The question that friends abroad often ask
The short answer is that I live here
I live here.
I’ve lived here for about 6 years. I’m not on a vacation. My life here is not a hobby nor an experiment. It is – for better and for worse, my life. The life that Steve and I have here is a good life, a better life than we had in London. I work here (well, not at the moment obviously!), I pay taxes here, I’ve had major surgery here, I’ve been to funerals here. I see beauty here that surpasses my wildest dreams and I see it every day. I am part of a small, basically healthy, civic society.
And the longer answer …
We don’t have much crime and we don’t have much violence. We don’t drop litter, we don’t get drunk and throw up in the streets and we support each other. Old people do not die alone. The streets are clean and the people are kind. Stress is a rare bird round here. ISIS is unlikely to have us on their watch-list. There is no pollution.
If I park my car illegally, I don’t end up in 3-month war with Islington Council and a fine that looks like Malawi’s national debt. Instead, Franco (our local policeman) calls me on my mobile and says “Love, your car’s in the way … can you move it?” When I have a problem or am furious about something the Comune (our local council and giunta) is or isn’t doing, I can wander into the (gorgeous medieval) building, peer round the door and see if the relevant person I want to rail at is sitting (vulnerable) at their desk. If they’re there, I march in and start my rant. They do not call security and throw me out. If I forget to get a prescription, I go to the pharmacy and Alessandra gives me whatever it is I need and I promise to bring in the prescription some other time. The place kind of works. It’s cooperative and not confrontational.
The real texture of my life is felt in the small things – not the big ones (like the Mafia or the totally bloody hopeless central government in Rome). Small things like seeing a porcupine in the road at night; like forgetting my purse but still being able to do my shopping because the shopkeepers know I’ll come back to pay; like being able to go to the opera and concerts for sixpence at the Sferisterio; like not locking my car; like Giuliano who fixes my boiler and charges for his visits about one time in every three … the list is endless.
There are over 3,000 people in my town.
I know some extremely well and others only in passing. Every single one of them would help if I ask. And, over the years I have asked and they came good for me.
Money is, honest to God, no big thing here. Profit is of scant interest. People are interested in making only enough to get by, and often don’t charge for things, like coming to fix your computer or small problems with the car. The first question a person asks you is not ‘What do you do for a living? A local brain surgeon here (Fredo Gentili) can be seen having a coffee with a local plasterer (Andrea someone-or-other). I am not making this up. The classlessness is a good thing. People prefer not to work … would rather collect mushrooms up in the mountains, go hunting, play tennis, hang around and chat with mates … shops here are often unattended, because the optician, pet-shop owner, baker is a few doors down having a coffee.
We are content with what have, how we live and how we relate to one another. I don’t want to give that all up just because right now we are all – man, woman and child, being menaced by Nature.
The world is a hard place. Life for most humans, whatever line of latitude they live on, is often tricky, tough even. These earthquakes have really terrorised us, it is true. However, it has been dawning on me that Europeans (and North Americans) are mostly unaccustomed to living with fear and anxiety. A tremendous proportion of the world’s population live with fear continually. Vast tracts of the Middle East, parts of eastern Europe, and Africa (could even add the USA now, I suppose) … but they still buy pets, have babies, laugh at parties, bitch about who is doing what household chore… they still live. And they would do anything possible to stay put. Who wants to be forced for whatever reason to up sticks and shift to another part of the world.
Perhaps we are a little ‘soft’ now, in Europe – wouldn’t know one type of artillery shelling from another, don’t expect to be bombed in the night, know perfectly well clean water will appear simply by turning a tap … we have grown used (entitled, even?) to the notion of a right to a peaceful, uninterrupted existence. The earth moving under your feet, buildings swaying and that infernal noise absolutely does mess with our psyches, our physical health and the rest – but it’s a part of the overall business of being a human on this part of the earth’s surface. The downside, if you like.
This whole central swathe of Italy is seismic – insanely so, right now.
For me, at this point, fear/anxiety is not a reason to run away from my life. And more to the point is is not realistically possible.
Loving, kind friends have said, and still do, ‘Come and have a break‘ or ‘Come and get away for a few days and rest‘ – it all comes from a place of goodness and love, I understand that. But it is not possible – at least for me. I don’t need a rest – I need for the earthquakes to stop and I need for the outside world to start thinking about what the hell they are going to do to help us. Sofa-surfing with friends in Brighton or Berlin would not help. I would not relax – I would worry, all the more because I wouldn’t be here.
