What do I love about living in Italy–Elizabeth Heath

This week I get another opportunity to welcome another expat in Italy, this time Elizabeth Heath. 

What Do I Love About Living in Italy

By Elizabeth Heath, My Village in Umbria

When Cathy asked me to contribute my list of things I love about living in Italy, I really had to give it some thought. Not that I don’t love it here—I do—most days, at least! But in a country where every other expat is writing about what he or she loves about life in Italy, the challenge to say something original and not too terribly clichéd is palpable. So here is my best shot, clichés and all, of “What do I love about living in Italy.”

1. A whole town looking out for my kid. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and per fortuna, I have one. When Paolo and I go to the bar (which is frequently during the summer months), Naomi more often than not gets scooped up by one townsperson or another or is happily taken for a walk to go find a cat or a dog. The other night we had a big dinner in our main piazza, and invited a British friend to join us. He kept track, and concluded that between all the aunties and friends and second and third cousins taking turns playing with Naomi, I got five hours of free babysitting.


Naomi being babysat at the bar


2. The improvisational nature of life here. A few months ago, my friend Toni DiBella and I were walking through a piazza in Orvieto, engaged in conversation. There was a crafts market on the piazza, and the artisans were dressed in medieval clothing. A mother and son in costume walked past us and neither of us paused our discussion until Toni (who writes a great blog, Orvieto or Bust) said, “You know we’ve been here a long time when we see people in medieval clothing and it seems normal!” Just the other night, when we came to Orvieto for dinner and took a walk on the main drag, Corso, there were musicians performing on every small piazza and intersection—in town for a folk music festival. Then a family of bagpipers in kilts walked by, the crowd trailing behind them in true pied piper mode, complete with women holding hands and step-dancing. This is the kind of stuff that just happens here, and it’s magical.


Just some guys in tights, getting ready to throw some flags…


3. Walking with history. My studies in archaeology are what initially led to my repeated trips to Italy. Spending a month or two every summer digging in the dirt under the hot sun was and still is one of the best ways I can think of to spend my time. But now that I live here, I understand and appreciate much better the connections to the distant past as they run through the land, the cities and the psyches of the people. About a mile or so from my house, there’s a Roman village buried under woods, fallow fields and row of grapevines and olive trees. It may have once been home to as many as 10,000 people. How much of their blood still runs through the veins of our townspeople, who think of themselves at turns as Etruscan, Roman, Umbrian and Italian (and Alleronese)?


At an archaeological dig near my home


4. Really old sh*t. (See item #3.) My friend is coming to visit soon, and she secured a room for us in a very expensive Rome hotel. I argued that she paid too much (after all, I’m splitting the bill with her) and she replied, “But the hotel was built in 1787!” “Pfffttt,” I said. “Modern architecture.” I grew up in Florida, where an “old” house meant mid-20th century. Here, our church is from the 1300s (it was renovated in the 1600s!); the old town walls possibly date to as far back as the 900s, and everyone has a centuries-old cantina or grotto under their homes, all of which are still in use. My husband, a stonemason, is renovating our rustico (a sort of semi-underground rec room) using recovered cotto tiles from the 1800s. Call me a romantic, but I feel the history practically vibrating in these old tiles and stones.


Paolo at work with 150-year-old cotto


5. The continuity of place. I guess I’m stuck on a theme of time and history here…we were at the cemetery on Sunday, as we drove my mother-in-law, Franca, down to change the flowers on the graves of her parenti. Every time I walk among those tombstones and vaults, with their faded photos of the dearly departed, I try to imagine the stories of the dead who lay within. Was this one killed in the war? Did she die during childbirth, or was it a fever? There’s the grave of the young woman killed in a car accident decades ago. Her parents never stopped mourning, and they still bring flowers, trinkets and battery-operated candles to her grave. There’s the tombs of all the Pasqualetti’s (my mother-in-law’s family), who married all the Tardiolo’s. “That’s the way it was,” recalls Franca. “The families lived next door to each other in the campagna (countryside). All the Pasqualetti’s had boys and all the Tardiolo’s had girls, so they all married each other.” I try to imagine my own tomb there, or visiting that of my husband, or my daughter visiting ours. And I admit that I can’t picture it just yet.


Three generations, the oldest 101 years


6. Sunflowers. Okay, now I’m moving head-on into cliché territory. They’re called “girasole” in Italian, which roughly means, “to turn with the sun.” They’re as stereotypical of Italian life as a red-checkered tablecloth and a straw-wrapped bottle of Chianti (oh, and I love those things, too). But I just can’t help it. No matter how many years I see them, or how often I drive past the same eye-popping field of yellow, the sunflowers knock me out every time. I hope they always will.


7. And one more cliché…Prosecco any time. Most evenings out in Italy start with an aperitivo, which for many of us means a glass of Prosecco. A light, dry sparkling wine, it’s Italy’s answer to champagne, except at a fraction of the price. Maybe it’s the bubbles, but for me, it makes the evening feel just a bit more celebratory, like we’re doing something special for ourselves for no other reason than that we’re enjoying life. There’s something about it that expresses gratitude, good fortune and joie di vivre (if I can mix my European cultures a bit). I can’t help but feel lucky every time I drink it, just like I feel lucky to live where I live with the people I love.


Actually, this is champagne, but you get the picture.


I am a writer, editor and sometime-archaeologist living in a small hilltop village near Orvieto, Umbria. I’ve lived in Italy since 2009, when I moved here to marry my Italian beau (after a whirlwind long-distance romance). We now have a house, a kid, three dogs, and a bunch of olive trees and grapevines. I blog about the mostly funny, sometimes melancholy aspects of life here in my blog, My Village in Umbria.