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Sunday, 27 September 2009

Conversations with the landscape

Honey showed us a collection of paint samples astutely linked to Corfu by Vitex from Aspropyrgos who’ve probably assembled shade selections for other places in Greece.
With the highest esteem for the island’s heritage and acknowledging the unique nature of Hellenic light, VITEX shares with you its perennial experience and presents shades stemming from the local architecture in order to enjoy your own “castle” (the Greek version doesn't use that last noun - just 'spitikon')
Lin’s been wondering what colour to paint our house outside. For the shutters there’s no argument this should be the deep Corfu green that appears everywhere on railings, doors and shutters. Chatting to Alan about exteriors. “I’m thinking of asvesti” – the Mediterranean wash used on walls, and of course to mark the edge of steps and paths.
“It goes patchy over time” he said approvingly. We mistook Alan’s house for a clever restoration. He built it himself, quite recently “but I wanted it to look like that” he said pointing out little deceptions, not exactly trompe-l'œil, that he'd created to enhance the impression of new building added to old. The house seems isolated yet it lies within the bounds of the village of Agios Markos, a neighbour’s house beyond his rear wall, and a few hundred metres beyond that we could glimpse a church bell tower between the clustering cypress trees and at the foot of his rambling orchard-cum-garden - the ruined walls of an olive press overlooking an apothiki and workshop almost hidden by bamboos. The house sits in the landscape, its profile paralleling the slopes of Trompetta in the farground, with a panoramic view over tree tops to the sea and the mainland, a broad pasture of a front lawn edged by trees roughly bordered by undergrowth descending into dead ground, yet it’s all but invisible from anywhere else. Next to the main building there’s an artfully made fish pond, as well as a deep cool tank by the front door with a wealth of water’s edge plants skirted by separate tree, shrub and flower surrounded terraces, arches leading into interesting spaces, a curving jasmined arbour and verandas on two floors – spacious yet not grandiose. Alan has played with time, speeding it up to create a genius locii which a lot of new building destroys and, even with sympathetic construction, would normally take years to evolve. He's done keyhole rather than invasive surgery; creating a house that, instead of announcing itself, has begun a conversation with its surroundings.
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How I wish I could pay someone to install ready made shutters instead of the rigmarole of buying second hand ones, carting them here, fitting them with extra jambs and lintel to the outside of our front window, tweaking the hinges and catch until they open and shut cleanly, sanding every square inch, including 116 slats, to smooth and key the wood for painting, as well as sanding, undercoating and painting the frames we’d fitted. But even as I think this I’m reminded of the friendly conversation we had with the people who sold them, the pleasure of finding how much we’d saved by not buying new; the arguments between Lin and me about how to hang them, the visit to Alan and Honey to get a broken hinge rewelded, and the slow knowledge I get about these constructions from sanding them, noticing small dents and blemishes and other signs of their history including finding they were once the same Corfiot green, beneath their temporary Aegean blue, that we intend to repaint them.
Once the shutters are finished, as well as providing the protection we wanted from the sun upstairs, they’ll give us a far better return in satisfaction as a result of putting time and energy into them rather than someone else’s in return for our cash. We’ll also feel more confident about fitting shutters to the other windows that need them along with preparing and painting them.
The same applies to the labour we’ve put into the ill-fitted tongue and groove ceiling in the upstairs bedrooms. After removing and replacing the crude 2” x 1” unplaned timber meant to hide the gap between planks and wall I fitted moulded coving with mitred ends and Lin has been smoothing the screw holes with woodfiller applied also to knot holes and blemishes in the tongue and groove as well as plugging, first with paper then woodfiller, the holes where the tongue meets the end wall, applying elastic filler in gaps below the coving caused by curves in the walls, and painting neatly up to the new edges. It takes a while but this attention to detail, as well as stopping wasps and drafts getting into the bedroom from the roof space, fades away the slack workmanship of the previous owners’ builder. “I’ve still got to wash and dry and revarnish it all. “ says Lin “and the bedroom next door needs the same treatment.”
No doubt such tiny insights about the comparative worth of such work will form the building blocks of an economics that will replace the doxa (δόξα) in which we collude - buying lemons in Corfu that have come from Spain and even South America, tomatoes from Germany, mangoes from Israel, pineapples from Puerto Rico and, in this water gifted island, bottled water from mainland Greece.
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In town the other day the car park queue wasn’t budging so I dropped Lin and drove out of town returning by my ‘secret’ road to park just before Xenofontos Stratigou, a narrow street under which a vast sewer was being laid last year. I parked just before the stretch that’s now been pedestrianised and unfolding the Brompton, cycled back along its attractively carfree length towards the Liston – a twenty minute walk in seven.

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Simon Baddeley