Blog

Sea Breeze and Mountain Air//Marina di Carrara

Driving away from Portofino, I felt that a burden had been lifted from my shoulders.

My plan sat in the passenger’s seat next to me, hastily sketched out in a notepad that I’d taken from home.

It was a pretty limited one, with a few notes of roads to take and places to stay scribbled down next to recipe ideas. From Portofino I would drive South, hugging the coastline before heading into the green hills and rustic roads of the Apennine Mountains. My destination, which I’d chosen arbitrarily, was Livorno – a port city which, unbeknown to me, was heading into the hottest part of the year.

Even though I’d enjoyed the fresh sea breeze of Portofino, I was glad to leave it behind. Rising through the hills, that salty air, which forever reminds me of times spent as a child building sandcastles, dissipated and gave way to a sumptuous scent of dried foliage and pine cones. I wound the window down as my mind began to drift back to those halcyon days. The midday sun was rising and the temperature gauge on my dashboard slowly began to rise. By the time I rolled into Marina di Carrara, just before the halfway point on my journey, I could feel individual beads of sweat racing down the length of my back and soaking into my cotton shirt.

Time for a break.

I’ve never been one to shy away from the simple pleasures in life – like a hot bowl of soup on a cold Winter’s day or an ice-cold bottle of soda on a baking hot day in Italy. Thankfully, the Italians appear to take the same opinion. Regardless of where you are in the country, you’re never too far away from a fridge packed full of cold beverages and an inviting parasol to relax under. That’s exactly what I found, mere steps away from my parked car on the edge of the town. As I let my mind drift, gazing out to the azure ocean calmly lapping the shoreline, I began wondering about how I was to support myself.

It was all very well wandering aimlessly across Italy, eating and drinking to my heart’s content, but without a permanent place to call home, I was going to be haemorrhaging cash badly. I thought of Joseph scrubbing BBQs and entertained the idea of setting up a cleaning business. I knew plenty of retired teachers that had pursued part-time work, to either keep them busy or to fund expensive new hobbies. The outcome, regardless of their chosen niche, would always be the same: steady absorption into the job leading to a return to full-time employment.

This was not something that I intended on doing.

The thought of scrubbing anything in this oppressive heat expelled any thoughts of work and made me instantly hungry. Finishing my bottle of Coke in one swift gulp, I eyed the neighbouring cafes and restaurants hungrily. With the smell of the sea once more arousing old memories in my head – I decided to find a place to eat some fish.

Decisions on my future could be left for a later date – it was far too hot to be thinking sensibly.

Leaving//Joseph, Maria and Portofino

After nearly two months of staying in Joseph and Maria’s spare room, I felt that it was time to go.

It had only been 6 or 7 weeks since I’d arrived at their doorstep.

A dishevelled wreck of a retired teacher going through a crisis, I was impulsive, a little grumpy and probably an utter nuisance. There wasn’t a singular moment when they asked me to leave, I just slowly started to feel like more of a guest and less of a friend stopping by. The evening meals that we’d share in their garden were once carefree affairs. We’d stay up drinking until the early morning, laughing at the mistakes we’d made in the past and wondering at how long ago all of this was. These meals grew shorter in duration as I became more restless and our conversations became less concerned with nostalgia.

Pretty soon we were all eating our meals at different times. We feigned excuses, made plans for the evening with Italian acquaintances and generally avoided each other at all times. It wasn’t until I heard Maria and Joseph in a heated argument one morning that I decided that it was probably time to go.

I had no intention of staying, if it meant that I’d be forcing a wedge in between two people that I really did love as if they were family.

When I told them about my plans to move South and find myself a home, they initially refused.

It came as a shock. I felt like I’d accurately assessed the situation, coming to the conclusion that I was the variable – the unwelcome member of the party that stepped into the dinghy and rocked the boat. They told me I was being silly and that I was welcome to stay as long as I wished. In their eyes I could see a glimmer of something though…I think it was hope. Hope that I would leave them to regain some sense of the equilibrium that they had lost when I arrived.

