On the road again

Ancona, San Marino, Imola, Bologna, Modena. The towns on the exit signs from the autostrada indicated our gradual progress north as Le Marche and the coast slipped away to be replaced by the flatlands and fruit groves of Emilia Romagna, which in turn became Veneto.  We were on the road to the UK to perform the remaining parts of the still unfinished process of transplanting ourselves from one country to another, as well as to visit family and friends.

The first 250 miles of our route north brought us to Verona for the night – along with a very welcome thunderstorm that had brewed up as we approached the city in the early evening rush hour and 36˚C temperatures. I swear you could hear the city sizzle as the cooling rain splashed onto the ancient palazzi, the cobbled streets and the world-famous amphitheatre. Wandering its elegant walkways after the storm had passed it struck as simultaneously both very familiar and surprisingly foreign. Familiar because it is somewhere we have visited several times down the years. Plus, of course, simply being in Italy is now the norm for us. But still decidedly different thanks to its city feel, its grand buildings and the polyglot crowds of tourists that thronged the pretty squares and avenues. We joined them only for long enough, though, to find somewhere quiet to eat before heading to bed as we had an early start the next day and a 450-mile drive ahead of us.

Within barely half an hour of leaving the waking city we began the long climb up into Trentino-Alto-Adige (aka South Tyrol) towards the Dolomites, as the Alps are known in these parts. The hazy outline of distant peaks gradually solidified into soaring crags whose lower flanks were carpeted with dense forest. As we climbed higher, oak, birch and beech surrendered to pine and fir, and dabs of snow in sheltered gulleys glinted in the strengthening sun. Italian building style, with its jumble of terracotta rooves and ochre tones, gave way to something much more distinctly Alpine with deep gables, whitewashed walls and window boxes spilling geraniums and petunias over carved wooden balconies. This architectural ambiguity along with the mix of Italian and German still spoken in these parts reflects the area’s turbulent past when these alpine territories were pawns in a centuries-long game of geo-political chess that ended barely 70 years ago.

As we continued our ascent we played hide and seek with the foamy green Adige as it tumbled south, weaving from one side of the road to the other through this narrow valley that remains as important a trading route today as it was in pre-Roman times. Indeed, as we pressed north an entire lane of the autostrada was permanently occupied by an endless train of container trucks grinding nose to tail up the relentless incline barely any faster than the mules they have long since replaced.

Finally, we reached the summit and there were only the toll booths to clear before descending towards Innsbruck, the Austrian winter sports Mecca that lies tightly packed within the narrow confines of the Inn valley. Then after another brief but precipitous up and over, we switch-backed down into lush glacial valleys and verdant pastures dotted with dark wooden chalets and pretty beige-grey dairy cattle whose wooden bells clonked softly in the clear still air.

As the landscape relaxed into rolling hills, we realised that Austria had become Germany. The winding mountain road straightened into a brutally efficient Autobahn that carried us swiftly north-west through the edge of Bavaria between Ulm and Augsburg, then on into Baden-Würtemburg past Stuttgart and Karlsruhe and on to our next overnight stop in Heidelberg among the vine-clad slopes of the pretty Neckar valley. Here it was another cocktail of the familiar and the different: familiar because it is another town to have featured in our many touring holidays during the ten-plus years we lived in Germany, and yet different because it looked, sounded and felt so little like where we now call home. The next morning it was over the mighty Rhine and on into Rheinland-Pfalz past Ludwigshafen and Kaiserslautern and then into the Saarland and another chunk of territory that has enjoyed lasting peace in only the last half century. From here we pushed on through the searing heat into Belgium, Mr. Blue-Shirt’s home for most of his teenage years. Another invisible border, but another instantly visible shift from culture to culture, and from language to language, each successive country’s identity as distinct and strong as ever, with little sign of the alleged homogenisation of Europe at the hands of ‘Brussels’ to which so many in the UK seem to take such grave exception.

Our experience of Brussels on this occasion, however, was limited to its hair-raising traffic system. But having safely negotiated the white-knuckle ride that is the city’s ring road we eventually escaped into the flatlands of Flanders, where the current generations are the first in centuries not to have known war and occupation. Then as the heat at last began to wane, we slipped into northern France and on to Calais and the end of our 1100-mile journey across mainland Europe.

Later in the evening as we sipped our drinks at a quayside bar we looked out across the sparkling waters of the Channel. The UK now lay just 22 miles away. Reflecting on the fact that in these turbulent times it has seldom seemed more distant and isolated, and utterly adrift in a stormy sea of uncertainty and division, we wondered how far – or even whether – it might still feel like ‘home’…

Breakthrough

It all started with our annual refuse collection bill which had arrived the day before. It contained a catalogue of errors, so I went up to the billing section in town hall to try and sort it out. It transpired that the bill for every household in the Comune was wrong, not just ours and now half the village seemed to be either phoning up or dropping by to query their bill. So the poor woman in the billing section, hardly surprisingly, was more than a tad frazzled. “Yes, yes, I know it’s wrong”, she sighed for the umpteenth time. “Ignore it. There was a mess-up with the printing. You’ll get a corrected bill next week”, she rattled off time and again with lots of melodramatic eye-rolling and exasperated gesticulation.

Well that cleared that up, but I also wanted to query the amount as it seemed rather high. “É residente, però?” asked the woman amid the chaos going on around her – You are resident, though, aren’t you? Seemingly, being resident would entitle us to a lower refuse collection fee. “Non ancora”, I responded slightly sheepishly – not yet. “Come ‘non ancora’?” – What do you mean, not yet?: she could see from the previous bills that we had been here for over a year. So I was obliged to relate the sorry tale of our multiple yet ultimately abortive attempts to secure residency, and the vicious circle we were apparently caught in whereby the Comune insisted we needed health insurance before residency could be granted, and the health authority insisted we needed residency before we could register with the state insurance scheme.  “Well, that can’t be right”, she declared and immediately picked up the phone to the health authority, happy to have a break from refuse bill queries, I think. Like us, though, she was sent to pillar and post and down a couple of blind alleys too, but she was like a dog with a bone. Several phone calls later her persistence was rewarded with a set of instructions for us to follow, and, more importantly, the name of the specific functionary we needed: Dottoressa Elena Compagnucci. Result!

