Recalibration

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.

Sagra

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.

Confession

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.

Ciao! And welcome to my blog.

Over the coming weeks and months I shall be adding reflections, observations, facts, experiences, frustrations, recipes, travel tips, restaurant recommendations and all manner of other aspects of my life together with Mr Blue-Shirt in this undiscovered corner of central Italy. I hope you will join me on the journey…