Construction Trauma

Before moving to Italy, I couldn’t have ever said, “I’ve been traumatized by construction.” But after living in this country for the past three years, I can say that now. It must be part of the initiation phase:

-Do you have what it takes to live in this country? 
-I’m not sure…
-Well you’ll soon find out. Because Italy doesn’t give a damn whether you make it…

What’s it like, the trauma?

It’s crushing. An incessant din of concrete saws and jackhammers. And it’s everywhere. It grinds and sears its way into you. Following you into the kitchen to make tea. Into the bath. Smashed under your fingernails while you work. Beneath the pillow you’ve put over your head. Injecting a jitter in your step, a skepticism in every look, a subtle distrust in all the reassuring comments that come your way.

“It’ll be over soon,” they tell you.

But it isn’t over soon. It makes you fragile and apprehensive and struggling to breathe.

Really. It was that bad.

Wall-building (Cavareno).
Wall-building in the downstairs apartment (Cavareno).

It all started in Cavareno, in our first apartment. The one we moved into during the cold snow months of February, 2013. But our landlord never mentioned it would be coming.

Only three weeks into living there, we first heard it. There were only small sounds, in the beginning. A minute of sawing here, 30 seconds of jackhammering there. A couple thwacks of a hammer.

I didn’t think much of it.

It’s what the descent into hell must sound like, if there were such a place.

Soon, it was more and more often. Waking us in the morning to the sound of it. Driving us out of the house to take refuge at the library or in local bars during “construction hours”. Then it was every day, all day. A thick layer of concrete dust lay over the floors and furniture and our belongings in the apartment. I was growing jumpy, sleeping fitfully or not at all (later that fall, a dog attack would add to my insomnia).

If you’ve never heard the sound of a saw slicing through concrete*, I don’t recommend you do. It’s one of the worst sounds man has ever invented; it’s what the descent into hell must sound like, if there is such a place.

The construction that drove us from our first Cavareno apartment. (Val di Non)
The construction downstairs that drove us from our first Cavareno apartment. (Val di Non)

Eventually, we’d had enough. We packed all our things and informed our landlord, “This is unbearable. We have to leave.” He lowered his head, a false imparting of shame, as if he’d already known things would turn out this way. “Va bene,” he said. “Buon viaggio.” (Okay. Have a safe trip.)

We were furious. Our possessions stuffed in the car, homeless in the middle of April and driving to a temporary place we’d secured on the other side of the valley, we couldn’t believe this was happening. But over the next few days, that fury would settle. And it would brew. Turned out, there was construction at the new place, too.

…it’s crescendo of click-clack-clack-clack-clack—whomp, whomp, whomp, whomp making it impossible to sleep… Could it get any worse?

I don’t know how I’d missed it—the half-built building, the crane waving in the air taller than the trees (or, what was left of them in this valley dense with apple orchards). The pounding of the industrial sized jackhammers, the thud-thud-thud-thud-thwack! louder than birdcalls. Louder than thunder. Louder than a grumbling diesel truck engine at your side.

I started wearing earplugs even in the day.

We lived like that for almost two months. Then in June, we decided to take a trip around North Italy for two weeks, hoping to get some reprieve from all the noise. Certain, in fact, that we’d find relief.

We were wrong.

In Torino (Turin), our apartment was flanked by a building under renovation, shouting men tossing roof tiles, and the sear of stone saws all around.

Construction behind our place in Torino.
Construction on the roof behind our place in Torino. The only time the noise wasn’t apparent was when it was raining like this, and all the workers had gone home.

In a second apartment (the first was only available a few days), we discovered an unfortunately loud tram operating in the street below. As though it were put there to mock us. There was no break from the noise. It’s crescendo of click-clack-clack-clack-clackwhomp, whomp, whomp, whomp made it impossible to sleep, rendering us nearly mad. Could it get any worse? I wondered.

It could.

The noisy tram in Torino. (Piemonte)
The noisy tram in Torino. (Piemonte)

To try to take our minds off the construction bombardment, off the agitation and deficit of sleep, we went to The Egyptian Museum for an afternoon. Inside, the windows were open, letting in the warm spring air. Giving the whole place an airy feeling. I thought, for a minute: we’ve just found some calm.

