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A Letter to Bighton & Gundleton From Abroad - Parts 5 to 9

We have two friends who, for the last two years, have been planning the experience of a lifetime. In January, plans complete, they rented out their house for 12 months and set off on their new adventure. Little did they know what was going to happen……

To help take our minds off the worries of Coronavirus they have agreed to chronicle their adventure with all its highs, lows and funny moments and produce a series of updates of life in Italy to be published in Big Gun News and on the village website.

Ian & Gail


La Dolce Vita

Leaps and bounds … and hurdles (Step 5)

Now why didn't I think of this before? For the past twenty years there have been a list of niggling little (and some not so little) jobs that needed doing on our house. It was always a case of “tomorrow”, “this is more important”, “I'm busy”, “we haven't got the money” … Then our agent comes around and gives us a list of things he thinks need doing to optimise the house's potential. It's nothing short of miraculous; the storm guard on the bottom of the front door to the porch (which has flooded every winter since we moved in) is fixed – no more floods!; the loo door, which has stuck for the past 20 years now opens and closes smoothly; the electric light switch (which we have had to put tape over to make sure nobody turns it on and electrocutes themselves) is working … no blue spark and shock; the fence with the retriever dog-sized hole - where our next door neighbour's girl didn't bother to stop when she was chasing a cat and just came straight through to our side .. fixed. The list is endless but there is definitely nothing like wanting to optimise the amount of money you want to make from your letting to get things done.

By this time, heading towards the autumn of 2019, the UK side of things is coming on in leaps and bounds. Making the decision to do the things that we knew could be done was very instrumental in this. Dogs passports? Well we weren't going anywhere without the dogs so they were a must. Spoke to the Vet involved and rabies jabs etc were all put in place within the required time-lines and by the end of July our two girls were the proud owners of their very own pet passports. As I've said above, house repairs and necessary evils (smoke alarms, carbon monoxide monitors etc. etc) all under control. Tax Office has been notified and told us when we need to apply for paperwork to pay tax on the house via self-assessment rather than at source. Another list (I do like a list) giving a time-line as to when the remaining things need to be done is created … boiler serviced, chimney swept, oven-cleaned … all to be booked in for shortly after Christmas. Now feeling comfortable that this is under control … until we get told that we have to complete yet another form or get something done to comply with the UK regulations.

Italy? Well that's another story. We are still struggling with a way around the needing to have a 3 months let to get residency and not able to get a 3 month let unless you have residency. Then we were out with a group of friends for dinner and one of them said that his daughter had wanted to move to Italy prior to their final decision to move to France. They had the same problems as us but had gone for a three month holiday let before deciding it was all too complicated, expensive and bureaucratic and fleeing to the comfort and comparative ease of France. Bingo!! Holiday let … why hadn't we thought of that? Went home that evening and had a long discussion with my husband about whether this was the way forward and decided it definitely was the way to go. The following day we had a long discussion about the area where we wanted to start our journey … and both agreed Florence. Actually, this was after finding out that Bologna, which is where I really wanted to spend the year was extortionately expensive and there was no chance of going there. By the end of close of play the following day I had spoken to a charming Italian with a sweet little house just outside of Florence, who had agreed to a reduced rate as we were staying for three months (always bargain with the Italians!!) and a massive hurdle had been overcome with little to no stress or aggravation.

Talking of hurdles … all this was going a little too smoothly at this stage. Why is nothing ever easy or straightforward for us? The more observant amongst you (if you are still with me!) may have noticed the dates we have been talking about, 2018 to 2020. What's the significance? The little matter of what was to become a major swear word for us … Brexit. It was just about to throw a huge spanner in the works for our proposed trip.

Dogged Steps (Step 6)

March 2017 … a step back into the past. After the 2016 referendum when the British public voted to Leave came the March 2017 announcement that the formal withdrawal procedure was to commence and “Brexit” process began. Not wishing to diminish the hideous conflicts between families and friends that were now starting to take place, from a selfish point of view this was disaster. What a thorn in our sides this was to prove to be throughout the next two years.

