Snow and Stew

As most of Europe is currently under attack from Arctic blasts and ‘thundersnow’ we didn’t escape it here in Abruzzo. The snow is finally thawing following a seven-day period of deep deposits. It all looked very pretty, but it was so deep in places that villages were cut off, not to mention water pipes frozen and electricity lines going down.

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So trapped at home until the lane can be cleared I turned to passing the time getting used to induction cooking. We don’t have mains gas in our lane and have used a gas bottle cooker for the past few years, it was sufficient for our needs until in autumn a field mouse took up residence in the back and chewed through the pipe to the oven. Now I have a nice fan-assisted electric oven I thought it may be a good idea to go all electric to remove the need to buy and store gas bottles. I was helping a friend prepare lunch using her induction hob and was so impressed I went out and got myself one. I then spoke with another friend who had a double hob for sale, and so now I am learning to use them and thus far I’ve been impressed with the speed of cooking and the control of the heat.

So I decided this week to use the hob for something more challenging than an omelette or boiling pasta and set to making a stew, as everyone knows snow and comfort food go together really well. So here’s my recipe for a veal stew. (serves 4)

The ingredients are:

400g veal. 2 small onions. 300 ml passata. 160 g mushrooms. 200g carrots. 2 tablespoons of tomato puree. 500 ml home made veg base.

In the late 1970’s people became outraged to discover the veal they were eating was produced by keeping calves in the dark inside boxes to restrict movement. This led to a rapid decline in the UK for veal consumption, even now very few butcher’s shops openly sell it. However here in Italy I purchase what we now call rose veal, its male calves that have been raised until they are 8 months old rather than being culled at birth. It’s not a pale as milk fed veal but tastes very good. If veal still isn’t your thing substitute it for pork in this recipe.

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Cut the meat into bite size pieces and brown it off in small quantities and add to the stew pot.

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Chop the onions and sweat them off in a frying pan for a minute or so, then add the tomato puree and cook it off.This sweetens the onions and helps to pick up the pieces of veal that have caramelised in the pan earlier.

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Chop the carrots: I chop alternate sections diagonally as you get an interesting shape that also has a larger surface area so cooks quicker and evenly.

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Add to the pot a liberal amount of garlic powder, black pepper and a good pinch of chilli flakes. Following this add the passata; shop bought is okay or make your own, it’s so easy. My recipe is here. Following this add 500ml of stock or home made veg base.

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As I hate waste, what I do is add what left over veg I have to a pan of water and boil it all together. This one was made from a couple of cabbage leaves, a carrot, half an onion and a few celery sticks. Boil it all together then blend it and bag it and store in the freezer until you’re making a stew or soup. Much better for you than shop bought stock, full of chemicals and salt.

Bring the pot to the boil and then turn the heat down and let it simmer until the carrots are softening; this took just 15 minutes on the induction hob. Then add a splash of white wine followed by the mushrooms and continue to simmer until everything is cooked through and the carrots still have a little bite. serve with mashed potato and sit beside the log burner watching the snow fall as you eat this comforting stew.

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One other thing – this is also amazing if reheated the following day. Buona cena a tutti.

Bayonets and Seed Trays

A friend recently asked me if I’d seen anywhere selling bayonet light bulbs like the ones used in the UK. I didn’t bring any lamps with me when I relocated so never gave it a thought. Suddenly it dawned on me that something so trivial could become a major problem, if you’ve packed up your home, had it shipped abroad only to discover all the light bulbs sold here have screw fittings. I’ve been looking ever since and enquired without success at the hardware stores and thus far haven’t been able to locate a single bayonet fitting bulb.

Also on the lamp theme, I brought some treasured lampshades over from the UK only to discover after the re-wiring of the homestead that the Italian Edison bulb holders are slighter smaller than the UK ones, so the lampshades kept falling off the fittings. In the end treasured lampshades ended up in the wheelie bin.

