January Generosity

The embers of 2017 have now faded into ash and we’re welcoming 2018 into our hearts. The comparison between last year in Abruzzo and this year is the skies are a cobalt blue and the sun is doing its best to warm the earth. In 2017 we had the worst snowfall for many years, so this warm weather is very welcome. The days however may be warm but as soon as the sun goes down the cloudless skies mean the temperature drops and it’s time to light the log burner and snuggle down for the evening. It’s the need for wood to burn that’s prompted this blog post.

Were just a handful of days into the new year and so far I’ve experienced several acts of generosity. On Thursday morning I was just finishing my breakfast when there was a knock at the door, reluctantly I left my eggs and bacon and shuffled to open it. The door opened to the smiling face of my neighbour Mario who was clutching a bottle of fresh, cloudy olive oil. “Come va?” was his cheerful opening to the English man stood before him still dressed in night attire. I told him I was well and he thrust the bottle towards me telling me it was from the November harvest and a gift for me for my help and my friendship.

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He tells me it’s an exceptional taste this year. Later I decant it into dark coloured glass bottles to preserve its flavour. Sampled simply upon bread the flavour is fruity and fresh and reminiscent of the previous summer.

Saturday, I’m coming home from a trip to the shop when another neighbour, Franco stops me. He’s cutting a tree down that has been made unsafe by the recent winds that took half of the tiles off my roof: that’s a post I forgot to write. “Nice day today,” he says as the chainsaw buzzes away at the tree’s trunk. “You have a wood burner?” he asks, I respond saying yes and he tells me to help myself to as much of the kindling that I want. We open the back of the car and promptly load it up with around a months supply that’ll save us using our store. I thank him and wish him happy new year and drive away as he continues on with his labour.

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The still Sunday air is punctuated by the mechanical chugging of an ancient tractor and another neighbour comes into view over the brow of the hill. “Hello English,” he calls to me, his usual greeting. He’s as ancient as his machinery and has a moustache you could hide kittens in; we’ve never exchanged names, our conversations are mostly, hello, nice day and a wave of the hand. Behind his tractor is a trailer laden with olive branches that have been stripped of their leaves. “Buon lavoro,” I say indicating towards his load with a nod of the head. “Grazie,” is his reply, good for burning, he says indicating to his olive wood with a nod of his head. I tell him that I agree and he says, take some. He pulls the tractor over and jumps down and grabbing a handful he starts to load my arms up, saying he’s more than he’ll need this year. With arms straining under the weight, I say thank you as he climbs aboard his mechanical steed, he bids me buon anno and disappears down the lane.

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I spend the remainder of the morning cutting the olive wood into lengths that fit the burner and wonder at the generosity of my neighbours.

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An Italian Day

A friend once mentioned to me that her neighbour went to the market or local shop everyday to buy provisions for that day’s lunch or dinner. She told me that if she did a weekly shop then she’d save herself a daily trip to the shops. I thought about this and spoke with an Italian friend about it and her reply was, “Of course we shop everyday, that way we know we have, cibo più fresco.” PING! on went the ‘of course’ light. In a society where seasonal is important, women have shopped daily for years to make certain they purchase the best and freshest produce.

Often people comment that Italian’s appear to be chaotic and disorganised, but that’s far from the truth. Italian’s are very organised in their day to day lives and as I think back to how my day has been today I realise I’ve adapted to some of these daily rituals easily and without actually thinking about it. So here’s a typical Britalian day for me and how it mirrors that of my Italian colleagues and friends.

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My day starts with strong black coffee and after breakfast I set off for work. Today I drive up into the mountains as I’m visiting the town of Torricella Peligna to take photos of an apartment that is being put up for sale. I have a pleasant morning with the owner and get the shots required to market her apartment. The sky is as clear and blue as a Ceylon sapphire as we leave the town and below us the road twists and turns through the countryside, with its patchwork of fields and olive groves. The car’s windows are open and the scent of jasmine is drawn inside making this journey a feast for the senses. We pass through the town of Roccascalegna and decide to drop in to check all is well with some new clients who purchased a house a few months back. I find that Sue, Keith and their beautiful daughter Sophie are settling in to their house well and are becoming happily embroiled into their Italian community.

It’s now one o’clock and time for that important of daily Italian customs, lunch.

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We drop into our local restaurant which is already filled with diners and after a ten minute wait we’re seated and ordering. Italian lunch is the most important meal of the day, it’s not to be rushed, it’s meant to be eaten in a relaxed manner to aid digestion. In complete contrast to the meagre Italian breakfast lunch is substantial. I order my primo;  chitarrina allo scoglio, a pasta dish made with the local Abruzzese square shaped spaghetti. The mussels and clams are sweet and the broth that lurks under the pasta has the fragrance of the sea. Around us the other diners are eating, drinking and chatting at a leisurely pace. Lunch isn’t something that should be rushed in Italy. More white wine: ice cold and fizzing in the carafe is delivered to our table and our dishes are cleared away in readiness for the secondo.

