‘The schooling is very different in Italy’

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Isabelle Duranceau with her children in Santa Maria di Leuca. Photo: Isabelle Duranceau
14:18 CEST+02:00
Just over a year ago, Canadian-born Isabelle Duranceau and her husband quit the London rat-race to start a new life in Puglia. But, with two small children and a house to be built, it wasn’t the smoothest of transitions. She tells The Local how she managed.

How did you end up in Puglia?

I first met my husband 15 years ago when we were both working in the London rat-race. We decided that one day, when we’d finished with our neurotic lifestyle, we’d go and live on a beach somewhere.

We considered many places, but I already knew Italy very well through work and holidays and we both loved it.

It was when I went for my hen weekend with some girlfriends that I discovered Puglia for the first time. When I got back, I told my husband how beautiful, undiscovered and affordable it was. The following year we came back together and fell in love with it. And that was it. For six or seven years, we came here for all our holidays and viewed properties.

Finally, three years ago, we found the place in the countryside near Castrignano del Capo – and we moved 15 months ago.

Was it easy to integrate?

It wasn’t easy, no – but at the same time we weren’t naive. We’d decided to move here just when we were starting to build our house. It made for quite a hectic year.

We have integrated now and have made good friends but we still get stared down. It doesn’t help that we’re the only people here with a right-hand drive car.

But it was an especially difficult year for the children, not just because they had to learn a new language but also because the schooling is so different here.

Was it difficult to build the house?

We were extremely lucky because we already had local friends here who’d introduced us to an amazing team of builders. They’re practically family now.

The first year was tough because we were living in a rental which wasn’t suitable for the winter, so – even with my Canadian blood – I was absolutely freezing.

And until you live in this country, you really have no idea how bad Italian bureaucracy is. The main problem was that we were building on protected land. You literally need to ask to even move a stone here. It also takes a long time for things to get done here. For example, we’ve been waiting almost a year for authorization to add a window to our house.

Did the children have to adapt to many changes?

Having moved around myself as a young child, I know from experience that you do adapt and integrate when you’re young. But the schooling is very different here.

In the UK or Canada, education involves using your head, heart and hands, whereas in Italy it’s all about using your head. Here, they tend to use more classical methods – such as memorizing – and there isn’t much learning through play.

Children also aren’t encouraged to go outside much here, especially in the winter, and subjects like PE, art or music are rather basic and limited – one hour every other week if you are lucky.

As a mother, I did start wondering at one point whether we’d done the right thing. But now the kids are living a great life adventure and are already trilingual.

How would you describe the region of Puglia?

Puglia is very different from other Italian regions. It can be quite a harsh region in terms of climate and vegetation. The architecture is also quite different and there is a rich African influence. However its beauty grows on you. We wanted to live the real thing so chose to live on the southern tip of the region which is quite undiscovered and feels like you've gone back 50 years in time.

But if you go further north you’ll find there’s a big concentration of British expats.

If you had one day to show around a visitor where would you take them?

I’d probably take them to the fish market in Gallipoli to see the action there, and then – if they have small kids – to the Splash water park on the outskirts of the town. After that: down to Torre Vado for a nice beach lunch at Lido Venere on the Ionian coast.

All along the coast – both on the Ionian and Adriatic side – there are also a number of caves that you can explore by boat and where you can swim.

Finally, we’d have an aperitivo at Lupo di Mare in Leuca. When we first arrived we came here for a beer and we loved it. The owner, a man nicknamed Lupo, had a “mathematical dog” who he’d taught how to count. There's even a YouTube video of them (see below).

What’s the food like in Puglia?

Although I’m not a seafood lover, Puglia is a paradise if you enjoy fish. The meat however, tends to be a bit tougher.

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And of course there's pasta and pizza aplenty.

We now make our own olive oil which makes everything taste better.

What are your favourite beaches?

Salento is called the Maldives of Italy for a reason. There are literally kilometres of white sandy beaches.

Our favourite is Torre Vado, which is on the Ionian coast. Most of the sandy beaches are on this side, whereas the Adriatic coast has rocky cliffs has stunning views but isn’t all that child-friendly. 

Finally, do you have any advice for expats thinking of moving to the region?

I’d recommend doing as much research as possible before you arrive – both on expat forums and locally. I had a Canadian passport, so it meant a lot more work for me to emigrate than for the rest of my family, who have British passports.

Be ready to adopt a slower pace: it may often be chaotic but if you embrace it, you'll soon be living the Dolce Vita!

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