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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Horsey Nonsense

It seems that every conversation I have with our builder ends up in either laughter or confusion. So why should today be any different. He had been doing some welding and being a good employer I took him a drink. As I walked in he was rolling up some electric cable, looping it over his thumb and winding it around his elbow in the same way I remember my mother taking in her washing line. I placed his drink down and the conversation went like this:

Fabrice: Barry, do you have a long one?

Me: What!

Fabrice: I need a longer one.

Me: I’m sorry to hear that.

Fabrice: What?

Me: What are you talking about?

Fabrice: I need a longer one for the electrics.

Me: A longer extension?

Fabrice: Yes, that’s what I said at the start.

Now that in itself could have led to any manner of unfortunate assumptions taking place, add to it the remainder of the conversation and you can understand why foreigners can get into trouble when restoring properties abroad. Now you have to bear in mind that as he’s half French, half Italian and quite a bit of his language is an amalgamation of the two languages, with a smattering of English inserted for good measure. This led to my misinterpreting what he said, and the words causing the confusion were Cavlo (amalgamation of cavo and cablo meaning cable) and Cavallo (horse).

Fabrice: Tomorrow, we need to get a horse

Me: A horse, whatever for?

Fabrice: We need it for the electric.

Me: Why do we need a horse for electric.

Fabrice: To make the electrics work.

Me: But a horse?

Fabrice: Yes, yes a horse.

Me: I don’t understand.

Fabrice: The electric goes around the house because of the work the horse does.

Me: Are you trying to tell me that to power the gadgets in the house we need a horse on a treadmill?

Fabrice: You really are crazy Barry.

Me: I’m crazy. You’re one saying we need a horse.

Fabrice: Tomorrow, I go to shop and buy switches and the horse to put inside the walls.

Me; Fabrice, do you mean, cable.

Fabrice: Yes, yes, tomorrow I fetch the horse.

I walk away shaking my head, as he says, Inglese molto (Italian) crazy man (English) je se (French) English very crazy man I know. No wonder things get confusing here in Casoli.