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.


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.


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)


“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.


In my former life, every day of every week was for many years divided up into discrete parcels of time, each allocated to a specific activity or objective. Doing the VAT return, learning a song for choir, going to the gym, cooking dinner, writing a public art tender, doing some Italian homework, having a shower: each of them strictly measured out and each accompanied by an internal clocking ticking down in the background. Thanks to my attempts to meet my daily clutch of deadlines, my vocabulary was peppered with words like ‘scoot’, ‘dash’, ‘whizz’ and ‘nip’. Constantly clock-watching, constantly hurrying, and constantly avoiding anything that could put me behind schedule, whether this was exchanging pleasantries with an elderly neighbour, playing with the cat, or chatting with a delivery driver. Everything done at full tilt, everything done against the clock. Not for nothing did Mr Blue-Shirt often liken me to a Jack Russell terrier on speed.

Yet while we certainly have fewer commitments now, I have still got deadlines to work to and lots of things to fit into a finite amount of time. My teaching schedule has expanded into almost a full-time job, and Mr Blue-Shirt spends practically every daylight hour improving, repairing, modifying or finishing some aspect of the house or garden – and that’s before we get to all the bureaucracy we are still having to work our way through. So we continue to find ourselves regularly ‘scooting’ here, ‘dashing’ there, ‘whizzing’ in and ‘nipping’ back, even though such concepts have little place in Italian culture, where the response to any evidence of hurrying or impatience is ‘tranquilo, tranquilo…!’ accompanied by a gentle ‘take it easy’-type gesture. Indeed, like with the Inuit and their many words for ‘snow’, the fact that we have so many different ways to express the idea of ‘hurry’ while Italian has one (according to my Collins breeze-block, anyway) says much about our respective attitudes to time.

Take going to the village Post Office (a classic ‘nip to’ location). This is tucked in the ground floor of a medieval palazzo in what is effectively the main street of the historical village centre, its modern blue and yellow livery contrasting sharply with the pinky-brown stonework and slate-grey cobbles. As it is open only in the mornings and has a staff of precisely two, there is always a collection of local residents – bow-legged farmers with shovel-like hands, sleep-starved young mothers jiggling prams, dumpy old women in sensible shoes – waiting to be served. But no matter how long the queue, no matter how quickly each customer’s business can be dealt with, the clerks will still pass the time of day – asking after the customer’s family, complaining about the weather, or discussing the latest political scandal – with every single one of them.  When all I want is to buy a stamp, for goodness’ sake…

It is the same story at the village supermarket, to which we sometimes ‘scoot’ for a bit of ham or bread. It is set just outside the ancient ramparts, and although it is barely any bigger than a Tesco Express or Sainsbury’s Local, it still has fresh bread, fish, meat and deli counters, each with its own roll of pull-off numbered tickets and digital display. This nod to order, however, only speeds things up to the extent that it avoids any confusion over whose turn it is. It simply dispenses with the normally ubiquitous ‘Tocca chi? -Tocca me.’ (Whose turn is it? – It’s my turn) exchange. However, this does not stop the shop assistant still engaging every customer in conversation, once again irrespective of the length of the queue, asking how their kids are getting on at school, whether they had heard what Signor So-and-So had been up to, what they thought of the footie on TV last night. Unlike the Post Office, however, this is then compounded by the lengthy probing into the qualities of whatever item is being bought. Whereas posting a letter or paying a bill is fairly cut and dried, buying ham, for instance, involves a huge range of variables, every one of which needs to discussed before a definitive selection can be made. And then, once the right ham has finally been decided upon, it is sliced, laid out on waxed paper in neat overlapping rows, and finally packaged up, weighed and labelled with a level of care that borders on reverence. When all I want is to buy a loaf of bread, for goodness’ sake…

And there’s no amount of sighing, eye-rolling or watch-checking that will speed things up. Trying to halt these conversations is about as realistic as Canute trying to halt the progress of the tide. It just ain’t going to happen. So we have come to recognise that we need to get our heads round the fact that there is no transaction without interaction, that speed is seldom of the essence, that it is we who need to change. What is required, in fact, is recalibration.


