More socially gregarious Italians sometimes marvel at the way a considerable number of people from the British Isles, moving to Italy, choose to live in isolated houses, often some distance away from the hill villages which characterise so much of the countryside.

In many parts of the Lucchesia, several such places have been either built or restored. Some of these dwellings are renovations of dilapidated houses. Others constitute extensions to capanne formerly used for keeping animals or storing agricultural implements. But some of them are brand-new constructions, often constructed in unsuitable areas, as far as landslides and flooding are concerned.

The majority of these buildings are occupied by people from northern Europe, largely from the UK.

Even when living close together, as in a row of town terraces or a suburban street of semis, it is usually easy to find privacy in a UK house. Garden hedges and walls can reinforce whatever is lacking. The front garden may be for public floral show but the back garden is clearly private and not meant to be snooped on!

Italian hill villages may be picturesque to look at from a distance but are frequently inconvenient to live in. For many Brits the problem does not just arise from often-difficult access (especially so in this recent rigid winter) but from lack of privacy. Even if one’s village house is fortunate enough to have an attached garden, it is often overlooked from dwellings further up the steep slopes. No point in growing a hedge there, it would have to be impossibly tall!  And as for naturist bathing in one’s “private” swimming pool, forget it. Italians may strip off in the Versilia but are rather more decorous as far as the clothes they wear (or don’t wear) in their domestic surroundings.

The privacy point may not be of vital consequence if one is just a part-time resident in Italy, but for permanent inhabitants it does become important. Family reunions (especially in summer when relatives come over from across the pond), local building work, wood chopping, barking dogs, or car rallies may at first be either deemed picturesque or tolerated but the British character (traditionally) does not put up with these sorts of things for too long without complaining (and usually complaining badly!)

Some Brits, unable to achieve privacy by physical detachment do so by psychological aloofness. As a fluent speaker of Italian, and with work commitments in this country, I enjoy a rich social life in Italy with all nationalities but there are some Brits in my village I have never actually met or talked to, except to be asked to move my car, or scooter, or to be told “I don’t need to learn Italian!”

The problem is, of course, language and “educazione”. If the Americans and the English are two people divided by the same language, so are Italian-speaking English and English-speaking Italians. Language is culture and learning grammar and vocabulary is just the beginning. The use and nuances of Italian (nicely described in several of Grapevine’s articles) is the over-riding point. The British are notoriously deficient in learning languages and so this raises issues and does not help integration. At our local village pizza evenings there is even an isolated table baptised il tavolo degli Inglesi.

Even before tackling the language I think it might be useful, as a start, to learn two things in the bel paese: firstly, how to laugh correctly. As Lord Chesterfield put it:  “frequent and loud laughter is the characteristic of folly and ill-manners.”  This raucous laughter immediately distinguishes many English even before they begin to speak. Secondly, how to drink socially with meals. (Italians wonder at the lone bottle of prosecco placed on the garden table with little else around it. Deve essere Inglese, per forza!). 

Hence, the rash of secluded houses being built or restored some distance away from the villages (some with impossibly composite name-plates like Casa Arbuthnot). The dilemma may be with the future occupants rather than the village architecture. After all, different cultures (and individuals) have differing concepts of “social space”.

A tongue-in-cheek suggestion: the Appennines are dotted with the remains of carbonari sites, (the carbonari, who gave  their name to secret societies seeking independence for Italy during the Risorgimento, were charcoal-burners spending lonely months away from their village in pursuit of their woodland occupation) which, restored, could form a fitting residence for true-blue seekers of privacy (or loneliness?)


Carbonari at work in the early 20th century


2 thoughts on “A SPACE OF ONE’S OWN?

  1. I don’t understand why foreigners come to live here and make little attempt to learn Italian. You will have a much better time if you can interact with the locals, even a little bit. I find learning Italian quite difficult, but I can use the present tense and the passato prossimo reasonably well and can understand more than I can speak. What is the point of being here if you can only converse with English speaking people?

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