Shabby Conscious Competence

July 16, 2019

Part 3 from Chris of Shabby Sheep Design covers the reality of traveling to Italy from the UK, the reality of home renovation, and the true cost of living in Italy. It is no longer just about being a traveler. You do NOT know anyone. The language is still challenging. And now how to survive with your new financial realities?  Creativity, tenacity and love of Italy can keep you going. It keeps Chris and Eva going.

Remember, you receive a 15% discount if you choose to purchase from Shabby Sheep Design using my code:

Read about Step three of the four-part series. Grab an aperitivo with a Spritz!

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Unraveling the Dream - 'Conscious Competent'

We drove through France at a leisurely pace with our dog, the car rammed full of things we'd need for the initial days in our new home before the removal van arrived. One was a self-inflating mattress that we planned to sleep on prior to the arrival of our bed. 

As a couple Eva and I have a history of disagreeing (quite noisily) about when and where to make our overnight stops. Our second night, our last in France, was no exception. It was getting dark. We'd been driving all day and we were both gagging for a drink and something to eat. We circled the town of Le Bourget du Lac getting rattier and rattier with each other, failing miserably to find anywhere that we could agree on to stay. As a last resort I asked someone in whatever French I could muster 'where is the best hotel in town?' It turned out to be a 5* joint, not what we were used to at all. 

But we had Moley our German Shepherd/Doberman cross with us. I strode confidently into reception and asked for their best remaining room and advised the girl on reception that we were travelling with a 'well behaved' dog. No problem. It was fun to watch her face change as we re-entered minutes later with what one of our friends used to describe as 'part Horse, part Kangeroo'!

That evening we were subjected to a typically over the top French gourmet tasting dinner consisting of about 120 courses, all of which about the size of a pea, yet each of which was described as having a fluff of this, or a foam of that on a bed of blah, blah, blah. And the wine waiter insisted on placing our wine about 3 meters away from our table. Grrrr! After about 6 courses we stormed out of the restaurant, grabbing our bottle of wine and went for a walk by the lake instead. A timely reminder of why we'd chosen Italy over France to be our adopted homeland.

Next day, after having been given a severe 'once over' by French Border Police we drove through the Frejus tunnel. They stopped short of searching the car we think because of the Half Horse, Half Kangaroo in the back! Tunnels are scary things at the best of times, but when they go on for about 20 minutes the sense of being trapped is acute. Three weeks later a truck carrying tires caught fire in the middle of the 13km long, 9m wide tunnel killing 2 people. The tunnel was closed for many months afterwards. Scary!! But on 9th May 2005 we emerged into sunshine on the Italian border and saw half a dozen sun glass wearing Carabinieri leaning against their cars, without a care in the world. Their single concern - what Mamma or la moglie was going to cook them for lunch - ITALY WE ARE HOME!

Later that afternoon we arrived at our new home - only it seemed to be inhabited by about 20 builders. The cup of tea we'd been looking forward to making wasn't going happen - there was no kitchen! And we couldn't walk on the first floor because they were in the middle of staining the floorboards. 'Hmmmm' we thought, which part of the project manager's words 'yes the house is ready for you' had we misunderstood?

So, we had to eat out that evening and after having enjoyed a sumptuous and simple dinner at what is now our favourite local restaurant 'da Mauro' 

we came back up the hill in our Lancia (that nobody it turns out thought was cool) and unpacked the self-inflating mattress. We were exhausted, ready to 'hit the hay'. The mattress needed batteries! F#######K! So, we slept on the floor on an uninflated piece of rubber which was on top of cardboard boxes and newspapers - 'Top Tip’, nights in May in Tuscany can be cold if you are sleeping on ceramic tiles. Which is exactly how we slept the following night too - because I'd bought the wrong type of batteries in the corner shop!! You couldn't make this stuff up right?

Over the following months we managed to bring the renovation to a close, but only by borrowing on a mortgage to make the dream a reality. Time to start living the least that's what the constant succession of friends who came to visit us from the UK must have been thinking. We barely had anytime to ourselves. Time after time we schlepped around the pretty villages of Bagnone, Pontremoli, Fivizzano and the coastal gems like Lerici, Tellaro and Portovenere - we never go to the Cinque Terre because of the hoards of tourists!!