I packed my bags that night and planned my route.

I had no idea where I wanted to settle down, but I knew that I was in no rush. I’d just spent the last thirty years living in the same place, slowly getting stuck to my sofa at home, I was certainly in no rush to settle down again.

The length and breadth of Italy, that I had dreamt of travelling in my retirement, was spread out on a map on the bed in front of me. The entire country, complete with all it’s history and culture was at my disposal. Should I wish, I could travel across the country and drop down on to the Amalfi Coast, watching the aquamarine waters lap against the golden sands that have made that Eastern coastline a magnet for tourists and beach lovers. Alternatively, I could dive into one of Italy’s bustling cities and lose myself in the back alleys of an alien metropolis.

What I really wanted to do though was simply get away from the slightly toxic situation that I had found myself in and drive into the sunset.

So that’s exactly what I did.

Expatriation//What I’d Do Differently

Making a hash of immigrating wasn’t my intention.

This is what I’d do differently, if I were to move from England all over again.

Research the Final Destination thoroughly

In some ways, I’m very fortunate. As a retiree, I had all the time in the world to research and plan my great escape. If I was to do this all over again, I would certainly spend some more time carefully considering where I’d like to live, instead of flying off on a madcap adventure.

Luckily for me, I had an easy option. My friends Maria and Joseph may well live in one of the most expensive areas of Italy, but their spare room came free of charge. This gave me plenty of time to get settled into living in Italy and make an informed decision as to where it is I’d want to eventually lay down my roots.

As with all things, you can find some great advice online as to where might be best for you to move. You can try sites like Nomad List (https://nomadlist.com/region/europe) for a quick rundown of the pros and cons of a certain city. However, the best way to find out about a place is to visit it.

Take the Drive a little easier

When I drove down to Portofino a fortnight ago, I did so in a mad rush that spoke volumes about my fractured state of mind. Motivated by impulse more than anything else, I didn’t plan the 800 or so mile drive down to Italy and I really wish I had.

If you’re considering driving yourself to your new home on the Continent, then it’s best to do some preparation beforehand. Relying on your phone as a Sat Nav might get you so far, but you run can the risk of losing signal in rural areas and losing your way.

Always plan your route ahead of schedule and buy a physical map, if you can. It’s best to load your car with essential travel gear as well, many traffic police in Europe will stop and check your car for this – so, unless you want to avoid a hefty fine, it’s best to be prepared before you set off.

Consider Using a Removal Service

For example, if you’re considering making a move from England to Spain, then there are companies that specialise in helping you do this.

A removals company took care of the logistical issues of immigrating. So, instead of cramming your car with your most precious belongings and leaving the rest to rot in your last house, you can take as much of your home comforts with you as you’d like.

They’ll help with everything, visiting you in your home to explain to you how the process works as well as packing and loading your items, making sure that precious items are well protected when they’re stowed away.

Have a Long Term Plan

I went into this adventure head-first and without a paddle. Everything from packing my vehicle to the drive down was essentially borne from improvisation. This had it’s benefits. It’s been an incredible exciting and invigorating experience. However, there have been drawbacks from not planning for the future.

I have enough money to keep myself happy here for a long time, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t want to work. In order to get paid for any services that I render as a teacher, I’ll need to apply to the Italian government and make sure that I’m paying tax.

Of course, that’s if I even want to teach. Although it sounds unlikely, at the age of 65 my future is more unclear than it has ever been. However, I’m trying not to let this bother me too much.

There aren’t many people my age who have the opportunity to essentially start their lives from scratch in a brand new country – so I’m going to make the most of every day.

Camogli//Pasta Fresca Fiorella

Comgli for delicious pasta and complicated conversation

Joseph is roughly the same age as me, 65 give or take a few months.

We met at University, what feels like aeons ago now. We weren’t even great friends at that time, more like acquaintances. Somehow though our paths continued to cross throughout the next few years, until we discovered that we were suddenly the best of pals.