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Another thing that can annoy you when living here is the electricity, or rather lack of a decent amount of it. The basic electricity supply in Italy is a measly 3 kilowatts. This means it takes a while to get used to the fact that you can’t have a multitude of appliances working at the same time. For example if we turn on our oven and induction hob at the same time, which is usual when cooking, we have to turn off the hot water to prevent the trip switch cutting the supply. How often at the start did we forget and when the washing machine was on pop some toast into the toaster and ping no power, or one of us would be drilling something while the other decided to plug in the kettle – yes you guessed it – ping and no power. It is possible to pay extra for up to 6 kw, but we’re now used to it and if anything it’s made us more aware of wasting energy.10885254_10152487089332187_5949779206277870703_n

One thing that initially drove me round the bend was the lack of seed trays – Yes I know surely they can’t be so important to be a cause of madness, but yes initially they were. The reason being is practically every Italian citizen has a patch of land where they grow fruit and vegetables for the table. They can be seen in January and February buying seeds and potting compost. So you’d expect them to be able to buy seed trays, because we do that in Britain. But this isn’t Britain it’s Italy, and my local garden centre looked at me quizzically  when I asked for some. “Seed trays?” she responded, almost mocking. “Trays for seeds.” – I felt at this point that I was in a rejected Two Ronnies sketch – I mentioned the lack of these to a friend who said, “Why have a special tray? I use the polystyrene trays that meat comes in and then throw them away.” I was about to mention that I don’t think I could use polystyrene in my electric propagator, but decided that it was best to leave the conversation there.

Did I solve this problem? Yes I had some posted from B&Q in the UK.

Sunny Saturday Stroll

It’s 29 October and the sun is shining, there’s not even a whisper of a breeze. I’m in the town of Bomba; pronounced Bom-ba and not as I heard one Englishman once call it Bomber. So what can I do on such a lovely morning but take a stroll through the town.

The town of Bomba dates back to 1115 AD with documented proof being housed in the local council offices. It’s a small town, just 18 km2 (7 sq mi) and enjoys an elevated position over the river Sangro valley meaning from almost every part of the town you can enjoy amazing panoramic views .

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The town is divided by a main street, at the top end it is called Via Roma, and my stroll starts here. I stop and look down over the tiled roofs of houses that have a view of the lake, it’s around 11.20 and the streets are already filled with people going about their daily business. Looking down I watch as a small Piaggio: a 3-wheel Ape (a-pay) chugs up the winding hill with several crates of freshly picked olives. I turn and walk as slowly as the ginger cat that’s taking it’s time to cross the road. Local people wish me good morning as they pass me; some possibly wondering who the stranger with a camera is. I stop and pass the time of day with a man who has arrived in a small reddish-orange pick-up filled with wood.

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He’s unloading the wood and stacking it neatly inside his cantina, he tells me he’s done this every year since he was a small boy over 70 years ago helping his father replenish the family’s wood pile. I tell him my own wood pile is growing in preparation for the winter ahead and we both agree that there’s nothing better than the smell of a wood fire on a crisp winter’s evening.

I continue along Via Roma past the water fountain where locals buy their sparkling or still spring water for just 5 cents a litre – just bring your own bottle. I see a lady I’ve met previously and we pass the time of day, she comments on my lack of a jacket and I tell her the temperature this morning is quite similar to an English morning in May, to which she responds with, “Those poor English people having to live in the cold.”

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Via Roma changes to become Cso S. Spaventa and it’s flanked on both sides by tall buildings. Three storey houses and apartments keep this portion of the street in shade and there’s a sudden dip in temperature out of the sun. Entrances with steep steps lead to front doors and it again it amazes me how the aging Italian population take all of these steps in their stride. (no pun intended).

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To my right are streets with sharp inclines that make their way upwards away from the corso while on my left narrow streets become entwined with vici (alleys) in the historic part of town; here in this labyrinthine part of town small dogs bark at strangers who pass by and disturb their sunbathing.