Unknowingly we had become unpaid tourist guides to our friends, we had become a holiday destination. There's a local expression which we can testify to the validity of which goes something like "friends, like fish, start to smell bad after a few days".

Any friends reading this we do love you honestly!

Now, whilst we still love hosting our friends here (and let's face it we never go back to see them in the UK) we limit the duration of their stays to 3 nights, make sure they have a hire car and protect a couple of weeks at least between visitors leaving and others arriving. There are only so many lunches and gelato we can eat, let alone can afford after all.

Actually when you’re ‘Born to Gelato’, it’s not an issue. (t.shirts available from ShabbySheep.Design)

Sat at home one evening in the early days, watching the BBC (in the days before they moved the satellite to stop viewers outside of the UK watching) there was a knock at the door. It was a guy, about our age who we'd seen around in the village piazza a few times. He wandered in and stared at us like a rabbit in the headlights.

Even he seemed not to know why he was there, just that he couldn’t resist the power of his curiosity to find out what kind of Inglese could possibly want to move to his sleepy village in the Tuscan hills. Turns out he's called Lino and for the next few months, pretty much every other night either he would come to our house or we'd go to his place in the borgo (where he lived with his wife, Paola, son Marco and mother-in-law Renata). Our conversations were supported by the frequent grabbing of the large dictionary we'd bought for just such occasions. 

Before we'd left the UK we had taken a few Italian lessons with a native speaker which meant that at least we had some vocabulary and could conjugate a few key verbs in the present tense. Just as well because Lino's command of English seemed to extend to 'pencil'! Later I went on to be nominated for the Nobel Prize for Languages for my simple verb conjugation mind map!


Over the following months we grew really close to Lino and his family. Also living in the village were Luigino (grandmother's brother and Angolina, his wife, plus brother-in-law Guido and his daughter Ilaria). In total the village had about 30 inhabitants - Lino kept more sheep than there were people!

We had been 'adopted'. Perhaps made appealing by the fact that we were keen to learn about their rural lifestyle and that we pushed ourselves forward as best we could with our Italian. Not easy because most of the villagers speak a dialect that shortens every word and sounds more like Cantonese than Italian.

As time rolled on, we were invited to take part in the Vendemia (wine harvest), olive harvest and potato harvest.


I even witnessed Lino slaughter our own lamb for the freezer. It was my intention to do it myself, but having observed one be dispatched I was too worried about causing suffering to the animal - whereas Lino was a master with the knife.

Renata (the grandmother) also became a true mentor to us, not just with chickens, teaching me to slaughter and clean them, but with her orto (veg plot) and local recipes for things like torta di erbe and various pasta dishes like spaghetti with porri and speck.

And from Lino I found an unexpected passion - Olive trees. Lino suggested that we should plant some young trees on some of the terraced land which we were working to clear together. He organised the delivery of 16 or so 2-year old trees which I planted over a few days. At the time we genuinely did not have the money for those trees, but Eva and I just knew that our priorities were different from what they used to be - living the contadino (small holder) lifestyle was what we wanted. We had realised that if we thought about it, we just about had the hang of living like a local - we were 'Consciously Competent'.


When we were renovating the house, we felt 'rich', the project pot was full. However, for day to day living NOW we were truly poor because 

1. Exchange rates had eaten away at our UK income. 

2. We now had a mortgage to pay. 

3. Having entered the local taxation system we were paying more than double what we had expected. 

4. Every household utility bill was hugely more expensive that we had imagined - even heating the house was beyond us. In all reality, we could probably only stay afloat* for another 6 months. We cried, we slept badly, but we had seen enough of our dream to know this was the life we wanted and neither Eva nor I could face the prospect of admitting failure, trying to sell up and leaving Italy. 

*here is a super-soft beach towel afloat! Original towels available from ShabbySheep.Design

So we racked our brains to find a way to balance the books, and quickly...

Stay tuned for the finale next week. Pass the prosecco!

Ciao for now!

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