This month’s Expat in Italy interview is with IRG member Nina Hansen Machotka. Nina and her husband Pavel are expats living the dream in the Umbrian countryside where they have reconstructed a ruined farmhouse.
Nina is the author of The Field Stones of Umbria. “A true story of a couple who left California, retired from their work in Silicon Valley and the University of California, and moved to a small, isolated valley where time seemed to stand still. They bought and reconstructed a ruined farmhouse in the Italian countryside, but rebuilding the farmhouse is just one part of their adventure. The real story is about the lure of Italy—the food and wine, the seasons and storms, the history, culture, and art, the festivals and traditions, the land and its field stones and above all, the people.”
In addition to recounting the finding and reconstruction of the farmhouse, there are over 45 original colour photographs plus intimate stories revealing surprising, funny, and profound experiences of daily living.
The Questions and Answers:
How long have you been living in Italy?
We’ve been living here permanently since 2000. We first came to Umbria in 1987 on a Piero della Francesca pilgrimage. We had friends who were reconstructing a house in Monte Acuto, and they introduced us to the Upper Tiber Valley. We returned nearly every year, and in 1991, we stayed in Montone for two weeks. That started the whole adventure of living here.
Who came up with the idea of living in Italy?
As I say in my book, this is all my husband’s fault! I’m a California girl through and through and had no intention of living here, especially if it meant giving up our home in Santa Cruz. My husband, Pavel, was born in Prague, and after escaping to the U.S. when the Communists took over, and living in the U.S. for 40 years, he really wanted to return to Europe. It was a kind of wonderful curveball for me—I had no idea how great it would be.
When we first started looking for a house, it was supposed to be in Aix-en-Provence, France. Pavel is a Cezanne scholar and had spent 30 years off and on around Aix. But the prices were too high, and we found the reception by the real estate agents somewhat cool, even though we have many friends in the area and Pavel speaks French fluently. We gave up on that idea and figured it was the French’s loss!
After having spent that summer of 1991 in Aix, we came to Montone for a two-week stay and within three days, we fell in love with it. One afternoon, standing on a ridge looking over the Upper Tiber Valley, and the smaller Lana Valley, where we now live but didn’t know it at that time, Pavel said to me, “Why don’t we try to find a house here?”
My typical internal reaction: “Are you crazy?”
For once, my external reaction: “Why not?” Deep breath.
So, even though it was all Pavel’s fault in the beginning, I became an enthusiastic collaborator! We found the farmhouse in 1992, and in spite of it being a TOTAL ruin with trees growing out of the middle of it, we decided we wanted it within minutes.
How are you getting on with The Italian language?
Amazingly, very well! I’m not a natural language person (unlike my husband, who speaks five languages!) and it was really difficult to learn a foreign language at my age. I read and understand French, but actually learning a language well enough to converse was daunting.
No one speaks English in Montone…well, maybe one or two people, but essentially I had to learn to speak to survive. The Italians are face-to-face talkers, and the only way I would get anything done or meet new friends was to speak fluently.
I found a wonderful teacher in Citta’ di Castello–Roberta Marsili—and took private lessons with her for four years. She put me through the paces, making me take the Universita’ di Stranieri four-year course, exams and all! It’s been well worth it—I’ve been able to do translation work (from Italian to English) and I have a number of lovely friends who I would not have met if I didn’t speak the language as well as I do.
Do you miss your home and family?
Surprisingly, I don’t miss California much at all (except for the dim sum and sushi!). Having grown up 200 yards from the Pacific Ocean, spending 40 years of my life no further away than that (except for a couple of years in the East Coast), I thought I would miss it terribly. But the Italian countryside in Umbria has completely won me over.
Sure, when we go back to visit, the ocean and beaches are such a profound part of me that I do realize how much I love them. But I don’t miss them when I’m here. I really can’t imagine living anywhere else now.
We do miss our daughters and grandchildren. It’s very hard to be so far away and not see our grandkids growing up. At least we have Skype, but that’s a poor substitute for the real thing. We keep hoping that they’ll all be able to visit more often in the future.
Did you buy, or are you renting the place where you live?
As I said earlier, we bought our ruined farmhouse in 1992, when the prices were incredibly low. We sure couldn’t do this today! We really lucked out. We’re four kilometers from Montone, in a tiny, quiet valley next to a river. There are only about 12 houses in the entire valley and it’s all agricultural, so no new buildings will ever be built. We have seven hectares of land and all but one of our neighbors are Italian.
Reconstructing our farmhouse was a huge project, but we had plenty of time (a nice way of saying we didn’t have the money to do the whole thing all at once), and we were able to design and plan exactly what we wanted. It took about five years to reconstruct, and we spent our first summer here in 1997. After two more summers here, we knew we had to move here permanently. We sold our house in California in 2000, moved everything here in a container (including Pavel’s 1958 Alfa Romeo Giulietta), and we’ve never looked back.
What do you think about the Italians?
That’s a tough question because it’s like asking what do you think about the Americans or the British or the Japanese. People are so individual in every culture. I like some Italians, others I don’t. Just as I like some Americans while others drive me crazy.
Having said that, I do think there is a national character, if you will, of an incredible zest for life, a joyful abandonment for festivals and holidays (believe me, you don’t find this character trait in my Danish clan), love of good food and wine and olive oil, and the family is still ALL above everything else. I love the way a baby can turn five adult men into babbling idiots or bring a local tennis match to a halt so everyone can admire the little one (true story!).
5 Good aspects of living in Italy?
1. Wine, food, olive oil. Maybe that’s three already!
2. The art, culture, and history.
3. The countryside where we live. It’s absolutely gorgeous, especially in the fall and winter. I love hiking in the hills and watching the land change with each season.
4. The hilltop towns. There are so many to explore, I’ll never see them all. The architecture is enough to make a grown person weep.
5. The unspoken trust once you become known and a friend. Payment for goods and services don’t have to be done on the spot, there’s always time for that later. We barter with one of our neighbors—he tends our fields and takes everything he grows for his horses, sheep, and goats. In turn, he gives us firewood every year. I love the intimate, human connections I’ve found here.
5 Bad aspects of living in Italy?
1. The disorganization and lack of planning.
2. The bureaucracy, layers upon layers of it.
3. Knowing that on every blind curve on every road, the oncoming car will be well over the solid line in my lane, heading straight for me.
4. The lack of care for their cats and dogs. It pains me so to see animals left behind, virtually unattended, for a week while the family is away on holiday.
5. The hunters. But then, they’re bad everywhere.
5 Top tips for our readers about living in Italy?
1. First and foremost, keep your sense of humor no matter what happens. If you get angry at a shopkeeper or policeman or anyone in service, they will just stone-face you and let you writhe.
2. Learn to speak Italian. The Italians are so thrilled when a foreigner tries to speak (unlike the French), that’s it’s worth it to speak as well as possible. It really opens up doors to a better life here.
3. Really, this is serious—don’t drink cappuccino after lunch.
4. Don’t “lord it over” the Italians. We are the foreigners are in their land, in their communities, living with their lifestyle. If you see something you want to change, work with people on it, don’t demand or order people around. No one needs to feel demeaned.
5. Inevitably, you will be frustrated and even infuriated about certain things, but don’t fall into the habit of bad-mouthing Italians. I often wonder why a foreigner lives here when all they do is complain and dump on the Italians! I say go back to wherever you came from and see if it’s any better!
We’re living here for a reason, and I think that reason is because we love Italy. That means dealing with the good, the bad, and the ugly with grace and dignity.