Snails, chestnuts, sausages, polenta, asparagus, nougat, pasta, anchovies, chocolate, mushrooms, cheese, salt cod. No, not a Heston Blumenthal tasting menu, but just a tiny selection of individual products, each of which is accorded its own dedicated local festival, or sagra as they call it in Italy.

Sagra is one of those annoying words that is so particular to the culture that it defies accurate translation. Even the lexicographers who compiled my breeze-block-sized Italian dictionary admit defeat: realising that translating it as ‘festival, feast’ doesn’t do the term full justice, they helpfully add the following description “A sagra is a rural festival held in the open air with folk music, dancing and games. Many are based around one or more culinary specialities, which can usually be sampled in the various booths. These festivals normally take place during the summer months.” (Collins) Which is true enough as far as it goes – except for the fact that this description sucks every last drop of joie de vivre out of the thing.  For these sagre (and there are more than 5000 of them up and down the country) are not worthy-but-dull events run by local do-gooders in a vain attempt to cling to a bygone golden age. Nor are they a cynical ploy to attract gullible tourists and hoodwink them into spending lots of money on ‘traditional’ wares. They are, rather, a celebration of the produce that supports the local economy, and since this varies from community to community, they are also an expression of a community’s individuality, and also of civic pride and solidarity.  Moreover, because they revolve around eating and drinking, processions and games, music and dancing, and lots of making merry, there is something for everyone to enjoy, from black-clad nonna to tattooed teenager to curly-haired toddler. And enjoy them they do – in vast numbers, too.

Take the one held in our village this weekend: the 57th annual Sagra del Carciofo (pronounced ‘car-choffoh’), which involves a full weekend of solid partying – all in celebration of the artichoke. Many of the fields hereabouts are covered with neat rows of the prickly deep green mounds from which the thistle-like edible blossoms appear in spring, so it is easy to understand why this particular delicacy is the focus of the celebrations that take over the entire historical centre.

It is just as well Mr Blue-Shirt and I decided to walk the 4km into the village, as the place was absolutely heaving with life with every last parking space long since bagged. The narrow, cobbled streets were crammed with stands selling piles of freshly harvested deep purple artichokes, and with stands selling jars of artichokes preserved in golden olive oil that are a favourite antipasto, and with stands stacked with shiny waxed drums of pecorino, offering tastings of all the different vintages, along with a collection of other stands proudly displaying an array of locally-produced artisan foods from hams to honey – all of them doing a brisk trade. It was the stands selling hot food where the real action was, though, with a permanent queue of people waiting to take their pick from whole roasted artichokes topped with grated pecorino, roast pork with artichoke, artichoke salad, artichoke frittata (omelette), deep-fried artichoke hearts, and olives stuffed with artichokes. Not to be outdone by these pop-up stalls, the pizzeria in the main square was churning out artichoke pizzas at a furious pace, and the other two restaurants in the village had also made the artichoke the star of their menus for the weekend. To be honest, though, some of the dishes on offer were downright odd. Mr Blue-Shirt had managed to secure one of the last tables in the long-established family-run restaurant on the main street, and to round off each of their specially created four-course artichoke-based menus, the dessert was artichoke strudel, and we later found that the gelateria was even serving homemade artichoke ice cream. Which I have to say did rather sound like last-ditch contributions to a late-night culinary brainstorming session.

Having eaten our fill of artichoke dishes (minus the strudel and ice cream) we made our way through the crowded streets up to the even more crowded main square where a five-piece band was filling the warm night air with popular Italian rock ballads. The huge speakers, big screen, dry ice and fancy light show looked slightly incongruous set against the backdrop of the imposing medieval bell tower and grand town hall, but it was heartening to see the ancient square so buzzing with life and energy and fun.

