My road to a home in Italy, and then to a habitable one, and then to one in which I feel at home has been and continues to be a tortuous one. It’s a story that, I hope, is revealing itself bit by bit in these posts. It’s a story that’s still revealing itself to me.
I’d finally figured out that I could find fellow expats via social media and, in fact, found several Abruzzo-based groups on Facebook. The discovery of new friends was well-timed because I’d been struggling with feelings of isolation and vulnerability in Italy and, increasingly, asking myself how I really felt about having a house there. Having some friendly souls not only to hang with but to compare notes with and ask advice of -- about whom to call for this and where to go for that-- makes me feel like I've made the house and its environs more my own this trip.
Gail and Vince
My first new friends are Gail and Vince, former New Yorkers who have some family roots in Fossacesia and who, some years ago, decided to trade Washington Square for a life and livelihood there. They are now the owners of a guesthouse down at the beach called Palazzo del Mare (www.palazzodelmar.net).
A lot of people compare my experience to that of Frances in Under the Tuscan Sun, but the truth is Gail’s experience is much closer, renovating as she did a huge palazzo while her Italian was still nascent. She says she spoke "construction" before she spoke much else (which makes her a great resource for house issues!). Here are some photos of their guesthouse.
Gail confirmed what I thought I already knew: There are virtually no Americans in or near Fossacesia; in almost 15 years here, she’s never encountered one. There are, however, some Brits in other areas of Abruzzo, particularly in nearby Lanciano and around Guardiagrele (my new pals Jilly and John are two of them!).
Gail regaled me with stories of some of the things I’d feared about Italian bureaucracy. She spoke of files lost; of churlish government clerks who, like Bartleby the Scrivener, would seem to "prefer not to" give you the documents you need; of come back tomorrows, come back next months, come back next years. She's found the way to get things done is to have a bona fide native of the area go with you and either wrangle on your behalf or, better still, say hello to someone he or she knows in the office. Hi, how’s your mother? Would you please stamp this application for my friend?
In one particularly vexing bureaucratic contretemps, Vince — while trying to renew his driver’s license, I think — had been told that he'd need to prove he was not wanted by the police anywhere in the world. After puzzling for months over how exactly he could accomplish that, he one day stumbled onto news that the rules had changed. All he need do was scribble on a piece of paper that he was not wanted by the police anywhere in the world. And that was that.
These anecdotes were not encouraging. I still need to apply for a permesso di soggiorno (elective residency), particularly with the laws changing almost hourly in Italy now. (As of 2021, Americans will need a visa to visit.) Technically, I’m entitled to a permesso since I own property and can show that I’m self-supporting and thus neither looking to work nor likely to become a ward of the state. Nevertheless, I was turned down flat two years ago when I’d gone to the consulate in New York to begin the process. Maybe the woman behind the desk found me shifty; maybe she was just feeling ornery. Who knows? But she curtly pushed my ream of paper back at me and told me I didn’t need the permesso to visit my house. When I protested that I'd still like to begin the process, she simply said no. What could I do? Abashed, I’d skulked away in defeat.
So happy was I when Gail and Vince invited me to go with them the following morning to Lanciano, the seat of the province. They needed to ask where their renewed residency permits were; I hoped to find out how to begin the residency process from within the country. They got the equivalent of “it’s in the mail.” I got referred back to New York.
However, my new pals did give me the name of a Pescara-based lawyer who is American by birth. That’s a tip that could prove very useful.
Jilly and John
I found Jilly on a facebook group primarily for UK expats. Via messenger, we bonded a bit over the recent deaths of our pets, and Jilly invited me to lunch when next I landed in Abruzzo.
To meet her and her husband John, I drove the 40 minutes or so to Guardiagrele. Actually, I drove the 75 minutes or so to Guardiagrele because I got lost, as I usually do.
You never know what interesting characters you'll meet where. John is a former Royal Navy man and musician whose band opened for Super Tramp in Miami in 1977. His RN vessel had been stranded in Miami for six weeks for repairs -- I forget why -- and the famous band invited John's group to open after hearing them play at a small club there. Jilly is a colorful character who I imagine will become still more colorful as we get better acquainted. Originally from Cornwall, she moved around Great Britain as a dancer, teacher, and nurse before meeting and marrying John some three years ago, after which the two promptly packed it all in and moved to the foothills of the Maiella mountains.
As for their own experience with bureaucracy, the couple laughed about the total of 56 signatures they’d needed to buy their house and the third request they’d submitted just to get their wifi renewed.
Their home has spectacular views (do hit arrow on photo below). And now Jilly just wrote me that a neighbor has given them a plot of land to do with as they please. (That’s stunning enough given the Italian love of terreno. I’ll have to get more details on that one!) Jilly has already threatened to put me to work pruning trees or picking olives once she and John decide what they’ll do with the tract. I’m thrilled at the prospect of playing Green Acres with them.
Jilly and John say they do as their neighbors do. That is to say, they never throw anything away. They’ve even made planters out of a discarded bidet and washer.“And you aren’t an Italian until you’ve taken off your roof and stacked it in your garden,” they told me.
The highway once ran through their backyard. The streetlight still stands as silent witness.
It’s nice to know that other ex-pats are looking for friends, too —- even those with quite friendly neighbors. J&J told me they have in their village what sounds like a Cheers!-style watering hole. It's the only one in town, evidently, so everybody gathers there and the bonhomie (pardon the French) triumphs over the language barrier. I'm envious. There’s no such spot by me where everybody knows my name and they're always glad I came. There are a few cafes where groups of older men sit and watch everybody come and go, but that’s not quite the same.
Jilly sent me home with a box of walnuts from her trees. They’re wonderful, but I had trouble cracking them. Always thought I knew the basics of using a nutcracker: Insert nut and squeeze. But I sent shells flying all over the kitchen and still failed to get my hands on the nutmeat. When I texted her an SOS, Jilly advised tapping them with a hammer at the seam.
Live and learn.