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…