With a quick “Grazie mille!”, I set off to the clinic again, picking Mr Blue-Shirt up en route, and barely forty minutes later we tipped up outside Dr Compagnucci’s office, which we had eventually found by a process of trial and error at the far end of a dingy and distinctly unpromising-looking corridor on the lower ground floor. Almost hidden behind tottering towers of bulging files stacked up on her desk, the tiny fierce-looking woman could not have been more charming or helpful once we had explained our situation. She patiently talked us through every last step of the entire process: where we needed to go and who we needed to speak to and in what order. At which point it became clear that a vital detail had been missing from all the previous explanations we had been given. On reflection, this possibility should have occurred to us sooner as the same thing had happened with practically every bureaucratic task we had tackled. But since you don’t know what you don’t know, it is always impossible to identify where, never mind what the gap is.

The Missing Vital Detail this time was that the processes both for taking out health insurance and for securing residency were actually in two parts. Up to this point, however, people in each authority had only ever talked in terms of simply ‘getting insurance’ or ‘getting residency’, all the while omitting to mention that it was the interweaving of the two processes that avoided the vicious circle we thought we had been getting trapped in. It turned out that the first part of the insurance process triggered the start of the residency process, which would enable us to complete the insurance process, by which time the residency process would be complete. The sainted Dr C. showed us examples of the documents we would receive, printed out a checklist of the documents we would need to present, and even filled in the payment forms that set everything in motion. Clutching this new set of paperwork, we expressed our heartfelt thanks for her help and left her office in a state of near elation. The door had barely closed behind us before I broke into a full-blown jig in the middle of the dreary grey corridor, while Mr Blue-Shirt contented himself with a couple of restrained air-punches. There was no time to lose, though, as we wanted to get back up to the village before everything closed for lunch. First stop, the post office to pay our premiums for the year using the forms Dr C. had completed for us. Next stop, across the cobbled square to the Comune with the top copy of the payment forms, which, critically, had been duly signed, stamped and dated by the post office clerk. It was these that would allow us to begin the first part of the residency process, namely get our application entered on the civic register.

Judging by the mixture of apprehension and concentration etched on their faces as they worked through the process, we concluded that we must have been the first foreigners the two women in the registry had entered onto the system. Over the preceding weeks we had made that many visits to their cosy office, with its beamed ceiling, terracotta floor tiles and tall shuttered windows that looked across to the Sibillini Mountains, that we had become almost chummy and had a bit of a chat while they were photocopying our documents (again), or writing down our multi-digit codici fiscali (again). Not this time, though. Tense silence reigned, and all we could do was watch through the standard issue glass screen above the worn Formica counter top. Then, just as the office was due to close for lunch one of the women handed us our signed and stamped official confirmation that we fulfilled the requirements to qualify for residency, which would be formally granted within a week. I don’t know who was more relieved: them for having completed the process correctly, or us for finally being able to see the finish line.

This confirmation letter was the key to completing the insurance process and actually registering with the Servizio Sanitario Nazionale – the national health service, so later that afternoon we made what we fervently hoped would be our final visit to the clinic. I swallowed hard as our number was called, approached the blank-faced clerk behind his glass screen and fed our paperwork through the slot, even at this stage half-fearing something would be wrong or missing. In the end, though, the only complicating factor was his speaking to us in broken Italian (‘post-box – house – have?’) in the mistaken belief that this would make things easier for us. Less than twenty minutes later, though, we left the desk with our health service registration documents in our hands and our names entered on the list of one of the GPs at the village surgery. We practically turned cartwheels across the car park.

The only thing left to do now – apart from put a bottle of fizz in the fridge – was to pick up our official residency certificates a week later. Oh, and to go and thank the clerk in the billing section for sending us the wrong refuse collection bill.

Village life

We plodded the final few metres up the hill into Montelupone’s main square, the Piazza del Comune, more than ready for a cool drink after our 4km walk from home. We had come into town for the 24th annual Festa della Pizza and had assumed that the four-day event would be held here in the centre of the village, as this is where all the other festivals we had been to had taken place. But although the square was buzzing with life, it was just the Caffé del Teatro and the Pizzeria del Borgo doing their normal roaring trade on a warm summer’s evening. Slightly puzzled, we looked around for some evidence of the festa and soon noticed a series of hand-written signs bearing the words ‘stands gastronomici’ with large arrows scrawled below them. These guided us out of the square and up the narrow street behind the town hall and eventually led us to an imposing pair of forged metal gates at the end of the high moss-clad wall that runs along the back of a small neat square where the village war memorial is located. We had always imagined that they were the gates to the courtyard of one of the tall slim houses facing onto the square. Normally chained shut, they were now flung wide, granting access, not to a private garden, but – to our great surprise – a large grassed area about the size of half a football pitch with a magnificent cedar tree bang in the middle, its ancient limbs fanned out in a giant parasol of gracefully arching green.

For a moment or two we both stood there, slightly disorientated: we had had absolutely no idea that this secret little park even existed. But here it was thronged with easily half the village’s 3000 population, music blaring, strings of lights dancing in the breeze, and the evening air rich with the aroma of freshly baked pizza. To our left along the front wall was a stage with microphone stands and drum kit set up ready for the live band that was due on later, and in front of this was a raised dance floor across which small children were charging and sliding, squealing with delight. Around the right-hand edge of the space stood a couple of small open-fronted marquees housing banks of cash desks, in front of which queued groups of people, chatting animatedly. Along the far wall stood another much larger open-fronted marquee from which spilled rows of trestle tables and benches already crammed with diners munching their pizzas. These were appearing in a steady stream from a bigger marquee still that, together with the bar, ran the entire length of the fourth side.

