Sunday, 22 February 2009


Hold onto your seats because I’m going to shatter a myth: not all ex-pats living in Tuscany live in bougainvillea covered mansions on olive oil producing country estates. I know this is upsetting and difficult to understand but for most of us, there is no olive grove, no hunky local gardener getting his hands dirty in our herb garden and no Martini sunset overlooking the gently rolling hills. Forget ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ and by the way, I recently read that Frances Mayes now lives back in California – which really tells you all you need to know about the Tuscan dream.

In reality, most of us live in condominiums, which is a kind of Latin-based fancy way of saying ‘block of flats’. In fact, ninety-nine per cent of people in Italy live in flats, even in the countryside which is bizarre. Rich or poor, nobody considers it shabby to live in a place where you can hear four sets of neighbours sneeze, burp or sing ‘O Sole Mio’ at 3am if the fancy takes them (Italians don’t really sing ‘O Sole Mio’ either, by the way).

I have the fortune of living on the ground floor in my condominium. This means that although I’m three thousand times more likely to be burgled and have so many problems with damp you’d think I lived in a swamp, I nonetheless boast a small garden. And I never have to buy pegs because the old ladies who live in the four flats above me just shower them down into my garden like confetti daily.

My neighbours are a mixed bunch. There’s Lorenzo next door – you’d never think that a guy who sings in a Black Sabbath cover band would have a little black and white dog called Rosy, would you? He also has two commando tortoises who must have jetpacks or something because no matter how many times I put them back over the wall, the moment I look away they’re back in my garden and munching on my flowers. Last Summer, one of the cheeky fellows spent two hours making rather obvious amorous advances on an old teapot I have on the patio and which I use as a flower pot. Then there’s Lorenzo’s granny who lives upstairs with Attila the cat. You haven’t lived till you’ve seen this tiny, grey haired, stooped lady out in Lorenzo’s garden calling for naughty Attila to come back upstairs for some lunch. It must be a cat with a severe identity crisis too because although Attila is a female, she has a (scary) male name and everyone uses masculine word endings when talking about her. I will never understand Italian. There’s also who Paolo lives on the first floor. He’s mid-fifties and the tallest, skinniest man I’ve ever seen. He looks like a daddy-long-legs spider when he’s on his motorbike. He gets so worked up when Fiorentina play that everyone within a two mile radius can hear the score and our window panes shake when they get anywhere near the goal.

I normally just write the rest of the inhabitants off a ‘nice old people’ but I found out something amazing about Duillio from the second floor at the condominium meeting last Thursday night. (FYI: a condominium meeting is when everyone in the block of flats gets together and decides thrilling things like when to have the septic tank emptied. Every condominium has an ‘ammisitratore’ who’s paid handsomely by us to chair these meetings and then do things like call the septic tank people.) (By the way, did you notice how I just slipped in there about septic tanks? You didn’t think a modern city like Florence would have mains drainage did you? I’m really telling it how it is today). After the meeting last week, Duillio, who’s ancient and almost totally deaf, told us that he had just been awarded a gold medal of honour by the German government in recognition of the time he spent as a prisoner of war in Germany at the end of the Second World War. After much shouting of questions, he told us how, as a soldier, he was captured here in Italy and taken to Germany to work in a factory for a year. He told us how the factory was bombed by the Allies and he spent 48 hours under the rubble. As he quietly said, that’s like from now to tomorrow night and then the same again. Not knowing if he’d live or die. He lost so much weight during his time as a prisoner that it caused permanent damage to his stomach and he had to be operated on after the war. He told us that when he was presented with the medal in Livorno, a journalist asked him if he had any good memories of his time in Germany. He had answered that there was a man there, a manager in the factory, who had lost his son in the war. Diullio told us that being tall, blond and blue-eyed himself, he must have reminded this man of the son he had lost because quite inexplicably, he took Duillio from the factory to his home for Sunday lunch with his family nearly every week.

It’s hard to match Duillio as I see him today, watery-eyed and shuffling off to the take the rubbish out, with this image of a fresh faced, golden haired young man. It made me feel extremely sheepish about having taken a day off work that week for something so silly as a stomach bug. I also realised that I hardly know my neighbours – and I’ve lived in this flat for four years. Florentines aren’t so expansive as everyone thinks Italians are (another myth out the window I’m afraid) and let’s face it, I’m far too English to make the first move to get to know everyone myself. Who knows what stories the others could tell.

I wouldn’t mind having a chat with the tortoises too, actually. Having said that, I secretly suspect that they already understand me perfectly well but think I’m too stupid to notice their plotting.

Read more!