Archive for the ‘Autobiographical writing’ Category

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. 


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IT is best never to ask the question ‘Why?’ when you’re in Italy. Save your breath. You’ll need all of that when some astonishing sight threatens to take it away.

Such startling, breathtaking visions come a-plenty in everyday Italian life. They can range from a middle-aged man dressed top to toe in lemon yellow and sky blue, strutting like a proud peacock with sunglasses perched atop his gelled curls, to a panorama of such unparalleled beauty that your first instinct is to reach out and touch the canvas.

It is contrasts such as these, the ridiculous and the sublime, that make the Italian experience so extraordinary and so incomparable.

That dastardly ‘Why?’ springs to the lips a hundred times a day. Why, we ask ourselves, does the village shop only sell cabbage on a Friday? Why does it cost 10 euros to buy a bog-standard pair of socks yet only 80 euros to service the car? Why does council tax have to be paid, not online or even by posted cheque, but in cash, in person, at the post office, where the queues stretch into next Thursday fortnight? Any why do the Italians have no word or expression for ‘fortnight’ other than ‘quindici giorni’, which translates as 15 days, for heaven’s sake?

We seal our lips, my amore and I, and don’t allow each other to utter the ‘Why’ word. We know better now, seven years after our first brush with Italian bureaucracy and all the murky madness that lies therein.

For all its irritations and red tape, its boorishness and sometimes downright rudeness, Italy can charm the pants off you and make you want nothing more than to live out your last breath swaddled like a contented baby in its sun-kissed embrace.

We ­- that is me and my husband – decided we’d like to do just that when we had one of those ‘What are we doing with our lives?’ discussions late one December night by the fireside of our Wiltshire cottage.

The debate was sparked by the fact that we now owned two homes. The second one was a recent acquisition which, at that very moment, was gently disintegrating under the burden of encroaching trees, 20-ft brambles and a large dormitory of bats who, like us, had taken a fancy to the idyllic location deep in the countryside of Le Marche, the then barely heard-of region at the back of Italy’s knee.

As bedtime approached that night, we weighed up our options. We could carry on as we were, with David heading for heart-attack territory, working silly hours with immense amounts of stress and only the occasional long weekend for holidays, or try something completely different and see what it would make of us – and we of it.

The list of pros for the status quo hardly amounted to a handful; little more than the predictable things like job security and being within easy reach of family and friends. The pros for embarking on a new life naturally included the very attractive prospect of giving up work and sitting in the sun instead. No contest.

An enormous upheaval lay between The Decision and The Denouement, of which the quitting of our jobs was obviously the most significant. David was into year 12 as editor-in-chief of a regional newspaper series. I had been his deputy for ten of those years but was now a part-time nobody relishing the freedom from responsibility. We had both recently turned 50, so there was no question of retirement and every possibility that penury would claim us unless we found work ‘over there’.

It was my scouring of the internet that had thrown up the possibility of Le Marche as a destination for a house-search. Thus it was that a September Saturday in 2001 found us falling in love with a little farmhouse in a distressingly poor state and, losing all reason, deciding we couldn’t bear anyone else to have it. It had to be ours. After returning to England, we heard on that fateful Tuesday 9/11 that our offer had been accepted, the news coming at the same time as we and the world learned of the terrorist attacks in America.

Possibly not the most auspicious time for extending our reach out of the comfort zone, but the intention was only for the house to be an occasional holiday destination.

By early December, after a full-scale Italian pantomime at a notaio’s office overlooking the Adriatic sea, when we were instructed to hand over a bundle of cash in a brown paper bag while officials were out of the room having a carefully timed cigarette, we were the bemused owners of £25,000 worth of bricks in a shape roughly resembling a small house.

From now on it was to be us or the bats. They filled most of the upstairs, while downstairs contained burgeoning vegetation and a thick-pile carpet of ancient manure next to what had been cattle stalls and ugly concrete mangers. It seemed a shame to evict the bats since they’d got there first when the farmer and his family abandoned the house taking their livestock with them back in the 1960s.

I worried about bats being protected, as they are in England, but the builders ignored my bleatings and, when I was safely out of the way, did some frightful deed or other that ensured David and I would have the place to ourselves. At least, until the swarm of hornets turned up and the snakes appeared. But they came much later.