Still – he had neglected to ask me of the reason why I had thrown my most precious belongings in my car and driven 800 miles to stay with them for seemed like an indefinite period. No queries were forthcoming, Joe preferring to keep to the tried and tested mode of masculinty:  simply ignoring the elephant in the room.

Rather predictably it was Maria who, after a couple of days had past with relative ease, slyly suggested a little sojourn to the neighbouring town of Camogli.

Joe was out for the day, playing chess in the park with some fellow retirees.

“Whenever he comes back, he always reeks of cigar smoke. He tells me it’s always them, but I’ve known him long enough to know when he’s lying.”

We set out before midday, driving along the 227, the gorgeous road set in the cliff face of the Portofino coastline. To my right lay the glittering Ligurian Sea, to my left was Maria amiably chatting away to herself, as she was wont to do – lithely avoiding any of the intrusive questions that I knew lay in wait.

Maria was a good decade younger than Joe and I.

At the age of 54 or so, you’d be surprised how much difference that can make to one’s state of mind, never mind the state of one’s body.

She’d only stopped teaching English a few years ago and was still enjoying the challenge of retirement. The house that she had inherited from her Mother had come to her and Joe at the right time, allowing them to move out and enjoy the good life as soon as they finished work. I’d been to visit them a number of times since and had always been a little jealous of their relaxed domestic bliss.

The coastal road soon gave way to the hilly sprawl of Santa Margherita Ligure.

Then it was up and up, through the narrow curves of the town and into the hills, over to Camogli – one of Italy’s best kept secrets.

This village shares much in common with the wildly popular town we’d just driven from – a gorgeous harbour, a thriving fishing community and quintessentially Italian rows of multi-storied houses. However, the defining difference between the two is the world hasn’t heard of Comogli yet, preferring to remain distracted by the starry inhabitants of Portofino.

An image of an Italian harbour

I knew Maria’s motive of stealing me away for the day.

She intended on pulling at the loose threads of my thoughts that were so evidently in disarray. However, she made a good show at pretending that it was the Spaghetti Aglio Olio e Peperoncino served at Pasta Fresca Fiorella that was really her main agenda.

There are few things that you must eat if you are spending any amount of time in Italy.

The pizza. The gelato. The pasta.

I’ve not yet learned the fine art of making my own pasta and I certainly won’t be learning, whilst I’m staying with Maria and Joe. The artisans at Pasta Fresca Fiorella prepare fresh pasta for cooking at home, as well as serving food to the customers in their restaurant and the hordes of hungry beach dwellers.

Us English have done our best to bastardise the Italian pasta classics. Dolmio pasta sauce for our bolognese. Double cream in our sickly microwave carbonaras. And tinned ravioli, of all things.

An image of Spaghetti

Our stunning disrespect for their culture has not deterred them however. Simplicity is at the heart of these dishes, with only a handful of ingredients artfully combined to create a delicious whole.

For Maria’s favourite dish, garlic, chilli and olive is thrown together with spaghetti. Much like her own prying questions, the execution is key here.

Cook the garlic and chilli for too long and the dish will be acrid.

So it follows, if you hastily probe a 65 year-old man going through a very late mid-life crisis, the answers you receive will also be decidedly bitter.

Maria was unusually quiet on the drive back to Portofino.

BBQ Cleaning & Joseph//Grilled Bread+Prosciutto Chicken

Retirement is not always for everyone.

We spend a large proportion of our lives working.

For those with jobs that do not agree with them, the weeks, months and years can stretch out interminably. However, once we reach the fabled age of retirement, not needing to arise on a Monday morning can sometimes irk us more than you’d think.

My gracious host Joseph was once such man who, like me, struggled with the notion of retirement. In some ways, he escaped the initial impact of his new life by moving to Italy. Simply the act of moving home, transplanting a lifetime’s worth of possessions and memories to a completely different country, can take up a considerable amount of time and thought.

