ISSUES,INSIGHTS AND COLOURFUL MOMENTS-FROM THE DESK OF AN ENGLISH AUTHOR.
For many, a holiday in Italy proves to be the beginning of the end. The end of winter fantasies, and the beginning of a burgeoning overdraft.
As early retirement fades into the realms of lost causes, taking stock of what you have done becomes more than just an excuse for opening another bottle of Bolgheri Sassicaia. One headache, after all, is much the same as another. Owning property in Tuscany (or anywhere else in Italy, for that matter) could turn out to resemble a persistent hangover.
A few bank accounts in ‘off shore’ havens may create a soft landing by virtue of fiduciary cushions, but there are enough hard core proto - impecunious romantics out there to make a lot of noise when they touch down. For nearly everyone the home stretch tends to be bumpy, though those with the cushions may only complain of a little local turbulence.
Once you have your feet safely back on the ground, and with the bank manager giving you a reassuring tap on the back while advising you to put the Morgan back on blocks for a couple of years, you may be forgiven for feeling that such economizing borders on penury. “Never mind”, the optimists say, “it will come out all right in the end”. We all have to learn to live with self-delusion.
Now may not be the time to draw attention to the disagreeable aspects of your brave decision to purchase a home in Italy, for after such a long journey, and with the certificate of ‘abitabilita’ - the document that tells you your Italian house is fit to live in - firmly stuffed in the strong box, what else can possibly go wrong?
That is certainly the way it will look to those admiring friends who may descend in their hoards on this Hesperidian island you have created in the middle of Tuscany, or the peripheral collectivist acres thereabouts. They will sit on the terracotta terraces beneath arbours of purple coloured racemes, lazily pluck ripe grapes, or consume seductively sweet figs to satiate some hedonistic desire, before returning to the table to sneak a handy sized piece of salty ciabatta lubricated with the local olive oil. Oh yes, it will go down exceedingly well as they greedily quaff another glass of the muscular ‘sfuso’ wine, bottled straight from the voluptuously shaped demijohn hidden beneath its wicker jacket in the cantina, that nearly gave you a hernia lifting it from the boot of your car.
They will do all this as the sun strikes an ascending arc across a mazarine sky viewed through their Gucci shades, while you lovingly prepare for them an al fresco lunch of bio-sympathetic ingredients scattered with aromatic herbs, fresh from your garden. They will go gently dusky, eat healthily, and sleep exceedingly well under mosquito nets romantically draped across anciently decorated iron beds, and unlike you, will not have dreamt of your neighbours. For the sake of the idyll, you will not have mentioned the neighbours.
Italian neighbours are a strikingly and dauntingly mysterious phenomena that might almost live on your doorstep, or equally, many hectares away out of sight, and thus, dangerously out of mind. One thing; however, is for sure, like it or not, even though you may not see hide-nor-hair of them from one year to the next, you will have neighbours.
Neighbours, but not exclusively or inevitably, for some are worth their weight in gold, come in two sorts: short and hairy with red necks, and short and hairy with four legs. Mostly, they come together. The latter keep you awake at night, and must have kept some Italian nabob from his regulation eight hours in the past, because there are quite effective laws in place to put it all to right. However, as in Italy there are four avenues in any prosecution, if not more, one tends to get lost.
The former are quite a different problem, and though red necked may mean, the world over, someone who labours in the sun, and on the soil, and therefore of an obdurate disposition, in Italy they have added a surreptitious dimension to an already unsympathetic character. Of these you must take note.
It is not something you will wish to startle your friends with who have begun to do a few sums on the back of the newspaper they have brought with them to cope with a lack of ‘in-flight’ entertainment on a trip shorter than to many parts of the British Isles. Now it has begun to facilitate the logarithmical numbers provided by the recent entertainment of ‘Agenzie Immobiliari’ window-shopping.