 

One of the town’s churches sits in an elevated position and the road leading up to it is as slender as a wasps waist, yet still cars have managed to make their way up here; some with their wing mirrors pulled in so as not to damage them in these narrowest of streets.

 

I’m again amazed at the skill of these people to navigate these streets and their parking may look like a nightmare for some, but I’m certain there’s some pecking order / unwritten parking system here.

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I continue my walk, stopping occasionally to admire wood piles that are constructed with great precision, one house has what looks like an unused door to its cantina and here are stacked olive branches, each one cut to the same length so as to fit into the space exactly.

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My journey brings me along an alleyway where a scooter stands outside a house with an open front door where the aroma of cooking spills out infusing the air with a the rich tang of tomato sauce and basil. This scene is as Italian as it can get and again reminds me how the Italian way of life is so close to its perceived stereotype.

The alley opens up to the main piazza and here is an image of Italian life as it has been for centuries. Men fill the benches and sit around gossiping while the women see to the chores. One woman hands her husband a couple of euro to buy his coffee with as she steps inside the baker’s to buy their daily bread. There’s no expectation of change here, it’s not a misogynistic society, it’s just the traditional way of life here in central Italy that remains unchanged.

In truth if you asked most of the women if they’d like their menfolk to help with the daily shopping and cooking, you get a resounding, no. “Why let the men make a mess of things,” one lady once told me, “The wife would have to clear up her husband’s mistakes while making sure not to hurt his feelings.”

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I turn back towards Via Roma and make my way back to my friend’s house where again the aroma of cooking is carried upon the air, however this kitchen smell is very alien to this ancient town, as it’s chicken curry. I look across as a neighbour uses an electric winch to lift her shopping from the street up two storeys to her apartment and think to myself what a perfect way to spend a sunny Saturday morning.

Moving Back to England

So we’re all in limbo following the shock referendum and potential Brexit. I say potential as I’m still hopeful someone with a modicum of sense puts a stop to all this nonsense. Now let’s not get political, I voted to stay and that’s all I’ll say on the matter, I’m not here to start a debate or be called a sore loser, just as I’m not here to berate people for voting leave. But the issue has raised many questions both with locals and ex-pats about whether we’ll return to Britain. So I gave it some thought and as the Clash said back in 1982, I asked myself the question, Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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It’s funny when you meet people who’ve recently moved out here, within minutes they will be saying something along the lines of, “I’ll never go back to England.” I’ve been guilty of saying something similar in the past, and I think it’s the excitement of being on your new life adventure that provokes the remark. But a few years down the line when you’re asked if you’ll ever return the response isn’t blurted out as quickly as previously. The reason I think is because the rose-tinted glasses have slipped and your experiences mean you’re able to make a more informed decision.

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Recently at a barbecue I met some new people who’d moved over about a year ago and we had a conversation about returning to the UK. I said once again that I have no plans to return; well that’s the truth, for the time being. I no longer use the word, ‘never’ as I’ve discovered that there’s no such thing as never. People’s situations change; I’ve known people who moved here and loved every minute only to have circumstances dictate their return.

Another reason for people to return is boredom. I think if you adapt to your surroundings well and you become embroiled in the local lives and customs as much as you can, and of course learn the language, then you’ll have a better chance of remaining in your adopted land. There must be nothing more soul destroying after the warm glow of moving abroad has faded to discover you’re alone and the outside of all that surrounds you. I once met a couple who moved to Italy around fifteen years ago, neither of them speak the language, as a couple they choose not to integrate and they spend a large portion of their monthly expenses buying English products from internet shops. I asked them why they came here and they told me it was for the weather and because they’ve always liked Italy having holidayed here. I pointed out that living here is vastly different than being on holiday, to which they told me for them it wasn’t, as they have a twenty five plan and will then return to England. I asked why, and they told me, “We don’t want to be old here because if something happens to one of us the other will be left isolated. At least back home we can talk to our neighbours.”

