Bureaucracy – yet again

Well, we are there. Short of gaining citizenship – for which we would not yet be eligible anyway, regardless of the ongoing shenanigans in Westminster– we are now Brexit-proof. We are officially resident, we have the requisite health cover and a proper, grown-up bank account. And in the last few weeks – ok, months – we have swapped our UK driving licences for Italian ones, and we have also finally completed the bureaucratic equivalent of an SAS assault course that is otherwise known as importing a vehicle into Italy, wearily clutching our Italian registration plates to our heaving chests.

Not that anything to do with vehicles is complicated here, but there is a particular type of business, a consulenza automobilistica (vehicle licensing consultancy) exclusively dedicated to helping motorists to navigate the panoply of processes. Our local one, Lanciani, is down in Piediripa, a suburb of Macerata that consists mostly of anonymous yet busy light industrial estates. Founded in 1939 and now a sizeable outfit with several branches and a driving school, we felt comforted by its long experience in the business. And although I’ve been in more welcoming dentist’s waiting rooms, we received a reassuring response to our requests on our first visit to soulless offices for information on how to obtain Italian driving licences and import our UK-registered car. As blank-faced as any civil service functionary, the clerk who served us didn’t flinch at our request (a good sign) and he instantly rattled off the list of multiple steps each process involved. He reached for a fresh buff cardboard folder, wrote our name on the front in spidery capitals, licked finger and thumb and extracted a sheaf of forms – photocopies of photocopies, as ever – from a scruffy filing cabinet.

There being only so much bureaucracy we can deal with at any one time, we decided to warm up on the nursery slopes and get our driving licences sorted out first before graduating to the icy black slopes of importing the car. And we were spurred on by the clerk’s offer to talk us through the forms that set the process in motion on the spot – which involved entering into the wonky form all the details from our UK licences, enlarged photocopies of which he had just taken… We were underway, though, and a week or so later came the next step: an appointment with our GP for him just to measure our heart rate, test our reflexes, take our blood pressure, fill in a tick-box form, cover it with a rash of stamps and scrawl his artfully illegible signature across the bottom.  Then, armed with our forms, it was back to Matteo, as we had discovered the clerk was called, so that he could set up the next stage for us, namely arrange an appointment with Lanciani’s own doctor at their driving school in Macerata itself, this time for a sight and hearing test.

When we got there, lots of people were milling about the reception area trying to book driving lessons, looking for their theory classes, or getting this, that or the other document stamped – as well as having a sight and hearing test. Having queued (I use the term loosely: there was no sign of the customary deli-ticket system to keep things on track) at the enquiries desk to find out where we needed to go and to pay, we were – surprise, surprise – given a form for the latest doctor to complete and shown to the cramped waiting area outside the doctor’s consulting room across the landing. The doctor was a tall mild-mannered chap with gold-rimmed glasses and an avuncular manner who seemed more interested in our reasons for moving to Le Marche than our hearing or sight. I say ‘our’, for when he realised that we were a couple, he invited both of us into his consulting room so that we could take our tests together. After a bit more chat he eventually got round to asking us for some information about our eyes and ears and switched on the old-fashioned illuminated sight test chart with a huge capital ‘H’ at the top with rows of successively smaller letters beneath it. Having seated me at the far end of the room, he handed me a folded-up sheet of A4 paper for me to hold first over one eye and then over the other as I read out the rows he indicated.