Naively, initially we didn't think that the impact would be that great … remember I'm talking personal cost here, not country/European/worldwide ramifications. However, we were to be proved wrong as the Brexit negotiations were to continually dog our ever step towards moving to Italy. We ignored the warning signals to start with and continued on our merry way to meeting all the requirements ready to go. Then deadlines started to change constantly, and with them the goalposts as to what we were going to actually need to move out of the country as a “non EU” country into an EU country.

Nobody could give us a definitive answer about visas, paperwork, requirements from Italy and whereas we started off having all the time in the world to overcome these obstacles, suddenly their every extension was eating into our preparation time. However, we were fairly confident that we would be able to wing it and get ourselves out to Italy whatever.

Then came “deal/no deal” scenario – forget all the political issues that this was causing … far more important was the major one for us ... whether the dogs' passports were going to be valid. Sounds a very trivial issues but we were booked to go out on 1st February 2020 and as each day went by the deadline for the rabies issues was getting closer and closer. After a ridiculous number of phone calls, we eventually found that if the UK went out without a deal the dogs passports were invalid and they would have to have blood tests to confirm that their vaccinations had worked. So what's the problem? The problem is that it takes 3 months and 1 week from the blood test to confirm that everything is in order. We are now in the beginning of October 2019. Things are becoming very tight for the three months and one week deadline and still no definitive decision about whether we had a deal or indeed a date. Then dear Boris announces the 19th October is to be THE decision date – exactly 3 months and 1 week before we leave. Absolutely no leeway for the rabies tests (did I mention they are £300 per dog!).

Panic set in and we had an emergency confab, which resulted us deciding to go a fortnight earlier and leave in January 2020 to avoid the issue. A quick telephone call to our lovely Italian landlord and problem is resolved … we shall now arrive on 24th January 2020 with pet passports that will be valid for travel for that date. If necessary, we shall get EU passports when we are in Italy … anyway, that is now a future problem.

Of course, all this mad panic and angst actually turned out to have been absolutely unnecessary thanks to the final agreement that all will stay as it until the end of December 2020. Such a shame politicians can't get their acts together and save a lot of needless stress for their voters. Some might say why not just leave it but we had to have the house cleared and ready for tenants who could potentially arrive on 1st February themselves (who were proving somewhat elusive) and didn't want to delay the departure date any further.

Brexit problems overcome (or rather side-stepped) we now started the packing up process. Thirty five years of accumulated “essentials” were now being thinned to the bare necessities. The final three month countdown had started.

A Leap of Faith (Step 7)

Christmas is looming fast and the house is becoming emptier by the day – aided by two carboot sales, ebay, Facebook Market Place and the local recycling site. We sold our three-piece suite and were left with a couple of arm chairs for every day use. Two spare rooms are packed up and ready to go into storage. Then a new realisation struck – we had sold our 3 piece and all extraneous chairs but we have 14 people coming for Christmas lunch (whose bright idea was that I wonder with 2 months to departure date?) and nowhere for them to sit. Ridiculously we had to go out and buy two 3-seater sofas. Enter lovely lady up the road who has 2 almost brand new M&S sofas she wants out and sells them to us for £20 for the pair. Perfect. Even better my nephew and girlfriend love them and say they’ll take them off our hands once Christmas is over. For once problem and solution in one easy step – that’s unusual.

Objects are everywhere and from organised chaos I now have no idea where anything is … it’s all still somewhere in the house but I’m not sure where. Hadn’t realised I’m a such a control freak – I really don’t like that feeling of not knowing. Come Christmas Eve, realise I have stupidly packed up all the roasting tins and they are somewhere in the garage. Fortunately, I did, for once, have the sense to mark up the packing cases and a quick search by my husband located the missing objects.

Thanks to helping hands of various family members, Christmas Day went smoothly and was a great success. Despite the added stress we are really glad that we held it in our house as it combined as a family farewell and was a nice way to finish up 2019. We don’t really do New Year so that was about as end of year celebration as we get.

Woke up on Boxing Day congratulating ourselves on a lovely Christmas Day and momentarily all was calm. Very quickly realisation dawned that there is less than a month to go until we depart. Calm is replaced with mild panic as the distraction that Christmas has caused is removed and in it’s place comes a case of “Oh my God, we still have so much to do”. That was end of the Christmas holidays for us. Packing recommenced with a vengeance and all the last-minute jobs were being crossed off the list as soon as they possibly could be.

