Thursday, June 15, 2006

OK, so Italy - but why Marche?

It’s one thing to move to a country with a different language and culture, but it’s another thing to go to a part of the country that most people have never heard of. So then why Le Marche?

It was eventually a very deliberate decision, but it wasn’t even necessarily going to be Italy in the beginning. While it was always the one and only choice for my wife, Spain initially had the inside track on my betting sheet. It wasn’t until I started reading about Le Marche in International Living that my own interest in Bella Italia perked up. Words like “undiscovered”, “the new Tuscany”, “mountains”, “ocean”, all contrived to put me on a plane for a 12-day solo research trip. From then on, there was only one horse in the race.

As it turned out, getting there was fairly simple – a flight into Rome, then a train to Ancona, Marche’s biggest city and a busy ferry port on the Adriatic. A reasonably-priced car rental gave me the freedom to explore its entire Adriatic coastline as well as the interior to the Appenine mountains.

Not insignificantly, the car rental included a rescue service, which came in somewhat handy when – on a darkening Easter Sunday afternoon – Hertz’s agent drove some 40 miles to jump-start my dead-as-a-dodo car at the top of a steep and winding dirt road just recently opened after the winter’s snows. None of those that helped me – from the keeper of Mount Sibilla’s wooden refugio, to the mechanic who drove from Sarnano – spoke a lick of English, and their reaction to my crash-course Italian was all sympathy and no understanding. But somehow we managed to communicate enough with our animated “humanspeak” to get the job done.

I have an indelible picture – as we waited for the mechanic in the deepening gloom and dropping temperature – of the refugio manager’s nonna, clad in quintessential black and with a back so bent that it made me stand up extra-straight to compensate. Every now and then she would wander off, wordlessly, face fixed on the ground, in no apparent direction, but seemingly summoned by a silent, beckoning call. Her granddaughter’s response – to the consternation of my formal, respect-thy-elders upbringing – was swift and scathing, scolding her back into her assigned rank with a sharpness that she (nonna) reacted to in the same way that she appeared to react to everything: as if it hadn’t happened. Such is the wisdom of our elders.

Marche captivated me, from the singular and dramatic seascape around Monte Conero, to the grandeur of Ascoli Piceno’s Piazza del Popolo; from the mist-shrouded statue of Francesco di Assissi on Sasso Simone, to Emperor Augustus’ two-thousand-year-old entrance gate to Fano at the end of the first road to reach the Adriatic from Rome. Brodetto on the coast, olive all’ascolana in Macerata, and a lot more than the renowned Verdichhio and Rosso Conero to savor it with in the unassuming trattoria or osteria that every hilltop town offers as a fixture of its architecture.

In short, it was for me a revelation, a discovery of a world that I never knew existed. That was probably what clinched it for me – a place where we could get away from the masses, and still have it all right there, and in a form perhaps more authentic than any tourist-throbbing hub such as Firenze or Venezia or Roma. And if we ever wanted to explore the undoubted jewels of those places, we could get in a car and be there in a matter of hours.

And so Marche it was, and now is…

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Who indeed would want to move here? Well, ...

Yes, who indeed would want to move to a country as confused and misdirected as Italy? As it turns out, there’s a small family that has several reasons. There is, after all (as everyone knows), another side to this place. Ewart talks of “volcanic passions” and “benevolent sun”, Shelley of “fabrics of enchantment piled to heaven”, and Addison of “immortal glories”. This family’s reasons are all of these, albeit a tad less poetically conceived.

And so here they are, perhaps more reflections of the self than reasons to move to another country.

From the 10-year-old American son, the simplest (and arguably most honest) – pizza, pasta, gelato, and that other staple of the Italian tavola, wild boar.

From the German wife – slow food … the eye in the design … happy, dancing words like “pommeriggio” … whole festivals dedicated to truffles … hand-hewn tunnels whose two-thousand-year-old chip marks are still visible.

Above all, the opportunity to go beyond those two- and three-week snapshots that render lyrical recollections, and be able to swim in it all, drink it all in, and feel it all around, every day, all of the year.

And from this 47-year-old South African, just two – first, adventure: new world, new language, new way of life, new challenges. Lord knows how important challenges are at this sprightly age.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, to leave a life that’s focused on work, for a life that’s focused on life. That’s not to say there won’t be hard work ahead – if anything, making ends meet is likely to be harder. But it’ll be part of the whole, not a means to an end like it is now, or a claim to an empty title. It’s about weaving the fabric and being woven into it at the same time.

Of course, romantic notions can breed anything from a valley of riches to the food of love, but can it put beans and cabbage on the dinner table? Well, we shall see what faith and application can conspire to produce...

In spite of an analytical mind, and a penchant for security, the decision to move to Italy was, after all, one of the heart. As I reflect on it now, it feels like it was the only way to make it, given where we are going …

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Who would want to move here?

It was the ugliest election campaign in the country’s living history, with the leading candidates sledging each other in a way that would make Karl Rove and Dick Cheney beam with admiration. Drunkards leaning on lampposts … sex chat line surveys … testicles … boiled babies and fertilizer – nothing was beyond the pale in a vitriolic contest that in the end centered around … nothing. There was no debate of substance, and it would be surprising if any of the electorate really knew what policies or policy differences, if any, they were voting for. The 49.8% to 49.7% result, while crowning a victor on paper, reflects perhaps more a change of underwear than a change of the guard…

Who in his right mind, after all, would want to take charge of an economy that roared along at 1.2% in 2005, and that is optimistically projected to “accelerate” to 1.4% by 2008. Wow! Hold on to your horses, cowboy! No wonder that it was left to a buffoon and a “bland sausage” to contest for the reins of the most tepid economy in a struggling region, in a country with the zone’s highest tax rates – no mean achievement – and, both delightfully and somewhat unsurprisingly, the most pervasive and routine practice of the sport of tax evasion.

Talking of sport, it’s enough to force one to turn away from politics and business and try to get a little distraction and diversion. But turning to soccer – the next biggest thing to Catholicism (if it’s even second at all to anything in everyman’s true and honest heart) – the news isn’t much better. With World Cup 2006 just days away, the country’s footballing fraternity is reeling under a series of top-level scandals and resultant resignations that have everyone crying anything but wolf. Flamboyant tales of match-fixing, “irregular betting patterns”, and the withdrawal of an already-appointed World Cup referee (because of “consultations” with club officials associated with the scandals), have investigators unsure which way to turn, not for lack of material, but rather for the gluttonous surfeit of it. It’s a veritable Machiavellian feast, right in his own back yard.

Ah, but that’s all at the top, you say. Life at eye level – or “I” level, perhaps – is more normal, surely. Well, perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. Where else would you find a water bill for 1.4 million liters for a house whose owners were over 4,000 miles away, and whose water meter was rusted so fast that it couldn’t be opened? Frustrating enough, yes, but nothing compared with the task of sorting it out. With a bureaucracy that embodies and enthusiastically embraces the very term’s caricatured reputation, repeat visits and cast-iron proof yielded … a 1% reduction in the bill. “Must be a commercial venture,” says the water authority earnestly of the rural, vacant property, secure in their fantasy and with a hand hovering over the red “disconnect” button.

Who, then, in their right mind, would even consider moving to a country as confused and misdirected as this one? Yes, who indeed…