The following afternoon offered yet more artichoke-themed celebrations, the most extravagant of which was the procession of specially made floats that each formed a different mini stage set. One after the other, each was towed by a flag-bedecked tractor onto the main square where homage was paid to the precious artichoke in the form of a brief playlet performed in front of the jam-packed square. If I’m honest, it was all slightly bizarre, but hugely enjoyable nonetheless. More eating and drinking soon followed, and late in the evening proceedings were finally brought to a close by another live band who twanged their way through a programme of country and western favourites that were carried in through our bedroom window on the soft night air as we drifted off to sleep.

Despite the whole thing being somewhat baffling for a pair of newbie incomers like us, we shall definitely be going to the 58th Sagra del Carciofo.  But I suspect we’ll still give the artichoke ice cream a miss.

On a Sunny Sunday Down in Civi…


…. While jogging right along the prom and then out around the harbour, there’s all the world to see. People doing weekend things and summer stuff, all lapping up the sun. The resort is coming back to life, it hibernation over. Left and right and left and right, trainers padding on the tiles.

Along the front, with palm trees, frangipani, oleander: sun beds out in rows, umbrellas going up. Beach bars touching up the paint, restaurants mopping down the deck. Left and right and left and right, top-knot bobbing in the breeze.

Around the port and boat yard, the scent of diesel mixed with fish: pedal pumping, roller blading, inline skating, pebble skimming. Mobile dialling, selfie snapping, lipstick checking, dark hair flicking. Left and right and left and right, now working up a sweat.

Out along the quay, from lighthouse red to lighthouse green: dinghy sailing, fish catching, boat mending, deck hosing. Boyfriend snogging, crag hopping, puppy petting, dog walking. Left and right and left and right, elbows pumping up and down.

Past the bars and cafés and gelaterias, music pumping out: coffee stirring, ice-cream licking, beer pouring, spritz sipping. Paper reading, chin wagging, fat chewing, setting worlds to rights. Left and right and left and right, my calf now getting sore.

Back down the prom, breeze now at my back: baby jiggling, buggy pushing, grandma greeting, car parking. Table laying, order taking, pasta cooking, fish frying. Left and right and left and right, now getting out of breath.

On towards the football ground and where I started out: moped revving, spliff rolling, gum chewing, talent spotting. Rip-off flogging, policeman dodging, innocence protesting. Left and right and left and right, my knee now getting stiff.

Nearly back to where the car is parked: husband meeting, bike loading – he’s cycled down to town. Water swigging, time checking, comparing aches and pains. Cooling down and stretching off, we exchange a sweaty kiss.

Back up the hill to home and peace and quiet. Feeling tired, but feeling glowy, still high on the endorphins. Soon clean and fresh, with aches now gone and heart rates back to normal, we’re pleased we had a sunny Sunday down in Civi*.

*Civi (pronounced ‘chivvy’) is our affectionate abbreviation for Civitanova Marche.  Only 12 miles away, it is our nearest seaside town.


I have a confession to make. Although we have been coming to Italy for nigh on thirty years and have now made it our home, I’m ashamed to say that my knowledge of Italian history is currently limited to little more than that provided in our now dog-eared and coffee-stained Lonely Planet guide, supplemented by whatever I have picked up from three decades of visiting historical sites from Venice to Sicily. And even then, much of this knowledge necessarily relates to events that took place well before Italy even existed as a unified country. Which is one fact I do know, by the way: the unification of Italy occurred in 1861.

Anyway, my confession: I had no idea that 25th April is a national holiday in Italy because this was the day on which in 1945 the key cities of Milan and Turin were liberated from the forces of fascism. A resistance-led uprising and general strike designed to prepare the way for the Allies’ advance from the south paralysed industry in several northern cities and forced the Nazis into retreat. The initiative marked the end of Mussolini’s twenty-three-year dictatorship and five years of war, which included two years of Nazi occupation and civil war that had resulted from Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943.

Other cities including Genoa, Bologna and Venice were liberated before and after this date. However, thanks to Milan and Turin’s strategic significance, and since it was also the date on which the death sentence was proclaimed for Mussolini and his generals, it was 25th April that became recognised as the national Liberation Day. The festival, “per celebrare la totale liberazione del territorio italiano”, was enacted into law in 1949, and many towns up and down the country subsequently named a street via XXV Aprile.

