Canada and Oz are popular with emigrants right now, but what about a new life on the continent? Kerry Waldron made the leap and, after a slow start, has made a happy life in Italy
WHEN I moved to Italy 10 years ago my whole life was turned upside down. I had been living and working in Dublin where my only experience of wildlife was witnessing the odd naked ‘stag’ chained to a lamppost on a Saturday night.
Beguiled by my English boyfriend, Guy, himself an Italophile, I swapped my life of city-centre living to move to Umbria, in central Italy. I ended up living in the middle of fields, hills and woods with only the odd passing wild boar for company. Looking back I can see how completely naive I was, with no clue to what was in store for me.
The beginning was relatively easy. I had lived abroad before and was always interested in new cultures, plus my other half was fluent in Italian, taking the pressure off me.
Once we settled into normal life in small-town Italy I realised just how isolated I was. We felt like the only ex-pats in the area and my Italian was limited. This was in the days before Skype and smartphones, so calling Ireland was expensive and the line was often bad.
I had harboured images of Italians as gregarious and all-embracing so I found it strange that we didn’t immediately get invited into their circle. Then there was the matter of bureaucracy. Getting a social security number, residency permits and health cards was like climbing Croagh Patrick in the fog. It was while some apparatchik explained the minutia of one form or another that I decided I’d had enough of guessing what was being said and I enrolled in an intensive Italian course. It was the best decision I ever made.
My improving Italian helped a great deal on the search for our dream house. It took six months but we found it, or more precisely our dream pile of rubble. What had once been an Italian farmhouse, which up to three families shared with their livestock, had fallen into disrepair. On the ground floor we found a room containing old chicken pens full of droppings, a rodent-infested pile of sand and a pizza oven used as a giant bin. During the first few weeks of clearing we found a car windscreen, door, bonnet and many tyres.!
One of my first jobs was blasting the plaster off the exterior of the house with a nail-gun attached to an air-compressor. Reaching the upper levels involved climbing up a three-tier scaffold, and the ensuing dust necessitated wearing a hotchpotch of strange garments. There I was with my swimming cap, goggles, ear-protectors and green dungarees on, pelting the plaster in 30-degree heat.
Meanwhile, my husband tried to convince me that laying insulation on the roof and hefting 25kg bags of cement was an act of “amore”. I had my doubts. Despite the blood, sweat, tears and lots of swearing, we managed to restore our romantic little Italian farmhouse. It only took us nine years!
Building a life in Italy is more than bricks and mortar, though. Our house is relatively isolated — it is 6km away from the nearest village where the locals consider anyone from two towns away to be stranieri (foreigners). Assimilation was aided hugely by the arrival of our two sons.
If there is one thing guaranteed to make Italians smile, it is babies. Everyone from grizzly farmers to surly teens melts when faced with a ‘bello bambino’. Amidst the cheek-pinching, hair-tousling and sweet distribution, I finally found it possible to bond with the locals.
Being pregnant in Italy, however, can be overwhelming. Strangers have no qualms about touching la pancia (belly) and asking personal questions.
One of the scariest moments in my Italian life happened when we went to a tiny island off the coast for Easter. I was seven months pregnant with my first child but I didn’t have any complications and felt fit as a fiddle.
We were hoping to enjoy our last holiday BC (before child) but the idyllic setting and enticing sounds of the sea were too much for my son and so he decided to join the party early.
Cue an emergency trip by hydrofoil, followed by a helicopter ride over a sparkling Stromboli and I made my first visit to Sicily. My son was born soon after.
Luckily, our house restoration had left us with a great space to accommodate guests and they came in a steady stream to welcome the newest member of the clan — part-Irish, part-English and now, part-Sicilian.
There are no free rides in our casa, however. Over the years every one of our guests has helped with the ‘work in progress’ that is our home, whether laying cement, cleaning tiles, or plastering walls. It’s a testament to the combined effort of many kind hands, and now every nook and cranny reminds me of the effort that went into its creation.
Days spent breaking our backs to lay a floor or build a wall were followed by evenings enjoying the Italian way of life — fantastic food and wine. But in between we’ve both worked hard. Over the years I have given guided tours, written, edited, taught English and organised weddings. I have also worked as a translator on the nearby Orvieto Horror Awards.
Living in Italy, with its hot summers and very harsh winters (-15 degrees!) has been difficult at times. And I worry about my two sons growing up without a sense of their Irish heritage. But when I hear them asking for “a cup o’ tay” in a perfect brogue, I feel like I have added a little piece of green to the colourful heart of Italy.
Kerry’s tips for life in Italy
First point of call when moving to Italy is the nearest Agenzia dell’Entrate. Here you can register for a Codice Fiscale, which is essential for pretty much everything, including buying a mobile phone, renting an apartment and applying for your health card. Getting the Codice Fiscale is a straightforward procedure and requires only a passport.
Since 2007, all EU citizens planning on staying in Italy for over three months should apply for a Certificato di Residenza at the local Anagrafe office. Evidence of sufficient funds might be required.
Irish citizens can obtain The European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) in Ireland, which covers healthcare in the short-term. For longer stays, EU members can register for the Italian version, Tessera Sanitaria, at their local ASL (Azienda Sanitaria Locale).
Buying a house in Italy can be complicated. If possible, get a recommendation for a local English-speaking solicitor (avvocato) to guide you through the various stages of purchase. Remember to budget for the non-residents’ purchase tax of 10% of the declared value of the house, or 3% if you have residency.
The Irish Embassy in Rome (www.ambasciata-irlanda.it) is full of helpful advice. Based in Milan, the Irish Business Network (contactable through Facebook) provides monthly events and is open to all. The Irish Club of Rome (www.irishclubofrome.com) has a similar set-up.
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