Living in Italy

2. MY NEW SURROUNDINGS

Between 2008 and 2013 I lived in the hills of Northern Tuscany and wrote a blog about my experiences. If you love Italy, or are tempted to cut loose and start again somewhere new yourself , this may be entertaining.

The hillsides here in Northern Tuscany are steep and thickly wooded. These are the foothills of mountain ranges that lie beyond and in summer you wouldn’t guess there are many houses tucked away in the trees. To reach mine I turn left off the road up from the valley and wind along a single track lane, a near vertical bank climbing up on my right and a steep drop down to a stream on my left. There are a couple of hairpin bends, two passing places, and one false move would take you over the edge, unless you happen to be just where one of the only two barriers are placed. This is a cul de sac which leads to four houses and mine is the first.

From where I park my car I’m looking out over the roof of the house and a path zigzags down the bank to reach it. Facing south with all day sunshine, the terrace is about six or seven metres wide along the front of the building with a wonderful view out across the valley to the hillsides and skyline beyond. A canopy of vines shades a table and chairs in the summer, and an apricot tree reaches up to my bedroom window. The land drops steeply down in narrow terraces to the stream in the ravine below, uncultivated for many years and bearing a few old olive and fig trees.

A ten minute upward climb along a track behind the house brings me out, breathless, at the church on the lower reaches of a lovely medieval village stacked improbably on the hillside. Here there are the essentials, the village shop, the post office, the hairdresser, a pizzeria open at weekends and a restaurant. If I walk back down the spiralling main road it takes half an hour, with glorious views that sweep down the length of the valley.

Within the house the downstairs sitting room and kitchen are cool and dark and a welcome relief from the heat when it arrives. Once the animals would have been kept here with the family living on the floor above. This has now been transformed into bedrooms with plenty of windows and light. There are cotto tiles everywhere, stone stairs, an open fire in the kitchen and thankfully, a super modern bathroom.

So this is where I begin to unpack on day two, a little dismayed that it’s grey and raining and quite chilly for May. In fact the rain continues most days until the middle of June which surprises and depresses everyone as it’s very unusual. As a result everything grows like crazy. The edges of the lane along to the road, and the hillside rolling down in front of the house are waist high in grasses studded with wild flowers that delight me. The house begins to take shape with my things in it, and I can no longer put off driving down to town for another supermarket shopping venture.

This time I’m not so tired and I feel more confident and relaxed. But at the check out I still need to concentrate on dealing in my new euro currency, so I don’t really notice the little sticker placed in my hand with my receipt and change. Putting the coins in my purse as I move clear of the next customer, glasses now back in handbag, I peer at this little shiny silver thing, and assuming it must be some sort of charity badge, peel off the back and stick it on my lapel without another thought. Charities are often stationed at check outs in the UK, but it never struck me that I hadn’t given anyone any money.

About a week later I’m back again for another bigger shop, ready to spend time just ambling through taking more notice of everything and learning what’s where. At the beginning of the first aisle a large poster catches my eye, with a selection of rather nice plain white Villeroy and Bosch china underneath it. Stopping to check it out I recognise a picture of one of those little shiny silver stamps, a bollino apparently. All slowly becomes clear – for every so many euros spent you will be given so many bollini. In a leaflet holder attached there are cards with spaces for the stamps, eight for two espresso cups and saucers, twelve for a set of plates, fifteen for a salad bowl… And I’ve had mine on my lapel all week…

Glancing round to check no one is watching, though why it should matter after a week I don’t know, I raise my hand to my lapel, peel off my bollino and stick it in the first space on one of the cards. It leads in due course to a handsome salad bowl, so whilst wince making at the time, it’s not a complete disaster. But it takes me quite a while to go into Esselunga without casting an eye round the tills to see if they’ve noticed the idiot English woman is in again.

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