In November 2003 author and photographer Paul Harcourt Davies loaded up the car and, with partner Lois Ferguson, took off for Italy, burning boats in the UK as an incentive to make sure they made it work, come what may…
To leap into another life takes a degree of desperation, stirred with blind optimism and spiced with a hint of serendipity – lunacy might well be on that list, too. Yet, on a good day, if newspaper surveys are to be believed, about half of the indigenous British population would quit Blighty given the chance.
In what follows the views are highly personal and the observations might spur some and deter others. However, I can say at the outset that we have not once regretted our leap into the abyss. The move has certainly proved hard at times, both financially and physically and even maddening when dealing with endless Italian form filling
Fortunately, we had never suffered from the simpering, rosy-eyed view of Italy that the victims on makeover programmes seem to have. There is good, there is bad – but whereas in Britain I was angry nearly all of the time – here it is only very occasionally and mostly with the morons who hunt illegally on our land. Simple compensations, such as a home we love, superb food and cheap, excellent wine and good friends swing the balance. We never feel we are expats – we are immigrants who live and work with Italians and other nationalities.
Getting off one’s rear
Most of us need a kick in the pants and a series of connected events acted for us as the hobnailed boots. In retrospect, I am not quite sure of the order (the blurring effect of local wine) but I dimly recall the death throes of a marriage, meeting my true soul mate, I discovered I had a tumour (little bit of a sick joke) and then came the death of Lois’ mother. This latter was the clincher for we watched, numbed, as a life-force of immense energy began to dim. Nothing could be taken for granted anymore and, anyway, we share the view that this life is all we have and is no dress rehearsal.
Lots of things contributed to our dissatisfaction with the good ship Britannia such as the patronising ingrates we get as politicians, the frightening erosion of freedoms and a national delight in the putting up of obstacles to any initiative. Any dramatic change does allow you to recreate yourself and we both carried the kind of emotional baggage that could only be properly shed by a break
We knew Italy well so this was an obvious choice. Lois had managed walking trips for a major tour company for over a decade and I had led some of those tours as resident botanist/photographer and had also taken on photo assignments there. She spoke Italian fluently: I learned, thankful at last for those Latin lessons at school. At the time we left the UK my picture sales and book writing were going well and our tours had a small but faithful annual clientele. However, a year waiting for an estate to be sorted out made us desperate to escape.
Serendipity stepped in and we rented the home of a friend who had just completed the purchase in the lakeside town of Bolsena, within the area we love. We arrived and filing cabinets met us a week later, needing to be carted up a flight of fifty narrow stairs from narrow medieval streets below….
We searched for a property to renovate, becoming thoroughly disillusioned on the way with prices flying out of reach. Then we found our “ruin”, fell in love with it and severely over-stretched ourselves financially…Lois saw a large upstairs room with sloping gable to house her mum’s grand piano and become a canvas for her design talents: I saw the old Etruscan tomb behind the house with bats and porcupine. Different priorities same conclusion!
Whenever I reveal that “we bought the house from a one-legged man who lives in cave” it sounds as if I should precede it with “Once upon a time” And there is more, for home is called Podere Montecucco which we first thought (naffly) meant cuckoo hill farm, Wrong, for in Italian cuckoo is cuculo …in fact we live at Nutter’s Hill farm – particularly apposite.
It became clear that the only way we could afford to do up this house and have a base for operations was to do much of the work ourselves. I had always made things, my dad was an excellent carpenter and, as a kid I had free rein of the limited (and blunt) toolkit. Lois had trained as a classical violinist but had run a business doing decorative paint finishes so we were both ‘practical’ but had tackled nothing on this scale. We learned to plaster, build walls, clean old beams and tiles and a host of things to the extent that Lois now supervises property renovations…and I take on commissions for ‘antique’ furniture providing a few extra strings to the bow. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss for we did not know how this old place would take us over body and soul. We both ache much more and have pushed ourselves and achieved what we never imagined. We stop when funds run low, start when they swell a bit.
What about a job ?
The theory was (and still is) that living here would/does/will prove inspirational – in spring we suffer nightingale-induced insomnia, have nesting orioles, hoopoes and both foxes and porcupine use our caves. I had two book contracts when I came out but, as anyone who writes photography books knows, remuneration is dire and UK publishers can and will stitch you up with deals promising a percentage of Publisher’s Net Returns. My US publisher, Lark is much better …and straight. For a Chinese edition of a book (world’s most populous nation and all that…) with a UK publisher I received just over £250 – laugh, I wet myself.
So far, the bulk of my written/photographic work is still directed towards books, articles and picture sales in the UK and USA – I would like to do more here but initial experiences with payment delays (unbelievable even compared with the worst of UK payers) have made me wary, There is nothing like the Small Claims Court in Italy and cases can and do take ten and more years with lawyers playing for delays.
This is a low-wage economy and people understandably do not like parting with money. Plus, I believe that you have to be born Italian to understand how to work the system – imbibing it with your mother’s milk. In the UK, I sometimes managed to work near miracles with my pen over debts, bank charges and getting the better of bullying officialdom. I love the English language with a passion but accept that I will never have the nuances in Italian. I manage with most spoken situations and never let a lack of grammar get in the way. But in reality, I could be at a distinct disadvantage in any competitive field and that sometimes frustrates me – but not too often, for we have made good Italian friends who have those skills and are delighted to help.
An unforeseen problem
Walls are ordered structures, make holes in them and there are clouds of dust like galactic nebulae: grind the muck of ages from chestnut beams – dust again. Add to this the effect of a dry building site in summer and the result is a nightmare. We lived like a couple of polythene fetishists for two years – dust got everywhere, even parts of the anatomy still without Latin names. For Digital Man dust is anathema since it clogs printers, ruins drives and however carefully one cleans them the sensors show the blobs. For long periods it seemed more sensible to get on with the labour and just pretend to be a photographer.
