'I consider Italy to be my only home'

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Jill Pennington chronicles the life of a single parent in Italy in her Amazon bestseller, Diary of a Single Parent Abroad.
11:40 CET+01:00
Jill Pennington, from the UK, moved to Italy in 2004 with her husband to start a new life together, until she found out he had been having an affair. Now the mother-of-three has written a bestseller about the challenges of going it alone.

Why did you and your family decide to move to Italy?

We moved over in 2004. We had already renovated a property in the UK and made a fantastic profit, but the property boom was on the turn and we knew we wouldn't be able to do it again in the UK. We had seen a derelict farmhouse in France and considered a move over there, but after consideration decided Italy was more desirable.

Our plan was to buy a farm with land and two houses, one for the family, the other to renovate for holiday rental.

Then, my husband unexpectedly left me. I don't believe he changed his mind, I think it was a planned move:  he had been having an affair with one of our neighbours since before we were married, and with the kids and I out of the way he thought he could continue the affair and have a family in one country and a girlfriend in another.

After the split, did you ever think about moving back to Yorkshire?

I never considered moving back. The kids and I had settled and loved it over here. I asked all three of them every week after my husband left if they wanted to stay or go back, and all three always told me they wanted to stay.

I love Italy and consider it to be the only home I have.

How did you manage to make money?

When I told my husband I was going to divorce him, he cut me off from our bank account. There is no benefit system in Italy and I received nothing from the UK, so once the money was gone things got really bad. 

I found some part-time work, but with three kids under the age of ten, and school finishing at 1 pm - not to mention the language issues - I really had no chance of an income. We had Italian lessons before we arrived so I had a wide vocabulary but conversational skills were non-existent, and as I was staying at home pretty much alone for the first five years, I had no chance to develop them.

But I learnt how to live off the land; before I lived here, growing basil on the windowsill was my only gardening experience. But I learned along the way.

Career-wise, I now also manage a few properties for rental in the summer, which means the summer months are easier, but winters can be very hard when the work dries up.

What drew you so much to the Emilia-Romagna region?

When we started looking at property we looked in Le Marche, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. I fell in love with Emilia-Romagna as it was pretty much undiscovered by the tourists. It reminded me of Yorkshire 30 years ago, unspoiled, with chickens roaming free, spring water bubbling out of dry stone walls and lush green fields.

Did you experience any problems with renovating the house, and what would be your advice to anyone considering doing the same thing?

We renovated the small cottage and trusted the estate agent to find us some builders. That was a huge mistake: the builders weren't qualified so we had to get rid of them and find new ones.

I would say anyone buying over here needs an independent interpreter if they don't speak the language, and I would always insist on meeting the owners and asking them to confirm the price of the property.

What made you decide to write a book based on your experiences?

I was a member of an Internet forum and one night I poured my heart out. I got a lot of advice, help and support, but mostly people were telling me to write a book.

I've always been a writer. I record all life events so it made sense and I started to expand my diary into a story.

What was the process of writing like, and why do you think the book has been so successful ('Diary of a Single Parent Abroad' is an Amazon bestseller in the UK and US)?

The hardest part of writing the book was editing it, as I had to go through it as a reader and relived some tough times. The good thing was knowing that some things will never be forgotten; when your children are little and all you seem to do is work it's easy for memories to disappear.

I think people like the book because, despite the hard times, there's always something that pops up to make you giggle.

How did the children cope with the whole experience, and how do you think they have benefited from living in Italy?

The kids just threw themselves into their new home/school and made friends. They picked up the language within six months, and fortunately all three were in the same school initially so they could support each other.

As my husband had always worked away from home, the kids were used to him being away for long periods and when he visited them in Italy he stayed with us, slept on the sofa, and we pretty much carried on as normal, even spending the following two Christmas' together to try to keep the kids happy. We did the shouting while they were at school!

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But I'm sure they have benefited from the lifestyle here. My children have had a very free childhood. They could leave the house at 8 am and I wouldn't see them for hours, but I knew they were fine. Everyone looks after everyone else's children here and feeds them at meal times.

All three of my children are currently living in different countries. Joshua, 19, lives and works in America. Samuel, 18, is living in the UK and hoping to join the Royal Marines in the spring. Millie is 15 and living and studying in Italy.

How did you manage to make friends in the community yourself; did you meet more locals or expats?

We were welcomed into the community and made friends straight away - both Italian and English. There isn't a huge expat community here as it's not a tourist area, but the few that are here have helped me out by offering me building, renovating and cleaning work.

What are your plans for 2014?

I have a lot of land and would like to set up a campsite on my land this year, as I need to start a business or find a way to increase my income. I also intend to write a follow up book. 

Jill Pennington's 'Diary of a single parent abroad' can be purchased from Amazon here.

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