Once we had got our bearings, we worked out that we needed to order and pay for our food and drinks at the cash desks first before collecting our order from the relevant marquee.  “Una pizza diavola e una pizza verdure,…” Mr. Blue-Shirt bellowed above the Euro-pop pounding away in the background when we finally reached the front of the queue, “…una birra grande e un vino bianco”. Having handed over just €20, we received two receipts, one for our drinks order, the other for our pizza order, which crucially, as we were shortly to find, also included our order number: F180. We eased ourselves away from the crush around the tills and while Mr. Blue-Shirt joined the queue for the bar, I headed for the pizza marquee. In front of the entrance stood a long bench behind which paced a chap in shorts and a bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirt armed with microphone. “Effe cento quaranta cinque!”  he called over the crackly PA system, as he plucked a ticket from where it was tucked under the crust of the uppermost pizza in the stack that had just been deposited on the bench. Someone in the gaggle of people gathered in front of the table yelled “Si, io!” and waved their receipt at the caller who then checked the number before finally handing over the stack of pizza boxes to the hungry customer. If order number F145 had only just been served, we were in for quite a bit more pizza bingo until they got to F180, then. Fortunately, Mr. Blue-Shirt appeared beside me at that point, having wiggled his way through the crowds from the bar clutching a large plastic beaker of beer, a smaller plastic beaker of white wine and, balanced between the two, a portion of deep fried artichoke slices, so at least we would have something to keep us going until our order was called.

As we sipped and nibbled our aperitivi, we entertained ourselves by watching the incredibly slick pizza-making operation in full swing in the marquee   This was swarming with a huge team of volunteers in their bright blue ‘crew’ T-shirts and white aprons, and was furnished with a long row of trestle tables, each of which formed a different pizza-making station. “Effe cento cinquanta cinque!” blasted over the PA.  At one stood a team of people forming dough into soft plump balls, at the next, amid clouds of flour, stood the dough rolling, spinning and tossing team, and at a third a team of volunteers was ladling rich, chunky tomato sauce, fragrant with herbs and garlic, onto the wafer-thin bases. “Effe cento sessanta quattro!” Then came the topping adding team, with their battery of plastic tubs overflowing with different ingredients, and finally the mozzarella-scattering crew. “Effe cento settanta due!” Here, the finished pizzas were lined up, ready for the pizza chefs, their faces glowing red in the heat, to slide them onto long-handled paddles and feed them into the roaring maw of the one of the two huge wood burning pizza ovens that dominated the marquee. “Effe cento settanta otto!” After just three or four minutes, the bubbling, sizzling discs were slid back out of the fiery caverns and passed to the pizza boxing, slicing and stacking crew who finally dispatched each completed order to the front of the marquee. “Effe cento ottanta!” “Si, io!” I cried, waving my receipt in the approved manner.

Mr. Blue-Shirt dabbed the final smears of garlicky tomato sauce from his lips. “That was top-notch”, he shouted over the band who were now in full swing just across from the trestle table where we had managed to squidge ourselves into a couple of spare seats. With my mouth still full of the final delicious oozy, smoky forkful, I could only nod vigorously in agreement. “The sausage on mine was properly spicy”, he continued. “As good as any pizza we’ve had from a proper pizzeria.” “Absolutely!” I was able to say at last. “My vegetable topping was really generous and the crispy base was yummy”.  Replete, we swivelled on our bench to watch the band. They were clearly going down well as the dance floor was now full of couples of all ages performing the practised steps and twirls of traditional dances taught by one generation to the next.

We could still hear the band as we headed back down the hill, but as we descended into the cool night air, the rhythmic thump of the bass finally gave way to the gentle rasping of the crickets. Walking hand in hand beneath the inky sky we reflected on what – to us – had been a rather remarkable evening. And marvelled at our sheer luck in having ended up living in this incredibly active, vibrant, sociable village. A village where we are looking forward to becoming active participants in – not mere observers of – community life.

Seasonality

I gently squeezed the ruby-red orb nestling in the fruit bowl: the slight give beneath its delicate velvety skin confirmed that it was ready to eat. I inhaled its seductive floral fragrance as I lifted it to my mouth and slowly pressed my teeth into the fruit, trying to prolong the satisfying, barely whispered ‘pop’ of the skin splitting open before savouring that first exquisitely juicy mouthful of deep orange flesh. The luscious ambrosial taste of sun-soaked summers exploded in my mouth, and in the same instant unleashed a stream of happy memories of the many camping holidays we had enjoyed in Italy long before the idea of moving here had ever occurred to us. Back then our first ‘home’ in Italy was a faded green ridge tent, and some years later our beloved camper van, but our breakfast remained the same: huge sun-warmed peaches bought from a roadside stall or street market – never cut into dainty segments, mind, but guzzled whole in great dribbly bites. I recalled those early touring holidays as I slurped greedily at the ripe flesh, the juice running through my fingers and trickling down my wrist, the delicious messiness still as much part of the enjoyment as it had been back then.  What made my enjoyment of that particular peach the other day so special though, was that it was the long-awaited First of the Season.

