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LIVING IN ITALY

‘What it was like travelling home to the UK from Italy after two years’

After an absence of over two years, writer Richard Hough reflects on a recent trip from Verona to his native Scotland, navigating the perilous path of pre-flight bureaucracy, emotional family reunions and too many fry-ups.

With ongoing uncertainty and anxiety around the Covid situation, as well as the ‘chilling’ effect of Brexit, it is perhaps inevitable that far fewer people are travelling at the moment. 

Indeed, overseas tourist visits to the UK dropped by 73% between 2019 and 2020 – from 40.9m to 11.1m. That figure is expected to shrink further this year, with the number of overseas visits to the UK expected to fall to just 7.4 million in 2021. From a peak of 41.08 million visitors in 2017, that is a catastrophic collapse in visitor numbers. 

READ ALSO: What changes for tourists coming to Italy in September?

This data was borne out by my half-empty flight from Verona to Manchester last week. If anything, there were even fewer passengers for the return flight to Verona a week later. 

Aside from homesick ‘expats’, there isn’t exactly a queue of visitors eager to travel between Verona and Manchester at the moment, and the distinct impression from my flight was that most were travelling out of necessity rather than for pleasure. 

When you consider the bureaucratic and administrative obstacles in place at present, it is little wonder that so few are choosing to travel. Any residual joy in short-haul budget air travel has now been well and truly extinguished by the added anxiety of travelling amid an ongoing global pandemic. I know a few have recently made the journey by car and by train, and those, to be honest, seem like increasingly appealing options. 

Passengers arrive at Manchester Airport in July 2021. Photo: Anthony Devlin/AFP

In normal circumstances, we return ‘home’ twice a year, with highly anticipated annual trips in the summer and the winter. This time we took the agonizing decision that I would fly solo. Managing my own mountain of Covid-related documentation was arduous enough, never mind having to deal with all that for a family of four! On top of which came the eye-water fees for testing.

My pre-flight test in Verona cost 15 euros, compared to my day 2 test in Glasgow, which came in at 68 GBP. My re-entry test, which would allow me return to Italy, added a further 35 GBP to the bill. Again, multiplying all that by four would have rendered the trip prohibitively expensive, not to mention the unpalatable consequences if any one of us tested positive. 

Q&A: Answers to readers’ questions about the new Italian travel rules

I had long envisioned my first ‘post-Covid’ trip home to be a jubilant, care-free affair, catching up with friends and family, and generally making up for lost time, but with the virus once again spreading at alarming rates in Scotland came the sobering realisation that a positive test would leave me having to isolate and unable to return to Italy. 

With schools in Scotland only just returning, I was also acutely aware that for many of my friends and family, domestic life was still on something of a knife edge. As they strived for a return to something approaching normality, a fleeting encounter with a casual visitor from far-flung Italy was the last thing they needed at this juncture. 

Photo: Sinitta Leunen/Unsplash

I also felt the need to prioritise my time with my parents, who I hadn’t seen for 18 months, both of whom have endured the long months of lockdown and isolation with admirable stoicism and fortitude. I was also anxious to minimise any possible risk that my visit might present to them. 

So, it was a relatively low-key affair. Not as ambitious as our usual family trips home, where we cram in so much and try to see as many family and friends as possible in the space of two or three action-packed weeks.

That, of course, is not to say that it was totally devoid of any pleasure and indulgence. 

With a late arrival, I spent the first night with old family friends in Manchester, before venturing north by train the next day. It was a joy to slip into their busy yet mundane domestic life, and it was a relief to pick up a friendship with their little kids, as if we hadn’t seen each other for a few days rather than a few years. The next morning, we went to a local bakery for breakfast, and I didn’t make it past the chap busy frying sausages at the entrance. A foot-long sausage sandwich. For breakfast. Welcome home!

I made a point of not taking my first cup of tea until I was well north of the border, where it could be prepared with the pure Scottish tap water from Loch Katrine. Another box ticked!

A perhaps inevitable consequence of tirelessly moaning about the lack of a decent fried breakfast in Italy, is that when you return home, eager hosts have filled their fridges with bacon, sausage and black pudding – all of which must be consumed before you depart a day or two later. By the end of the week, I was averaging just over two fry-ups a day!

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With a couple of pub lunches, takeaway fish and chips and a mouth-watering curry, my culinary yearnings were well-fed, but I also craved a taste of that wild Scottish landscape that I had missed so much. 

From Glasgow, we took a heart-warming day trip to Balmaha, on the banks of Loch Lomond. With glorious sunshine and soaring temperatures, the bonny banks matched anything that Lake Garda has to offer and, once I’d navigated the rather tedious online ordering application, the refreshing local pale ale in a nearby beer garden was enough to dispel my mid-afternoon cravings for an Aperol Spritz. 