So for the first few months of his retirement Joseph had his hands busy. It wasn’t until he’d settled into his new home in Portofino, some 6 months later, and the shiny veneer of novelty had begun to wear from his new existence, that he started to look outwards from his home for something to occupy his time with.

Unlike Maria, he had no intention of returning to the world of teaching.

He’d had enough of the passing whims of children and wanted his work to be something instantly satisfying. So, at the age of 60, he looked into starting his own business, doing the kind of job that there would always be a need for.

Despite the high levels of unemployment in Italy and generally poor state of the economy, Joe found that there was an opportunity for cleaning businesses. After wading through the quagmire of Italy’s legendarily slow internet, he found his niche: BBQ Cleaning.

Although BBQ food today is more commonly connected with American Cuisine, the Italians have also got a strong love for al fresco cooking that arguably transcends their competitors from across the pond.

When Maria and I arrived back from our day trip to Camogli, we were surprisingly famished. The car journey had been a quiet one, both of us in quiet contemplation. We cruised along the coastal road back to Portofino, with the sun setting on the horizon.

I didn’t realise how hungry I was until we climbed the steps back up to their little terrace and smelt chicken sizzling on Joseph’s freshly cleaned grill.

Prosciutto Wrapped Chicken+Ciabatta Salad

{Feeds 4 mouths in need of comfort food – buy metal skewers so you can reuse them!}

For the Chicken:

4 good sized Chicken breasts

bunch of fresh Basil

ball of Mozarella

4 slices of quality Prosciutto

For the Bread Salad:

loaf of Ciabatta

250g Cherry Tomatoes

ball of Mozarella

2 cloves of Garlic

Olive Oil

Method:

Before you do anything, you’ll want to make sure that your BBQ is nice and clean. If you’re dusting off your grill for the first time this Summer, then consider hiring a professional to give it a good go over. Once that’s done, fill it up with charcoal and get your fire burning.

Whilst the coals are doing their thing, you can prep this comforting al fresco meal.

First, slice open each chicken breast. Season your chicken liberall and then stuff a few leaves of Basil into each one. Tear up your ball of Mozarella evenly and tuck it in with the Basil.

Then take your prepped breasts and wrap them in a slice of Prosciutto, so you have a lovely meaty parcel, ready for the grill. Before you slap them on, rub them in a little oil and pierce straight through with your skewers.

As soon as the coals are white, throw on your chicken and grill for around 4 minutes on each side, leaving room for the bread that’s to come

For the salad, cut up your loaf into decent-sized 5cm cubes and toss with some oil and seasoning in a big bowl. Pop these bread pieces onto the grill for 30 seconds each side, so they colour nicely all over.

Once this is done, throw it back in the bowl and toss with chopped Garlic, Cherry Tomatoes and a little Oil.

When the juices from your chicken are running clear, rest them for a minute or two before serving with your delicious salad.

Paraggi//Crash Course in Italian Cafe Culture

Peaceful Paraggi for a quiet few coffees

My first few days had been enjoyable.

However, after a week spent in the comfortable but rather confined space of my hosts’ terraced home I felt like I needed to get out and spend some time by myself.

The move from England, had taken a bigger toll on my state of mind that I had initially thought. The long frantic drive had left me a bedraggled mess on my friends’ door step still lingered in my head. Plus, I was still waking up with a start most mornings, with the feeling that I was running late for work.

I didn’t like the idea of reforming another routine that I would be stuck in once more. Still, I definitely needed to submerse myself in an environment where I could start to erase the habits and mental pathways that I’d spent the majority of my life building up.

I rose particularly early on Monday morning to the sound of the front door being closed.

Maria had left to teach English down in the local school, Joe would be out on his own errands until the early afternoon. I had the house to myself but I had no intention of staying inside. Outside, the sun was shining with a fervour that I’d not seen since I got here, I decided to go for a drive.

After our trek to Camogli the other day, I had no intention of going back through the hills.

