How difficult can it be?

Well, we’ve got the four corners in place. Residency, health cover, Italian driving licences and getting the car registered are all done. And we’ve got most of the edges in place too: getting the house and teaching work sorted out; indeed, they are starting to fill in much of the overall picture too. But there is still one large gap at the heart of the giant jigsaw of creating our life in Italy: a forge for Mr Blue-Shirt to resume his career as a blacksmith.

For over a year his forging tools and equipment (along with the contents of the garden shed, and sundry other bits and pieces that were too big and/or heavy to come over in the van) have remained tightly packed in a shipping container in the corner of a Lincolnshire goods yard. But for the past couple of weeks, this has at last been trundling south, just another another anonymous brick-coloured metal box on the back of a mile-long goods train snaking down through Europe. And what a slog is has been to find someone who could deliver Mr Blue-Shirt’s ‘forge in a box’ to Italy. Not that outlandish a proposal, one would have thought in light of the tens of thousands of identical such containers that on a daily basis are shuffled back and forth across the continent like a giant game of draughts. For goodness’ sake, twenty years ago, just such a container holding most of our worldly goods made it safely from the UK, via the mega-port of Singapore, to our tiny tin-roofed bungalow at the edge of the jungle on the northern coast of Borneo without a hitch (although it did take eight weeks to get there). So how difficult could it be? – to coin one of the favourite phrases of the eternally optimistic, never-to-be-thwarted Mr Blue-Shirt. Well, the answer turned out be ‘a damned sight more difficult than you’d imagine’.

A long list of big ‘we ship anything anywhere’ shipping companies were rejected once it turned out that this only applied if the said ‘anything’ was packed in one of their swanky containers, and even then, only upon payment of an eye-watering sum of money. Several hours of intensive Googling in search of smaller shipping companies that regularly transport good between the UK and Italy resulted in another list for Mr Blue-Shirt to plod through, this time of companies in Romania, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic as well as in Italy and the UK. And the responses – such as they were: several companies didn’t even bother to reply to his comprehensive enquiry – were enough to dent even Mr Blue-Shirt’s resolutely positive outlook. There were those that simply weren’t interested in a one-off private job; there were those whose quotes suggested that they were deliberately pricing themselves out of the job, and then there were those that quoted an ostensibly attractive, or at least reasonable price, but then added a catalogue of ‘extras’ – for instance, £750 just to lift the container onto a truck. Things were complicated further by the fact that while a couple of companies would normally have been happy to quote, they just didn’t have capacity to handle the job at the moment. The inexorable ticking down of the Brexit clock had meant that they were not only all overflowing with containers full of emergency supplies of essential goods in readiness for the possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, but were also tearing their hair out, trying to fathom what paperwork, checks and other rules they would suddenly need to deal with should this disaster actually come to pass.

Against this background, it was not hard to appreciate why Mr Blue-Shirt’s optimism was wearing thin. Never one to be beaten, however – ‘failure is not an option’ is another of his favourite sayings – he decided to see this impasse as a challenge rather than a problem and so set in place a campaign of direct action. This involved sniffing out goods yards and haulage companies while out and about on various missions, eyeing up what vehicles and equipment they had, and then if things looked promising, visiting them in person, armed with photos, dimensions, serial numbers, weights and packing lists – and a determined look in his steely blue eyes. Having met only apologetic shrugs in a couple of places, he eventually tried his luck at a yard down by Porto Recanati, right next to the toll booths where we join the autostrada that runs along the coast from Rimini to Bari. While such things are simply not on my radar, Mr Blue-Shirt had clocked that they had cranes and forklifts aplenty as well as a fleet of trucks and a designated storage area stacked with containers awaiting delivery. Storage is a critical to Mr Blue-Shirt’s requirements, incidentally: in the absence for the time being of a permanent home for the container (ie his new forge, when he finds it), it can’t be stored at the house. Despite having enough space and even a suitable spot for it in the south-west corner of the olive grove up against the boundary hedge and largely hidden behind a large conifer, the location of power lines combined with the laws of physics and geometry conspire to make it impossible for a crane to lift the fully laden container from a truck, swing it over the 2.5m-high hedge and lower it into position.