It was all starting to feel faintly comical, and when I realised that the doctor was wasn’t looking at me but at the chart as I read out whichever row he indicated, I just couldn’t keep up even a pretence of taking it seriously. I ditched the piece of paper and just read everything with both eyes. He was clearly satisfied that I my eyesight didn’t present a danger to other road users, so he signed my form with a flourish, added a volley of stamps and then invited Mr Blue-Shirt to take his seat for his sight test.  He handed him the paper eye patch and once again turned to look at the chart as he indicated which rows he wanted Mr Blue-Shirt to read out. Even if Mr Blue-Shirt had bothered to use the patch, it wouldn’t have made the slightest bit of difference, as he had pretty much memorised the entire chart while I was having my test. And as he obediently read out each row, I could hear the giggles rising in his voice.  A few minutes later, the doctor handed Mr Blue-Shirt his signed and stamped form, shook as both warmly by the hand ushered us from his consulting room as if he were bidding a pair of house guests farewell. We exploded into fits of laughter as soon as the door had closed behind us, and it was while still recovering our composure that it occurred to us that he hadn’t tested our hearing. We checked our forms, but since the hearing section had also been completed we could only conclude that by virtue of the fact that the good doctor had been able to hold a conversation with us without raising his voice, he was satisfied with the standard of our hearing. No matter: we had our latest stamp-spattered forms and were another step closer to securing our Italian driving licences.

A few days later, back we went to Matteo to fill out the final batch of wonky forms, and – this was the slightly scary part – actually hand over our UK driving licences. All the other bureaucratic processes had completed up until now had involved obtaining something: a card, a number, a name on a register – in return for which, nothing had been relinquished (apart from hard cash, of course). But this time, we had to give something up, and suddenly, parting with that little rectangle of baby-pink plastic that had lived quietly in my wallet since I was seventeen and a bit felt disproportionately significant. We knew that technically it was an exchange, and that in a couple of weeks our wallets would once again contain that familiar baby-pink rectangle of plastic – only this time there would be an ‘I’ in the EU emblem in the corner instead of ‘UK’. But in the meantime, the temporary licence-cum-receipt signed and stamped by Matteo was scant comfort. And over the next couple of weeks, I lost count of the number of times my heart leapt every time my eye fell on the empty slot in my wallet.

Matteo’s prediction had been spot-on, though, and barely a fortnight later we each slipped our shiny new Italian driving licence – complete with ‘I’ and tricolore, but otherwise barely distinguishable from our old UK licences – into its rightful place in our wallets. Which only left us with the car to import…

A grand day out

We bumped into the Queen and Prince Philip last weekend.  Well, two people – both men – dressed up as them, in any event. One in bald wig, cadaverous make-up and Union Jack waistcoat and clutching a vintage steering wheel. The other, who was a good 2m tall, in a matronly air force blue dress and jacket with matching hat and handbag. She also had a copy of the Italian version of Hello! magazine poking from her pocket, displaying a multi-page feature on Prince Philip’s recent road accident – which made the steering wheel fall into place.

It didn’t make much else fall into place, however. After a hectic few weeks of all work and no play we had decided to take Sunday off and spend it taking in the spring sunshine, and chose Ascoli Piceno as our destination. This handsome town of about fifty thousand inhabitants sits in Le Marche’s south-easternmost corner, a few kilometres north of the regional border with Abruzzo. Built from the local pale travertine stone, it lies in the crook of the River Tronto that flows down from the Sibillini Mountains to the Adriatic at nearby San Benedetto del Tronto, one of Le Marche’s swankier seaside resorts. The route winds lazily around the feet of the mountains whose forested lower slopes rise up to snow-capped peaks on one side, and passes through the pretty and bustling towns of San Ginesio, Sarnano and Amandola, all of which have a distinctly Alpine feel and all of which make some kind of claim to be the ‘gateway to the Sibillini’.

As ever in these parts, the road was almost empty, with road bikes and motorcycles easily outnumbering cars and we commented with smug sarcasm on the ‘dreadful traffic’. Which is why we were rather taken aback by the almost total gridlock we encountered on descending into Ascoli Piceno’s historical centre. Where had all these cars come from? What was going on? And why were there two giant white rabbits strolling along the street? As we inched forward, at a loss to understand why this normally tranquil town had turned into a traffic hell, two miniature cowboys, each clutching the hand of a full-size sheriff, strode past our stationary car. Followed by a family of clowns in identical pink curly wigs. Baffled, we continued our slow progress towards the centre, and sighted a few more clowns, several small Spidermen and a couple of oversize pixies with both pointy ears and pointy shoes. We were beginning to feel as if we had dropped down a rabbit hole into some weird parallel universe.