I kept to the coastal roads and found myself in the picturesque bay of Paraggi, desperately in need of coffee. I decided to take a load off at Baya Paraggi, a ludicrously well placed restaurant that looks out onto the crystal blue waters of the Ligurian Sea.

Coffee in Italy is not the overblown flavoured mess you’ll find in the States or back in the UK. Here it is a ritual, with it’s own set of rules that should be followed, if you intend on avoiding any icy glares from your barista.

Here’s a few pointers to help you navigate the exclusive world of Italian Cafes:

Shout it out and pay later.

The first thing you need when entering a restaurant or cafe in Italy, is confidence. Italians are friendly, welcoming but rarely patient. Get your order straight first then say it loudly and clearly. The best baristas are busy and might not reply, don’t be disheartened, they’ll have your order in their head.

Milk is for the morning.

Speaking of orders, you’ll get some strange looks if you choose to order any kind of milk-based drink after 11am. Cappuccino’s are the drink of choice for Italians in the morning, even then they are much smaller than you’d usually get in England, so don’t expect a big beverage.

Keep your order simple.

Although there are variants on the classic Italian coffee, such as the latte macchiato, cafe shakerato and americano – it’s best to stick to the standard drink of choice: A single shot of espresso. Just order ‘un cafe’ and this is what you’ll receive, a quick dose of caffeine that can be downed in a matter of seconds.

No time for a sit down.

Speed is the aim of the game here, so don’t even think about taking a sit down, not only will you get charged more, you’ll also stick out like a sore thumb. The Italian coffee experience is a quick one known as una pausa (literally, a pause or little break). So order your drink, wait, down it, pay, then leave.

Of course, you are completely free to order your coffee whichever way you please.

If, like me, you’re simply looking for a place to sit down and relax; find a restaurant instead of a cafe and order at your leisure.

A Broken Cooker//Spaghetti Arrabbiata+Chicory Salad

Perhaps my unexpected arrival in Joseph and Maria’s home had brought bad luck.

When I strolled downstairs to properly greet my hosts (I’d been a jumbled mass of garbled sentences the night before) I found them in a state of slight confusion.

A little pool of olive oil settled in the centre of a rustic cast-iron skillet pan which sat patiently alongside their little gas cooker. A box of eggs were lying next to a slab of pancetta on the counter. Something wasn’t quite right though.

The issue soon became evident: the gas cooker had stopped working and was in need of repair.

“Breakfast might be a while, old chap”. Joseph had a sorry look in his eyes. I soon dismissed his apologies and headed off into town to grab some groceries; leaving Joe to search the typically slow Italian internet for a man specialising in gas oven repairs.

At this time of year, Portofino is not quite hitting it’s stride in terms of tourist saturation. With it’s iconic harbour and port, the village is a haven for celebrity holiday makers and Hollywood stars. The Summer sun had yet to truly grace the North of Italy so, for now at least, peace and quiet reigned supreme.

Of course, there is never any real kind of serenity at an Italian marketplace.

Italians like to get their produce early in the day – no lazy Sundays for these people. The little square was packed with busy shoppers, all of them in animated discussions with the sellers and each other. I drifted through the stalls, in no rush, admiring the variation of goods on offer.

With a sudden urge to cook, I reached out for the simplest, freshest ingredients and set back to the house with a raging hunger and desperate hope that the cooker had been fixed.

It wasn’t. However, Maria had set a wood-fire going in the back and settled a grill over the top, which was all I needed to cook my first meal on Italian soil. 

Spaghetti Arrabbiata+Chicory Salad

{Serves 3-4 hungry old folks for a smashing lunch}

For the Spaghetti:

2 fresh red chillies

olive oil

3 cloves of garlic

3 or 4 fresh anchovies

good teaspoon of dried oregano

8-10 ripe, red tomatoes

300g dried spaghetti

150g pancetta

single ciabatta roll or similar italian bread

parmesan for grating

For the salad:

2 heads of chicory/olive oil/2 tbsp white wine vinegar/1 tsp wholegrain mustard/1 tsp sugar

Method:

First, give the chillies a good pricking all over with a sharp knife, then drop into a pan, cover with  a good layer of oil and let them cook on a super low heat for a good ten minutes. When they feel soft, pour the majority of the oil into a jar to save for later.