The day we moved in it was fireflies that danced a seductive welcome, their ethereal, dainty, luminescence jazzing beside us as we unloaded the van that we’d arrived in from Wiltshire. On a night such as this, with stars spangling a navy-blue velvet sky, all the omens seemed good for such an exciting new phase of our lives.

We should have known better. Italy, we quickly found, has a habit of throwing sand in our faces. Lurking behind the door of our house was a little surprise left by the builders: chaos. Everywhere we looked there was filth and dust and mess, heaps of tiles and cement, ladders, wheelbarrows, stacked window shutters, tins of paint – all the signs of a job unfinished.

With sinking hearts we realised that if this was our Italian dream we had no wish to know what a nightmare might be like.

It took us two weeks to rid ourselves of the builders and most of their hateful mess. They left us a legacy of dust that took about six months to eradicate, a garden full of cigarette butts and plastic mineral water bottles, and a clutch of memories of long, convivial lunch-breaks when we learned plenty about each other, our families, our customs and, naturally, their politicians.

Glad though we were to see the back of them, we did miss their cheery attitude to life and their occasional bursts of singing. They were both called Fabio – the one known to us as Little Fabio was of jockey-like stature and as bright as a button, while his cousin-in-law, Handsome Fabio, was so knee-tremblingly good-looking it didn’t matter that he was less bright and patently hopeless at assessing how long a job would take. When a girl’s got a bit of Italian eye candy like that in the house, who gives a jot when he makes an indelible burn-mark in the terracotta tiles at the foot of the spiral staircase when re-soldering the metal fixing rod (for the third time)? Or, heaven help us, leaves his version of a ‘step’ outside the back door, which is in fact a hideous and uneven dollop of cement that trips me every time.

Yes, the daily vision of Handsome Fabio did help ease the disappointment of that early period of discomfort and shattered illusions. But with him and Little Fabio no longer a part of our lives, it was on with the show, and all it had to fling at us.

First, though, we had to make the final payment to the Fabios, once they finally brought us the invoice. We had heard at the time, and have heard on countless occasions since, horror stories of unsuspecting Brits being fleeced by canny Italian builders. We’d been staying one jump ahead, we hoped, by paying in instalments and only agreeing to each stage of the work once we’d signed off the estimate for it.

That was the theory. In practice, naturally, we were destined to be the losers. Just as strange things happen when a magician waves his wand over a closed fist, so our best-laid plans dissolved into confusion and unworkability once the Fabios stabbed dusty fingers on calculators, came up with the sum of two plus two and told us, hand on heart, swearing to us on the grave of their beloved grandmother, God rest her soul, that the answer was five. No, make that eight. And remember that deposit of €5,000 you left with us against some far-fetched, unpronounceable eventuality? Well, darn me, it’s been and gone and happened, so we’ll be hanging on to that as well, they told us, smiling so charmingly.

Basically, we caved in, paid up and crawled away to sit on our horribly uncomfortably garden chairs and count our losses. They were considerable, but we would live.

David, who in another life might have been an accountant had he been boring enough, spent several hot, sweaty days doing sums and was eventually able to reassure me that in fact the Fabios had not fleeced us. We’ve not been cheated, he said, just misled and misinformed by the agent who sold us the house about the extent of the work required and also extremely unlucky that her original estimate of restoration costs had been made just before Italy’s currency changed from the lira to the euro. On January 1st 2002, when the euro came in, just about everything seemed to double in price – including the cost of building materials, not to mention the Fabios, bless them, and their Romanian labourers.

Licking our wounds, and regretting that neither of us had a portfolio of stocks and shares to dispose of, nor even a grandmother to sell, we were reconciled to a long period of penury while our finances recovered from this big hit. No matter – if economies were to be made, Italy was the best place to make them, what with the abundance of cheap wine to help anaesthetise the pain in our wallets.

What the Fabios had left us with, apart from our poverty and their fag ends, was a truly lovely two-bedroomed house with two bathrooms, one upstairs and one downstairs, and a large living and dining area separated by twin arches. The kitchen and utility room were where the pigsties had been. Compared with what we’d left behind us in England, it was small but it was beautifully formed and we very soon loved it to bits.