Along with every other driver in the town that day, we squeezed the car into a non-existent parking space and made our way through the crowds towards the Piazza del Popolo, the normally serene central square which is dominated by the 13th century Palazzo del Popolo on its western side, while the church of St Francis and the Loggia dei Mercanti, the 16th century wool merchants’ guildhall stand guard at the northern end. Today, however, these sites were merely a backdrop to the teeming melee that filled the square and overflowed along the medieval streets extending from each corner. By now we were feeling positively under-dressed in our all-too-normal jeans and sweaters, as by now everyone we came across was done up in some kind of fancy dress, from the shy-looking teenager in a minimal pair of cat’s ears with matching face paint to the pair of women in lavish Renaissance-style gowns trimmed with sequins, ostrich feathers and finished off with extravagant glitter-covered masks. At which point the penny finally dropped. It was carnival.

Carnival in Italy can start as much as two or three weeks before Martedì Grasso (ie Mardi Gras), and although Shrove Tuesday remains an important date in the religious calendar as a final indulgent fling prior to the abstinence and penitence of Lent, in Italy (as elsewhere) it has been adapted by the church to fit in with much older pagan rituals originating in Greece, ancient Rome and ancient Egypt to celebrate the end of winter and the arrival of spring. And as far as carnival in Ascoli Piceno is concerned, I can confirm that the emphasis is very much on the pagan rather than the pious. Indeed, some costumes we saw seemed to be actively mocking religious doctrine – if the paunchy and heavily made-up middle-aged men dressed as the Virgin Mary, complete with lustrous blonde locks and flashing halo were in any way representative.

Most towns celebrate carnival to some degree or another, and celebrations in towns such as Venice, Viareggio and Ivrea are known internationally. While Ascoli Piceno’s may lack the glamour and renown of its more famous counterparts, they are no less surreal or enthusiastic for that. As well as the almost obligatory fancy dress, street theatre features prominently, with citizens as both protagonists and spectators satirising and poking fun at important events and local personalities. While some tableaux toured round the squares and cafés of the historical centre, there were many more, with makeshift scenery and stages, in the Piazza del Popolo, above which swung huge fin de siècle chandeliers and whose polished travertine tiles were carpeted in coloured paper confetti and streamers. Sunday is one of the key dates in the town’s programme of events that include competitions for different themed groups, competitions for children and in the evening a succession of masquerade parties (veglioni). And then they do it all over again on Shrove Tuesday when all the competitions are judged and prizes awarded.

On the way there we had decided it would be rather nice to enjoy a lunchtime aperitivo at Caffé Meletti, the city’s best-known café that was founded in 1907 and sits at the southern corner of the Piazza del Popolo. With its pale pink exterior and Liberty style interior, it has a chic, refined air. Well, normally it does. But not during carnival, though. Today it was as crowded and rowdy as a city-centre pub on a Friday night and the white-tuxedo-ed waiters with their silver platters of aperitivi snacks and linen-draped trays of Prosecco had difficulty navigating their way through heaving throng of superheroes, drag queens and harlequins.  Mr Blue-Shirt entered the fray at the bar while I nabbed the marble topped table that had just been vacated by the White Rabbit and the Mad Hatter – obviously. Over the years Caffé Meletti has hosted a succession of luminaries including Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sarte, Simone de Beauvoir and Beniamin Gigli, who doubtless sipped the eponymous house anisetta (pastis) beneath its frescoes ceiling and crystal lanterns, or perhaps on its porticoed terrace overlooking the graceful square. So I suppose that on today of all days it should have come as no surprise that as we sipped our Aperol Spritz and picked at a plate of dainty titbits we should end up bumping into the Queen and Prince Philip…