Then slice up 2 cloves of garlic and add to the pan, along with the anchovies and oregano – fry for 2-3 minutes then add the roughly chopped tomatoes and let this cook on a medium heat for 15 minutes.

In the mean time, get your spaghetti on the boil and prepare a crumbly ‘pangratto’ topping along with your salad.

Either blitz the ciabatta in a processor or use a box grater to produce some breadcrumbs. Throw these into a large skillet pan with a good lug of oil on a medium heat. Take your final clove of garlic, chop it up along with the pancetta and add to the pan. Let this fry until everything’s a lovely golden brown colour.

For the salad, simply pour a dash of oil, with the vinegar, mustard and sugar into a jam jar and shake up. Pull apart the chicory leaves and lightly cover with your dressing.

Once your spaghetti’s almost cooked, add it to the tomatoes and chilli. Combine then serve in bowls with that lovely crumbly pangratto on top and your salad on the side.

Grate a little parmesan on top to finish, along with a good crack of black pepper.

[Ideally cooked on working gas hob, but an open fire/electric/induction hobs will do fine.]

My Eventual Arrival//Portofino

The drive from England is now a blur.

Have you ever stopped and taken a look back at your actions over a 24 hour period and questioned if you were really in the right state of mind?

With little or no preparation, I’d decided to leave England, abandon the home that I had lived in for the past 30 years and embrace my retirement with a kind of reckless abandonment more befitting a teenager on their gap year.

To my neighbours, a young family on one side and elderly gentleman on the other (perhaps a shade of my future if I had stayed?), a quick note was scrawled and hastily stuffed through the letter box:

Hello – Goodbye!

I’m leaving the country for a while, not sure how long. Help yourself to the veg in the garden.

I’m not sure if I’ll come back, if not, good luck and good bye!

Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever bothered to sign the damn thing, so it’ll probably confuse them more than anything else…oh well!

Sat here on the veranda of Joseph and Maria’s colourful terraced abode, it feels like more of a dream than an actual event that happened to me.

map of a car route through europe

Throwing my things into the car, quickly tapping in the coordinates of Joseph and Maria’s place in Portofino and then setting off.

Head first into the wind and spitting rain of the abrasive English weather that I’d somehow grown to love over the years, I passed through the Channel tunnel in what felt like a second and, before I knew it, had descended into the maelstrom of sounding horns and shaking fists that are the roads of Europe.

Although I made good time (I’d forgotten how much fun it was to drive fast!) I soon hit traffic jams and road works. I was stopped on a couple of occasions by curious motorway police, but after taking 50 or so Euros off me, they let me on my way.

photo of night sky in italyBy 11pm I was coasting into Portofino.

The sun had long since set, the night was clear and blue, with only the twinkling lights of the harbour serving as a guide. My phone had ran out of battery hours before and I was relying on my memory of past visits to guide my little car to its destination.

The enormity of my journey didn’t hit me until Joseph and Maria welcomed me into their home. I caught a glance at myself in the mirror as I entered their quaint little terraced house – a haggard ghost looked back at me, looking not too dissimilar to the neighbour that I had just left behind.

That night I slept in their guestroom, usually reserved for Air B&B guests, feeling like I’d travelled ten times the 800 or so miles that I actually had.

I woke to the sound of seabirds calling, the rolling of wooden carts and Italian conversations drifting through the open windows.

My mouth still held the sour taste of the port I’d drunk the night before. I might have taken half of my kitchen’s worth of tools and knives, but I’d forgotten my toothbrush.

A banal thought struck me as I swung my legs out of the bed, with a little more gusto than usual: last night must’ve been the first time I’d gone to sleep without brushing my teeth in over 30 years.

The sweet life had indeed begun.