This month’s Expat in Italy interview is with IRG member Deirdre Pirro. Deirdre’s hometown is Mebourne, Australia where she studied both law and history at the University of Melbourne. Having settled in Florence, some twenty years ago, she now works as an international lawyer and freelance writer and journalist.
In 2005, she decided to try her hand at writing non-fiction professionally, having always written academically for her job. Since its inception, she has been a columnist for The Florentine, Tuscany’s English-language newspaper. Her column, Italian Sketches, served as a springboard for her book, Italian Sketches: The Faces of Modern Italy published by The Florentine Press in 2009.
The Questions and Answers:
How long have you been living in Italy?
I have lived in Florence for over thirty years.
Who came up with the idea of living in Italy?
Fate – yes, it was certainly fate and not me that decided I would live in Italy. In fact, I was born in the Melbourne where I studied history and law at the university, where after I graduated I taught for a short time. But, like most Australians, we are born with a wander lust so I decided to take a round-the-world cruise with absolutely no intention of settling anywhere but simply of returning home after six months to resume my university job. One beautiful January morning, I set sail on an ocean liner heading for Italy and the Continent. I then had no idea I would never use my return ticket. Instead, I married the ship’s Italian captain at the end of that same year. As my husband would continue to sail, being away for several months at a time, he let me decide where I wanted to live in Italy. At the time, like so many starry-eyed newcomers, there were in my mind only two cities to chose from, Florence or Venice. In the end, it was Florence (mainly because of the foggy winters in Venice) and I have never regretted it. I now live and work here as an international lawyer and freelance writer and journalist.
How are you getting on with The Italian language?
After so many years in Italy and the fact that I have always worked here, my language skills are pretty good. It is such a beautiful language – the language of opera. I had also studied Latin in order to take my law degree so just after I settled here, I did a course in Italian at the University for Foreigners here in Florence. It was money very well spent.
Do you miss your home and family?
Yes, of course, I miss my family, friends and Australia but I do manage to get back to Melbourne relatively frequently and we have had, since day one, a constant flow of family and friends who come to visit (even the friends of family and friends too). Florence is irresistible.
Perhaps, over the years, the time I missed home most was when our son was born. He was an only grandchild and I know it was hard for my parents not to see him all the time – also for him, as grandparents are so special in children’s lives.
Did you buy, or are you renting the place where you live?
Like so many of my compatriots, I had always lived in a house and never an apartment. So, once married, we set off on a quest to find a “real” home. On my totally inexperienced and romantic insistence, we bought a run-down farmhouse near Poppi, in the beautiful Casentino region of Tuscany. It became a restoration nightmare as so often these projects seem to do. With my husband at sea, I was left project managing! With absolutely no experience and then few language skills. A recipe for disaster. The builders and contractors not only thought I was a typical foreigner with bags of money but that I was the next best thing to the village idiot! My dream home turned into a bottomless pit, chewing up money at a voracious rate and constantly calling for more. It was also totally impractical as underneath it all both my husband and I are true city dwellers.
Having eventually sold the farmhouse, we now live in the very heart of Santa Croce and love it. Our terrace looks out on a small public garden and is dominated by the side view of the 13th century Basilica of Santa Croce, a view one of my friends describes as “straight out of in The Name of the Rose”. It is magical and a little like living with an external portrait that changes colours and atmosphere from day to night and from season to season.
What do you think about the Italians?
I love Italians even when they are excitable and loud. I love them because the majority are generous, caring and good hearted. All they lack is just a tad more of a sense of humour so they could laugh more easily at themselves.
5 Good aspects of living in Italy?
Well, I have already mentioned the first good thing about Italy – the people.
That is followed a close second by the country itself. It is so varied and fascinating in its cultural and natural heritage, its dialects and regional diversities.
Then comes the food and wine – without, in my mind, a rival anywhere. The coffee and the coffee houses are good too.
Fourthly, I enjoy Italy’s proximity to everywhere else in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Americas. As an Australian, where we all suffer a little from “the tyranny of distance”, this is not to be underestimated.
And, finally, my fifth choice returns to Florence, my elected home town. After all these years, I still discover secret corners and surprises in this magnificent city.
5 Bad aspects of living in Italy?
My pet hate is known here as “la casta” or a part of Italy’s untouchable political class, many of whom have found ways to enrich themselves at public expense with little fear of accountability or, in some cases, prosecution. The political system is complex in itself and too often you have the sensation that there is no, or little, sense of “the common good” in what politicians do. It’s all about keeping their own jobs, at any price.
It is also a shame that, in some places, Italians have little sense of civic pride and do little to keep on the case of their local administrators to ensure that their cities, towns or country/seaside are kept clean and rubbish free.
I ESPECIALLY dislike condominium meetings – they are never-ending as every Italian has at least three or four (often conflicting) opinions on EVERYTHING.
Italian drivers also continue to petrify me out of my wits. Because we live in the centre of town, I have long since abandoned driving but often find myself with Italian friends that do drive. I age at least a couple of years during each journey. This also brings me to another bad aspect connected to this – motorbikes and scooters. In the summer, it’s as if they blossom up out of the pavements to weave in and out of traffic recklessly and noisily, thoughtless of pedestrians and anyone else who may have the misfortune to get in their way.
While I am at it, I am not a great fan of taxi- drivers, not only in Italy but anywhere in the world.
5 Top tips for our readers about living in Italy?
1) Make an effort to learn the language because if you don’t you will miss most of what Italy has to offer.
2) Try to get to know as many Italians as you can, they will enrich your life.
3) Explore the country as much as you can. It’s a potpourri that satisfies all the senses which will also enrich your life.
4) Don’t expect everything to work like clockwork as it probably does back where you come from. It won’t. As patience, they say, is a virtue, it is something you must quickly learn to survive here.
5) Always carry a book in your bag to read while you wait (and wait and wait) to be served at the post office, at the station or at just about every public office.
Thank you Deirdre, for your time, answers and an insight into your life in Florence.
For more IRG interviews like this check out the IRG Interviews page.