Are You One of the 25% (part two)

As promised here’s part two of the six things that I think people should consider before moving abroad to live. The first part can be found Here. The first part focussed on language learning, not making assumptions and not using the move as a form of escape.

Do bear in mind these are only six of possibly many more things that need to be considered, but with these two blog posts I’ve tried to address some often overlooked things to think about before making that move. So without further ado, here’s my final three things that I think you must think carefully about before you pack up your possessions and drive off towards a new life in foreign parts.

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Downsize: Before you pack away every last thing that you own it’s a good idea to think about what you have and what you are likely to need/use in your new home. If you’re moving into an apartment then sell the lawn mower and other garden related things that are superfluous. Believe me I know someone who moved to a new apartment that had a communal garden tended to by the condominium and he paid to ship his gardening tools to Spain only to have to get rid of them once he was there. Books and DVD’s are heavy and can take up valuable space when paying for shipping. If you really can’t live without your film collection then invest in a disc holder and get rid of the plastic cases that will take up room and ship mostly air in the long run. Books are precious to some people and if that’s you, then take only those that you know you will read again or can’t bear to part with, books that will move from a shelf in one country to sit in boxes in an attic in another is a waste of money.

Think about furnishings, are they suitable for the climate you’re moving to? I shipped two large leather sofas only to discover that leather is horrid to sit on in the Italian summer. If you are packing up and discover towels that have seen better days and rugs that you can read a newspaper through, bin them. And while you’re packing up the kitchen, with every utensil you pick up, ask yourself when you last used it, if the answer is a year or so ago then put it into the charity shop pile.

Go through you’re wardrobe and donate all of those clothes that you’ll never wear abroad. If you’re going to be in rural France on a self-sufficiency drive then get shot of the dinner suits and evening dresses, the pigs and chickens won’t care what you wear. Before moving to Italy I sold all but eight of my 79 pairs of shoes, and since moving here I’ve worn only two pairs of the saved ones.

It makes perfect sense to downsize and pay to ship, only what you will need and use. Don’t fall into the trap of buying things to take that you assume you’ll not be able to get in your newly adopted country; unless of course you’re moving to the central plains of Mongolia, and then will you find anywhere to plug in your newly acquired wireless iPod docking station?

Remember, what you don’t take can be sold to go towards your shipping expenses or go to help others either in a charity shop or at a furniture/household charity bank.

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Dispel Belief: We’ve all watched movies like, Under the Tuscan Sun and watched TV shows like, A Year in Provence, that’s cool and I say watch and enjoy, but don’t believe a word of it. There’s nothing more sure to get our wanderlust rising than a well shot film with gorgeous vistas and a bevvy of beautiful people to temp us into falling in love with them. Even if you are partial to conversations with the kitchen wall, chances are you’ll not find yourself, like Shirley Valentine did. The reality is very different. Instead of falling in love with a hunk from Positano and riding on the back of his Vespa with your hands around his toned midriff, you more than likely find yourself on a cramped bus that smells of diesel next to an old contadino with armpits riper than his watermelons. In short if you think your move will be like a film plot or the narrative from a Spanish best seller then don’t move as you’ll be sorely disappointed.

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Don’t Rush: Think carefully about what time of year you’ll be moving, an Italian summer can be oppressive and not best suited to lugging furniture out of a van. Italian winter’s although relatively short can be cold so it’s best not to be moving into a house with no means of heating if there’s a chance there’ll be a metre of snow overnight. Think about the property you’ll be moving too carefully and plan to move at a time best suited to your needs. Also check dates; will it be a bank holiday or is there a festa in town? Nothing will spoil the move if the shops are closed and you can’t get milk for your tea or the streets are shut off for dancing so you can’t pass with your possessions. If you’re planning moving to Italy remember most of the country shuts down in August and never: I repeat. Never plan to move during Ferragosto (August 15) always leave a couple of days either side as the whole country, (including me) will be celebrating.

