With a Little Help From our Friends…

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From left to right: Adele, Alexandra, Gemma, Anna-Rita, Alberto, Patrick, Maria-Teres, Sonia and Francesca

We are going into our fifth year of living in Italy in the village of Santa Vittoria In Matenano. We have passed all the many bureaucratic hurdles and are soon to receive a “permesso” that recognizes long-term residency. My wife is also pursuing  citizenship though her Italian lineage – that last pesky document verifying her ancestry has finally been tracked down. We are also fully settled in our little hilltop village, now knowing all of the shopkeepers and many of their families by name and have many wonderful Italian friends. We will always likely be the “pazzi americani” in town but at least we feel like it is truly our home.

Recently an American friend living in another part of Italy reminded me of that initial period right after we moved, in which we were essentially “lost.” Every day we were mystified, confused, and frustrated by something we did not understand. It was not only customs that were unfamiliar to us but the lack of knowing the language resulted in numerous misunderstandings, missed directions, and mishaps – some amusing in retrospect. Others, not so much. 

My many visits as a traveler to Italy over the years did not help much, despite learning a modicum of Italian. But learning enough to register at a hotel, order a meal, or purchase a train ticket pales in comparison to the perils associated with buying a house and renovating it, dealing with utility companies, and getting a hot water heater fixed. Frankly, looking back on it, I don’t know how we did it.

 Actually, I do. To paraphrase the Beatles, “We got by with a little help from our friends.”

We were very fortunate to encounter a series of people who helped us navigate the unfamiliar landscape of banks, businesses, and bureaucracies. Not to mention the myriad of small tasks that must be learned to live in a culture with different social norms than the one you grow up in. We sometimes liken the process to being a child again; few of the skills we previously acquired living our lives in the U.S. equipped us for living full time in Italy. We had to learn how to live all over again – where to shop, where to find things, where to go when we had a problem, who to ask our questions – but learn we did. 

We have frequently offered this piece of advice to others looking to move here: “Learn to laugh. And laugh a lot. After you are finished with the crying.”

We were fortunate to have found a real estate agent (immobliare) who was fluently bilingual. This took a couple of failed attempts. The first agent we talked to only seemed interested in people able to purchase million euro villas. The second was so non-responsive I don’t think I ever learned his first name. But the third was golden. Anna-Rita guided us through the shoals of looking at towns and houses, some of which bore no resemblance to what was written in glowing on-line descriptions. She took one look at my list of candidates taken from google searches and struck off a third of them. She knew they all had serious problems not revealed in the florid text or staged photos. We gave her a list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, and bonus features. After three weeks of intensive, in-person looking, she found us a village and a house that met all fifteen items on the list. Plus two we hadn’t thought of.

Anna Rita also helped us to acquire a “codice fiscale,” a tax ID number required in Italy for many transactions, particularly large purchases. She arranged all the steps for the purchase, including hiring a real estate attorney (notaio), a translator so that we understood the terms of the purchase contract, and a geometra – a profession that doesn’t have an Engliish language counterpart but is vital to ensure that there are no claims on the house by distant heirs. She also helped us open a bank account and even put us up in her home overnight when we arrived in Italy to sign the papers and write payment checks early the next morning.

But Anna-Rita was just the first of several amazing Italian people who continued to help us along the way, bumbling and fumbling and completely clueless, as we were at the time. 

One of the things that impressed us on that very first day living in our new village, were the number of people who welcomed us, with several offering assistance. It was breathtaking. Even a pair of nuns in the local convent invited my wife to have tea. While we were checking out one of the small local food markets (alimentari) to acquire some much needed necessities, we were overheard speaking English by a woman at the meat and cheese counter. 

Alexandra is not Italian, but Russian. Before meeting and marrying her Italian husband, she had been a translator and therefore knows multiple languages. She listened to us talk about our liking the town but also our confusion about how to handle the bureaucracy. Then she stepped outside, pulled out her cell phone and called the mayor. She asked him to help us figure out the permits we needed. The next morning, on a Saturday, he came into his office and we sat with him for two hours as he poured though printed manuals, read on-line directives, and made phone calls. We were entirely charmed.

Before we bought our home, after we first toured the house we now live in, we decided we needed to have a second look to affirm that it was The One. This time the man whose family had owned the house for multiple generations insisted to our agent that he meet us and personally give us a tour. We spoke less Italian than he spoke English but the walkabout was amiable and we gushed over all the traditional furnishings filling every room. At the end he offered to include them in the sale. We were delighted. We have since become great friends with Alberto, his wife Adele, and his sister Maria Theresa. During our first eight months without a car, they would take us to agencies, to utility companies, and to train stations whenever we took a trip somewhere. Now that we need less of his help, we just greet each other on the street. He told us recently, “Its your house now.”

These fine people were only some to whom we owe gratitude for assisting us in that first crazed year. Patrick, an Irish expat we befriended after he held forth at a local bar, showed us all the local sources for home repair, tools, and shops selling food for domestic animals. We now hire him to fix things that need fixing in the house. His knowledge of obscure technical terms in Italian for electrical supplies and equipment has been invaluable.

Gemma is an Italian born in Britain who is facile with both languages. She has been helpful in making phone calls to agencies who representatives speak only Italian and at racetrack speeds. She helped us get needed service when we thought our plight was hopeless. As a native Brit, Gemma always has a go-to attitude, with an efficiency and problem-solving mindset that is uncommon in the laid-back Italian culture.  Gemma gets things done – probably why she gets along so well with my wife!

Francesca is the bright, gregarious adult daughter of the owners of the classy restaurant in town. Having worked in the hospitality industry in Germany, she also is fluent in multiple languages. She has helped us understand local customs, who is who is the town, and a myriad of other bits of minutiae one needs to know to live in a small community. Whenever my wife runs into a problem she can’t handle here in town, (despite speaking considerably more Italian these days), she always turns to her good friend Francesca – who invariably knows someone who knows someone who can help us.  

Our good friend Sonia was one of the first people to go with us to places like the bank, or the utility company, and with her limited English, manage to explain to us what was going on. She helped us again recently with the purchase of our new car, when my wife was struggling to communicate with the dealership. It never mattered if her English wasn’t very extensive, as much as did her gregarious and jovial nature, her sincerity and willingness to help made things go so much easier with various agencies.  

Without these fine people, who were and continue to be so generous with their knowledge and time, I think we would have had a much rougher experience during that first year or two. Knowing them has made a big difference in our lives. For which we are supremely grateful.

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Mark Hinshaw is a retired architect and city planner who lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. For 12 years he had a regular column on architecture for The Seattle Times and later was a frequent contributor to Crosscut. He now lives in a small hill town in Italy.

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