Episode Six - Trials, Tribulations And Finally A Light At The End Of The Very Long Tunnel
By mid September, we were settling into the house, the children were attending school and we were actively searching for work. We had days that were very positive, when we'd been pro-active in delivering the translated CV's to various workplaces and the children were making friends and going out after school. Then we experienced the other side of the coin. I wouldn't use the term 'reality started to kick in', because prior to moving to Italy we had already imagined it wasn't going to be easy, but I would say it was frustration kicking in more than anything else. We were quite often hearing that the local small businesses would only take on family as employees, and we found that one painter and decorator would take on anyone providing you kept it quiet! But we needed proper jobs with contracts. Without a contract we couldn't get residency, and without residency things would become very difficult. For example, you cannot register with the local doctor or get into the Italian health system, and you cannot obtain motor insurance. Eventually, as we'd used our quota of 'holiday' green cards from the insurance company in the UK, we had to park up the car, cancel the policy and be patient. I do not agree with driving without insurance cover, and you certainly dare not drive without the correct documentation in Italy. Every day the Carabinieri are parked up pulling over vehicles at random. At the roadside they check all documentation, which incidentally must be in the car. You cannot say you've left the documents at home; you risk a fine on the spot (as you may know, in the UK you can turn up at the police station with the documents at a later date). Here in Italy it's all done and dusted quickly, without wasting anybody's time.
October arrived along with Derek's 50th birthday (Derek wanted to be in Italy by the time he was 50, so we'd made it by 4 months!). Friends and family from the UK called him with greetings and in the evening we celebrated with a couple of neighbour friends. The following Sunday a group of six Italian friends and their children came over for a buffet tea that went well. Then things began to feel gloomy. At the end of the month, it was time to put the clocks back an hour which made quite a difference when the girls came out of school at 4.30 in the afternoon. As winter approached, it was almost dark by the time we had made it home on foot. At this time, we were trying to keep costs down as much as possible so didn't opt for the children to take school transport. We did however let them stay for school lunches, especially as this meant they were socialising with their new friends, which was very important to us (Gianni stayed twice weekly at the Scuola Media and took half days for the rest of the week, which were supposed to be for studying and homework). I started to lose weight from walking the long distance between home and school several times a day, and shopping became a chore on foot, especially as we didn't drink the tap water but bought it bottled. I gave in and borrowed someone's 'shopper', a pull-along trolley which I hated using but it helped considerably and gave my arms a rest.
November arrived bringing with it cooler temperature and damper weather. For us, being in a town 573 metres above sea level as well as located near the forest, it brought a gloomy outlook for the winter. Gas heating is expensive so we tried to keep that to a minimum, which wasn't easy and very unfair on the children (now I realise why we kept seeing many little three-wheeled piaggios and trucks filled with logs being delivered to homes during the summer; the locals were preparing themselves for the winter. You will witness many neat little stacks of wood). We made good use of a caminetto in the lounge, but being situated in quite a large open-planned area downstairs, you had to virtually sit on top of it to feel anything. And blimey, it ate up the wood we had delivered so quickly. At that time, the forest was undergoing tree management and many trees were being felled and branches cut into useful lengths. Unaware that it was prohibited to do so, we'd go up into the forest and help ourselves to some of that wood, but nobody said anything until we tentatively mentioned it to someone. We were lucky we weren't fined. By now we had bought ourselves a cheap divano-letto (sofa bed), handy if we had visitors, and we also borrowed another. We positioned these at right angles next to the fire and every evening we'd sit and enjoy the warmth. Everywhere else was cold, the Nutella was solid (!) in the cupboard and had to be warmed up before it could be spread and I can still remember Derek telling me that I had a drip on the end of my nose (Nice!). It's not funny when you can see your breath in the air! Our bedroom upstairs started to develop muffa (mould) on the outside wall, which was becoming quite a concern. I'd seen the type of 'holy' bricks used to build some of the homes and it is no wonder. For the remaining winter we had no option but to sleep downstairs. The shower was useless, producing only a trickle of warm water because the pipes were caked with accumulated hard minerals. It was a miserable period.
