Moving to the Italian countryside for la bella vita, as portrayed by myriad best-selling books and Hollywood movies, inspires many. Yet, Deana Luchia points out, the reality can be far from idyllic.
I moved to an old farmhouse in Italy in 2002. Pregnant with my second child, I was eager to escape the rush of London and live a simpler life. There’d be fields for the children to run around in; I might buy a few sheep, a cow. Definitely a goat. We’d all appreciate the slower pace, the clean air, the amazing mountains on our doorstep.
I’d only seen the farmhouse once before we moved there. It was in Le Marche – still touted as the next Umbria, whatever that means. It was slightly run down, but it was surrounded by fields, and, nestling at the foot of a hill, it seemed sheltered and safe.
It was early summer at the time and I was reeling with morning sickness made worse by the heat and the bends of the road between the farmhouse and Assisi, where we were staying, and I didn’t give much thought to the move.
I believed that life on our farm would be nothing short of wonderful, in part because wasn’t that how moves like this were portrayed in films and books? (A genre in itself, really: foreigners in Italy; a wonderful adventure; an abundance of olive trees and quirky locals.)
To say I made a mess of it, that I hadn’t at all considered what it would really be like swapping central London for the middle of nowhere, is a massive understatement.
We moved there in September. There were a couple of weeks of sunshine and then the sun never made it above the hilltop for the next seven months. It was cold, damp, and the heating installed at great expense did little to warm up the place. By then, I was eight months pregnant and had a chatty two-year-old who needed friends as much as I did, but I quickly realised that the gaggles of locals, happy to dispense advice and eager to share a plate of pasta in every book about the Italy I’d read, were fictional.
Firstly, we had no immediate neighbours, and the locals in the nearest village weren’t at all keen to know anything more about the mad foreigners up the hill. I thought, perhaps it just takes time. Perhaps those books and films just skipped the lonely bits.
With no one to talk to, I focused on the land, pacing our fields with toddler and new baby in tow. But our fields became quickly overgrown – we had to wade through the grass, and the vegetable crops so painstakingly planted by the previous owners had quickly turned to seed.
I knew nothing about gardening and it showed. I bought a goat, and we named her Felicity, thinking she would happily work her way through some of the grass but she turned her full attention on the olive trees and the few pots of geraniums we’d planted to add some colour to what had quickly become a bleak landscape.
Life passed very slowly and coldly. I worried that my son had no peers – the nursery didn’t seem to like that we were foreign, or that I wanted to send him for just a few mornings rather than a 40-hour week.
We saw no one: a weekly trip to the supermarket or a postnatal check-up were hugely anticipated. It didn’t take long for feelings of isolation to turn into depression.
When it was agreed that local farmers would graze their sheep on our land to keep the grass down, I was jubilant. I’d see other people! I struck up conversations with these farmers, not at all minding that we only ever talked about ticks, comparing their sheep ticks with those attached to my dogs – two Border terriers called Alfredo and Luigi.
I relished these fragments of chat. (Less so the fractious argument with hunters yelling at me that they had the right – true – to walk across my land with loaded guns and dogs, shooting at whatever they saw fit.)
I did learn to appreciate the small things – the sheep; the farmers’ chat; the 30 minutes I would take out of my day to cycle up the mountain, marking the progress I made by counting the snow poles; the almost dreamlike image of a herd of fat white cows crashing through our fences to graze.
But loneliness, and guilt about not being happy tainted everything.
Things unravelled fast. A sickly sheep I rescued – unable to keep up with the flock due to a broken leg – was finished off by Alfredo and Luigi. Relishing their newfound freedom after living in London, our dogs slept by day and roamed the mountains by night.
Then Alfredo got hit by a car and I had to bury him several times as the animals that roamed our fields after dark dug him up and scattered him about. Months later Luigi got gouged by a wild boar and almost died from his injuries.
Only Felicity seemed to be at home, determined and happy to follow me as I made my slow walks round the fields. When we left after 18 months, having to say goodbye to Felicity – she was given to a German family living off the land and in even greater isolation than we were – seemed particularly cruel.
All that went wrong, was, of course, my fault. I did no research into the area. I never questioned whether I would miss city life, whether my young children and pets would be suited to this new environment.
When I look back, living in Le Marche was a series of lessons, many of them harsh (the death of my much loved dog), some of them simple (movies and books don’t tell it how it really is) and all staying with me for a lifetime.