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Where I am in my life at the moment means I’d prefer to stay and I don’t have any plans to return to England. I have many, many reasons and I’ll not cite them here as that would be pointless. Suffice to say, if I didn’t have moments of nostalgic desire for what was familiar as a child I’d be a robot, but my life is here in Italy and there’s nothing at the moment that dictates it should change. Besides, you really can’t answer the ‘stay or go’ question with honesty, because, (to close with another musical reference) as the Queens of the Stone Age said in 2002, No One Knows.

Abruzzo: a road less travelled

I make no apologies for stealing the title for this post from Morgan Scott Peck’s best seller, The Road Less Travelled, as it was perfect for a post about how I discovered the region of Abruzzo. Most blogs and websites about the region say that Abruzzo is Italy’s best kept secret; I’ve even used that phrase myself in the past, but as more people discover the region it’s becoming an obsolete expression.

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I first discovered the region nine years ago. We were in Italy again, looking for a location in which to buy a holiday home and we were having a mid-week break in Rome. One day we hired a car and just drove across the country and ended up in Abruzzo. We liked what we found and the following year we made the effort to come here. We stayed in L’Aquila and explored the surrounding towns and villages. Our property search then took us south to Calabria and Basilicata and when we returned to the UK we re-evaluated our situation and decided to concentrate on Abruzzo. Another trip over was booked and this time we fell in love with the small village of Fossa about 14 km from L’Aquila.

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The 2009 earthquake brought the region to the attention of the world and people started to question where this secret part of Italy was. We then booked a stay at the fabulous Villa Collina just to be sure that our heart was in Abruzzo and that the earthquake hadn’t put us off. Our hosts Bryan and Cilla invited a hoard of ex-pats over for a party and in between drinks and nibbles people told us their stories about how they discovered the region.

Television shows like A Place in the Sun and travel shows have been drawing attention to the region for the past few years and this has increased the tourist footfall. And now more people now know of the region that measures just 10,794 sqm and yet boasts the largest green space in Europe and three national parks and, in my opinion some of the nicest medieval villages in Italy.

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One of the benefits of being a road less travelled is that property prices here are quite low compared to the national average, wildlife flourishes in the many undisturbed corners of the region and the towns and villages retain much of their historical culture and identity. As more people visit the region there are subtle changes occurring, the younger generation are following global trends, local people are now travelling further afield to discover more about their country and local trattoria’s are filled with English speaking diners.

My search to find my personal piece of Italy has led me here to Abruzzo and would I change any of it?

Yes – I’d have discovered it sooner rather than later.

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.

Are You One of the 25%? (part one)

According to industry figures, various random polls and statistics, 38% of people dream of buying a property abroad and in that figure 25% dream of starting a new life in another country.

The top four EU countries for relocating to are, Spain, France, Italy and Portugal. Spain is still the largest draw with the largest portion of the market; however compared to the other countries Spain gets more retirees followed by Portugal, while France and Italy have the highest portion of people looking to build a new life.

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Now there’s nothing wrong with wanting to build a new life, I’ve done it myself, so I know a little about the ups and downs and the highs and lows of it. Thankfully for me and mine the transition has been a case of more soaring highs than plummeting lows.

Due to my work I have daily conversations with people looking to find their dream property and I’m happy to give advice when people ask for it, but there’s always those few who remain blinkered by those rose-tinted glasses. Now I don’t say this to sound judgemental and rude as most people do throughout the process of viewing and buying realise that the dream and reality can often be polar cousins. So after a long conversation today with a lady wanting to relocate with her family to set up a business I thought I’d give my six top tips for anyone in that aforementioned 25%.

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Language. It seems a simple concept that if you plan to move to a country that speaks a different language that anyone wanting to relocate would learn the mother tongue. Sadly this isn’t always the case and some people move and never learn the language. This has in my opinion two major flaws, the first is that without even the basic skills you miss out on so much of what being in an Italian community is all about. The other is that without language you can feel very isolated. Now I’m not saying that everyone should be fluent and leave their place of birth with a doctorate in linguistics, but just a good basic knowledge is a good starting block and will help make the transition from outsider to insider easier.