Frustration showed in the children too. Although Bella and Lucia still had to struggle with homework in Italian, they were fortunate as the Scuola Elementare seemed so much more child-friendly and simple, whereas Gianni, alone in his first year of senior school, was experiencing a totally different kettle of fish, as we say. Although there was a person who could speak some English the school and the teachers were very welcoming, it was still extremely hard for him, and I can remember the tears and the challenge for us trying to help him with all with homework. Gianni became very angry about everything, at home and at school. It was heartbreaking to see him like this. We tried our utmost to encourage him and to make him feel that he was doing ok, but it was not easy. I remember being at a supermarket and when an English lady, who I had met previously, asked me how we were doing, I cried. The goals we were trying to achieve still seemed so far out of reach. At this point it would have been so easy to throw in the towel and call it a day, but although it hurt such a lot to see Gianni and the girls suffering like that, we were without work, a car off the road, and cold at home, we were determined to persevere, otherwise all our struggles and efforts would be a total waste of time. Derek and I had to really pull together and try not to lose hope. We couldn't let them, or ourselves down.
December came along with the small glimmer of hope that the person who had asked Derek to phone back in a few months, might have something lined up for him. We listened eagerly whilst a friend spoke to a person in the office on the date we were given to call, only to be told he'd gone up to the north of Italy rallying and there was no message for Derek. Understandably, in utter disappointment and anger, Derek threw the contact's name and number into the fire. Disheartened, we continued along as before. However, some days later, Derek's phone rang. The man had returned from rallying. He asked Derek to go to the office and discuss a FULL TIME CONTRACT to start in the New Year!! A flicker of light was twinkling at the end of the very long tunnel. Christmas approached very suddenly, as there seems to be very little build-up to the day compared with the UK (I remember that once we hit end of September in the UK, the shops were already starting to stock gift items). The children were on holiday from their schools and took the opportunity to unwind a little, although they still had to complete homework. Derek and I managed to find some second-hand bikes for the children's presents, and bought a small, real Christmas tree from the Friday market. One of the contradas of the town hosted a seasonal outdoor occasion one evening, which anyone could attend. It was a real treat. A huge fire was lit and stood close by with a glass (or two) of local red wine, eating rolls filled with sausages from the BBQ, bread with prosciutto crudo (cured meat), THICK hot chocolate (to be eaten with a spoon!) and deep fried sweet batter! A Father Christmas was wandering around giving small bags of treats to the younger ones. And all this, including the entrance fee, was paid for by the contrada. Most, if not all towns that have contradas each put on a Nativity scene, running from Christmas Eve through to the early part of the New Year. People tend to visit these during an evening stroll. Much thought goes into the scenes and if you have the opportunity, they're definitely worth visiting and donating a euro or two. Christmas Day was very nice although we missed having the family with us. After we had eaten lunch we strolled into the town for an afternoon walk and I would say, it seemed that the entire population of the town were doing the same. We also discovered that the Comune (town hall) had provided a type of motorised train that anyone could hop on to and be taken through the historical centre and around the town, which ran for a week or so. Of course this was very popular! We again found it very strange not having to pay for this. To finish off our day, we purchased a phone card and made calls to family in the UK.
The friend who had previously helped us with the telephone call was returning with her family to England for three weeks and required someone to care for their dog, a type of basset hound called Flossie. Our home was certainly big enough and considering the children love dogs and we had already cared for an elderly lady's dog in the UK, we agreed to help out. And guess what? In return, they offered us their car to use whilst they were away!! I couldn't believe how lucky we were. The car was an old Citroen Diane 2CV and was brilliant fun even if the hand brake didn't work. This car, with its fantastic suspension, would bank around corners like a dream and whilst doing so, the little side 'flap' windows would swing open. I spent most my time laughing. Flossie Dog, as I called her, was pretty good, and then she came into heat, as we call it. We noticed that several male dogs would be waiting at our gate, meaning we had to choose the right time to go for walks. Needless to say, we returned her and the 2CV unscathed to the owners, after their trip to the UK.