La ‘vita Italiana’
We have great admiration for the universal Italian ‘contempt’ for rules and authority (until it impinges on us of course!) – there are certainly jobsworths and they tend to work for the local government, but most Italians are united in finding ways around obstacles rather than making fetishes out of reinforcing them. Italy has many more rules on the statute books even than the UK after Blair but Italians use their discretion…It is so refreshing and, yes it is all seemingly “dishonest” at times – but Italian friends are amazed that the British seem shocked when they find politicians are shifty. Here they accept that ‘dishonesty’ (aka pragmatism/ resourcefulness) is endemic – to be called ‘furbo’ (cunning) is a compliment… Professions and trades are organised on local levels with protective practices enforced with Masonic fervour –the system works, but not ‘for you’ when you are outside it all.
In general, it seems to both of us that those who succeed best here are those who can work to “outside markets” to some extent. For example, we have a growing collection of images of Italy and considerable ‘local’ knowledge (we both know Italy far better than we ever knew the UK) and we have made contacts to enable us to get to places and people quickly…Running tours for years and now short courses (append a couple of days poppy field photography to your Italian holiday sort of thing…) brings in clients and the Italians we deal with know and understand this. Fortunately, we are never taking work away – this would be the route to resentment, exclusion and obstruction.
We accept that the main point is to be here: it is home. To do this means creating a pot pourri of activities with a mix that will change over time. Everything has to be perceived as an opportunity – Italians do that: they are resourceful, inventive and in a crisis astonishing. OK they can be infuriating when you need a timetable so we give no more than a day or two’s warning–great for impromptu dinner parties.
We are ‘stranieri” foreigners and always will be – our Italian friends want it like that and so do we. We are resident here and have made the decision to pay our taxes here (exactly as Italians do….). and then declare foreign earnings. There is also the fact that the UK Inland revenue do everything they can to regard you as being a UK resident until you die and they can muscle in and rob you of death duties. Here there are none – that will change but still be much better than the UK.
We feel this change was right for both of us in different ways. Without wanting to sound precious, I feel have “other books in me” – the last six books written were photographic books and there is a limit to the number of times you can expound on depth of field in a different way. And I have loved the business of hacking off plaster and rebuilding this old house
When I stand outside after the sun has set and look then I remember and I feel lucky – there is no guilt at having ‘escaped’ for through our first winter many windows had no glass; just holes in walls a metre thick with double layers of polythene stretched across them. That followed a first summer where we had dug out over 180 square metres of floor to a depth of nearly half a metre to remove urine-sodden earth – oh happy but exhausting days.
We chose this house because it felt right, the fact we have made so many friends and found kindred spirits locally has been a bonus. Helping with local projects, mounting exhibitions and working with people has brought us friendship and many kindnesses.
My advice to anyone is, if you feel the need to escape then take the plunge; just make sure your expectations are flexible: and remember that it is much better with a kindred spirit but that you both have to want to make it work. We have met surprising number of people who came to Italy, took on a house and broke up with a partner…
to see some pics http://www.loisferguson.com/Site/Home_page.html
Every ‘getaway article’ must, by law it seems, have a top ten hints… Here are mine:
- Unless you are in an Anglophone country then learn the language – it is much easier when you have to in order to live and work for there is a purpose there never was at school. People learning English or any other language can be comforted by the fact that an awful lot of morons managed it.
- Learn to smile when dealing with officialdom and never give them anything to hang an argument on – play the ‘friendly but stupid’ card: I do it all the time. They probably hate their job so get up their noses and it makes their day that much more interesting as they send you from queue to pointless queue.
- Many countries do not have the rates of remuneration expected in the UK so avoid appearing to be a flash git. Italians are certainly impressed by money and possessions but if they assess you have resources they not ‘unreasonably’ feel you should pay generously for their services. Prices are seldom shown but the three levels in ascending order are locals, foreigners (including Italians from the next province) Americans.
- Never expect things to run to a timetable you set – hope, yes, but don’t allow your blood pressure to increase when they don’t. It won’t be long until you can pour another Martini. Campari or Prosecco at 18.00 without feeling you are on the slippery slope.
- In the Mediterranean region remember that tomorrow (domani, manyana) translates as “when I feel like” (best) to “you’ve got a hope mate” (worst). “Subito” as in vengo subito – (I’m coming immediately) is close to the Welsh valley “be with ew now in a minute wus”.
- Avoid becoming part of a ghetto aka an ‘expatriate community’. They conform to the worst stereotype foreigners can exhibit: exclusivity, reluctance to speak the local lingo and, in the case of certain Brits, arrogant colonial prats who damn everything Italian (including the people) but like the sunshine and the cheaper booze. Its what made Britain Grate (on everyone)
- Never wear sandals with socks and shorts – leave the socks it marks you out: Italians would not dream of it….’bruta figura’
- If you can adjust the trade you ply to be to bring something to the local economy, rather than muscling in, you will find such things as goodwill and work permits that much easier to obtain,
- Accept that you will get fed up at times: I stopped liking pasta for three months – emergency but then things settled and even the desperate need for a curry made itself felt less frequently. Just remind yourself of why you left and a few of those people you can choose never to see.
- Until you are thrown back on your will to survive mishaps/challenges you have no idea of just how versatile you can be and how, with a little determination, things work out. An Italian friend once said “In Italy there is always a way– just don’t be too fussy about morality or legality for their nature is inherently elastic”