A road with a view

We’ve come to know it as Wimbledon Road. It stretches for a kilometre or so along a ridge that forms the start to any trip from our place down towards the coast or the dual carriageway that heads inland, or even to the supermarket. When travelling along it, it is all but impossible not to keep looking from left to right and back again as if watching a tennis match. It is the only way to drink in the heart-stopping views to both sides of the road before it swings away into dense trees and then begins the descent to the coast. To the left, framed by the honey-coloured hilltop villages of Montelupone and Potenza Picena, the broad, the olive- and vine-striped valley sweeps down to the enticing triangle of turquoise sea below – a wide-angle version of the view from our sitting room windows. While to the right, a patchwork of tree-edged fields, which by turns yield wheat or sunflowers or stand fallow, extends across to the mighty Sibillini Mountains.

About 40 miles away, they have been a fully-fledged National Park since 1993, offering hikers and cyclists miles of trails and dozens of rifugi providing comfy beds and hearty local food at the end of a day spent exploring the park’s flora and fauna, waterfalls and gorges, abbeys and monasteries. The mountains’ craggy timelessness forms our western horizon, a collection of some twenty peaks that rise to almost three thousand metres and whose upper slopes remain clad in snow until well into spring, when its upland meadows are carpeted with cornflowers, buttercups and poppies.

There are no two days when they look the same, though. On occasions, they take on a ghostly aspect in the early morning haze when the only hint of their presence is the sun reflecting off their icy flanks. From time to time they disappear altogether, retreating into a pale shroud of mist, and sometimes their bare, forbidding slopes are hidden behind a swirling cloak of steel grey cloud – as sure a sign of a change in the weather as any barometer.

Mysterious and moody, and home to wolves and wild cats, falcons and eagles, they have for centuries been associated with magic and the occult thanks to the legend of Sibyl. It is claimed that this mystic prophetess and witch was enraged to find that not she but Mary would be mother of God. Her rage provoked God to order her to dwell with devils until Judgement Day in a cave beneath one of the range’s highest peaks, which naturally came to be known as Mount Sibyl (Monte Sibilla). Indeed, the whole range became known as a ‘realm of demons, necromancers and fairies’, as the Italian Tourist Board puts it.  And when storms brew, it is not difficult to understand why dark forces were believed to reign there. The rumbling thunder and churning cloud could easily be Sibyl and her demons showing their displeasure as they hurl spears of lightning and sheets of angry rain onto the verdant lowland pastures.

Then, when the storm has passed, its anger spent, the Sibillini’s jagged peaks appear like islands suspended above the shawl of mist draped around their rugged shoulders. Mostly, though, they stand in all their splendour against a crystalline sky, serene yet stark. Flushed with rosy-pink at dawn, then clothed in a palette of greys and greens as the sun climbs higher. And as the sun drops behind them, they fade to heather-purple and finally to near-black silhouettes as the dying embers of the day cast flares of crimson and scarlet across an orange sky.

It is a menacing beauty, however. For it is a matter of neither myth nor legend that deep below their forbidding slopes seismic forces periodically shift and stir. Directly beneath the range’s highest peak runs the infamous Monte Vettore fault, and when it last ruptured in 2016, it unleashed an earthquake that devastated communities throughout the mountains and affected towns across the region. The Marchigiani are a stoical and optimistic people, though, and life in and around the mountains has returned to near-normal remarkably quickly. Despite the lurking menace, it is as if there is also comfort to be found in the mountains’ timelessness and constancy, an abiding sense that in the end ‘all shall be well’. And it is certainly something that we are aware of; that whatever triumphs or disasters the day brings, those soaring, ever-yet-never-changing peaks will always be there somewhere as we cast our eyes right on Wimbledon Road.