Another minor fly in the ointment …. Still no sign of a tenant for the house. We were let down badly by someone who had said they would have it but changed their mind at the last minute. However, we still had to get house ready as if someone was going to come in immediately because we were not now going to be in the country when it was time for them to move in. Cue frenzy of cleaning and packing for the next three weeks. Also a lot of “Buon Viaggio” lunches and dinners with family and friends we hadn’t seen at Christmas time, which was nice … and a little bit sad; although many were booked into to visit us throughout the year, there were a few that wouldn’t be able to make the journey.

Those three weeks flew by until they day before departure arrived, as if out of the blue. We still had a ridiculous amount of things to pack away (we’d thought they’d only take minutes but they didn’t) but by 10.00 pm we were down to a mattress on the floor to sleep on, a tidy house, all household items packed or with friends, car packed and two dogs wondering what the heck was going on.

Surprisingly, we all slept well and, after packing away the mattress and bedding, were ready to leave at 8.30am sharp for the 12.30 tunnel departure. Even more surprising, our departure went smoothly … no panic about forgotten passports/tickets/money – I usually think we’ve forgotten at least one of these. Dogs were a little confused about the dog beds in the back of the car but accepted them pretty quickly. One final turn around to say goodbye to the house … and we were off. Italy here we come.

Getting into our Stride (Step 8)

Well, talk about an anti-climax. All the websites had advised early arrival at the Eurotunnel terminal to get the dogs through the new complex system, which has been put in place ready for Brexit. We duly trundled along, following the signs to the Animal Reception area, which is not the easiest place to find. We were fortunate that there was hardly anyone at the terminal or I think we might still have been looking for it. As it was, we saw the building in the distance and were getting mildly wound up about not being able to get to it. So my husband dashed into the normal terminal departure area, explained that we had 2 dogs and how did we get to the building to be told “oh, we’re not interested in animals leaving the country, only those coming back in”. The air was blue … all the websites had told us we had to have so much paperwork in place, inoculations etc etc and turned out to be a load of baloney. Our beautiful pet passports weren’t even looked at and we just entered the line of cars as normal.

Actually, not quite as normal … where was everybody? This was prior to any inkling of Covid-19 but there were hardly any cars or any other vehicles on our train. Where were the skiers? The day-trippers? Brexit must have caused more concern than we had realised. We had chosen this date to avoid the possibility of being caught up in the Brexit rigmarole and I suppose others had chosen to avoid it for the opposite reason. Anyway, made for an extremely easy journey over with very little hassle either end.

We have driven in Europe on numerous occasions and took the very familiar Autoroute down to Reims for our first stop-over. We would normally have gone further than this but the dogs had never done any long-distance travelling so we didn’t want to stress them out too much. Fortunately, the French motorways are brilliant for those travelling with animals as the girls weren’t entirely happy about being cooped up in the car for that long. The normal 3 to 4 hour journey took closer to 5 thanks to the various stops we had to make at a ridiculous number of Aires. However, we reached our motel on the outskirts of Reims with no major catastrophe. We settled into our little room and got a take-away from one of the various fast-food outlets in the area. Surprisingly, the dogs settled immediately and we all slept well. After a great breakfast and putting the top-box back on the roof of the car (we were advised by Reception that it wouldn’t be there in the morning if we left it on the car) we set off again.

A longer drive to our next stop at Brignoles, just above Nice. Nearly 8 hours thanks to the various stops but again, largely uneventful. We turned up at the Motel just as it was beginning to turn dark. A very different experience to the first place where we stayed. There was a guy smoking outside as we arrived … not something I would have really thought of as out of the ordinary. However, as we headed towards the Reception door, he left and moved around behind us. Again, not something I would have really thought about. We hadn’t got more than 10 feet further on when the dogs in our car with blacked out windows, went completely ballistic and we turned round to find said guy trying the doors!!! Our lurcher sounds extremely scary and I have never seen anyone move so fast away from the car. However, it didn’t exactly fill us with confidence as we entered the Reception to check-in. They had put us on the first floor (with the dogs) and I was about to ask to be moved until I saw the state of the ground floor. Corridors littered with constructions workers who had finished their, no doubt extremely arduous, shifts and were smoking, drinking and drug-taking as they started their evening off. We decided the first floor would do us just fine!!