Feeling confident, Mr Blue-Shirt ran through his now well-rehearsed pitch with Federico the very business-like owner. Yes, he shipped goods between Italy and the UK; yes he’d be happy to do a one-off private job; yes, he could do it for somewhere close budget. By this stage, Mr Blue-Shirt could happily have leant across the paper-strewn desk and planted a kiss on Federico’s deeply tanned cheek. But then the killer blow: he just didn’t have the storage capacity. Mr Blue-Shirt inhaled, closed his eyes and tried to organise his face into a smile before thanking Federico and taking his leave. “But you can try my friend Antonio in Porto Potenza Picena. He regularly ships stuff between the UK and Italy, and I don’t think his yard is full.” Clutching Antonio’s business card in one hand, he waved Federico a grateful farewell with the other as he clambered back into the van. “Mi hai salvato la vita!” he called as he crunched it into gear and sped off to Antonio’s yard.

Bingo! Antonio could do the lot; he even had a shipping agent in the UK who could organise that end of the journey. But the clincher was that he could also store the container at a very modest monthly rent, and so they shook hands on the deal there and then. Mr Blue-Shirt’s relief was palpable when over dinner that evening he told me how helpful Antonio had been, and how reassured he had been by Antonio’s genial manner as well as his forces background: something which always creates an instant bond and a sense of trust. Over the following days, Antonio proved to be as good as his word and all the necessary documents were provided and information exchanged; the crane was hired, the truck booked, the container shifted and finally placed onto a goods train at a railhead somewhere in the depths of Leicestershire. From there it has doubtless been lifted and lowered, cross-loaded, stacked and shunted about countless times as part of that giant continental game of container draughts, for its trans-European trek, which will end at the railhead in Pescara, some 100km south of us, will have taken over two weeks by the time it is driven back up to Antonio’s yard in the next day or so. And Mr Blue-Shirt will finally be re-united with his much-missed forging tools. Now he just needs that forge to put them in. How difficult can it be…?

Local heroes

So, that selection of noteworthy Marchigiani I spoke of last week; those local heroes whose achievements have entitled them to the honour of having streets in towns and villages throughout the region named after them: I certainly hadn’t even heard of most of them before moving here, and I knew barely anything of the achievements of the few I had heard of. But more to the point, I am unlikely to have found out anything about them had I not had my curiosity piqued by seeing these names on a daily basis on my way to the post office, to the vet or to the pizzeria, to the beach, friends, or to work. So, who exactly are they?

Well, should you stroll down a Via Raffaello Sanzio – or indeed if you arrive in the region by air since Ancona’s airport also bears his name – I can now tell you that this is in honour of the painter better known simply as Raphael.  He was a famously prolific artist and many of his works can be found in the Vatican Palace, and together with Michelangelo and Da Vinci, was one of the artistic ‘holy trinity’ of the period. And his local connection? He was born in Urbino, a picturesque medieval town in the north of the region that in the fifteenth century became a microcosm of High Renaissance culture thanks to the patronage of Federico da Montefeltro, and that is now World Heritage Site.

Then again, if your route includes a Via Giacomo Leopardi, this is a nod to who I now know to be Italy’s greatest poet of the Romantic period; up there Shelley, Keats and Byron. His work is said to have found its greatest expression in L’Infinito, the centenary of which is being celebrated this year, especially in his home town of Recanati. This dignified and handsome town is spread along a high ridge just a few kilometres from us and forms our view to the north at the start of any trip into the village. Superficially, Leopardi’s masterpiece expresses the poet’s desire to escape the rigid discipline of life in deeply conservative Recanati, which at the time was still under papal rule, and to travel to the exotic-sounding places he knew of only from his studies. However, it is also understood to be a meditation on both the potential and the limits of human understanding and the attendant frustrations.

Another son of Recanti popular with town planners in these parts is Beniamino Gigli, a name that I confess was completely unknown to me.  It turns out, however, that the reason for his commemoration in local street names is that he was one of the country’s foremost operatic tenors from the 1920s to the 1940s who spent the early part of his career in the shadow of the mighty Caruso – which is probably why I had never heard of poor Benjamin. The various examples of Via Pergolesi, by contrast, commemorate someone who I had at least heard of.  I have now learnt though that his last name is in fact a demonym that indicates his forefathers’ origins in the town of Pergola, which lies some fifty kilometres to the west of Jesi where Giovanni Battista Pergolesi was born in 1710. A violinist and organist as well as a composer, his best-known sacred work is probably his Stabat Mater, which he completed only weeks before he died from tuberculosis aged just twenty-six, although he is also celebrated as one of Italy’s premier exponents of ‘opera buffa’ – comic opera.

