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.

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.