Seasonal, local produce such as that heavenly first peach of summer isn’t ‘a thing’ here; something that right-on urban hipsters have decided is ‘cool’ or whose green virtues self-sufficient eco-types promote. It isn’t a trend, or a fad, or part of the latest celebrity diet. It is simply a way of life; an integral part of the food culture that is central to Italian identity, and whose century-old traditions are still adhered to. Essentially, if a particular fruit or vegetable (or meat or fish, come to that) isn’t in season in Italy, it isn’t imported from some faraway place where it is in season; it simply isn’t available, not even in the largest or poshest of supermarkets. Take artichokes, a highly-prized local speciality: one week there were great mounds of them in the shops and people were buying dozens of them at a time (goodness knows that they were doing with them all though, unless it was preserving them in olive oil), but just a few weeks later they were gone. Not a single one to be found. The thing is, though, there was clearly no expectation either from consumers or from shops that people’s voracious appetite for the greeny-purple thistle-like vegetable could (and even less should) be satisfied by extending the season with imports flown in at great cost from half way round the globe – don’t get Mr Blue-Shirt started on food miles, by the way. The season was over, as simple as that.  And it had been exactly the same with the asparagus, which is a vegetable that both Mr Blue-Shirt and I adore and will happily eat every day of the season given the chance, but which had disappeared from the shelves before we had had a chance to get through our list of favourite asparagus dishes. Chief among these, by the way, is chargrilled until just starting to go slightly limp, then scattered with lashings of grated parmesan and grilled until the cheese just begins to brown and bubble… And we couldn’t have continued working our way through our list using asparagus flown in from Peru (even if we had wanted to) because there wasn’t any: the season was over. While a host of pop-up shops appeared in autumn selling nothing but Sicilian clementines and tangerines, come the new year they had all closed – and won’t re-open until autumn comes around again. I haven’t seen a grape for months, and although I can buy those fantastic peaches (and nectarines – Mr Blue-Shirt’s preference) by the crate, it will be an age before there are any figs in the shops. And by that time, butternut squash, a quintessentially autumnal vegetable for me which I wouldn’t dream of eating in summer, should re-appear too.

We have no sense of ‘going without’, however, or ‘making do’ with whatever is available; as if there is some lack or shortage. For a start, because Italy extends from the Alps to just short of Africa, the climate and the terrain are actually remarkably varied, meaning that there is always a huge array of exclusively Italian-grown year-round staples like tomatoes (of course), courgettes, aubergines, peppers, apples and pears – and lots of different varieties, too. But in addition to this, there is a vast and ever-changing cornucopia of seasonal produce in the peak of condition and packed with flavour – that is sold loose and comes in all shapes and sizes, too. That’s not to say there is no imported produce; there is. But this typically includes items that are obviously ‘foreign’ such as pineapples, bananas (and, to our surprise, avocados), that are completely alien to traditional Italian cuisine. Consequently, our diet is rich and varied and there is always something new to look forward to. Conversely, there is nothing to get bored with, either – like those insipid, pink all-year strawberries found in the UK that are not so much cultivated as manufactured – at huge environmental cost, no doubt: sunless, soulless and utterly flavourless. And whose very ubiquity ceases to make them special, their familiarity breeding contempt. The strawberry season here, by contrast, was relatively short this year, but in the few weeks strawberries were available, they were divine and we devoured them by the kilo, making the most of their intense deep flavour and intense deep colour. So because such seasonal delights are by definition transitory, each succeeding fruit or vegetable feels precious: it is something to be celebrated (often with its own food festival, or sagra) respected (with simple, unfussy cooking) and relished. Like my fabulously messy peach the other day.

Stefano

Home improvement programmes in the UK always drone on about the need ‘to let the light come flooding in’, and floor-to-ceiling bi-fold doors have become the ‘must-haves’ de nos jours. Not in Italy. In fact, almost the opposite is true here: such is the clarity and ferocity of the sunshine – especially during the long hot summers – that keeping it and its accompanying heat out is a priority. As a result, most domestic buildings have relatively small windows. And shutters, which most of the time in summer are kept – well, shut.

Our house came with all of its ground floor pairs missing, though, giving it the slightly lopsided look of someone with only one eye made up. It’s a converted farmhouse, so all the living accommodation was originally upstairs and accessed via an outside staircase, while the ground floor was given over to livestock and storage. The previous owners converted it into the spacious four-bedroom open-plan home we enjoy today. No small job this, as it included lowering the entire ground floor by about 60cm in order to achieve the required ceiling height and building a 2-storey extension as well as installing an internal staircase. It therefore seems churlish to criticise them for not getting round to putting shutters on the downstairs windows.

We have now rectified this omission, however, as earlier this week we had all seven missing pairs installed by a local carpenter we had had recommended to us. “You should try Stefano. He really knows his stuff”, our dear friend Pam had said in her distinctive squeaky voice. Having converted two houses of her own here and overseen the conversion of many others, she knows a good tradesman when she sees one. “And he won’t mess you about, either”, she had added, her trademark blonde topknot bobbing up and down as if in agreement.

So once Mr. Blue-Shirt had taken measurements and drawn up what we wanted, we drove over to Stefano’s to discuss our requirements, ask for a quote and, as we have often found this a good predictor of quality, to check out his workshop. As soon as we stepped inside its gloomy interior, the still air thick with the scent of freshly sawn timber, we knew we were dealing with a true craftsman. In addition to several spotlessly clean pieces of hi-tech wood-working machinery, there were two or three large work benches, each with a different job precisely laid out on it, its corresponding drawings stuck down next to it with gaffer tape, and as our eyes adjusted to the gloom, we noticed an impressive armoury of hand tools, all neatly lined up on long wooden racks. Some reminded me of ones I had seen in in my grandfather’s shed when I was a child, and some were of a much more recent vintage. But all of them were lovingly oiled and sharpened, their handles worn shiny from constant use.

Buongiorno! Posso aiutarla?” – Good morning! Can I help you? The cheery greeting had come from the farthest corner of the workshop, from where emerged a slightly-built man with dark-rimmed glasses that emphasised his penetrating blue eyes. Still smiling at having made us jump, he dusted his right hand off on his old-fashioned button-up overall and thrust it towards me. “Sono Stefano”, he said simply. “Piacere”- pleased to meet you. The grasp of his work-roughened hand was surprisingly powerful given his build, and I now saw that he was younger than the steel grey hair that clung to his head in tight flat curls had initially suggested. We immediately warmed to his gentle manner and the three of us were soon hunched over Mr Blue-Shirt’s drawings, scribbling notes and sketches here and there while Stefano went back and forth with samples of different types of wood and fittings.

