Lina finished, I suppose it was, after we moved house – for the second time in a couple of years! Before then we had been living before in Switzerland, in the end for about seven or eight years, and although we had been very happy there, and had made lots of wonderful friends, it was not to be. Switzerland is a beautiful place in many ways, but it is not part of Europe, and so it can be complicated at times… And because of problems with work and residence permits etc. etc. we had to leave. We’d also recently had our daughter and so without getting things sorted out, there was no real solution.
So we moved across the border to Italy, where our son was born after a few months. We lived in this great big house with three floors on the lake front, and had a large garden going down to the water. How beautiful, you may say, and I suppose it was. But obviously beyond to facade all was not as it appeared. The rent, although reasonable compared to Swiss prices, was dear for Italy, and our landlord was intrusive and didn’t allow us the freedom we needed. So we quickly decided on buying our own place thinking it was now or never.
In hindsight that was in fact totally true. It was just before we changed from Italian lire to Euro, after which everything more or less doubled in price in a year or so; including the price of houses! We had managed to save something over the years and my dad was able to lend us something as well, and so we could just about scrape enough together.
And so after just one year in Ponte Tresa, we moved again to our new flat just a few miles away and up the hill. What could possibly go wrong?
The New Place
Obviously, it was all quite exciting really – our own new place to live – two wonderful little kids, and everything to look forward to.
The apartment was on the ground floor of a condominium with a large garden immediately outside. I painted it all, nothing special just the typical whitewash walls, and we moved our furniture in. The people seemed friendly, and so our new life was ready to begin.
Perhaps it is difficult to understand, the quirks of nation geography, but it is an important factor which is a never ending component in the realities of life near the Italian northern border to Switzerland.
Switzerland has a high standard of living, and to go with it high costs and high salaries. To boot this acts as a magnet to workers from the whole of Italy and well beyond. Italy, despite being a beautiful country, has far more than its fair share of problems, not least the level of unemployment – particularly in the south, so Switzerland, as well as being a place where there is plenty of work on offer, that work being invariably well paid – much, much more so than you would expect in neighbouring Italy, and so it is consequently a popular destination for all those would be Dick Whittingtons of the world!
The downside – of course there is also a drawback! – is that because many of the border towns and villages are inhabited by people from other places who have come for a better existence and the chance of a better quality of life, the result is that some of these places – including where we chose to live – tend to lack the sense of history and community. They sometimes become dormitories for people from other places. Working, living, but being sometimes separate from the indigenous populations.
It’s a long time ago now, but everything was going well. Our daughter started going to a new school, and our son was still going to Mrs P. Winter came and went.
Here in the north of Italy, winters are invariably cold and snowy. We’re in the mountains, and not far from some good places for going skiing.
In our new condominium we had centralised heating; oil. So there was one central boiler, and the hot water was pumped around all the apartments. Even at that time the origins of our neighbours were varied. In our block, four of the flats were of Milanese folk – who only ever came a couple of times during the year to get away from the steamy heat of the city – a man and his mother, who were newcomers like us, a Neapolitan family with a young daughter, and a Sicilian family with two grown up children, then still living at home – with a boyfriend in tow, living in room in their basement next to their garage. In the other wings there were families, local, Sicilian and from Calabria.
The way the heating was worked out was on a consumption basis – some, like a couple of our Milan flats didn’t have heating at all, as they were only ever used in the summer months. Everyone paid 20 percent. Then each apartment had a little meter outside which measured the use.
We still had lire at the time, but I can still remember the bill that arrived from the condo administrator that first spring. 7 million lire! – at that time it was about CHF 5,800 (Swiss francs) or $4,200 (American dollars) – that was at that time (even now!) a hell a lot of money for heating (it’s not a luxury enormous villa or anything like that – a very modest two bedroom affair). That was about 7 times an average Italian workers monthly salary at that time.
To rub salt into the wound, my Sicilian next door neighbours’ bill was for only 700,000 lire ($420) – and then said, ‘Ah! You don’t know how to economise!’
Help! Welcome to the new life!