On a micro-scale … there are a billion forms, building inspections, arguments, more forms, more inspections relating to my house (badly damaged but still standing) that I need to address. Just a ton of admin. A load of people to talk to about various aspects of it. Plus, I have to monitor the house – each time we get another big tremor I have to go back and see what’s got worse. I have 5 feral cats that I rescued …. should I abandon them to die in the snow? Just leave my home and everything in it? Steve and I had to make sure we got on the list for one of those little wooden houses (see next Blog Post … what a nightmare) they give to earthquake survivors that have lost their homes. Can’t do that from London, N1.
On a macro-level … the community at large, not just here in Sarnano, simply has to hold together. I said way back in an earlier chapter that I do not want to stand around and watch the start of the Great Sibillini Diaspora … I was not being dramatic.
There is real talk around here, real fear that this region will all but disappear if we don’t hold together AND get help from outside. What’s happened here has not happened since 1703 when there was a similar ‘swarm’ of earthquakes – it’s a huge, huge natural and human disaster. No-one much, outside of this area, really knows about or probably cares that much. But I do.
These last ten days (with the monstrous arctic-circle type snow and a full day of 63 earthquakes) have indeed been a whole new species of ‘frightening’. Earthquakes and all the weird stuff they do to your head have changed me. Not much I can do about that now. We have all been giving much thought to the existential questions that this endless moving of the ground beneath our feet has kicked up. When I’m in the coffee bars this is what we all talk about, virtually all the time. It is good, healthy and interesting discourse.
The uncertainty is far worse than the fear and it takes a hell of a lot of managing, but it is ‘do-able’. I’m no fan of Big Pharma but I’ve got to say Xanax has proved a mighty ally since October 2016. Sarnano’s drug of choice, at the moment. Just stops your heart from bouncing out of your chest.
So, I stay.
For the last 7 months now, our lives here have not been especially peaceful, although we’ve had good times too. The subterranean bombardment we have endured, month on month, has been unbelievably anxious-making. But it simply did not occur to me that I might leave. I was rather too busy with managing the situation I found myself in.
Plus, I’ve learned things about myself, I was tested.
I learned that I am brave, don’t cry when it’s all going crazy (probably because no was watching so it was rather pointless). I am not afraid of physical hard work and I am resourceful – started solving practical problems I’d never had before.
I’ve learned to chop wood on my own (badly, but there wasn’t anyone who was going to do it for me when I was cut off from the outside world).
I learned I manage well on my own, that I like silence (kind of no choice when you’ve got no electricity) and enjoy my own company. It’s not been boring either … I was dug out of here by gorgeous men from the Air Force and have a had a fireman’s lift from a real fireman.
All the time I was thinking ahead … to the next problem and its solution … not backwards and lamenting how miserable it was, bruising myself falling in the snow, practically catching pneumonia, wearing and sleeping in the same clothes for four days and four nights. I was chuffed, overall, with my performance as a functioning, practical woman that didn’t need a man (would have liked Steve to have been here, though).
The future? Who knows. Do I think about leaving? No. Where would we go? Back to England … and do what? Where would we find work, how could we possibly afford to live there? I wouldn’t see the mountains, or wolves and would never eat decent food again.
Besides, let’s face it, the UK doesn’t exactly welcome refugees with a warm embrace, does it? I lived in the UK for most of my adult life (worked for the Home Office, the BBC and so on) but I am actually a foreigner – an American – not something I exactly shout from the rooftops now. The UK government would want for me to take that Citizen’s Test. I’d fail. Hate cricket and don’t know the lyrics to the National Anthem. Can’t name anyone in the Royal family (well, except The Queen, of course). Plus, they want an imprint of my iris. My iris? What kind of a society is that?
So, last few words then
I do not aspire to a calm, vanilla life. I thank God I am not a bank-teller in Basingstoke (no offense to either) but neither am I an adrenaline-junkie (as my Xanax prescriptions will testify). But I do want challenges, new ones, ones that prove I am alive. Helps not being scared of being dead (just the actual dying bit I’m not that keen on). I don’t actively seek out scary things but without challenges I may as well take a fistful of Mogadon and call it day.
And I love it here. It’s magical. It’s magnificent.
Something most people would walk a thousand miles towards, not away from. It’s not me that should leave … it’s you guys who should come here and share all the beauty … and maybe just a little bit of the fear!
Do you good.