Amarone, Barolo, Brunello, Burrata, Cute guys, Crescia, Passito, Pasta, Truffles and of course Sunshine in abundance, are all easy things for everyone to identify as being quintessentially Italian things to readily fall in love with, but there is more, much more that makes Italy a fabulous place to live and vacation.
As I sit at my kitchen window tapping away at the keyboard lazily emptying my brain of whimsical thoughts trying to put to the ether some of the reasons for my love of Italy, my gaze wanders south, out the window, the sky is bright blue, sun radiating overhead, shining brightly, dazzlingly bright, there is mist still hanging in the valley, clinging to the trees now decadently dressed with autumn colours, it is utterly beautiful and above all peaceful.
In these days of turbulence it is a good feeling to be living somewhere tranquil and cosseted. I came to Italy just over ten years ago, and so very much has happened in those years, some good, some great, and some painful, downright horrid and utterly ghastly, but the one thing throughout all is that Italy is a great place to live and work. I often reflect on life as an immigrant, both from my point of view and that of my neighbours and friends. When after five years of house hunting I arrived here and began to negotiate the purchase of a derelict farmhouse and lots of south facing land I am sure neither the vendors or people who were to become my neighbours had any idea of what was to become reality.
The house called “Bellaugello” has been here for over four hundred years, its shown on the map of Umbria dated 1600. Owned by a family from our local town of Gubbio the land had been farmed under the “mezzadria” system, where the tenant farmers (and there were two families living here one of ten the other thirteen) had no security and paid their rent by giving 50% of their produce to the landowner. By 1981 that system of agriculture had declined and terminated, people moved to towns and cities and life became substantially more urban. So two guys rock up and negotiate the purchase, the house had a roof but not much more, the land abandoned, the intention, to create a ‘gay guest house’ and that is what I did. During the three years of building work, not only was I a manual labourer but I learnt Italian and began to develop a network of friends.
Umbria is a laid back sort of region. Although in the centre of Italy, it is a region often bypassed and so remains traditional and somewhat introspective. This has both advantages and disadvantages. What I discovered is a tremendous warmth of welcome and support. As an immigrant I came here not only to open the gay guest house but also to try and live ‘an Italian life’, to integrate and make the most of my experiences. Happily to me I have managed to achieve that. From small tentative steps I began to take larger steps, neighbours offered to help, they became friends, and remain so to this day. It must have been very odd for them to see the transformation of derelict abandoned farm to what it is now today, and to learn of the target market of the business, but I found huge support and encouragement and never judged by my sexuality. If I fail to tidy the dead branches round my olive trees, I discover my neighbour saw them lying there and cleared them away as he knew I was too busy to get to them. On the rare occasions that the valley was snow-bound we all take it in turn to organise a simple lunch, moving from house to house and of course Bellaugello is on the list. I speak Italian with a strong British accent, which I find embarrassing but my friends amusing. I can usually tell when somebody does not understand me as they slowly screw up their face and look bewildered before saying “I don’t have a clue what you are talking about” and then helping me to resolve the problem.
I am a hopeless romantic and maniacal chatterbox – just ask my guests! It doesn’t matter whether it is the petrol station, bar or supermarket, I am always ready to strike up a conversation, and am invariably met with a smile and time for a chat. You may well say this is typical of life in any rural community, and you may well be right, but is it true of an immigrant and especially one with such different values to those of the indigenous population? I have been accepted and welcomed and not witnessed homophobia or reluctance to do business with Bellaugello.
Two years ago I was co-opted onto a tourism committee as a representative of one of the larger farmers’ unions, and yes, of course they know I am gay. I regularly attend meetings that include the Mayor and director of tourism for Gubbio and am able to contribute to future initiatives, I so want them to introduce a digital interactive map of the city that all of us hoteliers can send out to our guests when they confirm a booking to enable them to see and learn of the hidden delights of our city, and slowly I am winning them over. ‘Domani’ is a real word here,and yes, it does arrive. I also comment (I believe constructively) from a foreigner’s point of view on existing problems. One an exciting project is growing the hosting of weddings in our area, also for same sex couples. Bellaugello is on the list for registration as a venue for the celebration of civil unions which will be applicable to both Italians and non residents, yes, soon you you will be able to get married at Bellaugello.
I walk through towns and cities feeling totally safe and relaxed. Long gone is the need to be careful when to open my mouth and speak, the need to be constantly looking over my shoulder in case somebody was following me and about to do me harm, or to be wearing the wrong colour clothes in the wrong part of the city. As recently reported on “Red Bull TV” click the Facebook link; Red Bull – Festa dei Ceri – Gubbio every 15th of May our local town of Gubbio celebrates as they have done for literally millennia the “Corsa dei Ceri” or race of the candles. The town is packed solid, the race serious, competitive, the locals begin to plan for next year’s race on the 16th of May, and yet to be there and witness the tradition feels amazing, and despite the many thousands of people, safe and thoroughly exhilarating.
