Italian Life

Lost in Livorno//Port-side Life

I’m happy to admit that I allowed myself to get somewhat lost in Livorno.

This is the kind of town that is happy to go by it’s own business for the majority of the year.

Tourists (like me) come and go without making much of a mark on the surroundings. This isn’t the kind of place that attracts thousands of people each year. It’s not packed with ‘must-see’ sights. There’s no Lonely Planet guide and there isn’t a standing garrison of snap-happy travellers taking selfies for their budding travel blogs. Livorno reminds me in a lot of ways of one of our own English seaside towns. If it weren’t for the splendid, perennial sunshine that blesses the streets on a daily basis, you could almost describe it as rather humdrum – perhaps this is why I’ve lingered for so long.

With little or no plan as to where I was heading next, this felt like the best place to hunker down and get some thinking done.

When you have all the time in the world to figure out your next move, you’d be surprised how long that can actually take. Before I knew it, I’d settled myself into a quiet room in the back of a coffee shop that I’d become a frequent visitor of. It was cheaper than a hotel, had all the amenities that I required and I could hear the tide softly knocking the rusted boats of the harbour from my bed, an arrhythmic beat that would help lull me to sleep on a nightly basis.

It might not have been the Ritz, but this beat any luxury villa in the South of France.

My days in Livorno kept to a similar arrhythmic routine – the bell hanging above the shop front chimes anywhere between 6:30 and 8am, signalling the start of the working day for my hosts. The smell of espresso brings me to my feet and I share drowsy conversation with whoever’s opening the shop. We discuss the weather and their dramatic family lives whilst they go about their morning routines – my Italian has improved a lot since I struck out by myself, daily conversations with people in the town have given me a new insight into the way facial expressions and hand gestures pick up much of the slack in the morning, when words are often a struggle.

I make myself scarce once the shop fills up with gruff workmen, starting their day with strong caffe correttos. I bid farewell to the busy barista and head out to find some food. I follow a well-worn trail throughout the day, around the town’s limited sights and viewpoints. With a worn paperback in my hand, I wander from spot to spot, reading and eating a little – every now and again  popping in to chat to a friendly vendor.

I usually find myself skipping lunch most days, but as late afternoon gives way to early evening, I wander down to the seafront where I spend half an hour or so discussing the day’s catch with the fisherman there.

After some polite chit-chat (Italian fishermen hold themselves with the same air of an officious businessman, no effing or blinding as far as I can tell) I purchase a brace of small fish, or a decent sized cod and trundle back to the shop around closing time. The closing barista is usually in a lively mood, excited about their impending evening and overzealous with the copious numbers of espresso shots that they would have self-medicated themselves with over the course of the day. I pass over half of the fish, in lieu of my rent and bid them a good night.

I then have the evening to cook dinner, read a little and fall asleep to the strange ambience of the marina outside.

I’ve lost track of how many days like these I’ve lived now, but I think I might indulge in a few more before I go.

Learning from the Italians//Baked Cod+Capers

There’s perhaps no greater feeling than a hunger that is soon to be sated.

I’d built up quite the appetite, sipping down cool bottles of Coke in the sun, deliberating my next move.

Luckily, I was in the city of Livorno, a bustling port full of fish markets and restaurants – and I had the rest of the day to decide what to do with the rest of my life. Whilst I’d been staying with Joseph and Maria I’d not really been considering my future. I’d become infatuated, instead, with the intricacies of Italian life, the slow burn nature of their day-to-day existences and the sheer ease with which people seemed to drift from one day to the next.

Although Joseph and Maria had adopted a few of the local habits from their neighbours (late lunches and a love for al fresco dining) they had spent their retirement finding a way to adopt their British sensibilities to their new surroundings. Breakfast mostly consisted of toast with Marmite, Sunday dinner was always a hunk of beef with potatoes (regardless of the temperature) and Saturday evenings were often spent scouring the TV for something resembling Strictly Come Dancing. It was difficult not to judge them for retaining these cultural quirks, it seemed as if they were destined to retain the dubious classification of ‘Brits Abroad’ for the rest of their lives.

In contrast, I was eager to shed all traces of my British heritage.

I’d spent a lifetime raising hundreds of British kids, generations of proper speaking gents who would no doubt find their way either into a cushy trust-fund job or an untrustworthy offshore accounts office, shuffling papers and shifting digits for similarly shady individuals. I was happy to overwrite the last forty years of dreary routine with a new life – filled with exciting new encounters and fresh experiences.

Experiences like the excellent Baked Cod+Capers that I was lucky enough to stumble across whilst wandering along the bustling Livorno seafront.

Baked Cod+Capers

{Feeds 1 hungry (slightly lost) Brit Abroad looking for a direction in life or a family of 4}

For the Cod:

2 large cod fillets

1 good handful of black olives

olive oil

1 onion

2 cloves of garlic

6 large ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped

1 good handful of mushrooms

1 bunch of fresh basil

1 handful of capers

1 lemon

1 loaf of rustic bread

Method:

Pre-heat your oven to 190 degrees (or fire up your barbecue your using one) then heat up a decent drizzle of oil in your pan and fry your onion for 5 minutes or until golden.

Crush up your garlic and throw them in the pan with your chopped tomatoes – season well and cook gently for 15 minutes.

Slice up your mushrooms and add them to the pan and let your sauce simmer down for 10 minutes.

Chop up your capers with your basil and toss them in the pan, stir well and taste for seasoning.

Grab your cod and lay them in a shallow baking tin, grease up with a little olive oil to prevent sticking and then squeeze lemon over each piece.

Finally, spoon your sauce over the cod, cover in foil and bake in your oven (or throw on your barbecue) for 25 minutes.

Rip apart your rustic bread and serve it with the fish when it’s good and done.

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.