Today I have a lovely guest post with Clare Pedrick. Her book, Chickens Eat Pasta, is her account of upping sticks and moving to Italy, buying a ruin of a house and her journey to transforming it into a home. I have this book to read and am looking forward to reading and reviewing.
Clare and her Italian house.
Almost exactly a year ago, I made a New Year’s resolution to get my book finished and published, once and for all. I had been working on it for a long time, as I knew that it was a compelling story, and one that deserved to be told, if only for the sake of my three children. For in a sense, Chickens Eat Pasta is their story, in that it helps to explain where they came from, and what led up to my meeting their father, in what was a fairly unusual mix of coincidences, luck and I suppose destiny, if you believe in that kind of thing. I know I do, though it was the last thing on my mind when this adventure all started.
I say adventure, because that’s exactly what it was, at least at the beginning, before there was any question of love being involved. Romance was another thing that was very low on my list of priorities when I decided, one day completely out of the blue, to buy a crumbling old ruin in the wilds of central Italy. It was partly a break-up with my long-term boyfriend that set me off on this journey in the first place. That, and the loss of both my parents, and the incessant rain that drummed day after day on the roof of my little Georgian house in Brighton, where I worked as a reporter on the local newspaper. All in all, I was feeling pretty miserable. And then by chance, one dreary Sunday morning, I spotted an advertisement in the Sunday Times for an old house in Umbria. As I say, I am intrigued by coincidences, and the events that followed were just full of them. For a start, a closer look revealed that the estate agent lived just a few streets away from my own home, even though the advertisement was in a national newspaper. And I just happened to have time off work owed to me, as the holiday my boyfriend and I had booked that summer had been hurriedly called off when we broke up after seven years together.
The very next day I went round to see the estate agent, who showed me a video of chickens eating pasta – hence the title – in a tiny mediaeval village surrounded by spectacular hills and valleys. And just two days later, I was on a plane to Italy. I don’t want to give away too much, but the book tells the tale of what many people thought was a rush of blood to the head. I was only 26 at the time and didn’t know a soul in Italy, least of all in the very remote and isolated hamlet where I bought my house. My older brother thought I had completely lost all reason. I had bought an old ruin with hardly any roof and no running water or electricity in the middle of nowhere.
The house as it was.
To be honest, the villagers I encountered were also clearly perplexed. That part of Italy is still very traditional and it was really quite unthinkable that a young woman should be buying a house and doing it up, all on her own. People kept asking me where my parents were, or at least why I didn’t have a husband. They simply couldn’t understand.
With hindsight, it’s probably just as well that I didn’t think too carefully before plunging head first into my new life and all that it involved. There were some quite dramatic culture shocks in store, and even though I spoke Italian – I had studied it at school and university – the people here spoke a strong dialect that was very hard for me to understand. They also lived in a time warp, with women washing their clothes in the village piazza’s public fountain. In England, I had owned a washing machine and a dishwasher. In my new home, I didn’t even have a stove to cook on, but had to rely on the system that local people had used for generations, cooking food over the open fire, boiling pasta in a cauldron that hung from a big iron hook. I also underestimated the weather. I think most people associate Italy with a hot, sunny climate, but in winter, when I bought the house, it was bitterly cold in the Umbrian hills, and even after my house had been given a roof, it still had no heating other than the fireplace, and plenty of cracks for the wind and the cold to filter through.
As things turned out, and especially given the serendipity that brought me here in the first place, I was extremely lucky. I met some wonderful people and made some lifelong friends, many of whom feature in the book. And then, just when I was least expecting it, I did indeed fall in love, although I really hadn’t meant to. That relationship brought its own problems, and there were a great many ups and downs and heartbreak on both sides. I’ve deliberately written the book more as a novel than an autobiography – although the events are based on very solid truth – and I think a lot of readers have found themselves caught up in the love story as it unfolds. There is quite a strong sense of suspense throughout, so you are constantly wondering how things are going to work out.
These days, the house is very different from the old tumbledown wreck that caught my breath that first time I set eyes on it. It has a new roof, central heating and even a swimming pool, which is an idyllic place to sit and watch the sun set over the rolling hills and see the fireflies that dance around in summer evenings, or scan the skies for shooting stars.
The house now.
Of course, life is not always perfect here and, as I look out over the Apennine Mountains in the middle distance, I see that the first snow has fallen and the long winter is about to take hold. That first winter that I spent here was one of the coldest on record, and many of the olive trees that are such a central feature of the local landscape died as a result. But come March, the first wild asparagus will be appearing on the hillsides, and local people will be out scouring for them, as will I, using wooden sticks to push aside the undergrowth and ward off any errant vipers. Life goes on here much the way it has for generations, with seasonal rituals that often revolve round gathering food, and turning it into simple but delicious dishes.
I will never really understand what led me to the newspaper advert on that rainy Sunday morning all those years ago, and I could never have imagined the overwhelming change it would make to almost every aspect of my life. But I’m extremely glad that I didn’t pay too much heed to the voice of reason. Sometimes, being reckless really can pay off, and at the end of the day, I suppose that’s what Chickens Eat Pasta is all about.
To buy the book click here