Pergolesi is eclipsed only by Gioacchino Rossini as Le Marche’s pre-eminent musician (whom I had definitely heard of, having actually performed some of his music in my youth). Consequently, any tour of the region is bound to take you along a Via Rossini or two, especially if Montecosaro, Macerata or Corridonia feature in your trip. And certainly if it includes Pesaro, the region’s most northerly coastal city where he was born in 1792. Rossini wrote his first opera aged just eighteen and went on to write a further thirty-eight, best known among which are Il Barbiere di Siviglia (the Barber of Seville), Gugliemo Tell (William Tell) and Semiramide.

Even though I had had no idea that Pergolesi and Rossini had hailed from Le Marche, at least I had a passing acquaintance with their achievements.  When it came to one of the region’s most celebrated scientists, however, I knew neither his name nor anything of the achievements that have earned him the accolade of having streets and schools named after him: Via Enrico Mattei is the street that forms the north-western boundary of Montelupone’s historical centre; it is also the name of a secondary school in Recanati (I have even taught there). And I am pleased to say that I now know that he was a chemist by training and came from Acqualanga in Pesaro e Urbino, the region’s most northerly province, and later became an industrialist. He became an active member of the anti-Fascist resistance shortly after Mussolini’s forced resignation in 1943, with responsibility for organising the supply of weapons to the local resistance cell in the mountains around Matelica (now better known for its white wine made from the Verdicchio grape). More significantly for street-naming purposes, however, was his role in transforming the Fascist-run national oil company (AGIP, a name which still exists today) into one of the country’s principal economic assets, and also for the development of Italy’s natural gas reserves, which helped drive the country’s post-war economic resurgence.

And finally, although immortalised in street, school and airport names less frequently than Pergolesi, Mattei, Raphael et al, if you pay a visit to Chiaravalle where she was born, to Ancona, to Jesi or to Castelfidardo, you may find yourself in Via Montessori, a small memorial to one of the few women (other than saints and martyrs) recognised in this time-honoured fashion. To my shame, I had completely failed to realise that this was in recognition of the early twentieth century physician and educator who developed the educational philosophy based on autonomy and self-motivation that is followed in the schools around the world that bear her name – Maria Montessori.

So, yet another fact about Italy that I probably would never have come across but for this peculiarly Italian street-naming tradition. For visitors and incomers alike, it is an insightful and serendipitous way of learning things about Italy that few guide books will include. Better still, though, by this simple celebration of the people and events that have shaped its history, it bestows even the tiniest, remotest village with a powerful sense of place in a way that boring old High Street, North Road or Oaktree Avenue can never do. So next time you wander along Via Somebody-or-other, or find yourself in Piazza Never-Heard-of-Him, just look them up. For you are sure to find a nugget of information every bit as tasty and quintessentially Italian as the pizza or the cappuccino or the aperitivi you are just about to tuck into…

What’s in a name?

Poets, politicians and popes: all can be found immortalised in Italian street names, along with a smattering of artists and industrialists, scientists and saints, as well as a handful of key dates in Italy’s history. As a result, a brief stroll around even the smallest of villages will turn into a fascinating ambulatory version of an Italian ‘Who’s Who?’

Once you have wandered past the tall, shuttered palazzi along Via Roma – for although not actually obligatory, I’ve yet to come across a town that doesn’t have one (and Montelupone is no exception) – and then paused for a cappuccino on the shaded terrace of an intimate little café on the grand Piazza del Popolo – and there will be one, trust me, or possibly a Piazza della Libertà – you could very well find yourself window-shopping on Viale Cavour, or admiring the fountains in the Piazza Garibaldi or dodging the traffic on the busy Corso Mazzini. Practically every town from the Alps to Etna has a street or square named after at least one of these three heroes of the Risorgimento: those soldier-politicians who led the march to Italian unity and who are still revered as national heroes. And just for the record, the road that encircles Montelupone’s walled historic centre is a Via Garibaldi.

Leave the Piazza del Popolo (or della Libertà) from another corner and there is every chance that this will lead you to Via Papà Giovanni XXIII. Although his papacy only lasted for five years, Pope John XXIII is fondly remembered for championing universal human rights and the peaceful resolution of conflict, so his name is a regular on street maps. And he probably still just pips Papà Giovanni Paolo II (John Paul II) to the number one spot, even though the latter still enjoys almost superstar status. And of course, in practically any town you will encounter any one of a whole clutch of saints, headed up, naturally, by Santa Maria and Saint Francis, who is one of Italy’s two patron saints.  The latter is an especially popular choice in these parts since Assisi and the magnificent Basilica di San Francesco are little over an hour away, but as you turn the corner, you could just as easily find yourself in Contrada Santa Caterina (just as you will if you head down the hill out of Montelupone towards our house). A mystic theologian and one of only four female ‘doctors of the church’, she was born in Siena and was proclaimed patron saint of Europe by John Paul II in 1999, having already been named Italy’s second patron saint in 1940.

