Living in Italy

CORNERING ON TWO WHEELS

Between 2008 and 2013 I lived in the hills of Northern Tuscany and wrote about my experiences. If you love Italy, and the Italian way of life, this may be entertaining.

Receiving mail in the early days of being here was a real pleasure, someone, somewhere, knew where I was, even if it was only the bank. I was outside one morning when I heard singing coming closer down the path at the back of the house, and then the postman swung round the corner. A fairly small middle aged man, stocky but quick and agile, strode up to me and holding out his hand formally introduced himself, ”buongiorno, I am Alessio.”

I explained that I had taken the house for a year and he looked impressed. Then he made a formal presentation of the mail, holding it out with both hands and beaming proudly as if he had written and posted all of it himself. I accepted with equal formality and gratitude and we made fulsome farewells. Since then we have developed a good rapport and I enjoy his occasional visits. It didn’t surprise me to hear that he is part of a local amateur dramatics society.

One morning in late autumn I heard him shout my name with rather more urgency than usual. I opened the door to see an unsmiling, accusing face in front of me, small, black eyes fiery, “what have you done?” he demanded. Startled, I stepped outside to where he was pointing. The previous day I had cut back the shrubs along the front of the house that were old and in need of a fresh start. “It’s OK” I said apologetically, “they will grow again, better, in spring, really…” “Hmm…” he said, thrusting the mail into my hands and striding away without another word.

Until a couple of weeks ago Alessio had never given me the slightest hint that he spoke a word of English. I always struggled through our little conversations in Italian, gradually improving as they were usually not very demanding. Then one day he was delivering something I needed to sign for and unexpectedly he said “here is my pen, please.” I looked at him, surprised, but he ignored me and putting away his receipt book made a few observations about the improving weather, again in English.

This sudden revelation, his latest little dramatic flourish, nudged me back into English too, and I responded with “yes” instead of my usual “si”. Holding up one hand he proclaimed “no, no, no, no, no, Signora. My English teacher say to me it is – yesss – tongue is here, at front, like this – yesss.” I followed suit, hissing yesss until he was satisfied. Then with a flourish of his hand in a farewell wave he was off round the corner of the house, no doubt tongue firmly in cheek…

Storms here wondrous to behold, a full on Italian drama. They can be expected at the end of summer and again in the late autumn as warm air meets cool coming down from the mountains. It begins with a rumble of thunder that gradually grows to rolling and crashing, interspersed with flashes of both sheet and forked lightening that completely light up the sky. The show lasts sometimes for a few hours, sometimes intermittently throughout the night, and is often accompanied by a torrent of rain. It is glorious to be part of it.

I woke early one morning in mid November and realised it was unusually silent outside. Every now and then a short, sharp noise would cut through the stillness, as if something was breaking. Opening the shutters I was amazed to see that there was about ten centimetres of snow. The weight of it on some of the olive branches was too much for them to bear and they snapped, cascading a flurry of snow onto the slope below. The hillsides were transformed into a beautiful and unexpected world of white.

On a cold, clear evening during their Christmas break from work, my neighbours, Angela and Matteo, asked me to go with them up the mountain for Mandarin punch. Intrigued, I happily agreed and along with Matteo’s brother, Claudio, we set off in their four wheel drive, through the village above us, climbing to a scattering of houses higher up where there is a little bar. 

Although holding my breath at the casual way in which Matteo took the hairpins, one hand on the wheel and only a cursory attempt to slow down a little, I was so pleased to be included in their outing I was happy to take it as it came. Angela is in her late twenties and the young men in their thirties, and I’m over sixty. It’s one of the things I really like about the culture here, it’s far less defined by age.

Mandarin punch turned out to be a rather sticky bright orange, served in little glasses topped up with hot water, and very warming. We sat round a log fire chatting and as I mellowed my Italian improved. Eventually we decided to head back down the hill and have an impromptu supper together in their kitchen. Angela would make pizzas and I would nip home for a bottle of wine.

Driving back down the mountain was rather more alarming than coming up. Matteo took the bends head on with macho spirit and Angela’s cries of “slow down” as she saw my face were ignored with laughter. We hurtled through the village, gathering speed along the straight by the church. This prompted my Italian to stretch to “Matteo, I want to stay in Italy but not in the cemetery!” 

The laughter increased, and Claudio rolled about in the front passenger seat, repeating it, helpless with laughter, so that I thought he may well turn the car over, if taking a corner on two wheels didn’t get us first. But I couldn’t help being warmed by his praise for my “spettacolo” wit, and smiled at the thought that if we didn’t make it home we would at least die happy.

I shut my eyes tight as we whistled along the single track lane to our houses, and we were there in seconds. I went home for the wine and a few minutes to recover, and then we spent a happy evening at their kitchen table. I remember singing Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday”, right through, something I would never have done in England, inhibited by my inability to hold a tune. Whether I did or not it didn’t seem to matter, as I’m discovering about so many things, living the Italian way.

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