When we lived in England, we thought we were being brave when we moved from Berkshire down to Somerset.
Leaving our carefully-constructed comfort zone of friends, favourite places and a galaxy of other needs, and going 130-odd miles south-west seemed like the highest of high-risk strategies.
In fact, it turned out to be not a lot more stressful or complex than moving from one side of the street to the other, when compared to the seismic upheaval of our move from Somerset to Abruzzo in October 2007.
The thing about moving from A to B in the UK is that in reality, not a lot changes. People still speak English. Television’s the same. So are newspapers and magazines. The supermarkets, chainstores and banks you went to in A will all be waiting for you in B.
And while – yes – you’ll need to find a new doctor/dentist/vet/gym/schools for the kids and whatever other backup you need included in Team You, it’s hardly the toughest of tasks – and more than offset by the fun of getting to know everything your new home area has to offer.
And the people who live there.
And you really won’t lose touch either with your old friends back in A. They’ll come to visit. Or you’ll visit them. Or meet halfway in some nice new pub you’ve found for a leisurely, chatty lunch. Or Skype each other whenever you feel like it.
In short, it’s actually not that big a deal.
Or you can get in the car and drive 1200 miles from Country A to Country B. When you arrive, no matter how many teach-yourself CDs you’ve worked through; and no matter how well you think you’ve prepared yourself, you won’t – at least at the beginning – be able to talk much to anybody. Or they to you.
You won’t have much of an idea either where to go shopping. Or what to buy. Or how to ask for it. You can’t really explain to the doctor/dentist/vet what the problem is. Going to the bank’s more-or-less OK – but online banking definitely isn’t because you don’t understand the website. Or what’s on TV. Or in the papers.
And whether you mean to or not, you’re figuring out in Sterling how much everyday life costs in this strange foreign country.
Which can work in one of two ways:
– Wow ! It’s so much cheaper here !
– It costs how much ???
Oh…and don’t get me started about how much fun it is getting to grips with the automated phone answering set-ups at banks, utility companies and pretty much all businesses, that ask you to “Press 1 for this…Press 2 for that…Press 3 for something else…Press 4 to feel like weeping…Press 5 to hang up and start all over again”
In short, moving countries actually is quite a big deal.
But – yay – you can still Skype your friends back in A, who are all envious and excited about your new adventure and lifestyle in B. But it starts getting a bit creepy if you phone them every day, so bit-by-painstaking-bit, you start to get to grips with your new life.
And you know what makes it so much easier ? Some of what you hated to leave behind. The silly little inconsequential things you used to kind-of take for granted, but now – because they’re suddenly not freely available anymore – suddenly take on a new and crucial importance to make life a whole lot brighter and more bearable.
Like…say…reading a newspaper. Or settling back to watch something on TV. Or indulging in a bit of comfort-eating of something special from where you’ve just arrived from.
Back in the UK, working as a broadcast journalist, I devoured newspapers. Partly because I had to; partly because I enjoyed it. Especially wading through the Sundays.
Absorbing. Absorbent too, recycled on Mondays to line the cats’ litter tray.
Even when we were on holiday, I’d pick up a paper somewhere along the line. Just to keep in touch.
And even though we were now in Italy, I still wanted to keep in touch with what was going on back where I still couldn’t help referring to as ‘home’.
But being off the beaten tourist track, finding an English paper in Abruzzo involved an 2-hour round-trip to Pescara Airport where if you were lucky, you might find a 2-day old broadsheet; or if you were unlucky, a 2-day old tabloid.
Or, if other paper-starved Brits had beaten you to it, nothing at all.
At the beginning, we actually made the Pescara paper pilgrimage two or three times a week – but then a strange thing happened…
Back in the UK, when we’d moved to Somerset, we’d begun to realise how London-centric papers were and how increasingly less relevant they became to a life removed from the Capital.
In Abruzzo, this feeling magnified. We began to feel uninvolved and out-of-touch with what was going on in the UK. British politics hardly affected our daily lives in Italy. National talking-points became of academic interest only. The latest celebrity gossip became less titillating and more uninteresting when we found we didn’t have a clue who some of these ‘celebrities’ were.
In contrast, while we’d previously only ever thought about the £/€ exchange rate when we went on holiday, in those early days of 2007 at the dawn of the global financial crisis, the Pound plummeting in value was as emotionally-involving and keenly-tracked as the best TV soap.
Our round-trips to Pescara grew less frequent and eventually petered out. When incoming UK guests left – or leave – papers or magazines, we have a quick flick-through, but that’s more prompted by curiosity, rather than any burning desire to catch-up with what’s going on.
To be honest, we’re just as likely to look at the pictures in Die Ziet or Elsevier left by a German or Dutch guest, than Hello or the Daily Telegraph.
And of more relevance to us now is the Abruzzo section in Il Centro.
And Il Corriere dello Sport, which, along with Italian TV, helped me start learning how to speak Italian.
