The TripFiction Book Club July/August ’19 reads ‘A Summer Reunion’ by Fanny Blake
Memoir set in Umbria (un etto* of Italy) Plus we talk to the author about life in Italy
3rd April 2016
Chickens Eat Pasta by Clare Pedrick, memoir set in Umbria.
Umbria: “…such a spectacularly beautiful place, so close to Rome in some ways and yet so very different and completely unspoilt”
On a whim, Clare Pedrick decides to decamp to Umbria, giving up life as she knows it in the South of England. Triggered by the end of a relationship, it is deemed a bit of a rash response to an emotional upheaval. But once Italy gets under your skin, it has you for keeps (or so it feels). It is also pretty horrible weather in November in England, another incentive to search for a property in the rugged hills above Terni.
And so she finds her way to San Massano, where she buys a derelict property. Angela and Ercolino become her good supportive friends as she gradually brings her ruin back to life. Most are curious about the English woman, some try to take advantage in more ways than one, but her determination to settle into the community is admirable. As she finds her feet, she also finds work in Rome.
At the same time a relationship starts to form, with a man from – of all places – Naples, not an ideal choice according the locals, as they are all mafia down there and he is more than likely to have another woman in tow. Despite this, and despite some doubts,the relationship feels strong enough to find a flat in Rome where they can both live.
Throughout the book there are short chapters that indicate she will leave San Massano – we perhaps imagine bleak circumstances, or perhaps the ingrained “ways” and “traditions” of Italy become too much – but you will have to buy a copy of the book to see where life eventually takes her.
For me this was much more than a memoir, I felt I was often there in the cold of her cottage, or heading down to Terni to catch the train, and eating the gloriously rendered food. There are many appetising dishes, always with incredibly fresh and aromatic ingredients that just waft off the pages.
The origin of the title becomes apparent early in the book when Clare spots chickens eating, well, pasta!
*un etto: equivalent to around 100gm in weight, a term commonly used throughout Italy
Tina for the TripFiction Team
Over to Clare who has agreed to answer our questions….
TF: You made a fairly quick (impulsive, it seemed?) decision to buy a house in Italy, finding your way to the house in San Massano. Do you see yourself as a person who is “impetuous”? I felt really inspired how you just got on with searching for your preferred property once you had made your decision, but there were several people who expressed considerable doubt about your momentous decision…..
CP: Well I would say that in some ways, impulsive is a bit of an understatement! I saw the advertisement on a Sunday morning, went to see the agent on the Monday, was on a plane to Rome on Wednesday and by Thursday I had bought the house, or what was left of it, which wasn’t a great deal, as it had no electricity, no water, hardly any roof and the floors were missing in most places. To be honest, I never made a conscious decision to buy a house in Italy, let alone move there. My life was all planned out in England and I had a very promising career as a Fleet Street journalist lined up. Which is why quite a few people around me were very worried, and with hindsight I can understand that. I found the photographs the other day of the old ruin when I first saw it. I was bewitched at the time, but some of my friends and family thought I had lost my mind when I passed the pictures round. My older brother seriously wanted me to see a psychiatrist! I suppose there is a streak of recklessness in me, and I was very young at the time. But I also think it was a case of coincidences – I believe very strongly that these can shape your life. And of course luck came into the equation too, as I was incredibly fortunate in meeting some really extraordinarily supportive people who helped me out in every possible way. We’re still great friends to this day.
TF: It is hugely important to know the language when you move to another country. You speak Italian. How well did you cope with the dialect of the area?
CP: Yes I did speak Italian, or at least I thought I did, but I’d learned it first at school and then at Cambridge, which in those days had a very academic approach to teaching languages. So I could talk for ages about the imagery of Dante or Boccaccio and hold quite a decent conversation, about Italian philology or the themes of playwrights such as Pirandello. But when it came to talking to my new neighbours in this very remote hill village in the wilds of southern Umbria, I discovered that I knew very little, which was quite a shock. They could understand me pretty well, but the dialect here, as in many parts of Italy, was quite impenetrable, at least to me. The villagers found it very amusing, and it really was quite funny, but it was also incredibly frustrating, as it took ages to communicate even the most basic idea, which was something of a problem when you were trying to get a house renovated all on your own.
TF: How did the characters portrayed in your book feel about seeing themselves in print, I wonder?