Head into another small town and there is an opera festival, music fills the air in Italy. Climb the old worn steps high in the auditorium to sit in a sun-kissed box part of a huge arcade and listen to world class opera. Old frescoed chambers are venues for piano recitals and modern ballet. Enter a huge church seemingly empty and hear the faint murmur of Gregorian chant, haunting moving…
On crisp but sunny days climbing into an olive tree and letting the bunches of black fruit loose to run through your fingers, it is November and the olive harvest. I pick with friends by hand as has been done round the Mediterranean for centuries. Gathering the olives from the net and putting them into crates before taking them to the local mill to be pressed in the knowledge that four hours later we will be sitting round a log fire toasting unsalted Umbrian bread brushed with our own garlic and smothered in deep green spicy olive oil washed down with local organic wine, it is one of the best evenings of the year, a simple pleasure but a big one.
Traditions are still maintained here in Italy. Perhaps I want to hark back to an earlier time, but no, I do not, I just value the contact with the land and seasons and traditions are to me an important reminder of how we used to be intimate with our environment. With the strong influence of the Catholic church many events and festa even if begun in pagan times are predominantly religious and taken very seriously. To be in the heart of a medieval city, narrow streets lined with stone houses, each displaying in their disjointed stonework their evolution, and to hear chanting, the ruffle of medieval costumes, simple musical instruments, horses hooves on cobbles is magical, you have to be here and better still live here to fully appreciate the magic. Flag throwing, archery, crossbow, wrestling, medieval no rules football, woodland festivals, all still part of life throughout Italy and I for one appreciate them. Each year I take all my Bellaugello guests over the river to the neighbouring village of Carbonesca for their annual “Sagra di Polenta e Salsicce” – Polenta and sausage party.
Twelve or more handsome guys walk in and grab a table, long lines of tables and benches stretch across a small park in front of a huge stage. We are amongst 1,500 other people all packed into this small village. Dishes of polenta, and local sausage with fresh tomato sauce (all cooked by volunteers in the village) soon arrive, as does wine, all for ten euros a head, and both keep coming through the evening. The band strikes up, this year a group from Rome who in front of a ginormous led television screen sing their hearts out on stage. Soon dancing begins, elderly couples waltzing precise and calculated steps, their heavy leather shoes as polished as their steps, they have danced together for decades, it shows. They pass young people hugging and waltzing in a freer style. The music changes, almost to line dancing and everyone including us from Bellaugello is up on the dancefloor. At midnight our minibus returns to take us back home, the guys all chattering, some are still singing. All talk is about the evening, how amazing to see and be part of such a large party in such a small village, how that would ‘never happen where we live’ and just how much they were able to enjoy themselves without a care in the world.
On days off (rare things, at work I’m a control freak!) I head to the hills, the Apeninnes regional park just behind Gubbio. Climb high by car and higher still by foot to reach the summit where you can see east to the Adriatic, west to Monte Amiata in Tuscany and south to Abruzzo and Monte Sibillini, so many kilometres where so much happens. Gazing over hillsides I walk by a herd of cattle, lazily chewing the cud, their necks swathed in a leather collar from which hangs a burbling bell, clang clang, the sound evocative of past times, I see sheep, and my thoughts wander to food. Pecorino cheese, semi-stagionato my favourite matures with a liberal coating of musto from the vendemmia or wine harvest.
You eat so well here in Italy. The “Materia Prime” or raw ingredients are so very very good and thankfully still seasonal. Go into a supermarket and you will not find pre-prepared dishes ready to slide into the microwave, instead you will find fresh seasonal produce. Enter an average Italian home and you are greeted by the dining table, it dominates the room and family life. Families still sit together at meals, conversation is enthusiastic and always about food. Where it came from, how it was cooked, how ‘my’ mother or grandmother cooked it, recipes are shared and remembered to be tried out. Going to a dinner with friends one contributes something, maybe a starter, side dish or pudding, there is a huge tradition of sharing, which of course also makes the host’s job slightly easier.
The weekly market is for me not only a source of great fresh fruit and vegetables, fine cheeses and plump baccalà but a place to people watch. It is a place where young and old come, many to shop, many to chat, a social and at the same time practical occasion. Spring stalls burst with artichokes and beans, by summer replaced with melons, tomatoes and achingly crisp salads, which in autumn are replaced by nuts, pumpkins, and apples, food is fresh and so so good.
At the top of this post I listed wines, and Italy has many stunning wines and they are not heavily taxed so unless you go to the top when you can pay many hundreds of euro for a wine from a globally famous cantina you can drink amazingly well for a reasonably modest sum. Wine is an accompaniment to food, not a tool to get ‘out of your mind’ it is something to be savoured and enjoyed with friends. Every Italian city has a multitude of bars and early evening they all serve an ‘Aperitivo’ snacks alongside your drink. It may be a prosecco, or Aperol Spritz, maybe a cocktail or artisan beer but it will be accompanied by a selection of snacks. The better bars serve local prosciutto and salamis, tiny salads of fresh vegetables and pulses, patés and frittata, some so huge that dinner is not required. Aperitivo is a convivial time, time to unwind from a busy day and meet friends before going off home or out to dinner.
I guess I should mention fashion, but I am not a follower of fashion, I’m more comfortable in a pair of jeans and a t shirt, or just being naked, but as you will already know Italy is the home to fashion and it is great to see people old and young carefully dressed enjoying an evening stroll or ‘passeggiata’. Early evening in any Italian town families and non families are out and about, walking back and forth chatting, catching up with the gossip, taking a coffee, gelato or digestivo. Groups of youngsters, the guys eyeing the girls, the girls feigning shyness, and us gays ogling the cute guys, time seems to have stood still.