To my horror, another something floated in through those windows, apart from the tepid air. It was the sound of saws.

I lay in the fetal position under the covers…drinking from a bottle of cheap table red.

Concrete saws, slicing through thick stone, piercing and wailing and grinding into my own skull. I marched back to the main desk and demanded a refund, really losing it, shouting at another man in line, “Don’t waste your money, buddy!” Warning him to enter at his own peril. He froze and tried to pretend not to hear me.

“Customer service” refused to give us our money back, pointing to a tiny sign by the ticket window, “See? It says it there. ‘Under Construction’.” It was nearly invisible. And outside, the signs didn’t say a thing about construction (I went back later that night and checked. The signage may be yellow and black, but nowhere does it say ‘Construction’).


The apparent construction signs outside the Egyptian Museum (Torino)
Nowhere does it mention ‘construction’. Not anywhere. (Torino, Piemonte)

“It’s everywhere!” I complained at the woman behind the desk, but she only looked at me, coated in indifference. “This is the season,” she huffed.

I rushed out the door, swiped my things from the car, and marched myself into a Best Western Hotel where I asked for the cheapest room they had (still $150 a night). “Deve essere silenzioso,” I insisted. “It must be silent.” They assured me, “It is.”

 “Ya’ think there’s anywhere in Italy where you don’t hear this sound?”

But just outside the balcony (you guessed it!), a building across the courtyard was being renovated. A man-sized elevator was winding its way up and down the side of the building, porting supplies. Metal ground into cogs, iron doors squawked open then shut, the whole contraption chugging skyward and back down to the ground for as many hours as the sun rolled through the sky.

I lay in the fetal position under the covers, watching endless hours of French TV at full volume, and drinking from a bottle of cheap table red.

By the time we returned to Val di Non later that week, I’d gone numb.

To try to take the edge off after our trip, Jason and I went for a gelato in Cavareno’s main square. And there it was—you could hear it. Beyond the chatter of patrons at the pasticeria(bakery), the flit-flit conversation of birds, the people winding in and out of church with their buongiorno’s and buona giornata’s…was the sound of construction.

Downtown Cavareno (Val di Non)
Downtown Cavareno (Val di Non)

I put my head in my hands and stayed there.

All the world’s blithe, normal sounds were drowned out. Replaced by the hacking sound of hand-held motors tearing through concrete, ripping up floors and walls and ceilings and stairs. Emanating from a building adjacent the square. Building the new. A new Italy, I begun to believe. The whole country’s being redone.

“Ya’ think there’s anywhere in Italy where you don’t hear this sound?” Jason asked me.

I wondered. I hoped. But all my body could feel was, Nope. Not anywhere. Not anymore. From then on, every sound I’ve heard, every chainsaw or engine that has roared awake outdoors, I’ve braced myself and looked out the windows, eyes darting, heart racing. Prepared and waiting.

In three years I don’t think I’ve had any respite.

There was a moment where I stood in the late evening sun on a medieval street in Perugia over a year later. The vibrations of stone saws were buzzing down the narrow passage, and I looked at Jason. Conspiratorially. And I smiled. And in the time since, something strange has begun to happen. Something unexpected.

Electric saws through concrete, through stone, through tile flooring—sounds quite apparently everywhere in Italy—have begun to coddle me, to rock me gently, to remind me: Welcome Home.

*The reason construction noises are so loud here is theoretically two fold:

  1. Buildings in Italy are made of concrete and stone. Meaning, renovations aren’t as simple as taking a mallet to plaster/wood/dry wall. Instead, saws and jackhammers must be used to dismantle much firmer materials, leading to much louder noises.
  2. Buildings are closer together, so you don’t get the distance from a construction project like you might in the US. Plus many people live in apartments, sharing a wall, ceiling, floor, or roof, making it hard to get much space from nearby construction.

[Feature Image Credit: Mason Building Brick Wall. No author indicated. Licensed under CC BY 4.0.]

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