Then as you curve back towards Via Roma your route could take you along one of those many streets named after a number of significant dates in Italian history. Via XX Settembre (of which Montelupone has an example) marks the day at the height of the Risorgimento in 1870 that the Pope lost control of Rome, while Via XVII Marzo celebrates Italy’s unification in 1861. And in the village we also have a Via XXIV Maggio. This is a slightly unusual one since it commemorates the day in 1915 on which Italy fired its first shots in World War One. While not normally considered a cause for celebration, the event is significant as this was the first time that the whole country took up arms under a single flag in defence of the young nation.

Figures from more recent times who have streets names after them include Giacomo Matteotti, a prominent socialist who stood up to Mussolini and the Fascists, but who ended up being kidnapped and murdered by Il Duce’s secret police in 1924, and fellow left-winger and industrial activist, Antonio Gramsci who in 1937 also met a sticky end at the hands of the Fascists.  Prime Ministers are always a popular choice too – regardless of how popular they might have been in life – and possibly the most frequent example (and before you ask, yes, we have one in Montelupone) is Via Aldo Moro, named after the prime minister who was kidnapped and then murdered by the Red Brigades in 1978.

Then to go with these prominent twentieth century figures is a collection of dates from more recent history that are memorialised in street names. Our local supermarket, for instance, is on Via XXV Aprile, one of many such streets up and down the country that commemorate Italy’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945, while any Contrada II Guigno you come across marks the declaration of the republic in 1946. Since the monarchy was abolished on the same day the republic was declared, you may be surprised to come across a Corso Vittorio Emanuele, but since this was the first king of the newly-united Italy, he is still fondly remembered as ‘Padre della Padria’ – Father of the Nation – and many a grand, town-centre boulevard is named in his honour.  On the other hand, I find it rather odd that there should be any street named after his son and successor, Umberto I, for despite being nicknamed ‘il Buono’ – the Good – he was an aggressive colonialist, turned a blind eye to the activities of the Mafia and the Camorra, had only contempt for Parliament, and outraged public opinion by decorating the General responsible for the massacre in 1898 of some 400 civilians who were protesting against rising bread prices. Not altogether surprisingly, he was assassinated a couple of years later. But commemorated he is: indeed, the elegant, tree-lined Corso Umberto I is Civitanova Marche’s most up-market shopping street and the place to be seen during the evening passegiata in summer.

But it’s not only national heroes (or villains, in Umberto I’s case) that are honoured in this way. Around these parts there are also streets called Via Rafaello Sanzio, Piazza Giacomo Leopardi, or Viale Maria Montessori; Contrada Enrico Mattei, Corso Beniamino Gigli, or Piazza Giovanni Pergolesi. For street names are also a manifestation of Italy’s famed campanilismo: loyalty to the local. And while the names may not be as familiar as Cavour, Mazzini and Garabaldi, they are all noteworthy Marchigiani. So to discover who these famous sons (and one daughter) of Le Marche are, come and take a stroll through the flower-filled cobbled streets of the region’s many hill-top towns, pausing as the fancy takes you for a coffee, a gelato, perhaps a glass of chilled Verdicchio, or simply to drink in the soaring views of ‘monti e mare’, and their achievements shall be revealed to you….

Bureaucracy yet again – again

So having survived the nursery slopes of obtaining our Italian driving licences, we felt ready to graduate to the more challenging slopes of importing the left-hand drive but UK-registered vehicle we had bought the previous summer. From our first conversation with Matteo, the slightly detached and supremely unhurriable clerk at Lanciani, our local vehicle licensing specialists, we knew that the key documents were the car’s UK registration document and its libretto (certificate of conformity) which is the EU document provided by the manufacturer that confirms that the vehicle meets all the required specifications. And fortunately ours does, for any modifications to the vehicle, such as tinted windows or different wheels, can cause weeks of delays while approval for any changes is sought. So: a good starting point at least.

We were also aware that while Matteo was happy to accept the latter in its original language (which happens to be German: long story), we would need to get the UK registration document translated into Italian – even though this is supposed to be a document recognised across the Union. Let’s leave aside any idea that as vehicle licensing specialists, Lanciani might have their own translation of this document into which they could simply enter our vehicle’s data: way too Anglo-Saxon. We did, however, imagine that its years of experience in the business might mean it had a tame translator that they normally used. No. Well, maybe a list of local translators for us to choose from, then. Still no. It was completely down to us to find a translator who also had to be officially registered as the said translator would have to provide a signed declaration of accuracy with their translation, both of which would then have to be authenticated – ie stamped on every single page, and even on the join between pages – by the court. Marvellous.

