Escape to Tuscany

1st January 1999 at 00:00
Last August Patrick Young resigned as stage director at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House, worn out by the politics and uncertainty. He and his wife, Clare, a former teacher of English and Drama decided to quit England with their six children - Alec, 9, Rosie, 8, Katharine, 7, Imogen 5, Beatrice, 3 and Zachary, 19 months. They bought an old minibus and set off for the Italian town of Lucca near Florence (it had a theatre which Patrick had once visited). What follows are extracts from seven letters written by Clare Young, 38, about her family's experience of learning a language and culture from scratch.

September 20 We've just completed our first week in Lucca and have decided not to come home just yet. There have been tears (mostly mine), glorious weather, terrible frustrations, fear in bucketfuls and a fair share of excitement.

I was under the misapprehension that everyone in Italy had big families, but no, we are considered freaks. People rush out of shops to point and stare as we cycle in crocodile formation through cobbled lanes in embarrassing imitation of the Von Trapps. "Complimenti bella famiglia" is the phrase we hear more than any other.

Which brings me on to the language. Patrick is in heaven - he can flirt, perform and pose to his heart's content and finds a willing, or at least tolerant, audience out there. I fumble, blush and stutter, even when attempting a "Buon giorno". I hate feeling stupid even more than I hate being stupid. Rosie has taken to it like a duck to water, and the children are unfazed by being taught all day in a foreign language.

The weather is still so good that the schools only operate in the mornings. Come the end of September they will keep going till 4.30. What Patrick and I will do with ourselves then is anyone's guess.

September 27

I'm much more confident and the Distress is Definitely Diminishing. On Monday I couldn't understand a word of dialogue in Le Nuove Avventure di Robin Hood - a gloriously low-budget TV series held together by Wonderbras and knowing looks: a kind of period Baywatch. But today there were three phrases that sounded vaguely familiar.

I'm working through a wonderful 1950s Italian grammar which is teaching me the vocabulary of "The Housewife". I know how to conjugate "to dust" and "to sweep". I know the words for "pillowslip" and "linen chest" - and I'm informed that maids are still easy to come by and that the peasants have as many as six children whereas the borghese, sensibly, have two or three. Anyway, I'm cheery as I'm up to chapter Vl - only LXIV to go, by which time I'll be laughed out of Lucca or put in a sanitorium.

Patrick is notching up the catalogue of attractive women he meets in his adventures through the Italian bureaucracy. His days are marked by little victories that keep him buoyant - free school lunches, a resident's parking permit and so on. He has stood by stoically as I have sobbed through nights of dark despair, insulted his culinary prowess and consistently mispronounced federa (pillowslip).

The children are jolly. They love the fact that they think they are doing no work - a delusion which may stem from hot weather or foreign tongue, I know not. In fact, they are all learning to write like little Europeans, doing classical handwriting in a beautiful curly script and spending hours on pages and pages of sums.The highlight of their day, after Le Nuove Avventure di Robin Hood, is cycling with no care, caution or skill to and from school. They know far more Italian than me, and patronisingly congratulate me when I manage to collect the bread for breakfast (even though it is pre-ordered, pre-paid and handed over the counter with a cursory nod).

The equinox has brought extraordinary storms. On Saturday we drove up to Barga, a stunning citadel town high in the Garfagnana hills. As we arrived the skies became purple and we found ourselves entirely alone in the streets. Did its citizens know something we didn't? Then the storm hit. It's at moments like these that all those Essential Facts for Survival which define one as a Good Girl Guide come flooding back: Lie down in the wet grass and remove your hair clips. My great mistake was to impart this information to my four hysterical daughters. By the time we got back to our Trusty Bus we were all beside ourselves. But we shall never forget what being wet through really means.

Tomorrow the children start their long school days and I'll have no excuse not to know the difference between past absolute and past descriptive.