Estate agents are the same the world over. Instantly addictive. In Italy they tempt you with south facing loggias, noble cypress trees, sprawling acres of olive groves, and the timeless beauty of the Tuscan countryside so much for so little money -- but if they rarely say anything about restoration costs, they never ever say anything about the neighbours.
It may also come as a surprise to the unsuspecting that even the Italians don’t wish to discuss their neighbours, and not only because they too, and you perhaps, are neighbours of someone. At this point fawning belligerent protests from foreign ‘commuters’ will be exaggerated, or possibly laconic, due to a growing doubt about the little old lady in black who assiduously tends the solitary plum tree nestling in their olive grove, as she has been doing all these thirty years since her father worked the land. Thus, the as yet unaffected might disapprove of some unmerited bias, and to be scrupulously fair, there are those who will remain untroubled by such an aberration in this earthly paradise.
‘Those’ are absentee landlords who come and go between Easter and Michaelmas, and may well miss the heady concoction of ‘la dolce vita’ and ‘la amara vita’, in much the same way as those once urban ex-pat’s, make sure they have absolutely--but absolutely-- nothing to do with the natives. Nothing for them is; therefore, a problem. Rather wheel out another gin and tonic, or sink another Moretti than get a glimpse of the two Italy’s. They are the truly ignorant, and the truly blessed. Italy for them remains redolent of Dickens’s parting: -
‘affectionately, in our admiration of the beauties, natural and artificial, of which it is full to overflowing, and in our tenderness towards a people, naturally well disposed, and patient, and sweet tempered’ -
and definitely, most certainly never, having been a neighbour of that great man.
Of course the struggling tenant-farmers of his day have happily moved on. Only recently perhaps, but at a speed that must say something for the benefits of the redistribution of wealth. Their descendants, liberally endowed by strange Christian Democrat/ Socialist alliances, now drive round in vast destructive four wheel drive Japanese SUV’s, and run agriturismo farms that to their ancestors would seem to have fallen straight from heaven. It is amazing how a few olive trees at between one and three litres of oil per tree, depending on the weather, can produce so much wealth! As that is how many see the dispensing of the European Community largesse, then it probably did fall from some such celestial place.
A few of these old characters, who gave up their back breaking rural economy in exchange for minuscule, but seemingly bottomless, state pensions, still languish quietly in ancient agricultural villages, and they, or their ever watchful urbanized family, may too become neighbours of yours.
Is it little wonder that the Northern League, a coalition of political movements seeking regional autonomy led by Matteo Salvini, whose aims and objectives might find sympathy in the tramontane mind set, apparently no longer draws a line across Italy just south of Bologna, thus cutting Tuscany off from the culturally and intellectually progressive north. Whether the region would welcome becoming part of the ‘State of Padania’ remains to be seen, but it’s not only Milanese businessmen who have felt the draught in their purses.
Tuscany is seen as an anachronism, heir to a cultural epoch that the present inhabitants mostly do not share; a fossil slipped into the twenty first century because Symonds and Burckhardt were too clever by half, and made a case for its superiority that has erroneously lasted for centuries. At least it was enough to have encouraged sundry foot loose minor aristocrats, and sagacious professionals with escapist philosophies to seek the Promised Land. If you think we have strayed somewhat off the point, it may merely be because you have not yet experienced the dark, hidden machinations of your neighbours. But then, how would you know that the friendly couple next door, or over the road, or over the hedge at the bottom of your garden, are hiding a secret that could so easily wreck this enchanting idyll. Dazzled by the beauty you will be unaware of the creeping fence that nibbles away a half metre here, or a metre there, in the remorseless augmentation of a neighbour’s property, and the diminishment of yours.
The crux of the matter rests on that which you do not know, but would be so much more helpful if you did. Having done your homework, instructed professional people, waited a great deal of time for the dust to settle, one would expect a reasonable chance of successfully concluding what appears to be a straightforward transaction.
Part Two: August Blog.