Within a few days he had emailed us a price. It wasn’t cheap – but we weren’t expecting it to be: the work of a craftsman never is. In view of the work involved, though, it was  fair, so we placed our order the same day. We couldn’t help wondering, however, whether he would meet the installation date he had proposed: this is Italy, after all. But just as I was beginning to think it might be an idea to check on progress, Stefano called to ask if he could come and install our shutters the following week – bang on schedule.

So at 8 o’clock sharp on Wednesday morning he trundled onto the drive in the type of small flat-bed truck favoured by practically every tradesperson here. Jumping out of the cab, he introduced his assistant Luciano, who, in sharp contrast to Stefano’s slender build and light sing-songy tones, was balding and plump with a rumbling voice (and a cigarette permanently wedged in the corner of his mouth). They got down to work immediately, even declining a coffee (although I suspect this was largely down to concerns about the espresso-making skills of the English). Stefano had clearly planned the day out in his head and went straight to the first window on his mental list, and with Luciano’s help, got his tools and equipment set up with the practised ease of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. Meanwhile, we took a closer look at the shutters stacked on the back of the truck. For something so functional, they really were a thing of beauty, for the craftsman’s touch was apparent in every detail: the perfect alignment of every slat, the carefully chamfered edges, the precisely positioned hinges, the silken finish of the varnish. Even the slots in the screw heads all faced the same way.

The two of them worked methodically from window to window, Stefano clearly in charge and Luciano clearly the gofer and tool-passer, but obviously a long-established team: no instructions given, no questions asked. And so we left them to it, only occasionally asking if they needed anything. “No, no, Signora” came the answer every time. “Tutto bene, grazie.” – Everything’s fine thanks. They stopped only for long enough to eat their lunch seated on the grass beneath the willow tree in the top corner of the garden, and to down a coffee, their need for a post-lunch espresso finally over-riding their earlier apprehension. There was undisguised surprise in their voices, though, when they both declared Mr. Blue-Shirt’s brew “buono!” as they returned their empty cups to the kitchen before returning to work.

By six o’clock all seven pairs of shutters were in and opening, closing and locking smoothly, every last bit of detritus had been cleared away and vacuumed up, the tools were all back on the truck, and Stefano had a large wad of cash in his back pocket. As their truck crunched back off the drive and down the hill, we turned to look at the house. With its face now looking balanced and complete, it almost seemed to be smiling at us,  pleased that it could now provide us with our deliciously cool interior. Floor-to-ceiling bi-fold doors? No thanks.

Climate Change

I detest the cold. Especially that of long, dark English winters. It drains my soul, dulls my senses, and my near-obsession with trying (and always failing) to keep it at bay leaves me as tense and exhausted as an addict seeking their next fix. After countless winters seeing me shut down, dormant and barely ticking over (as well as watching David Attenborough’s “Life in Cold Blood”), Mr. Blue-Shirt actually reckons that I am part reptile. Like a lizard, I have a physical need to feel warmth on my skin and in my bones in order simply to function properly. So when people ask why we wanted to move to Italy, they are seldom surprised that the Mediterranean climate featured prominently on the long list of reasons for our migration.

And I’m pleased to report that after almost a full cycle of seasons, the climate here is as benign as we had hoped. I moved in properly at the end of a summer that extended well into late September, with days of mellow amber sunshine and deliciously cool, star-filled nights. Autumn continued until mid-December, its vivid golden colours providing welcome brightness to the shortening yet still sunny days of Advent.

Winter proper didn’t really arrive until early February – on more than one occasion in January we enjoyed a mid-morning coffee on the terrace, and for weeks on end the ice-scraper lay redundant in the footwell of my car. But when it finally did arrive, it was with unusual severity, for while the UK was caught in the icy breath of the Beast from the East, we here were lashed by its vicious tail which even reached as far south as Naples. But after two or three days, the snow it had brought to us from Siberia melted as quickly as it had settled because the ground beneath had barely been touched by frost until that point.

Then no sooner had the Beast retreated than Spring rushed in. Not the tentative affair it is in UK, though, with new growth timidly poking its nose out into the watery sun, for weeks still fearful of more icy blasts. No, over the course of little more than a fortnight tender buds and delicate shoots exploded into a riot of primary colours, entirely confident that they were safe from further wintery assaults. As welcome and eager to please as a puppy bursting with life and energy. Bright, vigorous and completely irrepressible.

And now Summer is with us once again and the mercury is rising by the day. Long, languid days with a sun of dazzling brightness suspended in a sky of glossy blue, followed by soft mild nights with a silver moon illuminating the amethyst sky. Then just as we begin to wonder how long the temperature can continue its relentless rise- it is still only June, after all – the weather magically resets itself. Great towers of leaden cloud boil up over the mountains then roll down into the valleys, pouring torrents of rain on the sun-hardened soil and cooling the sun-baked air. In fact, this is exactly what happened earlier this week: within a couple of hours a blanket of dirty grey completely filled the sky, bringing with it almost twelve hours of solid rain and knocking the temperature, which had edged beyond 30˚C, back by several degrees. By the following morning, though, normal service had been resumed and we woke to a freshly-laundered cornflower sky with light so clear the world appeared in sharper focus.

All of which we have found to be entirely normal. The weather here is not permanently glorious: we get cloud and wind and rain and snow – and only the other day (Mr. Blue-Shirt’s birthday, in fact) even hail, with stones the size of sugar cubes. The thing is, bad weather never lasts; never hangs around for days like an unwelcome guest.  And when it is bad, it is properly bad. Which is good – as it were. It is never half-hearted or non-committal, with endless days just of grey and drizzle, or watery sun and so-so temperatures.  It is, rather, decisive, dramatic, bold and passionate. Not unlike the people.

 

By the way, I took the photo of the fantastic louring sky last September, just before an almighty storm broke.

