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A Sabbatical in Italy

Rigoletto was the catalyst. It had been 12 years since I last lived in Italy and sitting in Covent Garden listening to this opera, I suddenly really wanted to go back. I closed my eyes and was back among the Umbrian hills with my wife, singing opera in our Mini while driving to Assisi. The town had glimmered on the side of Monte Subasio like a gold coin.

In 2002, between finishing 80 hour a week hospital jobs and starting the GP registrar year, we had driven down to Italy to live in Perugia. We had rented a tiny 14th century monolocale (bedsit) in the heart of the old town and signed up at the University for Foreigners. In the mornings we learnt Italian with views of the Umbrian hills and in the afternoon sipped espressi on the Corso Vannucci, pondered our competi (home work) and went home to cook. It was fabulous. We returned to London half decent in Italian, full of enthusiasm for GP training.

For that sabbatical, we had no big commitments but we now had six small children. Logistics should never get in the way of a good plan. My cousin, a respiratory consultant, had done it with his own family and gave the idea a resounding “DO IT.” Most surprisingly for me was the similar reaction of my GP partners.

We returned to Perugia having found a house to rent in the centro storico. We didn’t do any other planning as our Italian friends had told us that trying to organise anything in Italy in advance would be futile. This approach was validated by some early failed phone calls to the local schools. When the time came, we packed up our red transit van as if we were heading off for a week in the New Forest, adding in the guinea pig, my sourdough starter and some bikes. The girls finished school for the summer holidays, and off we went.

Setting up home was fun: re-familiarising ourselves with Perugia’s maze of medieval streets, its hill top views from every corner, cooking over an open fire and enjoying the evening passeggiata. We swam in the warm seas around Ischia, visited the capital of Umbrian truffle hunting and loved revisiting old haunts with our new brood. To keep us on our toes the school admissions procedures were suitably challenging. It took numerous visits to different offici, which all had slightly different very narrow morning-only opening times which are different for each day of the week. We grew accustomed to never quite having the right document, ‘Yes I have my daughter’s birth certificate and passport photocopied and paper-clipped to the application form with her photo signed by our local GP, I didn’t realised I would also need her tax code, would my tax code be sufficient?’ Of course not, I will have to come back tomorrow with the documents and large family. But we got all six children into the best local schools.

Now for “sabbaticalling”, visions of long bike rides and then lazing around in the Italian sun? Not quite. Family life life in many ways remained unchanged: the organising (very slow or no internet connection), shopping (no Tescos round the corner), cooking (don’t use the kettle at the same time as the oven or the lights fuse), sorting (all school children must wear a white jacket uniform and have a named glue stick etc) has the same dose of fun, happiness, joy, frustrations, tears and tantrums as in London. There are some broad differences of course. And much of what gives Italian life its charm has on the flip side of the coin its frustrations.

The world revolves around the family in Italy, and children in particular. Children are welcomed everywhere, and indeed expected to be present and taking centre stage of attention. There are no bedtimes. Everyone is late. Lifestyle takes precedent over work and priorities of family life and food is evident in opening times (late opening, long lunches), school drop off (more dads than mums), and pace (obligatory mid morning coffee at the bar). The school day finishes at 1pm when the town comes to a stop for several hours for the long lunch.

The emphasis on family and eating together is refreshing.The overbearing nature of parenting, however, is less charming. I like our children to play with bare feet, go swimming in cold water, head out into a head wind with wet hair, wear shorts and t-shirts if they feel warm in autumn, and then get cold and wet and dirty knowing that there is a hot shower and cosy fire at the end of the day. Italian parents seem so anxious about any possible freddo (cold) or sporco (dirt) for their children. Italy is beautifully beguiling but at the same time the culture is somewhat over protective.

London has the advantage of anonymity when you want it and huge diversity. It has made me value London even more as a place to live. Our girls have gained in confidence: the ability to welcome change and set up their bedrooms in a new country. For me the biggest pleasure of the sabbatical has been having time with my family. Volume of time. I have had the space to re-evaluate my life. We have started work on a new app for doctors.

The performance of Rigoletto seems like a long time ago now. But I am pleased we brought those tickets…

Dr Simon Read
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