Fifty Shades of Red in Italy

Here in Italy...I have peace of mind and a lovely home. This is one of the many things that Australian-born Cat has to say as an expat living in Italy. Read on to discover more about her views as a writer, mother, and traveler who calls the northern Italian countryside home.


-Where were you born?

I was born in Australia way back in the sixties, and grew up a dedicated disco freak.

-In which country and city are you living now?

I live outside of Padova in the countryside, in northern Italy.

-Are you living alone or with your family?

I live with my four children.

-How long have you been living in Italy?

We've been in Italy for nine years now.

-What is your age?

I'm 48

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Italy?

My first husband was Italian and we bought a country house here many years ago when we were working in Somalia.  The house was our summer escape but remained quite primitive (no heating and lots of damp). Years later I had been living in Ghana in West Africa for nine years and wanted to move on, but taking my brood back to Australia seemed a long way to go. Plus this house would provide a good base for raising a big family, rather than a city apartment. I needed quiet, some seasons, and the house needed renovations and some serious heating. Eventually this all happened but it took a long while! It has proven to be a great location for raising my family and as we are centrally located in Europe it has been easy to keep in touch with friends and we've had house guests from all over the world - though no one comes through the foggy winter!

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

Initially I had a spousal visa but as soon as I decided to stay I preferred to have a European passport and so began working towards this. However, as I had been a resident in half a dozen countries - including Somalia which had no functioning government at the time I needed my criminal check certificate - it was very lengthy and frustrating to do my citizenship papers.  Every time I received one criminal check certificate another one expired so it was rather like chasing one's tail. It took me nearly five years to do my passport.

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

Compared with Ghana where I had my last child, Italian health services have been accessible and reliable and - in theory - they are available to you even before you have your residence papers. When I first travelled in Italy in my twenties I had no insurance and it was risky, but now we are all covered by the national system, which isn't too bad if you hunt around for good specialists. Hospitals in the north are pretty good although I have had some dodgy experiences in the past.

-How do you make your living in Italy? Do you have any type of income generated?

I am the author of The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy, published in April, and am now editing my second book, Pelt and Other Stories. My first book is set in Milan and is a hit with expats, being a sort of journey of sexual linguistics. I am about to make some film proposals. One lives in hope! My short stories are set on the divide between cultures, with many stories set in West Africa in that space between belonging and tearing away; they deal with cultural discomfort, travel, detachment.

When I first lived in Italy many years ago I worked as an English teacher without papers, and over the last years that we have been here I have developed some good contacts for translating work, which however pays very erratically and poorly. I do enjoy historical translation - I work for a historical museum - but often the level of translations I see are shocking and I wonder if it's worth putting in so many hours for such terrible pay!

-Do you speak Italian and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.

I speak Italian well and my kids are bi-lingual. I think it's essential to speak the local language to be accepted, to make friends and to understand what is going on around you. I understand dialects in my area and believe that your appreciation of your surroundings can only run deeper if you speak and read the language - even if that works in a negative way sometimes! I don't have very many expat friends because as I writer I spend a lot of time on my own, and I find that in provincial life many people are quite conformist and quick to pigeonhole someone who looks or dresses a little differently. I'm too old to care! I also find that a sporty, well-travelled divorcée is seen as a bit of threat by some local women, while men think you must be an easy pick-up! This can cause isolation, but it means that when you do fall upon the 'right' people it is doubly rewarding.

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?

I do miss the idea of Sydney (my home town) and we all think wistfully of taking off down there one day. But for the next few years I want to stay close to my publisher in the UK and my reader events over there. Plus my kids are in the middle of school and university so we are here for a while yet. I miss my parents very much and would love to take an extended holiday over there - maybe when my short story collection comes out - but for now I have to keep focussed. If I returned to Australia I would miss free-heel skiing here in the Dolomites, which takes up much of my winter. I'd also miss my cherry trees, my piano room and access to formidable shoes and handbags, one of Italy's great drawcards. If I think about what I miss of Australia I would say the water, living by the harbour and sailing, plus the warmth of people there - and super Asian food!

-Do you have other plans for the future?

I'd love to travel in Australia one day, but for the moment my life is determined by the school year and the ski season, and promoting my work in the UK. I also work part-time on international trade fairs with a friend who works in fashion, so I travel to Paris and Tokyo every so often - as an independent woman rather than a mother of teens - which calms my travel yearnings. I have strong ties to London and want to expand these - my novel was published with a small British press so I have been going back and forth to work on promotion, and have a literary festival this summer in Cornwall. Publishing a book has changed everything - I am learning how to market a physical book in today's e-everything society - and yet for the future I would like to have the time and structure to work ahead on new material in my own house, here in Italy where I have peace of mind and a lovely home.

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

My ex-husband and I bought this house over twenty years ago for a very good price. I'm sure its value has tripled. Ours is not a particular expensive area - quite normal really - and though it is dotted with beautiful Palladian villas there are no expat buyers to push prices up - yet. A highway is being built nearby however (which will further increase the value of the house) and eventually, when the family disbands, we may sell up and see what happens. It's very hard to see into the far future when your kids are on the cusp of adulthood.

-What is the cost of living in Italy?

Expensive! Since we have arrived everything has become much more expensive and with the recent euro crises food prices seem to go up by the week. Not to mention petrol. Because of where we are I drive a lot and really wear down my car so that is a huge expense. Car insurance, per year, costs 1200e, to give you an idea, and I spend at least 100e a week on fuel, with food costing anything from 200e to 300e (four kids and lots of summer weekend barbecues on a tight budget). Clothes are cheaper here and the sales are good. Rail travel is not too bad. It is still cheaper to drink a coffee in a bar than a glass of mineral water or a cup of bad tea.

-What do you think about the the Italians? 

I don't think locals are as curious as I would be if the roles were reversed. In the countryside people are reserved and it's best not to air your political views - or you could be very disappointed by the person standing in front of you. I am sometimes struck by how little people know about other continents, given we are surrounded by constant images from all over the globe, and nearly everyone has instant online access. It used to distress me a little to be the foreign 'mascot' in a group of friends, but now I don't care. My children are integrated as Italians and I don't mind standing on the edge, or being a little strange. People derive great comfort from their families and their social models; men are babied by their mothers in a way I still find shocking. Women are often more driven and focussed than young men and might leave a small town mentality, but unfortunately many people revert to home models as they grow olders. I find my parenting ideas - if you love someone set them free - are not really understood and many mothers are far too involved with their children's school lives, while many fathers enter a middle age crisis phase that can involve a lot of hair gel and some scary tanning.

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Italy?

I do love the shoes and handbags, and the extreme climate suits me fine. I love living in an old house and having access to excellent live classical music. Venice and Milan are both close and wonderful to enrich the soul. I also love the Dolomites for summer hiking and winter skiing, and being located in the middle of Europe means you can slip over borders for cheap, fast holidays. On the negative side I do find it is hard to make rewarding friendships as people are quite conformist over the age of forty. I also don't like the strong racism one finds here and hope that with time this will subside. I also hate dubbed films and miss good Asian food!!

 -Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Italy?

Decide what you love about Italy and enjoy it! Don't join the bandwagon of expats who often find much to criticise and harp over. Understand what you are doing here and grow! If you are a foodie or a wine-lover or a lover of art, you will find rich and endless soul food. Don't allow relatives to spoil your male children, don't drink too much espresso although this is hard to resist. Learn the language and enjoy the feel of it in your mouth - and don't forget to learn all those hand gestures!

- Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Italy?