A few days later, an overnight stay in a boutique hotel on the cusp of the Highlands gave me another dose of the rugged Scottish countryside that I craved. It also gave me the opportunity to scope out a few sites for our much-anticipated return to the region in the summer of 2022. 

Back in Glasgow, rifling through the second-hand book shops on Byres Road, stocking up on tea bags and ginger biscuits, and shelling out for a couple of locally printed t-shirts was just about all the retail therapy I could manage. Besides, my hand luggage was already reaching its capacity.

I wrote recently about how living in Italy has changed me. From fried breakfasts to milky tea and fiery vindaloos, to quality time spent with loved ones, and the easy banter with convivial Glasgow taxi drivers, after nearly two years, it was reassuring to realise than in many ways, I remain just the same. Although I now live in Italy, in Scotland I always feel at home. I hope that, at least, will never change.

Richard Hough has lived in Verona since September 2011 and writes about the region’s history, football, wine and culture. His new book, Rita’s War, a true story of persecution, resistance and heroism from wartime Italy, is available here. He is currently writing his next book about wartime Verona.

Member comments

  1. Nice article – but, if you don’t feel that Italy is now your home, why are you living there? We are leaving the U.S. to retire to Italy and we will not look back. Our country is no longer what we evere thought it was. Hopefully, one day, we will go to our second most favorite place – Scotland – and return to our “home” in Italy with the same affection that you show for Scotland.

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QUALITY OF LIFE

‘Why I used to hate living in Rome as a foreigner – and why I changed my mind’

Yet another survey of Rome’s foreign residents has rated the Italian capital dismally for quality of life. Jessica Phelan explains why she too disliked the city when she first moved here, and what helped to change her mind.

A view over the city of Rome at sunset.
Life in Rome can take a while to get used to. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be coming to Rome’s defence, I would have told you: Ma va’. Yeah right, get out of town. And I would have said I’d be long gone myself. 

And yet, as the latest InterNations survey of expats around the world puts Rome in last place for city life and work, here I am not only still living here but saying out loud: this place isn’t so bad.

It’s not that I don’t get where my unhappy fellow foreigners are coming from. I never dreamed of Rome before I moved here and found it far from dreamy once I arrived, in summer 2017. I’d grown up a short flight away (the UK) and lived in European capitals (Paris, Berlin) for several years, and after a stint further afield (Japan), I naively thought that moving to Rome would feel like coming home. 

Instead I found myself complaining to anyone who would listen about the same things that InterNations’ respondents listed as Rome’s downsides. The unreliable public transport. The scant public services. The politicians on the take. The provincialism. The rubbish – good grief, the rubbish. The inequality and lack of opportunities for young people – and lack of young people themselves, as it seemed in certain neighbourhoods. 

READ ALSO: Rome and Milan ranked ‘worst’ cities to live in by foreign residents – again

Sure, I liked the food and I couldn’t argue with the weather, but it felt frivolous to enjoy the small pleasures amid what I began to see as existential flaws. They spiralled for me into the impression of a city on the brink: the trash is piled shoulder-high because people here don’t care about anyone else, I told myself.

The fact everyone assumes I’m a tourist means they’re not used to anyone who doesn’t look or sound like them. I’m struggling to meet other young professionals – it must be a sign that the best and the brightest have all left. Because really, who’d choose to live here?

Photo: Andreas SOLARO/AFP

Partly it was because I didn’t feel I had chosen to live here. I had moved for my American partner’s teaching job, and nothing was more alienating than encountering people who were stubbornly, unaccountably, in love with the place – or an idea of it. An awkward pause would ensue as I contemplated whether to mumble something innocuous about gelato or take it upon myself to debunk their romantic notions and expose what I was convinced was the ‘real’ Rome – dirty, dysfunctional, doomed. 

It wasn’t all in my head. As the InterNations survey has shown for several years straight, many foreign transplants report deep dissatisfaction with the city. So do Romans as a whole: one survey in 2020 found that most residents said their quality of life had worsened in the past five years. Global studies have named Rome one of the unhealthiest cities in Europe, and its roads some of the most dangerous. When Italians compile the list of the ‘best places to live in Italy’, there’s a reason why Rome never comes close to the top ten. 

In fact, every time I lamented the city’s decline, I fitted in better than I realised: no one complains more about Rome than Romans themselves.

Photo: Alberto PIZZOLI/AFP

There was perverse comfort to be had in realising that people born and raised here saw the same things I did and found them just as galling. La grande monnezza, they call it: forget ‘the great beauty’ (la grande bellezza), it’s the great rubbish dump. Roma fa schifo, as a popular local blog has it. Rome is disgusting. 