Once you’ve moved into your new home there’s another, don’t rush, that applies. Don’t rush into remodelling the house, if you can live in it, then do just that. Live in it and you’ll discover on a daily basis what works for you and what doesn’t. Obviously this doesn’t apply to major restorations. However if you can live on a building site it can be very helpful. I moved into my house the day after we evicted the rats and lived in one room as we did the planned work, this enabled us to make changes as we discovered what was right for us and the end result was very different from the original plan.

Also don’t rush into making friends with every person that speaks your language. It’s beneficial to have friends that share your native tongue and understand where you’re culturally coming from. But back in your native country you’ll have been selective, so don’t stop just because you’re an ex-pat. There’s nothing worse than having lunch with a table full of ex-pats that back in your birth country you’d have avoided in a heartbeat. Friendships will come and the best ones take a little time, but are best waiting for.

Fitting a Sun-Roof in a Panda

Renovating an old Italian house can be a source of frustration and anxiety but can also lead to moments of complete madness that reduce you to great gales of laughter. I had an incident recently that had me hugging my sides as I shook with mirth; it was one of those, ‘you had to be there moments’.

Our house is ancient, built originally from stone and adapted over the years with bricks, concrete and all manner of materials. It began it’s life as two houses, both of which consisted of a living space for the humans with a space for animals below. It’s hard to imagine a whole family, living in just one twenty square metre room. We’re not restoring our house with any romantic notion of turning it into a pseudo Italian farmhouse: The kind, that are featured in movies and pasta sauce adverts. As we have a more contemporary taste we’re modernising where we can, and anyway, as it’s an old contadino home, (peasant farmer) it would have been built for practicality not aesthetic charm. So during this process of renovation, rather than restoration we are replacing the old windows with brand new, cream coloured aluminium ones, and wonderful they look too. It’s this window replacement that led to much hilarity one Wednesday evening.

We were sat outside with our friends Viv and Seppe, (Seppe is fast becoming a Life on Shuffle celebrity). Olive the dog was running around with Ollie, Viv’s dog as we chatted about life and watched the evening creep in. I mentioned to Seppe that we had taken the window frame out from the second bedroom and if he wanted it; as he’s recycling our old windows, he could take it that evening. So before leaving I helped my friend put the window complete with shutters onto the roof rack of his Fiat Panda.

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What an odd sight we must have seemed to our neighbours who watched as we loaded first the frame onto the car, we laughed as we said that we were fitting a sun-roof to the car. The laughter continued as we then had the job of fitting the shuttered windows, a passing car slowed to see the two men struggling. First we fitted them the wrong way round, then we had them upside down, then the wrong way round again and with each mistake we laughed more. (I did warn you that this was a ‘you had to be there moment’.)

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Eventually we had the windows fitted to the frame, we turned the handle and they closed beautifully, all that was left was to secure them to the car. Then of course came the joke that you could tell the car had an Italian sunroof because it had shutters, not a particularly funny line, but it had me howling with laughter. You see I’m easily entertained and when Seppe is around, laughter follows in close proximity, as he’s naturally funny and quick witted.

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The perfect accessory for all Italian cars, a sun roof with shutters.

Italian by Absorption

I’m beginning to wonder if outside forces influence they way people are, surely our surroundings must dictate how we feel and how we perform, so can they make subtle changes to our personalities and habits? I ask this question because I’ve noticed that I’ve started to do things differently here in Italy. The first thing I’ve noticed is the change in dinner time. Back in the UK I always had dinner, or as we Stokies say, ‘me tea’ at 6pm, but here without realising it I’ve fallen into the Italian way of eating it at 8pm. Now I understand that on the days that the builder is here he leaves around 6pm, so that is a factor in the later dinner-time, but even on days when he isn’t here, we’ve eaten at 8pm.

Italian’s are naturally inquisitive people; notice I avoided using the term, nosey and I’ve caught the bug too. As soon as a car is heard I’m outside looking up towards the road to see who it is, and heaven forbid I catch a snippet of conversation, otherwise it means I slow down my pace to discover what’s being said and by whom. This nosiness has become quite acute and we vie for position, looking for the best vantage point, when we want to see who is driving past.

