Life in the slow lane May 3, 2008


May 3, 2008 At some point, I became an ex-pat and I’m not quite sure when it happened. Maybe it was when my kid asked me, “Dad, when are you coming home?” After a long discussion, I finally answered “I think I am already home.” Or maybe it was when I figured out that I had a fairly decent lifestyle over here that I couldn’t come remotely close to duplicating in the states on my budget.

My initial impulse for coming to Italy was because I thought it would help me with BET. Also, not dying monolingual was one of the items on my “bucket list.” Living in Italy has certainly made putting the tours together much easier. As for acquiring a second language, this has proven to be a bit more challenging–I had better live to be 110 and keep most of my marbles as this old dog has found learning a new bark much harder than originally imagined.

I figured learning Italian would be relatively easy since I was a choral director for most of my adult life and had taught countless Italian madrigals during that time. And true enough, Italians have absolutely no problem understanding me when I articulate phrases that I know. The problem comes when they respond. I find that I can only pick up about 30% of what is spoken, if that much. Sometimes entire paragraphs will go by with no comprehension on my part.

Since I am known as l’americano (the American) and not un americano (an American), I am periodically asked by the locals as to why I chose Sarnano. I usually just point to the majestic Sibillini Mountains or put together a phrase which includes perchè Sarnano è una bella città. Since they have seen me wandering around town for over three years now, they have stopped asking me where do I really live.

New clients to BET will often ask “what do you actually do in Italy when you are not on tour??” My short answer, and not too wide the mark is “I put together more tours” since I don’t run the same tour over and over and over. I could also respond that for the most part I do the mundane chores of life–shop, cook, eat, clean up, take walks, watch CSI re-runs, follow the Spurs, struggle with Italian, stare out the window at the Sibillini Mountains, take naps and so on. It is quiet and peaceful here. Crime is non-existent. Life is good.

It’s true that not much happens in Sarnano, though there was a bit of excitement the other day. There is a tricky intersection just below my apartment where a road from the neighboring villages to the east of Sarnano joins the main 2-lane highway between Amandola and Sarnano. It is difficult enough when one only needs to merge and continue into town–two or three times a day I will hear a horn blast as someone fails to yield. But it is almost impossible to negotiate safely when one needs to make a 170° turn to head to Amandola. I was putting away laundry when I heard a very brief skid followed by a thwack, clatter, and silence. When I got to my balconetta and looked down I saw a Fiat Punto stopped perpendicular in the middle of the road and motorcyclist and his bike sprawled out some 50 feet beyond. Obviously, the driver of the Fiat couldn’t have seen the motorcycle when she started her turn; he couldn’t have seen her until he rounded the corner. He obviously wasn’t hurt too badly as he soon raised his head and bellowed out an expletive which hasn’t been covered in any of my language lessons. But he is going to spend the next couple of months in recovery since he never even tried to get up before he was carried away by the paramedics more than an hour later. Meanwhile, the Carabinieri were busy taking notes, pictures, measurements and so on. Traffic slowed to a crawl as everyone had to rubberneck trying to figure out what happened. Since it was a holiday, May 1, there were a lot of other bikers out and they all stopped to pay their respects to a fallen buddy. I felt sorry for both the biker and the elderly Fiat driver. She will be deemed responsible for the accident though it is hard to lay blame; he is going to be sidelined for some time. The Italians have a good word for these situations. Instead of “accidents” they are labeled “incidenti.”

A number of BETVets have inquired as to how I am coping with the depressed dollar. When I bought my apartment in 2004, it took $1.20 to buy one euro. This last month one euro cost $1.58. I have had to make some adjustments, to be sure. The only time that I eat out is when I am either on tour or putting together a tour. My daily cappuccino ritual has become a weekly treat instead. Beef has been off the market list for months, as has wine by the bottle. Mercifully, jug wine costs only €5.90 for 5 liters of pure Sangiovese, so I am not making too much of a sacrifice in that department. Diesel for my Citroen C3 costs me the equivalent of $8.33 a gallon, so I tend to walk to the markets in town rather than driving 14 kilometers to the supermercato in Amandola or 42 kilometers to the ipermercato in Macerata. That figure of $8.33 was not a typo–eight dollars and thirty three cents is what I paid last month. Needless to say I have little sympathy for Americans whining about $3.50 a gallon gas. I do acknowledge the difference however–my daily “commute” consists of going from bedroom to study. Walking to the markets is an option for me. In the states this is usually not practical or possible. And my little car gets 46 miles per gallon.

One final story which may explain why I am able to exist comfortably over here in spite of having lost 37% of my purchasing power: Several months ago, I received a bill from the Comune di Sarnano. I walked down to the post office and paid it. A few weeks later I looked at it again and realized that it was a bill for something in 2005 and there was a slight penalty involved. I took it to Roberto who has an office below me. Roberto spent his first ten years growing up in the Boston area, so his English is excellent. He explained that it was the ICI, in essence my homeowners tax. I needed to go to an accountant with all of the details of my apartment, and the accountant would tell me how much I owed the city. (Now why the city couldn’t do that, is beyond my ken. This is simply not the way it is done in Italy.) I eventually tracked down an accountant, met with her and came back a day later for my bill. The accountant was not in, but her 20-something receptionist at the front desk gave me the papers and instructed me to go to the bank. The bank was closed for the day and I was leaving for Sicily the next morning, so she volunteered to take my payment to the bank. I paid her and left. Here is the kicker–the total cost for my property taxes on my apartment for two years, plus penalties, plus accountant fees came to the whopping sum of €76.40, or $121.43. I’m sure I was paying at least twice that much each month on my house in Boerne. This could lead to a discussion on the merits of a national sales tax as they do in Italy versus socking it to the homeowner as is the case in the states. But this would put us into the realm of politics, a subject of which I am quite sure you have had your fill. (I could add this to my reasons for enjoying living over here. Yes, I follow American politics, but on my terms. I read about it in the NYT online edition–I don’t have my nose rubbed in it 24/7.)

At some point, living the ex-pat life will no longer make sense and I will “come home.” Maybe the reason will be health related. Maybe it will be when I no longer am putting together tours, though at this point I have no plans for retiring. Perhaps the time will come when my son comes over and tells me that the Comune di Sarnano has told him to come get me. Even then I might protest. After all, the new nursing home here in Sarnano has a great view of the Sibillini Mountains, and they serve wine with dinner. {home}