The day, which is also known as La Festa della Resistenza, has always been a day of mixed emotions: of celebration and commemoration, of liberation and loss.  As such, it is rather like a combination of D-Day partying and Remembrance Day solemnity that consists of formal ceremonies at war memorials throughout the country, coupled with parades, concerts and lots of eating, drinking and making merry, all aimed at honouring the memory of the resistance movement – in which, incidentally, 35,000 women also participated.

This year, I suspect – or at least, hope – that it might also be a day for reflection: he may have been summarily executed three days after the liberation and his body strung up in a piazza in central Milan, but Mussolini still casts a long shadow over Italian politics. It is a shadow that earlier this year even reached as far as Macerata, the small and elegant university city about eight miles up the road from our sleepy little corner of rural Italy. On a cold grey Saturday morning back in February, a self-confessed neo-Nazi with strong links to several neo-fascist organisations randomly shot at any African people in his sights, seriously wounding six. He apparently carried out his sustained attack in revenge for the alleged murder by a man of Nigerian origin of a young Italian woman whose dismembered body was found in the suspect’s flat a couple of days after she had left a drug rehab centre. Coming just a few weeks before the country’s general election on 4th March, the crimes ignited the campaign and polarised national opinion. Far right parties went on to gain about 22% of the vote and will very probably participate in the coalition government that is still being put together. Sadly, it would seem that Italy’s liberation is still not complete after all.

Counting to Ten

You’ll understand, I hope, that the contented indolence I spoke of last week is not a permanent state. You’d just need a look at my teaching diary for the coming month, never mind see the details of our Grand Plan Phase 2 to appreciate that.

It is, however, a new state: a welcome occasional stopping off point on the voyage of discovery that we have embarked upon, and that has also featured frequent squalls of frustration and impatience.  Sorting out something as basic as our utilities – which meant simply transferring accounts from the previous owner of the house to us, rather than getting new accounts set up, or (worse still) getting supplies put in – involved several such squalls. They invariably required multiple visits to a variety of anonymous offices, hours of hanging around in soulless waiting rooms, and then further hours filling in lengthy forms (often in triplicate), only to realise that we had once again failed to bring any proof of identity – something that is required even for something as innocent as booking concert tickets online.  As a former serviceman with the words ‘sense of urgency’ dinned into him throughout his 22 years’ service, Mr Blue-Shirt found such episodes intensely frustrating. And with my own unhealthy appetite for order and control, I scarcely found them any easier. There was always one bright moment in these soul-sapping experiences, though: the laughably self-important stamping and counter-signing of every copy of every form by the given functionary with an old-fashioned wooden handled rubber stamp, ink pad and Bic biro combo. Bash-BASH, squiggle. Bash-BASH, squiggle. Bash-BASH, squiggle. It made us smile every time. Even on the dreary afternoon spent waiting at the town hall to fill in the forms that would enable us to get our rubbish collected.

From our standard issue plastic chairs (citizens for the discomfort of) we could see into some of the identical hutch-like offices that stretched along the strip-lit corridor, each of them containing little more than a desk supporting tottering piles of fat buff-coloured files, a bulky buff-coloured desktop computer, and a matching buff-coloured clerk who was barely visible behind his or her respective mountain of paperwork. While we waited for the number on the deli-ticket that we had pulled from the cracked and wobbly dispenser to appear on the screen, we tried to distract our attention away from the mental image of grains of sand inexorably trickling through the hourglass of our lives. We found ourselves musing on the possibility that the number of rubber stamps each functionary had on his or her desk acted as a formal badge of rank. Like the quantity of braid on a Ruritanian soldier’s uniform, the greater the number of stamps, the greater the importance of the functionary, we reasoned. On most desks, only one or two stamps were visible: cannon fodder.  A collection of stamps hanging from a rack, however, clearly indicated a higher rank, and also apparently qualified the rack-holder to a swivel chair: junior officer. But if a rack of stamps was the equivalent of hairbrush-sized epaulettes, then a fully loaded two-tier stamp carousel was surely the civil service equivalent of a ceremonial sword. In such cases one was truly in the presence of greatness: carousel holders even had a nameplate on their office doors.

