In Piemonte, and the Langhe Hills in Italy, we have found our perfect home, our spiritual home and our neighbours have been the biggest part of making us feel at home. Coming from Dublin, we were fairly spoilt, we lived in a close knit community in a cul-de-sac, right in the heart of South side Dublin city centre. It was a haven of tranquillity, yet, only 200 metres away, one of the main, dual carriage, arteries into the very centre ran by the house, but it was so built up we never heard a murmur of the endless cars, bikes and buses that toiled up and down the main road all day. The cul-de-sac has a beautiful flower garden, made by two lovely old 'fellas' who adopted it a couple of decades ago from a slab of empty, degrading, council concrete. We were very fortunate to find that home. Our neighbours were mainly over 60 and some had even been born in their current home, along with 10 other children. The amount of children our neighbours parents had was staggering. I kid you not, one of my closest now sadly departed friends, Patricia, had been born into a family of 21 children (same parents), albeit on the other side of town, quite spectacular. All day long there are coming and goings of grand kids and grown up kids dropping into visit our neighbours, some actually come every day to visit their parents. It’s that type of community. A rare community in the city.
I think some of the Dublin neighbours were a bit put out when we moved in to the cul-de-sac, us 'yuppy' types', so they thought, and with the Mercedes, and right in the top price boom year, 2006, a doomed year for all who bought in Ireland! But the house price was very much within our comfort zone, thankfully. Some of the neighbours had tried to secure it for their adult kids, but had been out bid, or hadn’t even tried to bid, on the, what they thought, extortionate house price; after all some of them had bought their house for €5,000 back in their younger years. So we had to meet the begrudgers and make friends. Which we did, by gardening our socks off out the front of the house, we adopted some waste land circling a street tree and turned it into a herb surround and a window box of lavender and heather and a blooming rose bush by the front door. They were happy then, we weren’t those ne’er do wells who buy a house and rent it out to uncaring souls, we wanted in, and we got in. Over the years we have sadly said our farewells to good people who passed on and we all attended, as a community group, all the funerals, there were no weddings, as we were all beyond that. But we mucked along, with the odd fall out, normally over people parking outside each other’s houses, the prime spot, every house owner cherishes in our street, right outside the front door, no driveway you see. God forbid a visitor unknowingly steals the cherished spot outside a neighbour’s’ door. Most of the time, in the early years, it was our cherished spot that was hijacked, until, Andrew, the new Alpha male of the street, went into battle. So spells of not talking and sulking did descend into our pleasant spot but it was never for long, the day soon came when normal conversation about the weather, and ailments and flowers resumed. So I can’t say that we lived in some stereotypical cold city centre spot, because it was warm and treasured but what we have found in Italy has taken neighbourhood to a whole new level.
Giovanni, our Langhe neighbour, and our house vendor, had taken it upon himself, with no prompting, to march us round, after we closed the sale, to meet the neighbours adjoining our land. We were met with the gruffest, grumpiest dog ever, and no, not one who becomes a dote after a few strokes. So, keeping the grouchy dog at bay, we had been taken into a lovely old kitchen for our first neighbour visit. We were offered plates of biscuits and nuts and coffee and had a good chat. A real Italian welcome, no visit, it turns out, goes without refreshments, we have to keep our own cupboards stocked with emergency biscuits for such an occasion, of which there has been plenty. Then we met the wonderful Gianna who lives in the house above us, retired, of course, and she has three houses, the one near us she uses for the summer, and it is also the one she was raised in. Seeing a similarity, I hope. Gianna is like the stereotype in the movies you watch about people moving to Italy, she loves shouting a ‘Buongiorno!’ at me from over her terrace balcony, which, each time, scares the wits out of me, normally she catches me in a trance while I weed the flower bed and, once recovered from the shock, I always bounce back a smiling ‘Buongiorno!’.
In our Langhe Hills region, it is courteous to always announce your arrival, if there has been some absence, not to announce one’s arrival led us to the most amusing, if not a little irritating, moment this first year has provided us with. We had set out in March from Ireland to our new Italian house, prior to moving there full time, and had decided to purchase a couch from Ikea in Genova, a good 2 hours away. So we had hired a van because they didn’t deliver back then, though this summer Ikea decided we weren’t that far for a delivery, the usual Italian inconsistency! So we hired a massive white tall van and drove to the house the day before the trip to Genova. All fine. We awoke in the morning and Andrew went for his morning stretch, taking in the 'bella' view over the veranda outside, most often he does this just in his boxer shorts, thankfully not this time, only to see Giovanni trotting up the drive. He went down to meet him half way (it’s a very long drive) and ended up being met by Giovanni and the Police! Giovanni thought we were being burgled by some white van mob and had called the police to get to our house asap, “Why didn’t you call?”, he said, and “cellulare me” (mobile phone), “I didn’t know you were here!”. Embarrassed, he sent the Police off, goodness knows what they thought of us, and I joined the, very wound up Giovanni and more chilled Andrew in the ‘welcome’. My thoughts were, ‘why on earth would I need to call the neighbours to come to my own house, we own it, it’s not a holiday home’ etc etc. So, slighted at being treated like a tourist, I joined the discussion, a little bit too strongly, and with arms flapping, from both sides, Giovanni “arrivederci’d” at us and stalked off. We didn’t talk to Giovanni for a good couple of months after that episode! Chiefly, because he didn’t do his usual daily visit, which had irritated me in the first month, bless him. He doesn’t speak English, and why should he, so we couldn’t call him and make peace, as we’re not quite that fluent. Then, one day in early summer, accompanied by my mother, a person Giovanni seems to have taken a brotherly shine to, we dropped into his home. He met us as if nothing had happened, three kisses, wine, nibbles offered and we have since then carried on as normal, with Giovanni visiting a few times a week, not daily and a number of wonderful reciprocated dinners with him and the other neighbours. Truth be told, I don’t know what we would do without him. We really did buy him with the house, that was the joke we had with our estate agents, but it really is true. Though we know when he doesn’t like a decision of ours, such as where to put the veg patch, as he has a ‘tell’, he quickly shuts down the discussion with an ‘arrivederci’ turns on his tail and walks off. Though we are so used to this we laugh it off and sometimes run up and give him a hug, no silent moments have passed since.