Another brick in the wall

Mr Blue-Shirt’s primary focus of late – now that the mighty woodstore is finished – has been phase one of building the terrace that will eventually surround the house. Currently, it sits apparently adrift in a sea of grass, gravel and weeds that lap right up to its crisply rendered walls, its only mooring the odd exposed section of concrete underpinning-cum-earthquake-proofing and a couple of broad steps leading up to the front door. Built from roughly laid terracotta brick, these may have looked charmingly rustic, but that’s about all they had going for them. All the mortar was crumbling away so the bricks were gradually wobbling loose, and the whole thing sloped towards the house, which meant that whenever we got a serious squall from the south we developed puddles in the hall (a rare occurrence admittedly, but no less annoying for that). Worst of all – in Mr Blue-Shirt’s engineering mind – there was not a single straight edge, flat surface, or right-angle to be found. So they had to go.

And go they did, crumbling away alarmingly easily with little more than a nudge from Mr Blue-Shirt’s heavy-duty breaker. Having carefully pegged and stringed out the properly established angles, he then set about digging foundations for the new brickwork – no mean feat in the rock-solid Marche mud – and sinking the downpipes that had until then simply spewed their contents onto the driveway. Then came the brickwork itself.  Although the previous owners had never got round to realising their plans for the outside for the property, they had, luckily for us, accumulated a huge but random collection of building materials and equipment – including several hundred salvaged bricks, so once Mr Blue-Shirt had shovelled from the van the several hundred kilos of sand and cement he had sourced from the local quarry, he was ready for the off. Installing countless metres or ironwork over the years gave Mr Blue-Shirt plenty of experience in general building work, so although he may lack a professional bricky’s speed, laying a few courses of bricks was just like old times and the ever-capable Mr Blue-Shirt was as happy as a pig in muck. So in just a few days, he had built the edging for the new steps and the section of terrace that will run along the front of the outside stairs to the doors to the boiler room. The equipment we had inherited from the previous owners included a tatty but functioning cement mixer, so once the brickwork was dry, back-filling the space with concrete was a relatively quick, if noisy, task. What took the time, though, was achieving a flat and even surface with just the right amount of ‘fall’ for drainage purposes, but never a fan of the ‘that’ll do’ approach to workmanship, Mr Blue-Shirt smoothed and skimmed and levelled until he achieved a finish normally reserved just for wedding cakes. But I am assured that this is the standard of finish required if we want the tiles (which we had also acquired from the previous owners) to sit evenly, which of course we do. But first we need to wait a few weeks for the concrete to dry out fully…

And as I stand admiring Mr Blue-Shirt’s latest handiwork it strikes me that this modest yet carefully crafted structure is not so very different from how our lives here are developing. The battles with bureaucracy are behind us, the temporary fixes and ‘making do’ have come to an end and the weeds and stones of settling in have been replaced with myriad almost sub-conscious processes that ease the flow of daily life. No longer adrift in a sea of new-ness and unfamiliarity, the patterns and rhythms of our respective work routines now shape our day and provide our moorings. And just like with that small section of terrace, with its sturdy foundations and its straight brick edges, there is a pleasing sense of increasing solidity and permanence. Another brick in the wall in every sense.

A few – well actually just one – of my favourite things

Those who read last week’s post will be aware that I am unequivocally in the ‘love it’ camp.  When it comes to Marmite, that is. And since living in Italy I have found that it is practically the only item that I would struggle to do without. But this is less because I am a Brit abroad than it is because it’s been a part of my life for so long it feels as if it has become part of my DNA. It is one of my earliest food memories: my dad always ate it on his breakfast toast every morning and I remember – I swear I do – asking for some of Daddy’s breakfast from my highchair and being given a single buttered soldier to try, with a tiny dab of the magic spread. And from that first intense umami kick I was hooked. Never one for sweet things (initially I couldn’t bear the taste of tea because my mum kept putting sugar in it) I instantly found that distinctive salty tang deeply satisfying and capable of quelling pangs of hunger more effectively than almost anything else. So a Marmite sandwich made from thinly sliced Hovis – the original uncut variety, with its domed crust and the letters embossed on the side – cut into triangles, crusts left on and served on my treasured Bunnykins plate soon became my daily after-school snack, eaten curled up on the sofa in front of Jackanory.