We were grumbling about this to a couple of English friends after a week or so’s unsuccessful online searches for someone suitable when one of them mentioned their pal Ian, a professional translator who had lived in Italy for over thirty years so who also knew his way around the various processes for which translations were often required – such as the importation of vehicles. Bingo! Mr Blue-Shirt called him the next day. Yes, translating a registration document was the kind of thing he did – in fact he even had one done that we would just need to enter our car’s details into. Yes, he knew about the declaration thing and had a standard document that he always used. And yes, he knew about getting the translation and declaration authenticated by the court.  And would we like him to accompany Mr Blue-Shirt to the court to make sure he ended up in the right place? This last part turned out to be a real godsend as it meant they emerged from the echoey gloom of the court building with everything stamped in the right place by the right person within a couple of hours. Without someone in the know to guide him through the process, Mr Blue-Shirt could easily have ended up fruitlessly pinging back and forth for days between one anonymous court office and another.

We were then faced with what felt like a bit of a Catch 22 for we couldn’t actually import the car into Italy without first formally exporting it from the UK, but we were reluctant to do this without at least some indication that the car was not going to end up effectively stateless, albeit temporarily. But there was no way round it: we just had to take the plunge, send back the ‘notice of intention to export permanently’ slip and then wait for written confirmation via the DVLA website that the car was no longer on the UK’s books before we could complete the import process. This naturally required another bout of full-on form-filling with Matteo – and mostly involved providing for the nth time the details we had already entered into countless other forms and then signing at least three copies of everything.  We did our best to curb our Anglo-Saxon tendencies, though, and meekly submitted to the demands of Italian bureaucracy without so much as a single frustrated ‘But in the UK…!’ passing our lips.

We really should be used to it now, but we are still surprised by just how many administrative matters are still entirely paper-based and have to be carried out in person rather than electronically and online. I have two theories to explain this. One is that even in the electronic age the notion of personal service remains an important part of Italian culture. The other is that getting people to do things on paper, in person and subject to the presentation of formal identification is a relatively simple means of addressing Italy’s chronic problems with corruption.

There followed a lull while our paperwork chugged through the system, but just a couple of weeks later Matteo called to let me know that the car had been successfully imported and registered and that he already even had the new number plates for us. We were thrilled – ridiculously so, in fact. Still driving around with UK number plates well into our second year here somehow suggested a lack of permanence and an emblem of still being just visitors; a lack of commitment to our adoptive home and a symptom of our clinging to our English ways. It was almost certainly something that bothered only us, but both us it did, so finally getting our Italian number plates was a visible affirmation of that commitment and permanence.

Mind you, although the plates were ready for collection, we couldn’t use them yet. First the car needed to go for its revisione, the equivalent of an MOT, and only once we had a pass certificate could we get insurance sorted out. So as soon Mr Blue-Shirt had picked up our shiny new plates and the registration document from Matteo, he went straight across the road to the garage that Matteo had recommended to him.  But when the mechanic who was going to perform the test tapped the new registration number into the computer, it wasn’t recognised, even though it was there for all to see on the registration document Mr Blue-Shirt had just been given. So straight back over the road to Lanciani he went.  No problem, Matteo assured him. It just takes a few days for all the registration data to trickle down through the system; he clearly hadn’t expected Mr Blue Shirt to be so quick off the mark with the revisione. And he was right: when Mr Blue-Shirt went back to the garage the following week our data were on the system and he was in and out in a matter of minutes. The revisione is much less stringent than an MOT and consisted of little more than checking the brakes, the headlight alignment, the exhaust emissions, and – to Mr Blue-Shirt’s huge amusement – a decibel test of the horn to make sure it was sufficiently loud.

Which meant only one hurdle left to clear: insurance. That said we were relatively relaxed about this one, partly because we had ended up staying with the same insurance company which made the transfer of no-claims details much easier, and partly because it would be arranged for us by the saintly Maurizio – he who had been pivotal in getting our claim successfully settled following the break-in the previous summer. And sure enough, this was all done and dusted in extraordinarily short order – once Maurizio was convinced that I really did have twelve years’ no-claims history, that is: so many years’ accident-free driving is apparently unheard of here.

So we are there: registered, MOT-ed, insured and driving around with Italian number plates at last. Just another face in the Italian crowd and no longer sticking out like a ‘Brit abroad’ thumb. Until we go and blow our cover and use the indicators, of course…

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.