Assumptions. Many people make assumptions without doing research. The amount of times I’ve heard someone say, “I’m going to move out and then get myself a little job.” With Europe in what seems to be endless economic difficulties, the chance of getting that ‘little job’ seems less of a prospect once you have moved to your new country. As already mentioned without the language even a job serving behind a bar would be problematic. Maybe working in an English/English speaking bar in Spain could be more achievable but a local bar in rural Italy where the patrons speak dialect would be nigh on impossible.

Never make the assumption that life will be easier, life will be better and life will be more sedate. In reality, initially your life becomes harder; days are filled with language and cultural lessons and as I always say it’s not a better life, it’s a different life.

While we talk about people making assumptions, here’s one I hear all the time: “I want an olive grove where I’ll farm it and sell the oil to live on.” And as the River City People said with their first single back in 1989, What’s Wrong with Dreaming? The answer is nothing is wrong with dreaming as long as you’re in possession of the facts. It’s costly to farm olives commercially, the set up fees alone can be prohibitive and then there’s years of experience and knowledge to acquire before the realisation of the amount of physical work required. People often cite a well know UK couple that created an adopt-a-tree business and turned over €100,000 in their first year. After a short period they sold the business to an Italian company and returned to the UK saying that the hard work destroyed the dream. People often say they can sell their oil locally, my response is, “Who to?” Everyone local has litres of their own oil from their own trees.

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Escaping. Sometimes people will say to me that they’re escaping their old self to find the new person inside. Sadly just because you move to another country you don’t get given a new personality at the border. If you’re a person that wakes with the first chirrup of birdsong and leaps out of bed to embrace the day with vigour, then why would this change. Equally if you prefer your own company and there’s nothing finer than plodding around town mumbling to yourself then to be brutally honest no amount of, la dolce vita or joie de vivre will change this. You are what you are. Okay some of what we do and who we are is dictated to by our surroundings, but most of us remain the same, despite our new hobbies and interests in another land.

If you’re using the move to escape something physical like a relationship or other troubles, then think hard. These things will still remain where you left them and therefore will never be resolved. I’m not qualified to dole out advice in these cases, but surely to attempt to resolve issues before you move on can only be a good thing and is one less piece of baggage to carry overseas.

Moving abroad can be a blind stride into the unknown but with a little knowledge and lot of preparation it needn’t be a step into the dark.

Part 2 coming soon.

Kitchen Sink Drama

I’m a firm believer that when you move house rather than change everything at once, it can often benefit you to live in the space for a while and see what works and what doesn’t work for you. When we purchased our house in Abruzzo, it came with several unique things. A lavatory in the living room opposite an old television set – handy if you don’t want to miss an episode of your favourite show. A bathroom downstairs that had everything apart from a lavatory. A desiccated grasshopper in the shutters and an old outside sink.

A lot of Italian houses have these ugly concrete sinks complete with washboard under an outside tap. Now part of me would like to think that this was the family sink for washing dishes, cleaning clothes and possibly baby bathing. But maybe that’s too romantic a notion. Maybe the outside tap was the family’s only water source many years ago, but back then I guess it would be buckets that were filled and later, possibly 1950’s, the invention of the ghastly concrete sink was the mod-con every rustic cottage wanted.

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They really are rather unattractive objects and our first thought was to remove it and once smashed to smithereens it would become part of the hard core in the new downstairs floors.

However we never did get around to doing this as our sole water supply at the start of the restoration was the outside tap and it made sense to retain the sink until it became obsolete.

Unlike my neighbour (see photo) ours didn’t have the horrible tiles and lumpy feet so aesthetically it was more pleasing on the eye. (But not much).

Over the coming months people commented on how the sink remained and how they’d removed theirs. We nodded and did mention that we’d be doing the same once we had a fully functioning kitchen sink.