I knew what a calcio di rigore was and explain who my squadra preferita were before I knew how to order 500g of cheese.
And Italian TV ? We’d loved to have watched UK TV when we got here, but to pick-up that familiar programming in this part of Italy would’ve meant getting a 4-metre satellite dish. (And even then, reception wouldn’t have been guaranteed).
Sky UK isn’t available here, and while Sky Italia certainly is, it provides a completely different range of programmes. We have this now – but when we arrived and lived in a rented house while Villasfor2 took shape, it wasn’t a option.
UK TV on the computer ? Alas no. Assorted iPlayers hadn’t been invented in 2007 – and even if they had, they wouldn’t have been much good to us, as for the first three years here, we only got online via dial-up until broadband finally crawled into Casoli.
So…grudgingly and unhappily, Italian TV it was. And yes, everything you might’ve heard about how bad it is is generally true.
Impenetrable shows that seemed to be stuck in a 70’s time-warp. A fixation with slapstick. And a lamentable and embarrassing attitude to the role of women in light entertainment, which usually involved tight, skimpy outfits; acting dumb; and being the fall-guys – (can women be fall-guys ?) – for assorted pranks, practical jokes and set-ups, which invariably involved getting wet, and/or covered in foam, and/or losing some clothes.
On the other hand, there was the Italian version of Who Wants To Be a Millionaire ? which helpfully displayed questions and answers on the screen and kept them there while contestants made their minds up which was la risposta essatta. (The right answer ! The good news given with the kind of flourish usually reserved for Oscar-winners, to a crescendo of tremendous applause)
Or la risposta sbagliata. (The wrong answer ! Solemnly announced in tones of doom, to groans of disappointment).
Mindlessly, we watched pretty well all the game shows, solemnly pronouncing to each other whether we thought someone was offering la risposta essatta…or la risposta sbagliata. This may sound endlessly sad, but it showed that not only were we getting surprisingly good at understanding the questions – but the answers too.
Same principle applies to the National and Local News we watched most evenings. The (ahem…alleged) exploits of Sig. Berlusconi immeasurably more lurid than anything ever seen on Dallas or Sex And The City.
Of course we did have some English-language programming, thanks to a ton of DVDs we bought with us from the UK, which saw us through our first long, cold winter. When we arrived in this part of Abruzzo, there was no real expat community to speak of, and aside from our own voices, for the first few months here we never heard anybody speak English. So TV programmes in English were our security blanket.
Unlike English papers and magazines – which we’ve basically given up – we still watch English language television via Sky Italia. (Why watch the Italian-dubbed version of a programme when you can watch it in the original English ? Or American ?)
Part convenience. Part simply wanting to hear English after spending most of each day living in Italian.
We have Italian friends to whom – surrealy – we speak Italian, while they practice their English on us. And we have English friends too. Sometimes – no matter how well you speak or understand the language of your adopted country – you just want to be with a bunch of people and gabble away in the language you speak best.
Talking. And television. The habits have changed. So has what we like to eat.
Let’s get one thing straight. Italian food is astonishingly good. And I’m not talking about what you get when you eat out, but what you buy in shops and supermarkets.
But on arrival, we missed what we’d come to regard as ‘English staples’ so much, that we burdened friends driving out here from the UK with our shopping lists – or had our favourites shipped out from the UK by a specialist shopping service.
But that was before, bit-by-bit, Italian food won us over.
So no, we now don’t especially miss the things we once thought of as irreplaceable – like English sausages, marmalade, bacon and Cheddar cheese. We’ve found alternatives that are just as good.
Peanut butter ? Corned beef ? Mars bars ? Digestive biscuits ? English beer ? Heinz Tomato Ketchup ? Baked beans ? Seek and ye shall find.
(At a price – but here nonetheless. Mostly…)
Do we still miss anything edible and English ? Yes. We do. But the shopping list has shrunk dramatically.
Pauline has a weakness for Cornish pasties. For me, it’s English tea. Not the kind of internationally-produced stuff that masquerades as English tea, but the real deal: Good old bog-standard Typhoo. And stuff I can make curries with.
For us both, Colman’s English mustard. Ready-made and as powder. And Bovril and Marmite. You kind-of have to be a Brit to understand these. Specially the last two.
Nothing even remotely similar to these strange and unique items exists in Italy. Or at least, not in Abruzzo. Which makes the getting and the having all the more pleasurable.
(That said, I’m sure someone will now post to say there’s this little isolated shack deep in the Gran Sasso that stocks everything and more a Brit expat could ever want…)
So while the must-have, can’t-live-without list is a lot smaller than it once was, I can’t see the genuine must-have, can’t-live-without core ever entirely going away.
Which is fine. No law says you have to lose your national identity entirely or give up everything important to you when you leave one country and move to another.
It’s just that you’ll be surprised when what were once vital components of your life change; get replaced; or simply disappear.
As surprised as we’ve been…