Here, the Abruzzese people live a more frugal life and wasting food is frowned upon.  Since moving here I’ve appreciated that fact that when it comes to fruit and vegetables the shops sell what’s in season. There’s no potatoes from Egypt or French beans from Kenya, and there’s no uniformity to it, a deflated looking pepper is as acceptable here as a plump round one, just as a display of fennel bulbs will have them of all sizes from medium through large to enormous. There’s no one from Brussels here with a micrometre and portable weighing scales. Unlike when I was back in the UK, I store what I know will perish before I have used it all. In the freezer I have pots of basil, chopped celery, parsley, and all manner of things, waiting to be used at a later date. I’ve even got my emergency sofritto (a mix of finely chopped carrot, celery and onion used as a base for stocks and sauces) and chopped tomatoes frozen in wine, should someone visit unexpectedly and need a pasta sauce making for lunch.

I also think I’ve absorbed a little of the contadino somehow. Outside the front door is a flower border, but knowing that flowers here are a luxury and that land should be used to grow crops first, I’ve used it for a sort of mini orto and planted out some onions, courgettes, chillies and tomatoes, sweet corn and a pumpkin. I have a little cluster of English bluebells I brought over tucked away in the corner, as I’d like to get these established further down on our land, where it’s shady and wild cyclamen grow. So until we get our land cum jungle sorted out the flower border will be put to better use.

Guaranteed, these are small changes to my lifestyle, but as they’ve happened without conscious effort maybe I’m becoming Italian by absorption or at the very least more Britalian than I was before.

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Women with Wheelbarrows

Sunday morning arrived last week with a welcome burst of sunshine and I headed off down the road to the communal fountain at Perano to get my five cents of ice cold, acqua frizzante. As I drive ELO come onto the iPod with It’s Over, I turn up the volume and the multi-layered, rock music spills out of my open window into the Abruzzi countryside. I’m just coming around a bend in Altino when I’m met by the sight of five women walking along the road pushing wheelbarrows. They’re obviously off to work in the fields, but where are the men? Another bend is navigated and I have my answer, I pass a bar where all the men are chatting and drinking coffee: No self-respecting contadino would contemplate a days toil without a helping of gossip and coffee.

Our builder has Sundays off so the house is quiet, I take opportunity to make some melanzane parmiaganni and a batch of pasta sauce for storing in the freezer. After lunch we decide to take a stroll along the beach front at Fossacesia, just twenty minutes in the car and we’re enjoying the breeze coming off the Adriatic. The beach has a few people lying upon towels soaking up the sun, but no one is in the sea. The Italians have a fear of dying from all manner of influenzas and fevers that will come from swimming in the sea before June. I’m now wishing I’d packed some shorts as I’d like a dip, even if only to see the women gasp in horror and tell me that I’ll be dead before the next phase of the moon.

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We continue strolling when we notice two buffed Italian men posing as they walk along the beachfront. Obviously enjoying the attention they are getting whether in admiration or the sniggering, they slow to a snails-pace. It’s an odd sight, as the Italians are still wearing jumpers and top coats, shorts and t-shirts aren’t given an airing until April has passed. We let the parading gym-bunnies continue on their way and drop into Lu Trabocche 3, for a cold Peroni. There’s a steady stream of people coming to eat, so we make a note and say we’ll give the menu a try one day soon.

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There must be an important football match on, (isn’t there always in Italia) as many men have small radios pressed to their ears. We see a family enjoying some al fresco dining, children are doing what children do best, making noise and women are chatting loudly and occasionally scolding an errant youngster. On the periphery of the group sits an old man with his radio, it’s stopped working and I watch as he takes out the batteries and replaces them again, but to no avail, he’s missing the football commentary, so resorts to hitting the radio, beating it into submission until the sound flickers on and he’s happy. It’s nice to see that despite all of our different creeds and cultures, wherever a man is in the world he’ll always revert to that universal method of repair; if in doubt, bash it.