Eventually, our number flashed up and we rose stiffly from our inhospitable chairs, tossing the ticket that had grown creased and tatty from our fidgeting in the plastic ice-cream container that served as a bin and entered the office showing our number. Pre-numbed by the wait, we passively answered all the usual questions – although we couldn’t quite work out why The Powers That Be needed to know that I had been born in London in order to be able to issue us with a compost bin. When we light-heartedly queried this, the weary-looking clerk’s blank stare gave us the only explanation required: rules are rules. Thus chastened, we allowed the clerk to complete his practised box-ticking without further comment.  Mind you, although our needs had only warranted a single-stamp foot soldier, the clerk carried out the weapon drill that concluded proceedings with such panache and vigour – bash-BASH, squiggle, DOT. Bash-BASH, squiggle, DOT. Bash-BASH, squiggle, DOT – that we nearly burst out laughing.

Our initial bill arrived a few days later, exactly as our weary stamp-wielding clerk had advised. It was addressed to the previous owner of the house, covered the wrong period, and was for the wrong amount. So back to the town hall we trudged…

Reflections on Friday 13th

I’m not of a particularly superstitious disposition, but I always register Friday 13th for some reason. And on the one that has just passed, I reflected as I sipped a glass of chilled locally-produced Passerina at the close of a dazzling spring day that the one before that had been the previous October. No, I’m not one of those people who has an obscure but impressive memory for dates either. Friday 13th October 2017 had stuck in my mind, though, because it was my first day at work in Italy and the day on which I returned to an EFL class after a break of some 15 years.

It had felt simultaneously huge and yet utterly natural.  Huge because it meant that a significant piece in the jigsaw puzzle that is building a new life in Italy had dropped into place; and utterly natural because it meant that I was at last working with the grain of my own personal needs, interests and talents rather than against it.  EFL (which stands for English as a Foreign Language, by the way) had long been the means by which I was able to pursue professionally ‘my thing’: words and language. So it had just felt right; as right as moving to Italy itself.

It occurred to me that since then I have helped about a hundred students from four different secondary schools through a range of international exams for speakers of English as a foreign language. I have also become familiar with the finer points of injection-moulded plastics (my first in-company business English gig) and with various aspects of the tourism industry in the region (thanks to a short contract with a coastal holiday village) and have garnered all sorts of inside knowledge about the people, culture, economy and history of Le Marche thanks to my general English students.

This has been just one small part of all that we have achieved over the last six months, however.  We’ve also sold a house and a business in the UK, had our first Christmas, New Year and Easter here, picked and pressed our first olive harvest, been snowed in, experienced a minor earth tremor, and hosted three sets of visitors. Mr Blue-Shirt made four flying visits and two overland trips while still extricating himself from the business, and since being here permanently has undertaken a vast array of jobs involving carpentry, electrics, IT, plumbing, gardening and general building work that have turned an already lovely house into one that also now suits the way we live; that is truly ours.

It may not be surprising, therefore, that we sometimes find ourselves wanting to do absolutely nothing: moving 1200 miles and settling into a new country – even one that you have known and loved for years – is a protracted and exhausting process after all. But no, it’s not just that. There is so much actually ‘living in Italy’ that we have barely even scratched the surface of; so many places we want to discover, so much food to try and wines to taste, so many customs to learn, events to experience, people to meet. And that’s quite apart from all the jobs we still need to do (whitewashing the house, laying the patio, building the holiday cottage, starting a business…). It seems, rather, to be a contented indolence that washes over us from time to time, induced by the sheer beauty of our surroundings: magnificent snow-capped mountains and a benign turquoise sea, between which roll olive- and vine-clad hills from whose tops rise a succession of tiny medieval villages. And the fact that we have done it; that this – all this! – is now Our Home.

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