Stalemate

We have spent an awful lot of time lately trying not to be too Anglo-Saxon, but I have to confess, it has been quite a struggle to maintain our recently adopted more Mediterranean mindset. The reason? Mr Blue-shirt and I are in the process of applying for residency in Italy, which technically, we are legally obliged to do now that we are here permanently. We need to do it for practical reasons too, though, as without residency, there are all sorts of things which we simply cannot do. We can’t have a ‘proper’ bank account, complete with online banking, debit or credit cards, for instance. But it is the need to replace our UK-registered, right-hand drive car that finally nudged us into action as it is not possible to register or insure a car here without residency.

We began the process some weeks ago with a visit to the relevant department at the town hall in the village.  Here we were told that, as EU citizens, it was essentially a case of demonstrating that we were not going to be a burden on the Italian state, which we already knew, but which we were relieved have confirmed. Essentially, we need to demonstrate that we are solvent, and prove that we have suitable health insurance cover, and once we have done this, residency will be granted and the relevant documents issued quite quickly. All eminently understandable and very straightforward. We thought. Foolishly.

Everyone here has to have some kind of health insurance, not just foreigners, and the kindly women at the town council (comune) told us that the most cost-effective option was the state-run scheme which we could sort out at any one of about three local clinics. The first clinic we went to, however, insisted that we needed to have residency before they could issue the policy – i.e.  the exact opposite of the comune. Not an encouraging start. So we went back to the town hall to seek clarification, thinking that something along the way had got lost in translation. But following a couple of phone calls to higher authority, the same kindly women duly confirmed that it was definitely insurance first, then residency. With our confidence thus restored, we decided to go to another of the three clinics – this time a bigger one in a bigger town on the basis that they might have had more experience of dealing with foreigners.  No, too Anglo-Saxon. The row of clerks at the enquiries desk looked at us as blankly as the first lot, and after an extended conflab among themselves and a fair bit of rifling through several overstuffed lever arch files, they gave us a tatty piece of paper – a copy of a copy of a copy by the look of it – which was actually an internal document that explained the process to staff, but that was of no practical help to us. With two dead ends in quick succession and no real idea how to proceed, things stalled for a while.

Mr Blue-Shirt eventually suggested asking Giovanna, the solicitor who had handled the purchase of our house, for some informal advice or an alternative solution. She too recommended the same state-run scheme (private insurance is also an option but is naturally much more expensive) and after a lengthy email exchange, I finally established a step by step procedure to follow and a list of paperwork to put together. Giovanna also advised us to go to a different clinic in a different town from those originally suggested. This town also happened to be the ‘capital’ of the province in which our comune is located, which made comforting sense. So a few days later, and now armed with a letter of ‘auto-declaration’ attesting to our sincere intention to secure residency in the comune where we live and signed by both of us, along with copies of our identity documents – as well as a clearer idea of the whole process – we felt ready to do battle once again and set off to clinic number three. Third time lucky. We thought. Foolishly.

Finding a reception desk at where we could simply ask for the office we needed was an initiative test in itself as everything had been relocated to a different building but no one had thought to provide any signage. So we just wandered among various handsome yet uninhabited period buildings until we eventually found a more modern building that showed signs of life. After roaming around several anonymous corridors and up and down a couple of flights of stairs we finally emerged at the main reception desk with its ubiquitous deli ticket roll on a wobbly stand. Yes! It was going to take more than a few missing signs to beat us! Better still, the number on our ticket was only a couple higher than the numbers showing above the customary row of glass-fronted enquiry booths – a good omen. We thought. Foolishly.

Our number was soon called and, passing the woman behind the glass screen our bundle of paperwork, I confidently asked to be directed to the office that dealt with health insurance for foreigners, as Giovanna had advised. She shuffled through our papers, pushed her glasses up her narrow nose and shook her head, then shoved them back under the glass towards us. With the expressionless finality beloved of petty bureaucrats, she told us that we were at the wrong clinic. Our comune was not covered by this clinic, but by one in a town about 20 miles in the opposite direction. At least Mr Blue-Shirt managed to get her to print out contact details of the place we needed just before she summarily dismissed us by pressing her button and flashing up the number of the next person in the queue.

A few days later, having re-installed our Mediterranean mind-set, we set off to clinic number four, where it instantly started to feel like Groundhog Day: another crowded waiting room, another bank of glass-fronted enquiry booths and another deli ticket roll on another wobbly stand. Only this time there were over forty people ahead of us in the queue. Oh well, at least it would give me plenty of time to mentally rehearse my questions and formulate different answers, I reasoned. Nearly an hour later our number flashed up and I went through my now well-practised spiel with bored-looking clerk number four. Judging by the way her expression changed from boredom to complete incomprehension, you’d have thought I’d asked where I could get a facelift for my unicorn. There followed another conflab with colleagues, another bit of rifling through lever arch files, and another tatty copy of a copy of a copy was handed to us.  This time, though, it was a part-completed example of a form that we needed to get from the post office where we would need to pay our annual premium – which was pretty much what Giovanna had said would happen. Progress at last! But clerk number four then went on to explain that once we had paid our premiums and got the form stamped (a key part of the process, of course) we needed to take the form back to the comune. And – guess what? – get our residency application sorted out before the clinic could issue the policy.

So after six weeks, four clinics, four clerks, one solicitor, one town hall, a dozen or more emails and six fruitless mornings, we are back to the catch-22 we encountered at square one.  And this was supposed to be straightforward. We thought. Foolishly.

Normalisation

Just as spring is now sliding into summer, we are finding that many aspects of our daily lives here are sliding from novelty into normality – to some degree at least. It’s not that the novelty of finally living the life we had dreamed of for over a decade has worn off as such; far from it – and I hope it never does. We have, rather, become a little less self-conscious about ‘living in Italy’ and no longer find ourselves mentally tagging even the most mundane of activities with ‘in Italy!’, as in ‘we’re doing the shopping – in Italy!’ or ‘I’m hanging out the washing – in Italy!’.