October 6

Despite the mosquito bites all over my face, despite the fact that none of the crockery matches, despite the fact that I long to lie in a bath and listen to Radio 4, I don't want to go home.

Alec is having a wobble - misses friends and feels a bit isolated - while Beatrice wanders round endearingly shaking her head saying "Poor me" because she has a runny nose. Zachary is obnoxious in that he has learnt to exploit cuteness in the most manipulative and knowing manner. The entire female population of Lucca calls him "passerto", the little fat sparrow.

Patrick has, with great wisdom and enormous relief, thrown me out of the house and sent me to school to learn Italian. He calls it "an investment" in the mistaken belief I'll one day be able to speak the language and so get a job and keep us in a manner we'd like to get accustomed to.

After my first day (which was no more than an impossible written test and an incomprehensible oral test) I feel oddly buoyant and optimistic about being able to learn this language. Patrick talks vaguely about looking for some work - furrowing his brow when he looks at the bank statements and the Visa bill - but then goes back to his holy books and his yoga and remains blissfully content with his lot.

October 16

Life improves day by day. We are, of course, plagued by the question, Are We Running Away or Running Towards? I suspect initially we were running away, not least from the horrors of the Opera House, but as the distance between England and Italy grows it feels more and more like running towards. Exactly what, I'm not sure.

Last week we turned a corner with the language. The children are still listening rather than speaking but understanding the gist of everything. Katherine, always a retiring English rose, has blossomed into an outrageously camp, gesticulating Italian thoroughbred.

I have completed my second week at the language school, which I love. Yesterday I tried to explain the principles of Fantasy Football to my class - and managed to survive the ordeal. I have found ways of communicating that require no grammar and only a skeletal vocabulary. It's effective but embarrassing.

The children had their first taste of Puccini when I took them to see La Boh me at the delightful chocolate boxy Giglio Theatre in Lucca. I thought the production as dull as ditchwater, but the children loved it. It was a strange experience to hear words in Boh me rather than operatic noises, and for the first time I kind of knew what they were all getting at.

There's no work on the horizon. I'm thinking of finding a few pupils to teach English to, but in the meantime we eke out an existence due to a timely tax rebate.

October 25

Lucca is pretty well unchanged since the 15th century when it was built, surrounded by a 30-foot high wall. The wall is the width of a dual carriageway, lined with horse chestnut and linden trees and the only difference today is that joggers and cyclists have replaced the sentries who would look out for marauding foreigners. Every morning Patrick and I go for a walk with Zachary, with me practising vocabulary.

By midday the streets are deserted. The metal shutters on the shops come down, the phones stop ringing. The only sound is the comforting clackety-clack of fork against good china as plates of pasta are devoured all over town. Nothing in Lucca is grandiose, nothing dramatic. It's very pretty, yes, and certainly characterful but in the end it's just an unpretentious bourgeois little town going about its everyday business, uncompromised by its daily invasion of tourists.

From 4pm the Luchesse claim their town back as their own, and it's passeggiata (promenading) time. Nubile teenagers wrap themselves around each other, parents show off designer prams, and ancient couples in smart hats and coats take their place on the catwalk that is via Fillungo.

The pearl of Lucca is 25 metres from our front door. Turn left and you are facing the magnificent mosaic on the north wall of San Frediano's. Turn right and you find the Italian equivalent of a greasy caff - a large television in the corner showing endless replays of football games, faded printed pictures of saints taped to the walls under fluorescent strip lighting.

The place is full of middle-aged working men, napkins tucked into their collars, heads bowed in veneration over their bowls. You tentatively step inside and ask to see a menu. The burly man behind the counter raises an eyebrow and tells you, in a tone that seems a little discourteous, the dish they're cooking today. It sounds good and smells authentic so you give it a whirl.

An hour later, replete, smiling and only Pounds 2.50 worse off, you shake Antonio's hand warmly, promising to be back before the week is out. In fact, hardly a day goes by when you don't pop in on some pretext - to top up your flagon with his immensely drinkable red wine or, since your cupboards are bare again, to introduce the children to zuppa or pesto or pheasant or whatever is on offer that day.

