‘I consider Italy to be my only home’

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.

'I consider Italy to be my only home'
Jill Pennington chronicles the life of a single parent in Italy in her Amazon bestseller, Diary of a Single Parent Abroad.

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!

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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PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy’s conservation rules

Old Italian homes featuring frescoes, loggias or ancient cellars are appealing, but such buildings are often protected by Italy’s cultural heritage authority - meaning lots of red tape for owners, as Silvia Marchetti explains.

PROPERTY: Why buyers need to watch out for Italy's conservation rules

Italy is dotted with gorgeous hilltop villages full of centuries-old homes for sale complete with characteristic features. But many people don’t realise that these buildings, even if they’re abandoned or decaying, often fall under restrictions (vincoli) enforced by Italy’s ‘art authorities’, known as the sovraintendenza belle arti.

Due to the artistic and historic value of these buildings, they’re considered a part of the national heritage. This is usually because they date back to medieval and Renaissance times, or because they feature frescoed walls, emblazoned vaults or entrance portals with coats of arms. 

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Italy has the most UNESCO-listed cities in the world, and here these vincoli are even more binding. Many buildings in Rome have entrance portals sculpted by Renaissance masters which are ‘off-limits’ even if they’re in need of repair. 

It is a widespread way of protecting Italy’s heritage, and yet awareness of the risks buyers face if their property happens to be ‘supervised’ are often hidden, and are especially unknown to foreigners.

In almost every old rural village there are private houses and palazzos with ancient loggias, decorated ceilings and lavish stone columns, and even simple former farmers’ dwellings with ancient cellars, over which the art authorities have the final say on renovation work, even small upgrades like adding an extra room or pulling down a wall.

READ ALSO: Charming or boring – What do Italians think of life in the old town?

Giovanna Rosetta Fraire was forced to give up her dream of buying a portion of a two-floor 1700s building in the village of Civita Castellana, in Lazio, because it needed upgrades but the frescoed walls, ceilings, decorated fireplaces and elegant entrance were ‘vincolati’ (under restrictions).

“It was a historic building with an artistic value. The peeling façade needed a makeover but it was still the original color dating back centuries so we couldn’t paint over it,” she explains.

“The rusty wrought-iron balconies were made in the 18th century while the location was in the heart of the historical center, right in front of the Gothic cathedral, so any change to the building would have affected the scenery, too.”

Fraire only found out about these rules by chance, just before signing the purchase deed, thanks to a tip from a local resident.

According to Italian law, fixes to similar buildings of value need to be coordinated and approved by the sovrintendenza, which seldom allows any changes to the exterior and only minimal ones inside crumbled rooms, for instance those struck by an earthquake.

Usually the structure of a ‘vincolata’ building cannot be modified at all: walls cannot be pulled down, nor a room expanded or divided in two.

And when old homes are embedded within the fortified medieval walls or share a wall with a castle or fortress it is even more complicated. 

Civita Castellana. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Cesidio Diciacca bought a former abbot’s lodgings dating from the 1700s, embedded within the rampart in the village of Picinisco, north of Naples, 

He contacted the local belle arti before restyling it to find out whether there were any restrictions, which is always the best thing to do. Unearthing an updated map of your property from the catasto (land registry) is also useful. 

“The belle arti stopped all external changes as we are in the centro storico,” he says. “The only external fix allowed was to remove the top level of the guard tower which was ugly and out of place, and we had issues also placing solar panels. 

“The whole of the centro storico of Picinisco and neighboring hill towns are protected in some way which is both good and bad as it prevents necessary work of modernisation.”

It should be a matter of striking the right balance between preservation and valorization of old properties, but this is rarely the case in Italy when art authorities are involved. 

Cesidio Diciacca’s house in Picinisco. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

Giovanna Rossi owns a tiny dwelling in the picturesque Tuscan village of Pitigliano, where old homes are cropped on a high plateau and carved from the tuff rock. 

Like most other villages in the area, Pitigliano has Etruscan roots and many dwellings come with pagan caves considered by authorities to be monuments of anthropological interest, a bit like Matera’s.

“I have this stunning underground canteen accessible from my kitchen but cannot change it in any way to make it habitable, it’s a pity. I just show it to friends and keep wine bottles in it,” she says. 

Even private gardens and patches of land, set within or close to ’archaic’ protected parks where Etruscan or Ancient Roman tombs and ruins have been unearthed, have archaeological vincoli and cannot be modified without the necessary green lights.

These are ‘vincolati’ by authorities unless there are specific geological permits which allow the construction of a swimming pool, a gazebo or tiny cottage, following land surveys proving the spot is clear of historic finds. 

That’s without mentioning that when a Roman sarcophagus or column pops out buried in your backyard, you must tell the belle arti at once or face fines, and potential seizure. 

Other European countries have similar rules, like Historic England’s listed buildings, but these seem to create restrictions to a lesser degree compared to Italy’s huge and sometimes cumbersome heritage.