Huh, I began to think I scrolled through photos of egregiously parked cars or smirked at another meme about the incompetents in city hall, maybe we can get on after all. It was a glimpse of a dark, deeply cynical humour that was one of the first things about Rome I had to admit I liked.

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Gradually, other qualities forced their way into view. I moved from a stuffy neighbourhood in the west of the historic centre to outside the city walls in the east and discovered that yes, other people under 50 do live here, no, not every foreigner is a tourist or study-abroad student, and thank goodness, not every restaurant serves only Italian food. Our new apartment was bigger, and bigger by far than anything our relatively modest incomes would have got us in the capitals of our home countries.

In fact, I suspected I wasn’t living in a capital city at all. Milan is where most of the money and opportunities within Italy are to be found, which has long made it a more logical place to move to for Italians and foreigners alike. I envy Milan’s metamorphosing skyline and cosmopolitan population – things I associate with ‘real’ cities.

But what do you know: if Rome comes 57th in the InterNations survey, Milan comes 56th. The responses suggest that housing is more expensive and harder to find up there, and the cost of living higher. 

I’ll leave it to people who live there to say what it’s really like, but I wonder if there are other trade-offs: I’d take the people-watching and window-shopping in Milan over Rome any day, but would I have to wear the ‘right’ clothes to fit in? I might have more chances to get ahead, but would I be judged on my job title or salary, and would people be more competitive? For better or worse, these aren’t things I have to worry about in Rome.

OPINION: Why Milan is a much better city to live in than Rome

Lucky for me I can afford not to: I’m not one of the 41 percent of foreign residents in Rome who told InterNations their disposable household income is not enough to cover expenses. Salaries are low here, and the cost of living – not visiting – can be higher than you might think. I’m in the privileged position of working for international employers, who pay better than local ones, and of splitting the bills with someone else in the same boat. We’re comfortable, but Rome isn’t the place to make your fortune.

So it’s no economic powerhouse. But culturally it’s got more life than I first gave it credit for. The things I’d assumed were missing altogether – new music, interesting events, a mix of people and backgrounds – were all there, they were just on a smaller scale and correspondingly harder to find. (Places to start looking: mailing lists, venues’ Facebook or Instagram pages, Zero.)

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In other cities I felt I’d made inroads by the end of the first year; in Rome, I was still at least another year away from meeting the friends who’d become my group here and, in turn, introduce me to people and places I wouldn’t have found on my own.

More than other cities, people say that Rome – the Rome that’s not in guidebooks, at least – is da scoprire, ‘to discover’ or even ‘unearth’. While you’re digging, having an ‘in’ can make all the difference. 

In some ways, Covid-19 also helped to rehabilitate Rome for me. The seriousness with which most people took the pandemic, and the camaraderie my neighbours showed throughout that first bewildering lockdown, proved that Romans were more than capable of caring for strangers. The months that followed, when we were confined to city or regional limits, taught me to appreciate the possibilities I might otherwise have ignored: travel might be impossible, but at least I had woods, lakes, mountains, waterfalls and the Mediterranean on my doorstep.

Other things I had to work around, or simply live with. I’m as convinced now as I was four years ago that Rome’s public transport system is woefully inadequate, but now I mainly avoid it: I walk or cycle as much as I can. In fact a whole alternative network of shared transport has sprung up in the time I’ve been here, from e-bikes to car shares and scooters, or monopattini.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

I’m yet to see a fix for the city’s rubbish problem, but I no longer assume it’s all the residents’ fault. It’s the result of decades of misuse of public funds, graft and organized crime – hardly reassuring, but marginally less bleak than thinking that none of your neighbours give a damn.

Because always, of course, there are people trying to improve things – by protesting, by voting, by picking up litter, even by filling in potholes on the sly. (Remember that if you’re a citizen of another EU country living in Rome, you have the right to vote in city elections too.) Doing the work yourself doesn’t absolve the authorities of the responsibility to do it, but in the meantime, as one acquaintance put it, at least your sidewalk is clean.

And those small pleasures: I finally gave myself permission to enjoy them. I like cracker-thin Roman pizza, supposedly kept from rising by the city’s hard water. I like sun that dries my laundry even in December. I like the view of mountains on a clear day. I like the light that glows golden around half an hour before sunset and works a kind of magic on ochre walls and brick bell towers and crumbling aqueducts.

In my fifth year here, I know now that these things don’t blind me to Rome’s faults, nor do I have to pretend not to see them to prove I’m not just another tourist. I live here; sometimes it’s bad; and most days, at about 5pm, looking over the rooftops, it’s good.

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