On the way home, with the windows open Siouxsie and the Banshee’s play Cascade, from the live album, Nocturne and I’m singing along as we sail down the lane that runs parallel with the strada statale, as we cross a small roundabout, the music changes and the Bee Gees pop up with, You Should Be Dancing. Again I sing along, this time doing my best Gibb brother falsetto impression, much to the amusement of the men sat outside a restaurant drinking beer. I wave, they cheer and I continue on my merry way wondering if the women with the wheelbarrows are on their way home too.

The Foraging Foreigner

Saturday afternoon, 13 April 2013. The temperature is 23C and my friend Michele is passing on his daily walk with his dog, Bobby. We chat in the lane and he points to something in the hedgerow, “Wild asparagus,” he says as he picks two lanky spears and hands them to me. Every day, the lane up to out house is visited by locals with carrier bags, they can be seen scanning the land for free food. Foraging is a part of the Italian way of life, and this time of the year they are out looking for the asparagus. I often cut rosemary from the fragrant bushes in the lane, or pick borage flowers to freeze in ice cubes; ideal for dressing up a gin and tonic and I’ve also collected the leaves from the wild garlic. But that has been my limit. “I’ll show you,” Michele says, “It’s important to do it right.” The first rule is you must wear long sleeves so that you don’t get scratched. I’m wearing a T-shirt so have fallen at the first fence, so to speak.

With Bobby following behind we climb up the side of lane into the greenery and head up an incline as we head towards the olives. Michele points out what looks like a fern and tells me that this is the main part of the plant. Very quickly he spots the thin spears and picks them and hands them to me. I peer into the undergrowth and can see nothing, I’m staring like a man possessed and Michele points, “There.” I still can’t see anything and he deftly steps forward and plucks three spears. “Years of practice,” he laughs. We continue through the olives and he tells me that it is important to wear sturdy shoes. I’m wearing canvas pumps: Fail number two.

We scramble through a thicket of spiny leaved bushes, and are beside the ruins, Michele finds more asparagus and I find scratches on my arms. There’s two spears near a huge cactus, Michele clip_image001hands me Bobby’s rope to hold and he clambers onto the cactus, it’s not sturdy and it is very spiny. I wonder at the need to put yourself in danger just for two measly strips of vegetation. But I guess historically feeding the family was of prime importance and the life of a contadino, (peasant farmer) was hard, so every morsel must have counted. We carry on searching and I find my first patch and feeling like I’ve achieved something I pluck the green stalks from the earth.

As we reach the dirt track Michele tells me that the asparagus won’t be found here, as it grows in the shade and doesn’t flourish in the heat too, so it’s pointless going any higher up the hill where there are no bushes. He stops to point out some mushroom and tells me that they are deadly and I mustn’t even touch them. We walk through a patch of purple coloured orchids and he spots more bounty beneath a young fig tree. The bundle in my hand is now quite large, and he tells me, “That’s enough, only take what you need, leave the rest for another family.” He then tells me that I really shouldn’t wear thin cotton trousers when walking in the fields as I could end up with a tick on my skin. Fail number three.

“Thick jeans are better,” he says. Then rolls up the left leg of his and shows me a scar where he was bitten by a tick a year ago and had to go to the hospital to have it removed and four stitches put into the wound. He looks down and there’s blood on the back of his hand, he’s got a small black one of the dreaded ticks attached to his skin. “This is how you kill a tick,” he tells me as he drops it onto a stone and taking another stone crushes the beast. “Don’t stamp on it, it might get wedged in the sole of your shoe and survive, and you’ll then take it into your home.”

We chat in the lane and he tells me how to cook this feast we’ve collected, plenty of salted water, boil for just a few minutes add to some garlic and butter and lightly fry then toss into the pan some cooked spaghetti with a drizzle of good olive oil and serve. I tell him I’ll do exactly as he says and let him know how it tastes. He then randomly tells me he had a prostate operation the previous year and waves as he continues walking Bobby.

I cut the woody stems from the bundle and cook as directed and have to say it’s tasty, a tad bitter, but not dissimilar to the asparagus I’ve had in the UK.

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The following day, I see three people in the lane scouring the hedgerows, and as I watch them picking asparagus Michele turns up to ask if I liked my dinner last night. I tell him I did and before he continues on his way, he says remember, sleeves, shoes and jeans