We ended up bringing in everything from the car, including the dogs who had their first experience of a lift. The lurcher refused point blank to go in that again so it was the stairs from then on. Had the night from hell as the workers decided to have a party below us and the dogs were completely freaked out by the people walking along the roof outside our window!! Funnily enough we weren’t going to complain. As my husband said if he and a mate had been there on their own they probably wouldn’t have thought anything of it but having me and the dogs in tow didn’t allow for such a laissez faire attitude. As they say, you take your chances with these places! However, we won’t be chancing that one ever again.

Don’t run before you can walk (Step 9)

Went downstairs to a completely different motel. All the workers had gone and we had a peaceful, if rather sparse breakfast, and were genuinely wondering if the previous night had been a bad dream. Unbelievable how a place can have such a completely different feel at different times of the day. We then packed up again to make the final leg of the journey down to central Italy.

We had a bit of a lazy meandering journey down to the border. Love that part of France so we did a slight detour to visit some old haunts but it wasn’t long before we reached the final stop before we crossed over. Took the dogs on their last walk around an Aire just above Monte Carlo and took some great photos with our internationally travelled hounds.

Back into the car and across the French/Italian border. Ta dah … we’re finally on Italian soil. The difference is instantaneous … and I’m not talking just about the language. Immediately, the roads are chaos and full of pot holes. I’d forgotten just how bad the Italian roads can be but, fortunately, that only lasted for a few kilometres. What we hadn’t thought about was the lack of stops … the Aires in France are wonderful. In Italy you’re lucky to get a lay-by. We were glad we had stopped in Monaco as we hit a series of tunnels with no chance of stopping.

We did make a quick coffee-break just before we started the tunnels and I ordered a large coffee with hot milk in my ropey Italian. Appeared to be understood, he took my money and I waited … and waited. Now, I have been to Italy at least 15 times but obviously never in a motorway café. Had no idea that you order from the guy behind the counter and then give the receipt to the Barrista who will then make your coffee to order. No idea how long I would have stood there like a lemon if a lovely Italian lady hadn’t taken pity on me and sorted it all out. That was the first time I was helped out by a lovely Italian on our stay here but it was by no means going to be the last!

Continuing on our merry way, we hit the outskirts of Genoa/Genova. Now, I’m pretty sure that most people in Europe had heard of the devastating collapse of the main bridge linking Genoa to the rest of Italy … we certainly had. Sadly, our SatNav hadn’t. It refused to believe that the bridge no longer existed and took us a never ending series of circles (all different) ultimately bringing us back to where the bridge should have been. If you’ve been to Genoa, you’ll know that it’s a little like a small spaghetti junction … we had been going round it for nearly an hour before our patience ran out. You might be thinking … why didn’t the idiots follow the signs? That’s a great idea BUT this is Italy, why would you do anything as useful as put up signs or detours arrows!! So, our paper map was also as good as useless as it was almost impossible to find the existing roads. The guy at the pay booth had stopped charging us!! He did try to help but had no English and my Italian wasn’t up to his directions.

In the end, on I think the 7th or 8th time around, we stopped at a junction, we had been to 7 or 8 times before, and just stared at each other in despair. My husband then turned round and said apropos of nothing “Milan” and pointed. And there on piece of paper with a hand-drawn arrow, and miniscule writing, pointing to Milan. Huge sense of relief, we followed said sign and got out of the nightmare that is Genoa.

Almost straight away we were back on the main road through the centre of Italy. A couple of hours later we sailed around the by-pass skirting around Florence and were within striking distance of our first house. Only an hour to go and we would be in the Tuscan countryside and in our little cottage.

Were we heck! Our Landlord didn’t tell us there are three villages located within a mile of each other with the same name … but one is di Sopra one is di Sotto and one di Sulla. A little like our Upper, Lower and Middle. SatNav can’t cope with this and shuts down on us. So near yet so far.

© Ian Johnson 2020

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