There are, however, two aspects of our lives here where the novelty has not yet even started to slide into anything like normality. The first is that after fifteen years of spending practically every weekend either working or doing something connected with the business or with blacksmithing, we now have proper weekends. By which I mean weekends which are not simply the two extra days that give you a fighting chance of completing everything on the previous week’s ‘to do’ list before starting on the next week’s list. The other is that we now live only about 20 minutes from the sea – the clear, warm, benign Adriatic Sea, at that. The combined effect of these two things is that we are at serious risk of making a habit of enjoying a few hours at the beach most Sundays. I should say ‘a’ beach as there are several bustling seaside resorts along Le Marche’s long straight coastline for us to choose from – most of them with a coveted Blue Flag, incidentally. Our nearest, and possibly our favourite is Civitanova Marche, primarily because it is a lively town in its own right and not just a holiday resort, which gives the whole place a certain confidence and character. But also because its seafront, which by late May becomes the town’s main focus, is really rather elegant.

It effectively forms the eastern edge of the town centre: the colourful beach umbrellas and tall palm trees are easily visible from the town’s main square in front of the town hall. And as such it has a certain swagger, a hint of glamour, even, especially during the early evening passegiata – the traditional leisurely stroll whose primary purpose is to see and be seen (vedere e farsi vedere).  Standing sentry at the northern end is the still functioning historical fish market and commercial fishing port-cum-yacht marina with its generous horse-shoe shaped harbour. The sentry at the southern end is the simple red-and-blue-painted stadium of the local football team, the Civitanovese. And between the two runs what I suppose in the UK might be called ‘the prom’. This is an arrow-straight palm tree-lined boulevard with a broad pavement laid with smooth pinky-beige tiles parallel to which runs a yellow painted cycle track – used as much by joggers and inline skaters as by cyclists, mind. On the town side are a handful of low-rise holiday apartment buildings in a variety of pastel shades, while on the beach side are a huge assortment of bars, cafés, gelaterias and restaurants. Nearly all of the restaurants specialise in freshly cooked fish dishes served to diners seated on deep, shaded terraces. These in turn open out onto oleander-edged sections of private beach where bright sun loungers and frilled parasols stand in neat rows on the smooth white and grey pebbles.

In the past when we were still just tourists here, we still only spent the occasional day at the beach, as much of every week-long trip was invariably taken up either with exploring unlikely ruins to restore or familiarising ourselves with what was set to become our ‘stomping ground’. So when we did finally get to the beach, we would push the boat out and rent a 2x sun-lounger and parasol combo for the day and later treat ourselves to a slap-up seafood lunch of fritto misto (mixed fried fish and seafood cooked in the lightest of batters), a pile of barely dressed crisp green salad and a plate of French fries (well, we were on holiday) washed down with a cold beer (Mr Blue-Shirt) and a glass of chilled Passerina (me).

This all seems a bit extravagant now we are here permanently and going to the beach can, if we’re honest, no longer really be treated as a treat, so to speak. So, courtesy of our local branch of OBI (the equivalent of B&Q) we now have our very own pair of lime green folding sun-loungers, a lightweight parasol and a cool box. After a quick breakfast all’aperto, we pack a picnic in the cool box, stuff swimmies, books and sun cream in an Ikea blue bag (I’m steadily working my way through the list of 100 uses for them) and throw the whole lot in the car along with loungers and brolly. Then we wind our way down the hill, through Morrovalle, then past Montecòsaro and Civitanova Alta, before arriving in town at the broad section of public beach near the stadium end of the prom. Once we’ve staked our claim to our whichever spot takes our fancy that day, it’s time for a quick coffee at the nearest beach concession – mainly so we can use their changing rooms: wrestling into swimmies under a towel just feels so awkwardly British. Then it’s back to our sun loungers for a serious bout of doing nothing. Apart from a bit of reading, a bit of dozing, and a bit of bobbing about in the calm turquoise sea.  All completely ‘normal’, we keep telling ourselves… We do allow ourselves one small treat before digging into our picnic, though: a cold beer and a chilled glass of Passerina at a beachside restaurant – just for old time’s sake.

Irony

Well, we have a government in Italy at last: it was finally sworn in on Friday. When the inconclusive elections of 4th March took place, the snow left by the Beast from the East still lay in heaps where I’d cleared the drive. 88 days later, and I’m writing this in shorts and T-shirt, the sound of crickets rasping away in the olive trees drifting in through the open window of my study. Those 88 days of horse-trading, deal-making and arm-twisting have made it the longest ever period the country has had to wait for a new government to be formed. And even now there is little confidence that the uneasy ‘populist’ coalition of the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the right-wing La Lega, with a few technocrat appointees to steady the ship and make sure everyone plays nicely, will last much longer than any of its sixty-four post-war predecessors. That said, while other European nations (and many Italians) despair of this latest game of political musical chairs, I would urge people not to judge Italy’s tendency to political instability to harshly. After all, the political system that allows such deadlock to occur (and to occur so frequently) was created with the best of intentions in the immediate aftermath of World War II, two years of Nazi occupation and civil war, and more than twenty years of fascist rule.

Italy’s political system is enshrined in the Constitution that was enacted by the Constituent Assembly that was elected – by universal suffrage and with an 89% turnout – in 1946 in the first free national elections since 1924. Freshly liberated from the forces of fascism which had been defeated only 15 months earlier (see my blog post of 29th April for a bit more detail on this), and still bearing the scars of dictatorship, the newly elected deputies deliberately – and quite understandably – designed a strictly proportional system that consequently also allows for the existence of many small parties. This, along with the multiple complex checks and balances that were also built into the system, made sure that it would be all but impossible for any one party or any one individual to hold too much power, or to hold on to it too tightly, or for too long. Basically – and again, quite understandably – the Constituent Assembly wanted to make sure Mussolini’s rise to power could never happen again.  And few would disagree with the logic or motivation of the newly elected deputies and senators back in the heady early days of hard-won freedom and newly-born democracy. As one prominent anti-fascist and member of the Constituent Assembly, Piero Calamandrei, put it:“If you want to go on a pilgrimage to the place where our Constitution was created go to the mountains where partisans fell, to the prisons where they were incarcerated and to the fields where they were hanged. Wherever an Italian died to redeem freedom and dignity, go there, young people and ponder: because that was where our Constitution was born.” But their optimism and idealism also created a system that makes it all but impossible for a single party to achieve a majority, thus making coalitions the norm, enabling minor parties to hold the balance of power, and making unlikely political marriages of convenience an all too frequent necessary evil. Hence the shenanigans of the last three months.

