facing directly onto the street, an interpretation of the Building Code which could be seen as extremely creative, although more objective analysis would suggest it to be the product of a severely depressed, dysfunctional mind.

More recently, one neighbor built a simple but handsome and well-constructed stone guesthouse near his larger old farmhouse. The houses sit on a remote hill facing the village from a distance of about two kilometers and they blend nicely into the landscape. At the far end of the new house a balcony was built outside the bedroom on the upper floor. In keeping with the rest of the house, the detailing and workmanship were excellent. Apparently the balcony was not shown on the plans submitted to the Comune for approval. The geometra who drew up the plans either said, or was told by the authorities, that an upper floor balcony had to have an exterior stair to the ground to look like farmhouses did in the days when the ground floors were occupied by animals.

A few months after the house was completed, the Comune had its ultimate Van Gogh moment. The authorities, in the form of a Forest Ranger of all things, intervened and directed that the balcony, like Van Gogh’s ear, be immediately cut off. Bi-polar disorder can often be controlled through medication, but how does one medicate a comune, and can you get rid of the symptoms of depression without also halting all that good manic activity?