So many people come over all misty-eyed when I mention we have a place in Italy. ‘Aaah,’ they say, ‘la dolce vita, eh?’ The cliché is uttered as the head tilts in a knowing way, as if to imply some superior knowledge.
Oh you know Italy, too, do you? I respond, anxious to delay the 20-question interrogation that always starts with ‘So where is your villa?’
‘Yes,’ they say. ‘We know Tuscany, of course. We’ve rented a holiday house near Lucca for the past six summers. Everyone around treats us as locals. So where is your villa?
Here we go. I tailor my response, having first gauged the true level of interest shown by the questioner. If they lean a little towards me and appear genuinely interested, I give them a reasonably fleshy version, which can take a minute or so, or if they’re just going through the motions, I give them a severely pruned version. Either way, I perm my answer from the following basic facts.
First up, our house in Italy is absolutely not a villa. It’s a small, very modest, brick farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in a region called Le Marche that no-one has ever heard of (it’s half-way down the back of Italy’s leg, back of the knee, opposite side of the country to its more famous sister, Tuscany, from which it is separated by Umbria).
From this little house there are views that never fail to make your jaw drop – across valleys and hills, past medieval villages, all the way to the Sibillini mountains and national park 40 miles away. That’s all, just a small house and huge views.
It makes us happy and sometimes makes us tear our hair out when things, one after another after another, go wrong, but we love it and it’s added the most amazing dimension to our lives since we first stumbled across it in 2001 and committed the mad act of buying it.
You want to know more? Are you sure?
Here are some details then: the house is 100 sq metres, it has a large open-plan living area with the sitting bit divided by two arches from the eating bit, a kitchen, utility room, two bedrooms (one of them enormous, the other big-ish), two shower rooms, beams everywhere, terracotta floors throughout, a woodburner, and outside, a large terrace where we live most of the time when the weather allows.
Beyond the garden we have 2.7 hectares made up of a vineyard with 180 vines, an olive grove with 100 trees, an area of oak woodland which has carpets of cyclamen and orchids at certain times of year, and a few fields which grow sunflowers and other crops that our tenant farmers (contadini) choose, probably depending on EU seed subsidies and the like.
The contadini farm the land, tend the vines and olives and harvest the crops, and they pay us rent in olive oil and flagons of wine, as well as occasional gifts of home-grown tomatoes, melons, plums, apples, peaches and, alarmingly, the odd, very odd, chicken with its head up its bottom and roasted to the point of near-incineration. I believe the Italians like their chickens that way, and at least they have had a happy life even if they do end it by staring up into a blank blackness – the chickens, that is.
We have tried, over the years, to create a sort of garden around the house but through trial and error and countless hours of wasted labour, we have found that the best we can manage is a gravel bed filled with succulents, cacti and drought-tolerant herbs like lavender and rosemary, and another bed of santolina. Two climbers, a plumbago and a jasmine, keep growing and flowering up the sides of the terrace in the almost-constant face of terribly hostile conditions, which amount to fierce summer heat and fierce winter cold. The area of grass between the house and the vineyard is brought back from its depressingly overgrown disorder into closely shorn order with the aid of a heavy-duty brushcutter each time we come out to the house in the growing season.
The various sounds we can hear from the house and garden are typically Italian: the clanging chime of the church clock in the mile-distant village every quarter-hour, voices from across the valley – screeching fish-wife women, protesting children, deep-voiced grumpy men – tractors clanking their way, season after season, up and down, up and down, the hilly fields and vineyards – always so much to do, so much land to till and toil over, even through the night when the summer days are too blisteringly hot – and, across and above it all, always the sound of dogs barking, the true soundtrack of rural Italy. Bark, bark, bark – no-one ever calls out to them to cease their idiot rending of the air, no-one even notices what a hideous, monstrous, intrusion this is, seeping into the very corners of the brain, rhythmically, unendingly drowning out reason until, even when the beasts lie dozing, flattened by the heat of the sun, you can still hear the bark, bark, bark going through your body and pumping into your very soul.
But in contrast, what is the best sound, the one that makes the soul lift and soar and exult? The song of the nightingale! Oh, such knee-trembling stuff, unequalled for purity, romance and the sense of awe it purveys. We have a quadraphonic service from our nightingales, with some of the best singers in the business belting their hearts out for our delectation from branches at four corners of the house. I have yet to see one, which is strange as they are so plentiful, but when I do I’m going to say a heartfelt thankyou.
Not much else intrudes on our lives. There is nothing airborne, like annoying buzzing private planes, just the inevitably lovely and entertaining variety of bird life – golden eagle, golden oriole, bee-eaters, to name-drop a few. There is no passing traffic since we live at the end of a steep, rutted white road.
In short, it is bliss, of course, but because this is Italy there are niggles and annoyances and much daftness to contend with. So, while we feel blessed we would like to know exactly why everyone around here stares at us. We don’t have horns, we don’t have two heads, we are quite normal, honestly. We hope they don’t realise how rude they are, but while this hideous habit goes on it is hard not to feel that they don’t much like having us in their midst. OK, so we are weird animals on day-release from a zoo, but please don’t throw buns in our direction.
This is why we are sceptical when the unknowing Brits cock their heads and go ‘Aaah’, about what they think of as la dolce vita. So you are sure the locals treat you as one of them? Do they – really? I think not! I think they just want to get close so they can have a jolly good stare.