OK…here's a question for all of you…
How many times have you been asked, “But what's it really like to live in Italy…?”
a) Hardly ever
b) Quite a lot
c) All the time time, by everybody, usually more than once, whenever I go back to what used to be home
c) ? Yes – me too.
But rather than launch into yet another long-winded explanation, it's much easier to dip into the ever-growing assortment of anecdotes from the many and varied aspects of life in La Bella Italia I seem to have acquired over the past ten years.
These always start on the very first night of our new life in Abruzzo back in 2007 with our introduction to Italian kindness…
Having safely taken us 1200 miles across Europe, the car decided it'd done quite enough, thank you, and stopped cooperating. One of those engine warning lights came on, which worried us enough not to risk leaving our rented house and go out in search of food in case we broke down and got stranded in the middle of nowhere.
This was made worse by the fact that it was 8:30 pm, and all we had to eat or drink were a packet of extra-strong mints and a small bottle of fizzy water. (At least we had cat food. It's not a good idea to tell a cat there's no supper…)
So I rang our one local friend, Gianmarco, to ask where the nearest taxi was so we could go out and buy something.
He laughed. “It's 50 kilometres away in Pescara ! But why do you want a taxi?”
“Well,” he said, “the supermarket's closed now…and even if there was a local taxi, they'd go off on another job while you had dinner somewhere, and probably never come back…but if you can make it through until morning, I'll get someone to come and have a look at your car.”
Ten gloomy minutes later, a knock at the door announced the arrival of Gianmarco and his wife Martina, laden with a basket of bread, salami, local pecorino cheese, tomatoes, fruit, quite a lot of wine, and other goodies too.
“You can't have no food on your first night in Italy,” they announced. There is no scale to register how grateful or how happy this made us. Nor how delicious our impromptu supper tasted. Especially after three days of motorway food. We drank quite a lot of wine that night.
That introduction to Italian kindness also indirectly led to us experiencing Italian expediency and practicality the next morning, when a guy from the local garage turned up to look at the car.
Try as he might, he couldn't get that warning light to go out, which was a bit odd as the engine was purring away contentedly, and he'd got back OK from a lengthy trial run.
And because everything seemed to be OK mechanically, any fault was therefore probably electrical, so he simply fiddled around under the bonnet and disconnected the offending warning light.
No more light = No more problem. Job done!
The car then happily ran for another six trouble-free years, without any more warning lights for anything ever appearing anywhere, until we retired it. But there was always that slight nagging doubt about the one that had originally gone 'wrong'. Had been an undiscovered/un-repaired fault lurking somewhere? Or had our friendly local mechanic just played it safe and disconnected every warning light he could get his hands on? It was probably one of those things you were better off not knowing.
There's something else that figures large among life-in-Italy experiences: the Italian way of doing business…
When we got to Casoli, we found that there was no broadband availability – and that you could only get online via dial-up.
This was in 2007. No really – I'm not making this up!
We had a landline through the Italian national phone provider TIM, and after finally getting online, we found a nifty little app which – after you'd entered your landline number – would tell you when broadband might be available in your particular area.
In our case that seemed to slot into the category, 'Not anytime soon – Don't hold your breath', but nevertheless I dutifully ticked the online box confirming that – Yes ! I'd be really interested in having broadband when/if ever it became available.
Meanwhile, running the Villasfor2 website on dial-up soon proved horribly impractical, (so slow, it'd have been quicker to fly round the world telling people about us, rather than have them log on), so I shelled out quite a lot of cash and signed a two-year contract with a private company to have super-fast broadband beamed in via satellite.
This worked just swimmingly for a year or so, until a strange item appeared on a TIM phone bill.
Broadband internet connection – €9.99/month. What the…?
So I rang them.
“You're charging me for a broadband connection I don't actually have”.
“ You do”.
“I don't ! Last time I checked, broadband wasn't even available here !”
“It is now – and you ticked a box to say you wanted it.”
“Well yes…but that was a year ago – and you never asked me if I still wanted it”.
“Ah, that was because you never told us you didn't want it. If you had, we wouldn't have provided it for you. But you didn't. So you've got it.”
“…and it's for a 12-month minimum term.”