While I soon outgrew Jackanory, then Blue Peter and Crackerjack (and my Bunnykins plate, although I think I still have it somewhere) I have never outgrown the taste of Marmite. More than four decades later a Marmite sandwich remains my go-to snack, the rich savouriness giving all the flavour satisfaction of a proper meal. And as you know, when I am feeling under the weather, it is this that invariably makes it the only thing I have any appetite for. Other than Marmite on toast, of course: the deep glistening brown that looks like melted amber, its sticky trails mingling with the butter melting into the crevices of the fragrant hot toast. Even its never-changing dumpy brown jar makes me feel better: as welcoming as a smiling granny, full of the promise of comfort and cuddles.

I’m guessing there is some algorithm out there that has worked out that I am a Marmite-eating Brit abroad and that I must therefore be longing for some other tastes of home. It seems the most likely explanation for all the online adverts I get for products like Fray Bentos steak and kidney pies, Ambrosia rice pudding and Batchelors mushy peas, even though I’ve never bought or eaten any of these products. There are lots of online businesses selling Brits edible nostalgia, the essentially British products that can’t be found beyond Dover and that some apparently just can’t do without, and their adverts set me to thinking about which other British goodies we do miss, if not rice pudding and mushy peas.  Heinz beans? Nope. I’ve never eaten them and the multi-pack of individual tins we brought over with us when we first moved in remains un-opened in the pantry. They used to be a feature of Mr Blue-Shirt’s sitework breakfasts when he was installing ironwork in London, but that was then and this is now. McVitie’s chocolate digestives? Well, kind of. We brought a couple of packets with us for old times’ sake, but the second one went soggy as we don’t actually eat biscuits that much. Heinz tomato ketchup and HP sauce?  Yes, we brought bottles of both with us, but according to Mr Blue-Shirt (I can’t stand the stuff) Italian ketchup is barely distinguishable from Heinz, and the HP sauce is in danger of passing its best before date. It used to be Mr Blue-Shirt’s favourite accompaniment to an occasional Sunday morning Full English, or to an even rarer plate of fish and chips. But again, that was then and this is now.

This shift in tastes has not been part of any conscious plan to give up British foods, though. They just no longer fit with the way we live our lives, don’t fit with the climate, don’t fit with the food culture. Added to which we were never big on tinned or packet foods, always preferring to cook from scratch, even when life was at its most manic. Which means that we can still eat English if ever the fancy takes us. Cottage pie? No problem. Toad-in-the-hole? Easy-peasy. Flapjacks? You bet.

The thing is, though, we find that the fancy takes us ever less frequently. It is as if we are sloughing off our British ways as we gradually become more embedded in the Italian way of life – but not in a conscious, deliberate act of ‘giving up’ British things or ‘going native’. It is much more a matter of what feels more appropriate and more natural. And why on earth would we resist, with such a mouth-watering array of fresh ingredients to choose from? Why on earth would we seek to cling to emblems of a country that is no longer our home while rejecting those of our adoptive home – and whose cuisine we have always admired. Are we doing little more than ‘camping out’ and going through the motions of living in Italy? Or is it the real deal? And as it is naturally the latter, does it mean I’m going to have to stop eating Marmite…?