I have since read that Italians treat their friends as family, and I don't doubt it, for us two 'blow ins' we have truly landed on our feet here.
Find out how we started this Piemonte Italian dream here.
Ahh, Italian kisses, the stuff of movies, romance and… no this post is not that romantic! Italian kisses are confusing, they are perplexing and inconsistent and sometimes head-bumping and embarrassing. Told you it wasn’t going to be romantic!
I’m talking about greeting and kissing Italian friends in Italy. In all our travels to Italy we never really had to think about kissing anyone but, well, ourselves alone. Staying on past holidays in Italy, as tourists, in remote self-catering homes, meant we hardly saw a soul, apart from venturing out to the markets and restaurants as unidentifiable tourists that no one wanted to kiss, thank goodness! Now, living in Italy, it is a different matter.
Since buying our house in March this year we have established some wonderful friendships in our area, most of them are our neighbours, 9 people locally and Natascia and Marco our estate agents from Acqui Terme, who have become firm friends. Most are Italian and two are Swiss married to Italians. So far so great. But one of the delicate moments that I struggle with when greeting any of these new friends is the ‘kiss’. You can read all you like about this on Google and think you know the right way but, as with so many things in Italy, there are regional differences and rules are complicated. So far I have to try and remember who does what kisses, on what side, in what style and when, as there are four different kissing greeting styles we have encountered, so far, and we have to remember them all, depending on who we are greeting!
Firstly, there is the two kisses approach, firstly one to your right of the persons face (their left cheek) and then to the left side (their right cheek). Awkward in itself coming from a land where we greet our very best friends with one peck grazing their right cheek – full stop! So now, like driving on the opposite side of the road, I have to remember the opposite side of the face first, fortunately, and this is how I remember it, both are on my right side!
Secondly, there are three kisses, one to your right side of their face (their left cheek), then the left and back to the right of their face (their left cheek). Giovanni sprang this one on us both when we had our first dinner at his family home, Giovanni originally hails from Sardinia, I’m not sure if this is a Sardinian style though. Much head knocking ensued, at that first dinner, from going the wrong way in the early greeting with him and his family and then assuming the kissing had ended when there was another kiss left to do, lots of, “Ur, sorry, um, ah ha ha - yes we are Irish and we are used to one, ha ha, yes, but when in Italy, ha ha, ahhh”, cringe! So we had to get this kissing started off properly. We then took this three kiss rule to meet Natascia and Marco for lunch, they went along with it too. ‘Excellent’, we thought, we have nailed the kissing!
Thirdly, we noticed with Giovanni’s wife, who is Swiss, that she prefers proper air kisses, like a fashion diva, which she is not, she is the gentlest loveliest lady but it is the Swiss way to ‘Mwah’ into the air three times, starting the air kiss above their left cheek.
Fourthly, there is one person who likes one kiss, to the left cheek side, we haven’t worked out why this is yet though. There just is no consistency, I love being in Italy, they really keep me on my toes.
Then there is the diplomatic trick of remembering all these different greeting arrangements when we all meet for a dinner party, a regular occurrence with our neighbours, this is particularly difficult at the end of the night after a feast of food and lots of good wine when the kissing repeats again, this time in saying good night.
We have recently learned from Natascia that she was going along with our three kisses, which we had inherited from Giovanni, as she thought it must be the Irish way of kissing and was being polite by following our lead! Yeah right! Irish, yes maybe the Irish are known as really friendly people but intimate gestures, forget about it! So we have learnt that she does two kisses, starting on the persons left cheek. Ahhhhhhh!
But the golden, Italian kissing greeting etiquette, rules here is that firstly men kiss men in exactly the same way as described above, so everyone gets kisses! So both Andrew and I have had to struggle through this learning curve together. How very cool is that! Secondly, the kissing greeting commences at the second meeting, so in the first meeting a polite, standard, hand shake and ‘piacere’ (nice to meet you), is the starting point. Then kissing begins from the second meeting onwards, if it is in a social, friendship forming, context, not a formal meeting at the bank etc.
I reckon the easiest way, if socialising in a group, is to hang back and watch others kiss first, see how they are kissing and then replicate the correct way to show how culturally sophisticated you are.
I love living in Italy.
Next installment - Love thy Neighbour!
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