Back in early 2009 Sharron Withers decided she’d had enough of living in a wet and cold country and decided it was time for a change. Throughout the year frantic preparations were underway for a complete relocation to the Med and Italy. This is the first of a series of articles Sharron has been kind enough to write for MultiMediaMouth where she chronicles the past year and her experiences now she has moved.
So it’s Christmas day 2009 and I’m sitting on the balcony in the sunshine, looking down on the tops of the lemon trees, the warm wind from Africa on my face, a lunch of pasta, salad and good wine inside me and the faint smell of buffalo’s drifting on the breeze making me remember the mozzarella I just ate and wondering ‘How did I get here?’
All the months of planning and saving, playing linguaphone CD’s in the car, packing up my life, saying goodbye and even the four week hell of the CELTA seem like a distant blur now. Although in reality a few days ago we had just arrived in Castel Volturno, Caserta, southern Italy, ready to start our new Italian life in the sunshine. The journey was a long one: we packed up the car on a grey foggy, North London morning at 5 am; aided by an inquisitive fox who seemed determined to get inside the house (I suppose it must have seemed very inviting on that cold morning)! After we had packed and packed and argued and re-packed the car, we were off, on our way to Plymouth, the car so full Melanie in the passenger seat had her knees round her ears. The first boat journey was unremarkable, 24 hours on a boat from Plymouth to Santander, we slept through the Bay of Biscay and drove across Spain to Barcelona for the next leg of our journey. Unfortunately our directions stopped just outside the port but we could see the boat we wanted to get on so we headed for it. It took us about an hour of driving up and down the road, in and out different gates, asking Spanish men (who quickly got very angry with us) in Italian and English, how to get onto our boat and being sent in a different direction by everybody, to finally get onto the boat. Did I mention it was dark and windy and lashing down with rain by now? Most of the other passengers were truckers. But undaunted we drove up in our little Honda Jazz, triumphantly showing our ticket to the Italian men ( this was an Italian line) who looked at us with a puzzled expression and took our ticket away to discuss. We looked at each other and smiled because we knew how much Italians like to talk about things and we had prepared ourselves for a life of waiting around for a long discussion before any little decision is reached. Imagine our consternation when he came back to tell us ‘this teeckit no good’! Somehow we had managed to book a crossing from Civitavecchia – Barcelona instead of Barcelona – Civitavecchia. In dismay we assured the man we booked the right journey, they must have made the mistake. We argued and pleaded but he wouldn’t let us on the boat. The only thing to do is go to the office but we leave in twenty minutes. A mad dash across the port to the office and we are informed that there is nothing they can do, the crossing for which we have a ticket is cancelled because of the weather. But we don’t want to go on that boat anyway, we want to go to Italy and live in the sunshine! We want to catch the boat at 11 o’clock. That boat has gone he informs us. No, we were just on that boat it’s definitely still here and we want to get on it, we tell him. So he writes a note on the bottom of our ticket which says ‘please let these crazy English women on the boat’ (or something along those lines) and stamps it. Back we go across the port, the rain really lashing down now, desperation setting in and visions of driving up to France and all the way down through Italy passing through our heads. However, back on the boat the man reads the note and cheerfully waives us on! Success!
We abandon our car and, triumphantly, search for reception so we can get ourselves a cabin, both looking forward to some food, a large glass of wine and bed. At reception it’s time for another long discussion. By now they have discovered that Melanie speaks fluent Italian and are refusing to speak English so much of this discussion goes over my head. Suffice to say that although we were on the boat, we shouldn’t have been so we had to buy another ticket. But don’t worry there is another mistake on your original ticket so you should be able to get a refund!
About two hours later we fall into bed, exhausted.
The journey was rough, we had to take a detour to avoid bad weather, but eventually we arrived in Civitavecchia, found our hotel and celebrated with champagne.
The next day we drove down to Castel Volturno- our new ‘home in the sunshine’. Arriving in winter we didn’t expect it to be too warm but what we failed to realise and the locals delightedly informed us- most houses don’t have heating! Yes it’s colder inside than out! Most of the houses in this area were originally holiday homes, many of them falling into disrepair now, people used to spend summers here on the beach and the houses are large airy places with tiles or marble on the floors and are just not equipped to deal with cold weather. So we spent our first day and night huddled under blankets!
We went to see our new apartment- already found by a friend of ours. Apartments in the quaint old village of Castel Volturno are highly sought after and difficult to find. They are never advertised, just found by word of mouth so we consider ourselves fortunate to have this place. It’s lovely, we have huge rooms which are light and airy, balconies and most importantly of all- central heating! Our landlords live downstairs, an old Italian couple who don’t speak any English. I call him Mr. Moon because he has a huge round face which splits in half with an enormous grin when he smiles and his eyes close. He sort of shakes his head with silent laughter when he’s amused. They invited us in and sat us round the table, placed coffee in front of us and talked at us in dialect. The local dialect is Castelino and most people here can speak Neapolitan both very different from proper Italian and neither of which are even slightly intelligible to me. Napoli is about a 45 minute drive away. The coffee the locals give you here is often already sugared, making it quite similar to Turkish coffee though not as thick. Our new large apartment which they are decorating for us is about one third of the rent I used to pay for a tiny little damp flat in North London, the cost of living is very low here and we have job prospects in Rome which is 2 ½ hours away on the train, which means we should be able to earn enough to live very easily.
We have already experienced the madness of driving here. Naples is one of the worst cities to drive in and the nearer you get to it the crazier it becomes! There seems to be two different types of drivers here, the maniacs who speed everywhere and don’t ever stop and the dawdlers. The dawdlers just potter along in their old fiats, half in one lane and half in another, slowing down to wave to a friend or answer their mobile or gesticulate wildly to their passenger, no doubt in the middle of some thrilling story whilst you are desperately trying to get past then so you can drive at more than 20 mph. On our first trips down the Domiziana, the long straight main road which runs from our village all the way into Naples, we were cheerfully informed by our Italian friend ‘be careful at the roundabouts because nobody stops’! It’s true, cars speed down the road and fly over the roundabouts without even looking, so you have to check both ways, this means there are always cars stopping halfway round the roundabout! We already have a dent in our little Honda. We parked and walked down a little lane. When we arrived back at the car there was a huge dent in the rear door which now won’t open. Welcome to Naples!
We know the best place to buy mozzarella ‘Ponte a Mare‘ (the mozzarella produced here is the best ever, we have eaten it every day and dream about it every night, when I visit England my suitcase will be full of mozzarella), the best place to buy our vegetables and bread and have been introduced to the local shopkeepers. They all seem very friendly although I can’t understand what they say so I just nod and smile, hoping I’m nodding in the right places.
A couple of days after we arrived a warm wind started to blow from Africa, the sirocco, so now it’s lovely and warm and sitting here on the balcony, overlooking the lemon trees, watching two stray dogs playing together, at the back of my mind I know the cold weather will come back again before the summer and after the holidays we will have to start to process of moving in Italy which means endless trips to different offices, producing different documents and being passed from one official to another, being told we need one document in order to gain another, we will have to furnish our new apartment and establish our work in Rome but right now there are more pressing things on my mind, such as after I finish my book it’ll be time to start thinking about cooking supper…..