I chalked up the six-month rental penalty charge we finally agreed it'd cost me to cancel TIM's broadband service – which was cheaper than paying off the remaining year of my whizzo satellite connection – as the cost of a lesson learned.
I even found myself being grateful for being fined for only six months – and not the full twelve – as a concessione to me being inglese and therefore possibly not aware how TIM operated.
But being let off completely? No chance…
My friend Rocco was unsurprised by my experience in the latest episode of People vs The System, because we – Joe Public – rarely (if ever) win, and everyone's got their own favourite gripes about the electricity company; the water and gas people; the comune; the registered letters from the Police that turn up with details of horrendous fines you've incurred for doing something wrong in your car months previously – but also telling you the fine can be substantially reduced by paying it before a certain date. Which is always the day before the letter arrives…
However Rocco admired me for being un po'furbo – a bit smart; a bit cunning – for telling TIM I was inglese to try and get a bit of sympathy and have the fine reduced.
“But I am English,” I said.
He grinned. “Course you are.”
Because the Italian way is to try and screw back whoever's trying to screw you…
David Brenner. Photo: private
Have I mentioned the unarguable and unique logic that Italians can apply to practically any given situation ?
Back in September, one of our very last guests of the year had a mishap which resulted in her villas's anti-mosquito screen being badly ripped. So I phoned the screen guys and they duly came; removed the torn screen; and took it away.
September became October, and then morphed into November. December followed, as indeed did January. No repaired screen.
So at the beginning of February, I drove down the hill to see them.
“My zanzariera,“ I asked. “Any idea when it'll be ready ? Because…well…it's been nearly five months…”
“Soon…next week maybe. We'll be starting work on all the broken screens any day now…”
“So…it's just been…sitting somewhere ?”
“Oh sure! But don't worry – it's fine! There's no point repairing zanzariere when it's winter is there? No flies or mosquitoes around to keep out ! And anyway, you don't have your windows open when it's cold, do you! So we get on with other stuff and do the screens when the weather starts warming up!”
And when I thought about it, this seemed a brilliantly logical and original way of prioritizing your business. The lawnmower's not working well ? It'll be ready for you in May! Your skis need repairing? Have a lovely summer and see you in November!
On the other hand – and if you live here you'll understand this – the simple assurance “It'll be ready tomorrow” can indeed mean “tomorrow” – but it could also be a day at some point in the very distant future…
And Italian bureaucracy. It exists. Of course it does. And it can drive you crackers. But after nearly ten years here, the strange thing is it doesn't really bug me that much any more. You acquire experience and begin to understand the rules of the game – because just with all else, there are rules and protocol that have to be followed. And you learn to expect and build in the hiccups and inevitable delays that happen when anything needs doing involving putting large piles of paper in the right order and getting them all stamped – or anything else vaguely official.
Or going to the post office.
Which is always jam-packed, so to avoid I-was-here-before-you disputes, the resulting screaming rows and queue-jumping attempts, you punch (not literally – well…not usually) a machine by the door; get a numbered ticket; and wait your turn.
Then one day a few weeks ago, the unimaginable happened. I walked into the post office – and it was absolutely, utterly empty.
“Wow…nobody else here – that's a first !” I exclaimed cheerily as I reached the counter.
I got a look that would've frozen the sun.
“You haven't taken a ticket.“
“But…I'm the only one here !”
A dismissive shake of the head
“You. Must. Take. A. Ticket.”
I'd love to say that while all this was going on, someone else had come in after me; taken a ticket; and got served first. But no. It was still deserted. Feeling like I was about 12, I sloped back to the machine and punched it.
The truly surreal ending to all this was the computer that issues the ticket then takes several seconds to talk to the screen on which your number comes up and summons you to the counter.
So there I was standing in the middle of a silent, empty post office for what seemed several hours until my number finally appeared, and the rules having then having been properly observed, was able to buy some stamps.
In 2007, after a lengthy career as a press, radio and television broadcast journalist in the UK – latterly with BBC World – David, his wife Pauline and their three cats moved to Abruzzo , where they set-up Villasfor2, providing three holiday rental villas just for couples.
But while David still finds himself enchanted, bemused and infuriated by living in Italy, after ten years, this particular chapter is drawing to a close. Retirement beckons; David and Pauline's Abruzzo property and business are for sale; and new surroundings and new adventures beckon…
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