CP: For some of the characters, it has never been an issue, as quite a few of them are illiterate and others, sadly, have since died. But the one I most cared about was Ercolino, who as anyone who has read Chickens Eat Pasta will know, just about steals the show in the book. It’s impossible for me to explain how important he and his wife Angela – by the way, these aren’t their real names, and I changed those of most of the characters – have been to me ever since that first day I bought my house. They more or less adopted me as their daughter, at a time when my own parents had died. And for no reason that I will ever understand, they looked out for me and helped me steer my way through the minefield of difficulties that my rather rash decision presented at every turn – always with a glass of wine and a plate of pasta and great warmth and humour, just when I most needed it. I still see Ercolino very often – sadly Angela died suddenly four years ago – and it was with some trepidation that I presented him with the book soon after it was published. Like most people, he had no idea I had been writing it. I was worried that he might not like it, but he called me a few days later, having devoured every page, and he was over the moon, and delighted to play such a prominent role. I drove down to see him the next day and we spend a lovely few hours reminiscing about how we had met and all our adventures. He had tears rolling down his cheeks at some of the episodes and characters. Now, whenever we see each other or talk on the phone, his first question is: ‘How’s the book going?’
TF: You are still living in Italy. Where did your life take you after the book ended?
CP: Well without spoiling the story for people who have yet to read the book, let’s just say that I still live in Italy, and of course I still have the house in San Massano, which is incredibly different from the tumbledown old place that I fell in love with that first day I saw it. But although it now has a roof, floors, heating and even a swimming pool, the character of the place is still unchanged. I live in Spoleto, a very gracious and charming Renaissance hilltown about half an hour’s drive from San Massano, which is really too remote to live in on an everyday basis. But we go there very often and decamp to spend the summer there when it starts getting uncomfortably hot in Spoleto. And I know this probably sounds fanciful, but my heart still misses a beat every time I turn the last bend in the road and see the house up on the knoll in front of me. And however stressed or fed up I am, I always feel magically happier the minute I cross the threshold.
TF: What are your top tips for relocating to Italy?
CP: As we said earlier, I think it’s extremely important to speak the language, and you will get far more out of living in Italy if you make the effort. Of course, that’s the same just about anywhere, but here there’s a difference in that Italians are massively appreciative of anyone who makes the effort to speak their language, partly because they are not that good themselves at speaking English or any other language other than their own. You’d be surprised how many people don’t bother to learn Italian, which is inexcusable as it’s relatively easy to become reasonably proficient quite quickly. The other piece of advice I would offer is: arm yourself with bucketloads of patience and leave your assumptions about how things should be done behind. Depending on where you live, organising basic services can be much more complicated and laborious than many people will be used to, though it must be said that things have improved greatly since I first came here.
TF: Which are the aspects you adore about life in Italy and what do you miss about England? (And what are the downsides too of course!)
CP: Well it goes without saying that I love the incredibly delicious food and wonderful wine here, and the whole Italian lifestyle, which places more value on living the moment than worrying about what might be round the corner in the future. It never fails to amaze me how extraordinarily beautiful this country is, and Italians have that genetically in-built sense of aesthetics, so that even the most humble little village in the middle of nowhere will have been designed in a way that is pleasing to the eye. That’s a feature that filters down to just about every possible aspect of daily life here. If you go into a bookshop, the sales assistant will spend a good ten minutes wrapping your book up, with bows and ribbons – so artfully that it’s a shame to tear the paper. I love doing my Christmas shopping in Italy! On the downside, the bureaucracy is really oppressive, and you are expected to spend hours of precious time standing in queues to fill out forms or apply for some tedious document, and then have it stamped. Also, not many people know that Italy has more laws than anywhere else in the world, and if some petty official has it in for you, you can really find yourself in hot water. That’s one of the reasons that people here take such care to massage contacts in the right places. It’s still extremely important to have a friend in court.
As for England, the thing I probably miss most is my friends, especially my women friends. In this part of Italy, a great many women still play a very traditional role of wife, mother and general domestic dogsbody, and not many of them have travelled much. So I do miss being able to ring a friend to go out for a drink or to watch a film together, though thanks to low-cost air travel, it’s easier and cheaper than ever to go back and forth.
TF: What is next for you?
CP: I think it’s too early for me to decide what to write next in the way of another book. I’m glad to say that quite a few people have asked me to write a sequel. People really do seem to have built up links with the characters in the book and appear genuinely interested in finding out what happened next, which I think is one of the tests of a good book. I know that I myself only ever enjoy a book if I care about what happens to the people I am reading about. So I suppose a follow-up to Chickens Eat Pasta is a definite possibility. I am also drawn to the idea of moving over into novel writing – although in many ways this book is written like a novel, in spite of the fact that it’s strongly rooted in my own personal experiences here in Italy. One thing I wish I’d known before is that, however long and laborious it may be to write a book (and I wrote five versions before I was happy with this one), it’s a very liberating experience and nothing at all to be afraid of. Almost everyone has been very supportive and the reviews have been mostly positive. It’s unbelievably satisfying to see your own book in print and watch other people enjoying it. I can’t think why I didn’t do it before.
Photos © Clare Pedrick
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