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However over the coming months the sink proved itself; you could say it became worth its weight in concrete. I even grew to like the thing, especially its chipped edge and its two balletic legs, displayed at an angle.

It is possibly one of the most useful things we have inherited with the house, it’s great for washing vegetables from the orto saving splashing the kitchen tiles with mud. On passata making days, it’s great for washing large tomato stained saucepans and the washboard is good on sunny days for drying the pots and pans.

It’s also good for using as a cold frame for hardening off tender plants. In fact ours did spend one year as a planter, it looked very nice with geraniums and summer bedding flowing over the edges: But pretty gave way to functionality and after the summer was over it was consigned once again to proper usage.

But how things change – we often have people say to us that they wish they’d kept their old sink as they now find they have need for it, and I know of one person who after smashing up one has since paid to have another one installed.

It just goes to show, that you’re better off living with things before making snap decisions. My outdoor sink is still ugly but I wouldn’t be without it.

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Living La Dolce Vita

When people find out that you’ve relocated to Italy they assume that your life is going to mirror that of the characters in films like, La Dolce Vita and Under the Tuscan Sun: That you’ll be immersed in culture, spend your days over languid luncheons and your evenings engaged in passeggiata.

I’m not going to say that there’s not been long lunches with course upon course of exquisite food and great company. There has been, and as expected summer evenings where aperitivi are taken as the waiter whistles as he brings you complimentary nibbles.

The reality is very different. I don’t spend my time wandering around art galleries or marvelling at ancient architecture. My days are not made up with conversations with peasant farmers or sampling wine in dark cellars. In fact sometimes it’s actually not easy living in rural Abruzzo.

Your priorities have to change. Take a few weeks ago for instance. We had snow and temperatures that would, to coin an English idiom, worry a brass monkey. Back in England I’d have just turned up the thermostat and not given it a thought. But when you live in an ancient stone house with no central heating you have to be prepared. So one day I spent two hours sawing wood into wood burner lengths and then walked down onto our land to drag half a small tree home. wood

 

 

There are so many minor things are different from living in England that you have to get used to. Things like shop opening hours. Back in the UK we were used to 24 hour supermarkets and corner shops that stay open until the early hours. Here shops open from 08.30 to 13.00 and then close, they re-open around 16.00 to 19.30. Some supermarkets are open all day and it’s best to make sure you have enough provisions on a Sunday as many small shops don’t open and most supermarkets close at lunchtime.

The same thing applies to working hours here, there’s a shut down from 13.00 to 16.00 for lunch: Not siesta, that’s a Spanish thing.

Then there’s the art of eating, breakfast here is a sweet morsel not a cooked breakfast and most definitely not bacon and eggs. Lunch takes time as it’s the main family meal, so everyone sits down and catches up with each other over several courses, and dinner is a smaller meal either with friends or the nuclear family.

One thing you do before you come to Italy is you devour as much information as your brain can cope with and then learn that you needn’t have bothered. Guide book baloney, I call it. Things like, you must not order a cappuccino after 11.00, as it’ll offend the barista and it’s just not done. Guide book baloney – I’ve been out with Italian’s who’ve ordered them in the afternoon. Another one is that if you’re invited to dinner you must take a gift of pastries or chocolates and never foreign food. GBB – Italian’s are happy that you accepted the invitation and do not expect a gift and also welcome new food to try. Another GBB subject is dress codes, all the books talk about Italian’s having style and panache, that they dress to impress at all times – no one seems to have noticed that here jogging bottoms are the king of fashion and finally my favourite piece of misinformation is the one that says Italian men only go without socks on the beach and would never been seen outside the beach in sandals with bare feet. More GBB, come summer everyone’s in flip flops.

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One thing that seems insignificant but does take time to get used to is your surroundings. You grow up in one country and everything is imprinted on you over years, suddenly you’re in a place where the countryside is different, the sounds and smells dissimilar and the wildlife is new to you. Never in the UK did I wake up to snakes in the back garden or have to hit the brakes as a wild boar the size of a Morris Minor runs across the road.