What adds to the irony of all this is that this latest political soap opera was concluded the day before one of Italy’s most important holidays that is right up there with Bastille Day in France and Independence Day in the USA, complete with military parades, marching bands and fly-pasts: 2nd June is the annual Festa della Repubblica. 2nd June was the day in 1946 on which the Italian electorate voted in a referendum to abolish the monarchy – which had become fatally compromised by its associations with Mussolini and his fascist regime – and replace it with a republic. 2nd June was also the day in 1946 on which that first post-war general election for the Constituent Assembly was held.

 

Sources: Wikipaedia, The Economist, The Local Italy, Lonely Planet, Il Resto del Carlino (Macerata edition)

Gianni

“You are being far too Anglo-Saxon, Fran” said Gianni, his strong accent giving my name a second syllable: ‘Fran-ne’. With a sardonic smile he pressed his hands together and wagged them up and down in the unmistakably Italian gesture that indicates amused disbelief.

“What do you mean: Anglo-Saxon?” I asked, frowning slightly. It was Gianni’s twice weekly English lesson with me, and he had been telling me about a major strategic decision he had been involved in making at work. He was the marketing manager of the medium-sized manufacturing company where I had secured my first teaching gig, and we were discussing the new corporate strategy that the management team had been developing over the preceding months: he was a competent if rusty speaker of English. I had just asked “What kind of decision-making tools did you use?” His pale blue eyes had narrowed behind his thick yet bang-on-trend glasses as he set about formulating his answer. “Did you use any market research data, for example?”, I had prompted. His response had been a single raised eyebrow. “How about focus groups? Or a cost-benefit analysis?” His other eyebrow had joined the first as he had run his fingers through his thinning yet unruly, almost black hair.

“You must remember that we Italians are not so rational as you Anglo-Saxons”, he continued. “We Italians do not concern ourselves with such tools as these!” He grinned and I smiled at his self-mocking tone. Warming to his theme, he rolled his chair back from the desk and sprang to his feet. “Here in the Mediterranean we just open the windows…” – he flung his arms wide – “… and we smell the air…” he inhaled theatrically –  “This is how we make decisions in Italy!”

This conversation came back to me when I nipped (ha!) to the supermarket for some bread for lunch the other day. Luckily (and unusually) there was only one person in front of me in the queue: I was going to be in and out in record time. Just as well, too, as I had a ‘to do’ list as long as my arm to get through that afternoon.  But no. In making her selection, the woman in front of me – a working mum, judging by the contents of her trolley and her smart dress and impossibly high heels – asked the assistant to show her one loaf after another, each of which was rejected for one reason or another: too pale, too golden, too crusty, too soft, too round, too long… She could have given Goldilocks a run for her money.

As I waited to for her to find a loaf that was just right (and also to catch up on a bit of local gossip, of course) it dawned on me that Gianni had done much more than simply make me laugh in that lesson a few months earlier. I realised that he had actually given me a penetrating insight into the source – not to mention the utter futility – of my frequent frustration with the way things are done in Italy. More tellingly, though, he had also revealed my own arrogance to me. After all, who the hell do I think I am, expecting people here to behave as I would, getting cross when things don’t happen as they would in the UK? What entitles me to pass judgement on the ways of the country I have freely chosen to move to? Worse still, what kind of ghastly desk-stabbing, Union Jack-waving expat (the very worst kind, in my book) was I at risk of becoming?

But there was something else too. Wasn’t the constant pressure to get things done one of the things I had most wanted to put behind me? Wasn’t constantly chasing deadlines one of the things that had left me stressed and anxious, and permanently wracked with feelings of inadequacy and under-achievement? Wasn’t one of the main attractions of moving to Italy in the first place the improved quality of life – a life led at a kinder pace; one that made room for people, not just productivity; for ‘being’, not just ‘doing’?  So what on earth was I doing trying to maintain these destructive habits not only when I did not need to, but also when they actually went against the cultural grain of my adoptive home?

I stopped pointedly looking at my watch and shuffling impatiently. Then, when I was given the signal that it was my turn – “Di mi” – “tell me” – Instead of asking for the first thing my eye fell on, I enquired about the ciabatta rolls. And then about the granary ones. But in the end, I opted for a large chunk of Pugliese (a bread from Puglia with a distinct yellowy tinge thanks to the maize it contains). Then, when I got home, I decided that I wasn’t ‘late’, and following a longer than usual lunch break (the Pugliese had proved very moreish), I set about tackling my ‘to do’ list. As it turned out, several tasks on it could wait until later in the week, which allowed me to knock off early. So I poured a couple of glasses of chilled Verdicchio and filled a bowl of olives which Mr Blue-Shirt and I enjoyed in our favourite spot in the fruit grove that looks straight down the valley to the sea beyond.

So now, whenever I’m tempted to roll my eyes when the assistant in the supermarket has a five minute chat with every single customer, or to tut and cuss when the driver in front overtakes on a blind bend (without indicating, obviously), or to keep checking my watch if a student is as much as a minute late for a lesson, or to heave a sigh when I am yet again required to present ‘i documenti’ and fill in a form (probably in triplicate) in order to obtain something as trivial as a supermarket loyalty card, I simply take a breath, smile, and recall Gianni’s observation: you are being far too Anglo-Saxon, Fran.