'Going to the doctor is a massive culture shock'

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Photo: David Brenner
13:00 CET+01:00
David Brenner, a former journalist with the BBC, moved to Italy with his wife and set up a holiday rental business. Eight years on, he has lived to tell the tale. Here he chronicles the nuances of life in Abruzzo, from amusing language mishaps to the chatter in the doctor's waiting room.

When we first announced our intention of moving to Italy, our friends in the UK were roughly divided between thinking us impossibly brave or foolhardy to the point of lunacy.

Knowing now what we didn’t know then shows that those who voiced the latter viewpoint were spot-on. Ignorance really is bliss.

How we arrived in Abruzzo, lock, stock, barrel and three cats; with the sale of our UK home having fallen through the week before we left; and not actually having bought anywhere to live in Italy, is perhaps another story for another day. But having once or twice gone within a tissue-paper’s width of seeing our plans spectacularly implode, there’s still a faint sense of bemusement that over the last seven-odd years, we’ve built ourselves a home; started a niche-market villa rental business on no better basis that it seemed a good idea on a champagne-fuelled Millennium night; and seen it develop into a highly successful enterprise.

Which in turn prompts the oft-asked question, “So then - what are your tips for living in Italy?”

Resisting the temptation to cite the current economic and political situation here and simply answering, “Don’t”, the strange thing is that the more I get asked that question, the more I realize I’m honestly not too sure.

Learning how to speak Italian would be pretty high on any ’Top Tips’ list. At the time we arrived, we knew our ability to speak Italian was negligible. In fact, we were wrong.

It was worse than that. And the tiniest slip-up can have the most spectacularly cringe-making consequences. Like my confusion between 'tetto' - roof - and 'tetta'...If you’re easily embarrassed, look away now. Tetta means ‘Tit’. Which is how I came to compliment our startled builders about the excellent job they’d done putting tiles on the tit. In fact, I reckoned it was one of the best tits I’d seen on a new-build house round here.

Meanwhile, one of our vegetarian English friends copped a double-whammy by coming to grief with 'cane' - dog and 'carne' - meat; and 'pesce' - fish and 'pesche' - peaches.

“I don’t eat dog,” she firmly announced to our waiter, “but I do eat peaches.” She paused to let this sink in before adding reassuringly, “But all my friends eat dog."

So to avoid further potentially more serious mishaps, one of the cornerstones of our Italian adventure was to speedily establish a kind of ‘team Brenner’ of three key professionals: a lawyer, a doctor and a dentist - who all spoke English as their mother tongue.

We needed a lawyer to assure us, without misunderstandings, or anything getting lost in translation, that we were actually buying what we thought we were buying - and, just as importantly, that the person selling it also owned it. Which is where our utterly fabulous Pescara-based American lawyer Cristina entered the story.

A dentist was pretty straightforward. Though Italian through-and-through, Roberto was born and raised in South Africa and so understands you when he has his entire hand - and a drill - inside your mouth and asks you something. And you can understand him when he asks, “Does this hurt?”  Which you might not - with all the attendant consequences - understand if the question was asked in Italian.

Admittedly, we didn’t - and still haven’t - quite cracked the English-speaking doctor, but two out of three isn’t bad. Rocco is an excellent doctor and a genuinely nice and caring person. The only problem is that even seven years on, I still can’t understand him too well.

Is that one pill twice a day? Or two pills once a day? And do I rub this in? Or swallow it? Or stick it somewhere? Is this serious? It isn’t serious? It might be serious if I don’t do - or stop doing - er…what exactly?

You get the drift.

The problem is that though my Italian is actually now passably OK, Dr Rocco’s under the impression that passably OK = fluent.

And not just fluent. But fluent in deciphering a medical diagnosis delivered in his Abruzzese accent and keeping up with with the accompanying stream-of-consciousness commentary.

Him: Hello ! Nice to see you ! How are you?

Me: OK thanks - but there’s a bit of a problem with my right knee. Might have done a ligament or pulled a muscle?

Him: OK…let’s take a look. How’s your wife - keeping well? Just wiggle that a bit. Do you know the new English couple in the village? Nice people. Oh…hold on while I answer this call. Now…what was the problem again? Left knee - yes? Oh…right knee. Of course. Did you play football when you were younger? Do you like football? Who’s your favourite team? How do you think Italy will do in the World Cup? They play England, don’t they? Ha Ha! Ever have this problem before? Right. Here’s a prescription. Are you allergic to this? Ever taken these before? How’s your villa business by the way? Busy? Yes? Excellent ! How many Italian guests do you have? These should work. If not, come back.

Another tip. Be prepared for a massive culture shock when going to see the doctor.

In these parts, there are no such fripperies as ringing to make an appointment. No receptionists. Not even a nurse. You arrive. If there’s a seat free, you sit down. And you wait.

Some doctors have installed those little machines you find at supermarket deli counters, where you take a little ticket and wait for your number to come up.

But you won’t find such newfangled innovations at Dr Rocco’s, where the art is to immediately 'fix your own turn' by memorizing who was there when you arrived. And who gets there after you.

Swiftly, you’ll discover there’s none of this avoiding-eye-contact you get in UK waiting rooms. Because, you’ll find Italians have no shame when it comes to asking why you need to see the doctor - and that your reply will then be shared with everyone else in the waiting room, plus their friends and family when they get home.

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In fairness though, they will tell you everything that’s wrong with them. Which is always far worse than anything that might be wrong with you.

And after establishing the most intimate details of why you need medical help, they’d like to know where you live; where you’re from; if you like living in Italy; and if you prefer it to England. Then comes the perennial favourite, “How old are you?”

Actually, they mostly couldn’t care less how old you are. They just want the chance to announce they’re 99 and have you tell them how wonderful they look.

If you live in rural Italy too, you’ll know I’m not making this up. If you’re coming to Italy soon, don’t let it put you off.

Before you know it, you’ll be making pointed comments about the workmanship on your…er…roof; ordering up a nice slice of dog for dinner; and muttering conspiratorially to whoever’s next to you in the Doctor’s that the person a few seats down doesn’t look too perky.

Benvenuto in Italia!

In 2007, after a lengthy career as a television broadcast journalist in the UK - latterly with BBC World - David, his wife Pauline and their three cats moved to Abruzzo , where they now run Villasfor2, providing three holiday rental villas just for couples. David still finds himself enchanted, bemused and infuriated by living in Italy – sometimes all at the same time - and his regular blog AboutAbruzzo charts daily life in this little-known region.

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