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Being an Italian restaurant there’s a television mounted on the wall and muted news reports are playing as the waiters clear tables and redress them in around 40 seconds for more waiting diners. My secondo arrives, a plump piece of salmon dressed simply with olive oil and a slice of lemon. My contorno (side dish) is slices of fresh tomato and wafer thin rings of red onion.

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Workers look at their watches in a relaxed manner, no one is rushing to get back to work yet; after all the standard time given over for lunch is two hours. I check the time and order coffee and stretch my arms above my head feeling happily full.

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After my two hour repast and having paid my €10  we leave and I go back to work. My afternoon is taken up with admin until it’s time to pack away the office for a few minutes and head off to the cantina. A short drive later, I’m loading boxes of wine into the boot of the car and I’m almost ready to leave when the assistant calls me over and gives me two free bottles of wine and tells me to have a good evening.

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Generosity seems to be an intrinsic part of the Italian psyche as is their cordiality, it’s customary to be told to have a good day, a pleasant evening, buon pranzo (have a good lunch) and all other manner of well wishes throughout your day. These salutations are never forced and they’re always received and reciprocated in a genuine way. I’m happy to say that there’s none of that dictated corporate bonhomie in Italy.

Back home, it’s time to sample the wine and a glass of excellent red is poured as I check the last of the emails for the day before setting off for the evening stroll in readiness for dinner. Passeggiata, the Italian custom of a stroll before dinner is a perfect way to catch up with gossip, and as soon as you get into the habit you realise it’s a perfect way to integrate with your community, it’s a sort of walking adhesive.

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It’s now around 8pm and the cars have started to arrive at the local restaurant, the tables outside are populated by people drinking aperitivi as the waiters finish setting up for the evening service. And all over Italy people are preparing for dinner, the same way it’s been done throughout generations.

Eight Things (a continuation)

I follow a blog written by another Brit who has made Italy his home. The Brit in question is Richard Noble and the part of Italy he’s chosen is Piemonte, a good six and half hours north west of here by car. It’s nice to see that another person is writing about their experiences of relocating, Richard’s posts are entertaining and it is nice to see someone else coming up against the eccentricities of la bella Italia. Recently Richard posted a really positive piece about the eight things he loved about Piemonte. Here’s the link, so you can take a look for yourselves: http://livinginthelanghe.wordpress.com/2013/07/15/eight-things-to-love-about-piemonte/ As it’s always tempting to write about negative things; a sort of cathartic writing exercise to exorcise those niggles, (Did you like the play on words there?) I decided to do the same and write about the eight things I love about Abruzzo.

Diversity – Tuscany looks pretty much the same no matter where you go, Calabria is mostly dusty and sandy and Le Marche is green. Abruzzo is so diverse, it has so many different landscapes that you’d be forgiven for thinking they can’t belong to one region. The beauty of this is that they are all within easy reach of each other. I love the fact that I’m a mere 18 minutes from the coast, in particular the trabocchi coast, where rickety fishing platforms lean out over the sea. I particularly love the sandy beaches a little further down towards the town of Vasto. Forty minutes away are the mountains, where Apennine wolves have been reintroduced and the marsican bear shyly keeps himself to himself. Skiing is there for those that ski, and the mountains have some wonderful shepherd trails and walking routes that lead you onto breath taking vistas. We have national parks; lush environments where waterfalls invite you to cool off, flowers perfume the breeze and the clean air has an intoxicating effect. Whatever terrain you favour, you’ll find it here.

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Eating Out – Everyone has their favourite restaurant or bar and I’m no exception, however here it’s hard to narrow it down to just one. When I was living in the UK I had only one favourite, an Italian (no surprise there) pizza house in town called Roberto’s.  http://www.robertopizzeria.com/ if you’re passing through Stoke on Trent, pop in and sample the pizza Pina, and tell them I sent you. If I want pizza I can pop to our local pizzeria and grab a freshly prepared one for very few Euro, but if I want a good dinner then it has to be Il Buchanieri, where superb service and food is always on the menu. We have so many excellent restaurants here that eating out is always high on the ‘to do list’.

Work – I’m lucky, I can work anywhere in the world, all I need is a laptop and internet connection. But I love working in Abruzzo for two reasons, the first is inspiration. As a staff writer for Italy Magazine, when my inspiration levels drop al I need is a walk around and I can find a multitude of things to write about. A trip to the local bar for a coffee gave me the idea for a forthcoming feature on Italian coffee culture. The second reason is the fact that we have an airport in Pescara, 40 minutes away, that flies daily to London Stansted. So if I have to be in the UK for a meeting or presentation I can get there in under three hours. Also, when all is said and done, it’s much nicer to be sat at my desk looking down over an Italian valley than my previous office that looked out over a litter strewn alleyway.