And don’t get me started on the driving here – that’s a blog post all of its own.

I know you may think all of these things are unimportant in the grand scheme of things, and I tend to agree with you. I guess what I’m really saying is it’s not all air-kissing in town, pasta with everything and la bella figura. It’s pretty close and it’s fabulous being here. But I guess the key to surviving in Italy is being able to adapt and to assimilate.

 

 

The Fear

There’s quite a few English ex-pats living close by and occasionally I bump into some of them. There’s several active groups that meet for coffee and a chat, or organise meals out, but I don’t belong to any of these. I don’t actively seek out other Brits to associate with, and haven’t adopted that mind set of, if we’re all from the same country then we should be friends. I have met Brits who have assumed because I’m from England, we can be friends and within minutes of meeting them I’ve realised we have nothing in common but our country of origin. I have a nice mix of English and Italian friends, people I choose to be associated with; this said I also have a list of Brits inside my head I’d avoid like the plague should I see them across the road. I really don’t understand this ‘we must stick together’ mentality, surely it’s better to integrate into Italian society rather than segregate yourself.

I am surprised how many people live here that do not speak any Italian. I think there’s three camps they belong to. Camp one is the people who actually find learning the language difficult and genuinely struggle with it. Camp two contains those people that have tried and given up along the way for various reasons and camp three is the one that those people who have no intention of ever learning the language belong to. I don’t understand these people from camp three. One morning in a coffee bar, an English woman I had met previously, and didn’t really take to said to me that the waitress spoke English, so I didn’t need to speak Italian. I wanted to say, keep your nose out of my business you interfering witch, but instead smiled and said, “I’m just being polite.” The response I got shocked me, “Why bother learning the language,” she said, “quite a few Italians understand some English, besides you can manage to get by.” I don’t think I smiled before I said to her, “But I don’t want to just, manage to get by. Why would I want to miss out on so much by remaining ignorant?” Now it was her turn not to smile, I glanced across at the waitress and she was smiling. She’d obviously overheard our exchange as my drink was on the house.

I know that learning a new language isn’t easy, I struggled with French at school; although some of it still resides in the recesses in my memory and has at times proved useful. I tried to learn to  read music as a teenager, but it defeated me, and to this day all I know about music is the mnemonic for the notes on the treble clef, ‘every good boy deserves fudge’. At least I gave it a go, so in the case of music I belong to camp number two.

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Talking to a friend a week ago, I said, I think it’s fear that prevents some people from getting to grips with a new language, it’s okay to practice asking for two slices of pizza in the mirror at home, but for many people the fear kicks in when they have to do it for real. Is it fear of getting it wrong, fear of being misunderstood or fear of being laughed at? I don’t have the answer to these questions, all I can say is, no one will laugh, they may politely correct your pronunciation but more often than not, they’ll serve you with your pizza.

I sometimes think phrase books make matters worse, they contain many phrases that on paper look good, but in practice are not so good. In one book I have in my possession there’s the following phrase: dove è la libreria (where is the library). Let’s assume you actually do need to ask this question, what will you do when you get to the library, you obviously can’t hire a book, as you needed a phrase book just to ask directions so are unable to read the written language. Another of the phrases is, Can you direct me to the fire station? How often is anyone going to need this one, and surely if your house is on fire what is the chance in the panic you’d recall the phrase.

I said to my friend that I think people should learn phrases they are likely to use in everyday life, things like, ‘I’ll have three bottles of this wine please’ or ‘What times does the supermarket close?’ I also think people should practice as often as they can, asking strangers simple things like, ‘where is the post office?’ and although they do not fully understand the response to their question they are getting valuable experience in conversing, before long it’ll start to fall into place. The watchword for language learning is a little and often and in my opinion learn the verb conjugations you are likely to use, I, you and we, once you’ve those down you can learn the he, she, they, conjugations at your leisure.

Photo used with permission