That first summer was one of the hottest on record in Europe. As lily-livered Brits we suffered, sweating by day and melting by night, even with every window open in our huge, high-ceilinged room and fans playing on us from each side of the bed. Neither of us said as much, but I know we both wondered what the hell we had done to land ourselves in a hot-spot such as this – and what on earth the future might hold for us. We were yet to experience quite what people back in England had meant when they said, with envy in their eyes, ‘You’re going to be living your dream, aren’t you?’

Maybe, but it certainly hadn’t started yet.

Left on our own at last and with builders’ dust no longer dominating our daily lives, it was time to take stock and really start to appreciate this extraordinary new experience. To start with, we set about acquainting ourselves with our village, two kilometres distant. These are long kilometres, and as the first part, leading from our house, is up what is known as a ‘white road’ ­- basically an unmade, stony track – it is not a route that is easily or willingly walked. Rashly, I have sometimes ventured up on foot, and it is not unlike ascending the side of a mountain, with every step threatening to result in injury as the knee rears up towards the nose.

In parts the track is so steep that it seems even the car will never make it. It struggles to find a grip, wheels spinning momentarily and engine note ascending hysterically. It’s not easy because all the time the driver has to avoid the too-awful-to-contemplate fate of bottoming out the car on the domed and rocky centre section. Like a metaphor for our lives of the past two years, we finally crest the summit and –  pause for a relieved gasp of breath – all is well, there’s no major damage, we’re safe. We’ve done it.

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There’s a red postbox in the mossy wall of Cornish granite that’s embossed with letters: VR. What does VR mean I ask Mum, but I forget her answer. In London, the postboxes didn’t have VR on them, but we did have red buses.

Around the corner from the VR postbox we step over cow poo splattered up the dairy lane, oozing green the colour of frogs’ backs and buzzing with flies. We’re collecting our breakfast milk in a little can with a lid that fits so tightly I can’t open it so my sister does.

I hate the taste of milk and the smell in the dairy makes me feel sick. Outside, there’s no traffic just a grey tractor and Ted’s motorbike and the lorry that collects the milk from battered churns stacked on a wooden stand outside the dairy. Ted is Pearl’s boyfriend and Pearl lives in the dairy cottage with her brothers. One of them is Brian and he fell off the sofa which they say made him go soft in the head. They should call him Brain says Dad. That’s very unkind says Mum.

It takes ages to get to the village in Mum’s tiny black car that flies out of gear going down the steep lane to the river, so we go far too fast and it’s so frightening that I can see my sister’s face go white. On the quayside we see the flash of silver salmon as they thrash their beautiful bodies in the fishermen’s nets and then the car rattles and groans as we inch up the hill on the other side of the valley where we can look
down at the wide brown ribbon of river and Dad’s right because he calls this view Different Every Day.

The steep slopes are striped with bright rows of daffodils, narcissus and anemones for picking and boxing for the lorries to take to market in London. Dad says the men pick the rows at the bottom so they only have to lift their heads to see up the skirts of the women picking above them.

We’ve found a dapple grey rocking horse in the garage and I have to be helped up on to his back. You’re so short – you can’t be like that for ever says my sister who has long legs and uses long words and she collects broken birds’ eggs and labels them in boxes with neat handwriting which people say is brilliant and she could be a naturalist when she grows up. Even if I find an egg I can’t write a label.

When Dad lifts me on to his shoulders I can see fields and a huge blue sky stretching for ever and we listen to the birds and I hear the skylarks for the first time and I know I’ll never forget their song because it goes right into my heart.

The steps up to the orchard are the steepest I’ve ever climbed and I hate the second-from-top one because it has a broken edge and so I miss it out and clamber up to the grassy summit to land in a heap while I catch my breath and look around at the gnarled old trees and the clothes flapping on the washing line. I sit and eat rough brown apples with skins that feel like wood and I fill my pockets with them to take home. Mum says they’re Russets and they’re her favourites too and she piles them up in the cold dark larder with the door that makes a popping sound when you open it.  She gives me a kiss to say thank you and it makes me feel as if I’ve grown tall.

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