The various activities over the Christmas break cheered the children up and they returned to school in the New Year having had a slight breather. Gianni tried his best to survive school. We reminded them that we were right behind them and in time, things would gradually become easier for them. We also vowed that we would not spend another winter in that house and would try to find something smaller, easier to heat and closer to the town. I believe that starting a new year helped give us renewed ambition to keep striving towards building our new life in Italy. And, Derek's forthcoming work contract more than enhanced our outlook. Within the next two months, Derek had commenced work at the Carrozzeria a few kilometres away. His new boss let him use a work vehicle to get back and forth until Derek was in a position to buy a tough little Renault Twingo (I know he'll hate me for putting this in, but once, he ended up ploughing it into a field. How it didn't turned over I shall never know. And it started again afterwards. You could leave it out in the hard frosts and would start. It was a fantastic little car!). With Derek's permanent work contract, we could then go to the town's Comune and get the ball rolling on becoming residents. They said that soon we'd receive a visit from a member of the Polizia Municipale, the local town police. Someone mentioned to me that before they visit new residents, they apparently watch the house! They'll drive past at different times to check to see if we're living where we claim to be living. Eventually one day our bell rang and at the gate was a policewoman, who didn't hesitate to remind me to put our name outside on the gate, and then followed me inside. There she performed an inspection of us as well as the house. She appeared satisfied with the situation and said we'd receive paperwork in due course from the Comune. This was a huge step forward for us. Not much later after this, the house owner said he wanted to try to sell the house without anyone living in it, so he could make a quick sale. We returned to the original estate agents, who found us a good-sized apartment within a residential area of the town. Having never resided in an apartment before, we thought it would be a good opportunity to try, considering that the majority of Italian people live in apartments. Again, we had a visit from the policewoman to check that we had moved where we said we had! Talk about bureaucracy! We couldn't believe just how much warmer we were, being surrounded by Italian neighbours, below, at the sides and above. We were now in a position to try to obtain motor insurance for the Citroen. In Italy there are agencies that handle registration, tax and insurance in each town, so I toddled off to the office with my proof of no claims bonus. Ah, but it wasn't quite so simple for the Citroen was it?! I found out that it needed to be registered in Italy and we had to undergo the rigmarole of getting the car's documents translated into Italian. As well as this, I needed to obtain a certificate omologazione from Citroen Italia in Milan. Milan sent it to a Citroen dealer in Perugia and it was then collected by a local dealer. When I was finally able to collect the certificate, I paid 100 euros. My next task was to take the documents to a court in Montepulciano to be sworn and to get a special stamp I had to purchase from a tabaccheria to accompany the paperwork. I took a good friend with me for a bit of moral support! I understand now the meaning of bureaucracy! Behind the desk in Montepulciano, I could see rows and rows of box files stuffed with paperwork. The agency gave me a date (short notice) for the car to undergo a test near Siena, and as I couldn't drive it, it had to be transported. I needed to find someone with a small transporter. The last garage I approached had one on their forecourt, and the owner agreed to take me the following morning for 50 euros. Talk about the 11th hour. Well, I was really fortunate to find this person because he knew exactly where to go, watched what was going on and even swung the test in my favour! The Citroen passed the test and we were up and back within half a day. With the signed document, I could now go back to the agency and they'd apply for Italian registration plates from Siena, for which a fee was payable to the agency as well as that for the vehicle test. Once the number plates were received by the office, the motor insurance was finally issued! (if I hadn't grown too old or too tired to drive by this time). As soon as I was on the road (early June), I bought a tray of pastries from the baker's and took them into the garage before breakfast, as a small thank you.
Gianni, Bella and Lucia broke up for the 3 month long summer holidays (although they still had plenty of homework), with the girls actually finishing Scuola Elementare. In September they would be joining Gianni in Scuola Media. I would say that since moving to the apartment, living as a great many Italians live, we had managed to build ourselves a new life and started to feel more settled. The children's Italian came on in leaps and bounds because they were young enough to take it all in, as well as speaking only Italian at school. Eventually, they were the ones telling us what was happening on the news! It's much easier for them than us now. And in my opinion, that's the perfect way round, after all, it was us who made them come over here and struggle to begin with. One thing in particular that I would recommend is that you continue to speak your mother tongue at home. I remember one of the girls asking the other "Come si dice Sabato in Inglese?", meaning "How do you say Saturday in English?" , we were gob-smacked! Remember, it's important to maintain their first language too!
We have now been living in Italy for almost four years and in conclusion to these episodes, I would like to say that although Italy is an expensive country to reside in, I do believe that quality of life is of the greatest importance, and the benefits more than outweigh the frustrating struggles we experienced. I remind myself of the good weather, the fresher than fresh fruit and vegetables, the wine, pasta, pizza, olive oil, cheese, bread, the views, history and the bar coffee culture, to name just a few reasons why so many people choose Italy as a home. Bella and Lucia, now almost 14 years of age, have each said in anxious moments that they'd like to return to the UK. I'm sure they'll visit there again one day, but I believe they may be disappointed, as they will be looking at England through grown-up eyes. As I write this, they are enjoying four days away in Liguria with good Italian friends of theirs, taking part in a national under 14's pallavolo (volleyball) competition. We hope that in later years, the three children look at what they have achieved and will agree that we made the right move after all.