Miserable in Le Marche

Colds. I bloody loathe them. And the feeling is entirely mutual. Other people seem merely to get a few sniffles, perhaps develop an amusingly idiosyncratic sneeze, and actually rather enjoy the interesting huskiness a cold can add to their voice – but otherwise continue to function largely as normal. Colds are far less benevolent when it comes to me, though. They always attack me with a vicious and unwarranted enthusiasm. And then, to really put the boot in, invariably wait until the dog-end of winter when reserves are running low and I’m as easy a pushover as an exhausted marathon runner in the twenty-sixth mile. They clog my head and sinuses with liquid cement, plant rusty razor blades in my throat and swap my voice for an asthmatic donkey’s. They muffle my hearing, deaden my taste buds and leave me puffy-faced, glassy-eyed and Rudolph-nosed. And as if that wasn’t enough, they dull my senses, drain my spirits, fill my limbs with lead and rob me of every last drop of energy. And just when I feel as if I might be on the home straight, they slow my progress to the finish line with an unrelenting cough that sounds like someone trying to kick-start a recalcitrant motorcycle. Did I mention I bloody loathe colds?

Incidentally, no ‘drama queenery’ this, I promise, as Mr Blue-Shirt will willingly testify. For having had to witness these almost annual bouts of wheezing, hacking squelchiness at close quarters for more than half a lifetime, he freely admits that even ‘man ‘flu’ comes nowhere close. And every time one strikes, he is always there with soothing drinks and tempting morsels and with so much concerned sympathy he almost has me worried.

It is just as well, therefore, that the final lap of this winter’s onslaught coincided with the point at which state schools locally put lessons on hold for their annual ‘white week’ – la settimana bianca. One of Italy’s national rituals, la settimana bianca is the annual pilgrimage to the mountains to take advantage of the snow when it is at its best. And while the resorts of the Savoy Alps in the north-western corner, the Dolomites in the north-eastern corner and the southern slopes of the French and Swiss Alps in between certainly offer the best skiing in the country, every region except Umbria and Puglia has at least a couple of ski resorts. Here in Le Marche, for instance, the magnificent Sibillini mountains are home to half a dozen or so small resorts with a total 70km of slopes, so there is no need to pound up the autostrada into the Alps to enjoy a few days of the white stuff.

So with my exam students – several twenty-strong groups of boisterous eighteen-year-olds – presumably making their snowy pilgrimage somewhere in the country, I could surrender to this year’s assault with a relatively clear conscience. Better still, this timely lull left me with sufficient stores of get-up-and-go for my remaining in-company courses and individual students, and to finally get my cold licked. Well, almost. For as ever, it played one last trick. On my weekly run up into the village and back, hills that I can normally run up without actually expiring might just as well have been the foothills of Monte Bianco, and even the flatter sections had me gasping like a freshly landed salmon. My cold had clearly stolen my lungs and replaces them with something the size of a pair of teabags. But at least it gave me some welcome time in the mood-lifting sunshine and the chance to top up on some much-needed Vitamin D. And to believe that spring is just around the corner.

Oh, the photo. It’s my personal cold survival kit.  Never mind the more traditional paracetamol and honey combo; it’s Marmite and after sun lotion that ultimately see me through. More often than not, when food tastes like cardboard and eating is just too much effort, it is only a Marmite sandwich that I have any appetite for. And the frequent application of after sun lotion is the only thing that enables me to retain any skin at all on my poor Kleenex-chafed nose.

 

The view from this side of the Channel

“But why?” It is almost always the first question we are asked whenever Brexit comes up in conversation, no matter how tangentially. It is asked with neither rancour nor mockery, but with dismay, incomprehension and with disappointment. For even in Italy, where politics have recently taken an alarming lurch to the right and the current coalition of populist parties are going head to head with Brussels on a range of issues (chiefly migration policy and the budget) the UK’s imminent departure from the EU is seen as a profoundly mis-guided and retrograde step and as the loss of a close and valued friend.