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Piano Piano – It hasn’t taken me long to slot in with the pace of life here. No more rushing around, no more stress levels rising as I sit in a traffic jam, no more ‘I need this, like yesterday’. Driving to the shop is now a relaxing affair, I pootle along, taking in the scenery. I sound my horn and wave to friends. The low levels of traffic on our rural roads makes driving a joy, so what if I’m behind an octogenarian in an Ape doing just 15 kmph, I’m in no hurry. If I need some tomatoes for dinner, I have all day in which to wander over to the plants and pick them, no need to dodge shopping trolleys in Tesco. This said I like the fact that I can browse in my local fruit shop, handle the produce and take my time over buying. The pretty girl in the bread shop; actually she’s beautiful, always chats, asks how the house is coming along and waves to Olive the dog, who’s always in the car looking through the window. Okay buying a loaf takes several more minutes than it needs to, but I have time.

Community – During my final year in the UK, we rented a house in the north of the city and apart from my friend Tim a few streets away, I didn’t know any of the other people that lived close by. In fact i can’t recall having any conversations with my neighbours. Granted most of the houses were tenanted and this in itself leads to a fractured community. Here, I know my neighbours by name, we stop and pass the time of day. Acceptance within the community has been quick, cars pass and slow to see the work on the house progressing, the occupants wave and now ask how things are, we’re no longer the crazy foreigners, we’re now the English on the hill. If we go to our favourite bar in Casoli, the owner asks how we are, we get served tasty titbits with our beers, and many of the locals that pass by say hello. It may not work for some people this bonhomie, many think the Italians take too much interest in the lives of others, but I like it, I like that I know about my neighbours forthcoming prostate check-up and another neighbours problems with her daughter’s husband, it makes me feel part of the community.

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View from my office window

Taxes – Here’s an odd one, as no one enjoys paying taxes, but here in Italy and particularly the comune we are in, the comparison to what we paid in the UK makes me very happy. Back in Stoke on Trent, my town of birth, I was paying at one point £2,168 in council tax per annum. Understandably at the time I did reside in a large detached house. Profits from the sale of this house went to buy our current casa italiana. In my final year in the UK my council tax, which covered refuse removal, once weekly and street lighting etc. was £978. Here in Italy my council tax is €115 and my rubbish removal tax is €118 with recycling/rubbish collections taking place daily, except Sunday. The total taxes are €233, add to this the sixty cents it’ll cost to pay at the post office and the conversion to GBP is £201.67, saving me a total of £776.33 each year.

Dog Friendly – For a country that has an appalling record regarding dog welfare; approximately 650 dogs are abandoned during the summer months of June to September, that’s a rate of one dog every two minutes. http://ow.ly/nm07N These statistics are shocking, but on the other side of the coin, living here is great for people with dogs. We have lots of open space for them to enjoy, the roads here in the countryside are quiet so it’s possible to wander along them with your pooch on its lead without having to dodge traffic. The bars are dog friendly, I can take my dogs to the two bars I frequent, and they are welcomed as we sit outside enjoying our beers. There are even shops, large international ones that are okay with small dogs coming in with their owners. So if we take a trip into Ikea, Olive our terrier can come along with us and enjoy a sneaky hot-dog at the end of the trip, but our big hound, Alfie has to stay behind in the car. (In the underground car-park of course where it’s cool).

Wine – Hands up who thought I’d not give the red stuff a mention: As if… I like the fact that I can buy a good bottle of prosecco for as little as €3 compared to £11 back in England. There’s a plethora of good wines on offer here for very little money, yes the supermarkets have undrinkable red plonk for as little as 99 cents, but a good montepulciano d’abruzzo can be purchased for around €1,49. But a big change I have discovered is there are a few whites that I can drink and enjoy. I’ve never really taken to white wine, having found it mostly acidic and unpalatable. Now when we eat at our favourite restaurant, I can be seen sipping a chilled, dry white with my seafood pasta.

Italy isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, there’s elements of living here that infuriate, there are things I miss about the UK, silly things like walking down the road and instantly understanding every written sign around me. I miss being able to go to my writers’ group on a Wednesday evening and enjoying the company of like-minded people. Mostly I miss hearing the potteries dialect, the flat vowels and nasal sounds I grew up with. But there’s much more that I don’t miss, and as this is a post about being positive I’ll resist the urge to go into detail.

I hope this idea of positive things about where we live is taken up by another blogger and directed back to me, and this in turn will filter back to Richard and of course his edition will  kick back to the Brit in Bavaria who unknowingly started this chain. http://boahbayern.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/top-twelve-reasons-i-love-living-in-germany/ So come on, one of you bloggers out there tell us all, why you love where you live.