November 2

Alec, our first-born, is now in double figures. He's doing science dictations in Italian with ease, training for the basketball squad twice a week and hugging and kissing his friends as if he's lived here all his life. Wobble? What wobble? He's decided that even if we were to return to England next year, he'd stay in Lucca.

Our garrulous neighbour Annarita, pillar of the Church, carer of her sadly demented father and gossip extraordinaire, baked birthday pizzas for Alec. She taught me to make Italian torte (using 14 eggs) and spent a jolly evening with us over a couple of bottles of prosecco.

Now I've finished at the language school and am back at home with not enough to do, this apartment suddenly seems uninhabitable. We've found an alternative that's larger and airier on the third floor of a l2th- century house on the main thoroughfare of Lucca. It's got green shutters and is owned by a pair of batty aristocratic sisters who live on the floor below. Giuliana is not a day under 90, not a centimetre over a metre and almost entirely bald. She wears a blue bobble hat in the house, speaks exquisite Tuscan Italian and swears that she would give the flat to us if she could because we are "troppo simpatici". Her sister Franca is stouter, bearded and permanently swathed in a man's plaid dressing gown.

Patrick has somehow charmed the local bank into giving us a loan, despite the fact that we are both unemployed, with no prospect of employment, an empty bank account and huge overheads.

So when I wake after yet another nightmare involving children falling three floors out of green-shuttered windows, I work myself into a lather about how we can make ends meet. I dream up ridiculous ways of earning money, the latest project being: Teaching English through Drama. Next week we hope to persuade Andrea, a fanatical English teacher dressed in tweeds, to fund projects as unlikely as a Dickensian Christmas and a film festival on Twentieth Century British Humour.

November 13

This has been a good week. The children have new shoes and the sun has shone, despite it being very cold. Zak has been given a lettino (a cot) so he's once more behind bars at night. I have five pupils.

Patrick is directing Falstaff in Lucca during JuneJuly. We have been given the green light (in a very haphazard Italian kind of way), and hopefully a decent fee to run a string of concerts and workshops by Andrea's company, English World.

This has also been a bad week. The children had head lice. So what? Well,imagine for a moment a world where there are no head lice and where they check your offspring every term - where, if lice are found, the children are sent home from school and forbidden to return without a certificate. Imagine the shame of being the only family in the town with pidocchi.

An entire day was wasted with trying every which way to get rid of the little bastards and then having to resort to the scissors and lopping off great tresses of hair - tears all round. And still we have to return to the comune health office next Monday to be checked all over again.

This said, there are innumerable Italian quirks I find delightful: the way they bore their index finger into their cheek if they think the food is tasty; the way the girls balance in the most provocative manner on the handlebars of their boyfriends' bikes. I love the memory of Harvest thanksgiving on Sunday last when we processed out of San Frediano to witness the blessing of 40-plus tractors crowded into the piazza like some cross-Channel blockade. I love our new friends who have embraced us with such vigour and enthusiasm. And I love the fact that the diet is ruled by the seasons rather than the supermarket shelves - funghi in October were followed by chestnuts in November.

But best of all is to see the children so happy. They are entirely at home. They just know they are adored by their teachers, their classmates, by the shopkeepers, by the neighbours - and occasionally by their parents. They are thrilled because they each have their own desk, their own pencil case, their own text books and a different exercise book for geometry and algebra and religion and science. And, of course, the greatest obsession of them all - handwriting. And we, their parents, are thrilled that there seems to be no more than a dozen in each class and that the whole school lines up to clean their teeth after their wholesome three-course lunch.

There is good news on the flat front - we are going to complete by mid December. Mixed feelings here - a 12th-century palazzo with 19th-century amenities: no hot water, no heating, no furniture. It's going to be a bracing Christmas.

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