Tuesday 30 December 2014

House renovation update

The upstairs hallway is the perfect spot for bookshelves

Finally! The house renovation update... Well, our little house is now 95% finished. The last big project was to put in the stairs linking the ground floor to the upper floor and now that’s just about done. The next step is to attach the wooden planks for the steps to the metal structure which will be done as soon as the painting and varnishing of the steps is finished. Then we’ll also have to complete the bar which separates the kitchen from the living area. But the house finally feels like a house!

Metal staircase - wooden steps to come
It’s not a big house, with two rooms and a bathroom upstairs, and a living area and kitchen downstairs, but it is a good size. We also have the outdoor courtyard to enjoy, where the brick oven sits majestically in one corner. As I had mentioned in my previous post on our renovation project, we tried to preserve as many original features of the house as possible: like the stone walls and stone doorway, the original wooden beams, and the little 'niches' built into the stone walls. Not only are we happy to have completed a living space for ourselves but also to have restored one of the village’s original stone houses.

There are still a few other projects reserved for the Spring, the most important of which is renovating the façade. Since the village has heritage protection status, we need to apply for permission to do this. We’ve already contacted the conservation committee with two possible proposals, but are still waiting to hear back from them.

The brick oven can be seen through the back door in the courtyard

One of the niches built into the stone walls.

A 'window' between the living area and kitchen

I don’t have ‘after’ photos to display here, because we’re still in the process of settling in and furnishing the house, which takes time. But the photos I’m posting here offer a peek into the restoration process.

Having gone through the experience, I would offer the following advice to anyone thinking of starting a similar project to renovate a holiday home:

Expect everything to take longer than expected. It’s difficult to estimate the time it will take for a renovation project because there are so many factors at play. In any case, renovating a property is a lot more time-consuming (and stressful!) than many people imagine. Not only do you have to rely on contractors, materials may not always be available when you need them or may have to be ordered in advance. Even the weather can delay things: like our walls which took weeks to dry because of a wet, humid winter.

Expect everything to cost more than expected. Because you’ll be glad you have some money left over!

Keep it simple. Planning and building or renovating a home or holiday retreat is a dream project. Some people get carried away and plan too big and then realize that the project is too ambitious and is eating up more time and resources than initially imagined. Less is more.

Be on-site as much as possible. There are decisions and micro-decisions which need to be taken on a daily basis. This is why you need to be around as much as possible. If you can’t, find a project manager you trust to oversee things in your absence.

Feel free to share your own experiences building or renovating a home or holiday getaway in the comments section!

Tuesday 16 December 2014

The Istrian language: is it dying out?

One of the things which is unique about Istria is its language. The Istrian language is a dialect of Croatian and is quite different from standard Croatian. The language reflects Istria’s rich history with many words borrowed from Italian, and a few smatterings of German.

The Croatian language has three main dialects which are divided into many sub-dialects. The three main dialects are named after the way the word ‘what’ is pronounced in that dialect: čakavski, štokavski, and kajkavski. In Istria, the čakavski dialect is spoken, while štokavski is ‘standard’ Croatian.

There are several variations of the Istrian dialect and the accent and vocabulary can change from one village or town to the next. Like most dialects, this is not a formal written language, though some local writers and poets do write in the Istrian language for stylistic (and cultural) reasons.

While growing up in Canada, we would speak the Istrian dialect at home and this is the language I spoke with my grandparents and other family members when I would come to Istria for visits. This is why I struggle with standard Croatian and tend to understand old people best!

While older people tend to speak Istrian, I’ve noticed that today young Istrians are more likely to speak standard Croatian in everyday situations, though some make a point of speaking the dialect. There are several reasons for this; one may be increased literacy. My grandparents were not educated in Croatian but Italian, since Istria was part of Italy in their school-going days. The Istrian language was what was spoken at home. In my grandparents’ time, and even in my parents’ time, not everyone was able to go to school or complete their schooling. For this reason, they may have been less exposed to ‘Serbo-Croatian’, as the language was called during Yugoslavia. Fast forward two generations and today everyone is educated at least to the secondary level, with most students moving on to higher studies. Since all schooling is in standard Croatian, young people have a high proficiency in the language.

A poet from the village who writes in the Istrian language told me that another reason why the dialect is being spoken less today is because people do not marry within the same region anymore. While transportation links were poor in the past, making travel a challenge, today people can move around more easily. They go away to study in other parts of Croatia and often marry non-Istrians.

Since being fluent in standard Croatian indicated a certain level of education (at one time), Istrian is seen by some as a ‘peasant’ language, or a language spoken only by old people, hence a certain ‘inferiority’ complex on the part of Istrian speakers and a ‘superiority’ complex on the part of standard Croatian speakers (especially from outside Istria). As high literacy and education levels have now created a level playing field, I think (hope) that young people today speak Istrian because they want to speak their language, and by speaking it, they preserve it and a part of their identity and heritage.

I was curious to know what they think so I asked a few young people (in their 20s and 30s) from different regions of Istria a few questions and am including their answers below. Their answers are often contradictory and reflect the region of Istria they come from.

Sunday 7 December 2014

The brick oven – part 2

I know there are two outstanding updates on this blog, namely updates on the house renovation and the brick oven construction in our courtyard. Well, the house is practically finished, with just a few details left, the most important of which is the internal staircase which will connect the ground and upper floors. The metal staircase structure which will support the steps is being assembled and I’m hoping it will be installed this week. In the meantime we’ll be busy varnishing the wooden planks which will be used as steps this week. A more detailed update on the house is coming soon!

As for the brick oven, it’s now complete and fully functional and has produced many yummy breads and pizza. As you may have read in a previous post, the brick oven has been the Belgian husband’s pet project for the past few months. I’ve been itching to write an update about it for some time now but I was asked by the brick oven maestro to wait until he completes the informational website he has created detailing the entire construction process. That was almost two months ago… and after a few reminders and a final decision that I was writing the update brick-oven-website-ready-or-not, the website was magically completed and I can finally write this post and share the website link with you (see below).

The brick oven project was started at the beginning of May and completed towards the end of October, with many breaks in the construction process due to (rainy) weather, a bit of travel, and injury (nothing too serious, just a few sore arm muscles and back strain).

Our brick oven is a subject of curiosity in the village. Many people stopped by to have a look during the building process and offer their advice (solicited and unsolicited – mostly unsolicited – everyone had a say!). We also heard a lot of stories about the olden days when the village had three or four functioning brick ovens – some of these were public where villagers could come to bake their bread. At Easter time women would walk here from neighbouring farms and villages with loaves of sweet bread to bake in the communal oven. My aunt told me she would accompany my grandmother, balancing on her head a large wooden kneading board covered with loaves ready to be baked.

One of these old ovens is still left but is not in use – it is actually very close to ours, in the next property just over the back wall. Nowadays everyone has an electric oven of course, but there are some people who build a brick oven specially for baking pizza and bread. Nothing compares to a pizza baked in a wood-fired oven!

As for the experience, the Belgian husband says it was definitely worthwhile and greatly rewarding (culinarily rewarding too!). He shares his research, 3D models, mathematical formulas, photos and experiences on almost every detail of the brick oven building process at The Brick Oven.

And here is an updated slide show of the steps of the oven being built:

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