Our bank manager and the clerk in the post office, the women in the town hall who handled our residency application, Mr Blue-Shirt’s barber and the bloke in his favourite tool shop, the chaps in the vehicle licensing office who helped us get our Italian driving licences, my colleagues and the teenagers and managers I teach. Even just the people in the village who hear our English voices or spot our English number plates. As if we are a proxy for the country that they have been watching blunder around in circles from failed negotiation to failed vote and back again in its still fruitless search for a satisfactory means of departure from the organisation that has shaped our lives for more than a generation.

We seldom enter into lengthy explanations, political debate or history lessons. It’s not really what people are interested in, I don’t think. It’s both much bigger and much simpler than that. It seems, rather, that all these people are simply seeking some kind of reassurance that ‘it’s nothing personal’. “We really don’t know,” we reply with a helpless shrug. “We don’t understand it either. It’s madness. And very, very sad.” Heads are shaken, sympathetic looks exchanged. “In our opinion it’s a huge mistake. But at least we have found a way to Remain (everyone knows the terminology). We are here!” A rueful smile and perhaps a tinge of comfort to find that ‘it’s not you, it’s us’, and with that, the conversation moves on.

Only it’s not ‘us’ – Mr Blue-Shirt and me – at all. Both committed Remainers, we have spent almost as much of our adult lives in Europe – in mainland Europe, I mean – as we have in the UK. Through living in in Belgium, France and Germany as well as Italy (all founding members of the European Community, of course) we have long been aware that the EU means so much more than trade or travel, budgets or bureaucracy. For years it has been clear to us that the bonds the EU has forged between nations that had spent centuries at war have played a decisive role in ensuring that not only could it never happen again, but that they have helped make Europe a global power in its own right. Nations that had long been bitter enemies, that had repeatedly been left ravaged and impoverished by conflict and whose borders had been fought over time and time again, have for over sixty years been united in the pursuit of the common goals of peace, prosperity and democracy thanks to the web of co-operation and reciprocity it has woven over the years. So despite the EU’s acknowledged shortcomings we firmly believe they pale into insignificance when compared with the inestimably wider benefits the Union brings – and are certainly infinitely preferable to the hubristic, isolationist alternative that is fast approaching.

Now, I realise that some may find this a somewhat romantic view, but we have found it reflected back at us to a greater or lesser extent in nearly all of our ‘why?’ conversations. Take the one we had at the town hall last spring. On this occasion we were there to find out what paperwork was required to obtain the health cover we needed to secure residency. While the woman dealing with us was on the phone to the health authority, the colleague she had waved into her cramped and gloomy office to help her get us out of our latest blind alley took up the baton. “So what’s this Brexit thing all about, then?” he asked a little more combatively than most. We took a breath, preparing to respond as we had done so many times before. “Why?” he continued before we could get a word out. “Why? When thousands of your forces died to liberate us from fascism, why do you want to leave the body that came out of that victory and that has made war unthinkable, the body that Churchill dreamt of?” He paused and swallowed hard. “Churchill! Don’t you British know that?!” This was no rheumy-eyed, nostalgic old soldier either, but a man in his forties with no direct experience of those troubled times. Yet for someone whose country had within living memory been devastated by occupation, civil war and dictatorship, there was nothing remotely romantic about over half a century of peace, prosperity and democracy.

His passion and his concern deserved an answer and so we did our best to reassure him that we not only shared his views but also understood why he held them. And to explain that like him, we saw being part of Europe as expression of sovereignty, not its abandonment; an expression of solidarity not capitulation; and of co-operation, not competition; of the belief that when one member prospers, all prosper.

There was so much more we could have said, of course, about free movement, trade, finance, security, science, medicine, education, social justice, as well as all the geo-politics. So many more reasons we could have given him for our deeply-held desire to remain in the EU and our belief in it as a force for good, but his colleague had finished her call and was impatient to get on with her day. So once she had passed on the information she had been given, we merely shook his hand and took our leave, walking from the town hall beneath the twin flags of the Italian Republic and the European Union that fluttered proudly from the balcony.